More election nerdism

Keeping up my streak of mildly entertaining, though basically useless Chrome Extensions, I have create a very tiny extension that keeps the Nate Silver fivethirtyeight predictions in your Chrome toolbar at all times.

You can choose which of Silver’s models is displayed, and clicking brings up more detail as well as links to a few other sites making predictions. Check it out!

For those who are interested in such things, the code is up on github. It’s actually a reasonably minimalist example of a “browser action” extension.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-11-09-46-am

On the morality of tax avoidance

People were pretty unhappy when Donald Trump claimed that not paying taxes “makes him smart.” Similarly, nobody was impressed when Mitt Romney claimed that he “paid all the taxes I am required to, not a dollar more.”

What these folks do is legal. It’s called tax avoidance, and the more money you have, the harder you and your accountants will work, and the better at it you’ll be. There is an entire industry built around tax avoidance.

From www.ccPixs.com
From www.ccPixs.com

Though I want to disapprove of these people, it does occur to me that most of us do not willingly pay taxes that we are not required to pay. It’s not like I skip out on deducting my charitable giving or my mortgage interest, or using the deductions for my kids. I’m legally allowed those deductions and I use them.

So what is wrong with what Trump and Romney do?

One answer is “nothing.” I think that’s not quite the right answer, but it’s close. Yes, just because something is legal does not mean that it’s moral. But where do you draw the line here? Is it based on how clever your accountants had to be to work the system? Or how crazy the hoops you jumped through were to hide your money? I’m not comfortable with fuzzy definitions like that at all.

What is probably immoral, is for a rich person to try to influence the tax system to give himself more favorable treatment. But then again, how do you draw a bright line? Rich people often want lower taxes and (presumably) accept that that buys less government stuff and/or believe that they should not have to transfer their wealth to others. That might be a position that I don’t agree with, but the case for immorality there is a bit more complex, and reasonable people can debate it.

On the other hand, lobbying for a tax system with loopholes that benefit them, and creating a system of such complexity that only the wealthiest can navigate it, thus putting the tax burden onto other taxpayers, taxpayers with less money, is pretty obviously immoral. Well, if not immoral, definitely nasty.

 

Campaigning in an Alternate Universe

I’ve been bouncing around just at the edge of my 2016 presidential campaign overload limit, and the other night’s debate and associated post-debate blogging sent me right through it.

Yes, I was thrilled to see my preferred candidate (Hermione) outperform the other candidate (Wormtail), but all the post-debate analysis and gloating made me weary.

Then, I thought about the important issues facing this country, the ones that keep me up at night worrying for my kids, the ones that were not discussed in the debate, or if they were, only through buzzwords and hand waves, and I got depressed. Because there is precious little in the campaign that addresses them. (To be fair, Clinton’s platform touches on most of these, and Trump’s covers a few, though neither as clearly or candidly as I’d like.)

So, without further ado, I present my list of campaign issues I’d like to see discussed, live, in a debate. If you are a debate moderator from an alternate universe who has moved through an interdimensional portal to our universe, consider using some of these questions:

 

1.

How do we deal with the employment effects of rapid technological change? File the effects of globalization under the same category, because technological change is a driver of that as well. I like technology and am excited about its many positive possibilities, but you don’t have to be a “Luddite” to say that it has already eliminated a lot of jobs and will eliminate many more. History has shown us that whenever technology takes away work,  it eventually gives it back, but I have two issues with that. First, it is certainly possible that “this time it’s different. Second, and more worrisome, history also shows that the time gap between killing jobs and creating new ones can be multigenerational. Furthermore, it’s not clear that the same people who had the old jobs will be able to perform the new ones, even if they were immediately available.

Luddites
from Wikimedia

This is a setup for an extended period of immiseration for working people. And, by the way, don’t think you’ll be immune to this because you’re a professional or because you’re in STEM. Efficiency is coming to your workplace.

It’s a big deal.

I don’t have a fantastic solution to offer, but HRC’s platform, without framing the issue just as I have, does include the idea of major infrastructure reinvestment, which could cushion this effect.

Bonus: how important should work be? Should every able person have/need a job? Why or why not?

2.

Related to this is growing inequality. The technology is allowing fewer and fewer people to capture more and more surplus. Should we try to reverse that, and if so, how do we do so? Answering this means answering some very fundamental questions about what is fairness that I don’t think have been seriously broached.

Occupy
from Wikimedia

Sanders built his campaign on this, and Clinton’s platform talks about economic justice, but certainly does not frame it so starkly.

What has been discussed, at least in the nerd blogosphere, are the deleterious effects of inequality: its (probably) corrosive effect on democracy as well as its challenge to the core belief that everyone gets a chance in America.

Do we try to reverse this or not, and if so, how?

 

3.

from Wikimedia
from Wikimedia

Speaking of chances, our public education system has been an important, perhaps the important engine of upward mobility in the US. What are we going to do to strengthen our education system so that it continues to improve and serve everyone? This is an issue that spans preschool to university. Why are we systematically trying to defund, dismantle, weaken, and privatize these institutions? Related, how have our experiments in making education more efficient been working? What have we learned from them?

4.

Justice. Is our society just and fair? Are we measuring it? Are we progressing? Are we counting everyone? Are people getting a fair shake? Is everyone getting equal treatment under the law?

BLM
from Wikimedia

I’m absolutely talking about racial justice here, but also gender, sexual orientation, economic, environmental, you name it.

If you think the current situation is just, how do you explain recent shootings, etc? If you think it is not just, how do you see fixing it? Top-down or bottom-up? What would you say to a large or even majority constituency that is less (or more) concerned about these issues than you yourself are?

 

5.

flood102405
From Wikimedia

Climate change. What can be done about it at this point, and what are we willing to do? Related, given that we are probably already seeing the effects of climate change, what can be done to help those adversely effected, and should we be doing anything to help them? Who are the beneficiaries of climate change or the processes that contribute to climate change, and should we transfer wealth to benefit those harmed? Should the scope of these questions extend internationally?

 

6.

Rebuilding and protecting our physical infrastructure. I think both candidates actually agree on this, but I didn’t hear much about plans and scope. We have aging:asr-9_radar_antenna

  • electric
  • rail
  • natural gas
  • telecom
  • roads and bridges
  • air traffic control
  • airports
  • water
  • ports
  • internet

What are we doing to modernize them, how much will it cost? What are the costs of not doing it? What are the barriers that are getting in the way of major upgrades of these infrastructures, and what are we going to do to overcome them?

Also, which of these can be hardened and protected, and at what cost? Should we attempt to do so?

 

7.

Military power. What is it for, what are its limits? How will you decide when and how to deploy military power? Defending the US at home is pretty straightforward, but defending military interests abroad is a bit more complex.

U.S. Soldiers depart Forward Operating Base Baylough, Afghanistan, June 16, 2010, to conduct a patrol. The Soldiers are from 1st Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. William Tremblay, U.S. Army/Released)
DoD photo

Do the candidates have established doctrines that they intend follow? What do they think is possible to accomplish with US military power and what is not? What will trigger US military engagement? Under what circumstances do we disengage from a conflict? What do you think of the US’s record in military adventures and do you think that tells you anything about the types of problems we should try to solve using the US military?

7-a. Bonus. What can we do to stop nuclear proliferation in DPRK? Compare and contrast Iran and DPRK and various containment strategies that might be deployed.

 

 

Discouraging coding

I know I’ve written about this before, but I need to rant about tech companies pay lip service about encouraging young people to “code” but then throw up barriers to end-users (ie, regular people, not developers) writing code for their own use.

The example that’s been bugging me lately is Google Chrome, which asks you, every single time it’s started, if you want to disable “developer mode” extensions, with disable as the default, natch.

You see, you can’t run a Chrome extension unless you are in “developer mode” to start with. Then you can write some code, load it into Chrome, and you’re off to the races. This is good for, you know, developing, but also nice for people who just want to write their own extension, for their own use, and that will be the end of it.

Except they will be nagged perpetually for trying to do so. The solution is to upload your extension to the Chrome Web Store, where it can be validated by Google according to a secret formula of tests, and given a seal of approval (maybe).

But you don’t want to upload your extension to the Chrome Web Store? Well, too fscking bad, kid! Maybe you should stick to Scratch if you don’t want to run with the big boys.

It’s not just Google. If you want to run an extension on Firefox, you have to upload it to Mozilla, too — but at least if you just want to use it yourself, you can skip the human validation step. (NB: If you do want to share the extension, you will be dropped into a queue where a human being will — eventually — look at your extension. I tried upgrading Detrumpify on Firefox last week and I’m still waiting for approval.)

And don’t even get me started on Apple, where you need to shell out $99 to do any kind if development at all.

I don’t know how this works on phone apps, but I suspect it’s as complicated.

I get it: there are bad guys out there and we need to be protected from them. And these systems are maybe unavoidably complex. But, damn, I don’t hear anybody saying out loud that we really are losing something as we move to “app culture.” The home DIY hacker is being squeezed.

 

Trump: the disease

After last night’s embarrassing Clinton vs. Trump matchup, I’m once again feeling glum and confused. It caused me to reflect on a dichotomy that I was exposed to in high school: that of “great man” vs. circumstance. I think I believe mostly in circumstance, and maybe even a stronger version of that theory than is commonly proposed.

In my theory, Trump is not an agent with free will, but more akin to a virus: a blob of RNA with a protein coat, evolved to do one thing, without any sense of what it is doing. He is a speck floating in the universe, a mechanically fulfilling its destiny. A simulation running in an orrery of sufficient complexity could predict his coming.

This is his story:

Somewhere, through a combination of natural selection and genetic mutation, a strange child is born into a perfectly suited environment, ample resources and protection for his growth into a successful, powerful monster. Had he been born in another place or time, he might have been abandoned on an ice floe when his nature was discovered, or perhaps killed in early combat with another sociopath. But he prospered. With a certain combination of brashness and utter disregard for anything like humility, substance, or character, it was natural that he would be put on magazine covers, and eventually, television, where, because of television’s intrinsic nature, itself the product of a long, peculiar evolution, he killed, growing yet more powerful.

Later, perhaps prompted by something he saw on a billboard or perhaps due to a random cosmic ray triggering a particular neuron to fire, our virus started talking about politics. By chance, his “ideas” plugged into certain receptors, present in the most ancient, reptilian parts of our brains. Furthermore, society’s immune system, weakened through repeated recent attacks from similar viruses, was wholly unprepared for this potent new disease vector. Our virus, true to form, exploited in-built weaknesses to direct the media and make it work for its own benefit, potentially instructing the media to destroy itself and maybe taking the entire host — our world — in the process.

In the end, what will be left? A dead corpse of a functioning society, teeming with millions of new viruses, ready to infect any remnants or new seedlings of a vital society.

And the universe will keep turning, indifferent.

The end. 

Your search for “history” did not return any results.

I often think about how to preserve data. This is mostly driven by my photography habit. My pictures are not fantastic, but they mean a lot to me, and I suspect, but am by no means certain, that they will mean something to my children and grandchildren. I certainly would love to know what the lives of my own grandparents were like, to see them in stages of life parallel to my own. But I don’t know how to make sure my kids and their kids will be able to see these photos.

A box of old pictures
A box of old pictures

This is a super difficult problem. The physical media that the images are stored on (hard drives, flash cards, etc) degrade and will fail over time, and even if they don’t, the equipment to read that media will become scarce. Furthermore, the format of the data may become undecipherable over time as well. I have high confidence that it will be possible to read jpegs in the year 2056, but when you get into some more esoteric formats, I dunno.

A commonly  proffered solution is to upload your data to a cloud service for backup. I have strong reservations about this as a method for long-term preservation. Those cloud backups are only good as long as the businesses that run them have some reason to continue to do so. Subscriptions, user accounts, and advertising driven revenue seem a poor match for permanent archival storage of anything. Who, long after I’m dead, is going to receive the email that says “your account will be closed if you do not update your credit card in 30 days”? Also, what good is a backup of data I can no longer view on my now-current quantum holographic AI companion?

All of this compares quite unfavorably with a common archival technique used for informal, family information: the shoe box. Photographs stored in a shoe box are susceptible to destruction by fire or flood, but they are fantastically resilient to general benign neglect over exceedingly long periods of time. Sure, the colors will fade if the box is left in a barn for 50 years, but, upon discovery, anyone can recognize the images using the mark-I human eyeball. (Furthermore, it’s really astounding how easy it is to use a computer to restore natural color to faded images.)

There is simply no analog to the shoe box full of negatives in today’s world. Sure, you can throw some flash memory cards into such a box, but you still have the readout problems mentioned above.

As people migrate from their first digital camera to their last digital camera to iPhoneN to iPhoneN+1, lots of images have already been lost. Because of the very short history of digital photography, you can’t even blame that loss on technological change. It’s more about plain old poor stewardship. But just to amplify my point above: the shoe box is quite tolerant of poor stewardship.

*   *   *

Okay, so, this post was not even going to be about the archival problems of families. That is, in aggregate, a large potential loss, made up of hundreds of millions of comparatively smaller losses.

The reason I decided to write today was because I saw this blog post about this article, in which it was described how the on-line archives for a major metropolitan newspaper — going back more than 200 years, are in risk of disappearing from the digital universe.

Here we have a situation in which institutions that are committed to preserving history, with (shrinking) staffs of professional librarians and archivists are failing to preserve history for future generations. In this case, the microfiche archives of the print version of the paper are safe, but the digitally accessible versions are not. The reason: you can’t just put them in a shoe box (or digital library). Someone most host them, and that someone needs to get paid. Forever.

Going forward, more and more of our history is going to happen only in the digital world. Facebook, Twitter, Hillary Clinton’s (or anyone other politician’s) email. There’s not going to be a microfilm version at the local university library. Who is going to store it? Who will access it and how?

A few years ago, it looked like companies like Google were going to — pro bono — solve this problem for us. They were ready, willing, and seemingly able to host all the data and make is available. But now things are getting in the way. Copyright is one. The demand from investors to monetize is another. It used to be thought that you could not monetize yesterday’s paper — today’s paper is tomorrow’s fish-wrap, but more wily content owners realize that if they don’t know the value of an asset, they can’t give it away for free. Even Google, which, I think, hands somewhat tied, is still committed to this sort of project, probably cannot be trusted with the permanent storage of our collective history. Will they be around in 50, 100 years? Will they migrate all their data forever? Will they get bought and sold a dozen times to owners who are not as committed to their original mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful?” Will the actual owners of the information that Google is trying to index try to monetize it into perpetuity?

I think we know the answers. Right now, it all looks pretty grim to me.

 

 

 

Carbon Tax vs Cap-and-Trade. This is boring by now.

If you’ve spent any time in an energy economics class, you have probably seen a slide that shows the essential equivalency of a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system, at least with respect to their ability to internalize externalities and fix a market failure. However, if you scratch the surface of the simple model used to claim this equivalency and you realize it only works if you have a good knowledge of the supply and demand curves for carbon emissions. (There are other non-equivalencies, too, like where the incidence of the costs falls.)

The equivalency idea is that for a given market clearing of carbon emissions and price, you can either set the price, and get the emissions you want, or set the emissions and you will get the price. As it turns out, nobody really has a good grip on the nature of those curves, and we live in a world of uncertainty anyway, so there actually is a rather important difference: what variable are we going to “fix” about and which one will “float,” carrying  all the uncertainty: the price of the carbon emissions quantity?

I bring this up because today I read a nice blog post by Severin Borenstein which I will reduce to its essential conclusion: A carbon tax is much better than cap-and-trade. He brings up the point above, stating that businesses just are much better able to adapt when they know what the price is going to be, but there are other advantages to a tax.

First, administratively, it is much easier to set a tax than it is to legislate an active and vibrant market into existence. If you’ve lived in the world of public policy, I hope you know that Administration Matters.

Furthermore, legislatures are not fast, closed-loop control systems. They can’t adapt their rules on the fly quickly as new information comes in, and sometimes political windows close entirely, making it impossible make corrections. As a result, the ability to adjust caps in a timely manner is, at best, difficult. This is a fundamentally harder problem then getting people to agree, a priori, on what an acceptable price — one with more than a pinch of pain, but not enough to kill the patient.

So, how did we end up with cap-and-trade rather than a carbon tax? Well, certainly a big reason is the deathly allergy legislatures have to the word “tax.” Even worse: “new tax.” Perhaps that was the show-stopper right there. But it certainly did not help that we had economists (I suspect Severin was not among them) providing the conventional wisdom that a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system are essentially interchangeable. The latter is not true, unless a wise, active, and responsive regulator, free to pursue an agreed objective is at the controls. So pretty much never.

How to pay for the Internet, part 0xDEAF0001

Today’s Wall Street Journal had an article about Facebook, in which they promise to change the way the serve advertising in order to defeat ad blockers. This quote, from an FB spokesperson was choice:

“Facebook is ad-supported. Ads are a part of the Facebook experience; they’re not a tack on”

I’ll admit, I use an ad block a lot of the time. It’s not that I’m anti ads totally, but I am definitely utter trash, garbage, useless ads that suck of compute and network resources, cause the page to load much more slowly, and often enough, include malware and tracking. The problem is most acute on the mobile devices, where bandwidth, CPU power, and pixels are all in short supply, and yet it’s harder to block ads there. In fact, you really can’t do it without rooting your phone or doing all your browsing through a proxy.

The ad-supported Internet is just The Worst. I know, I know, I’ve had plenty of people explain to me that that ship has sailed, but I can still hate our ad-supported present and future.

  • Today’s ads suck, and they seem to be getting worse. Based on trends in the per ad revenue, it appears that most of the world agrees with this. They are less and less valuable.
  • Ads create perverse incentives for content creators. Their customer is the advertising client, and the reader is the product. In a pay for service model, you are the customer.
  • Ads are an attack vector for malware.
  • Ads use resources on your computer. Sure, the pay the content provider, but the cpu cycles on your computer are stolen.

I’m sure I could come up with 50 sucky things about Internet advertising, but I think it’s overdetermined. What is good about it is that it provides a way for content generators to make money, and so far, nothing else has worked.

The sad situation is that people do not want to pay for the Internet. We shell out $50 or more each month for access to the Internet, but nobody wants to pay for the Internet itself. Why not? The corrosive effect of an ad-driven Internet is so ubiquitous that people cannot even see it anymore. Because we don’t “pay” for anything on the Internet, everything loses its value. Journalism? Gone. Music? I have 30k songs (29.5k about which I do not care one whit) on my iThing.

Here is a prescription for a better Internet:

  1. Paywall every goddam thing
  2. Create non-profit syndicates that exist to attract member websites and collect subscription revenue on their behalf, distributing it according to clicks, or views, or whatever, at minimal cost.
  3. Kneecap all the rentier Internet businesses like Google and Facebook. They’re not very innovative and there is no justification for their outsized profits and “revenue requirements.” There is a solid case for economic regulation of Internet businesses with strong network effects. Do it.

I know this post is haphazard and touches on a bunch of unrelated ideas. If there is one idea I’d like to convey is: let’s get over our addiction to free stuff. It ain’t free.

 

 

The future of electrical engineering as a profession

The other day I was watching Dave Jones, a video blogger that I find entertaining and informative. His blog, the EEVblog, is catnip for nerds who like to solder stuff and use oscilloscopes.

Recently he did a short segment where he answered a question from a student who was upset that his teacher told him that EE was perhaps not a great field for job security, and he sort of went on a colorful rant about how wrong the professor is.

The professor is right.

Electrical engineering employment is indeed in decline, at least in the USA, and I suspect, other development countries. It’s not that EE skills are not helpful, or that understanding electronics, systems, signals, etc, are not useful. They are all useful and will continue to be. But I think more and more of the work, in particular, the high paying work, will migrate to software people who understand the hardware “well enough.” Which is fine. The fact is that EEs make good firmware engineers.

I think someone smart, with a solid EE background and a willingness to adapt throughout your entire career, should always find employment, but over time I suspect it will be less and less directly related to EE.

I mostly know Silicon Valley. Semiconductor employment is way down here. Mostly, it is through attrition, as people retire and move on, but nobody is hiring loads of young engineers to design chips anymore. It makes sense. Though chip volumes continue to grow, margins continue to shrink, and new chip design starts are way down, because “big” SOCs (systems on chip) with lots of peripherals can fill many niches that used to require custom or semi-custom parts.

I suspect that the need for EEs in circuit board design is also in decline. Not because there are fewer circuit boards, but because designing them is getting easier. One driver is the proliferation of very capable semiconductor parts with lots of cool peripherals is also obviating a lot of would-have-been design work. It’s gotten really easy to plop down a uC and hook up a few things over serial links and a few standard interfaces. In essence, a lot of board design work has been slurped into the chips, where one team designs it once rather than every board designer doing it again. There might be more boards being designed than ever, but the effort per board seems to be going down fast, and that’s actually not great for employment. Like you, I take apart a lot of stuff, and I’m blown away lately not by how complex many modern high volume boards are, but how dead simple they are.

The growth of the “maker” movement bears this out. Amateurs, many with little or no electronics knowledge, are designing circuit boards that do useful things, and they work. Are they making mistakes? Sure, they are. The boards are often not pretty, and violate rules and guidelines that any EE would know, but somehow they crank out working stuff anyway.

I do hold out some hope that as Moore’s law sunsets — and it really is sunseting this time — there will be renewed interest in creative EE design, as natural evolution in performance and capacity won’t solve problems “automatically.” That will perhaps mean more novel architectures, use of FPGAs, close HW/SW codesign, etc.

Some statistics bear all this out. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has this to say about the 2014-2024 job outlook for EEs:
http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/electrical-and-electronics-engineers.htm#tab-6

Note that over a 10 year period they are predicting essentially no growth for EE’s at all. None. Compare this to employment overall, in which they predict 7% growth.

One final note. People who love EE tend to think of EEs as the “model EE” — someone clever, curious, and energetic, and who remains so way for 40+ years. But let’s remind ourselves that 1/2 of EEs are below median.  If you know the student in question, you can make an informed assessment about that person’s prospects, but when you are answering a generic question about prospects for generic EEs, I think the right picture to have in mind is that of the middling engineer, not a particularly good one.

I’m not saying at all that EE is a bad career, and for all I know the number of people getting EE degrees is going down faster than employment, so that the prospects for an EE graduate are actually quite good, but it is important for students to know the state of affairs.

Narrow fact-checking is less than useless

Last night, Donald Trump gave a speech that included a bunch of statements about crime that the New York Times fact-checked for us. This summarizes what they found:

Many of Mr. Trump’s facts appear to be true, though the Republican presidential nominee sometimes failed to offer the entire story, or provide all of the context that might help to explain his numbers.

Putting aside the ridiculously low bar of “many facts appear to be true”, they failed to mention or explain that in every case, despite his factoids being narrowly true, the conclusions he was drawing from them, and suggesting we draw from them, were absolutely, incontrovertibly false.

This kind of reporting drives me bonkers. Crime stats, like all stats, are noisy, and from one year to another, in a specific city, you can find an increase or decrease — whatever you are looking for. But the overall trends are clear, and Trump’s assessment was utter bullshit.

Another, somewhat less savory, media outlet did a much better job, because they took the 10 minutes of Googling necessary to assemble some charts and put Trump’s facts in context.

Would it have been partisan for the NYT to put Trump’s facts into context with respect to the conclusions he was drawing from them? It just seems like journalism.