Wednesday, October 23, 2013


From the NYT opinion page on the failure of the Obamacare website on October 22, 2013 - the title of the piece was:

How to Fix the Glitches

The launch was reported on October 12 as follows (emphasis mine):

From the Start, Signs of Trouble at Health Portal


Even some supporters of the Affordable Care Act worry that the flaws in the system, if not quickly fixed, could threaten the fiscal health of the insurance initiative, which depends on throngs of customers to spread the risk and keep prices low. 

“These are not glitches,” said an insurance executive who has participated in many conference calls on the federal exchange. Like many people interviewed for this article, the executive spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he did not wish to alienate the federal officials with whom he works. “The extent of the problems is pretty enormous. At the end of our calls, people say, ‘It’s awful, just awful.' ”


Thursday, October 17, 2013

The NSA's spectacular success

A reminder why what the NSA has been able to achieve is so amazing - compare it to the roll out of Obamacare:
The rocky launch of the Department of Health and Human Services' is the most visible evidence at the moment of how hard it is for the federal government to execute major technology projects. ... Despite efforts to make government IT systems more modern and efficient, many agencies are stuck in a technology time warp that affects how projects like the healthcare exchange portal are built. Long procurement cycles for even minor government technology projects, the slow speed of approval to operate new technologies, and the vast installed base of systems that government IT managers have to deal with all contribute to the glacial adoption of new technology. With the faces at the top of agency IT organizations changing every few years, each bringing some marquee project to burnish their résumés, it can take a decade to effect changes that last.

Easy enough to say

“The notion is, let’s transform higher education into job training,” Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale, told me disapprovingly.
From here. Those who disapprove must either not have children going on to college, or they are in the top 10%. The notion is also incorrect.

The context of course is college and what it's supposed to be. The argument that college should be one or the other is a bit of a straw man. One is job training and the other would be the lofty and nebulous goal of "education" preferably in the liberal arts tradition. The fear of many including parents and students is that college may have strayed too far to one end without keeping its eye on the other. (I would say more so parents than students since students appear not to have changed much.)

Who bears the greater responsibility of learning what we used to call "marketable skills" (here called job training) - the parent or the school? Should the parent take a hands on role in steering their child toward a marketable major or at least toward learning some marketable skills or is college the time where students should learn to fail - by either choosing a wrong major or learning the wrong "skill"? Of course, this dichotomy is also false.Should the learning of some kind of marketable skill take place in college or outside (either through volunteer activity or extracurricular activity - e.g. college reporter, club web site designer, or through work-study or part-time work)? Again, this either or question is also false. It is the responsibility of the student and/or the parent to pursue all these avenues, but (except of outside part-time jobs), it is the responsibility of the college to make as many of these activities available as possible.

Virginia Postrel's post is worth reading (emphasis mine):
The commentators excoriating today’s students for studying the wrong subjects are pursuing certainty where none exists. Like the health fanatics convinced that every case of cancer must be caused by smoking or a bad diet, they want to believe that good people, people like them, will always have good jobs and that today’s unemployed college grads are suffering because they were self-indulgent or stupid. But plenty of organic chemists can testify that the mere fact that you pursued a technical career that was practical two or three decades ago doesn’t mean you have job security today.
I was lucky to graduate from high school in the late 1970s, when the best research said that going to college was an economically losing proposition. You would be better off just getting a job out of high school -- or so it appeared at the time. Such studies are always backward-looking.
I thus entered college to pursue learning for its own sake. As an English major determined not to be a lawyer, I also made sure I graduated with not one but two practical trades --neither learned in the college classroom. At the depths of the previous worst recession since the Great Depression, I had no problem getting a job as a rookie journalist and, as an emergency backup, I knew I could always fall back on my excellent typing skills. Three decades later, nobody needs typists, and journalists are almost as obsolete.
The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante.
The most valuable skill anyone can learn in college is how to learn efficiently -- how to figure out what you don’t know and build on what you do know to adapt to new situations and new problems. Liberal-arts advocates like this argument, but it applies to any field. In the three decades since we graduated, my college friend David Bernstein has gone from computing the speed at which signals travel through silicon chips to being an entrepreneur whose work includes specifying, designing and developing a consumer-oriented smart-phone app. 
But it is also worth remembering that today's job market is not the same job market that Virginia or I graduated into. Employers seem to be more reluctant to train and seem to want the ideal worker right away.  Nor does college cost the same in real dollar terms as it did when I was there. It is not surprising that costs is one of the primary drivers for this question. Throw in the double whammy of the recession and it is almost a knee jerk reaction to ask whether all the money for college is worth it.

After all, it may be okay and even acceptable back when Virginia was in school to support herself as a typist and as she points out both typists and journalists today are obsolete. Today's version of supporting yourself as a typist would be either to work as a barista or a waiter or in retail sales. The fact that these jobs are in fact becoming the fall back for many college graduates has not only prompted the debate on acquiring tangible skills in college, the usefulness of college, and whether college is worth it but also the debate on "underemployed" or "mal-employed" or "over-skilled" or "college labor markets".

Both Virginia and Bruce Ackerman in the quote that led this post (and perhaps even myself) are probably reliving the romanticism of our college days when we believed that college is the time to "find ourselves". This meant pretty much doing what we wanted whenever we liked and somehow or other we would come out okay since we have in fact come out okay. There is a danger to this bias since we don't really know what happened to those who did not fare as well. The come back to finding ourselves in life is that it is not so much to "find" but more to "create" ourselves and today creating means being able to not just survive in the tumultuous labor market but to exact revenge by living well. That college was able to allow us to exact our vengeance on life in the past but not as well today is the problem that college students and their parents are facing.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

That was in the movie

But not in the book. I remember those college days when instead of doing the assigned reading, some of us would watch the movie instead. Unfortunately, sometimes the movies would deviate from the book.

I also remember the days in college where we would blow off the assigned reading since the professor was only going to cover it in class anyway and we were POSITIVE we would be able to follow the lecture. After all, there was always going to be some one who would eventually stop the lecture to ask anyway.

Have MOOCs changed anything? Instead of reading the book, now one can actually watch the movie instead!

Here's a concept that some have advocated based on the success of MOOCs - a hybrid of online and in-class instruction:
Three years ago, Clintondale High School, just north of Detroit, became a “flipped school” — one where students watch teachers’ lectures at home and do what we’d otherwise call “homework” in class. Teachers record video lessons, which students watch on their smartphones, home computers or at lunch in the school’s tech lab. In class, they do projects, exercises or lab experiments in small groups while the teacher circulates.
No school has taken flipping as far as Clintondale. It began because Greg Green, the principal, had been recording videos on baseball techniques and posting them on YouTube for his 11-year-old son’s team. Recording the content allowed kids to watch the videos repeatedly to grasp the ideas, and left more time for hands-on work at practices.
It gave him an idea, and in the spring of 2010, he set up an experiment: He had a social studies teacher, Andy Scheel, run two classes with identical material and assignments, but one was flipped. The flipped class had many students who had already failed the class — some multiple times.
After 20 weeks, Green said, Scheel’s flipped students, despite their disadvantages, were outperforming the students in the traditional classroom. No student in the flipped class received a grade lower than a C+. The previous semester 13 percent had failed. This semester, none did. In the traditional classroom, there was no change in achievement.
But will watching videos go the way of assigned reading? (emphasis mine)

Especially in low-income communities, some students don’t have access to the tech they need to watch videos. Students I talked to said that about 10 percent don’t — but they easily watch at school. Just because students can watch, of course, doesn’t mean they do watch. (See the discussion page here for teachers’ advice on getting students to do homework.)
Salman Khan, founder of the Khan academy, makes a good point in his book, “The One World Schoolhouse”: If students are going to skip homework, it’s far better to miss watching a video than to miss doing the problem sets.
This is the second and far more important shift that comes with flipped classrooms: it frees up class time for hands-on work. Students learn by doing and asking questions — school shouldn’t be a spectator sport. ”A lot of people think it just has to do with technology,” said Kim Spriggs, who teaches business and marketing. “It’s actually more time for kids to do higher-order thinking and hands-on projects. Instead of presenting the information in class and having students work on projects at home, where they don’t necessarily have support, here in class, one-on-one or in small groups, I can help them immediately.” Students can also help each other, a process that benefits both the advanced and less advanced learners.
Lastly, this was the most interesting bit:
The flipped classroom is a new experience for students — but also for teachers, who are going from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side,” as many education writers put it. For good teachers, that’s liberating. “I have a YouTube video on subject-verb agreement that has 54,000 views,” said Dameron. “I don’t want to give that lecture every year.”
Townsend said he feels like an “educational artist” who doesn’t just talk and hand out sheets. “I can create interactive lessons and exciting content. There’s so much more time to educate!”
Flipped classrooms require more creativity and energy from the teacher. “You are off your chair the entire hour and walking around,” said Dameron. “Lots of teachers who aren’t really good teachers are resistant to this — they like to build time into the day when kids are working to do their taxes or catch up on email.”.

Too clever?

First from WaPo (which I thought was way cool - emphasis mine because of coolness):
The National Security Agency is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans, according to senior intelligence officials and top-secret documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The collection program, which has not been disclosed before, intercepts e-mail address books and “buddy lists” from instant messaging services as they move across global data links. Online services often transmit those contacts when a user logs on, composes a message, or synchronizes a computer or mobile device with information stored on remote servers. 
Rather than targeting individual users, the NSA is gathering contact lists in large numbers that amount to a sizable fraction of the world’s e-mail and instant messaging accounts. Analysis of that data enables the agency to search for hidden connections and to map relationships within a much smaller universe of foreign intelligence targets.
Contact lists stored online provide the NSA with far richer sources of data than call records alone. Address books commonly include not only names and e-mail addresses, but also telephone numbers, street addresses, and business and family information. Inbox listings of e-mail accounts stored in the “cloud” sometimes contain content, such as the first few lines of a message.
Taken together, the data would enable the NSA, if permitted, to draw detailed maps of a person’s life, as told by personal, professional, political and religious connections. The picture can also be misleading, creating false “associations” with ex-spouses or people with whom an account holder has had no contact in many years.
In practice, data from Americans is collected in large volumes — in part because they live and work overseas, but also because data crosses international boundaries even when its American owners stay at home. Large technology companies, including Google and Facebook, maintain data centers around the world to balance loads on their servers and work around outages.  

Spam has proven to be a significant problem for the NSA — clogging databases with information that holds no foreign intelligence value. The majority of all e-mails, one NSA document says, “are SPAM from ‘fake’ addresses and never ‘delivered’ to targets.”
In fall 2011, according to an NSA presentation, the Yahoo account of an Iranian target was “hacked by an unknown actor,” who used it to send spam. The Iranian had “a number of Yahoo groups in his/her contact list, some with many hundreds or thousands of members.”
The cascading effects of repeated spam messages, compounded by the automatic addition of the Iranian’s contacts to other people’s address books, led to a massive spike in the volume of traffic collected by the Australian intelligence service on the NSA’s behalf.
After nine days of data-bombing, the Iranian’s contact book and contact books for several people within it were “emergency detasked.”
Second from Cyclone Phailin:
A catastrophe seemed inevitable as monstrous cyclone Phailin lumbered towards the northeast coast of India. Less than 15 years before, a similar storm, named Odisha, devastated a nearby part of the country, leading to over 10,000 casualties.
It will be days if not weeks before Phailin’s full toll on life and property is known, but from early accounts, there are no signs of a disaster on the scale of 1999 Odisha cyclone. CNN reports a comparatively low 21 deaths from Phailin.
There are several factors which, together, help explain why disastrous consequences were avoided from Phailin.
5) The storm’s intensity may have been overestimated  (by some sources, including some we cited): While the Joint Typhoon Warning Center and other U.S. forecasters estimated the storm’s peak intensity reached category 5 levels, the Indian Meteorological Department did not. While the Indian Meteorological Department predicted a serious storm (and its predictions motivated the massive preparation efforts), its forecasts were not as dire as some others. Assessing the intensity of a tropical cyclone in the Indian Ocean (and Bay on Bengal) is different from other ocean basins, and the regional expertise of the Indian Meteorological Department may have proven superior.
“They have been issuing warnings, and we have been contradicting them,” said L.S. Rathore, director-general of the Indian Meteorological Department. “That is all that I want to say.”
“As a scientist, we have our own opinion and we stuck to that. We told them that is what is required as a national weather service — to keep people informed with the reality without being influenced by over-warning,” Rathore added, according to the Associated Press.

College disappointment

The most disappointing thing about college today is the same thing that it was when I was in college nearly 25 years ago. Life still revolves around alcohol. (Yes, it was fun - sort of - I may have done it just to fit in perhaps - but after I graduated, I realized that my time could have been better spent actually learning new things, ideas, and subjects.)

If anything, it sounds like college students have not changed all that much - and in some ways have perhaps gotten worse. Triggered by this article:
I'm a student at Princeton, and before I even arrived on campus my freshman year, I heard the Tiger Inn stories: competitive projectile vomiting, harmonious chanting of "tits for beer," and naked guys standing on tables while strumming their "penis guitars." I looked on--kind of horrified, but also transfixed. Then sophomore year came around, and a bunch of my girlfriends made a decision that blew my mind. Tiger Inn. They were going to try to be a part of it.

My friends aren't the only women to embrace a college culture that I think is best defined by the term "fratty": extreme rowdiness induced by the consumption of a whole lot of alcohol. An upcoming study from Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, which will be released in October, finds that college women today are more likely than men to exceed the weekly drink limits suggested by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In 2009, the Washington University School of Medicine reported a similar trend: Women in college drank excessive amounts of alcohol 40 percent more often than they did in 1979, while the numbers for men didn't change. Then there were the Miami University hotel shenanigans that went viral in 2010: college women having sex in the caterer's closet, playing toss with crystal vases, and attempting to urinate in the bathroom sinks.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Strict monotonicity

Well said

John Galt, the central character in Atlas Shrugged, is not named until near the end of the novel. Before his identity is revealed, the question is repeatedly asked, "Who is John Galt". Now we know precisely who he is: John Galt is the idiot responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown, and for the ongoing federal government shutdown in the US.

From The Guardian.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Regulatory capture by TBTF institution

So this is what they meant when they said they would reform the financial markets after the last crisis.
At a March 2012 meeting, a group of examiners at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York agreed that Goldman Sachs had inadequate procedures to guard against conflicts of interest — guidelines aimed at stopping firms from putting their pursuit of profit ahead of their clients’ best interests.

The examiners voted to downgrade a confidential rating assigned by the New York Fed that could have spurred costly enforcement actions and other regulatory penalties. It is not known whether the vote in fact led to a rating change. The former examiner who pushed for a downgrade, Carmen M. Segarra, now contends in a lawsuit filed on Thursday that just weeks after the vote, her superiors asked her to change her findings on Goldman and fired her after she refused.

So long, and thanks a lot to Larry Summers, Bob Rubin, Tim Geithner and company. We shall blame the next crisis on you.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Airports and travel

This post on airport security reminds me of how nervous I get every time I reenter the United States:
I recently asked my young son whether he thought he could travel by himself to visit his grandmother in Victoria, Canada. He said that he could navigate the airports fine and getting into Canada was no problem but he was afraid of the security people coming back into the United States. Bear in mind that my son is American.

It's not just the US. I'm also nervous reentering Malaysia. Our various hops through airports in the Middle East this year and last year also convinced me that while going through security makes me nervous even when I have had some past experience with them, the ones in the Middle East had me quaking.

Put it down perhaps to some irrational fear of people with authority - in this case absolute authority in deciding whether I am allowed to enter their country. Also perhaps check one off for uncertainty - uncertainty on how uniformly laws are going to be enforced or not enforced. Another check for the natural tendency for those in authority to behave capriciously.

Things had been getting better in the US - CIS were actually friendly for a time - and then 9/11 pretty much turned things around. Capriciousness is something that makes our transformation into a surveillance state (and this is happening everywhere) something to be afraid about. One way the US can head is towards an atmosphere of a surveillance state on par with the Middle East. The sign that this is happening is this:

Its not difficult to imagine searches expanding to items other than electronics.

And this post on the price of visas only reminded me of our previous visa travails and the capriciousness of visa approvals.