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U.S. family fragmentation in one obituary


Here’s an obituary from my suburb’s local newspaper: Peggy Schmertzler. I think that, in one life, it shows the fragmentation of family that has occurred in the U.S. due to a variety of technical and social forces.

The subject was born in 1931 and grew up in Baltimore. She moved to Boston to attend college and settled in a suburb with her lawyer-husband, thus severing her daily ties with her parents and any extended family in Baltimore.

Following a divorce lawsuit (the obit doesn’t say who sued whom, but statistically it is generally the woman who decides to sue (some Massachusetts data)), she moved to Cambridge, thus severing her daily ties with her husband and, presumably, former neighbors.

Her children then scattered to New Zealand, California, and a Boston suburb, thus severing their daily ties to each other and, for the non-Boston-area kids, eliminating the possibility of grandchildren having daily ties with this grandmother.

I’ve written before about how I think one reason that Mexicans might be happier than Americans, adjusted for income, is the central nature of Mexico. People either stay in their hometowns or move to Mexico City, but they don’t generally keep moving after that.

[Separately, the obituary shows how well-educated Americans are pulled into low-productivity-growth non-profit activities. Ms. Schmertzler “worked for the next 15 years in the nonprofit sector” and put 26 years of effort and time into “the Committee for the Equality of Women at Harvard.” (The GDP per capita of China grew from less than $2,000 per person to more than $8,000 per person during the same time period.)]

Is the Human Stupidity Bubble over at MIT?


“More grads choose industry over PhDs: Survey data reveal decade-long trend away from graduate school” is a story from MIT’s student newspaper.

2015-09-25 16.50.25

I ran into a faculty member who is doing research for the federal government on where to fund PhDs. “We didn’t used to have postdocs in engineering,” he said. “But now MIT has more than one postdoc per faculty member. There are nowhere near enough assistant professorships for all of the PhDs that we are generating. So we’re exploiting them by paying them $50,000 per year.” (Paying a market-clearing wage is apparently now generally accepted as “exploitation.”)


Where do immigrants fit into a country with a declining labor force participation rate and a rising minimum wage?


“U.S. Will Accept More Refugees as Crisis Grows” (nytimes) says ” The Obama administration will increase the number of worldwide refugees the United States accepts each year to 100,000 by 2017.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a decline in the labor force participation rate from 66 percent in 2009 to 62.5 percent today (chart). In other words, every year a smaller percentage of adult Americans are working.

Minimum wages are rising all over the country.

There are a variety of legal attacks on hiring people as contractors (potentially working out to below minimum wage) rather than as W-2 employees.

What will immigrants who are not selected for English fluency, education, job skills, or youth do once they arrive? If they are legal immigrants, especially if they have children, they will presumably eventually be eligible for the full range of welfare benefits, e.g., a taxpayer-funded house, taxpayer-funded health care, taxpayer-funded food, etc. According to this page, immigrants both legal and illegal collected welfare at a 57-percent rate back in 2009 (compared to 39 percent for native-born households with children; soon the majority of us will be dependents of the Great Father in Washington!). The same page, however, says that 95 percent of immigrant households in 2009 had at least one worker.

The U.S. has been successful at absorbing immigrants, but our largest waves of immigration (as a percentage of the population) were before the 1938 introduction of a minimum wage and many decades before we built a comprehensive welfare state (e.g., Medicaid was created in 1965).

What do readers think? Where will these new Americans fit into the labor force? Who will want to pay them $15/hour plus benefits?

The Zappos holacracy, Edward Tufte’s sparklines, and an 11×17 printer


Atlantic magazine’s October 2015 issue carries “Are Bosses Necessary?” One of America’s more useful business school professors is quoted:

What’s enabling this shift [to Zappos-style holacracy], argues Thomas Malone, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, is simple: falling information costs. In his 2004 book, The Future of Work, Malone broke the history of organizations into three stages. In stage one, information is expensive to convey, so most decisions are made face-to-face in necessarily small firms. As communication costs begin to fall, Malone explained to me, we reach stage two, in which “it becomes economically feasible to send information to a single, central place for decisions to be made.” That is, the large, centralized hierarchy becomes possible. Then comes stage three: “As communication costs continue to fall, there comes a time when it’s economically feasible to bring information to all points, so in some sense, everyone can know everything.” In this third stage, the benefits of bigness can persist, but its traditional handmaiden, hierarchy, doesn’t have to. (Indeed, when the volume of information grows large enough, trying to direct its flow upward for evaluation can slow everything down.)

[See Malone’s “Semi-Structured Messages” paper from 1986.]

I want to push one of my old ideas… combine Edward Tufte’s sparklines (see explanation in this 2006 posting) with a 1200 dpi 11×17 color laserprinter. Take every number that matters to an organization and print it out every day on an 11×17 sheet of paper that is given to every employee. For a web site it might be “new registrations yesterday” printed in green if it went up from the moving average of the previous week, printed in red if it went down. Next to the number would be a Tufte sparkline to put the number into context. The next line down could be “500 Server Errors,” followed by “Average pages per session,” etc.

What do readers who work in companies with at least 50 employees think? Would it be helpful to arrive at work and find an 11×17 sheet of paper across your keyboard with perhaps 150 metrics of the company’s performance?

Careers for Young People #472: Deposition videographer


I recently attended a deposition of an expert witness in a patent lawsuit. The depo was in a pleasant Southern university town where the median price of a detached house is $250,000.

In addition to be transcribed by an in-person court reporter, the deposition was being videotaped. I learned that the videographer’s fee was $200 for the first hour and $100 for each subsequent hour. A federal court deposition is typically 7 hours on the record and about 10 hours of total time including breaks. Thus the videography fee would be $1,100 for the day.

This is a job that requires no specific education (and certainly not a college degree). The videographer was using the following capital equipment:

  • Sony MiniDV (tape!) camcorder (since nobody will ever look at this stuff, it is good if it goes straight to an inexpensive yet durable medium that can be tossed into a file cabinet and forgotten); about $225 for a “prosumer” model on eBay right now
  • box of MiniDV tapes ($2 each; good for 1.5 hours)
  • RadioShack four-channel mixer
  • three lav mics plus cables
  • RCA-to-stereo-1/8″ cord
  • Manfrotto tripod
  • pop-out background
  • stereo headphones for monitoring the audio

I inquired and learned that, unlike a wedding photographer, the guy did not bring a backup camera to the job. If the camera had failed he said that he would “go to a store and buy a new camera.” Thus the total cost to get into this business would be under $1,000.

The actual work done by this videographer occupied about 1.5 hours during the 10-hour period. He had to set the camera on the tripod, mic up two lawyers and the witness, test and set levels on the mixer, change tapes four times, occasionally make an announcement, and pack up the gear. We were blessed with 50 Mbps symmetric WiFi in the hotel conference room (part of the university). He had brought a tablet computer and keyboard and was surfing the Web for the remaining 8.5 hours (while monitoring audio quality through the headphones and occasionally glancing at the video monitor on the camcorder).

The downside of the work is that it can be tough to be a solo practitioner. “Lawyers are lazy so they just want to be able to call one number and have someone show up,” said an attorney. “Maybe you could do it in a big city or Silicon Valley.” Thus it is typical for a middleman(woman) to take a cut. On the other hand, if the other side wants a copy of the videos it might be exactly the same price, i.e., another $1,100. And if there is a third party involved in the case? Another $1,100.


Virginia Tech: Example of built environment disfigurement to accommodate non-self-driving cars?


I recently visited Virginia Tech (note how Google shows  Nidal Malik Hasan as #1 among the school’s “notable alumni,” a good reason to invest in PR…).

The school impresses the visitor with its NFL-grade football stadium, Four Seasons-grade hotel and conference center, and stone buildings (but the architecture school is a hideous concrete eyesore! (photos)). Due to the handsome stone construction, the school has some of the feel of Princeton, generally admired as one of America’s nicest college campuses. With 31,000 students Virginia Tech needs to be physically larger than Princeton, with 8,000 students. However, the physical inflation is more dramatic than the student ratio.

My theory is that Virginia Tech is spread out to a large extent because of the need to provide massive surface parking lots in front of most buildings, a requirement dictated by (a) the 100-year period of private ownership of non-self-driving cars, and (b) the expense of digging underground lots. It is tough to imagine casual collaboration among departments at Virginia Tech due to the long walks from subcampus to subcampus. Because the campus isn’t all that walkable, there is a huge amount of car traffic even after 9 pm on weekdays.

I’m wondering if once the self-driving (and shared) car (or RV) is here we will regret having built so many spread-out campuses to accommodate what turned out to be a relatively small fraction of the period of European settlement of the Americas.

Who else is excited to be subsidizing Tesla Model X purchasers?


http://www.teslamotors.com/modelx will shortly show the launch of the new electric SUV (not “pavement-melting SUV,” which had become almost a Homeric epithet). Fully loaded this is a $132,000 car. If you pay federal income tax you will be contributing to a $7,500 subsidy for each person (a.k.a. “rich bastard”) who buys one. It seems like a marvelous engineering achievement so… who else is excited to be offered the opportunity to work extra hours every year in order to help rich people buy this new toy?

And when do we get to subsidize an all-electric Rolls-Royce?

[Disclosure: A rich friend of mine has one of these on order and I am looking forward to riding in his.]

Does psychiatry need a Harvey?


Paul McHugh, a retired psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins, summarizes the state of modern psychiatry in a review of Shrinks, a book that tries to do the same thing. A friend whose PhD is in experimental psychology (Stanford) sometimes irritates therapists by asking “How do you do engineering when there is no physics?” McHugh makes the same point:

No formative principle or principles link the function of the brain to mental disorders, and until such is discerned, psychiatry will remain at the naming and describing level…

The end of the beginning for cardiology came when William Harvey wrote De Motu Cordis in 1628. Therein he described how the heart acted as a pump, how the blood circulated, and how the experimental method could advance human physiology. Everything in cardiology—from understanding a patient’s symptoms to discovering mechanism-based medications, right on to transplanting hearts today—rests on that foundation.

Psychiatry has no Harvey. And if DSM-5 is its “Bible,” then the “end of the beginning” for psychiatry looks decades away.

Why is psychotherapy so popular? A Harvard PhD psychologist said that “sociopaths and psychopaths love to go to therapists because part of the standard process is unconditional positive regard. They’re not going to get that from anyone whom they talk to and aren’t paying.”

What do readers think? What kinds of science would we need to enable therapists to be reliably effective? And where will that science come from? Neuropsychology? Or perhaps from the more heavily funded Artificial Intelligence folks? Are we talking about 10 years or 100 years before we see significant progress?

Separately, what success stories for psychotherapy do readers have to relate? Does anyone have personal experience with someone who went to therapy and came out as a substantially improved individual? (if drugs, such as Prozac, were involved, please limit your answer to situations in which you’ve had at least five years to observe the results (to reduce distortions from the placebo effect))

You can pay McKinsey to run a quota system at your company


“Gender equality: Taking stock of where we are” is an article from McKinsey, management consultant to Enron (Guardian). This cluster of Harvard and Stanford MBAs has figured out that setting explicit quotas results in more employment for the targeted group:

Our experience has been that top-down targets make a difference. We didn’t set explicit gender goals for McKinsey until 2014, and in just one year after doing so, our intake of female consultants has increased by five percentage points.

McKinsey charges customers a lot of money for forward thinking, but they seem to be taking a backward attitude toward gender. What does it mean for a consultant to be “female”? How does McKinsey know that 100 percent of their employees won’t come in tomorrow morning identifying as “female” (or “male” for that matter)? If the modern way of looking at gender is that it is primarily a state of mind, wouldn’t the smartest employers achieve instant gender balance by offering a bonus to any worker of the over-represented gender to identify as a member of the under-represented gender? (See this report on papers from the American Economic Association on what people are willing to do in exchange for small financial incentives.)

Let’s assume for the moment that McKinsey is correct in its assumption that employee gender is persistent and/or biological. Why is their focus on the gender composition of their workforce? Does McKinsey have the same percentage of African-American partners in the U.S. as there are African-Americans in the U.S. population as a whole? If not, does switching the focus to gender mean that McKinsey has given up on achieving racial goals/quotas? (Or that McKinsey agrees with Rachel Dolezal regarding race being a social construction?) One thing that nearly everyone agrees on, except perhaps Tinder users, is that age is an immutable biological fact for humans. Why isn’t McKinsey interested in addressing age discrimination, establishing hiring quotas for older workers, or examining the potential for age disparity in new hires that results from recruiting almost exclusively from among fresh MBA graduates?

Let’s assume that the gender composition of a workforce is in fact something that should take higher priority than racial or age composition. According to the authors, McKinsey is interested in sorting employees by gender so that women can have “economic equality”:

Economic equality for women, to no small degree, depends on achieving a sweeping set of social-equality reforms. Is it the business of executives to help solve broader social issues? We would say yes, provided they don’t distract from the very real issues executives face in their own organizations.

The article does not mention, however, that women in many parts of the U.S. can obtain the after-tax spending power of a McKinsey partner by having sex with three McKinsey partners and harvesting the resulting child support (see Real World Divorce; works best in California, Massachusetts, New York, and Wisconsin; if she doesn’t want children she could have sex with six McKinsey partners and sell the abortions). If a woman and a man have the same spending power, isn’t that “economic equality”? If the goal is economic equality, shouldn’t McKinsey therefore make greater efforts to achieve gender balance in jurisdictions, e.g., Germany and Scandinavia, where unlimited child support profits are not available?

McKinsey is a member of the “30% club,” seeking a quota of 30% for corporate board representation, but the authors don’t explain why the goal should be 30 percent. Why not 50 percent, for example? Or 100 percent for a period of time in order to make up for past underrepresentation? (And if McKinsey has denied employment opportunities to women in the past, doesn’t fairness require that the quota for new hires be 100% female, at least for a period of time?)

The authors claim that it will be tough for McKinsey to hire and retain more women but they don’t explain why. Is it the case that among the 7 billion people on Planet Earth there are not enough qualified people who identify as “women” to occupy 50, or even 100 percent of the chairs at McKinsey? If there are sufficient qualified people who, at least for the present identify as “women,” what is preventing McKinsey from offering them a combination of salary and benefits that would induce them to join and stay at McKinsey?

If McKinsey is not competent to hire the mix of employees that it desires, why announce that failure to the world? Doesn’t that cast some doubt on McKinsey’s competence to serve as management consultants? Or is McKinsey’s point that they ran a quota system at their company, which bumped up the percentage of employees who identify as part of the female gender, and you can pay them to advise on running a similar quota system at your company?

What do readers think? Does this article make you more or less impressed with the quality of thinking at McKinsey?

Chairs with lead legs for child safety?


A friend with four children has spent perhaps 400 hours repeating the same order: sit down in your chair. Why? If a child is standing up and grasping the back of the chair there is a risk of tipping over (static rollover).

Now that we find it necessary in our own household to replay these scenes I am wondering if there isn’t a technical solution. Why not kitchen chairs with insanely heavy lead-filled legs? Then the toddlers can do whatever they want on the chairs without risk of toppling. Probably have to combine the lead-filled legs with appropriate geometry (legs contact the ground behind the chair back) to avoid a dynamic rollover.

Has anyone tried this?

Separately, what the most tip-proof chairs that are easily found on the U.S. market right now? Could it be that standard office side chairs (Allsteel Relate Side as an example) are the most stable? The back legs seem to go pretty far back, as though the designers were trying to ensure that the cubicle farm remained a safe zone for all sitting styles.


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