27 October 2012

storm prep

Several dozen cheap Ikea candles are laid in.

The cabinets are stocked with bread, peanut butter, pasta, ramen and various preserved fish.

Batteries are charged, including our car jump starter with both AC and DC outputs for home appliances, car devices and USB gadgets.

Books, both physical and Kindle, are stacked and waiting.

The liquor cabinet is freshly stocked with beer and whisky. Hey, if I'm going to be stuck in the dark, I'm going to relax while I'm doing it.

Wiper blades and headlights on the car are all replaced. (Not strictly storm related, but since they were due for replacement anyway...)

The freezer is jammed with several cubic feet of water-filled tupperware to supply some extra thermal mass.

Several gallons of water have been stocked.

SB7 Top Tip: our local grocery store has been a mad house for 36 hours, and has been picked completely clean of all water, including seltzer. (Screw storm preparation. I just need some seltzer.) The ethnic grocery on the other side of town, on the other hand, is an island of calm, fully stocked with all your potable needs. Head over to a non-Anglophone neighborhood to stock up.

Now I can only hope the Irish are as ready for Oklahoma as I am for this storm.

26 October 2012

"Charters Leading The Way"

DCist | Martin Austermuhle | D.C. Public School Enrollment Increases, With Charters Leading The Way

Enrollment at D.C. public schools has grown again, according to unaudited figures published by the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education today. The numbers show that overall enrollment in public schools rose from 76,782 last year to 80,823 this year, a five percent jump that caps off three steady years of enrollment increases.

But much like in years past, the jumps in enrollment have largely been led by the city's public charter schools. This year, according to OSSE, enrollment in public charter schools increased by 11 percent, from 31,562 to 35,019. Enrollment in D.C. public schools, by contrast, only jumped by a single percentage point, from 45,191 to 45,835.
DC public schools got 4,041 new students. Of these charter schools got 3,457 (84%) and DCPS got 644 (16%).

Regardless, city officials said the numbers were a good sign for D.C. “One of the strongest indicators that our school system is improving is a steady increase in enrollment numbers-an increase I’m proud to see we have once again achieved This marks the largest enrollment increase in the District’s public schools in 45 years," said Mayor Vince Gray in a press release.
So the record high enrollment came from students who were explicitly choosing not to be taught by city employees. I'm happy about that. Anyone who cares about education ought to be fine with it. I'm just surprised to see the mayor bragging about it.

No where in this story is there any indication of how many more school-aged children lived in the district this year compared to last year. Is a five percent enrollment increase exactly what one would expect from baseline demographics, or is it an indication that DC schools are more attractive than they were last year?

25 October 2012

You know Paul Krugman fantasizes about being Hari Seldon

Bng Bng | Cory Doctorow | Paul Krugman's introduction to the Folio Society's beautiful edition of the Foundation trilogy

The Folio Society has released a beautiful, illustrated slipcased edition of Asimov's Foundation trilogy, illustrated by Alex Wells, with a special introduction by Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman. The introduction (PDF) is a great and insightful piece into one of the ways that science fiction inspires and shapes the lives of its readers
Why am I not surprised that the most technocratic, dirigist novels I've ever read are being intro'ed by Krugman?

I have only skimmed The Krug's intro (pdf available here), but this sentence jumped out at me:
Now that I’m a social scientist myself, or at least as close to being one as we manage to get in these early days of human civilization, what do I think of Asimov’s belief that we can, indeed, conquer that final frontier—that we can develop a social science that gives its acolytes a unique ability to understand and perhaps shape human destiny?
Wow. Krugman answers his question with several paragraphs that boil down to "yeah, maybe, if those sociologists and anthropologists ever become as awesome as us economists."

No other words should follow this than "no, we can not do this nor will we ever be able to." Anything else is monumentally, irresponsibly arrogant.

Indeed, irresponsible. The Foundation should be packaged with Friedrich Hayek's Nobel lecture "The Pretence of Knowledge."
The conflict between what in its present mood the public expects science to achieve in satisfaction of popular hopes and what is really in its power is a serious matter because, even if the true scientists should all recognize the limitations of what they can do in the field of human affairs, so long as the public expects more there will always be some who will pretend, and perhaps honestly believe, that they can do more to meet popular demands than is really in their power. It is often difficult enough for the expert, and certainly in many instances impossible for the layman, to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims advanced in the name of science. [...]

To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm. [...]

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men's fatal striving to control society — a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.
This Hayek quote ought to have been front-and-center in Krugman's mind when answering his question about "understanding and perhaps shaping human destiny."
The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.
— F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988), p. 76
Or if you prefer a more lyrical formulation:
the lesson I’ve learned? It’s how little we know,
the world is complex, not some circular flow
the economy’s not a class you can master in college
to think otherwise is the pretense of knowledge

PS Well's illustrations do look pretty awesome. I'd love to see him working in comics.

PPS From Krug's intro:
Now, there isn’t, to my knowledge, a secret cabal of economists with a thousand-year plan to save our current civilization (but then I wouldn’t tell you if there was, would I?).
Note the implicit assumption: if there was such a
cabal of experts, Krugman would be on the inside.

24 October 2012

The DC Council knows what you should drink better than you do

Via Reason 24-7 News:
WTOP News | Mark Segraves | Some on D.C. Council favor restricting sugary drinks

Several members of the D.C. Council have come out in favor of restricting the sizes of sugary sodas sold in the District - a ban similar to one in New York City.

At a recent debate between candidates for the at-large council seats, current Councilmembers Michael Brown and Vincent Orange said without hesitation they would vote to ban the sale of large drinks.

That news was music to Councilmember Mary Cheh's ears.

"I'm very excited by that," said Cheh (D-Ward 3), who fell one vote short of passing a tax on sodas and other sugary drinks.
Whatever happened to "laboratories of democracy"? Is it too much to ask for legislatures (especially the self-proclaimed "reality-based" and "pro-science" ones) to wait for the results of a reform tried in one jurisdiction before implementing it in their own?

It's clear the real purpose behind bans of large soft drinks or taxes on plastic bags is not to lower obesity rates or cut down on litter. If it were then lawmakers would insist on waiting to find out if such interventions actually work. But that's not the point. The point is to be seen Doing Something. These laws are not reforms designed to have positive effects, they're ways for lawmakers to engage in self expression. Once your peers in some other state or city have taken the Anti-Obesity Stance via restricting soda sizes, every day you wait makes you look Pro-Obesity. The actual effect on obesity is irrelevant; the appearance of fighting obesity is point. Why wait for results when you can start wrapping yourself in the Anti-Obesity mantle right now?
"I think there probably are some good health reasons to support something like [banning large sodas]," [DC Mayor Vincent] Gray said. "We'll be happy to look at it, we haven't taken a position on that one way or another."
Why do I get the impressions the thing he means he'll look at is his political capital for doing this rather than looking at the effect of the intervention has had on NY citizen's health?
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson agreed it's an idea worthy of consideration.

"The issue of nutrition is of critical importance to public health. We need to look at different strategies so people understand what the effect is of the large volume of soft drinks they're drinking," Mendelson said.
Whoah. Hold your horses, Phil. You've just skipped from "informing consumers" to "restricting consumer choice." You know those aren't the same thing, right? You're just counting on use not paying attention to your inference chain, aren't you? Nice try.
Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) also was open to considering a ban.

"I am open to anything that will help young people be healthier," Wells said.
Digression: why in the name of Jan Tschichold do newspapers, etc. make passages like this two paragraphs? We're all capable of reading two consecutive sentences about the same topic or idea without a paragraph break intervening.

Okay, back to Tommy Wells. Warning bells go off in my head whenever a politician takes something that applies to people generally and, without explanation, shifts it to being about children. Ditto discussing something that applies to businesses generally but specifically invoking "small business" or something which affects people generally but described in terms of "families."

Whether this would actually "help (young) people be healthier" is entirely unknown. What it would do is prevent them from engaging in one very specific non-healthy behavior. Those are not the same thing.
Despite the criticism she knows she'll take from some colleagues and residents, Cheh isn't shying away from legislating some food choices.

"I know 'nanny state' and all that, but it's appropriate for government to intervene at times to make sure that the choices that are presented are healthy for us," she says.
Wow. That's a ballsy dismissal. Cheh didn't both to offer an argument, she just mde an assertion. What if we did this routinely? "Yeah, yeah, 'theocracy' sure, but it's appropriate for government to intervene at times to save people's immortal souls from damnation." "Aww shucks, I know, 'communism' or whatever, but it's appropriate for government to own the means of production."

You can't just nakedly assert that the proper scope of government is to save people from themselves. That's not an axiom you can simply pluck off the shelf. I do not think Cheh would like where I could go if we allowed everything that could follow from "government can force us to be healthier."

I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air – that progress made under the shadow of the policeman’s club is false progress, and of no permanent value. I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave.
— H.L. Mencken, "Why Liberty?”, in the Chicago Tribune (30 January 1927)

Under the pressure of fanaticism, and with the mob complacently applauding the show, democratic law tends more and more to be grounded upon the maxim that every citizen is, by nature, a traitor, a libertine, and a scoundrel. In order to dissuade him from his evil-doing the police power is extended until it surpasses anything ever heard of in the oriental monarchies of antiquity.
— H.K. Mencken, "Notes on Democracy" (1926)

If I was an eccentric billionaire...

If I was a benevolent and wise billionaire I would donate money to advocate for increased immigration and liberalization of agricultural markets.

But that's boring.

There would definitely be some ducats handed out for AI research. But that's still not worth writing a post about.

If I was an eccentric and slightly misguided billionaire who didn't care at all about philanthropic ROI, I would donate materials to public libraries. (Note: not money. I wouldn't trust them not to waste it on more administrative staff or other government sector bullshit. I would pay for materials acquisition or facilities maintenance directly.) But there would be an important stipulation: they have to make their catalogs accessible to a public API so people can write their own applications to access the catalogs.

Hopefully from this post you can judge on a scale of 0-10 how pleased I am with the quality of the library catalogs I interact with.

(The answer is zero.)

23 October 2012

3D Printing, Technology and State Repression

Rhizome | Giampaolo Bianconi | 3D Printed Weaponry

Meet Defense Distributed, home of the Wiki Weapon — "A collaborative project to create freely available plans for 3D printable guns." They've just been granted $20,000 in funding from an angel investor. As outlined in an explanatory Youtube video, Defense Dist.'s goal is not to arm the populace, but to liberate information. As explained in their video, if the instructions for 3D printed gun are seeded online, then "any bullet becomes a weapon."

It's good that open-source information is Defense Distributed's major goal, because Stratsys, the company that makes the 3D printer used by Defense Dist., seized the printer from Cody Wilson.
In the wake of this I've seen all sorts of speculation about how DRM and assorted regulations will inevitably be introduced to control the digital files home users could use to "print" guns. While I have no doubt the State will try this, I think (1) the cat is out of the bag and (2) everyone is thinking too narrowly here. Even if the State could tell which files lead to firearms and which don't, firearms are just the tip of the iceberg.

I had a friend in high school who produced a working, multi-stage Gauss gun using a couple of 9V batteries and the capacitors from some disposable cameras. I'd much rather have a coilgun pointed at me than a Beretta, but anything that could put a nail through plywood at 15 feet is not something I want to be on the business end of. Imagine what he (or anyone following his instructions) could do with a 3d printer and a Arduino board.

Put weapons aside for a minute.
Reason: Hit & Run | JD Tucille | Annoying Traffic Cameras Are No Match for Subversive Technology

I admit to a weakness for anything that, intentionally or otherwise, sticks it to the man. And I really don't like automated traffic cameras that issue tickets to alleged speeders and red-light runners who are often driving at perfectly safe speeds and cornering on too-closely timed yellow lights. The damned things aren't just annoying, they're often optimized less for traffic safety than for generating revenue. So I'm tickled by a newly developed license plate frame that renders traffic cameras impotent.

From Wired:
Jonathan Dandrow has developed noPhoto, which renders the pix snapped by those revenue-generating robo-cams useless. The technology behind noPhoto is fairly simple. At the top of the gadget, which doubles as a license plate frame, there’s an optical flash trigger that detects the flash of the traffic-light camera. That trigger sets off one or both xenon flashes in the sides of the noPhoto, so when the traffic-light camera opens its shutter, there’s too much light and the picture of your license plate is overexposed. Big Brother can’t read your plate.
I'm sure this will be illegal soon enough, but how are you going to keep the lid on this when anyone could put one together with a 3d printer and a Raspberry Pi?


Police are increasingly using drones for domestic operations. What happens when citizens start using them to keep an eye on the State? Perhaps to provide their own recon during protests, or keep their own aerial records of potential police misconduct? Local authorities or even the FAA could pass all the rules against them they want, but if you can order the motors off of eBay, download the software off of The Pirate Bay and print up a quadrotor airframe in a garage, how are they going to be enforced?

The State will always be playing catch-up with technology. That might not have mattered a thousand or  a hundred or even fifty years ago, when technology was moving at an inter-generational pace. Now it matters. A lot.

If I had to advise the State on keeping this from being a big problem, I would give them one simple tip: don't make smart people angry.

PS Fun science/engineering project for an rebellious child: build a quadrotor that can be remotely controlled and is capable of using a can of spray paint.

Ostensible use: painting over graffiti in hard-to-reach places.
Anarchic use: painting over the lenses of speed cameras.

Health care: You didn't pay for it

The Economist: Free Exchange | A.C.S. | Health care: You didn't pay for it

I recently came across a political ad which featured an elderly man telling politicians to stay away from his Medicare. After all, he paid for it, the ad suggested. That struck me as interesting.

Medicare's scope has expanded quite a bit since today's older Americans started paying taxes. Part D, which covers drug benefits, was introduced just six years ago. It is partly funded by premiums paid by current retirees, but mostly through general revenues from the Treasury (from current and future tax-payers). So for much of his working life, the gentleman in the ad paid taxes toward a different, smaller programme. [...]

Now in a contractual sense retirees that have paid their premiums are obviously entitled to that ever-improving basket of goods. That does not mean that they have really paid for it. According to the Urban Institute an average-earning couple who retired in 2011 would have paid about $116,000 in Medicare taxes over their lifetimes, but can expect lifetime Medicare benefits of $357,000 net of premiums.
This post reminds me of something I thought off when I was reading The Emperor of All Maladies. Specifically the chapters about compassionate care programs and patients fighting with insurance companies/regulators/clinics to get into experimental trials.

"Health insurance" isn't actually insuring your health. It's pre-paying for a particular set of services.

I'm a little tired or hearing some version of "I paid my premiums for years then when I got sick the insurance company bailed on me." I'm sure this happens. Insurance companies aren't staffed by angels. (I think the problem is made worse by a combination of state-level restrictions on competition and tax rules that mean their real customers are actually your HR department, not you.) But I get the impression that the people that say this think of their health policy as an open-ended promise by the insurance company to do whatever it takes to make them healthy again or to die go broke trying.

Paying your health insurance premiums does not buy you health. It does not buy you limitless attempts to make you healthy. It buys you a particular set of services {X, Y, Z, ...} which you pay for in advance, discounted by the probability of you needing them. (Or since we're getting community-rating, the probability that anyone in the population will need them.) Do insurance companies lie and cheat to get out of providing X, Y and Z when they are supposed to? Yes. And it makes me angry. But if your policy doesn't cover experimental procedure W, then that's that. The fact that you need/want W when you get sick doesn't change the fact that you weren't paying for W before you got sick. You were paying for {X, Y, Z, ...}.

Let's get mad at insurance companies for the actual shenanigans they pull, not for providing us with things we hadn't contracted for.

PS And before anyone says it, yes, I realize enumerating X, Y & Z is very difficult. That's part of the problem. Even if we can't list the exact set of things which are being paid for I think it helps to think of health insurance as pre-purchasing a basket of services rather than paying for "health."

PPS I caught the end of a piece on the local news about pet insurance. One of their recommendations for how to make it more affordable was to purchase a "wellness care" insurance policy that covers only routine medical needs.

This is the opposite of insurance. It's bad enough that we force human health insurance policies to insulate us against shopping for totally foreseeable, manageable expenses like annual check-ups, but an "insurance" policy that exists solely for forseeable, manageable expenses is insane. We have to stop calling this stuff "insurance."

The English language... becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
— George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"

17 October 2012

Vote for me because I will do a better job of making your soup both hotter AND colder at the same time.

I didn't watch last night's debate (excuse me — "debate") because I have better things to do, like... ummm... anything in the world that isn't watching the "debate." (In reality I was learning how to fit Weibull distributions to some data I have. Joking aside, this was a more productive, more rewarding, and more fun use of my time.)

But I gather from some blog posts that both candidates accepted as a given that two things were both simultaneously desirable: lowering the price of fuel, and raising the price of tires.

WTF Voters?! Are really you so easily confused? How does this weak shit convince you to pull the lever for one of these imbeciles?

One of these days some candidate is going to hear another one of these bullshit questions and just snap. They can't all really be as dumb as they look. As craven, sure, but not as dumb. Sooner or later we're going to get someone up on that stage whose mind is just going to explode when he's asked to promise America for the millionth time that when elected everyone will get a magic pot of gold.

"No, you ignorant and rapacious dipshits, I refuse to pretend that it's a good idea to simultaneously raise and lower the cost of driving a car. I will not screw around with taxes that hurt 300 million of you to benefit a couple hundred people in Akron. I will not do this especially because the linchpin of my whole espoused tax philosophy is simplifying things so as not to play favorites.

"I will not be able to personally hire a single private sector worker. Period. I can get out of the way of the people who can, but I won't put some fabulously precise number on how many people will be employed just to lure you into thinking I have some kind of levers and knobs I can fiddle with to 'Create Jobs.'

"Also, be advised that me 'getting out of the way' will directly conflict with your desire to have me 'Do Something!' every time you get butthurt over some voluntary commercial transaction. If 'Do Something!' is what you want, that's fine, but there will be consequences.

"I will not be your Venture Capitalist in Chief. I will not bring back manufacturing or any other sector of the economy or type of production because you have the warm-and-fuzzies for the some mythical, half-remembered post-war boomtime. I don't care how much China or Germany or Pottsyl-goddamned-vania tax their citizens so their leaders can go long on some technology, I'm not doing that with my own money, and I'm sure as shit not doing it with yours.

"It will never be possible for everyone to live at someone else's expense. Not everyone will get a free college diploma and free kidney transplants and free Ortho-Cyclin and a free house and free god damned pony. Someone is paying for all that shit, and most of the time that someone is you, and I will not enable you sticking your head in the sand and pretending it all shows up thanks to some Fairy Godmother's bippity-boppity-booing. I will not promise you a free lunch, BECAUSE THEY DON'T F***ING EXIST."

And no one, not the moderator or the audience or his opponent, will have the faintest idea how to even begin to formulate a response.

Thus ends my fantasy.

11 October 2012


I see all sorts of policies proposed for alleviating traffic: congestion surcharges, street cars, dynamically-priced parking meters, "smart growth" zoning plans, privatized toll roads, etc.

I don't remember ever seeing anyone make a simpler proposal: make the driving exam harder. Much, much harder. Turn it from a test of basic competance to one of skill. Don't just ask people to demonstrate that they can drive, ask them to demonstrate how good they are at driving.

Not only would this reduce the number of drivers on the street, the remaining ones would be better, meaning we wouldn't have to be stuck in a tailback while someone makes a four and a half minute long 17-point turn to get out of their perpendicular parking space.

Perhaps you set a monthly quota for new licenses given out, and only the top k scorers on the exam get new licenses.

For people who are concerned about teenage drivers, this would also be a good alternative to simply raising the driving age to 18.

This whole plan might not help me as much in DC since it has such a high proportion of out-of-state drivers, but I think it could help in LA or London.

PS If I was the Most Righteous Padishah God-King of 'Meriker my first big infrastructure investment would not be infrastructure at all. It would be a series of virtual reality centers for continuing drivers ed. Everyone would have to log x violation-and-accident-free hours every y years in order to renew their license.

This would be one of the few ways my Sublime and Benevolent Regime would intrude in people's lives more than the current one. Yes, this law will cost you some hours, but when you drive poorly you're costing your fellows time, money and potential life and limb. If that's not a libertarian enough reason for state intervention I'm not sure what is.

(Of course this would be better yet if someone with the proper incentive, say, insurance companies, could do this without state intervention, and maybe in my fantasy of living in the Free Distributed Republic I'll add this wrinkle in.)

The Big Bird Thing

Ah yes, that "Romney Hates Big Bird Thing." I'm a week late, but here are some thoughts.

(0) What is going on here? Seriously, what does this mean?

Okay, now that we have that out of the way...

(1) WSJ Radio reported yesterday that Sesame Street has asked Obama to stop using Big Bird in his attack ads. The stated rationale is that they don't want to be dragged into the middle of this as it would be hard to explain to children what this partisan bickering is all about. Isn't it a lot more plausible that they're one of the (sadly few) groups in Washington who understand that they will need to exist no matter who is turning the wheel on the ship of state? Would you want your mascot to become known as a cheerleader for one faction knowing that soon enough the other faction will be in control?

Attention Red Team:

(2) PBS/NPR/CPB/NEA is the one set of things you consistently point to as a concrete example of what you would cut. Can you say "drop in the bucket"? Sure, an incremental improvement in spending is better than no improvement, but come on. Get serious.

(3) You've been threatening to cut the funding for PBS et al. for how many years now? I remember hearing about this back when I was only a couple of years out Big Bird's prime demographic myself. You all haven't had the political muscle/will to make it happen in a couple of decades and you're still trotting out this line. Shit or get off the pot, guys.

Attention Blue Team:

(4) Every argument you give for how valuable and irreplaceable PBS/NPR/etc. are only makes me more confident that they can and should be surviving without having to coerce dollars from people. You see that, right? If Sesame Street is really that mind-blowingly awesome, why do you need to forceable take my money to support it? 99% Invisible is 151-proof awesome, and they manage to get by entirely on voluntary transfers.

(5) I could go on and on about tax-payer funded media, but Trevor Burrus already did it so much better. Just go listen to this — Liberate Public Broadcasting: Defund It.

10 October 2012

Is resume-screening software really this dumb?

I could also ask, "Are the people using resume-screening software really this dumb?" I want to believe the answer to both is "no," but I don't see a lot of reason to think that.
CBS: Money Watch | Suzanne Lucas | How online job searches worsen the job crisis

If tens of thousands of people applied for one job, what are the odds that not a one would be qualified for the position? That's not a theoretical question.

Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, recently noted such a case after a company's resume-screening system concluded that none of the 29,000 applicants for an engineering job had the right qualifications.

Sadly, this does not surprise me one bit. With the current overflow of job-seekers and the ubiquity in corporate America of such resume software, companies often seek out the "perfect" job candidate. The sort of candidate who, given the nature of humanity, doesn't exist. As a result, people who need jobs can't find them, and hiring managers with multiple vacancies at their organizations cry in their pillows at night about the "talent shortage." [...]

Additionally, while resume screening can be helpful, the requirements shouldn't be so discriminating that a company isn't finding any qualified applicants. Are you hung up on one particular college degree? Five, but never four, years of experience? (And 10 years is just too much! You'll be bored!) Someone who can use software A and B, but reject candidates who are versed in C and D and could easily learn the former if given a $300 set of training CDs?
First of all, I completely believe that there are numerous companies out there getting thousands of online job applications and having none of them meet their screening criteria. I get that. Fine.

But if I was one of these companies that got 30k applications and rejected them all, only to complain about a "talent shortage," wouldn't I then re-run all those applications with slightly lower standards? Is there no partial matching in these systems? No way to say "find the candidate who has the most of these ten skills we're looking for" instead of "find someone with all these skills"? No way to see that no applicant has n years of experience and then cull the pile again looking for those with n-1 years? Have these companies not tried loosening the criteria until they find a few people to at least interview?

Are HR departments, and the vendors who supply these systems, really so dense? Again, I'm perfectly willing to believe they are, but — jesus wept! — how does this persist?

In the name of epistemic humility, let me make clear that I mean all these questions to be only semi-rhetorical. I am totally ready to believe that these systems already have these capabilities. (Despite not having seen any indication they do in the articles I've read about them.) If they really are as dumb as they are depicted then I smell a business opportunity.

09 October 2012

Diagnosis: Baumol

Washington Post | Steven Pearlstein | Why cheaper computers lead to higher tuition

No matter how innovative people were in coming up with new technology and new ways of organizing their work, Baumol and Bowen reasoned, it still would take a pianist the same 23 minutes to play a Mozart sonata, a barber 20 minutes to cut the hair of the average customer and a first-grade teacher 12 minutes to read her class "Green Eggs and Ham." Based on this observation, the duo predicted that the cost of education and health care inevitably would outstrip the price of almost everything else.
Baumol & Bowen are right, of course, that it still takes a barber 20 minutes to cut a head of hair. But I think they look at innovation too narrowly. We don't just need technology which will let the barber give faster haircuts. Such technology is unlikely.

But what about innovations that will allow him to take payments more efficiently, or lower the cost of cleaning or heating his establishment? Or technologies which manage the arrival of customers, allowing him to spend fewer minutes each day not producing haircuts and also allow customers to spend fewer minutes waiting for their cut? Holding the 20 minutes/head constant there is still much innovation to be had, even in an apparently innovation-averse field.

Innovation is not just new gadgets. Hair cut technology may be trivial, but looking at the broader environment for many of these apparently-immune-to-innovation fields changes the picture a lot.
The basic facts are well-known to most Americans: Over the past 30 years, overall prices have risen 110 percent, median income has risen 150 percent, medical costs have risen 250 percent and college tuitions have risen 440 percent.
Presumably a doctor can do the same number of nose jobs or face lifts per hour as thirty years ago, and yet the costs of voluntary cosmetic surgery has not risen 250%.
From a political perspective, Baumol’s most important insight is that government spending must grow as a percentage of the economy. Most of the services that are provided by, or financed by government — health care, education, criminal justice, national security, diplomacy, industry regulation, scientific research — are those that suffer most acutely from Baumol’s disease. That’s not because of incompetence or self-interest on the part of public servants or even the socialist instincts of Democratic politicians — it’s in the nature of those activities.
If this is true and the government sector is destined to grow no matter what, then it becomes even more important to fight against incompetence, self-interested employees, socialism, etc.

Character quiz: your doctor prescribes you some necessary medicines which will have a side effect of causing you to gain some weight. Do you:

(a) pay extra attention to your diet and increase your exercise, so as to minimize the weight gain, or

(b) conclude that the weight gain is happening regardless, so you might as well have those extra donuts and slices of pizza?

I think a depressing number of people will choose (b) because an excuse to be less responsible is more appealing than a reason to be more responsible.

As an example, a depressing number of the — high-acheiving, high SES, highly motivated — parents of Mrs SB7's students see their children's diagnosis of dyslexia, etc. as an excuse for their children to do less work, rather than a reason to double down and work harder.

Baumol's cost disease will make many government activities relatively more expensive. So when you find some part of government activity to which Baumol doesn't apply — I'm looking at you, USPS — what are we doing? Taking advantage of the situation to increase productivity? Or spending billions on new capital equipment to allegedly improve productivity while still retaining the same workforce which is accomplishing a decreasing amount of work?
To demand, as Republicans do, that government be held to some historical average as a percentage of the economy stubbornly ignores this reality. It would condemn the country, as John Kenneth Galbraith once put it, to a future of “private affluence and public squalor.”
Again, let's take Pearlstein's analysis as a given. Even in this case of inevitably growing government sector spending, I think it becomes more important to demand spending growth be constrained.

Perhaps this is the Catholic lurking in me, but you don't often get acceptable behavior by demanding acceptable behavior. You have to demand perfection, knowing that people will fall short and hoping that in doing so they will land in an acceptable position.

Even if the fight against state growth is a fight we are destined to lose it is still an important fight to have, if only to try and put the breaks on things.

It's all good and well to consider Baumol's disease as applied to the government sector in some theoretical world. It's good stuff to know, really. But we're not in that world. I don't see any indication that that's the primary cause of increasing spending now, or even a significant one. Baumol hasn't caused my local school district's budget to double in a decade. Baumol hasn't caused the number of secondary or tertiary school administrators to explode. Baumol hasn't lost the USPS billions. Baumol hasn't underfunded government unions by trillions. Until we get the Public Choice factors underlying those phenomena under control, the State's Baumol diagnosis is a triviality.

Via Matt Yglesias, who comments:
This is a key reason why I think people need to start paying much more attention to questions of tax efficiency. It's overwhelmingly likely that we're going to want the public sector to be a larger share of the economy in 10, 20, 30, 40 years than it is today and we need to find relatively growth-friendly ways to make that happen.
It seems like the more a person wants the government to do, the less concerned with government efficiency they seem to be. It should be the other way around.

PS Tyler Cowen:
If government outputs increasingly cost more to produce, should not a substitution effect kick in and lead us to prefer, at the margin, a higher proportion of productivity enhancement-enjoying private sector outputs? [...] This implication often receives less stress from cost-disease advocates and you will note that it militates in favor of substituting away from government outputs.

08 October 2012

Solar Priorities

Bng Bng | Cory Doctorow | Tool to calculate benefit of rooftop solar in Cambridge, Mass

Gmoke sez, "The city of Cambridge, Mass has teamed up with MIT to produce a Solar Tool that allows people to type an address into a website and get a detailed account of that roof's solar electric potential. This is probably the most detailed service now existing and every building in Cambridge is covered. You can learn how much of your roof sees enough sun for a PV installation, how large that PV installation can be, how much it will cost, how high your Federal and state tax rebate will be, how much electricity it will produce in a year, and how much carbon it will displace."
Is it a coincidence that tax rebates take precedence to electricity production is this feature list? I would hope it is, but I'm not so sure.

I recently found out one of my cousins is in the solar panel sales business. Five or six times in our conversation about his work he repeated to me something along the lines of "our customers would be stupid not to buy solar panels! Once you factor in tax credits and loan guarantees and favorable depreciation rates and blah blah blah they can get a million dollar installation for fifty or sixty grand. It's like free money!" This was the entirety of his reasoning about why companies should buy.

He did seem to have even considered whether the relative $/kWh between bought and self-generated power made the investment worthwhile. ("No honey, I will never wear these shoes, and no I do not need them, but they're 90% off! I would be stupid not to buy them with a deal that good!")

He also did not seem to understand when I told him it's not "free money," it's "other people's money" and those other people are us. Cue Upton Sinclair:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

Apollo Criticism #(n+1)

The Thinker | Jeffrey Ellis | Apollo did more for poverty than the 'War on Poverty' did

In fact, it could be argued that Apollo was a failure in one significant way. By focusing on getting to the moon by a certain deadline rather than setting the goal of developing an affordable, easy to operate, and sustainable capability to get there and back, the Apollo program created a manned spaceflight infrastructure and culture that could only do things in a spare-no-expense, non-sustainable manner. So in order to determine the true costs of Apollo, one would need to also factor in the unknown (but likely large) cost that this culture has had on subsequent manned spaceflight efforts.
I'm always interested in other geeks criticism's of the Apollo Program, because sometimes I feel like I'm going to have my Geek Card revoked for daring to criticize American manned space-flight or question the wisdom of NASA spending.

This is also criticism I don't remember having expressed before, mostly because I could never have put it so succinctly.

04 October 2012

PS "Soft Skills"

Regarding that last post, these people's definition of "soft skills" seemed to consist entirely of "write well, and don't be a dick."

I think I've got both of those down. Well, as long as you change the last one to "don't be a dick accidentally."

"Writes large correct programs"

A couple of weeks ago I went to an event UMD's b-school organized for students who are interested in consulting. The first session was dedicated to listening to advice from UMD alumni who are current consultants, and one of the common recommendations was to work on your "soft skills."

A couple of people on the panel were discussing this and I was entirely onboard. That is I was onboard  until one of them said "You can always learn technical skills later. There will always be time for you to learn to program later on in your career."

This guy went from making perfect sense to off-the-res crazy in two sentences.

I was the only CS student in the auditorium, and AFAIK the only STEM student of any kind. I've been coding for sixteen (plus?) years, and I'd still only rate myself as "pretty good." This guy must have a very, very different definition of "learn to program" than I do if he can dismissively assert that there will always be time to learn such a difficult mental skill set later.

Enter John D Cook:
The conversation turned to what it means to say someone can program. My proposed definition was someone who could write large programs that have a high probability of being correct. [...]

People who are not professional programmers often don’t realize how the difficulty of writing software increases with size. Many people who wrote 100-line programs in college imagine that they could write 1,000-line programs if they worked at it 10 times longer. Or even worse, they imagine they could write 10,000-line programs if they worked 100 times longer. It doesn’t work that way. Most people who can write a 100-line program could never finish a 10,000-line program no matter how long they worked on it. They would simply drown in complexity. [...]

If you ask an amateur whether their program is correct, they are likely to be offended. They’ll tell you that of course it’s correct because they were careful when they wrote it. If you ask a professional the same question, they may tell you that their program probably has bugs, but then go on to tell you how they’ve tested it and what logging facilities are in place to help debug errors when they show up later.
Maybe that consultant's advice was okay. Maybe what he meant by "you can always learn to program later" is actually "you can always learn to write buggy 100-line programs that are just good enough later." And maybe buggy 100-line programs that are just good enough are, in fact, just good enough for what he needs to do. But do NOT tell me that any business major can simply "learn to program" later in their career unless you're explicit about having such a perverse view of what "learn to program" means.

03 October 2012

Is Ally Bank weird? Or is a "consumer protection act" hurting me as a consumer?

Ally Bank Online Savings Account FAQ

What is the difference between an Online Savings Account and Money Market Account?

The main difference is in how you access your money. A money market account gives you more access because you can be issued a Visa Debit Card and checks for these accounts. An online savings account does not support the use of checks and does not come with a debit card.
This seems like an odd answer. I know a few things about personal finance, and it would never occur to me to list this as the first (and only!) distinction between a bank's savings and money market accounts.

This also seems like a very odd policy. Why wouldn't Ally want me to have a checkbook for my savings account?

Is this one of those eminently-foreseeable-but-"unintended" consequences of Dodd-Frank?

I don't value business experience because it's special; I value it because it's mundane

Reuters | Felix Salmon | Victimized billionaires
“You know, the largest and greatest country in the free world put a forty-seven-year-old guy that never worked a day in his life and made him in charge of the free world,” Cooperman said.
[...] Chrystia asks Cooperman about his “never worked a day in his life” comment. It turns out that by “working”, Cooper means that Obama “never made payroll. He’s never built anything”. In other words, this is very much the Romney version of the great-men-of-history worldview: one where a handful of visionary builders use their skills to create jobs for the masses and wealth for themselves.
This is exactly backwards. I disrespect Obama for never having worked in the private sector not because I idolize a handful of "great men," but because it's something that the vast majority of people have done while he has not.

I want a president who has worked to satisfy customer demand through voluntary exchange. I don't want that because it's a rare and noble thing that only illustrious titans of industry have accomplished, but specifically because it is so common and fundamental to our society.

(Via Megan McArdle)

PS Salmon misinterprets at least three other things in this one blog post. I lack the patience to deal with such error density. It's a train wreck of oversimplification and overconfidence.