2017-12-10

An observation on premature escalation

Right now, I'd imagine that the editors of the major Western news outlets - with the exception of Fox News - are bemoaning how they forgot a key part of their classical education, notably the Aesop fable of the boy who cried "Wolf!" and in particular the advice:

"Save your frightened song for when there is really something wrong!"

The first year of Donald Trump's tenure as President of the United States has been punctuated with the media throwing itself into fits of hysteria at any of Trump's actions which offended their sensibilities:

  • "he's blocking Muslims from entering the USA! RACIST!"
  • "his VP refuses to be alone with a woman who's not his wife. SEXIST!"[1]
  • "the Russians got him elected. TRAITOR!"
  • "he has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. ISLAMOPHOBE!"
And so on. This was the natural continuation of the 8 year campaign against the Republican opposition, which reached its zenith with the attacks on 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Anyone remember binders full of women? Declarations that Romney as president would be the end of the world? Bill Maher does.

I have to admit, I had (and still have) considerable reservations about Donald Trump as a person. I'd be the first to admit that Donald Trump's tweets have been far from edifying on many occasions. But then, I never particularly believed that Barack Obama was all sweetness and light either - you don't navigate from Chicago community organizer to President of the USA without being willing to do some pretty distasteful things, and ally yourself with some pretty dubious people, and has been notable in failing to observe the convention that ex-Presidents don't comment on the deeds of the current President. Bill Clinton has some hugely admirable personal characteristics - read the late Barbara Olson's Hell To Pay for details - but seems to be significantly challenged vis-a-vis keeping his wang in his pants. G. W. Bush has a far from perfect personal history, although seems to have had a genuine spiritual conversion before becoming President.

What redeems Donald Trump, in my view, is the way he has played the media like a fiddle in the past 12 months. They have been consistently so eager to believe their own narrative, they've failed to sanity-check themselves, and now they seem to be left with a Russia-collusion investigation that's going to fizzle to nothing, a raving Hillary Clinton who's alienating more and more of her party with her insistence that nothing was her fault, and today's Raftergate where a reporter was so keen to believe that Donald Trump's audience in Pensacola was tiny that they didn't do a basic check to confirm.

If Roy Moore gets elected in Alabama's Senatorial special election on Tuesday, it's mostly going to be down to the fact that the central-USA population has decided that they don't believe a word that the media says. Moore seems to be a fairly distasteful candidate, but if you were a voter of average information level in Alabama then a natural tendency would be to assume that all the anti-Moore broadcasts were blatant lies, and if the media really doesn't want him to be elected then he's clearly the right man for the job.

[1] Yeah, Pence is looking pretty smart right now I'd say...

2017-11-12

Ceredigion the lynx murderers

Hat tip to the inimitable JuliaM on Twitter for highlighting the case of the escaped Eurasian lynx, which Ceredigion County Council decided to have whacked without any kind of due process:

Heaven forfend that we have a wild lynx marauding around Ceredigion, won't someone please think of the children? Ceredigion certainly did:

Despite exhaustive multi agency efforts to recapture the class A animal, the multi-agency group responding to the incident received additional advice late on Friday afternoon, 10 November, from a specialist veterinary surgeon that the risk to public well-being had increased from moderate to severe due to the continued failure of the Wild Animal Kingdom to recapture the lynx.
Severe? Severe?

Look, the Eurasian lynx isn't a small creature - fully grown males weigh up to 30kg - but that's still only the median weight for a 9 year old girl. There have been no recorded fatal attacks on humans by lynxes since records began. In the Bay Area we have bobcats which grow to about half the size of a lynx, and they wander through gardens all the time without anyone batting an eye.

We even have 37kg mountain lions wandering the streets of San Francisco which just get tranquilized and returned to the wild. One imagines that the greatest danger in such a mountain lion attacking a San Francisco resident would be to the mountain lion. Even when a child is actually attacked by a lion, the authorities will tranq lions before checking to see if they were the actual attacker, and any innocent lion is let go.

Ceredigion County Council are a bunch of cat-murdering weasels who are more concerned about PR than about the welfare of a beautiful animal.

2017-10-29

Motivations behind the California gas tax increase

This weekend, a 66% increase went into effect for the state gasoline (petrol) tax in California. The stated intention is to raise money for transportation projects:

Under Senate Bill No. 1, the gasoline tax will increase by 12 cents, from 18 cents to 30 cents per gallon, the Los Angeles Times reported after Gov. Jerry Brown signed the legislation in April.
[...]
As part of the legislation, motorists will also have to pay an annual vehicle fee, though that doesn't take effect until Jan. 1, 2018. The fees range from $25 for cars worth less than $5,000 to $175 for those valued at more than $60,000. Additionally, a $100 annual fee on electric vehicles will be imposed on owners in lieu of gas taxes beginning on July 1, 2020.
Most California drivers can expect the taxes and fees to cost them less than $10 each month, according to Brown.

The revenue increase

Well Jerry, let's look at the math. I'm ignoring the costs on diesel users here, just focusing on regular gasoline, so this will be an underestimate of revenue raised.

California population is approximately 39M. There are approximately as many registered vehicles as people. So the stated overall income delta to the state of California for the imminent change is $120/year x 39M vehicles, or $4.6 billion per year, based on Jerry's numbers.

How much gasoline did Californians buy in the past year? About 14.57 billion gallons. Add $0.12/gallon and that's $1.8 billion; the bulk of the increase will come from the per-vehicle fee. Looking at the scales, let's say $80 is average; that yields $3.12 billion.

Interestingly, electric vehicle users really get screwed by this. If I've read the spec correctly, they pay $100/year plus the value-of-the car tax. $100 looks to be at least 2x the average gas tax impact based on mileage.

So California shouldn't be exercised about the gas tax per se, they should be much more indignant about the per-vehicle charge. And electric vehicle owners should be marching on Sacramento to burn Jerry in effigy, if their vehicles can get them that far.

What gas costs, and why

The California tax situation is worse than it appears. In San Jose currently you'll expect to pay about $2.70/gallon; you'll pay $0.18/gallon federal gas tax, $0.12/gallon state gas tax, plus $0.06/gallon state sales tax. But there's also a secondary excise tax and an underground storage fee - yes, California taxes the right to store gasoline underground - which bumps the total California per-gallon tax to about $0.58; over 21% of your gas cost goes to the state of California.

Also note for completeness: in summer gas costs much more because California requires a special anti-pollution blend. This isn't crazy, especially if you live in a major conurbation like LA or the Bay, but you can easily find gas prices over $4/gallon. The extra $1/gallon or so yields another $0.02/gallon in sales tax for about half of the year.

Where it goes

Why is the California state government doing this? Well, because politicians will tax anything they can get away with. California already has more than enough money from gas taxes to address the issue of highway repair. Don't believe me? Check the math.

The stated need for highway repair in the California 2016-2017 budget was $3.6 billion annually, plus a $12 billion backlog:

Highway and Road Maintenance and Repair Needs. In order to assist the Legislature in its deliberations regarding increased funding for state highway and road repairs, we assess the costs to maintain and rehabilitate core aspects of the state highway system—pavement, bridges, and culverts—as well as local roads. We find that the state has ongoing highway repair needs of about $3.6 billion annually as well as an existing backlog of needed repairs totaling roughly $12 billion. This need is significantly higher than can be addressed through the existing funding of about $1.6 billion for these purposes.
Interesting. California is currently extracting $0.583 in tax per gallon of gasoline on 14.57 billion gallons of gas per year - $8.5 billion - and yet it's spending only 20% of that money on highway repair. What is it spending the rest on? You can bet that the excess is finding its way in disguise to be able to fund the usual payoffs: pensions and pet projects like the brain-meltingly dumb high speed SFO-LA rail.

We should ask: where does Governor Brown think this money will be spent?

“Safe and smooth roads make California a better place to live and strengthen our economy,” Brown said. “This legislation will put thousands of people to work.”
Oh, Jezza. Jobs are a cost, not a benefit. The minimum-wage Bay Area or LA commuter spending literally thousands of dollars per year on gas is not going to thank you for taxing him about $150/year extra to fund union workers doing fuck-all to fix potholes. (Believe me, I've had ample opportunity to watch them work while sitting in traffic jams. They could not move slower if they were quadriplegic.)

"But California is so big! It has the most roads!"
Nope. Texas has nearly 2x the road mileage of California. I've driven quite a lot in Texas, and their pothole situation feels better than California. Heck, you occasionally get actual freezes in Texas, which are practically unknown in California, and a classic source of potholes. The top 4 worst pothole cities are Californian. What the hell?

"California has other transport costs! Like congestion reduction!"
California does f-all congestion reduction, believe me. The only congestion reduction it likes which works is higher gas taxes. Building additional roads is waaaaayy down their priorities list, only just above "donate to Donald Trump's reelection campaign".
There are also additional separate revenue streams from vehicles in California. Existing annual vehicle registration is proportionate to the vehicle's current estimated value, and for a $30K car will set you back $100-$200/year. "Use tax" applies to all vehicle purchases - even second hand! - and the state gets 7.5% of the purchase. So for a $30K car you'd pay $2250; assuming you keep the car for 6 years, that's $375/year income for the state.

California doesn't have an income problem for its transport costs. It has a "not spending that money on transport costs" problem.

Measuring success

Where I work, if I were to propose recurrent spending of a significant chunk of my company's annual income on a project, I'd rightly be asked to define a measurement of its impact, and "success" criteria by which we could judge if the spending had an acceptably high impact, or if it should be stopped and I should be fired.

Jerry Brown: what will be your measure of success in spending the $5 billion+/year raised from the additional gas tax and vehicle fee? Is it just in "sustained union support of Edmund Gerald Brown, Jr"? You mendacious over-taxing git.

2017-10-28

Ellipses

Binge watching the 2008 "classic" 'Lost in Austen', I find myself drawn to Mr. "Hugh Bonneville" Bennett's observation, addressing the linguistic and cultural shift between the early 1800's and early 2000's:

You do make the most refreshingly elliptic conversation, Miss Price.
Henceforth I resolve to use this idiom whenever I have no idea what my interlocutor is talking about. Unless they're addressing the topic of ECDH when the conversation would be elliptic, refreshing, yet still prone to make one's eyes cross.

I also appreciated the reference to the "otter-strewn thoroughfares of Hammersmith"; if ever I discovered an otter in Hammersmith, I'd expect it to be draped around the neck of a Russian lady resident of the area.

2017-10-07

Hillary Clinton

Alleged comedian Jimmy Kimmel arranged for his staff writers to pen thank-you notes to Hillary Clinton, and - for a programme which people paid money to watch - had Miley Cyrus read them out live to Hillary.

At this stage you are down on your knees praying that this is a fake news post, but unfortunately I have to tell you that it is painfully real.

One note which particularly stuck with me - like a bad case of toenail fungus - was:

Thank you, Hillary, for always sticking to the issues even as people criticize you for superficial things like your hair, your wardrobe, and your appearance. You show girls everywhere that politics isn't a popularity contest — because if it were, you would have won by about 3 million votes.

Tell it sister! Politics is not a popularity contest.
Politics is a beauty contest[1]. Hair, height, clothes are all relentlessly honed for appeal.
And Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump.

[1] Not to mention that beauty contests are extremely political.

2017-10-05

Called it: "Fearless Girl" was compensatory signalling

Back in April I expressed scepticism about the motivation behind the "Fearless Girl" statue placed in front of the Wall Street Bull by asset manager State Street:

I suspect that nothing other than their marketing department's desperate desire for publicity and their CEO's self-image were the main factors behind the project: since only 5 of their 28-strong leadership team are female, two of whom are in the traditional female bastions of HR and Compliance, one suspects that this is compensatory signalling.

Oh look:

State Street Corp., the $2.6 trillion asset manager that installed the Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street, agreed to settle U.S. allegations that it discriminated against hundreds of female executives by paying them less than male colleagues.
You'd have to have a heart of stone not to laugh. Heck, I have a heart of stone and nearly split my sides when I read about this.

This is interesting though:

State Street also recently launched its SPDR Gender Diversity exchange-traded fund, which focuses on firms that have greater gender diversity in senior leadership.
It will be fascinating to see how this does against comparable benchmarks over the next five years. It certainly doesn't seem to be the case that female leadership is necessarily a good thing for a company, and women in key board level positions have been associated with some fairly prominent failures.

2017-09-15

White terrorist kills four black men in Fresno - major news outlets silent

I cannot fathom why this was not headline news back in April. From Reuters:

A white man accused of shooting three people to death in Fresno, California, wanted to kill as many black men as possible because he expected to be arrested for another shooting, police said on Wednesday, calling the incident a hate crime.
Harold Allen Murphy, 39, fatally shot the three black men in downtown Fresno on Tuesday after realizing he was wanted for the killing of a black security guard last week, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said.

It's possible that the police were reading too much into the racial motivation

“What he told our detectives last night was that once he saw he was wanted for murder, he was not going to go down for shooting a security guard for disrespecting him, but that he was going to kill as many black males as possible,” Dyer said on Wednesday.
Police allege Murphy opened fire 17 times as he walked and ran along several blocks in Fresno, killing the three men in less than four minutes.
He surrendered while shouting: “Praise Jesus!,” police said, adding they had not yet recovered the weapon Murphy discarded.
You would think that a blatantly racial multiple murder by a Christian white supremacist would have dominated the airwaves for weeks, wouldn't you?

The gentleman concerned is this week being scrutinized to see if he is fit to stand trial. One can only imagine the inner-city riots which will result if the court doesn't think a trial is in the public interest.

Please note: it's possible that I may have mistranscribed some details of the case and you should definitely read the original article...

2017-08-25

Dog poop smeared to no effect

An update to yesterday's post about San Francisco insanity: it seems that the idea of spreading poop on Crissy Field is not universally welcomed, and ironically the offending Patriot Prayer group have cancelled their rally. No data yet on how much poop was already spread...

Poop protest mastermind Tuffy Tuffington is no doubt gutted. Incidentally, could his photo be more hipster?

  • Beard: check
  • Heavily rimmed glasses: check
  • Tattoos: check
  • Beer (craft, no doubt): check
I hope he's planning to go pick up all the mis-directed poop this evening, though somehow I doubt it.

2017-08-24

San Franciscans losing their sh*t about a right wing free speech event

This Saturday, the right wing group (but decidedly not a hate group) Patriot Prayer is holding a free speech rally at Crissy Field beach in San Francisco:

GGNRA acting general superintendent Cicely Muldoon said in the statement Wednesday that the park service “cannot deny a permit to anyone planning to exercise their First Amendment rights based on their political stance or beliefs.”
Must confess, I'd have preferred Ms Muldoon to say "should not" rather than "cannot" there, but I'll take what I can get.

The traditionally left-leaning San Franciscans are accepting this with resignation, realizing that the same principles protecting the speech of people they dislike also protect their own speech.

Kidding! They're going to cover the beach with dog crap:

Hundreds of San Franciscans plan to prepare Crissy Field, the picturesque beach in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge where rightwing protest group Patriot Prayer will gather, with a generous carpeting of excrement.
Well, I suppose it's better than leaving the poop on the city streets

Maybe it's a canine-/human-poop-borne virus that has rotted the brains of the San Franciscans to the point where they think that smearing feces across one of their own picturesque beaches is a great plan. Maybe it's all the weed. Maybe it's Karl the Fog. But my goodness, they have a serious problem there quite aside from the poop epidemic.

Luckily San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee (Democratic, astonishingly) is providing a firm moral lead to the city at this difficult time:

"The great American trend tolerating speech and opinions that we might disagree with will be celebrated this weekend in our city," San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said.
Oh wait, sorry, that was from the Mirror Universe. Actual quote:
"The shameful, anti-American trend of hate-filled extremist rallies will unfortunately be allowed to continue this weekend in our city," San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said.
Oh dear. Do you think someone should enroll him in Civics 101 and start walking him through the text of the First Amendment?

Apparently nearly the entire San Francisco Police Department will be on duty this Saturday. I hope they spend most of the time ticketing the poop-spreaders and making them pick up the mess. With their hands.

2017-08-16

Since we can't challenge diversity policy, how to prevent mistakes?

The James Damore affair at Google has made it very clear that discussion of companies' diversity policy is completely off the table. When I say "discussion" here, I mean "anything other than adulation". I've seen plenty of the latter in the past week. The recent 'letter from Larry Page' in The Economist was a classic example. It was in desperate need of someone tagging it with a number of [citation needed] starting from paragraph 4:

You’re wrong. Your memo was a great example of what’s called “motivated reasoning” — seeking out only the information that supports what you already believe. It was derogatory to women in our industry and elsewhere [CN]. Despite your stated support for diversity and fairness, it demonstrated profound prejudice[CN]. Your chain of reasoning had so many missing links[CN] that it hardly mattered what you based your argument on. We try to hire people who are willing to follow where the facts lead, whatever their preconceptions [CN]. In your case we clearly got it wrong.

Let's accept, for the sake of argument, that random company employees questioning diversity policy is off the table. This is not an obviously unreasonable constraint, given the firestorm from Damore's manifesto. Then here's a question for Silicon Valley diversity (and leadership) types: since we've removed the possibility of employee criticism from your diversity policy, what is your alternative mechanism for de-risking it?

In all other aspects of engineering, we allow - nay, encourage - ideas and implementations to be tested by disinterested parties. As an example, the software engineering design review pits the software design lead against senior engineers from other development and operational teams who have no vested interest in the new software launching, but a very definite interest in the software not being a scaling or operational disaster. They will challenge the design lead with "what if..." and "how have you determined capacity for metric X..." questions, and expect robust answers backed by data. If the design lead's answers fall short, the new software will not progress to implementation without the reviewer concerns being addressed.

Testing is often an adversarial relationship: the testing team tries to figure out ways that new software might break, and craft tests to exploit those avenues. When the test reveals shortcomings in the software, the developer is not expected to say "well, that probably won't happen, we shouldn't worry about it" and blow off the test. Instead they either discuss the requirements with the tester and amend the test if appropriate, or fix their code to handle the test condition.

Netflix's Chaos Monkey subjects a software service to adverse operational conditions. The software designer might assert that the service is "robust" but if Chaos Monkey creates a reasonably foreseeable environment problem (e.g. killing 10% of backend tasks) and the service starts to throw errors at 60% of its queries, it's not Chaos Monkey which is viewed as the problem.

Even checking-in code - an activity as integral to an engineer's day as operating the coffee machine - is adversarial. For any code that hits production, the developer will have to make the code pass a barrage of pre-existing functional and syntax checks, and then still be subject to review by a human who is generally the owner of that section of code. That human expects new check-ins to improve the operational and syntactic quality of the codebase, and will challenge a check-in that falls short. If the contributing engineer asserts something like "you don't appreciate the beauty of the data structure" in reply, they're unlikely to get check-in approval.

Given all this, why should diversity plans and implementations - as a critical component of a software company - be immune to challenge? If we have decided that engineer-authored manifestos are not an appropriate way to critically analyse a company's diversity system then what is the appropriate way?

Please note that there's a good reason why the testing and development teams are different, why representatives from completely different teams are mandatory attendees of design reviews, and why the reviewer of new code should in general not be someone who reports to the person checking in the code. The diversity team - or their policy implementors - should not be the sole responders to challenges about the efficacy of their own systems.