I had a wonderful weekend holiday near Lake Tahoe that was only marred by the events in Dallas. Some comments made by Sarah Palin (and yes, I know, I shouldn’t be giving her any more free publicity) struck a cord, and I wanted to share some thoughts.

I have an old friend who is police in Durham, NC, and about once a year I do a ride-a-long with him. It really makes me appreciate the effort most police put into their jobs. Every day they put their lives on the line to protect our society, and I sleep better knowing they are around.

That said, in the past year or so I’ve seen a number of cases where police have shot and killed black men, and at least from the limited viewpoint of a mobile phone video, it looks like excessive force was used. When those cases don’t even make it to a courtroom, I have to wonder. In the case of my friend, he always gives the suspect the benefit of the doubt. When he was in the Army stationed in Iraq, he was attacked by a man wielding a knife and would have been perfectly justified in killing him. Instead, he used his police baton to disarm the man, who was distraught over losing his family and was just striking out. He used an extra element of understanding in that situation and it saved a life.

In the interest of understanding I wanted to comment some of the things Ms. Palin said.

Shame on politicians and pundits giving credence to thugs rioting against police officers and the rule of law in the name of “‘peaceful protests.’ It is a farce. #BlackLivesMatter is a farce.

Okay, let’s get one thing clear. When an African-American reads the word “thug” these days, they see “nigger”. Of course, the original of the word “thug” has nothing to do with black people in America, but it has been co-opted in much the same way “gay” means “homosexual” and not “light-hearted and happy”. It is used by racists to get away with using the “N-word” without actually saying it.

She then went on to attack the term “African-American”:

Self-descriptions that put any race in front of being an American are now used to further divide our nation. It’s time to acknowledge you’re either an American under our system of equality, law and order – and traditional patriotic spirit – or you’re not. Knock off the hyphenation of who we are. And knock off the shoulder chip if you’ve let ‘leaders’ burden you with it through their example that sadly capitalizes on division for untoward purposes. That chip is crushing the people’s hope.

She doesn’t get it, and what’s funny is that I used to be in the same camp. I used to dislike the term “African-American” but unlike Ms. Palin I sought out understanding.

At one point in my life, about 25 years ago, the two people I hung out with most were Rodney, an African-American, and Saeed, a Persian born in Iran. Not bad for a kid brought up in a small Southern town in North Carolina.

Anyway, at one point I got to know Rodney well enough that I brought up the fact that I hated the term “African-American”. By that measure I’m a “Hungarian-Russo-Slovak-American”.

His reply stuck with me. He told me: that’s the point, you know what you are. You know your heritage. What am I? Where did I come from?

Due to the slave trade in America, millions of Americans have no idea where their ancestors originated. Sure, there is some African in him, but which part? How much of his bloodline has been mixed with other races, either forced or with consent? All he knows of his culture is that he came out of slavery, and to share that label with millions of others in the same boat, they use the words “African-American”.

I lack the words to describe how powerful that was for me.

When I went to Budapest and saw the name “Balogh”, I knew that in some way I was related to that person. Most white people in the US have some idea of their background, because for the most part white people weren’t treated as property and records were kept. This isn’t the case with African-Americans, and understanding and identifying with that is important.

All it really took for me to have this epiphany was a conversation. But many Americans seem hell bent on throwing up walls, both literal and figurative, so that these conversations won’t happen.

It’s sad and shameful.

The 2016 US Presidential Election

I wanted to put down some thoughts about the upcoming US Presidential election, mostly inspired by Scott Adams’s blog.

Scott Adams is the creator of Dilbert, and while I like that comic and read it every chance I get, I don’t go out of my way to find it. I do, however, try never to miss a blog post or a book. Since late last summer he has been providing some interesting insights into the Trump campaign, and since he has also made me painfully aware of my own confirmation bias, I try very hard to read anything he writes with an open mind.

Unlike Trump, I am not a master of social networks. I don’t even have a Facebook account, and most of my thoughts take more than 140 characters to express. So what follows will seem to be, for most, needlessly tedious.

First, a little political background. I self-identify as a left-leaning libertarian (small “L”), although there really doesn’t exist a political party that matches my beliefs. I was trained as a scientist and tend to view the Scientific Method as one of the best ways to understand the world. I hold individual freedoms to be paramount in any society, but I also believe that as a society it benefits us to provide basic services to all citizens (unlike most large “L” Libertarians). The only political party I’ve ever belonged to was the Republican party, but I left it long ago when they started trying to legislate morality.

How do I apply science to social issues? Well, for one example let’s look at North Carolina’s controversial HB2 law concerning transgender bathroom use. I am against it for a number of reasons, but mainly because it makes it illegal to pursue discrimination cases in State court and removes a lot of power from municipalities. I like having different cities and towns try things because it allows for experimentation and testing.

But to get back to the “potty police”, the fear that most of the sponsors of the bill prey on is that without it bathrooms would become less “safe” and sexual predators would use it to scout for victims. That doesn’t sound likely to me, but let’s take that as our hypothesis: allowing people to use any bathroom they chose results in more sex crime.

Next, we’d need an experiment. Well, how about we take Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, and allow people to use the restroom of their sexual identity. What would happen?

Well, they did that in 2006, and nothing bad happened. Now a sample size of one doesn’t give us much to go on, but it is better than a sample size of zero. What should have happened in North Carolina is that the government should have let Charlotte proceed with their plan and then examined the results. If sex crimes increased, then it should be reexamined. If not, then the original DC experiment would have been confirmed.

Of course that didn’t happen, but science is rarely used in politics. It also often isn’t simple. Take the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. By some measures crime is up, and it also appears that more people involved in fatal car crashes have used marijuana. The studies don’t claim causality, for those involved in the car crashes we don’t know if they were high at the time, but we now have some data which can help us decide if this was a good thing for society.

Most important issues like this are complex. The results are nuanced and it is often hard determine which decisions will result in the betterment of society as a whole. What I look for in a President is someone who can grasp complex issues and has the ability to understand nuance and act with subtlety.

Which brings me back to this election. It is hard for me to believe that out of nearly 320 million people in this country, the two best people to run it are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I think it is a choice between Satan and Beelzebub, and I’ll let you decide which is which. The system is broken, and I’m not sure how to fix it (I have some ideas but by this point I’m certain to have lost two of my three readers, so I won’t dwell on it).

Usually I vote third party. Last election I voted for Gary Johnson, and I am considering it again. In 2012 I saw little difference between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, but I have some misgivings about a Trump presidency, more so than I would a Clinton presidency.

Let me state that I don’t like Donald Trump, or at least the public figure (I’ve never met the man). I find him tacky and boorish. But there are some aspects of him I like more than, say, Ted Cruz.

I also don’t care for Hillary Clinton. She got the nomination based less on ability and more on paying her dues. Look, this country was founded to avoid royalty yet there is the potential for four of the last five presidents to come from just two families.

But when it comes to understanding complexity, nuance and subtlety, I think Clinton has the edge.

In today’s blog post, Adams takes on four objections a “Trump Hater” would have and makes an attempt to persuade you to think differently. Let’s check them out.

Trump is a loose cannon who might offend other countries and maybe even start a nuclear war.

I think Trump’s persuasion strengths could be very powerful in a President – as long as they were used for “good”. I’m not certain that would be the case as Trump has given little evidence about what he’d actually do as President with the exception of building a wall (which would be expensive and ineffective, outside of being used a symbol). But I wonder how well his persuasion techniques would work outside of the US?

What I am curious about is China. Adams writes “Trump has five decades of acting rational in business dealings, and getting along with people all over the world, including China and Russia.” Adams points out that Trump is on good terms with Vladimir Putin. That seems right – they have similar styles – although I don’t think lives of average Russians have improved under Putin’s leadership. But I couldn’t really find a reference about Trump dealing with China.

The Chinese have this concept of “Face“. While Trump is an excellent negotiator, can he win a negotiation while letting his opponent seem to win as well? The same issue is present in Arab culture. Trump likes to devastate his opponents and stand over their bleeding bodies. China holds so much US debt that they could cripple our economy any time they wanted just by dumping it at pennies on the dollar. They are huge pragmatists so I doubt they will do it, as it would affect their economy in a negative way as well, but could Trump put them in a situation where they had to in order to save Face?

Trump is terrible at business because he has several bankruptcies.

This is a straw man of sorts. There are a number of different types of bankruptcy, and they are not always “bad”. If you fly via commercial airlines you are probably putting your life in the hands of a company that, at one time, declared bankruptcy. As Adams points out, Trump owns hundreds of businesses, so he’s actually been more successful than most if you consider the scale.

The straw man is that Adams implies that if you can explain away the bankruptcies, that makes Trump good at business. The problem is that Trump isn’t very good at business. Forbes estimated in 1982 that Trump had between $200 million and $500 million in assets. If he is now worth $10 billion, like he claims, that means he did worse that if he had taken his money and placed it in an unmanaged index fund. Since the index fund represents the aggregate performance of business in this country, it means that Trump is worse that the average person at business.

Another issue to think about is that if Trump’s main experience is in the world of business and not the world of politics, his aversion to risk may be less than optimal. Take the “start a nuclear war” comment above. You can’t create a situation that leads to say, a war, and then just declare bankruptcy and start over if it doesn’t work out. Now Trump has never, to my knowledge, exhibited a pro-war hawkish stance, but being used to mitigating risk using bankruptcy doesn’t work in the arena of international politics.

Trump is a racist.

Adams likes to point out that Trump doesn’t say anything blatantly racist. For example, his prejudices against Muslims targets a religion and not a race, and that he referred to that judge as being “Mexican”, which is a nationality, not because he is Latino.

This is splitting hairs. I live in the southern United States and the racists I come across wouldn’t know the difference between a Mexican, a Puerto Rican or a Nicaraguan. To them, all Latinos are “Mexicans”. It’s like saying “I hate Africans, but I’m not racist because Africa is a continent and not a race”.

Adams makes another statement that “Islam is unique among religions in that it includes an order from God that Muslims should overthrow any government that is not compatible with Islam.” I couldn’t find that in the Qur’an, although there are a number of passages that could be interpreted that way, but the same issues exist with the Bible. Most Christians, especially fundamentalists, hold God’s law above the law of any land. In North Carolina you can be a government official and keep your job even if you refuse to obey the law and, say, issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple.

The same thing was said about Catholics when John F. Kennedy was running for President. Would he listen to the Constitution or the Pope? I don’t think Islam is that much different.

For full disclosure I’ve been to both Syria and the UAE and both times almost died – from being entertained to death. For the most part the Islamic culture imposes a requirement of hospitality far beyond other cultures, at least in my personal experience.

The problem with Trump is that he is willing to prey on fears about people who are “different” if it suits him. That, in a nutshell, is racism.

Trump is anti-women and anti-LGBT

I’ll agree that this is not a valid objection. While it is impossible for Trump to be more “pro-woman” than Hillary short of a sex change (maybe that can be Trump’s third act) he hasn’t exhibited much that makes me think he hates women or people of a particular sexual persuasion. He has powerful women in his life and his business ventures, and before the election seemed to leave subjects such as abortion up to women.

Sure, he makes offensive comments about women and their menstrual cycles, and he also makes fun of reporters with disabilities, etc., but that is simply to promote his agenda. The question you have to ask is if that works well for a President. I had this vision of Trump at a State dinner with the Chinese delegation where he stuck two sugar cubes on his front teeth, squinted his eyes and spoke in a pastiche Chinese accent as a joke. I don’t think anyone laughed.

I am not sure how I will vote in November. I mostly likely will support Johnson again, since I’m in it for the long game and the only way to fix the broken “one party” system is to have a lot more political parties and the Libertarian party seems closest to break that 5% barrier. I don’t want to see Trump as President if for any other reason than I don’t like the message that sends the rest of the world.

I’ll end with a little story. I was doing some work in England, and after a few days had become friends with the client. He had never been to the United States, and as we were walking to lunch he sheepishly asked “I would like to know, are all Americans … loud?”

I had to laugh and explain that I was louder than most, but in an increasingly “flat” world it is imperative that we learn to get along together and to understand one another. Building more walls is not the solution.

Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing Site

Some Context: I live in Chatham County, North Carolina. We have a local e-mail list called the Chatham Chatlist. It is run by a man named Gene Galin, and as you can tell by the website he doesn’t know much about computers. Every night he uses a Windows program to hand assemble the mailing list digest, and he uses that time to exercise some editorial control. The following is a post I sent to be included on the list that he refused to include, so I’m posting it here. It concerns a recent decision by the Chatham County Board of Commissioners to spend over $500K on the option to buy a “megasite” in the poorer, western side of the County.

UPDATE: Apparently Gene decided not to publish this because it is, of course, just about the HB2 bill. (sigh)

My post:

First of all, I apologize in advance for one more post about the CAM, after I said the one in Chatlist #5538 would be my last. Since that post a number of other people have joined in the discussion, both on this list and off, and I have spent a number of hours doing research on the subject and I want to share what I’ve found.

Warning, this post is long and contains a lot of references.

Summary: I think the Board made a bad decision using County funds to purchase an option for the CAM. It appears that even basic questions were not asked, the option benefits too few people at the cost of the many, and it is such a long shot the County would have done better to invest the funds in Powerball. A better solution would have been to invest in Broadband Internet infrastructure and training in that part of the county to develop more small to medium sized businesses.

I was only tangentially aware of the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing Site until I read an article in the /Chatham Record/ that mentioned the sale price for the site was $30K an acre. With 1800+ acres that comes to over $54 million dollars. When that much money is involved my radar goes off, because unless we as citizens are vigilant it is too easy for something of that size to become corrupt.

The more I dug into it, the worse it got. No one seems to be able to justify the number. There are no references to an appraisal, etc. It turns out that most of the land is owned by two people. As Doug Nicholas points out in Chatham Chatlist #5540, the tax value on the land is a small fraction of the asking price. Since this price was determined by “a willing Seller and willing Buyer” it seems only fair that the County restate the tax value on the land, right? I mean, if someone is sitting on a $54 million asset the County should tax it appropriately, although I am certain that won’t happen. This makes me angry, as the County sees fit to tax my old horse trailer and even older work trailer, as well as the amount of printer paper my business owns, but two wealthy land owners get away with paying considerably less than their fair share.

Taxes aside, I’ve been told that the land is worth so much because it is “unique”.

That’s true. It’s as unique a the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite ten miles up Hwy 421. Or as unique as the Moncure Megasite 15 miles east.

Seems like NC is full of megasites. There’s another one in Kingsboro.

This got me thinking: how many megasites are there in the US? Turns out it’s a lot. The premiere place people go for such information is called Site Selection Magazine. For 12 years they have published a list of “Super Sites” (PDF), and the latest list is from January of 2016.

That list includes a whopping 15 sites in North Carolina, although I found it ironic that only the Kingsboro site made that list. If the CAM has been marketing that site for years, shouldn’t Google’s number one hit for lists of megasites include a mention? Again, just a data point suggesting our money may not be well spent.

We were told that the State will not market the property unless it is until County control. Is that written down anywhere? As someone who identifies as a left-leaning libertarian, I demand transparency from my government. What are the rules? How will they promote these sites? In what order? Were any promises made specifically about the CAM?

Of course, the Board wouldn’t have spent $500K+ on a handshake, right? And does this mean the County will need to buy the Moncure site as well, for it to be even considered?

The Site Selection list includes over 190 possible sites. Considering that three of the ones in North Carolina are missing, it makes sense to conclude that there are well over 200 such sites in the US, which means to compete, North Carolina is going to have to stand out.

Well, the General Assembly has made it perfectly clear that North Carolina is open for business, as long as you are white, heterosexual, Christian and preferably male. With the Assembly’s focus on such things as Amendment One, HB2, limiting women’s access to health care, a ban on sharia law, and the Voter ID Act, they have made North Carolina a “hands off” state for investment, especially by the large and diverse companies that are the target of the megasites.

You may think no one notices, but I travel a lot for my job, and the subject comes up in England. It comes up in Germany. It comes up in Japan. You don’t know how embarrassing it can be to be in England, come downstairs for breakfast and hear these things being talked about on the BBC. Wikipedia refers to House Bill 2 as the “most anti-LGBT legislation in the United States” and lists seven references.

People notice. When performers like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Cirque du Soleil cancel shows, it reminds me of the Artists United Against Apartheid movement – just replace “Sun City” with “North Carolina”.

And before you run out and grab your label maker to print up a bunch “crazy liberal” stickers to put on me, I want to point out that, while currently unaffiliated, the only political party I’ve ever belonged to is the Republican party. I served as a page for both Frank Redding and Harold Brubaker back when the Republicans sat in the back of the chamber. He led the charge to get to the front and served for two terms as the Speaker of the House. I haven’t talked to him in awhile but I’m certain he’d be embarrassed by what his legacy has become.

The final point I want to bring up about this Board’s decision is that it sets a bad precedent. The half a million dollars spent only gets an option for a little more than a year. Based on the evidence above – many options elsewhere and North Carolina’s current business climate – no one is buying the megasite in a year.

So, about this time next year, expect debate on renewing the option. I predict we’ll hear the words “but we’re so much closer now” to justify an even higher price for the next option (on land that will still be valued at a fraction of the asking price). The Board will feel a lot of pressure to renew, since “heck, we’ve already spent a half a million
dollars so we can’t let that go to waste”.

It’s called Loss Aversion and it is well documented. I contacted Dan Ariely at Duke University as part of my research, and he sent me a link to his paper (PDF) on the subject if you are interested.

And what bothers me the most is that we come across as desperate. In The Chatham Record[1] Jim Crawford states “If we don’t do it … then we have nothing”. No one wants to invest billions in a place that is desperate.

This bothers me because I love living in Chatham County. I grew up in Asheboro, but when I turned 18 I moved to Los Angeles, never to return. Now I live in what I refer to as “God’s Own Earth” and I believe the situation is only desperate when we pin all our hopes on the CAM.

I run a computer software company based in Pittsboro. We have customers in 29 countries, including two of the Fortune 5. While small (we have about 15 people) I calculate we indirectly bring about $100K a year into the county, in food, gas, lodging and other purchases. While that isn’t a lot, if we can encourage more small to medium business, those numbers will add up, and we won’t be dependent on a single company.

The key is reliable Broadband Internet.

Look, manufacturing is down in the United States. There is a great article called “Manufacturing Moved South, Then Moved Out” that talks about it.

Manufacturing jobs in the US peaked in the 1970s. The CAM seems to be focused on luring an auto maker, but the US auto makers simply reopen shuttered facilities in Michigan (that article explicitly compared manufacturing jobs in NC to those in Michigan). I doubt foreign car manufacturers will come here due to the political climate.

However, with Broadband Internet access, we can open up a large number of doors and opportunities.

Most of Chatham County does not have access to Broadband, defined by the FCC as 25Mbps download speed. Heck, the best I can get at my home is 10Mbps DSL and I’m grateful for it.

Let’s turn Siler City into a Wired City. Not only do we need infrastructure, we need training to show people how to use it.

This doesn’t mean that I expect artists and farmers to become computer programmers. While we should encourage young people to consider programming as a career, Broadband brings so much more. I have a friend who is a technical writer, but she can work from home. When American Airlines declared bankruptcy, they closed a Call Center. The employees had the choice to move, or work from home. Many do.

While commercial agriculture has shifted to a few large companies, small, boutique organic farms are in demand and can demand much higher prices. Broadband can help create a market.

Think of the artists and other “makers” in the County. We should create an e-commerce site to manage the selling of their work. Let’s create a marketplace website, show people how to use it, and then provide facilities where high quality photos can be taken, or even videos, to best promote their work.

It can be done, but let’s approach this from a position of strength and not weakness. Let’s spend the County’s money on projects that benefit the most and most needy, and not on pipe dreams that immediately benefit the few.

Thanks for your time.


[1] Randall Riggsbee, “Board OK’s option on Megasite”, The Chatham Record, Vol. 96, No. 23, 21 April 2016, page 2.

Oh, Deer

I’ve been living out in the woods of Chatham County, North Carolina for over fifteen years and I’ve managed to avoid hitting deer with my vehicle the whole time. That is, until late last night.

It was a full moon and I was heading home when I went around a curve to find a literal herd of deer in my lane. Instinctively I swerved into the left lane and hugged the curb, which allowed me to miss the first six or so but that last one decided to head toward the car.


I was lucky in that the damage was limited to the right side mirror. There was a big “whump” and then my dash lit up like that scene in The Fifth Element when Leeloo crashes into Korben’s taxi and that voice goes “You have one point left on your license”.

So, add to my New Year’s chores getting the mirror repaired. I guess it could have been worse, and I hope I get another 15 years or more before it happens again.

Upper Chatham, Lower Alamance (UCLA)

I had lunch with my friend Phil at the Merlion restaurant in Southern Village. The food was great and the conversation was even better.

Phil told me that people have started referring to where I live as “UCLA” which stands for “Upper Chatham, Lower Alamance”, both being counties in North Carolina that border each other. The term is localized around the town of Saxapahaw – a funky little place about ten miles from my farm.

I think it is cool that our area of the state is developing enough of an identity to rate its own acronym.

2014 Mid Term Elections

Predicting how North Carolinians will vote can be a challenge.

Today the two party system is usually defined in terms of “liberal” (Democrats) and “conservative” (Republicans), mainly around each parties’ stance on moral issues. Since North Carolina is part of the Bible Belt, the policies of the Republican party appeal to a lot of voters even if the rest of the party’s platform is against their best interests.

But historically this was much different. After the US Civil War, Reconstruction was pretty harsh on the South due mainly to policies of the Republican party. Thus for a very long time the South was a stronghold for Democrats. In Chatham County where I live, public office elections were decided at the primary, since Republicans didn’t have a chance in the general election.

With more and more people in the state identifying with the conservative social policies of the Republicans, this is changing. Right now many elections are a toss up.

Chatham County is run by a Board of five commissioners who serve four year terms. This year three seats were up for election and in 2016 the other two will be up. Each commissioner represents one of the five districts in the county, and they have to live in their district, but people from any district can vote for each seat. In 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction, three Republicans won their seats: Brian Bock, Pam Stewart and Walter Petty, and thus held a majority position on the Board.

Fast forward to 2014 and those three people were up for re-election. Walter Petty in District 5 was unopposed, but both Bock and Stewart lost by a 5% margin.

See, toss up.

I’m not sure what happened this election. I didn’t have any issues, really, with the Republican led Board. Soon the possibility of hydraulic fracturing will arrive in Chatham and since I’m against it I am a little more comfortable with Democratic control of the Board, but they did little to piss me off.

Note: while I’ll save my fracking discussion for later, I’m certain that it can help us as a country satisfy our growing appetite for energy. I’m equally certain that the companies involved will cut so many corners in the name of profit that it will be an unparalleled ecological disaster. As I get my water out of the ground this concerns me.

What did piss me off is that both groups, Democrats and Republicans, ran as a block. While it does save money on signs and mailings, this implied that they would vote together. Chatham is a diverse county and I would rather it be represented by five individuals, and not a triumvirate.

It was quite clear to pretty much everyone that Brian Bock was the leader of the crew. I had no complaint with his term, but disliked the fact that he moved here and immediately ran for office, like a carpetbagger. You can tell by his demeanor that he had has higher offices in mind. This loss will set those plans back a bit, since who gets nominated is more a question of whose turn it is than who is most qualified, and to get in that line you really need to demonstrate you can be re-elected.

Anyway, I think the county should strongly consider limiting voting for each seat to those in that district. It would lend itself to a more diverse and independent Board.

The only race I really cared about was Sheriff. I think Richard Webster does a great job, and I was shocked to see him losing two votes to one on the WRAL election site. Turns out they had the totals backwards, and he actually won re-election two votes to one, which made me happy.

I would have loved to seen Renee Ellmers lose. It’s hard to describe my dislike of her performance on a public blog, but running Clay Aiken, an openly gay man, against her was doomed from the start. It’s just not something the majority of the electorate is willing to accept at the moment, and I would have much rather seen Keith Crisco on the ballot. Unfortunately his sudden death removed the chance for an old-school Democratic vote against the incumbent. Not only was he part of that tradition, he did have much more political experience than Aiken.

The months before the election was like watching an episode of the Jerry Springer Show, with lots of yelling and throwing of things. Maybe I’m getting too old (hey, get off my lawn) but things used to seem more civil. There seemed to be more focus on the issues. For example, Bock ran on the platform of “Education and Jobs”. Well, who isn’t for education and jobs? It would have been nice to hear more details about it, but in today’s world we don’t seem, as a society, to have time for concepts that can’t be expressed in 140 characters or less.