School and Technology

Another one of those infopiles of loosely-related pseudo knowledge.

I’m reminded of the story of how prisoners in ancient China soon died if they were sent to one of the better prisons, but survived a lot longer if sent to poor prisons (have no idea if the story has any basis in reality). According to the story, the better prisons fed the inmates white rice – considered better quality stuff, but with much of the nutrition removed. Poorer prisoners got brown rice – low class food, but with much more nutrition in it.

So, is it a good idea to have kids spend hours on computers in school? Or are we just giving them white rice, as it were?

Note that our technological boom over the last few decades has had a lot to do with technological learning being almost completely unstructured. Just look at the lives of the various pioneers – Bill Joy stands out for having had an academic career, of sorts, but even he mostly did what he wanted to do. The others are a bunch of drop-outs and misfits who spent a lot more time by themselves tinkering in the garage or pounding on a keyboard. If only they’d have had access to a modern educator, we’d all still be using slide rulers…

So, yea – providing computer access to school kids is a great idea, so long as it’s completely unstructured: let them surf what they want (within legal limits), let them figure out what programs interest them, let them figure out how to use those programs, let them ask for help when they need it: that’s an educational program proven to work.

All the computers in the world won’t help kids learn much if they’re managed the same way other subjects are managed. We need to let them chew on brown rice, as it were.

Piling On: 6’7″ 275 lbs Prisoner, 1 (Female) Guard?

Yea, yea, everybody’s having fun with this. My only addition:

Used to hang out with a female cop, who happened to be 5’11”, weigh around 180 – and had a black belt in karate (she was world-ranked). She pointed out to me once, when we were discussing how cool it was to be a black belt (saw her spar once – scary – NBA guard level of body control and quickness)  that, whatever the skill differential, physics still works – she said she’d be very leery of trying to duke it out with even with me, a doughy, untrained 6’2″ man who had about 40-50 lbs on her – because she’d have to take me completely out first shot, or physics would favor me.

In other words, she recognized that, if I were to get hold on her, I could seriously hurt her just by, say, falling on her or twisting her or wrenching her limbs. She might very well ‘win’, but at quite the cost.

Even though my cop friend had the obligatory cop don’t mess with me persona, she would not have taken that gig willingly. How about 2-3 cops? Even in that situation, the one charged with actually putting the cuffs on the dude should be a close to his size as possible, because he could probably pick up a normal sized woman in one motion, instant human shield.

Out there in the wild, cops do understand this. Is this a case of misguided political correctness, or just stupidity? Or macho run amok? Hope everybody’s OK, especially the pre-school people the escapee threatened. Let us pray.

Music at Mass Review: December 5, 2010

Credit where credit is due: Parish A is going with the simple Latin Agnus Dei this Advent. I’ve long wondered how it escapes notice (or is otherwise dismissed) that more people sing these simple chants with more vigor than all but a few contemporary-with-our-hippy-foreparents tunes. Because, if we were really in favor of full, active participation, that would seem to be important, right?

But I digress.

Mostly good solid Advent hymns. The closing hymn was In the Day of the Lord, by an M. D. Ridge, which name returns addresses in Maryland when Googled. Once found, Ms Ridge turned out to be a friendly-looking woman with, evidently, actual music training in her background. At least, she wrote a pretty good song:

In the day of the Lord, the sun will shine
like the dawn of eternal day.
All creation will rise to dance and sing
the glory of the Lord!

1. And on that day will justice triumph,
on that day will all be free:
free from want, free from fear, free to live!

2. Then shall the nations throng together
to the mountain of the Lord:
they shall walk in the light of the Lord!

3. And they shall beat their swords to plowshares;
there will be an end to war:
one in peace, one in love, one in God!

(we only sang the first three verses, so that’s all we’ll discuss.)

Two big positives: the music is fairly interesting, and the text is straight outta Scripture. I imagine the music is probably easier to sing if you don’t read music, because it notates rather more funky than it sounds (a number of time signature changes, including one from a 4 to a 6/8 and back, which my amateur brain still trips over).  The themes are appropriate for Advent.

So it comes down to taste. In this case, I have no problem with this song being used, and sang it as enthusiastically as I could at 8:00 in the morning pre-coffee. Given the option of using any one of several other very good, more traditional and easier to sing Advent songs (I’d probably use People Look East four Sundays in a row, for example), is this a good choice?  I’m OK with it.

The bigger question, one I’ve only touched upon, has to do with the overall goals and consistency of the people responsible for Mass. Assuming it’s not terrible or heretical (sadly, not safe assumptions when picking tunes right from the disposable hymnals), just about anything could conceivably be used at Mass.  The question is whether it SHOULD be.  Too big a question for this post.

Envy and Revenge: Not Just Sins, But Bad Ideas, Too

Please note: In discussing the relationship of wealth, income and taxes, I am NOT going for the whole envy/revenge thing. Rich people are just people. I don’t buy that they behave much differently than anybody else would if we could trade places with them. I don’t want them to die or suffer or even be humiliated. I might be in favor of making them pay a much larger share of taxes – the devil’s in the details. I’m definitely in favor of the governing principle that tax laws should favor holding wealth, since that’s the only way, in a free society, that people can be freed from slavery to wages. See Kelso. I’d much rather see a million millionaires instead of 100 billionaires.

But I do think it is critically important for political discourse for people to realize that all talk of soaking the rich is a huge, evil smokescreen for what is essentially envy and revenge in the service of demagoguery – it seems that, when people think ‘rich bastard’, they do not think of the guy living in a mansion at the end of the long driveway, who never flies commercial, never does his own shopping, and hasn’t ever wasted a braincell worrying about income taxes. No, we think of the guy across town who lives in a nice house and drives a Mercedes and gets to take a vacation to Europe every other year and send his kids to a summer camp we can’t afford. My point is that the financial status of those two people is fundamentally different. People earning minimum wage have more in common with the well-paid surgeon than that doctor has with someone worth$100M. Both the doctor and the burger-flipper might be in deep financial trouble if  they lost their jobs. The rich man doesn’t have or need a job.

My goal: that a klaxon from your B.S. detection array should start blasting any time you hear ‘soak the rich’.

There’s One For You, 19 For Me

When George (thanks for the correction, orthotox!)  wrote ‘Tax Man’, their marginal tax rate was 95% (1 for you, 19 for me). For every dollar they earned, they got to keep a nickle. (Not going to do the whole pound/pence thing).

Here’s another clue for you all: if you or I get taxed excessively, there’s nothing much we can do about it – the taxes come out of our paychecks, and, besides toying with the deductions and dependents, we’re pretty much stuck with it. BUT – if you’re George or John or Paul, guess what? You can move to America or some other country where they’ll let you keep more of your money. Which is what they did.

The moral of this story: Taxpayers will do things, sometimes extreme things like moving to another continent, to avoid taxes. The better off – in this case, the concepts apply to both the truly wealthy and the highly compensated – the more motivated and able you are to mitigate your tax burden. Keep this in mind as we revisit the concepts outlined in the last post. Continue reading “There’s One For You, 19 For Me”

Money – How Does That Work, Exactly?

Wealth versus a paycheck: different in kind, not just in degree – for whatever reason, this fundamental idea is both hard to grasp and difficult to apply for us humans. Yet, understanding it is key to understanding a lot of what goes on in politics and economic. So, here goes:

If you’ve ever earned a regular paycheck, you have no doubt noticed that the bottom line – take home pay – is less, sometimes a lot less, than your gross earning. There’s income tax withholding (fed and state), Social Security and maybe a retirement account. All us wage earners understand that the government gets its cut BEFORE we even get to buy any groceries or pay any rent,

Not so wealth, not so!

Let’s say I’m worth $100M (in my dreams!). What does that mean? Usually, it means I own a business or businesses, stock, land, and other investments. I might draw a paycheck, but, with few exceptions (famous athletes, actors, rock stars) the paycheck isn’t really material to my lifestyle – I’d live just as well if I didn’t get paid in the usual manner.

This living well without any (material) taxable income works in a number of ways. Chief among these are tax-free investments (municipal bonds, for example) and none-taxable benefits from the companies I own or trust funds I or my ancestors set up. In this example, let’s say my family has, over the years, built up a portfolio of  municipal bonds  worth $10M – they probably paid some taxes along the way to building this nest egg up, but that was long ago. Now, this investment yields, say, 3% – $300K per year. Also, my house(s) are paid for, my health care is taken care of from a trust fund, same with college costs, my business supply me with a car, I can discretely use the corporate jet for travel – in other words, that $300K is buying groceries and a good time. Everything else is covered.

In short, the wealthy person above is able to live like a king on just the tax-exempt interest on some municipal bonds. AND – pays no income tax.

Is this what really happens? Something a lot like this happens all the time. Sure, if I wanted to buy a new house or personal airplane, I might have to dip into the other $90M, and I might, if my tax people are incompetent, pay some capital gains tax. But, fundamentally, I don’t have to do anything or pay any taxes if I don’t want to.

About that other $90M – if things go well, it gets to stay invested and appreciates in value – again, in a tax-free way. Bill Gates, for example, didn’t pay any income tax on his investment in Microsoft as it went from a few thousand dollars in value up to $50B. Effectively, he ‘earned’ $50B tax-free. ONLY if he were so foolish as to take that $50B as income would he ever pay taxes on it. Same goes for other holders of appreciating investments. So, almost universally, the wealthy structure their money so that they have enough to live (very well) on without touching their capital investments – that way, they get richer and richer.

Finally, this arrangement is hardly accidental. From the Founding Fathers on down, our lawmakers were dominated by guys with large capital holding who wanted to make sure it stayed that way, and so the law favors holders of assets over earners of wages. This is not entirely a bad thing – making it better for people to start and run business and to think long-term about finances is good for the stability and prosperity of a society.

BUT – here’s the main point – taxing high wage earners, even people who pull down a million a year, is not touching the lives of the truly wealthy. They are playing a different game all together.

Ridiculously Wealthy Person Wonders About All the Fuss Over Taxable Income, Considers Having Some of His People Look Into It

Economic primer time: if you are ridiculously wealthy, you don’t have taxable income – you have wealth. That’s the very definition of wealthy – you HAVE money, you don’t need to EARN money any more. So – follow me carefully, here – if you are ridiculously wealthy, say, net worth of $50M or more, you ARE NOT GOING TO PAY TAXES ON TAXABLE INCOME. YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE TAXABLE INCOME (except maybe as a result of a hobby). RAISING INCOME TAX RATES WILL NOT AFFECT YOU. AT. ALL.

Conversely, if you actually work for a living and rely on taxable income to pay the bills, THEN changes in the income tax rate affect you.  So, if the ‘enemy’ is somebody making, say, $150K/yr, and you’d like revenge on them for doing somewhat better than you, then by all means raise the income tax rate. Just know that actual wealthy people are laughing at you.

Once again, the discussion of wealth is diverted AWAY from asset holders (the wealthy) to better compensated working people. Working people fearing, envying and attacking each other – man, that show just never gets old! The wealthy have had front row seats for generations in this country – but are never participants in the unpleasantness.

Music at Mass Review: 11/21/10

At Parish A this week. Feast of Christ the King. The first and last tunes were good traditional numbers – Crown Him With Many Crowns and  All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name. These tunes not only are fairly musically interesting and have something to do with the feast being celebrated, but contain actual coherent theology – they assert things recognizable and understandable within the context of a Catholic Mass.

Not so the other hymns, not so!

Aside: when singing at Mass, I like my mysteries to be the mysteries of the faith – such as the mysteries of the Incarnation or of the Redemptive suffering of Christ. Not so much with the mystery being what in the world the lyrics of the songs could possibly trying to convey.  The test is that you can say, for example,  about the two hymns mentioned above that the mysteries are the Second Coming and the Kingship of Jesus and the Incarnation, and that the writers have tried to express those mysteries in poetry and song as best they could. But, as demonstrated in the songs below, that is not always the case – instead, we’re given lines that defy understanding as English words, let alone map to any coherently expressed theology.  Anyway:

Bernadette Farrell’s lyrics are almost as baffling as the popularity of her music. She penned a couple ditties that were employed as the offertory and communion songs. Let’s look at God Beyond All Names: Continue reading “Music at Mass Review: 11/21/10”

Zinman

Yesterday, was listening to some internet classical radio station. Beethoven’s 5th comes on – but: some unknown team of lunatics decided to

1. mix the recording so that the strings were about 6″ in front of your face;

2. record, evidently, in some sort of hyper-reverb chamber;

3. play at what I suppose was deemed to be a ‘grand’ tempo – sloooow.

Yikes. When I was 15, I decided to find out what this classical music stuff was all about. Other than by accident (such as the classical music included on  the 8-track demo tape my dad got with his new car in 1973-ish) I had almost no meaningful exposure to classical music. So I went to the public library and checked out the 5th on vinyl, because even I’d heard of the 5th. Von Karajan, Berlin Phil – AWESOME. I put the speakers to my primitive hand me down stereo facing each other about 2′ apart, put a pillow between them, and just spent HOURS listening to that LP. To this day, I can lean back, close my eyes, and pretty much play that version of the 5th back in my head

So this is a story of First Love.  And this recording on the radio was like seeing my Beatrice all dolled up by someone whose idea of cool is Malibu Barbie. NO!

Continue reading “Zinman”