2014-08-13

A voice of reason in CiF

It would have to be a mathmo, wouldn't it? Sam Howison, an applied maths professor, looks at why the first 50 Fields medal winners were uniformly male and, refreshingly, comes up with a range of explanations with the starting point that there just aren't many female mathmos:

Data is scarce in this rarefied region, and hypotheses are hard to test; so, too, is the influence of the culture of their chosen field. Nevertheless, such astronomical odds of a woman winning the medal are disturbing, and they are just an extreme point of a range of evidence that women are underrepresented in mathematics at many levels.
It's indisputably true that you don't find anything like a 50% proportion of women at the top level of maths, or theoretical computer science for that matter. On the other hand, in my experience the women that you do find there aren't obviously any less smart and capable than the men, so if you were making randomized choices based on intellect you'd expect women to be far more frequent in Fields medal holders than they are.

This year, Stanford professor Maryam Mirzakhani won a Fields medal. She's clearly a hard-core pure mathmo; I defy anyone with anything less than a Ph.D. in maths to read about her research interests and not have their brain leak out of their ears. This is not just "I don't understand what this is about", this is "I can't even picture the most basic explanation of this in my head". Compared to that, even Fermat's Last Theorem was a walk in the park - solving polynomial equations is standard A-level fare, and even if you can't understand what Andrew Wiles did to prove it you can at least understand the problem. With Mirzakhani's work, you have no frame of reference, you're like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie.

Howison's point about the astronomical odds of the Fields medal award gender distribution (50 tails in 51 unbiased coin tosses) is a nice point of probability, but of course the first place you'd start is to look at the eligible pool - top-flight mathematicians, generally at (UK) professor level, with a substantial track record of publishing. That will tell you your bias; if 1 in 10 people in the pool are female, you're tossing a biased coin which will show tails 9 times out of 10. Still, it's pretty clear that even with that pool the Fields medal gender split is way out of line with what you'd expect.

Howison makes an interesting point that I hadn't considered up to now:

[...] people with successful careers have usually had a high degree of support from a mentor. As well as providing academic guidance and inspiration (as Mirzakhani freely acknowledges she had when a student), the mentor will introduce their charge to influential colleagues on the conference circuit and elsewhere, and arrange invitations to speak at seminars and workshops. That is one way for a young mathematician to get their work noticed, and to improve their chances of getting a position in a world-leading department where they can thrive. Is this perhaps (if only subconsciously) difficult for women in a community where the majority are men?
The usual reason for explaining the lack of women in senior positions in Fortune 500 firms (banks, Big Pharma etc.) is that they're not as good at men at talking their own book, preferring to be more even-handed in giving credit for the achievements in which they'd participated. However, Howison tantalisingly hints at a squaring function in gender representation here - will junior female mathmos only get good support and PR from a senior female mentor, and do such senior female mathmos pick up juniors with a blind eye to gender? It would be fascinating to get some data here.

I do wonder whether that perennial topic in gender discrimination, motherhood, plays a role here. Because the Fields medal only goes to people younger than 40 - Andrew Wiles, who cracked Fermat's Last Theorem, was a notable omission from its holders due to his age - if you take time out from academe to have children then this disproportionately affects your time where you're eligible for a Fields medal. The Guardian interviewed this year's sole female awardee, Maryam Mirzakhani but she didn't make any comment about her family life so I have no idea if she has kids.

So mad props to Maryam Mirzakhani for being the first female winner of the Fields medal, and here's to hoping for many more. Apart from anything else, if we can start to get some data on what factors determine female Fields medal winners we might have a hazy glimpse of what we need to fix in the academic lifecycle to get more top-flight women choosing to follow it.

2014-08-11

Formalising success in a bureaucracy

It's only natural, when you've managed to get out of a hole against all odds, that you want to re-use the people and/or planning that made the difference. You'd be wasteful if you didn't, to be honest. Following this line of thinking, and after a small team of digital fixers managed to save the flagship Healthcare.Gov federal healthcare exchange from near-certain doom, the White House is trying to do just that.

Today they announced the launch of the new U.S. Digital Service which aims to replicates the lessons of the (relative) success in saving Healthcare.Gov with other troubled US federal government IT projects. Heaven knows that there's no shortage of potential targets for USDS to help with. The question of the moment is: can this new government team actually succeed? If so, what does success look like?

US CIO Steve van Roekel outlined the USDS role:

"This isn't going to be a group that we parachute in to write code," as Van Roekel put it in a call earlier this summer, and with perhaps the Department of Health and Human's experience with HealthCare.gov on the brain, "This isn't decending a group of developers onto the scene." Rather, the focus is going to be on helping agencies figure out where their weak points are and how to fix them.
Note that therefore the role of USDS staff isn't actually the same as the Healthcare.Gov fixers, but that might be OK as the fixing itself wouldn't scale; if you want to solve the key IT problems of more than one government agency at at time then you can't have most your staff embedded in one project, and there's no reason to think that the government can recruit multiples of the motivated team that fixed Healthcare.gov. They're going to have to strike a balance, though. They won't be able to determine the principal IT problems of an agency without spending time working with and talking to the agency's tech team. The more time they spend there, the more trust they'll gain and the better the quality of information they'll gather - but then they won't be able to help as many agencies.

The danger with any new government agency is that after a time it accumulates bureaucrats whose primary purpose is propagating their own employment and importance. Van Roekel seems to be aware of this and planning to bring in people for 2-4 year rotations. With placements of 3-6 months this may be about right; long enough for the new people to spend a placement or two with the veterans and absorb the institutional knowledge, do a couple more placements as peers while encouraging their friends to join up, then lead new recruits in placements as the veterans leave.

What's going to be interesting is to see how the USDS embeds are treated in the troubled agencies. Are they going to have the influence and effective power to remove obstructions - such as long-term barnacle workers who hoard knowledge and obstruct progress? If not, they're unlikely to be able to change much. If so, the agency's workers are going to hunker down and be terrified of being fired or reassigned. It's going to be quite a challenge for tech sector workers to get their heads around the government worker mindset sufficiently to influence those workers into getting things fixed.

Incidentally, www.usds.gov was not resolving as of posting time; I actually consider that a potential sign of success as the new team is focusing on getting operational before getting any marketing/PR in place; still, they're going to need a portfolio of some form after a few months in order to attract their new short-term hires.

2014-07-30

Bringing the diversity of car manufacturers to Silicon Valley

I should start this blog by warning the reader of my prejudice towards Jesse Jackson. I think he's a fairly despicable human being; a race hustler who is standing on the shoulders of the giants of the US Civil Rights Movement (Parks, MLK et al) to further his own petty shakedown rackets and attempts to gain political power.

That said, let's examine his latest crusade: bringing the focus of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission onto the diversity disaster area that is Silicon Valley.

"The government has a role to play" in ensuring that women and minorities are fairly represented in the tech workforce, Jackson told a USA TODAY editorial board meeting. He said the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission needs to examine Silicon Valley's employment contracts.
The trigger for this appears to be Twitter's release of workforce diversity statistics (select the Twitter tab, the default is Yahoo). They show a global 70% male workforce with 50% white, 29% Asian, 3% Hispanic, 2% black, 3% mixed and 4% other. Jackson claims that this is proof that the EEOC needs to step in. Because what could possibly go wrong with that?

The gaping hole in USA Today's argument:

Of Twitter's U.S. employees, only 3% are Hispanic and 5% black, but those groups along with Asian Americans account for 41% of its U.S. users.
Wow, talk about a misleading stat. I assume "mixed" is rolled in with "black" to make the 5%, using the Halle Berry "one drop of blood" theory, but note that if you add Asian Americans in it becomes:
Of Twitter's U.S. employees, only 3% are Hispanic and 5% black plus 29% Asian making 37% total, but those groups account for 41% of its U.S. users.
Hmm, that's a little bit different, no?

Since Silicon Valley is in focus, let's look at the demographics in the Bay Area from the 2010 census:

  • 52.5% White including white Hispanic
  • 6.7% non-Hispanic African American
  • 23.3% Asian (7.9% Chinese, 5.1% Filipino, 3.3% Indian, 2.5% Vietnamese, 1.0% Korean, 0.9% Japanese plus rounding errors for others)
  • 23.5% Hispanic or Latino of any race (17.9% Mexican, 1.3% Salvadoran)
  • 5.4% from two or more races
  • 10.8% from "other race"
The categories aren't an exact overlap, but you'll note that whites are almost exactly represented in Twitter as in the Bay Area population. Asians are over-represented in Twitter (29% vs 23%), African Americans under-represented (7% vs 5%) but the real under-representation is Hispanic (24% vs 3%). Why is that? Hispanics in California are disproportionately over-represented in the menial jobs currently. This is starting to change a little with the new generation of America-born Hispanic kids but their parents can't generally afford top-tier universities for engineering or CS courses so it'll be at least one more generation before they start to appear in the engineering/CS student pool for recruitment.

The really disgusting thing about Jackson is when you realize what he is actually implying - that Silicon Valley engineers systematically discriminate in hiring against black and Hispanic engineers just on the basis of their skin colour. Yet somehow they discriminate in favour of Chinese and Indian engineers on the same basis - so they're racist, but very narrowly so. What Jackson fails to point out - because it wrecks his entire thesis - is that the real demographic problem is in the pool of engineers eligible for these jobs. African-American and Hispanic students are massively under-represented here. This isn't Twitter's fault, or Google's fault, or Facebook, Apple, or IBM. The problem starts at the awful public (state) schools which poor American students attend and which completely fail to give them any reasonable preparation for university courses with objective (numeric) subjects - maths, computer science, physics - that are the grounding for computer science careers. But delving into those facts might take an enquiry into unionised teaching and teacher tenure rules, and I'd bet Jesse's union buddies wouldn't like that.

The engineers I know who conduct interviews for computing firms day in, day out, are overwhelmingly thoughtful and fair individuals who strive to give any new candidate a fair go at getting hired. Even the occasional monster among them is uniformly brutal - white, Chinese and Indian candidates have as brutually intellectual an interview as Hispanic and black candidates. If Jackson were to appear before those engineers and accuse them explicitly of bad-faith prejudice against black and Hispanic candidates, they'd probably punch him.

The real problem in Silicon Valley demographics is the male vs female disparity in engineering. There are plenty of good, smart, talented women - they're just not going into engineering. Until we figure out why, we're missing out on a heck of a lot of talent. But Jackson is not pushing this angle - perhaps he's figured out that he has nothing to say on the subject and so there's no money in it for him and his cronies.

I can do no better than conclude with Jackson's own words:

The former two-time Democratic presidential candidate said he'll continue pushing the issue and has no plans to retire. "The struggle for emancipation is my life," he said in an interview. "It's my calling."
Well it's your revenue stream, at least. God, that man gets on my wick.

2014-07-22

The importance of words

CiF poster Scott "the most" Lemieux is aggrieved at today's ruling in D.C. that puts something of a crimp in the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare):

Up first: an outrageous two-to-one decision by a panel of the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruling against sensible subsidies that real people need, based on what we can charitably called the "reasoning" of the two Republican nominees on the three-judge panel – the opinion was written by an appointee of George HW Bush, along with a judge nominated by his son.
I do like the "play the man, not the ball" approach here, by the way. Mr. Lemieux is appalled that in Halbig vs Burwell the D.C. Circuit judges have thrown a major spanner in the works of the Obama administration's flagship Act. Since Mr. Lemieux is a professor of political science at a college in New York, you may safely assume that he knows how the legal process works and has the proper perspective to come to such a judgement.

What is this horrendous decision which has so appalled Mr. Lemieux? Let us consult the blogging lawyers at the Volokh Conspiracy:

In a 2-1 opinion, the Court held that the Internal Revenue Service regulation authorizing tax credits in federal exchanges was invalid. Judge Griffith, writing for the court, concluded, "the ACA unambiguously restricts the section 36B subsidy to insurance purchased on Exchanges 'established by the State.'" In other words, the court reaffirmed the principle that the law is what Congress enacts — the text of the statute itself — and not the unexpressed intentions or hopes of legislators or a bill's proponents.
What made the Affordable Care Act affordable for many people was that for low-to-medium incomes you could get tax credits to subsidise the (fairly expensive) policies available on the exchanges. Now the original idea was for most states to run their own exchanges, but more and more of them have used the shared federal exchange since it turns out that developing and running an exchange is fairly hard. Unfortunately, the ACA itself only allowed tax credits for insurance purchased on exchanges established by the State, which was the point of contention in this case - should the IRS be allowed to issue tax credits to people buying insurance on federal-run exchanges, which is the case in more than half of the states. The D.C. Circuit said "no, you can't apply the law as you wish it was written, you have to apply the law as it is." Apparently this approach is too radical and subversive for Mr. Lemieux and he wishes to blame the D.C. Circuit rather than (say) the original drafters of the ACA.

From the actual court decision:

Appellants argue that if taxpayers can receive credits only for plans enrolled in “through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the [ACA],” then the IRS clearly cannot give credits to taxpayers who purchased insurance on an Exchange established by the federal government. After all, the federal government is not a “State,” see 42 U.S.C. § 18024(d) (defining “State” to “mean[] each of the 50 States and the District of Columbia”), and its authority to establish Exchanges appears in section 1321 rather than section 1311, see id. § 18041(c)(1).

There was a lot of controversy at the time the ACA was passed due to the very short time between it being presented and being rammed through Congress and the Senate. Democratic senator Nancy Pelosi told us not to worry about the contents of the bill at the time:

But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it – away from the fog of the controversy.
Well, now we've all found out. Perhaps a little more scrutiny at the time of passing would have been in order so that problems like the tax credits language could have been spotted before being signed into law. This is why complex laws are bad - they cause problems for everyone including those that they were intended to help.

2014-06-14

The joys of hard drive death

The IRS (US tax service) ex-head Lois Lerner has been under the spotlight in the past year about the IRS allegedly targeting organisations for audit based on their political allegiances. Apparently Tea Party related organisations were much more likely to be targeted than left-leaning organisation. Lerner retired from the agency in September last year, but the Republican party has unsurprisingly been chasing her. Lerner took the 5th at a hearing in March, refusing to testify to avoid the risk of incriminating herself, so the investigators have been looking for other sources of information.

Of course, most communication these days is done by email, and the IRS is no exception. The obvious place to start in finding the details of Lerner's involvement - if any - would be to trawl her email. Except that this appears to be difficult:

Today, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) issued the following statement regarding the Internal Revenue Service informing the Committee that they have lost Lois Lerner emails from a period of January 2009 – April 2011. Due to a supposed computer crash, the agency only has Lerner emails to and from other IRS employees during this time frame.
Oopsie. Still, these things happen occasionally. It's just bad luck, right?

The IRS has 89,500 employees. It's not unreasonable to estimate that every one of them has an email account, and most of them have a computer. Say they have 70,000 personal computers on their network. Every computer has at least one hard drive. A hard drive's average life is 2-3 years; let's say 1000 days. On average, if you have 1000 hard drives, one will be failing each day. In the case of the IRS we'd expect to see 70 hard drives a day, nearly 500 per week, failing. Hard drives failing are a completely normal part of IRS IT operations.

Given that, you put together an IT system that lets your executives lose all their emails whenever their personal computer hard drive crashes? This seems... not the approach one would normally take.

What I find interesting is an IRS note from 1998 announcing that they were standardising on Exchange:

The new e-mail package will use Microsoft Exchange Server Version 5.5 along with the Microsoft Outlook 98 desktop product. The IRS will switch over to the new system during the next 12 months
I'm assuming that by now they've done several migrations to more modern versions of Exchange. By 2009 they should have been on Exchange 2003 at least, maybe 2007. A user's emails would be in folders on replicated central storage, not just on a personal machine; the Outlook client would copy mails from the central storage to the local computer for speed and ease of access, but they would remain in the central storage precisely because personal computers fail all the time. Suppose the power supply exploded, or the motherboard shorted, or coffee spilled into the CD-ROM drive slot, or the user has to get email access out of office hours (e.g. via Outlook Web Access) - there has to be a way to get to their data when the PC is not available. The replicated storage copies the data to several physically separate machines, using a scheme such as RAID which lets you trade off the number of copies of data, read performance and write performance.

What I would believe, and I should make it clear that this is pure speculation, is that someone was deleting old emails off the replicated storage for some purpose; perhaps for perfectly legitimate purposes. They ended up deleting much more than they expected. Once this was discovered, they tried to recover the data from the daily / weekly tape backups that were almost certainly being made from the central storage. When they did this, they discovered that for the past 1-2 years the backup data being written wasn't being written correctly - taken from the wrong source, missing indexes, taken from a source that was being updated as it was being read, whatever. This was so embarrassing given the amount of money that they were spending on their storage and backups that they cooked up a story about a hard drive failing and hoped no-one would ask any inconvenient questions. Bad luck, boys!

If the details of IRS's excuse haven't been mis-reported - a possibility we should not reject out of hand - then either they have a painfully badly assembled and operated IT system, or someone is telling pork pies.

2014-06-05

RAGE

I really shouldn't follow cases like this; it's terribly bad for my blood pressure. Let's assume that you're a law graduate training to be a barrister. You're doing badly in your exams because you go out drinking and partying every night. What do you do? Apparently, "party less and study harder" is too passé - the hip modern approach is to accuse your boyfriend of a series of rapes and assaults:

The allegations made by Rhiannon Brooker meant Paul Fensome was arrested, charged and held in prison for 37 days.
Following an 11-week trial, the jury of 10 men and two women at Bristol crown court on Thursday found Brooker, who has an eight-month-old child, guilty of perverting the course of justice. She was given bail but could be [my emphasis] jailed when she is sentenced later this month.
Could be? I'm not sure that there are the words. At minimum, Brooker should be given the same sentence as Mr. Fensome would have received given the rape sentencing guidelines which looks to be a 15 year starting point (Repeated rape of same victim over a course of time or rape involving multiple victims) with one possible aggravating factor (ejaculation) and one possible mitigation (sex with victim before offence). The guidelines for perjury regarding rape notes that "If there is any question as to whether the original allegation might in fact have been true, then there is not a realistic prospect of conviction, and no charge of perverting the course of justice should be brought" so the CPS is clearly convinced that the accusation was indeed false rather than not provable. The sentencing guidelines indicate aggravating factors (premeditated, persistent, arrest of innocent person) and indicate a likely sentence of 1-2 years.

Giving this woman a non-custodial sentence would send an appalling message to other women who falsely accuse their innocent boyfriends of rape to get out of a sticky situation. The message would be "it's worth a try - in the absolute worst case where you get found out, prosecuted and convicted you still won't see the inside of a jail." I'm hopeful (though not certain) that her potential career as a barrister has come to a screeching halt, but despite her 8 month old baby this woman needs to spend serious time in jail. Her reckless accusations were a gnat's chuff from jailing an innocent man for a decade or so, and as a law graduate there is no question that she knew the consequences of her accusations.

WAR has not been helping their case:
A War [Women Against Rape] spokesperson said the prosecution of Brooker was "completely disproportionate", adding: "Time and again we see police resources diverted from rape and put into prosecuting women instead."
First, would anyone like to point to a "Women In Favour of Rape" group? No? Then let's focus on this "spokesperson"'s assertion. Yes, the police put resources in to prosecuting women like this. They happened to persuade a jury, beyond reasonable doubt, that Rhiannon Brooker made up these allegations and tried to send Mr. Fensome (poor bastard) away for a good number of years as a sexual offender, thereby giving him a sporting chance of being stabbed to death in the shower or having boiling hot cocoa poured over him. This seems like the sort of crime that we would expect the police to prosecute, n'est ce pas? Or should the police never prosecute women for crimes where men are the victims?

God. If Mr. Fensome happened to throw WAR's spokesperson into a manure pit and I was on the jury, I'd declare him innocent and ask for the prosecution witness to be put to death. If WAR want to help women who have been raped, they can start by ensuring that juries don't think that rape accusations can be motivated simply by spite: give women who make false accusations some skin in the game by giving them a realistic prospect of spending years in jail for this kind of perjury.

2014-06-01

Marcela Trust update: 2013 accounts

The Marcela Trust has sent in their accounts for their fiscal year ending July 2013 so I thought I'd take a look to see how our favourite salt and sugar haters are doing. For comparison, have a look at my analysis of their 2012 accounts.

A quick summary:

  • Their donations this year were £300K to the Camelia Botnar Foundation, £170K to Fauna and Flora International (like last year, for their Western Transylvania work and to fund their student at Cambridge), £20K to the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre and £7.5K to support the annual exhibition of the Society of Portrait Sculptors; these were funded in the usual way by restricted donations (totaling just under half a million quid) from OMC Investments which holds all the money that the Marcela Trust distributes.
  • Nothing was sent to CASH or Action on Sugar this year; perhaps the Marcela Trust trustees are not keen on the attention they received as a result of the CASH donations.
  • The 300K donation to the Camelia Botnar Foundation is interesting; I wonder what it was for? I looked at the Camelia Botnar Foundation 2012 accounts back in December and they looked in reasonable shape; their net funds had jumped from £5.1M to £6.3M. So was the 300K for something specific that the Marcela Trust wanted to set up but not fund directly? If so, what? The Marcela Trust report says that it "was made contribute [sic] to the foundation's annual running costs." We'll have to wait until December to see how this materialises in the CBF accounts and why it was needed.
  • This year the Trust got £2.5K in donations and £22K in interest on funds, comparable to last year. They raised £5.6M (property rentals, hotel operating income etc) but spent £6M doing this, which is rather surprising; last year they raised about the same at a cost of only £3.7M. Where did they lose the extra £2.3M or so? Looking at the subsidiary activities trading costs, it looks like that was mostly due to extra impairment of investments (things they have are no longer as valuable as they used to be).
  • Their funds had an OK year, rising £1.5M in value to £67M, about a 2% gain.
  • They sold £3M of investment assets (property, presumably) but lost another £1M on revaluation of assets they held; this wasn't quite as bad as last year's £1.5M loss but must have still smarted a bit.
  • They moved about £24M from investment assets to cash, nearly a mirror of last year's move of £24M cash to tangible assets (after raising £12M in loans); that loan is still outstanding in the creditors line, now due within 1 year.
  • Fortunately the poor investment performance didn't stop the Trust increasing its wages paid. Wages were up about 6% overall and pensions about 19%. Dawn Pamela Rose was paid about £250K again, with £58.5K going into her pension scheme (up from £40K last year).
  • Dawn Pamela Rose's QHH Limited subsidiary of OMC Investments commenced trading as a hotel during the previous financial period; it lost £15K on turnover of £1.1M this year.
I think QHH Limited must be the Queen's Head Hotel (Google is fairly definite on this link) but I'm not sure which of the eponymous establishments in the UK corresponds to this.

So overall a year which is interesting mostly for the sudden arrest in the flow of funds to CASH, a property investment performance which looks less than stellar, and a £300K donation to Camelia Botnar Foundation which did not look to be needed. Let's see what the CBF accounts reveal when they appear in December...

Minimum wage: Seattle airport workers find out that TANSTAAFL

An interesting tidbit from the Northwest Asian Weekly about the effect on airport workers of Seattle-Tacoma Airport's $15/hr minimum wage:

"Are you happy with the $15 wage?" I asked the full-time cleaning lady.
"It sounds good, but it’s not good," the woman said.
"Why?" I asked.
"I lost my 401k, health insurance, paid holiday, and vacation," she responded. "No more free food," she added.
For non-Americans, the 401k is like a money-purchase pension scheme where employers normally match some level of employee contributions. It's possible that the loss of health insurance wasn't strictly related to the $15/hr minimum wage, which took effect at SeaTac on Jan 1st, since employers across the country have been diligently pushing workers onto the state health insurance exchanges where they can get away with it. However, the rest of the losses are quite instructive.

It seems that you can legislate a minimum wage, but where you force employers to pay more than they would otherwise they have a surprising number of ways to reduce the impact on their bottom lines.

The effect of the minimum wage hike has been seen in other ways as well. Labor-intensive businesses are finding ways to shed employees:

At the Clarion Hotel off International Boulevard, a sit-down restaurant has been shuttered, though it might soon be replaced by a less-labor-intensive cafe. The nearby Cedarbrook Lodge, by contrast, is undergoing a $16 million expansion.
The SeaTac $15 minimum is a great case study because it only applies to businesses which have dealings with the airport; as such, you can see the difference between nearby similar businesses where one is affected by the law and one is not.

I did wonder about an assertion in an article that unionized businesses were not affected; but indeed, the ordinance is clear about this point:

7.45.080 Waivers
The provisions of this Chapter may not be waived by agreement between an individual Covered Worker and a Hospitality or Transportation Employer. All of the provisions of this Chapter, or any part hereof, including the employee work environment reporting requirement set forth herein, may be waived in a bona fide collective bargaining agreement, [my emphasis] but only if the waiver is explicitly set forth in such agreement in clear and unambiguous terms. Unilateral implementation of terms and conditions of employment by either party to a collective bargaining relationship shall not constitute, or be permitted, as a waiver of all or any part of the provisions of this chapter.
So unionized businesses can agree with the workers' union to waive this (e.g. if it's posing a profitability problem that may otherwise result in firings) but non-unionized businesses have no such option even if the workers are willing - they would have to unionize first. A nice touch, and one that seems to have been under-reported in the press. I wonder why?

Hat tip: The Advice Goddess who has a new book coming out this week: "Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck".

2014-05-24

Software - Everything Is Broken

I don't agree with 100% of this article, but it's sufficiently true and well explained that it's worth reading the whole thing. Quinn Norton reports that "Everything is broken":

It was my exasperated acknowledgement that looking for good software to count on has been a losing battle. Written by people with either no time or no money, most software gets shipped the moment it works well enough to let someone go home and see their family. What we get is mostly terrible.
This near-perfectly expresses the problem with software. The only point I'd differ on is that it's not even that it "works well enough" - in reality it's shipped when it's perceived to work well enough by people who generally aren't able to tell how well it's actually working.

It's certainly true that people are awful users of software. This is generally because software is written and tested by people who are completely unrepresentative of the software user base. Here's an example from today. I try to connect, using Firebox, to a website which I happen to know has a problem with its security certificate (it's been revoked by the owner). Here's what I get:

OK, so let's suppose that I'm my mother. What the hell am I supposed to do with that information? It's good that Firebox has recognised that the site is broken and has stopped me connecting to this site - but "Please contact the website owners to inform them of this problem"? Seriously? How do I even know who the "website owners" are? Chrome is a little bit better - it warns that "if you try to visit [site] now you might share private information with an attacker" and suggests reloading the site in a few minutes or using a different wifi network, but it says that "something is interfering with your secure connection" when it would be better to say something like "I can't make a secure connection to this website - I've checked a couple of other websites and secure connections to them are OK, so it's probably just something wrong with this particular website". Chrome and Firefox's error messages in this situation are reasonably useful, but they're written for reasonably technically-savvy people - not for the vast majority of their user base.

As Quinn notes, for relatively non-technical people who don't generally have control over their computers, security is essentially impossible:

What's the best option for people who can't download new software to their machines? The answer was unanimous: nothing. They have no options. They are better off talking in plaintext I was told, "so they don’t have a false sense of security."
I think this is slightly pessimistic. Doing everything in plaintext makes it trivially easy for the intelligence agencies, crackers and other ne'er-do-wells to scoop up everything. Better is to ensure that the world uses such a diverse and changing ecology of software and hardware that even concerted efforts to compromise a security system will only yield a relatively small fraction of the world - we can't stop those people from compromising our security if they really want to, but at least we can make the bastards work hard for it.

2014-05-13

SELECT, JOIN and a bit of Perl? $10K

Database nerds will like this one. The state of Nevada has a database system for the permanent records of children in the state education system. One parent, an opponent of the Common Core national curriculum which is sweeping the US public education, wanted to know what his childrens' permanent record said. He asked for a copy, but it wasn't available for free:

Because the SAIN system is not designed to create reports that display individual student data in a readable format, the parent was initially told that the requested reports do not exist and cannot be produced
[...]
[Nevada Department of Education] staff determined that it would take at least 3 weeks (120 hours) of dedicated programming time to fulfill the parent's request. At the applicable wage rate of $84.95/hour, the requested work resulted in a $10,194 price tag.
Not designed to create reports that "display individual student data in a readable format"? That's a new one on me. So when education officials threaten to put a student's trangression on their permanent record, that actually means "a place that no-one will look because it's not readable"?

The really shocking aspect is that Nevada is employing IT experts at $85/hour who can't knock up an appropriate couple of SQL statements like:

SELECT GradeReport.Grade, GradeReport.Text, Students.StudentName, GradeReport.ReportDate
FROM GradeReport INNER JOIN Students
ON GradeReport.StudentID=Students.StudentID
WHERE Students.StudentName = "Fred Eppolito" AND 
 Students.SchoolID = 12345;
 -- choose whatever fields are needed to uniquely identify a student
I'm fairly sure that writing the query, testing it, dumping that data out in CSV format, eyeballing it to check that nothing's bad and then sending on the file can be done in the space of an hour.

If the Department of Education IT staff can't do this for $85 per hour, which is about $175K per year, perhaps they shouldn't be paid so much. Otherwise, one might think that the state of Nevada can't be trusted to spend taxpayer money at all...