Thursday, July 31, 2008

Leavin' his Beautiful Soul

Sticking with music on a sticky late-July day...

Pop singer Jesse McCartney has expressed a desire to move beyond the kid-pop sound of his 2004 hit "Beautiful Soul." After all, he's 21 now, so it's time to man up, go the Timberlake route, get that harder edge.

Then why is his new hit "Leavin'" even less macho than "Beautiful Soul"? It's pretty frothy stuff, and features a performance of near-negative sexuality. I really doubt that Mr. Tough is going to convince his lady to "call your shorty and tell him you found a new man." (Of course, this gal with the amazing "thing you got behind you" may be impressed with Jesse's "G-5, G-5" - golddigger.)

Off night, or age?

I don't write often about classical music, despite my great appreciation of it. (In fact, I could find only one previous mention of it in this blog, and I would have thought it would have crept in a time or two more.) Never having played an instrument (though you should hear my rendition of Amazing Grace on a tin whistle - spine-tingling), and having been an extremely casual listener before I was 25, I would be presumptuous to throw around any particular commentary ("ah, his rubato was superior, but I can't say I cared for his use of gratuitous appoggiaturas at all").

Oh, I have definite likes and dislikes as to music, and perhaps one day I will feel emboldened (or desperate) enough to put some of those thoughts on this blog. But I have close to no clue in terms of actual performances, either about the choices the performer makes or their actual ability. I take that back, somewhat; I once heard a performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto by the Chicago Symphony with principal clarinetist Larry Combs. The central movement, the Adagio, is in my view one of the truly shatteringly emotional pieces of music, even if I don't take into account that it was written soon before Mozart's far-too-early death. It is to be played slowly, as the marking would indicate, but Larry took it at a pretty good clip, as if he had some party to get to. For me, the structure was obliterated, and that angered me, so I do occasionally have an opinion as to performance choice.

At any rate, I went to the Ravinia Festival last night to hear an all-Beethoven program, the centerpiece of which was pianist Leon Fleisher playing the 5th Piano Concerto, the "Emperor." I won't recount the entire Fleisher story, remarkable as it is (the Wikipedia link I provided is a good summary of his long career and struggle with dystonia). He has just turned 80, and figures prominently in any taxonomy of piano performance and teaching, linked directly to Beethoven himself. Last year he was honored by the Kennedy Center with their prestigious award (of course, so was Diana Ross, so take it as it is).

The first movement was all right, perhaps a little muddy, but well within the boundaries of performance choice. The second movement, a truly lovely example of modified scales over a subdued orchestral background, was played beautifully (for the music-philes out there, I do recognize that there is more going on than my description would indicate, it's one of the few scores I've looked at, but the main impression is as I have said).

But, sadly, the third movement was just a mess. I accept wrong notes as part of live performance (I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Evgeny Kissin play all five Beethoven concertos with the CSO over two nights, and he missed a few notes - a very few). But Fleisher made so many mistakes that it was hard to listen to it, and every such disruption to a piece of music like that hurts the overall impression.

Perhaps unfairly, the first tendency is to ascribe a night like this to Fleisher's age. That may be wrong, he may have just had an extremely bad movement, but that is the first thought. And you think about that, and you begin to realize the extra pressure on a performer of a certain age, as every performance is taken as a referendum on their continued potency.

So I'm going to try not to think that way, but to remember a well-played, touching second movement, and chalk the ending up to a bad night. After all, not every blog post is absolutely top-drawer insight and revelation, some of them are just OK.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The press of events

The news report you never heard:
(January 27, 1967 - the voice you hear is that of a local news anchor, perhaps that of a purring, aging sex kitten) Good news for beleaguered taxpayers, there has been a major setback in the space program. The destruction of the command module of the Apollo spacecraft during today's testing may well mean the slowdown of the project. While this may mean we lose the ability to fulfill the late President Kennedy's dream of reaching the moon in this decade, it promises a lower tax bite to consumers already strapped by the cost of the war in Vietnam. Of course, as we turn to Bluff Hearty with the weather, losing those three astronauts is unfortunate, but we are going to see warmer temperatures...
Of course, that is the same story we've heard the past couple of days, as those same news people have waxed rhapsodic over the downturn in gas prices. It isn't presented as a fact that viewers want to know, it's presented as an unalloyed "good thing," albeit with the same breathless tones and beaming smile that accompanied last week's story about how Americans are coping with the prices.

And here is the biggest challenge to the new energy, Al Gore types (as I wrote about Monday). The case for disrupting our society is built on two legs: that it is necessary to halt, even reverse, climate change, or the planet may cease to exist; and that the ever-rising cost of traditional energy makes the new world cost-effective.

The first idea is hard for most people to get their heads around. In part, it's because, despite the PowerPoint presentations and documentaries, climate change is a pretty abstract problem. It has long-term, perhaps multi-generational, effects; unless you live on a patch of ground that can no longer support corn, but does allow sugar cane, you probably aren't hit between the eyes with vegetation changes.

And, in no small part, it comes from a confluence of scientific illiteracy with uncertainty. We hear that the north polar ice cap will be gone in five years, 10 years, 50 years, who knows? Not only don't we know what this implies, we don't have any idea when it will happen; if the experts can't agree, it becomes easier to believe that it's all a matter of opinion, instead of fact.

At least as important is the concept that rising prices of energy make alternatives cost-effective. I don't think that's true, at least not to the extent that Mr. Gore does, but the numbers do become more favorable to changes when the status quo becomes less favorable.

We have seen some recognition of that. There has been some positive commentary about higher gas prices, as the claim is that they will push the citizenry toward different technologies (and some corresponding backlash, as other commentators have called out that joy as unseemly given the very real hardships experienced by some people). If you're Al Gore, you need higher gas prices to justify the 10-year, no-carbon-fuel effort, so you have a vested interest in seeing those pump numbers climb and climb.

But, at least as vital is the push to get other people to see the value in those higher prices. To have news anchors trumpet a drop in price must really grate, because it just puts off the day that people will deal with this issue in a hard-headed fashion, making the sacrifices that will be necessary.

And that's why the comparison of the current challenge to the race to the moon is so spurious, so dishonest. A setback in the space program wasn't seen as positive by anyone; a setback in the energy program, like lower gasoline prices, is seen by everyone as positive. Overcoming this is one of Gore's biggest problems.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Stupidity for sure

I've just come across a link I had saved from nine days ago, and thought I'd put it up. It's a New York Times op-ed by Frank Rich, and Rich lays out the case concerning John McCain's ignorance of the economy. The money quote:
When it comes to the central front of American anxiety — the economy — his learning curve has flat-lined.
The rest is solid, especially as it discusses Phil Gramm and Carly Fiorina (who "adds nothing to the mix beyond her incessant display of corporate jargon," which is accurate). Rich seems to believe that Michael Bloomberg would, as a vice presidential choice, give McCain the best chance of reclaiming any ground on financial issues, but points out that Bloomberg would be unlikely to take such a position.

Given McCain's missteps on calling out Barack Obama, essentially sending him overseas for a remarkably successful trip, it would be a shame if we forgot his far bigger problems with the economy. Consider this my contribution to remembering.

Decisions, decisions

From last week, a post by Patrick Appel for Andrew Sullivan on a Scientific American article, Tough Choices: How Making Decisions Tires Your Brain. In a nutshell, research shows that making choices fatigues the brain, causing subsequent decisions to suffer. Choice is hard, and providing people with more of it is not necessarily a plus.

I thought of writing a lengthy post in which I talk about how our system of representative democracy coupled with free-market capitalism elevates choice above all other attributes, being the only one that the two components share. As China is demonstrating, capitalism and democracy are not inevitably linked, despite what our pundits say.

It occurred to me, however, that I've written about this before. 14 months ago I wrote a post which lays out my concerns about how poorly our system serves the people, in particular because the ideals of the free market have taken precedence over the functions of our government. As a result, we've elevated the notion of choice, instrumental to the market system, to the overwhelmingly predominant value we can have. So we're offered choice in our medical plans; if we guess wrong, we have no one but ourselves to blame.

There may be many cases in which this is acceptable, but the research also indicates that this creates stress, stress that I would imagine is even greater for choices made in situations of greater uncertainty. Choice sounds great as long as the majority is making good (or at least acceptable) decisions - however, when they all, for example, miscall the real estate market, we can end up with disaster for the nation as a whole. Sometimes it is necessary to constrain individual choice to make the system work.

Monday, July 28, 2008


SHAGH stands for "She/He's Already Got Hers/His," and I plan to use it to refer to those people who are full of wonderful advice for the rest of us, the people who claim that there is an inevitable cost from globalization/climate change/Islamic terrorism/etc., and we will just have to suck it up and pay that price. SHAGHs, of course, are already protected from those ill effects, but they have no qualms about pontificating to the rest of us. They range from people profiting off the change ("yes, I made a big bonus last year from moving jobs overseas, but the American people are just going to have to cope with globalization") to those who are sincerely committed to understanding the effects ("from up here in my ivory tower, protected by tenure, I really hope that the terrorists don't win"). What they have in common, right or wrong, is that they are insulated from the costs and changes and, thus, tend to minimize them.

Al Gore is one of our leading SHAGHs. He has, admirably, taken on the issue of global climate change, and is obviously passionate and committed to bringing about awareness as to what we might need to do to save our planet. And that is commendable, no doubt; he could be coasting on his reputation and making big-money speeches and writing big-advance books and pushing his wife to become president, only occasionally lending his name to "Good Causes."

Realistically, he's been helped by the nature of his loss in 2000, and the utter incompetence of the man who beat him. I doubt that Walter Mondale would have had quite the cachet had he adopted the abolition of gun violence as his personal cause. Al Gore became the symbol of everyone who's ever lost out on a promotion or got cut from the football team, his previous woodenness turned into an admirable, stiff-upper-lip resilience.

But, oh, has he been well-compensated. It's easy to be cynical about this, to question the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize for a PowerPoint presentation, to look at his venture-capital position and his many awards and wonder if we aren't all getting carried away with someone who seems to be doing quite well by doing good. But I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt here; I don't want to question his motivations, but simply to take a look at the things he's saying and pushing us toward.

We start with his announcement of July 17 that, "Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years." There's a lot in his announcement, a lot of ideas that are incontrovertibly true and deserve wider exposure. Others are extremely arguable, and demonstrate that Gore has not fully thought through the implications of his challenge: as I have asked about other ideas, "What's the mechanism?" He blows by a whole lot of issues that will prove to be real stumbling blocks, I wager.

Gore has a naive belief in the ability of inventors and entrepreneurs to make major changes happen on the timescale he predicts, with the predictable awe of market incentives to effect this alteration to America's whole way of life. It's hard to ridicule George W. Bush for his gut feeling about Putin when Al Gore tours a small-scale windmill factory, looks the engineers and executives in the eyes, and comes away with the same feeling about their ability to make his grand vision happen. Of course, he's not totally hypnotized by the market; we'll still have to "[help] our struggling auto giants switch to the manufacture of plug-in electric cars." What about the magical cost effectiveness, Al?

More from Gore:
When we send money to foreign countries to buy nearly 70 percent of the oil we use every day, they build new skyscrapers and we lose jobs. When we spend that money building solar arrays and windmills, we build competitive industries and gain jobs here at home.
The first sentence is dramatic and unarguable. The second, unfortunately, does not inevitably follow from the first. In the magical world of Gore, 2018 will not only see the end of carbon-emitting sources of energy, but a nirvana in which every energy dollar will flow around the United States. If Mr. Gore is as smart as billed, he must see the emptiness of that dream. Does anyone really believe that, once full-scale production is cranked up, the arrays and windmills will be built in this country? All the financial pressures that currently exist to move manufacturing to other countries will still be there (perhaps they'll even be worse as we all pay the price for this precipitous move), so the Shanghai skyscrapers may well proceed apace.

A side note, more relevant perhaps to my education discussion. The jobs that Gore envisions, presumably windmill erectors and solar panel installers, would not normally be seen as college-education necessary. Does this mean we don't need to universalize a college diploma?

Gore does recognize that defenders of the status quo will oppose his plan, but is dismissive of them, basically stating that things have to change, so they will, no matter what some would want. The risks are so great that we'll have to move to something new, and it's so obvious to him, Al Gore, that change will blow away any opponents. This is, once again, not a call to realistic action, but a wish that we could all live in Fantasyland.

This magic extends to the role of the citizen:
To those who say the challenge is not politically viable: I suggest they go before the American people and try to defend the status quo. Then bear witness to the people's appetite for change.
Frankly, the American people are pretty comfortable as they are. They haven't felt so much pain, yet, that they are going to agitate for change, especially when they realize what the costs really are - and Gore is not realistic about those costs at all. In his appearance on Meet the Press on July 20, Gore's only answer to Tom Brokaw's questions about cost is, what will the costs be if we don't make these changes? That's not an answer.

Because there are real costs, and I will mention a very few here. My vision of what Gore wants is for, say, August 1, 2018, National Gore Day, to be the day we make the cutover. It will be just like next year's coerced move to digital television, except that there will be no $40 conversion box we can put on our dashboards to convert our cars to hydrogen.

Let's say you need a new car in 2013. The magical engineers have not solved every problem of large-scale manufacture of magic non-carbon autos; even if they have, we haven't rolled out the distribution network that will support whatever technology is chosen (do we really believe that, in today's climate, every employer is going to put recharging stations at every parking lot space?). It is impossible to believe that you will be able to avoid a carbon-based car in 2013 (don't forget, in Gore World, hybrids are just as evil as Hummers). So you're supposed to buy a car that will be worthless in just five years! (And I wouldn't want to be CarMax, stuck with thousands of pieces of useless metal.)

But Gore has a way to address that:
America's transition to renewable energy sources must also include adequate provisions to assist those Americans who would unfairly face hardship. For example, we must recognize those who have toiled in dangerous conditions to bring us our present energy supply. We should guarantee good jobs in the fresh air and sunshine for any coal miner displaced by impacts on the coal industry. Every single one of them.
This is charming political rhetoric, but does it include a buy-back program for every usable vehicle that is still on the road on National Gore Day? How do we pay for that?

Oh, yes, through Gore's proposal to tax carbon. The government program needed to figure out who has been hurt by his plan, and by how much, and to tax someone for carbon, and to give those taxes to the hurt people, well, the scope of this redistribution and the accounting for it is boggling.

To anyone who has even a rudimentary notion of economics, something else will be obvious. As we phase out fossil fuels, our demand dropping to 0, their price will come down. They will become more attractive to developing nations, so there will be at least as much damage done to the world's environment. Not to worry, Gore has the solution:
In order to foster international cooperation, it is also essential that the United States rejoin the global community and lead efforts to secure an international treaty at Copenhagen in December of next year that includes a cap on CO2 emissions and a global partnership that recognizes the necessity of addressing the threats of extreme poverty and disease as part of the world's agenda for solving the climate crisis.
This is a pipe dream, with Gore grasping at straws by tossing the curtailment of poverty and disease into the mix. It sounds very much as if we're going to bribe provide incentives for other countries to follow our lead in celebrating World Gore Day - who will pay for that?

To clinch the deal, Gore pulls out the space race as the clear parallel to his proposal. If we could get to the moon in 8 years and 2 months, we can do anything.

But the parallel is not even close. The nation, rocked by Sputnik, was scared and ready to stand behind anything that would prove that we had reasserted our dominance. For a lot of reasons, we were far more financially secure in those times. And, most importantly, there was little downside (at least publicly). For President Kennedy's challenge to truly be similar, he would have had to say that we would get to the moon in 10 years, but we'd have to stop all commercial air travel to get that done. And that wouldn't have flown.

Most curious is that Gore seems to have lost all taste for working within the political process to get any of this done. Given his personal history, this may be understandable, but it's hard to see how that's possible. Instead, there is hand-waving about the average citizen making it happen.

How? By voting only for Gore-approved candidates? That's absolutely not going to occur, for a host of reasons.

The only way for Gore, or anyone, to achieve these lofty goals, is to lay out a comprehensive strategy that makes the costs abundantly clear, one in which the primary people to benefit are not foreign energy companies or Chinese engineers, one which has some sense as to how the American people can be brought on board. As it is, Gore's call to action is a string of very nice sentiments without any real hope of implementation.

I fear that Gore has read a little too much of his own press, that he believes his moral force will sweep away all problems. I can understand this; even on Meet the Press, the next segment began with Brokaw saying: "No one is better informed on this issue of energy conservation and global climate change than [Gore] is, no one is more passionate about it." That's embarrassing, and Brokaw shouldn't have said it (please tell me that the scientists and engineers working on this have a higher level of understanding than a politician), but it doesn't take much of this rhetoric before the subject begins to feel it's true. And that would seriously get in the way of the very real contributions Al Gore can make to this issue - but he's going to have to get his head out of the clouds and put his feet firmly on the floor.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Checking it out

One of the more invaluable resources in keeping up with the various machinations surrounding H-1B visas is the Job Destruction Newsletter, which can be subscribed to at Whatever you may think of this visa program (and the others with similar goals), which purportedly brings in the best and brightest to take jobs which American companies simply cannot find Americans to take (and each of the statements in the preceding clause is arguable, as I and many others have pointed out), the JDN chronicles the Congressional maneuverings to do the bidding of their corporate masters and the roll-over-and-play-dead media. Even if you are not 100% against the program, reading the JDN regularly, and critically, will make you think seriously about the vast mistruths that surround this issue.

The most recent JDN (#1894) has links to eight different articles. Each of them seems to cite established fact, that Americans aren't getting the degrees that business needs, probably because they're too stupid, so we desperately need to allow more foreign worker to take those jobs. Of course, the simple economic implication that would seem to follow from this situation is that existing technical workers should be in huge demand, with massive salaries and bonuses - that we haven't seen this should be seen as a problem, but not by our press corps. By the way, you will note that the focus is always on the lack of young people going into these fields; it is extremely rare for anyone to mention the large number of experienced people who are unemployed or underemployed - that simply doesn't fit the narrative.

I could write about each of the stories, but I'll just take #1 and analyze it using my experience and years in the field. Let's see what we come up with.

The story comes from the May 2, 2008 Baltimore Sun, and is titled, "Long wait for scarce visas: High-tech American employers, foreign workers in suspense." It promises, based on the title, to be yet another lament from employers who desperately need H-1B visas and cannot get them, thus crippling their business prospects.

And that's exactly what it is. As we know from Journalism 101, a reporter cannot tell a story about a halfway complex issue without particularizing it, so we'll undoubtedly be treated to some poor schnook who is hamstrung by his inability to hire foreign workers. This reporter, Kelly Brewington, has found one Shibu Jose, who has a software consulting company in Ellicott City, Maryland. I'm already a bit suspicious, because Ellicott City is a suburb of Baltimore and perhaps 40 miles from Washington, DC, and there's a whole lot of software talent in that area. Shibu might have to pay a little extra to attract some of that talent, but I would be very surprised if he's doing anything that is so unusual that there is no one to do it - I'll keep an open mind. Let's read:
Shibu Jose has placed ad after ad in area newspapers and on Web sites seeking tech-savvy workers for his Ellicott City software consulting company.

But the resumes he receives are thin. Too often, applicants lack fluency in the complex software-speak he needs to keep his business competitive.

So, like tens of thousands of employers nationwide, he seeks foreign talent through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' visa program for highly skilled professionals. And like his fellow employers, he waits.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service makes 65,000 such visas available each April. That's about half the allocation of five years ago, and for each of the past five years demand for the program, H-1B, has vastly outstripped supply.
Hmm, this does sound tragic, poor Shibu.

The article cites the statistics about the demand, companies have to import talent, Bill Gates says we need more visas (I've written about Mr. Gates' testimony before, for example, here). After six paragraphs of pain, there is a one-paragraph nod to the critics, but it is a brief respite before we return to our friend Shibu:
For Jose, the H-1B debate is a question of simple business competition. Without the visas, his company cannot thrive, he said.

With 15 years of software engineering experience under his belt working for such giants as IBM and Lockheed Martin, Jose decided in 2006 to start his firm, Saxon Infotech Inc.

Seven of Jose's staff of 12 are from India or Sri Lanka, hired through the H-1B program. Jose said he has little choice but to cast a global net to find the brightest candidates in such a highly specialized field.

"The problem with this industry is that there are tons of computer languages; you cannot master everything," he said. "So companies are looking for particular experience. And the question becomes, 'Where do I find these people?' This is the toughest part."

Although he has had luck with the visa program in the past, he said he worries that the program has become so swamped with requests that winning the lottery might be nearly impossible.

"If I am relying on this rate to grow my business, I might have better luck playing the Maryland Lottery," he said.
[Let's take a brief time-out and think about what this says to Shibu's existing clients - is he really trying to send the message that he's struggling, that he "cannot thrive"?]

There's more in this article, with the usual stories of foreign students desperate to stay, a quote from an Oracle lobbyist who favors more immigrants, a little more from the other side stating that multinational corporations are benefiting from cheap labor, not employing Americans, and that the visas are stepping stones to green cards. In other words, it's almost boilerplate journalism, but the reader is certainly left with the impression that America needs to up those visa caps or risk being left behind. (There is, naturally, no mention made of the fact that 4 of the top 5 H-1B visa-receiving companies are Indian outsourcing companies, which, somehow, seems relevant.)

But I want to focus on the plight of dear, sad Shibu, who just can't find the specialized workers he needs without going outside the country, even though he has managed to score seven of these precious visas already.

So let's turn to Saxon Infotech and see what we can see.

We begin with an ugly web page, with what apparently is their slogan floating around the screen: To provide quality Software Consulting Services to the Data Processing industry, we specialize in implementing complex assignments efficiently.

This is a bit troubling. The English is more than a bit odd, and the use of the term "Data Processing" is a bit out-of-date, but we'll move along.

There are a couple of boxes with Profile, and News & Events. News & Events seems to have a list of sales they've made, one to Northrop Grumman to provide IT consultants, the other to TEK systems, an IT staffing firm, to provide technical consultants. So Saxon is a pretty standard body shop, it appears, allowing their clients to outsource some part of their business (in the case of TEKsystems [by the way, they seem to favor the one-word spelling; Shibu might want to fix that], it seems to be double outsourcing).

Let's move over and expand the Profile box to get the whole picture (it seems there's some confusion over whether this is Profile or Company, but I'll let Shibu fix that too). Let me quote the whole thing so you can get a complete picture:
Saxon Infotech is built on the assumption that the management of information technology for business is like legal advice or accounting, in that it is not inherently a do-it-yourself prospect, and requires outside expertise to install and implement it. Smart business people need to find quality vendors of reliable professionals, hardware, software, service, and support. They need to use these quality vendors as they use their other professional service suppliers: as trusted allies.

Saxon Infotech intends to be such a solution provider. We will serve our clients as trusted allies, providing them with the loyalty of a business partner and the economics of an outside vendor and Service providers. We want to make sure that our clients have what they need to run their businesses as well as possible, with maximum efficiency and reliability. Many of our information applications and services will be mission critical, so we will give our clients the assurance that we will be there when they need us.

Our Business mission is to provide world class products and services in the field of information technology with special emphasis on software development, Consultancy, Training, Research and Merchandising.
With strong faith, based on the fact that human development is the worthiest of all the goals of civilization, we believe in continuous growth and development of skills, abilities of our personnel. Also to provide an equal opportunity environment that necessities equal participation, we intended to inspire independent thoughts. Innovation and personal development.

Growth through profitability is the philosophy that guides our work. Thus we intended building an organization of international repute providing innovative and high quality customized solutions to suit our customer needs. An environment that breeds enthusiasm trust and welfare....."
It's easy for me to ridicule this, to point out the massive language problems, the buzz words that don't lead anywhere, but I'll leave that to the reader. I will say that I've seen a hundred web sites for companies that sound just like this, and it's pretty much always just badly-written fluff.

Turning to the section which lists their services, it's once again a standard set of skills that come from e-Business, Consulting Services, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), and Staffing Services. Looking back at their News & Events, it's clear to me that Staffing is the one product in which they've actually had some success, but who am I to deny Shibu's dream of this full-service consulting firm? At the same time, I doubt that the current staff of 12 is actually doing all those things.

The point here is that I don't see anything, not in their long list of technologies under e-Business, nor in the other sections of expertise, that is particularly uncommon or arcane, nothing that supports Shibu's contention that he is in a "highly specialized field."

So we move to Saxon's current job openings. All of these, apparently, fall under the Staffing Services notion; I still have seen nothing that tells me that this is anything other than a body shop. Let's look at the qualifications for the first job, "Strong J2EE Developer." (If you're not a particularly technical person, you'll have to take my word for the following - I will try to be conservative in my appraisal.)

This candidate needs:
  • 5 years of full life cycle development with an emphasis on incremental, iterative development and deployment.
  • 5 years of development experience with development tools including Java (EJB, Servlets, and JSP/JSF) and Windows (.NET, C#, .ASP). Development must consist of deployed, large distributed systems across multiple platforms.
  • 2+ years of development experience on SQL databases (Oracle, DB2 or SQL Server) and XML
  • 2 years of web development experience including HTML, DHTML and other server-side technologies
  • 1 year of Object Oriented design and development
If you read the article in the Baltimore Sun, you would have to believe that Saxon is looking for some amazingly specific skill set, and, folks, this ain't it. The person also needs the usual soft skills (ability to learn, team-oriented, written and verbal skills), and a bachelor's degree, or higher, or relevant experience. There is an additional list of Professional Responsibilities, but it does not remarkably expand the requirements for the job beyond the list above.

I don't know where Shibu is looking if he can't find anyone like this. Yes, he'll have to pay for it, and in his competitive market, he may have to pay a lot. But he can find such people, all he has to do is look. The other positions are similar, in that each one requires skills that can be found if Shibu is willing to pay.

But, of course, he's not willing to pay, he has no interest in paying. It's much easier to import the talent from India or Sri Lanka, pay them a joke "prevailing wage," win business by charging less while keeping a substantial cut for yourself. And, if it becomes tough to get the cheap labor you need, whine to the press about it, tell the world that you're just a poor guy trying to get by, prevented by onerous regulations from bringing the business community your worthy "human development."

Shibu, here's an idea. Spend less time crying to a reporter how you can't find the "specialized" talent you actually don't need, and more time finding that talent. Reach into your wallet and pay for quality instead of expecting the United States to hand you labor at whatever you feel like paying. Stop puffing up your outsourcing service into a full-service think tank, when what you are is a low-priced body shop.

And to you reporters who see this Baltimore Sun story as a model, work a little harder. Ask someone who knows whether Shibu really has these incredible requirements that can't be met by American workers. Ask Shibu what he's really willing to pay for quality. Maybe then you'll have a balanced story, instead of this routine twaddle.

Not a typical Sunday

I recognize that my main post for today is not my promised lighter fare. I apologize for that, but I was inspired to tell the sad story of Shibu Jose, and I found time to write it up.

Oddly enough, it is sometimes harder, given the state of the world, to find frivolity in it. I have a number of pending posts, not one of which seems appropriate for a Sunday.

So, if you're here looking for an exegesis of Usher's Love in This Club, this isn't the day for it...maybe next week.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The blue screen of death

Via Patrick Appel for Andrew Sullivan, an article at Slate by William Saletan about the use by the U.S. military of drones that kill through a remote video game-like interface:
But the world on the screen isn't ordinary. It doesn't even feel like life.

Is the "synthetic environment" real? That depends on which end of the missile you're looking at. In the targeted car, it's as real as death. But from the console, it looks more like virtual reality. If the drone goes down, you're not in it.
The tone of the article is somewhat disconcerting, as it seems we're supposed to disapprove of this manner of waging war:
If you've seen combat in the flesh, you know what the fireball on the screen means to the people in the car. But to a teenager raised on Doom and Halo, it looks like just another score. He can't feel or smell the explosion. He isn't even there. The eeriest thing in the demo video is the total silence that accompanies the car's destruction. The only sound that follows is the pilot's triumphant verdict: "Excellent job." It's like something you'd read on the screen after getting a high score at an arcade.
I am certainly no fan of war, I didn't miss Vietnam by so many years that I do not feel relief at the accident of birth that kept me from that conflict. But, if we must fight a war (and I think we need to set the bar higher than we did, for example, in Iraq), we should fight it according to a simple objective, that it's about killing more of the other side than we lose.

As such, there is no particular nobility in mano-a-mano battle. Despite a certain romanticism that we get from old movies, one of the very real goals is to avoid "combat in the flesh." Older people get it; I knew very few of my parents' friends who had a problem with the A-bomb, as there was a real fear of the meatgrinder that would have been the invasion of Japan (to be fair, there were some qualms about the second).

So what is Saletan's point here? Perhaps we get some glimmer from the final paragraph:
Forty-one years ago, John McCain was shot down over Vietnam. He broke three limbs and spent five years in brutal imprisonment. Anyone who has been through such hell knows that drones do a great service by protecting American pilots. But kids with PlayStations live in a world where the pilot—the console operator—is the only real human being. They don't understand war's horror the way McCain does. And he isn't the military of tomorrow. They are.
OK, I think I get it now, we're supposed to fear that the ease of fighting war from an ergonomic chair 8,000 miles away will spur us into easier conflict, that a no-loss war will provide an incentive to rush to arms against anyone who looks cross-eyed at us.

Compelling though this point may be, I think Saletan picked a bad example. It seems that McCain is more willing even to Bush to commit troops in spite of his "understanding" of "war's horror." Figuring this out is one of the key components of comprehension of McCain's approach to world events, and, until someone can help me get this, I would find it quite difficult to vote for Mr. Straight Talk.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Great teachers (Part 3.1)

[Note: this is something of a lemma in my "series" on problem-solving and education. I'll try to keep it brief.]

The Chicago Tribune today has a front-page story on how a new study confirms the results of other stories, that girls are just as good as boys in mathematics. There are a number of things I could say here, based on things I have seen from my years as a high school mathematics coach, but, for this post, I will confine myself to the first two paragraphs of this story:
Desiree Epps-Davis, 14, says she struggles every day to convince some teachers at her Chicago public school that she is just as good at math as the boys in her class.

Now a major new study has proved her right.
I understand that one of the basic tenets of modern journalism is that every story needs to have a human face, that it is more important to find the right (most touching) example of every problem than to actually understand the issues.

But that doesn't mean we need to throw basic logic out the window. No matter how affecting Desiree's story is, the study does not "prove" that she is as good in math as the boys. This is the classic case of confusing the specific with the general, and fuzzy thinkers have been doing this forever.

It is just as likely that we could have seen the statement the other way, that Desiree's demonstrated success "proves" that girls are just as good as boys, which is equally specious logic. It's very hard to believe that we'll ever understand complex situations as long as we (and our media) make fundamental mistakes like this.

Top-down vs. bottom-up economics

I've written before on my admiration of Robert Reich (here, for example, or here). This former Clinton Secretary of Labor, current economics professor seems to get what's really going on in our economy far better than most Washingtonians or ivory-tower residents. (I'm not a blind acolyte; I did find a few things in Reich's book Supercapitalism that I didn't care for, in particular his weak defense of CEO salaries.)

His Tuesday post about the difference between what he terms top-down economics as opposed to bottom-up is quite valuable. Essentially, as you might expect, top-down is the belief that our system works best when the powerful players are given as much support as possible and set free to create economic magic. Tax breaks for the rich and for corporations will lead to more jobs and economic growth, carte blanche for oil companies to drill whenever and wherever will bring down oil prices, and bailing out investment banks will open up credit markets to the average American. Reich punctures those ideas, as globalized markets make it highly unlikely that whatever gains that come from these practices will accrue to real people.

Bottom-up economics focuses on those real people, providing the infrastructure (physical and conceptual, like education and health) that will improve productivity for millions in the work force, subsidizing basic research in alternative fuels, and enhancing their financial security.

I certainly harbor doubts as to how likely we are to move from our current assumption that top-down is the way to go (I don't think most people realize just how in thrall we are to the concept that the "smart people" have all the answers, and how we accept that they should get whatever they need - if we just give Bill Gates more money, eventually he'll get around to fixing our problems too). It is good that there are people of some influence who understand that our economic engine is driven by the people who buy and drive cars, not the people who move the manufacture of them overseas and take a big cut of the savings. But I doubt there are enough of them, not yet.

The only other objection I have to Professor Reich's post is his equating top-down with McCain, bottom-up with Obama. I hope that's true, especially as I believe Obama will end up winning, but I'm not totally sure. Once Obama starts attending Renaissance Weekends and other events where he'll rub elbows with the "big-idea" people, I wonder if he (like Clinton before him) will start buying into the idea that the business leaders and corporate attorneys have the answers, and all we have to do is step back and watch them work (oh, yes, we have to provide them the proper incentives, like tax breaks and TIF districts and innovation seed money and on and on...).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fun in the skies...and on the ground

Via Patrick Appel filling in for Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hayes tries to find out, from a "super secret source inside a major air carrier," why air travel is so arduous these days. The source says, first, that air travel isn't really all that bad, that there are generally no more than "numerous small frustrations and irritations," and that, on an inflation-adjusted basis, fares are still quite low.

Essentially, our expectations have changed, we have become accustomed to jumping on a plane in a casual, low-cost way, and it's due to "the dramatic democratization of air travel since deregulation." The downside is that the industry has had to deal with "complete and constant change" (one wonders who pushed for deregulation in the first place). The source goes on to describe a fairly typical scenario of an industry that overbuilt when it was flush (the late '90s), then had a major crisis when times got tough. He makes an arguable point that the failure of one major carrier would have adjusted capacity downward, solving all the problems, a point that is more interesting than certain.

On we go through the Oughts, as the government begins to ladle out help, despite which four major carriers go through bankruptcy. With all this protection, the overcapacity persists, and then comes the big shock - fuel costs go through the roof, finally forcing the airlines to cancel some routes and cut back flights on others. The industry as a whole will drop more capacity after Labor Day than they did after 9/11.
So what’s going to happen? Fewer flights, higher fares, emptier planes (yeah, fares are going to drive down demand, not consolidate fullish flights onto each other), fewer air traffic delays. In short, the fuel price will accomplish just about everything that reregulation could hope to do. It’s exactly the same reasoning as why anyone concerned about climate change needs to see $5/gallon gas in the US and cheer, because it’s the only way to change consumer behavior.
The experience will be better for whatever air travelers are left, though it will be more expensive.

There is one huge implication that this analysis fails to consider, not surprising since this is an industry perspective. Cheap fuel and too-low-to-be-true fares have created a mania for projection of exponential growth in air travel, and anybody relying on these forecasts to make their future plans is likely in big trouble.

In particular, O'Hare Airport is in the midst of a big expansion, the common wisdom being that the ever-increasing need for travel would make this $15 billion (or much higher) project a necessity. And much of this project is irrevocable; there are swaths of two Chicago suburbs that have been obliterated to make room for new runways.

Someone's on the hook for a project that now looks like a massive waste, and we have to assume that the airlines, previously reluctant to bear any part of the expense, now have even more leverage to avoid writing a check (fine, we'll just take our planes and go home, or to Dallas, or to Denver). So, to a list of people affected by the reckless planning of the airlines, including those who can no longer go home to see Grandma (we don't fly there any more) and the masses who used to work for this industry, add the taxpayers (unclear at what level) who will have to come up with billions for empty runways...but they'll be really nice runways.

Media bias

[As I gear up for more of my award-winning series on Great Teachers and decision-making, I have found a few other things to comment on. Never fear, you will hear more of my ramblings on education, but I have to clarify my own thoughts and incorporate some perceptive comments from Citizen Carrie.]

John Kass writes for the Chicago Tribune, having taken over the column spot once inhabited by Mike Royko. And in that role, as one who writes about corruption in Chicago and the curious relationship to it of Mayor-for-Life (-or-until-his-son-is-ready-to-take-over) Richard M. Daley, he can approach Royko-ness (Royko's most enduring work is almost certainly Boss, his biography of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley).

But Kass is not a national reporter, something he proves almost every time he comments on anything outside of Northeastern Illinois. It's fine that he's a conservative; if he wants to continue to carry a torch for our Brave Protector, the Great Decider George W. Bush, that's his right. And those columns tend to be quite weak, since the evidence doesn't exactly favor that interpretation.

Kass has some chance of reclaiming a reputation for persipicacity during the current campaign, but is blowing that chance through his decision to prattle on about the media bias in favor of Barack Obama. His most recent column, Media's guilt plays well for Obama and McCain (and, no, I don't understand that title), is yet another attempt to get us to feel sorry for John McCain, as the liberal media follows Obama around with awe and admiration, and ignores the great war hero.

I can't do justice to chronicling the pass that the press has given Mr. Straight Talk over the years, many have demonstrated that the media has swooned over Senator McCain forever (you can start with Brilliant at Breakfast, where you can pick any random recent post and have a good chance of reading a description of McCain's missteps, and the reluctance of the mainstream press to expose any of that). I could point out the most recent one, where McCain gives George Bush credit for the drop in oil prices because of his lifting of a ban on offshore drilling, which the White House won't even take credit for. Here is McCain, who should be distancing himself from Bush, but he just can't stop tacking back to nuzzling the President's hand.

Another example, which has received a certain amount of play, is that Obama's overseas trip is being covered by a mass gathering of the Fourth Estate, while McCain had to travel to Iraq without the comforting presence of Katie Couric. Let's forget, for the moment, that McCain baited Obama on his failure to visit the Middle East, and is now criticizing Obama for...visiting the Middle East.

This might seem like bias, and maybe it is, somewhat, but McCain shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. On his last trip to the "war-torn" Middle East, every picture and clip I saw featured McCain and his little friend, Joe Lieberman. Someone needs to tell John that there is probably no potential voter who doesn't recoil at the sight of this strange little man looking adoringly at him (isn't that Cindy's job?).

McCain and his surrogates (Whinin' Phil Gramm and "Business Person" Carly Fiorina) have put out mixed messages, contradicted one another (and McCain is able to do that all on his own), have made major misstatements ("We have the Iraq surge to thank for the defeat of Japan in World War II"), and have come off like the campaign that can't shoot straight.

And still the media presents without question the idea that being a POW is, in and of itself, sufficient to become President, that sitting in a cell in Hanoi for 5-1/2 years automatically confers on the captive an expertise in foreign policy. They allow Fiorina to portray herself as a business person who "understands the numbers," despite no proven ability to do so. They profile Cindy McCain as a brave woman who overcame an addiction, while rarely referring to her theft of drugs from her non-profit organization. They give short shrift to the lobbyists and influence peddlers who infest McCain's staff.

So the problem here is not primarily one of media bias, it's one of media laziness. For Kass, or anyone else, to criticize the press for their fawning coverage of Obama is to ignore the bigger sin: that the press isn't coming close to informing the public about the things they need to know in order to make an informed decision.

Keep in mind, this is the same press corps that showed actually no backbone in dealing with George W. Bush for eight years (have you ever seen David Gregory's pride at having been named "Stretch" by Big Alpha Male?). Did their liberal bias show as they laid supine at the feet of the Decider? I'm uncertain the press is able to hold a thought long enough to be liberal or conservative or anything else. At any rate, bias is pretty low on my list of media sins; I don't think they're pushing either campaign hard enough on issues, and that's what I think we need.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Who picks the clips...

that make the whole world sing?

I have now twice seen the "highlight" of Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan singing SOS in the film Mamma Mia, and all I can say is, if that's the best Brosnan moment in the movie, it should have been hidden.

We've all seen performers in movie musicals who were hired for their star power, not their musical talents, but Rex Harrison could at least talk his way through in a musical way. Brosnan yells out the two lines I've seen through clenched teeth in what may be an attempt at a Joe Cocker impression, but comes off as a man with an excruciating medical problem.

Is the point of showing this clip simply to prove Brosnan's in the movie, lest his fans think the posters are lying?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Huh??? What???

Via Patrick Appel, filling in for Andrew Sullivan, Bryan Appleyard on distractions:
We’re all distracted, we’re all interrupted. How foolish we are! But, listen carefully, it’s killing me and it’s killing you....[T]here is the great myth of multitasking. No human being, he (David Meyer) says, can effectively write an e-mail and speak on the telephone. Both activities use language and the language channel in the brain can’t cope. Multitaskers fool themselves by rapidly switching attention and, as a result, their output deteriorates.
People who routinely "multitask" suffer from stress-related diseases, with interruptions consuming 2.1 hours a day in a knowledge worker's day.

In this rambling but effective essay, Appleyard goes on to discuss the growing inability of people to concentrate, even to read, as, once a mode of constant distraction and reaction is established, we are losing our ability to move back to the mode of focus on one coherent line.

And, as we lose our ability to interact with a single thread, we spin large numbers of insubstantial ones:
Teenagers are being groomed to think others can be picked up on a whim and dropped because of a mood or some slight offence. The fear is that the idea of sticking with another through thick and thin – the very essence of friendship and love – will come to seem absurd, uncool, meaningless.
There is concern that this is a permanent condition for our young people, and that something important is being lost:
Studies show older people are generally more adept with computers than younger. This is because, like all multitaskers, the kids are deluding themselves into thinking that busy-ness is depth when, in fact, they are skimming the surface of cyberspace as surely as they are skimming the surface of life. It takes an adult imagination to discriminate, to make judgments; and those are the only skills that really matter.
And there is very little chance that this will turn around, because there is a lot more money to be made in devices of distraction, the iPhones, the Blackberries, the e-mail alerts, the Facebook friend requests, than there is in products that bear a more contemplative aspect.
These things do make our lives easier, but only by destroying the very selves that should be protesting at every distraction, demanding peace, quiet and contemplation.
This is a good piece, and there's more than I've been able to excerpt, so read the whole thing. One aspect that Appleyard fails to touch upon, though, is the extent to which this can be part of a power game. The employee who has to multitask at the whim of his boss is being put in his place. But it can work the other way.

I once supported a manager who would call underlings into her office, then take and make phone calls, working on other things while we would sit there waiting for a scrap of her attention. The context shifts were remarkably time-consuming, as we would have to remind her of what she was saying when she returned from whatever other thing she was doing. She undoubtedly thought of herself as quite the multitasker, but she wasted everyone else's time (because she could), and she rarely understood anything in any depth. (She also had that irritating habit of removing her earring every time she took a call, then putting it back once the call was over; I'm not sure how she had any earlobe left.)

Multitasking is impossible, not a desirable trait. The brain is simply not designed to work that way. Early computers supported time-sharing, which made multiple users think that they each had the computer to themselves, but it was essentially a trick: The single-processor computer was switching attention from one user to the next at an incredibly rapid rate. (Computers still do this, we don't call it time-sharing any longer.) Unfortunately, the human brain has a lot more trouble doing seamless context switching, and it doesn't surprise me at all that people are starting to experience stress disorders from trying to do so.

Great teachers (Part 3) - a more generalized framework

I received a few comments on my posts last week on Great Teachers (Part 1 and Part 2). (I've even left the spam comment from the company that has great jobs in Ahmedabad, India, because the comment section has been pretty sparse lately.) I'll recreate the comment I recently received from Greg, because I think it provides a useful taxonomy:
I've been thinking a lot about this post but haven't had time to comment. IMHO, there are three kinds of teachers today. The first kind is the passionate teacher, who devotes his/her life to teaching. For them, teaching is a calling - they feel like they are making the world a better place by teaching. Their passion and devotion is similar to an artist, writer or musician. The second kind of teacher is someone who just views teaching as a job. These teachers may or many not be competent, but they are not devoted to the job. The third type of teacher is someone who started out as a passionate teacher but, over time, lost the passion and now views teaching as just another job.

If my view is correct, then the issue is to attract better candidates for the "just a job" teacher, while re-igniting the passion for teaching for the burned-out teachers.

My hunch is that there are plenty of great teachers out there who have gravitated towards other, more desirable careers. Perhaps they are management consultants, corporate trainers or something else. If we can figure out what will make teaching more attractive, we may be able to get more of them into the field of teaching.
What I want to talk about in this post is not a response to Greg's ideas, which are spot on in my view, but the process he's going through in his exposition, one which supports some ideas I've had lately about problem-solving. I'm not going to argue that I have anything new or non-obvious to say, but this blog is primarily for me, and I think it's useful to think of the process of solving problems in this way - consider this post a self-reminder.

There are four large steps in solving a problem:
  1. Identify the problem
  2. Create a series of questions based on the problem
  3. Answer those questions
  4. Assemble those answers into a solution to the problem
Is that a sufficient list? Probably not. One potential difficulty I see right off the bat is that the assembly of individual answers may not be sufficient to solve the problem, so there is an inherent need for a feedback loop. Nonetheless, for me at least it's useful to break it down this way.

Is it a necessary list? I would think so, as all but the most trivial problems will need to be broken down before anyone can wrap their minds around it (to think about something like climate change as a single problem is to trivialize it; it represents a series of questions, each of which needs to be answered).

Let's take the example of education and try to use this framework, see if it really has any usefulness.

1. Identify the problem

Our schools are bad, everyone knows it, let's move on. No, wait a minute, is that a precise enough formulation of the problem? (So it seems we already need questions to do #1, perhaps a flaw in the model, but I shall forge ahead.) Let's first ask, what are schools for?

When I was young, there was occasional lip service paid to the twaddle that schools were designed to create the "educated American," a mythical archetype that had gained enough education to function as a useful citizen. The whole job thing came from specialized training, either on-the-job or in (sneer, sneer) professional schools. There was a purity to the learning process, and it wasn't to be tainted by mere vocationalism.

That was a crock then, one that is rarely maintained nowadays. Education is now clearly seen as what it always actually was, the road to good jobs and a better life. There is little pretense left that education is anything about the perfectibility of young men and women, it's all about enhancing their marketability in the global workplace of tomorrow. Whatever one person or another might think about this as a goal, it's pretty much reality, and we need to look at the educational system in that light.

[I'm not ignoring some of the other theories about education, that it is about creating compliant factory workers or their modern equivalent, or obedient citizens, or what have you. If any of those are the "secret agenda" of the "great educational conspiracy," I don't know it, and it will not drive the public discussion anyway.]

And that light is that of the marketplace, that is, the measure of our educational system is how well it prepares our children for the economic realities they will face. If we can throw in some political knowledge and some exercise, we'll do that too, but it has become fairly obvious that civics classes and physical education are not exactly top priority.

When we talk about a market, we are led to talk about supply and demand. The supply "stuff" is fairly well fixed, there are only a certain number of students in each age cohort. So the issue is, how do we manufacture the right mix of products out of that fixed raw material, one which will match well with the demand?

And now, I think, we've identified the problem we actually want to solve. It's not the poorly-defined "fix our schools," but the somewhat more precise "how do we engineer our schools so they produce the right mix of skills for the demands of the future?," a proposition that carries within it some of the subsequent questions.

I will leave this here for now, because I want to ruminate on this specific example some more. Do I still have some assumptions built in to the new question (I'm leaving "cost-effective" as implied for now)? But I think this is a step forward from the Charlie Rose-style, "What do we do to fix our failed schools?"

Monday, July 21, 2008

Layoffs and the world around you

I have written quite a few times about posts by Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast; I find her passion infectious and her frankness refreshing. Well, Jill has been laid off (and why have we all so willingly bought into this euphemism for "no-good-reason firing"?) from her IT job (chronicled here last Wednesday), and had more to say about her feelings on Saturday.

She is wonderfully positive, as befits someone who was psychologically prepared for this to happen, and I certainly hope that her attitude manifests itself in her quick re-employment. However, while every situation is different, whether Jill's search results in a new job soon or not, based on my own situation her optimism is likely misplaced.

I was laid off five years ago; since then, I have fallen into the permanent contingent role. While I would rather have a real job on a real job at a real company, I have instead lurched from short-term positions to periods of unemployment - in the process, much of what I believed about people has been turned upside-down and, in all frankness, has made me seriously doubt the word and the friendship of pretty much everyone in my life. Perhaps I have simply had a knack for welcoming people of questionable character into my world, or perhaps there is something more systemic going on. Either way, while I wouldn't wish my experiences on anyone else (well, there may be a few people who deserve it), I fear that Jill and others like her are riding for a fall as they find their assumptions are phenomenally flawed.

Jill was prepared, despite being at her job for 7-1/2 years. Her resume has been "more-or-less ready for the last three years." This is fine, most people are far less prepared, but she doesn't understand that she doesn't need a resume, she needs hundreds of them. Every job has different sets of requirements, and companies (or, I should say, their computerized screening programs) expect an exact match. If they ask for 3 years of Java, you better have 3 - not 2, not 4. In the former case, no matter what you actually did, it can't possibly be enough; in the latter, you will be seen as hopelessly over-qualified, which makes you a flight risk.

Here's my recommendation. Sit down and prepare an ur-resume, with everything you've ever done, thought of, or heard of that might possibly be marketable. That's training courses, subjects of one-off meetings. If you surfed the Web when you were a developer, then you were a Web developer of sorts. Did you ever watch Caliente on Univision? Then you know some Spanish. All of that goes in, every last thing. (If you want to be thorough, you can put down, for yourself, your perceived proficiency in each of these skills.)

For a career of any length, you will have pages and pages of stuff. But, as we all know, resumes should be limited to no more than a single page (take 20-30 years of progressive experience and boil it down to 1 page, that's a good plan for giving an employer that complete picture). And you have everything you need. Just take the relevant experience out of your RESUME, and you're good to go. This is the most efficient way of creating the infinite number of resumes you will need.

Jill is pleased that:
[J]ob searching has become easier, despite the prevalence of online job application software, much of which is quirky at best and nonfunctional at worst. But at least today you don't need to practically hire a secretary just to organize the paper from a job search.
This is true, as far as it goes, in terms of finding about open positions and being able to formulate a response. But, you know what, everyone in the world has an Internet connection, so the ease of application has been trumped by the ability of people from Topeka to Tallinn to apply for that same job.

Furthermore, many of the positions listed are not real; they're put on the job boards to fulfill the minimal legal requirements to apply for visas, or to provide cover for offshoring (what can we do, we posted the job and couldn't find anyone who could do it, wink, wink).

Then Jill gets into the psychology of it:
It feels strange to have all these e-mails about job opportunities flying around among not just the casualties, but also the survivors, as the combination of impending loss of friends and survivors' guilt sets in among those who will remain. In my more optimistic moments, I think that perhaps this is a case of ultimately the living (those keeping their jobs) may very well envy the dead (those of us being jettisoned).
Again, I don't want to get in the way of whatever coping mechanisms Jill has erected, but this comforting thought is completely misguided. I will agree that the living say that they envy the dead, that knowing one's fate is preferable to uncertainty, and that's very seductive; I'm sure I said the same thing when my job remained as five other waves of people were laid off (in a company that eventually let 2/3 of their employees go). But the reality is that you're trading a paycheck for nothing, accomplishment for the mental vacuity of looking for work (people will tell you it's a full-time job - yes, an incredibly menial and boring full-time job), work in the actual skills you've gained through a lifetime of study and effort for what is, in effect, a low-level marketing job (selling a product, yourself, that you'll quickly get sick of).

I have probably been critical enough of Jill's posts. It's her layoff, not mine, and she may be one of those folks who slaps her standard resume into a couple of job board posts and gets a job. At any rate, she's stronger when talking to the people, family and friends with whom she will be interacting. To summarize her advice:
  • DON'T look at the person with what I call the Basset Hound Face.
  • If you don't know what to say, DO say "I don't know what to say."
  • DON'T ask if the person needs money, and DON'T ask the person to "not hesitate to call" if s/he needs anything....if you're in a position to share your network of contacts who might be in a position to hire, or if you can offer compensated work, or a reference letter, then just do it.
  • DON'T ask the person to call if s/he needs to talk. Check in every now and then to see how the person is doing.
  • DO tell the friend about friends of yours who were in a similar predicament and who came out on top. Especially if the unemployed person is over 50, DO tell him/her about middle-aged friends of yours who may have taken the better part of a year to find a job, but who found one before the year was out and are now blissfully happy and making money hand over fist. Your middle-aged friend who lost his job and then hung himself in the bathroom after the unemployment ran out? DON'T tell us about him. We don't want to know.
  • DON'T belittle the loss. It may be "just a job", but for most of us, the job is 1/3 of our day. We spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our spouses and families.
This is all pretty good counsel, and perhaps Jill has people in her life who will listen to it. My experience has been somewhat different, and, as I said above, far more troubling in terms of what I feel about humanity.

Keep in mind what the standard advice is to the job seeker: everyone you know and everyone they know is a contact, and you should shamelessly use them in just that way. Your barber's wife's brother-in-law's golf partner may have just the job that's perfect for you in his hands, and your job is to unlock that series of link and make it happen for yourself. So carry that resume with you everywhere (better yet, carry a box with your various resumes) and hand it out to everybody. Make sure that everyone knows that their relationship with you is based on their usefulness to you. And everyone knows that this is what you're doing, and so, the job seeker becomes toxic to everyone they've ever known.

There's a larger stigma attached to the out-of-work. I have friends at my former job who won't have lunch with me during the week because they don't want to be seen with a "tainted one." The number of people who call or e-mail to see how I'm doing dropped off quickly, and is now down to zero. I have out-of-town "friends" who promised to get together next time they were in 2003, and that follow-up has never come (and yes, they've been here, I've received their Christmas newsletter in which they've chronicled their visits to Mom and Dad).

But the worst people are those who hold out hope, who "might know of something," or have "something coming up at our shop," but never deliver, and never say another word about it, forcing you to come, once again, hat in hand, to inquire, only to be put off. And, remember, I'm not talking here about those nebulous "contacts," I'm talking about friends, people with whom you've shared late-night pizza and bad movies, marriages, births, even deaths.

There are people whose careers I've assisted who don't even return my e-mails (and I am far from being a noodge). I'm not saying they put me off - they act as if I don't even exist.

I've attempted to rationalize this behavior: people are busy, or they'd like to do something for me but just aren't in a position right now, or whatever. Or maybe I'm really not that good, and I should face that and go do something else.

But none of those rationalizations explain the way people behave, and none of them will. I have to accept that I have chosen people to whom to be close who have no interest in my fate or my well-being, who are indifferent to me as a person. These are things you can mask when you have a job; you have to interact with the folks on that job, and you tend to miss that the people outside of that job are pulling away. But the loss of that job makes it all very clear, that, bottom-line, people just don't care much at all. And the ability to get past that is a far greater struggle than figuring out which job boards to search or whether to include your MBA on a specific resume.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Stan the Man

By the time I became a fan of baseball, Stan Musial had been retired for several years. Nonetheless, he was still a major figure in the game, talked about with reverence. Not only was he one of the true greats in terms of on-the-field performance, he was considered quite the gentleman.

Now, of course, Stan the Man is pretty much forgotten by baseball fans. Despite having statistics that remain high up the lists (get more detail here) even 45 years after his retirement, he gets nowhere near the recognition that he is due. He was both outstanding and consistent, never having a season below league average (not at the age of 20, not at the age of 42). Stan won 3 MVPs, finished second 4 other times, and was in the top 10 in voting 14 times (the last at age 41).

But I'm not going to go on and on about his statistics (OK, I'll mention that his career spanned the years 1941-63; he played against Johnny Cooney, who broke into the majors in 1921, and against Pete Rose, who was still playing in 1986). More importantly, he is still regarded as one of the finest men ever to have played professional sports.

It's as if we only have a limited number of spaces to remember retired athletes. In baseball, we have Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, who vie for the unofficial Greatest Living Ballplayer title, and maybe some regional figures, like Ernie Banks in Chicago, but that's it. You can actually make a case for Musial as the GLB, but there are fewer people who saw him play, he spent his entire career in St. Louis, and he didn't set that single notable record that someone broke.

Nevertheless, Stan Musial is a strong contender, and could well have been one of the 10-15 best baseball players in history. If you want to read more, I point you to a fine summary at FanNation, and, of course, to the post from the wonderful Joe Posnanski that inspired this one. (You can also vote at Joe's site for the Greatest Living Ballplayer. I wish Joe had used something other than single-choice voting, because I would have to pick Willie Mays first, as have 38% of the respondents so far, but I'd sure like to offer some support for Stan as one of my top 3 or 4. And who the heck was the one person who voted for Reggie Jackson - Reggie?)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The future of air travel

I thought of leaving the body of the post blank as an ironic comment, but decided this needed a few more words.

A few years ago, Greyhound pulled bus service from numerous cities, claiming that they were no longer profitable routes. The near-universal train service that we used to be able to take for granted has become problematic. The main reason: inexpensive air service that went with minimal stops at reasonable fares.

My brother-in-law is traveling from Binghamton, NY to Chicago next week, and this trip of 750 miles is difficult no matter how he goes. By train, he would have to find his way to Syracuse, then spend 13 hours on an Amtrak train (and the highest probability is that the train will be late). He can take Greyhound, but that's a minimum of 16-1/2 hours with two layovers. He can (and will) go by air, but, for a decent fare, that involves 7-1/2 hours (plus the time he needs to get to the airport and stand in line) and stops in Philadelphia and Raleigh (!).

I suppose we should stand in awe, consider the reality that 200 years ago such a trip would take weeks. But this inconvenience is a loss, an acceptable one perhaps, but a loss.

And this is true of a lot of what is happening now that gas prices are so high. I've seen a lot of articles virtually gushing over the changes in the American lifestyle. Many of these things are commendable, but each one comes with a cost (and some of what seems attractive in May or June is going to seem like a huge burden in January - have fun commuting by bike). Bicycles are slower than cars, so shopping trips and commuting by bike leave less time for other activities.

Our lifestyle evolved over a long time, and was based on certain assumptions about the price and availability of energy. If those assumptions are changing, and I think they are, the lifestyle will have to change also. Cloth bags instead of plastic seem small enough, but, when the pickle jar leaks, the bag that would have been easily thrown away will now have to be cleaned. I certainly don't mind that the soccer moms will have to eschew the heater while Janie is at practice, but there is a cost to them.

Air travel in particular is going to change, and it will alter everything from the nature of business to the universe of vacations a family can consider. Has America had it too easy? Perhaps, but it's what we've known, what most of us have grown up with. I love St. Louis as a short destination, but that doesn't mean I feel a loss when I "have" to go there on vacation instead of, say, Paris. I doubt that we've even scratched the surface of the costs we're going to see over the next 10 - 20 years, and I'll be very surprised if our belated aggressive alternate energy programs will make up for that.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Inevitable efficiency

One of the curious common beliefs, prevalent among academics and media types and pundits, is the idea that private industry is inevitably more efficient than government-run enterprises. I will grant that that is generally true, but I see that far more as a deficiency in the skill and accountability of public employees than in any inherent superiority of corporations.

The advantage I have over the luminaries mentioned above is that I've actually worked for real companies, and have seen exactly how sub-optimal they can be. The relentless competitive drive does little to prevent a remarkable amount of waste, in money and in time. I could tell plenty of stories, but The Corporate Cynic has even better ones.

What brings this topic to mind is a couple of posts from other blogs. Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast points us today to an example of how a former Halliburton subsidiary has killed our troops with shoddy electrical work. I would further guess that the contracts for this work haven't actually saved the American taxpayer any money at all.

Kevin Drum wrote a post yesterday about Larry Summers's comments about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that a huge part of their problems had to do with their status as Government Sponsored Entities (GSEs), that they tried to combine private discipline with public protection, but got the worst of both modes.

I can't really speak specifically to the Mae and the Mac, but the key phrase is this: "gains privatized and losses socialized." This is actually the goal of any company, whether they're doing electrical work in the Green Zone or guaranteeing mortgages, to keep all the benefits and push the risks off on somebody, anybody else. Privatization is the most effective way yet devised to do this, and it fits neatly into the Reagan-esque narrative of incompetent government.

But let's not fool ourselves. The selling off of tollroads and bus shelters and parking garages by municipalities has nothing to do with providing more efficient services to taxpayers. There are two reasons to privatize: to turn long-term assets into short-term cash, allowing more services without raising taxes (and deferring the bill); and to break union contracts. Because we're not really opening those things up to competition and its benefits. Giving a 99-year lease to a company to run a tollroad does nothing to help the "customer," it simply creates the worst form of entity, the government-sponsored monopoly.

If you want to get the benefits from making a tollroad private, you have to sell each toll booth to a different company. Then you could have coupons, 50% off sales, and all the other consumer-focused things that competitive companies have to do. Of course, you might have some big-time accidents as cars cut across lanes to take advantage of a double-coupon day, but that's the price you pay for progress.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Congrats, Jetstream

I would be remiss indeed if I didn't congratulate fellow Chicagoan Jesse Jackson on once again finding his way into the news. For those of us who have seen his odious influence-peddling and blackmail techniques up close, we really aren't surprised, but it's interesting to see the rest of the country start to wake up (after only 40 years!) and get a glimpse of the true nature of this petty, egomaniacal self-aggrandizer. (For a particularly pointed account of the Reverend and the media's love affair with him, see this column from the Chicago Daily Observer.)

Science, the inconvenient truth

OK, I understand that Jonah Goldberg is one of the more reliable conservative voices and, as must happen these days with people coming from either side of the spectrum, he must demonize the "other side." He writes well enough, if more than a bit incautiously at times. But, if one is to grasp where conservatism is these days, Goldberg is definitely one to whom you must pay attention.

That said, his column of today (reprinted in the Chicago Tribune) is an example of how partisanship is so often the enemy of truth, leading both sides to a willful disregard of reality. He begins by criticizing both sides for their demonization of oil speculators, a fair point undermined by a gratuitous compliment for Newt Gingrich (a man I've heard speak enough to know that he'll say about four things which are insightful and even brilliant, then will come out with a fifth that is so remarkably loopy that you question his sanity; even without that, there is an element of worship in Goldberg's throwing him into this discussion, as his current relevance is close to nil).

Goldberg spins the discussion into a generalized rant about how the U.S. government is acting in a way that keeps prices high. Predictably, he sees massive drilling as an answer, the maintenance of a Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a political tool, and taxes and regulations as some kind of strategy to "drive up pump prices."

That there are huge potential costs and questionable benefits in the expansion of drilling is not something the "drillheads" like to consider. That there might be good reasons for the government to maintain a supply of oil doesn't fit into this worldview. That taxes and regulations are imposed to do things like maintain the roads and protect the environment isn't taken into account.

But all this is within the realm of proper commentary, if addled in my view, and Goldberg doesn't offend truth with any of it. It's this statement:
Liberals in particular have insisted for years that the world is approaching — or has passed — the point of “peak oil.” This is the idea that we’ve hit the maximum rate of global oil extraction, so the supply will steadily diminish, causing prices to rise.
Why must Goldberg and his fellows tie "liberals" to the concept of "peak oil"? How does that enhance the conversation? The supply of oil is a fact, one that is almost certainly impossible to ascertain, but a fact. It could well be true, and many non-partisan scientists believe, that we have gone beyond the point at which we can pull more oil out of the ground. Even if we can, it will be at a price point that will alter the way of life of virtually everyone in the world. This is not a liberal issue, or a conservative issue - it's not political at all. (How we respond to it will almost certainly be political, and appropriately so, but the actual oil that can be extracted with techniques of a certain cost falls into the realm of fact and engineering.)

We've seen the same thing with global warming, I mean, climate change. There are two fundamental questions about climate change, is it happening? and does the activity of man contribute to it? Those are questions of fact, perhaps hard-to-determine fact, not political questions.

In my lifetime, I have seen this partisanship infect more of the public dialogue, and I know that all it does is prevent us from dealing with real issues and real problems. One wonders if, had this style been in place in the '60s, Richard Nixon would have cancelled the Apollo project, claiming that the moon was a figment of the Democratic Party's imagination.

If you don't believe that we've reached a state of "peak oil," say so, and offer some facts to back that up. Tell us why we should believe that there are barrels and barrels out there ripe for the picking, and we can happily maintain our current lives. Goldberg goes on to say we should drill more, and is sneers at the current (small) efforts at changing citizen behavior ("liberals should be rejoicing").

To the extent that conservatives are linked to a non-scientific, unreal view of the world, they will increasingly be seen as out of touch. Goldberg may feel he's bravely raising the torch of light, but he's raising it into a storm of truth, and it will eventually go out, leaving him and his ilk with nothing but a wet stick of wood.

(Not so by the way, I am not excusing liberals from this opinion, I just don't have a current example of it. There are far too many liberals as well who disregard facts in their attempts to cast aspersions on those across the aisle. It is equally repugnant and time-wasting from either side.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Curious merger

I have to confess that, despite being in the software field, I haven't paid much attention to the Microsoft-Yahoo merger/takeover. When I did think about it, the combination seemed peculiar: a brand (Microsoft) that has never really figured out the Internet acquiring a brand whose best days seem far in the past (the Internet past, that is). What would Yahoo have that Microsoft would want: antiquated search, a lot of e-mail accounts? They may be profitable, but their valuation seemed a little low for the price Microsoft was willing to pay.

So I will defer to Greg Glockner at Dwaffler for his explanation (in the post Microsoft: Crazy like a fox). You can read his reasoning for yourself, it seems quite sound to me, both in the reason for the acquisition (quick summary: keyword-based advertising patents) and the possible implications in the future. Good read.

Great teachers (Part 2)

Picking up from yesterday's post, where I opined that the mania for finding "great teachers" may well be an impossible task, that there may simply be a certain number of these outstanding souls, and incentives may not have the effect that we believe. I don't mean to sound absolutist - I'm probably overstating the case somewhat - but I just don't believe that upping the average teacher salary by 20% (or whatever number you pick) will upgrade the profession that much.

And therein lies the problem. Every expert says the key is to attract better teachers to the classroom, but we clearly don't know how to make them (otherwise, every current teacher would already be great, we just wouldn't have enough of them) and we're not sure how to find them. The Teach for America approach is to get really smart people (even though once again we're assuming that an admissions decision at age 17 is precursor to your whole life) and send them into our schools for two years. I'm not sure that's guaranteed to work.

The reality may just be that there are not enough great teachers to go around. No matter how hard you look, no matter how much you pay, you may never have enough truly great teachers to fill every classroom and every mind. Being "great" may not be reducible to a defined process; I had only a handful of great teachers in my long school career, but I am certain that many others were caring and conscientious and hard-working, they just didn't have that spark of greatness within themselves.

And this shouldn't surprise us. Take baseball. Every team would love to have a five-tool player at every position, but, despite powerful incentives, every team comes up short, no matter how much money it throws around (see Yankees, New York). In my field, software development, there are stars and there are those who are more workmanlike. Human achievement is too variable to assume we understand how to create more of it.

The real point of improving education, then, is not to keep hammering on the point that we need better teachers, that we need to provide incentives for potentially great teachers to identify themselves and come forward (I'm deliberately bypassing the correlation problem, that anybody with the skills to be a great teacher would probably find other fields in which to flourish, making the attraction problem that much more difficult). Anyone can sloganeer and pontificate about that, but that's not how you create a functional organization. (People who go on talk shows and insist that all we need to do is pay more and wait for great teachers to show up are like the sports talk radio listeners who insist that, if we'd just trade two minor-leaguers for Alex Rodriguez, Lance Berkman, and the dessicated remnants of Babe Ruth and Lefty Grove, we'd be in business.)

The challenge is in taking the team you have and making it work better, with occasional shifts in personnel to support your longer-term goals. In software development, for example, you might have two stars who can do anything, and six other people with a fairly normal complement of strengths and weaknesses. The first two may need the barest of specs to get things done, a general goal, a couple of algorithm definitions, and off they go. The others may need incredibly detailed, click this and this happens type of requirements to spell out what happens in every possible situation. (And, given the nature of the work, the solution is not to replace all six, because there will never be enough "interesting" work to retain eight stars.)

What invariably happens, of course, is that people, status-conscious entities that we are, see and feel this different treatment, resentment arises, damages team unity, and the manager has a problem. So, instead, detailed specs are created for everyone on the team, and we have a lowest-common-denominator problem.

And this is what happens in teaching. Tell a great teacher, "we expect all the kids to be reading at or above grade level," and it gets done. No one method will be used, because every child is different, but, one way or another, all but the most recalcitrant child will get to where they need to be.

But the average or mediocre teacher hasn't the personal resources to make that happen. At that point, structure must be imposed to assist the teacher in getting the list of objectives met. That structure comes from reading lists, approved textbooks, centrally-created lesson plans, and all the other "creativity-killing" items that the vast majority of teachers need in order to get the job done. And the bureaucratic structure, coupled with normal human status-seeking, finds two sets of rules unsupportable, so the rules become applied even to the great teachers.

Understand that I don't see this as the desirable outcome. I would love to live in a world in which every teacher is great, understanding the dynamic of the particular classroom and the potential of each child, tailoring their lessons to optimize the learning experience. But that seems wholly unrealistic, given the number of teachers we need and what I consider to be the scarcity of those who rise to the top.

This phenomenon explains the current structure of education, "teaching to the test," rigid rules and roles. And it seems to be a natural outgrowth of the natural structure of talent, and I don't know what we can do about it except at the margins.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Great teachers

Charlie Rose interviewed Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system, last night. Charlie, using a grant from the Broad Foundation, has been exploring education lately; I wrote about his interview of Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp a couple of weeks ago. Rhee is a graduate of the Teach for America program and was mentioned in the Kopp interview, but her interview was superior in that she actually is involved with some aspects of education.

However, there were some curious notes. Rhee tends to lapse into corporate-speak, explaining that the key to everything is "accountability." If you can just get everyone to take responsibility for what they do (apparently with punishment if they don't), anything can be improved. This is fairly unremarkable, and I certainly agree that teachers need a little more downside potential than they have. Tenure is useful in a higher-education context where academic freedom is an issue, but it seems less justifiable when it props up people who shouldn't be teachers in the first place.

Let me take issue with one thing Rhee talked about. Her contention is that you can't have great education without great teachers, and told a lengthy story about Mr. Wallace, a beloved teacher who holds court at McDonald's every afternoon, buying the kids hamburgers and tutoring them until they get the material. Of course, the other teachers criticize him, and he's thinking of leaving the profession. If we could only get more teachers like Mr. Wallace, Rhee tells us, our problems would be over.

Here's my story: I spent a year as a mathematics substitute in one of the finest high schools in the country, and helped to coach the math team for a total of eight years. I got a pretty good look inside a vaunted math department. What I saw were several teachers who were exceptional, who went the extra mile for their students; several who were blitheringly incompetent, whose major objective was going down to the teachers' lounge for a smoke; and a huge group in the middle who were solid, competent, but not particularly outstanding. Overall, there was contempt for teachers who "worked too hard," and there was a tremendous sense of protectiveness over the lifestyle they had "earned."

Having been a student in that same high school, I was not particularly surprised to learn any of this, but seeing it up close, day after day, made me despair that we would ever fix the problems of public education if this "great" high school had these issues. You see, I'm not convinced that you can just create great teachers out of nothing more than a good training program, or mentoring, and certainly not by throwing money at them. One of the best teachers I ever saw was a 16-year-old tutor - he just "got it," and his current college students are undoubtedly profiting from that.

Greatness in teachers, just as in artists or athletes or anything else that requires skill, is a mix of natural endowment and training. Most of the remedies of the education do-gooders comes down to giving more, more money, more recognition, merit pay, awards, and so forth. It simply isn't clear to me that any of these more's translates into more great teachers (excpet in a population sense; it's possible that attracting larger numbers of people into teaching would create a larger pool from which to find greatness, but I'm uncertain as to how many we'd get, and what would we do with the discards?).

Mr. Wallace may be great because he's willing to devote more unpaid hours to his work, or willing to pander to the teen obesity problem, but it's not at all sure that his philosophy is the road to success. I've known teachers who were so uniformly uninspiring that they could offer free tattoos to the kids, and wouldn't attract a single acolyte.

And it seems that, at least at some level, Rhee understands that. She's trying to get better principals, not by going through the difficult process of identifying and training those teachers or lower-level administrators who have potential, but by "poaching" those who are proven winners from other systems. This might be fine for her own narrow objectives, but it doesn't make the overall system better. If she finds a way to up the salary ranges for teachers in D.C., she'll get tons of applications from across the country...and her gain will be some other system's loss.

I'll have more to say on this topic tomorrow.
Clicky Web Analytics