~ Archive for Uncategorized ~

ARPANET versus healthcare.gov (#progressinCS)

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I’ve been doing a little computer history research. It seems that ARPAnet was contracted for in 1969 and launched on schedule later that year (Wikipedia). This page says that the budget was $2.2 million ($14 million in 2015 mini-dollars). I will leave it to readers to compare to healthcare.gov

In support of same-sex marriage

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Due to the recent Supreme Court argument friends have been asking me for an opinion regarding same-sex marriage. So here it is…

The word “marriage” has some different meanings. If the idea is “lifelong commitment” or at least “commitment to stay together until children are reared through age 18,” this is purely a personal/religious matter. The government cannot prevent two people from staying together if they have committed to (a) each other, and (b) the institution of two-parent child-rearing. At the same time in our age of no-fault divorce the government has no role in keeping two people together. In fact, as outlined in Real World Divorce, the government provides substantial cash incentives for one partner to initiate a divorce, or just get pregnant after a one-night encounter, based on the simple principle that one can be wealthier by tapping into the incomes of multiple co-parents rather than just one.

Having a federal court decide an issue of marriage is a little problematic because the definition of civil marriage is different in every state. Given that nearly all of the states have settled into a “no-fault” system, however, in reality the Supreme Court is rendering a decision regarding which Americans can avail themselves of the financial opportunities presented by civil marriage.

The supposed financial advantages of getting and staying married presented by same-sex marriage proponents are, at best, slight. For most Americans the potential estate tax savings are irrelevant (people with less than $5 million in assets don’t pay estate tax; people with substantially more than $5 million in assets typically come up with a workaround). For American couples with a modern lifestyle, in which both partners have an income, the tax “savings” from a marriage are actually in a negative direction, particularly with the new Obamacare taxes (i.e., there is a marriage tax penalty). There are no significant financial advantages for two working Americans who stay together. Compared to the informal partnership alternative, civil marriage offers one partner enormous financial advantages only if one partner decides to cash the partnership in.

The principal financial advantage of civil marriage is that, properly structured and planned, an American adult can become a dependent on another American adult without that person’s continuing consent. Here’s an except from the Introduction:

“When young people ask me about the law as a career,” said one litigator, “I tell them that in this country whom they choose to have sex with and where they have sex will have a bigger effect on their income than whether they attend college and what they choose as a career.”

Consider Jennifer, an Indiana or Wisconsin resident with $2 million in premarital savings. “Pat” can marry Jennifer on a Sunday morning, sue her for divorce on a Monday morning, and be presumptively entitled to $1 million. “Pat” can repeat this every time that cash runs short and the profits are limited only by the wealth of the targets of these short-term marriages.

Consider Fiona, a Florida resident with a $400,000 per year income. “Chris” can marry Fiona for a short time, get a psychologist to certify that “Chris” is disabled, and then collect “permanent alimony,” remaining Fiona’s dependent for the rest of their respective lives. “Chris” can subsequently get together with a love interest and possibly benefit from that person’s income as well (and/or use Fiona’s wages to support the new lover).

Short-term marriages to Jennifer and Fiona are financial opportunities much better than what is available in the U.S. labor market. How can it be fair that whether or Pat and Chris have access to these financial opportunities depends on their sex? What would it mean for our society to present “equal opportunity” if not equal financial opportunity?

A separate reason for my support of same-sex civil marriage is that medical technology has advanced to the point that it is practical for a mixed-sex married couple to become, post-marriage, a same-sex married couple. If state law does not provide that such a couple is automatically divorced once a gender reassignment surgery is complete then how is it reasonable to deny granted civil marriage status to people who start out in the same sex? An activity shouldn’t be allowed or disallowed depending on when a medical procedure is accomplished.

What about religious objections? Religious groups that object to same-sex partnerships can simply recognize that civil marriage as offered by U.S. states is (1) not the same thing as religious or traditional marriage, and (2) not intended to be permanent or binding beyond the point where one participant can advantage him or herself by unilaterally dissolving the legal union. Thus religious groups opposed to same-sex marriage and/or opposed to mercenary marriages would withdraw from their role in creating legally recognized marriages and tell adherents “If you want to make a lifelong commitment in our religion, you can do that in our church; if you want to participate in the financial opportunities presented by civil marriage, you can go to City Hall and go through a separate and parallel procedure.” If the temporary-by-current-design civil/legal situation of marriage is not something that religious groups endorse then it shouldn’t be upsetting to them who is entering into or departing from this situation.

“Marriage and divorce is primarily a way to get paid without working,” is how one divorce litigator put it. How can a state say that some Americans are more entitled to get paid than others?

What will America’s psychologists do for cash?

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“American Psychological Association Bolstered C.I.A. Torture Program, Report Says” is a New York Times story on PhD psychologists and what they are willing to do when hired as consultants.

The “Litigation” chapter of Real World Divorce has a section on psychologists paid to come into the courtroom when Parent A sues Parent B, seeking custody of children and the tax-free child support cash that will accompany the kids:

Lawyers and judges whom we interviewed were skeptical regarding the value of court-appointed psychologists. Here was a typical litigator’s perspective: “They have no reliable research. They have no long-term research. There is no proof that psychology and psychiatric professionals are any better predictors of parenting than lay judges. [divorce psychology/custody/GAL work] is a wildly expensive industry that has grown up based mostly on hocus pocus. ‘Best interest of the child’ is a legal term, not a psychological term yet we are turning to psychologists to tell the court what is best for a child.” Psychologists who got paid to testify in court spoke confidently of their ability to deliver value. Psychologists who were not being paid to do this work spoke scornfully of their colleagues who were. Linda Nielsen, professor at Wake Forest: “”Anyone who tells you that they’ve checked their biases at the door is an idiot. Evaluators have their own prejudices.” Joyanna Silberg, who has written extensively on child abuse: “Psychologists have sold their souls. I will not do custody evaluations. It is ridiculous to look into which parent is feeding sugared cereals. I will not pretend that I have divine power.” What about commonly used psychological tests? “I was head of testing for a hospital. I have no interest in using tests developed to treat very ill people to help somebody get custody.” But how can she resists the fees? “Courts give a lot more attention to money than to children. I have no interest in the money-making industry of lawyers and parents fighting with each other over money.” But isn’t it nominally over what’s best for the children? “The economics underlying child support incentivizes so many horrible things that are done to children,” responded Dr. Silberg. “It is insane that our law gives parents a financial incentive to fight over custody.” (Silbert practices in Maryland, a state where child support revenue is potentially unlimited.)

Whatever the value of psychologists in the courtroom, the price tends to be high. Andrea Estes, a reporter with the Boston Globe, found that GALs in Massachusetts regularly ran up $50,000 bills and that judges tended to appoint friends as GALs despite a system in place in which, absent agreement between the parties, GALs were supposed to be appointed sequentially from a list. Who pays these bills? As with legal fees, a higher-income defendant will typically pay the majority of these costs.

What keeps the GAL/custody evaluation system going? Attorneys told us that custody recommendations make judges’ lives easier. By rubber-stamping the recommendation of a GAL or psychologist, whose own investigation was not subject to any of the rules of evidence or cross-examination, a judge can dispose of custody cases quickly and in an appeal-proof manner.

Attorneys, judges, and psychologists all agree that psychologists are big in the world of divorce. But how big is divorce in the world of psychology? A Massachusetts couple seeking a therapist for their child sought recommendations early in 2015. Of 11 child specialists contacted or recommended, at least 9 were earning money from testifying in divorce lawsuits or serving as Guardians ad Litem. (Research method: type therapist’s name into Google along with with the word “divorce” or “forensic” and wait for legal pleadings or advertisements for expert services to come back.)

Related:

Game of Life lets you sell children at the end

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My favorite kindergartener has discovered The Game of Life. One quirk about the game is that you sell your children at the end ($50,000 each). As the game does not have cards for becoming a custody plaintiff, collecting child support profits (see the Wisconsin chapter of Real World Divorce for one way to come out ahead), or obtaining government benefits associated with dependent children the rationale behind children being moneymakers is unclear. Was that always part of the game?

Separately the game provides some interesting insights into the thoughts of 5-year-olds regarding the modern style of parenting. Two young neighbors rejected the “family path” in favor of the “life path” so that they would have fewer children. I asked them why they didn’t want to have kids and the response was “too much work.”

Why no robots at Starbucks?

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Given the increasing costs of labor here in the U.S. and the sometimes long lines at Starbucks, why hasn’t the company converted production to robots? A friend has used a Swiss-made Jura every day for four years and the machine has never failed. It grinds the beans automatically and then can make espresso, cappuccino, and most of the rest of the stuff that people wait for at Starbucks. Presumably a Starbucks outlet would need multiple robots and the machines would need to be beefier than these home/office versions, but Jura has proved that it can be done.

This article from 2013 talks about a retail-scale coffee robot, but, unlike the Jura, it seems to be conflated with the idea of using Nespresso-style capsules.

Related: The wise white people on the New York Times editorial board propose a $12/hour minimum wage nationwide (see Milton Friedman for an explanation for how this is an attack on black workers)

New York Times: Newspaper for the innumerate (Tesla home battery)

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As a suburbanite who wants continuous power but not the noise and maintenance hassles of a generator, the Tesla home battery is something I’m excited about. The New York Times article on the announcement, however, omits one of two numbers that people would want to know: battery capacity. (The Tesla Web site says that it holds 10 kWh, which means it holds about 10X as much as a full-size car battery; a bunch of other media outlets managed to include this figure in their articles.) The Times article also omits to mention that the battery puts out DC voltage and that the price quoted does not include the inverter that would be required to turn the DC into AC.

Separately, why is this exciting if the capacity is about 10X that of a lead-acid car battery and the $3,500 price is roughly double the cost of 10 high-quality lead-acid car batteries? Will it last longer than deep-cycle lead-acid batteries? Is the amp-hour rating on a lead-acid battery, even a marine deep-cycle version, not realistic for “waiting for the sun” storage because if you keep drawing it all the way down you’ll need to buy a new one soon?

Personally I am kind of excited about this because it means that there will be a mass-market brand behind home battery backup.

Related:

MIT alumni in their 50s

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I attended an MIT alumni gathering last week. There was a slight selection bias in that all those present were people whom an on-campus group was hoping to get donations from. Inadvertently it turned out to be an interesting look into what typical career paths look like once people are 50-60 (though remember that those who’d been complete financial failures had been screened out).

The medical doctor was at the peak of his career and in no danger of being fired. The university professor had the security of tenure and was looking forward to a defined benefit pension starting six years from now. The corporate attorney was finishing up a prosperous career. The engineers who’d chosen to work in industry, however, were a varied lot. A woman who’d taken a job at a defense contractor was still there, 30 years later. The super-wizard Lisp Machine programmer was now in a senior technical, but non-supervisory role, at a multi-billion dollar dotcom (not necessarily getting paid more than a competent 30-year-old, however). About half of the engineers, however, talked about being pushed into a financially uncomfortable early retirement and/or not being able to find work. Aside from the government-related work, the world of these alums does seem be consistent with Dave Winer’s recent “I would have hired Doug Engelbart” posting (summary: age discrimination is surmountable if you happen to have been one of the most successful engineers of all time (see The Demo from 1968, featuring everything that you’re using right now, except maybe for Patchmania)).

Lesson: Unless you are confident that your skills are very far above average, don’t take a career path that subjects you to the employment market once you’re over 50 (and/or make sure that by age 50 you’ve saved enough for a retirement that begins at age 50 or 55 and during which you won’t have employer-provided health insurance for up to a 15-year gap between age 50 and Medicare age).

American optimism on parade at the Fed

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Here’s something from today’s Wall Street Journal (full article) that shows the American bias toward optimism, at least regarding economic growth.

wsj-table

 

(Regarding the actual numbers, don’t forget that much of American GDP growth is simply due to population growth and it is unfair to compare American numbers to those of a country such as Japan or Germany where the population is stable.)

Baltimore Riots: Poor people aren’t always best off in an environment of laws created by rich people

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A friend asked me for my thoughts on the riots in Baltimore. I replied with the following: We interviewed a Baltimore-based state legislator for http://www.realworlddivorce.com/Maryland and she pointed out that the laws in Maryland are crafted by rich people in Montgomery County. A system set up by highly educated high-income people is not necessarily one that will work out well for poorly educated low-income people. Maryland is a fantastically wealthy state and, despite taxing away a higher-than-average proportion of residents’ income, it is a great place to be a government worker, lawyer, lobbyist, or medical doctor. But people who have found a way to stand in a corner of the shower of gold centered on Capitol Hill probably aren’t thinking about what it would take to attract employers to the Baltimore area rather than to, say, Georgia, North Carolina, or Texas.

Au pair to green card

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Friends host two au pairs simultaneously so that their children can maintain fluency in three languages. As the children are getting older they’ve now had experience with more than 15 au pairs. Here is what we learned from them…

Immigration approval to work as an au pair is far from guaranteed. In some countries the visa rejection rate of an au pair, once selected by a host family here in the U.S., is as high as 80 percent. The American parents say “yes” but then the U.S. government says “no.” Au pairs can be hired only if the host family pays more than $10,000 to an official au pair agency, of which there are only a handful authorized by the U.S. government (if this system were operating in the Philippines or Indonesia we would call it “crony capitalism”). Do they screen candidates carefully? “Does a realtor carefully inspect the house she is selling or just try to get a commission?” responded the father. “They do the required criminal background check and nothing else.” The most common fraud is a stated ability to drive a car, sometimes augmented by a driver’s license that was obtained with a bribe. “We just take them immediately to driving school,” said the mother. Another fraud is the posting of pictures showing a very conservative way of dressing and living. “I go onto the Russian-language social networks and find the same people wearing fishnet and Spandex,” said the father.

The shared family Windows computer seems to be a source of good stories for host families. “My friend in Los Angeles was transferring files to a new machine and happened to look into the au pair’s user directory,” said the father. “There were all kinds of photos in there of the au pair having sex with multiple guys. It turned out that she had been a porn actress in Russia and just took the au pair job so that she could come to California and, except when she was with the children, act in the U.S. porn industry.”

“One of our au pairs wanted to get a green card and stay in the U.S., but her boyfriend was also a foreigner so it wouldn’t have worked to marry him,” said the father. “She convinced a young guy that she was in love with him and got him to marry her. Then she had the boyfriend punch her in the face. She showed the black eye to the police, got a restraining order against her husband, and had him kicked out of their house.” How did that help her get a green card? “I looked at her email and found her correspondence with divorce and immigration lawyers regarding the Violence Against Women Act. She’d spent months prior to the marriage researching a fast-track green card for abused women.” (Department of Homeland Security page) Did it work? “She got the green card.”

In states such as Massachusetts that offer unlimited child support a sound financial strategy for an au pair is to get pregnant with a man of at least moderately high income (e.g., the host father or one of the neighbors!), let the U.S. taxpayer-funded child support enforcement apparatus establish paternity and a court order, and then spend the money back in her home country (or wherever else in the world she can live comfortably on $40,000 to 100,000+ tax-free dollars per year). It turns out that this strategy is not conventional, however, and au pairs are generally ignorant of how lucrative a U.S. pregnancy can be.

Pregnancy does come into the picture for green cards, however. “One of our au pairs found a 42-year-old guy and, a few weeks after she went back to Eastern Europe, told him that she was pregnant,” said the father. “He was a nice guy and wanted to do the right thing so he agreed to marry her. I told [my wife] that I am betting on a miscarriage at roughly the 3 month mark. Sure enough, no baby appeared.” Did it work? “She got the green card.”

Are au pairs worth this kind of drama in the house? If at-home child care is required, why not hire an American-born nanny? “You can get a smarter, more interesting person to work for a couple of years as an au pair,” responded the couple. “So our children were more stimulated than they would have been by an American. Also they are completely fluent in three languages. Finally you have to look at the cost. It works out to $8.50 per hour, less than half of what you’d pay an American.”

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