A sudden departure from Grand Central

I was online tonight doing some bill paying when the following message popped up in my Twitter client:

I was one of the early GrandCentralbeta testers, so I logged into my long-dormant GrandCentral account just to make sure there wasn't anything in there that I needed to save. As it happened, there were a few old voicemails that I hadn't saved locally, so I downloaded them.

Well, most of them. For reasons unclear, there were a couple that would not play or download. Fortunately, there was nothing Earth-shattering in them as far as I know, mostly just routine messages between me and my wife, but it was somewhat unsettling that _anything_ was missing. After all, this was the predecessor to Google Voice, the service that promised to simplify your life by storing your voicemails in the cloud. Missing voicemails shouldn't happen.

Then I started to think about it, and I got angry. Not because a couple of voicemails were missing, but because there was no indication anywhere else on the web that Google was about to shut down the service. If I hadn't been a Twitter user, would I have even known about it? There was no email in my inbox, no post on the Google Voice blog, no word anywhere at all that GrandCentral was about to get killed off for good.

It wouldn't be so bad if Google was going to port over all its subscribers' old call records and voicemails to Google Voice, but that doesn't seem to be the plan. When I check my GV call history, the earliest voicemail is the one welcoming me to Google Voice:

Unless I miss my guess, there are going to be more than a few unhappy former GrandCentral users over the next few weeks when they find out that their archived voicemails are no longer available. After all, Google told us that we could continue to access our old GrandCentral accounts once we had moved over to Google Voice.

I know this all sounds rather arcane, and it is, to be sure, a First World problem. I am _very_ happy with Google Voice, and constantly preach its virtues. But I think that Google could have done better with this one, and it's disappointing to see them mishandle the situation like this. Come on, Google. Even though it's a free service, your customers and clients deserve a little bit of a warning, and a chance to save their data. Follow your motto. Don't be evil.

The Reagan fallacy

I turned 18 in 1984. That year, Ronald Reagan was re-elected President in one of the most lopsided victories in American history. My vote was part of that landslide, and as a newly enfranchised voter, I was both proud and delighted to be able to cast my vote for a man I saw as having set America back on the right track.

Having been born in the 1960s, having grown up in the 1970s, and having come of age in the 1980s, I well remember the atmosphere in this country prior to Reagan's election. I am old enough to remember the Watergate scandal, the end of the Apollo missions and the collapse of the space program, the evacuation of Americans from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), and the Iran hostage crisis. We had come through a traumatic period, having lost the war in Vietnam rather decisively only to find that a few years later, our embassy in Tehran could be taken over, and our diplomats held hostage by, students . We were assaulted on all sides by the images of failure and the need to accept a variety of new restrictions on our prosperity and on our way of life. 55 mile-per-hour speed limit, anyone?

Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan captured the GOP presidential nomination and told us that America was a shining city on a hill, and that there was nothing that Americans could not accomplish if only we put our minds to it and got the government out of the way. We responded enthusiastically, and it worked. The economy started to recover, jobs were created, and Ronald Reagan became the first president to serve two full terms since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Less than a year after he left office, the Berlin Wall opened, and within a relatively short time, the Soviet Union collapsed. Because of this, Ronald Reagan is widely regarded in this country as the man who won the Cold War.

Ironically, much of what Reagan was able to accomplish in office was not due to getting government out of the way, but was rather due to using the resources of government to achieve the goals he set. Lower tax rates gave the public more money to spend, but a 40% jump (in real terms) in defense spending from 1981-1985 pumped billions of dollars into the defense industry, creating thousands of jobs thereby. This massive increase was only partially paid for by cutting federal social programs and regulations; the rest was financed by deficit spending.

All of the foregoing explains why I find it hard to take today's conservative movement seriously when they loudly proclaim the virtues of small government and the free market, screaming epithets about socialism all the while. They listened to what Reagan said , but they paid scant attention to what he actually did. Ronald Reagan was opposed to both Communism and big government, but he slew only one of the dragons. The other one was alive and well the whole time, and helped him to slay the first. Indeed, the Great Communicator, the Gipper himself, actually expanded government. Shortly before leaving office, he signed into law the bill creating the Department of Veterans Affairs, described by Wikipedia as “a socialized government-run health-care system,” elevating the former Veterans Administration to cabinet level.

Today, with the conservative movement having been largely reduced to shouting about how the government can do nothing right and wanting it to have nothing to with anything, it is time to examine this fundamental component of the Reagan legacy. While it is true that the government cannot do everything right, it does not logically follow that the government cannot do anything right.

Consider, if you will, the Federal Aviation Administration. It oversees the air traffic control system, which routes thousands of flights every day, assigning landing priorities and keeping each aircraft a safe distance from each other. It performs this job so well that hundreds of thousands of people board aircraft each day, confident that they will arrive safely at their destination.

Or consider the Food and Drug Administration. It monitors the safety of the nation's food supply, allowing us to shop for food without worrying that it will poison us or make us ill. It also regulates the prescription drug industry, which millions rely upon to manage their illnesses and prolong their lives.

“Ah,” you say, “but those are non-controversial.” OK, fine. Let's consider the United States Postal Service. Everyone knows that the Post Office is inefficient and loses money, right?

Well, actually, no. Under federal law, the Postal Service is required to be self-supporting. That's why it asks Congress for rate increases every year or so. No tax dollars go to its operation. And even if they did, think about it for a minute. The USPS will pick up a letter in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and deliver it to Shugelak, Alaska for 44 cents. If you ask FedEx to do that, the cheapest rate as of this writing is $25.96, $15.00 of which is a “rural surcharge”.

We could go on. Let's look at the state level. Everybody knows that the DMV is horribly inefficient and full of government employees who don't work very hard, right? Well, there are undoubtedly a few of those, but I don't have to deal with them. Here in California (yes, California, the state that can't get its act together) I renew my license and registration on the internet and usually get my new driver's license or registration sticker in a couple of days. And oh, by the way, that's in a state with 32 million registered cars, all of which have to renew their registration every year. That's roughly 87,671 cars a day. I'd say that's reasonable efficiency.

And then there are the public universities, like the University of California system (my alma mater) and the State University of New York (where my nephew is studying), which provide a quality university education for far less than a comparable private university. Of course, you can always pay more and attend private universities like Stanford or Harvard if you think you'll get a better education (a matter of some debate), but for those who can't afford the private option, the public universities provide a solid college experience at a fraction of the cost.

What else can the government do well? For starters, it did a bang-up job assembling the team that built the first atomic bomb (no pun intended). In partnership with the aerospace industry, it put men on the moon. It built Hoover Dam. It provided the funding and the design standards for the interstate highway system. It provided funding and land grants for the first transcontinental railroad. It operates the national parks and wildlife refuges. Through the Tennessee Valley Authority, it brought electricity to much of the rural South. It even developed ARPAnet, the predecessor to the Internet. Closer to home, a whole range of government employees known as firefighters have done heroic work in putting out the fires in the Angeles National Forest.

This is not to say everything the government does is perfect. Clearly, that is not the case. But it puts the lie to the statement, so often heard on talk radio, that “the government screws everything up.” It does not. It often does things well.

There are even things for which the government is essential, national defense for one. It is difficult to conceive of a situation in which the private sector would provide better protection for our nation than the government does via the military. The free market won't defend against a military attack, or a fire for that matter—when your house is burning down, you don't have time for competitive bids, or to make sure that your fire insurance lists the local fire brigade as an “in-network provider.”

So the next time that you hear someone deride national health care as a boondoggle, or say that the government would screw it up “just like it screws everything up,” call them on it. Take a moment to consider the many things that the government does, and has done, right. It's a longer list than most people think.

And as for Ronald Reagan? I still think he was a great President, and I'm proud of the vote I cast for him in 19841. He left a legacy of many accomplishments, and we should be grateful that we no longer live under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. But he was first elected almost thirty years ago, and the policies of Ronald Reagan are no more suited to today's circumstances than the policies of Dwight D. Eisenhower were suited to the conditions of 1980. The world changes, and politics must change with it.

We can start by getting past the Reagan fallacy—the notion that the government is always the problem. It simply isn't true, and the longer that the conservative movement holds on to this demonstrably false idea, the longer it will be before we have a truly effective political opposition in this country. Americans in general, and Republicans in particular, need fewer Joe Wilsons in Congress, and more Orrin Hatches—principled men of integrity who know how to work with the opposing party to get things done. Our democracy depends on it.

  1. As of this writing (2016-10-16), I repudiate every part of this sentence. I deeply regret my vote for Ronald Reagan, and lament that he was ever permitted to hold office.

Site modifications

With the holiday weekend now here, I've got a little extra time to play around with the settings for the site. You may notice some unexpected weirdness while I experiment with different themes and layouts. If you see anything that you think looks just horrible, drop me a line in the comments.

Echoes of the past

Here's one for the history buffs out there…

My company names its conference rooms after cities where they have an office. Sometimes locations change, and they have to be renamed. Therefore, the main conference room is now the Munich Conference Room .

I guess they're not planning on having any Czech guests anytime soon.

Hitting home

“You definitely have diabetes.”

These are not words that anyone likes to hear, but they are the words I heard from the doctor two days ago. They weren't a complete shock; like so many other things, diabetes is annoyingly present in my family background. Given that, you might think that I would have taken measures ages ago to make sure I didn't get to this point, and that would indeed have been the most sensible approach. But there is a difference between a concrete reality and a theoretical possibility, and until you hear those words it's all too easy to rationalize eating that donut or having an extra piece of bacon. It's 10 AM, and you didn't have much breakfast, and someone left blueberry muffins on the table in the break room at work that look awfully tempting. You think, “it's just one,” and so it is. But the ones add up, and before you know it you're at 250 lbs. and rising, with a blood sugar level to match.

Afterwards, of course, things take on a different hue. Being a voracious reader, I'd really like to keep my eyesight, and I have no desire to emulate my diabetic uncle, who lost a leg. Suddenly, oatmeal becomes a religion, and you think hard before finishing the rice that comes with your grilled chicken. Sugar? It's dead to me.

All of which is just another way of saying that things hit home when they happen to you instead of the next guy, and that has me thinking about the current debate over health care reform. Not surprisingly, those who have health insurance are not eager to change the system, since it might mess up what they've got now; those who have no coverage are obviously of a different mindset.

I'm on record as being strongly in favor of single-payer, Canadian-style national health insurance. This is because I believe that any system that does not cover everybody is unacceptable, and the numbers only work when you have the broadest possible risk pool, i.e., the entire population. To me, having health care being paid for by employers is like having your local fire department being paid for by employers. I believe it's in the national interest to have everyone covered. Of course, what I want isn't going to happen anytime soon. I don't know what we're going to end up with, but I'm fairly sure it's going to be a mediocre compromise that pleases no one and fixes little.

What I do know is that being diagnosed with a chronic condition that I will live with for the rest of my life brings things into a new perspective. I have pretty good insurance right now (although it's not the insurance I'd prefer--I'm a Kaiser fan), but I may not always have it. What I will always have is medication to buy, and like many others I'm just one layoff notice away from losing my coverage and rendering that medication unaffordable.

It could happen to me, and it could happen to you, and I think that's something worth meditating upon as we struggle through the messy business of health care reform.

Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

Legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, the very personification of trustworthy journalism, the man who was the news to my generation as we were growing up, the man who narrated the events surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, the Apollo launches, the war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and the Iran hostage crisis, has signed off for good. And that's the way it is, Friday, July 17, 2009…


Nobody likes to think about them, nobody likes to talk about them, but they're something all too common these days: layoffs. Today we got a reminder of that at my office, as the axes swung due to a company-wide reduction in force.

Up until this point, most of the departures from my workplace have been either due to redundancy as a result of the corporate takeover four years ago, the aftereffect of canceled projects, or cost-cutting by outsourcing work or moving it to different offices. Some were temporary employees whose assignments were no longer justifiable. In a few select cases, there have been retirements made possible by the aforementioned corporate takeoverâfor those individuals who had been made partners in the firm, it was a very profitable sale.

Today was different. The losses were much more evenly distributed. The ax felled both recent hires and long-term employees, in a variety of positions. Some will be missed; some were long past their sell-by date. We lost one notorious time-server who was more noted for checking email, creating useless forms, playing solitaire, and eating ice cream than for doing any actual productive work, but we also lost some very solid people. One had a law degree and was studying for the bar, and was just a few months shy of being fully vested in the retirement plan. Another was a married mother of two, whose job provided her family with health insurance, while yet another was the only truly bilingual Spanish-speaker in the office. They will be missed more than I can say.

Those of us who are left occupy only a small portion of an office designed to hold at least eight times as many people, sixteen times as many if you count the second shift that has been abolished. I half-expect to hear the wind whistling through the cubicles, while tumbleweeds blow by. As it is, I feel a bit like a survivor of a shipwreck, gazing upon the half-submerged hull lodged just offshore, wondering why I survived and when my time will come. It is good to be employed; it is sad to know that one's continued employment comes at such a terrific cost to others. And we wait for the ax to swing yet again.

More on my page rank: Yahoo! and Bing

This is of limited interest to anyone except me, but after discovering that I had made it to the first page of results for this Google search, I thought I'd see what happened when I performed the same search on Yahoo! and on Microsoft's new search engine, Bing.

Much to my great surprise, this blog showed up as the sixth result on Yahoo!, and as the eighth result on Bing. Even more surprising to me, when I left off the quotes, this site dropped to seventh on Yahoo!, but rose to second place on Bing.

You know, I'm a Google-loving Apple guy, but suddenly I'm feeling a lot warmer towards Bing. :-)

Bohemian rhapsody

I'm beginning to think there's a wormhole somewhere around Ventura that leads directly to central Europe in the 1930s. First, about a week ago, I saw a Zeppelin (not a blimp--an actual, honest-to-God modern Zeppelin) as it traveled down the California coast from the Bay Area to Los Angeles for the July 4th weekend.

Then, today, I saw a rare prewar Tatra T87 as it merged onto US 101 in Ventura. For the automotive non-geeks, the T87 was an aerodynamic sedan built in Czechoslovakia before the war that featured a rear-mounted, air-cooled V-8 engine and a prominent dorsal fin along the rear (you can see another photo here). To my eye, it's a beautiful example of Streamline Moderne automotive architecture, but you may have a different opinion--I like Citroëns and Saabs too, so my taste is somewhat, um, eclectic.

Anyway, I'm almost afraid what's going to appear around here next. If I see a formation of Messerschmitts, I'm outta here. :-)

Trying out a new platform

The notion of an email-based blog sounds intriguing. Here's my first post.