Wednesday, April 1, 2015

April Fool's On Me?

"I hope life isn't a big joke, because I don't get it."  - Jack Handey

Apparently the universe observes April Fool's Day, because it seems to be toying with me today.

Just three weeks ago I was celebrating my release from the stifling corporate environment, eager to start a new phase in my life with a move overseas and starting our own business just four short months from now.  But to my surprise, earlier this week I got called up by a hiring manager asking me to interview for a position I technically didn't even apply for (mostly for the sake of due diligence with the unemployment office, I applied for a couple short term contract positions and several pie-in-the-sky positions within a specific company that I never thought I would be considered for).  I didn't really think much would come of it, and so I said yes to an interview and picked Wednesday April 1st for the interview.... well, because at the time the thought of doing a job interview on April Fool's Day amused me a bit.

Well I had my interview today, and it went well.  Surprisingly well.  Even though I admitted I hadn't touched a Unix system in several years and flubbed a few of the Unix knowledge questions, and even though I told them straight-out that I have a lot of foreign relatives and have done a LOT of international travel (which can cause headaches/delays when getting approval for certain high-security government contracting jobs), I still got the impression they were wanting to hire me.  Personally I don't think my credentials and experience are THAT impressive, and while I'm bright and learn and pick up skills & knowledge quickly, that's typically something that takes a little time to notice and isn't the sort of thing that easily comes across on a resume or one interview.  I'm not sure if this is a measure of how good I am and how that is perceived by others, or simply a measure of how well I compare against a mediocre selection of candidates they may have seen before, or a measure of their desperation, or some combination of the above.  It's not a dream position by any means but it's better than many out there, and in today's job market I would have thought there would be more competition for such a job.  Then again, perhaps it's just a function of a phenomenon often seen in the dating world.... sometimes you're seen as more attractive when you're not actively searching and have a mildly laid-back attitude that shows you're fine with taking or leaving a given opportunity.  And if there's one thing I have right now, it's certainly a "I don't give a f***" attitude about getting a job where I work for someone else.

Anyway, it's not a sure thing as of yet, as there's always the possibility that their security office might feel it will take too long to get the necessary approvals given my frequent foreign travels and foreign-born in-laws.  But if they offer me a job and at a pay rate similar or higher than my last job, that puts me in a dilemna.  Do I put up with one or two more years of a corporate environment I'm already way burned out on for the sake of further building our savings and investment capital by a very significant amount, yet push back or delay our plans to start up business for ourselves?  Or do I say no to the job and charge forward with our original timeline, knowing we have enough money to get things started and to live off of for a few years but not much extra 'buffer savings' beyond that?  Which is more valuable in our case, the time or the money?

No one said breaking away from the herd is easy, and just sometimes I admit it can be necessary to do as the herd does for a short time for the sake of a greater advantage.  Sometimes it's necessary to take one step back in order to take two steps forward.  I'm still trying to determine which is the more logical course for us, and at this point I'm about 50/50.  The prospect of continuing the corporate drone route for another year galls me, yet we all have a responsibility to mitigate risks, financial or otherwise, at least to ourselves if not to our families (those of us who have families anyhow).  Anyway, I guess I'll wait and see what the next week or two brings.  And in the meantime, I'll raise my glass of beer in salute to the universe and toast its curious sense of humor...

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Link of the Week: Job Security Most of Us Can Only Dream Of...

I think it's safe to say that job security in the US is a rather rare commodity these days.  Heck, my own layoff over a week ago only underscores this point.  BUT... if you are a government employee or official (elected or otherwise), not only are results and performance largely irrelevant to your job security, but you can get away with crap that even Dilbert's corrupt and clueless pointy-haired boss would look at and say, "oh, now that's just not right". 

Red tape keeps some bad gov't workers from being fired

"In the private sector, if you're caught viewing porn on company time or intimidating a co-worker, you'd probably be fired immediately; not so if you're a federal employee.

A CBS News investigation looks at how hard it is for the U.S. government to discipline or fire employees who behave badly. With examples ranging from extravagant to explicit, civil service rules meant to protect public workers from political pressure may be backfiring, and costing you big, reports CBS News correspondent Don Dahler.

At the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), red tape is preventing the removal of a top level employee accused of viewing porn two to six hours a day while at work, since 2010. Even though investigators found 7,000 pornographic files on his computer and even caught him watching porn, he remains on the payroll.

At a Congressional hearing, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy was asked why she hadn't fired the employee and said, "I actually have to work through the administrative process, as you know."

The administrative process meant to prevent against politically motivated firings is the civil servant protection system. The rules give employees the right to appeal a termination, a process that can take up two years.

"There is a big difference between trying to protect against that and what we have today," Partnership for Public Service president and CEO Max Stier said.

He said those rules make it nearly impossible to fire poor performers or problematic employees, even when they've committed egregious violations.

"Many managers would like to get rid of problem employees and find that they have to go through a challenging process," Stier said.

A CBS News analysis of cases under review by the Merit System Protection Board (MSPB), an appeals board for federal workers, found other instances of employees who had committed seemingly fireable offenses who were later reinstated to their jobs, often with back pay and interest."

You can read the rest at the original CBS link here.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

I'm Free....

"I'M FREE....... I'm free,
And freedom tastes of reality..."   - Tommy, The Who

Yesterday was my last day at work, and I couldn't be happier.  On the way home I happened to be listening to The Who's rock opera 'Tommy'.  It really struck me how appropriate the song referenced above, "I'm Free", was to the way I felt, or at least the first part of it anyway.  For the past 22 months it honestly did feel like I was in an artificial reality of sorts at this job, one where the things that went on and the decisions made would be comical and downright stupid in the real world.

See, my job was working at a co-located NOC / SOC (that's Network Operations Center and Security Operations Center for you non-IT folks) and Service Desk call center under a government contract.  Specifically, it was for the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, a government agency within the infamous Department of Homeland Security (which USCIS doesn't really belong under IMO, and the fact that it was lumped within DHS speaks volumes about the paranoid and controlling mindset that currently reigns supreme within those running the US government).  And while I do firmly keep to my commitment to not divulge sensitive information or specifics that might truly compromise national security (not that I was privy to much of any interest anyway), I think it's safe enough to simply give my opinion of how the organization is run.  Quite simply, the way that the federal government, and especially DHS, operates is a frigging joke.  The stuff I've seen that passes for normal there would drive any private business into the ground within a few years or less, and many of the decisions and actions made in the organization only make sense in the artificial reality that typically exists in over-sized government.  The really sad thing is I suspect that comparatively speaking, USCIS was probably better run than most other government agencies, whether inside or outside DHS.  So I feel at least a little like the deaf, dumb, and blind boy in 'Tommy' who is suddenly able to see, hear, and speak.... he having escaped from a reality defined by lack of sight and hearing, whereas I am leaving a reality defined by big government and bureaucratic idiocy. 

Obviously, the former has a much larger impact on the individual than the latter.  Still, time spent working in government definitely appears to change people, and generally not for the better.  From most of the examples I've seen in this and previous government contractor jobs, the longer one works in government the more rigid and lazy one gets in their thinking.  They don't necessarily become dumb (though a hell of a lot of dumb people sure find a place in government employment), but they tend to lose their ability and/or willingness to adapt to changes, think outside of the box, and see the bigger picture.  It's a rare person who works a long while in government and still manages to stay sharp and adaptable.  So it appears that it boils down to indoctrination and learned ignorance.  Even worse, over time it tends to make said people less able to work and make a living outside of the government!  I've seen this especially insidious trend play itself out with many coworkers (some of whom were contractors and not directly employed by the federal government), where their skill sets and experience (or in some cases, lack thereof) has railroaded them into careers in government or government contracting.  I've even noticed this for myself, where a substantial portion of my work experience doesn't translate well to positions in the private sector. 

For example, 11 months ago part of the contract we were working was awarded to a different company, so many of our job responsibilities were moved along with it.  So for the past 11 months we had a handful of network administrators, some with very substantial experience & knowledge, essentially doing Sigourney Weaver's character's job in Galaxy Quest, serving as redundant go-betweens and repeating information other parties pass to us.  Try describing THAT job on your resume or to a potential employer in an interview  ;-)

(see Sigourney Weaver's 'job' in this clip from about 1:45 to 2:48 to get an idea what the last 11 months of my job was like...)

On my shift, not a lot usually happened.  So essentially I was paid more than $75k/year to sit on my ass and watch 'Archer' on my tablet for the majority of my shift.  Only in government and in companies that contract heavily with the government would such a job exist at that pay and use degree-holding IT professionals to do it.

So like I said in a prior post about this job ending, being laid off from it is hardly the worst thing that can happen to me.  On one hand it would have been kind of nice if it lasted a few more months until this summer when we pull the trigger on our big move towards entrepreneurship (details on that I'll go into at a later date) as it would have allowed us to save a little more cash before that time.  But on the other hand, it was getting harder and harder to put up with the idiotic bureaucracy and to keep doing a job that was so trivial and pointless.  As easy as the job was, it felt like the pointlessness of it all and the bureaucratic environment was slowly poisoning me, making it harder to look forward to the next day and harder to focus on our business plans.  So all in all I think the boost to my mental health and having the extra time to shift my mental gears 100% towards our future business makes up for the several thousand additional dollars we would have saved had I worked there a few more months.

So for all those out there tempted by a lucrative government or government contracting job, think really carefully beforehand about what you might lose in return.  Even when one knows going in that a lot of it is BS and isn't applicable to the real world, it still takes its toll...

Friday, February 6, 2015

Link of the Week: China Needs Women

This week's link comes from Zerohedge, and is an amusing article on how people of two dysfunctional nations can come together (as Sterling Archer might say in response, "phrasing!") to find ways around their problems ;-)

BTW I have been to China several times, and the male-female disparity was noticeable at times.  Not so much that one observed so many more men than women, but rather just seeing a high number of young, supposedly single men milling around in the evening.  Anyway, here is your link:

How Ukraine Can Save China From Its Existential Threat (Spoiler Alert: Girls)

"In China last year, just over 115 boys were born for every 100 girls, and since sonogram technology was introduced to China in the 1980s - allowing families to determine a baby’s gender during the first few months of pregnancy - the gender imbalance in the world's largest economy has grown colossal. However, as Beijing News recently explained, there may be a solution for China's 34 million woman shortfall... Ukrainian women, as "their economy is depressed but beautiful women are running rampant." While Foreign Policy notes that the best destinations for Chinese men to find spouses are Japan and South Korea, there appears to be plenty of fish in the sea, at least outside China. Oh the wonders of Ricardian comparative advantage - Ukraine needs an export business (and produces - from what we have heard - attractive women) and China needs to import 'women' (to fill its massive shortfall). Global economic growth problems, solved..."

Read the rest at the link here, or copy/paste the link below.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

My Job is Going Away, and I Am Thrilled About It

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of "Admin." The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid "dens of crime" that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern."   
- C.S. Lewis, [From the Preface] The Screwtape Letters

So it was approximately two weeks ago that my coworkers and I got our first ‘official’ announcement of when our contract, and hence our employment, is ending.  As of today, we’ve got just under six weeks of employment left here.  We all knew it was an eventuality once the contract was awarded to a different company last year, yet the mood in the office still seems somewhat somber with a tinge of desperation.  The funny thing is that unlike most people here, I am actually looking forward to my employment and time here coming to an end.  I am counting the days with anticipation, not dread.

Before you say it, no, I’m not mental.  And no, I’m not planning to be a welfare sponge either.  This is simply me being eager to move on to new things, and knowing that I don’t have to scramble to find any job available to pay the bills because we have put a lot of effort in increasing our financial resilience and living well below our means.  This job was nothing more than a means to an end (that end being saving money for future business endeavors), and I am eager to leave this behind me.

Now before I start talking too much trash, let me explain that the company I work for is actually not a terrible place to work by any means.  It treats us slightly better than what you typically might expect from any big corporation, and the (local) management is not only competent but they’re fairly considerate and forthcoming to the employees.  It sucks working for them in the sense that it sucks working in just about ANY corporate environment, but compared to most corporations they are pretty decent.

No, the biggest issue I have with my job is that we work for a government customer, and just about every cliché regarding government incompetence, inefficiency, and cronyism has been demonstrated for us in spades.  I’ve worked for poorly run private businesses before, yet both of those places end up looking like Apple or Google when compared to this particular government organization.  It gets to the point where it can be funny to watch it unfold, at least until one remembers that it’s our tax dollars being used to fund this circus of ass-clowns.  But while the incompetence and inefficiency displayed by the government organization and officials in question is grating, what I find hardest about working here is the work culture.  The culture in this, and I expect most other, government organizations can be summed up as follows:

- Groupthink dominates everything.... sucking up and doing ONLY what you're told tends to gets you ahead, whereas independent thought and proactive behaviors more often than not just opens oneself to criticism from management and stalls ones career.

- Seniority and the approval of those with it trump the strength of any particular idea, plan, or proposal.

- Accepting responsibility and taking accountability for your actions is usually seen as only a risk to one's career, where avoiding accountability or spreading it around so wide it cannot be applied to any one person or small group is the key to success.

- Growing your department and securing more money for it supersedes the need for efficiency or whatever is good for the customer, taxpayer, and/or nation.

- The rules only apply to the rank-and-file, not your boss and especially not upper management.  Try applying the rules to upper management and you will get spanked.... HARD (a warning to you sysadmins and network security folks managing government systems).

Don't get me wrong, I know full well that these elements are often found in private enterprise too.  Particularly large corporations and businesses... the larger the organization the more bureaucracy you typically find, and these behaviors thrive in bureaucracy.  Hell, Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has made a wonderful career of skewering these behaviors in the corporate world.  However there usually tends to be a practical limit to how much it prevails in the business world, as any business too entrenched in these behaviors becomes consistently unprofitable and eventually fails.  Government organizations are very rarely under any pressure to be profitable or produce more than they consume (which doesn't necessarily have to be measured in monetary terms), and the ways in which their performance is typically measured (if it ever is) are usually pretty vague and much more about conforming to the system and not creating controversy than being productive or the level of service they offer.

So that is why I'm happy to be leaving.  Over the long term, the environment just feels toxic and appears to make the people in it dumber over time.  And being a government contractor instead of a government employee doesn't make it much better.... you're still exposed to this toxic mindset & culture, just to a somewhat lesser degree.  Putting up with this environment is a small part of the reason I started writing here, to exercise the thinking and analytical skills that get so little use during my work activities.  Some people put up with certain jobs so as to gain knowledge or skills that can be used for some later goal in life, like running their own business.  Sadly, the biggest learning experience I can take from this job is a long list of things NOT to do when operating an organization or running a business.  Though I suppose that can be just as valuable in its own way...

Friday, January 30, 2015

Link of the Week: Dangers of Crossing The Political Elite in Argentina

Sorry for the delay in posting, but sometimes life gets in the way, you know?

Anyway, this link of the week comes from an article from Haaretz, written by the journalist who broke the story in Argentina of the death of a prosecutor there ONE DAY before he was due to deliver incriminating testimony on the despot queen... er, president... of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, and a number of other connected people (you can read more about that here).  I just thought it was an interesting example of the need to use caution when crossing your local political elite.  Speaking truth to power needs to be done and I'm glad journalists like Damian Pachter, Glenn Greenwald, Chris Hedges, and others are doing it.  I just encourage them and anyone who does the same to not assume that being a public figure, having journalist credentials, or the laws of the land will protect you from reprisal.  The bulk of the political elite here in the US usually tend to be more subtle than those in Argentina, but they would still not hesitate to bury you forever if you're enough of a threat and they think they can pull it off...

Why I fled Argentina after breaking the story of Alberto Nisman’s death

"In an exclusive column, Jewish journalist Damian Pachter – who first reported on the death of the special prosecutor – recounts the intimidation, the sleepless nights, the agent who stalked him and his ultimate decision to head for Israel.

By Damian Pachter     

So here they are, the craziest 48 hours of my life.

When my source gave me the scoop on Alberto Nisman’s death, I was writing a piece on the special prosecutor’s accusations against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, her (Jewish) Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, two pro-Iran “social activists” and parliamentarian Andrés Larroque. I learned that Nisman had been shot dead in his home.

The vetting process wasn’t too tough because of my source’s incredible attention to detail. His name will never be revealed.

Two things stood in my mind: my source’s safety and people’s right to know what happened that day, though not necessarily in that order.

Of course, for both speed and the contagion effect, Twitter was the way to go. The information was so solid I never doubted my source, despite my one or two colleagues who doubted me because I only had 420 Twitter followers — a number now eclipsing 10,000.

As the night went on, journalists contacted me in order to get the news from me even more directly. The first to do so was Gabriel Bracesco.

Once I tweeted that Nisman had died, hundreds of people quickly retweeted the news and started following me. That was my first of many sleepless days.

“You just broke the best story in decades,” lots of people said. “You’re crazy,” was another take. Either way, nobody questioned that the situation was very grave.

The following days were marked by a government trying to create an official story. First, the head of state suggested a “suicide hypothesis,” then a mysterious murder. They of course were not to blame. In anything.

That week I received several messages from one of my oldest and best sources. He urged me to visit him, but in those crazy days I underestimated his proposal.

On Friday I was working at the Buenos Aires newsroom when a colleague from the BBC urged me to look at the state news agency’s story on Nisman’s death. The piece had some serious typos but the message was even stranger: The agency quoted a supposed tweet of mine that I never wrote.

I cursed in anger, adding amid the profanity: “I’ll tweet this and then they’ll see.” But I waited a few minutes to cool down and realized that this tweet was a kind of coded message.

So I bounced it off my friend, who said: “Get out now and go to Retiro,” Buenos Aires’ central bus station. “And come visit me. You have to leave the city.” It was around 8:30 P.M.

I was very lucky: When I arrived a bus would be leaving in two minutes. Where that bus was going I’ll never reveal either."

Read the rest here.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Life Without Adversity or Struggle Makes For Weak Children and Worse Adults

Stumbled across this article this week:

Murderous Son, Who Killed His Hedge Fund Father Over $200 Allowance, Was A Mentally-Disturbed Princeton Economics Grad

"The most bizarre story from the past weekend was the shocking murder of Tom Gilbert, 70, founder of the Wainscott biotech-focused hedge fund, who was shot dead in his Sutton Place apartment on Sunday Afternoon: shocking because the alleged shooter was none other than his Millennial, hence unemployed, 30-year-old son. What was certainly unclear at the time was what would be the motivation of a son to kill his successful and wealthy father, especially in such dramatic cold blood.

We now know not only the motivation, thanks to AP:

    "The son of a millionaire Manhattan hedge fund founder who allegedly gunned down his dad over his allowance has been arraigned on a second-degree murder charge, authorities said.

    A law enforcement source told the New York Post that Thomas Gilbert Jr. had just been told by his father that he would only receive $400 for spending money per month from that point on in addition to $2,400 per month for rent. The younger Gilbert had previously received $600 per month."

... but also the alleged psychopath's background:

    "Gilbert Jr. attended Princeton, graduating in 2009 with a degree in economics. Authorities said he had no recent work history."

And then it gets really bizarre. As the Mail reports, Junior was also charged with 21 counts of criminal possession of forgery devices after skimming device and 21 blank credit cards found at his home, and may have also burned down a rival's Hamptons mansion"

(Read the rest of the article and the associated links here)

The article later makes mention that he was "jobless and seemed to have few prospects, and little interest, for finding serious work.... instead, he spent most of his time in the Hamptons, going to the gym, doing yoga and surfing.  It also said his "one professional aspiration was starting his own hedge fund but his father wouldn't give him seed money to start it".

Now I take this, like with anything in the mainstream OR alternative media, with a grain of salt so I expect that some details might be off.  But if even half of what's said about his background is correct, it paints the picture of a man who didn't want for anything and had every reasonable advantage while growing up, and still expected life to give him what he wanted as an adult.  Even after finishing college at Princeton for gods sakes, his father gave him a monthly allowance that amounted to $3000 a month for housing and basic expenses.  Taking the story at face value for now, IMO the problem wasn't necessarily that he was given these things, but that he'd grown to expect these things (and more) as his due. 

Now the article does mention that there were reports of possible mental illness involved and that he may have been off his medication.  And his ex-girlfriend supposedly said he deeply resented his father and was obsessed about never being good enough for him, so it's possible that his father was an emotionally distant or maybe even abusive prick.  But given how he allegedly tried to stage it as a suicide (a sign that he was lucid enough to think logically in how to cover his tracks), I'd say mental illness and/or daddy issues didn't play the biggest part in this.  While several factors were probably at play, I suspect that it would never have progressed as far as murder if it weren't for a massive sense of misplaced entitlement.  Most of the people who have crappy parents simply settle for moving far far away, not killing them.

Given what is reported I'd say he's probably a good example of a failure in parenting.  The murder is on him and him alone, but I'd say his upbringing and his parents played a prominent role in his aimless existence and lack of ambition as an adult.  And that brings me to a pet peeve of mine in the U.S., and that's the parents who spoil their kids by buying their love, giving into every demand, and insulating them from every challenge, hardship, and tough situation.

Looking back at my childhood, I have to admit I usually didn't want for much.  As middle class kids growing up in southcentral Alaska, my brother and I weren't rich but we didn't live hand-to-mouth either.  We were pretty much like most kids growing up today, with one important difference... our parents didn't try buying our love with material possessions, they didn't give us everything we asked for, and most importantly they allowed and encouraged us to be independent and solve problems or tough situations for ourselves.  Help was provided if asked for, but they didn't go overboard trying to solve all our problems for us like the 'helicopter parents' that started becoming prevalent sometime in the 90's or 2000's.  My parents tried their best to provide help, yet still tried to make sure effort was required on our part.  I think a good example was with our first cars... our parents said they were willing to pay for half of whatever car we wanted to buy, with the other half (as well as insurance, gas, and maintenance costs) being our responsibility.  In hindsight I think that was a very balanced approach... it made it possible for us to have something more than a total rusted-out piece of crap for our first cars, yet the onus was still on us to keep a job in order to have a car at all.  And it made us appreciate our cars more, even if they were on the cheap side.  Personally, at the time I was thrilled they were willing to throw in even half of the price of my new car (earlier I was expecting to be paying for all of my first car myself), which probably says something good about the way they raised us.  In contrast, some other kids in our high school had parents buy them a car outright on their 16th birthday, sometimes brand new cars or trucks (there were some pretty well-off neighborhoods in the area).  Some of those kids bothered me a bit... not so much because they had much nicer cars than I did, but mostly because they didn't seem to really appreciate them as much as they should have (evidenced by their lack of care and the reckless things they did in them).

There is a lot of flack that Millenials receive, most typically called out for being spoiled, entitled, or lacking the 'grit' needed to tackle many of life's challenges and obstacles (often turning to their parents for help with every problem they have).  While there's some truth to this description for many Millenials (thankfully not all of them), it's their parents that are primarily responsible for their kids being this way.  I get more thankful every year that my parents didn't do this to me and my brother.  It was tough enough to shake off all the counterproductive programming from schools & media and find a purpose and direction in life that was right for me... that initial journey would have been so much harder if I didn't have some measure of resilience and ability to survive on my own.  Sadly, many of the parents responsible for these entitlement behaviors are from my Gen-X generation.  With myself being at the younger or tail end of that generation and having kids later in life, my kids are much younger (6 and 1 year-old) than most kids parented by my generation.  But I still see this kind of behavior in the kindergarteners and early grade-school kids that my son and his cousin plays with, so it's clear this "killing with kindness" parenting is still going on.  The roughest part is that despite all our efforts in encouraging self-reliance and putting in extra effort, I still see bits of that entitlement and materialist mentality being expressed by my son and his cousin at times.  Not a lot, but enough to where it gets me examining the other influences on them, like television and interactions with the other kids at school and during play.  It's one more argument for pulling our children out of the public school system and limiting TV time.

Ultimately, children need to be exposed to a little hardship or struggle in order to be prepared for the bigger challenges they'll face as adults.  It's a little late for much of the Millenial generation (those born from 1982-2004 according to Strauss-Howe Generational Theory); those who are already adults will just have to grow up fast and make up for the lessons their parents failed to teach them as they try to find their way in the adult world.  Some will fail (or fail spectacularly, like this Thomas Gilbert Jr. at the point he killed his father), while others will toughen up in the face of adversity and find ways to persevere.  But for those Millenials that are not yet adults and those in my kids' "Homeland Generation" (2005-present), their parents still have the opportunity to instill a sense of self-reliance and toughness that they'll need as adults.

But hey, if that sounds like too much work don't worry.... you can always try again when they're 35 years old, unemployed, and living with you while they do nothing but mooch off of you and play video games 24/7.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Link of the Week: Mocking Our Growing Police State

Today's link is from The Onion, titled 'How Police Are Revamping their Tactics'

"In the wake of widespread protests against police brutality and discrimination, law enforcement departments across the country are instituting new rules and policies to ensure safer practices. Here are some of the ways departments are reforming their training, tactics, and management in light of scrutiny:

-    Improved training to ensure that combat-ready assault rifles are not misused in the course of community policing
-    Armored vehicles to be decorated with murals celebrating the communities in which they are deployed
-    Switching to new all-organic tear gas blend


You can read the rest at The Onion here.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015 as a ‘The Year of Chaos’, Part 2: Possible Examples of Disorder in the Year Ahead

“When the fabric of society is so rigid that it cannot change quickly enough, adjustments are achieved by social unrest and revolutions.”  - John Boyd Orr

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”  - Vladimir Lenin (1870 – 1924)

Though I am not alone in calling for next year to be an exceptionally turbulent one, I don’t agree with those who are predicting collapse of calamitous proportions for next year… Especially those who are assuming this next year will herald an epic dollar collapse or gigantic stock market crash in the US.  While I can’t dismiss it as a possibility, given the other factors in play I simply see the odds of that happening next year as quite low.  Yes, the stock prices and to a lesser extent the general economy are kept afloat in part by the Federal Reserve’s money-printing and easy money policies.  And yes, the US government’s spending habits are out of control and it will eventually take its toll on the dollar.  But hard as it is to believe sometimes, many countries are in worse straits.  Chris Martenson of coined a phenomenon he calls ‘From the Outside In’, which more or less states that economic instability is likely to express itself at the economic fringes first and then make its way towards the center.  

In the context of this oncoming crisis, the ‘center’ of the Western economies would be the US, and the ‘fringe’ would probably include countries like Venezuela, Ukraine, Russia, and the weaker Eurozone economies such as Greece.  While I do see a very high probability (if not near-certainty) of an eventual currency crisis with the US dollar, I think we will need to see some of the other dominoes fall first before it’s our turn.  Venezuela and Argentina have been in the midst of currency crises for a while now, more recently followed by Ukraine and just now starting to play out in Russia (though Russia is a bit of a special case given the unusual external pressures, i.e. sanctions, being put on it).  I expect more of the peripheral countries in Europe and some Middle East nations would be next.  Once that occurs and we start to see the same occurring in the EU and Japan, THEN I think we have to brace ourselves for America’s turn.  I expect this will take some time to play out given the size of some of the economies involved, as larger economies usually have a certain amount of ‘inertia’ (for the lack of a better term) that prevents them from seeing the same degree of rapid declines that smaller economies sometimes do.  On the other hand I do expect counterproductive reactions by those running America’s political machine, which will hasten America’s approach to an eventual currency crisis.  I just don’t think it will happen in a year or less.

While I predict that 2015 will be a pivotal point in history, that doesn’t mean we’ll experience the most turbulent of what’s to come that particular year.  Rather, it will merely herald the start of a ‘new normal’, where a major change in peoples’ expectations and the political & economic status quo across most of the world BEGINS. 

So getting down to the nitty-gritty, what are the likely expressions of instability for next year going to be and (in my amateur assessment) their likelihoods of occurring?

1) Deteriorating economic conditions across the majority of the world (80% likelihood)

This seems pretty obvious to me, but I suppose it might not be if one is not exposed to alternative news sources or news media outside the US.  In a nutshell, we have the European Union pretty much either in economic stagnation or outright recession, we have emerging markets experiencing a lot of pain, and China’s economy is expected to slow further (the big question there is HOW MUCH slower), and the countries that are in the business of providing raw materials to China (like Australia) are feeling the pinch from China’s slowdown.  While things are not exactly rosy in America’s economy that matters to most of us (i.e. the economy minus the bloated financial sector and its shenanigans), by comparison with much of the rest of the world we’re doing alright.  In most places outside the US, however, things are looking grim, with nothing in sight at this time showing that they are likely to improve.  So basically, next year I expect economic recession in many nations outside the US, or a ‘global recession’ as it were.  

Economically, the US might take a hit but will probably still manage to do better than most nations next year, as the ‘flight to safety’ of foreign money to the US buoys the economy here for a little while.  In fact, I half expect the US will do well enough initially where the pundits and so-called “experts” will say something like “the US economy has decoupled from the world” or “this is proof America is the greatest nation on earth and our economy has nowhere to go but up”.  If you happen to be in the US, take advantage of this to shore up your savings and use the time to plan a strategy to thrive when the US economy does eventually get taken out to the woodshed.  Eventually though, I’m guessing 1-3 years later, the US economy will join the rest of the world as inflows of foreign money will dry up and central bank stimulus loses effectiveness.  Now regarding the collapse in oil prices, if it gets worse or persists more than 6 months from now, I do expect that will devastate to the US oil industry (especially offshore oil and shale oil sectors) and in turn negatively affect the US economy.  However, I expect a certain amount of lag time (a year maybe?) before it will start really hurting the broader economy.  There is some possibility however that a prolonged oil price collapse can create a systemic crisis in the financial system (seeing as there is a lot of borrowed money involved with these unconventional oil plays), but I’ll be mentioning that a little later.

2) Severe economic crises (and potentially currency crises) in nations on the economic periphery (60% likelihood)

If you wonder what exactly a severe economic crisis is like, look at what Greece has gone through the past several years.   And if you wonder what a currency crisis is like, look at what’s starting to happen in Russia and what’s already well underway in Belarus and Venezuela right now.  For next year, I expect two or more small-to-midsize countries will have their economies imploding from a combination of extreme indebtedness, poor political decisions catching up to them, lack of access to further credit, and in some cases the drop in oil prices.  Nigeria, Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, and Russia I think are the lead possibilities, though those are by no means the only possibilities (I consider Japan likely to have its economy crash sometime in the next 3 years).  It is likely you’ve noticed the thing that most of these countries have in common…. namely, most happen to be heavily dependent on oil exports and most don’t have any significant savings to fall back on.  I don’t expect oil prices to stay low more than another year or two, but I don’t think it will take that long to cripple some of these nations’ economies (which is IMO the real reason Saudi Arabia chose not to cut production).  As to currency crises I’m less certain that we’ll see anything new emerge that isn’t part of the already deteriorating situations in Venezuela and Belarus, but if there are I think the contenders are Ukraine and possibly Greece (should it remove itself or be kicked out of the EU and reinstate its own currency).  Now as I mentioned earlier there is a disturbing possibility that sustained low oil prices might create a systemic crisis in the financial markets.  IF this happens then we could see a truly GLOBAL crisis in 2015, one from which the US would NOT likely get a free pass.

3) A spike in civil unrest, domestic turmoil, and even outright revolution in both developed and emerging nations (90% likelihood)

Some of you might say, “hey we are already seeing this!”, but what I’m saying is that you should expect it to get worse for next year.  This is one of next year’s chaotic events that, unlike with the economy, I think the US won’t get to enjoy a temporary reprieve.  For the US I expect it will take two forms.  The first will be a resurgence of something like the Occupy movement, with protests focusing on economic inequality as well as certain aspects of government and/or corporate corruption & misbehavior.  The second form is likely to eclipse the first, taking the form of a larger, more widespread version of what happened in reaction to the police shooting in Ferguson, MO and most likely will be sparked by a similar event.  We have a greater number of people on the edge now, many of them disgruntled and holding fresh resentment over the situation in Ferguson, the death of Eric Garner in NYC, and the increasingly militarized (and in some cases outright oppressive) nature of law enforcement.  At this point many of those are simply looking for an excuse to take to the streets (either to protest or to riot, depending on their scruples or lack thereof).  So I expect this time it will spread faster than the local or federal authority’s ability to contain it.  While I think they will be surprised by the suddenness and intensity of the civil unrest at first, I expect the eventual response by authorities will be brutal, intense, and include some.  Those particular protests and riots will probably be crushed, but it is reasonable to assume the resentment will grow in response, leading to further outbreaks of civil unrest and possibly more violent riots.  In the wake of this we will probably see the next stage of the expansion of the police state in the US, where popular outcry against the riots will give lawmakers and politicians the political cover to do what they already want to do…. namely, further restrict civil liberties and to expand the size & scope of police power as well as surveillance on citizens.  As the authorities become more desperate and eager to discourage any dissent, the lines between nonviolent protesters and rioters/looters will become more blurred and nebulous.  Possibly even getting to the point of expanding the definition of ‘terrorism’ to rioters, looters, and those providing aid to or even associating with said people.  I know this seems very far out or even conspiratorial to some of you, but I implore you to bear with me here.  People in power tend to exercise that power in order to stay in power, whether they are police chiefs, mayors, governors, members of congress, or presidents.  Examine the people in power throughout history and look at the extreme measures many had taken to crush threats to their power, and you’ll find a number of American examples (such as the Sedition Act of 1918).

Overseas I expect the civil unrest will take on a somewhat different flavor, with economics, jobs, and government corruption being the primary drivers in some countries and government repression driving civil unrest in others.  My best model for what to expect is something like what we've already seen in Greece a few years ago and what we saw in the so-called 'Arab Spring', though I think in a few areas it may come closer to actual revolution.  Perhaps Catalonia's push for independence will become more forceful should Spain's government continue to ignore and threaten them, or maybe the Greeks will get REALLY fed up with the EU puppets running their country, or it could be that Iran will finally crumble under the economic stress of low oil prices and public discontent.  I think that in most nations the people aren't that upset quite yet, but the handful that are will set the stage for others in future years.

4) A significant military action that, in hindsight, will probably be considered the start of a series of regional conflicts that will rival World Wars 1 & 2 in the impact it has on the world (50% likelihood)

I want to be careful here, because I don't want to go on record expecting a global military conflict on the scale of WW2 in our future, and neither do I expect it to start off in a major way like WW1 did.  Rather, I think it's most likely that there will be a large number of smaller regional conflicts across the world, many of them unrelated to each other except that some will have in common one or more larger players supporting one side or another (directly or indirectly).  The larger players will most likely be US, Russia, China, and the core (economically stronger) EU nations, each pursuing its own agenda and forming alliances of convenience as they wage proxy wars with one or more large powers through these various regional conflicts.  At this point I expect US and the EU core to work together initially, and the same with Russia and China.  As the years go on and the balance of power shifts, however, this could easily change, and which way it goes is anyone's guess.  But as for 2015, I expect just one or two small conflicts to break out with some of the larger powers taking a side.  I'm thinking the top candidates for the first region or regions involved would be between the Ukraine, the Middle East, the South China Sea, and North Africa.  My guess is the Ukraine will be the first to herald the official start of this global set of proxy wars given Russia's strong strategic interest and the short-sighted aggressiveness of the US and Europe, but we will just have to see how this shakes out.

5) Some (big) rules will be broken or changed (80% likelihood)

To paraphrase another maxim from Chris Martenson, “when the going gets tough, they will change the rules (in their favor)”.  I expect this will be very true of next year, to the same (or even greater) degree as we had seen how ‘rules’ were changed to bail out the big banks and financial institutions in 2008-2009 and how ‘rules’ were ignored by neglecting to pursue criminal prosecution for said entities or the individuals running them for their criminal misconduct leading up to the housing crisis.  What’s hard to predict is WHAT rules will be changed or broken.  We can pretty much guarantee that however it’s done, it will screw over the vast majority of people in order to support or benefit the wealthiest and most connected corporations, politicians, and interest groups.  One possible example we might see next year could be the rewriting or breaking of the European Union charter in order to change an EU member nation’s status in the EU, from setting up some special category of EU membership and/or currency (to separate the weak nations from the strong) or ejecting them out of the EU entirely.  Another even more likely example might be a bigger repeat of what happened in Cyprus recently with bank depositors footing the bill for a banking crisis, though technically that rule has already been changed in many countries so it is just the widespread realization and pain that's yet to come when it gets put into use.  One big rule change I just have to mention is the potential for the IMF's Special Drawing Rights (SDR's) to be adopted as a new global reserve currency to replace the dollar, though I expect that the chance of that happening in 2015 is small and more likely to happen in later years.  Though we may see some serious planning for it to happen in 2015...


Given their generally gloomy nature, it doesn't make me happy to throw out these things as probable events for 2015.  But I think we're approaching the limits to how far the various authorities and corporate powers can kick the can down the road, and my intuition is telling me that 2015 is the year that instability will no longer be contained.  Unfortunately for us, all the can kicking in the form of Quantitative Easing (money printing), bank bailouts, short-sighted foreign military entanglements, etc. has just allowed the potential instability to build, so we're likely to be in for a far wilder time than if they'd done nothing at all.  We are in the process of a reversion to a more natural or sustainable state, and the more they intervened the further from that sustainable state we get and the more painful the change and transition will be.

So I will be surprised if only one or none of these come to pass in 2015.  At the same time though I'll be equally surprised if all five come to pass, as I consider these to only likely possibilities and not certainties.  At any rate I write this not to scare people, but only so they don't get blindsided by rapid change and sudden instability.  And remember that there are potential opportunities associated with this rapid change.  Which ones and how and when you decide to take advantage of them is up to you.  We need to ride the wave in order to not be crushed by it.