Alkahest my heroes have always died at the end

February 28, 2007

immigration update

Filed under: Social — cec @ 9:39 pm

Back in August, I wrote a brief summary of a conversation I had with my mother on immigration as well as a longer summary of a great NY Times article on immigration.  In general, I don’t have a problem with immigrants.  I think that they add a lot to the country and they don’t cause nearly the harm to wages that people attribute to them.  While I wouldn’t accuse anyone of racism, it wouldn’t surprise me if xenophobia is behind most of the opposition to immigrants.
Interestingly, as this LA Times article discusses, two new California studies indicate a) that immigrants boost the wages of native born citizens by an average of 4%; and b) that immigrants have significantly lower incarceration rates than native born citizens.

Both studies should be considered when people advocate for a French-styled guest worker program.  The U.S. economy can absorb and is helped by a growth in the working population; and moreover, many of these workers are good-citizens (except for the fact that they are, really, you know – citizens 🙂 ).

and people wonder why the change to DST worries me…

Filed under: Security,Technical — cec @ 6:38 pm

In 2005, congress mandated a change to daylight savings time, essentially, starting it three weeks earlier (March 11th, this year) and ending it three weeks later. Our local paper is requesting suggestions for what people will do with their 22 extra hours of daylight.  Here’s my suggestion:  spend the time fixing all of the computer problems caused by the DST change.

Essentially, a change to DST is very similar to a self-inflicted Y2K problem.  If you want to get a sense of how time/date issues can affect computer systems that aren’t prepared, take a look at this article regarding the new F-22 Raptor and it’s problems with the International Date Line. I wasn’t worried about Y2K because we knew about the issue for years and most modern operating systems and software had already addressed it.  With the DST changes, we haven’t had nearly enough notice or preparation.  Now, I’m not stocking up on canned goods, but I’m pretty certain that March 11th is going to bring about extra work.

February 26, 2007

A subversive proposal

Filed under: University Life — cec @ 3:45 pm

A few years ago, I was an assistant research professor in a department whose college was undergoing its accreditation process. This happened, I believe, every five years or so and was a generally grueling process. Faculty were asked to maintain student work and submit it, anonymously, to the accreditation committee. We were asked to keep track of a representative set of students considered to be good, middle and poor performers. Labs spaces were evaluated. The process for determining curriculum was examined, etc., etc.

Of course, the college, and department, did pass its accreditation, but we had to put a significant amount of effort into it. I was on the outskirts of the process, but we had several associate and full professors dedicated to the process for pretty much the entire academic year.

Given all of that effort, I was interested to hear about the efforts by the Department of Education to revise the accreditation process. Their stated goal is to focus on student learning outcomes rather than proxies for university quality. I don’t think that anyone disagrees with an accreditation process focused on student learning. The problem is, how do you measure it? Consider the diversity of higher education. You have everything from community colleges with a two year program focused on specific, skills-based, knowledge to full blown research universities with four year, masters and doctoral programs. For many colleges and universities, the goal is less to educate to a specific set of skills and more to teach people how to think creatively and to expose them to new ideas about the world. It doesn’t matter how much businesses want colleges and universities to ensure a basic set of skills for their future employees, the goal of higher education is much broader than that.

All of which brings me to my proposal: stop accrediting colleges and universities and start accrediting the individual faculty members to teach specific courses.

Such a process change is probably impractical, but it would have an amazing effect. Students would could get approval for a specific curriculum, perhaps from someone accredited to design curricula, and could take classes from anyone accredited to teach the course. All it would take to start a new college or at least a new department would be a handful of accredited faculty working together. Alternatively, faculty could choose to go it alone. Students could take courses from any accredited faculty member and it would apply to their degree. Popular teachers could charge more for their classes. This might also solve a common problem in universities: no one wants to teach. With this accreditation system, faculty interested in teaching could work on that and be rewarded financially to the same degree that faculty currently interested in research are. Research faculty could focus on research without the hassle of teaching.

I know that this would a) be highly impractical; and b) would never happen, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.

February 20, 2007

subject: “electronics question”

Filed under: Strange email — cec @ 2:22 pm

If the subject of the email is “electronics question,” then it’s extremely ironic spam or yet another question from an undergraduate looking for someone to do their homework:

Subject: electronics question

1) with the aid of a clearly labelled diagram explain briefly the movement and type of charges involved in the formatiion of an unbaised pn junction.
2)draw the diagram of a self-bais circuit using the npn transistor.
3a) for what voltage will the reverse current in a pn junction silicon diode reach 95% of its saturation value at room temperature?
b) what is the ratio of the current for a forward bais of 0.2v to the current for the same magnitude of reverse bais?
c)if the reverse saturation current is 10pA, what are the forward currents for voltages of 0.5, 0.6 and 0.7v respectively.

Looks like the later to me.  Silly Swedish kids.

February 19, 2007

I know he’s a professor of economics, but…

Filed under: Social — cec @ 10:49 pm

I know he’s a professor of economics, but does that mean Russell Roberts gets to lie in nearly every paragraph of his editorial, “Workers are fine with fewer unions?” I guess it does. Okay, in fairness, he may not be lying, but an editorial this bad means it’s either that or the author is incompetent.

I’m not going to tackle every single incorrect statement here, but there are a few that really stand out:

Cleaning people routinely earn $20 an hour, more than most cities’ so-called living wage.

Seriously?! There’s no way he’s serious about that. Apparently, cleaning people routinely earn $40,000 a year. Which, if memory serves, is near the median salary for an employee with some college. Neat trick. I suppose it’s possible that a cleaning company will charge $40k per year for an FTE’s worth of cleaning, but that is no where near the same thing.

My other favorite comment is:

A better way to increase wages is to make workers more productive. That lifts everyone’s standard of living.

That’s a lovely thought. Unfortunately, it’s complete BS. After WWII, until the early 70s, rising productivity did lead to increased wages. However, from the early 70s on, productivity has increased much faster than wages or even total compensation (wages plus benefits). During the past 30 years, productivity has nearly doubled and wages are, essentially, the same. Total compensation has only increased by about 40%. For a lot more information, see this post at Calculated Risk, in particular, this graph.

All of this brings me back to my original question.  Is he lying or just incompetent?

February 13, 2007

those wacky students

Filed under: Strange email — cec @ 8:20 pm

I love email like this:

plz if u can send me aticles on image compression and neural networks for
my thesis reserach work.

I always want to respond back that I’ll jump right on it since I have nothing better to do.

This is in direct contrast to a very nice email I received from an instructor at an Indian university asking to get a pdf copy of a lab manual that one of my old professors and I wrote 10 years ago.  That one, I’ll go to the archives and retrieve to send on.

Pirate culture

Filed under: Personal — cec @ 7:59 pm

Can someone tell me when our political experts decided that everyday is Talk Like a Pirate Day?  I’m sure it’s just me, but if I hear the formulation that Iraq has cost us in “blood and treasure,” one more time, I may have to make the cur walk the plank.

February 12, 2007


Filed under: Personal,Social — cec @ 8:28 am

Last summer, while visiting my grandfather for his 80th birthday, I got into a discussion with my father about the state of the economy and the structural changes that had taken place which served to increase the gap between rich and poor. I noted that statistical measures of income inequality, such as the gini coefficient, were higher in the U.S. than in other industrialized countries; and that the there is less inter-generational class mobility now than there used to be. My father countered that there were several counter examples to that at the table where we were sitting – that all of his children were doing better than he had at our ages. That is true, but a cluster of data points does not make for a valid statistic and the facts are that mine is the first generation that is not likely to be significantly better off than its parents.

The thing that puzzled me most was that my father is living in the same economy I am, how could he not be experiencing the same economic anxiety and difficulty felt most people I know? At the time, I chalked it up to too much Fox News on his part, but now I may have a better answer. The book “Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead,” by Tamara Draut, examines a number of changes in the economy over the past 30 years and shows why these changes disproportionately affect Gen X.

Draut starts by examining the costs of education. She notes that over the past 30 years, the cost of college has increased faster than both the rate of inflation and wage increases. The result is that even though college is the “new high school” in terms of the minimum level of education needed to obtain a middle class lifestyle, fewer people can afford it without taking on a large amount of student loan debt. This loan debt plagues many people I know, even fifteen years after they graduated. Furthermore, the high cost of education, even an associates degree, keeps many qualified students out of higher education.

I mentioned that the cost of college has increased faster than wages. Draut takes this on as her second economic change that disproportionately affects Gen X. She cites a table from the National Center for Education Statistics (which used data from a variety of government sources) to show that almost regardless of sex and level of education (high school, some college, college degree), the median salary for people age 25 to 34 has fallen over the past 30 years. In some cases, e.g., college educated men, the decline has been minor; in others, e.g., high school educated men, it has been as large as 25%. The only group that has seen its wages increase are college educated women, for whom there are many more opportunities now than 30 years ago. Furthermore, there are fewer benefits including health care coverage or pensions.

Increased housing costs over the past 10 years have also disproportionately affected my generation. There are a number of changes in the housing market that are responsible. The most obvious is the dramatic rise in home prices and the corresponding increase in rents. However, other problems include the lack of “starter homes.” Most new developments are for mid-range to high-end homes. Given their school loans, which reduce the amount of money available to save for a down payment, along with the debt itself, many people in my generation find that they can’t afford a home until much later in life than their parents. If they can afford a home, they often can’t afford enough of a down payment to avoid Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI), which can eat up a several thousand dollars a year that could be used for savings or paying off other bills.

Increasing costs for housing, etc., combined with larger debt (and money spent to pay off that debt), combined with stagnant wages have a number of consequences. These include a greater reliance on credit cards, just to pay simple bill; and an increasing number of families that require two incomes just to stay afloat. These coping techniques are strained when a couple decides to have children. Draut shows that while many people in my generation want to have children, financial reasons often make them wait until later in life, i.e., it’s no longer affordable to have children at the same age our parents did. Part of the problem is that policies have not kept up with the changes in the economy. Moreso than in the 70s, today’s families need two incomes. There is no paid time off in this country for maternity/paternity. Your company (assuming it is large enough) does have to give you up to three months off for FMLA, but you have to use your own sick leave and vacation – assuming your job gives you those benefits. And when that time is up (assuming you could afford to take it), you have to find child care, which apparently comes in two types: good, but expensive centers, and cheaper, unregulated home care.

Throughout the book, Draut explains how various changes in the economy hurt young adults more than older. Along the way, she uses statistics to demonstrate that many of the insulting stereotypes that Gen X is labeled with are untrue (e.g., in spite of everything we save more than our parents did; we are more concerned with family than they were; etc.). For me personally, the book went a long way to explaining why my father does not feel the same level of stress about the economy that I do. It also explains my father’s point about my doing better than he did at my age – through dumb luck and supportive parents, I didn’t fall into any of the traps Draut describes. My parents ensured that I had no student loan debt; because I worked full time as a student, I never accumulated credit card debt; I majored in a field that is enough in demand that we don’t need two incomes to survive; K’s grandfather left her money that was enough to put a good down payment on a town home (i.e., one of the few starter homes still around); I have a job at a place known for good benefits; lack of debt has allowed me to take advantage of the retirement benefits available and to save extra on the side. Most of this was entirely out of our control and if even one of the above had not happened, we would be in the same boat as most other people in our generation: strapped.

In case you didn’t guess, I highly recommend the book.

February 11, 2007

Life as the handyman for a wildlife rehabber

Filed under: Personal,Wildlife Rehab — cec @ 10:04 pm

A few weeks ago, K took over the outdoor rehab of a pair of possums from a friend who was heading out of town.  One of the possums wasn’t doing so well and so they decided to split them up when her friend got back in town.  The very next day, the animal K kept would barely wake up and was in terrible shape.  K rushed her to the clinic where she died shortly of the “major ick.”  Don’t look at me, that’s apparently the technical term for it.

dsc_0471_m.JPGSince no one really knows what the ick is and whether or not it is contagious (they’re sending the remains off for testing), K and the wildlife vet thought that it would be best to move the cage to a new spot and then clean it.  The problem is that the cages (right) are fairly heavy 6′ cubes made of wood and steel mesh.  Our first attempt to move it by picking it up would have taken between 4 and 6 people – we only had two.  This meant that we would probably have to take the cage apart, move the pieces and reassemble: something I did not want to have to do.

dsc_0473_m.JPGEmploying creative laziness, I realized that we had a set of wheels attached to boards lying around the house.  By temporarily attaching them to the cage (left), I could construct a fully functional possum battle-cage! 

Once the wheels were attached, we were easily able to move the cage (see below for a re-enactment) to a spot 20′ away, remove the wheels and reposition the cage on the guard mesh it sits on.  All told, this only took 30 minutes: much less than the time needed to take down and reassemble it.

dsc_0474_m.JPG   dsc_0475_m.JPG

February 7, 2007

World Domination Battle

Filed under: Funny — cec @ 2:25 pm

wdb-800x600-white.jpgIf you haven’t seen World Domination Battle yet, you really need to.  I could try to write something profound about how nice it is to see the Internet as a platform for game delivery, but instead I’ll just say that it’s a lot of fun.  No matter who your favorite (or least favorite) world leader is – they’re made fun of.

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