Sunday, January 30, 2011

Unemployment and the great stagnation

In the past week or so I wrote a summary post on how the people I read think about unemployment and the new American economy.

I also wrote a related post on how little medicine has progressed over the past 27 years. That lack of progress has a lot to do with why health care costs have risen faster than GDP. In the absence of substantial innovation the only way to improve outcomes is to spend more.

These memes are in the air. Two days ago Paul Krugman claimed that the large surge in US productivity from 1995 to 2004 was largely due to Walmart-style retail innovation (which, of course, required advanced IT support).

Yesterday Sewell Chan tagged the financialization [1] of the US economy as big contributor to the (second)  great crash of '09 (emphases mine) ...

Looking for a Legacy of the Financial Crisis Inquiry -

... Greta R. Krippner, a University of Michigan sociologist whose book “Capitalizing on Crisis: The Political Origins of the Rise of Finance” (Harvard University Press) comes out next month.

“The report reinforces the view that financial activities should serve the nonfinancial economy, rather than the other way around, as has been the case in the U.S. economy over the last several decades,” she said.

That orientation toward finance — rather than the deregulation and avarice — is the real source of instability, according to Judith Stein, a historian at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the author of “Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the ’70s,” published last year by Yale University Press.

“Low wages, low interest rates to encourage consumption, and too much investment in housing and financial services because of the decline in manufacturing and other tradable goods – those are the underlying causes.”

That same day Tyler Cowen tied some threads, while plugging his Great Stagnation book in the NYT (emphases mine) ...

Incomes Are Stuck on Technology’s Plateau - Tyler Cown

... From 1947 to 1973 — a period of just 26 years — inflation-adjusted median income in the United States more than doubled. But in the 31 years from 1973 to 2004, it rose only 22 percent. And, over the last decade, it actually declined.

Most well-off countries have experienced income growth slowdowns since the early 1970s, so it would seem that a single cause is transcending national borders: the reaching of a technological plateau. The numbers suggest that for almost 40 years, we’ve had near-universal dissemination of the major innovations stemming from the Industrial Revolution, many of which combined efficient machines with potent fossil fuels. Today, no huge improvement for the automobile or airplane is in sight, and the major struggle is to limit their pollution, not to vastly improve their capabilities.

Although America produces plenty of innovations, most are not geared toward significantly raising the average standard of living. It seems that we are coming up with ideas that benefit relatively small numbers of people, compared with the broad-based advances of earlier decades, when the modern world was put into place. If pre-1973 growth rates had continued, for example, median family income in the United States would now be more than $90,000, as opposed to its current range of around $50,000.

... there have certainly been gains in medical treatment, we may be overvaluing them. In education, we are spending more each year, but test scores have stagnated for decades, graduation rates are down and America’s worst schools are disasters.

There is an even broader problem. When it comes to measuring national income, we’re generally valuing expenditures at cost, rather than tracking productivity in terms of results. In other words, our statistics may be deceiving us — by accepting, say, our health care and educational expenditures at face value. This theme has been emphasized by the PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel in his public talks and by the economist Michael Mandel in his writings. And I’ve stressed it in a recent e-book, “The Great Stagnation.”

Sooner or later, new technological revolutions will occur, perhaps in the biosciences, through genome sequencing, or in energy production, through viable solar power, for example. But these transformations won’t come overnight, and we’ll have to make do in the meantime. Instead of facing up to this scarcity, politicians promote tax cuts and income redistribution policies to benefit favored constituencies. Yet these are one-off adjustments and, over time, they cannot undo the slower rate of growth in average living standards...

Cowen is infected with the Marketarian meme [3]. Since the Market is divine, the failure must be in innovation. Even so, I think he has some important things right.

He is too tentative though when he questions how much progress medicine has really made over the pasts quarter century. If we went back in time, and told doctors of 1984 what medicine  in 2011 was like, they would weep. "Surely", they would protest, "we must at least have beaten something like Rheumatoid arthritis or Multiple sclerosis".

On the other hand, I think Cowen (and, for that matter, Krugman), are missing the enormous impacts of IT innovation. Our Finance innovations were IT enabled, and our disastrous inability to measure and manage them arose in part from our inability to understand the systems we'd created.

So we've had three new additions to my summary article in one week. I think we're closing in on what whacked America between 1999 and 2011. Congress may again need four tries to get it right [2], but we are making progress. Once we understand what the heck happened, we have a start at recovering.

- fn --

[1] I point to the "virtual economy", more in my summary post. The rise of Finance was driven by both IT innovations and the rise of the vast manufacturing powers of China, Brazil and India.

[2] Washington’s Financial Disaster - Frank Portnoy - - "Few people remember that the early investigations of the 1929 crash also failed due to political battles and ambiguous missions. Ferdinand Pecora was Congress’s fourth chief counsel, not its first, and he did not complete his work until five years after the crisis. Congress should try again."

[3] He is in denial about the extent of income skew vs. income growth. For example.

See also

Dilbert shout out

Dilbert 1/30/11 - "Option two: I could lie, and tell you that everything is perfect". Perfect.

Scott Adams has been at this for 22 years. Some years he does better than others, but in the past six months he's hit the spot more often than not. Nice to see a veteran in good form.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Teaching science - how to improve

I have children in public schools in grades 3 through 8. This isn't surprising ...

Minn. science proficiency results called a shock |

... national tests given in 2009, showed that 40 percent of Minnesota eighth-graders and 43 percent of fourth-graders were either 'proficient' or 'advanced' in science."...

In other words, 60% failed.

I'm not concerned about science teaching in grades 1 to 4. Maybe someday, but not today. We do have a problem with teaching science in Minnesota's public schools between grades 5 and 8.

So what should we do about it?

We need old, cynical, hard bitten teachers nearing retirement to tell us what needs to change. I can only suggest a solution based on what I know about doctors. Since doctors and teachers have a lot in common, this may be relevant.

I was a real family doc once. I switched careers about fifteen years ago, but my wife still sees patients. There are a lot of superb family physicians, particularly in rural America but also in urban settings. On the other hand, radiologists make far more money for less work. The gap has grown over the past decades. Since most radiologists would be lousy family physicians, and most family physicians would die of boredom doing radiology, the impact isn't as large as it might be. Still, it's real. If you want to get more quality family physicians (or pediatricians, internists, etc), the cheapest solution is to pay radiologists less [1].

I suspect the same is true in teaching. Science teachers and reading teachers draw from somewhat similar candidate pools. The quality of science teaching will depend on the relative prestige and rewards between one domain and the other. If we want better science teaching in America, we need to make teaching science relatively more attractive than the alternatives.

Any comments from those who teach young students?

[1] You'll know you're paying too little when it becomes hard to read MRIs or get an interventional procedure performed. I suspect that would take a vast reduction in income.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Administrivia: return of the captcha

Google's spam comment detection isn't good enough. After a one month test I've given up and restored a captcha function (yech) for Gordon's Notes comments.


Turbulent world, rigid software

One of the fringe benefits of playing professor is that I can insert my idiosyncratic observations into relatively innocent minds.

Last night, during a health informatics lecture, I described the remarkable rigidities in an intersecting set of vertical software systems I know well. Some of the applications are older than the younger students, others are just maturing. They're all strung together by a rickety set of interfaces and interdependencies; even routine data configuration is problematic. It's an interlocking and rigid system of brittleware. When business conditions change, brittleware breaks.

That's not unusual. We see it even on solitary desktop applications. PowerPoint 2007 is clearly senile; it needs a long cruise on a railing-free ship. Brittleware is everywhere.

Problem is, the world changes. Of course that's not new; the 20th century was packed with change. For most of that time, however, we used people and paper. People and paper are relatively easy to change. Even hardware is easy to change. Software though, software is hard.

So what impact does rigid software have on the ability of businesses to adopt to changing conditions? Does it become a true impediment to adaptation?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Things that stopped progressing: medicine and theoretical physics

I'm surprised more people haven't noticed that medical progress slowed way down after 1984.

It's not just medical science that's hit a wall. Lee Smolin's 2004 The Trouble With Physics claims physics has been frozen for decades. (At least physics has a book on this. I think physicians are in denial.)

What other sciences have stopped making progress? Biology seems to be very healthy ...

School segregation - by class

Americans are used to schools being by race. It seems we accept it and expect it...

Marginal Revolution: U.S. fact of the day

... American schools are more segregated by race and class today than they were on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, 43 years ago. The average white child in America attends a school that is 77 percent white, and where just 32 percent of the student body lives in poverty. The average black child attends a school that is 59 percent poor but only 29 percent white. The typical Latino kid is similarly segregated; his school is 57 percent poor and 27 percent white. Overall, a third of all black and Latino children sit every day in classrooms that are 90 to 100 percent black and Latino...

I'm interested in how segregated schools are by class -- including private schools. I'm not sure how to measure it, but my suspicion is that the kids of the top 5% no longer mix with the bottom 95%.

In a related vein, one of the great scandals of American society is that most public schools are funded by local taxation. It's appalling, but Americans seems to accept it without question.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Unemployment and the new American economy - with some fixes

The thinkers I follow [2] have been struggling to understand why America's unemployment is so high. Productivity is rising, the economy is growing, but workers are not in demand. Obama has hired Jeffrey Immelt to help, which is either clever politics or a sign that Obama's not as smart as I thought he was.

There's too much to say here. So I'll drop seven bullet points and a set of the best links. This is what I think is happening ...

  • The Great Recession has exposed structural unemployment that otherwise would have become evident around 2015.
  • The digital economy (IT) impacts predicted in the 1970s have come about thirty years later than expected. [3]
  • The extremely rapid industrialization and post-industrialization of about 3 billion people is incredibly destabilizing. It is a testament to the power of civilization that we're not yet living in caves.
  • In a virtualized economy workers with average analytic and social IQ less than 125 are increasingly disabled. Since this average falls with age the rate of disability is rising as the we boomers accumulate entropy. Experience counts for less.
  • America is the world's most virtualized economy. We have invested more intellectual capital in Finance, entertainment and software than any other nation. We are also aging, though less quickly than many. We are the harbinger.
  • China is going to hit the wall between 2011 and 2012.
  • Peak Oil is here, soon and then later. Oil prices will rise until China's 2012 recession, then fall, then rise again.

Here is what I think we need to do ...

  • Institute a Carbon Tax with a component that drops as supply decreases to both decrease carbon emissions and stabilize energy prices. We need a predictable rise to help us with extensive adaptations. Whether this is revenue neutral or not depends on politics. Global warming is real.
  • Prepare for China's coming recession. The world needs a health, wealthy China. There are things we can say and do that will help China pass through these times and recover.
  • Slow the progress of economic virtualization over the next five years[4]. I think this is going to happen anyway, but we need to encourage and support diversion to an economy with more employment niches. Throwing sand in the gears of Finance is a good idea. One way to do that would be to give Goldman Sachs more competition. Regulation, taxation, and, paradoxically, reducing barriers to entry into the Finance market are all important.
  • Start applying the lessons learned from providing employment to cognitively impaired adults to the entire US population. The US is a world leader (yes, this shocks me [1]) in the integration and support of adults with disabilities. Might as well learn something.

See also

What I've been reading lately ...

Some relevant old posts of mine

- fn --

[1] The ADA was enacted in 1990 under Bush I (!).
[2] Beyond my own stuff, I'm a DeLongian. DeLongian's are closely aligned with Krumanians, but are less constrained by the conventions of polemical discourse. I suspect, for example, that, in his heart, Krugman believes a lot of what I've written above. It's just not something he dares to say just now.
[3] Gibson's Neuromancer, written in 1984 and influenced by the memes of the late 70s and early 80s deserves a re-read.
[4] I'm being terse by necessity. The thesis is that virtual economies are winner-take-all; effectively, they create mass disability. We need to shift to an economy that has more diverse employment niches -- effectively lowering disability.

Update 1/30/11Gordon's Notes: Unemployment and the great stagnation - this meme is in the air.

Friday, January 21, 2011


A student of mine grew up in Suzhou, China; she left about six years ago. It was, she said, an  hour west of Shanghai, and had a population of about 1 million.

Today it has a population of about 6 million. By way of comparison, Chicago has a population of about 2.9 million.

Google Earth still shows a gap of green between Suzhou and Shanghai, but that will not last long.

When I asked how her home differed from a city like Houston, she said it was much more compact, and that it was a continuous landscape of towers - "downtown" everywhere. I imagined something like downtown Chicago, but more widespread.

I imagined wrong. This is a random grab from Google Earth ...

Screen shot 2011-01-21 at 9.35.38 PM.png

"Downtown everywhere" was probably a language limitation. From Google Earth photos I see that each building brick is a multi-story apartment building. Many thousands of them, each holding hundreds to thousands of people. Much of Suzhou is now a continuous landscape of identical residential multi-story housing units.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dog 2.0

A randomly selected purebred border collie associates sounds with objects, and perhaps sound permutations with objects and actions.

There are mid-sized dog breeds that live as long as 25 years. Given low cost whole genome sequencing, we could create a dog breed a 25 year lifespan and enhanced communication skills.

To develop greater language skills within a short time period would probably take some germline engineering. Maybe in 10 years we'll be able to do the germline engineering.

So does dog 2.0 get to vote in 2060?

See also:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Beyond America - Google world editions with Google Reader and Google Share

Google News Editions

This morning, thinking of Brazil I wrote ...

I just wish I, and we, had a better way to share and understand the fascinating and terrible world that we live in. We see only slices and shards of it. My hope is that even though today's machine translation only works  for very closely related languages (ex: English, French, German) that it will improve dramatically in the next decade. When that time comes Google News (or the future equivalent) may reveal the invisible world. Maybe, one day, even Chicago.

This morning, reading the NYT on my iPhone's, I was again annoyed by my inability to easily share my thoughts on what I read there. I want to create Google Reader Shared item notes on my shared item page/feed (and twitter reflection [2]), but that's not a NYT option. [1]. Google News gave me the same feeling a bit later. I wished I could read and share using with superb new "readability" integration.

This afternoon I realized I can take a step now towards all of these objectives.

Most of the NYT articles I'm interested in show up in Google News. Google News has editions for many nations (left). Each Google news edition or section has a unique feed.

So I've added a representative sample of Google News English language editions to my Google Reader feeds. Certainly Canada (my birthplace) and the US, but also India (english version) and Southeast Asia. I've grouped them in a single "folder" so I can easily mark the entire collection as read (this is a high volume collection).

I'll be tweaking the set, and sharing from this set.

Of course what I really want is integrated machine translation for Chinese sources, but we're not there yet. Machine translation barely works for closely related languages and it's computationally intensive.

-- fn -

[1] I've tried workarounds such as email to a hidden blog that I follow in Reeder, and sharing from there, but it's too tedious. There might be something I could do using Yahoo! Pipes, but, frankly, I'd forgotten about them.
[2] I'm seriously tired of Twitter's string length limits. It's darkly funny that some consider this a feature.

See also:


Chicago is the invisible city. Massive. Wealthy. Complex. But invisible. Chicago is America's third most populous city and third largest metropolitan area, but we read far more about puny, dying Detroit. Even Obama's Presidency hasn't exposed Chicago. [1]

Brazil is, for Americans, the invisible nation. There are 190 million Brazilians; it's the world's fifth largest country and, by GDP, eight largest economy and growing fast. I'd love to visit Brazil [2].

Brazil is also nation where survivors of mudslides are walking out from a natural disaster ...

In Brazil, Mudslide Survivors Walk Miles for Aid -

Thousands of traumatized mudslide survivors navigated steep, slippery jungle paths Saturday to find food, water and medicine as they slowly gave up hope that government rescuers would reach them anytime soon.

Those who escaped the slides that killed nearly 600 people over four days ferried bottles of water and sacks of groceries on their backs after trekking five miles to the center of this mountain town north of Rio de Janeiro.

Wanderson Ferreira de Carvalho, 27, lost 23 members of his family, including his father, his wife and 2-year-old son. He trudged up a path to his neighborhood, carrying supplies.

“We have to help those who are alive,” he said. “I’ve cried a lot and sometimes my mind goes blank, and I almost forget what happened. But we have to do what we must to help the living.”

Local and state fire departments said they had deployed 2,500 rescuers, while 225 federal policeman were in the area to maintain order. The federal government has been trying to fly in 11 helicopters to remote areas, but has found it hard because of poor weather conditions.

That's the full text of the entire NYT article.

Terosopolis isn't, on a map, that far from Rio ...

Screen shot 2011-01-17 at 8.54.33 AM.png

Rio is to the left of the great bay, Teresopolis is the A icon. Terosopolis is within 250 (spectacular looking) kilometers of the city.

I'm not moralizing about Brazil. America is far wealthier than Brazil, but we struggled to manage Katrina. (The stories of the Coast Guard response to Katrina, incidentally, are awe inspiring).

I just wish I, and we, had a better way to share and understand the fascinating and terrible world that we live in. We see only slices and shards of it. My hope is that even though today's machine translation only works  for very closely related languages (ex: English, French, German) that it will improve dramatically in the next decade. When that time comes Google News (or the future equivalent) may reveal the invisible world. Maybe, one day, even Chicago.

[1] Of course, it may also be that Chicago is grumpily dull. It's a corrupt old city, but it's been more corrupt in the past. It mostly seems to work. The weather is miserable, worse in its own way than Minneapolis, but the regional population is stable. Of course if it turns into Detroit then it will get a bit of attention.
[2] I roamed once. That was a prior life. I hope to have a few more lives yet.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What will be unacceptable in 50 years?

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been trying to imagine how, about 150 years ago, an American culture could celebrate the ownership of humans. That is unacceptable in America today. Times change.

Assuming we continued the historic trends of the past hundred years [1], what will be unacceptable fifty years from now?

I listed three ideas in a comment ...

Grappling With Genosha - Ta-Nehisi Coates - Personal - The Atlantic

.... What things do we love that will be despised in fifty years?

I eat pigs. I think that will be unacceptable in fifty years.

Coates loves football, a sport where brain damage is a normal outcome. I think that will be unacceptable sooner than fifty years from now.

We imprison and kill people with disabled brains. I think that will be unacceptable fifty years from now...

Any others?

[1] Of course this is simply a thought experiment. If the trends of the past century continue, humans will not be defining acceptability.

What China's rulers fear today

Blood and Treasure, one of my favorite blogs, suggests a leaked document as a guide to the current fears of China's leadership --  A General Notice from the Central Propaganda Bureau Regarding News and Propaganda in 2011. In bullet form, they are (emphases mine):

  • income distribution, the stock and real-estate markets, employment and social security, education and health, and safety in manufacturing.
  • reports on disasters and extreme incidents.  They "cannot include interviews or supervision from non-local areas".
  • reports on the requisition of land and forcible demolition, especially report on incidents of violent demolition or “suicides, self-mutilation, or collective action”
  • public selection of news, people, or events [jg: I think this refers to social reporting, public selection of topics]
  • incidents of collective action ... prevent reports on collective action from pointing towards and focusing on the party and the government.
  • anti-corruption cases ... Do not use the term “civil society” (gongmin shehui).
  • Do not conduct questionnaires or on-line surveys on housing prices.
  • instances of using a residential construction foundation to change a residential permit
  • problems related to Spring Festival travel, such as “difficulties in obtaining even one ticket.”

For China in 2011 it's all about real estate and land seizures. Yes, they have a housing bubble too, and it's going to blow soon. I am really tired of "interesting times".

Extreme parenting

There's a book in play about "extreme parenting", which is apparently a Chinese thing (Koreans would disagree). It's gotten a lot of attention.

It's silly. Extreme parenting requires special needs children. Parenting bright kids without disability is recreational parenting.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The rise and fall of recreational clubs

From the Jan 2011 MN North Star Ski Club newsletter (emphases mine) ...

“Ted Wirth’s hiking club is on its last legs” This was a Star & Trib article on October 26, 2010 describing the decline and demise of a 90-year old Minneapolis Municipal Hiking Club. It peaked at about 500 members and apparently had a full program of 88 hikes in 1928, for example. One member described her first hike in 1934 as starting at West 54th Street and Penn Avenue South (where Settergrin’s Hardware has been for 100 years), going into the “countryside” and ending at Lake Calhoun.

Currently, the average age of its Board is 84. The article summarizes that the club is victim of aging membership and changing exercise habits. Is this pertinent to our North Star’s with our aging membership and gradually declining numbers? Along with the two previous NS Presidents, I wonder what we can do about this?

The "Ted Wirth" referenced in the Strib article lent his name to one of the best of many excellent MSP parks. Ninety years is an impressive record; most of the recreational clubs I've known had lifespans in the 10-30 year range.

I wonder what they the MMHC did right. Google didn't turn up any tips on what makes for a long-lived club. A lot of people would like to know the answer, not least the evidently shrinking North Star (nordic) Ski Club.

Maybe The Atlantic or The New Yorker will assign someone to survey long lived clubs and ask them how they both recruit new members and retain the faithful core (excluding university associated organizations of course. It's easy for them!). I'd buy that issue ...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Unloading the post queue

There are many things I'd like to write about, but only a bit of time to do it. So here's a quick list. I'll probably get back to most of these topics sooner or later ...
  • 21st century America is 19th century South Carolina. Instead of plantations we have the titans of Finance. They don't have employees making cars, or slaves picking cotton, they have software moving money. The rest of us are the freemen of the Old South. It's quite stable until the software gets a bit smarter.
  • William Pfaff (like Andy Grove) says America is committing economic suicide by (unlike Germany) abandoning manufacturing. Actually the problem isn't money. We are doing well by skimming the wealth of India and China. The problem is that we're now living in Goldman Sachs plantation.
  • The first golden age of personal computing was multipolar. We had Lotus, Microsoft, WordPerfect, AshtonTate, Apple, Amiga, IBM, Intel, Atari and so on. Then we were bipolar - Microsoft and Apple. Then, for a time, we were monopolar. Now we're multipolar again; we have Apple, Microsoft, Google, Adobe, Facebook, Intel, ARM and so on. In the 1980s we had dueling document formats. In the 10s we have dueling video formats. Multipolar is better for people like me.
  • It took 15 years to defeat email spam. Now we have Demand Media and GoogleFail. Demand Media isn't a parasite like email spammers, it's a Google symbiote. We knew funding the web through marketing was a Faustian bargain, but we didn't know what the price would be. Unintended consequences again.
  • Google's Demand Media problem feels somewhat like the problems of democracy. America's founders tried, with limited success, to tackle these problems by mixing in some aristocracy and autocracy, and avoiding direct voting (government by referendum - ex: 2010 California).
  • xkcd made wikipedia's list of common misconceptions famous. There is a small universe of these lists, including lists of categories of lists (meta-lists and list taxonomies). Geek heaven, and very Aspie.
  • All the interesting business models for healthcare delivery are disruptive. That's true for most businesses, but especially true for American healthcare in 2010.
  • There is a high cost to being #1, but it's a deferred price. There's some level in a hierarchy that has the best tradeoff between personal power and happiness. It's neither the top nor bottom ...
  • Human evolution drove symbol manipulation, but not arithmetic skills. We are much better at math than mosquitofish, but only somewhat better at arithmetic. This explains much of the modern world.
  • The Verizon iPhone will slow US iPad sales. Many iPad users bought them because they didn't have an iPhone, and they didn't have an iPhone because they were Verizon customers.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Neither Loughner, Palin, Beck nor Limbaugh are responsible. Who is?

Jared Loughner is a paranoid schizophrenic.
Loughner a "textbook" case paranoid schizophrenic - Jared Loughner -

... He's a textbook case. Most psychiatrists will tell you they need to examine a patient before diagnosing him, but this guy has all of the symptoms. He has the right age of onset. He has a deteriorating social course, as they say in the [DSM], social and occupational dysfunction...
This is not a hard diagnosis. This is like diagnosing rain by looking at the splashing drops. In any sane society, Loughner would not be considered responsible for his actions. He is not the "face of evil" dammit, he is a victim of one of the most terrible diseases in the vast array of terrible diseases.

Nor are Palin, Beck or Limbaugh responsible. Yes, paranoid schizophrenics do listen to talk radio, and, yes, it does influence them. Palin and Limbaugh, at least, are sane enough to bear some responsibility for their rhetoric. The voices in Loughner's own head, however, would be stronger than their rants.

If I were a theist I would blame this one on God, but I'm not. There are, however, some close human substitutes. They would be NRA supporters and GOP voters.

If the 2004 assault weapons ban were still in place Loughner would still have shot Giffords, but his kill count would be much lower. If Arizona had a robust mental health care system nobody might have died.

People who support the GOP and the NRA are responsible both for the failure to renew the assault weapons ban and for the miserable state of Arizona (and America's) mental health care.

If you are looking for an intelligent and thoughtful response to this tragedy, forget Loughner. Forget (please) Palin, Beck and Limbaugh. Forget gun control, that won't happen in America. Instead, focus on the identification and management of major psychiatric disorders.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Google is clothes free - what's next

When a man's paycheck depends on his not understanding something, you can depend upon his not understanding it. Upton Sinclair's Law

After Jeff Atwood pointed out that Google search isn't working any more the rest of my geek tribe piled on. We all agree - the emperor isn't wearing anything at all. My recent personal anecdote concerns searches for Apple support documents. Instead of finding the ad-free originals Google found inferior rewrites [1].

The root cause of this problem isn't hard to understand. One easy fix would be for Google to boost the ratings of ad free pages like (cough) Gordon's Notes. In a stroke that would eliminate most of the splogs (spam blogs) and junk pages. It would also eliminate Google's revenue.

Google will dial back a bit and improve their results, but they have a fundamental business problem. So, for that matter, do all of its competitors. The only real fix is to charge end users for search.

We won't pay for search alone. We should, but we won't. We aren't smart enough. Apple has shown, however, that millions will pay for their ad-free, and remarkably crummy, MobileMe services.

What if Apple were to partner with Google (or Bing) and offer search results tweaked and reordered to favor ad-free content as a part of an enhanced pay-for-use MobileMe offering? For that matter, they could do their own search using their mysterious Carolina facility.

Search is expensive. Hideously expensive. The best search requires that we pay directly. Someone will have to figure out how to make this work. In the meantime we can read

[1] Which, frankly, weren't bad. I wouldn't mind them if they actually referenced the source documents. Which they don't.

Update 2/24/11: Google dropped the hammer. The new algorithm gives similar results to the Chrome-only search personalization tool. In my own limited testing my blog posts are much more often on the front page -- even with personalized search turned off.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Most cultures punish the atypically generous

All cultures punish "cheaters". That's unsurprising.

What's surprising is that most cultures punish the atypically generous ...


... the U.S, Australia and the U.K. subjects were much less likely to punish players who HAD cooperated by contributing to the group project. In other societies, ‘[m]any subjects engaged in anti-social punishment; that is, they paid to reduce the earnings of ‘overly’ cooperative individuals (those who contributed more than the punisher did).’ ...

Looking at the graph some cultures punish atypical generosity even more than "free riders". On visual inspection I see three grades of anti-social punishment (emphases mine) ...

  • Low levels: US, Australia, UK, Switzerland, China, Germany
  • Mid level: Denmark, Ukraine, Korea, Turkey, Russia (I suspect Japan would resemble Korea)
  • High level: Saudi Arabia, Greece, Oman

I suspect Canada would fall between Germany and Denmark, at the high end of low punishment. I grew up in Canada, where we understood it was rude to be exceptionally good in any way. I wonder if what's measured here is really a general response to being exceptional (talented, witty, generous, etc) rather than to a specific response to "excessive" generosity. It may also be that in some cultures there is a strong duty to reciprocate generosity (Japan?), so the generous act can be a bit of an unwanted gift.

I think these responses are important to understand -- particularly for those whose programming favors generosity. Even in the US the naturally generous will work with people from cultures that may resent or feel burdened by an unsolicited gift. It is often wise to balance gifts with requests, providing an opportunity for the recipient to balance the scales. Most of all it may be wise to do deed invisibly, so nobody will feel burdened and the Samaritan will go unpunished.


Saturday, January 08, 2011

Is the GOP truly a pawn of corporations and the wealthy? We'll find out soon.

Charlie Stross says emergent corporate entities control America. Krugman says wealth alone is sufficient explanation, emergent entities are an unnecessary complication.

John Gordon says control (the bouncing yellow ball) of America is a dynamic balance between the emergent corporate entity (ECE) powerful (wealthy) individuals, and the voting masses [1]:


Of course I'm right, but it would be nice to have evidence.

Fortunately, there's a natural experiment coming up. The GOP is threatening to destroy the American, and world, economy. This is in the interests of neither powerful individuals nor ECEs. So if it happens, then Stross, Krugman and I are all wrong. The Voters have power after all, and it's just too bad so many Americans are detached from reality.

I bet, however, that the Tea Party GOP caves, and the GOP that serves the powerful and the corporate wins.

That doesn't tell us whether Stross, Krugman, or me has the best story though. We need a different falsifiable prediction.

It's tough to come up with that test because this is a triangle of frenemies, not enemies. Often the interests of (hypothetical) ECEs align with those of powerful people and/or Voters (who are both consumers and employees).  We need test where the voters are neutral, but the interests of corporate entities and powerful individuals are opposed.

The only test I've come up with so far would be to examine the pattern of legislation over the past 30 years. My hypothesis is that we'd find that legislation and accounting regulations have furthered the development of ECEs even as they've reduced the rate of return to Powerful individuals -- perhaps shrinking that pool [2] and even reducing overall economic growth.

Can anyone think of another falsifiable test?

[1] Similar picture here, but there the third point was "the weak". Also true, but different point.
[2] So we end up with fewer "players", even though they may be individually wealthier.

See also:

Smartphone choice made easy: iPhone vs. Android

Asymco estimates half of Americans will use a smartphone by the end of 2011. That means either an Android OS device or an Apple iPhone, since there are no viable competitors.[2]
Which one should you choose?
It turns out the decision is quite easy.
  • If you want to stay with T-Mobile or Sprint -> Android
  • if you are with Verizon or AT&T then ...
    • the phone is for a younger teen or child -> iPhone, Android has no parental controls
    • you want software without advertising -> iPhone, Android apps are almost entirely ad supported
    • you are an iTunes user and buy iTunes video/movies -> iPhone, Android phones can't play iTunes DRMd video or music
    • you want to avoid malware -> iPhone, the Android marketplace is not curated
    • you want the device to have value in two years -> iPhone, it can be used as an iPod touch equivalent after its phone lifetime has passed
    • you want software and OS support over the lifetime of the device -> iPhone, Android device manufacturers rarely provide more than a few months of updates
    • Google voice is very important to you -> Android, on the iPhone it's not fully integrated
    • You don't have, or don't want to use, a classic (legacy) computer -> Android [3]
    • You want Google Apps support -> Android [4]
    • If none of the above is true, you can save 20% of the phone cost by buying an Android phone [1]
Most Verizon and AT&T customers will be happiest with an iPhone.
[1] Assuming $500 in mandatory data fees over the 2 year contract span, prices are about $550 for an Android device and about $700 for a comparable iPhone.
[2] BlackBerry is walking dead. Talk to me about Microsoft's phone in a year or so. Nokia? What's that?
[3] I assume Android doesn't require a legacy (Windows/Mac) computer. The iPhone expects one, I don't know if you can really use an iPhone without iTunes
[4] iPhone is a mediocre fit for Google Apps. I assume Android is better, but nobody talks about this.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The not-so-vast readership of Gordon's notes - and why I keep posting

I get emails when a reader (infrequently) comments. The author deleted this comment, so I'll keep it anonymous ...

Say, is it not odd that you don't have a bunch of readers reading your blog? You have been writing this since 2003 and nobody comments or reads it? Is this even real?

Oh and I figured out how I reached your blog. I was looking for "nobody reads your blog" on google and a comment from your blog showed up on the 47th page.

Its sad and funny at the same time...

I wasn't able to replicate his search results, but unless we're post AI this was a bio post, not a bot post.

It's a good question [4], but there are a lot of blogs that go unread. So mine is not that unusual. What's unusual is that it's been persistently unread for 7 years. So the real question is - "why would anyone write 5,494 posts that nobody reads?" (@9,000 if you add Gordon's Tech) [1]

The short answer is that I read both of Gordon's Blogs. As I wrote back in 2007 ...

... my own very low readership blogs are written for these audiences in this order:

1. Myself. It’s how I learn and think.

2. The GoogleMind: building inferential links for search and reflection.

3. Tech blog: Future readers who find my posts useful to solve a problem they have that I've solved for myself.

4. Gordon's Notes: My grandchildren, so I can say I didn't remain silent -- and my tiny audience of regular readers, not least my wife (hey, we don't get that much time to talk!) ...

Later, when I integrated Google Custom Search, my history of posts began to inform my Google searches. My blogs extend my memory into the wider net.

So that explains why there are 9,000 "John Gordon" posts.

As to why their aren't many comments/readers, I can imagine several reasons ...

  • There's no theme. Gordon's Notes follows my interests, and they wander. At any given time there will posts that most people find boring, repetitive, or weird.
  • I'm writing for someone like me, Brad DeLong, Charlie Stross, Emily L and others of that esoteric sort. That's an uber-niche audience.
  • I have no public persona (I write using a pseudonym)
  • I like writing, but I don't work at writing. I'd have to work a lot harder to write well enough to be truly readable.
  • I don't market the blog.
  • I update my blog at odd hours, and I'm slow to respond to comments.
  • I have an irregular posting schedule.
  • I don't right about areas where I'm really a world-class expert because I keep my blogging and my employment separate.
  • I often write about the grim side of reality (that is, most of it).

That covers the bases I think. Except ...

Except, it's not quite so simple. It turns out I do have a few readers -- I'm guessing about 100 or so [3], not counting a larger number who come via Google [2], but certainly counting Google itself. Some of my readers are bloggers with substantial readership, and sometimes they respond to what I write.

So I do have an audience after all, it's just very quiet.

See also:

-- fn --

[1] Why do I share thousands of items via Google Reader? Because that's a searchable repository of things I find interesting. Another memory extender.
[2] I don't have a stellar Google ranking, but it's not bad 
[3] About 80 via Google Reader alone, where I share these posts.  There's also Emily, who comments over breakfast. A lot of my posts come out of our discussions.
[4] It wasn't clear when I first posted this that I like the question. I think it's a good question and I think it was meant well. Sorry for not making that clear. I've added this footnote.

Update 1/6/11: Based on comment response I probably have more regular readers than I imagined.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

End times for the credit card?

Despite all of their security issues, I've never thought credit cards would go away. I figured one day banks would become liable for identity theft, and credit card companies would fix their broken-by-design security models.

I never thought credit cards would just go away -- until today. Today I went to pay my American Express Blue cash back statement. I do this monthly, it's usually a minor nuisance. Today, however, I found a newish web site. It feels Flash based. It features obnoxious, flickering ads. It made me do a security reset. The "feedback" button didn't render correctly in Safari, it wasn't the only rendering problem (just the most ironic one). To add injury to injury, the new site told me AMEX was making some incomprehensible change to its cash back program next March. I don't think that change is meant to please me.

I've seen this kind of service regression before. It doesn't end well.

It's a sign that the smart people at AMEX have abandoned ship. That fits with news coverage of the woes of the credit card business. Credit card margins are being squeezed, their prime victims, people who paid interest, have gone bankrupt.

We've all heard stories for years about a replacement for the credit card. It hasn't happened, but maybe this year will be different.

Monday, January 03, 2011

America 2011: exploring the boundaries of democracy and capitalism

Reading about the fall of Detroit, the ranting of the GOP's Tea Party House, ubiquitous fraud and corruption, and the emergence of the corporate person, it's easy to imagine that we're going where no nation has gone before -- testing the limits of both democracy and capitalism.

But has any nation been here before? How long did Athenian democracy last? Not all that long actually ....

Athenian democracy - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Athenian democracy developed in the Greek city-state of Athens, comprising the central city-state of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica, around 508 BC. ..

... The greatest and longest lasting democratic leader was Pericles; after his death, Athenian democracy was twice briefly interrupted by oligarchic revolution towards the end of the Peloponnesian War ... It was modified somewhat after it was restored under Eucleides; the most detailed accounts are of this fourth-century modification rather than the Periclean system. It was suppressed by the Macedonians in 322 BC ...

The Peloponnesian war lasted from 431 BC to 404 BC. So Athenian democracy might have lasted as little as 100 years. If you count periods of restoration you might get to 160 years. American "Democracy" [1] is about 235 years old.

Going where no nation has gone before ...

See also

[1] Assuming one starts with white male landowner voters.

Product suggestion: Integrated attic stair and stair frame seal

When I'm looking for a product, I first imagine how it would work. Then I search for it.

Often I find exactly what I imagined. Sometimes, however, it doesn't exist.

Today, in the third coming [1] of the Minnesota ice dam, I went looking for a replacement for our old attic stairs.

I imagine an integrated stair/insulation system. This would be a metal frame that would sit into our attic floor. It would hold traditional folding/sliding stairs. In addition it would have a "lid" atop the frame with a latch and a door lifter.

To enter the attic one would go up the stairs and then open the latch. The lid, sealed by high quality rubber seals, would open up with a slight push. The door lifters would keep it open. A string would be used to shut it.

A simple idea, but this crude system is the best I could find - Attic Stair Insulation Insulsure Attic Tent AT-2 Model. So we'll have to have something custom made for us.

If you're a bored manufacturer, you should be able to put this together in a few months and sell it next year. Please send me a link and I'll update this post.

[1] Third in my residence here. Prior bad years were 1997 and 2004, but 2010-2011 may be the worst of all.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Detroit in ruins - we need salvage law for this wrecked vessel

The Observer is highlighting Detroit in ruins, a series of photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

Think of it as a slow motion but more devastating version of Hurricaine Katrina.

The most stunning image, for me, was the picture of the east side public library:

Screen shot 2011-01-02 at 7.30.58 PM.png

They abandoned a building full of books.

Others pictures show unsalvaged Art Deco chandeliers, classrooms with anatomic models, and piles of documents in an abandoned police station. Some of them are doubtless staged (this is art, not documentary), but did they really stage the library?

Can we organize a team of crack commandos to liberate the old books?

At this point, maybe we should treat Detroit like a wrecked ship open for salvage. Ten percent of revenue on recovered goods goes to the city, the rest to the winner.

See also:

Resolution 2011: Managing complexity

I'm good with resolutions. Mostly because I know how to pick 'em. I make 'em doable.

Consider sleep. I like to exercise, but in my life sleep is more important. So I've resolved to sleep at least 52 hours a week [1]. I think I can do that if I track the numbers and identify where I fall short.

That's one for 2011. The other resolution is about managing technological complexity.

I've been on a complexity reduction kick for a few years , but this year my focus is on technological complexity. I'm starting with the plausible assumption that we all have a personal "complexity budget". Some of us can manage more complexity, others less, but we all have memory and processor limits -- even the AIs among us.

We can spend our complexity capacity figuring out how to adjust product development to available capacity, or we can spend it figuring out what parts of SharePoint are worth using [2]. Both tasks will be equally draining.

At some points in my life I had complexity capacity to spare - perhaps because I wasn't using it wisely. That's not true now.  Gains from improved productivity techniques [3] and growth of mind [4] are offset by entropic neurons. Most of all though, my life overflows. I'm not complaining -- it's an overflow of good stuff. It means though, that I need to use my complexity capacity wisely.  I can't be spending limited firepower figuring out which of my 15 Google identities is running a feedburner bot linked to a pseudonymous twitter account.

It's not easy to reduce technological complexity. It often means making do with less; giving up tools and solutions I really like. Often it means declining new incrementally better improvements -- because a 10% gain isn't worth the learning curve and failure risk. Sometimes it means giving up on old tools that still work but are increasingly unsupported. Yes, it's a lot like software portfolio management.

Looking at how technological complexity grows in my life I can identify four broad causes....

  1. Taking on too many simultaneous tools and solution sets.
  2. Failure to clean up. Ex: Abandoned user identities, google accounts, etc. Creates noise and clutter.
  3. Premature adoption of technologies and solutions. Ex: Any new OS X release, any new Apple hardware, trying to get Contact synchronization to work with both Google Contacts, OS X Address Book and iPhone, OS Spaces. Above all - Google Wave.
  4. Prolonged use of increasingly unsupported solutions in a world of forced software evolution [6]. Ex: document-centric web tools, wristwatches, printers.

I've gotten better at the first one, but the next three all need work. The 3rd and 4th are particularly tricky. My heavy use of Google's multi-calendar sync solutions is clearly premature [5], but it's been very valuable and relatively bug free. On the other hand, I think my jury-rigged Contact integration solution may be a bridge too far. On the other hand, I stuck with Outlook's Notes feature long after it was clearly dead.

Cleaning up is the least interesting measure, but one of most important. There are 1,575 entries in my credentials database, extending back to August 1995. Sure, most of those sites are long gone, but I still have too many active identities and credentials. I need to gradually cull a few hundred.

This project should keep me busy for a while. It will, of course, suck processors in the short term, but I expect near term returns and long term gains. Feels like a good resolution target.

-- fn --

[1] It helps that recent research suggests that amyloid clearance occurs primarily during sleep, and I'm speculating that a 10-20% decline in amyloid clearance translates to 10 extra years of dementia.
[2] The wiki and, in the absence of alternatives, the document store. Don't touch the rest, even the stuff that seems to work is poison. 
[3] At my stage "GTD" is child's play.  I use a mongrel of Agile development planning methodology, GTD/Franklin, and a pocketful of tricks including calendar integration across family and work.
[4] For quite some time mind can grow even as brain more or less sucks wind. Not forever, but for a time. 
[5] The UI for configuration multiple calendars has been bizarrely obscure for about two years. This is not mainstream.
[6] It's predator-prey stuff. Software evolution was much more leisurely before human-on-human predation took off with hacks, frauds, identity theft, malware and the like. Now old bucks have to keep moving, or we become wolf chow. Software cycles are faster, products die quickly, and we have to keep buying whizzier hardware. If not for malware, the curated world of iOS would still be years away.

See also:

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Why the United States Postal Service should manage our primary digital identity

For a non-expert, I do a fair bit of ruminating about the relationships between identities, credentials, and avatars/facets. Today a bug related to Google's (covert) Identity Integration initiatives, a recent flurry of stories on the endtimes of password based security, and the earth's orbit have got me chewing again.

I'll deal with the earth's orbit by making my solitary 2011 tech prediction. 2011 will be the year of two factor authentication and the gradual realization that management of digital identities is too important to be left to Google, Amazon and especially Citicorp, Facebook, and AT&T/Verizon.

So if we can't rely on Google (or Facebook) or Citicorp to manage our digital identity, including claim resolution and identity control, who can we rely on? What are the other alternatives, assuming that almost none of us will run an identity service out of our homes?

Obviously, government is an option. The (US) Federal government, for example, makes a robust claim on my identity. That claim, however, is so robust I would prefer to separate my obligatory IRS identities from all other identity related services. In any event direct US government identity management is a political non-starter. The right wing will start ranting about beastly numbers and rationalists will fret about the day Bush/Cheney II takes power.

That leaves business entities with strong governmental relationships, extensive regulation, and a pre-existing legal framework support that could be extended to support identity management.

An entity like, for example, the United States Postal Service (USPS).

You laugh. Ok, but consider the advantages:

  1. The USPS has been in the business of managing confidential transactions for centuries.
  2. There are post offices in every community that could support the person-present aspects of identity claims.
  3. It's a regulated quasi-governmental agency that already exists.
  4. The USPS manages passports
  5. Much of the legal framework used to manage mail and address information could be extended to manage digital identities.
  6. The USPS is dying and is desperate for a new mission.

I admit, it sounds crazy.

Except ... I'm far from the first person to think of this. It was proposed by (cough, choke, gag) Michael Chertoff ...

... former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff ... mused that the USPS was ideally situated to take part in the evolution of the government’s role in validating identity. He points out that the Post office is already the primary issuer of passports – an extremely important piece of personal identity. In the speech he expands on that model as follows: “one of the things I hope to see is, as the Post Office re-engineers itself over the next, you know, few years, they increasingly look at whether they can be in the business of servicing identity management. They can – because every town has a post office.”....  DHS: Remarks by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at University of Southern California National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events

I can't believe I find myself agreeing with Chertoff, but there you go. What a way to start 2011.

See also (Gordon's notes unless otherwise noted);

[1] Incidentally, now that my Google Apps users have Blogger privileges, and since Blogger is supposedly an OpenID provider, I'm thinking of implementing this using Blogger/Google Apps/

Update 1/8/11: A few days after I wrote this news emerged of a federal identity and certificate management initiative. Maybe I'm psychic.