Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A better way to deal with sick shooters

Like everyone I was stunned by the recent shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.  My son lives in New Zealand, but he lives on the North Island.  He did have a teacher colleague who was in lockdown  in Christchurch.  My cousin Linda was actually on the South Island and had been in Christchurch a bit before and as I write this she and Derek are back in Christchurch before they head back to Canada.

Derek was the first one to get my attention posting on Facebook something about one of the victims--the first one who actually greeted the shooter.  Another Facebook post from him was about one of victims who had tackled the shooter resulting in his death and that of his son.  I shared one of them and am pleased that some of my friends shared it a little bit further and before too long I could see other people had picked up the posts from other sources.

Then Jacinda Ardern , the New Zealand Prime Minister had posts up saying that she would never utter the name of the shooter.  It might be recalled that several shooters in the past credited earlier shooters with inspiring them.  To some sick people the shooters were portrayed as some weird sort of hero.  There are many factors mostly not understood that result in mass shootings and it seems the general public knows more about them then they do about the more numerous victims.

Hopefully this latest shooting will start to reverse the publicity--it should be more about commemorating the victims than the sick belligerents.  We need to understand what causes a particular person to commit such horrid deeds.  We need to be able better to predict who is more likely to emulate earlier shootersand decide what steps can be taken to minimize the danger.   This is now a global concern and needs to be taken with co-operation between all national authorities.

What we as individuals and particularly politicians need to be more careful of is not to publicize sick people, but remember the victims.

Jacinda has set a good model of what should be done.  I can't resist mentioning that Donald Trump was pathetic.  As they both elected was a contrast as well there might be another lesson.

Donald Trump was elected with less votes than his main opponent Hilary Clinton.  In some jurisdictions there would have been a run off if no candidate received 50% of the votes, but the American system was set up with critical input from slave owners that allows disproportionate  power to smaller states.  The contest allows for strategies that take advantage of voters who are unhappy about something and whose vote can be leveraged.  Actually everyone is unhappy about something, but the Republicans have mastered stirring up social concerns that actually disadvantage minorities who can be targeted to enable getting power for their economic agenda.

New Zealand offers a proportional system that means a significant fraction of votes are split among parties rather than geographically.  As it happened Jacinda's party only accumulated the second most votes, however the party that finished third felt more in alignment with Jacinda's party and agreed to support the more liberal party of Jacinda's.  Obviously both parties joining together had to be willing to share power and be willing to compromise some of their policies.

The voters in New Zealand's system made a better choice, but not only for themselves, for the whole world.  We need more examples like Jacinda Ardern.

I wanted to get this off my chest before the next crisis has its own urgency.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


We make dozens of decisions every day, but some decisions are too complex to be resolved without study.   There are many books that advise  Johnson delves into what he calls "complex decisions," the ones that can change our lives and deserve careful deliberation.

As he recommends stories as a path to understanding Johnson tells us a few examples.  The decision process to kill Osama bin Ladin was very complex and serious.  The Abbotabad  decision benefited from previous mistakes.  We are taken back to a mysterious bit of information that only indicated that an important person might live at a compound In Abbotabad, Pakistan.  Although it was early speculated that this might be where bin Ladin was holed up, the danger of being wrong was critical. At each step of the process multiple opinions are sought and teased out with many choices being eliminated.

Loss aversion is a greater fear than greed for gain and needs to be guarded against.  At some point in a complex decision we try to calculate the risks of something not working out as anticipated.

Uncertainties are certain to be found in complex decisions or as Donald Rumsfeld would say, there are unknown unknowns.  One way of dealing with them is to cast a wide net involving other contributors.  As much as practical scenarios can be constructed.  Simulations might also be tried such as the Pentagon rehearsing possible attacks on Abbotabad that modified their plans.

You might recall there was no buildup to the announcement of a successful mission.  They had also taken into account some of the consequences of the assassination.  They had booked an alternative supply route to Afghanistan a year in advance.  They had taken precautions to minimize the martyrdom of bin Ladin.

Charles Darwin was contemplating marriage, but had many concerns about what he would have to give up.   We know that he adopted a version of what has come to be known as the Benjamin Franklin method.  Other than him actually marrying we don't know his conclusion to the decision.  Later he faced another decision when his daughter Annie was threatened with a little understood disease.  Unfortunately the options were not well studied and she died forcing changes in both his and wife's lives.  He became less religious and open about it while he his wife found comfort in her religion.

Returning to Darwin to illustrate other points.  What surprised me the most was that the decision to publish his theory of Evolution took very long.  He wanted the fame that he expected, but not the notoriety that would ensue and not only create intense religious hostility, but upset his wife .  His wife eventually accepted her husband's lack of religiosity, but in the end Darwin was forced to publish his theory as a rival threatened to publish his similar theory first.

Another set of decisions came from reading novels in particular "Middlemarch." George Eliot wrote "Middlemarch that contains decisions with factors that clash with one another..  Towards the end Johnkson refers to the life of George Eliot who was born Mary Ann Evans.   Unlike Darwin who tried to decide between marrying or not marrying George Eliot chose a third option which was to live together with her partner outside marriage.   Her decision involved her writing career and her political ideals.  An earlier blog dealt with the importance of using stories to persuade people to make a decision:

Throughout the many examples in the book, Johnson maintains that diversity of viewpoints is critical, obviously such as including both genders, age range, a variety of ethnic, experiences, etc.  A single viewpoint is often unable to see a full range of choices.  He criticizes gerrymandering as it groups people with a predominant ideological perspective. 

My take on Premier Doug Ford's decision to cut the number of Toronto city councillors. 

Johnson suggests three complex issues that deserve careful analysis before making a decision.
long term;  contact with extra terrestial beings, immortality and artificial intelligence.  For some people the downsides are minor but in reality there are serious consequences to making a wrong  choice.  Scientists are now cautioning us against trying to contact beings from outside our planet as they would likely have superior technology and perhaps unkindly intentions.  Other scientists are concerned about artificial intelligence overcoming humans.  Immortality seems like a natural goal,that no longer seems impossible, but  it has difficult to assess consequences.

Of course for many of us we need a little help in making some decisions.  Sometimes we need a little help or we would like to "nudge" someone off the fence.

In the acknowledgements he admits that he starting taking notes almost ten years before publication.  A lot of decisions along the way.  Everyone is compelled to make important decisions--what career path to pursue, who to marry, to find a purpose in life.  

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani

Donald Trump has created an industry for writers and book sellers.
To most people I respect it is a great mystery why so many people admire him.  Michiko Kakutani is another who taps in some more thoughts on the subject.

Michiko alluded to "Identity" a book Francis Fukyama felt compelled to write after his-earlier book "The End of History" had to be updated as Trump had set back the progressive path had been supposedly set in motion for civilization.
Some thoughts on Fukuyama's latest book (it is very good as well)

The 2008 crash didn't hurt banks, but thousands lost jobs, while others suffered wages cuts and inequality increased.  The people's anger has been diverted with scapegoats such as Mexicans, Muslims, minorities socialistic thinking.  The role of de-regulations is ignored.  The coming issue of increasing automation and artificial intelligence is not brought up.  The 1% are steadily increasing their control while the masses are stirred up truly "fake news."

Gaining power has become ruthless with the first casualty, truth.   Lee Atwater, a Republican operative partially responsible for Ronald Reagan's success once said,  "perception is reality"   Among many other things Ronald Reagan deregulated media resulting in greater concentration of the message senders.  He also did away with service requirements and a fairness policy.  Broadcasters did what was intended, focusing on profits.  News became part of the entertainment package and changed to become part of the profit effort partly through sensationalism and partly through segmenting profitable niches.  Newt Gingrich quoted "As a political candidate I'll go with how people feel and I'll let you go with the theoretician."

Tom Nicholls:  If citizens do not bother to gain basic literacy in the issues that affect their lives they abdictate control over those issues whether they like it or not.  And when voters lose control over these important discussions they risk the hi-jacking of their democracy.

Michiko made some observations after reading "Amusing ourselves to death" by Neil Postman.  Postman discussed the approaches of George Orwell to Aldous Huxley with respect to the predicted future dystopia.  George Orwell visualized a tightening of information through censorship, but also blatant distortion of reality  and most of us cynical future observers have adopted this viewpoint.  Huxley on the other had visualized a drug infused atmosphere where the pursuit of pleasure obscured awareness of reality.  Postman favored this likelihood.  Both scenarios assume the power at the top were immune from the truth. Postman was writing about the insidious role of television, but his observations are even more relevant today.  Read my take on his book:

One of Trump's heroes, Vladimir Putin is a master of lying. or maybe it is just a manifestation  of power.  Putin lies, denies and then brags about it.  Ukraine was a good example of how a powerful man can lie  One of Trump's methods from Robert A Heinlein, "  You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic."
One way to distort truth is the use of false equivalences.  If the fact point to a foul deed it is quickly pointed out that both sides are guilty so it is no big deal.  Science is belittled at every opportunity because all too often it suggests a change in policy is required.

Thomas Jefferson opined that men need to be governed by truth and reason.  A necessary requirement was a free press.  Tyrants seek to stifle a free press.

There are a few hopeful blimps the author notes.   The Parkland students  campaigning for greater gun control have forced a small retreat by established advocates for more gun freedoms.  They supposedly are too naive, but thank goodness they have persisted.

Last two sentences from the author:  "Without truth, democracy is hobbled.  The founders recognized this and those seeking democracy survival must recognize it to-day."

Thursday, March 7, 2019


Originally this book was to be reviewed shortly after reading, but work bogged me down and I ended up reading two other books before finding time for another blog.  Ironically I learned more about the the author Francis Fukuyama.  He is famous for "The End of History" which I had not read.  In it he apparently proclaimed that all history had led to our modern status quo which Francis thought was destined to boost democracy and progressiveness indefinitely  This was made necessary because Trump set history backwards.

Politicians have been trying to figure out how best to attract enough voters to get elected.  Francis Fukuyama explores the issue of identity which is a critical factor that some politicians understand better than others.

Economic motivation is rooted in the demand for recognition and therefore cannot be satisfied by economic means.  For many leaders it is felt that if the incentives are right a worker, citizen will be motivated.  Francis goes beyond that implying that people have come to recognize money is one important tool to be recognized.  Money is one marker of status. 

Back in 1974 the proportion of national output going to the 1% was only 9%, but in 2008 it had risen to 24%.  That was at the expense of the rest of the population and the victims were looking for someone to blame.

Fukuyama credits Martin Luther as one of the first Western thinkers to extol the inner self or the external social being.  Humiliation drove many movements with one of the best examples the French Revolution.  The growth of liberalism led to the free movement of labor.  Two of the most liberal nations, Britain and the United States were drivers of industrialization.  Ironically (?) inequality in developed world is most pronounced in the same two countries.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote that the experiences of women not the same as for men and helped promote idea to boost the status of women.  Over time other aggrieved groups, racial minorities, gays, transgenders who developed a conscience of being treated unfairly.  Fukuyama contends that nations need to develop national identities. 

United States was mostly settled by the British, but Irish Catholics starting immigrating around the 1840's.  Southern and eastern Europeans followed and were also resented.  In World War I many Germans tried to hide their identity.  in the 20th century and more so in the 21st, Mexicans and Muslims are becoming more noticeable and causing politicians like Sarah Palin to comment on the "real America" and Donald Trump wants to "make America great again."

Fukuyama advocates that minority abuses have to be corrected.  Assimilation has to be encouraged.  Economic stress needs to be mitigated as resentment starts with loss of status.  Social media facilities the formation of groups and also misinformation to spread.

Identity has been used to divide people, but it also can and has been used to integrate.  My little review necessarily skims over much of Fukuyama's arguments which are well worth reading.

After reading it was brought to my attention that Stacey Abrams rebutted some Fukuyama's arguments during her response to the State of the Union speech.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Evolution and Art of film subtitles

Do you feel shut out of some highly acclaimed movies?  Or maybe would like to know what is really being said during the "dirty" parts.?  Maybe you just want to better understand how a movie fits together.  Subtitles open up the world, but there is an art to them that can not only enhance the movie, but also further confuse the issue.


 "Sairat" a surprising movie in a language you are probably unaware of--Marathi.

There are really two concerns--clarity and understanding and they are intertwined.

Silent films had the problem of communicating dialogue and explaining some actions.  They chose to use a full screen for a title page with dialogue or description.  This could be to cover foreign films to the extent many Americans did not realize which country the film originated from.  Many silent films were accompanied by a musical band, but one invention cut that expense by allowing programmed music to play with the film.

If it is blurry or with confusing fonts the reader is slowed down.  If the letters blend in with the background color it will force more concentration on just reading.  Advances in chemistry applications, laser and lately digital have made reading much smoother and less distracting.   Bubbles are often used to project thoughts usually for humour.  Norwegians and Hungarians advanced the technology.

By 1903, "Uncle Tom's Cabin utilized inter titles between film scenes.  By 1909 M. N Tropp developed concept of subtitles at bottom of screen.

One of the early pioneers, Herman G Weinberg got involved with foreign films brought to the United States by re arranging German symphony music for string quartets.  When  talking pictures became more common, many foreign films became inaccessible.  In a bit of a learning process Herman subtitled over 300 movies.  With a subtitled German film the non Germans were upset that they were not understanding a joke as the German speakers were all laughing. 

"Sarah's Key" an international classic you can better understand in French and English.

To avoid taking away from other factors--cinematography, acting, scenery, costumes, etc. written dialogue needs to be concise, meaning often words are eliminated to get at the meaning.  Colloquialisms are tricky, but if not dealt with the viewer is confused. A typo can add to the confusion.

Dubbing became popular at one time as it was thought a better way to make words clear.  Many movies are still available this way, but many of us find dubbing unnatural.  The voice doesn't always match the visual and often comes with an awkward distracting cadence.

Woody Allen is a challenge because his movies tend to be wordy.  He admired a French subtitleist who managed  to captured the essence of his dialogues.

Censoring can be disastrous distorting the meaning of the script.  Sometimes the subtitleist uses euphemism for swear words. 

"Leviathan" depicts a Russia you never knew about.

 In some instances subtitles are not needed.  In some films your viewpoint is that of one of the main characters, but sometimes they are confronted with people speaking in a language they don't understand.  Often subtitles are used so you can understand an irony in the dialogue, but other times it is better if you are as confused as the protagonist.   The film credits are often left alone, but admittedly when non Roman fonts are used such as cyrillic or Asian a film buff will not learn to appreciate a particular artist who contributes to their enjoyment.

"Corazon de Leon" filmed twice in Spanish,  one of the most popular film languages.  See what you have been missing!

The idea behind subtitles is to make a film more accessible to a wider audience.  Another neglected audience has been deaf and hard of hearing people and increasingly they have access to descriptive subtitles so they can better understand some of the underlying emotions.  SDH has increased access for more people to movies 

The point of understanding the art of subtitles is to better enjoy subtitled movies which offer a much wider world perspective for many of us:

Monday, February 4, 2019


We live in a time when your past (or anyone's) can come back to haunt you, perhaps more easily than in any past time.  The thing that has changed the most is not human behavior, but the all too common self-righteousness.

Infants are pretty much at the mercy of their parents.  Children are influenced by their peers.  Young people still struggle to fit in.  Hopefully some of us mature enough to realize there is more to the world than we had been taught.  Humans still want to think of themselves as good, as accepted by society, strive for domination and intimacy and want to survive whatever the world throws at us.

Governor Northam is not somebody I was very conscious of and can only speculate how his  inner thinking and feelings operate today.  To be a successful politician, requires a strong ego, strategic thinking and luck.  Luck that no one will uncover some of your almost forgotten youthful history.  We have all gotten away with something.  I am very conscious of some of my youthful failings--this is not a full confession, but most of you would be able to relate:

To get to where you are you made a number of mistakes.  Some of them you learned from and others you have been able to cover up, even forget.  One of the childish games most of us have played was to catch someone having done something stupid or forbidden.  At an early age we become conscious of avoiding or covering up embarrassing or punishable actions.  This is second nature to the vast majority of us.

We have set standards of behavior for different situations and all too often at least a few of our trespasses are unforgivable.   Many of us can be a bit critical.  When we have been caught, a few look for opportunities to criticize others, particularly our enemies.

I can only imagine the atmosphere Ralph Northam grew up in, but speculating that many of his elders and his peers had some form of racism.  We all do, but to some areas it is more blatant than others.  We like to think that medical students would be more educated and mature, but it is likely there are some that are provocative and even more likely that others don't want to rock the boat.  Virginia is not considered the Deep South, but is still a southern state.

An article I read, I think on CNN pointed out that some politicians that have advanced equality had a long history of racism.  The two most easily remembered are Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson.  One might argue that their past also formed their understanding and allowed them at a mature age to take a courageous stand.  Governor Northam's political record regarding respect for blacks (prior to his mishandling of this current scandal) has been relatively commendable.   I don't know what he would have done without this obstacle, but suspect he would be a supporter of equal rights.

Hypocrisy  runs deep in American politics.  When Newt Gingrich was among the leaders trying to impeach President Clinton he was in the midst of an adulterous affair.  Perhaps a more appropriate analogy might be Donald Trump with his many anti black words and deeds loves to catch Democrats in their hypocrisies.  I do realize I am indulging in "he did it too."  A Biblical saying is "he who is without sin should cast the first stone."

Forgiveness can be very difficult.  The most difficult cases deal with violence and humiliation.  Sometimes the "guilty" one is unrepentant.  The forgiveness not only allows one side to move forward, it also allows the innocent victim to also move forward and another bonus is that the rest of society can benefit.  I don't think Governor Northam needs to automatically resign, but he will be judged hopefully on how he goes forward.  Has he matured, has he learned, can he become a positive example?

The big question for all of us might be what have we learned from our past and how can we do better in the future?

Some earlier thoughts on some recent examples of quick judgments: 

Two Postscripts (about one hour later)

1.  After writing this, one fear is that just by suggesting Governor Ralph Northam might deserve forgiveness means some people will find it difficult to forgive me.  No matter what one expresses there is someone ready to condemn.   It seems likely that there are a number of people that can understand my argument. Most of them worry about what others will think of them.  I feel that as well.

2.  Many years ago when I was about in grade 6 two or three of us somehow got turned on by two movies about Al Jolson.  Rock was starting to shape our music interests, but we got sidetracked.  One of us bought some records which we all listened to.  Recently I re-saw the two movies and realized a few things.  I had had almost no contact with blacks at the time and it did strike me as strange that Al Jolson did a lot of performances in black face.  In the first of the movies they showed some scenes where Al joined some black musicians and wanted to adapt some of the music and moves--apparently this was the start of his rise to fame.  He was really impressed with their music and I understand was supportive of individual blacks, but it does boil down to cultural appropriation.  Another more recent example was Elvis Presley who made a lot of black music popular among whites.  I enjoyed Al Jolson and probably didn't notice that sometimes the blackface enhanced my enjoyment.  Jolson and Presley helped open up our culture, but each of them at one time must have wrestled with their conscience.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019


Are you dreading the upcoming tax return?  Not sure how to fill out the forms and what documents are needed?  You are not alone.  

It was a long time ago that I got paid to prepare tax returns,  but I have done tax returns for myself and family up to the present.   H and R Block offered a part time job (I already had a day job), but you had to take a course.  I thought I knew it all, but sadly didn't.

I knew that we had a progressive tax system, but didn't really understand how it works.  The instructor was very good at explaining.  It starts with the premise that everyone has certain financial needs:  food, clothing and shelter.  The exact levels are difficult to determine fairly, but it is generally accepted that some people do not earn enough income to pay taxes.  Others earn enough to survive with more for other goods and they are expected to contribute, but the government realizes many can only spare so much.  Still others, a minority make well more than needed to survive and in fact enjoy luxuries.  Usually they benefit more from government infrastructure than the rest and are able to pay more taxes.

Personally I owned a small amount of stocks and was pleased to learn about dividend tax credits.  The theory being that the country needed investors and many were of the widows and orphan types that needed encouragement and protection.  Many years later I learned that people who earn money through some investments pay a much lower tax rate, one American billionaire who thought this was a shame was Warren Buffet who paid a lower tax rate than his secretary.

My daytime job was selling office supplies and on one call to an accounting firm I boasted that I had taken the course.  The accounting company rep boasted back to me, "you learned the basic facts of how to fill out the form.  We figure how much you can get away with."  I always knew there were people in all income levels who bent the rules.

One memory-a client admitted that he had done flyer delivery for cash payments.  In another previous job I worked with flyer distribution.  I knew that his official income would not result in any taxes owed.  I shamed him into estimating his unofficial income.  We did it in such a way that he still didn't pay any taxes, but we both felt uncomfortable.  More on my circulation career which included a stint marketing flyer distribution:

A common strategy I encountered with customers was to overpay taxes and get a nice rebate.  They hated the idea of having to pay extra taxes.  A better way to look at it is you do end up paying taxes that means you had the use of the money beforehand.  If you got a rebate that meant the government had the use of your money.  Forced savings such as buying mutual funds or bonds is a better way and if you register the investment plan you can save money on your taxes.

Another common practice was to buy a RRSP mostly around the month of February to get a tax deduction.  If enough people did this it would be enough to temporarily boost stock prices.  A better strategy would be to do monthly contributions such as to a mutual fund.  Dollar cost averaging helps to optimize fund growth and one overlooked fact is that earnings are protected from taxes until withdrawal.

If your income has any complications it may well pay to seek professional advice  If you income is simple such as wages and standard deductions it is not as difficult as too many people think and free advice is available.

What I had to say about tax collectors: