Small code with powerful results, the occasional opinion … and beer.

13 Aug 2016
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… especially when it has no aesthetic value.

There has been a very aggravating trend lately with banking sites.  More and more banks are finally joining the rest of the world a number of years later, by updating their web sites to support mobile devices.  Not completely surprising, considering bankers are the most overly conservative group on the planet.

But without fail so far, each time they update their web site they somehow screw up the data export function.  It’s the one thing that doesn’t need updating because it is does not affect the display, and yet they mess with it.  It negatively impacts the one thing which automation is supposed to do: leverage time, not cause more human intervention to make things work.

So far, here is the list:

  • www.chase.com: Now allows html-encoded characters to appear in the data, so AT&T shows up as AT&T.  Impact: financial applications don’t see the Payee as the same and, therefore, will not detect duplicate (i.e. already registered) transactions.
  • www.towerfcu.org: Arbitrarily threw in lines called Total with blank values in the date column.  Each one of the entries had an equivalent accounting-standard form, which would appear with a date it occurred.  It wasn’t a “total interest” entry: it was a dated “interest charged” entry or a dated “purchase rebate” entry.  And a bank which lives by accounting standards did this?
  • www.towerfcu.org (again): Now disallows a specific date range (last 30, last 60, custom date) for the export, and forces the transactions to be downloaded only for a specific statement.  Impact: transactions which aren’t necessary are downloaded from a statement, and a larger date range (60 days or more) causes a fragmented effort: more than one download to get the data, and manual editing to remove the unwanted transactions.
  • www.ally.com: They didn’t mess with the format per se, but when the time change occurred, the time of the transaction date changed with the time change.  If it is not apparent what’s wrong with this, a transaction on June 1st at 6:00PM still occurred on June 1st at 6:00PM, even when the data is exported on November 15th after the time change.  To Ally Bank’s credit, they quickly fixed this in a later update to their software.  Not so surprisingly, they were the one company which did not respond to me with a canned email.

I am sure there have been other banking institutions beyond these who are doing this, and I have reported all of these issues to the institutions as I discovered them.  The reactions to reporting the error are met with the usual customer service canned response: “Thank you for reporting this issue.  We are forwarding it to our technical staff for review.”  (Ally being an exception as listed above).

Having spent a good portion of my computing career in the data exchange world, I get particularly irate when I see these export formats change.  Data exchange formats exist to do one thing: spare humans the redundant effort of re-entering data already done by another human, and removing the potential for introducing error in the process.  It’s one of the core examples of productivity, accuracy, and good use of time.  That’s what automation is all about.  Changes in these formats cause a lot of grief and unnecessary work reconfiguring software which imports them, if the import hasn’t broken the process outright (as Tower Federal’s above did).

I am truly stunned that the industry which is most conservative to change, the banking industry, would allow such haphazard changes to this as part of a web site upgrade.  It appears that somehow they crossed the streams and made exports a target of improvement with the web site, and probably even saw the export as something that a human uses–not an automated process.

And for that I say shame on them.  If you work in the banking industry, point this out to the management.  The exports are supposed to be verbatim reflections of the entries in the banks journal, and they are supposed to be available for any time frame on demand.  They are not intended for decoration to please humans, and need to be left alone.

 

 

12 Jun 2016
The wisdom of the ages

Story #1:

There was an old Indian Chief who once commissioned a group of young men in his tribe for a major project.  The Chief understood the value of documenting the lessons of the past, for the benefit of future generations in the tribe.  So he set the group out to gather, compile  and document and the history of their people.  And after years of work, they presented to the Chief a pile of documents in 20 large binders, each as big as War and Peace.  The Chief was proud of what the men had accomplished, and thanked them for their work.

“But,” he added solemnly, “there will be few who read this in its entirety before they grow old.  My people are required to do much.  Therefore, go and reduce this information to something more reasonable.”  The group was a little disappointed, but removed the 20 document sets and set about reducing the content.

A few weeks later, they returned to the Chief with a single binder of documents as big as War and Peace.  The Chief was pleased and thanked the group again, but stated it was still too big.  “I want something that can be read by everyone in a reasonable amount of time.”  The group left again, and a few days later, returned with only a few sheets containing the history in a much smaller binder.  The Chief was very happy and thanked the group again.  But as they were leaving he said, “Now wait!  I need you to summarize all of this in one sentence, which I will use as the title for this book of history.”

The group just looked at each other, with a smirk, as if each knew what the other was thinking.  Then the leader wrote down the sentence they would use for a title, and handed it to the chief.  It said: “There ain’t no free lunch.”

Story #2

A pastor in modern day America was looking for a way to help people to read the Bible, and understand the history it contained.  He gathered a group of believers in his congregation to take the content of the Bible and reduce it to a smaller version.  In much the same way as the Indian chief sent his group back a few times to continually reduce the volume it had, the pastor did the same.

Once the group finally had the Bible down to a size the pastor felt was appropriate, he also had them create a single sentence to summarize its history.  The sentence they came up with was: Has your way really worked?

 

26 Apr 2016
Keeping your web site or web application current with the times, and … reasonable.

<rant>

The web has been around now for over two decades. Whether it was a practice used during the internet’s early “wild-west” period, or something not well thought out, it is time for these practices stop.  Here is my list of practices to avoid and even openly condemn.

Re-type your email address

Re-entering an email address was a very simple way of validating an email address entered by a user, way back when even an email address was new to the user like the internet itself. Email addresses are common place now, so having a user re-enter them isn’t necessary. We still have our users enter and re-enter passwords, but think about why: we don’t display the passwords to the user when we do this. And the modern practice with passwords is to add a check box next to the password, to optionally display it. And the sites which are well-designed have dropped the second password entry text box when the check box to expose the password is selected.  So how can we justify repetition for an email address which is fully displayed?

Disabling copy/paste when asking for an email address or password

This one is so asinine it’s hard to fathom (are you listening United Healthcare).  A person goes to a place where the accurate email address is written down, copies it, then is denied pasting a known correct address into the text, and requires an error-prone manual keyboard entry instead.  For those of you doing this, lay off the drugs.  For those of you being told to do this by a product manager, hide their drugs.

Fighting password saving mechanisms built into a browser

Modern browsers like Firefox and Chrome have become very good at detecting login pages and allowing the user to save their login information for future auto-population when they next visit the site.  Still, it is common to see web applications using Flash, Silverlight or other HTML 5 code to circumvent this.  Why?  It has to be some level of paranoid control-freak in the product manager who thinks this way.  Anyone with any level of internet savvy wants to save credentials.  And the larger players in the browser market like Google have more resources and more motivation to secure the information than any localized IT department.  A product manager may feel like their job is secure telling their manager how they protect their product by blocking saved passwords, but the world is really getting fed up with simple auto updates erasing saved credentials in mobile devices.  That should be your cue.  Even worse, the app is forcing people to do more work, when the goal of technology is to save them work and leverage their time.

</rant>

 

25 Nov 2015
The electronic toll system is about to go the way of the Telcos.

Before I moved to Florida from Maryland in 2005, I had an E-ZPass in Maryland which we used for the Bay Bridge toll payments.  We got it in about 2000, and it was wonderful.  It was a time when electronic toll systems were just getting started in the US.  The big benefit was bypassing the 1-mile+ long lines of cars waiting to pay cash on Saturday mornings when everyone was headed to the Eastern Shore and, most probably, the beaches at Ocean City.  At that time, there was only one E-ZPass reserved  lane at the toll booths for the bridge.  So few people had the device, that everyone with it simply went around the lines of cars and never stopped. It easily saved 10-15 minutes or more.

Later, after we left Maryland in 2005, we switched to SunPass in Florida.  The big change with SunPass was a much more mature web site that worked quite well.  Even though I moved to Pittsburgh in 2013, I still have the SunPass account for myself and my children still in school in Florida, and a portable device for either my own car or a rental car when we visit.

Because my wife and I travel to New York City somewhat frequently, and SunPass won’t work on the E-ZPass system here until October of 2016 (more on that later), I decided to get an E-ZPass to hopefully save some time and money.  Boy, was that a mistake!  They did not even make it to the activation and use stage, before I closed the account.

To keep things simple, SunPass has a much better system because…

  • E-ZPass chooses to own its devices, whereas SunPass is purchased and owned by the buyer.  If you choose to leave SunPass, great… do whatever you want with the device.  You just won’t be able to use it anymore since it is deregistered.  If you decide to get rid of E-ZPass, send it back or they’ll charge you way more than the device costs.
  • E-ZPass only has one form of the device: a white box with Velcro strips to attach to Velcro strips on your window.  For those of you who have not yet tried to use an automated toll device in a rental car, I’ll have to ask you to imagine how you will get the device mounted in the rental car without the Velcro mounts on the windshield.  SunPass has a white box with suction cups to easily transfer the device and, alternatively, offers a flat sticker that can be permanently mounted on the car.
  • E-ZPass charges $40 for its only box, of which $35 goes onto your toll “wallet” for use on the toll roads.  E-ZPass also charges an annual $3 “maintenance fee” for the device.  SunPass charges a one-time fee of $25.00 for the portable white box, or $5.00 for the sticker. No annual fee.
  • The E-ZPass web site operates like a militant government process, and is archaic and broken.  During the sign-in process, it ignored verification which had been done, would not let me add a rental car because the end date for the rental car was never enabled and was mandatory, and had numerous other problems I only see with web sites designed in the 1990’s.  The SunPass  web site has constantly matured, and operates more like a user-friendly commercial web site than a government agency.
  • The E-ZPass system is being used in a corrupt way by New York, which I will explain.

How to the federal government got involved

In late 2013, I got a letter from SunPass regarding a mandatory upgrade of certain older transponders.  It was an exchange program, where they would send you the new replacement for free. I received the upgrade, but it made me wonder why they were upgrading only certain transponders.  So I did some research, and discovered that it was part of a program to make the various electronic toll systems interoperable across the United States.  The US Department of Transporation issued a mandate to the several electronic toll collection agencies across the United States to make the systems interoperable by 2015.  That deadline was reluctantly extended to October 2016, after a number of agencies stated they were not going to be able to make the original deadline.

The reason for this is quite simple: a dollar on the West Coast should be as acceptable as a dollar on the East Coast, and the system processing the payment should not be blocking that.  And I’m a huge fan of electronic toll payment, so I applaud the mandate.  As of October 2016 (as long as there is no further slippage), I can use my SunPass for tolls on the PA Turnpike and NY bridges and tunnels.

And now for the corrupt part (IMHO).  When driving on the New York tunnels and bridges, there are some interesting tare signs that give away New York’s sneaky approach to profiting from this mandate.  For example: when going through the Battery Tunnel from Manhattan to Brooklyn, the tolls are 8.00 for cash, 7.50 for E-ZPass, and 5.25 for a New York-issued E-ZPass.  Other signs also have four rates: Cash, NY Residents, E-ZPass and NY-issued E-ZPass.  Why the rate for a NY-issued pass?

While I do not support New York in any way for what they are doing, I do have to give them credit for seeing a big economic opportunity in this interoperability.  Because E-ZPass pays the E-ZPass operating authorities (NY, NJ, PA, etc) a percentage for operating the system, New York realized that the more people who buy the E-ZPass from New York, the more income they make when it is used anywhere in the United States after October 2016.  The amount of residual income for the NY  E-ZPass authority could increase substantially.  Granted only people who travel to New York would see the tare signs and regularly benefit from the savings of E-ZPass, but there are plenty of cross-state commuters from Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey and others who would jump on the savings.

So my overall point is that the Federal Government really screwed up by not jumping in and directing the electronic toll payment system development at an early stage, so that a nationwide standard would exist for the RF tag we put in our vehicles. Because of that, we have this weird situation.  But if you are using electronic toll payment, consider looking at the various toll payment systems after October of 2016.  They will then no longer be monopolies, but competitors–much like the alternative natural gas, electric and phone service options that people have.

You could find a better deal.

 

 

 

14 Nov 2015
Technology is so SaaS-y, it’s not modeling the real world

“The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers.”  — Steven Harris

As a software developer, it is sometimes difficult for me to watch technology evolve into the current direction it has taken:  Software as a Service (SaaS).  I have been programming both as a hobby and as a professional for over 30 years. It’s not that I don’t like the technology. SaaS is a natural evolution of engineering and business needs.

SaaS is wonderful for the Information Technology professionals.

  1. It reduces software development effort.  It used to be that writing software was customized to the platform (Windows, Mac) and desktop computers were the norm.  Now there are apps written for devices like iPhone or Android platforms, but most everything else operates on the web which is not specific to a platform.  And the phone/tablets apps often let the server they talk with drive a lot of the content and display behavior–if not all of it.
  2. It makes software maintenance and deployment much easier.  Imagine what getting new software was like prior to the auto-updates we have for iPhone and Android, and the updates now only done on the servers for web sites and applications.  If you had a desktop application back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, it had to be downloaded (or mailed as a CD) and installed on every desktop which was running on it.  Now it is done automatically at the server, or even automatically on iPhone and Android, when it has a connection to the internet.  This benefit is huge for the IT community in terms of reduced deployment costs, increased speed of putting the new software into the market, and standardization of the software across the user base.
  3. Users and the IT community both gain from the access to quick security updates as vulnerabilities are discovered and addressed.
  4. SaaS combined with the cloud allows multiple devices for the same data and services.

Sometimes product designers and engineers can get detached from the real world they automate, especially where business-profits begin driving the technological designs.  SaaS is the true manifestation of that. While SaaS has many great benefits to the IT community, there is a comical effect on the end users because SaaS is the cause of the frequent change the end-users experience in their applications. It’s not uncommon to use an application on the web, desktop or other device which changes its controls, appearance or features after an update–often an update done automatically and is unexpected by the user.

Imagine if this were done in the real world.  I go to an automobile dealer and buy a car.  It is the result of research against my needs, and some test driving, to ensure it meets my needs.  After I buy the car, I drive it to and from my everyday activities on a daily basis.  Then, one morning, I go out to my car and discover that some things are different (it was auto-updated).  The color has changed, the radio controls have moved around, three new knobs have appeared, another control has disappeared and oddly, the manufacturer’s logo on my hood ornament has been replaced with a new design.  I’m sure that the creators and designers of these new upgrades have reasons why they put them in their cars, but my car is now different than the one I bought.

Because of the competitive nature of automobile manufacturers, it is common to see an idea from one car manufacturer propagate to another manufacturer over the model years.  Over time, many cars in a class of vehicles (mid-size, sub-compact, etc) begin to loose more and more of the unique features that distinguish them from each other. But many people just choose to hold on to the really good car they bought years ago that fits their needs so well.  With SaaS, you can not choose to ignore the changes and just use the application you first loved despite the upgrades.  The manufacturer dictates what you use.

Another penalty of this loss of local control is usually loss of customization or, in cases where customization (i.e. settings) is still available for the user to control, the lack of protecting that customization during upgrades. I have been irritated so many times by an upgrade which reset my customization back to a default, or simply deleted the saved settings–even the access credentials.  It wasted my time reconfiguring them after a change I did not want, just so I could use it the same way again. And this happens so frequently when I need to use the application to get something done quickly.  Quick is never an option when this happens.  Computers are supposed to save time and leverage effort, not the reverse.

While my comparison with a car is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, many updates to the user interface do have a negative impact on something which I don’t think most people consider: modifying a useful habit.  It takes some amount of effort on the part of an individual (the learning curve) to begin using a new device such as a vehicle, tool, etc.  As the device is used over and over, the brain begins to develop something called muscle memory which is the source of habits, and gives us the ability to do the same daily patterns and practices with less mental focus.  This frees up our mind to work on other things.

When a change is introduced, the muscle memory is disrupted and has to adjust.  We experience this frustration when an app is opened that has changed, but we want to use the app in its familiar form to do something quickly–which is what it has done many times before, and is why we installed the application.  The application, if it follows current practices, offers a typical “take a tour” dialog that can be bypassed.  For me, that is a dreaded dialog indicating trouble ahead.  It is such a common occurrence to see people getting frustrated that someone changed a perfectly fine application, and now they can’t easily and quickly do what they’ve always done.  I’ve not only seen people throw their devices and swear at them when this happens, but I have seen people switch to different applications for the same purpose.  I have been one of them.  This solely because the application was updated without warning, and for my purposes, it didn’t need updating.

SaaS is not only a good technology.  It is the right technology for the interconnected world we live in, right now.

If there is one thing I wish to emphasize to every person who works with applications designed for SaaS, it is to apply the golden rule.  Think about your car in your driveway.  Rather than coming out to your driveway or garage and discovering your car has changed, how would you react to the following scenario. The manufacturer needed to update your car, but the car you saw in the driveway hasn’t changed. You sit in the car, and you turn on the ignoition.  When the built-in display comes on, a dialog comes up informing you that there are updates which need to be done to your car which will take a certain amount of time.  You can select now, or select later.  It also informs you that the update must be started by a certain date, or the update will be done automatically.

At this point, if I am in a hurry or otherwise don’t have time to deal with the update, the car will still look and operate as it has previously.  I can start the upgrade when I have time to allow it, and after I have read about the new features (or watched a video summarizing it), so I can adjust my thinking and expectations.  Essentially, the surprise and disruption are minimized.  And if I don’t make the upgrade by the deadline, oops… my fault.

You see, as software developers and managers, we tend to embrace the very famous saying of Admiral Grace Hopper, one of the founders of modern day computing.  “It is better to ask for forgiveness, then wait for permission.”  Often we forget that she said this, because her work was in a government (military) environment full of people entrenched in their turf battles.  The people who use our applications aren’t our enemies, and aren’t resisting us at that level.

While I respect what Grace Hopper was saying, keep this paradigm in the technical world at your workplace.  I’ve met very few application users who put up with that attitude.

10 Nov 2015
The Beale Ciphers Solved! … or not?

When I was about 14 years old, I encountered one of the most fascinating puzzles in history: the Beale Ciphers. The Beale Ciphers are widely-known among treasure hunters.

What are the Beale Ciphers?  It is a collection of three documents, each of which contained an encrypted message as a sequence of numbers.  The story goes that they were left by a man named Thomas Beale in the care of an innkeeper, Robert Morriss, with instructions to hold them and to whom he should give them in case he (Beale) did not return.  You might have guessed it: he did not return.  The man who claimed to have ultimately obtained the documents published them for the public to see, including one of the documents which had been broken using the Declaration of Independence as the key. That document described the contents of a treasure which had been buried and the description of the vault where it was buried.  The contents are quite valuable. The other two documents remained undeciphered, one of which contained the location of the treasure, and the other containing the heirs to the treasure. Read the Wikipedia article for more details.

Naturally, this launched the efforts of treasure hunters for the next 120+ years. The documents have been analyzed by many people, including mathematicians and later with computer science departments when that technology became available. While no documented case of anyone breaking the ciphers had been known, there were plenty of police cases of people trespassing and digging on properties near Bedford County Virigina, where the treasure was supposedly buried.  And because the first document to be deciphered described the treasure and described what the two other documents contained, many people argue that the whole thing is a hoax.

Recently, I discovered an apparently no-longer-maintained web site Beale Ciphers Solved which documented not only that the other documents in the Beale Ciphers were successfully deciphered (sometime in the late 1990’s by Daniel Cole, now deceased), but showed what was found at the location described by the deciphered location document. It was thrilling to read about the effort, and see pictures of the site described. Basically, they claimed to have found a vault similar to what is described, but it was empty of any treasure. It had only small artifacts dating to the time it would have been built.

Still, the site is missing a lot of critical information, and there are things (and lack of things) in the documentation and the pictures which generate more questions than answers. It even raises some suspicions.

  1. While the site posts the claim of how the documents were deciphered, it provides no details. This is very strange for two reasons. First, these are enciphered documents which have stumped the world for almost 200 years. If I had solved it, I would want the world to know I did it and give details to prove it. This would be the moment of well-earned personal fame. Just the math and cryptography knowledge alone would be a feat in itself. Second, there is no reason not to provide this information. The treasure is supposedly gone so there is nothing to protect (they do post the lattitude/longitude of the vault on the site), and the method of cryptography used is outdated and has no military or intellectual property value. I will concede that Daniel Cole possibly died before he could document this for the public, but he must have generated and assembled a lot of notes from his work–at a minimum. Why isn’t this information shared?
  2. The site has no pictures from inside the vault.  Even if it was empty, photographs of the undisturbed vault would be valuable for evidence and to archaeologists, and to history in general.
  3. The backside of the vault looks like somebody was digging with heavy construction equipment.  The description of the vault says that it is not very big (seven feet at one point), and the site writers claim that it is empty.  But there is a tremendous amount of fresh dirt and rock splattered on the hill behind the entrance–far more than could be done reasonably by hand.  There is no indication of anything other than hand tools (sledgehammer, pick axes, etc) on the site or in the pictures.  Why do all this digging for something that is clearly empty?  There may be a valid reason, but again, no explanation is given. (A big thank you to my dad who pointed this out in the photos)
  4. The two remaining, and supposedly now-decoded ciphers are a little suspicious.  The decoded location cipher is listed as partial content (“the very last portion of Dan’s decoded document”), and “this is the most difficult area of cipher one to decode.”  Again, give us the details.  This is critical, because viewed as circumstantial evidence only, the “residence” document which is supposed to list the heirs to the treasure instead essentially says “hey, we’ve all come back and removed our treasure and even paid taxes on it.” Well, of what value is that for Beale to bother encoding, let alone give to someone in a cipher form to protect?  And more relevant, why not list the heirs only since that is of value if, as Beale claimed, he was leaving the information in case something happened to his party on their next expedition and did not return.  This content claimed to be from the deciphered Residence document is the most critical one for outside sources to validate.

So #4 above opens a huge and potentially dangerous point.  Any treasure hunter in the world needs to keep people from knowing what they know as they pursue the treasure.  Once the treasure is found (and in this case that includes recovered from its hiding place), the finder is either going to:

  1. No longer hide information about the treasure and take action to legally claim and protect it. Make an official claim to it, pay any taxes, etc, so that ownership of the treasure is protected officially.
  2. Continue to hide information about the treasure, and even generate disinformation to throw fellow treasure hunters and others off the trail.

Assuming that Beale’s treasure did exist and was not removed by Beale but WAS found in the excavation described on the site, the content listed in the site as being from the list of heirs would be great content to discourage future attempts at excavation.  But even more so, from discouraging government entities (e.g. the IRS) from thinking anything was found at the site.  After all, according to the text, Beale and party came back and claimed the treasure.  Who would care about paying taxes or handshakes with the Secretary of the Treasury (argument by unverifiable authority), or that he had no heirs?  That sounds more like disinformation.

Am I accusing the people who created the site of any deception. No. It makes no sense to even put up a web site like that if they found treasure there. But the lack of details which would allow others to duplicate the deciphering results they claimed to have achieved not only creates the potential for a lot of suspicion, but denies information to history that it rightly deserves. So I strongly hope that the creator’s of the site can either take the time and post the information on the site, or solicit some help from others to do it.  Even if this was all valid and part of an elaborate hoax by someone to lead people to a vault that was always empty, history is being robbed of a great part of this story.

… until, at least, the full details of how all the deciphering was accomplished are released to the public, and validated.

10 Nov 2015
The 26th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

I was lucky to be in the United States Air Force and stationed at Tempelhof Central Air Base in Berlin, on the day the Berlin Wall fell: Nov 9, 1989.  It occurred only one month after I married my wife, so the event is strongly etched in both of our minds.  I am occasionally asked where I was when it happened, and what is my memory of the event.

I was in at home in Berlin, which was a huge benefit. My strongest memory is actually what I watched on TV right after I was told about the borders being opened. Bear with me: this may be very different from what you might expect.

The previous night, my wife Heidi and I had thrown a party at our house. The next morning, one of our guests and his girlfriend dropped by the house. He asked us if we had heard the news about the borders being opened.  I was a little confused and asked what he meant. He said that the border with East Berlin was opened. I was shocked: not only that it could happen, but that I had heard nothing of it. My first reaction was to turn on my TV to check the news. This is where my experience of the finding out the Berlin Wall had fallen is a little different than most.

Our TV was a multi-system TV.  It was capable of not only viewing American TV (formatted in what was known as NTSC), but we could watch TV from most broadcast formats in the world at the time.  That included PAL for the West German (or West Belin) TV stations, and SECAM for the communist countries which included East German TV broadcast from East Berlin.  As fate would have it, the channel which the TV was tuned into was the same East German TV channel we had watched the previous night.  So our first glimpse into what had happened came from watching a reaction from East Berlin–the communist side.

For American readers, I need to explain something about the West German and East German TV practices at the time.  German TV stations would use young female hosts (models) to introduce shows to its audience.  As part of the normal programming between shows on West German channels, it was common to see a well-decorated set with a see-through Plexiglas podium. In it, a beautiful, well-dressed young woman with a big smile casually (and, yes, even enticingly) leaned on the podium while talking about the upcoming program which was about to air.  The East German television stations copied this practice, but it was easy to see it was East Germany from the lower quality of the set and the more conservative mannerisms from the hostess.

As the TV warmed up (remember those days?) and the picture began to appear, the East German set with the Plexiglas podium was there, and the female host was there.  But things were very different.  The female host was not casually leaning up against the podium as she normally would.  She was standing straight up–almost rigid.  She was holding several papers in her hand to read from, as usual, but both of her hands were gripping them very tightly.  And they were shaking.  She was visibly sweating and the smile was a very nervous one, and her voice was cracking as she read the official announcement that the border with West Berlin was open.  It was quite a image.

Immediately, my mind flashed back to something I had read at one time.  It was the story of a bear in a cage at the zoo.  The cage was about 20 feet in length, and the bear lived there a long time.  The bear in the cage was fed daily, by the zookeeper opening the door and putting the food inside the door.  The bear would get up, walk about 10 feet to his food and eat.  After the zoo modified its exhibit to a more natural environment to get rid of the cage, the bear just stayed in one spot in the new exhibit.  Daily, the zookeeper would put his food about the same 10 feet from the bear.  The bear would walk the ten feet and eat his food.

One day, the zookeeper put the food 15 feet from the bear.  The bear, got up, walked 10 feet… and stopped.  The bear only had 5 feet to go to his food, but would not move.  Physically, he was shaking and very disoriented.  But he would not move from the spot.  His routine was changed, but to him it was devastating.

That was the image I was watching in real life that day on the East German TV channel, as the beautiful young woman who had the courage to stand in front of the camera and read the official announcement was experiencing the same dread as the change the bear was experiencing.  I am sure she was visually and emotionally expressing what her viewers in East Germany must have been going through as well.  The cage was open and they were free to go… but it was scary.

This was a very powerful scene, one that is burned deeply into my psyche and impacts my thinking to this very day.

 

16 Oct 2015
The Mysterious, But Not-So-Surprising Georgia Guidestones

R.C. Christian, who is he? It’s a pseudonym for the person who created the Georgia Guidestones.

The Guidestones are a strange set of ten commandment-like statements in eight languages on four tablets. They were put on private property in Georgia in 1980, and are becoming more broadly known in the world.

These are the 10 guides contained in the stones:

  1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
  2. Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
  3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
  4. Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
  5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
  6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
  7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
  8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
  9. Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
  10. Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

I spent a good part of my life in the new-age movement, so the precepts in these guidestones are familiar to me.  I’ve seen them separately in numerous other writings over time.  I can also tell you that even though they sound rational, the precepts contained in the Guidestones are anything but godly.  It takes a comparison with the words of the author of the real Ten Commandments to see the deception.

The first red flag about these guidestones isn’t even in the 10 guides themselves: it starts with the author. Why use a pseudonym? If these guides are so great in themselves, why not stand in front of the world’s population alone or with your supporters, and champion it? The main reason people choose to use a pseudonym is to hide investigation of the source. Why would the source for this need to be hidden, unless it actually masks something that is not as “divinely inspired” as it would appear?

With that in mind, let’s compare the precepts here to something that has open readership and a known author: God’s word.

  1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.

Where in the world did this arbitrary number come from? The world currently sustains 7 billion people. There have been over a billion people on the planet since 1800, and the earth has sustained that. So why would the goal be even half the number on the planet in 1800?

I have had people argue with me in the past about the famines in Ethiopia and North Korea, etc, as examples of non-sustainability.  But the truth is, those famines were caused by corrupt governments blocking food from reaching the people who needed it (Ethiopia) or completely ignoring a need they knew how to fulfill and not accepting help from other nations to save face (North Korea).  It certainly was not for any lack of food supply in the world.  North America (the United States particularly) produces enough food for itself and another 300-500 million people on the planet, and was trying to supply it to the people of both North Korea and Ethiopia.

Even if the world had 30 billion people on it, the creator of the world clearly demonstrated that supplying it is not a problem.  He personally turned several baskets of bread and fish into enough food for 5,000 people.  This was a clear demonstration that supplying the needs of people on Earth is covered, if the world works with him to do it.

  1. Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.

So I can interpret this in a few ways.  Is this to ..

  • encourage specific choices in the selection of parents of a child
  • scientific intervention in the genes to improve the quality of the life reproduced
  • imposing restrictions or quotas on the quantity of human life reproduced
  • a combination of any of these.

None of these alone or in combination is good, in any way.  In fact, the concept embodied in this guide has been manifested many times in history in horrible ways (genocides are a part of this thinking). And this guide goes directly against the original command that God gave to Adam and Eve. ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Have many children. Fill the earth and take control of it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the air. Rule over every living thing that moves on the earth.”’ (Genesis 1:28).

Remember, God never rescinded or changed this command, and he even told Abraham that his descendants would number more than the grains of sand on the beach. I’m sure the number of grains of sand on any single beach in the world is well beyond 500 million.  This guide point is to support and enforce the first guide point.  Don’t make the mistake of seeing this guide point as altruistic: it is not benign in any way.

The subtle message of “improving fitness and diversity” is that it results from guiding reproduction.  Anyone with any insight can see that there are some fetuses are going to not live up to that standard.

  1. Unite humanity with a living new language.

What’s wrong with English?  Since the end of World War II, the dominance of English in the world has reached every corner.  It is also the defacto language of business in the world.  It has an extremely rich vocabulary for expression of thoughts and ideas. There have been other languages created (Esperanto) which were intended to become the language of the world, but they are spoken by a small minority of the world.

The simple answer for this guide is that it is another attempt to revive the Tower of Babel. After the Tower of Babel was built, God created confusion in the language among the people. His reason was that the people would be unstoppable in anything–His own words. They could accomplish anything with a common language. Read Genesis 11:1-8.

While it may seem great to have humanity fully united, God warns that the heart of man is full of evil.  So uniting hearts full of evil in this way is a very bad thing.

This is the biggest clue to the nature of the guide stones being related to the New World Order.  Its focus is to unite humanity against the God of Israel, just as the one language would have done in Babel had God not introduced confusion into the language … AND scattered the people across the earth.  In our world, the “Global Village” refers to mankind no longer being scattered over the world (at least in a virtual sense).  So a new common language returns the earth back to a state of Babel capable of anything, except being able to stop God from confusing them.

Reread that last paragraph carefully.

  1. Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.

This is the guide point behind the common bumper sticker often seen on cars: “Coexist” (with all the letters derived from various religious symbols of the world).  It is also a cause of the screwy political correctness we are tormented with today.  While tempered reason sounds like the solution (after all, science is based on reasoning), reasoning has a bad habit of making decisions on what it can reason, being unaware or unknowledgeable of things that would cause a different conclusion.  Worse off, science is not free from prejudice.  There are many cases (dinosaur bones particularly) where the information was intentionally falsified, and led to generations of teaching based on wrong information.

This guide point is also the way to get individuals to submit their view of God and traditions under an artificial religion that is designed for all mankind–a big part of the New World Order.  Even God has an interesting passage in his word that goes against tempered reason. “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16)

  1. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.

This doesn’t sound like anyone could argue with the principle here.  It is a good principle, except… the devil is in the details.  What represents “fair laws and just courts” is going to vary according to the person you ask.  To me, this statement is no different than a candidate for President of the United States participating in a televised debate, who says, “We should protect the middle class.”

Well, how?  Every political candidate in any debate for decades has said that, and yet the middle class has steadily dwindled over those same decades.  To me, this guide point is a meaningless, bandwagon mentality intended to sway people to an idea which they can’t even do themselves.  Notice the guide point not only says protect “people” but “nations”.  This implies something global in scope.  Having lived for over half-a-century, I would much rather have individual independent nations protecting their people, than a single global entity protecting nations.

One nation having a corrupt government and not protecting its people is a bad thing.  A world having a corrupt one-world government is all hell breaking loose.  Who does the world turn to for help when that happens?  Obviously, not itself.

  1. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.

We actually have a form of this now, but it doesn’t always stop war because powerful nations do not see it as binding.  It is idealistic, absolutely.  And it is something I would support, until the decision is enforceable to the point where a nation loses its sovereignty.  That’s a deeper subject that I won’t touch here.

  1. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.

This is similar to number 5 above. Petty here is in the eye of the beholder.  If you were to ask a member of ISIS about this, you would get a radically different answer than in the West.

  1. Balance personal rights with social duties.

How this is practiced currently differs even in general “isms” which exist in the political spectrum: Communism, Socialism, Capitalism, etc. Again. we have a similar problem to number 5: it’s another bandwagon-mentality statement with the devil in the details. The worst part of this is the number of very wealthy people who advocate this, but don’t follow it themselves. That alone should be a strong warning.

  1. Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.

Who is the “infinite”? The choice of word here is driven by guide point number 4 (tempered reason).  Why not say seek harmony with God?  The word “infinite” is used because many people see God not as a person, but as an energy source that can be tapped into not unlike plugging a cord into an outlet.  And that’s very appealing to our selfish nature.

The new age teaches about the need of every human soul to line up (i.e. not conflict) with the forces of the universe, hence the inference of the “infinite” as an energy source. This belief is known as pantheism. The Bible teaches the opposite: that we are completely dependent on God and He is sovereign.  And there is one subtle nuance hidden in the reference “infinite” that is easy to overlook. Everyone of us, God and even Lucifer has a soul that is infinite, and we are not solely an energy source.  So infinite is very misleading and deceptive.

This goal of this guide point and guide point 3 (a new living language) is to empower the new Babel.  It’s not about lining up with God.  It’s the manifestation of the lie that the serpent told Eve in the garden of Eden.  The serpent told Eve that there were two things that God was trying to hide from her and Adam by telling them not to eat the apple.  First, they would not die, and second that they would have the knowledge of good and evil.  In other words, they would have some of God’s power.  Both are lies.

The infinite is a term Lucifer gives to man to lead him away from the one true God.  It is the core of a world view that sees man having full control over his destiny: a Luciferian doctrine and a poisoning of God’s original intent for the world.

  1. Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

This is very deceptive.  As God said in his word, we are to multiply and to subdue the Earth.  Even at 7 billion people on the earth, the amount of space humans take is negligible.  If every person in the world were to stand side by side, and line up in rows with 1 foot of space between them, the entire population of Earth would fit within the county limits of Jacksonville Florida.  Over 80% of the world’s population lives in cities, and only 20% live in rural areas.  Over 60% of the world’s population lives within a one-hour drive of a major body of water.  The other 40% live further away.  That’s a lot of open land.

There are plenty of protected nature reserves and parks over the Earth.  This is a good goal in guide post number 10, but it is so easily misconstrued to promote the agenda of radical environmentalists and others who worship idols (as in Mother Gaia).  It is also is a big part of the United Nations Agenda 21.  Read up on that if you are unfamiliar with it.

—-

In conclusion, treat the Georgia Guidestones for what they are: another thing that is attempting to draw the world’s people away from the one true God, and instead lead everyone to worship humanity.  This is another artifact left by anonymous forces who are trying to establish the One World Government for their own sinister purposes.  This is a group of people who’s only moral compass is that they can do anything to anyone that they want, as long as they tell them first.

So remember to also treat the Georgia Guidestones with the same understanding as their creators did.   These guidestones are not a goal of wisdom.  They express the goals of a group of elitists, and are a clear warning to all of mankind.

01 Sep 2015
Some tips when tracking your finances online

As a lot of people have done or are doing, I moved my finance tracking off the old (read: previously) reliable Quicken desktop application, to a provider on the web.  I love the convenience of having quick access on all devices I use and wherever I am.

But there are still things I will not do on the web when it comes to finances, regardless of how nice the “you are safe with us” security logo shines at me on the home page.  And as far as the web is concerned, some old practices in the banking system (like holding funds for days until the actual transaction takes place) really mess with accuracy when importing data.  I want to pass on some things I do differently online than in the desktop Quicken, which may be useful for others.  All are serious, despite my tongue-in-cheek comments with them.

Use the import function to load your transactions, but never assume it is complete

As banks, credit unions and credit card providers began adding the ability to export transactions to their web sites, reducing manual entry of transactions into Quicken or an online system became much easier. But the imports will not reflect the uncleared transactions. For banks and credit unions, the uncleared transactions are related to paper checks and ACH (Automated Clearing House) transactions.  An ACH transaction is how a check is paid in by originating bank to the receiving bank.  It has also been adapted for virtual checks, which is either the “pay from my bank account” seen online, or when a company uses a service to scan your paper checks (like Amscot or Verizon uses) instead of directly depositing the paper check into their banks.  Mobile deposit is also a form of virtual checking.

These transfers don’t occur immediately (like an ATM card used as a debit card).  They are queued in the ACH system, and it is amusing to watch what happens with the imports from both sides of the transaction over several days.  One will show the withdrawal, and the receiver shows the money arriving days later.

My personal technique to overcome this delay is to create a transaction called “PLACEHOLDER”, which simply is entered into the losing (officially, credited) bank account with the amount expected.  It is like entering in a check, then clearing it when it shows up on the statement.  The difference is that it has no serial number, and the PLACEHOLDER entry is deleted when the real transaction shows up in the imported data.

This technique keeps the available balances accurate, and is the practice as something that people who write checks are used to: reconciling.  The PLACEHOLDER is also useful for marking reserved allocations (say tax escrow or planned expenses) which need to change the available amount to reflect a future expense.

Avoid putting your real information describing your accounts online

If you use a web-based service or application which offers to automatically download and import your transactions from your accounts for you, and you use it, this recommendation does not apply to you.  The service or application will require detailed information to make that connection.

I personally don’t let my service do the work for me.  I download the files myself and import myself, since I am more than a little thorough when it comes to managing finances.  I also have a basic risk understanding that anything contained in my financial tracking application or service can be compromised by a online attack.  So I don’t put anything that could easily identify my accounts in the account settings.

A fun way to do this is to simply borrow the technique from the movie “Gone in 60 Seconds”.  In the movie, the car thieves gave women’s names to the cars they were targeting.  So anyone listening on the radio would only hear updates about “Susan” and “Tracy”, etc, not realizing they were reporting movement of stolen property.  Now if hackers compromise your financial tracking site, your cage won’t get rattled while everyone else who used real information will wonder how far the attack will affect them.

Also, you can turn it into a game.  Why not call your bank something like:

  • “First Intergalactic Savings and Loan”
  • “National Limestone Bunker Asset Management”
  • “One Delta Ten Tango”

Be as creative as you can get.  That way, if someone leaks the account information, you will amuse the masses.  Maybe you will even contribute to the nutty conspiracy videos on YouTube.  And even if the information is not leaked publicly, you can chuckle to yourself over a beer, smiling at other people panicking over the electronic compromise, while you picture the hacker looking at his screen and asking himself…

“Who’s Marsha?”

 

20 Jul 2015
Your Rulings Speak So Loudly, I Don’t Want to Hear a Word You Say

The recent decision by the Supreme Court to declare gay marriage a right protected under the 14th amendment to the US Constitution (Obergefell v. Hodges) caused the expected celebrations and disappointment, and is not a surprise to me. It is a pattern I have seen for the last two decades, where activists use the court as a way to bypass inaction by Congress, or adversarial decisions to their cause. This is not healthy for the United States.

Back in college, I learned one of the most important lessons of my life. It is directly related to what I am talking about here. In a management class of about 25 people, the professor split us into groups of 5, with one person in each group appointed as the leader. I was the leader for my group.  He gave each group the same problem to solve: you’re an imaginary corporation with a tight deadline, and tight resources, which involved people having to make sacrifices of resources to solve the problem. We had to decide what sacrifices were going to be made to solve the problem.

The problem itself was irrelevant, but how it was solved by all the groups was eye-opening. My group was the first to finish: it wasn’t planned, it just happened that way. I asked everyone what their thoughts were, taking notes on everything. Once that was complete, I spelled out my decision and the thinking behind it. I was not aware of it at the time, but I was using a directive approach to problem solving. It is not a right or wrong approach, it is simply one of several ways to approach problem solving. There was discussion about the problem, but in hindsight, it was very limited and not very interactive among the people in the group. And the one key thing that stood out: the members of the group were not very talkative, and were in fact resentful of my decision and each other. It’s not that it was a bad decision: the logic was there. But the group clearly resented how the decision was made.

As time progressed in the exercise, other groups began to finish and came back to the main class area with their chairs.  But one group took a long time: well over 20 minutes past our group finishing.  And it was a loud and very engaged group as well, often becoming loudly passionate.  The leader of their group was just mediating the conversation.  At the end of their session, people in the group were visually happy with the outcome as their returned their chairs, rejoining the rest of us.  Interestingly, when the professor asked for each group’s decision, the actual decisions were almost identical to each other with some very minor variations.

And the professor, of course, made the point that the exercise was to learn the pros and cons of various approaches to problem solving.  Well, it worked.  When he asked each group what they liked and disliked about the decision, there was a common opinion.  It was not so much what the decision was: it was whether the people involved in making the decision felt like they were not only fully heard, but also were given a fair stake in the decision.  To understand what I mean by a fair stake, an unfair stake is being forced to accept responsibility for a implementing a decision you feel is in conflict with information you know.   The last group, whose leader chose to only be a mediator, made sure everyone was being given a chance to voice their thoughts.  He also didn’t make any decision: he fully delegated the decision to the group, and accepted what they collectively agreed on.

I can not emphasize not only how satisfied the members of his group were, but also how united and supportive of the decision they were.

Not unlike my experience in the classroom that day for my group, the Supreme Court has effectively driven a wedge in America society by not only making this decision, but more importantly, even taking the case in the first place.  There has been an ongoing discussion in Congress about how to address the many political, social, economic and legal issues that are deeply interconnected and affected by the recognition of marriage outside of its current definition in law.  This process, which allows all interested parties to voice their concerns, objections, advocacy, etc was just usurped by the Supreme Court.

Using my classroom scenario, what the Supreme Court just did was the same as if I walked over to the group taking the longest time because of their open discussion and gave them my decision for their use. That’s not my right to do that, and the Supreme Court clearly overstepped its boundaries as well.

The Supreme Court judges who dissented did something in this case that is also unprecedented.  Rather than issuing a single dissenting opinion, they each chose to issue their own.  And some are rather scathing of the majority who voted in favor of the plaintiff.  It is worth reading John Roberts dissenting option: he covers what I have said and much more.

While gay marriage advocates are celebrating the decision, they are about to realize the damage they have done to their cause with this case.  Already, opinion polls are showing a downturn in public opinion for gay marriage.  Using tactics like this (bypassing a law making process with the court system) creates real resentment among Americans, and throws fuel on the accusations that gay marriage advocates are arrogant and elitist.

The real damage is not immediately apparent.  The ruling is another step to undo our nation’s motto: E Pluribus Unum (Out of many–One).