Epiphany: California is the new Israel; Israel is the new California


As my California friends complained on Facebook about their tap water being bottled and sold by greedy commercial enterprises, such as Nestle, it occurred to me that California is like 1980s Israel and Israel is like 1980s California.

Israel used to have socialism and shortages of everything. Now Israel has a market economy and plenty of everything.

California was a market economy at one point. Now it is a welfare state that is running out of important stuff (water, money to pay pensions, vaccinated children, etc.)

What do readers think of the analogy?

My new drone


My new drone will be arriving in February 2016 according to Kickstarter. This is the first consumer product of Helen Greiner’s latest company: CyPhy Works. At roughly 1/500th the price of a helicopter and a camera it seems as though it will be worth a try. Go Helen! (grad school classmate)

The Wright Brothers: Prices and weights in the old days


I’ve just finished The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (personal favorite: The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914).

I’ll do another posting about the (recommended) book per se but with this post I just want to highlight some of the changes in American society over the past 130 years revealed by the book.

What constitutes a middle class lifestyle has certainly changed quite a bit:

The brothers were well into their twenties before there was running water or plumbing in the [Dayton, Ohio] house. Weekly baths were accomplished sitting in a tub of hot water on the kitchen floor, with the curtains drawn. An open well and wooden pump, outhouse, and carriage shed were out back. There was no electricity. Meals were cooked on a wood stove. Heat and light were provided by natural gas. House and property had a total value of perhaps $1,800.

Despite the lack of a Starbucks “Race Together” campaign, being black in 19th century Ohio does not seem to have been a bar to success:

A high school friend of Orville’s, Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had been the class poet and the only black student in the school, became a contributor to the West Side News. Later, when Dunbar proposed doing a weekly paper for the black community, Orville and Wilbur printed it on credit, but it lasted only a short time. … In 1893, through the influence of Bishop Wright, a first collection of Dunbar’s poems was published by the United Brethren Church, for which Dunbar himself paid the cost of $125. In another few years, having been discovered by the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells, Dunbar had become a nationally acclaimed poet

Being Jewish was not a plus:

In a letter from Katharine [the Wrights’ sister], dated June 30, he was to learn that things were not going at all well at home, that she and Orville felt left out of what was happening in Paris. “Orv can’t work any,” Orv was quite “uneasy,” Orv was “unsettled,” “really crazy to know what is going on,” “wroth” over how things were being handled in Paris without him. Clearly she was, too. She and Orville had lost all patience with Flint & Company and questioned whether they could be trusted. She had had little or no experience with Jews, but having seen a photograph of Hart Berg, she wondered if he might be one. “I can’t stand Berg’s looks,” she wrote. “It has just dawned on me that the whole company is composed of Jews. Berg certainly looks it.”

Women were scarce as both pilots and passengers in the first decade of powered flight, though a rope tied around the ankles and bottom of a long dress was a big help in those “no-cockpit” days. (see this history of female pilots) On the other hand, Katharine Wright, after a career as a school teacher ($25/week; about $24,000 in today’s money), was selected as a trustee of her alma mater, Oberlin College.

Bicycles were potentially shocking and certainly shockingly expensive:

Bicycles were proclaimed morally hazardous. Until now children and youth were unable to stray very far from home on foot. Now, one magazine warned, fifteen minutes could put them miles away. Because of bicycles, it was said, young people were not spending the time they should with books, and more seriously that suburban and country tours on bicycles were “not infrequently accompanied by seductions.

In 1895, their third year in business, they moved to a corner building at 22 South Williams Street, with a showroom on the street level and space for a machine shop upstairs. There, on the second floor, the brothers began making their own model bicycles, available to order. The announcement of the new product read in part as follows: It will have large tubing, high frame, tool steel bearings, needle wire spokes, narrow tread and every feature of an up-to-date bicycle. Its weight will be about 20 pounds. We are very certain that no wheel on the market will run easier or wear longer than this one, and we will guarantee it in the most unqualified manner. It sold for $60 to $65 and was called the Van Cleve, in honor of their great-great-grandmother on their father’s side, who was the first white woman to settle in Dayton. With the Van Cleve in production, and available in all colors, a second, less-expensive model was introduced called the St. Clair, in tribute to the first governor of the old Northwest Territory, of which Ohio was part. Their income grew to the point where they were earning a handsome $2,000 to $3,000 per year.

… As it was during the first several months of 1904, bike repairs were numbering a steady fifteen to twenty a week. Then there were the sales of a great variety of bicycle “sundries,” as they were referred to in the shop’s large ledger books, including bike tires ($3.25 each), bike bells (10 cents), lamps ($1.00), pedal guards (5 cents), spokes (10 cents), bike pumps (35 cents). Also, as usual in winter, sharpening ice skates (at 15 cents each) provided a steady additional sum

The BLS inflation calculator goes back only to 1913 but $65 in 1913 corresponds to $1541 today and the $3,000 in 1913 would be about $70,000 today. A high-end camera was about the same price as today: “In 1902 they had made what for them was a major investment of $55.55 in as fine an American-made camera to be had, a large Gundlach Korona V, which used 5 × 7-inch glass plates and had a pneumatic shutter.” (Though of course today we don’t have to buy chemicals to develop images from our Canons, Nikons, and Sonys.)

Everything was pointing up:

With the arrival of the New Year 1903, the outlook in Dayton was more promising than ever. The local population had reached nearly 100,000 and according to the Evening News, an equal number were now finding their way there to do business. It was no town for a pessimist, said the paper, “but if there is any hope for him, here he may breathe the glorious air of prosperity and imbibe the spirit of optimism and be cured.” To Americans throughout most of the country, the future was full of promise. A New Year’s Day editorial in the Chicago Tribune said one would have to be of “dull comprehension” not to realize things were better than they had ever been and would be “better still when new science and new methods, and new educations have done their perfect work.” The tempo of popular tunes was appropriately upbeat. Pianists north and south were playing ragtime, people singing and dancing to hits like “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” and “In the Good Old Summer Time.” Employment was up nearly everywhere. In the state of New York practically the entire labor force was working. Wages were rising, the national wealth increasing. Instead of a national debt, there was a surplus of $45 million. In Washington one sensed “a new velocity” under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt. The country was about to take on the building of the Panama Canal, picking up where the French had failed. No new year had “ever brought the people of the United States a more encouraging outlook,” said the Albuquerque Journal-Democrat. Further, as noted in numerous editorials, Sunday sermons, and at many a family dinner table, the world was at peace. One of the few puzzling questions to be considered, said the Philadelphia Inquirer, was why, so far, after so much attention had been paid to “aerial navigation,” had there been so few results?

Transportation to Europe was somewhat more expensive than today:

The Campania, part of the Cunard Line, was known as one of the finest vessels of its kind, and one of the fastest, a “flying palace of the ocean,” which Wilbur particularly liked. The ship was 622 feet in length, with two tall stacks, and burnt some five hundred tons of coal per day. The predominant interior style was Art Nouveau, with staterooms and public rooms paneled in satinwood and mahogany, and thickly carpeted. The weather was “splendid,” the sea smooth, and he had a cabin to himself. With only about half the usual number of passengers on board, he was able to get a $250 cabin for only $100, and he was quite happy about that, too, even if Flint was covering expenses

($100 in 1913 corresponds to $2370 today)

Military aircraft were way cheaper: “On February 8, 1908, their bid of $25,000 for a Flyer was at last accepted by the War Department.” (less than $600,000 in today’s dollars; compare to at least $100 million for an F-35 even using what are likely ridiculously optimistic accounting methods)

Wilbur Wright could have written Bringing Up Bébé: “He especially enjoyed watching the French children, amazed by how well behaved they were.” Italy suffered by comparison to Paris:

But for Orville and Katharine, Rome, after the time they had had in France, left much to be desired. That April was “the choice season” in Rome, that the palaces of the Caesars, the Arch of Constantine, and the Colosseum were even more impressive than expected, was not sufficient. As Katharine told her father, “I was homesick for the first time when we reached Rome.” She and Orville both were “very anxious to come home.” She found their hotel appallingly dirty. “We would appreciate a good clean bathtub and clean plates and knives and forks much more than the attention we receive.” In another letter she reported, “The waiters at the table are so dirty that I can hardly eat a mouthful of food.”

What did it mean to be “fat” in the days before the infinite river of corn products began pouring through American streets?

As it turned out, no one could have been more genial or helpful or generous with his time than Léon Bollée [French car manufacturer]. Short and dark bearded, he was extremely fat, weighing 240 pounds.

President Taft formally presented two Gold Medals on behalf of the Aero Club of America. At six feet two and weighing three hundred pounds, the president loomed large as he stood beside the brothers.

Life without DEET was not pleasant:

Among long-standing summer visitors to Nags Head, the old wisdom was that the infamous Outer Banks “skeeters” struck en masse only once every ten or twelve years. On July 18, it suddenly became clear 1901 was one of those years. As Orville wrote, the mosquitoes appeared “in the form of a mighty cloud, almost darkening the sun.” It was by far the worst experience of his life, he would tell Katharine. The agonies of typhoid fever were “as nothing” by comparison. There was no way of escaping the mosquitoes.

Journalists could be humble:

Writing his autobiography later, James Cox, publisher of the Dayton Daily News, remembered reports coming “to our office that the airship had been in the air over the Huffman Prairie [near Dayton, a year after the Kitty Hawk flights] . . . but our news staff would not believe the stories. Nor did they ever take the pains to go out to see.” Nor did Cox. When the city editor of the Daily News, Dan Kumler, was asked later why for so long nothing was reported of the momentous accomplishments taking place so nearby, he said after a moment’s reflection, “I guess the truth is that we were just plain dumb.”

There were hardly any taxes back then (Sixteenth Amendment was adopted in 1913) but death was a more prominent factor in Americans’ lives:

In the first week of May 1912, thoroughly worn down in body and spirit, Wilbur [having survived a crazy number of what we would consider to be unacceptably risky flights] took ill, running a high fever day after day. It proved once again to be the dreaded typhoid fever. Wilbur Wright died in his room at home at 7 Hawthorn Street at 3:15 in the morning, Thursday, May 30, 1912. He was forty-five years old.

… The financial rewards for their efforts and accomplishments had been considerable for the Wright brothers, though not as excessive as many imagined. In his will, Wilbur had left $50,000 each to brothers Reuchlin and Lorin, and to Katharine. The rest of his estate, an estimated $126,000, went to Orville. With the success of the Wright Company and its sale, Orville prospered far more. His total wealth at the time of his death [1948, age 77] was $1,067,105, or in present-day dollars $10,300,000. Though a fortune then, it hardly compared to that of any number of multimillionaires of the time.

Layout criticism: The book has a bunch of photographs but they are low-res and parked at the end of the book rather than intertwined with or linked from the text. What function is the publisher serving in the digital book world if they produce a layout that you could get for $100 on freelancer.com?

ARPANET versus healthcare.gov (#progressinCS)


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


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?


“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.)


Game of Life lets you sell children at the end


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?


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)


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.


MIT alumni in their 50s


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).

Log in