2016-01-20

Putting Twitter's loss in perspective

Today, Twitter (NYSE symbol TWTR) lost 7% of its value to close at $16.69/share at a market cap of $11.4bn. That's a loss of approximately $800m of of share capital.

To put that in perspective, that's 8M $100 bills. The NYSE (New York Stock Exchange) is open from 9:30am to 4pm; 6.5 hours, or 23,400 seconds. A well-tuned toilet flush cycle is 35 seconds, so you could get in 668 back-to-back flushes during NYSE opening hours. Therefore you'd have to flush 12,000 $100 bills each time in order to match TWTR's loss. At 150 bills/stack that's 80 stacks, and I can't see you getting more than 1 stack per flush in a single toilet, so I would characterise today's loss as a rate of 80 NYSE-toilets.

I hesitate to ascribe all this loss to Twitter's de-verification of arch-gay-conservative @Nero on 9th January when Twitter was $20, but its share price has descended in more or less a straight line since then. Today the NYSE actually went very slightly up but Twitter still plummeted.

It certainly wasn't helped by 6 hours of partial unavailability of Twitter today, but I suspect that was the straw breaking the camel's back.

2015-12-30

How to build the perfect man bun

Note: this is not to be confused with how to build the perfect man buns, which is an entirely separate topic and not one I will be addressing any time soon in this blog.

  1. Grow your hair out to at least 10 inches in length. This may take you a while. Any length above this is also fine.
  2. Wash your hair. Yes, this really does matter. Any shampoo will do, but do not use conditioner or a shampoo+conditioner combined product - you don't want smooth conditioned hair.
  3. Blow dry hair, thoroughly. Comb out so that it is moderately straight. Don't add any styling product.
  4. Obtain a pair of hairdressing scissors, either new or well sharpened.
  5. Visit any workplace with large rotating machinery.
  6. Holding the scissors firmly, carefully lower the end of your hair into the rotating machinery. Once it obtains a grip, frantically shear away at your trapped hair with the scissors until your head is free.

The net effect should be a lifelong aversion to having long hair at all, let alone a man bun.

2015-11-24

ISIS and the matriarchy

Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams has stuck his oar into a conjunction of the current fiery discussions around a) the treatment of women in the workplace and b) how to handle ISIS with a blog article titled, discretely, Global Gender War:

Now compare our matriarchy (that we pretend is a patriarchy) with the situation in DAESH[ISIS]-held territory. That’s what a male-dominated society looks like. It isn’t pretty. The top-ranked men have multiple wives and the low-ranked men either have no access to women, or they have sex with captured slaves.

There's no way this could possibly be controversial, amirite?

Adams has started a new blog series today on the question "Is the United States a Patriarchy or a Matriarchy?" where his evidence for "Matriarchy" is moderately compelling so far: "Women have the most political power in the United States because more women than men vote". True, we haven't had a female President yet, but it's not obvious that this is because they're being discriminated against. Personally, I'm astonished that Hillary Clinton has got as far as she has given all the shenanigans she has been involved in, which would have torpedoed any other candidate's aspirations before starting, and how astonishingly un-gregarious and un-likeable she is.

Anybody remember Democrat hopeful Gary Hart in the 1988 campaign? Sunk without trace by an accusation of marital infidelity. Michael Dukakis who eventually became the nominee? Lost mostly because of an insufficiently warm personality. Hillary should have sunk without trace by now, and the fact that she's still the Democrat front-runner by far is a sign of how much leeway the population - and the media - is giving her. One can only surmise that it's because she is a woman.

Returning to Adams' original article, he points out that the gender pay gap in the USA doesn't really exist - as the estimable Tim Worstall has pointed out time and time again with respect to the UK, which (if anything) is more traditional than the USA. He addresses the assertion that women are interrupted more in meetings by pointing out that people who talk more are more likely to be interrupted, and while this is not a slam-dunk answer it's at least a point that suggests a need for more analysis. He also points out the strong societal push to give sanctuary to women and children from Syria, as opposed to young single men.

It's quite possible that Adams is completely wrong and that women are systematically discriminated against in the USA, but it's not obviously false.

Anyway, the point of the article is to contrast the USA against the vast majority of Middle East states which are indisputable patriarchies - really, would anyone like to argue the opposite? - and to hypothesize that one way that the Daesh/ISIS leadership are controlling their low-level followers is to restrict their access to good nookie on Earth with the promise of wonderful nookie in Heaven if they blow themselves up in the right place, with appropriate Koranic citations to back this up. Again, Adams' thesis is not obviously wrong. These men seem to have significant "issues" with women and something is motivating them to suicide, while the harems for their leadership are a matter of record.

If you're in any doubt about the position of Western women in the Middle East, read the travel guidance for women in Saudi Arabia:

- Women traveling alone are not allowed to enter the country unless they will be met at the airport by a husband, a sponsor or male relative.
- Women relocating to Saudi Arabia to marry, study or stay with a Saudi family need to be aware that leaving the country requires the permission of the Saudi male head of their household.

So if the hormone-crazed late-teen ISIS recruits can't get access to women because of the restrictions that their leadership imposes, Adams' assertion that he as a teenager in the same position would gladly strap on explosives to get access to the forbidden fruit is not obviously insane. Deliberately provocative, yes. But can those piling on Adams provide a more plausible explanation of the current suicide bombers' motivation?

2015-10-15

The logistics of de-immigration

Eminent social justice activist Shaun King raises a pertinent point on the current topic (in the sphere of the US presidential candidate selection process) of what to do with the "immigrants of dubious legality" in the USA:

This is, as several people has observed, quite a hard problem.

The first problem you have is finding the immigrants, and this is probably the killer. You've got 360M people in the USA, illegal immigrants are 10M-20M in number by various estimates, so for every 1000 illegals found you have to trawl (naively) about 20,000 legal citizens - and at 450K illegals/month constant rate you're looking at 2 years to remove nearly everyone. So every month you need to annoy 9M legal residents at some level in order to meet your quota. As immigrant numbers fall, that number of recently annoyed legal residents will rise. You'll start with unobtrusive measures, but as time goes on you'll need to get more and more intrusive - and most of the annoyed legal residents are citizens, and can vote against representatives who are supporting this measure.

Then you need to make them leave the country. Detention is expensive, ask anybody in the Federal Bureau of Prisons - average is about $100/day and that assumes amortizing entry and exit costs over many months. The sooner you can export them, the better. You need to fund daily 1-way flights from a wide range of cities to the dominant countries of residence of illegal immigrants: Mexico (obviously), major nations in Central/South America, and Pakistan/India/Bangladesh. The immigrants won't be paying for this - they'd rather pass their US$ to legal resident friends and rely on that largesse being transmitted to their home country for later pick-up, at a generous margin. So the US government will be implicitly boosting illegal financial transactions as a result. Occupancy rate on those planes is going to be highly variable. Assuming average occupancy of an evacuation plane at 50% - realistically, you can't fill them with paying passengers, ask anyone in the UK - that $700 is a reasonable round trip fare to Latin America, and noting that the return journey will need to be empty (don't even think about eating the profit margins of existing airlines, there's no way this turns out well) you're spending about $700M/month just on the export. This assumes zero cost on detention and transport to the airport, which is "optimistic".

What's the end run around this? Make the illegals deport themselves. Illegal immigrants come to the USA to work and earn money for their family, with the (faint) hope that they can eventually stay. This might occur by having a baby in the USA who will be a US citizen, and applying for residency on compassionate grounds; alternatively they might eventually find an employer willing to sponsor them. So remove that attraction. There are definite areas of employment for illegal immigrants; it depends on the region, but generally agriculture (crop picking), daily manual labour and domestic service are the top areas. Focus tax audits on those areas, reduce the marginal cost of legal labor (e.g. by increasing the deductability of costs associated with a provably legal labourer) and watch the illegal employment rate plummet.

This isn't a free ride - the government will still need to fund the free no-questions-asked one-way flights home, but if they really want to make this happen then it's probably the cheapest way to achieve the goal. With no income, and easy access to return journeys to one's home country, the labour problem will mostly fix itself.

Of course, this reduces the government benefit of illegal employment - is an incumbent administration willing to forego all the income from illegal activity?

2015-10-11

Go easy on the tea, Lewis

Mercedes F1 racing top talent Lewis Hamilton may be well advised to steer clear of cups of tea for a while after soaking Vlad Putin's suit in champagne.

It's possible that Putin will take this in the humourous way it was intended, but if I were Lewis I'd be looking around for a watch with a built-in Geiger counter.

2015-10-08

The Silicon Valley Diversity Shitstorm

Talk about putting the cat among the pigeons. Journo Brian S. Hall wrote a short article about diversity in Silicon Valley: specifically "There Is No Diversity Crisis In Silicon Valley". It turns out to have been slightly controversial, as you can tell when you visit the original Forbes post:

The piece previously at this URL, titled "There Is No Diversity Crisis In Silicon Valley," published on 10/5/2015 [5th October 2015 for anyone using a sane date format], was deemed to have violated our Terms of Service and was removed.
Well, that's odd. What did it say? What could have violated the ToS?

Luckily, we can now read the original article on Brian's own site. An excerpt:

Silicon Valley doesn't just create greatness, it's probably the most open, welcoming, meritocratic-based region on the planet. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that disproportionately more Chinese, Indians, and LGBQT succeed in Silicon Valley than just about any place in America. Guess what? Everyone earned their job because of their big brains and ability to contribute.
The piece, to be fair, was rather heavy on anecdote. However in the ensuing Twitter blitzkreig there was some actual data posted including an illustrative stat on student study and degree achievements in STEM subjects which showed pretty clearly that white, Hispanic and black enroll in STEM programmes at about the same rate, but that the white students are disproportionately more successful in actually obtaining a degree. Asian students - of course! - enroll at twice the rate and obtain a degree disproportionately more often. So if you view a STEM degree as somewhat important in a Silicon Valley career then it's not entirely surprising that the ethnic makeup in SV correlates with those stats.

Anecdotally, Hall's assertions on race and LGBTQ seem about right to me, though I think he's missed a few letters off the latter term. The native Californians and other white Americans are distinctly in the numerical minority, and even obvious LGBTQ engineers are relatively plentiful. I also liked Hall's dig at the humanities as a contrast to "computer programming, engineering, chemistry — hard subjects that demand hard work", remembering the geography and history students lounging around after a couple of Finals exams early in the last semester after putting in a few strenuous 10-12 hour weeks, while the maths, physics and engineering students were still sweating away with 50 hour weeks revising for a series of painfully hard and objectively marked exams right at the end of the semester.

I'd probably take some issue with Hall's assertion that "Everyone earned their job because of their big brains and ability to contribute" - the latter is more aspirational than fact, SV hiring like anywhere else still has problems trying to determine whether someone who's obviously smart can actually be productive, and screws up that assessment reasonably frequently, but the basic idea is there. A SV company that does any discrimination other than by ability to do the job is going to shut off some of its source of talent, and in a hugely competitive hiring market that's a pretty dumb play.

Hall subsequently doubled down with the tweet

It's worth noting that Google CEO Pichai came from a poor family in India and rose based on brutal merit. Though he had problems with the humanities in school:
He was a brilliant student but his geography and history used to let him down so he was never top of the year.
That's probably what annoyed all the humanities graduates who piled onto Hall on Twitter... Although it's a little tricky to argue for a glass ceiling for minorities in SV given the above facts, it didn't seem to stop a lot of people from trying.

SV still has recruiting and retention problems, and I'd call out the experience of women in particular - the tendency of male engineers to act like baboons is off-putting to any women engineers who want to be something other than male engineers with a slightly different placement of genitals. But I don't find anything particularly jarring, scandalous or untrue in Hall's piece, so I wonder why exactly Forbes decided to withdraw it under pressure. If it wasn't pulled because of falsehoods, was it pulled because it was too true?

2015-09-04

Some illegals more equal than others - California edition

In a conversation at work today, a colleague mentioned that her Iceland-born spouse needed someone to go with him to the local branch of the California Department of Motor Vehicles (aka the First Circle of Hell) because he had to take a test. There was widespread surprise at this - didn't he have a valid licence from another country, and wasn't this OK? Yes he did, and no it wasn't; as of 15th May, the California DMV will no longer issue temporary driving licences when you pass their written test.

For context on why this matters: for foreign citizens, when you move to California and become resident (paying rent / utility bills locally) you're required to get a driving licence within 10 days of this event if you want to continue driving in California. Up until May, this was straight forward: you went to the DMV, took their written tests - tedious but not too hard - then booked a practical test and in return got a temporary driving licence that you could renew if the test got postponed. The practical test took 1-3 weeks to reserve a reasonable slot until recently, but this year's announcement that certain immigrants didn't have to prove any legal residence status has caused a huge rush of applications and backlog of tests.

Now that foreign citizens don't get the temporary licence, they can't drive unaccompanied from day 11 of their residency until the date that they pass the (admittedly easy) driving test. Sounds like a bit of a regression, so what's going on?

Let's look at the requirements for California DMV form AB60 guidelines on proving identity if you're not already a Californian:

Foreign Document that is valid, approved by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and electronically verified by DMV with the country of origin:
  • Mexican Federal Electoral Card (Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE) Credencial para Votar – 2013 version)
  • Mexican Passport (issued in 2008 or later and includes digital photo and digital signature)
  • Mexican Consular Card (Matricula Consular – 2006 and 2014 versions)
  • Foreign Passport that is valid and approved by DMV (see page 4 & 5 for list of DMV approved passports). The customer must also provide his/her social security number (SSN) that is electronically verifiable with the Social Security Administration.

Well, that's tough luck if you're an illegal immigrant (i.e. not able to get a legit Social Security number because you're not a legal resident) and not Mexican, right? Luckily there's an alternative if you have a foreign passport but not an SSN: if you have one of the following then you're OK:
  • Argentinian Identification Card (Documento Nacional de Identidad (DNI) – 2009 or 2012 version)
  • Brazilian Consular Card (Carteira de Matricula Consular – 2010 version)
  • Chilean Identification Card (Cedula de Identidad – 2013 version)
  • Colombian Consular Card (Consular Registration – 2015 version)
  • Ecuadorian National Identification Card (Cedula de Ciudadania – 2006 or 2009 version)
  • Ecuadorian Consular Card (Tarjeta De Identification Consular – 2015 version)
  • El Salvadorian Identification Card (Documento Unico de Identidad (DUI) – 2010 version)
  • Guatemalan National Identification Card (Documento Personal de Identificacion (DPI) – 2012 version)
  • Guatemalan Consular Card (Tarjeta de Identificacion Consular – 2002 version)
  • Peruvian Identification Card (Documento Nacional de Identidad (DNI) – 2005 version)
Or you can show another foreign passport: so if you're a dual national then by my reading, you're sorted. Other than that, if you're not from Central/South America and don't have legal residence then you're pretty much sunk. Yay for the major South American nations, except Venezuela or Uruguay, but boo for anyone else.

To recap: if you're an illegal immigrant then you don't really care about driving illegally in the short term. But long term it could be a problem, which is why California has the above AB60 guidance about handing out driving licenses. If you're from Central/South America then they have you covered, otherwise they really don't seem to care. It's perfectly fine for a country to be antagonistic to illegal aliens (that's me struck off Shahid Haque-Hausrath's Christmas card list) but to be arbitrarily receptive to citizens of some countries and not others smacks of, oh I don't know, naked political favouritism?

And now legal immigrants will find it substantially harder to comply with the laws of the state that they're living in - and paying taxes to. Nice one, California.

2015-09-03

Ideas that seem attractive but are corporate suicide

A huge loss for popular entertainment when Amazon successfully lured "Top Gear" hosts Clarkson, Hammond and May from the BBC: Apple were trying to hire them too:

Apple is said to have made an unprecedented bid to secure the stars of “Top Gear” when they exited their BBC series earlier this year. But Amazon ended up winning the bidding war for Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond in July.
Can you imagine that? Apple, headquartered in the terminally hip and politically correct city of Cupertino in California, recruiting Mr. Jeremy "Jezza" Clarkson, famous for such quotes as:
  • It's very fast and very, very loud. And then in the corners it will get its tail out more readily than George Michael
  • The problem is that television executives have got it into their heads that if one presenter on a show is a blond-haired, blue-eyed heterosexual boy, the other must be a black Muslim lesbian.
  • Britain's nuclear submarines have been deemed unsafe... probably because they don't have wheel-chair access.
being employed by Apple? Within one week the Apple PR and HR departments would have a "CLARKSON" page, printed on bright red paper bordered with exclamation marks, on the front page of their operational playbooks. The only potential upside for Apple is that Tim Cook, Apple's openly gay CEO, would know with a high degree of certainty what would take up 90% of the allocated time in media interviews, and he's probably got the self assurance to handle it in a relaxed manner - I'm sure he'd rather be asked about Clarkson than about working conditions in Apple's Chinese factories.

It's a crying shame that Amazon, headed by the Dread Pirate Bezos, won the bidding war. When Jezza goes on his next rant to terminally offend half the Western World (and about 0.1% of the rest of the world, who have more pressing and immediate concerns for their welfare than the spoutings of Clarkson), Bezos won't even raise an eyebrow; I can assure you that he doesn't give a bodily functional about the squeals of the masses, as long as Clarkson continues to rake in the dough.

2015-07-29

Save the US Postal Service offices!

This is a corker. Today, while wandering past a Staples store in the South Bay I saw a bunch of people outside waving protest signs. Upon closer examination this turned out to be Stop Staples!, a campaign by the American Postal Workers Union (motto "Don't mention Seinfeld"). Staples is the same kind of store in the USA as it is in the UK, providing all kinds of stationery and office supplies. Since late 2013 the US Postal Service has been running a trial program with post office counters in Staples stores, staffed by Staples workers rather than APWU-unionized US Postal Service employees. Hence the protest. The APWU seems rather concerned that the trial program is about to expand.

Reading the AWPU background briefing on the protest is illuminating and amusing in roughly equal measures for anyone who has ever spent time in a US post office:

"Staples and USPS management are perpetrating a fraud on the people of this country," says APWU President Mark Dimondstein. "They are promoting the deal as though taking your mail to Staples is the same as taking it to the Post Office. "It’s not."
He's right, you know. If I go to Staples to make a purchase at the postal counter then I can reasonably expect to be in and out in ten minutes. For the regular post office - once I can find it and get a parking space - I'm budgeting a full hour and bringing a book.
Staples' low-paid, high-turnover employees get just four hours of "classroom" training for postal retail duties.
I don't know about "low-paid". In California they're subject to the state minimum wage which is $9/hour now and $10/hour from January 1st, and there seems to be a thriving demand for competent retail employees. And if the US Postal Service is paying as much as McDonald's for most of their counter staff, they - or rather, the US taxpayer who's funding them - are getting a really bad deal.
Postal workers must pass a test before they are considered qualified to work the window
I can only imagine that it involves the examiner locating a pulse on the worker, with a generous margin for error.

What this is about, of course, is that the APWU is terrified of its membership shrinking, and the associated contributions to the existing retirement plans falling. The USPS retirement plan (healthcare and pensions) funding is in a horrendously bad state as it is, and shrinking the operations, staffing and funding of the USPS will make this situation even clearer, the gap harder to plug, and the public less inclined to back additional federal spending to fill the hole. "Why do I care about the local post office? I go to Staples when I want to post something." The USPS is going to be left with just local letter delivery after Fedex and UPS takes the profitable parcel delivery, and the bulk of those letters are junk mail that the USPS loves for the money and the recipients hate for the spam.

Amusingly, around midday the protestors all left en masse. Presumably they were on their lunch break, a staple feature of US post offices in my experience. As soon as the lunchtime queues start to build up, the counter staff react by closing several of the open counters and wandering off, presumably to have a leisurely lunch. If they've got any eye to the future, I hope they're dusting off their resumés and looking to move to a counter position at Staples before the rush.

Let me quote the APWU leaflet again, in closing:

During the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2014 the USPS enjoyed an operating surplus of $765 million. But the agency’s good news was buried in most media accounts, which said the USPS suffered a loss of $354 million loss. The USPS reported losses for the first quarter of 2014 for one reason – the congressional mandate that requires the Postal Service to pre-fund healthcare benefits for future retirees.
Indeed, damn Congress for insisting that government businesses track their accumulated liabilities as well as their income...

2015-07-17

The BBC asks "do people become more prejudiced as they age?"

No.

Psychologists used to believe that greater prejudice among older adults was due to the fact that older people grew up in less egalitarian times. In contrast to this view, we have gathered evidence that normal changes to the brain in late adulthood can lead to greater prejudice among older adults.
There are certainly normal changes to the brain. We call that "life".

Old people have experienced more of life than when they're young, so they have more facts at their disposal to make judgements.

This isn't prejudice. It's postjudice. So the BBC approach of venerating the young and disapproving of the attitudes of older generations is precisely the wrong way around.