March 2010 Archives

15 years later, I repeat my suggestion for Chinese training and labor mobility

When I met my soon-to-be-wife in 1994, I was studying economics, with a focus on labor economics. I quickly became fascinated by her country’s economy and language and hit on a topic I was sure would be of great importance to China: China’s schools were turning out few educated workers, and the education the elite received was of mediocre quality. So, I intended to ask in my dissertation, how could China pay for employee training while enabling trained workers to move from company to company?

I discovered many firms in China were training employees but locking them into multi-year contracts as a requirement to receive training. (This even happened to my sister-in-law.) This was indenture. Without indenture, firms won’t provide expensive worker training because trained workers will leave for other firms that will pay them higher wages for their new skills (“poaching”). You can “solve” the problem of worker training through indenture, but this creates a separate problem: locking workers into a particular firm creates a seriously rigid, inefficient labor market. If workers are trapped in firms, they can’t go to whichever firm would make best use of their skills and knowledge (and pay them the most).

Silicon Valley, for example, has a ruthlessly competitive labor market. Skilled techies move to the Valley not to work for a particular firm but because they know they can always move to a more promising firm if their current employer’s prospects dim. And promising startups move to the Valley because they know they’ll be able to attract workers with the skills they need. Indenture prevents such worker mobility, damaging promising startups and skilled workers. For this reason, I predicted a bleak future for China’s ambitions to become a tech superpower if it couldn’t encourage worker training without killing labor mobility. (I argued labor market rigidity was much less damaging in manufacturing, where skills and training are far more firm-specific.)

According to MIT business school professor Yasheng Huang — an expert on China’s economy — China still hasn’t solved the problem that grabbed my attention fifteen years ago. College students and workers aren’t learning/developing the valuable problem-solving skills employers need:

In my conversations with Chinese managers and entrepreneurs, they constantly complain about a shortage of people with the right set of skills, capabilities and inclinations. China is so short of the right human capital, and books with titles like, “War for Talent,” are best sellers in China.

The Chinese educational system is terrible at producing workers with innovative skills for Chinese economy. It produces people who memorize existing facts rather than discovering new facts; who fish for existing solutions rather than coming up with new ones; who execute orders rather than inventing new ways of doing things. In other words they do not solve problems for their employers.

Fifteen years ago, my suggested solution to the Training/Poaching problem was to document actual training costs and then amortize them so that any firm that hired a worker who received $10,000 training from Firm A at Time 0 would pay the training firm $8,000 if poaching that worker at Time 1, $6,000 if poaching them at Time 2, $4,000 if poaching them at Time 3, $2,000 if poaching them at Time 4, and nothing if hiring them at Time 5 or later. This scheme incents firms to provide valuable training while permitting economically efficient labor mobility. I suggested the scheme could be enforced through government-controlled pension systems.

I still think my scheme — which I don’t think even made it into my dissertation because my advisor told me to cut several chapters, including this one, I believe — is a good idea.

Posted by James on Mar 08, 2010

50% of Republicans unglued from reality; 24% totally insane

These poll results are astonishing:

  • 67 percent of Republicans (and 40 percent of Americans overall) believe that Obama is a socialist.
  • 57 percent of Republicans (32 percent overall) believe that Obama is a Muslim
  • 45 percent of Republicans (25 percent overall) agree with the Birthers in their belief that Obama was “not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president”
  • 38 percent of Republicans (20 percent overall) say that Obama is “doing many of the things that Hitler did”
  • Scariest of all, 24 percent of Republicans (14 percent overall) say that Obama “may be the Antichrist.”

On the domestic political spectrum, Obama is — in my mind — to Richard Nixon’s right, so the idea he’s a socialist is absurd. We liberals are beyond disappointed in the president. If giving failed banks trillions of dollars makes you a socialist, then he is. But Obama has helped the upper classes far more than the lower and middle classes to date, so he’s no socialist. And this is the only question above that is even tangentially, remotely, conceivably true.

The Antichrist and Hitler beliefs are transparently false. It’s literally shocking anyone would believe such things (let alone confess such beliefs to pollsters). And the facts regarding Obama’s birth seem quite clear. And Obama is clearly not a Muslim.

Our corporate media (esp. Fox News) is sick and has poisoned the minds of tens of millions of Americans with vicious, vile lies while simultaneously spurring them to aggression, even violence, against even moderates, like President Obama. I fear the consequences.

Posted by James on Mar 24, 2010

Are human CO2 emissions starving baby sea mammals?

Yesterday, I read “Mysterious whale die-off is largest on record”:

Observers have found 308 dead whales in the waters around Peninsula Valdes along Argentina’s Patagonian Coast since 2005. Almost 90 percent of those deaths represent whale calves less than 3 months old, and the calf deaths make up almost a third of all right whale calf sightings in the last five years….

Only a few clues have emerged so far regarding the cause of death, such as unusually thin layers of blubber on some dead calves. Whale calves typically have lower chances of survival during their first year of life, but the high rate of death at Peninsula Valdes is unique.

This morning, I read “Sea Lion Pups Starving Along California Shoreline”:

Starved and emaciated, sea lion pups are beaching themselves along the Pacific Coast.

A strong El Nino tropical weather pattern is to blame. Unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the western Pacific are moving east, forcing the sea lions' natural food sources — squid, hake, herring and anchovies — to seek out cooler waters.

Adult sea lions have enough fat stored up to survive the resulting food shortage, but their pups aren’t so well-equipped.

Could we PLEASE take emergency action on global warming?!?!?! Too many people are refusing to look at the overwhelming evidence (and are instead focusing on the occasional sloppy scientist or anecdote that supposedly refutes global warming). And too many more think, “So what if the average temperature rises five or ten degrees in my lifetime? That might even be nice.”

Even small changes are already having dramatic negative impacts on life globally. And we’re only just beginning to witness what will prove to be excruciating, wrenching environmental disasters later in our lifetimes and our children’s and grandchildren’s. So far, climate change has been relatively slow, and ecosystems can re-equilibrate in response to slow change. But change is accelerating as we lose buffers (like glaciers and cold oceans that have soaked up a lot of excess heat) and begin to wake up sleeping giants (like massive quantities of methane gas trapped in Siberia). And ecosystems will collapse in the face of rapid climate change.

The large-scale death of sea mammal babies is a(nother) global fire alarm. Will we respond?

Posted by James on Mar 30, 2010

Can we please regain our sense of community?

Bob Herbert unloads on The Republican Party for savaging America’s sense of community and mutual concern:

For decades the G.O.P. has been the party of fear, ignorance and divisiveness. All you have to do is look around to see what it has done to the country. The greatest economic inequality since the Gilded Age was followed by a near-total collapse of the overall economy. As a country, we have a monumental mess on our hands and still the Republicans have nothing to offer in the way of a remedy except more tax cuts for the rich…

The G.O.P. poisons the political atmosphere and then has the gall to complain about an absence of bipartisanship.

The toxic clouds that are the inevitable result of the fear and the bitter conflicts so relentlessly stoked by the Republican Party — think blacks against whites, gays versus straights, and a whole range of folks against immigrants — tend to obscure the tremendous damage that the party’s policies have inflicted on the country.

Herbert offers many examples, including the following. I was beyond angry as I watched this video:

A group of lowlifes at a Tea Party rally in Columbus, Ohio, last week taunted and humiliated a man who was sitting on the ground with a sign that said he had Parkinson’s disease. The disgusting behavior was captured on a widely circulated videotape. One of the Tea Party protesters leaned over the man and sneered: “If you’re looking for a handout, you’re in the wrong end of town.”

Another threw money at the man, first one bill and then another, and said contemptuously, “I’ll pay for this guy. Here you go. Start a pot.”

If a healthy-bodied adult begs you on the street for money, I can understand why some might scream “hell, no!” It’s selfish and rude and arrogant, but it’s an intellectually honest response for a free-marketeering true believer… though less so with unemployment running 10% (more realistically 20%, when you add in people who’ve dropped out of the work force or can find only part-time, low-wage work). But to spew vile at a man sickened by a disease like Parkinson’s for exercising his constitutional right to express his opinion that America needs a national healthcare plan is inhuman. And this was a crowd of people, not just one jerk, screaming at a sick man sitting quietly on the ground. And it’s standard operating procedure for followers of Rush Limbaugh, who himself mocked Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease.

It’s heartbreaking to watch my fellow Americans attacking other Americans for being sick and advocating better healthcare for all Americans.

Posted by James on Mar 23, 2010

China, becoming a giant desert, harms itself by opposing global warming agreements

Today’s news offers yet another example of how China harmed its own interests by killing Copenhagen:

China’s capital city was shrouded in a cloud or orange dust from a massive sandstorm that affected an area of 312,000 square miles. Residents and visitors to Beijing were forced to wear masks and glasses in an attempt to keep the dust at bay.

The nation’s weather forecasting service gave the air quality rating of ‘5’ – its worst possible rating. The service was urging residents to stay inside and avoid the unhealthy air.

Flights at Beijing’s international airport were delayed and visitors to Tiananmen Square and other popular locations were greeted with orange skies and obscured landmarks.

The massive storm which originated hundreds of miles away struck after midnight and was carried by winds reaching 60mph. The sandstorm, somewhat common in Beijing, is expected to last until Monday…

…Experts have blamed the storms on deforestation and urbanization and have resulted in a marked increase in the number of sandstorms. One storm in 2006 deposited an estimated 300,000 tons of sand on Beijing.

The expansion of deserts in the nation are considered a grave risk as deserts now encompass one third of the land area.

This is a rapidly intensifying problem for China:

The Chinese Academy of Sciences has estimated that the number of sandstorms has jumped six-fold in the past 50 years to two dozen a year.

China, do you really want more deserts?

Posted by James on Mar 21, 2010

Chinese Internet mobs: Red Guard 2.0

In an interesting article on how Chinese Internet users band together into quixotic mobs to identify and punish people whose behavior has angered them, I found insightful the political analysis of fellow Harvard ‘91 graduate Rebecca MacKinnon:

Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, argues that China’s central government may actually be happy about searches that focus on localized corruption. “The idea that you manage the local bureaucracy by sicking the masses on them is actually not a democratic tradition but a Maoist tradition,” she told me. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao encouraged citizens to rise up against local officials who were bourgeois or corrupt, and human-flesh searches have been tagged by some as Red Guard 2.0. It’s easy to denounce the tyranny of the online masses when you live in a country that has strong rule of law and institutions that address public corruption, but in China the human-flesh search engine is one of the only ways that ordinary citizens can try to go after corrupt local officials. Cases like the Lin Jiaxiang search, as imperfect as their outcomes may be, are examples of the human-flesh search as a potential mechanism for checking government excess.

The human-flesh search engine can also serve as a safety valve in a society with ever mounting pressures on the government. “You can’t stop the anger, can’t make everyone shut up, can’t stop the Internet, so you try and channel it as best you can. You try and manage it, kind of like a waterworks hydroelectric project,” MacKinnon explained. “It’s a great way to divert the qi, the anger, to places where it’s the least damaging to the central government’s legitimacy.”

Posted by James on Mar 04, 2010

Corporate networks highly vulnerable

Security firm iSec Partners' summary report on the “Aurora” attacks and ways to defend against them says defending corporate networks will be extremely difficult and expensive:

  • Attackers are ignoring the front door. Despite the focus of the security industry and enterprise security teams on production networks and applications, attackers have learned that “back door” attacks against end users are much more effective at gaining access to major corporations. It is generally much harder to secure internal corporate than production networks…
  • Current Anti-Virus solutions are not working. All of the victims we have worked with had already deployed enterprise-wide anti-virus solutions, none of which prevented the initial attacks or the escalation of privilege within the network. Anti-virus tests are mostly rule-based, and the majority of heuristic detection mechanisms can be easily bypassed if an attacker is customizing his malware for that product…
  • Patching sometimes is not enough. The vulnerabilities exploited during this attack were 0-days, meaning no patch or mitigation directions were available to correct these flaws. …[A]dvanced attackers will often be able to find new flaws in complicated end-user products like web browsers, office suites and document readers.
  • …[S]mall to medium sized companies now join the ranks of major defense contractors, utilities and major software vendors as potential victims of extremely advanced attackers. This is concerning for many reasons, not the least of which is that even most Fortune-500 companies will not be able to assemble security teams with the diversity of skills necessary to respond to this type of incident. It is extremely unlikely that SMBs will be able to properly prepare for these threats alone.

Posted by James on Mar 02, 2010

Court says 50,000 volts for not signing speeding ticket NOT "excessive force"!

This is roughly the 50th outrageous case to come to my attention:

A federal appeals court says three Seattle police officers did not employ excessive force when they repeatedly tasered a visibly pregnant woman for refusing to sign a speeding ticket….

“Refusing to sign a speeding ticket was at the time a nonarrestable misdemeanor; now, in Washington, it is not even that. Brooks had no weapons and had not harmed or threatened to harm a soul,” Berzon wrote. “Although she had told the officers she was seven months pregnant, they proceeded to use a Taser on her, not once but three times, causing her to scream with pain and leaving burn marks and permanent scars.”

The majority noted that the M26 Taser was set in “stun mode” and did not cause as much pain as when set on “dart mode.” The majority noted that the circuit’s recent and leading decision on the issue concerned excessive force in the context of a Taser being set on Dart mode, which causes “neuro-muscular incapacitation.”

…Stun mode, the court noted, didn’t rise to the level of excessive force because it imposes “temporary, localized pain only.”

…a verbal spat with the police resulted in the woman receiving three, 50,000-volt shocks, first to her thigh, then shoulder and neck while she was in her vehicle. An officer was holding Brooks’ arm behind Brooks’ back while she was being shocked.

Brooks gave the officer her driver’s license, but Brooks refused to sign the ticket — believing it was akin to signing a confession.

There must be thousands of similar cases nationwide. Obviously, many police can’t be trusted with tasers.

Police Taser abuse must stop! Let’s start by giving every judge in America who agrees with this decision a taste of 50,000 volts of “temporary, localized pain.”

Posted by James on Mar 30, 2010

Court upholds inexcusable violation of church/state separation

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday, on a 2-1 vote, that “The Pledge [of Allegiance containing the words ‘under God’] is constitutional… [because it] serves to unite our vast nation through the proud recitation of some of the ideals upon which our Republic was founded.”

Judge Carlos Bea’s claim is a baldface lie. Many Europeans fled to America for religious freedom. By writing an explicit ban on government’s right to legislate religion (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) into our Constitution, our Founding Fathers intended everyone to be free to worship whatever gods or God they wished or not to worship at all. Religion is religion, and governance is governance. They would be shocked to learn that a 21st Century appeals court has ruled that “one nation under God” in no way violates their Bill of Rights.

Our Founding Fathers did everything in their power to ban government control or imposition of religion. The words “under God” were tacked onto the Pledge in the 1950s during witch hunts aimed at “godless communists.” Injecting religion into a patriotic pledge blatantly violates the separation of church and state, one of the true cornerstone “ideals upon which our Republic was founded.”

The original Pledge of Allegiance, written by a socialist in 1892, made no mention of “under God,” and that’s how our Founding Fathers would have wanted it:

[T]he founders opposed the institutionalization of religion. They kept the Constitution free of references to God. The document mentions religion only to guarantee that godly belief would never be used as a qualification for holding office—a departure from many existing state constitutions. That the founders made erecting a church-state wall their first priority when they added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution reveals the importance they placed on maintaining what Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore have called a “godless Constitution.” When Benjamin Franklin proposed during the Constitutional Convention that the founders begin each day of their labors with a prayer to God for guidance, his suggestion was defeated.

“Under God” was wedged into the Pledge during America’s shameful Joseph McCarthy Red Communist witch hunt era:

Hand in hand with the Red Scare, to which it was inextricably linked, the new religiosity overran Washington. Politicians outbid one another to prove their piety. President Eisenhower inaugurated that Washington staple: the prayer breakfast. Congress created a prayer room in the Capitol. In 1955, with Ike’s support, Congress added the words “In God We Trust” on all paper money. In 1956 it made the same four words the nation’s official motto, replacing “E Pluribus Unum.” Legislators introduced Constitutional amendments to state that Americans obeyed “the authority and law of Jesus Christ.”

The campaign to add “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance was part of this movement. It’s unclear precisely where the idea originated, but one driving force was the Catholic fraternal society the Knights of Columbus. In the early ‘50s the Knights themselves adopted the God-infused pledge for use in their own meetings, and members bombarded Congress with calls for the United States to do the same. Other fraternal, religious, and veterans clubs backed the idea. In April 1953, Rep. Louis Rabaut, D-Mich., formally proposed the alteration of the pledge in a bill he introduced to Congress.

The “under God” movement didn’t take off, however, until the next year, when it was endorsed by the Rev. George M. Docherty, the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Washington that Eisenhower attended. In February 1954, Docherty gave a sermon—with the president in the pew before him—arguing that apart from “the United States of America,” the pledge “could be the pledge of any country.” He added, “I could hear little Moscovites [sic] repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity.” Perhaps forgetting that “liberty and justice for all” was not the norm in Moscow, Docherty urged the inclusion of “under God” in the pledge to denote what he felt was special about the United States.

The ensuing congressional speechifying—debate would be a misnomer, given the near-unanimity of opinion—offered more proof that the point of the bill was to promote religion. The legislative history of the 1954 act stated that the hope was to “acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon … the Creator … [and] deny the atheistic and materialistic concept of communism.” In signing the bill on June 14, 1954, Flag Day, Eisenhower delighted in the fact that from then on, “millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town … the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

The stated purpose for including these words conflicts directly with the U.S. Constitution’s ban on bringing religion into government. It’s shameful that our Appeals Court erred so horribly on a case so simple.

Posted by James on Mar 12, 2010

Daddying "more physically challenging than hiking across Montana"

Near the end of an interesting article about a week he spent vacationing in San Francisco with his one-year-old daughter, Matt Gross writes:

[E]very day depleted me so fully I couldn’t stay awake past 9:30 p.m. One week with this baby was more physically challenging than hiking across Montana and more psychologically draining than … anything I’ve ever done.

Done right, parenting a yound child is exhausting. Keeping a baby/toddler safe and entertained and well fed while constantly talking with them to expose them to new words and sentences as they interact with the exciting world around them is draining and stressful. It’s also incredibly rewarding.

Posted by James on Mar 13, 2010

Does religion distort our sense of morality?

I’ve read many theoretical arguments against religion, and many people oppose religion based on harms religion has inflicted, through religious wars and inhuman acts carried out in the name of religious dogma. But the idea that religion is blinding us to the most morally significant issues — while focusing our attention on matters of lesser, or no, moral significance — is a new one to me:

“We should be talking about real problems, like nuclear proliferation and genocide and poverty and the crisis in education,” [philosopher Sam Harris] said… “These are issues which tremendous swings in human well-being depend on. And [they’re] not at the center of our moral concern.”

“Religion has convinced us that there’s something else entirely other than concerns about suffering. There’s concerns about what God wants, there’s concerns about what’s going to happen in the afterlife,” he said.

“And, therefore, we talk about things like gay marriage as if it’s the greatest problem of the 21st century. We even have a liberal president who ostensibly is against gay marriage because his faith tells him it’s an abomination…

Harris also said people should not be afraid to declare that certain acts are right and others are wrong. A person who would spill battery acid on a girl for trying to learn to read, for instance, he said, is objectively wrong by scientific standards.

Many people falsely conflate religion with morality. Religions have often acted amorally/immorally (Exhibit A: the decades-long, global Catholic Church sex abuse scandal). And morality exists in our minds and hearts (and genes), independent of religion.

We can judge morality and live moral lives, whether or not a God (or gods) exists. It’s fair to ask whether religion is helping people improve their moral compasses or has warped the compasses people would have developed without religion through their inherent moral sensibilities.

Posted by James on Mar 27, 2010

Einstein treasured "political liberty," but U.S. gov't co-opting his name for Internet surveillance

The federal government has been violating the U.S. Constitution for years by spying on Americans in America. They’ve been vacuuming up data as it passes across the Internet, along phone lines, between cell phones… even credit card purchase information, bank records, library records and travel information. This must stop!

Instead, the Obama Administration is advocating even more intrusive domestic spying. They now want to stick their data vacuums inside private companies (even more so than they already have with most major telecom companies). They’re “justifying” such intrusive software on the grounds we must protect against Internet hackers, but is its real purpose to give the NSA (illegal) access to yet another massive quantity of domestic data? This new program would give the NSA special new access to mountains of data:

Einstein 3 …has raised bigger privacy issues because the technology has the ability to read the content of emails and other messages sent over government systems as it scans for attacks. Mr. Obama’s transition team flagged Einstein 3 as a potential privacy concern.

There are several not-so-delicious ironies:

1) The Internet was intentionally designed by the U.S. military (specifically, DARPA) so that if part of the Internet broke down, the rest could continue operating. In fact, that was the reason for its creation: “Would it be possible to design a network that could quickly reroute digital traffic around failed nodes?” So why is it now necessary for the NSA to stick its nose into parts of the Internet if the system was architected to survive even widespread failures?

2) The NSA named its software “Einstein”! Albert Einstein fled fascistic Germany after Hitler took power in 1932. Einstein then fought against fascism and declared his love of political liberty:

Einstein sided with those forces that opposed antisemitism. He had a natural sympathy for the left, and… [declared] “As long as I have any choice, I will only stay in a country where political liberty, tolerance and equality of all the citizens before the law prevail”.

Those with the most superficial knowledge of Einstein might believe he favored a strong American government, since he urged President Roosevelt to build a nuclear bomb, but Einstein did so only because he feared Hitler — and Hitler alone — possessing nuclear weapons, and Einstein later regretted urging America to pursue nuclear weapons:

After the war, Einstein is said to have declared, “If I knew they were going to do this, I would have become a shoemaker”."

Had Einstein lived to see his name misused as a marketing ploy to get Americans to accept government use of sophisticated surveillance software that systematically violates American citizens' privacy, Einstein would have been furious.

Posted by James on Mar 04, 2010

Encouraging boys to read

My two charming, energetic nephews are exceptional athletes — 10-year-old Colin plays (and plays well) on a baseball team of mostly 12-year-olds — but have little use for books.

For Christmas, we bought Colin the “Bulging Box of Books” containing “Horrible Science” books with titles (and contents) designed to appeal to pre-teen boys: “Angry Animals”; “Blood, Bones and Body Bits”; “Bulging Brains”; “Chemical Chaos”; “Deadly Diseases”; “Disgusting Digestion”; “Evolve or Die”; “Fatal Forces”; “Frightening Light”; “Killer Energy”; “Microscopic Monsters”; “Nasty Nature”; “Painful Poison”; “Shocking Electricity”; “Sounds Dreadful”; “Space, Stars and Slimy Aliens”; “The Fight for Flight”; “The Terrible Truth About Time”; and, “Ugly Bugs Vicious Veg.”

We also bought him three books in “The Grosse Adventures” series, “The Revenge of the McNasty Brothers”, “The Curse of the Bologna Sandwich” and “The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy”. All of these books were written specifically to encourage young boys to read.

I know Colin has read at least part of one of the books and actually enjoyed it. But I don’t think even these books — designed specifically to entice boys his age — have inspired him to become a reader. (Perhaps I should have enticed him with forbidden fruit and challenged him, saying, “You’ll have to wait six months to read these because you’re too young for these really disgusting books that are written with difficult words only older boys can read”?)

I see Colin only once or twice a year, so I’m not sure why he views reading as torture rather than fun, but part of the problem is that he so loves video games, TV and sports. Even books written to excite kids like him can’t compete. The “obvious” (to me) solution is to schedule reading time during which he’s not allowed to play video games, watch TV or run around outside. Ideally, everyone in the family would pick up a book during reading time, and reading time would become a cherished (or, at least, established) family activity/tradition. I’ve suggested that, but I’ve been told there’s just too little family time. They certainly are a busy family, but they find lots of time for all kinds of sports. And the kids find plenty of time for TV and video games. Couldn’t they cut back a bit to carve out time for reading?

Whatever the cause of my nephews' disinterest in reading, sadly, they have plenty of company. Nicholas Kristof discusses boys' academic failings today:

A sobering new book, “Why Boys Fail,” by Richard Whitmire, cites mountains of evidence to make the point:

  • The average high school grade point average is 3.09 for girls and 2.86 for boys. Boys are almost twice as likely as girls to repeat a grade.

  • Boys are twice as likely to get suspended as girls, and three times as likely to be expelled. Estimates of dropouts vary, but it seems that about one-quarter more boys drop out than girls.

  • Among whites, women earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 62 percent of master’s degrees. Among blacks, the figures are 66 percent and 72 percent.

  • In federal writing tests, 32 percent of girls are considered “proficient” or better. For boys, the figure is 16 percent.

There is one important exception: Boys still beat out girls at the very top of the curve, especially in math.

In the high school class of 2009, a total of 297 students scored a perfect triple-800 on the S.A.T., 62 percent of them boys, according to Kathleen Steinberg of the College Board. And of the 10,052 who scored an 800 in the math section, 69 percent were boys.

Many American boys don’t engage with school, though many who do engage in school do fabulously well. These statistics demonstrate how crucial it is to encourage your boys to love reading. Boys who develop a love of reading do very well in school, whereas those who view reading as a chore learn little from school. Oversimplifying a bit, academic success vs. failure boils down to fostering an early love of reading.

So, how can you help your young man develop a love of reading and learning? Kristof suggests “, [which] offers useful lists of books to coax boys into reading… helpfully sorted into categories like ‘ghosts,’ ‘boxers, wrestlers, ultimate fighters,’ and ‘at least one explosion.’” But just having interesting books is not enough. Boys must also be nudged to read them… until they discover how fun reading can be and develop a passion that drives them to the library. (I fondly recall my excitement visiting the library as a teen. It seemed a world of knowledge lay before me for me to pick through.)

Encouraging reading means parents must read with their young children regularly, and moms especially must model a love of reading. According to the superb How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life, research at Harvard identified these factors — in descending order of importance — that encourage younger children to read:

  1. Home “literacy” environment: books, newspapers, attitudes
  2. Mother’s educational expectations of the child
  3. Mother’s own education
  4. Parent-child interaction

The father’s expectations and background apparently had no effect on reading, but they were important in promoting the child’s development of writing skills.

Posted by James on Mar 29, 2010

Fabulous article on teaching

For anyone who cares about teaching and education, this is a must-read.

People are — finally — studying what works in classrooms and what doesn’t and developing teachable lists of effective teaching practices and essential knowledge.

One key finding:

Ball began to theorize that while teaching math obviously required subject knowledge, the knowledge seemed to be something distinct from what she had learned in math class. It’s one thing to know that 307 minus 168 equals 139; it is another thing to be able understand why a third grader might think that 261 is the right answer. Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it. Then they need to take each mind from not getting it to mastery. And they need to do this in 45 minutes or less. This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge, a set of facts independent of subject matter, like Lemov’s techniques. It was a different animal altogether. Ball named it Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or M.K.T. She theorized that it included everything from the “common” math understood by most adults to math that only teachers need to know, like which visual tools to use to represent fractions (sticks? blocks? a picture of a pizza?) or a sense of the everyday errors students tend to make when they start learning about negative numbers. At the heart of M.K.T., she thought, was an ability to step outside of your own head. “Teaching depends on what other people think,” Ball told me, “not what you think.”

The idea that just knowing math was not enough to teach it seemed legitimate, but Ball wanted to test her theory. Working with Hill, the Harvard professor, and another colleague, she developed a multiple-choice test for teachers. The test included questions about common math, like whether zero is odd or even (it’s even), as well as questions evaluating the part of M.K.T. that is special to teachers. Hill then cross-referenced teachers’ results with their students’ test scores. The results were impressive: students whose teacher got an above-average M.K.T. score learned about three more weeks of material over the course of a year than those whose teacher had an average score, a boost equivalent to that of coming from a middle-class family rather than a working-class one. The finding is especially powerful given how few properties of teachers can be shown to directly affect student learning. Looking at data from New York City teachers in 2006 and 2007, a team of economists found many factors that did not predict whether their students learned successfully. One of two that were more promising: the teacher’s score on the M.K.T. test, which they took as part of a survey compiled for the study. (Another, slightly less powerful factor was the selectivity of the college a teacher attended as an undergraduate.)

Posted by James on Mar 04, 2010

Facebook founder an unethical jerk

I’ve never used Facebook, and after reading these articles on what a (brilliant) amoral creep Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is, I’m sure I never will.

Posted by James on Mar 09, 2010

Fallows tries to separate "China threat" fact from fiction

In an Atlantic article on Chinese electronic warfare, James Fallows argues we have little to fear from China militarily but a lot to fear in terms of cyber attacks.

Fallows offers this disturbing corruption anecdote:

by all accounts, corruption remains a major challenge in the Chinese military, rather than the episodic problem it is for most Western forces. One example: at a small airport in the center of the country, an airport manager told me about his regular schedule of hong bao deliveries—“red envelopes,” or discreet cash payoffs—to local air-force officers, to ensure airline passage through the sector of airspace they controlled. (Most U.S. airspace is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration; nearly all of China’s, by the military.) A larger example is the widespread assumption that military officials control the vast Chinese traffic in pirated movie DVDs.

And Fallows shares yet another story reflecting poorly on Chinese leaders' grasp of the world outside China:

The tensest moment in modern China’s security relationship with the outside world came in January of 2007, when its missile command shot one of its own weather satellites out of the sky, presumably to show the world that it had developed anti-satellite weaponry. The detonation filled satellite orbits with dangerous debris; worse, it seemed to signal an unprovoked new step in militarizing space. By all accounts, President Hu Jintao okayed this before it occurred; but no one in China’s foreign ministry appeared to have advance word, and for days diplomats sat silent in the face of worldwide protests. The PLA had not foreseen the international uproar it would provoke—or just didn’t care.

Fallows says “it matters tremendously that so many Chinese organizations are led or influenced by people who have spent time in America or with Americans” but worries because “This is less true of China’s political leaders, and much less true of its military—with a consequently much greater risk of serious misunderstanding and error.”

Of course, most American politicians and government officials have only cursory knowledge of China. The blame runs in both directions, but that only increases the mutual danger.

Posted by James on Mar 17, 2010

Gao Zhisheng alive, but sounds like a beaten man

For the past year, a Chinese human rights lawyer nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, who previously claimed to have been tortured and threatened with death by his government, has been missing. In January, I wondered whether he had been murdered.

So I was thrilled to read today that Gao Zhisheng has been sentenced but released by the Chinese government. But he sounds like a beaten man:

Mr. Gao said he was no longer in police custody but that he could not give any details of his predicament. “I’m fine now but I’m not in a position to be interviewed”…

Mr. Gao sounded upbeat but guarded, suggesting that he had been instructed not to speak to the media. He said planned to spend time with his extended family in Shanxi Province and that he had no plans to return to his work as a rights defender. “Right now I just need to calm down and lead a quiet life,” he said.

Then he turned melancholy and made an allusion to his wife and children in the United States. “They are like kites that have had their strings cut and now they are floating far off into the sky,” he said before hanging up.

The world community exerted tremendous political pressure on China over this case. Few human rights activists are so lucky.

Posted by James on Mar 28, 2010

Geithner should be in prison, not running the U.S. Treasury

If I’m reading the facts correctly, as head of the New York Federal Reserve, Tim Geithner helped Lehman Brothers cook its books and continue operating for years when it should instead have been wound down through bankruptcy. Shuttering Lehman years earlier would have sent a powerful message to other banks that the Fed was a capitalist cop, not an enabler of risk-taking zombie banks. That signal might have prevented the financial crisis by telling bank executives they should not expect too-big-to-fail bailouts if they took excessive gambles and lost.

Economics professor L. Randall Wray writes:

Just when you thought that nothing could stink more than Timothy Geithner’s handling of the AIG bailout, a new report details how Geithner’s New York Fed allowed Lehman Brothers to use an accounting gimmick to hide debt. The report, which runs to 2200 pages, was released by Anton Valukas, the court-appointed examiner. It actually makes the AIG bailout look tame by comparison. It is now crystal clear why Geithner’s Treasury as well as Bernanke’s Fed refuse to allow any light to shine on the massive cover-up underway.

Recall that the New York Fed arranged for AIG to pay one hundred cents on the dollar on bad debts to its counterparties—benefiting Goldman Sachs and a handful of other favored Wall Street firms. The purported reason is that Geithner so feared any negative repercussions resulting from debt write-downs that he wanted Uncle Sam to make sure that Wall Street banks could not lose on bad bets. Now we find that Geithner’s NYFed supported Lehman’s efforts to conceal the extent of its problems. Not only did the NYFed fail to blow the whistle on flagrant accounting tricks, it also helped to hide Lehman’s illiquid assets on the Fed’s balance sheet to make its position look better. Note that the NY Fed had increased its supervision to the point that it was going over Lehman’s books daily; further, it continued to take trash off the books of Lehman right up to the bitter end, helping to perpetuate the fraud that was designed to maintain the pretense that Lehman was not massively insolvent.

Geithner told Congress that he has never been a regulator. That is a quite honest assessment of his job performance, although it is completely inaccurate as a description of his duties as President of the NYFed. Apparently, Geithner has never met an accounting gimmick that he does not like, if it appears to improve the reported finances of a Wall Street firm…

Lehman used “Repo 105” to temporarily move liabilities off its balance sheet—essentially pretending to sell them although it promised to immediately buy them back. The abuse was so flagrant that no US law firm would sign off on the practice, fearing that creditors and stockholders would have grounds for lawsuits on the basis that this caused a “material misrepresentation” of Lehman’s financial statements. The court-appointed examiner hired to look into the failure of Lehman found “materially misleading” accounting and “actionable balance sheet manipulation.” But just as Arthur Andersen had signed off on Enron’s scams, Ernst & Young found no problem with Lehman.

In short, this was an Enron-style, go directly to jail and do not pass go, sort of fraud. Lehman’s had been using this trick since 2001. It looked fine to Timmy’s Fed, which extended loans allowing Lehman to flip bad assets onto the Fed’s balance sheet to keep the fraud going. …In terms of dollar costs to the government, this is surely the biggest scandal in US history.

Posted by James on Mar 17, 2010

Google's broken hiring process: Horrible interview, great hire!

A month ago, I wrote about my interviews at Google a few years back. The process was even stranger than I reported, partly because I was contacted by six or seven different internal Google recruiters.

Anyhow, I stumbled on the following gem while reading about how former Googler Tim Armstrong has brought Google’s hiring process to AOL:

Googlers know the way they bring people into the company doesn’t work. In the book Coders at Work Google’s director of research Peter Norvig explains: “One of the interesting things we’ve found, when trying to predict how well somebody we’ve hired is going to perform when we evaluate them a year or two later, is one of the best indicators of success within the company was getting the worst possible score on one of your interviews. We rank people from one to four, and if you got a one on one of your interviews, that was a really good indicator of success.”

Wow! Time for famously data-driven Google to tweak its hiring process???

Posted by James on Mar 22, 2010

I love electricity!

Tranquility Lane

Thanks to 65+ mph winds knocking down thousands of trees here in Stamford (see photos) — including three onto/into homes right in our immediate neighborhood — we lost power Saturday and didn’t get it back till about 6 p.m. tonight. We feel lucky we’re safe, our house is safe, and our basement didn’t flood. But going without electricity for a few days isn’t pleasant. The house gets cold quickly (thank goodness it wasn’t winter!), food spoils, and it gets awfully dark awfully early.

Our modern lives continue late into the night with the Internet and television and books. So different from how it must have been before electricity. We must sleep much less than our ancestors, whose homes weren’t flooded with artificial light. I wonder what a toll our 6 or 7 hours of sleep a night takes on our brains.

Posted by James on Mar 16, 2010

In 2007, Michael Lewis laughed off concerns about derivatives and excessive leverage

I enjoyed Michael Lewis' recent Daily Show interview about his new book, The Big Short. Lewis summarized the crisis nicely and mocked the ignorance of most of the banking world, saying they hid the risk so well they fooled even themselves.

But Lewis faltered when he said almost no one saw the financial crisis coming. Lewis said “A very small handful of investors, I mean, ten to twelve, made a giant bet against [subprime mortgages]” and virtually everyone else on Wall Street was “dumb money”:

“They [financial institutions] figured out there’s an awful lot of money to be made lending money to people who shouldn’t be lent money. And when you do that, you create lots of risk. And the only way you get that risk out [of your firm] and get other people to take it is to disguise it. So they got really good at disguising the risk, and they got so good they disguised it from themselves, they fooled themselves.

Lewis apparently fooled himself too because, in January 2007, Bloomberg reporter Michael Lewis wrote an entire article — titled “Davos Is for Wimps, Ninnies, Pointless Skeptics” — complaining about all the foolish worry at Davos over excessive risk-taking and derivatives contracts:

It’s become almost obligatory for the world’s most important economic people, at the beginning of each year, to travel joylessly to the base of a Swiss ski slope and worry…. Davos is where people with no talent for risk-taking gather to imagine what actual risk-takers might do. Davos Man needs to sit in judgment; Davos Man needs to brood. So great is this need that he will brood about virtually anything, no matter how little he knows about it.

Ah, Michael? How much did you know about derivatives or bank leverage ratios in 2007? You sat in judgment of many of the world’s top financial experts and mocked them for their ignorance when, it turns out, they were right and you were wrong. Look at the insiders whose worry you mocked:

“The system is becoming very complex. The risk of some crisis happening is rising,” says Nouriel Roubini, chairman of Roubini Global Economics. “The world isn’t pricing risk appropriately,” says Steven Rattner, co-founder of Quadrangle Group. “Excessive borrowing and risk-taking,” intones Juergen Stark, chief economist for the European Central Bank.

“The last time we talked,” says William Rhodes, senior vice chairman of Citicorp Inc. (in case you didn’t hear him the first time), “I mentioned we’re going to get some adjustments some time in the future. So this is a time to be prudent.”

..So why do these people waste so much of their breath and, presumably, thought, with their elaborate expressions of concern? Even if these global financial elites knew something useful that you and I don’t — that, say, 50 hedge funds were about to go under and drag with them half the world’s biggest banks along with a third of the Third World — they would be unlikely to do anything about it.

Lewis especially mocked Davos' concerns about explosive growth in (completely unregulated) derivative contracts:

Derivatives seem to be this year’s case in point. Davos had hardly been up and groaning about the dangers of being alive before Bloomberg News reported what appears to be the general Davosian view: “The surging demand for derivatives is making financial markets more vulnerable to any slowdown in the global economy.”

The piece came with supporting quotes from European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet, Bank of China Vice President Zhu Min and the deputy chief of India’s planning commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia — but not a worrisome fact in sight. None of them seemed to understand that when you create a derivative you don’t add to the sum total of risk in the financial world; you merely create a means for redistributing that risk. They have no evidence that financial risk is being redistributed in ways we should all worry about. They’re just — worried.

But the most striking thing about the growing derivatives markets is the stability that has come with them.

Now, I realize we all make mistakes. Most of us occasionally make really, really big mistakes. Perhaps we even publicly ridicule everyone else for making a serious mistake when, in fact, they’re right and we’re wrong.

But, if we make a huge mistake, laugh at others for being wiser and more prudent, and later write about how stupid “everyone” was for making the mistake we made, that’s intellectually dishonest. Lewis complained very publicly that the world’s financial experts were idiots for worrying about leverage and derivatives… then he turned around several years later and pretended only a handful of brilliant investors saw the crisis coming while everyone else was blind to the dangers. Which Michael Lewis should we believe?

Lewis should express humility and contrition for so falsely slamming those concerned about leverage and derivatives. His opinion matters, especially when he is writing for Bloomberg. And he should stop pretending that only a handful of people saw the crisis coming because he himself told us otherwise just a few years ago.

Posted by James on Mar 18, 2010

Is China pulling up its drawbridges after raiding foreign firms' IP?

Here’s a brief snippet from an informative article on rising Chinese protectionism and the myriad tricks Beijing uses to unfairly advantage domestic firms and punish foreign firms that complain:

Foreigners rarely push back publicly for fear of angering the Chinese. An executive from an international express carrier says global delivery companies might win a WTO case over Beijing’s rules barring them from carrying domestic letters, but he says he would never pursue a case alone; his company would almost certainly face harassment. “The Chinese are very good at smashing the nail that sticks up,” he says. Many foreigners refrain from taking legal action because they feel the justice system favors domestic enterprises. “We complain but we don’t sue,” says Mark Cohen, an attorney at Jones Day in Beijing.

That attitude was reinforced when French electronics maker Schneider Electric last April settled a three-year-old patent dispute with Chint Group, a maker of products such as transformers and circuit breakers, for $23 million. Western attorneys familiar with the case say Chint had actually lifted Schneider’s technology, not the other way around. Thomas Pattloch, IP officer for the European Delegation in Beijing, says the case illustrates so-called junk patents used by the Chinese against companies whose patents they have infringed upon. “The court did everything they could to ignore the evidence Schneider presented,” says Pattloch. A Schneider spokeswoman says the company disagreed with the court’s initial decision and declined comment on the settlement. Chint disputed the account but declined to provide details, citing a privacy agreement. The court did not respond to requests for comment.

China’s huge market size and great political power enable it to violate global fair trade laws and practices while escaping the retaliatory consequences smaller nations pursuing identical strategies would suffer. China appears eager to press its size advantage to the fullest.

Posted by James on Mar 28, 2010

Learning Chinese is HARD

I’ve been studying Mandarin off and on (too much off, not enough on) since meeting my wife in 1994. I can basically understand the TV and radio news, can get the gist of most newspaper articles, and can usually convey to people the ideas I want to, but I still don’t consider myself fluent. There are too many words I don’t know. Too many characters I can’t write. And my grammar is often pretty poor.

I fully expected learning Chinese would be hard, but it has proven far harder than I initially imagined. When I met my wife, I was in an economics Ph.D. program. I quickly became fascinated with China’s economy and set out to learn the language as quickly as I could so I could conduct my Ph.D. research on China and become a professor of Chinese political economy. I had studied politics for six year (as an undergrad plus two years in Stanford’s business school Ph.D. program) and was studying economics. If I could just learn Chinese, I naively figured, I would be able to research and teach about China for the rest of my life.

Well, even though I spent far more time on my Mandarin than my economics, I didn’t get close enough to fluency to do hands-on research in China. My wife helped me conduct interviews with some very interesting business managers in Shanghai and Suzhou, but my brain just couldn’t process the hours of tape recordings in Mandarin. Splitting my time between Chinese and economics didn’t get me far enough in either to achieve my goals, so I wound up working in Silicon Valley tech firms, which I enjoyed but was never my goal. My Mandarin atrophied for years afterwards, but I’ve now gone far beyond my earlier level. I do feel I’m closing in on fluency, but I’ve already scaled a quite high mountain and am only just beginning to catch a glimpse of the summit through the clouds.

So I was struck by this interesting article:

My favorite professor taught a class on contemporary Southeast Asian politics. So when I told Professor Potter that I had received permission from the college to take Mandarin at a neighboring university, I was shocked by his reply.

“It’s a waste of time.”

Huh? Weren’t professors supposed to guide us to be better scholars? Why was he discouraging me? As if he could read my thoughts, he said I was too old to start such a complicated language.

“I’ve been studying Mandarin for 10 years and am still not fluent,” he explained. And he had lived in China for several years in the 1980s.

I didn’t take Professor Potter’s advice. While I’ll probably never be fluent, at one time I could read a Chinese newspaper and was told I sounded like a native speaker on the phone. I had learned a little about the Chinese custom of saving face, so maybe the latter was just a polite gesture to make me feel good about learning this difficult language.

Posted by James on Mar 21, 2010

Mandarin is no fad. Business elites teaching their children

I recently attended a conference on education. One of the speakers, who works all around the world for GE, said American kids should be learning Mandarin because of China’s tremendous importance and because, she believes, in ten or twenty years, Chinese business people will expect to speak Mandarin, not English, in business meetings.

One of the world’s most famous and successful investors, Jim Rogers, says moving his family to Singapore in 2007 so his children could learn Mandarin was “far and away” the best investment decision he ever made. Rogers encourages everyone to “Teach your children Mandarin, teach your grandchildren Mandarin and learn Mandarin yourself” because “Mandarin will be the most important language of the 21st century.”

And today’s New York Times profiles Applied Materials' Mark Pinto (a famous Silicon Valley techie) and the sparkling new four-football-field-sized research lab in Xian, China he’ll be running. The article makes clear China is already ahead of American in some industries, like clean energy. It also shows two more forward-thinking American parents encouraging their children to learn Mandarin. Years before moving his family to China, Pinto was already teaching his children Chinese:

With China’s economy gaining strength, Mr. Pinto and his wife, then living in Santa Clara, began insisting in 2005 that their sons study Chinese once a week.

Now 10 and 11, the boys are improving their Chinese and mastering the art of eating with chopsticks.

Posted by James on Mar 18, 2010

More C.I.A. murders exposed

In 1953, the CIA almost certainly murdered its own employee, Frank Olson, to prevent him from revealing the truth about its widespread testing of LSD and other psychotropic drugs:

The assassination of Frank Olson achieved favorable short and mid-term goals for the CIA and its MKULTRA program. The assassination mitigated the liability posed by Olson’s disenchantment with his work. It allowed the program to continue until its reported dissolution, and it concealed the CIA’s culpability in drug and chemical experimentation on humans until the Church Commission report in 1975…

Olson knew that the CIA was being reckless (if not criminal) in its application and testing of dangerous substances to human subjects. Olson’s case represented one of hundreds of test cases conducted by the US Government at the Camp Detrick site alone. Should Olson reveal this information publicly, the whole program would crash down around Gottlieb and his associates…

After an ongoing administration of psychotropic medications under the fictional auspices of “treatment,” Frank Olson was stunned or knocked unconscious by a blow to the head administered by CIA employee, Robert Lashbrook, and thrown through a closed window to his death under the order of Vin Ruwet. This was a textbook CIA assassination and the agency kept the incident concealed long enough for evidence to fade and witnesses to die. While there are many blurry details of the case, one cannot deny the two most glaring facts about Olson’s death: he was not alone when he died, and he suffered a blow to the head before he went through the window. This was no accident or suicide.

President Ford admitted CIA culpability in Olson’s death, without confessing to murder:

In 1975, Preisdent Ford apologized to the Olson family and paid them $750,000 after admitting that days before Olson’s death, the CIA fed him LSD without his knowledge as a part of an experiment. NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr says that White House documents from 1975 suggest that the government settled the case to prevent the disclosure of very sensitive information concerning Frank Olson’s work at the CIA.

I mention this because we learned today of yet another apparent CIA drugging of civilians, one with lethal consequences:

In 1951, a quiet, picturesque village in southern France was suddenly and mysteriously struck down with mass insanity and hallucinations. At least five people died, dozens were interned in asylums and hundreds afflicted.

…an American investigative journalist has uncovered evidence suggesting the CIA peppered local food with the hallucinogenic drug LSD as part of a mind control experiment at the height of the Cold War.

The mystery of Le Pain Maudit (Cursed Bread) still haunts the inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit, in the Gard, southeast France.

On August 16, 1951, the inhabitants were suddenly racked with frightful hallucinations of terrifying beasts and fire.

One man tried to drown himself, screaming that his belly was being eaten by snakes. An 11-year-old tried to strangle his grandmother. Another man shouted: “I am a plane”, before jumping out of a second-floor window, breaking his legs. He then got up and carried on for 50 yards. Another saw his heart escaping through his feet and begged a doctor to put it back. Many were taken to the local asylum in strait jackets.

Time magazine wrote at the time: “Among the stricken, delirium rose: patients thrashed wildly on their beds, screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies, that their heads had turned to molten lead.”

Posted by James on Mar 12, 2010

Now Big Brother's even watching us (and our kids) pee!

I don’t recall even Winston Smith (1984) facing this kind of surveillance:

You can imagine my surprise after I paid my 50pence to use the public bathroom, walked in and found myself staring at not just one but three ceiling mounted video surveillance cameras. I had to get real close to their enclosures to convince myself that I wasn’t seeing things. Not only was it really there, but it was a Pan-Tilt-Zoom model with a microphone to top it off… I had absolutely no idea that this was legal anywhere, let alone in downtown London, UK. Sure I knew that London has more cameras per square mile than any other country on the planet, but in bathrooms?!…

According to the London Assembly of Liberal Democrats, London has been outfitted with over 500,000 surveillance cameras. Other put the number much higher at 1.4 million cameras but nobody is telling what the real number is. Another few 10,000 cameras have been installed in taxis and police cars as well. Sounds a bit big brother to me folks, downright scary in fact. Now it gets scarier when you consider that the vast majority of these camera feeds are not sent encrypted across the wire. This makes hacking these video feeds trivial.

Posted by James on Mar 29, 2010

Our broken patent system stifles innovation, benefits only tech gorillas

Former Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz has written a super article detailing how Apple, Microsoft and Kodak all threatened to sue Sun.

Sun responded to the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates threats with powerful counter-threats. Basically, Apple was infringing on Sun patents, Sun on Apple patents, Microsoft on Sun patents, and Sun on Microsoft patents. The tech gorillas smartly all decided to hold their fire.

Ironically, the only successful suit — costing Sun over $100 million — was brought by Kodak, which sued because it had little technology for Sun to countersue. “Kodak had acquired a patent from a defunct computer maker (Wang) for the exclusive purpose of suing Sun over an esoteric technology, Java Remote Method Invocation.” A home-court jury in Rochester, NY ruled for hometown favorite Kodak.

Bottom line: In technology, everything — even idiotic stuff that fails the “non-obvious” patentability test, like one-click checkout — has been patented, so it’s virtually impossible to produce anything of value without violating patents. Consequently, only the biggest tech firms with giant patent portfolios are able to innovate without fear of being sued. Conversely, “patent trolls” — who produce nothing of value but seek to suck money from value-producing firms through lawsuits — are well positioned to profit by stifling innovation because they cannot be counter-sued.

I blame the patent system for allowing such long and generic monopolies over ideas. The justification for patents is to encourage innovation by rewarding innovation. By so richly rewarding pseudo-innovation, our current patent system erects barriers to innovation at every turn.

I also blame the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) for approving millions of “innovations” not worthy of protection because they’re not truly innovative. Of course, the USPTO is under-staffed and under-paid, so the ultimate blame for their failure resides in Congress and the presidency.

Posted by James on Mar 10, 2010

People think government's all waste, fraud and abuse... till programs get slashed

Because Arizonans want low taxes, Arizonans pay relatively little in taxes:

The state/local tax burden ranking in Arizona has dropped 24 places from 17th highest in 1977 to 41st in 2008, and the residents there now pay the tenth-lowest tax burden. Most of the change came in the wake of a property tax limitation in 1980, and the state’s ranking has changed little since. Estimated now at 8.5% of income, Arizona’s state/local tax burden percentage is below the national average of 9.7%. Arizona taxpayers pay $3,244 per capita in state and local taxes.

Unsurprisingly, Arizona now faces a severe budget crisis. Its government has sold off major buildings to raise cash. Now that government’s slashing spending, residents are realizing government is not just a pile of waste, fraud and abuse:

[T]he state took away their [rest area] toilets, and residents began to revolt.

“Why don’t they charge a quarter or something?’” said Connie Lucas, who lives in Pine, Ariz., about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from here. “There was one rest stop between here and Phoenix, and we really needed it.”

Arizona has the largest budget gap in the country when measured as a percentage of its overall budget, and the Department of Transportation was $100 million in the red last fall when it decided to close 13 of the state’s 18 highway rest stops.

But the move has unleashed a torrent of telephone calls and e-mail messages to state lawmakers, newspapers and the Department of Transportation decrying the lost toilets — one of the scores of small indignities among larger hardships that residents of embattled states face as governments scramble to shore up their finances.

Posted by James on Mar 05, 2010

Problem: Privatized health care. "Solution": More subsidies for privatized health care

America spends far more on health care than any other country, provides care to only a fraction of its citizens, and has generally lousy overall health outcomes.

The main culprits:

  1. Our private health insurance industry, a pure middleman which provides no beneficial product or service and profits by denying (or withdrawing) coverage to sick people
  2. Our largely privatized hospital industry, which places profit above health and uses all kinds of tricks to prevent people from knowing what they’ll be charged or even understanding their bill after treatment
  3. Our private drug companies, which price drugs in America at much higher prices than identical drugs in other nations, whose governments offer universal healthcare and negotiate steep discounts off the list prices paid only by suckers Americans

So, how have we now “reformed” health care? By cutting out the evil middlemen? Ha! We’re all now REQUIRED to buy their products. By forcing hospitals to let customers shop prices? Ha! Nope. we’re just sending them more customers without demanding they stop their anti-competitive practices. By negotiating prices with drug companies, as every other industrialized nation does? Ha! We’re just sending them new customers, too.

We need sensible health care reform. But this is less a reform than a massive giveaway to the very industries we should be reining in! We should be discussing how to re-employ all the wasteful insurance company paper pushers whose sole function was to deny coverage to sick people. Instead, health insurance profits are set to soar.

I’m thoroughly disgusted. And, while there are some good things in this soon-to-pass law, I can’t approve of any “solution” that gives so grotesquely to the very industries that have and will continue price-gouging us. Here’s how the great Glenn Greenwald puts it:

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has an amazing post in which he trumpets what he calls the “Twilight of the Interest Groups” reflected by likely passage of the health care bill (h/t). Why are Interest Groups — once so powerful in Washington — now banished to their “twilight”? Because, says Ezra, “the Obama administration succeeded at neutralizing every single industry.” If, by “neutralizing,” Ezra means “bribing and accommodating them to such an extreme degree that they ended up affirmatively supporting a bill that lavishes them with massive benefits,” then he’s absolutely right. He himself notes what he calls the “remarkable level of industry consensus” in support of the bill: “Pharma supports the bill. Insurers are incoherent on it, but there’s not a ferocious and united campaign to kill the proposal. The American Medical Association has endorsed the Senate bill. The hospitals have endorsed the bill. Labor has endorsed the bill. The business community is split, with larger employers holding their fire.”

Indeed, PhRMA is so in favor of this bill that, over the last week, they’ve spent $6 million on an ad campaign aimed at undecided House Democrats to try to pressure them to vote for the bill. And while the most hackish Obama loyalists (echoing the administration) have been claiming that the health insurance industry is vehemently opposed to and working to defeat this bill, Ezra commendably acknowledges the reality that they have done little in that regard (Marcia Angell — Professor at Harvard Medical School and the former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine — said a few weeks ago of the health insurance industry: “What they’re fighting for is the individual mandate. And if they get that mandate [which the final bill contains], if everyone does have to buy their commercial products, then they’re going to be extremely happy with it”).

Of course health insurance lobbyists, drug company lobbyists and hospital lobbyists are all giddy over this law. It will brings them tens of millions of new customers and boost their profits. I’m enraged because they’re the problem, not the solution. American health care will, overall, improve somewhat. But we’re settling for much, much less cost savings than we need and deserve. Single payer would be much, much, much cheaper and less bureaucratic. Even a public option would be cheaper and better. Instead, we get this new “reform” that further enriches profit-crazed executives while doing nothing to stop their price-gouging of Americans, compared with citizens in every other industrialized nation.

Posted by James on Mar 22, 2010

Professionalize teaching through continual assessment and improvement

An EducationWeek commentary, “It’s the Classroom, Stupid”, notes that most school reforms focus on issues that can be changed from outside the classroom (charter schools; class size; teacher credentials; funding) rather than the most important factor in student achievement: teacher-student interactions inside the classroom. There are lousy teachers and great teachers, and data prove that students learn much more from great teachers than from lousy teachers. But the field of education has done a miserable job of helping teachers become great teachers… or even avoid becoming ineffective teachers.

I recently blogged about exciting new research on what constitutes great teaching. Amazingly, to determine what works and what doesn’t, American educators have relied almost exclusively on individual trial-and-error learning within their classrooms. Knowledge about what techniques work best has not been systematically codified and taught to teachers. Consequently, though most teachers work hard and care deeply about their students, America has many poor teachers. Many teachers, for example, have never learned the most effective techniques for controlling a classroom. That knowledge now exists and can be taught, but it is only just beginning to be shared with teachers.

If applied widely, these new research findings could greatly improve American education at virtually no cost.

But many educators are overconfident in their teaching abilities (because they falsely equate years of teaching with knowledge of how best to teach) and/or fearful of others discovering their flaws. Teachers with years of experience may have figured out many great teaching skills… and acquired many bad habits. Given how poorly the educational establishment has taught teachers the craft of teaching, it’s little wonder so many teachers have acquired so many bad habits and fear outsiders peeking into their classrooms:

The mismanagement of classroom instruction is the ugly secret and fatal flaw of school reform. Everyone knows that school systems are horrendously mismanaged…

Most educators, bless them, are drawn to the profession by the opportunity it offers to nurture the growth of children. They are more at ease with informal and collegial, rather than formal and hierarchical, relationships, and they resist being squeezed into a corporate-management mold. Most experienced teachers (and principals, too) want to close their classroom doors and do their own thing, in their own way.

At the same time, a “we vs. they” mind-set prevails. Educators perceive outsiders in general—from parents to politicians to management experts—as grandstanding quarterbacks who constantly second-guess their own expertise… One teacher spoke for many when she blurted out: “We get sick and tired of these [outside] bozos trying to come into the schools and tell us our jobs. We’re the experts. We know what works. I wish all these noneducators would just shut up, take care of their own jobs, and let us take care of ours.”

I would sympathize with this sentiment if most teachers were truly skilled at their craft. Unfortunately, the majority of teachers are underperforming because they’re not using cutting-edge educational research findings to improve, they’re not videotaping and studying their classroom performance, they’re not inviting their fellow teachers into their classrooms to offer advice, etc. Because they were never taught the craft of teaching, many teachers believe they’re classroom artists. They don’t realize they’re lousy artists because no one’s telling them they’re holding the brush wrong or misusing colors because they’re red-green colorblind.

World-class athletes become world-class by stepping outside of themselves and observing their performance with a hyper-critical eye. They film their performances and watch those films over and over again with coaches and kinesiologists to identify opportunities for improvement. They ask nutritionists about their diets. They visit sports psychologists to improve their “mental game.”

At great schools, teachers continually train one another. Great schools systematically enable teachers to help one another improve. My son will begin attending such a wonderful school in the fall. Its literature says one of its “five core techniques” is “professional development of teachers through daily coaching and learning”:

Coaching is a cornerstone of The Children’s School’s commitment to be a true learning community, with all members participating in the process.

…Coaching is a method that provides clear, concise feedback for the purpose of continuous School improvement. It is used to train teachers, assess the work of students, and practiced by all… Feedback takes the form of three plusses (positive aspects of an interaction) and a wish, or growth point, for the future. Three different methods of staff coaching are used. Teachers observe each others' work on a daily basis and share their observations through:

Video Coaching… Pen & Pencil Coaching… [and] Daily Coaching… using the staff communication log.

If teachers want to be treated as professionals, they must act professionally. And professionals systematically critique and improve their performance. Teachers can and should help one another improve their performance. Any teacher who hermetically seals her/his classroom and believes they’re too good a teacher to benefit from suggestions from other teachers (or too miserable a teacher to withstand the scrutiny of other teachers and educational experts) should be fired.

Posted by James on Mar 23, 2010

Refinancing massive government debt: More debt crises ahead?

With Greece’s near-bankruptcy and death watches on for Europe’s other “PIIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) — not to mention Great Britain’s failing finances — The New York Times reports on the horrible financial health of U.S. states:

California’s stated debt — the value of all its bonds outstanding — looks manageable, at just 8 percent of its total economy. But California has big unstated debts, too. If the fair value of the shortfall in California’s big pension fund is counted, for instance, the state’s debt burden more than quadruples, to 37 percent of its economic output…

Joshua Rauh, an economist at Northwestern University, and Robert Novy-Marx of the University of Chicago, recently recalculated the value of the 50 states’ pension obligations the way the bond markets value debt. They put the number at $5.17 trillion.

After the $1.94 trillion set aside in state pension funds was subtracted, there was a gap of $3.23 trillion — more than three times the amount the states owe their bondholders.

This state debt burden sits atop the already massive federal debt, thanks to decades of high spending and low taxes. Republicans tarred Democrats as “tax-and-spend” …but were more fiscally irresponsible. Republican presidents ran up most of the federal debt, behaving like “spend-but-don’t-tax"ers.

Posted by James on Mar 30, 2010

Sandra Bullock's wonderful lesson

I admire and congratulate actress Sandra Bullock for taking her lumps along with her accolades:

Sandra Bullock, fresh off of delivering a truly magnetic [best actress Oscar] acceptance speech, still had plenty of charm remaining for the reporters backstage. Bullock was asked about the Razzie she won Saturday night for her role in the clunker All About Steve, and the actress, who actually showed up at the ceremony to accept the statue, said she plans to keep her Oscar and Razzie next to each other. “They’ll sit side-by-side in a nice little shelf somewhere,” Bullock said. “Well, the Razzie maybe on a different shelf, a lower shelf.”

Ms. Bullock not only showed up to accept her Razzie, she even had fun doing so:

Razzie founder John Wilson told EW he couldn’t have been happier with the actress’ good humor: “If you are going to win a Razzie, then that’s the way to do it and have fun with it. I wish there were more people with that combination of self-deprecation and guts.”

Even if she knew accepting her Razzie as a good sport was good P.R., it still takes humility to embrace public humiliation. Thank you, Ms. Bullock, for displaying such wonderful character. And contrats on your full trophy case!

Never get a fat head from your accomplishments, and never let your failures beat you down. We all succeed, and we all fail. Just keep moving forward!

Posted by James on Mar 08, 2010

Stupid driver of the year award goes to...

Wonder no more why this country is so screwed up. Just read this article:

[A] woman… drove around a police cruiser blocking a road that was closed by a downed tree and live power lines Sunday morning.

After Kaitlin Malozzi, 24, of 93 Comstock Hill Road skirted the parked cruiser by driving over a front lawn near the corner of Comstock Hill Road and Silvermine Avenue she ran directly into the tree that had fallen across the road, Sgt. Lisa Cotto said.

Once Connecticut Light and Power removed the live electrical wires from on top of her car just after the 3:30 a.m. accident, Malozzi was given a ticket for reckless driving and disobeying the signal of a police officer, Cotto said.

Malozzi admitted that she saw the police car and yellow tape strung across the road, but did not think it was any “big deal,” the report said. So, she drove around the front of the cruiser and all of a sudden her car came to an abrubt halt, Cotto said. For a second, she could not figure out why the car stopped, until she realized that she ran into a fallen tree.

Posted by James on Mar 16, 2010

Tech world widely reviles software patents

Comments following former Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz’s excellent article on patent threats among Microsoft, Sun and Apple demonstrate widespread disgust with our broken patent system, especially regarding software patents.

Virtually everyone posting agrees software deserves copyright protection but not patent protection. And most are angry that software patents are strangling tech innovation:

In the 60s, 70s and most of the 80s, there was no such things as ‘software patents.’ …[S]oftware [programs] were covered by Copyright, not patent (and that is still the case in most of the rest of the world).

Yet Apple, and many other still came up with new and innovative product[s]. Actually, if software patents had existed in the early 80s, Apple probably could not have done Lisa and the Macintosh (Xerox would own patents on most of any existing GUI, from [W]indows to mice to menu bar). And Microsoft would not even exist at all.

Apple and Microsoft ‘borrow’ concepts from Xerox, and later sue each other and everyone else under the sun.

Copyright should be enough. Owning an implementation of an idea is fine, owning the idea itself should not be possible.

[L]arge companies have enough patents to cover almost everything, which means that small startups will never be able to compete; their brand new shiny patent will simply garner a response of “Oh, you have that patent? Well, we have these patents..”. That’s not a system that anyone should be proud to be part of, and it does nothing to encourage meaningful competition. Software patents are a disease.

Password-authenticated Key Exchange has some major advantages over the standard password logins we know. It makes online fraud much harder and could have a substantial impact on phishing. There are prototype implementations for Mozilla and it could be used to make password-based WiFi or VPN much more secure. Yet, because of patents, they found little use. There was even a likely-to-be-free variation called SRP( but some company simply announced “we might have a patent on that” and suddenly nobody dares to support this protocol, though many patches for major use-cases existed.

[It should be that] Everyone gets to see and build on everybody else’s great ideas. The people and companies that innovate still win, because they’ll still always be one step ahead of everyone else. And the companies that add nothing to the existing idea pool still lose, or at least have to make their money doing something other than innovating– such as adding great customer service. In other words, nothing changes, except that the whole ludicrous software patent system disappears.

A much easier and more generic approach is to limit the time of exclusive use of the patent. In todays society, with a good idea you should be able to launch your startup within 2 – 5 years and make some money.

Idea: multitouch navigation

Invention: The way Microsoft’s Surface computer does it Invention: The way the iPhone does it Invention: The way an Android device does it

You don’t profit from the idea … you profit from its implementation.

Apple [should not be able to] claim dominion over the concept of multitouch navigation, just over their implementation of that (old) concept, which may be better or worse than any other manufacturer’s implementation.

Patent is not appropriate for protecting software.

Software “patents” should ALL be converted to copyrights, “IP patents” should be discarded (there’s no “there” there).

This is one of those blog reads that gets me terribly dismayed at creating a wonderful tech startup. If it becomes successful enough, it may just get parasited down by patent trolls.

Software patents, copyright, DRM – all these are based on broken legislation that needs to be changed and everybody in the tech industry knows it.

Posted by James on Mar 10, 2010

Texans jealous of truth's liberal/progressive bias

Thanks to progressives, America has changed for the better:

  • From slavery to abolition/freedom.

  • From child sweatshops to public schools.

  • From starving/freezing elderly to Social Security.

  • From “one man, one vote” male-only elections to “one (white) person, one vote.”

  • From Black exclusionary poll taxes and literacy tests to “one person, one vote.”

  • From “separate but equal” schools to less segregated schools.

  • From white-only restaurants, hotels, and water fountains to a society where your skin color has no less impact on where you can go and what you can do.

  • From the 1890s' all-powerful megacorporations to trust busting and anti-monopoly regulations (and back again, over these past few miserable decades)

I could add fifty more, but the broad swath of American history is progressives pushing for positive change against conservatives' resistance. When progressives eventually win out, America becomes a better nation.

Well, Texas conservatives are angry their “side” — which always seeks to further enrich wealthy stock-and-bond holders on the backs of ordinary wage earners — comes out looking bad in textbooks. Conservatives are screaming bias and seeking to order textbook publishers to insert pro-conservative biases:

There have also been efforts among conservatives on the board to tweak the history of the civil rights movement. One amendment states that the movement created “unrealistic expectations of equal outcomes” among minorities. Another proposed change removes any reference to race, sex or religion in talking about how different groups have contributed to the national identity.

The amendments are also intended to emphasize the unalloyed superiority of the “free-enterprise system” over others and the desirability of limited government…

Throughout the standards, the conservatives have pushed to drop references to American “imperialism,” preferring to call it expansionism…

References to Ralph Nader and Ross Perot are proposed to be removed, while Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate general, is to be listed as a role model for effective leadership, and the ideas in Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address are to be laid side by side with Abraham Lincoln’s speeches…

Mr. McLeroy and other conservatives on the board made it clear they would offer still more planks to highlight what they see as the Christian roots of the Constitution and other founding documents.

“To deny the Judeo-Christian values of our founding fathers is just a lie to our kids,” said Ken Mercer, a San Antonio Republican.

For the ten trillionth time: Most of the Founding Fathers — the men who brought us separation of church and state — despised organized religion. Most considered themselves “Deists,” which means they accepted that SOMETHING had created the universe but believed humans — not God or gods… and certainly not God or gods speaking through the Pope or ministers or shamans or priests — governed the affairs of men. Most Founding Fathers saw no evidence whatsoever that whatever force created the universe was involved in (or even aware of) human affairs.

Thomas Jefferson even went so far as to extract out Jesus' fabulous moral teachings and throw away all the other stuff in The Bible, especially the supernatural son-of-God stuff:

Thomas Jefferson believed that the ethical system of Jesus was the finest the world has ever seen. In compiling what has come to be called “The Jefferson Bible,” he sought to separate those ethical teachings from the religious dogma and other supernatural elements that are intermixed in the account provided by the four Gospels. He presented these teachings, along with the essential events of the life of Jesus, in one continuous narrative.

The group most justified in condemning American history textbooks are Native Americans. Our ancestors seized their land and slaughtered them by the tens of thousands. Why is the post-Columbus Native American experience skipped over at the start of textbooks in favor of the immediate pre-Revolutionary era? Because the truth doesn’t fit the conservatives' myths about America’s Jesus-like perfection! And yet it’s conservatives screaming about our biased textbooks!

Posted by James on Mar 11, 2010

The happiness formula

What’s the purpose of a nation or a government?

Judging from U.S. (corporate-controlled) news, you might well believe government’s main responsibility is maximizing GNP, Gross National Product, or the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA). But GNP is a horrible proxy for what we should really focus on: some measure of aggregate happiness. GNP has not one but two fatal flaws: 1) it doesn’t measure how much money the average citizen has, esp. in America, where “In 2007, the top 1 percent of tax returns… earned 22.8 percent of adjusted gross income”; and, 2) money has a very weak relationship with happiness. DJIA is an even worse proxy for happiness because few low- and middle-income Americans have substantial stock portfolios.

I hear you thinking: “Maximize ‘Gross National Happiness’? That’s absurd!”

Well, the nation of Bhutan disagrees:

The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is the only nation that puts happiness at the core of public policy. But its thrust on a “gross national happiness”(GNH) index is not just a warm-and-fuzzy inheritance from Buddhism; it is integral to the nation’s cultural and political security.

Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the phrase GNH in 1972 on the belief that people’s happiness did not depend on the nation’s economic wealth…

GNH indicators — as opposed to more traditional measures like a nation’s gross domestic product based on economic activity — recognizes nine components of happiness: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance.

It’s all tracked twice a year through a survey of 1,300 people conducted by Zangmo’s agency.

Is maximizing Gross National Happiness a gimmick, or does it actually work?

Well, a 2006 international happiness survey ranked Bhutan an astonishing 8th in the world (out of 178 nations surveyed)! Bhutan trailed only Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Iceland (I bet they’re no longer as happy!), The Bahamas, Finland and Sweden.

GNP and DJIA are horrible things for government to care about. Scientific research into what makes people happy has exploded in recent years, and the findings are clear. David Brooks provides an excellent summary:

Marital happiness is far more important than anything else in determining personal well-being. If you have a successful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many professional setbacks you endure, you will be reasonably happy. If you have an unsuccessful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many career triumphs you record, you will remain significantly unfulfilled….

The daily activities most associated with happiness are sex, socializing after work and having dinner with others. The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting. According to one study, joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income. According to another, being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year.

If you want to find a good place to live, just ask people if they trust their neighbors. Levels of social trust vary enormously, but countries with high social trust have happier people, better health, more efficient government, more economic growth, and less fear of crime (regardless of whether actual crime rates are increasing or decreasing)….

Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives.

Posted by James on Mar 30, 2010

Top security vulnerability: "Windows"

I enjoyed Slashdot blogger Barbara Hudson’s list of The Top 10 security vulnerabilities:

  1. “Pissing off coders for no reason.”

  2. “Windows.”

  3. “Feature bloat.”

  4. “We gotta ship NOW!”

  5. “The entire marketing department.”

  6. “Letting the president’s golfing buddies supply ‘useful input.’”

  7. “We’ll patch it later.”

  8. “Crunch time! and the 60-hour week.”

  9. “Ever-changing requirements.”

  10. “Hey, I read this article at and from now on we’re doing it this way …”

  11. “No, don’t refactor it, there’s no time — just put in a comment that SOME_VARIABLE now means the exact opposite of what it seems to mean, and that save_state_to_stable_storage() now exits without saving,” Hudson quipped. “And don’t worry about that other problem — nobody will enter a name with exactly 2,083 characters.”

Posted by James on Mar 04, 2010

Ugly budget math

Back-of-the-envelope estimates of what must happen to balance the long-term federal budget read like horror stories:

By 2020, government spending is projected to equal 26 percent (and rising) of G.D.P., mostly because of Medicare and Social Security. Taxes are on pace to equal just 19 percent…

A solution that relied only on spending cuts would dismantle some bedrock parts of modern American society. Paul Ryan, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, recently released such a plan, and it got rid of Medicare for everyone now under 55.

A solution that relied only on taxes would muzzle economic growth. To cover the costs of future spending — the retirement of the baby boomers and everything else — federal taxes would have to rise by almost 50 percent, immediately and permanently, according to a recent analysis by the economists Alan Auerbach and William Gale.

The Obama Administration should be using these dire forecasts to demand single payer healthcare, which would cover every American at lower total cost than we’re currently paying to cover 45 million fewer Americans (and only pretending to cover the rest of us… until we lose our job or suffer an expensive illness that leads our insurer to cut us). Economically and ethically, single payer is a no-brainer. A single government program would cut out the do-nothing insurance companies who eat up dimes on every healthcare dollar while providing nothing tangible in return. A single government healthcare buyer would also have tremendous market power to dramatically drive down prices paid from their current absurd levels, which are completely unhinged from what those services/drugs actually cost providers.

Single payer is only a political loser… because politicians love the billions in bribes campaign contributions they’re receiving from pharmaceuticals, hospitals and insurance companies.

When we’re looking at a structural deficit of 7% of GDP, shouldn’t we be taking such an obvious step that would lower costs while providing widespread benefits?

Posted by James on Mar 17, 2010

U.K. vacations becoming much more affordable

The U.K. has some serious debt problems.

British household debt is now 170 percent of overall annual income, compared with 130 percent in the United States. In an echo of the U.S. rush into subprime mortgages with low teaser rates, millions of homeowners in Britain have piled into variable-rate mortgages that are linked to the rock-bottom base rate.

As for the British government, it has been able to finance a budget deficit of 12.5 percent of G.D.P. — equal to Greece’s — at an interest rate more than two full percentage points lower only because the Bank of England bought the majority of the bonds it issued last year.

There’s an upside for us Yanks: The British pound should continue falling in value, making trips “across the pond” much more affordable.

Posted by James on Mar 02, 2010

Vince Lombardi and the Hawthorne Effect

When we believe someone is watching us, our behavior changes. Scientists call this The Hawthorne Effect.

Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi — a master of psychology — understood this well:

NFL Films prez Steve Sabol… told an interesting anecdote about the time he worked as a cameraman for NFL Films and was assigned to the Vince Lombardi Packers. He said Lombardi asked him to shoot training-camp drills even if there was no film in his camera.

“There are no slackers when the eyes of the world are watching,” he said Lombardi always told him.

Posted by James on Mar 26, 2010

Writers on their craft

The Guardian has published some wonderful advice from authors, much of which is also relevant to non-authors. A few highlights to pique your interest:

  • It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

  • Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.

  • Only bad writers think that their work is really good.

  • Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else.

  • Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

  • If you had a terminal disease would you ­finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.

  • Good ideas are often murdered by better ones.

  • Keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine.

  • Never complain of being misunderstood. You can choose to be understood, or you can choose not to.

  • Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away.

  • Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

  • Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

  • Writers write.

I’ll let you find your own highlights in part 2.

Posted by James on Mar 01, 2010