Friday, 28 September 2012

Screwing the public, one state bill at a time

If you still think the US is the last best hope for humankind, have a look this weekend at Bill Moyers's PBS documentary on ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.

ALEC is a consortium of US corporations and legislators who work behind closed doors to design “model” bills for US state legislatures. It includes hundreds of corporations, dozens of lobbyist organisations and thinktanks, and about a thousand legislators (mostly Republican). Forty-nine of Arizona's 90 state legislators belong to ALEC.

They design bills to cut the size of government and help corporations. Up to a thousand bills a year. Lisa Graves of the Center for Media Democracy has copies of 850 of such “model” laws from ALEC. “Stand your ground" gun laws that give you legal cover to kill someone. Voter suppression laws. Union-busting laws. Laws to help insurance companies deny health insurance to patients with pre-existing conditions. Laws to to diminish your legal rights if you're killed or injured by a corporation. Laws to block climate change agreements. Laws to dismantle public education in favour of privatised education. Laws to privatise prison administration and facilitate corporate use of prison labour.

And though ALEC not only lobbies but writes legislation, it's registered as a charity, so it pays no taxes and its corporate members get a tax writeoff.

Why does ALEC aim at state legislatures rather than Washington? State Rep. John Nichols says “If you really want to influence the politics of this country, you don’t just give money to presidential campaigns, you don’t just give money to congressional campaign committees. Smart players put their money in the states.”

How much of this hookumsnivvy do you suppose is seriously corrupt? An ALEC prison industry lobbyist tells Moyers “if I can talk you into doing this bill, my clients are going to make a—some money on the bond premiums.”

ALEC didn't write the Florida “stand your ground” law that George Zimmerman used to justify killing Trayvon Martin, unarmed but for a bag of candy and a cup of iced tea. The NRA got that done in 2005. 

What ALEC did was get a model of that law passed in 24 other states.

That kind of publicity isn't good for corporations. Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, Mars, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson now say they've pulled out of ALEC.

But BP, GlaxoSmithKline, Koch Industries, Shell, and hundreds of others remain.
In March 2011, ALEC held one of its boot camps for legislators at the North Carolina Capitol in Raleigh, on how to keep the average Joe from successfully suing a corporation for damages. The day after the boot camp, two state reps presented a draft law, copied almost word for word from the ALEC model, to limit corporate product liability in North Carolina.

What's turning the US into a corporate kleptocracy? A big part of the answer is ALEC.

Monday, 24 September 2012

How does Wall Street screw Main Street?

Let's count yet another way.
In Rolling Stone ( ), Matt Taibbi lays out a recent instance in painful detail.
The city of Birmingham Alabama went bankrupt after being bribed and goaded into buying billions of dollars of toxic swaps. So did a lot of other municipalities.
To deter such fraud, the Dodd-Frank Act defined a simple reform: make financial advisers to municipalities register with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and make them swear to respect the best interests of the taxpayers they're advising.
Sounds basic, but Wall Street would have none of it. If a financial adviser has to swear to represent my town's best interests, how in the world is he going to screw my town?
Wall Street lobbyists went to work. They added exemptions for purveyors of swaps and other such devices to municipalities. Exempt from the new rules would be any broker, dealer, banker or accountant “in any way related to or connected with” a municipal underwriting, and any bank or swap dealer “in any way related to or connected to” the sale of any of a long list of financial products.
So now, if you're underwriting a municipal bond, or providing any of a long list of other financial services, and you're also advising on a toxic swap deal, you're off the hook for advice on swaps that you gave but secretly bet against. 
Accountable for fraudulent advice? Fuggetaboudit.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Romney's 47 Percent

By now, I assume, virtually everyone has seen the YouTube video of Mitt Romney's speech in Boca Raton, Florida, where he offered extemporaneous and all-too-revealing remarks about the American population. But just in case you've been living under a rock, here is a juicy chunk of what he said:

“There are 47 percent who are with him, (Obama) who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. These are people who pay no income tax.” Romney said his job “is not to worry about those people.”

My question to Mr. Romney is this: Why stop with theses people? I can think of a number of (fictional) people who not only paid no taxes, but in fact paid negative taxes. What, you might ask, are negative income taxes? The short answer is that they make more income after paying taxes than before. How? Subsidies, giveaways, bailouts, waivers, and so on. In Canadian and American law, Corporations are fictional persons -- and therefore, one might assume, subject to inclusion within Romney's list of freeloaders. There is one significant difference, however: this elite not only pays no income tax, but receives government handouts far exceeding what the 47% receives. Here are the top 20 of this elite, and their tax rates:

Corporation               2008-10     2008-11

Pepco Holdings              –57.6%     –39.5%
General Electric            –45.3%     –18.9%
PG&E Corp.                  –21.2%     –18.4%
Wisconsin Energy             –4.9%     –13.2%
NiSource                    –16.4%     –13.0%
Paccar                      –32.8%     –13.0%
Integrys Energy Group       –11.3%     –11.6%
CenterPoint Energy          –14.7%     –11.3%
Atmos Energy                –11.6%      –9.6%
Tenet Healthcare            –11.6%      –8.2%
American Electric Power      –9.2%      –6.4%
Boeing                       –1.8%      –5.5%
Ryder System                 –7.3%      –5.4%
Con-way                      –9.1%      –5.4%
Verizon Communications       –5.2%      –3.8%
Duke Energy                  –3.9%      –3.5%
Interpublic Group            –3.3%      –2.5%
NextEra Energy               –2.2%      –2.0%
CMS Energy                   –2.2%      –1.4%
Navistar International       –2.0%      –1.3%

You can see the whole list, taken from a report issued by the Citizens for Tax Justice, issued in November, 2011, here:
Years ago, the New Democratic Party (NDP) used to call these corporations "corporate welfare bums", a tag pretty similar to Romney's characterization of the 47%. Perhaps Mr. Obama ought to respond to Mr. Romney in this way, rather than his empty :remark, "I represent everybody."

Friday, 21 September 2012

Liars at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal

A footnote on the climate emergency and US rightwing disinformation about it.

Fox News and the Wall Street Journal are both owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has rated their coverage of climate science in 2012. Big surprise. 93% of Fox News items on climate science were misleadingly false. 81% of Wall Street Journal opinion page pieces on climate science were misleadingly false.

Here's a sample from Fox News, 23 March 2012: “The green energy stuff—I mean, that’s—that’s all a hoax and a fraud based on another hoax and fraud, global warming.”

If you're smart enough to run a popular TV network or newspaper, there's just one way you can be so wrong so often. Deliberately.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

On-line learning at

Today I just completed a 9-lesson course at, called Javascript Programming for the Web. It consists of 9 lessons, each of which consists of a mix of videos and text to read. Each lesson also provides two versions of the source code, stored in Before and After folders. The source code consists of Javascript, HTML and CSS files. As the lessons progress, jQuery,js is added to the mix, and a few of its most powerful functions are called upon.

That's the only course I've taken at, but I'm sure it was the best on-line course I've ever taken anywhere. The instructor, Kevin Yank, has a wonderful manner that is informative without a trace of condescension, and he even manages to squeeze in a little humor here and there.

The course begins with the assumption that you know something about HTML and CSS, but little or nothing about Javascript. Starting from simple examples illustrating Javascript's data types, Mr. Yank walks the student through working with HTML and CSS elements by ID, ClassName, and TagName, working with the Document Object Model (DOM), event handlers and their more sophisticated cousins, event listeners, customized tooltips, accordion-style tables (whose nodes expand and collapse like a treeview), and ultimately a complex example illustrating animation techniques.

In summary, I was very impressed with the course, and plan to take more from Learnable. If the other material is as good as this course, it will be well worth the investment -- which, I should point out, is surprisingly inexpensive: a monthly subscription is only $17, and gets you access to all the courses you can handle; if you subscribe for a year, you get a discount.

Any interested readers are invited to browse the course curriculum at

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A political gaffe is a politician accidentally telling the truth

Joke or insight? Whichever it is, it came from US political journalist Michael Kinsley.

Yes, Mitt Romney meant to tell his millionaire donors the truth about his view of the great unwashed US public.

Many of his donors, and other rich people like them, hold views very like Romney's. The rich deserve to be rich, the poor deserve to be poor. Most of the poor are poor because they have character flaws. They won't take responsibility. They mooch off government. They whine about not being able to afford health care. They don't pay taxes.

Is it true that Obama voters are mostly those unwashed, irresponsible moochers? No, it's a lie. The highest concentrations of welfare dependency in the US tend to occur in states that vote Republican!

And Republican poohbahs know it. They have to, so they can design misleading and effective advertising for those states.

As Paul Krugman reminds us, Orwell's Inner Party isn't supposed to get bamboozled by the Prolefeed. That's happened, and it's a mistake, but it isn't the gaffe.

Nor was the gaffe Romney parrotting the Prolefeed about the great unwashed to his donors. They mostly believe this nonsense too.

The gaffe was letting the great unwashed see the tape.

Will his gaffe bring about his defeat? Not likely. A lot of US political discourse is driven by the people and institutions who pay for it. Mainly, that's super-rich people and corporations, aka the 1%. In the next week or two you're going to hear so many US commentators express regret that Romney misspoke so insensitively.

How in the world do rightwing US politicians, who are just about wholly controlled by super-rich patrons and their lobbyists, persuade up to half the US population that they're actually interested in helping the poor get on better?

By lying. By pretending they don't hold the views we hear Romney expressing so enthusiastically.

How do they persuade half the US population that wealth trickles down from the top, that a minimum wage and good free education and universal health care and prosecution of Wall Street crooks would be bad for the middle and lower classes?

By repeating those lies over and over and over, by making it a point of honour to believe that those lies are red-blooded-true-American star-spangled truths, whereas the actual truth (which has a well-known liberal bias) is just socialist unAmerican mooching, or treason, or both.

To get a population to believe terrible lies, you just have to repeat the lies over and over. The more media you own, the easier that gets. Since the 1960s, US super-rich have gained control of most US media.

So where I live, in the Deep South, 92% of “white” people voted for McCain in 2008. Where I live, people with graduate degrees in 2008 seriously entertained the proposal that Obama was “the antichrist”. Where I live, many “white” people seriously think the NAACP are a bunch of carbetbagging troublemakers and agitators, maybe communist too.

I'm not making this up. You can't exaggerate how much pure craziness has been sown in the US population by rightwing lies sent out over these airwaves in the last fifty years.

In the country I come from, Canada, we have the idea that one good way to protect free speech is to penalise media for deliberately lying. When Fox News found that out about Canada, they withdrew their application for TV licences.

Fox News thrives in the US.

Not to be dramatic, but in the US, effective democracy looks mostly done for.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

9/11 Redux

On this saddest anniversary, I wish to hoist a glass of wine in memory of those who died on this date. I didn't know any of them, but I raise my glass in their honour.


Saturday, 8 September 2012

Despicable Phrases

As I write this, I'm listening to CBC radio's program Question Period, a weekly program about what's happened in the past week with regard to politics, both federal and provincial. This past week there occurred two or perhaps three significant events: the election in Quebec, which saw the ouster of the Liberal party and its replacement by the Parti Quebecois, and the announcement of Liberal premier Mr. Charest of his departure; the second and third were two by-elections in Ontario, which promised or threatened to give the Ontario Liberals a majority, but only if that party won both seats, which didn't happen.

These specifics are not the point of this missive. I listened to several politicians and "experts" being interviewed, and in response to a question, three of them began their reply with "That's a good question." My question would be, "As opposed to what?" Perhaps "There are no stupid questions, just stupid people," which statement I got from The Simpsons.

To help get your creative juices or memory flowing, here are a couple more despicable phrases:

Rate of Speed, as in "The car was travelling at a high rate of speed." Idiots! Speed is a rate! It's the same as saying "a high rate of rate" or "a high speed of speed". Why not just say "travelling at high speed?" How hard is that?

 I want to declare war on despised phrases, and offer "That's a good question" as my first candidate. Given the Republican and Democratic conventions that have just happened, and the upcoming fight for the presidency of the USA, I invite readers to submit despised phrases for inclusion on this list.

"May I ask you a question?" You just did, you moron!

Sadly, I've noticed increasing use of "Also, too," in both general and media discourse. Shades of the Department of Redundancy Department.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Hiring Skilled Developers

This is a portion of a conversation between two of my cherished internet friends and fellow travellers, both gifted programmers. I thought that it might be interesting to the more general populace, rather than just the narrow world of Access developers. So here it is, in chronological order. I should emphasize that I deem both Martin and John most esteemed and respected colleagues, I've met John only once, but liked him immensely. I've never met Martin in the physical universe, but we have been communicating for several years, and I even got a credit in one of his books.

From: jwcolby

Sent: 04/09/2012 18:54
To: Access Developers discussion and problem solving
Subject: [AccessD] Access skills testing

Does anyone have anything on testing MS Access skills?

One of my clients wants to see what his applicants know.

John W. Colby
Colby ConsultingOn Tue, Sep 4, 2012 at 2:11 PM, Martin Reid <> wrote:
They have a Colby, why do they need anything else?


Sent from my Windows Phone

That's a moving target if ever I've seen one. Consider 2003 v. 2007-10. However, it's true that at least some of the knowledge of old commands is portable. But I sense another problem here, and that would be that this question is asked in the absence of app-requirements, which I don't think is fair either to the applicants or to the client. 

Instead I might suggest that a description of the app-requirements might first be formulated, and then the questions to ask might just "fall out" of the requirements. For example, is the BE to be SQL Server or MDB or Accdb? That question alone matters hugely, and influences all subsequent questions, on that path at least. Then there would be the issue of user-quantity: 100 users is significantly different than 10. Another consideration is the quantity of locations: if it's only one, things become much simpler. If it's several, then other skills are required, such as the ability to set up a Terminal Services server and establish the connections to same. After that I would want to know the demands involve Office Automation, such as populating Excel spreadsheets or Word documents from data inhaled from the database, and whether such documents require translation to Acrobat files to be automatically emailed to Outlook recipients or perhaps some other email client.

IMO, without answers to these questions, I could not begin to devise a set of test questions to determine whether candidate A or B or C would be a good fit. 

And there are several more questions, having more to do with the client's environment that the actual skill set. Does everyone wear ties, or shorts and tees? Are there rigid restrictions on start-and-stop time, or is the developer free to work her own hours? Are time zones involved (which might happen if the client does business in Asia)? How much technology-transfer is considered part of the gig (which means, do I not only have to write the app but also provide sufficient instruction for the in-house people to be able to perform maintenance)?

I can probably come up with a few dozen more questions, but the bottom line is, before we can proceed we need to understand the client's opinion about what defines a successful hire, and that means that we need to know the requirements of the app itself. Without this information, you and I and the client are in the dark, asking abstract questions such as "Do you know how to open the same form thrice?" or perhaps, "Can you write a class that abstracts the details of an argument to the OpenForm method", which questions, I daresay, do not begin to approach the immediate problems at hand. If there is no possibility in the given app to be written that a user will ever open the same form twice, why ask the question? On the other hand, if a given report must be able to accept a date-scope and/or a client scope, then that question is definitely worth asking: "How would you suggest that we accomplish this, and secondly, will your solution be portable from app to app?" In this case, that's how I would phrase the question.

There's one more thing that I feel that I should toss into this discussion: although I started out in dBASE-II and then Fox and then Access and then Oracle and then SQL Server, one thing I learned way back when is that the user should NEVER NEVER NEVER have access to the native tables. No No No! (If I'm sounding like Adele, I can live with that!) Nobody but God, which means the DBA, should be able to access a table, and if you have not accepted that fundamental truth, then go back to school and learn why. I learned from Dr. E.F. Cood and Fabian Pascal and Michale Stonebreaker, and also a few set-theory mathematicians, and after them, a few of the NoSQL people. Life goes on, and so does exploration of where this is going to get us, in the big picture. I admit that considering these giant brains, I am a follower, not a leader, But I also say that I walk into these arguments without baggage. I am looking for two things: correctness and speed. That's all I have to say about my decisions in this respect: at any given moment, I could be wrong and chosen the wrong horse. I accept that. But I have no favourite horses in this particular Kentucky Derby. I might have a favourite and might bet an unhealthy amount of loot on that gorgeous horse, but that doesn't mean that if another horse wins, I shall call the raced fixed. That's not where I go with this stuff. I have my emotional favourites -- of course I do! But that doesn't mean that I reject Evidence. Above all, I try to be objective in these matters, and if the evidence turns against me, I shall most happy to declare that I was mistaken. I am not out to win arguments, in the face of evidence. I am most willing to be proved incorrect. That is my nature.

On Tue, Sep 4, 2012 at 2:11 PM, Martin Reid <> wrote:
They have a Colby, why do they need anything else?


Sent from my Windows Phone
From: jwcolby
Sent: 04/09/2012 18:54
To: Access Developers discussion and problem solving
Subject: [AccessD] Access skills testing

Does anyone have anything on testing MS Access skills?

One of my clients wants to see what his applicants know.

John W. Colby
Colby Consulting

Reality is what refuses to go away
when you do not believe in it

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Prediction is difficult, especially of the future.
  -- Niels Bohr

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Global warming's terrifying new math

Bill McKibben's "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" ( ) uses a lotta words. Here's a summary ...

The science ...

1. We now have a global average of 0.8°C of human-induced warming. Food crops are failing because of it. Arctic summer ice is the thinnest on record. Extreme weather is increasing in frequency & severity. Some small island nations are facing disappearance soon.

2. To avoid a worse climate disaster affecting the entire planet, we need to keep carbon-induced warming below 2°C. The 0.8°C we 've done so far is 40% of that. Another 0.8°C is baked in. So we're 80% of the way to huge global climate disaster.

3. If we pour about 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere by 2050, we'll cause disaster with 2°C of warming. We're dumping about 32 gigatons this year. It's going up about 3% a year. At this rate we'll blow through 565 in 2028.

4. Fossil fuel companies have the equivalent of 2,795 gigatons of carbon (or more) in the ground, and they're doing their best to get it extracted, sold and burned. That's enough carbon to raise the global temperature about 6°C, 11°F.

The economics & politics ...

1. The 32 gigatons of carbon we and our fossil fuel pushers & muels dump in the air every year is garbage. Unless we start paying deterrent fees for dumping this garbage, a carbon price or tax, we all fry. We don't want to pay it. We're happy to let the fossil fuel corps block it.

2. From #3 and #4 above, to avoid blowing past 2°C of warming we need to ensure that the fossil fuel companies leave 80% of those reserves in the ground.

3. The only way to do this is to start treating our fossil fuel pushers & mules as the criminal enemy.

Is there an alternative?

P.S. See George Monbiot's 27 Aug piece ( on the same theme.