Monday, June 30, 2008

EOM cleaning

The end of a month, the end of a quarter, so it's time for some clean-up. I haven't added anything to my "Other places of interest" in a while, not because I only look at the few that are there, but out of laziness to write this post and actually add the places. So it's time I did that.

Beat The Press is economist Dean Baker's "commentary on economic reporting." His dissatisfaction with the popular press on matters economic exceeds my own; his comments on their credulity are sharp and to the point. You can argue with some of what he says, but he is absolutely right when he chides the press, for example, on their missing the housing bubble, their unwillingness to listen to people who foresaw it, and their current endless goggle-eyed surprise that such a thing could occur.

I have linked to enough posts at Brilliant at Breakfast to add it to my places (the link originally came from Carrie, who cross-posts there from time to time). Jill is the primary poster on this collective, and I have already expressed my feelings about the remarkable passion she brings to her posts on the follies she sees around her.

Similarly, I have posted recently about the relatively new site, It's the blog of a professional economist who's also, that's right, a mom, and I have found its first month and a half to be quite winning, both in tone and insight.

I don't read many corporate blogs; most of them are put there simply to act as shills for the company's products. But Decidedly, a blog from a company named Dwaffler, gets beyond acting as an ad and brings up some thought-provoking ideas. (Disclaimer: the writer is an old friend of mine, but it's still worth checking out.)

Fire Joe Morgan has become a pretty well-known site among sports aficionados, mainly for the ability of the staff to deconstruct (oxymoron alert!) "sports journalism." The name comes from the oft-held feeling that Hall of Fame baseball player Joe Morgan should stick to card shows and get off the air as a baseball commentator (though Joe Posnanski looks a little deeper here, as is his wont). At any rate, the site is snarkily entertaining, though pretty insider baseball.

I have just recently sung the praises of Why does everything suck?, so I won't go on about it again, but it is really good, even for non-technical folks (if you are non-technical, and you go there on my recommendation, scroll a little, skip the ones that have a lot of technology - the rest are well worth your while).

[I'm not going to add Matt Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan as "Other places"; I read them regularly but, if you've found your way here, you've almost certainly found your way there (or can). No reason to make them more powerful than they already are.]

P.S. It only appears that I can be bought; the proprietors of two of the new sites I've listed were very kind in recent e-mails to me, which I appreciate, but their sites really are excellent. Actually, I probably can be bought, so keep those nice e-mails and comments coming.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Silly, silly stuff

Given what I write about, you might think I only watch PBS, only read the newest economics tome. These Sunday posts have provided an opportunity for me to write about some other things, and today I'm going to praise two of the stupidest TV shows I've ever seen: Wipeout and I Survived a Japanese Game Show.

The first features a series of contestants traversing different water-based obstacle courses, the second a group of ten people shanghaied (Tokyo-ed?) to Japan and forced to compete in one of those ridiculous Japanese shows that seem to be as much about ridicule as competition.

These are absolutely as stupid as they sound, and I don't know that I'll hang with either for the full run. And yet...

There is something undeniably fun about seeing someone swing on a rope and travel about five feet before dropping into a pool, or watching a contestant run on a treadmill while a teammate tries to eat a sticky rice ball out of a bowl affixed to the runner's head. Do I feel good about taking such pleasure in the premieres of these shows last Tuesday? Probably not. But I can't help but think the primaries could have been made a lot more entertaining....

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Come on, Hank, don't you know we're past that science stuff?

Hank Williams writes one of the more interesting blogs I've seen, Why does everything suck? A lot of his posts are reasonably technical, so the average person stumbling across this blog might look at the first post or two on a given day, decide that Symbian or the Semantic Web are not topics of interest, and move along.

And that would be a shame, because in amongst the interesting technical posts are some very accessible ones, and they generally express my thoughts better than I can. I've linked to WDES a couple of times before, each time to highlight a post I thought was particularly spot on.

Hank, if I might call him that (hey, he can call me Andro), is especially persuasive when taking on the increasingly loopy ideas of Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine. Anderson is the fellow who's currently pushing the idea that we're moving to an economy in which everything of value will be free (I referred to Hank's previous post on this here). He's already gotten himself on Charlie Rose to discuss this, even though his book on the subject won't be out until next year, and there's bound to be a lot of buzz around this idea (Wired tends to create its own buzz, so prescient are they thought to be).

Anderson's newest "idea" is that the common axiom that "correlation is not causation" is no longer operable in the Google world. Hank:
And then Chris puts forward what I will call the Anderson Theory. It is based on the idea that with massive stores of data, most notably Google, we do not need such scientific methods any more. With such huge amounts of data we can establish much more detailed correlations, therefore making formal logic and scientific method irrelevant....So there you have it. Correlation is enough. Causation is irrelevant.
Anderson goes on to make the remarkable statement that, since models are imperfect, they can easily be replaced by the sheer weight of data that can now be linked and associated. His primary example is genome decoder Craig Venter's work in sequencing the air:
In the process, he discovered thousands of previously unknown species of bacteria and other life-forms.

If the words "discover a new species" call to mind Darwin and drawings of finches, you may be stuck in the old way of doing science. Venter can tell you almost nothing about the species he found. He doesn't know what they look like, how they live, or much of anything else about their morphology. He doesn't even have their entire genome. All he has is a statistical blip — a unique sequence that, being unlike any other sequence in the database, must represent a new species.

This sequence may correlate with other sequences that resemble those of species we do know more about. In that case, Venter can make some guesses about the animals — that they convert sunlight into energy in a particular way, or that they descended from a common ancestor. But besides that, he has no better model of this species than Google has of your MySpace page. It's just data. By analyzing it with Google-quality computing resources, though, Venter has advanced biology more than anyone else of his generation.

There is so much wrong with this that I don't even know where to begin. That Venter doesn't know anything about these new species other than they must exist means he hasn't "discovered" anything. Large numbers of the populace believe in fairies or angels based on the same kind of logic. Furthermore, finding vast numbers of correlations without any backing facts is not advancing biology.

I don't want to be too extreme here; I'm not going to argue that there is no value in these kinds of activities. Where it becomes dangerous, and Hank expresses this idea better than I, is the point at which we decide that we have a new scientific paradigm. Why finance traditional research when we can just crank up the supercomputer and "discover" whole new wondrous worlds?

Certainly this form of extreme data mining can provide new lines of inquiry. That Venter is detecting new things in the air may well provide food for rounds of future research, and there's value in that; but Anderson is contending that the science is done, that the vast amount of data sifting closes the process. He's wrong.

I think Anderson is guilty of extending the very popular concept of energence way too far. Emergence is the hot idea that complexity can arise from simplicity through wholly natural processes. It is, in brief, the extension of evolution to other situations, ignoring the incredible timeframe over which evolution has occurred. The most common idea in this space is that, using the Internet, computers will become "intelligent" through their number and interactivity. It has always seemed to me that, without pressure, evolutionary or otherwise, this intelligence is unlikely to emerge - computers do not need to become intelligent in order to survive, if they can even be said to have a survival instinct.

Anderson's premise comes from the same shelf. Truth will emerge from data with no causal component, no simplifying model to get in the way of new reality. (And his not-very-thinly veiled Google love comes out quite inappropriately for a journalist.) It may be true that models are only imperfect versions of reality, and that new techniques and technology may expand our reality, but I feel confident that both of those things can be fit into the framework of science, that science will become stronger as a result.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Big 3: What can we do?

Not to get all Dean Baker here, but don't major newspapers have some responsibility to write articles with truth instead of carefully-worded pap that distorts the truth in some pretense of "journalism"? I refer to a story in the Chicago Tribune about the problems being experienced by the Big 3 automakers:
The Big Three are getting pummeled from all sides.

Their U.S. sales are down dramatically as gas prices devastate demand for pickups and sport-utility vehicles, their most profitable models. At the same time, they are being hit by rising costs for key commodities such as steel and plastic, and they and their customers are finding it harder to borrow money thanks to the credit crunch.

"It's a perfect storm, isn't it?" said Burnham Securities analyst David Healy. "If this situation goes on long enough, they could be forced to go after government-guaranteed loans."

Remarkable. All these passive-voice lamentations ignore the reality that much of the current situation is due to the mistakes and missteps of the automakers. Could they have jumped on more fuel-efficient cars earlier? Could they have pushed forward faster with hybrids or plug-ins? Could they have hedged against commodities costs? Of course, and successful companies are the ones who are prescient enough or lucky enough to foresee such events and plan for them, who don't eat their seed corn in a headlong rush to short-term, analyst-pleasing, stock-plumping profits.

Perhaps a little conservative discipline is in order. Maybe, rather than asking taxpayers to prop up these companies that cannot figure out how to get today's market to work in their favor, we let them find their place in the new economy.

But stories like this one don't help people see that as the choice. Instead, their problems are presented as mere circumstance, so we should rush to help these down-on-their-luck corporations. There may be reasons to prop up the Big 3, but they do not include the rationale that they are victims who need to be protected from the big bad world. If we do not extend sufficient help to individuals who find themselves buffeted by forces they cannot control, why would we extend help to large entities that have a lot more options?

When prices steer us wrong

The Chicago Tribune points me in the direction of this editorial in The Christian Science Monitor. In a fairly good discussion of employing caution in formulating energy policy, there is this:
Just this week, Barack Obama promised $150 billion for renewable energy. John McCain suggested a $330 million prize for a breakthrough in battery technology. These are examples of good government intentions to "create demand" for new energy sources by throwing money and regulations at research and markets. But at some point such carrots and sticks also risk creating price distortions that cloud judgments about
the real value of intended solutions.
I share the CSM's concern that we will make mistakes in our energy policy, that we will jump to solutions without examining the true costs.

However, there may be a larger issue here, and it comes from the assumption that we should use price signaling as the primary way to set policy. Some matters transcend the blanket belief that everything should fall within market discipline, and the discussion should focus on whether any particular concern has larger implications.

When Roosevelt gave the go-ahead to the Manhattan Project, there was not a lot of discussion as to whether the market was given enough leeway to set proper pricing for the alternatives. We went ahead and did it. If we had waited for the market to make interstate highways price-desirable, there would be areas of the country we still couldn't reach.

I'm not arguing for or against the wisdom of public financing of the interstate highway system, or rural electrification, I'm just saying that this is the arena of argument. And we need to put energy policy in this same place. Whether we have the ability to absorb higher energy prices depends on what sacrifices and trade-offs we're willing to make, and these may be important enough to remove this from the normal market considerations. If we wait to do full cost-benefit analyses on each of the alternatives, we may end up doing nothing, just watching the price of gas go to $5, $7, $10, and dealing with the implications of that in an uncontrolled way. If there is a chance of forestalling that through some rational planning, unpleasant as that may be to the unleashed marketeers, it seems to me we should at least look at it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

How many strategies could a strategist strategize if a...

From Andrew Sullivan, a link to an article by Daniel Libit on the corruption of the term "strategist" by television, as they "anoint" vague policy workers as Democratic or Republican strategists. Libit is appalled by the elevation of "peripheral" people to the status of insiders, as viewers are led to believe that these no-names were embedded deep within campaigns.
...the fractured nature of cable news time, particularly midday, allows almost anyone who’s articulate and politically inclined to act like a campaign insider. Rollins, who often appears on CNN himself, blames the cable news networks for “dumbing down” good analysis in the name of multitudinous voices. “I think the networks are idiotic in that they have capable people who have been around, but they want 12 panels,” he says. Independent TV analyst Andrew Tyndall thinks the “mislabeling” is also the product of the media’s unyielding “bid to seem as though they are inside the horse race.”
Please. Let's not confuse analyst with analysis, strategist with strategy. While I don't care for the aggrandizement of people who appear on news shows, let's not pretend that there is some sanctified category of envelope-lickers who have more of a claim on thought than other people. After all, I live in a city in which the PBS television station gives a regular commentary slot to idiot shock jock Mancow.

Anyone who has had to sit through any of the appearances this campaign of bona fide strategists and insiders James Carville and Mary Matalin know what I'm talking about (and have before); their fabled experience doesn't keep them from being trite, predictable, and boring.

Let's start to worry about the quality of the commentary we get, let's evaluate the usefulness and the wisdom of what people are saying, let's not worry about what someone is called. I would rather hear someone who is an expert in the field under discussion than the endless parade of insiders who talk "inside baseball."


I wrote last week about how I've lost some of my blogging zing recently, how I haven't been feeling the magic, how it's become more of a struggle to do this at least once a day. I may have figured it out, and I have a couple of people to thank for that. First, we have the invaluable Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast talking about, well, I'll let her speak for herself:
Most Americans are idiots. They don't read us; they watch the news, and they STILL thnk that if they see it delivered by a guy in a suit on TV, it's the truth....

I wish Americans would stop treating the words that come out of that damn electronic box in the living room as Treatises from God and recognize that what they're seeing is a function of the baggage carried by those delivering the news. When you see someone like Chris Matthews or Karl Rove talking about how Barack Obama is "elitist", you know that what's talking is not the adult you see, but the awkward fat teenage boy with the man-tits, the one stuck in right field because he can't run and can't hit, the one jerking off with a copy of Penthouse in his parents' bathroom while the Bill Clintons and the Barack Obamas get the girls because they are, in the case of Clinton, charming and gregarious; and in the case of Obama, because he's the coolest guy in the room.
Brilliant (and not just at breakfast)!

The second item that has proved revelatory is the exchange between mcfnord and me, which I talked about just yesterday. mcfnord went on to make another comment on the original post, but I'm not going to rehash all of that. What's more important is what I learned about myself, and I'll try to give some flavor of it here.

Because, in looking at my response, I saw an attempt to be reasoned, to be conciliatory, to be agreeable. And that's generally the way I am, for whatever that betrays about my psychology or my upbringing, I tend to avoid conflict whenever possible. mcfnord can ignore much of what I'm actually saying as he essentially uses my site as his soapbox, and I continue to play the welcoming host.

I receive what is probably a snotty e-mail from a "real" journalist, and I play it cool and take it seriously (here), rather than calling it out as the unprofessional, touchy reaction that it was. (And I totally blow by the nasty subsequent e-mails and comments that just happened to come at the same time - maybe a certain "managing editor" needs to grow up.)

Here I have a forum for expressing myself, one that belongs to me, and I use it for dispassionate discussion of the events of the day, all very nice, all well-reasoned, but none of this expresses what I feel, which is, there's stuff that's seriously wrong here, my nation is in bad shape and refusing to see it or to deal with it, and I'm parsing the statements of a seriously self-involved person, trying to give him credit for what little truth emerges from his solipsism.

But then I look at George Carlin, or Harlan Ellison, or Neil Postman, or Jill, or Carrie, and I think, these are my heroes, these are the people who are (or were) out looking at what's going on, and telling others with passion and bite and in-your-face directness. These are people who understand that no one will listen to truth unless it's expressed directly and powerfully, who have taken stands and are sticking to them and are shouting them from the rooftops.

And I am not doing those things.

I read over my last month or so of posts, and I like them in a rational way. I've made some good points, even some I haven't seen elsewhere. But I see that very little of what I've written engages the soul.

I've given CEOs a pass, arguing that the problem is not what they say, because they have powerful incentives to say those things, but our willingness to ascribe to them an objectivity they don't have, can't have. And that's absolutely true. But that doesn't absolve those nattering rich boys, who, after all, have converted people's lives into a level of personal comfort and luxury that would make a pasha envious. They're liars, each and every one of them, when they tell us they can't "find" Americans to do the jobs they want done. They're liars when they sit in front of Congress and tell our lawmakers that we need to import more talent without mentioning how fat that will make their bottom line.

And our lawmakers, these wise solons who will lead us to the promised land of health and wealth, who sit on their well-stuffed arses and do nothing to deal with the massive problems that confront us. Even such insignificant tools as the members of the Illinois House sit back and ignore infrastructure problems, health care, pension funding, mass transit, and on and on, but they always find time for photo ops and TV appearances where they tut-tut about "legislative gridlock" nothing.

And our media, which oozes Q-rating friendliness whether the story is dancing cats or a school shooting. THe death of one of their own is treated as more significant than the death of a world leader, even though there is no shortage of talking heads to fill the magic chair. This media god, who reduced journalism to a search for inconsistencies, rather than using the remarkable access he held to delve into the issues and philosophies of those who seek to lead us, is gone, and we're supposed to mourn him as much as we would someone in our own families.

This media, supposedly on its last legs, moving toward a revenue model that relies on unpaid "citizen journalism," fearing the advent of a celebrity blog site as the final death knell for traditional news gathering: at the same time, one of these great old newspapers blows two of its precious pages on a giant map of Chicago places that Barack Obama has deigned to visit in his life, imbuing them with some of his majesty (maybe we should all make a pilgrimage to the curb outside the ice-cream shop where Barack and Michelle had their first chocolatey kiss, maybe pay for bronzed ass-prints).

And, of course, the largest do-nothing force of all, the citizenry, these people who have been blessed with the greatest system ever devised and take it for granted. That the goal of America is not to provide every person with a large-screen TV is completely beyond the ken of these millions of pinheads. The whiners about $4 a gallon gas, these people who crank up their minivans for half-mile trips to the store to buy one item, who leave their motors running all the time Janie is at soccer practice because they don't want to be without air conditioning for one moment of their pampered lives, sympathy is wasted on these people. If you want to see America as a catchbasin for the personal dreams of 300 million Americans, don't be surprised when things go against you, because the strength of this country is not in individuals "doing their own thing," but in people creating institutions that make the nation better.

People see the confirmation of the Second Amendment as a victory for individual rights, but want to do nothing to deal with the results of letting every 13-year-old loose to cap some other 13-year-old who looked funny at his lady. Rather than rolling up our sleeves and paying a little more to fund a focused attempt to find alternative energy sources, we're going to provide "incentives" to big companies to find them, at which point we're going to pay even more (that's assuming that the breakthrough comes in this country - otherwise, we'll still be dependent on foreign sources - does no one with a brain see that?).

Corporate clods raid the Treasury through tax breaks at the same time they impoverish communities and lay waste to careers, and people rush to newsstands to goggle at their rankings, as if stealing from Americans is some kind of sport. Speaking of sport, we spend untold amounts of time and money marveling at a "sport" which is a veritable celebration of waste, even though we could get the same effect from standing on a highway overpass and watching those drivers jockey for position. We create artificial environments for our mercenaries who put on a uniform with a city name across the front, call them heroes, and give them a pass on anti-social behavior. We allow our institutions of higher learning to be known primarily as career enhancers for these "warriors" of the gridiron or hardwood, as we ignore the very real needs of the real warriors we sent to fight and die or be maimed in the subjugation of a country that posed no threat to us at all.

We impeach a president for tackiness and infinite disrespect for his office, but we don't even think of doing so to a vice president who dismisses the concerns of 200 million Americans, the people who built the country that has made him a multi-millionaire, with, "So?" We flock to the lobby kiosk to plunk down our $3.95 for a magazine that can afford to pay $15 million to a celebrity couple for pictures of their twins, when you could go to a refugee camp and see plenty of babies being born, babies who will die because they can't afford routine medical care.

We tell ourselves that we prize excellence, then we support an "education initiative" which is about setting the bar as low as possible and spending our limited resources pushing the most unmotivated over that bar, while we ignore the very real needs of those who might someday be special, telling ourselves, "They'll do OK anyway." We can't even figure out how to fund our schools, letting one have a dedicated diving pool while a few miles away, the money is spent on metal detectors and security guards.

We allow the beauty of the Grand Canyon to be defiled by gas-guzzling airplanes so that over-endowed people can enjoy a "unique experience." We seriously discuss allowing rapacious energy companies to ruin our offshore waters so we can prop up a dwindling oil supply. We encourage sophists to discuss the "cost-benefits" of global warming so as to put off making hard decisions.

But what we actually do is ignore these things. We can't be bothered to spend even a few minutes a day reading or thinking; we're too busy looking at the fake ball-girl video on YouTube or debating the merits of the new iPod to engage in reality. We leave the tough stuff to the self-interested "experts" and hope to be left alone. We let our schools teach "creation science," guaranteeing a whole new generation of idiots.

These are the things I need to be writing about. When I'm hired to write code, I write code. When we hire CEOs to run companies, they enrich their bank accounts and their egos. When we hire politicians, they fill chairs and wait to be told what to do by their "leadership." When we hire media people, they cling to abstruse notions of objectivity and ignore the truth.

So that's it. I'm throwing down the gauntlet to myself. I'm not going to suggest that I'm going all heat, no light - that would be too big a change to expect. I will still try to be rational and reasonable.

But I'm also going to try harder to bring some of the passion I feel about life in 2008 to what I write. I'm going to spend less time looking at other people's points of view or incentives, and comment on their results. Understanding does not have to preclude caring, and I'm going to try to express that caring in stronger, firmer terms than I have been. Thanks, Jill, for reminding me of that.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fascinating algorithms

Kevin Drum writes about the FISA compromise, and I think I'll leave the larger questions about that to those, like Kevin, who want to write about it and know more than I do. His basic idea, that we need to be cautious before extending the powers of government, is definitely the way I see it, and he expresses it better than I could.

I want to touch on something specific among the very real concerns in his post:
[T]he NSA's domestic spying program doesn't rely on the ordinary human understanding of these phrases. Instead, it appears to rely primarily on software algorithms that determine whether or not a person is acting in a way that merits eavesdropping. The details are still murky, but what the NSA appears to be doing is very large scale data mining on virtually every phone call and email between the United States and overseas, looking for patterns that fit a profile of some kind. Maybe twice or three-times removed links to suspected terrorist phone numbers. Or anyone who makes more than 5% of their calls to Afghanistan. Or people who make a suspiciously large volume of calls on certain dates or from certain mosques....The algorithms that determine NSA's profiles are almost certainly extremely complex and technical — far beyond the capability of any lawyer to understand. So who gets to decide which algorithms are legitimate and which ones go too far? NSA's computer programmers?...After all, no court can seriously evaluate algorithms like this and neither can Congress. They don't have the technical chops. Do the algorithms use ethnic background as one of their parameters? Membership in suspect organizations? Associations with foreigners? Residence in specific neighborhoods? Nobody knows, and no layman can know, because these things most likely emerge from other parameters rather than being used as direct inputs to the algorithm.
I don't know how NSA is set up internally, and neither does Kevin, but I really doubt that the algorithms are created by the programmers. For a program of this type, it seems to me that there would be input from analysts and whatever executives are called in the NSA as to what would constitute proper search criteria.

I recently worked on a programming project having to do with compensation for retail workers and their management. The rules governing this were remarkably complicated, not something so simple as a percentage of sales made by the associate. These rules were not created by me as the person writing the code, nor had they been created by the people who hired me to work on the system.

Instead, these were rules that had evolved through the life of this company, modified by political tides and a desire to provide incentives for particular behavior, and had nothing to do with the technical needs or wants of those who wrote the systems to calculate the payments. Some of them didn't make sense, many of them appeared to provide perverse incentives, and they were a royal pain to understand and implement.

I suspect that the NSA algorithms are much the same, that there aren't "a small group of technicians operating in secret and creating criteria that virtually no one else understands." It is far more likely that the technicians are implementing criteria that have been handed to them, in English on a piece of paper. And other people can understand those. Might it be possible that NSA would like us to believe that they're just too hard to figger out?

All over the map II

Once again I cannibalize myself, but I think the dialogue is a good one, worth having. Yesterday's post, All over the map, generated an interesting comment from my correspondent mcfnord:
The discipline of software engineering is thriving. Do you mean the cash cow of the late 90's, the bizarre bubble world that gave me a quarter million dollars, flew me to Manhattan and put me up in Times Square because I knew C++ and would interview for a guy there? What about five years ago when I delivered pizza for a living? What about now at $51/hr? The labor market ebbs and flows, but the discipline of software engineering is as vibrant as ever. Stop looking in your rear view mirror, because only then will it appear that someone is gaining on you. It's because you're not driving! I see the young people, the Indians, I see them all every day, and I know my discipline is as strong as ever, competitive with anyone in any nation. My LinkedIn is a joke profile, and it doesn't matter.

Did you sign up for a cradle-to-grave Japan-style corporate security blanket? There's basically no way to know what will be happening in software engineering in ten years. Nobody ever told you otherwise. If you don't love software, don't study it. When I was delivering pizza for a living (pizza is also something I love), I decided to become a software artist, and accepted a life of poverty and beautiful code. It didn't work out that way. My project made large profits and launched me when hiring resumed. The pledge to software artistry is still with me. Nobody ever told me it would pay my bills.

There's no way I can imagine that our nation could maintain a monopoly on software or its jobs. Software, a totally conceptual construct, is conducive to the purest of labor markets: Where in the world will someone do this cheapest? Can we capitalize that person tomorrow to get it done? Carrie thinks this represents a sell-out at the top. You should know better: It represents the logical consequence of wires, labor markets... and that's about it.

My family met this weekend. My brother goes to India to train people to do his old job. My sister travels the world closing deals for Verisign with her MBA in international business. We all agreed that we're happy competing globally. Global markets are one reason I'm well-compensated. Could we have the advantages of globalization without the risks? What sort of wall can hold code inside our borders?

If you want to make an effort to serve American children, I support you. Randy Wang's still doing valuable work.
I wrote a comment, found it rambling on at some length, so I decided to recreate it here:
mcfnord: You make some good points, and I appreciate you expressing them. That said, I think we once again are closer in our thinking than it might appear, mainly because our main points are not entirely from the same place.

You've hit on a statement I made in the original post, which I see in retrospect was not precisely worded. Software engineering is not in decline as a discipline, but it is in this country. I won't say that there isn't a lot of software engineering out there (though I think we who see it as engineering have to remain ever-vigilant that we do not let it devolve into quick and dirty feature-mongering pushed by the business types who want it out the door NOW - but that has ever been so). My point was that, for Americans, the pressures are ever-increasing, that the expectations built up by the past can no longer certainly be realized. That is good for some, bad for others.

But the benefits and the costs are not being shared equally, and that's what strikes many of us as wrong. When a software job is moved, and let's not fool ourselves into believing that the movement is about quality, or bringing new opportunities to developing nations, or whatever self-serving twaddle the PR flacks come up with, it absolutely hurts the person whose job is gone. Further than that, it hurts things like the stability of families and communities as the conceptual worker becomes contingent. It's hard to quantify the cost to a community when scientific/technical minds can't run for the school board or city council because they'll be off to Baltimore, or Saskatchewan, or Abidjan in the next three months because that's where the work will take them, but there is a cost.

To argue that there is an inevitability to this is facile, and you will note that I have never advocated legislation to stop this. My goal is to point out that the kind of risk-shifting we're seeing is not being noticed by enough people, that the things you yourself are talking about are not commonly realized.

I think you're a bit too dismissive of those whom you claim are looking in the "rear view mirror." (Actually, you're claiming I'm doing that, but....) It was not wrong for people to build expectations out of the framework in which they lived, one in which they made trade-offs in search of some stability. Now that has, very quickly, been thrown up for grabs, and the cost is bound to be felt predominately by those who have no power. I want people to understand that as much as you do.

There are many people who paid a cost upfront in return for a future promise, and are now finding that promise unrealized. Take a field unrelated to software, say airline workers, in particular pilots. There are pilots who stayed with United Airlines even through rough times because they were promised things like a certain level of pensions. They turned down other opportunities, perhaps a chance to go to Southwest, as a result. Then they find the promises were worthless, that they'll only receive a fraction of the promise. Were they fools not to see that the exciting marketplace would one day take down the #1 airline? Was there anything they could have done to improve the incompetent management team? Were they wrong to build lives around the promises that were made to them?

Your family is doing well, and that's great. But each of you is hugely more replaceable than you would have been 20 years ago. There's a cost to that in present value terms, one that you haven't seen yet because it hasn't been realized. What happens when your brother has trained enough people to do his job, what does he do then? What happens when someone younger than your sister, with a fresher degree and a willingness to take less money, comes along and is hired by Verisign? You can say that the three of you are good enough, adaptable enough, to ride that tide, to go where the wind takes you and deal with whatever reality confronts you at that moment.

But you also have to think about your niece or nephew who ends up in six schools in eight years, or the neighborhood which becomes transient housing because everyone is dealing with the new reality.

Both you and Carrie are right. There is no way, especially in light of technology, to maintain a monopoly on any jobs. But it is also a sell-out at the top, because our "leadership" has done nothing to build institutions that might protect some of what this country has to offer. While countries like China and India have made the right moves, our political leadership has handed the responsibility for our nation's future over to people who have huge incentives not to care about it in the long term. You might argue that a certain exciting dynamism has been the result, but it's been fueled by a lot of self-serving snake oil.

It's easy to be casual about "capitalizing" a person, but that flies in the face of what many of us feel is good about American society, that we have attempted to see people as something more than capital. You have, perhaps unwittingly, put your finger on the problem, that there is a group of people, backed up by institutional ignorance, who are profiting from treating their fellow citizens as capital. Previous attempts to do that have proven undesirable in the long run, no matter how it may have helped us build the cotton industry.

Believe it or not, I am actually an optimist. I don't think that the situation is irretrievable, that we necessarily have to end up in neo-feudalism. But I see the trends, and I see people like yourself who are faring well, today, and want to believe that your success is accessible to everyone, who don't see the danger in letting the capitalizers have their way.

Some of us see that as a pretty bleak future, particularly in a nation that has so much potential to do better. We have taken a position of strength, one that offered the possibility of improving everyone's lot, and are in the process of turning it into a system of exploiters win, exploitees lose. Whatever the gains in efficiency that come from such a system, there is also a loss, and we are blowing past that on our way to the brave new world.

Are there ways of managing that? Absolutely, though I will not attempt to choose one or more here. But the widely-held assumption of inevitability precludes any efforts at mitigation, and, to me at least, fly in the face of a lot of what I think is right about my nation.
I'll reiterate that I don't think the two views above are that diametrically opposed. I'm not an anti-realist, I certainly realize the world has changed (I've worked for companies that hastened that change), but it is not necessarily good or easy to see the world change to the extent it has in the time it has. Society is built on pillars of stability; there may be some advantage to someone in tearing down those pillars, but there needs to be balance. To evaluate everything on a cost-benefit basis requires a full appraisal of the costs and the benefits - it's all too easy to look only at the benefits. We all have a responsibility to look more at the costs and, ideally, assign some of them to the people reaping the benefits.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

All over the map

I used to be a member of the Association of Computing Machinery, a somewhat outdated title for an organization that "delivers resources that advance computing as a science and a profession." I left not because of any deficiencies on the organization's part, just because I needed to allocate my limited funds differently. As many of us have learned, once on an e-mail list, always on the list, so I still get my regular complement of ACM CareerNews and TechNews, which provide me with information about my profession.

Though these newsletters do not contain the cutting edge of computer science, they do feature a summary of what the media is saying. Once in a while, you run across a somewhat strange, if indicative, collection of topics. Last Tuesday's CareerNews was once such. Here are some of the topics:
Talk about your mixed messages! Only one of these, the second, seems to be unequivocal good news; the others are a grab bag of advice and worrisome news. Taken as a whole, they are instructive as to the future of Americans in this field, but not too reassuring.

The first, third, and sixth aren't really talking about anything directly related to the profession. In each case, it is clear that developers are not burdened with market power. Telecommuting, which used to be seen as a perk if not a benefit to the employer, is now something that workers would give something up for. Work is so unevenly distributed that contract work may require employees to uproot their lives, and contract work is not always a freely-made choice. That there needs to be an article about departing a job speaks for itself.

Technical competence is frequently taking a back seat to personal branding, as evinced in the fourth article. The trend toward networking as a replacement for actual knowledge has continued to pick up steam, which has huge implications as to how one gets and keeps a job in the current climate.

The fifth and seventh articles illustrate the continued competition from India. Those executives who said that they were offshoring the trivial jobs, but retaining the advanced and interesting jobs here in America, were never particularly believable; most of us predicted that architecture and engineering would follow programming across the waters, and that is happening. We're giving awards to those people (in this case, a Microsoft employee) who are enhancing the futures of the children of other nations, even while there is insufficient effort being made to help the "underserved" children of this country.

Of course, even the second story, which appears to be good news, is misleading. It's based on Europe, not the U.S., and the numbers are not so encouraging when we consider that they represent the beginning of the trend, not the end result of the practice of offshoring.

Sadly, these are the kinds of articles that are written when a discipline is in decline. It is very difficult to feel encouraged when these sorts of pressures are placed on a field that was, such a short time ago, a real strength for America. It may not be time to panic, but, if you're thinking of going into any of the professions that surround computers or their software, you want to be mighty wary. What looked a decade ago as if it would be the source of middle-class comfort for the long haul may well now be a field that is a decided dead end. As one trying to make a living here, I personally find that all pretty discouraging; moreover, I hope that our nation isn't giving up on something vital, a body of knowledge that is important for our future.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Catching up with comments

I don't get too many comments here, and some of the ones I have received, particularly since I criticized the non-newspaper called Triblocal (see here and here), have been pretty scurrilous. Others have just been dim-witted. Most, however, have been interesting or thought-provoking, and I always like getting those (my post last week on libertarianism generated some very good comments; I shifted my view a bit, but still think libertarianism has some serious image problems that will continue to interfere with its viability as a major political a party).

A while ago, I got into something of a dust-up on another site with someone named mcfnord (I'll assume for convenience that mcfnord is male - my apologies if I assume too much). While not a major contretemps, we did have a disagreement that, in my opinion, came from a too-idiosyncratic way of looking at the issues we were discussing, the danger of generalizing from one's own particulars.

I'm pleased to be able to moderate my views based on a comment received from mcfnord on my post of last week, Yes, you get it. Without getting into a lengthy rehash of what was said there, I contended that our future as a nation is going to be compromised by current trends and our failure to do anything about them, and how "we need to reconcile ourselves to a somewhat lesser life than we anticipated." If I had known that mcfnord was going to comment, I would have expected something other than his actual comment:
We've been living beyond our means throughout the last decade (or two), culminating in a negative savings rate and huge federal spending deficits, so yeah, like economists like to say: the unsustainable ends eventually. Factoring out the new advances in medical care, mostly in pharma, lowers both costs and quality of life, but there will be a massive nursing shortage. Time for skilled labor immigration? Don't tell Carrie!

I am probably in a minority saying things are going well for me as compared to my parents. I do believe there's a "dual income trap" that didn't exist in my parents' era, but my response is to live far below my means. Communities that require a lot of gasoline are suffering, and there will be changes. I don't understand her statements such as "as we fill up our gas tasks each day..." but I know vast swaths of this nation built their civilization on the stuff, and they are suffering. I ride a bicycle. I live in an environment where that's viable. So I fill my gas tank each month or so. I'm not sure what people expected from home prices when the historical trend is 1% since the Great Depression. We all rode a bubble, and of course that's not sustainable. But I'm not convinced things are so different in this era. In the end, how useful and accurate an indicator is "gloom"? Mondale asked in his campaign, "So we'll all flip burgers?" and it didn't turn out that way. A willingness to adjust to market conditions, work hard, retrain, and save liberally for the future will probably continue to result in sustainable first-world standards of living.

Let's put it another way: Monofuel dependency, deficit spending, credit card abuse, home equity reliance, a meat-heavy diet, and a hope that nothing will ever change: WAS IT EVER A GREAT IDEA?
My response:
And so we begin to see a kind of convergence in our thinking, mcfnord. For all that some might accuse me of peddling gloom, my primary contention is not that we are in a "malaise," but in a state of denial. We're refusing to accept the reality of our future, and, in our belief that the way we live is the acme of progress, we'll be very disappointed.

mcfnord, we should absolutely do all the things you're talking about, though I continue to believe there are structural problems with some of your remedies (retraining is too easily passed off as just another economic transaction, whereas I believe it to be a major relationship change - far more wrenching - but probably necessary).

And those things you correctly point out as weaknesses in our way of living are, unfortunately, perceived by many as among our strengths. When a president tells us to spend our way out of our national trauma surrounding 9/11, it is no wonder we see
spending psychosis. Stability has become the goal for many, rather than the flexibility to ride and enjoy change (but I do think we as a nation are rather glib about the potential negative effects of change).

You say that we can continue "in sustainable first-world standards of living." I'm not sure exactly what that will mean, especially if the trends toward income and wealth inequality increase, but I do know that that will represent a major shock to a country that expects excessive, luxurious first-world standards of living. It is true that not everyone needs a big-screen TV, but everyone thinks they do, and the change in mental frame that is needed will be wrenching in a nation that sees those things, things that are unfathomable to the vast majority of the world's population, as absolute necessities.

One quibble: we're talking about vast long-term trends here, and, while I'm no apologist for Walter Mondale, that we aren't all flipping burgers yet does not entirely invalidate the statement (not that I believe that we all will be, either, just that we haven't played it out long enough to determine anything).
By the way, I recently received a comment from Anonymous asking my opinion of HR 5924. Since this was also alluded to, if indirectly, by mcfnord, I will give a somewhat abbreviated response. (For those without an encyclopedic knowledge of House bills, this provides for more visas for nurses.)

It's certainly possible that this comment is an attempt to find some inconsistency in my thinking. After all, I have expressed doubt about the attempts to increase the number of H-1B visas, most of which would be used to give software development jobs to foreign nationals. So, if I were to come out in favor of HR 5924, one could easily posit a "Gotcha" response (perhaps in tribute to the late Tim Russert).

First, I don't know and don't profess to know much of anything about the market for nurses. When I comment on the profession of software development, it comes from better than 20 years of experience in that profession, and it would be pointless of me to think that knowledge qualifies me to have an opinion on nursing.

Second, it seems almost trivial to point out that every market is different. I don't contend the market for CEOs should have the same rules as those for software developers any more than I see equivalence between, say, baseball players and teachers. There would be no necessary inconsistency if anyone saw the need for different policies and practices in the market for nurses than for software developers.

Third, what I do know tells me that there are differences. Nurses have seen a major upswing in their market power of late (as far as I know), commanding bigger salaries and better terms of employment; software developers and most other engineers have not (by the way, I'm not contending that nurses even now get what they merit; it's an incredibly difficult job and I have the utmost respect for them). If, after the upgrades to the compensation, we still don't have enough nurses to fill real needs, then it might be necessary to do something different.

Have we, however, exhausted other possibilities before we leap on the expedient of importing more nurses? Or is this just taking the easy, cheap way? Are hospitals and medical corporations funding scholarships for potential nurses to go to school? Is the well-known nursing instructor shortage being dealt with in some way?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions, because I am not plugged into the nurse labor market. One thing I do know: we should ask some very serious questions about the specific numbers in HR 5924, because we don't know where they came from. One of my biggest objections to the various H-1B visa "adjustment" bills floating around is that the numbers seem plucked out of nowhere - 130,000, 180,000, 195,000. I don't think anyone knows what the "right" number is, and I'd be very surprised if the nursing market yields any greater precision.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Review - Brainiac

Ken Jennings is the fellow who won 74 consecutive episodes of the TV game show Jeopardy!, and, soon thereafter, he wrote a book called Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs (2006). The book blends Jennings's experience on and around Jeopardy! with an exploration of various manifestations of trivia (from bars to college quiz bowls to Stevens Point, Wisconsin; oddly, he omits cruise ships, so has no idea how enjoyable it can be to win caps and water bottles). There are also 170 trivia questions woven into the text, and a look at the history of trivia.

This is a nice book, charmingly self-deprecating in tone - Jennings does his best to dispel the notion that he is the smartest man in the world. He regards trivia as something of a childhood obsession that conicided with good fortune to earn him $2.5 million in 74 days.

There isn't a lot of deeper meaning in Brainiac, but it's a pleasant 269 pages. I'm a big fan of trivia myself, would love to be on Jeopardy! sometime, so the backstage look at the show was interesting. If you don't like trivia, this book probably won't be your cup of tea, unless you want a look at the life of a self-admitted mediocre programmer who beat the odds and made money (and gained fame) out of an activity that does not normally lead to anything like that (the aforementioned cap and water bottle are pretty much the only things I've ever received from trivia, and it's a pretty perverse kind of fame to walk into a ship's lounge and have people say, "Oh, great, we're not going to win").

Capsule review: a real niche book, but well worth reading if you have any interest in trivia contests or Jeopardy! in particular.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Flip-flop? Who cares?

I'm not really much into the nuances of campaign financing. It's not very interesting, and whatever limits seem to be imposed are easily bypassed through party money and 527 groups and so forth. I don't really understand the purpose of the check-off box on the 1040 form, but I never check it because it somehow feels wrong.

Now Obama has decided, counter to previous statements, that he will reject public financing. (Three articles from the New York Times sum this up: for a straightforward report on his decision, here; for a summary of financing and how Obama's decision may affect it in the future, see here; for David Brooks's mixed view, see here).

Republicans want to make hay on this, accusing Obama of flip-flopping, of going back on his word. There are two reasons I expect that this is a non-starter. First, few people have any more understanding of this topic than I do - we don't know what's going on and we don't much care.

More importantly, when you look at the headlines, "Obama rejects public financing," the vast majority of the public sees that as a good thing. Since the system has been corrupted by so many quasi-legal influences, that public money, taxpayer money, is used at all seems like a pretty bad practice, especially when there have been so many stories about the money that's being raised. That a candidate would turn down a draw off the public dole has to be positive.

There's also a philosophical problem. Republicans don't believe in big government (so they say), so why would they want the public to have a multi-million dollar hand in paying for political ads and lawn signs and pizza for volunteers? It seems (and I understand that, in actuality, it's more nuanced than this) that Republicans would be the first to applaud any candidate who takes government out of the equation.

I think the McCain campaign needs to move down the road and find a different issue.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Can we get more stupid?

I try not to rail too often against so-called celebrity news, because it's all so ridiculous. Occasionally, however, I run across something that is so far away from rationality that it makes me giggle. A headline on Google News, linking to a People story, did that for me just now:
John Legend & Natasha Bedingfield Congratulate Jamie Lynn
That headline links to a "story" titled "John Legend, Blake Shelton Think Jamie Lynn Will Be a Good Mom." I'll quote the whole thing because, well, why not?:
The music industry sang notes of congratulations to Jamie Lynn Spears Thursday night at a Songwriters Hall of Fame event in New York.

Spears's infant daughter, Maddie Briann, made her debut Thursday morning.

"Congratulations Jamie Lynn. Wow, I've not had a baby yet," English singer-songwriter Natasha Bedingfield said at the soirée. "She'll be able to give us all advice when it happens to us."

The performers and songwriters told the Zoey 101 star not to get too discouraged by the overwhelming media coverage of her early pregnancy and engagement to 19-year-old Casey Aldridge, a Mississippi pipe layer.

"My sister had a child at a young age, too, and I understand what that is like," soul singer John Legend said.

"You just hope that her family supports her and helps her with the baby and she'll be all right."

Country singer-songwriter Blake Shelton echoed the sentiments of many of Spears' friends and family, saying he expects she'll be a wonderful mom.

"I'm from a small town in Oklahoma, and any time you have a teenage girl that is pregnant and has a baby that's going to be the focus," he said. "It doesn't mean she's not going to be a great mother."
Let's leave aside the extolling of an unwed, 17-year-old mother. It's not a great situation, but I'll stay off my moral high horse on this one; kids, don't try that at home.

What made me laugh was the idea that the opinions of John Legend, Natasha Bedingfield, and Blake Shelton mean anything. I actually like the music of each of these people, though I wouldn't consider any of them essential, but it is risible that this is even a story. I know the Web is content-greedy, but, really, is there anyone in the world who cares about John Legend and Jamie Lynn Spears and his opinion on her baby? I mean, really?

(And Natasha, maybe part of the problem is that Jamie Lynn saw it as something that just "happens to us.")

Yes, you get it is a new blog, started last month, and I've been following it since then. The author is an experienced economist, with years of experience in and around the centers of economic power. I'm not precisely sure which way she leans; she currently works for the Concord Coalition, which is a group primarily focused on budget balancing and deficit reduction. I'm not absolutely convinced that those should be our highest priorities right now, but it would certainly be nice to see the trend moving in the right direction, which it isn't. The blog is engagingly written, delightfully personal, and close to math-free (I don't mind some, but I've read that even the hint of an equation hurts readership; don't shy away from this one because of an occasional graph).

At any rate, I'm always inordinately pleased when someone "official" seems to understand what the vast populace is seeing, because I'm not at all convinced that the ivory tower academics, the marble-halled politicians, the plush-carpeted executives, or the ink-stained media come close enough to the real world to get the very real nervousness experienced by those of us without tenure or a big bank account. The level of risk that has been thrust upon the bottom 90% over the past 20 years or so, with little in the way of reward or potential for reward, is felt, but it's not discerned at all by the opinion-makers.

So I'm probably a little happier than I should be when some of the anxiety actually filters up to the elite. We who've been writing about such things aren't really helped by the occasional light than dawns on the big folks; nevertheless, when a "real" economist sees what we see, it's gratifying far beyond any potential real effect.

Therefore, I "enjoyed" reading Why We're So Gloomy, which pivots off a Washington Post piece that offers the standard, everything-is-OK, it's-probably-just-that-negative-media spin on why consumer confidence is so low. EconomistMom takes a different tack, believing that we may well feel the way we do because "much of what we’re seeing in the short-run economy is symptomatic of longer-run challenges that aren’t going to go away within the next few months or even years."

Gas won't go back down, home prices will not rise quickly enough to allow us to use our equity as we planned, health care prices keep going up and up, layoffs will continue -
I think there is this feeling of much more permanent unsustainability that we are seeing repeatedly in our daily economy–little doses of daily evidence that we have been living beyond our means.
While the post ends with the feeling that our national will may be able to counteract some of these large, long-term trends, and I think it minimizes the very real concerns about jobs and how education fits into career paths, it is on the whole, I think, dead on.

In a way that transcends simple lack of confidence, I believe Americans are getting some sense as to how their children are likely to live, the extent to which our leaders have neglected so many issues for so long that weaknesses have emerged in the very system. Can they be fixed? It's not clear that the remedy isn't just about as bad as the illness, and the perfect storm of problems has coincided with one of the most negligent governments in our history. I've said before that I see disruptions coming to our way of life that will not yield to simple solutions, that we need to reconcile ourselves to a somewhat lesser life than we anticipated. It doesn't have to be a catastrophe, we don't have to buy into a James Howard Kunstler-esque view (though that is within the realm of possibility), but our casual abundance will be, simply, less than it is. I'd rather see us prepare for that than to insist that magic will happen, that we can continue on our same path. It's good to know that others are beginning to see this too.

Crime statistics

Interesting post by the Wall Street Journal's The Numbers Guy about the possible undercounting of murders in Houston, and he makes two points about crime statistics: "(1) They are self-reported, and therefore subject to fudging; and (2) Despite their weaknesses, the stats have a broad influence."

I spent a couple of years going to school and living in the Hyde Park section of Chicago (now famous as the home of Barack Obama). At the time, the bordering areas hadn't seen any gentrification, so Hyde Park was considered an enclave of safety in the midst of a pretty nasty place. And official Chicago Police Department (CPD) statistics bore that out.

Yet...the first day on campus we were "oriented," and a lot of time was spent on how careful we should be, and not just if we ventured out of the roughly 1 square mile of Hyde Park. It was made very clear, especially to female students, that caution needed to be exercised within the boundaries of the neighborhood.

Some of this was undoubtedly for the benefit of the urban-challenged among us; if you had spent your young life on the farm, then went to Iowa City for college, it would be natural to suppose that your street-smart instincts might be somewhat lacking even in a relatively safe area of Chicago. But the message still seemed somewhat at odds with the concept of Hyde Park as safe oasis.

As we soon learned, the "oasis" idea was not quite right. While the area was not anarchic lawlessness, neither was it the urban equivalent of a leafy suburb. It was part of a city, a sometimes-dangerous city, and vigilance was not to be discarded.

What was happening, and this was borne out by talking to people who had lived there longer, was that campus security was handling a lot of the crime that would, in other neighborhoods, be the sole province of CPD. And not simply handling it, but failing to report it (I did not know then, nor do I still know, what the requirement is for this reporting, so I cannot say that there was anything legally wrong with that practice).

Ever since that time, I have taken reported crime statistics with a huge grain of salt, and treated them like any other statistics. Try to understand any incentives people have for reporting them as they do (in the Hyde Park case, a big desire to make the university look more attractive), look for alternative explanations (the presence of a surprisingly large campus police force), and understand that, in the real world, small gradations are rarely significant.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Who am I?

Today's post will not be as existential as that title may imply. Instead, it is prompted by an e-mail I received from Kyle Leonard, managing editor of Triblocal, a new concept in local reporting that is "sponsored" by the Chicago Tribune. I was pretty critical of its print edition last week in a post and in a letter to the Public Editor of the Tribune. (Given my level of readership, I'm surprised even to have been noticed by Mr. Leonard, but it is one of the vagaries of the Internet that, when you Google "kyle leonard" triblocal, my humble post comes up fifth; bizarrely, my old post on "shannon carlson" "us cellular" still comes up first, so there's no accounting for the Internet.)

At any rate, Mr. Leonard sent me an e-mail:
Nice blog...we put our names on our writing. Why don't you?
I responded:
Thanks for the kind words.

As for your question, I gave that very issue a lot of thought when I began writing my blog. I weighed the pros and cons, and very narrowly fell on the side of anonymity, largely because I exist in a different frame from that which you, as an employee of a large newspaper, inhabit.

The only real pro I could come up with in "publishing" under my real name is that doing so might lend some credibility that I may not have, at least to some people (though, in an Internet world in which new identities can be created and discarded, that may be less important now than it has been). But my real name carries no cachet, no particular identity that would add to or detract from my believability. I am a fairly average person of no fame, of no particular reputation, and my identity is of no more importance than the name "Androcass." Would my credentials, such as they are, be more acceptable if they could be checked? Would you be more likely to believe that I have two master's degrees, or 25 years of experience in business and technical companies, or have run 10 races of marathon length or longer, if I signed my real name? Perhaps, but if you saw my readership numbers, you would know that establishing my bona fides to my vast public is a pretty low priority for me.

And what of the cons? The greatest of these is that I might feel constrained in what I can say based on my real situation, whereas Androcass, living outside of this world, can say what he likes. As an example, as a real person who finds himself in a precarious employment situation, I probably have to consider a job with any company that would have me, even, say, United Airlines.

As Androcass, I have called United Airlines "perhaps the worst-run major company in the history of the U.S." I believe that to be true, but I would hardly like that to show up in a pre-employment Google search when I am a finalist for a job. Cop-out? Probably, but a reasonable one to me given the constraints in which I live.

For I do not have the luxury of being backed up by a large media concern, with its legal staff and layers of editors. I don't profess to be a journalist, and, even if I were, that would have no protective force when it came time for UA to turn me down for employment because I made a negative comment about them. And, though I try very hard to be even-handed and reasonable in what I write, I haven't the resources to research libel laws, nor to defend myself against them if someone got it into their heads to object to something I write.

And there is some precedent in the mainstream press for my stance. We don't have to go all the way back to Publius to establish this (though this quote from Federalist 1 seems apropos: "My motives must remain in the depository of my own breast: My arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all."). The Chicago Tribune itself prints unsigned editorials, a stance only slightly mitigated by its annual exposure of the editorial board. Clearly, your employer finds some justification for that practice.

It is not my desire here to be contentious at all, merely to explicate my thinking on this subject. However, I respectfully point out that your own publication is not exactly pure on this point. Last week's Naperville Triblocal featured a front-page article by "Naper Days 2008 PR Marketing," which is only slightly more of an identifier than "Androcass." Furthermore, knowing a name is often insufficient to discern the intent of the writing behind the name, something I have read that you have had to personally deal with in the recent past in your political coverage.

You may think my reasons less than convincing, which is your right. After all, your name is right out there for the world to see. The difference, of course, is that you are paid for what you do, and have an amendment and a big company to back you up. None of those applies to me; until one or more of them do, I shall remain veiled in my alternate persona. I'll leave what few readers I have to decide whether that invalidates the value of my opinions.

Thanks for writing.

Bonus coverage:

In a strange bit of synchronicity(??), I received another e-mail on the same topic, from a Frank Skeffington:
Why isn't your name posted on your blog?

Are you ashamed of your opinions or afraid to be associated with them?

Why do you not assert responsibility for your opinions? You have no trouble posting them? Do you fear accountability? Why linger in the shadows?

Why do you criticize people by name but hide your identity?

Did your parents not love you enough?

A friend thinks you were abused as a child.

Did one of your relatives abuse you, perhaps your father or a sick uncle?

Are you a coward?

What are you so afraid of?

I don't have much to say, except to point out that Frank Skeffington is a character in the novel and movie The Last Hurrah, so it is possible that the very person casting aspersions on my motivations is him- or herself pseudonymical. Otherwise, I'll just offer the opinion that whomever is sending e-mail under is almost certainly not qualified as a practitioner of psychoanalysis, and leave it at that.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fine whine

This will be my 23rd post of the month, which means I'm tracking well behind the other months of this year in terms of posting. It's been harder to motivate myself this month, and I'm not 100% certain why that is. I know the exciting Democratic primary is over, so the ebb and flow of that are now absent. It's summer, and one can always find interesting things to do in the summer that don't involve sitting at a computer, formulating thoughts, and trying to express them in quasi-coherent fashion.

But there's an extra anomie in me that is starting to break down the extent to which I even have the desire to maintain the every-day habit. Back on January 1, when I pledged to myself to write each day, I didn't put a particular timeframe on it; I just wanted to create a new habit (so I would post more than the once a month I managed last year). I'm in a state, now, where I'm not even sure I want to read myself, my own work, and, when you get there, it becomes harder to think that anyone else might want to either.

What I'm trying to figure out now, is this a reflection of a generalized feeling about the world? I have some building frustrations about certain things, and I suspect I may be laying those off on the activity that has consumed somewhat more of my time and attention than I originally expected.

Something that I find counterintuitive, when I started writing regularly, I thought that it would provide a safety valve, that by writing about some of the things which I find, say, disappointing about the world, I would feel better about them. I don't think that's happened at all; rather, I find these things even more aggravating than I do before I start writing.

I'm going to have to spend some more time thinking about this subject, maybe take a break, let some of the other fine Androcassian-thinking people take the ball for a while. For now, I'll continue to lump along, searching for inspiration. Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


there is nothing much I can add. So go to Carrie's Nation, read this, and decide if we are even close to understanding what our needs are when we talk about immigration policy. The H-1B question has been so misreported by the media; the press has just acted as a pass-through for monied interests.

There is a lot to discuss here: the real need for foreign talent in certain professions, the extent to which we're working to identify that talent, the possible long-term effects of segmenting off certain professions to immigrant labor (allowing those professions to move when the visas run out), the effects to this country on ceding certain job categories, the effects on our education system, and so forth. I don't like to have a knee-jerk reaction to issues like these, because that very emotionalism leads to poor policy choices, but when I see the forces arrayed on one side, forces that have powerful incentives to take the positions they're taking (I'm talking to you, Bill Gates), it's natural to leap in the other direction.

I don't know the right number of H-1B visas to offer - but neither does Congress, Bill Gates, Infosys, Wipro, or anyone else. I do know that much of the common rhetoric that's reported makes no sense, that shortages should lead to higher wages and a dream environment for people with skills, and that's not happening. I know that fine reporting from Citizen Carrie and others demonstrates that Indians themselves get quite the chuckle at how our policies are helping them.

Sure, I have incentives, too. As a software guy, I want an array of possible jobs at desirable locations with great perks and big bucks. I want to be able to write my own ticket. I want people to look at me for what I can bring to their table, and not what year I was born.

But everyone can see my biases. Why can't we equally see that Mr. Gates has similar biases, that Microsoft and he make more money if they can get more visas? It doesn't mean that his point of view should be ignored, it does mean it shouldn't be the only one considered. Why is this so hard to see?

And for someone who had nothing to add, I sure wrote a lot.

Does this exist?

I don't really have enough regular readers to ask questions of them, though I kind of wish I did. You know, where you post something tentative, then throw it open to the crowd. If you're Matt Yglesias or Kevin Drum or Andrew Sullivan, you get back all kinds of responses, and a few of them are actually meaningful. Yglesias, for example, has taken to asking his readers for ideas on future blog posts - would that we all had such a way to generate ideas.

Nonetheless, I am going to do that today in faint hopes of getting a useful answer. Does anyone out there know of a notification system for the comments you yourself leave on other blogs, notification of subsequent comments? It's similar to what I found, somewhat belatedly, as an option in Blogger to notify my e-mail account of comments on my posts. But what I'm looking for now is a way to find out if the discussion is continuing on other sites.

Because now, if I make a comment on another blog, and the discussion continues, I have to go back and look to see if there are more comments if I'm to continue to engage. If I forget where I made a comment, I can lose the thread entirely. So, if anyone out there knows, feel free to give me a pointer.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Give me libertarianism or give me...anything else

I have friends who lean Libertarian, calling themselves "closet Libertarians" or "Libertarians in basic philosophy." Most of them, being smart people, are also pragmatic and recognize that there is no real movement to the party of that name, and so, somewhat uneasily, forge a compromise between their leanings and their reality.

I'm not going to launch into a critique of libertarianism today. I understand its attraction, even have some leanings that way myself, but there are two aspects of it that cause it problems and, I believe, will prevent it from ever being a major political force (in and of itself; its influence may well be felt, for good or for bad - I'm talking about the concept of a Libertarian Party).

The two aspects actually have one root cause: Libertarianism is a philosophy. What this implies is that it is very hard to define libertarianism in the context of the real world. One needs only read the Wikipedia entry to see how up in the air it is. Even if you accept the current-day common definition, that libertarianism restricts the role of government to providing for common defense and protecting of property rights, that still leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Again, this is not the post for me to look at specifics, other than to point out that most of our existing laws can be construed as protection of our property rights, depending on how we define "protection," "our," "property," and "rights."

The second problem is that our political system doesn't really accommodate pure philosophies. I'm no expert on how other countries work, so, when I read that Italy has put the Socialist party in power, I'm never really sure what that means (though I have a feeling that the multipartite structure of their government doesn't allow "pure" socialism to take hold).

Our parties are labeled Republican and Democratic, and we associate them with conservative and liberal labels, respectively, but they are far from pure. And there are liberal Republicans (though very few now) and conservative Democrats (probably a larger number), whereas it's hard to be a "kind-of" Libertarian.

There is also a personal aspect to pure libertarianism, perhaps best expressed in the Objectivism of Ayn Rand (and yet, unbeknownst to many, there are huge conflicts between Rand-ians and other libertarian movements), that is remarkably off-putting to the vast majority of Americans. We like to think of ourselves as independent actors, each wrapped in a cocoon of individual achievement, but we really aren't; there is a collective sense of what it means to be an American that is easily offended by a philosophy that is so resolutely individualistic.

I'm actually happy there are libertarians. Their ideas provide a counterweight to the power-accreting tendencies of government, and it is this push and pull which offers the best chance to achieve a balance that accomplishes the objectives of our nation. But Libertarians, as a party, I don't see that ever becoming a serious force in this country. It just runs too counter to the overall self-view of the American people.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day

I never really got to know my father, he passed away when I was five, and I never really heard a lot about him, as my mother couldn't get over his leaving her with the problems of forging a career and raising two boys (I'm not sure she ever advanced beyond anger in the five stages). And I am not a father, as my life didn't really work in a way that could have made that happen.

So Father's Day is not a concept that has a lot of resonance to me, I just don't feel it as I've never celebrated it. But being a father is an incredibly important job, one that has, I think, been overshadowed by the concept of "mother." Fathers are often treated as uninvolved buffoons in popular culture, maligned in a way that no other group could be these days. While there has been some progress, our court system still systematically downgrades the rights of fathers.

And so, to all of you guys who are fathers or are about to become fathers, enjoy your day, take some real pride in what you do, no matter how maligned, the other 364. Happy Father's Day, all!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

It's only money

In an otherwise workmanlike account of Thursday's exciting Chicago Cubs game, Dave van Dyck of the Chicago Tribune begins:
On their first day without Alfonso Soriano, their $136 million left fielder, the Cubs won a game with two players they will pay about $600,000—combined—this season.
The implication is, of course, that $600K is just a trifle, that one could hardly expect players working for such a paltry sum to perform at a major league level.

But it's all relative, and I'm not taking van Dyck to task; the minimum salary in major league baseball is $390,000, so getting two productive players for $600,000 (they make the rest of their salary out of payments from their previous teams) is truly a bargain in the context of today's professional sports.

My point is, how remarkable that a reporter would toss this number in and count on every reader to understand the context. Salaries are so high, and so commonly accepted as high, that it's commonplace for a reporter to cite this as evidence of poverty - and we all read it and understand.

I don't need comments telling me what I already know, why the limited supply and insatiable demand for sports creates huge income streams and the players are just getting their due. There's a good chance I've read more than you have about the economics of professional sports.

I'm just making an observation as to how casual we've become about these matters; an athlete or entertainer makes millions, the Forbes Celebrity 100 draws quite a bit of interest, and it's ho-hum, just the way the world works.

I could go on and write something about the dubious power of Ashley Tisdale (#94) or the Jonas Brothers (#89), contrast it to the very real unseen struggles of the great majority of Americans, point out that three chimps could open for Miley Cyrus and make $12 million, but my readers are smart enough to fill in those blanks for themselves.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert

Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press, has just passed away at 58. I certainly have had some criticisms of him, never really buying into the commonly-held idea that he was the toughest questioner of them all or anything like that, but he was a knowledgeable guy who lived and breathed politics, and we need more of them. It is truly sad that he did not live to see the outcome of this very interesting year.

Condolences to his family and friends.

We write it, we read it?

As I referred to last week, the Chicago Tribune is planning some unspecified cuts, likely to take place by the end of September. Their Public Editor (something of an ombudsman), Timothy McNulty, talks about those cuts today:
Why do you read the newspaper? Let me put it another way: What do you value in the newspaper?

For those not keeping up with the news about the media world, there are radical changes afoot.

A week ago, the new executives of Tribune Co. told lenders that their newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, are going to be radically "right-sized" in keeping with reduced advertising revenue.

Plainly, that means "downsizing" the paper you are holding; it will have fewer pages and fewer people to produce the stories. This isn't a "less-is-better" argument; this is a "less-is-what-we-can-afford" moment.
In addition to that, the current publisher is stepping down. McNulty goes on to discuss the different ways readers use the newspaper, but accepts that there will be major changes:
That's what the journalists here are focusing on now: how to re-engineer the newspaper to accommodate financial realities and still remain true to the traditions of the Chicago Tribune and its commitment to provide readers with the best news-gathering and information possible.

Very little is sacrosanct. Different formats could save newsprint, sections can be collapsed, and a magazine or a tabloid-style presentation may be more readable. Stories can always be cut back, and sometimes a chart is a faster read than a narrative.

There will be redesign, just as there has been several times in the past, but this will, I suspect, be much more dramatic. Physical changes will alter the look and feel of the paper. Not that that will be the first time; the paper you are reading now is an inch and a half narrower than it was eight years ago.
McNulty solicits comments, but I doubt those will be of much help to the people "re-engineering" the paper. If I had to guess, the journalists will be allowed the first crack at the changes, the money guys will analyze those and decide they're not enough (since the journalists will still want to retain things like news), and the journalists will be required to stand back and watch the pillars fall. Some will get crushed under them.

There are those who think these changes are possible without hurting the quality of the newspaper. One often cited is that, in a multi-newspaper company, there is no need for each paper to have a film reviewer. Instead, there will be one reviewer for the whole chain.

While that seems plausible, it ignores the very real connections that readers feel with the bylines. The late Gene Siskel was quite beloved, there was pride in this local figure going national, and those feelings simply wouldn't exist if the critic came out of L.A. Is there value in those feelings? I don't know, but I do know a lot of marketing and advertising is built around trying to create that sense of connection, and it seems counterproductive to get rid of it.

Perhaps, though, the Tribune has already tipped its hand as to the kinds of changes they foresee. In yesterday's paper, we received an extra section titled Triblocal (I guess that's Trib-local, not Tri-blocal). Apparently, Triblocal's web site has been up since April, and, according to "managing editor" Kyle Leonard (I guess it's more friendly to put Kyle's title in lower case), it "has been serving the communities of Naperville, Lisle, and Aurora in a new and exciting way." Tell me more, Kyle.
Your friends and neighbors have reported news, posted events and shared their photos on Now we will share the best of each site every week.

Our small team of writers will deliver stories we think will be of interest to you, but we want you to post the news important to your lives on
Essentially, this is Web 2.0 seeping back into Life 1.0, what some have called "citizen journalism," in which the readers themselves create the content. In the case of Triblocal, the web material will be filtered back into a weekly newspaper, 24 pages in yesterday's version, that is designed to create more interest in the web site, and in this circular fashion will snowball into, well, what?

[By the way, Kyle wrote an article for Harvard's Nieman Reports about this endeavor:
Citizen journalism, as it’s called, isn’t really journalism. Instead it resembles what you’d hear in small town barbershop conversations. It’s stories about you, your neighbors, your friends, sometimes your town leaders, and what’s happening in your life and in the place you call home.
If citizen journalism isn't really journalism, is the print edition really a newspaper? Let's see.]

There are roughly 22 stories in Triblocal. (There is also a local events calendar that is, apparently, the result of reader submissions.) Four of them were written by Naperville/Aurora reporter Patricia Murphy. One was written by staff reporter Mary Rakoczy. One was written by staff reporter Jeff Vorva. (By the way, these three also took the pictures; apparently, there is no room for professional photographers.) One was the introduction by managing editor Kyle Leonard.

Which leaves 15 articles that were written by PR and marketing people. The articles promote upcoming festivals and concerts, or they're warmed-over press releases. There is an article taglined, "Aurora Dist. 129 details pursuit of excellence," and it's a puff piece written by the school district outlining all the wonderful things they'll be doing with new referendum money.

Is this journalism? Perhaps it's not supposed to be. Kyle:
Technology enables what gets sent to TribLocal to flow directly into a publishing system built on templates. Seven staff members of TribLocal are able to do the work that in a less automated setting would require 15, maybe more. Our four “reporters” also work as editors, photographers, designers and ambassadors. As managing editor, I help to layout pages, edit stories, and direct Web site-to-publication workflow.
It's interesting that "reporters" is in quotes, and that anyone would think of a journalist as an "ambassador." (It's also troubling that managing editor Kyle doesn't know that "layout" is a noun.)

Kyle believes that he has achieved a 50-50 split between stories and ads, but 2/3 of the stories are, in effect, ads. Are there things that people want to know about? Sure. Are they a reflection of journalism? Absolutely not.

One might hope that Triblocal will evolve over time, that reporters will "begin to report on issues that are crucial to the community." But they've gone to press with this lackluster first issue, and, I suspect, as long as they can sell ad space, they'll continue whether it improves or not.

Let's not pretend about what's going on here. The Tribune wants its readers to do the work, to write the stories and take the pictures, then the corporate conglomerate will reap the profits. Might this be the future for the main Tribune? Might they move to a "participatory" model, in which much of the newspaper is taken up with advocates and flacks masquerading as reporters? This is frightening to those of us who believe that the daily newspaper might possibly have some standards, some sense of larger purpose. It tilts the editor vs. publisher model so far towards the bean-counters that truth will fall through the cracks.

[Note: I have found an article written in January by Michael Miner of the Chicago Reader that anticipates some of my points, and finds a specific case where a "citizen contributor" was using Triblocal as an avenue for political flackery. Miner also talks to Kyle Leonard and discovers that the main job of their "reporters" is to stir up interest in]
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