places
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(see  also Indonesia and a “million dollars of problems”)

In 1997, Jakarta was in the throes of economic expansion. Our view from our apartment on the 16th floor of the Ascott presented a remarkable array of skyscrapers and shopping malls. The Japanese-funded malls were spectacular multi-level affairs, each of them rivaling Houston’s Galleria.  The skyscrapers were modern and sleek.  But, my young kids were fascinated by a contrasting view, of the open field directly below – a family living in a tin-roof shack right next to a fetid green canal.  Living without electricity and water, our kids would watch them in the morning, as someone would walk out to an empty spot in the field with bucket in hand to take a sponge bath or relieve themselves.  These folks, though, were at least surrounded by a lot of open air – just another block away was a squatter kampung, a crowded, tangled arrangement of shacks, handmade concrete-brick buildings, and dark alleyways.

Walking down Jalan Thamrin or visiting Blok M, local Indonesians hardly paid us any attention -they were middle-class Indonesians, office and service workers just like any other city.  But, a mile off the beaten path, a visit to an open market or the nearby Textile Museum, suddenly were were noticed by everyone. Hellos (“halo” or “selamat”) and smiles greeted us – the more daring would want to touch our pale skin or take photos with our children.  We often went out with our neighbor Alaude, a young red-hair Dutch woman, and she was even more exotic to the locals.  Much to Connie’s chagrin, they assumed Alaude was my wife and Connie the nanny; they would stop us to get a picture together, or surreptitiously line up a photo of themselves with us in the background.

Most Indonesians worked 6 days a week, so Saturday night, the “long night”, was the time to party.  Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, was also home to nightclubs and all-night raves.  Energized by light shows, stage dancers, and EDM, Jakartans hit the dance floor in large numbers. Among the dancers, though, there would be a few young men huddled on the floor, rocking to their own beat – they were strung out on Ecstasy. Clearly enough disposable cash among the middle-class to waste their life away on drugs. Leaving the club, though, some granny would would call out to the passersby – “young girl, young girl, you want young girl?”, with their forlorn grandchild (?) standing nearby, head cast down.

The sky was never blue in Jakarta – leaded gas, two-stroke engines, and burning garbage took care of that. We almost forgot the sky until we took a trip to Yogyakarta  to be  greeted by bright blue skies and a real horizon of mountains and volcanoes.  Yogyakarta’s architecture was low-slung, no skyscrapers, the streets wide, the pace of life slow.

Indonesia is mostly Muslim by religion, but in the small towns, villagers still enjoyed Wayang - traditional shadow puppet plays – drawn from Hindu sources.  There’s a deep history to Java Island, with majestic Buddhist monuments and Hindu temples still preserved in the jungles.

We never saw a child cry in public in Indonesia – people were uniformly friendly, polite, and happy.  But, just a few months later, riots rocked the Glodok area, Chinese businesses and people targeted for attack, rape, and murder.  Fortunately, we were back in the U.S. by that time, scheduled for vacation before continuing on another Indonesian project.  As we were both American and Chinese, likely we would have not been safe if we had stayed. Sadly, we never returned to Indonesia – with troubles continuing, we decided to take a project in Venezuela instead, and in fact all Lotus Consulting projects in Indonesia were ultimately canceled, never to be restarted.

We would go back to Indonesia in a heartbeat, though.



lit
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I didn’t realize that Walter Grinder and I almost share a birthday! Today is his 75th birthday, and numerous students and professors are writing tributes to Walter, so here’s mine.

Walter Grinder’s history is intertwined with history of the Institute for Humane Studies.  Coincidently, IHS was also born in the same year as myself. IHS was instrumental to my college education. Though I was a computer science major in college, I also minored in economics, and it was an econ professor who first recommended me to an IHS summer seminar. So, in 1981 I fly up to Valley Forge for a week-long seminar (all-expenses paid, at that!), where I first met Walter Grinder. He good-naturedly teased me for being the rare student from the south (most IHS students then seemed to come from the West or East coast), and was even more surprised to find I was a Cajun.

Well, this first encounter with IHS led to many – a week-end seminar in the fall, (can’t remember where), and the following spring a week-long seminar in Chicago, where I met the esteemed Voluntaryist George H. Smith, as well as the legal theorist Randy Barnett, among others Then, in the summer of 1983, I head to another IHS economics seminar at New York University, along with my friend Gerard Mildner. While there, we were offered a summer-long research fellowship at IHS. It was quite a special selection, as only 8 to 10 students were selected that summer. So, very excitedly, we make our way back to Houston, Gerard and I pack up our belongings in his car, my bike strapped to the back, and we make for a 2-week long road trip to Stanford University.

Walter Grinder was the anchor of IHS then, and steered our young interests in productive ways, and was an ever-present figure in the Menlo Park office. He still good-naturedly teased me for being a Cajun, living on the bayou or such, but one evening, after reading some essay I wrote, he also told me “Kevin, you are like a diamond in the rough”. As a mentor, I was assigned the esteemed, and very friendly, professor Shudha Shenoy. I was recall that Larry White was there that summer as well – not as an undergraduate research fellow, I think, but in some other capacity.

I biked all around Menlo Park and Palo Alto, and my best days were spent in the Stanford University library, 8 million books strong, and the Hoover Institution Library. My only regret was the research paper I finally wrote for that summer – looking back at it, I think it was rather uninspiring and mundane.

Wind forward a few years later, after marriage, the birth of our first daughter, and then her passing away, I felt a little lost, and decided to further pursue my 2nd greatest interest (beyond computer science), and enrolled in the PhD economics program at George Mason University. And, lo and behold, IHS had moved there, as well as Walter Grinder. Of course he still remembered me well, and was a key recommendation for me to get a full-scholarship to school.

Walter has made it his lifelong career in investing in and developing human capital, the creative mind. Happy Birthday, Walter!



Opinion
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The United Nations is far from perfect, that I agree. But, it is our channel for international peace and diplomacy, and I am dismayed to see a U.S. President yet again bypass, ignore, and generally disregard this institution. Yes, I’m an idealist – I sincerely believe that War does not have to remain a permanent condition of mankind, that we can eradicate it, and ultimately replace it and all its surrounding institutions with processes of justice, diplomacy, and liberalism. There are steps we can make in this direction, but unfortunately, America’s foreign policy is far from traveling down this path.

Here’s some sweeping assertions about our current situation:

  • There is an America foreign policy regime
  • It is, if you will, a “spontaneous order”, a long-operating result of varied interests and processes.  Eisenhower named it “the military-industrial complex” – “complex” is a good word here; it is not simply a cabal, a small, smoke-filled room of profiteers, king-makers, world conquerors, whatever. It’s not a sinister plot, or conspiracy, but the systemic outcome of lots of players.
  • These players include the military itself, military contractors, intelligence communities, foreign policy think tanks, etc.
  • These players do not all have the same interests, but their interaction still produces a consistent outcome.
  • This complex has had a continuity, and consistency, that outlasts Presidencies.
  • This continuity stretches back to at least the early 1960s, but probably has its roots in WW2, with the permanent establishment of a Department of Defense (previously called Department of War), the CIA, and a few other key institutions.
  • This continuity is fed by an increasing percentage of taxpayer money that is directed its way.
  • An old Constitutional restriction – no appropriation of funds longer than 2 years for the raising of Armies – the that would have perhaps provided some brakes to this self-perpetuation, is largely ignored these days.
  • The general outcome of this regime is to #1, perpetuate itself (a lesson from Public Choice ECON 101, of course).
  • The regime is driven by “realpolitik”, not idealism.  Liberty, democracy, the human condition, are all secondary issues to its preservation of itself and “American Interests”.
  • The regime has a focus, and thus produces analysis and attention to, areas where its interests can be preserved or enhanced, and ignores other areas, no matter how stridently offensive to liberty, democracy, or humanity.  For example, the long-running Congo war has been completely ignored in the U.S. for decades.
  • A secondary factor in this focus is gamesmanship against other world powers that may threaten its dominant position in the world today.  Namely, Russia and China, though to a lesser extent, even Britain and France.
  • Its foreign policy “calculus” first analyzes this question: “if we take an action in this direction, will it enhance our interests?”.  This calculus extends even to regime change – either directly pondering assassination of foreign leaders, or supporting rebel causes that may lead to the toppling of a foreign leader.
  • Being realpolitik, this calculus will of course seek to preserve foreign leaders, no matter how undemocratic or brutal they are, if that means its interests are preserved or enhanced.
  • World events are still unpredictable, so the regime must react to events it doesn’t always control, and refactor its calculus
  • Thus, we’ll see the U.S. supporting certain players, such as Osama bin Ladin, Qaddafi, or Saddam, during certain periods, only to withdraw support later.
  • The regime doesn’t always win.

In the distant past, I was a certified parliamentarian. On occasion, I still do chair meetings, or all called upon to provide some training on parliamentary procedure. Most recently, last weekend I was asked to prepare some training notes for a group of folks, so I started refreshing myself on Robert’s Rules of Order. That led me to thinking, “how can I visualize all these rules, in a simple flow?” The result is this diagram, below the fold.
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The City of Houston Planning Committee is considering changes to our parking ordinances. Some notable changes include increasing the parking ratio for restaurants (from 8 to 10 spaces per 1000 square feet) and bars (from 10 to 14 spaces per 1000). These rules come on top of an already increasingly “suburbanized” parking and building rules. In general, not good. I’ll try to make it to the hearings on these changes, and below are some of my talking notes

I speak for myself, but some credentials:
- Inside-the-Loop resident for many years
- office in Rice Village
- board of directors of a non-profit shop in Rice Village
- married to a Montrose-area cafe owner

In summary, what I want to present here is “one size does not fit all”. Houston is a very diverse city, don’t define a cookie-cutter ordinance to meet a very varied problem – instead, more local dialogue and collaboration required.
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software
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Had a need recently to make some translucent (semi-opaque) elements on a Web page. CSS3 supports an “alpha” channel, the “a” in rgba, to provide color opaqueness, but IE 7 and 8 do not support this attribute.  So, most web developers resort to using a translucent background-image.  However, there is a pure CSS way that is compatible with all modern browsers today (IE6 ignored, of course).  This takes advantage, though, of some CSS parsing bugs, so may not satisfy the CSS purists out there, but it works for me :)

Demo: solid background inner-box surrounded by a translucent box, overlaying a background-image.

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Opinion
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As Rick Perry has joined the Republican Party presidential fray, there will be questions about his prowess at bringing jobs to Texas.  Of course, a governor can only directly “create” jobs by increasing payroll of government employment, but he does have a limited role in creating a more or less positive environment for businesses in the state, an that may have an impact on private employment as well.

The 2008-2011 recession has hit private employment in Texas just has it has in ogther ; however, it is worth noting that federal, state, and local employment figures have continued to rise through this same period.  Rise in state employment figures roughly matches the growth in the state government budget, and of course, the state budget deficit.  Some of these deficits have masked by federal ARRA “stimulus” funds, but that will be the subject of another post.

These stats drawn from the Texas Workforce Commission:

May 2008 – 8,857,500
May 2011 – 8,704,800

2011, though, has seen some job growth – not to pre-recession figures, but growing nonetheless.  These stats may change, though, as often past month figures are re-adjusted:

Jan 2011 - 8,483,200
Feb           – 8,514,400
Mar          - 8,612,000
Apr           – 8,674,200

State Government employment has gone up through the recession, which matches (approximately) the growth in our state budget through this same period:

May 2008 – 364,200
May 2011 – 378,700

May 2011 reflects an interesting decrease, perhaps due to the current budget battles at the state level.  We’ll see if that drop remains:

Jan           - 374,500
Feb           – 385,000
Mar          - 385,300
Apr          - 385,300

Local government employment has also been growing through this period – this is partially state budget-driven, so is worth reflecting:

May 2008 – 1,244,600
May 2011 – 1,303,000

 



software
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Egads, it’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. Yes, let’s blame Twitter for this!! Pithy, short, and easy, tweeting has become the easy way to share thoughts. Of course, not all can be written in just 140 characters, so I need to maintain a blog for deeper, yes, deeper thoughts.

But for now, let me just say one word: Django! Yes, I’ve been doing a lot of Django development over the past year. Enjoying it too. Python is concise, is nice. Not as nice as Smalltalk, of course, but nice enough. And, as a framework, Django delivers a lot of excellent functionality right out of the box. Been very pleased. I’ll have to write up some of my Django apps … when I have time, of cours.e


Introduction

Over the past year or so, I have been helping a small cafe in Houston, a tea house, enter into the world of social media marketing, mostly employing Twitter, and recently making use of Facebook. In fact, we were perhaps the first retail establishment in Houston to enter the brave new world of Twitter, and now boast over 1500 followers, making it the 2nd largest restaurant following in Houston. This cafe’s experience with social media has been quite successful, with results far better than advertising in traditional newspapers or magazines, and will continue to be a major participant in social networking space.

Follower count was never the strategy when we entered the Twitter world. I did have a strategy in mind when I first participated, and it was been refined through customer feedback and a few lessons-learned. I think our experiences can be useful to other retail stores, so just wanted to take some time here to share my insights. They can be organized as the 3 Ps of Social Media Marketing:

Passion Personality Place

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software
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On a recent project, had to deal with searching of tens of thousands of product descriptions, with a need to find substring matches quickly.  The select: statement in Smalltalk works like a SQL table scan – okay for small collections, but becomes seconds+ response time with larger lists.

An effective solution to this is an nGram Dictionary.  Strings of words can be broken up into sets of tri-grams, quad-grams, quint-grams, and so on.

My approach to this is a Dictionary indexed by nGram length, each element containing dictionaries of nGram strings of collections of the string objects to be searched.  Thus, indexing results as such:

3 -> ana -> ('banana')
ban -> ('banana', 'band')
4 -> bana -> ('banana')
band -> ('band')
anan -> ('banana')
5 -> banan -> ('banana')
...

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