The Truth About Dragons

Sir Philip called down to the peasant on the road. “Hoy! Be thou from Daneshire town?”

The peasant made a half-bow and responded, “Aye. I be from yon Daneshire township. Who be thee?”

“I am Sir Philip, late from the courts of King Richemonde, the Wise. I am on an errand from my lord, the king, and it doth bring me to these parts.”

“Oh? On errand, eh? And what errand might this be?”

“I seek the dragon of the lands north of Daneshire.”

The peasant’s face took on a similarity to a recently-plowed spring field. “Why?”

Sir Philip’s head recoiled from the directness of that question. With frown emblazoned across the base of his face, he said, “Impertinent one! Knowest thou to whom thou speakest?”

The peasant shrugged. “Apologies, sir knight. Forgive mine surprise in hearing thou seekest the Dragon of Daneshire. Why, sir knight, seekest thou the dragon?”

Appeased, Sir Philip responded, “To prove my virtue in arms.”

“What, thou plans’t kill ‘im?”

Sir Philip tolerated no more of the peasant’s uncivility. “Out of my way, varlet, I would pass thee now!” He spurred his horse as the peasant made clear the way to Daneshire.

“Ignorant peasant!” Sir Philip couldn’t get the bumpkin’s lack of respect out of his mind. The three miles to Daneshire were thoroughly unpleasant, full of reflections on the peasant’s churlishness and villainy. When finally Sir Philip did arrive in the unremarkable town of Daneshire, he was at least able to distract his disgust in the search for the reeve of the town. Daneshire existed at the far reaches of King Richemonde’s demense, and, as such, there was no manor nearby to appoint a bailiff over the settlement. Such a mannerless and uncouth realm!

But Sir Philip hoped to make a change to all that. With the hoard to be had in the cave of the dragon, why, he could build a strong, walled manor and become a landed knight with Daneshire as the beginning of his barony. Would that it could be less a forsaken borderland was the wish of Sir Philip, but ’twas only in the forsaken borderlands that new nobility could be made.

There being not many souls in the town, the search for the reeve was brief and conclusive. A clean, well-dressed peasant presented himself. “I am Fastulf Huldriksen, reeve of Daneshire. At thy service, good sir knight.” Fastulf made the proper half-bow for due deference to a mounted knight of the king.

“I would dismount and converse with thee, reeve.”

Fastulf gestured to several men to approach Sir Philip, to assist him in dismounting. The reeve motioned for the visitor and the men bearing his arms to enter the town hall, while a pair of men took Sir Philip’s horse to provender it.

Sir Philip pointed to a suitable corner and Fastulf nodded a the men with the arms, who placed them in the corner with care. Sir Philip’s black hair topped his scalp, its length a sharp contrast to the shaved back and sides of his head. His clean-shaven face made him stand out further from the bearded, blond rabble of the peasantry.

With the weapons in a corner, Fastulf ordered two chairs be brought to set facing the central hearth and that a fire be stoked there. The knight seated himself first and Fastulf took the chair of second preference. He then asked, “What bringeth thee to Daneshire, good sir knight?”

“Reeve Fastulf of Daneshire, I am here on errand from King Richemonde the Wise.”

“Long live the king.”

“I am here to bring gentility to this wild land. I am of a mind to do great works that would earn for me a barony.”

“Very good, sir knight. And how may the people of Daneshire be at thy service?”

Sir Philip appreciated the manner in which the reeve observed protocol. “I would know more about the Dragon of Daneshire.”

Fastulf nodded and leaned towards Sir Philip. “And what would thou wish to know?”

“Tell me first of its habits. How does it move about? What does it eat?”

Fastulf surmised from Sir Philip’s questions that the knight intended to hunt the dragon. “The great beast, though capable of flight, uses that mode infrequently, preferring to roam its territory on legs. We have seen it walking with stately gait, and striking its prey from cover with a pounce most rapid. Its prey is typically the deer or elk of the forest or the ram of the mountain. Rarely will it strike a bison of the plain.”

“And how did the people of this town come to see the dragon do these things?”

“Good sir knight, we travel to the lands of the Cumbri for trade in amber and tin, and the road to the Cumbri passes through the territory of the dragon. For many years have we seen the dragon and its ways.”

“And has it ever slain a man or the horse of a man?”

“Nay, good sir knight. Nay. Never has the dragon given us cause to fret or worry.”

“But what of hunters in that area?”

“We hunt not in the territory of the dragon. We hunt not where the king claims his woods and neither do we hunt where the dragon claims his lands.”

Sir Philip raised an eyebrow. “So would thou sayest that the dragon is rival to the king?” Already, Sir Philip entertained designs on the tribe of the Cumbri and how they might be conquered after he slew the dragon.

Fastulf looked into the fire, which did fill the hall with its warmth. He did ponder Sir Philip’s question carefully. He spake, “The people of Daneshire know the benevolent rule of King Richemonde. Him do we serve, and none other.”

Sir Philip wanted a different answer. “Nay, reeve, doth the dragon possess a mighty power, that the folk of this land do fear, even as they would fear the king?”

Fastulf nodded. “Aye, good sir knight. The people of Daneshire dare not to take their flocks into the borders of the land of the dragon. Why, only one man that I know doth live in the lands of the dragon.”

“Hold, Fastulf. Thou sayest a man liveth nigh unto the dragon?”

“Aye, Rolf Klintsen, he is the man. He maketh his home upon a cliff that overlooks where lives the dragon, where the quiet alloweth him to know better his Maker.”

“A holy man, this Rolf?”

“Aye, good sir knight. A holy man, indeed. He doth offer up prayers and supplications on our behalf, and we have known the blessings of his devotions.”

Sir Philip looked into the fire. “I would meet this holy man, if he would be able to speak more to me of this dragon. Comes he oft into the town here?”

“He doth, from time to time, as it pleases him to get grain or paper, or to mind his letters to and from the Father Superior of the monastery in Ogham.”

“Then I should have a room here in Daneshire, that I might be present when returns the holy man.”

“As you wish, good sir knight.”

And so, Sir Philip did reside two days in Daneshire, in wait for Rolf Klintsen, the monk of the dragon-lands. On the third day did Rolf arrive in town, and the reeve did introduce him to Sir Philip. Rolf did give his assent to converse with Sir Philip, on condition that the two would be seated in a garden plot.

“What, among the vegetables and the worms?” But Rolf would have it no other way. Being a man of God, he was not subject to the command of the knight. Sir Philip did relent, and the two sat where they did overlook the cabbages, carrots, and turnips.

Rolf asked the first question. “Sir Philip, do you mean to hunt this dragon? And to slay him?”

“I do, indeed.”

“Then I would dissuade you from such a task, for it is fraught with danger and promises little reward.”

“My king does not permit me to consider danger.”

Rolf allowed Sir Philip’s bravado to pass over him. “So it is. What then, dost thou know of the dragon, Sir Philip? For whatever thou knowest to be true, shall be one less thing I would be needed to teach thee, and whatever thou holdest as truth, but is false, that I shall be able to correct, that a falsehood not prove to be thy undoing.”

“Fairly said, holy man. Here is what I have heard of the dragon, that it is a mighty hunter of beasts, and that it doth hold sway over its lands, as does a lord. And the bards of the court sing of the vast treasures that it has amassed in its cavernous home, where dwarves beat its gold into grand jewels; that the dwarves are enslaved not by the dragon, but by their love for the grand hoard of gold. Their songs tell of how the dragon once did battle with the king of the sea-raiders, and how the dragon did slay that king, with breath of fire; that the dragon did bind the servants of that king to place the king’s treasures on ships and sail them back to his cavern, lest he slay them with breath of fire, as befell their lord and master. Heard I the song of the fall of the Darini, who did anger the dragon when they paid not their tribute of ten virgins one year; that the dragon did lay waste their lands with fire and violence; that the Woluntii followed in the wake of the dragon and did take hold of the lands of the Darini, that the name of that people is known no more. Truly, the dragon is a rich and powerful beast, full of cunning and malice. That he troubles not these lands is plain: they are poor, and the people trouble him not – there is nought to be gained in plundering…” he motioned over the garden “… cabbages.”

Rolf smiled. “Well, good sir knight, there is much that you do know. And verily, the dragon is a mighty hunter, and, yea, it doth hold sway over its lands. But it lives not in a cave.”

Rolf motioned outwardly from his person, describing a great circle. “It maketh a great ring for its lair, a wall with no gate, for it doth fly over the wall as it sallies forth to hunt its prey. Sheer are the walls, half as thick as they are tall, and fully the height of two men are these walls.”

Rolf held two fingers up. “Dirt and dung, these are the stuffs of which the walls are made of. The dragon mixeth his dung with the dirt and useth its tail to beat the mixture into shape. The sun baketh this mud, and it becometh like unto stone in durability. Safe from man is the dragon in his lair, lest a man bringeth a ladder and a bow, or two ladders and a lance.”

Sir Philip did not like this learning. What use was a lance without a horse to deliver the power needed in the blow? Would he have to lay siege to a dragon’s fort? Or, perhaps… “What of the dragon as it hunts and feeds? Doth it show any vulnerability? Wouldst I be capable of striking it then, from my mount?”

“The dragon is quick to respond, good sir knight. It sleepeth not outside its lair and it, like thee, feareth not the dangers of battle. Truly have I seen it brave the antlers of the bull elk and prevail. And especially ferocious it can be when a rival enters its territory.”

“A rival?”

“Aye, sir knight, a rival. There is a she-dragon as well as a he-dragon in these lands, and I have seen, twice, a rival enter these lands, for to claim the she-dragon for its own. Twice have I seen the dragon of Daneshire send his rivals flying to other lands, after battle fierce with claw, bite, and fire.”

Sir Philip had secretly been hoping that the dragon-fire detail had been but a legend. That it was actually true troubled his heart and clouded his mind. “So you have seen this dragon fire, holy man?”

“Yea and verily, sir knight, yea and verily. As sure as I have seen the dragon in its lair, asleep like unto a cat on a hearth.”

“Like unto a cat, say thee? So he sleeps well on his mounds of gold?”

“Nay, good sir knight. There is no gold in the lair of a dragon. There is but the ground where he maketh his bed and a spring from which he drinketh.”

“Egad! No gold?”

“Nay, good sir knight. The tales of dragon’s gold are but stories told to fill the darkness of night with the illuminations of imaginings. Likewise, I am certain that no dragon has wrought the downfall of a kingdom, nor has any exacted a tribute of virgins, or any other sort of tribute. Again, such things are the stuff of fancy, meant to entertain, but not educate.”

No gold meant a serious obstacle to Sir Philip’s plans to fund the building of a manor house. Still, if the dragon could be slain, such a feat could still earn him a baron’s title. Then, plunder from the lands of the Cumbri might produce enough for the beginnings of a noble estate. “No matter. The dragon is a worthy foe, and honor shall I bring to my king with its head presented as a trophy.”

“Hm. The time for a dragon hunt is not opportune, for it is their mating season. The dragon of Daneshire tends to be in the company of his lady. A fight with one dragon, I would not want to have, and a fight with two would be foolishness, indeed, even for a score of men-at-arms.”

“When ends the mating season?”

“In thirty days or so, good sir knight. Following that time, they become solitary, though the sir will bring his dame gifts of food, to sustain her and her young, who stay with the dame for five years. One would never wish to hunt the dame, for she is always in the company of her brood, and they are as fierce as she.”

“Then hunt the sir, shall I, a knight for a knight.”

“Ah, good sir knight, but even then, I would not think such a course to be wise, and I would inform you sufficiently to stay thee from this course.”

Sir Philip adopted a condescending tone. “Oh, holy man, great is thy wisdom and learning, and I thank thee for the profit I have enjoyed of’t. But leave unto me mine own knowledge of the hunt, for skilled am I in such arts.”

“Well, good sir knight, wouldst thou approach him from the front?”

“Nay, holy man, for he doth bite.”

“Wouldst thou approach him from the side?”

“Nay, for fierce are his claws.”

“Then wouldst thou approach him from behind?”

“Yea, for his defenses are weakest in that quadrant.”

“I would advise against that, good sir knight.”

“And why sayest thou such a thing, holy man?”

“Well, good sir knight, that is the matter of another falsehood of the bards.”

“And what is that?”

“Verily, verily I say unto thee that a dragon doth not breathe fire… ”

Meet the Hackers

Hackers… they’re a bunch of social misfits, loners, hoodie-wearing, energy drink slamming programming geeks, right? Well, no. They’re not. The bad guys with computers are not the sort to slide easily into media stereotypes. Most of them are members of criminal organizations or have nation-state backing. Awkward loners don’t fit in with the Russian Mob or the People’s Liberation Army. Gotta have team players in those groups.

Hackers don’t always use computers, either. Social engineering – also known as running a con job – is incredibly effective and simple to do. You’d be surprised how many people will give out their passwords when accused that they’re not strong enough. “Why, you better believe I got a secure password! It’s +O;66fg#3.>ha!” Hint: the password isn’t secure anymore if it’s been read out loud to someone else. It’s also not secure if it’s written on a notepad or post-it note.

Do you have someone that’s always asking questions about where things are on the network? That’s possibly social engineering. One guy did that at a company and learned where the financial data was stored. After a two month interval, a tiger team broke into the server room and stole that exact server. The thieves were caught and the connection to the inquisitive employee became evident. The people at that company were shocked to discover that a guy they all considered to be a cheerful, bumbling, balding co-worker was in fact in league with organized crime.

That guy, and others like him, are well-camouflaged. They blend in. They go to lunch with the rest of the gang. They have neither an excess, nor a deficit, of cool. They live in apartments and homes, they watch sports and reality teevee shows, they drink beer, they may not even know anything more technical than how to copy and paste and add an attachment to an email. Because, face it, if a guy copies a sensitive document and then sends it to someone that shouldn’t have access to it, that’s a data breach. A hack. And the guy that did it could have been a total shlub.

True, he could have been a more exotic chap, say, a soldier in an army unit responsible for espionage via computers. But that guy’s not working alone. He’s also not working on a short timetable. Guys like him or the organized crime types have all the time and patience in the world to find where the weaknesses are in an organization and then exploit them. They develop custom code, just like other corporations do, but their custom code is dedicated to undermining their target, rather than developing just-in-time strategic synergies. Most of what they do goes undetected for the simple reason that the vectors they use are either ones that haven’t been used before or their target isn’t looking where they’re active with .

If you like the shows with slick hackers with social flaws, keep on enjoying them, along with everything else that’s been Hollywood-ed up. But in your real life, the guy compromising your financial data is going to buy a case of beer and then have a trip to Disneyland. Be careful about the questions that you answer and hope that you’ve got a security team that has a data loss prevention tool in place, among other things.

The Myth of Efficiency

Would you like for your car to run faster? Well, it’s easy. Just shed excess weight on the vehicle. Get rid of the doors, seat cushions, seat belts, airbags, windows, the roof, electronic systems, and man! That car will MOVE!

What’s that I hear you say? It will be unsafe? Well, pardon me, but you wanted it to be faster. You said nothing about preserving the current level of safety.

And although I doubt that any sensible person would want to drive that vehicle at top speeds, we do precisely the same things with our Internet usage and our programs and apps. We want them to be as fast as possible and, if it means less security, we accept the higher risk by saying “I’ll be careful!” and then going forth to enjoy the higher efficiency without really being any sort of careful at all. Why?

It’s simple to my mind. Our brains are well aware of the possible bodily harm that can result from a car accident, so we reject a tradeoff of mayhem mitigation for super speed. But a computer application? A website? No physical harm can result from using those things, so why not worry less and enjoy them more? We simply don’t think of the potential financial and personal wreckage that could result from unsecured data transfers. We fail to see that the injuries from unsafe computing are very real and very damaging and very permanent. If we did see what could happen, we’d ask for the digital version of safety belts, every time.

I’ll point a finger at programmers and designers: they want their customers to have the smoothest experience possible. That smooth experience makes money or facilitates the making of money, so it’s no small thing. But, again, the blindness to the risks in the digital world mean that those designers and programmers aren’t necessarily thinking about the safety of that experience. This is particularly evident in the emerging area of “smart controls”. Smart controls basically turn a phone or a laptop into a giant remote control device for something that used to not be remotely controlled.

Even the idea of remote control doesn’t sound all that bad. Our teevee remote controls do just fine, don’t they? But would you maintain that benevolent attitude towards your teevee remote if some kid a mile away was able to interfere with your choices and put your channel choice on anything he wanted? It’s no mistake that a “nightmare scenario” in many a spy thriller or sci-fi flick involved The Bad Guy taking over the airwaves and forcing the world to watch whatever he dictated. Stuff like that really freaks us out. Well, how about a nightmare scenario in which The Bad Guy messes with your thermostat? Or forces you to order an extra gallon of milk? Or locks all the world’s ovens on cleaning mode?

OK, so those are all #firstworldproblems. But the ones that can hit the third world involve disruption of power grids or supply chains. How about a man-in-the-middle attack that scrapes a few pennies out of every bank account in India? In places where microcredit is embedded into the local economy, such an attack could destroy lives. Who would do such a thing? Well, there’s a Marxist insurgency in about a third of India, so there’s my first candidate to execute such a move.

A home with a closed, unlocked door offers more security than some of these highly efficient applications. I mean, at least the door is closed, so that someone has to make an effort to see what’s going on inside. Far too many apps send every transaction, back and forth, in plain text.

Now, there are some security measures that are as easy as locking a door. But there are also some security measures that are as difficult as putting on a suit of plate armor and mounting a horse. As one would expect, the more complete security measures are also those that involve the biggest drags on performance. But look at it this way: which vehicle would you rather operate, a unicycle with a solid-rocket booster engine, or a comprehensively-tested motor vehicle with excellent safety ratings from its excellent safety features? While the unicycle rocket will definitely move faster than that car, the car exposes its operator to a much shorter list of potential hazards. For example, “death due to improper aim at start of journey” is a biggie to consider with the unicycle, not so much with the car.

So it should be in the programming and development world. It’s my frustration as a security professional to see security treated as a cost that should be minimized. Too often, I’ve heard of businesses that refused to stand for a reduction in efficiency that later wound up with their doors shut for good within days of the major breach that happens in the early days of their existence. To treat security as a costly afterthought is tantamount to saying one or more of the following phrases:

“I’d like to have all my employees lose their job after a major breach, which is statistically bound to happen very soon.”

“I would prefer for my company’s intellectual property to be in the hands of my competitors, preferably without my knowledge or ability to get recourse through criminal and/or civil courts.”

“I feel much better knowing that, when my financial records are breached, the criminals involved will enjoy high levels of server uptime, plenty of bandwidth, and be ‘very satisfied’ with their experience in compromising my network.”

“Our company’s vision statement is: We will have synergies of poor security and high ease of use enable criminals to have first grab at our profits, even before we pay our fixed or variable costs.”

That last one might actually get shareholder attention.

But what to do? I’m not a C-something-O or a member of any board or anything like that. I can’t tell my company or any other company that there are areas where security is a joke, and that’s where to expect the next breach. Even if I was a CxO or chairman of the board, there’s no guarantee that I’d have all my company’s employees take security seriously enough to realize when they need to help implement it. This becomes a huge deal in major corporations, where employees tend to reject anything not done 100% by the book, and offer little or no help after making the rejection. Now, the “why” of that may have more to do with outsourcing and other heinous practices to control labor costs, but it does point up the old Machiavellian maxim that mercenaries aren’t going to protect you as passionately or as effectively as your own citizens.

So, if you want to predict where the next headline-grabbing breach will be, look for a major company with a massive contract labor pool in place of full-time employees, that also brags about how fast and effective its operations are. That’s where the money is and, chances are, also where the advanced persistent threats are already embedded in the system.

Who knows? Maybe even one of those threats is so embedded, it even has a section of actual employees tucked away somewhere that actually provide technical support for it. They file exemptions with anti-malware groups and open up firewall rules and away they go…

So, to sum up, efficiency without security is reckless endangerment. We should be ready to have things be at least a little slower so that we can enjoy a greater measure of security.

For more, feel free to visit and join up with http://www.networking-forums.com.

“Employees Are Our Most Important Asset”

Lots of companies say that line. It sounds reassuring and soothing. However, it’s entirely false. Employees are actually a cost, not an asset, according to accounting rules, and that becomes painfully clear when some clever lad at the top decides the company needs to be more profitable. The easiest way to goose profits is to cut costs and, typically, the biggest costs are in labor.

Look at it this way: the office furniture is more of an asset than the employees. When calculating the value of a company, that office furniture is considered in the total. The employees are not. Actual intellectual property in the form of patents and trade secrets are assets. The minds that think of those innovations are costs.

But before anyone decides to reclassify employees as assets, I’d hesitate. If employees were assets, they’d be owned by the company. People are assets only if they’re slaves. I’m not down with that. And I don’t want to be treated as rented capital goods, either. That doesn’t solve the “being a cost” problem.

This definition of labor as a cost is what has led to the collapse of the American middle class. Idiots running companies think that reducing labor costs is an actual benefit for a company. The word “idiot” is an Ancient Greek term for someone that was totally self-centered and clueless about what makes society work, so it’s quite appropriate here. The idiots think that everything has to be measured and quantified and, if something can’t be measured or quantified, it’s not worth considering.

Sending out surveys to measure employee loyalty and things like that are useless gestures. Most employees just click right through them so that they can get back to work. Others just click right through them because they know that even though their name isn’t on those surveys, there are still ways to trace responses back to them. The real employee survey that counts is the turnover rate. If people are leaving for other opportunities, it means that the opportunities at that firm are not attractive.

But back to my point… employees certainly aren’t assets, and they shouldn’t be counted as costs. They’re part of the company, the people that can actually keep the whole venture going in spite of the idiots at the top. Good, quality employees are what make growth possible in a firm. Once upon a time, that was reflected in the way companies wanted employees to stay with them for their whole career. When the idiots took charge in the 70s, they started slashing those employee “costs”, and the nation’s circled the drain ever since.

I like the sympathy in that statement, “employees are our most important asset,” but employers ought to not say it. They ought to take actions to prove that value, and shareholders ought to insist upon their take after the employees have gotten their just share. Otherwise, we’ll soon find that what circles the drain without a change in direction is what goes down the drain.

What? Me Stingy?

Jon Hilsenrath wrote this letter to American consumers:

This is my response:

Dear Mr. Hilsenrath,

How are you? I am fine. I hope you are healthy and well. You recently wrote a letter to Americans, which includes me. You said that most of us were stingy and that the economy was depending upon us to be a bit more free with our cash. You also said that I, along with the rest of America, was getting a free ride with zero interest rates. These statements bothered me.

In response to the matter regarding saving, yes, it is true that I have been saving much more of my money than ever before, but that is not to imply that I am socking away the cash for a rainy day. I am saving by paying off debt, which is an odd way of looking at saving for anyone but an economist. However, I used to teach AP Economics, so I get it. I freely admit that I am saving. I will save and save and save some more until I am debt-free.

I want to be debt-free because money, unlike water, flows uphill. Every penny I spend on interest goes to someone wealthier than me. This is the cardinal reason for wealth inequality. People with lots of money lend it out and are supported by my labor in the form of interest payments. Even if I pay off all of my personal debt, I will always be paying interest on corporate debt, as it is rolled into the cost of the goods and services that I purchase. I will never be able to escape debt unless I myself become a lender of sufficient means to make my living off of the labor of others rendering timely interest payments to me.

That is unlikely to happen. Even though Janet Yellen told me to get assets or die tryin’, the fact remains that now is not a good time to start a small business and neither is starting a small business any guarantee of success. In fact, in the oligopolistic structure of most markets, it’s a guarantee of failure. Small businesses simply aren’t getting off the ground like they used to. Markets are increasingly dominated by a small group of players that find it easier to compete against the customer than against each other, with resultant market contortions.

This leads me to the matter of zero interest rates. I have not gotten any money borrowed at zero percent interest, ever, unless it was from my dad. My dad is a great guy. If I can’t make a payment one month, he lets it slide and doesn’t report me to a credit bureau, with consequent disasters implied for my precious credit rating. No, Mr. Hilsenrath, I have always had to pay interest on what I borrowed. I do not know anyone paying zero percent interest on anything other than a car, and that itself is part of a highly rigged gimmick. I do not think that I have gotten a free ride. I do not think anyone in America has gotten a free ride from zero percent interest, unless that person was a corporation powerful enough to qualify for such a rate, and then turn around and use the interest-free borrowings to purchase t-bills or lend it out in consumer credit at higher interest rates.

Now, if you would like to figure out the minds of Americans that aren’t Fed officials, let me help you out. Let’s start with the young.

Kids in school get their money from their parents. If their parents are poor, they’re also poor. Quite a few of them are po’. That means they can’t afford the last two letters, just an apostrophe. Quite a few are even p’. They watch people buying vowels on “Wheel of Fortune” and think to themselves, “One day… one day… I will be able to afford to buy a vowel one day.” Pity those poor, po’, and p’ children.

As for the parents, anyone with a job is poor, at best. That means there is no supply of wealth to tide the family over in hard times. If the job is lost, if there is a dread disease in the family, they are wiped out. Elvis Presley is rich: he continues to earn money from his properties, even though he’s dead. I may have a very well-paying job, but if I were to lose that job, my family’s finances would be dire, indeed.

But let’s consider instead the young person that has just gotten out of high school: that person has a choice to get into the workforce, learn a skill, or go to college. Only one of those paths has a better than average chance of paying off. Ironically, it’s not the college path.

It’s the skill learning path that works for young people. They have to learn to do a job that has to be done here and now, not 12000 miles away at midnight. I have a good friend who is learning computer programming skills in a class full of accountants, engineers, and other people with professional degrees. These are not failed baristas and beauty school dropouts: these are guys that went after the degrees with loads of math and science and then found out that they simply can’t get a job.

My own daughter had three years of college and then realized it wasn’t going to get her anywhere. She dropped out, learned how to do CAD work, and now has a job that pays more than the average salary for a recent college graduate. She has no degree, but has a job that is above the US median wage.

My son is getting ready to join the labor force. He doesn’t want to spend a day in college, and I don’t blame him. It’s a gamble of time and resources that has a poor chance of paying off. Even at a state school with junior college, that’s a proposition that involves borrowing at least $50,000 at non-zero, non-negative interest rates to have a degree that is not a real qualification for any entry-level job. Should he do as I did at the end of my teaching career and invest just a few thousand dollars in IT training, he could have a very well-paying job and be free of personal debt. That is a huge thing.

The sad fact is that most kids will either get an unskilled job, a job with low skill levels, or go to college and then get the unskilled/low-skilled job – if they get a job. U3 unemployment may be low, but have you looked at the U6 number lately? There are an awful lot of people that are still out of work, and they’ve given up to the point where they’re no longer trying to compete for the meager jobs out there.

The Panic of 2008 was more than a big whack to unemployment and 401K programs. It signaled a major structural change in the US economy. Now, the structural change in question had been underway for some time, but The Panic of 2008 removed any doubt in my mind of the irreversibility of the changes.

Globalization of labor markets did not result in rising tides for everyone. Rather, minor wage improvements in developing nations were matched by eliminations of high-paying jobs in the US. The globalization of the labor market meant the end of the days of walking out of college and into a job that typically had nothing to do with one’s major. Those jobs went to college graduates, sure enough, but they were graduates of Indian and Chinese universities, and paid Indian and Chinese wages. This meant that US workers either had to accept wages in those areas or not have a job at all.

The jobs that remained were part-time service jobs. Waiters and waitresses have swelled in numbers as accountants have fallen by the wayside. People living off of $2.15 an hour plus tips are not going to provide for a robust consumer economy.

At least they young have their health, for the most part.

So why did the Great American Consumer not show up to spend money? It’s because he or she has no money to spend. Those waiters are not going to go out to eat all that often, let alone buy a house.

I did not care for the tone you took towards the end, berating the poor for being poor and telling them that they were lucky not to be Greeks or Chinese. Mr. Hilsenrath, we *are* Greeks and Chinese at the end of the day. Our wages are already approaching Chinese limits, and our government is approaching Greek levels of indebtedness.

You speak about raising interest rates as if it was a threat against us, the people of America. A person paying credit card interest doesn’t care much between a change from 23.99% to 24.99%. It’s all the same sort of hopelessness for him. Maybe it triggers another massive round of default on debt, which puts those TBTF institutions into a very failure-prone stance. With a higher interest rate, they can’t be sustained as was the case in the wake of the Panic of 2008. Would we lose jobs in the wake of such a thing, if JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs went belly-up? You bet we would.

The question that should really be dealt with is, “will we lose our temper?” Seeing that the non-violence of Occupy has been replaced by paroxysms of urban rioting, the answer is most likely yes. This makes sense of all the war-drums beating around the world: better to have that rage directed externally than internally.

So, should the world plunge into war, will it be the fault of the American consumer? No, Mr. Hilsenrath, it will not. For the American consumer is, if nothing else, loyal and obedient to his government and its guidance. Whatever the ills of America these days, Mr. Hilsenrath, I assure you that the average American is but a victim and not a general contributor towards. We cannot vote for visionaries to lead us when the lobbyists and major donors only give us puppets that they can control. You say yourself that you listen to Fed officials all the time at the Wall Street Journal: it is because you know full well that the average American is powerless and voiceless, so why bother with him, eh?

A question you should perhaps ask is if the Fed officials ever listen to the WSJ, or is your voice and the voice of your collective colleagues powerless in their view, and therefore beneath their consideration?

Well, long story short, we got no money because it all flowed uphill to the very rich. The very rich don’t spend the way us poor folks do, so that’s why the US economy is poleaxed. It won’t recover unless the very rich decide they don’t need as much profit or return on investment as they’ve gotten in the past. I don’t see that happening, so why not save your lectures for those guys, Mr. Hilsenrath, and then wait and see what it’s like to be completely and utterly ignored.

I’ll be happy to discuss this stuff more, if you would like.

Kind regards,

Dean Webb

Choose to Believe

My comments below are based upon the April 2015 Conference talk “Choose to Believe” by Elder L. Whitney Clayton of the Presidency of the Seventy. I will present these comments in sacrament meeting today. This is what I believe, and so I should also make them part of my personal record, here.

Elder Clayton’s talk was hard for me to listen to during this last conference. I get queasy very easily, and this talk had descriptions of some pretty harsh injuries. He described how a young girl named Sailor lost both her parents in a plane crash and, in spite of the darkness of a Kentucky winter night and her own harrowing injuries, she braved the wilderness and made her way to safety. What guided her to safety? A light, in this case, from a house.

Elder Clayton chose his example because of the extreme conditions the protagonist endured – but nevertheless survived. She survived because of hope. She survived because she had faith that the light she saw was the answer, that it was the solution to her problem. She survived because she had that faith – and then because she acted upon that faith.

Elder Clayton took a quote from Alma Chapter 32 to illustrate his point further. Alma 32 is a powerful description of not only what conditions must exist for us to have faith, but also instructions on what to do to acquire that faith. Let me emphasize again – there are things that we must do in order to get our faith, for faith does not fall gently into our laps from angels passing overhead. Faith is something which we must rise up from our beds and walk towards. It is something which we must tend to, both with care and with regularity.

Consider these words from Alma:

26 Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.

27 But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

28 Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

29 Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

30 But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

I want to call attention to how Alma said that there are things we say within ourselves that increase our faith. We bear testimony of this faith: we must needs say that the seed is good. One could argue, perhaps, that Alma is making a suggestion on how one would observe the swelling and growing. I hold the view that this is an action to take, for Alma tells us that after we bear this testimony, “Behold, will not this strengthen your faith?”
So we bear our testimonies in church on Fast Day. If we cannot face the congregation, we should bear our testimonies to our friends and family at more intimate gatherings. If that is too much to bear, then we should confide a testimony in our most trusted friend. And, should we be even too shy for that, there is always the mirror, where we can look ourselves in the eye and bear our faith-growing testimonies there. The habit will improve our courage and deepen our faith, for faith truly is the opposite of fear.

Imagine that poor girl, if she were immobilized by fear. She would have perished in the cold. That would have been her choice, and perishing would have been the consequence of that choice. We are free to create as many reasons as we desire to allow fear to rule our lives. But that fear is the emotional manifestation of the power of Satan’s chains on our souls, and there are many sins that we can fall into that will intensify that fear, but provide us with a lie to justify their influences in our lives. We are free to fall into a trap of fear and then help Satan to chain ourselves down harder and tighter with his awful powers.

But the young girl chose instead to walk out of the trap that she was in. The sorrow of losing her parents was a chain that did not bind her. The injuries she had suffered did not bind her. The darkness, the wilderness, the cold, none of those bound her. She allowed her faith to guide her steps, until the spiritual hope became a very real physical hope. So it is with us.

We all face a wilderness in our lives. We all face something that we know to be our greatest challenge. We all face something that we know to be our most protracted battle with sin. All of these things are traps. The most important thing about a trap is knowing how to get out of it. Nothing else matters. Complaining about the trap does nothing. Lamenting about how unjust the trap is does nothing. Studying, analyzing the trap can be helpful if one does not know the way out of the trap, but clear instructions from someone that knows how to get out of the trap are the best. Follow them to the letter, and you can’t go wrong.

So how do we emerge from the wilderness of sin, depression, and hopelessness? We have clear instructions from Jesus Christ, both in the scriptures of old and the revelations of today. Choose to believe. Choose to act on faith. Follow that faith from consequence to liberating consequence. Note that God will not compel us in this matter. Satan, however, will compel us as much as he and his minions can to keep us in our traps of faithlessness, our prisons of unbelief, our private hells of inertia.

Satan will tell us lie after lie, that we cannot succeed if we leave behind our sin. He will lie that we need our sin to get through the night. He will lie to us to build up our self-absorbed pride, that we would reject any help offered to free us from his grasp. Depression is the same thing, as it is a lie we tell ourselves as skillfully as Satan does that we cannot hope, that we cannot have faith, that we might as well give up.

Should we rise up and begin to cast aside his chains, he will throw them back at us. He will bellow out threats and curses and all manner of evil things. He will surround us with darkness, spiritual and physical, that we might not discern the gleam of hope that pours forth from the Kingdom of God.

I find it fascinating that in Hindu religious teaching, following sacred duty is considered to be the best path. Following the pride of one’s own passion will lead to misery, according to their teaching, and inertia is considered worst of all. I find this resonates with the truth of the Restored Gospel. We do not find happiness in raging against this thing or that thing in the world, and we absolutely do not find it in spiritless inaction. We find it in disciplining our souls, in doing the hard but necessary work of faith, and in accepting the love, grace, and care of the saviour Jesus Christ as we do that work.

Choose to believe. In that belief is the light of Christ, the saving grace for us all. Choose to believe. In that belief, there is peace and an untroubled soul. Though we will endure harrowing ordeals as we remove chains of sin in our lives and as we pass through awful wildernesses, we do have that light of Christ to guide us as we pray, as we study, and as we bear testimony.

When we seek to not struggle with a sin or when we entertain a doubt about the truth of the Gospel, we give place not to faith, but to fear or pride. When we fail to say that our sin or our doubt is evil, we allow it to grow and to spread and to take deeper root in our heart, like a weed that cannot be easily eradicated. When we are in that state, we allow contention to disturb our peace and pride to blunt our intellect. If there are things in our lives that cause contention or confusion, they are of Satan. They are not of God. Let go of them. See them for the chains that they are, and seek to struggle against them, that you may remove them from your lives.

Had that young girl Sailor sat down in the ruins of the plane crash and cried out, “Don’t judge me! This is who I am and who I will always be, for fate has made it so!” she would have perished. Even if all mankind refused to cast the first stone, she still would have had to go before the judgment bar of Heavenly Father, for He will judge us all, and he will not tolerate the least degree of sin. While it is no sin to be a victim of fate, it is a sin to try and make what is wrong to seem right. It is a sin of pride to think that not even Jesus Christ can change who you are, for he can change any one of us when we allow Him into our lives with a choice to believe.

I know a story that is the opposite of Sailor’s. It is that of an addict, who I once tried to help. He had his reasons for his addiction, and they were like golden treasures to him. He allowed those reasons to justify his addiction, and those lies allowed him to live a life that, in spite of all the physical hardships it gave him, was spiritually easy. For him to recover, he had to see those reasons for the lies that they were, and that became a painful process of admitting to himself how wrong he had been.

He hated pain. Physical pain was bad enough, but he found the spiritual pain to be unbearable. Sailor, on the other hand, endured both the spiritual pain of making the brave choice to move out into the night and the physical pain of her injuries as she crossed a briar-infested wilderness. The addict actually saw the light once – I gave him a blessing that he requested, and he had what was then, to him, an undeniable impression of the presence of the Holy Spirit – but he then chose to return to a life that was spiritually much easier and he then cast his doubts all around his eyes, that he would no more see that light. Sailor kept searching for the light until she saw it and then never averted her gaze from that saving beacon.

I suppose that addict hoped that a kick in the bottom or a bash on the head would cure him, as it would require no effort on his part. The kick or the blow would land on him and drive the sin away, and that would be that. He loved programs where everything was done for him and all he had to do was affirm with words that he was cured, that he had seen the light. In reality, his lack of action meant that those words were empty and that he would blind himself from any light that he had been shown.

I myself have been made with a brain that is prone to depression and a body that is prone to fits of pain. This is who I am, for fate has made me so. But it is not who I will always be. When I realized the grip that the darkness of my own wilderness of depression had upon me, I had to choose to believe. I had to choose to humble myself and to let others not only tell me that Christ could help me, but to believe their words and then follow up that belief with appropriate action. I have seen the path of the addict, who refused to act, and decided it was not for me. I know that the path Sailor took, however arduous and difficult it is for me to hear about, is exactly the path that I should follow. It will free me from my trap.

I choose to believe. I choose to act on that belief. It is a good thing, and it has brought peace and clarity to my life. I have to be honest about my imperfections and my sins if I want to emerge from their agonies. I know that Christ loves us when we do the difficult work of repentance, and that his light is always here in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even when others claim to be unable to see it, or say that it is visible, but only in another place. I testify that this is the place of truth, and that when we work alongside Jesus Christ to make our lives change and conform to the truth, we are truly perfecting ourselves and preparing correctly for our return to Heavenly Father.

I said Elder Clayton’s talk was hard for me to listen to. I did not say it was impossible. I took the example of young Sailor to heart and made it through the wilderness of things that I found uncomfortable and made it to the light of Christ that awaited me through it all. That is an example to us all. It is not up to us to ask for the light to be easier to reach, nor is it up to us to ask that the light change its character to suit our needs. It is up to us to be thankful that the light is there, that there is a way to reach it; to choose to believe in that light, that pure light of Jesus Christ, and then to rise up and act on those beliefs. Jesus never said, “wait right here and I’ll bring you everything you need.” He said, “Come, follow me.” Let us choose to believe, and then follow Him.

In the name of our beloved saviour who sacrificed his all for us that we might return with him in love and joy to our Heavenly Father, even Jesus Christ, Amen.

A Grander View

Perhaps this might offend someone… but it might also uplift someone else. I write this as a rant, so I’m already convinced of the certainty of these arguments. It’s not a soul-searching piece. It’s just another page of my open-source diary.

Birth is not a beginning and death is not an end. There is no end to existence, though it may pass through phases, times, and seasons. I watched as this world came into being, and I shall exist long after its passing. My life here has a purpose, but it is for an end beyond this life. And of this beyond, what proof do I have? I have enough for my own purposes, and I had to fight and struggle for that proof born of faith. I confess a tired impatience when others speak of that faith as a secondary concern, or of it being no concern at all. It is the same tired impatience I experienced when an ignorant young wag would try to debunk my geographic knowledge by virtue of the fact that I had not yet been to every place in the world. I had been to enough of it to know that it was there and to trust in the tales of honest travelers who had been to other places in the great, wide world.

By that same token, I have been to spiritual places in number enough to trust in what is told to me by honest men that have seen more of that realm. That knowledge informs a view I hold that looks beyond the limits of mortality. I see my ultimate end as being one with God, as part of His family, engaged in the work and glory of bringing to pass the eternal life of mankind.

Why are people born the way they are? Jesus said it wasn’t because of anyone’s sins: it just happens. Pick any condition in the “born this way” category, and it just happens. Each of us faces a string of burdens in life, unique to our own existence. We can choose to be guided by pride and demand that we are right, damn anyone that dares to disagree. In the process, we can destroy goodness around us and blind ourselves to truth. Or, we can choose instead to be guided by humility and accept that we have much to learn and, in the process, open our eyes to truth as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, care and precision.

So how can I, a person who claims to be a just, enlightened, unbigoted intellect, be against the idea of same-sex marriage? How can I be against the idea of full gender equality in my own faith? Well, I shall explain.

First, the same-sex marriage thing: We are here to prepare to be part of an Eternal Family. That is no euphemism. I was a spirit child before I was a mortal child, and as a spirit child, I was the product of a loving union in the realm from which I came and to which I hope to return. Gender was important to the creation of my spirit. Important? No, it was vital. Gender is vital to the continuance of that work, for there is more of it to come. I cannot live alongside my Heavenly Father and do the things which He would have me do without an Eternal Companion of the necessary opposite gender. Biology for the continuation of the species is not limited to the time between birth and death in this mortal existence. It is Eternal. Marriage between a man and a woman can continue for eternity, should it be sealed upon earth by the proper authority and in the proper place. Any other sort of union cannot.

Now, if persons wish to make same-sex marriages legal, that is their business, and they have to accept that I will oppose such measures on my own moral grounds. Even so, if someone wishes to live a life in a same-sex union, so be it. We all are free to choose for ourselves how we live our lives. But don’t expect Eternal truths to change because of societal druthers. No matter what may be permissible in society, I am quite certain that my religion will never recognize same-sex marriages as being acceptable to God as things that can be as Eternally binding as those marriages I mentioned as being sealed by the proper authority and in the proper place. And I’m fine with that.

Now, given that gender has Eternal meaning and implication, part of our existence here is to experience what it means to be who we ultimately will become. Our roles and experiences here guide and form our souls, and our souls have a gender. All the stuff the Greeks came up with about the body being a prison for the spirit is only so much philosophical noodling. The body and spirit are the soul, and gender has no small part of defining our souls’ eternal experiences.

For some reason, men need to learn important lessons about leadership, organization, and service that go with serving in the priesthood in my religion. I don’t believe that women don’t need to learn those lessons: I just believe that they don’t need the priesthood in order to learn those lessons. For some reason, men need to be ordained to the priesthood in order to perform solemn observances in the Lord’s temples in my faith. Women can perform those observances without being ordained to the priesthood – they have that right from birth. There are things of Eternity in this difference and distinction. Asking why is fine, but demanding an answer that fits a notion at variance with Eternal truth is not.

And I admit that my answer on the women not having the priesthood thing is not as solidly formed in my mind as is my response to same-sex marriage. But I do know that the answer is there, and that it explains things fully and to the satisfaction of anyone not motivated by pride, self-importance, or with a mind to justify sin. Yes, it takes faith to muster up the patience to await that answer, but faith and patience have been good to me in the past, so I trust in them for my future.

Women should have the vote, equal pay for equal work, the same standing as men in a court of law, the right to own property, the right to have credit cards in their own name, the right to initiate divorce, the right to have custody of their children, the right to learn any subject taught in the university and a host of other equalities that they have struggled to attain – some only in the last 40 years in the USA – but there is an end to equality where gender makes a difference, and that applies to me as much as it does to my Eternal partner, my wife. The inequalities of gender do not make one greater or lesser – just necessarily different in order to experience the fullness of Eternal Life.

Here endeth the rant. I don’t care if anyone reads this or is persuaded by it. I just care to commit it to a document for my own sense of posterity.

Climate Change: Leading to a Bluer America?

Looking at internal migration patterns in the USA, California begins to loom as a state facing its worst drought in recorded history. People are leaving that state, and the numbers are going to increase as time goes on and the drought worsens there. Where are they going to go?

Texas looks good to them. Cheaper houses, warm climate, not too many earthquakes… seems like the place to be. Austin’s gotten crowded, but there’s still stuff to do in Dallas and Houston and San Antonio, right? And what happens to Texas politics if there’s an influx of a bunch of them there libberul Californy-ans?

Texas turns blue, that’s what. As in, votes in Democrats to the the state and federal house and senate, puts a Democrat into the governor’s chair, and puts Texas’ 38 electoral votes into the Democratic camp. Republicans have a hard enough time winning presidential elections – they couldn’t possibly do it without Texas.

Ironically, it’s those Texas Republicans, with massive backing from the oil industry, that have been some of the most vociferous critics of the need to take action to alleviate the problems of global climate change. Now, while it looks like California’s drought woes are based upon an pre-existing cyclical pattern, it does seem like a kind of poetic justice that there’s a shot of a climate change leading to the toppling of those people that pooh-poohed the idea that the environment was something to worry about.

Because it sure is something to worry about when it changes your safe seat into a toss-up or a win for the other party.

I, for one, plan to hide and watch. This looks like it’ll be an interesting story to follow, given the upcoming election. Because the Republican’s haven’t had a convincing win since 1988. Bush II’s wins in 2000 and 2004 were near-run things. Moving Texas to the blue column would have produced Democrat victories.

Now, while I view the main political parties as basically different branches of a political elite that remains largely captured by special interests like AARP, AIPAC, defense lobbyists, and the federal employee unions, I still find the outcome of political contests to be as entertaining as a Super Bowl featuring two teams I don’t have an emotional attachment to. Win or lose, I can still enjoy to watch how the game is played.

And it looks like the GOP will have some heavy lifting to do, all thanks to Mother Nature.