Racket of the day: higher education

A professor at Cal State Fullerton is in trouble for assigning a cheaper textbook than the one assigned by his department. The department-chosen text retails for a whopping $180. It’s also worth noting that the $180 textbook was written by the chair and vice chair of the math department.

Aside from unfortunate conflict of interest, one has to step back and wonder why it is that textbooks are so expensive these days. Has the cost of publishing gone up significantly? Prices in the rest of the book industry would seem to indicate not. Is it harder to recruit authors than ever? Maybe, but it’s worth pointing out that there’s probably not much that has changed in an introductory linear algebra text in the past 50 years.

The only explanation I can’t bat away is that the educational publishing industry learned to assert market power. The students have to buy the course textbook, and that gives publishers who can get in the door strong pricing flexibility, better yet if they are in cahoots with the administration. Furthermore, the ability to pay is bolstered by our good friends, non-dischargeable student loans.

It’s embarassing and sad. One could imagine an alternative universe where a system like Cal State endeavors to create its own teaching materials for free or minimal cost. It’s not like their are a dearth of linear algebra resources for free on the web. But that is not our world.

Finally, as a point of comparison, it just so happens that I still have my linear algebra textbook from undergrad.

What a textbook cost in 1992
What a textbook cost in 1992
Linear Algebra for Calculus, K. Heuvers, J. Kuisti, et al.
Linear Algebra for Calculus, K. Heuvers, J. Kuisti, et al.








$13.35 in 1992 would be $22.64 today. Amazon lists the current edition today for $111. Hmm.

Falling out of love with Silicon Valley

I came to Silicon Valley in the mid 1990’s. Reflecting back on that time directly out of college, I remember that I thought computer chips were exciting and that the best companies designing and manufacturing them were making huge money. Of course, I had been fascinated with computers since I was little, as had many of my coworkers.

Anyway, computer chips seemed really cool back then. They looked cool. They were made in cool manufacturing environments. The tools to design them were cool. And the chips were getting better and faster all the time. Honestly, it just seemed like fun and I wanted in.

In those years, I distinctly remember social events where I would try to express my excitement about semiconductors and folks would just politely back away from me, the crazy nerd.

Today,  Silicon Valley is still cool. In fact, it’s way cooler and more widely cool. People are making even more money, more people are involved, and the products they’re churning out are used by more people and in more numerous ways. And, the only reason you can’t talk about your work at parties today is because everyone is so tired of it.

But, SV today leaves me cold.

What has changed is cool itself. I liked nerd-cool, but this is mainstream capitalist cool. Banker cool. “Kids” in hoodies cool. Ignore the rules cool.

The people being drawn to Silicon Valley today, like me, are also coming because it’s exciting, but what excites them is not the same as what excited me. For awhile I thought this was a software vs. hardware thing. (It is, but not entirely — requires a separate post for sure.)

I see two basic factors for my loss of affection for SV:

  1. Today’s hot companies generally deploy tech rather than make it. The exceptions seem to be when they have to develop something for operational purposes, and when they do they seem to keep their innovations close. Poster child for this might be Google, which had to invent a lot of its infrastructure, though a Google starting fresh today would probably have much less to do. Anyway, not creating things you don’t absolutely have to create is probably smart, but can we admit that it’s also boring?
  2. The business models make me uncomfortable. Making a thing (or software, or a service) and selling it in a two-party, pareto-improving transaction is very passé. In fact, if your plan is to make and sell hardware OR software, your prospects for raising money are limited. Instead, advertising and market-making are hot.


When I was a young man, choosing my major in college, there were large, successful advertising businesses and large, successful market makers. But I would never have spent a femtosecond considering working for either.

Today, advertisers (Google, Facebook, etc) and market-makers (Uber, Airbnb, etc) dominate Silicon Valley. They’re great companies, I guess, but I have to wonder why so many engineers are thrilled to join them. Steve Jobs once famously recruited John Sculley by asking him if he wanted to sell sugar water for the rest of his career, or if he wanted to change the world. Well, it seems that sugar water (or perhaps, sugar water once removed) may have actually won in the end. (Interestingly, Apple continues to mostly avoid this model.)

I still love tech. Maybe the tech nerds will regroup somewhere and stage a comeback. Probably not going to happen in SV, though.

WSJ swipes at science

Rather interesting piece by Matt Ridley in the WSJ, making the case that spending on basic science is a waste. It’s definitely worth a read for it’s world-tipped-on-its-side-itude. [ Ridley, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, has some interesting views about many things, so a scan of his wikipedia page, linked above, is worthwhile if you’re going to read the article. ]

Though I will happily grant the author the point that the linear model of:

is incorrect and simplistic, I don’t think that’ll be news to anyone who has ever spent a few minutes thinking about any of those things. Yes, technological advance is chaotic. Yes, innovation comes from many places, and the arrows are not always in the same direction.


But stating that the direction is not always from science to tech is a very far cry from proving that we can get away without science altogether.

He’s right, of course, that not all science leads to anything particularly valuable, and even when it does, it’s hard to know in advance what will and won’t. Sometimes hundreds of years can pass between a discovery and the moment society knows what to do with it.

In fact, it is for those very reasons and man more that it makes sense for governments to fund science.

The rest of the piece is, unfortunately, worse. I don’t have enough time to criticize all the arguments in the piece, but a few quick call-outs:

In 2007, the economist Leo Sveikauskas of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that returns from many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero and that “many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all.”

You don’t say? Yeah, you can’t point to the monetary benefits of science because it does not directly generate monetary benefits. I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that you can’t sell public knowledge? But you can use it to make things, and sell those. Or use it to direct your own research and make something of that. Whodathunk? Also, in the process, you get a bunch of educated people that private actors will hire to make things.

And, by the way, there are good reason to finance science with public money. Here’s one:

Let’s say knowledge “A”, obtained at cost a’ can be combined by technology entrepreneurs, P,Q,R to generate wealth p’,q’,r’. Without government funding of science, unless p’,q’,r’ each individually are more than a’, it won’t happen, because in the private investment scenario, the private investors has to recoup their costs alone. Even if p’ > a’, we still won’t see any of q’ and r’.  But with the public investment to get A, we get all of p’,q’,r’. When you throw in the uncertainty of the value of A at the time that it is being generated, it’s even harder for the private sector to justify. This has been known for a good while.

[ Aside: this is and other interesting aspects of innovation are covered in great detail, by the way, in the late Suzanne Scotchmer’s well thought out book, Innovation and Incentives. ]

Ridley also has a weird theory that technology has become a living organism, desiring to and able to perpetuate itself. I don’t half understand what that means, but it’s a strange foundation for an argument that government science doesn’t matter:

Increasingly, technology is developing the kind of autonomy that hitherto characterized biological entities. The Stanford economist Brian Arthur argues that technology is self-organizing and can, in effect, reproduce and adapt to its environment. It thus qualifies as a living organism, at least in the sense that a coral reef is a living thing. Sure, it could not exist without animals (that is, people) to build and maintain it, but then that is true of a coral reef, too.

And who knows when this will no longer be true of technology, and it will build and maintain itself? To the science writer Kevin Kelly, the “technium”—his name for the evolving organism that our collective machinery comprises—is already “a very complex organism that often follows its own urges.” It “wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself.”

Even if this is true, why believe that the innovation we would get from a purely technologically driven progress is the “best” innovation we can get, or even the innovation we want? Oh, that’s right, in the libertarian mindset, “we” doesn’t exist. So, it’s a good thing if, say, industry sink billions into fantastic facial moisturizer while cures for diseases that only affect the poor go unfunded.

Here’s another groaner:

To most people, the argument for public funding of science rests on a list of the discoveries made with public funds, from the Internet (defense science in the U.S.) to the Higgs boson (particle physics at CERN in Switzerland). But that is highly misleading. Given that government has funded science munificently from its huge tax take, it would be odd if it had not found out something. This tells us nothing about what would have been discovered by alternative funding arrangements.

And we can never know what discoveries were not made because government funding crowded out philanthropic and commercial funding, which might have had different priorities. In such an alternative world, it is highly unlikely that the great questions about life, the universe and the mind would have been neglected in favor of, say, how to clone rich people’s pets.

Ah, yes, the “counterfactual would have been better” argument. Of course, it comes with no particular theory or reason why private incentives would advance science, only the assertion that it would. Except, it turns out we do, in fact, have counterfactuals, because there are countries all around the world through history that made different prioritization of science, along with associated outcomes, and the answer is quite grim for the laissez faire folks, I’m afraid.

The rest of the article trots out a bunch of examples of interesting and important technologies, such as the steam engine, that came into being more or less without the underlying science to back them up. But I can make a list, too. Wozniak and Jobs made a computer in their garage, and — bang! — there came the internet. Except, the were already standing on giants, including boatloads of government-funded basic research (a lot of it defense-driven, yes) from which sprung semiconductors and the very notions of electronic computer. (Turing, Von Neumann)

Or lets take a look at radio. Sure, Marconi doing some early tinkering with spark gap transmitters allowed us to get some dit-dahs across the Atlantic without too much understanding, but even he was standing on Maxwell. And besides, the modern digital communications would not be possible without the likes of Fourier, Shannon, Nyquist, Hartley, all of which were doing science. (Some in private labs, though.)

I’m not historian of science, so I hope to soon read blogs from such people responding to this piece.

I’m unsettled by something else, though:

This is a full-throated, direct attack on government-funded science itself, printed in a mainstream publication.

It was not long ago that no serious political ideology in the US would have been broadly anti- public science research. Sure, we’ve seen serious efforts to undermine science in certain areas: climate change, danger of pesticides, etc, but nobody has come straight out and said that government should get out of the science business entirely.

Should be interesting to see if this is the start of a new long-term strategy or just one man’s rant.



If programming languages were exes


[ Please excuse this ridiculous flight of fancy. This post occurred to me yesterday while I was hypoxically working my way up Claremont on a bike. ]

An common game among the nerderati is to compare favorite computer languages, talking trash about your friends’ favorites. But what if programming languages were ex-girlfriend (or -boyfriends)?

Perl 5

Perhaps not the most handsome ex, but probably the most easy-going. Perl was up for anything and didn’t care much what you did as long as it was fun. Definitely got you in trouble a few times. Did not get jealous if you spent time with other languages. Heck, Perl even encouraged it as long as you could all play together. Perl was no priss, and taught you about things that you shouldn’t even describe in polite company. The biggest problem with Perl is that nobody approved, and in the end, you dumped Perl because everyone told you that you had to grow up and move on to a Nice, Serious Language. But you do wonder what might have been…

Perl 6

Never actually went on a date. Stood you up many times.


Trim and neat, Python really impressed you the first time you met. Python came with a lot of documentation, which was a breath of fresh air at first. However, the times when Python’s inflexibility proved annoying started to mount. After one PEP talk too many, you decided to move on. You still remember that one intimate moment when Python yelled out “you’re doing it wrong!” Relationship- ender. Mom was disappointed.


C++ seemed to have it all. It knew just about everything to know about programming. If you heard of some new idea, the odds were that C++ had heard of it before you and incorporated awhile back. You had many intellectual conversations about computer science with C++. Thing is, C++ seemed kind of rulesy, too, and it was hard to know what C++ really wanted from you. Most annoying, whenever you didn’t know what C++ wanted, it blamed you for not “getting” it. C++ also seemed to have a bit of a dark side. Sure, most of the time C++ could be elegant and structured, but more than once you came home to find C++ drunk and in bed with C doing some truly nasty things.


C is not an ex. C is your grumpy grandpa/ma who gives zero f@#ks what the kids are doing today. C is the kind of computer language that keeps a hot rod in the garage, but crashes it every time it takes it out. It’s a wonder C is still alive, given its passtime of lighting M-80’s while holding them between its fingers. Thing is, it’s actually pretty fun to hang out with C, someone who can tell good stories and get its hands dirty.


Looked a lot like Perl, just as promiscuous, but never said or did anything that made you think or laugh. Boring. Dumped.


The weird kid in high school that sat alone and didn’t seem to mind be ostracized. Everything Haskell ever said in class was interesting, if cryptic. There was something attractive about Haskell, but you could never put your finger on it. In the end, you couldn’t imagine a life as such an outsider, so you never even got Haskell’s phone number.


Wore a tie starting in elementary school, Excel was set on business school. Funny thing was that beneath that business exterior, Excel was a complete slob. Excel’s apartment was a pig sty. It was amazing anything ever worked at all. Pretty boring language in the end, though. Went on a few dates, but no chemistry.


Man, in the 90’s everybody was telling you to date Java. This was the language you could finally settle down with. Good thing your instincts told you to dodge that bullet, or you’d be spending your retirement years with a laggy gui for an internal app at a bank. Ick.


You were never that impressed with Javascript, but you have to admit its career has taken off better than yours has. Seems Javascript is everywhere now, a celebrity really. Javascript has even found work on servers. At least Javascript is not hanging out with that ugly barnacle, Jquery as much as it used to.


Sophisticated Congress Simulator

Few people know that I wrote a very sophisticated simulator to determine the output of the Congressional Select Committe on Benghazi. It’s always satisfying to see simulation results match the real world.

Here’s me running the program:

Here’s the source code, in case you want to expand on the idea.

Wedding != Marriage

I don’t know how this study (not paywalled — yay!) about the impact of expensive weddings on the lifespan of marriages missed my attention. This sort of thing is catnip for me.

What they find is that the more you spend on your wedding, the more likely your marriage is to end in divorce. Spending on an engagement ring is even worse. They claim spending $5,000 instead of $500 on a ring increases the risk of divorce 30%. Interestingly, a bigger wedding seems to be good for longevity of the marriage.

This kind of “drive-by” study, which was conducted using Mechanical Turk, a social science fad these days, always feels a bit dicey to me, even if it confirms my priors. The immediate problems that come to mind are that they can’t separate out the kind of person who would want a fancy wedding or to buy/receive an expensive ring, from the act of putting on such a wedding or getting such a ring. (Note: a follow-up study where they give couples randomly, $5000 cash or a $5000 engagement ring is in order.) They do control for income, but I dunno, even that seems half-hearted. People pay for weddings lots of ways: from borrowing, from savings, from mom and dad. I suspect that matters.

Finally, getting a bit normative here, can we just agree that engagement rings themselves are actually a really, really bad idea? It’s a holdover from another time. Are men and women equals? If so, let’s get rid of this tradition in which a man demonstrates his earning power by buying an utterly useless gift. If anything, engagements rings should be exchanged. My spouse let me off the hook on this one, and I’m glad for it, both because we could put the money to better use and because she understood that receiving a fancy ring would be incompatible with her principles. Also, she seems not into diamonds. Love that woman.

BTTF futurism

Futurists take note:

  • improvements in the ability to move matter were overestimated
  • improvements in the ability to process information were underestimated

This is the trap into which the writers of Back to the Future II fell; it’s what most futurists do.

Other rookie mistakes:

  • expected improvements human behavior and ethics
  • expected improvements in human governance
  • expected massive reversion in the above two items


The demand curve for octane

There should not be one.

The New York Times reports that when the price of gas drops people, in addition to buying more gas, also buy more premium gas.

Please, please do not do this.

It’s plain dumb.

A car engine needs a minimum octane rating to run smoothly. If the octane of the gas is too low for the level of compression in the engine, it may pre-detonate, ie, knock. The odds are high that your car was designed to run on 87. Anything higher will do nothing but empty your wallet.

That’s it. Adding premium is not going to make your car run any better, now or ever. (Unless it was designed for premium, in which case you own a sports car and your judgment is probably pretty bad to start.)


Silicon Valley v Hucksters

The recent WSJ article about how Theranos, a well-funded and highly valued blood testing startup, has certainly gotten the press whipped up. Everybody likes a scandal, I guess.

I have no idea if the allegations are true, but the situation reminds me of another company I’ve been following with curiosity: uBeam. This small company promises a technology whereby your cell phone can be charged wirelessly, by ultrasound. Like Theranos, it has a telegenic founder and solid funding from top-tier VC (including Andreesen Horowitz and Marissa Mayer).

Thing is, this company is making promises that I’m strongly inclined to bet against. What they’ve demonstrated so far is nothing like what there product needs to do to be useful. Though it is in theory possible to charge a phone by ultrasound, the physics make it seem rather impractical. It requires rather high sound levels and, to avoid massive inefficiency, very tight audio beam forming. It also needs to work through pants pockets, purses, etc, which is not easy for ultrasound. And of course, it needs to be safe around humans and animals. When asked for more information to support the concept, the CEO usually goes on the attack, making fun of people who didn’t think X: { flight, moon landing, electric cars} was possible. All of which makes me wonder about the geniuses in Silicon Valley who make these investments.  Every engineer I have spoken to about this company immediately smells BS, yet they’ve gotten top-flight capital.

Which makes me wonder. Are people like me too small-minded to appreciate grand ideas? Or is Silicon Valley easily duped? Or, is accepting a certain amount of fraud part of the business model?

Maybe they know most of these types of folks are hucksters, but for $10M a pop, it’s worth it to fund them on the off chance one changes the world.

I dunno.