January 18, 2021

#Newnormal: Will Workers or Employers Pocket the Profit from #WFH Productivity?

It’s not a zero-sum game.

A Fortune newsletter by Aaron Pressman quoted my post on the 50 hour family work week and then asked: “Trillion dollar question: Will workers share in the savings from remote work?”

His skepticism is illustrated with a story. Last week Fortune published a commentary by Drew Houston, the cofounder and CEO of Dropbox. Dropbox, in case you missed it, is one of the services which has helped to make work from home (WfH) practical. Not surprisingly, Drew is a WfH fan:

“We’ve gone through a one-way door. The shift to distributed work is the biggest transformation to knowledge work since the term was invented in 1959. Its impact will be comparable to the rise of mobile and the cloud. Distributed work will unlock the potential of these technologies in the same way the highway system unlocked the potential of cars and ultimately reconfigured modern life.”

Pressman comments:

“Ironically, the day after we ran Houston’s essay, Houston’s company executed one of the old-fashioned, less desirable ways to become more productive: It laid off 315 people, or more than 10% of its workforce. ‘Our Virtual First policy means we require fewer resources to support our in-office environment, so we’re scaling back that investment and redeploying those resources,’ Houston wrote in a memo to employees.”

If the 315 people were engaged solely in supporting the office infrastructure, then this layoff doesn’t mean that Dropbox is doing the layoff because the people who work at home are more productive. This layoff is like terminating the office lease. Drew, himself, is somewhat ambiguous. In the same memo to employees, he says that their focus on “Virtual First” (which I think is more a description of their product line than a description of the way they work) requires them to defund initiatives which don’t directly add to this initiative.

Regardless of exactly why Dropbox had its layoff, who will profit from the increased productivity is still a trillion-dollar question. We can pick away at it:

These gains go to the employee initially.

  • The dollars and time spent commuting.
  • At least some of the cost of daycare.
  • The cost in space/and or dollars of having to live close to work.
  • Eating lunch out.
  • Flexibility
  • Dressing below the waist.

And these to the employer.

  • The cost of owning or renting office space.
  • The cost of people devoted to maintenance of the office space (see Dropbox above).
  • Any subsidy including parking spaces supporting commuting.
  • The need to provide free coffee etc.

The savings above are big so will make both WfH employees and employers wealthier.

The elephant in the converted spare bedroom is who gets the productivity savings.

Pressman quotes a study Dropbox commissioned at The Economist which concluded that workers lose 28% of their productivity because of distractions and says this agrees with my estimate that 25 hours at home is equivalent to a 9-5 day at the office (nit, he somewhat misinterpreted the study). The trillion dollars of productivity he writes about is this lost 28% in the US.

I claimed that workers will benefit by either working less or earning more. Pressman cites the layoff at Dropbox as an indication that employers will simply expect more from each employee and lay off those who are not working very well from home. If it happens as Pressman suspects, then employees will still work 35 or 40 hours even though they’re home; they’ll accomplish more; the employer will be more profitable.

The new normal will differ industry be industry depending both on how easy it is to measure productivity in an industry and the balance between jobs to fill and employees available to fill them. Since physical proximity to the office is not required, employers get to pick from a nationwide (or worldwide!) pool of applicants. On the other hand, workers can apply for jobs at companies anywhere. This is globalization without green cards.

WfH is not a zero-sum game. Both workers and employers benefit. The environment benefits from less commuting.  Housing affordability benefits from less concentration. Children will see their parents more. But the benefits will be uneven and we must be more sensitive to a growing economic divide than we were during round one of globalization.

See also:

#Newnormal: The 50 Hour Family Work Week

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

January 13, 2021

#Newnormal: Mass Transit

Rush hours are history.

Covid has given mass transit systems an opportunity to reinvent themselves to serve the new normal. This opportunity is mandatory. If they don’t reinvent, they will wither away; downtown districts will suffer and an opportunity to make the huge pandemic drop in energy use permanent will be squandered.

Mass transit infrastructure – like many utilities and like highways – has always been designed for huge twice daily peaks. The peaks determine how much track is needed; how many tunnels; how many busses, light rail, and subway cars. For almost twenty hours each day, much of that capacity is idle. In rush hour in many cities the vehicles are full in one direction and nearly empty in the other. The time between the beginning of the morning peak and end of the evening peak means that two shifts of workers must be hired even though there isn’t sixteen hours of work for them to do.

That was then; this now.

The successful new normal transit system has more frequent service throughout the day than it used to and much, much less rush hour capacity.

Many people are going to continue to work exclusively from home. Others will come into “the office” or into town for meetings some of the time. The idea of an office as a place where everybody needs to be 9-5 is history. Of course there will still be many people whose jobs require them to work away from home; but their hours don’t have to be divided into the traditional three shifts. High frequency transit service throughout the day both enables flexible hours and encourages using mass transit instead of cars even when flexibility is needed.

The successful new normal transit system provides door-to-door service. If I have to get into my car, drive to a terminal, pay to park, leave my car idle for the day, walk a very long distance or take an expensive taxi when I get near work, and then reverse the process at the end of the day, I’m just going to take my car into the city. Rush hour won’t be a problem for cars, either, in the new normal. Algorithms like those used by Uber make it possible to dispatch small transit vehicles like a ride-share service at the ends of the transit network. Transit systems can also work with existing ride-sharing service. The objective is to make it so convenient to take transit for a partial WFH family that two cars aren’t necessary. Autonomous vehicles will have a big role to play here in the future but not significant for a couple of years.

The successful new normal transit system has smaller vehicles.

Smaller vehicles allow more frequent service and even on demand service; they also reduce energy costs. The hulking big busses were necessary for rush hour service and used to run three-quarters empty the rest of the time.

The successful new normal transit system depends on riders feeling secure.

Not much a transit system can do about hastening vaccination, but they do depend on it. One more reason why public policy may have to require vaccination. New vehicles will have to provide better air quality; frequent cleaning of vehicles, which most transit systems have already initiated, makes them more attractive but doesn’t do much to eliminate spread of airborne Covid. Crime is up in major city transit systems as well as in the cities themselves.  Smaller vehicles will help with transit crime, but law enforcement is also required. During the pandemic I hear there are more homeless people living or camping in busses and subway cars. The problems of the homeless must be addressed but allowing them to live in transit vehicles will help keep those vehicles empty of other riders.

The successful new normal transit system cancels capital plans based on the way things used to be.

All those new vehicles planned or on order: cancel them if you can. Without the need to service rush hours, there are already too many vehicles and too much outstanding debt. Smaller vehicles will be what’s needed. The new tunnel; the expanded track: probably not needed any more. Plan for frequency; plan for end-to-end service; plan for agility; plan for efficient fuel use.

The successful new normal transit system helps the new normal downtown develop.

There are already less cars going to city centers this year than last. If a reinvented transit system can help assure that a flood of cars doesn’t come back, cities can create more open space for walking and biking. City rents are plummeting. Office buildings will be repurposed as residential keeping downward pressure on rents and making the city affordable for those who want to live there. Ironically, when they must make a visit to an office or a client, city dwellers may be going to the burbs. But remember we now have frequent transit service with good connections at both ends. The transit service will benefit from having riders going in both directions at all times of day. The urbanites won’t need cars.

The successful new normal transit system will allow us to continue energy use and emission at the low levels the pandemic forced us to without hindering economic recovery. The best is yet to come.

See also:

#Newnormal: The 50 Hour Family Work Week

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

Forward to a New Normal

January 10, 2021

Pelosi Must Get Impeachment to the Senate Now

Republicans should demand no less.

According to a front-page story in The New York Times, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t plan a vote of impeachment until Tuesday and then is considering NOT sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate until after Trump is already out of office.  

Pelosi correctly called Trump “deranged, unhinged, dangerous”. How can she possibly justify any delay in getting him out of office? Pelosi contacted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about her concern that Trump holds the codes for a nuclear strike. That call may have been improper and her publicizing it was dubious; but, given her justified concern, how can she delay giving the Senate the opportunity to remove him? This is scarcely a time for politics as usual.

Those Republicans in the House who care more for country than party should be announcing their support for the articles of impeachment and pressing for an immediate vote. How could the Speaker resist that? Senate Republicans can’t properly commit to voting for removal from office yet since they  will be serving as a court which must rule on the indictment bought by the House, but they can certainly make clear they are open to removing him ASAP and don’t want any claims of procedural delay by the outgoing Majority Leader to deny them a chance to vote.

In the past Senators have been reluctant to overturn the results of an election; they should be. But removing Trump after he has already been fired by the electorate doesn’t have that problem. No President in our history has ever been removed from office by the Senate. No one has earned that distinction more than Trump.

If impeachment is voted by the House (tomorrow – Monday - would be a good time) and if enough Republican Senators make clear that they will vote to remove him, there is some possibility that he will resign as Nixon did. That would spare him the ignominy of being removed, which is a shame. However, the country’s main concern must be getting him the hell out of there before he can do any further harm.

There couldn’t be a better time to write your Congress person and Senators regardless of whether they’re Democrats or Republicans. They should support immediate impeachment in the House; immediate forwarding to the Senate; and a fast vote there. The time for grandstanding is long past; the country needs Trump out of the White House.

See also:

Trump Should be Impeached Now

January 07, 2021

Trump Should be Impeached Now

Congress should do its job.

It is dangerous to leave Trump in office a moment longer than necessary. His behavior must be censored, and part of an impeachment can be a ban on his holding office in the future.

Minority Leader Schumer (he’s still minority leader until Inauguration) and Speaker Pelosi say they will consider impeachment if the Trump’s cabinet doesn’t act to remove him as “incapacitated” under the 25th Amendment. Waiting for that to happen is a bad idea. Congress was attacked. Congress should act. Republicans have a shot at redemption by cooperating in a swift process.

During a time of constitutional crises, it is important to follow the Constitution closely. The 25th amendment was passed to deal with an “incapacitated” President. Trump has too much capacity for further harm. He should be removed because he has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors”  - exactly what impeachment was meant to deal with. It would be bad precedent to have the 25th amendment used as a punishment or for what could be taken as a political purpose. Impeachment is appropriate. Two simple counts would be fine: attempting to induce election fraud as demonstrated in his phone call with the Georgia Secretary of State and fomenting insurrection in his instructions to his supporters.

If Trump attempts something truly crazy during the impeachment process, the cabinet should be prepared to use the 25th amendment as a backstop.

Part of the longer-term constitutional problem we face is that Congress prefers to avoid action. Why get yourself pinned down by a vote when you can fall back on presidential orders, court rulings, or reams of regulation by unelected bureaucrats? Why go through impeachment if you can get the cabinet to do your job?

It will a monstrous defeat for all of us if Congress evades using the self-defense weapon given to it in the Constitution precisely for situations when the co-equal branch is under attack.

BTW, I voted for Trump in 2016 after opposing him in the primaries. Thought he was the lesser of two evils. That’s something I have to live with.

January 06, 2021

#Newnormal: The 50 Hour Family Work Week

Work from home (#WFH) has the potential to restore better family life for some without reducing net income. With two parents working a total of 50 hours at home, they’ll be able both to care for their kids and be as productive as they were when nominally working 80 combined hours in the office and commuting to boot. They won’t be materially worse off either. Both parents can have careers. Even single parents will benefit from a shorter WFH week, although certainly not as much.

Why do I think 25 hours/ week is the equivalent of a 50-hour week (counting commuting)?

  • Given a nine-to five schedule with an hour for lunch, the 40 hour work week was only 35 to begin with.
  • As an ex-CEO, I think that at least ten hours of each workweek go to socialization, surfing the internet, checking with the spouse or checking up on the children, chatting on smartphones etc. (Mary thinks only five).
  • Meetings and travel to meetings waste a huge amount of time and money. One reason that Zooming appears not to have reduced productivity is that many of the meetings weren’t productive to begin with.
  • Office space and often parking are expenses to the employer but they are not income to the worker. If office space and all its attendant costs can be drastically reduced, employers can afford to pay more dollars in salary for the same productivity.
  • Commuting expense including perhaps even the second car, daycare, clothing and dry-cleaning bills, and paid before and after school activities whose purpose is to supervise school age kids are all expenses which go away when parents can work from home. Even if the WFH employee has less gross taxable income, he or she will have more cash at the end of each month.

It’s a slam dunk even if Mary is right! BTW, employers will benefit in many ways if they learn to manage by actual productivity rather than by time in the office. Subject for another blog another day.

The social benefits of two parents who can participate in child-rearing are enormous. Both still get to have careers. Much less childcare needs to be outsourced. There will be more time to meet with teachers and make sure they are doing their job. It will be possible to shoo children out to play rather than ferry them to playdates when there are parents at home and more parents with eyes on the street. Empty homes are dangerous to kids, especially adolescents. Schools won’t have to try to take over so many parental teaching chores; and parents can help with homework more.

It can be better than the Leave it to Beaver days with its stereotypes of the homemaker and the breadwinner. If Dad works from home, it’ll be hard to say I can’t take kiddo to the doctor for his Covid shot or help with the birthday party.  Some families may still choose to have one breadwinner working 50 hours; but, if that 50-hour week is at home, there will be plenty of income for the whole family. People who want more money, particularly those without children, will be able to work two jobs in 50 hours or at least deliver 50 hours equivalent of productivity to their employers and make gobs of money.

Single parents will still have a very tough job. They may still need daycare when working from home if they have preschool children but will be better able to match working hours with the time children are home from school.

A danger in this utopian WFH future is that it widens the gap between those who can work from home and those who can’t – a category which includes most essential workers. There must be higher hourly wages for those who must work away from home. I believe that their workweek will eventually become 25 hours as part of the new normal; more on that in another post.

If COVID gets us off the too-many-hours-wasted-away-from home-treadmill, it will at least have a silver lining.

See also:

#Newnormal: Mass Transit

#Newnormal: Will Workers or Employers Pocket the Profit from #WFH Productivity?

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

Forward to a New Normal

January 04, 2021

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

Changes family life, housing, daycare, climate, and infrastructure needs.

Not everyone can work from home (WFH), of course. But the huge shift to WFH will change life for everyone, even the essential many who still need to commute to their jobs and will be paid more for the extra effort. As new legislatures convene in the new year, they will try to spend billions to restore the old normal and solve problems which WFH is solving for us. We can’t let them do that. There will be new problems of the new normal which do need solutions.

The long-term effects of WFH are:

  • Obviously fuel usage and associated emissions are way down. Gasoline sales are down 13% from 2019 to 2020 according to the US Energy Information Administration. That’s like taking one of eight cars off the road.
  • The combination of WFH and more flexible hours means less rush-hour congestion. Although we have a huge backlog of repair projects for existing roads, bridges, rails, and airports, increasing rush-hour capacity should be on hold. I would’ve sworn the NY metro area needed a third train tunnel from NY to NJ. Maybe it doesn’t. If the Biden Administration passes a huge infrastructure bill, it must be for the priority list of the new normal including universal high-speed broadband.
  • Less rush-hour congestion means that most mass transit systems have more busses, light transit vehicles, and subway cars than they need since they had to have fleets capable of handling rush hour. As people lose their fear of contagion, mass transit can come back by providing better schedules around the clock with the workforce and capacity it already has. Time to cancel orders for the capacity that was needed yesterday.
  • A massive repurposing of real estate will happen. When I commuted to work, I had a house, an office, and frequent hotel rooms I occupied on business trips while both my home and office were vacant. If I were mainly working from homing and Zooming to meetings, many of those offices and hotel rooms would no longer needed. This dislocation can either result in hollowed out downtowns or, with some creativity. the buildings can be repurposed as residences. We’ve seen the start of this during the pandemic with hotels converted to homeless shelters. Government can hurt this effort by bailing out the owners of buildings no longer needed for their original purpose or can help with permissive rezoning to make sure repurposing can happen and there is some market for the stranded assets.
  • Daycare at an affordable price was an Achilles’ heel of our all-parents-working economy. Daycare centers now have vacancies! If parents are working from home, the time they used to spend commuting and communing around the office coffee machine can be used to keep an eye on pre-school kids without loss of productivity. Yes, I know which gender ends up with most of the keeping-an-eye-on chores in most households; but us Dads’ll have less of an excuse when we’re around as much as Mom is. Very seriously, this is a help but not a solution for single working parents. Parents who must still commute to work (most essential workers) will benefit from more availability of daycare. They must be paid more to make daycare and their other commuting expenses affordable. Government should not subsidize no-longer needed daycare slots; that will only hurt the daycare providers who have enough business to prosper.
  • For at least the intermediate term, the world will be way ahead of UN targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction. Not only are people driving less, there will be much less new construction since new rush-hour capacity is no longer needed and because many people will no longer be occupying a home, an office, and many business hotel rooms. Construction, particularly the production of concrete, releases huge amounts of GHGs. Leisure travel will probably come back; business travel probably not very much. Aviation fuel usage will decline. Even under pessimistic scenarios, the doomsday clock has been set back far enough so that longer-term solutions and mitigations for climate change can be more effective at less cost than the many subsidies and mandates of the Green New Deal.

This is a time of enormous challenge and opportunity. We’ll blow it if we try to put the old normal back together again or persist in solving yesterdays’ problems. We’ll certainly blow it if we persist in trying to preserve asset values for the wealthy. Much of what passes for “bipartisan” pandemic relief already looks more like wealthfare than help for those who need it.

There is an automatic WFH bonus for the families who now don’t have to spend time and money paying the expenses of commuting; we will not be able to make minimum wage apply to them; they will be measured by productivity. We need a much higher minimum wage for those commuting workers who’ve just shown how essential they are and who work where hours can be measured. The extra cost of higher wages to essential workers will be a reasonable expense to us in the WFH crowd when we use their services directly and indirectly.

See also:

If There Were No Welfare, There’d be No Need for a Minimum Wage

Celebrate Labor Day and Essential Workers by Substantially Raising Minimum Wage

Forward to a New Normal

#Newnormal: Mass Transit

January 01, 2021

Grandson Jack's Good Riddance to 2020

Jack2020


December 28, 2020

UVMMC Ransom Attack Postmortem

Preparing for next time.

First, kudos to the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) for not giving any serious consideration to paying ransom, as reported in VTDigger. Even if they had trusted the hackers to unlock the files and remove all malware, each ransom paid guarantees more attacks on someone else. The hackers are in it for the money.

Second, more kudos to the staff of the hospital system who soldiered on without access to key information as round two of the virus pandemic reared its ugly head. They worked very hard to protect their patients from both dangers.

Third, though, based on public information, the hospital should have planned better for recovery from an attack like this one. They had to wipe 5000 computers clean and put them back in service before they could use their applications again. Even a month later and with the help of the National Guard and a private security firm, the hospital had not restored full functionality and estimated the cost for each day the systems were down at a million and a half dollars NOT counting the toll on the staff and the dangers to patients.

Planning for a disaster means having a plan which works even if the original computers have been hacked, burned, or flooded out of existence! Apparently UVMMC did not have such a plan.

Hospital leadership says attacks like this are inevitable; they’re right. They cite an arms race between hackers and defenders in which the good guys sometimes lose. True also. But, if you know there is a significant chance that you are going to lose access to all your servers and laptops, then you must make sure that you can restore service without those laptops and servers. The plan must be made and rehearsed in advance of the disaster. Even the “unsinkable” Titanic had lifeboats.

According to the hospital, 1300 of the infected computers were servers – more on them in a minute – leaving 3700 infected laptop and desktop machines. Even assuming these cost an average of $3000/each (a lot) and assuming that all of them had to be replaced for service to resume, buying all new laptop and desktop machines would have cost only about $10 million – less than seven days of outage. Buying new computers quickly – starting with cheap ones to get back up and running – as well as a rehearsed protocol for loading all needed software onto them from somewhere other than the infected servers must be part of a disaster recovery plan. Replacing the desktop and laptop machines is actually the easy part of the recovery.

The hard part is doing without the servers which have been infected. Two parts to this:

  1. Getting access to the data. Presumably UVMMC transmits a copy of its data to a location which is both physically offsite and is not part of the hospital network. I would be very surprised if they weren’t doing this. Even if the hackers locked up the onsite data, they shouldn’t have had any access to offsite data.
  2. Putting the data back on servers which are not infected. As UVMMC saw, you cannot assume that your old servers will be available. Unlike the desktops and laptops, it’s not practical to buy all new servers on a moments notice. However, the advent of cloud computing means that you can rent the capacity of thousands of servers from providers like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, or IBM with just minutes of notice and without a standby fee. You pay for and use these only until your old servers are back. Rent stops as soon as you can turn them off.

However, turning up a thousand servers in a cloud, loading them with your applications, restoring backup data to them, and putting them in use in place of your own compromised servers only works if the process has been carefully planned and practiced. Even for installations larger than UVMMC, recovery should take hours, not days or weeks – if it’s been practiced. Fatalities were high in the Titanic disaster because the crew and passengers had not had proper lifeboat drill.

I’m not writing this to be critical of UVMMC; I owe the hospital my life for their medical skill. I’m writing in hope of encouraging those who are responsible for critical IT systems in an age when attacks are inevitable to make sure that, even if there is no fool proof way to prevent all attacks, there is always a quick recovery path which does not require regaining use of the compromised computers.

See also:

Vaccine for the Hacker Attack Epidemic

Protecting an Enterprise from Cyber Catastrophe

December 21, 2020

Lots of Good News

Don’t let the media grinches steal it.

Initial day of Vaccination in the USA Highly Successful” would have been an accurate headline last Tuesday. “Predicted Side Effects Controlled” might have been a good subhead

2 Alaska Health Workers Got Emergency Treatment After Receiving Pfizer’s Vaccine” was the actual headline in the online New York Times. The subhead starts “One of the workers, who did not have a history of allergies, remained in the hospital on Wednesday night…” You don’t know from the headlines that both people are fine and say they’d take the vaccine again. Even the full article fails to mention that the risk of an anaphylactic reaction after an immunization is low but well-publicized. You have to read almost to the end to find this paragraph:

“Dr. Paul A. Offit, a vaccine expert and member of an outside advisory panel that recommended the Food and Drug Administration authorize the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use, said the appropriate precautions are already in place. For instance, he said, the requirement that recipients remain in place for 15 minutes after getting the vaccine helped ensure the woman was quickly treated.”

The Washington Post and most TV networks gave the story about the same treatment as the NYT. Yes, we need to know that there is some small risk associated with the vaccine although that isn’t headline-worthy news since it was already well publicized. But why can’t the story be told in the context of the very good news? At some point someone will die after being vaccinated; of course the death will and should be investigated. Will major news media run scare stories without emphasizing the hundreds of thousands of lives the vaccines will save in the US? Will the scare stories discourage people from being vaccinated?

Another example:

My headline this weekend would have been “First Week of Vaccine Distribution Successful Despite Major Snowstorm” subhead “Moderna Approval Means Millions More Doses than Planned in Weeks Ahead.” Instead traditional media concentrated on a glitch which may mean that slightly less Pfizer vaccine is available next week than originally forecast although all involved say that even this shortfall will be made up by the end of the year.

Why the negativity? Of course bad news sells more papers and draws more clicks than good news. I think there’s also leftover Trump Derangement Syndrome in traditional media even though he’s almost old news now (can’t be soon enough). Papers like the NYT and WaPo felt they had a duty to make sure Trump wasn’t reelected. Any good news which may have been attributed to him would have been counterproductive to their self-assigned mission. Hopefully they’ll take a deep breath, relax, and go back to just reporting the news so that we can decide for ourselves who deserves blame and credit.

Speed and Trump were also part of another good news story. The Supreme Court with its conservative majority and three Trump appointees acted at warp speed to turn down the Texas-Trump petition to overturn elections in states he lost. Apparently the only debate between the Supremes was over the technical issue of whether the case should be refused or accepted and then turned down on its merits. Turns out constitutionalist judges are not a good support group for a coup.

So here’s to a better 2021. 2020 has certainly set a low bar.

December 14, 2020

Regulate Action Not Speech

Let’s talk about vaccination.

I’ll try to be first in line to get my COVID shot whenever my cohort is called. Most anti-vaxxers idiotically parrot disproved claims. But anti-vaxxers should have freedom to speak, even on social media; what they should not have is the freedom to endanger others.

Free speech is essential to democracy; no one can be trusted to be the censor. Freedom of action, however, is not guaranteed. We must pay our taxes; we used to have to do military service; we aren’t allowed to drink and drive. Our freedom comes from our right to elect the people who make the laws, not from universal license to do whatever the hell we please.

Some reluctance to allow debate comes from the fear that individuals will make the “wrong” decision. That fear goes away if, after public debate and legislation, certain actions are mandated. The only reason we need to fear a minority being “wrong” is if the minority is free to act on its own misconception and that action puts others at risk. We don’t need to be unanimous in order to enact a mandate. If we don’t need unanimity, then we don’t have to take police-state like actions to suppress dissent.

It is reasonable to be skeptical about whether corners were cut in the ultrafast development of the new vaccines. Certainly some red tape was eliminated; did some needed oversight also get cut? That skepticism has apparently led to a very careful (although very quick) process. As the vaccines are rolled out, we don’t want to stop looking for both possible side effects and ways to make them safer and more effective. We may find that there are some large groups of people who shouldn’t take them. Someone who sounds like a quack may actually find a problem. Debate must continue.

The pandemic and its consequences for both health and the economy must be stopped. Right now, with vaccines in short supply, the argument is who should get them first; obviously a good question with no simple answer. But, once we have had more experience with the vaccines and sufficient doses are available, the argument will switch to should vaccination be compulsory (with a medical exception) as many vaccines have been in the past. The answer depends on the course of the pandemic but may well be “yes”.

The sooner the infection rate goes down, the faster the economy can open back up. Under what circumstances should vaccination be required? Should vaccination be required for entry into the US? Almost certainly “yes”; it will be for other countries as well. Should vaccination be required for air travel? Should vaccination be required for school as many vaccinations were when I was young? What about just for going to a restaurant? Should hotels and resorts be allowed to require vaccination certificates and advertise that requirement as a way of luring customers back? What about those who would not be able to tolerate the vaccination (it is for their protection that we need enough other takers for herd immunity).

These are all questions we must debate – without censorship. It will not damage our democracy to have laws passed which require vaccination for some or all activities. It will be damaging, however, if these requirements come from executive proclamations (which are appropriate only in emergencies); legislators both at the state level and nationally must get off their butts to protect democracy by actually going on record for what needs to be done. It will be near fatal to democracy and bad for science if we ban or even try to suppress discussion (even discussion we think is misinformation), especially when mandatory measures are being considered.

We cannot be afraid of either open debate or mandates if we want to live in a healthy democracy.

See also:

Why Vaccinations Need to be Mandatory

Perpetrator of Fraudulent Vaccine Scare Speaking in Stowe

It’s Time for Mandatory Vaccinations

December 09, 2020

On the air today

At 11AM ET this morning (Wednesday, December 9) I will be on Common Sense Radio hosted by Bill Sayre discussing cyber security. In the wake of the attack on UVMMC, we'll talk about how individuals and organizations can quickly recover from attacks as well as what government's role should be. The broadcast is on WDEV - 96. 1 FM,  550 AM, 96.5 FM, and 101.9 FM and streaming is live at https://wdevradio.com/stream/

Vaccine for the Hacker Attack Epidemic

Stop paying ransom!

Hackers are in it for the money. Most of the serious cyberattacks on school, hospitals, and individuals include demands that a ransom be paid by the victim to regain access to hacker-locked data. Payments are usually made in untraceable Bitcoin. Each ransom that is paid encourages further hacking.

The federal and state governments can act immediately (assuming the federal government can do anything immediately) to pass laws forbidding the payment of ransom by any government-supported institution. The in-it-for-the-money hackers will have no incentive to spend effort where no ransom is possible. This is, of course, the same logic that the US and Israel use in not paying ransom for victims of kidnappings by terrorist groups. Each ransom finances terror and incents more kidnapping.

Hackers will test this resolve and attempt to punish those who don’t pay ransom. Individual institutions have not been able to resist this pressure; legislation will give them the gift of no alternative. We may want to have some funds allocated to help the first stand-fast institutions so long as not a penny goes to the hackers. “Millions for defense but not a penny for tribute”, Thomas Jefferson may or may not have said to demands for payments by the Barberry Pirates.

Government institutions will still have to keep their defenses up so that attacks are expensive to pull off as well as unlikely to have any return. Moreover, these institutions have a responsibility to protect the data in their possession from being stolen and used for identity theft or other nefarious purposes (although there is very little data which is really secret).

When public institutions are no longer a lucrative target, hackers will redouble their effort to collect ransom from the private sector and from individuals. Individuals can very easily put themselves beyond extortion with cloud-based backup and recovery services as described here. The best defense for an enterprise from being tempted to give into a ransom demand is assuring that even hacker-locked data can quickly be restored to uninfected machines.

Although I don’t think government should pass laws against private individuals and institutions paying ransom, government can still help by assuring that institutions cannot be sued purely because they refused to pay a ransom; refusal to pay is not negligence. Governments could also discourage private ransom by making it a non-deductible business expense. Private enterprise does need to spend money hacker-proofing itself.

Piracy is a parasitic affliction which will probably always be with us in some form. We must do all we can to prevent it from being either easy or lucrative.

See also: Protecting an Enterprise from Cyber Catastrophe

Protecting Yourself from Cyber Disaster

At 11AM ET this morning (Wednesday, December 9) I will be on Common Sense Radio hosted by Bill Sayre discussing cyber security. The broadcast is on WDEV - 96. 1 FM,  550 AM, 96.5 FM, and 101.9 FM and streaming is live at https://wdevradio.com/stream/

December 07, 2020

Protecting an Enterprise from Cyber Catastrophe

Recovery planning must come before the disaster.

We are suffering an epidemic of cyber-attacks while in a viral pandemic. This post is for those who have responsibility for assuring that the IT-based services offered by their enterprise can quickly recover in the case of successful cyber-attack or other disaster.

University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) is an excellent hospital. I owe my life to treatment there and am grateful for both the skill and the kindness of UVMMC staff. They have been devastated by a cyber-attack.

It took a full month for UVMMC to recover use of its patient database after the attack and the institution recently blamed failure to report COVID cases on after-effects. It is not possible to avoid all disasters; it is possible to recover quickly – but only if recovery has been planned and practiced in advance. There are several lessons in UVMMC’s travails for every organization and every business with a critical database.

At this point it would be reasonable and prudent for readers to ask whether I’m qualified to give this advice. I blog about a lot of stuff like education, politics, and economics which I’m not expert in. You don’t want to rely on amateur advice for service security.

At Microsoft in the early 90s I was responsible for the development of server-based products including Outlook and Exchange. Later I led the development and rollout of AT&T’s first ISP, AT&T WorldNet Service. ITXC, which Mary and I founded, had a network which spanned 200 countries and provided a VoIP service despised by most of the world’s telcos and quite a few governments. It had to be hacker resistant. NG Advantage, which we also founded, has an extensive internet of things (iot) network. I’m a nerd so I was deeply involved in the technology of all these products and services. More boasting here.

I’m no longer an expert in how to prevent a hacker attack although I did write a novel called hackoff.com. The technologies for intrusion and intrusion detection and prevention change so rapidly that only those active in the field have any hope to keep up. Fortunately, the principles of preparing for and accomplishing catastrophe recovery are largely the same no matter what tools mother nature or a hacker group used to bring your servers and your services down. This post is about preparing for recovery, a very separate subject than preventing attacks.

  1. Recovery planning starts with the assumption that there will be a disaster which renders all your organization’s computers unusable. Could be a fire, a flood, a cyber-attack or something else. UVMMC and the Green Mountain Care Board, which is their regulator, have been citing attacks on other hospitals and the continuing arms race between black-hat hackers and defenders. If you know that there is a possibility of a successful attack, there is no excuse for not having and rehearsing a recovery plan. Even the “unsinkable” Titanic didn’t put to sea without lifeboats.
  2. Recovery capability requires an off-premise backup of ALL critical data. In the olden days, we used to truck magnetic tapes with backup data to places like Iron Mountain in New York. Now the backup data can move over the internet, but the principle is the same. The backup data must not be on the same premises or, equally important, on the same network as the servers which are being used to provide the service.
  3. The off-premise backup data must be current. For many operations, including running a hospital, restoring the data as it was a month or even a week before the disaster struck means a significant loss of function. Even though it is only practical to backup an entire huge database periodically, changes to the database can also be sent offsite. Ideally these changes are applied to a shadow copy of the database so that almost all data can be restored immediately when required. The process of updating the shadow database must also be off-premise and off-network and not rely on any of the software used for the day-to-day service.
  4. Recovery of function must not depend on use of the original hardware. During Tropical Storm Irene, the State of Vermont’s computers in the basement of the Waterbury complex drowned. In the UVMMC disaster, whatever malware had been loaded on to the computers apparently took a month to eradicate. There didn’t used to be a good solution to the problem of quick access to replacement servers.

Now getting new server hardware up and running immediately sounds hard and expensive but is actually cheap and almost trivially easy. As long as preparation has been made in advance, it is possible to spin up a practically unlimited amount of computer power from cloud-providers like Amazon, Microsoft, or IBM within minutes. There is no significant standby cost for this capability. Once the cloud equipment is no longer needed, it can be shut down and the cloud billing meter stops.

Apparently the desktop computers and laptops (and possibly tablets) which are used at UVMMC to access data were also infected and unusable.  Recovery of function cannot depend on restoring the access devices any more than it can depend of restoring the servers. In practice, this means that access to all essential functionality must be possible from a web-browser on any properly authenticated laptop, computer, or smartphone. There must be a small backup supply of devices to restore key functionality immediately. New ones can be purchased and placed in service in days so long as they don’t have to be loaded with special software.

  1. Recovery must be practiced frequently and after any change to the IT environment. Experience says that a recovery plan which has not been practiced before an emergency can be counted on to fail when disaster strikes. Lifeboat drill is mandatory. If an organization’s servers are not already in the cloud (as most should be), the organization must periodically practice bringing up its applications and restoring its data on cloud computers. Losing a few minutes’ data is excusable; losing access for up to an hour may be unavoidable. Losing access for a month means recovery has not been sufficiently planned or practiced.
  2. The functional recovery team must be separate from the hardware recovery team in order to restore function as quickly as possible. As soon as the environment has been compromised by disaster, the recovery team swings into a well-rehearsed routine of restoring data from the offsite backup to backup servers in the cloud (if it is not already being replicated there) and providing any new access devices and passwords needed. If the original hardware does end up coming back soon, there is a small expense for renting cloud-servers; but this is immaterial compared to the cost of not having access to critical data.
  3. The post-mortem which follows every disaster must separately determine why the vulnerability and how successful the recovery. The two issues are different.

Anyone who is responsible for critical systems in the public or private sector should be asking their own IT people two simple questions: when was the last successful rehearsal of our functional recovery plan? How long did it take to restore functionality in the rehearsal?

For disaster proofing your home computers, see Protecting Yourself from Cyber Disaster

December 02, 2020

Protecting Yourself from Cyber Disaster

You need a recovery plan.

Bad things happen. We read about whole hospital systems being hacked and driven offline. Unfortunately the same thing happens to individuals with increasing frequency. We are actually in a hacking epidemic during the viral pandemic.

Protecting against bad things like a virus infecting your computer or coffee in your hard drive is important. Being ready to recover from a disaster is essential. Even the “unsinkable” Titanic had lifeboats (more on that later). If you are now working from home, you may not have the advantage of backups your corporate IT used to do.

Recovery starts before the disaster. If you don’t plan for recovery, recovery won’t happen. For most of us, having a backup of our data is the most important preparation. Usually we can get new copies of our applications online; but our data is uniquely ours.

When you think about recovery, tell yourself that a disaster will happen. Your goal is to make sure that a disaster for your computer is not a disaster for you. Plan for the eventuality that your original computer is toast. It must be possible to restore your data to a completely new computer.

I use a service called Carbonite to back up my data to the cloud. I haven’t made a study of competing services, so this isn’t an endorsement other than to say that Carbonite works for me. No matter which service you use, automatic cloud backup is a very good idea. You can backup to a storage device separate from your computer; thumb drives are cheap and have huge amounts of storage. But unless you’re religious both about making the backup and then storing the thumb drives somewhere other than your home, you’re not protected from a disaster like a fire or perhaps even a hacker attack which gets through your computer to the thumb drive when it’s attacked.

The trouble with cloud backup is that it takes a long time to move data to the cloud even if you have a very good internet connection. For most of us, it would be impractical to upload all of our data every day; we have more than a day’s worth of data on our computers. But, if you backup less often than once per day, then you will lose more than a day’s worth of data in a disaster.

Fortunately, cloud backup services use a process called incremental backup to assure that you don’t have to risk more than a day’s data even though you don’t do a daily full backup. Here’s how incremental backup works. First, a full backup is made of all the data stored on your computer. This usually takes several days but you can keep using your computer normally while this is happening. Once the full backup exists in the cloud, only changes that you make are uploaded each day. When recovery is needed you get the data updated by the changes.

Different cloud providers use different techniques for change management and merging changes with the original data, but here’s an oversimplified example. Think of the hard drive on your computer as if it had a million separate data boxes. Originally the contents of all million boxes are uploaded. Today you change the data in only one thousand of those boxes. In order for you to be able to recover, only the changed boxes need to be uploaded to the cloud so long as the changes are merged with the original when or before recovery time comes. Part of the secret sauce of cloud backup services is how they know what has changed each day; but there are many effective techniques for doing this.

Incremental backup enables recovery by date. Maybe your data corruption started last week. That means some of your backed-up data is corrupt. That’s bad but not catastrophic so long as you can specify that you want the data as it looked a week ago. Most cloud backup providers allow you to recover file by file. BTW, the ability to recover a particular file as of a certain day also saves you from the case where you inadvertently made changes to a document and need to recover the original. Go online and learn how to recover specific documents.

A popular scam – you may have seen it – is a popup that says all your data has been locked and that you have to pay ransom to get it back. The message warns you that, if you attempt a reboot, the data will be permanently lost. Usually the message is a lie; nothing has happened to your data; you just clicked on a bad link. But do you dare ignore it? Should you send bitcoin ransom? If you know your data is backed up and restorable, you can safely ignore the message even in the rare case where it is true.

But how do you know your backed-up data is restorable? The Titanic had lifeboats but neither passengers nor crew had been sufficiently drilled in their use. You only know your recovery plan is usable if you try it. You don’t want to be learning how to recover during a time when you frantically need to get your new computer up and working.

Usually there are two ways to restore all your data. You can download it although that may take days. Or you can ask the cloud provider to cut a DVD and overnight it to you. When I’ve had emergencies, I immediately ask for the DVD to get that in process and then start downloading the files I need most. You should at least know how to request a full restore to a new computer and to request the DVD.

Just as we owe it to ourselves and society to avoid COVID infection, we owe it to both ourselves and society in general to avoid a situation where we might have to pay ransom and fuel the hacking epidemic. Computer virus protection is necessary but not sufficient. Constant backup and rehearsed recovery will let you tell hackers where they can put their bitcoin demands.

See also: Recovery (I hope) Log

Protecting an Enterprise from Cyber Catastrophe

November 25, 2020

DIY Truth-Checking

Because you can’t trust anyone else to do it for you.

We’re deluged with assertions on twitter, on Facebook, and on the more formal news. Whom do we believe? “The science”? Whose version? The NY Times? Fox News? The legions of fact-checkers sprouting up all over the web? Your favorite blogger? “Fact” is, you can’t trust any of ‘em (trust me).

Part of my quarantine routine is to try to help my grandchildren become savvier critics of assertions. Gave them the following quiz:

A story on the news says:

“A man was found shot in the street last night outside City Hall. No weapon has been found. No one knows who shot him.” You don’t know anything beyond this about the man, the reporter, or the story. Choose the statements below which are true. You may choose more than one.

  1. As far as I know, the story is true.
  2. As far as I know, the story is false.
  3. The reporter cannot know that the whole story is true.
  4. At least one sentence is apparently false.

With careful reading, they’re all true. The word “know” is key to the evaluation

A is true because you don’t know the story is false.

B is true because you don’t know the story is true.

C is true because the reporter would have to know what everyone in the world knows in order to know that no one knows who shot the victim.

D is only apparently true (but I used the weasel word “apparently”). It is likely that someone does know who shot the man. The shooter should know; there may be witnesses who haven’t come forward. However, it could be true that no one knows. He could’ve been killed by a stray shot. The killer could be dead. It could be suicide and someone stole the weapon.

The point of this exercise is 1) practice in knowing whether the teller can possibly know what he or she is asserting, 2) knowing how much or how little you know as a result of being told something, 3) learning to look carefully at the words that are used to make an assertion. I’m the child of an English teacher and a storyteller.

Now back in the real world. The NY Times says “Trump Asserts (pick your assertion) Without Evidence”. We know from experience that Trump’s assertion may well be false (although it’s a false syllogism to say the assertion is false because Trump made it). However, we also know that the NY Times can’t possibly know what evidence Trump has or doesn’t have. I’m tempted to rewrite this “The NY Times Claims Without Evidence that Trump Asserts …  Without Evidence.” They could have easily made the headline accurate by saying “Trump Asserts… Without Giving Evidence” if indeed he hasn’t instead of damaging their own credibility with an assertion they can’t possibly know is true.

That’s why we need DIY truth-checking.

For more on DIY truth-checking see False Syllogisms

November 19, 2020

What if I Think a COVID Restriction Goes Too Far?

According to Vermonters who reelected Republican Governor Scott overwhelmingly in a very blue state, he has been doing a great job leading us through the pandemic. I agree. “But,” I thought, “saying I can’t go for a socially distanced walk in the woods with a friend goes a step too far.” Especially when I was looking forward to exactly such a walk.

“We know that outdoor transmission isn’t much of a problem,” I fumed.  “The resurgence is because of a bunch of spoiled brats going to a bar, some unmasked Halloween parties, and car-pooling to and from a hockey arena. Why do I have to be punished? I’m going to walk with my friend, anyway. Go ahead and arrest me.”

And then I heard what I sounded like. Just like the idiot who won’t wear a mask because “if you’re going to get Covid, you’re going to”. Just like the people who have an unalienable right to party wherever and whenever. And I thought about the people whose businesses are failing because it’s not safe for them to be open, the people who’ve lost their jobs, the people who do keep on working at risk to themselves because we need them to be working.

Then I realized I don’t get to make my own rules or draw my own line during an emergency.

Vermont has more reported cases of Covid now than we had during the first wave, although many less deaths or hospitalizations so far. The numbers don’t just come from more testing; the case load has soared over the last two weeks; hospitalizations are increasing.  Governor Scott prohibited inter-family gatherings indoors or out, hopefully short-term, and issued other restrictions to help get control of the spread rate. His immediate response was broad brush. Essentially he was saying “stand back, stand back!” It wouldn’t have made sense for him to wait until he could spell out every exception to every restriction.

We don’t want to have to go to total shutdown. We don’t want to close the schools. We don’t want to overwhelm the hospitals, especially when our biggest hospital is suffering the computer version of a pandemic. I can wait to find out if hiking is a permissible exception. There are probably people who even think some other exceptions are more important. The sooner the numbers turn down, the sooner we can relax as we did before. And the vaccines are coming!

Had a nice Zoom with my friend to catch up, took a walk with my dog, and realized the answer to the question “what if I think a Covid restriction goes too far?”

Suck it up!

UPDATE: Gov. Scott  has modified the order to say a Vermonter can take a walk with once friend or neighbor as long as socially distancing is maintained. I’m glad for the common sense and still glad I waited.

November 16, 2020

Should Covid Survivors Have to Quarantine?

A virtual dinner table conversation.

As of today, we’ve had 2,899 cases of Covid detected in Vermont. Fortunately, all but 59 have survived. These survivors, once they finish treatment, cannot transmit Covid to anyone else nor is there any likelihood of their getting it again in the near future. Is there any reason why they should have to quarantine?

Since those known to have the disease are only 0.5% of our population, the question isn’t pressing yet. But cases are growing rapidly, unfortunately. Moreover there are probably many more people who have had the virus and don’t know it. Cheap and accurate tests for immunity will soon be available. Soon (I hope) our medical workers and first responders will receive vaccine, which won’t provide total immunity but will reduce the odds of catching or passing on the disease. At what point should there be separate rules for those who are not a contagion risk?

Equity would seem to say that it is double punishment to have had the disease and then have to quarantine anyway. Practicality says it’s hard enough to enforce one set of rules for everybody; and all hope of compliance may disappear if there are different rules for different folks. Do you give the evil eye to people not wearing a mask in the grocery store and stay as far away from them as possible; or do you assume that they are immune survivors or have had their shots?  Do stores ask for proof of prior infection before letting people in? Should restaurants and ski areas be allowed to rebuild their businesses by catering to survivors and eventually the vaccinated? Should survivors be given preference for public-facing jobs?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’d ordinarily use them as fodder for dinner table conversation, but I can’t have the same conversation with Mary every night and we can’t have anyone else at our dinner table.

We will eventually have to answer these questions no matter how soon we have a vaccine. If the vaccine is delayed, we will have more and more immune survivors. If the vaccine is ready on an optimistic schedule, we’ll have more and more people with partial acquired immunity. Either way or both, there will be too many people who don’t pose a risk to maintain quarantine for administrative convenience. If restrictions are lifted too soon, the current resurgence may accelerate. If restrictions are lifted too late, they will be ignored.

My guess is that the draconian restriction prohibiting inter-household socializing will go first. It’s voluntary in the sense that it can’t be enforced. It obviously makes no sense for the non-contagious. Leaving it in place for any period of time without enforcement will erode compliance with all regulations. IMO the requirement for wearing masks in public places will stay in place the longest. It is annoying but doesn’t really restrict any activity. It prevents spread of flu and other diseases as well as Covid – important with possibly over-burdened hospitals. It is enforceable.

Once a vaccine is widely available, the lifting of restrictions on those who have had their shots not only makes sense but is an inducement for vaccination and a way that businesses can come back to life. Aren’t you more likely to fly if you know that everyone on the plane is Covid resistant, either because they are known to have had the disease or because they’ve been vaccinated? Wouldn’t you like to know that your kids’ teachers and classmates pose very little risk?

What do you think? Please pass the virtual peas.

November 11, 2020

Stalk2Stem

Time to replace corn with trees.

40% of US corn is used to produce ethanol. According to numbers from the US Department of Energy, substituting a gallon of ethanol for a gallon of gasoline avoids an average of a little over 6 lbs. of “net” CO2 emissions.  The fossil fuel needed to grow, transport, and distill the corn is counted; but the CO2 which comes from the burning ethanol is ignored since it was recently captured by the corn – that’s why we call these “net” emissions. Using these calculations, an acre grows enough corn to save 1.38 metric tons of CO2 annually.

However, an acre of Midwest farmland planted in trees removes about 3.5 metric tons from the atmosphere each year. The trees are 250% more effective at CO2 reduction than corn!

From an environmental point of view, it would be a huge gain if all the ethanol-producing acres were turned into forests. 39 million acres of trees would remove 136MMTCO2 (million metric tons of CO2) annually from the atmosphere, 82MMTCO2 more than would be saved if all that corn were turned into ethanol. The trees will keep sequestering CO2 virtually forever. The ethanol only helps so long as there is gasoline use for it to replace. It doesn’t do anything for cars parked while their owners work at home or for electric cars.

From an economic point of view, with ethanol prices below the cost of production, the farmers and refiners are in an unsustainable business.  They were lured into producing ethanol by government mandates requiring at least 10% ethanol in most gasoline even though ethanol is more expensive to produce than the gasoline it replaces on a cents per mile basis. The Farm Bureau says “A Pull Back in Corn Acres Is Needed”. They explain that ethanol demand, which had already flatlined before the pandemic, is now in steep decline because Americans are driving less. Prices for ethanol are well below the cost of production. Ethanol refineries are shutting down; farmers are worried that they’ll have nowhere to sell their crop.

From a political point of view, there are three and a half years until Iowa has its next first-in-the-nation primary. The incoming Biden administration has promised to do significant green things without pinning itself down on specifics.

For environmental, economic, and political reasons, now is a very good time to start growing trees instead of corn (stalk2stem) in much of the Midwest. Obviously ethanol production isn’t going to stop all at once and there will be other uses beside growing trees for the land which will no longer be growing corn. Step one, however, is to end all further ethanol subsidies and start phasing out the ethanol mandate; we don’t want to mindlessly expand an already failing program.

There will be a net loss of farm and refinery jobs; trees require a lot less care than corn. But these jobs are doomed as the demand for ethanol continues to decline; an orderly transition to other crops is necessary. National and state programs to buy farmland and turn it into productive forests is as necessary for Midwest corn growers as it is for Vermont dairy farmers. The stalk2stem program can at least partially be financed by ending subsidies for further ethanol development. Growing trees is one of the cheapest ways of reducing greenhouse gasses (GHG). The wood products industry will grow with a new supply of high-grade lumber and wood can increasingly replace concrete structurally for additional GHG savings.

I look forward to hiking the Iowa woods.

Sources

According to a study by the Argonne National Lab quoted by the US Dept of Energy, there is an average 34% reduction in GHG when ethanol is substituted for gasoline. These are lifecycle numbers and take into account the energy which goes into growing the corn and refining it. Gasoline emits 19.4 lbs. of CO2 per gallon so substituting a gallon of ethanol for a gallon of gas saves a little over 6 lbs. of CO2. On average, each acre of corn turns into 462 gallons of ethanol annually. CO2 savings from an acre of corn is 3047 lbs. or about 1.38 metric tons per acre per year. According to the University of Minnesota, an acre of Midwest forest sequesters about 3.5 metric tons/year. The rest is just math.

See Also:

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

The Science Behind the Trillion Tree Campaign

US Chapter of One Trillion Trees Announced Today

November 05, 2020

Almost Half Your Fellow Americans are Disappointed and Frightened for the Future

Stop calling them names!

My liberal friends are asking these questions on Twitter and other fora: Why did so many Americans – more than last time – vote for Trump? Why didn’t they see the light when we called them deplorable racists? Why wasn’t the mainstream media effective at convincing everyone that Trump is the devil incarnate? Why didn’t they do what we told them to do? What’s wrong with America, especially the South and the middle of the country? How could “Hispanics” have increased their vote for Trump? And why don’t they embrace the term Latinx instead of Latino and Latina?

The better questions are: What  can we learn from the fears and aspirations of our fellow Americans? How do we come together during a pandemic and in a dangerous world for a better and stronger America? Almost half of America is as afraid of a Biden presidency as you were of four more years for Donald.

As it looks now, Joe Biden will win the presidency and Republicans will maintain a slim margin in the Senate. For me, this is the least bad of the outcomes possible. Although I voted for Biden mainly because of Trump’s dangerously unstable personality, I found myself reacting with visceral fear at the thought of either candidate winning. I think Biden has a much more stable personality; I think the left-wing of his party, which may or may not control his presidency, is a danger not only to the economy but also to free speech and an independent judiciary.  I abhor Trump’s racist dog whistles; I’m appalled by the “liberal” racist view that racial preferences are required and that minorities are monolithic blocks rather than independently thinking Americans. Hopefully, a Republican Senate can block very bad ideas like packing the Supreme Court or rush admission of new Democrat states.

The very good news –   so far –   is how smoothly the electoral process seems to be going (fingers crossed). Neither Antifa nor the Proud Boys attacked voters or polling places. There was no excuse to call out the National Guard or suspend voting. Counting seems to be going well. There will be some litigation, but everyone was prepared for that. Record turnout is a good sign for America. Record turnout during a pandemic is even better. Process is incredibly important to preserving democracy.

Biden will be better at working with Congress than either Obama or Trump. In a rosy scenario, we can go back to having a legislature which passes laws after debate and compromise and away from having law made by judges and executive orders. It’s time to be hopeful. It’s time to respect each other.

November 03, 2020

The Fairness of the Election Will Not Be Determined by Who Gets Elected

This morning the Dallas Democratic and Republican chairs issued a joint statement which reads in part:

Joint statement

I’ve never known my friends to be so anxious about our national future. This includes both friends who are voting for Biden and those who are voting for Trump (yes, I have friends who are voting for Trump.) Starting today, election day, is time for us all to calmly assure that our processes are followed and that the will of the voters, as expressed through electoral college votes, is respected.

All of my friends (but not everyone) are passionate about protecting our rights and our democracy. Each side believes, to an extent I’ve never seen before, that 1) election of the candidate they oppose will lead to the end of America we would know it; 2) that the other side is attempting to win in undemocratic ways. Many Democrats believe that Trump will refuse to leave even if defeated (he deserves a lot of the blame for this feeling) and will become a dictator especially if elected fairly to a second term. Many Republicans believe that Biden, if elected, will be steam-rolled by the anti-democratic, anti-free speech, anti-police far left of his party; and that a disarmed citizenry? will be left at the mercy of rampaging mobs.

Since both sides passionately believe what they believe, almost everyone is terrified. One side or the other is going to have to make the best of whomever is elected. The best way to assure that our Democracy does survive is to accept the results of the election and then work for what you believe in and against what you don’t. You do expect the other side to accept defeat, don’t you?  They are just as afraid as you are.

Obviously both sides are striving for electoral advantage and would like the election rules to be interpreted in a way that gives them the most votes or their opponents the least. It looks like we will have record turnout, which is a good thing, even though mailed-out unrequested ballots do increase the risk of fraud. In many states it is easier to vote than ever before although still not as easy as some people would like. People who previously were disenfranchised, like convicted felons in Florida, will be able to vote for the first time.

It is true that Trump supporters would prefer that some of these expansions of the electorate not take place because they suspect, probably correctly, that these new voters will favor Biden. It is also true that the Democratic Party’s passion for increasing the voter rolls and fighting even reasonable attempts to protect against fraud is motivated more by a quest for votes than a quest for justice. Let’s be honest with ourselves. From the record early turnout, it does not appear that voter suppression is very successful, at least not in most places.

Thought experiment: Do you expect Democratic lawyers to fight to make sure Trump ballots are not unreasonably invalidated? Do you expect Republicans to fight for Biden ballots? That’s not the way the system works. As they always have, each side will fight to invalidate questionable opponent ballots and to validate questionable ballots on their side. That’s not fraud. That’s the way a competitive system works. We do, however, have a right to expect that, when these disputes reach the courts, they will be adjudicated in a non-partisan way no matter whose appointee the judge is.

Hopefully we are ready to block hacking interference, foreign or domestic, with the polling process itself. If there is significant fraud, we must face it, not deny it. If there is intimidation at the polls, it must be dealt with harshly today, election day, no matter which side or sides the instigators come from. Both sides have radical fringes who believe our system is corrupt and must fall; we cannot let the fringe conspiracy beliefs, sincere or not, drive us into post-election hysteria and tear the country further apart.

I’m afraid we may not know the election results for a couple of weeks; hope I’m wrong but remember Bush v Gore when only one state was in doubt. This year, because of both politics and Covid, we’ve had the biggest one-cycle change in election procedure ever in many states. Then results are going to take time to sort out whether Trump likes it or not. More mail-in than in-person ballots will be invalidated because mail-in is more complicated; this has happened in every election and is not sure proof of voter suppression.

It’s hard to accept in our partisan passion but the fairness of the election will not be judged by who gets elected.

Good luck to America.

Also see: Are You Ready to Accept Defeat at the Polls?

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