Friday, September 28, 2012

An "E" for Effort

An "E" for Effort by Get The Flick
An "E" for Effort, a photo by Get The Flick on Flickr.

I didn't realize it had been that long since I put up a picture. We need some rain!

Don Brown
September 28, 2012

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Political Map Drawing 101

It's really simple (only if you keep up with politics), if you get to draw the map, you control the vote.  Check out the map from Huffington Post and see how it's done.  (Roll your mouse across the map to see it change from "Before" to "After".)

Michigan August Primary 2012: Map Detroit's New Districts And Biggest Elections

Every ten years -- when the census comes out -- the Party in control of the State legislature gets to redraw the map.  2010 was a big year for Republicans in the States.  When you start delving into all this and you see the amount of data and the sophistication with which it is used it becomes very enlightening. While you concentrate of making a living and raising your kids, people you've never even dreamed of are redrawing maps to decide your political future.

Don Brown
September 27, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Can't Leave Well Enough Alone

I can't thank Google enough for changing (yet again) the interface for blogging.  It's not like I'm busy or anything.  Let me stop what I'm doing and learn something new on Google's  schedule.

Oh yeah, it's "free".   All errors are mine.  Google and its associated programmers are busy making my life better and shall be held harmless.

Don Brown (does not like change)
September 25, 2012

It Pays to Have Readers

Don't get carried away. I'm not talking money pay. I'm talking about knowledge. Thanks to my friend Frank (N631S blog) for saving me the time of finding the background on The West Wing cast doing the public service announcement/campaign ad. (It pays to have a famous sister with friends too.)

How Michigan judicial candidate Bridget Mary McCormack got ‘The West Wing’ cast for her campaign video

Don Brown
September 25, 2012

Friday, September 21, 2012

Public Service What?

I don't have time to check this out at the moment but rest assured I will.  How does a judge get this kind of plug in a semi-public-service announcement?  This is going to be an interesting story.

In the meantime, it's pretty cool seeing everyone from the best TV show ever all together again.

Don Brown
September 21, 2012

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

ATC -- Lessons From Wall Street

Let's go back and visit that Frontline program about the collapse of Wall Street again, to see what we might learn about air traffic control.

Money, Power & Wall Street

(The transcript is here.)

"FRANK PARTNOY, Morgan Stanley, 1994-95: I think finance may have gotten too complicated for anyone to understand—...

FRANK PARTNOY: —and that the managers of these large financial institutions in some ways have been given an impossible task, that they won’t be able to comprehend what it is their institutions are doing. And that is really, really scary."

I've mentioned this somewhere in the distant past but let me bring it up again. The National Airspace System (NAS) is vast and complicated. Do you think that there is anyone -- anyone -- that understands even half of it? I've always mentioned this in the context of following the rule book. Your average mid-career controller doesn't have a clue what the other parts of the FAA are doing -- or how much they rely on the controller doing his job by the book so that they can do their job. That was true throughout my career. Now, toss in URET (collateralized debt obligations). And ERAM (mortgage-backed securities). And NextGen (high-frequency trading). Do you see how we've increased the complexity of a system that wasn't well understood in the first place? Do you think the very top-level FAA managers have a clue as to how complex this technological tiger that have hold of by its tail really is?

Me neither.

"MARTIN SMITH: In other words, some big banks simply didn’t know what they had in terms of risk.

DANIEL K. TARULLO: Certainly, they didn’t— they didn’t know some of the forms of risk that they had. That’s exactly right."

All you have to do is mention the word "risk", put it in the context of aviation, and everybody understands we're talking about something more valuable than money. So, given the complexity of the NAS, do you think everybody in the aviation business understands the level of risk present? The banking industry didn't. What makes you think the aviation industry does? It can't be because the aviation industry has better brains that the banking business. We've already established that Wall Street was willing to pay the best and brightest far more than other industries. You can bet your bottom dollar they pay more than the Federal government pays.

So, we not only have second-class managers, we have second-class quants. What? You don't think that quants have taken over ATC just like Wall Street? Who do you think designed the Conflict Probe on URET (a .pdf file)? Who do you think wrote the algorithms for Continuous Descent Arrivals? Quants. Don't delude yourself into thinking they understand air traffic control. They don't. They're smart. They're scary they're so smart. That doesn't mean they understand what you do. (And while we're here, don't think quants haven't taken over piloting too.)

Here's a twist for you. Pay close attention to this statement.

"MARK BRICKELL, JP Morgan, 1976-01: We’re thinking about how to manage risk. We were thoughtful and deliberate and careful. We had a responsibility not just to make a profit for the shareholders, but to look after the financial system as a whole."

That sounds like a conscientiousness employee doing the right thing for the right reason doesn't it? He probably was. He was on the team that created credit default swaps -- the financial instruments that blew up and brought down Wall Street.

I urge you to go back and listen to that whole program again -- Money, Power & Wall Street -- with the thought of looking for parallels between financial risk and aviation risk.

So, what does all this mean for a newly-minted controller? Let me give you just one specific instance. Imagine you're working the nastiest, most complicated inbound push you've ever worked. And the radar goes out. One second it's there, the next second it's gone. Can you get everybody on the ground safely? With just a radio and the tools at hand?

If you can't, something is terribly, terribly wrong. That's your job. If you lack the skills or the training or the tools then it is your job to fix it. Don't ever let anyone tell you it can't happen. It can. Wall Street can crash. So can your computer. So can your radar. So can your radio. That's why we had three of them. That's the reason we had redundant power. Redundant telephone lines. It is your job to make sure no one takes those away.

It is your job -- when you hear "That will never happen" -- to doubt. It is your job to plan for the worst. It is your job to never forget that 500 people can die in an instant. An instant of confusion brought on by unforeseen complexity.

Do not cede your authority because you surely cannot escape your responsibility. Your manager won't be the one sitting in front of a blank scope. The Administrator won't be talking to your airplanes. You will. The quants that wrote the algorithms will be long gone. You will be in the hot seat. Don't ever let anyone tell you it can't happen. It can. You will have to make it all work. Make sure that you can.

Don Brown
September 18, 2012

Monday, September 17, 2012

Lux Aeterna

Lux Aeterna by Get The Flick
Lux Aeterna, a photo by Get The Flick on Flickr.

I can't put my finger on it but there's something special about this one.

There are a lot of new pictures on Flickr that I haven't put on this site. When you get there (click on the picture) you might want to browse around a little.

Don Brown
September 17, 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Let There Be Light

Let There Be Light by Get The Flick
Let There Be Light, a photo by Get The Flick on Flickr.

Winner. I didn't even bother finishing the edit. There might even be one or two better to come.

Don Brown
September 15, 2012

Friday, September 14, 2012

For My Son, And Yours

The Frontline series I mentioned before -- Money, Power & Wall Street -- really hit home in the final episode -- episode four. An important fact to remember for this blog is that my son -- a recent college graduate -- is a mathematician. I've tried to warn him of the moral pitfalls that await him in life but this documentary provides so many concrete examples (compared to my generalities) that I thought I'd use it to reinforce what I have tried to say before.

Frontline: Money, Power & Wall Street (Episode Four)

"NARRATOR: Cathy O’Neil, a mathematician, came to Wall Street in 2007 after beginning her career in academia.

CATHY O’NEIL: I went to U.C. Berkeley as an undergrad. I went to Harvard for grad school. And then I was a post-doc for five years at MIT. And I applied to work at a hedge fund, D.E. Shaw, and I got the job. And I thought this was great.

I was a quant. A quant uses statistical methods to try to predict patterns in the market."

In case you've never hear the term, a "quant" takes their high-level math skill and applies it to gambling on Wall Street (as opposed to furthering the cause of mankind). For instance, I've mentioned that all of this high-powered finance is nothing but a scheme to get at the big pools of money -- the pension funds. I never thought of this particular method (detailed below) of stealing someone's labor before...

"NARRATOR: Her work was used to predict when big pension funds would buy or sell, so the firm could jump in ahead of their trades.

CATHY O’NEIL: I just felt like I was doing something immoral. I was taking advantage of people I don’t even know whose retirements were in these funds.

We all put money into our 401(k)s. And Wall Street takes this money and just skims off, like, a certain percentage every quarter. At the very end of somebody’s career, they retire and they get some of that back. This is this person’s money, and it’s just basically going to— to Wall Street. This doesn’t seem right."

There's a lesson in this next one for controllers...or anybody.

"CAITLIN KLINE, Credit Suisse, 2004-10: Everybody kind of knows in their heart that something’s not right. But once you are making money for a while, you don’t ever want to stop making money."

Is there something in your world that you know in your "heart that something’s not right"? ERAM? URET? A 10-hour workday in a safety-critical job? Week after week of overtime? But "you don’t ever want to stop making money"? Especially "easy" overtime on the midshift?

You're being paid money for your labor -- your special skill. You are not being paid to compromise your conscience. It's not your fault that the FAA hasn't hired enough controllers, soon enough. It is your job, as a public servant, to do everything within your power to make the situation better (as opposed to worse.) That should go for everyone in the human race.

Let's get back to Ms. Kline in her interview. You can see that I'm not unique -- my thoughts about "furthering the cause of mankind" are not particularly insightful. And here's another observation for you; these observations are much easier to make in hindsight. I wasn't any better than anybody else when I was having to make the judgments in real time. Being young and not ever having been in morally confusing situations does not help.

"NARRATOR: Kline was a math major at New York University and considered becoming a teacher. But she remained on Wall Street for six years.

CAITLIN KLINE: You have the sneaking suspicion that you’re not contributing to society. But it was always really easy to say, “I know the risks. They know the risks. None of this is our money. So you know, we can kind of do these things, and it’s all fair game.”"

This is more than just a personal problem of conscience. This is a societal problem. This brilliant woman -- and the thousands like her -- went to Wall Street to gamble with other people's money instead of becoming a teacher. A doctor. An engineer. An air traffic controller. It was a "brain drain" of massive proportions.

Let me pull you back into real time for a second here. We're not even five minutes into this episode and it's a hour long. And this is one episode of four. I really want you watch and listen to every minute. I'm not the only one with insight. You can think for yourself. I'm just here to encourage you to think.

"...And if it blows up three years from now, that’s not going to affect the bonus I make today.”"

Do you want this person working on ERAM? How about a retiree with "no skin in the game"? Yet, thousands were playing on Wall Street with this attitude because that is the way the system was designed to work. Don't worry if it blows up because that won't cost you. Making money off of it (before it blows up) will make you rich beyond your (teacher/engineer/doctor) wildest dreams.

Greed has been around a lot longer than Wall Street. Banksters were not the first to figure out how to manipulate people with it.

"BERTRAND DES PALLIERES: I was— I think I was a star performer, so I probably followed the— the pay curve of the star performers, yeah.

MARTIN SMITH: So between $5 million to $10 million a year.


MARTIN SMITH: Is that— is it a secret?

BERTRAND DES PALLIERES: Well, it— it was a secret, in fact. I mean, compensations were not public, for all the obvious reasons."

Any kind of secret should set off alarm bells in your head. I'm not naive enough to think that nothing should remain secret. But if you're hiding how much you are paid, there is probably something wrong.

"ALEXIS GOLDSTEIN: I’d really rather not say, if that’s OK, because I just don’t know if that’s publicly available information. But it’s certainly, like, more than you would get at most first-time jobs.

CAITLIN KLINE: I shouldn’t talk about that. That’s in— that’s in the contract. I can’t talk about any salaries or bonuses or anything like that. But it was a lot of money, I mean, especially for young people, you know?

NARRATOR: It wasn’t always this way. For most of the last century, bankers made the same salaries as lawyers, doctors and engineers. The last time Wall Street saw extravagant compensation was in the run-up to the crash of 1929."

And there's the crux of the matter. We forgot. Well, that's not really true is it? We knew about the Great Depression. I'm old enough to have heard the stories from my grandparents. But we thought we were smarter. We thought we understood the concepts and -- for some reason -- thought the details were unimportant. We were fools.

The problem -- my problem, my son's problem, your problem -- is how do we make people remember? Are we doomed to relearn these hard lessons every other generation? Is there an algorithm for that little piece of mental alchemy?

One last thing for when you watch this piece; look for the word "regulate" and all its derivatives.

"SIMON JOHNSON: From the 1930s, we got a period of reform and constraints placed on banks. They became much more regulated. And many of the banks were forced to do what you might call plain vanilla business— taking deposits, lend it out."

"ALEXIS GOLDSTEIN: Normally, the only people that comment on these regulations are the industries that are about to be regulated. And you can probably guess what they say, right? They say, “This is too harsh. You have to take this out. This is going to ruin our business.” They’ll say, “This’ll ruin the economy.”"

Airlines can't fly those antiquated routes. They're too inefficient. They'll ruin the airline business. Oh, wait, that the next blog.

Find some time this weekend. Watch it. Think.

Frontline: Money, Power & Wall Street

Don Brown
September 14, 2012

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Driftwood Sky

Driftwood Sky by Get The Flick
Driftwood Sky, a photo by Get The Flick on Flickr.

Obama -- Insider Knowledge

For the folks that follow me on Twitter, you know that I have recently found the podcasts of Frontline on PBS. Pay dirt. Bingo! OMG! Pick your exclamation. The first episode of Money, Power and Wall Street blew me away. I've already written a different blog about it because of its Georgia connection. I finished listening to episode two just before lunch today. Follow me back in time...

It's the 2008 Presidential campaign between Obama and McCain. The financial world is coming unglued right in the middle of it. Wall Street is imploding, Hank Paulson wants a 700-billion-dollar blank check from Congress and he wants it done over the weekend, before Wall Street opens on Monday morning. The world is literally falling apart and John McCain decides to "suspend" his Presidential campaign, fly back to Washington and help fix the mess.

On September 25th, President Bush calls a meeting and invited Senator McCain, Senator Obama and a bunch of others -- the leadership of Congress. This is how Frontline reports the meeting:

"Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: We’re in a serious economic crisis in the country if we don’t pass a piece of legislation.

PETER BAKER, _The New York Times_: They sit around the Cabinet Room table, and President Bush says, “If we don’t get the money flowing, if we don’t get the credit flowing, this sucker could go down,” meaning the economy as a whole. And then he opens it up.

RON SUSKIND, Author, Confidence Men: McCain walks into the meeting with, like, a cue card with a couple things scribbled on it. Obama doesn’t even wait for McCain to start. He just moves right in.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE, Obama Economic Adviser, 2008: Senator Obama has been talking to Paulson, has been talking to Warren Buffett and Paul Volcker and Larry Summers, and you know, a host of other economic advisers.

DAVID WESSEL, The Wall Street Journal: Obama is prepared and he talks about what needs to happen, and “We’ll pull together,” and he’s been— he doesn’t want to take over in a country which is in depression, so he’s extremely supportive of this whole emergency bailout thing.

Rep. NANCY PELOSI: Senator Obama said, “Well, I’d really like to hear from Senator McCain because he’s the person who called for this meeting.”

RON SUSKIND: McCain is fumbling with his cue cards. He doesn’t even barely get started. Obama kind of patronizes him, saying, “I think Senator McCain has something to say.” McCain just melts on the spot.

MATT LATIMER: Obama took charge, had authority. John McCain had no plan, no strategy. I don’t think he understood what was happening, or didn’t have a plan for what he wanted to accomplish.

JONATHAN ALTER: President Bush whispered to Nancy Pelosi, who was sitting next to him, when McCain was talking, he said, “You guys are going to miss me.” And she kind of laughed.

PETER BAKER: The meeting ends up breaking into— into a cacophony of shouting and— and screaming back and forth. And Bush stands up and says, “Well, I’ve clearly lost control of this meeting,” and he walks out.

JONATHAN ALTER: And another Republican at the table joked to the person sitting next to him, “After this, even we’re going to vote for Obama.” That was the level of Obama’s dominance in this meeting."

(Emphasis added)

Pause and reflect on that a moment. Remember the venom and bile of the times. “After this, even we’re going to vote for Obama.” The stakes could not have been higher. It was a monumental moment -- probably the biggest once since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Obama -- still a junior Senator -- steps up. McCain -- a senior Senator -- fades.

And after the election, the Republicans make it their #1 goal to unseat President Obama, obstructing any and all efforts to legislate, knowing full well that we just dodged the Second Great Depression by a whisker. How's that for soulless, political calculation?

My readers recognize that Frontline has gone out and talked to a Who's Who of people that had a front-row seat to this moment in history. As I said, I'm just on episode two (of four) but this thing is awesome. Stop reading me and go watch. They're an hour long each so set aside some time. The transcript is here. The series home page is here. And here's the link to the podcast at the Apple Store (it's free) in case you want to add Frontline to your podcast list.

I can't get the player to embed so off you go to Frontline: Money, Power and Wall Street.

Don Brown
September 11, 2012

P.S. There will be a "moral to the story" relating all this to air traffic control at some future date. Pay attention.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Labor Day 2012

It occurs to me that hardly anyone will read this Labor Day message until tomorrow. Many people -- far too many -- are working today. On the other hand, far too many don't have a job today. Life is full of things that sound like contradictions but aren't. (Imagine being a politician and trying to say too many are working today but not enough have a job.)

Life doesn't fit on a bumper sticker. The best we can hope for is to find a satisfactory balance in our society. That is what the current buzzphrase -- income inequality -- is all about. Our country is out of balance. Our system of checks and balances has failed us. This failure gave us the Economic Crisis of 2008 and it has kept us mired in this Lesser Depression for 4 long years.

If you believe Paul Krugman (and I do) we are likely to spend the next 6 years in this Lesser Depression. That's the predicted "Lost Decade". In one of life's contradictions, Krugman also offers us a way out in his new book "End This Depression Now!". (Yes, I'm still reading it. Yes, I'm a slow reader.) We have the means to provide for our own salvation, yet our human nature most likely dooms us to a painful resolution of the situation.

I'm reminded of some words from Franklin D. Roosevelt:

"And, yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered, because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty, and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply."

When this all began, I pointed to the Great Depression as a blueprint on how to get out of this economic mess. Someone warned me against whole-heartedly embracing a solution with only a single example of success. I thought that wise advice at the time. Now, with all this wasted time behind us and no other plausible model put forth, I am ready to offer a known quantity -- an example that worked. FDR got us out of the Great Depression with a "stimulus program" to end all stimulus programs.

Paul Krugman on How to Fix the Economy - and Why It's Easier Than You Think

"Whatever you call it, it worked in the late nineteen-thirties and forties, when the U.S. government started shelling out on the military in the build-up to World War II, bringing an abrupt end to years of economic misery and laying the foundation for decades of prosperity. Krugman is not calling for an increase in military spending, much less a global war! But the WWII example shows that large-scale government spending can kick-start the economy. It worked then, he says, and it will work now."

Bear in mind, no one else has an answer. No one else has found anything that has worked. The United Kingdom has fallen back into a recession. Europe (and it's euro) is on the brink. Japan's "Lost Decade" has become plural -- "Decades". China (can the West even think of using China as an example?) is slowing. Even India's economy is slowing.

Do you think I'm depressing? Do you think I'm being pessimistic? You haven't read "Dr. Doom".

Dr. Doom 2013 prediction: Economy will stall

"Roubini, best-known for calling the 2008 economic crisis, outlined five reasons the bulls have been wrong and argued that an American economic cold will lead the rest of the world to catch pneumonia in a post on the Project Syndicate website."

We are facing the Darkness. And I hope my main concern is obvious -- history tends to repeat itself. Again, words of wisdom from FDR:

”True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.“

The question remains; What to do? It's all well and good to talk about policy and history and matters beyond my or your capacity to change. No matter what you think, we are not helpless. And I have some advice to give you (besides to get out and vote, which I hope is obvious.)

My advice to you on how to end this Depression? Join a union. It's just that simple. You want a better job? Join a union. You want better pay? Better benefits? A better retirement? Join a union. All of these things are connected -- they make the U.S. of A. a better country. Being in a union hall and seeing democracy in action is the best primer on how important it is to attend your local government's meetings. You can't go to the city council meeting if you're working 12 hour days. But your boss can -- and does. And he's aware of this fact too. It's in his interest -- his and his other business buddies -- to make sure you and your buddies don't show up. If he can keep you and your spouse too tired to show up -- so much the better.

Joining a union sends a simple message to your boss -- you're willing to stand up and fight for yourself. But, believe it or not, I believe there is another message that a business owner hears that is just as important. He sees an individual that is willing to put his money where his mouth is. Think about an individual that owns a business. He's willing to put thousands of dollars -- if not millions -- on the line, betting he can make a profit. Think about how he sees a union member versus a non-union member. You know he wants the non-union one -- he thinks they'll be less expensive. But I bet you he respects the union member -- the one that is willing to put his money where his mouth is -- more.

And while we are here, I think it worth mentioning a point that should be obvious but needs to be said more often. Unions don't call for the destruction of businesses. Unions don't even agitate for the destruction of corporations. Unions only seek to limit their power. Corporations don't seek to limit the power of unions. They -- and their Republican stooges -- seek the destruction of unions. They would have no limits on their power. No regulations. No unions. No government. No limits.

You may not want a fight. You may not want a confrontation. I am here to tell you that you don't have a choice. The Darkness awaits you. It awaits us all. This Depression will not end any better than the last one if you don't stand up and fight -- if you don't stand up and confront the forces that are shaping your country into a Corporatocracy. You can stand up and fight now or you will surely stand up and fight later.

You may not need a union, but, no matter. Your country does.

Don Brown
Labor Day 2012

Purple Majesty's Labor

Purple Majesty's Labor by Get The Flick
Purple Majesty's Labor, a photo by Get The Flick on Flickr.

On this Labor Day, I wish you a life as good as mine. And much of mine was made possible because of a union.

Don Brown
Labor Day, 2012