29 March 2012

Re: "Why They Haven't Been Fired"

Bryan Caplan posed three questions about firing unproductive workers:
1. What fraction of your co-workers are paid 125% or more of their true marginal product?

2. What fraction of these overpaid/incompetent co-workers can you personally identify?

3. Has the boss failed to fire these overpaid/incompetent workers because he doesn't know what you know - or what?
My first reaction was similar to the old "80% of users only use 20% of features" problem. That may be true, but they each use a different 20%. In this case, maybe 20% of your coworkers aren't pulling their weight, but would everyone agree it's the same 20%? Are the guys in IT an bunch of overpaid slackers because you never see them working, or do they never appear to be working because they're so good at their jobs that the servers don't break down that often necessitating highly observable emergency work?

Let's assume that's not a problem though. In a later post, Caplan highlights some really good insights from the comments.

I think a lot of the problems commenters raised could be minimized if more firms followed a suggestion I made to a previous Caplan post about firing aversion — put more workers on limited, short-term contracts rather than open-ended ones.
(2a) Wouldn't giving more workers fixed-length contracts ameliorate these problems? You still have to deliver the bad news that the contract won't be renewed, but it seems a lot better because the frame is that you're declining to give the person something, rather than taking away something they see as theirs.

(2b) Speaking of which, "your job" is only "yours" in the sense that "your girlfriend" is "yours." Employment is a relationship between two parties, not the possession of one of them. If more people accepted that we would have a lot less whining about foreigners "taking our jobs."
Similarly, linguistically reflecting the reality that "your job" is not your possession but a shared relationship between employer and employee would make firing less psychologically stressful for everyone.
(2c) I assume there are legal problems standing in the way of (2a) which I do not know about.

(3a) The mail clerk in our department recently "failed to pass her employment probation." I have a cousin who similarly failed a probationary period at a hardware store. Why is this not more common?
One other issue is whether you would actually get anyone better if you fired the overpaid person. If I was a manager for DC's Metro I could gleefully scour my department, sacking all the thieving, negligent, racist,*
Don't miss Ellis' post on WMATA's racism. Very well done.
corrupt layabouts. But what good would it do? The culture and institutions of Metro are such that they'd just be replaced by other thieving, negligent, racist, corrupt layabouts.

27 March 2012

Everyone wants to be the underdog

This is a very good Julian Sanchez post about religion and atheism in American politics: "Undercover Atheists?"

I think a big part of what makes this issue so interesting to me it's one of those debates where both camps see themselves as the oppressed minority. I see a lot of religious people who are convinced Obama, Dawkins & Stewart are trying to dismantle the very foundation of their world view out of pure spite. And I see a lot of secular people who are convinced Santomrum, Limbaugh & Huckabee and about six months away from setting up a theocracy. Both groups are entirely convinced they about to wiped out by the overwhelming forces of Them.

26 March 2012

The best thing to happen in Montgomery County this year

WTOP | Batman pulled over on Route 29

Officers pulled the Caped Crusader heading southbound on Route 29 at Prelude Drive.

The back tag on the Batmobile - in this case a black Lamborghini - was the superhero's emblem rather than state tags required by law, according to police.

The man, who has not been identified by police, was heading down to a hospital to visit sick children in the hospital.
Ha! Can I get an Amen?

23 March 2012

In which I assert that some stuff is cool

Ars Technica | Ryan Paul | Pirate Bay plans to build aerial server drones with $35 Linux computer

Fact: taking a regular thing and making it into a flying thing is cool.

Let's ignore the moral aspects of piracy for a moment. We can all agree this is awesome, right? File servers that fly? How tomorrow is that? This is the future I've been waiting for. Next I want some unmanned dirigible ISPs and drone quadrotor wifi hotspots.

PS No, I don't care if this is a joke or empty bluster. It's cool.

Musical Tesla Coils | Steve Caton & Eric Goodchild | House of the Rising Sun

I don't have to explain why this is the jams, do I?

(Via KPC)

I Can Has Cheezburger | Otters Who Look Like Benedict Cumberbatch

What's that? You haven't seen Sherlock? Well whose fault is that?

Also: semi-aquatic mammals are cooler than they are given credit for.

∞ Web Urbanist | Steph | Paper Architecture: Intricate 3D Sculptures by Ingrid Siliakus

Things also become cooler when they are made out of paper.

Bng Bng | Cory Doctorow | Scientific calculator in Minecraft

Also cool — making computing machines out of things that shouldn't be computing machines. I'd like to think Turing would be happy with this.

Side note: there is a petition to get Turing on English ten pound note. I would like to see that happen. If you like in the UK please sign this. I really appreciate how British notes often have scientists, engineers and inventors on them. Frankly, I appreciate that they have non-politicians on them.

io9 | Robert Gonzalez | These carefully crafted photo-sculptures look like portals to another world

Simple but very clever. Let's have more novel combinations of photography and sculpture, please.

21 March 2012

But how do you know if they're the best?

A couple of days ago I posted this:
I continue to believe there is a huge opportunity for a school to market itself as the college which takes the best students and doesn't bother with any of the other dimensions which crop up on typical applications.

"Your parents didn't send you on a trip to Mexico to dig latrines so you would have a moving experiences to write about in your admissions essay? We don't care, because you aced multivariate calculus when you were fifteen. We take the best students we can find and forget all the other bullshit. Here, take a look at our admissions files and graduation rates and job placement statistics and alumni salary histories judge for yourself. Come to our school and you will be in classrooms with the smartest other young people we can find. We do not put our thumb on the scale in any way to tip the balance towards or away from any type of person, because we are entirely committed to admitting the most intelligent."
An anonymous commenter raised an interesting wrinkle:
A school which does this is going to have to do something about the Chinese student problem. Chinese students are constantly applying everywhere with ridiculous scores in everything. And then it turns out they got those scores by cheating at every opportunity, and they continue cheating in the university. That's the problem with the approach-- distinguishing between "you aced multivariate calculus at 15" and "you cheated your way to an A in multivariate calculus at 15"
I think this is worthy of responding in a separate post.

(1) One approach is to require online "interviews." Jeff Atwood has mentioned this several times in the context of evaluating whether potential hires for programming positions can actually program (eg). There are systems which are a combination of VOIP connections and live screencasts. You ask the interviewee a question, and then you can see what they see as they type out the solution. I know similar systems exist for testing English competency. Calculus would probably be harder to test in this way than English or programming, but something along these lines could be worked out.

Of course these systems do not completely eliminate cheating, but they do raise the cost of cheating. As a side-note, the rhythm of someone typing an answer someone else is telling them and typing an answer they are generating themselves, live, is different. There are, IIRC, machine learning routines that can differentiate between a student typing an essay they are composing as they type and the student re-typing an essay their "tutor" is providing to them.

(2) I would be satisfied if schools would simply verify that their foreign students can speak English. This is a problem I've experienced mostly in grad school. I'm all for more foreign students, but I think some basic language competency needs to be assured. I'd settle for being able to answer "Is someone sitting here?" which is beyond more than a few of my classmates/co-workers.

Verifying that someone really knows calculus over the internet is difficult, but a simple skype call should be enough to check if they really speak English.

(3) Another solution is to make foreign students arrive several weeks before their first semester to take placement exams and courses. If you fail the exams, you pack your bags and head home.

(4) A more drastic option is to not accept foreign students at all. Or not accept foreign students from countries with known cheating problems like China and, to a growing extent, Russia. Removing these applicants from consideration seems to contradict the commitment to "accept the best students," but I don't think it would be too difficult to explain that the policy must be implemented as "accept the student we can confidently verify are the best."

(5) Most US universities love foreign students because they pay full-freight tuition. A university that could foster a reputation among employers for diligently weeding out cheaters might be able to command a premium which would replace the lost potential revenue from admitting under-qualified foreign (or domestic, for that matter) applicants.

The cause of the wage premium from college degrees is hotly debated, but I think everyone agrees that at least portion of it is due to employers getting colleges to do the work of pre-screening their potential hires for them.*
e.g. Firms are more willing to hire the guy from Yale not because he learned that much more there than the guy from NC State, but because he was good enough to get into Yale in the first place.
If a college could build a reputation for doing that screening more thoroughly than other schools then their alumni could command higher wages, which would attract more talented applicants, which would make their screening more impressive, which would feed back in the forms of higher alumni wages, and so on.

(6) Most colleges have no incentive to punish cheaters or expel students whose work is not up-to-snuff. A warm body that pays its bills on time is fine for most universities. A school which was building it's entire reputation of winnowing the wheat from the chaff would have different incentives. Would that be enough for the school to properly identify cheaters/slackers/idiots-who-slipped-through-the-application-process-by-mistake? I don't know, but my inclination is that it would providing the school had really, publicly committed itself to the academic quality of its student body above all else. If even a small fraction of the graduates had faked their way through it would endanger the entire strategy.

(7) As a nice side effect being willing to punish cheaters may also help to attract better faculty. I've lost track of how many furious articles and blog posts I've read from faculty members who catch people cheating and are told to brush it all under the rug because the university's incentives are to let it slide.

Most faculty members really don't want to look the other way. That's why I don't think it would take a huge shift in the university's incentive structure to make it possible to strongly crack down on cheating. The instructors are champing for an opportunity to do so.

Equity-Based Crowd Funding

Speaking of crowd-funded equity investments, the WSJ hosted a "debate" about that last weekend.

I find the arguments made against it, by John M. Torrens, of Syracuse University's Martin J. Whitman School of Management, to be egregiously foolish. So much so that I will spend the next few decades discounting anyone with an MBA from Syracuse.

At their core, all of his arguments boil down to "some people will make errors, so everybody must be prohibited from doing this." You could use this logic to ban, well, everything. It completely ignores the very, very basic fact that all human activity carries risk, and that some balance must be struck between risk and reward not only to maintain a free society, but to carry on life itself.

Every argument Torrens advances is daft. Let's start where he starts:
The proposed law would not require audited financials on capital raising under $1 million, meaning people in the crowd could buy something that's valued based on potentially flawed numbers. And there could be hidden liabilities—such as workers' compensation claims, lawsuits and back taxes—in the company that the crowd now owns.
Yes. And a used car may have hidden liabilities. There is asymmetric information. Buying a car that has had improperly done frame repairs or faulty tie-rods is potentially fatal. And yet we allow people to buy cars not only from used car dealers, but from strangers on craigslist who have had absolutely no vetting or auditing at all! Somehow civilization rolls on.
And the crowd would be stuck with those problematic holdings, since there's basically no way to sell the investments. They're about as illiquid as you can get.
And yet we not only allow people to buy very illiquid real estate we encourage it.
From the entrepreneur's perspective, meanwhile, equity-based crowd funding raises just as many problems.

Let's start with a basic issue: Yes, small businesses need capital. But they need a lot more than that. And by focusing simply on capital, equity-based crowd funding would rob small companies of access to everything that traditionally comes with capital.
What? What?! No. Adding a new option does not preclude the old options. This is not even a business or finance or policy matter. This is basic, child-level logic.

Also, if these deals were such a bad deal for companies, why can't we trust them not to make them? Are the managers too stupid to do what's in the best interest of their firms? Are they insufficiently greedy to strike good deals? If so, why are we letting them manage the firm at all?

I was going to pick this apart one witless 'graph at a time, but to hell with it. I'm not wasting any more effort on this feeble-minded pablum. The entire piece boils down to "I'm a paternalist who knows more about what you should do than you do yourself, and since this law makes some unwise decisions possible we must prohibit everyone from being able to make these decisions for themselves."

Wait — I have one more thing to say I just remembered. This is a great example of policy makers and pundits needing to think more like engineers and scientists. This decision is not being made in a vacuum. Europe already allows these sorts of investments. If crowd-equity is really so dangerous, why isn't Torrens presenting actual evidence to back that up? Where are the actual disaster statistics? Or at least disaster stories? It's all hypothetical boogeymen. Sometimes we have to just imagine what the effects of a policy change will be, but sometimes we can look around and actually gather information and make informed predictions based on other, similar policies. Torrens speculates:
Instead, that crowd of investors could bring a whole host of new problems that were never contemplated. For example, managing investor relations and communications with a larger number of potentially unsophisticated investors will take time away from running the business, making sales and executing on strategy.
We don't have to be content with idle speculation here. Look over at Europe and tell me how much productivity is lost by crowd-funded enterprises due to an increased load of investor relations. (Or any of the other lame specters Torrens invokes.) Speculation is fine, but it's no substitue for actually observing the world and weighing data.

There are going to be bad investments out there. People already have access to them. The SEC and other regulators have not exactly done a sterling job of preventing people from offering bad investments or making them. (*Cough* Madoff *cough* Enron *cough* Ephren Taylor *cough cough cough choke* the Hellenic Republic.) The world is risky. Some people should not be making these deals. (Some people should not be handling money at all, or making any decision more fraught than which shoe to put on first.) That's no reason to outlaw everyone from considering such deals and making such decisions for themselves.

20 March 2012


I encourage you to take a look at Bryan Caplan's two posts about being happy he lives in a "bubble" of the type Charles Murray criticizes in Coming Apart.
I have a visceral dislike of the term "bubble." I don't know if this was location-specific or not, but "bubble" was the term a certain type of too-cool-for-school kid used in my high school to denote how much more awesome than our hometown (s)he was.

(Frankly, there was something to this complaint. Bethesda, like most modern suburbs, is simply not designed to provide utility to teenagers.

But I got really sick and tired of hearing about how bad it was to be "trapped in the Bethesda bubble." People always said this as if they were on the verge of escaping to New York or Paris where they would spend all their time in cool cafes and all-ages clubs meeting fascinating people and discussing big ideas and "experiencing life." If you spend your time in a suburb sitting around and gossiping about friends then even when you're transplanted to a cosmopolitan metropolis you're still going to sit around and gossip about friends.  If you have a boring life as a seventeen year old it's at least partially your fault. Stop blaming it all on geography and make some of your own fun.)

Putting my terminological dislike aside, I'm very sympathetic to Caplan's position regarding bubbles.

Building a bubble is my second leading motivation for making money. (The first is the standard American dream motivation: allow my children to have a more prosperous upbringing than I did.) In short, I want the ability to say "screw this; here's some money; now strike your bullshit off the list of things I need to worry about." Obviously money doesn't scour away all bullshit.
This is the time when you go listen to Zevon's "Lawyer's, Guns and Money." I even embedded it in the bottom of the post for you. Go ahead. I'll wait.
I'm sure this paragraph would give Epictetus a big chuckle. But money sure seems like a nice option to have in your toolkit.*

You know the old passage in Exodus about not suffering witches to live? That's how I feel about fools. Okay, to be clear I don't want them put to death, I just don't want to have to suffer through their foolishness.

Here's an example from yesterday's news: "Hate the full-body scans, pat-downs and slow going at TSA airport security screening checkpoints? For $100, you can now bypass the hassle." In a better world I would never have to make choice between $100 and not having an epsilon moron in a polyester uniform reach down the front of my trousers and have himself a rummage. But in the sad world in which we live, the world in which most people think its perfectly okay for powerful men to steal my money in order to pay troglodytes with no job prospects in order to prevent terrorism politicians from being called 'soft on terror' that's a trade I'll make.

(Hat tip to my friend A.B. for that story.)

I'm reminded of an old Chuck Klosterman essay which I can't put my finger on now. In it, he discusses how it's fairly easy to ignore the things in pop culture we don't like, but most people aren't content with that. We don't just want to not hear that band or watch that show we dislike, we want everyone else to stop listening to the band or watching the show. We want the things we don't like to be universally un-liked. We want them to cease existing. This is a pretty natural – or at least common – instinct and yet a pretty bizarre and not so very nice thing to do.

The idea of happily withdrawing into a bubble, and being unaware of the cultural experiences of the mass of people outside seems arrogant. But I think, viewed in light of what Klosterman points out, it's actually an extremely accepting stance. Go ahead and listen to the pop music I hate. Watch the reality shows I can't stand. I don't care. I'm not going to be upset that people like things I don't. That's much easier to pull off if you distance yourself more completely from the cultural artifacts you don't like. If they aren't part of your life it's much harder to get upset that they are a part of someone else's.

Sound the alarm

The Economist | Nazis in space: Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing are becoming more sophisticated

[...] Where “Iron Sky” has broken ground, says Tero Kaukomaa, one of the film’s producers, is not just in getting fans to pitch in with the work, but in its funding model: most of the money raised via the website was in the form of equity investments, which will pay back if the film makes a profit.

That is allowed in Europe, but not yet in America, where any such investment must be filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. A bill allowing investments of up to $10,000 per person without all the paperwork was passed by the House of Representatives last November but is currently stuck in the Senate.
Alarm bells go off in my head when there are business and investment possibilities that are legal in Europe but illegal in America. Being more anti-market than the EU is a position to be avoided. If I was in congress I would set up a team of LAs just to monitor for these situations and write legislation to rectify them immediately.

There are people (and I'm looking toward TJIC, for instance) whose business I would love to be able to make equity investments in. Unfortunately the government has decided I'm not "sophisticated" (read: "rich") enough to be able to do that. And yet somehow I can make loans to these same people. So I'm allowed, as an unsophisticated poor investor to take a risk on companies and people, as long as my upside is limited.

Thanks, congress. Way to help out the little guy.

19 March 2012

"Smart kids might choose other schools..."

The Daily | Shikha Dalmia | Race-based admissions aren’t going away – even if the Supreme Court says they should

[...] The best option might be to open up university admissions to public scrutiny through full-disclosure laws. Just as publicly traded companies are required to disclose accurate financial information to investors, public universities should be required to declare what admission standards they use for which groups (including, incidentally, children of alumni and donors, the other big beneficiaries of preferences) along with each group’s graduation rates. This would force the universities to defend any blatant double-standard in public. And smart kids who felt that the university was diluting its standards too much might choose other schools — as might minority students who feel the university is setting them up for failure.
I think relying on "smart kids" (ie consumer choices) is the only stable equilibrium in the long run.

I continue to believe there is a huge opportunity for a school to market itself as the college which takes the best students and doesn't bother with any of the other dimensions which crop up on typical applications.

"Your parents didn't send you on a trip to Mexico to dig latrines so you would have a moving experiences to write about in your admissions essay? We don't care, because you aced multivariate calculus when you were fifteen. We take the best students we can find and forget all the other bullshit. Here, take a look at our admissions files and graduation rates and job placement statistics and alumni salary histories judge for yourself. Come to our school and you will be in classrooms with the smartest other young people we can find. We do not put our thumb on the scale in any way to tip the balance towards or away from any type of person, because we are entirely committed to admitting the most intelligent."

Applicants wouldn't even put their name or addresses on their applications to minimize latent discrimination. Do everything double-blind. Maybe even divide up the application in different sections evaluated under different randomly assigned ID numbers so that inferences made about an applicant's SES based on their extra curricular activities or hints about their legacy status in their essay don't affect the way the rest of their record is judged.

I wouldn't want every school to operate this way, but I think there's a huge niche waiting for a couple of schools that are willing to try it. Especially since current admissions practices are so homogenous. And especially as tuitions increase and people are matriculating whose parents are still paying off college loans. Universities will need to look to market themselves in ways beyond the standard "Look at our gigantic gymnasium and fancy cafeteria with twenty flavors of all-you-can-eat ice cream and two dozen study-abroad programs in sexy Mediterranean cities! Come have an awesome four year vacation college 'experience' at our school!"

16 March 2012

Put not your faith in princes

Cafe Hayek | Russ Roberts | Not the Messiah

I caught about 30 seconds of some Republican forum last night and heard someone ask Newt Gingrich about what he was going to do to lead the nation back to God.

I am a religious person. I think Godliness is a good thing.

But the right answer to that question should be to say that it is not the job of the President of the United States or in in the skill set of the President of the United States to lead the nation back to or toward God. For starters, a lot of Americans don’t believe in God and don’t want to hear about God. I don’t want a President to lead the nation toward meat-eating or vegetarianism or any of the myriad of other choices we make privately in our day-to-day lives.

More importantly, the President doesn’t know how to lead the nation back to God. He is just as likely to lead the nation away from God. There are people who specialize in Godliness–they are called “the clergy.” [...]
(1) Amen.

(2) How little faith do you have that you need the President, and his legions of soldiers and cops and tax collectors and regulators and prison wardens, to force people behave righteously? Any God worthy of the name shouldn't need the DOJ or the FCC or the Air Force to do his dirty work.

(3) Is there any government in history which has lead people closer to Godliness? People have been clamoring for millenia for their governments to make everyone else more religious. (Never to make them more religious, only to make other people more religious.) What has it gotten us? The Dissolution of the Monasteries, Cromwell, the Massacre of the Latins, Julius II and his syphilitic college of cardinals banging prostitutes, the Fourth Crusade, the Bonfire of the Vanities, and generally speaking repression, destruction, and death. In other words, sin.

(NB: I've limited by examples to situations in which christians were on the short end of government-backed religious nuttery. This is not because there aren't a thousand examples where other sects have gotten shafted, but because I figure these will have more resonance with the average GOP voter.)

(4) The Republicans too often want the government to be their pastor, and Democrats too often want it to be their sugar-daddy. (Of course for variety sake they'll both switch positions in the right circumstances.) I just want the government to be the damned government.
"The fundamental insight of libertarianism is that the government is the government. It cannot be your mommy, your daddy, your big brother, your nanny, your friend, your buddy, your god, your salvation, your church or your conscience. It is the government."
Jonah Goldberg

15 March 2012

Two Warnings

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Warn people about two things

One problem with disclosure regulation is that people grow accustomed to the warnings and caveats and their eyes glaze over. They stop paying attention.

So let’s say you are the Über-regulator. You get to warn people about two things. Once. [...]

Which two things do you pick for your warning?

“Driving is dangerous”

“Fight nuclear proliferation.”

“Don’t let your kid near a bucket.”

“Politics isn’t about policy.”

“Beware the Ides of March!”

“Some people out there suck!”
My picks:

"Your decisions have consequences."

"The universe is a dangerous, unfair place."

13 March 2012

Talk is cheap. And hard to measure. And harder to interpret.

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | American public opinion toward the space program

From Alexis Madrigal, this was news to me:
In thinking about the recent battles over NASA’s budget, it seems like the problem is simply citizen support. People don’t care that much about space, so space doesn’t get funded. Back in the Apollo days, people loved the space program! Except, as this Space Policy paper pointed out, they didn’t. A majority of Americans opposed the government funding human trips to the moon both before (July 1967) and after (April 1970) Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind. It was only in the months surrounding Apollo 11 that support for funding the program ever reached above 50 percent.
Whenever I see statistics like this I always think "compared to what?" I agree these are interesting — I had always thought the space program was more popular than that — but what do these numbers actually tell us?

How are you supposed to translate favorability ratings into dollars? Is this some kind of all-or-nothing situation? If <50% of people support NASA then shut it down; if >50% of people support NASA then give them everything they want?

How much should people care about space exploration? Or anything else? What's the proper level of caring? What policy would we be justified adopting if public support was 5% higher? 5% lower? What's the hypothesis here?

And how are you asking these questions? "Do you care about space? yes/no. Do you care about bridges and tunnels? yes/no. Do you care about cancer research? yes/no. Do you care ..." If so, there's no cost to claiming you care about lots and lots of things. If someone claims to care about everything, do they really care about any of it? Even if they do, can we tell from these questions?

Unless you set up the survey to read "Manned lunar missions cost you $X. Do you support manned lunar missions?" I will be entirely unconvinced that public opinion is a useful guide for policy.

"The Predatory Lending Fallacy"

EconLog | Arnold Kling | The Predatory Lending Fallacy

Consider the following problems:

1. Qualified borrowers getting bad deals.
2. Unqualified borrowers getting good deals.

(1) is predatory lending. (2) is what caused the housing bubble and crash. Getting that story straight would be a major accomplishment for the media.
I learned this lesson about dual error types in loans on literally the 2nd day of my undergrad Data Mining/Machine Learning class offered by the Computer Science department. This isn't advanced finance. It's simple enough to make a good 5 minute lecture example for people who know nothing about banking.

Not to get all blustery, but it utterly baffles me that there exist adults in the business/finance/policy sphere that don't grok this. Or is the problem that they don't want to grok it?

Some stuff that's been happening

[1a] Wow. That Black Keys show was amazing. Even the songs I wasn't familiar with/don't like as much were great. I never thought to myself "okay, finish this song and get on to the next one." I don't think that has ever happened at a concert before. (I have not been to a great deal of concerts, but Special Lady Friend has, and she felt the same way.)

[1b] The concert was also excellently produced. I was especially impressed by the visual they projected onto the screen above and behind the stage. It was a combination of abstracted, filtered live video of the performance and an impressive collection of abstract video clips combining visual noise, photographs, rendering & editing artifacts artifacts, functional animation, and other effects. I would play any of these backgrounds on the wall  of a gallery. I'm always a fan of abstract animation and video, but these were particularly good.

I don't think I did a good job of explaining that. This still from a previous concert doesn't really do it justice, but it does show one of the more Pop Art-influenced pieces.

Anyone know how they manage this kind of thing? I'm guessing maybe VVVV is involved, but I have no idea.

[2] The afternoon of the concert I happened upon the site of a class Craig Kaplan taught at Waterloo a couple of years ago on Non-photorealistic Rendering. This meshed up nicely with the visuals at the show. I'm very interested in this sort of thing. My final project report for the graduate Graphics course I took turned into a sort of manifesto about how computer graphics should focus less on photography and spend more time thinking about painting, drawing, design and sculpture.

[3] Speaking of which, my decrease in blogging output over the last couple of months has been in large part because I've been spending more time working on art. In addition to a couple of projects of my own I've also been following along remotely with a course Brandon Morse is offering on digital art. He puts each of the assignments up online, so I've been doing those on my own. Morse is, by the way, one of my favorite artists right now, and he just happens to teach at UMD.

[4] Another reason for decreased blogging is that I've been trying to focus on reading more books and spending less time jimmy-jacking around on the internet. In order to do so I've been tracking every book I read so I can calculate how many pages per day I'm getting through.

Last week Stephen Wolfram produced a widely linked blog post which analyzed twenty years of data he's been collecting about his life such as what time of day he's sent several hundred thousand emails, and how many steps his pedometer has recorded each day. I'd love to have that kind of data to play around with. For now I'll have to deal with my hand-updated log of books and similar statistics (which movies I've seen, how many times I've been to the gym, etc.). I know that long-term relying on manually updating these lists is perilous, but for now they're all I have.

[5a] Another thing that I've seen linked around in various places lately is an iOS app called Caffeine Zone. You tell it how much caffeine you have and how fast, and it runs the pharmacokinetics to figure out how much is in your blood stream 24 hours into the future.  It's pretty fun to fool around with, but I would really love it if there was a way to export the data to an archive so I could look at my caffeine consumption on a monthly or annual basis.

[5b] I actually first heard of Caffeine Zone from one of it's co-develoeprs Frank Ritter at a Cog Sci conference last fall. He was making a very good point that what makes for a "good" cognitive model is primarily socially determined. We know, for instance, that caffeine affects response time on various tasks. Psychologists go out of their way to report and control for things like the age and gender of their subjects. However they make absolutely zero attempt to control for their caffeine consumption. We know that caffeine matters, but it's socially accepted among modelers to ignore it.

(Sidenote: Extend this observation to finance and climate models as you see fit.)

[5c] Does anyone know of a good, entry-level introduction paper to pharmacokinetics? Since I can't export data from Caffeine Zone I'd like to create my own database to track long-term usage. I'd also like to incorporate other drugs besides caffeine (principally SSRIs and amphetamine salts) so if there's a generic form for these functions, even if I don't have the exact parameters, I'd love to know what they are.

I should have mentioned that along with Stephen Wolfram's analysis, my desire for data logging is inspired in large part by the Feltron Annual Reports. Designer Nicholas Felton has been releasing these "reports" about his life for several years now, and they're absolutely beautiful.
99% Invisible did a very nice episode on them last year. You can listen here.

08 March 2012


EconLog | Arnold Kling | Videoconferencing and Health Care

Scott Gottlieb writes,
A patient recently asked me why doctors don't spend more time communicating over email or by videoconferencing.

There's a simple answer: Medicare hasn't created a billing code for these services.
I would love to stand up and cheer. But I think this is not a good example. [...]

However, in the particular case of videoconferencing, I think the problem is that this is still perceived as bleeding-edge technology [not a problem with billing]. I brought this up during the video conference with Hal Varian and Nick Schulz. Hal and I remember the 1990's, when corporations first connected to the Internet, and managers dealt with email by having their secretaries print it out for them. They were wary of the new technology and unwilling to really dive into it. That is where most people are with videoconferencing right now.

When that changes (assuming it does), a lot of habits will change. People will spend less time going to and from meetings. Instead, they will hop from meeting to meeting with a click of a button, sitting at their computers. This will save a lot of time.
I actually don't think videoconference meetings will save much time. I predict for most people it will lower the time cost of each individual meeting, but it will increase the overall number of meetings that they must "attend" precisely because the cost of each has gone down.
Hypothesis – Because it is difficult to decline to attend a meeting, or to get one canceled once proposed, the number of meetings a group has is a function of the appetite for meetings of the person who is most enthusiastic about meetings. This will only get worse with video-conferencing, because it will become harder to claim you can't make the meeting.

Let me use Kling email's example. Ten years ago when I was finishing K12 it was inconceivable that my parents would send weekly emails to any of my teachers. All of my teachers had email accounts provided by the school, and these addresses were all public, but it just wasn't a way they communicated with parents. If my parents wanted something from a teacher they either had to arrange a face-to-face meeting, which was costly, try to connect on the phone, which meant taking time out of their own workday afternoons, or give me a message to bring to school. The latter was the most common.

Mrs SB7 is now teaching in the same school district I attended. She spends about an hour a day responding to parent email. By and large, these are not terribly critical questions she is forced to field. Most of this communication does not need to happen at all, in any medium, electronic or otherwise. They're mostly of the form "When is Johnny's homework due?" and "Why did you deduct points from Sally's paper just because it was half the length is was supposed to be?" These are questions that do not need to be asked, and if they do, are exactly the sorts of things a teenager ought to learn to walk into school and ask for themselves.

Part of this increased email usage is because of the particular mix of special needs students Mrs SB7 teaches. Part of it is probably a cultural shift which has made hovering/helicoptering/dragon-mothering more common, but don't forget we're looking at a ten year period in one community, so the culture shouldn't have changed that much. Because the cost of asking teachers questions is now so low there are far, far, far more questions asked. From what I can tell email with parents has decreased rather than increased the productivity of teachers. I suspect the same would happen if it became common to expect to be able to videoconference with a teacher. (Or most other people, for that matter.)

07 March 2012

Thinking out loud: publication dates

The Economist podcasts often include discussion, reviews or interviews related to new books. Often the episode ends with something like "[Title] is published in the UK by [Publisher], and will be available in America from [Publisher] on [Future Date]." The future date is often several months later. (Sometimes the US date is first.) Here's one example, discussing Edward Lucas' The New Cold War.

Why publish a book several months apart in two English-speaking markets? What benefit does this serve? I'm having a hard time imagining they can capture some price discrimination this way. Wouldn't it be better to launch them at the same time to maximize the marketing? Or is so much of the marketing for this sort of book dependent on the speaking tour that you have one tour in America to coincide with that publishing date, and another in Britain for that publication date?

Is the coordination between two different publishers too costly to make simultaneous releases, at least within the Anglosphere, worthwhile?

Can anyone fill me in on why this is done? Does the publisher in the first market make it a condition of their contract that they have exclusive worldwide rights for a period of X months? Does this benefit them that much, compared to alternatives?

I know a lot of the driver behind piracy of movies and games is based on differing international release dates. People in Country X torrent a movie because it was released a month ago in Country Y, whereas if it was out in both countries the same week there is less demand. Valve found that releasing their titles the same day in the US and Russia made piracy a non-issue for them.

I believe the publishing industry is getting increasingly nervous that piracy will have the same disruptive effect on them that it has on Music and Movies. Perhaps simultaneous releases of books will make economic sense if/when the costs of potential piracy outweigh the transaction costs?

PS Has anyone else found that the feeds for the Economists' podcast have been screwy the last couple of weeks?

I give up. I will break down and post about the HHS mandate.

I didn't want to have to do this because everything about this issue puts me in a bad mood.

I saw this at the Gormogons' place:

Do read the responses to it there. I have a few reactions of my own.

(1) Bullshit. The proper response to "everyone is forced to pay for things they don't want" is not "therefore I'm forcing you to pay for one more thing you hate." It's "so let's all stop forcing each other to buy stuff we don't like."

I don't see Stewart falling over himself to support school choice or any other sort of education freedom. He sure hasn't had a nice word to say about Paul Ryan or the prospects of opting out of Social Security. The last time proposals to privatize Social Security and Medicare came up Stewart sure as shit didn't say "Hey, this is a great opportunity to make people stop paying for things they find objectionable!" In fact, he compared it to turning old people in Solent Green.

(2) Bullshit, again. If there were new laws forcing every employer to purchase for their employees an AR-15, a ten volume study bible, a copy of Atlas Shrugged, a kilo of blow, or a round trip plane ticket to Mecca every Ramadan, there's no way in hell Stewart would shrug and say "Oh stop complaining, we all have to pay for stuff we don't want."

(3) Let's put that aside. Assume, arguendo, that we have decided that everyone gets to have contraception without paying any marginal cost themselves. Why in the name of ***** is it their employer's responsibility to pay for it?

Just because they're the closest people with seemingly deep pockets? That's bullshit too. If we, collectively, decide this is something people deserve to have then we, collectively, ought to provide it. Don't make this decision and then stick the tab on someone else for political convenience.

This is a constant irritation for me. If we want to subsidize mail to rural areas, then we — collectively — ought to do so, instead of passing the bill off to the subset of people who buy stamps. If we want to subsidize rail lines then we — collectively — need to pay for them instead of passing the bill off to the subset of people who buy gasoline. If we want to subsidize baseball stadiums then we — collectively — need to pay for that instead of passing the bill off to people who stay in hotel rooms.

It's more honest to do so that way, it's more efficient to do so that way, and it's also more respectful of the rights*
used extremely loosely
of the people we're subsidizing. I can imagine a moral regime which concludes women deserve to pay nothing out of pocket for contraception. I can not imagine a regime in which only employed women deserve to pay nothing out of pocket for their contraception.

(4) Does Stewart not understand that there is a difference between the State taxing away some of my money to pay for something I object to, and forcing me to do something I object to with my own money directly? I'm not comfortable with either of these situations, but at least the former has a degree of honesty to it.

I don't like turning resources over to the State through taxation, but at least then we know that the State is directing the allocation of those resources. Mandating what I can do — no, must do — with my own money is a different story. It's a stealth taxation.*
And thus I expect to see much more of it as I age.
I'm not one to throw around the F word lightly, but — and correct me if I'm wrong — I believe that centralized State direction of private property is the very central economic tenet of fascism.

I need to stop ranting about this and get back to work, but I'll make one more point unrelated to Jon Stewart. I was talking to my father last night, and he's of the opinion that this whole HHS mandate is an "attempt to undermine religion in the public sphere" or words to that affect. I can see why he and his religious friends see things that way, but I think they're giving Obama et al. far too much credit.

I don't see this as an attempt to marginalize the Church, or undercut the 1st Amendment, or anything of the sort. (Sure, it does those things, but I don't think that's the point.) I think this is simply people seeing an opportunity to get someone else to pay for something they want and seizing it. People are always going to jump on the chance to get something (seemingly) for free.

Obama is saying to his supporters, "I will give you something you want. It will appear to be free. You will bear a small portion of the cost (in lower wages), and the rest of the cost will be occulted, and spread out on the rest of your coworkers. Do you want some of this 'free' stuff?" The answer is always "Hell YES we do!"

As a nice little side benefit he can simultaneously tell Pharma that he's just forced people to pay for a bunch of their products ... and by the way, wouldn't it be nice if they slipped some of that new revenue into his campaign war chest and refrained from saying anything bad about his "signature" HCR achievement until after November?

PS Fine, one more thing. There is a certain argument that really this is in the employers' and insurance companies' best interests because contraception is cheaper than pregnancy in the long run so actually this mandate is doing them a favor. This strikes me as beyond foolish.

I can not imagine a more self-defeating justification for this, and yet I hear similar things routinely. If it's really in their best interests then you don't need to force them to do it. Unless you think insurance companies and employers are insufficiently greedy to save themselves money, which clashes mightily with the general world view of the people who usually make this argument.

I immediately lose some trust in anyone who advances this line of reasoning. Not only because it's terrible self-contradictory rhetoric, but because it misses the entire point of market systems: no one is better positioned to judge what is in the best economic interests of an actor than they are themselves.

PPS Attention Rush (and everyone else): You can make arguments, or you can call people names. You can't do both.

Some woman went to congress and demanded free stuff. There are very good reasons she shouldn't get free stuff. I think you (Rush) might have even presented some of them on the air. But then you called her a mean name. When you do that it doesn't matter how right your reasons are or how ludicrous her demands for free stuff are. All your arguments — and by extension, sadly, most of those made by people on the same side of this issue — are wiped away. Stick to either making arguments or name-calling. You do not get to mix and match.

May God protect us from incompetent allies.

06 March 2012

Four things that are angering me and one thing that makes me happy

Apparently I'm just in one of those "you know what really grinds my gears?" moods which requires me to bitch about stuff on the internet. I'm going to knock out a couple of these to get them out of my head.

(1) Mrs SB7 just got an email from the massive public school system for which she works informing her that everyone's W-2 is garbage. Apparently this employer, who has been doing this for decades, and has about twenty thousand employees, counted non-taxable pension contributions as taxable income. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that strikes me as a fairly obvious, boneheaded error. It's pretty infuriating that they would figure this out in March. I know accounting is not as trivial as it often appears from the outside, but how hard is it really to sum up all the money a person got paid over the course of a calendar year?

It's a damn good thing I didn't file my taxes last week when I finished them.

(2) Sallie Mae can not come to grips with the fact that Mrs SB7 is employed 42 weeks a year as a teacher. It's not like she's the only ten month employee in the country. They're insisting that her annual income must be 26 times her biweekly income even though we — and they — know she's only paid 21 times a year. This is after they assured us several months ago, and several batches of forms and applications ago, that they can account properly for this sort of thing. As a result they're greatly overestimating our income, and thus our required monthly payments.

They've asked that we submit our 2011 tax forms to demonstrate our annual income.*
Although, see above, we can't do this until the school systems gets their shit together and provides an accurate W-2.
This seems reasonable, but since Mrs SB7 was hired part-way through the year this will dramatically understate our income. Sallie Mae will end up getting less from us than we're offering to pay. This is fine by me; I'm more than happy to underpay by a year after overpaying for a quarter. But sweet jesus! how incompetent are these people? I'm legally obligated (and willing!) to give them ~$600. They bill me $850. I ask them to reconsider. They say "fine! it's a pain, but we'll accept $425." What epsilon morons are running that place?

PS See also "The Transformation of Student Loans into Taxes" at Political Calculations.

(3) I've gone to two talks in the last week that were given by people from a different department than the professors hosting the talks. (The first speaker was a Computer Scientist speaking to Statisticians, and the second was an Operation Research guy from the B-school speaking to Computer Scientists.) I'm getting really tired of hearing questions from professors in the audience that amount to "Isn't it true that you're doing everything wrong and this whole project is pointless?" There are always, always, *always* these sorts of questions at these sorts of talks, typically asked over and over by the same (usually senior) prof.

Sure, it's important for the speaker to motivate their work and explain the context. It's on them to explain why they're doing the work they're doing and why it's valuable. And it's also important to be critical and push back against people's work rather than blindly accepting it. But is it too much to ask that the audience just accept some things like the basic motivation of the speaker? Especially when the speaker is from a different discipline? I'm not asking anyone to accept a bunch of questionable conjectures about cold fusion or string theory or P being equal to NP on faith. Just allow for the possibility that when someone says "a lot of people are interested in solving this problem, because it would enable..." it might actually be true that people want to solve this problem.

When someone from another department claim that Problem X is important and common or Situation Y is computationally intractable or Characteristic Z is desirable isn't it at least possible that they're telling the truth? Couldn't it possibly be that they know more about this domain than you do? Seeing as how it's the field they've been studying for years and it's something you only have a passing familiarity with? When questioning the motivation of someone from another discipline is it that hard to phrase your question in a charitable way, leaving open the possibility that the speaker knows something you don't and isn't just a charlatan wasting your time? Is that too much to ask? Is it that difficult to say "Have you considered using a Fast Fourier Transform there? It seems like that could be helpful." rather than "Ugh! I don't see the point! Just use an FFT and be forget all the rest of this nonsense."

(4) The lease on Villa SB7 is up in a couple of months, so I received a latter from our apartment manager about the new lease terms. Our rent is going up a modest amount, which is fine. It also looks like utilities will no longer be included. I'm okay with both of those things. It's their property; they can charge what they like.

What angers me is that there's a paragraph included in this letter (which I suspect is legally required) that states the county's recommended rent increase guideline, in this case 2%. My landlord then says that my rent is going up 3%, and that if I think this is unfair I can contact the county. But that 3% doesn't include the utility bills I will have to pay directly to the landlord. All-in-all I'll probably end up writing a check to them for about 10% more than I did last year. Again, I'm fine with this. Their property; their prices. But don't increase the price 10% then tell me you're increasing it 3%.

They did the same thing last year, imposing a modest increase in the rent itself, started charging for parking and canceled a discount I got for being a state employee, but only reported the change in the rent itself as the difference in price from the previous year.

I'm going to be paying about 20% more than I did when I moved in two years ago, but they're telling me (and the county) that I'm only paying 6% more. Screw that noise. Raise your prices all you want, but have the decency to be honest about it. Don't piss on my boots and tell me it's raining.

(5) Okay. Glad that's out of my system. Let me try and balance out that bitterness dump with one item worthy of several Huzzahs!

Columbia University | Visual Arts Faculty Sarah Sze will represent the US at the 2013 Venice Biennale

Sarah Sze, Professor of Visual Arts at Columbia University School of the Arts, has been chosen to represent the United States at La Biennale di Venezia in 2013. Her work will be presented by Holly Block and the Bronx Museum of the Arts in the 55th In­ter­na­tion­al Art Exhib­ition. [...]

Sze has won acclaim for her minutely detailed, accumulative instal­la­tions, in which everyday items such as coffee cups, plastic bottles and electrical fans become vital objects that defy the boundaries between the throwaway and the precious, the mundane and the monumental.

Sze has always been known for work that challenges viewers to experience space in unexpected ways, and her installation at the U.S. Pavilion at the Biennale promises to do the same on a grand scale. Sze will create a sequence of constructed environments that will activate the Pavilion’s architecture and extend beyond the building and into the courtyard, blurring the perceptual boundaries between the site’s interior and exterior.

In conjunction with the installation, the Bronx Museum of the Arts will create a video stream documenting Sze’s process of conceiving, fabricating, and installing the piece. This will extend the project’s reach beyond the Giardini and link Sze with a worldwide audience.
I am just pleased as can be about this. Sze is one of my three of four favorite artists in the world. I've got a real soft spot for sculptors whose work moves past "here's an object on the ground" or "here's a thing on a pedestal." Sze's work is like a fractal space-filling curve of stuff.

(Via 3qd)