~ Archive for Uncategorized ~

Eisenhower biography reminds readers why a lot of folks hate America

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Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith helps explain why the country with the most Social Justice Warriors is perceived in many parts of the world as acting out of expediency and greed rather than as part of a search for justice. Eisenhower kicked off a new policy of having the CIA run covert operations to overthrow elected governments, typically to protect American commercial interests and typically with the public story that it was part of a fight against global Communism. The 1953 coup in Iran was the first example, with a Guatemalan coup to protect United Fruit Company assets shortly afterwards (Eisenhower had received a cable from his friend William Prescott Allen: “Yes, Guatemala has a very small minority of Communists, but not as many as San Francisco.”) Smith characterizes Eisenhower as a political genius, but points out that in this case he failed to see the long-lasting consequences of being discovered.

I’m wondering if in the long run the Chinese will be seen as the honest foreign power. The Europeans are tarnished by their colonial history. We’re tarnished by the above and other adventures.

Who has been on a Royal Caribbean cruise?

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Readers:

I want to take my mom to Latvia, Lithuania, and St. Petersburg. Mom is 82 this year and she has some ancestors from Latvia for sure (originally from Spain but detoured through the Baltic countries). She is an art lover and has never been to Russia so St. Petersburg is a must-see. This is going to be added onto a July 20 wedding in Paris that I’m attending.

It turns out that Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas is visiting all of the above places (except Paris) at a convenient time. Has anyone been on this ship? Or a similar Royal Caribbean line? Mostly we just want a comfortable hotel that will take us from city to city and then let us poke around once there, ideally with good support for a person who is beyond her best walking years (but not wheelchair-bound). We don’t need a fabulous six-course meal every night or to drink more than a glass of wine per day.

I don’t think of myself as a “cruise person” and mom has never been on a cruise, I don’t think. Are we going to have a good time? There’s a crazy expensive cruise line doing a somewhat similar itinerary: Regent Seven Seas Voyager. Even if the price were the same I’m a little concerned about the smaller size of the ship. The monster Serenade of the Seas at least has enough space to walk around. Also the Royal Caribbean folks seem to have invested heavily in high-speed Internet, which is a plus considering that I will probably have to do at least some work.

Online reviews of cruises seem to include a lot of negative experiences, but I am wondering if this is volunteer bias. Or if these are people who are expecting more than we are (a floating hotel and some basic meals).

Thanks in advance for any advice.

[Note that my dad is not joining on this trip. He’s 86 and gets enough adventure driving around suburban Maryland…]

Success of Donald Trump shows the failure of Presidential versus Parliamentary System?

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Republicans in Congress have complained that Donald Trump, until 2009 a registered Democrat, does not espouse what they consider to be “Republican” ideas. I wonder if Trump’s success thus far is a good example for why other countries use the parliamentary system rather than our mob-rule Democracy. In Britain, for example, and countries that have imitated its system of governance, the prime minister must be approved by a majority of legislators from that party (Wikipedia). A Trump v. Established Republicans situation could simply never arise.

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Mechanics of illegal immigration

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“The Cost of Caring: The lives of the immigrant women who tend to the needs of others.” is a New Yorker story that reveals some of the mechanics of illegal immigration.

That year, after her two oldest daughters entered college, Emma, who was forty-four, realized that she could never afford to pay tuition seven more times, so she applied for a tourist visa to America. At her interview, at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, she said that she wanted to go to California, to visit Disneyland. … Her application was rejected. She waited three months and applied again. This time, she paid a wealthy friend to provide her with “show money”: the friend temporarily deposited half a million pesos, roughly twelve thousand dollars, into Emma’s bank account, so that officials at the embassy would believe that she was a wealthy tourist. The friend owned a rice mill, and she created papers for Emma that made it appear as if she were the owner of the business. On the day of the interview, in July, 2000, Emma fasted and prayed all morning. Her sister Nella, who accompanied her to the embassy, said that after the interview Emma ran toward her shouting, “I got it!” “She was jumping,” Nella said. “She was so happy. I said, ‘Go, go—before they take it back.’ ”

[One interesting sentence is “A tenth of the population now works abroad, supporting nearly half of the country’s households and leaving some nine million Filipino children missing a parent.” I.e., it is supposedly bad when a child is cut back to one parent, yet most U.S. states provide large cash incentives to Americans who want to do just that to their own children.]

The article is also interesting because it shows how much demand there is for labor in the U.S., despite our sinking labor force participation rate. Probably a U.S. citizen could earn more from collecting welfare than these immigrants from the Philippines, but if there were no welfare it seems as though jobs would be waiting. Alternatively, if there were no immigration these jobs might start paying more than welfare.

Obamacare penalties for small companies that pay Obamacare premiums?

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I’m wondering if small companies have been put at a disadvantage by Obamacare. It used to be the case that a small company could compensate employees with tax-free cash by paying their individual health insurance premiums, just as a big company can compensate employees with tax-free cash by paying their group health insurance premiums. “Large Penalties Await Employers Who Reimbursed Certain Employee Health Insurance Premiums In 2014” (Forbes) suggests that companies that continue to do what they had been doing for decades are now subject to a $36,500/employee annual penalty.

What do readers know about this? This would seem to put small companies at a significant competitive disadvantage to big companies unless there is some straightforward way for a typical small-company W-2 employee to deduct health insurance premiums paid (the 1040 form has a line for “self-employed health insurance deduction” but it seems to be for 1099 workers or S-corporation owners).

Is this another example of the “go big or go home” U.S. economy? Or is there some straightforward way for a small company to get back to parity in terms of the tax treatment of its employee compensation?

[Separately, let’s put the $36,500 into context. The median pre-tax household income in the U.S. is about $52,000 (Wikipedia). So the penalty is a little smaller than the after-tax median household income. But the median net compensation for an individual worker, according to the Social Security Administration, is about $28,850. So the penalty is actually more than what a company would typically pay a worker. Someone who had a one-night sexual encounter in New York State with a partner earning $214,706 per year and obtained custody of the resulting child would collect the same $36,500 in annual tax-free child support. A typical welfare family costs the taxpayers a lot more than $36,500 per year but as of 2013, the total value to the recipient of a welfare package was more than $36,500 in only 11 states (CATO Institute study).]

Why aren’t there a lot of backyard miniature golf courses?

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Everyone (I hope) loves miniature golf. A lot of Americans have big backyards and plenty of time/effort/money to spend on said backyards. Why do we therefore seldom see backyard miniature golf courses? It can’t be more expensive than a lot of the landscaping that one does see, can it?

Could a security-conscious government listen to all citizen conversations via smartphones?

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A lot of smartphones now have explicit “always-listening” modes. There are also devices such as the Amazon Echo whose primary purpose is to listen to what is being said in a home or office.

Could a security-conscious government tap into these devices that citizens have voluntarily purchased, grab the data stream, and figure out in advance who is going to commit which kinds of crime? Maybe that kind of mass data gathering isn’t practical until better AI listening software is developed, but what about a warrant to tap someone’s Amazon Echo stream or smartphone audio stream? Could it be possible for a suspect to effectively bug himself or herself by purchasing a smartphone? No need to go into the suspect’s house; just run some packets out of an Amazon, Apple, or Google server farm.

But what if the day comes when speech recognition software is good enough? Will people decide voluntarily that the government’s robots should listen to every microphone output in order to protect them from terrorist attacks, etc.?

Is Donald Trump running for president mostly for the temporary flight restriction?

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Most articles in the New York Times about Donald Trump have the form “He promised in a speech to do X and here are the horrible things that would happen if X were to occur.” (i.e., the journalist starts from the assumption that Donald Trump would be America’s first political candidate to fulfill all campaign promises). “A President Trump Could Trump His Club’s Fight Over Planes” is interesting to me, though, because of the aviation angle. Ever since 9/11, the FAA establishes all kinds of flight restrictions around places where a U.S. president either is or might be. If the president isn’t around then airplanes may be restricted to overfly no lower than 5000′ (see Prohibited Area P-40 over Camp David).

Trump has been fighting with the FAA and the local airport (Palm Beach International) regarding departures over Mar-a-Lago. It turns out that it was the airport manager who suggested, back in 2011, “The solution for him is to get elected president.”

  • Disney’s private airspace gets some press coverage (Disney has better political connections than other theme park operators, so they have a “permanent temporary” flight restriction over their parks, purportedly for security but in reality to eliminate advertising competition from planes towing banners; i.e., the government has issued regulatory guidance to Al Qaeda that if they want their terrorism flight to be legal until 1000′ above the point of impact (see FAR 91.119), they are required to attack a theme park not owned by Disney)

Globalization of work favors bigger firms?

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Back in the late 1990s our little software company did a project for Hewlett-Packard. Employees on their side of the project were geographically dispersed. Some contributors were in Palo Alto, others in Santa Rosa, and the rest in Oregon. Everyone worked in a fairly sizable physical office surrounded by co-workers, but the co-workers for a given project were not necessarily physically proximate.

I’ve noticed this trend lately in working with some law firms that have between 1000 and 2000 lawyers. A partner in Chicago works closely with an associate in Dallas, for example. In an age where most households have high-speed Internet there is no obvious advantage to both of these attorneys sitting in plush offices rather than in spare bedrooms in their respective homes. However, I’m wondering if larger firms will prosper as the trend is to more interstate and international collaborative work.

If your collaborator works for the same company, but in a different office, it is a lot easier to establish and maintain trust. You don’t have to worry that your collaborator is billing you for time worked but is actually surfing Facebook instead (for one thing these law firms have firewalls that block Facebook! If someone is staring at a computer screen you can be sure that he or she isn’t checking relatives’ photos or friends’ level of righteousness in supporting Hillary). You can take advantage of talent that is located remotely from your location without worrying that your collaborator is handing over documents to a competitor.

What do folks think? Internet was supposed to be a boon to small retailers and manufacturers by creating a level playing field in which consumers and retailers or consumers and producers could meet and interact without friction. Instead it led to giants such as Amazon, Apple, and Google. Is there a similar thing going on where Internet was supposed to help small companies and individuals get paid to do subtasks on larger projects but in fact it will give giant enterprises even more of a competitive advantage?

Why companies hire $1000/hour lawyers

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My work as an expert witness (mostly in software patent cases) occasionally takes me to absurdly lavish offices of the world’s largest law firms. Perhaps partly due to the rent that they pay, the fees are breathtaking even when the stakes are pretty small, e.g., because the accused product does not generate much revenue. A partner at a small firm, which, at least in his opinion, can do work of comparable quality, explained that companies, especially public ones, aren’t very price-sensitive because the decision regarding which law firm to hire is made by Board members rather than the shareholder-owners who will have to pay said breathtaking fees. “If the firm loses the case the Board members are completely protected if they can say that they hired the biggest and best firm. There is no potential for liability if they spend 2-4X more than they needed to. But they can be sued and/or suffer a loss of personal reputation if it becomes known that they approved the hiring of a no-name firm.”

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