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Archive for December 2010

When will state pensions bankrupt your state?

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There seems to be a high likelihood that future generations will have to bear the substantial burden of making up pension benefits for previous generations of state employees. While citizens of states that are particularly hard-hit by the pension crisis may be able to escape to other states, an acceleration of this demographic phenomenon would leave a dwindling taxpayer base behind in the states facing the largest liabilities.

This would increase the likelihood of a federal taxpayer bailout in which taxpayers in all states would bear the burden of the states in default. The problem of state and local pension liabilities is therefore a problem for all US taxpayers, not just those in the states with the largest deficits.

Perp Walk

What happened in Bell City 14 miles south of Los Angeles would be entertaining if it was not so, well – “revealing”. You can read more about what happended at Bell at the ABC News link given at the end of this posting.

But, the essence of the thing is that Bell City Manager, Robert Rizzo, was being paid a salary of $770,000 per year.  Bell City is primarily a blue-collar town of about 40,000 people. A typical salary of a Bell City resident is about $28,000 per year.  About 17% of the town lives in poverty.

The Bell City Council worked it out so that Rizzo would get a near 12% raise each year and they themselves – the City Council – paid themselves about $100,000 per year for part-time work.

Rizzo got fired. But that does not mean he will lose his pension of $709,607 per year. Depending on how long Rizzo lives, the total payout of pension benefits could be close to $30 million dollars.  And that $30 million dollar pension for one person is on the backs of the taxpayers.

The Ruthless among us

There are a couple of interesting things going on here. First, we may have spotted a high density of what Dr. Martha Stout calls “The Ruthless among us – those without a conscious” (read).  According to Dr. Stout, one in twenty-five people lack a sense of what is right and wrong as judged by the standards of the “rest of us”.  So, it looks like we found a cluster of “the ruthless” on the Bell City Council along with the City Manager. 

Does a red flag go up in the minds of these City Council people when they pay themselves $100,000 per year and the City Manager $770,000 per year knowing that this City Manager salary also presents a $30 million dollar pension liability for the city for a single person?  Do you (as part of the “rest of us”) see something wrong with this?  Residents of the city average only $29,000 per year.  It seems that this is the new standard of moral and ethical behavior by the City Council and the City Manager as  “city servant” – at least in Bell.  How many other places is this going on?  Is Bell unique or just the tip of the iceberg?

Trajectory of financial collapse

Second, how many other cities (and states) are on the trajectory of financial collapse under the burden of pensions in general? Cities and states have taxing authority so the folks managing these budgets never have to earn money in the same sense as a private sector business.  What they need they simply take from the taxpayers – if they dare to do so.  The fox is guarding the financial hen-house.

Check out the report below and see where your state ranks in the pension runout.  Some brief statistics below,  Read the full report at the link in the resources section at the end of this posting.

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Written by frrl

December 30, 2010 at 10:09 am

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What Technology Wants for the Future of Broadcast Radio

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Grundig S450DLX Field Radio

I read a review of a new AM/FM/SW radio that will soon be on the market.  The person writing the review questioned why “anyone” would want a radio with Shortwave.  Perhaps that is a legitimate question.  For that matter, why would anyone want AM?  Or even a more extreme view, why would anyone want a “radio” at all?  By “radio” I mean a dedicated device to receive an RF signal in the traditional frequency spectrum assigned to the AM/FM/SW broadcast bands.

What technology wants

I have heard this term, “What technology wants”. As if technology has a “mind” or “intention” (Hegel/Geist).  Perhaps people think that they are in charge.  Technology is created in the service of man.  But, the creation (or discovery) of a new technology has many unintended consequences as well as a few surprises waiting.  The surprises are “what technology wants” and these may be unexpected and disruptive.

Can you get your 35mm film developed anymore?  Running low on chemicals for the home film developing lab?  Do you need some more photographic paper?  Did you check the catalogs lately to see what new enlargers or lenses are on the market for your darkroom in the spare bedroom?  At some point, if you talk about any of the above the number of people who know what you are talking about will diminish as time goes on.  Does a teenager know what “dialing” a telephone number means and the origin of the term?  Do you shoot “footage” with your digital video camera?  What is “footage”? (Read related: Kodachrome)

Did Eastman Kodak want their film business disrupted by digital photography?  No.  But it happened.  Technology wanted something that Eastman Kodak could not anticipate.  Eastman Kodak was late to the game and was not a leader when technology first made its intentions clear.  What technology wanted in digital photography was “inevitable” and no power on earth, let alone Eastman Kodak, could stop it. 

Once technology is unleashed who or what sets the path of all the events to follow?  Who is in charge?

What is “Radio”?

Perhaps it will be the same with “radio”.  What technology wants, and what is inevitable and unstoppable, will lead to a challenge and clarification of what “radio” is.  International broadcasters such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and others picked up on this opportunity more than a decade ago to clarify the definition of radio and their mission as international broadcasters.  With alternate delivery mechanisms one could finally see in “radio” the distinction between content (programming) and delivery (RF) and how these could be separated.  What opportunities await?  What does technology want?

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Written by frrl

December 28, 2010 at 8:56 am

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LIFE Magazine is for people who can not read

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A School Teacher Speaks

I was listening to a broadcast radio talk show a few days ago and a former school teacher called up and said, “LIFE magazine is for people who can’t read.”

So, is that what she taught generations of grammar school or high school students?  Are paintings and sculpture also for people who can not read? What about architecture?  Does architecture have anything to communicate?

Why the primacy of the text?  Photography, painting – no matter what the genre, sculpture, architecture and other forms of non-verbal or non-textual expression have much to communicate.  “LIFE magazine is for people who can not read”.  Is this the product of a limited education?  Or the source of future generations of limited education? Or, perhaps both?

Inside a Nazi Christmas Party, 1941

Of course the real topic under discussion on this talk radio show was a set of color photographs that LIFE magazine published showing Hitler celebrating Christmas in Nazi Germany in 1941.  Was it really a religious celebration by the Nazi’s? 

So, take a look for yourself –
http://www.life.com/image/first/in-gallery/51341/inside-a-nazi-christmas-party-1941#index/0

Check out thousands of LIFE photographs –
http://www.life.com/

And then wonder about the state of education and if photography is somehow a diminished or impoverished form of expression in comparison to written text.  Perhaps photographs say what can not be said in speech or writing.  Perhaps photography and visual perception is a form of communication that skips the intermediary of verbal or textual translation.  Perhaps visual communication is a primary link to an emotional communication and the verbal or textual translation of that emotional connection is impoverished and secondary.  Isn’t part of what makes great literature the ability of the writer to evoke images in your mind to tell the story?  Writing is in the service of imagery. “LIFE magazine is for people who can’t read.”  Think again.

From the text accompanying the photograph

“We cannot accept that a German Christmas tree has anything to do with a crib in a manger in Bethlehem. It is inconceivable for us that Christmas and all its deep soulful content is the product of an oriental religion.” These were words of Nazi propagandist Friedrich Rehm in 1937, in pre-war attempts to take religion out of the holiday by harking back to the pagan Julfest, a Germanic festival of the winter solstice that was later absorbed into Christmas. (An eye-opening 2009 exhibit at Cologne’s National Socialism Documentation Centre displayed early Nazi propaganda employed to make over the holidays: swastika-shaped cookie-cutters; sunburst tree-toppers, to replace the traditional ornament Nazis feared looked too much like the Star of David; and rewritten lyrics to carols that excised all references to Christ.) But by the time of the 1941 Christmas party featured here, with World War II at its height — America had officially entered the fray just weeks earlier — the focus shifted to more practical matters. Rather than trying to dissuade millions of Germans from celebrating Christmas the way they always had, the Reich instead encouraged them to send cards and care packages to the troops.

Written by frrl

December 26, 2010 at 7:02 pm

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Review of the TI-84 Calculator – Part II

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Read part 1 – Review of the TI-84 Calculator – Part I

This is my last posting on the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition Calculator.  This thing is being wrapped up and given as a Xmas present.  The last calculator I bought of any significance was the Casio FX-7000G.  I find now that this calculator is of 1980’s vintage and of some note regarding innovation for the time.  I am going to stay with this older calculator  for now for the reasons stated at the end of this posting.

There are lots of reference information about the TI family of graphing calculators  in my original posting.  You can refer to that in conjunction with this last posting. 

One piece of software that I did not mention in the original posting, and it took me a long time to find this, is a Microsoft Windows-based program for editing TI Basic Programs.

Programming TI BASIC using  MS Windows

A strong point of this family of TI calculators is the ability to write programs in TI-BASIC.  Great.  The downside is that you have to type these programs in at the keyboard on the calculator.  This is a giant pain.  Do you think that TI would provide a PC Windows-based editor to make the job easier and provide that on the companion CD-ROM with the product?  No.  That, from a customer and usability perspective, is an oversight and omission on the part of the TI Product Manager who owns this family of calculators.  But, never fear, there is one and it dates back to 2004 but it still works.

The TI BASIC Editor will make your life easier

This Windows-based editor dating back to 2004 will run on a Win7 machine without any problem.  In the left pane are all the possible TI-BASIC command.  On the right pane is the text editing window.  You can double-click on a command on the left and it appears on the right.  Edit as you see fit.

A great feature of this program is that you import any text.  So, if you get a program off the internet or other source you can simply paste in text or use the Open file dialog to import the text.  When you are done editing and syntax checking, click an icon to send the file to the calculator and its ready to run. Very nice.

The Take

The take on this one is that this calculator will be packaged up and given as a Xmas present.  Who would use this calculator?  I think this calculator is most appropriate for kids in high school and perhaps for first year college students taking analytic geometry, pre-calculus, or a first course in calculus or statistics.  Beyond this, there are better tools.

For an adult doing anything related to finance (home budgets, investments, or planning) then Microsoft EXCEL would be the tool of choice – or Open Office if you prefer a free open source solution.  In this day and age the use of a simple $10 calculator can take care of most of your immediate ‘arithmetic” needs.  A calculator in the class of the Graphing TI family such as the TI 83/84 is way overkill for “arithmetic” and falls way short when compared to Microsoft EXCEL.  The TI Graphing calculators has a very definite niche of maximum utility and value.  Outside this niche, the value is questionable.

For kids “mesmerized by technology” the TI-84 can not only be a calculator but also a platform for Z-80 assembler development.  There does exist a home-grown open source operating system for the TI family based on Z-80 assembler.  Why does an home-grown alternate operating system with free source code exist?  Because it can, and because some young kids have the curiosity and spirit of innovation to commit their time and resources  to writing such a thing.  Good for them.  These kids could be the next generation of those engineers that develop the next great product.  So, a Z-80 development platform for $100?  Maybe, and a calculator to boot.

Written by frrl

December 24, 2010 at 8:43 pm

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The Age of $100K per year tax-free pensions

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While you are calculating your retirement benefits you might want to do a little benchmarking.  The great thing about public pensions of city and state workers is that there is a near infinite amount of money to fund these pensions.  That infinite amount of money is the state, city, and local taxing authority.  Whatever is needed to fund these pensions it can get from the citizens.  Good deal.

Check out this excerpt from the New York Times…  And then check out the actual annual pensions amounts of 3,726 individuals collecting public pensions from the state of New York

In Yonkers, more than 100 retired police officers and firefighters are collecting pensions greater than their pay when they were working. One of the youngest, Hugo Tassone, retired at 44 with a base pay of about $74,000 a year. His pension is now $101,333 a year…

It’s what the system promised, said Mr. Tassone, now 47, adding that he did nothing wrong by adding lots of overtime to his base pay shortly before retiring. “I don’t understand how the working guy that held up their end of the bargain became the problem,” he said…

According to pension data collected by The New York Times from the city and state, about 3,700 retired public workers in New York are now getting pensions of more than $100,000 a year, exempt from state and local taxes. The data belie official reports that the average state pension is a modest $18,000, or $38,000 for retired police officers and firefighters. (The average is low, in part, because it includes people who worked in government only part time, or just a few years, as well as surviving spouses getting partial benefits.) …

Roughly one of every 250 retired public workers in New York is collecting a six-figure pension, and that group is expected to grow rapidly in coming years, based on the number of highly paid people in the pipeline…

Yonkers still offers full pensions to police after 20 years, but just in theory. For the moment, the city is too broke to send any new cadets to the police academy, and retirees are not being replaced…

Resources:

Check out the Top Recipients of Public Pensions in New York
Records for 3,726 individuals
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/05/15/business/pension.html

Read the whole story
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/21/business/economy/21pension.html

Read about the scandal in Bell California
The city manager of a blue-collar town makes $700,000/yr and will draw a pension valued at $30 million over his lifetime
http://abcnews.go.com/WN/pressure-calif-city-mulls-firing-overpaid-manager/story?id=11230145

Written by frrl

December 23, 2010 at 8:28 pm

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What Is Your “Fair Share” of the Federal Tax Burden?

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It’s getting close to that time of the year again when individuals will prepare their tax returns and pay their “fair share” of the Federal tax burden.  But what is a “fair share”?  In the United States we have a progressive tax meaning, essentially, that the more you make the more you pay.  Is that fair?  Why? 

Perhaps one can think of money as a sort of “certificate of societal contribution”.  Society rewards, in the form of monetary compensation, what it needs and what it values.  So, in a sense, and maybe a stretch, the higher the value of an individuals societal contribution the more the monetary compensation paid to them.  So why a progressive penalty (tax) on those people who provide to society the most value or benefit as measured by compensation?

Perhaps it should be the other way around.  If you don’t contribute to society as some expected level (your “fair share of the work”) then you pay a penalty.  How about a reverse progressive tax?  The lower your contribution to society the higher the penalty (tax).

A Sense of Obligation to Society & Human Dignity

When the first pioneers came to America could you be part of a community or settlement and expect to eat but not work?  Back then the expectation was the everyone contributes and that this act of contributing to the work or productivity was part of the lifeblood of community survival. 

But today, is this still true?  Does anyone feel they have an obligation to contribute?  In the Steinbeck novel Grapes of Wrath which is set in the Great Depression of America the Joad family, a poor family of sharecroppers nearly without hope trapped in the Dust Bowl, refused to take “relief” (welfare) – they wanted a job.  To take “relief” , in their eyes, was an insult to human dignity.  Still true today? (“Suppose your only real ambition is not to have to exert yourself to get by... read more )

Today, some people’s highest aspiration is to get on the welfare system.  They spend more time and  effort trying to “work the system” than they would spend trying to find an opportunity to contribute to society.  How times have changed.

Your Fair Share

So who pays what and what is your “fair share” of the federal tax burden?

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Written by frrl

December 22, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Your retirement with Social Security cutbacks – Do the Math

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For those of you expecting that payout from Social Security in 5 years from now, a decade from now, or a few decades from now – what if the Social Security benefit is not what you think it will be?  The best laid plans of mice and men…  A lot can happen between now and then.  Be prepared, plan ahead.

Social Security will probably still be there when you retire – in some form.  But, likely, the Federal Government will react to any “near insolvency” by severely cutting back on how much you get and/or moving forward the age at which you will get the full benefit. 

In the first case, the payout to you would be less saving the fund money.  In the latter case, they are looking at the actuarial tables of how long you are likely to live and starting payments closer to the date of your statistical demise.  That saves the fund money too.  Good for the Social Security Program – bad for you.

So, you better be ready to paddle your own canoe.

Suppose you calculated your monthly expected benefit from Social Security and one day, quite unexpectedly, the “breaking news” is that: a) you will not receive the benefit at the age you planned (they pushed it ahead) and b: that the monthly payout will be less than you expected.

Suppose you had to augment the planned Social Security payout with your own funds.

How much in lump sum cash would you need to invest today to pay yourself a monthly amount for the rest of your life?  Or, how much in lump sum cash today would you have to invest in order to make up for the shortfall between the amount of money you expected to get from Social Security and what you will actually receive?

Check out this article from the Wall Street Journal and do the math.

Also, check out the URL’s for on-line calculators to help you calculate what investment it would take in todays dollars to provide you a monthly payout (similar to Social Security) for the rest of your life

From the Wall Street Journal…

Last week’s landmark tax deal sharply changes the financial outlook for Social Security. That has huge implications for your retirement. And most people don’t have a clue what’s coming.

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Written by frrl

December 21, 2010 at 4:49 pm

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