Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Technology Forecast: Cloudy

Clouds are billowing, fuzzy collections of moisture aloft in the atmosphere above earth that roll, tumble, shift and mysteriously change shape and disappear almost from one moment to the next.  They are evanescent, sometimes with a sunny halo surrounding them, almost ethereal, generally harmless and often enormously useful.  They can be breathtakingly beautiful, the subject matter of poetry.  In a poem Stephen Casey wrote of clouds, “Whipped creams,
Or God’s dreams?” Percy Shelley wrote, “From my wings are shaken the dews that waken/The sweet buds every one,…” 

Computer folks who are most at home with zeros and ones, aren’t known for their literary allusions, but this is one case in which they (or probably their marketing people) adopted a metaphor to enormous misleading effect on the public, and more interestingly, business users. You have surely seen the billowy ads on the internet, on television and in magazines referring to “cloud computing.”  You probably thought of something akin to Shelley’s “wings” that are shaken, yielding “dews that awaken.”  Actually, cloud computing is far less romantic.

Cloud Computing is a fanciful abstraction for distributed internet services. Computer networking advertisers would like you to think of “cloud computing” as akin to the supply of electricity and gas, or the provision of telephone, television and postal services. All of these services were originally presented to the users in a simple way that is easy to understand “without the users needing to know how the services are provided.” You can highlight the foregoing phrase with your yellow marker, because the computer marketers are counting on your not understanding how they work. They are counting on the American proclivity for not wanting to be bothered with the details. You should be bothered with the details.

Originally the idea of cloud computing was that there would be hundreds or even thousands of smaller computers distributed throughout the country or even the world, forming a virtual network each anonymously storing some data for other users, each of which could be called upon periodically to perform a computational task, while in the background doing other things.  The notion was to use other people’s computers during their down-time. That was a fantasy that never happened. 

The two most significant components of cloud computing architecture are known as the front end and the back end. The front end is the part seen by the computer user, you. This includes your computer and the applications used to access the cloud via a web browser, like Safari or Internet Explorer. The back end of the cloud computing architecture is the ‘cloud’ itself, comprising various computers, servers and data storage devices. Companies don’t tell you much about the actual “cloud” itself.  They would like you to join in the fantasy about fluffy, ethereal, emotionally uplifting whipped cream. Right?

Here is a photo of the actual locale of Google’s cloud computing facility in Dalles, Oregon consisting of several giant computing centers, each the size of a football field and each requiring massive amounts of cooling for the computers inside. Google found out that a furor erupted over the estimated carbon footprint of a Google search, and scale of associated carbon usage from people are concerned about their energy consumption (see London TImes reference).

This is Apple’s new Maiden, North Carolina's cloud computing center.  It is located in one of the poorest regions, after the NC state legislature passed a bill giving the company tax breaks that could total more than $66 million over the next 10 years. Somehow that’s a lot less romantic than poets’ images of clouds.

Not so fluffy and romantic are they? 

There are some significant problems with cloud computing starting with security.  You have no control over your data.  The main assets in every organization are its data files with valuable client, research, patient or customer information.  A proper security model for cloud computing is not yet developed. Security, privacy and compliancy is still difficult for cloud solutions, especially for public cloud services. There is special concern about backup, restore and disaster recovery. Then there is the problem of risk of data loss due to improper backups or system failures. The Google Oregon site and the Apple North Carolina site are both within high to moderate risk of earthquake zones.  Think Fukashima, Japan. Oh, but that can never happen here, right?

Site inspections and audits by outside agencies are problematic.  Another concern is availability. Constant connectivity is required by most users which may be compromised by network failures.  There are also questions of compliance with various standards. e.g. HIPAA, SOX, PCI, SAS 70.  Since all knowledge about the working of the cloud (e.g. hardware, software, virtualization, deployment) is concentrated at the Cloud provider, it is difficult to get grip on the how to effectively use the Cloud facility. Integration with equipment hosted in other data centers is difficult. For example, printers and local security IT equipment (e.g. access systems) is difficult to integrate. Also (personal) USB devices or smart phones or groupware and email systems are difficult to integrate.

The long and short of it is that Cloud Computing wasn’t what Percy Bysshe Shelley had in mind when he wrote his poem, The Cloud.  Cloud computing is very tangible and is almost entirely about money, your money, and it is not without disadvantages and risk, no matter how much computer marketers may attempt to conjure up soft and fuzzy celestial images with their ads.

Casey, S Cloud Verse, Cloud Appreciation Society.  Accessed 3-30-11

Cloud Tweaks (2010) Video fly-over of Apple’s New Cloud Computing Facility. Feb. 23, 2010

Higgenbotham, S. (2008) 10 Reasons Enterprises Aren't Ready to Trust the Cloud. July 1,2008. GIGAOM;

Leake, J. and Woods, R (2009)  Revealed: the environmental impact of Google searches. The Times: The Sunday Times. Jan. 11, 2009.

Markoff, J and Hansell, T (2006) Hiding in Plain Sight, Google Seeks More Power, New York Times,  June 16, 2006.  Accessed 3-28-11.

Miller, M.(2009) Cloud computing: Pros and Cons for end users. InformIT. Feb. 13, 2009.

Rosencrance, L.  (2006) Top-secret Google data center almost completed. Computer World. 6-16-2006

Shelley, P.B. The Cloud, PoemHunter.Com,  Accessed 3-31-11

Sun Microsystems, Chapter 7 "Distributed Application Architecture". Sun Microsystem. Retrieved 3-211

Vaquero, LM, (2009) A break in the clouds: towards a cloud definition, Newsletter: ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communications Review. 2009: 39 (1) ACM Digitalo Library.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Tax Cheats and Trickle-Down Chicanery

James and Delsey Green*  are parents of two children, a 4 year old girl with autism and one typically developing six year old boy in first grade, who live in Hennepin County in Minnesota.  James is a retail store manager with a bachelor’s degree in business and Delsey in a public school junior high school teacher.  James earns $38,943 per year and Delsy’s salary is $41,503.  James has been moonlighting weekends working on tax returns for a commercial tax preparing company.  They own a $248,600 home in a comfortable residential area of south Minneapolis five blocks from Lake Harriet. Their monthly mortage payment is $915.  Last year they paid about $17,500 in Federal taxes, $6,315 in state taxes, and their property tax was $2,700.  They pay $3700 per year for health insurance.  Because Jeremy has autism, he has many other health expenses, including a monthly co-pay of $600 for his intensive early autism services. Delsey has an IRA for $200 per month for retirement, and James is putting away $150 each in a Special Needs Trust account for Jeremy and Tasha's college account.  That doesn't leave much for living expenses.  They cancelled their plans for a Spring Break vacation in Florida because they couldn’t afford the extra expense and plan to visit their relatives in Chicago for next summer’s driving vacation instead of a planned trip to Scandinavia. It’s tough for the Green's making ends meet.

Last year the General Electric Company grossed $14.2 billion dollars and paid no federal income taxes. The Bank of America had $17.9 billion in earnings parked overseas in tax-free accounts at the end of 2010 and paid no federal taxes.  Returning that amount to the U.S. would have incurred $2.6 billion in taxes. Walmart’s annual income for last year was $258 billion in sales and they paid about $6 billion in US and State taxes or about 2% of income gross income.  Although the corporate tax rate is 35%, most corporations pay 7-8% for their taxes, but many like GE and BoA pay no taxes whatsoever. 

Of federal tax revenues used pay for all domestic “discretionary” expenses, like roads, health care, education, Homeland Security, etc., 81% comes from private individuals through withholding and annual taxes paid, and 12% comes from corporations.  I repeat, 12%.  You pay the rest.  When the greedy profligate managers at AIG, Goldman Sachs, Morgan, Wells Fargo and the other wall-street gamblers nearly brought the American economy to collapse in 2008 by their irresponsible actions, James and Delsey Green and other average Americans bailed them out, admittedly not very willingly, but we did the right thing because there was no practical choice.  When BP's and Haliburton's irresponsibility lead to the largest environmental disaster in US history with the oil spill in the Gulf, we were told that the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund from taxes paid by oil companies would cover $1 billion dollars for the clean up, which sounded pretty good.  But wait a minute, the estimated cost of the cleanup and paying for the losses of all the fisherman and business in the Gulf is estimated to $14 billion. Who's on the hook for that?  It's likely it will be thee and me...  US and Gulf State taxpayers will foot most of the bill for the remainder.  This is sounding like a familiar refrain. Socialism for the rich.  

I think you get the picture.  This has to stop.   Sooner than later. 

The tax give-aways to corporations by Governors of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida should be impeachable offenses.  Acting out of blind ignorance, as one can argue Ronald Reagan did, is one thing. But today there is 30 years of abundant evidence that give-aways to corporations does not yield economic dividends for ordinary people. Those government gifts amount to dereliction of duty to the taxpayers of their states.  It isn’t as though this is really a terrific idea based on hard financial evidence.  In fact the evidence is 180 degrees out of sync with such irresponsible policies. Economists Case and Fair concluded:

The extreme promises of supply-side economics did not materialize. President Reagan argued that because of the effect depicted in the Laffer curve, the government could maintain expenditures, cut tax rates, and balance the budget. This was not the case. Government revenues fell sharply from levels that would have been realized without the tax cuts.” (Karl Case & Ray Fair, Principles of Economics (2007), p. 695)

Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” was based on seriously flawed assumptions and never worked.  In January 1981, when Reagan declared the federal budget to be "out of control," the deficit had reached almost $74 billion, the federal debt $930 billion. Within two years, the deficit was $208 billion, a yearly three-fold increase in only two years! The debt by 1988 totaled $2.6 trillion. In those eight years, the United States moved from being the world's largest international creditor to the largest debtor nation thanks to Ronald Reagan.  Mr. Reagan’s Budget Director David Stockman, himself a very conservative economist, wrote July 11, 2010 “If there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians, the Republican push to extend the unaffordable (George W.) Bush tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing. The nation’s public debt — if honestly reckoned to include municipal bonds and the $7 trillion of new deficits baked into the cake through 2015 — will soon reach $18 trillion.” (Stockman, D,  Four Deformations of the Apocalypse

Giving more tax breaks to the wealthiest individuals and corporations as those Midwestern governors are doing, accomplishes three things: (1) It makes those corporations and individuals who run them enormously wealthier, (2) it shifts a greater percentage of the burden of the country’s and states’ financial responsibilities to individuals least able to afford to pay for them, people like the Greens and (3) it greatly increases the deficit and the national debt, just opposite of what those dogmatists claim to be accomplishing.  Objective evidence shows it does next to nothing to stimulate economic investment leading to jobs. It's all smoke an mirrors. As George Bush Sr. called it, "VooDoo Economics."

Three things need to change.  The Federal Tax code needs to be completely overhauled so corporations and private individuals are deprived of off-shore tax havens, and tax loop holes so they are forced to pay their fair share of US federal and state tax burden. Please don't tell me it's REALLY complicated and will take many years to rectify.  Start fixing it tomorrow if not sooner and complete job done within one year.  Second, the extremists seated in Governor’s offices in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida need to be recalled or unseated in the next election. Their radical cronies in those state legislatures need to go back to short-changing their customers instead of the citizens of their states. Finally, in 2012 every one of those seats won by Tea Party zealots in the US House of Representatives in 2010 need to be vigorously challenged by Democrats or Progressive Republicans. It's time grown ups are in charge of our government. 

See:  Where’s my Trickle  by Paul Krugman

* Fictitious names.  All income and tax figures are based on publically available websites for median salaries by occupation, taxes and TEFRA co-pays paid by income level, family status, state and county.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Prague Spring in America

I understand yesterday, March 20th was the first day of Spring.  I’m really delighted to know, since the snow pile at the end of our cul de sac is only four feet high and spattered with dirt kicked up from the driveway. The grass along our walkway, the part that is no longer covered by dirty snow, is brown with periodic speckles of optimistic pale green. I read that First Lady, Michelle Obama was already planting her vegetable garden at the White House. The University of Minnesota Extension Division says we can start planting our vegetable gardens in 1-2 months, onions and broccoli in April, beans and peas in May, cabbage and eggplant in June.  There is pleasant Spring weather in Benghazi, Libya, 52-66 degrees with occasional sprinkles of gunfire amidst the breeze off the Mediteranian. In a few months the summer temperatures will approach 90 degrees F and Ghaddafi’s air-conditioning may not be working.   

This Spring Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has effectively declared marshal-law in his state, claiming the right to remove elected governments from cities and towns and replace city councils and school boards with his political appointees at will as he chooses. In Indiana, teachers, nurses, rubbish removal workers, janitors, and people who repair roads were called “the privileged elite” by Governor Mitch Daniel.  Privileged elite!  In Wisconsin, where Scott Walker stripped state employees of collective bargaining rights, only 34% approve of his leadership according to the conservative Rassmussen Report.  It is likely at the one-year mark of his appointment he will be recalled by Wisconsin voters.  Eventually justice will prevail and wrongs will be righted.

Perhaps the US will have it’s own Prague Spring, the original was 43 years ago in Czechoslovakia over the repressive Soviet rule. Repression from the Right is no different from the Communists or autocratic dictators. After the Prague Spring of in 1968, renown writer Milan Kundera was dismissed from his teaching post at the Prague Film Academy, and his books were banned and withdrawn from bookshops and libraries. Perhaps that is next in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and other Tea Party bastions. Those who disagree with the repressive policies of their state’s governors and right-wing legislatures will be censured.  Vaclav Havel, architect of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia’s famous remark is apt, "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate."

It is six months until the first day of Fall and we start laying in supplies for the Winter.  In the meantime it is time to tend to our gardens, vegetable and political. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Baby Driver: The Art of Letting Go

By now most people have seen the Subaru television ad known as “Baby Driver,” which turns grown men like me into simpering idiots.  A concerned-looking middle-aged dad is leaning through an open car window on the passenger’s side talking to his amazingly cute little daughter.  As he sees her, she’s about six years old hunkered down behind the steering wheel, which she is unable to see over, and struggling to fasten the seat belt.  She’s about to take the car out for her first solo drive. He’s giving her the typical Dad’s “safety” spiel.  He hands her the keys and says, “I don’t want you driving on the freeway, OK?”  As daughters are prone to do, the cute little girl says in a slightly annoyed voice, “OK daddy!” and she takes she keys.  Cut back to dad, “I want you to call me, but not while you’re driving.”  Cut back to the daughter who is actually 16 or 17 years old and closely resembles what the little girl should look like when she grows up.  She backs out the drive way with a casual wave to Dad.  I must have seen that ad a dozen times and every time I turn into putty. 

Every parent has had that experience whether it's your child's first day of kindergarten, taking the car out for the first drive, or going on a first date, it’s all the same.  We all tend to see the feverish four year old we held in our arms when she was sick, or when he took his first wobbly step, or when she pleaded with you to read her another story before bed.  We stood by the bedroom door peering through the crack at his regular breathing as he slept in the glow of the night light. It was Shakespeare who wrote, “The silence often of pure innocence persuades when speaking fails.”

Parents of children with autism feel the same way as every other parent, but they are even more protective, and for good reason.  When their teenage son with Asperger disorder is going to a party with his typical friends, Mom it terrified something will go wrong, that maybe the other kids will make fun of him, or maybe he’ll have an agoraphobia attack. When their 15-year old daughter with high functioning autism wants to go to a movie with several of her friends from school, trying to act nonchalant, Dad asks whether there any boys going along.  And the daughter says, “It’s OK Daddy,” just like the little girl in the Subaru ad.  Actually it usually is OK, but a surfeit of caution makes sense, especially in the beginning. But eventually we need to remember the remark by psychologist Havlock Ellis, “...the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.”

Thursday, March 3, 2011

An American Tradition: Collective Bargaining

 Efforts by the Republican Governors of Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana to disenfranchise state and municipal employees by eliminating or drastically reducing their right to collective bargaining places them in uncomfortable company. In some “Marxist-Leninst” regimes, such as the former USSR or the People’s Republic of China, striking is illegal and viewed as counter-revolutionary, since the government in such systems claims to represent the working class, it has been argued that unions and strikes were not necessary. Egypt’s new military government has outlawed unions. In Jordan there are major restrictions on freedom of association that unfairly limit workers’ ability to form and join unions, as well as unions’ ability to represent workers. Unions are outlawed in Iraq.  In Iran, union organizers are routinely beaten, arrested and imprisoned. In Saudi Arabia the new Labour Code does not give workers the right to organize, bargain collectively or strike.  In Yemen labor union workers have been arrested and imprisoned.  I wonder if Governors Brown, Kasich and Daniels feel comfortable in this company?

The roots of our country's trade unions extend deep into the early history of America. Several of the Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock in 1620 were working craftsmen. Captain John Smith, who led the ill-fated settlement in 1607 on Virginia's James River, pleaded with his sponsors in London to send him more craftsmen and working people. Guilds, of carpenters and cordwainers, cabinet makers and cobblers made their appearance, often temporary, in various cities along the Atlantic seaboard of colonial America. Workers played a significant role in the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The Continental Congress met in Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia, and there the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

The right to collectively bargain is recognized through international human rights conventions. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights identifies the ability to organize trade unions as a fundamental human right. Item 2(a) of the International labour Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work defines the "freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining" as an essential right of workers

National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). It explicitly grants employees the right to of employees for private companies to collectively bargain and join trade unions. The NLRA was originally enacted by Congress in 1935 under its power to regulate interstate commerce. In 1962, President Kennedy signed an executive order giving public-employee unions the right to collectively bargain with federal government agencies.

During the last session of congress, H.R. 413 and the Senate bills S. 1611 and S. 3991 were introduced which would grant public safety officers collective bargaining rights in states that don't currently provide them.  The legislation gives states wide flexibility to write and administer their own laws, consistent with the following minimum rights:
• to bargain over wages, hours and working conditions; • to use a dispute resolution mechanism, such as fact finding, mediation or arbitration; and • enforcement of contracts through state courts.
The legislation expressly prohibits strikes and lockouts; does not infringe on right-to-work laws; and does not interfere with existing state laws and collective bargaining agreements. The legislation failed due to the Senate’s arcane and convoluted filibuster rules that required a 60-vote supermajority for any legislation to be considered by the entire senate.
Polls show that from 52-70% of Americans oppose stripping public employees of the collective bargaining rights.  Maybe Brown, Kasich and Danies are worried the Democracy movement flourishing in the Middle East will spread to their states next.