Bitcoin

Might Just Break the Bank

I wrote on this subject recently but then overlooked an important point which might be decisive to understanding the subject.

The meaning of money just might be on the brink of a disaster.

Hundreds of years ago people figured out that it was too difficult and complicated to pay for a cow with tens of thousands of peas. Out of that came metal coins worth their value as metal. Finally came what we still use successfully today –various currencies –dollars, pounds and now euros – which governments recognize and accept at stipulated values.

NOW so-called Bitcoins have been CREATED and on their own have multiplied in value simply because their issuers have promised they will always be limited in number and therefore hard to get. Just because a cow turd may be hard to get does not change even its smell, much less its value!

Bitcoin is designed so that there will allegedly never be more than x number of coins issued. Artificial rareness is intended to create a premium over any underlying value – and, surprisingly, has succeeded amazingly.

When something with a unique and intrinsic value – say a Rembrandt painting – gets older and rarer, its price WILL rise because demand for unique, rare and irreproducible objects grows faster than the fixed number of such objects. So, the bitcoin ‘evil genius’ appears to be that simply if an object is in limited supply, its value also will automatically rise.

BUT why would/should a canvas with nothing on it change in value at all?

A Bitcoin is truly just a canvas with nothing on it.

Consequently, any increase in the value of such a canvas can only be based on pure imagination, hope and illusion.

BEWARE!!!!

Have we gone NUTS?

One Dirty Word

“COVID”

“COVID” has become a shorthand word for what is causing ALL of today’s problems – and thus is preventing us from recognizing those problems and addressing them appropriately and directly.

I have been sensing this for some time and a sudden trip this week to see my older sister in Atlanta provided ample supporting evidence.

Getting from Bangor to Atlanta and back in three days is no ‘piece of cake’ under the best of circumstances. One’s only choice is Delta, which monopolizes the route – and boy, do they abuse that monopoly!

It takes the better part of a day each way. My wife and are both 90 so we opted to splurge and go first class. In round numbers it cost us together $4000.

And it was the trip from HELL! It was worth it to see my sister, and I would do it again despite what I know now. But I can’t help thinking that, 16 months in, COVID isn’t really to blame for the suffering we endured in Delta’s hands.

My seat in first class did NOT work at all – it could not be moved in any direction, so I spent the duration of that leg in the upright position, much to the detriment of my back – and my mood.  The crew was very nice BUT helpless.

That is when we began to hear “COVID” this and “COVID” that. “COVID” somehow precluded Delta from repairing my seat before selling it to me. “COVID” was at fault when we were left stranded at the gate, because the airline is short-handed after laying off people who, given a year to reflect on the experience of working for Delta, are electing to not come back in droves.

COVID was plenty bad enough before it came the bogeyman behind all manner of human failings.

Now, it is THE excuse for shrugging off the other real problems that are plaguing us at the same time.

The lesson in all this is that if one hasn’t figured out how to make a company run in the COVID world, perhaps they have no business being in business at all.  We cannot ignore COVID, but neither can we ignore the other, everyday problems that still exist.

Perhaps this illuminates the underlying problem of a society that increasingly cannot stand itself?

Rules of the Road

Vaccines are the simple equivalent of “Stop” signs.

The current ‘debate’ about the COVID vaccine has become an absurd argument about “freedom.”

Vaccine hesitancy is real and is, in many cases, understandable — many people of color distrust a medical community that has alternately exploited and neglected them; others may simply distrust medications still operating under emergency authorizations, or be particularly susceptible to side effects, or have other medically-based qualms.

Those are valid subjects for debate among people and policymakers alike, but you’re not likely to hear them. Instead, we are relentlessly subjected to insane arguments equating vaccination efforts to the Holocaust, with proponents labelled “brownshirts” and opponents screaming about their freedom to resist masks, vaccinations, or any other considerations of the greater public health.

 The emergence of the “delta” variant now sweeping this country and many others shows how quickly the course of a pandemic can shift. The longer we let the virus persist, the more likely it is to mutate into something much more deadly. It wasn’t the initial “wave” of influenza in 1918 that killed so many people – it was the second and third waves that followed. We have just finished our first wave.

The 40 percent of the country not yet fully inoculated, therefore, are defining their freedom as the right to be free to put the rest of us at real risk!

So, we are at an impasse between democratic FREEDOM and public SAFETY.

But the right of government – at all levels – to prioritize safety over freedom is virtually UNCHALLENGED in every other area. Stop signs, red lights and speed limits on our highways impede the freedom of individual drivers to protect EVERYBODY.  Prescriptions for certain drugs and building codes are two other examples where safety trumps absolute freedom.  

The rules of the road for drivers recognize a trade-off in everyone’s interest – and generate hardly a whiff of disagreement.

The rules of the road for pandemics should be just the same. REQUIRING people to get vaccinated –to protect themselves and all others—is essentially no more intrusive to OUR FREEDOMS than requiring people to observe and obey traffic laws.

The simple scientific fact is that to truly eliminate COVID-19, we have to prevent it the opportunity to replicate and mutate.  That happens when we reach the “herd immunity” tipping point where a substantial majority of ALL people have been immunized.

But so many people are resisting the vaccine –for whatever reason– that now appears to be impossible.

That is where the role of government comes into play.

The Congress should pass a law requiring EVERYONE to promptly get a FREE vaccination OR be liable for a $5,000 fine and/or a year in jail.

There may be a moment or two of legal screeching but trust my Harvard Law School education that the howls of protest will end quickly. The government exists for the express purpose of protecting all Americans, and vaccine mandates fall squarely within its authority.  The phony excuses and protestations to the contrary are just plain baloney.

So, let’s go full speed ahead and mandate vaccinations for all U.S. residents. And please continue stop at red lights – freedom is important, but so is life.

When Buildings Fall

It’s time for serious questions – and actions.

VERY FEW tall buildings have collapsed in this country in the last 100 years. While we’ve had our share of elevated walkways, snow-bombarded roofs, balconies and other pieces of buildings fall, the wholesale collapse of a building without warning, in the dead of night, is firmly in the category of things we think “can’t happen here.”

Until it does.

That the tragedy in Surfside, Florida is exceedingly rare, while no comfort to the victims or their families, does suggest the design, engineering and construction processes for multi-story dwellings have been solid, and maintenance regimes well administered, since Louis Sullivan first reached for the sky in St. Louis to create the Wainwright Building in 1891.

The disaster reminds us that past is not prologue. We should be paying close attention and asking a lot of questions, because millions of us spend many hours every year in tall buildings and simply give it ZERO thought.

That being the case, what should we be on the lookout for?

Perhaps tall buildings should be inspected every 10 or 20 years (instead of the common standard of 40 years). Such reports should be made public and, taking a cue from the wildly successful restaurant grading system now used virtually everywhere, a one-page, color-coded summary report should be printed and displayed at the front entrance. One imagines using green if the report is truly CLEAN, yellow if there is work that should done soon and RED if there are problems requiring immediate attention.

Color signage should cause the owners and their employees to WORK HARD and FAST to get a green sign, because public notice of a building’s sub-par condition would make it more difficult to sell, sublet, or Airbnb units in such buildings. The impetus to avoid massive costs is understandable, even as the consequences are readily underestimated. Right now, such topics rarely see the light of day, discussed only in meetings of the condo board or among that subset of residents that pays attention to the condo board.

COLOR coding would go a long way to solving an incipient problem by creating an immediate incentive TO DO SOMETHING!

That would be a BIG first step in the right direction for everybody.

A Simple Experiment

Pick Two People at Random — One Red, One Blue.

The way to start is to pick, as randomly as you can, two people you can identify as having conflicting political perspectives – one conservative and one liberal. Ask them to join you for an hour to engage in a simple experiment to save democracy.

(Ironically, “saving” American democracy is the only common ground many liberals and conservatives share, although their prescriptions for doing so vary widely.)

Ask them to help identify a third person, sort of in the middle, neither fiercely ideological nor deeply engaged. Invite that person to join your experiment.

After that, get all the parties to agree to forget the political labels as you begin to have a real conversation about several questions you hope to discuss calmly and quietly.

The questions are:

Masks do a mediocre job of protecting you from disease but are quite effective at stopping a sick person from spreading an infection to others. Why are so many people resistant to wearing them?

Does the American political system protect your rights and privileges, or is it designed to benefit others? Why?

When you discuss these questions be sure to get each person speak at least once.

Your job as the promoter of this process is to try, as best you can, to keep things moving and on track.

You should NOT provoke controversy, but you should promote candor.

Not every meeting will be earth-shattering, but you may learn some interesting things.

And lastly, hopefully, you will send me some feedback on what take away you find?

Whither Tribalism

Again?

Since the beginning of human time, we have experienced tribalism. And, we have been living with something of an assumption that we never go back and repeat former ways of managing our selves.

That does make common sense – shouldn’t a global community aim for a broader sense of both the self and the collective?

Now, though, we seem to be receding, reverting to social strife built around differences. Why is that happening?

Humans are naturally social creatures. Our “home base,” of course, is still families, immediate and extended. Next comes geography, with loyalties to villages and towns.

From there we evolved into states and nation states.

Not surprisingly, as the pieces grew larger, the connective tissues among them weakened.

Perhaps that is why we seem to have inadvertently moved back into an earlier state of tribalism?

Moving from families to villages to tribes to states was a loose process of organizing people into manageable groups for the purpose of allocating resources and responsibilities alike fairly and properly.

This has not, of course, always been a fair or proper process, with women, children, immigrants and people of color long forced into “tribes” not of their own making or benefit.

We have spent much of the last 150 years seeking (or not) the right balance. Some of the misallocations could be addressed on a one-off basis – the women’s’ suffrage and civil rights movements have at least shorn the roughest edges off the American version of tribalism.

Some, though, are more systemic. Efforts to tackle them often spur a resurgent tribalism among the groups who see resource allocation and rights as a zero-sum game in which gains by one group require losses by another.

One challenge is that tribal imperatives can be significantly different from State imperatives, creating a situation in which a tribe is fighting its own members.

And that is largely where we stand today. Riven by politics, economics, crime and, yes, systemic racism, the American tribe is at risk of reverting to a more primitive condition.

Perhaps the only just solution is to treat tribes as personal entities, rather than economic or political ones, within which everyone has the same basic guarantees of a livable income, health care, education, and safety – regardless of what tribe you claim as your own. Yes, the fifty States have the last word on how to tax and spend, but the federal government can withhold its own support if it does not like what and how the States do what they do.

If we could find a way to deal with that, we might get back on track?

The End of the World

Where, When, and Why?

For an unscientific guy I have an insatiable curiosity for knowing more about the universe. 

The magazine Astronomy is an amazing source for my imagination. It almost seems to me to have been written just for me. Perhaps there are more folks out there with similar fascinations than I had imagined? 

In all events—thanks, Astronomy! 

The TWO biggest questions are —how did it begin and how will it end? The answers are, of course, unknown, but theories abound. My own personal favorite is that there was no “beginning” and there will be no “end” — at least in the ways we’re accustomed to thinking about those words. 

Instead, the universe is speculated to consist of an endless cycle of self-renewal. A “big bang” to kick things off, followed, eons later, by a “big crunch” that wipes the slate clean – a cosmic “reset” button, as it were. WHEN might that happen?  When it is least expected – if we are even still around to see it. So, beware on ‘the best day in years!’ 

Why do we make such a big deal about beginnings and endings? The time in between so much longer and more important!  

Why do things ever have to end? To make way for what needs and wants to follow!  

If people and galaxies alike could go on forever, the people would destroy themselves through resource overconsumption or environmental degradation. Galaxies and the solar system they contain, meanwhile, would drift ever further from one another until each became a lonely island, unable to see or even imagine anything else “out there.” 

Humankind has pursued progress to the point of potential self-extinction. Our own end is easily predicted given our current course. Perhaps we, too, are in an endless cycle, destined to keep starting over until we get it right! How thoughtful people can be!!!! 

When we try…? 

The Best Downtown Neighborhood

In a Major Urban Setting.

I have had the opportunity and privilege of living in several of the world’s greatest cities and visiting many others. I have found that I, and many others, take it for granted to the point that we often forget what is soooo great about these places. 

Urban living keeps all of us living in THE MIX. The mix is a mélange of people from many places with many languages, cultures, habits and likes and dislikes. The pleasant result is an endless variety of restaurants, exhibits, and friends. 

Within the mélange, there are bound to be people we will like, some we may dislike, and a few we may despise. 

The buildings are various and often splendid, but still compact enough to make strolls through a neighborhood breathtaking. 

Best of all, our forebearers liked trees and flowers and we all still enjoy the abundance of greens, colors and shade with front, side and back gardens. 

 For all its benefits though, urban living imposes hardships – roads and traffic being prominent among them. 

Today two cars, moving in opposite directions, can barely navigate crowded two-way streets without touching. And one inexperienced driver can wreak havoc in seconds. 

Most urban streets were designed and laid out when cars were narrower and did not have two side view mirrors. (A Honda Civic was 59.3 inches wide in 1973; by 2008, it’s width had increased to 70.3 inches – ballooning, like many Americans themselves, by nearly 20% over the years.)   

We cannot be more than a few years away from having to have ALL one-way streets. Such solutions are the sort of civic rigidity that bleeds the life out of cities, imposing a frustrating series of right turns to overcome the negligence of drivers and the still growing popularity of behemoth, gas-guzzling SUVs. 

While side-view mirrors undoubtedly increase safety, the overall growth in vehicles is a simple matter of consumer tastes. Since that is not likely to change, perhaps it is time to eliminate side view mirrors entirely and replace them with on-board cameras and sensors that can provide information about nearby vehicles without the bulk of physical mirrors that many people fail to set properly.  

Absent a dramatic change, the charm and beauty of Georgetown (where I live) is about to slide into history! 

Please, somebody, DO SOMETHING! SOON!! 

Policing the Police

Rethinking “Qualified Immunity” 

The police in our daily lives are given power and privileges to protect us and themselves at the same time. None of those privileges is more problematic than “qualified immunity” — the idea that police officers cannot, in many cases, be held civilly liable for their official acts.  

Presidents and other elected officials enjoy similar protections from their own excesses, which is why whether Trump is guilty of inciting a resurrection on January 6 hinges largely on whether his speech in advance of the storming of the Capitol is considered an “official” event. 

In recent years, our police have made far too many serious mistakes in performing their duties, particularly when dealing with people of color.  

The deaths of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Tamir Rice and many, many others each sparked headlines and protests but, before the excruciating death of Mr. Floyd, brought little in the way of justice. The difficulty of assessing in-the-moment decisions, a culture of silence within police forces, and, yes, systemic racism all combined to ensure virtual immunity for even the most egregious acts.   

One of the key elements in assessing those situations is what the relevant facts have been and whether the police overstepped their authority. 

Because both their power and actions are not in the realm of normal behavior the police do run a continuous risk of overstepping their roles and therefore the laws governing their behavior include a qualified immunity from prosecution for going too far, except in cases where an officer violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.”  

That is a gray area the size of Alaska and Texas! Thus, the key question today is what qualified immunity truly entails and means. 

“Immunity” is what it says – if a mistake is made and proven, immunity can protect the police officer from civil liability from a victim and/or their family. 

“Qualified” adds the murky limits of the 1967 Supreme Court decision establishing the doctrine to the mix.  

How, when and by whom is that judgment made? If the qualification is too liberal the police can literally get away with murder. If it is too strict, police officers’ hands might be tied to the detriment of their personal as well as public safety.  

Real life – particularly in situations blending guns and conflict — happens quickly, and no thoughtful person can think it easy to make life-or-death decisions in the blink of an eye. 

As the Congress discusses ways to address the array of problems these questions pose, a central focus is what to do about qualified immunity.  

Some want it eliminated – an option both unlikely and problematic. But strengthening or narrowing the standard is also challenging. If there is clear, concise, readily understandable language that could do the job, we would already know it and I am not aware of one. 

Perhaps a solution lies elsewhere. Instead of a “qualified immunity” based on the explicated “rights” of victims of police violence, there could be established a system of “exceptional immunity” based on whether a police officer’s actions after the fact were consistent with and in proportion to the facts of the situation. 

Such judgement might come from a state board of impartial reviewers representing police, community groups, and retired judges. Such a body could develop clear “use of force” standards, require de-escalation in situations related more to an individual’s mental health than a non-violent crime, and otherwise provide reasoned guidance.  

This does resemble qualified immunity in some ways, BUT it would also allow many more civil actions against unjustified acts of violence by the police, while still preserving their protection for actions reasonably undertaken in the moment. 

Exceptional immunity (or any other such “carve out”) will not solve the problem of police violence against communities of color – THAT will require strengthening the criminal laws for excessive use of force. But it will bring us one step closer to justice.  

Isn’t that everyone’s wish and intention?! 

Making Your Home Work

And Pining for a Simpler Time…

When we moved into our four-story town house in Georgetown in 1960, we installed a then state-of-the-art communications system to enable telephone and intercom throughout the house.  

It worked beautifully for years. Then the world changed.  

Ma Bell broke itself up into smaller businesses that would themselves largely vanish.  Fax machines came (and then went). The Internet gave us email. Cell phones – blending the Internet and telephony in a single, handheld device! — was the death knell for plain old telephone service delivered over copper lines.  

Through it all, our own setup changed largely through the acquisition of additional equipment – a router replaced our dial-up modem somewhere along the way, but the telephonic underpinnings remained the same. 

Until the world forced us further into the 21st Century! Horrors! 

We decided to replace our now completely obsolete internal communications system with a totally simple, basic phone system with one wrinkle: an add-on display that uses voice recognition to write out what the person on the other end is saying, in close to real time, a real aid to people experiencing hearing issues!  MY WIFE for instance. Despite its technological underpinnings, all we needed was an electrical outlet and a simple old-fashioned phone jack! 

And there begins a saga of immense proportions. 

The existing jacks, which served us for so many years, do not work for this purpose – as if the house KNOWS we are not plugging in a rotary phone and is determined to stop us! We had three – yes, 3— “experts,” with some 50+ years of cumulative experience, each spending two hours at our house before giving up! 

As I write this, I am waiting for the fourth expert – who they swear really is the expert! (It turns out she WAS!!) 

An explanation of the trouble is hard to come by. I am told all the pieces are there, but the technicians are somehow not able to reassemble them to make a simple phone jack deliver a common dial tone. 

We seem to be at a place technologically where simplicity has been overwhelmed by accumulated complexity.  

Individually, we sweat and strain to accomplish things that should be simple. My quest for a dial tone involved four service “windows” — eight hours at which I HAD to be available, and during which the technician could appear at any time – or in one case, not at all. That is not even counting the struggle to GET a service call – automated systems insisted on diagnosing and troubleshooting devices that were working fine and wouldn’t let me request a service call until I undertook this pointless exercise!  

They seem to be in a world of their own and if the problem they are faced with does not fit comfortably into what they know and have experienced, it is as if they were on the moon for the first time ALONE! 

None in the series of technicians who visited our house turned in reports or debriefed their successors.  Each new visitor replicated their predecessors’ steps, to the same frustrating end. 

Until, with our fourth service call, we were visited by a woman willing to look beyond the blinders placed on her by her employer. She spent much of the day here, determined to solve the problem. And, in the end, she was successful! I am pleased to report that after dozens of hours of labor (mine and theirs), untold travel miles, and likely thousands of dollars of costs incurred (not by me!), I finally again have … a telephone jack with a dial tone. 

Perhaps the monopoly powers of the businesses that inherited Ma Bell’s legacy are so rich that the time and money wasted on problems like this does not come to the attention of the managers who should be concerned with SOLVING customer problems and saving their business needless expense (in that order!). 

The dial tone, it turns out, puts you into the system. And when you are in the system, you are in heaven, with everything it has in store for you.  

I have had a peek, and I recommend it! WOW.