Women in tech: The forgotten story of Vector Graphic

I frequently hear lamentations about the number of women in the technology field–or the lack of them. Although there have been a number of successful women in the field, such as Meg Whitman, CEO of HP and formerly Ebay; Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo; and Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP, men outnumber women in the field and often by a large margin.

That perhaps makes it even more sad that Vector Graphic is largely forgotten today. Last week Fast Company profiled this pioneering computer company that time forgot.

Read more

My Wright City adventure

My wife and I trekked out to Wright City this weekend for a surprise anniversary party for one of her uncles. It was in a park in Wright City. Wright City is a small town roughly an hour west of St. Louis on I-70. It’s most famous for Big Boy’s, a roadside hole-in-the-wall restaurant that predated the national chain by a couple of decades, and for the defunct Elvis Is Alive Museum, an old laundromat that a Baptist preacher converted into a tribute to the other Elvis (Presley, not Costello), where he spun theories about what Elvis did after faking his death.

I’ve driven through Wright City more times than I can count, since it’s along I-70 in between St. Louis and Kansas City, but up until this weekend, I’ve never stopped there, even for gas.

More on all that in a minute.

Read more

The legacy lamp

About 35, or maybe even 40 years ago, my dad went through a phase. Or perhaps I should say a craze–he made lamps out of anything that didn’t move. And I’m sure if anyone had pointed that out to him, he would have made a lamp out of something that did, just to prove them wrong. Then, at some point, he stopped. I don’t know why and I never asked him. He kept one on his bedside table, and a couple in the room in the basement where he watched football. But it’s funny. I associate his lamps with him more than probably anything else, but I can’t recall ever watching him make one.

A number of years ago, I asked Mom if any of Dad’s old lamps were still around, and she gave me two of them. They both happened to be made of pieces of wood that he probably found somewhere. Read more

New Order, Joy Division, surviving and moving on

I couldn’t tell you the last time I thought about Joy Division, and then one of my college classmates posted a story about a stash of Joy Division and early New Order master tapes showing up in the basement of a former bank, along with guns and gold (but presumably, no butter). Yes, the jokes write themselves.

Instead of talking about the contents of the tapes, the story talked about New Order going on tour. I was vaguely aware that Peter Hook quit the band, and another story on the site discussed that: New Order is back together without Peter Hook, and Peter Hook is planning on touring as himself and playing Joy Division songs. And he’s writing a book about his time in Joy Division.

As a guy who spent way too much time listening to Joy Division in college, and who for a time ran the largest Joy Division tribute site on the Web, yeah, I have some opinions on all that.

Read more

Oh well, whatever, nevermind. 20 years later

Rob O’Hara beat me to the punch with his excellent analysis of Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind, and I find myself not disagreeing with a word of it. So rather than duplicate his work, I’ll talk about how I came to learn of Nevermind and its reception in St. Louis.

Read more

Tribute to the Asus SP97-V

In need of an obsolete but reliable PC for a project, I searched a dark corner of my basement, a last stop for castoff PCs before being sent off for recycling.

I found one. Predictably, it had an Asus motherboard in it. Specifically, it had an SP97-V in it, a budget Socket 7 board from the late 1990s sporting a SiS chipset with integrated video that worked well with Cyrix and AMD CPUs.I built somewhere between 50 and 100 systems around that board. Working at the University of Missouri in 1997 and 1998, my department had tons of 486s and even 386s still in use. They were painfully obsolete, but at the time, decent name-brand PCs still sold for $1,000 and up, so we couldn’t afford to replace them all via traditional means.

I took a radical approach. I recommended buying Asus SP97-Vs with the cheapest CPUs we could find. We recycled whatever components we could out of the old PCs we were replacing. CD-ROM drives and network cards were fair game, and I was able to recycle a lot of memory too. Hard drives were questionable, so I usually would spring for a new Quantum hard drive unless things were really tight. The CPUs I bought varied from week to week, but even a 200 MHz IDT Winchip CPU was a big boost from a 50 MHz 486. And in a way, I argued that Cyrix and IDT CPUs were ideal for business. They were lousy for gaming, and we didn’t want our users playing games. I usually didn’t bother with sound cards. Listening to music was a luxury, and we didn’t want people playing games. If people wanted to listen to music at their desk, they could bring in their own radio or portable CD player.

Assembling the PCs from parts took some time, but we had a site license for Ghost (which was still a Binary Research product–Symantec hadn’t bought it yet). By using a Ghost image, we could load all of the software on the PC in less than half an hour, which more than made up the difference.

By recycling whatever we could and leaving out the luxuries, I was able to give nice upgrades for office work for most users for $300-$400. I’d had good experience with Asus products in the past and found Quantum hard drives to be nearly bulletproof, and the combination worked well. The computers were on the trailing edge even in 1997-98, but they ran Windows 95 and Office 97 much better than the computers they replaced.

The computers didn’t stay in service long. I left for greener pastures in November 1998, and although those PCs ran Windows 95 reasonably well, they weren’t all that well suited for Windows NT or 2000. But they served their purpose and bought the university some much-needed time.

I’m not exactly sure where this PC came from, but I built a number of PCs for other people using the same formula. And often when they upgraded, their old PC ended up in my basement.

Like father, like son. Plus, a tribute to Quantum

This weekend, I tried to put together a PC from secondhand parts. For the missing parts, I went into the basement, swept the floor, and used what I found.

My one-year-old helped.I had the case open in the study on the floor. While I fitted in a 40 GB Western Digital hard drive, he reached in and fooled around with the memory. I showed him how to stay grounded.

I had a bit of a scare when the computer didn’t work. The BIOS took forever to POST, and when I went to install Windows, it said it couldn’t access the drive. Back to the dustpan I went, and I substituted an ancient Quantum 4 GB drive. Then I found out why I always preferred Quantum back when Quantum was in the hard drive business. That 10-year-old Quantum, although hopelessly obsolete, still works.

I have a 20 GB Quantum drive in the basement that’s been running pretty much nonstop since sometime in 2000 or 2001.

Once I find or free up a bigger drive, I’ll image the 4 GB Quantum over to it. In the meantime, that ancient drive let me get on with a weekend project.

The desktop support guy at work assures me that everyone’s drives today are at least as good as those old Quantums were. I don’t buy desktop hard drives very often anymore, so I wouldn’t know. I’d like to think the soul of Quantum still beats within Seagate (Quantum having been absorbed by Maxtor, which in turn was absorbed by Seagate), but who knows? Are DEC’s best engineers still working at HP?

Who knows. What I do know is when my son gets better dexterity, I’ll probably have help building computers.

How to pay off the national debt in less than 30 years

A couple of coworkers were talking about taxes, deficits and the national debt this week. One of them looked my direction and said, “I’ll bet Dave can figure out how to pay off the national debt.”

It’s actually not as hard as it sounds.

The biggest problem is that we’ve convinced ourselves that the national debt is impossible to pay. I believed this back in the mid-1990s, when it was around $4 trillion. Today, it’s right around $10 trillion. (Note: That was in 2008. In 2016 it’s about $19 trillion. So double any of the dollar figures you see from here on out.)

Let’s put that in perspective by personalizing it. The United States has about 304 million citizens. Divide it evenly, and my share and yours is $33,500 or so.

That’s a lot of money. Back in the mid-1990s, when I calculated my share to be closer to $20,000 (our population was lower then), I bought the lie that it was unpayable. I was 20 or 21 at the time. When my credit card balance swelled to $1,000 one month, I thought that was a pretty big deal. I’d never paid off a large debt before.

Now, for most of us, $33,500 is a non-trivial amount of money. A family of four’s share would be $134,000, and where I live, $134,000 will buy a house large enough for a family of four. For the average household, the national debt is like a second mortgage.

I just spend the last five years or so of my life proving that you can pay that kind of personal debt off much more quickly than mortgage lenders want you to know, even if you don’t make huge sums of money.

But we can’t just raise everyone’s taxes by $7,000 a year across the board and pay the debt off in five years. There would be open revolt, especially in this economy.

The other extreme would be to just shut the government down for a time and pay nothing but debt, but that isn’t realistic either.

But financing the debt over 30 years at 6% interest, the yearly payments are around $2,400 per person. That’s a long time, but this problem really accelerated over the last 28 years, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world to pay it back in a similar timeframe. And that’s still a lot of money, but not insurmountable.

That $2,400 is an average. My son is one of the 304 million, but he doesn’t pay any taxes. He’s a young child. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet pay a lot more taxes than me. So it would make sense that any payoff of the national debt would work progressively, the same as the rest of the tax code.

Exactly where to get the money is a matter of debate. But the book The Government Racket by Martin L. Gross is a nice collection of government waste. If we cut all or most of the $375 billion of waste he pointed out in the 2000 edition of his book, it would get us going. At this point, interest on the debt outstrips $375 billion, but it’s a start.

Realistically, a bit of a tax increase would also have to happen. I think raising the top income tax bracket to 39.6 percent would be beneficial. I’ll cover where I got that number later.

Based on history, I believe that setting the top bracket to 39.6 percent would increase revenue by about $100 billion a year, year over year. History also suggests raising it above that level would be detrimental. If my math is right and my estimate is right, it would take less than 25 years to eliminate the debt. (Or it would have, if we’d started in 2008.)

Why we need to pay it, somehow

Cheney is fond of saying that Reagan proved deficits don’t matter. That’s true if you’re Dick Cheney. Cheney will be dead before it really starts to matter. The problem with his attitude is that most of the rest of us 304 million will still be around to pick up the pieces.

When asked in 1992 how the national debt affected him personally, Bush I infamously didn’t have an answer. But I have an answer.

When I plug $33,500 into an amortization calculator, I find that a year’s worth of interest on the debt, if you’re making regular payments (we aren’t), is almost $2,000. So that’s $2,000 in taxes I’m paying every year and nobody’s getting any service in return for it. As mad as I get when “Tubes” Stevens appropriates my tax dollars to build the Bridge to Nowhere, at least some people are getting paid to build the useless thing. So somebody is benefitting, even if I don’t agree with the project. But in the case of debt, the only people getting any benefit are the people who agree to loan that money to the government.

For most of my life, many people argued that the debt wasn’t a problem because, by and large, we owed the money to ourselves. Maybe that was true in 1985 and maybe it wasn’t, but we know that in 2008 it isn’t. Today, foreign countries own much of that debt. In some cases, the debt is owned by countries that are friendly and for the most part share our values, such as the United Kingdom and Germany. In other cases, it’s owned by countries that are less friendly, or at the very least do not share our values, such as China and Saudi Arabia.

It goes without saying that if we become dependent on a steady stream of investment dollars coming in from China or Saudi Arabia, they will exert more and more control over what we do and how we live. We don’t like it when France tells us what we should or shouldn’t be doing. So shouldn’t it bother us a little that Maoist China, the country that has never apologized for what happened at Tiananmen Square, might eventually be in the position to not just tell us what to do, but to force us?

And while I may not like paying $2,000 in interest every year to my neighbor, I like the idea of enriching Maoist China to the tune of $2,000 a year a lot less. Unfortunately, we’re beyond the point of being able to choose who loans us money.

If we eliminate the debt, we eliminate that leverage from other countries that don’t share our values. And then we can spend that money on things that do benefit everyone. Or we can give every citizen the money to do what they please with it. Or we can split the difference somehow. I’m not a big government kind of guy. But even the idea of replacing the debt with a slew of new government programs is a lot more appealing to me than paying interest.

Eliminating the debt also frees us from the temptation to just print money. With the other problems going on right now, that idea gets floated around quite a bit even now. But Germany found out the hard way what happens when you try to print your way out of debt. In the 1930s, Germany just printed money with reckless abandon, and inflation ran rampant. It got to the point where it was cheaper to burn paper money in the fireplace than it was to use that money to buy firewood. A charismatic young leader came along with a scapegoat and a plan to get out of the situation. That man’s name was Adolf Hitler. You probably know what happened next.

But the debt is unethical on another level as well. Deficits don’t matter to Cheney because his life is almost over. But the decisions he made from 2000-2008 will live on. Even if we start making payments on the debt now, the people born in 2008 and 2009 will be making payments on our debt, even though they didn’t vote for or against the people who made those decisions. (You can’t vote if you’re not born yet, even in Illinois.) That’s called taxation without representation. As I recall, we fought a war over that too.

I don’t believe that just paying off the debt without understanding how it happened is constructive, because then we’ll just do it again. So how did we get here?

Supply-side economics

Many people blame supply-side economics for the ballooning budget deficits since 1980. This theory is generally attributed to economist Arthur Laffer. Laffer said if the government sets taxes to 0%, it will receive nearly zero revenue. And, paradoxically, if the government sets taxes to 100%, it will receive nearly zero revenue, because everyone would hide all their money.

I don’t blame supply side economics. I blame both parties’ misunderstanding and misapplication of it.

Laffer’s theory is that there is some optimal tax rate that balances potential revenue with the incentive to hide money from the taxman. The problem is that Laffer didn’t know what that was.

Although most people associate Laffer and supply-side economics with Ronald Reagan, the right-wing media loves to point out that John F. Kennedy generally agreed with these ideas. “It is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low,” they echo with delight.

In 1980, the problem was that Laffer’s theory was largely untested. But over the last 28 years, it has been tested. Here’s how people generally remember it: Reagan cut taxes. Bush I famously raised them after promising not to. Clinton raised them some more. Bush II cut them back.

But that’s not exactly how it happened. Although people remember Bush I for raising taxes, the top income tax bracket was 50% for most of the Reagan years, whereas under Bush I it was around 31-33%. He cut some taxes too.

Clinton raised taxes, but the top bracket under Clinton was 39.6 percent, which was still below Reagan. Bush II dropped them to 35%, lower than Clinton but still higher than his father.

Reagan was right, in that revenue from income taxes rose from $244 billion in 1980 to $401 billion in 1988. The problem is that in the Reagan years, spending rose faster than revenue. That caused what huge deficits for the time ($237 billion at Reagan’s peak).

But tax revenue rose from $476 billion in 1992 to $1.004 trillion in 2000 under Clinton–he more than doubled it. Revenue dropped for three years straight under Bush II and only exceeded Clinton’s 2000 levels after 2006.

Liberals like to point at the records of Bush I and Bush II as indications that supply-side economics doesn’t work. But that’s not how I read the numbers. It looks to me like Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and JFK not only proved that the theory works, but together they also gave us an indication of where the highest tax rate should be.

We don’t know if Clinton’s 39.6% rate is perfect. But one can argue it gave better results than either his predecessor or his successor. Revenue increased by $66 billion in four years under Bush I, vs. $114 billion in Clinton’s first four years. Revenue increased by $159 billion in seven years under Bush II, vs. $403 billion in Clinton’s first seven years.

So why did tax revenue increase over Reagan’s levels during Bush I’s presidency? Simple: Taxes under Reagan were too high. But the Bushes’ levels of growth, while better than Reagan’s, weren’t as high as Clinton’s. That suggests their rates are slightly too low.

Anyone who knew me during the Clinton years will know I’ve never been a fan of Bill Clinton. I still think he was highly overrated. But from the standpoint of optimal tax rates, the numbers say he was closer to being correct than any other modern president.

Clinton also is the only modern president to have a balanced budget, although Richard Nixon came close. Clinton did it twice. Bush II’s first budget had an almost Nixon-like $32.4 billion deficit. That suggests that if he’d left taxes alone he might have had a balanced budget in 2001. Had growth continued at roughly $100 billion year over year like it did under Clinton in 1995-2000, even the years of 2003 and 2004 could have been balanced-budget years. Instead they were record-busting $500 billion deficit years.

It’s possible to pay off the national debt. The main thing is admitting it’s possible, and having the determination to do it.