Trying to make sense of the Federal Budget

Wednesday, 6 April 2011 17:00 by The Lunatic

Pop quiz: What percent of our federal budget goes to the military? 

If you look at the “official” budget numbers, the White House reports that Defense spending takes up just over 19% of our budget.

Here is what our government spent in 2010, as reported by the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of the Treasury:

Budget5_thumb3

At first glance, this looks like a reasonably balanced chart, without any single slice of the pie taking up too much of the available dough (the pun was intended, although the joke was – admittedly – kind of crusty).

However, there’s been an unfortunate trend which started sometime around the Reagan era, where they try to “de-emphasize” the amount we spend on Defense by including More...

The Worst Investment Ever Made

Tuesday, 15 March 2011 16:54 by The Lunatic

The height of the “dot com” boom was a pretty crazy time for investors; venture capitalists were investing huge sums of cash with any entrepreneur who could type the word “internet” without using a spell checker. People made some really BAD investments and only a few of the startups from that period are still operating today.

But there’s one deal that really takes the cake. This acquisition was so absurd in its reasoning and so insidious in scale that I’m surprised the story hasn’t been made into a Hollywood feature film.

Let’s back up a few years, to 1996. This was the year that yours truly joined a small internet startup called VXtreme, an early pioneer in streaming video on the web. VXtreme had actually developed a viable technology and we created what was arguably the best streaming video platform (codecs, encoder, player, server) in the world at the time.

Remember that in 1996, people were connected to the internet with 28.8Kbps modems – or if you could afford it, you might have one of the spanking new 56K modems.  Whoo-Hooo! Blazing fast internet it was, indeed. Delivering real time streaming video over such a connection was problematic at best – but it was SO exciting to see a media player embedded in a web page, rendering real time video with a resolution of 160x120 pixels at a whopping 15 frames per second refresh rate! We were truly on the bleeding edge.

In just over ten months, we built the company, produced the product, engaged a bunch of high profile customers, and sold the whole thing to Microsoft for about $74 Million (and to set the record straight, I was not one of the founders or shareholders – just a “late hire” marketing manager, with options that were only worth about 1/10th of 1% of the company).

It was a fair valuation for VXtreme.  Our technology was merged in with the “NetShow” product that Microsoft had been struggling with, and the platform was eventually renamed “Windows Media”. Even today, the Windows Media Player, Windows Media Audio/Windows Media Video file formats, Silverlight, and the More...

Categories:   Economics | Miscellaneous | Science
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The Happiest Rip-Off on Earth

Monday, 24 January 2011 21:12 by The Lunatic

No one has ever said that amusement parks are a good deal ... in fact, they are universally considered to be total rip offs.

But after spending five days in Orlando with my kids, I think that the Disney Corporation has just one goal: they are trying to perfect the art of shifting any remaining cash balance from my bank account to theirs.

Mid-January should be a good time of the year to visit Disney World, I thought. This should be the “slow” season, shouldn’t it? Even though it was a holiday last weekend (Martin Luther King Day), I didn’t think the crowds would be all that bad.  On top of the holiday on Monday, my kids had two extra days off school for “teacher/staff development and training”, so we had Saturday through Wednesday – five very precious vacation days.

Unfortunately, it was so miserably crowded on Saturday (Magic Kingdom) and Sunday (Hollywood Studios) that it really was not much fun at all for the kids - much less the parents.

Then on Monday, it rained – hard – which at least thinned out the crowds somewhat. Luckily, that was the day we had selected for Animal Kingdom, which is probably the only Disney park that you can do in the rain (but many of the rides and activities were closed for at least half the day). On Tuesday we went to Epcot – the best park of the bunch, in our opinion. But even then we spent far too much time in lines to be worthwhile. It was very frustrating.

Disney World has this new scheme called the “Fast Pass” ticket. Here’s how it works: instead of waiting in line for a ride, you get More...

Bah, Humbug, I say!

Friday, 24 December 2010 00:13 by The Lunatic

I’ve never celebrated Christmas.  Ever. 

When I was young, it never really crossed our minds – we weren’t Christian so it just wasn’t something our family did. I’ve never once had a Christmas tree in my house.

As I got older and started working in a professional career, I would usually go in to work on Christmas day – just because I objected to being told that I HAD to take a day off for some religion that I didn’t care one whit about. Usually, I wasn’t the only one there.

Except for a couple of “mandatory” gift exchanges at work, which were more office politics than anything, I’ve never given anyone a Christmas present.

And now that I have kids of my own, we all agree that it would be hypocritical to subject them to this custom just because of the social pressures of our society (which have unfortunately gotten worse over the years). 

I also get annoyed at the “celebration envy” that many non-Christians fall into. Hanukah is a minor Jewish holiday which no one outside of the Jewish faith would have ever heard of if it weren’t for the questions of “so what DO you celebrate?” – the idea of a “Hanukah bush” is an embarrassing distortion and any self-respecting Jew wouldn’t dream of putting one in their house. And what’s up with all these Winter Solstice parties? More...

Categories:   Religion | Social Issues
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The Evolution of god

Wednesday, 24 November 2010 14:19 by The Lunatic

The following article was written under invitation from the CommonGroundGroup, a website put together by some members of the Baha’i faith, for discussion of the common areas of agreement between science and religion. They seek to include alternative views and promote open discussion on topics of science, religion, and philosophy. I appreciate the invitation to contribute an article which is diametrically opposed to most of their normal postings.

I love evolution.

Just as biological evolution creates new species, information and knowledge and technologies also evolve – and in a very similar manner. Take the microprocessor that is running the computer on which I’m writing this article, for example. The electronic microprocessor isn’t the brainchild of a single brilliant engineer who just created it one day, without any prior information or knowledge. All modern processors are evolutionary offshoots of the Intel 4004, introduced in 1971. It was a huge breakthrough, but that milestone could never have come about without the invention of the transistor and the many simpler integrated circuits before it; and the core processing logic was built upon the mechanical and vacuum tube computers which evolved over the fifty years before that. None of these would have been possible without a working knowledge of electricity, magnetism, chemistry, and physics – the secrets of which have been slowly uncovered, bit by bit, for hundreds (thousands!) of years.

Evolution tends to go in fits and starts, especially in the early stages. There are the agonizingly slow changes that take millennia – the spinoff of one species to another for example, or the adaptation to environmental changes that all early life went through as the Earth cooled; for almost half of the 3.5 billion years that life has existed on Earth, there was nothing more complex than single cell organisms.

But then, occasionally, some big event comes around More...

Categories:   Religion | Science | Social Issues
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It’s Not Over Till The Fat Lady Eats All The Halloween Candy

Monday, 1 November 2010 15:25 by The Lunatic

My family loves Halloween. It’s our favorite holiday of the year – we get to decorate the house, wear costumes, go to parties ... and eat candy.

Lots and lots and lots and lots of candy.

In a society of bulging waistlines and bad eating habits in general, I really wish we could go just a little easier on the candy at Halloween.

I mean, what’s wrong with giving out only one small morsel to each trick-or-treater that comes by, instead of big handfuls?  What’s wrong with running out at a reasonable hour and saying “sorry, we don’t have any more” instead of buying so much that you’re stuck with pounds of leftovers?  What’s wrong with giving out something healthy, instead of candy, or a “trick” like some families used to do when I was a kid? (the idea used to be that you’d give out a trick … OR a treat.)

Sure, it’s just one day a year – but we have more candy sitting on our counter than I’d normally let my kids eat in an entire year.  Seriously. Maybe two years.

I tried to be reasonable.  I tried to get a small amount of candy, and supplement our offerings with little bags of pretzels. But my own family rebelled.  They turned on me. They ridiculed me More...

Tackling the Healthcare Issue

Monday, 25 October 2010 19:10 by The Lunatic

Newsflash: The cost of healthcare in America has been out of control for many years and we really need to do something about it!

Ok, so this isn’t news. And we already have the all-new healthcare reform legislation which fixes all our problems, right?

Unfortunately, this new law – officially called the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (PPACA) but more affectionately referred to as “Obamacare” – has some problems, and now a few people are lobbying to ditch this plan so they can come up with something different.

Part of the problem with baking up a new healthcare plan is that there are so many fingers in the pie, all with vested interests – you have the healthcare insurance companies, malpractice insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospital owners, nurses unions, lobbyists, medical licensing boards, government agencies (FDA, HHS, CDC, VA, CMS, etc), the politicians (who love to shoot down whatever their opponents propose, no matter what it is) ... and let’s not forget the doctors and the patients themselves.  It really is fundamentally IMPOSSIBLE to implement any reform that won’t upset someone in the chain. It’s a political nightmare, and everyone knows it – but something has to be done. More...

Books, books, books, books, and more books

Monday, 4 October 2010 18:49 by The Lunatic

Our container with all our belongings arrived two weeks ago, and we're almost finished unpacking. It’s nice to finally be getting settled in to our house.  Last night, we got started on the last big part of the process that needs to be tackled: The Books.

I've never really considered myself to be an avid reader, to me it's just a part of life.  It's like saying you're an avid breather.  Yes, I like breathing and I manage to do it on a regular basis, even with everything else going on in my life. That's how I've always felt about reading books.

But as I'm unpacking my library, I'm a bit overwhelmed by all the boxes and by trying to decide where to put all the books. And this is after doing a massive weeding out of my collection when we left Bellevue five years ago – I probably got rid of more than two thirds of my books at that time, only keeping the ones I really like or have specific sentimental value, or ones I might want to read again or refer to in the future.

I just did quick count of the books I unpacked last night, and I've read about 300 of them. So how many books have read in total?  Let's assume I've read two books a month since I was 10.  That would be 37 (years) times 12 (months in a year) times two (books per month), equals 888 books. I'm not really sure if this estimate is high or low. And if it’s about right, More...

The Crazy Price of Video Cables

Thursday, 16 September 2010 04:02 by The Lunatic

In years past, when you purchased a VCR or a DVD player, it would come with a video cable so that you could go home, connect your new player to your TV, and immediately start watching.  It was usually a cheap combination audio/video cable – not very sturdy, but it would get the job done.

If you purchase a new Blu-Ray player today, however, you will find that not a single cable is to be found in the box. A high tech Blu-Ray player should really should at least come with an HDMI cable (High Definition Multi-media Interface, the preferred method of connecting any HD video source to a digital television).

 A decent quality cable costs less than fifty cents to make. Are the manufacturers just getting cheap?  Trying to cut corners?

Nope.  They’ve stopped including cables because More...

Categories:   Economics | Miscellaneous | Science
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All You Can Eat for $10.99! But should you?

Thursday, 26 August 2010 20:46 by The Lunatic

I’ve been back in the USA for two weeks now, and I’m still adjusting to a few things.

For the past year, my family has lived in Switzerland – and the whole time we complained bitterly about the high cost of food there.  Buying groceries to eat at home is expensive enough – but going out to a restaurant?  It’s completely outrageous.

The hot lunch program at our kid’s elementary school is a great example of food prices in Switzerland.  The “normal” school lunch was $10 – or you could get a “small lunch” without side dish or dessert for $7.50 (but it did come with a drink).  The third option was a plain hot dog in a bun for $5.50 (no drink included).

To put this in perspective: if we bought More...

Categories:   Social Issues
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