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Week of 6 December 2010

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Monday, 6 December 2010
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10:45 - In the case of the California bomb house, the authorities are taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach. No surprise there. No one ever got fired for taking precautions with explosives, even if they ultimately turned out to be unnecessary. I just hope the precautions they're taking are adequate.

There's no way I'd walk into that house myself, and I applaud the authorities for taking precautions to prevent someone from being injured or killed. As far as we know, explosives are present in moderate amounts--pounds rather than tons--but it's certainly possible that there are undiscovered very large amounts of explosives present. If I were in charge, I'd certainly evacuate people for at least several blocks around the site, and I would close the Interstate. In fact, I'd have the fire fighters standing back a lot farther than the 100 yards mentioned in the article. It's always sensible to deal very cautiously with explosives, particularly when you're not certain exactly what you're dealing with, and in this case the presence of home-made, very unstable explosives means it's good to err on the side of caution.

What concerns me is that the authorities may actually be underestimating the hazard. The article states, "They calculate that if there is an explosion, it would probably throw the debris only about 60 feet" and goes on to quote one of the authorities as saying, "It certainly would not be a detonation that would level a neighborhood." Do they really know that for sure? Everything I've read says the authorities backed out quickly after a very superficial search. Are they really certain there's not a ton or ten of explosives they don't know about?

Presumably they're aware of that possibility and are counting on any undiscovered large amounts of explosives to burn rather than cook off. I really hope they're right. Planning for a controlled burn of maybe 20 pounds of explosives and finding out the hard way you were actually dealing with one hundred times that much could turn out to be a very unpleasant surprise.


Tuesday, 7 December 2010
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08:20 - Pearl Harbor Day, a date that will live in infamy. The Japanese found out what happens to someone who seriously pisses us off. We nuke 'em. Let's hope Islam learns the same lesson soon.

Obama visited Winston-Salem again yesterday. I wish he'd stay away. As usual, security measures for his visit screwed up traffic over most of the city. He visited Forsyth Tech, our community college, where he apparently spent some time in the biotechnology labs. FTCC does good work, but unfortunately most of what they're teaching are skills that should have been taught in our high schools. Oh, well. Better late than never, I suppose.

And I see that we now have a compromise. A two-year extension of the Bush-era so-called tax cuts in exchange for extending federal unemployment benefits. Unfortunately, this simply puts off an inevitable result. The sad fact is that employment in the US has changed forever. The vast majority of the people who are currently in the long-term unemployed category are destined never to be employed again in any meaningful way. So-called structural unemployment will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Their lack of skills and their inability to learn new skills essentially puts these former workers permanently in the economically useless category. Put simply, they're not worth paying even a fraction of the minimum wage. Most of them don't really understand that they're literally in direct competition with overseas workers who are willing to do the same work for a very small fraction of the current minimum wage. Their work is of insufficient value even to keep them fed and housed, let alone earn luxuries that all of them have learned to take for granted.

The economy is recovering. Employment is not. Companies are reaching production levels similar to those before the crash, but with many fewer employees. Essentially, much of the deadwood has been cut. Companies have learned that they can get along with much smaller headcounts than previously. They have invested and continue to invest in automation. As one article I read recently put it, companies have learned that those 37 weekly reports they used to get aren't really necessary, nor are the costs for the people needed to produce them. Companies that laid off 1,000 employees at the bottom of the crash are now rehiring 200, which is all they really need to reach and exceed former production numbers. Unfortunately, that ratio is likely to continue.

We're watching the early stages of our society bifurcating into a relatively small group of smart, industrious, well-educated people who have useful skills and a much larger group of people who have neither useful skills nor the ability to learn them. We're doing ourselves no favor by refusing to recognize this reality. Such a society is unsustainable, if only because those long-term unemployed can still vote. This problem needs to be dealt with rather than put off, if indeed there is any way to deal with it. Pournelle thinks the solution is to train more skilled machinists and other manual trades. I think that'll simply guarantee a large supply of unemployed skilled machinists. It's useless to train more people for jobs that do not exist in large numbers now and will never again exist in large numbers.

It's time to recognize reality, and a good start would be to stop pretending that any significant fraction of those who are currently unemployed will ever be usefully employed again. We can extend so-called unemployment benefits indefinitely, but that won't change the reality that we have millions upon millions of people who have no skills that employers are or ever will be willing to pay for, nor any realistic prospect of developing those skills. I wish I could propose a solution, but I don't think one exists.

Fortunately, we're still a wealthy nation, which means no one is going to starve or freeze to death. Political upheaval is the real danger on the horizon.

10:55 - Goodbye Sweden.


Wednesday, 8 December 2010
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07:26 - It's been a mite chilly around here, with wind chills at night around 5 F  (-15 C). Someone mentioned that when Obama arrived the other day he got off the plane without a coat, expecting North Carolina to be warm. Guess again.

Someone has stolen my idea without paying me a royalty.

From: Ronal B Morse
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Tue Dec  7 13:36:06 2010
  Re: The DespairWear Xmas Tee

Somehow this made me think of you.


Nah, I've tried Sidewinders. They're nowhere near fast enough to keep up with his sleigh, let alone overtake it.


Thursday, 9 December 2010
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07:47 - I got email yesterday from Time-Warner. This is getting old. This time, the local ABC affiliate is holding viewers hostage, demanding more money from Time-Warner Cable to carry their signal. Congress needs to fix this problem. There's no reason TWC (and, inevitably, TWC subscribers) should have to pay anything at all to carry the signals from broadcast TV stations. Nor should the TV stations have the right to forbid or require TWC to carry their signal. Once they put it on the air, it's out of their hands, or should be.

Look at it this way. Cable TV systems were originally called CATV systems, for Community Antenna TV. In the case of local TV stations, that's exactly what they still are. The cable system is doing nothing but providing an antenna. They're not altering the programming in any way. They're not adding their own commercials. They're simply renting me an antenna by the month. If someone offered to install a physical antenna on my roof and let me pay for it by the month, would that company or the company that manufactured the antenna hardware owe royalties to the local TV station? Of course not. No more should a cable TV system owe royalties to the local stations whose signals it carries.

Then we get into the other side of the must-carry issue. Originally, small stations argued that cable systems should be required to carry their signals because otherwise no one would be able to watch them. Well, no one watches them anyhow. Most of them are religious stations with three or four regular viewers or bottom feeders that rerun a few ancient network programs with mostly infomercials and home shopping. There's no need for the must-carry rule, and it should be repealed. Any station that has an actual audience will be carried on the cable systems to keep that cable system's customers happy.

As I've said before, there's no longer any need for broadcast television stations at all. Local news, the primary justification for their existence, is a joke. Our cable system has its own news operation, which does a better job than the OTA stations. The FCC should reclaim all of that massive bandwidth the stations occupy and make it available for wireless Internet and other services that are needed. Network programming, as long as it lasts, should be delivered directly by cable and satellite systems.


Friday, 10 December 2010
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14:57 - I was just walking Malcolm and ran into Mary Littlejohn, who was just returning from the supermarket. She gave me the good news. Of all the colleges Jasmine visited and applied to, the one she really, really wanted to accept her is High Point University. When Jas woke up this morning, she had email waiting to tell her she'd been accepted. Mary said she was surprised Barbara and I didn't hear the scream all the way to our house.

Mary said that the first thing Jas wanted to do was run down and ring our doorbell to let me know. Kim talked Jas out of it, given that it wasn't yet 7:00 a.m. I told Mary to let Jas know that she'd told me, and to offer her Barbara's and my congratulations.

That's a ton of pressure off Jas, and off Kim, who's been working hard on Jas's behalf. Jas can now relax and enjoy the remainder of her senior year knowing that she'll be attending the college she really wanted to attend. Well, not relax in the same sense that seniors relaxed when I was in high school. Back then, not a whole lot got done the second semester of senior year. Second-semester seniors could and did get away with almost anything. I remember cutting about 8 or 9 gym classes in a row. When I finally showed up for one, the gym teacher, Dan Spanish (a former Marine Corps DI), shouted, "Thompson! Have you been cutting my class?" I replied, "Would I do that, sir?" "Didn't think so," he said. Nowadays, I understand things are a lot tighter. Seniors are expected to work their butts off until the final week of school, if not the final day.

Not that that will be a problem for Jas. Her work ethic makes the Puritans look like slackers. I have no doubt that she'll cruise through four years of college with excellent grades, and into grad school if she decides to go that route. If anything, I hope Jas will lighten up a bit. Needless to say, she's never drunk alcohol, smoked tobacco, or done any drugs. Those just don't fit in with her personal outlook on life. She likes boys well enough, but hasn't had the time to date anyone seriously. Jas is stunningly pretty and could have her pick of the guys. In fact, at least one of the most popular guys in her school hung around her house regularly last summer and this autumn, obviously hoping she'd go out with him. She never dated him, although she's more than happy to hang out in groups that include guys. It'll take a brave young man to woo Jas successfully. She's smart, knows her own mind, and is very assertive with kids her own age. She terrifies most teenage boys, I suspect.

Jas still doesn't know what she wants to do with her life, which is pretty common for a 17-year-old. Her current goal is to have her own business. I'm encouraging her to load up on science and math courses, which are useful no matter which direction she eventually chooses. She'll listen to what I have to say and ask questions, but ultimately she'll decide for herself. Which is how it should be.


Saturday, 11 December 2010
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Sunday, 12 December 2010
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.