Industrial Arts

If you have any fear for the future of America, visit a FIRST Robotics League competition. Your worries will simply melt away.

Three days with my son’s team (2491 No Mythic) at the Northstar Regionals, where we were knocked out in the Finals, constantly percolated with passion, grace, and ingenuity. The 800 plus high-schoolers in Mariucci Arena, and another 800 next door in Williams Arena, redefined competition beyond the unique sport that is something like hockey with robots. These kids make things happen and realize their visions together. As enthusiastically as they learned by doing, however, their drive showed that something might be missing from their school experience.

Call it shop class, call it “technical education”, use whatever words you want. These are the citizens that will make the world of tomorrow in their image, if only they have the tools to do it. That cries out for a revival and resuscitation of the Industrial Arts in a way that I have never seen contemplated before.

Continue reading

Can’t Wait ’til Payday

The woman ahead of us in line at the convenience store had a bit more than the impatient, bored look we all shared. She held her head high and spoke to the cashier in a friendly tone, paying for the gasoline she was going to pump. Like many people at this store, in this part of St Paul, she paid with cash – but hers came in crisp twenties slid neatly out of a bank envelope. After we paid our own way out of the line I asked my daughter if she noticed. “My guess is she just cashed her paycheck because she doesn’t have a bank account,” I told her. It was a good guess, because it turns out that more than 17% of that particular neighborhood’s households have no bank account – and many rely on the UnBank check cashing up the street.

There are many reasons people don’t have bank accounts, up to and including the fact that check cashing stores can actually be cheaper than fees on everything. But some people wind up using these places for a “Payday Loan”, or a one-month advance on the next paycheck. A recent study shows that people who do this have to take out another loan the next month to pay off the first, and so on – with 62% eventually hitting 7 or more months in a row, the point where the interest payment exceeds the loan amount.

Continue reading

Fault Tolerance

It’s been a long week, already.  I need a little break, and this piece from 3 years ago is still very relevant.  

You pay the insurance bills every month.  Car, home, life – they’re all about the same, a bet against yourself that you actually hope is money wasted.  But when things go wrong, like a drunk driver smacking into you one sunny day, it’ll be there when you need it.  If you listen to the commercials, what you get for your money is peace of mind.  It should help you sleep at night without anxiety.

Insurance is just the ultimate form of taking care of when things go bad.  Building fault tolerance into a system so that it never gets that far is a far more complicated and thoughtful process.  Anyone who designs a system of some kind – a physical thing or a process that involves checks and balances – is probably going to be proud enough of their achievement to not want to think about when things go horrible wrong and the whole thing breaks.  But that’s exactly what needs to happen for it to be truly robust.  It’s also something that a culture or society has to think about ultimately, painful as it may be.

Continue reading

A More Open Fed?

There is arguably no more powerful job in the world than Chair of the Federal Reserve. When Janet Yellen took the gig in February, it was only natural for a lot of words to be written wondering what kind of leader she would be. Betting money was on more of the same, given her long tenure at the bank.

With her first press conference behind her, we do indeed have more – of the same, yes, but so much more it’s not the same. Yellen brought forward a new transparency so open that it makes the breath of fresh air that as Bernanke rather stale in comparison. Perhaps it was time for a woman, after all, as Yellen is following in the developing tradition of female leaders as no-nonsense reformers.

Sad that the market is built on nonsense, then. The reaction so far has not exactly been good.

Continue reading

Seek the Original Source

The internet is a wide, rolling river of information. It can be treacherous and dangerous to wade into if you’re not careful. If you’re looking for a cool drink of truth, the muddy brown of this mighty Mississippi of data often has a harsh stench of bias bubbling along with the waves. What can a reader thirsty for knowledge do?

The answer is to seek the source – the cool, clear stream that feeds into the torment at the headwaters. I call it the “Urquelle”, a German word meaning “original source” favored in the mountains and rolling hills that are the source of so many great rivers in Bavaria and Bohemia. This process of seeking out primary sources is valuable not just for writers, for whom primary sources have long been a staple of good, useful prose. As surely as reading is writing, today’s discerning reader should also seek the Urquelle.
Continue reading

Golden Years?

Are you ready for retirement?  While the idea might have its appeal, especially with the winter weather making for long commutes this year, an awful lot of workers are not on a track to be able to retire.  That’s according to a survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), conducted annually.  They found that only 18% are “very confident” that they’ll have enough for retirement and a further 37% are “somewhat confident”.  That’s up from the 2013 survey, in which only 13% was “very confident”.

The implications go beyond any one family’s ability to retire, however.  The decline in workforce participation has been largely due to retirement since the start of 2011, and retirement opens jobs for young people.  The wave of retirement that should accelerate after 2017 is one of the main reasons Barataria has hope for the 2020s.  But is retirement nothing more than a dream for many workers today?
Continue reading

MN Minimum: Half a Cent per Buck

Raising the minimum wage has become a progressive rallying cry.  While President Obama’s call to raise it to $10.10 per hour throughout the US is a longshot, given the Republican House, many states have either raised their wage or are considering it.  Minnesota is contemplating raising our minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2016, possibly indexed to inflation afterwards, and it is likely to pass.

What is the net effect on the economy?  An analysis of the net effects was prepared in December and with a little more math it boils down to something no worse than 0.5% of the total economy of the state.  It’s a way of looking at the proposal that makes the case against raising the wage much more difficult, although the effects are not felt uniformly throughout Minnesota.

Continue reading