If Donald Trump wins the 2016 presidential election, thank a Democrat.

Trump, of course, is running as a Republican, and his votes will come from those who align with the GOP. Yet it will still be a victory brought about by Democrats, especially left-leaning Democrats. This political group, more than any other in America, has spent the last seven decades building the conditions under which a Trump presidency becomes likely.

If the three branches of government—the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial—held a beauty contest among Democrats, the Executive would win every time. Democrats love the Executive branch and its elected official, the president. That’s because the Executive is charged with enforcing the laws of the land, and left-leaning political views—represented in America by moderate to leftist Democrats—require strong enforcement to be effective.

Although the three branches of government were designed to be co-equal, with checks and balances put in place to maintain this equality, those on the left have long viewed the Oval Office as the actual seat of power, with Congress and the Supreme Court doing the president’s bidding. This isn’t meant as an insult, but as an observation that in the Socialist-style Democratic worldview, enforcement of government mandates is seen as the most effective way to maintain the social order.

This view goes at least as far back as Franklin Roosevelt, who as president built the modern Democratic Party from its former regional splinter groups. When the Supreme Court ruled that some of FDR’s policies were unconstitutional, he attempted to pack the court by increasing its membership from nine to thirteen, adding four new justices who would vote in line with his policies. For Roosevelt, the Judicial Branch was meant to be subservient to the Executive.

Just last week, Chelsea Clinton confirmed this view, stating in a campaign speech in Maryland that her mother, as president, would direct the court’s decisions. In speaking of gun control issues before the court, Clinton said, “The next time the Court rules on gun control, it will make a definitive ruling,” implying that a President Hilary Clinton would make sure of it.

Democrats hold similar Executive-first views when it comes to Congress. It’s no mistake that the Affordable Care Act is commonly known as “Obamacare,” or that President Obama is proud of that moniker. Whether it is energy policy or healthcare or social concerns like gay marriage and gun ownership, Democrats look to the power of the presidency both to set the tone and to make things happen, through Executive Order if necessary. The current Democratic president, Barack Obama, boasted proudly of this power, the power of “fundamentally transforming the United States.”

Many Americans fear a President Donald Trump or a President Hilary Clinton because they believe, and rightly so, that the power available to such a president could bring real danger to the nation. If the power of the United States was still “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” or if that power was divided more evenly between the three federal branches, the fear of such abuse of power would not be as great. But the Democrats, especially in their more left-leaning moments, made sure that such populist views were pushed aside.

Today’s Republicans are no less to blame, seduced as they were by this same desire for easy power in a single political package. But it was the Democrats who long embodied this utopian ideal of a glorified, all-power Camelot. The Democratic Party successfully built up the image of the president in the eyes of the public, so that it is now the focus of nearly all electoral thought in America.

Donald Trump, as president, would be an Executive Branch-lovers dream, and although they will vote against him, he is also what Democrats have been hoping for in a president.

[Image Credits: Donald Trump photo by Michael Vadon, under a Creative Commons license.]

This article was posted on April 26, 2016. Related articles: Commentary, Politics, , .

Footnotes for “Democrats for Trump”

  1. So when did the “Well-Read Man” become the “Prolific Political Polemicist?” (Just poking you. Always good to hear from you.)

  2. This election season seems to be turning everyone into a polemicist, even when being the nicest person in the world!

  3. Tim, we have not spoken in such a long time, but I must take this opportunity to disagree. The obstructionists of the Republican Party created an atmosphere in which Donald Trump has been able to succeed. Karma.

  4. Hello Patricia. It’s great to chat with you again. In this election cycle, there is certainly plenty of blame to go around. The article focuses on one aspect that ties closely with how Democrats have approached national politics since the FDR era. But the Republicans have their own issues that, as you say, contributed to the rise of Trump. The American public also shares some of the blame, since a lot of fervent supporters of all the candidates do so without actually studying or understanding any of the policies uttered by each candidate.

    None of this is new. One need only look back to the Democratic National Convention of 1968 to see how crazy things can actually get. In that convention, Humphrey got the nomination without having won any primaries, a result that Cruz supporters now look at fondly. And as for bluster, there are some races back in the early nineteenth century that make this year’s race look like a gentlemanly hand of bridge.

  5. “…since a lot of fervent supporters of all the candidates do so without actually studying or understanding any of the policies uttered by each candidate.”
    Well put Tim. Zeal without knowledge can result in a lot of noise but makes for shaky ground under a polemicist.

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Start-to-Finish Visual Basic 2015, my latest book on software development, is now available from many popular online bookstores. An update to the 2005 original, the latest edition of the text has been fully revised with details on all new Visual Basic features added over the past decade. The accompanying source code is also fully updated, with major enhancements stemming from the new ways that Visual Basic is used by developers in 2016.

The paperback edition weighs in at nearly 600 pages. For those looking for a book with a lighter carbon footprint, consider the MOBI (Kindle) and EPUB (everything else) ebook editions. For more details about the book and a partial list of online stores that sell the book, visit the Start-to-Finish Visual Basic 2015 page on the Owani Press web site: owanipress.com/STFVB2015. While you’re waiting to click that link, read through the back cover description for the book.

Nobody learns a programming language just to brag about writing loops. Instead, languages exist so you can create great software. That’s the purpose of Start-to-Finish Visual Basic 2015, to show you how to write a complete, useful, working application in Visual Basic and .NET.

Each chapter introduces essential Visual Basic concepts, and shows you how to apply them by crafting a full business-level application. With this comprehensive book, you will:

  • Understand how to design and implement .NET applications
  • Learn the core features of the Visual Basic language
  • Access and modify database content using ADO.NET
  • Perform advanced development activities, including cryptography and localization
  • Master cool VB features, such as Generics, XML Literals, and LINQ
  • Get a head start on programming via the downloadable source code

Whether you’re new to programming, or want to add Visual Basic to your existing skillset, Start-to-Finish Visual Basic 2015 will guide you step-by-step through the learning process.

This article was posted on April 5, 2016. Related articles: Other Books, Technology, , , .

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I once made a kid fear yogurt. I swear it was an accident. It was about fifteen years ago, and I was explaining to my son and some of his young friends how yogurt is full of active cultures—real living things. One girl’s eyes got real big, and I’m pretty sure that she avoids all milk products to this day.

My son’s friend was fascinated (read: terrified) to hear that living things existed where they weren’t expected. That same fascination seems to pervade the general population when it comes to water in space. Every time there is a scientific announcement of water being found somewhere in the universe other than on Earth, news outlets insist that it is a clear, absolute, definitive, unwavering, eternal, and very probable sign that there might be a chance that somehow life is teeming in that remote puddle, maybe. The assumption that remote sources of water must harbor life has appeared in articles about distant Earth-sized planets, just-right “Goldilocks” planets from which aliens may be looking at us, and even Earth’s own deep oceans, which surprisingly has lots of water, and is on Earth.

Water is certainly everywhere. In 1998, NASA launched its Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite (SWAS) to better understand star and planet formation. According to a NASA summary of the mission, “Water, a key component for life, is prevalent throughout space. Water was detected in almost every dust cloud in space observed. High amounts of water were found in warm gas, while very low amounts of water were seen in cold dense gas.”

Despite being “a key component for life,” water is not life. It’s a great medium for life to work and play in, but by itself it is dead. Its core molecular structure includes no carbon, no nitrogen, and no body parts. And thanks to pervasive levels of radiation and temperatures near absolute zero in all but a few extremely tiny pinpoints of interesting density (such as planets), most water exists in sterile, lifeless regions.

Last month, NASA held a news conference announcing the discovery of fluid water on the surface of Mars. Once again the expectation of life began, with “boost” being the required journalistic term.

  • “Boosting hopes for life.” (CNN)
  • “Liquid water flows on Mars today, boosting the odds that life could exist on the Red Planet” (Christian Science Monitor)
  • “The search for extraterrestrial life has gotten a big boost from NASA’s stunning announcement” (Japan Times)
  • “Now the search is on to find living organisms on the red planet.” (The Guardian)

The UK’s Independent saw fit to bump the Earth out of its orbit, headlining that “life might have started on Mars and come to Earth on a meteorite.”

Even NASA, who should know better, got into the let-there-be-life frenzy. John Grunsfeld, a five-time astronaut and current administrator for the agency, said that water on Mars “suggests that it would be possible for there to be life today on Mars.”

Why do news outlets and reputable scientists jump on the pro-life bandwagon every time there is a discovery of a little more moisture in the galaxy? The reason, even if it is not stated outright, is a desire to answer the probing question of why we are here on Earth.

There are only two possible reasons why life exists on Earth. Either some intelligence—God or super-smart beings from a parallel universe—created it intentionally, or it happened by accident. For those who believe in a Creator, the question of life on other planets may be interesting, but it doesn’t alter the dynamic of life. Life is awesome, but the giver of that life would be awesomer.

For those who view life as a chance happening, the question of whether life exists elsewhere becomes much more existential. The laws of physics, stars and planets, cells and DNA, organs and organisms; all these things are complex, to the point where it is difficult to comprehend how they all came into being by chance, and with such quality. Evolutionary theory does a fairly good job at describing the differences between existing species. But there are no answers for most of what makes life possible. What caused the Big Bang? Why is there stuff? What is gravity? How did the first biological thing form in the first place? Why does Earth provide such a great habitat for life?

Some of these questions are not only difficult, they might be unknowable. In such cases, “I don’t know” becomes indistinguishable from “It was all an accident.” It’s like asking a young child why there is a giant grape juice-colored stain on the carpet. “I don’t know.”

It’s not due to a lack of effort by scientists, or a lack of smarts. The eminent scientist Stephen Hawking, among others, has advocated the “multiverse” hypotheses as an explanation for our existence here. He understands that the universe is just too amazing to have been a one-off accident. The multiverse theory posits that our universe is just one of many, possibly infinite, universes out there, each with its own accidental properties. This increases the odds that some of them, or at least this one, has life for the good reason that you are bound to have life show up given enough chances. However, the theory can only be validated if you can show that these other universes exist, which given the closed nature of our physical universe, is unlikely.

A similar idea holds for water in the universe. Call it the “multiwater hypothesis” if you like. Given enough pockets of water, some of them are bound to have life in them. If so, then life must have been a chance event, and all it needed was enough chances. The problem is that if there are no other wet spots in the universe with life in them, then the multiwater hypotheses remains nothing more than an unproven multiverse-like theory. But if you can find life teeming in some other body of water, then you have a good chance of declaring life a complete random accident.

The question of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe is, by itself, not a thing that separates theists from atheists and agnostics. There are plenty of God-fearing Star Trek fans in the world, after all. Movie franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars are nothing more than fictional speculations about the state of the universe, and don’t matter that much when dealing with the ultimate questions of life. But for many people, the presence of water in the universe brings hope that yogurt isn’t the only thing with unexpected life.

[Image Credits: http://pandasthumb.org]

This article was posted on October 14, 2015. Related articles: Biology, Technology, , .

Footnotes for “There Is No Life on Mars”

  1. Why are we here? George Carlin says: Plastic.

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Tangible Software

Visual Basic and C# represent two sides of the Microsoft Visual Studio coin. Though they began with very different purposes—Visual Basic as a simpler interface to powerful computers, C# as a powerful replacement for simpler assembly language systems—they now provide nearly equal access to the Microsoft Windows platform and beyond.

Arguments persist about which language is better, but thanks to Tangible Software Solutions’ Instant C# and Instant VB conversion tools, the arguments are mostly irrelevant. Using these tools, you can convert language snippets, ASP.NET pages, or entire projects between the two languages. The resulting code is, in many cases, ready for you to compile and use at once, although you will probably want to pass through the converted source and make adjustments based on each language’s strengths and weaknesses.

Note: Tangible offers Instant C# and Instant VB as two distinct software products. Except for the order of the languages involved, they are basically the same product. I tend to convert content from Visual Basic to C#, and not as much in the other direction, so this review focuses on the Instant C# tool.

The main user interface is nothing to get excited about: one button used to browse for the source project, another for the destination folder, and one that says “Convert.” Tangible tried to gussie things up with lists that display conversion statistics from prior uses of each app. But why worry about the interface when the goal is to spend as little time within the program as possible? The real magic appears in the new .NET project that the tools generate, and you will typically use Visual Studio or your favorite code editor for that.

Despite the muted user interface, that Convert button does wonders. Conversion from input to output is fast. Some of the smaller projects I’ve converted took less than a second. My largest project, a 215,000-line desktop behemoth with 240 forms took just over four minutes. In this mobile-enabled instant society, four minutes seems like an eternity. But here’s what happened during those four minutes: Instant C# wrote a nearly functional 215,000-line C# application. That’s wild!

The resulting code is as decent as the original project: Garbage In, Garbage Out is an issue here, but it’s your issue, not Tangible’s. Consider this Visual Basic code as food for Instant C#.

    Public Class Form1
        Private Sub Button1_Click(sender As System.Object,
                e As System.EventArgs) Handles Button1.Click
            MsgBox(GenerateMessage("Barack", #8/4/1961#))
        End Sub
        Private Function GenerateMessage(ByVal firstName As String,
                ByVal birthDate As Date) As String
            ' ----- Format a nice greeting.
            Dim age As Integer
            age = Today.Year - birthDate.Year
            If (Today.Month < birthDate.Month) Or
                    (Today.Month = birthDate.Month And
                    Today.Day < birthDate.Day) Then
                age -= 1
            End If
            Return "Hello " & firstName & ", you are " &
                age & " years old."
        End Function
    End Class

The conversion generates equivalent, good-looking C# code (some lines rewrapped to fit this article’s display area).

    public partial class Form1
    {
        internal Form1()
        {
            InitializeComponent();
        }
        private void Button1_Click(object sender,
            System.EventArgs e)
        {
            MessageBox.Show(GenerateMessage("Barack",
            DateTime.Parse("8/4/1961")));
        }
        private string GenerateMessage(string firstName,
            DateTime birthDate)
        {
            // ----- Format a nice greeting.
            int age = 0;
            age = DateTime.Today.Year - birthDate.Year;
            if ((DateTime.Today.Month < birthDate.Month) |
                (DateTime.Today.Month == birthDate.Month &
                DateTime.Today.Day < birthDate.Day))
            {
                age -= 1;
            }
            return "Hello " + firstName + ", you are " +
                age.ToString() + " years old.";
        }
    }

It looks like C# to me. Granted, there are some interesting changes. All identifiers now include initializers, as with the “age” variable in the sample code. That’s because most initialization is optional in VB, but required in C#, and Instant C# knows this. It also favors explicit conversions, including the addition of the “ToString” method on the “age” variable when concatenating the result, again a reflection of differences between the languages. And don’t worry about the missing “Handles” clause from Button1’s Click event handler. Its match has been moved to the form’s code-behind file, exactly where Visual Studio would place it in a new C# project.

Despite the converters’ language knowledge, not everything comes across in a ready-to-compile state. Each language includes “issues” that don’t translate well to the other. For instance, there is no “On Error Resume Next” construct in C#—no unstructured error handling at all—so that statement shows up in the C# result unmodified other than the addition of an accompanying warning comment. Likewise, C#’s “unsafe” keyword doesn’t do well in the move to VB. Any code in an unsafe block is simply commented out in the new Visual Basic project.

Some aspects of the converted code may introduce subtle differences in how your code manipulates data. For example, Visual Basic’s conversion methods (CInt, CDate, and so on) forgive a multitude of data sins that aren’t even considered in C#’s System.Convert equivalents. Tangible’s tools convert these language components without any warnings on the assumption that you are a good programmer and know better than to let questionable data touch your language’s magic keywords. Still, any conversion, even a manual conversion, is going to be imperfect, and with Instant C# and Instant VB doing at least ninety percent of the work, who’s complaining?

For that final ten percent, you might want to reference the pages of the C#-Visual Basic Bilingual Dictionary, written by your humble reviewer. It provides C# equivalents for every Visual Basic keyword, and vice versa, along with caveats and warnings that you should think through after Tangible’s super software has done its work.

Each Instant… tool includes an options panel that lets you adjust some of the conversion specifics, both for things that impact the output logic and for aesthetic differences. (The options panel from Instant VB appears here.) Each program also converts project files, configuration files, and other supporting elements of your project. It does a good job at leaving things it doesn’t know how to convert untouched. For example, a typical .vbproj file contains configuration items that aren’t useful in the equivalent .csproj file. These XML elements simply come across into the new project file, just in case they are needed later.

Although I started my programming career decades ago in the C world, I’ve focused on Visual Basic for much of the last twenty years. But I find myself moving back to my C-language roots, and Tangible Software Solutions’ Instant C# is a regular part of that migration. I use the tool weekly, not only to convert some legacy code from nearly fifteen years ago, but also to save time when grabbing code snippets off of MSDN and StackOverflow.

Tangible also offers converters that move code between C++ and Java, and between those languages and the C# and VB platforms. If the C# and VB versions are an accurate gauge, then the Java and C++ variations will be fantastic. I’m proud to give the tools Five Crocodiles, my highest rating. To find out more about Tangible Software’s conversion tools and other products, visit their web site, www.tangiblesoftwaresolutions.com.

Five Crocodiles

This article was posted on October 5, 2015. Related articles: Technology, , , .

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Over the last month or so, YouTube’s attempt to curate a video experience personalized to my tastes resulted in the latest Hollywood viral videos for The Martian showing up in my and everyone else’s video queues. So when Amazon tempted me with the Andy Weir book on which the movie is based for just $1.99, the cheapskate in me jumped at the deal. Despite being placed in a fictional near future where mankind has already done the legwork to put a team of scientists on Mars, the book is about as close as you can get to a true, modern account of a smart man marooned on a stupid planet.

If you’ve seen the movie previews, then you know the setup: a mission to Mars ends in an abrupt abort due to a violent dust storm, and in the hurry and confusion to leave the planet, one crewman gets left behind. It’s like Home Alone, but with freeze-dried ice cream. The radios are all dead (of course), there’s not enough food or water to last until the next scheduled visit to the planet (naturally), and don’t get me started on the complete lack of emergency escape pods. I kept expecting Kate Winslet to show up and drop a diamond necklace out of an airlock. But the planet has one essential resource that will bring the story to a happy ending: Matt Damon—excuse me, I mean Mark Watney.

Watney is part biologist, part engineer, and full time nerd. Using the resources left at the Mars habitation site (spoiler alert), he is able to generate sufficient dihydrogen monoxide, create a makeshift communications system back to NASA, and deck out a nearby minivan with enough life support to get him to the rendezvous site more than 3,000 kilometers across the barren surface of Malacandra. Just don’t ask me to describe how he obtained the fertilizer needed to grow his own potatoes.

The book is exciting, at least if you are the type of person who enjoys instruction manuals on how to rebuild a carburetor. Consider this gripping section from about the two-thirds point through the book.

The regulator analyzes the air with spectroscopy, then separates the gasses by supercooling them. Different elements turn to liquid at different temperatures. On Earth, supercooling this much air would take ridiculous amounts of energy. But (as I’m acutely aware) this isn’t Earth. Here on Mars, supercooling is done by pumping air to a component outside the Hab. The air quickly cools to the outdoor temperature, which ranges from -150°C to 0°C. When it’s warm, additional refrigeration is used, but cold days can turn air to liquid for free.

Yes, it is that riveting. A big chunk of the text is devoted to minutiae like this. Despite being a fan of science, there were a few moments when I wanted the author to just give the condensed Ikea version of the details and get the story moving. And yet it’s a good read, with reasonable pacing, periodic action and suspense, and an enjoyable narrative voice. For you geeks out there, there’s also the technical accuracy. In a postscript to the book, the author discusses the process he went through to complete the story, which included releasing the book in serial form to a world hungry for Martian castaway stories, and incorporating feedback from real rocket scientists into the final text.

The movie release is still a few weeks away. It will be interesting to see what Hollywood does with it given its nerd-centric storyline. The book has no bloodthirsty aliens or out-of-control robots, no superheroes swooping in to save the day, and nothing approaching romance, other than a few mentions of things that might have been if geeks weren’t involved. Instead of these movie staples, the story has the protagonist moving rocks, building and rebuilding his house, driving for thousands of kilometers without much to do or see, and disco music.

If the book does have a major flaw, it appears in the form of the happy ending. From the very first page, you can tell that everything will turn out all right for Watney. The Martian is that kind of book, that is: American. Or at least modern American. This book is no Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Huckleberry Finn. Although it lauds human ingenuity, it says very little about the human condition. Perhaps that’s why the book is called The Martian instead of The Human. Challenges arise, but with a little elbow grease and some engineering skills, all will be well. It’s an American story because that is what we’ve come to expect. Our superheroes—or in this case, our ordinary heroes—will rescue us.

At some point in our history, our storytelling became one of easy solutions. From the sitcom to the Hollywood-bound novel, the challenges given to us are now those that we already know how to overcome. It’s a storyline devoid of the complexities of life, and one that does little to prepare us for the real world. In The Martian, there are no terrorists, no petty international disputes, no electoral recounts. A big part of the story involves China giving up years of research and billions of dollars to help the United States rescue its abandoned astronaut. I hope that would happen IRL, but experience tells me that some underhanded politics would need to take place to bring about that level of international cooperation. Not that I’m cynical.

Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoyed The Martian. I’m just the type of technically adept literary lightweight that is the book’s target demographic. But it is pure entertainment, to the point where I seriously fear what would happen to the human race if we ever migrated to Mars.

This article was posted on September 15, 2015. Related articles: Other Books, Technology, , .

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