What Are You Here For?

I have, since I found out about it, wanted to go to space.

I remember, vividly, watching Star Trek in color in the basement of a friend who had television and shag carpet. I was young: older than five and younger than eight.

(I remember, vividly, watching all of Star Trek in one weekend at St. John’s. But that’s another story.)

I consumed all of the LIFE Science Library and every mention of space in the National Geographic.

I devoured all stories of the stars I could find, all of which made it seem possible. I despaired when Skylab crashed in the Australian desert. I gobbled up the news that NASA would launch a space shuttle. We were on our way again!

Or not.

Still, the first job I wanted — and failed to apply for — was an internship with NASA at Wallops Island, Virginia. That was the first time I decided I wasn’t good enough; I hadn’t enough experience. I was too young.

Yesterday, Elon Musk announced the plans his company SpaceX has to develop an infrastructure to get one million people to Mars, with first launch in 2022.

I’m so excited! I want to be part of this! Why do all the open positions at the company have to be in California?!

Now I’m too old.

Go West, Young Man! Ad astra per aspera.

I Wish I Could Go Back to College

No. 1 Daughter is a junior in high school this year. My how time flies. Her next act on the world stage approaches. Last year, to be helpful, because she was really not interested, and didn’t take the PSAT, I signed her up for the mailing lists of a couple of colleges. Specifically, I signed her up for those which I was interested in when I was looking at schools.

That’s not wrong, right?

Not all of them, though. I didn’t put her on the mailing list for Deep Springs or Hamden-Sydney because she’s, ahem, female. Or for Stamford, since this isn’t about me: it’s about getting her interested in the possibilities.

Yeah. Right.

Maybe I could visit her far too many times if she chose Bard (or, better yet, Simon’s Rock) or Vassar or Fordham, or even just a few too many for a modicum amount of comfort if she chose Mary Baldwin or St. John’s College. Perhaps the better choice, beyond a semester at sea, is something far away, like Oxford.

A community college is right out. I’ll be there every day.

On Trusting How We Count the Votes

There’s some discussion in the news that the Russians might be influencing the results of the U.S. presidential election by hacking the machines various jurisdictions use to register voters, as well as those that count the votes.

Ha!

Those of us in the trade have been warning about this for years, most notably Freedom to Tinker — several researchers at Princeton University — and consider the introduction of digital voting machines an over-reaction to the brouhaha preceeding Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000). There was no reason for Bush v. Gore, and there was no reason to “upgrade” the voting systems. There was only impatience. But what do we plebeians know?

Anyhoo, the computers eventually settled upon by many jurisdictions don’t have any means of verifying that the votes cast are the votes counted, which is the basic problem here. If one can’t tell that the vote has changed, how can one trust the results?

One can’t.

Which is what makes this particular threat interesting.

If one cannot trust the result because one cannot trust the process, then one need only cast doubt upon the process in order to make the result untrustworthy. In short, it’s not necessary for the Russians to have actually hacked the voting machines. It’s only necessary for people to think that it’s possible that the Russians might have hacked the voting machines.

Luckily there’s an easy fix for this problem: use paper and count the votes by hand.

But you’ll have to be patient.

Transitioning to a Post-Westphalia World

What prevents the signatories of the TPP or TTIP, and their ilk, from just saying no when the investor-state dispute settlement provisions don’t go the way they’d want?
That is, if the state still has a monopoly on the use of force, can’t they just kill the investors?

Or, to put it another way, isn’t binding arbitration only binding if one feels bound by it?

Take some time to read this good review of the system [full series].

Qualification

Certain things aren’t talked about — or at least are avoided because they are uncomfortable to talk about — in polite society; that is, beyond our immediate circle of intimates: politics, religion, race, gender, sex, salary, feelings, whether or not I’m happy at work and seeking other employment. The strange personalized anonymity of the Internet changed this a bit. We put on masks and play roles with more ease, swapping one identity for another as circumstances dictate, or in a search for ourselves.

Sam Altman of YCombinator asked for applicants for a research fellowship at YC Research to study the effects of a basic income. I applied.

I applied, even though I have no work experience in the field, because I want to do this work, and because of this statement in the posting: as always we’re more interested in someone’s potential than his or her past.

That friendly statement was important. One of my foibles is that I remove myself from consideration for a lot of work that I would like to do because I don’t meet, or think I don’t meet, the specified requirements for the position. And even if I do apply, I find it difficult to sell myself, even though I feel confident that I could do any work required, because there’s that learning curve that experience and training do help overcome. More importantly, perhaps, why should someone have faith that I can do the work if I haven’t done the work before? What intangible assets are they willing to buy when they expressed a preference for certain tangible assets, such as a college degree or certification in the field? Why should I be considered for CIO, for example, if I do not have an MBA and have not supervised a large number of people in addition to a large number of computers?

The last position that I applied for before this was also one for which I was nominally unqualified. While a position in IT it involved Microsoft products, which I have studiously avoided for well over ten years. I applied at the behest of a friend, who thought I would be a great fit for his team because I had the soft skills he wanted: specifically, he wanted someone who could step in for him as Director of IT Operations if he were hit by a bus. His boss, the VP of Technology, however, wanted certification and experience with the products the company used. Or, as he put it, he wanted someone who could hit the ground running. I applied despite this, because I agreed with my friend, and because the salary would have been three times what I’m currently making, and one does need to pay for one’s children somehow. As expected, the VP followed his preferences, and did not accept our argument that general practical experience combined with the ability to learn quickly and solve problems were more important than specific experience with a given product. Basically, the two of them were hiring for different positions. I wonder how they’re doing these days.

I’ve found, in my professional experience, that certifications are relatively meaningless. Rare has it been that the nominally qualified candidate has met my performance expectations. Usually it has been the opposite. But if certifications are worthless, how then does someone know whether you are good, if you can do the work they want you to do? The evidence of the work done, or, loosely, experience. Which is the difficulty if one is entering a field for the first time, whether as a recent graduate or someone seeking a mid-life career change; we are all neophytes.

In the past I’ve leaned on learning things quickly, or at least more quickly than others, to make up for a lack of direct experience. But I don’t know how to sell that. Doesn’t everyone claim that they can communicate well, that they learn quickly, that they can solve problems, even if not as well as AlphaGo? Does one simply assert that something is true, and let the buyer learn from their disappointment or delight?

And so we have spec work and trials — or, online portfolios and blogs.

In which apathy sets in

Huh? Apparently the school budget was up for approval on Tuesday. I didn’t notice.

This is the first year since I became a property owner that I’ve not paid attention to the various shenanigans that attend the school budget process in New York. I think this means that my attempt to ignore those things whose outcome I have little probability of affecting is working. Maybe next year I’ll add Federal surveillance policy to that list.

http://www.arlingtonschools.org/pages/arlington_schools/Board_of_Education/2014-2015_Budget_Development

The school board had already decided to close the Arthur S. May Elementary School building instead of altering it for ADA compliance. In my opinion, this is a grave error — location is the only thing that matters in real estate. The location of the Arlington Middle School next to a major highway and a dilapidated K-Mart is part of the urban removal tragedy of Poughkeepsie, though there are a handful of homes nearby.

The district may be able to find someone to rent Arthur S. May; it’s got a great location.

What this does mean, however, is that I’m still really glad that I have four children and so can calculate my property tax as tuition per child.

(Tuition will be $2750 for the coming school year.)

Cul de sac

I have to say that I was way ahead of the prediction curve on this, partly through desire and partly because it’s pretty fucking obvious just from looking at commute times that the ever-expanding suburb is an evolutionary dead-end. It will become a city or the people will move out. The people moving out is happening faster.

I’d been remarking on this verbally since at least 2001, but wrote it down in 2006. Meanwhile, I listened to my wife’s heart’s desire and bought this house instead.*

However, one must note that a finer analysis of the data needs to be done to see if there’s a comparable shuffle along the suburban-exurban-rural gradient toward locally urban areas, not just the larger cities. I suspect there is.

So, you ask, where do I recommend anyone buy in Dutchess County? Well, first I recommend you buy *my* house, but if you’re not that kind of buyer, look at the following, depending on where you work.

  • Beacon, city of
  • Poughkeepsie, city of
  • Pawling, village of
  • Rhinebeck/Rhinecliff, villages of
  • Millbrook, village of
  • Millerton, village of

There are other rather compact villages, but they don’t offer the amenities of those. You’ll have to travel a bit to find some items, or have them shipped to you. But if you don’t mind, try in no particular order

  • Amenia
  • Dover Plains
  • Tivoli
  • Red Hook
  • Staatsburg
  • Hyde Park

Unfortunately, new housing stock is still being built in wide-open green spaces, and turnover in the smaller villages is slight. Best bets are Beacon and Poughkeepsie. Not only are there more properties for sale in those cities, but the prices there are lower due to racial and wealth discrimination, and “concerns” about the school systems.

Continue reading Cul de sac

Sorry. Procedures.

I’m reading an excellent book right now that’s discussing how we surrender our judgment to detailed rules and procedures: The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America, by Philip K. Howard.

These problems plague any large organization, not just government.

An example from today: One of the applications I support needs to increase storage by 26 GB (spread across 8 filesystems on 3 hosts). (IBM doubled the size of some software.)

The Company funds increases of up to 10% of the existing filesystem from the operations budget, but requires a special project and dedicated budget line for anything over that. The needed increase is greater than 10% of the size of the existing filesystems.

So, I could increase the 3 TB filesystem by 307 GB, but not the 3 GB filesystem by 3 GB?

Kinda funny what happens when people don’t understand percentages, isn’t it?

Against Full-Day Kindergarten

The Common Core State Standards website asks,

Q: Why do we need educational standards?

A: We need standards to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce.

Let’s assume for a moment that that is the goal of primary and secondary education. (Let’s also ignore the missing hyphen between post and secondary.) Will full-day Kindergarten help in achieving this goal?

No.

Why not?

Because extreme differences in academic ability collapse by the fourth grade. All of us, including children, learn at different rates. In general, those differences disappear on average by the time we are about ten years old, or fourth grade. I understand the difficulty of scientific experiments on humans, but we do what we can; and what we can do shows that there’s no evidence that learning a subject earlier makes a difference.

So, what exactly is the point of full-day Kindergarten?

You Missed a Spot

In housework, as in any field primarily concerned with the reduction of chaos, the work itself is not noticed; only the failures are.

Take a few moments today to thank your spouse, your domestic help, your secretary, your department of public works, your firefighter, your sysadmin for keeping chaos at bay.

Great Scientists

A friend of mine posted a Carl Sagan quote that reminded me of something.

Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.

A few years back we saw Fourth of July fireworks from the causeway across Lake Carmel. I think the Big Sister and the Little Sister were four and two, respectively. We had a conversation that went something like this.

Big Sister: Why don’t the sounds match the fireworks?

Me: Why do you think?

Big Sister: I think the light is faster than the sound.

That’s my girl!

Public Embarrassment

This needs a picture.

The corner grocery has placed anti-theft devices around the pregnancy tests.

Has the embarrassment of purchasing a pregnancy test caused an increase in thefts?

On the Arlington Central School District Budget (2012-2013)

Arlington Central School District budget planning for FY 2012-2013 has resulted in a fairly good budget. I particularly like the appendices that are included for the first time in this year’s budget book.

Budget creation is a bit of a balancing act. This year our district has done well in limiting the increase in costs — unlike the adjacent Wappingers Central School District which has chosen to add a potential long-term increase in costs in order to secure a one-time grant — so I will vote to approve the spending plan.

Late last year the Poughkeepsie Journal relayed the news that the district wanted public input prior to planning the 2012-2013 budget. I e-mailed the following:

By the time the budget discussions arrive, the costs are fixed in contracts, so staff reductions are the only option. It’s during contract negotiations that the board needs to consider the effect on the budget. If the budget is capped at a 2% annual increase, then don’t agree to contracts that will result in a 4.29% increase.

I should have written the costs the district controls are fixed in contracts. There are other costs imposed by the United States and New York State which can change the budget numbers significantly. These include, among other things, required administrative reporting changes, curriculum changes, and, most predictably, contributions to the pension funds. The U.S. and New York typically pass these costs on to the localities. It is reasonable for localities to support the cost of public education, but not when they have not been party to the decisions that have increased those costs.

But, as in previous years, Arlington has not yet confronted the need to project long-term budget impacts during contract negotiations, and will, once again, need to discover $4,000,000 in reserve funds, operating cost reductions, and a tax increase to cover an increase in labor costs. The district’s costs are primarily labor-related, so any persistent reduction in cost must consider labor. And if the district cannot reduce labor costs caused by Washington and Albany, then it must address those it can.

More information on the Arlington budget can be found at the district’s web site.

Grandmother’s Bread

By way of my sister’s recipe box, comes this memory.

Scald all together and set aside to cool:

  • 2 c. milk
  • 2/3 c. shortening*
  • 5 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp salt

Add 2 cups water to above mixture.

  • 1 cake yeast**
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 13-14 c. flour (approx, depending on flour)

Crumble yeast into water to soften. Sift flour into large bowl; shape a hole in the middle and gradually add milk mixture and yeast, beating constantly to keep mixture smooth. Mix until a medium stiff dough is formed. Knead on a floured board until smooth. Place in a greased bowl and brush with melted shortening.

Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 1/2 hours). Punch down and let rise again, then shape into 3 or 4 loaves (depending on size of pans). Place in greased bread pans; let rise again until double in bulk on top of pan. Bake in hot oven (425) for 10 minutes, then reduce temperature to moderately hot oven (375) and bake 25-30 minutes longer. Large loaves take a little longer. Remove from pans and brush crusts with butter. Put on a rack or cloth to cool.

* shortening, known in some circles as lard and in others as Crisco.

** fresh yeast = compressed yeast = active fresh yeast = cake yeast = baker’s compressed yeast = wet yeast Equivalents: 2-ounce cake = 3 X 0.6-ounce cakes Notes: This form of yeast usually comes in 0.6-ounce or 2-ounce foil-wrapped cakes. It works faster and longer than active dry yeast, but it’s very perishable and loses potency a few weeks after it’s packed. It’s popular among commercial bakers, who can keep ahead of the expiration dates, but home bakers usually prefer dry yeast. To use, soften the cake in a liquid that’s 70° – 80° F. Store fresh yeast in the refrigerator, well wrapped, or in the freezer, where it will keep for up to four months. If you freeze it, defrost it for a day in the refrigerator before using. Substitutes: active dry yeast (Substitute one package or 2 1/4 teaspoons for each .6-ounce cake of compressed yeast) OR instant yeast (Substitute one package or 2 1/4 teaspoons for each cake of compressed yeast) OR bread machine yeast (Substitute 2 1/4 teaspoons for each cake of compressed yeast) [I’m still deciphering this paragraph.]

Ink

I just spent $80 on ink cartridges for my printer. The lad at CVS had to get a key from a locked drawer behind the counter in order to release them for me. I’ve had an easier time purchasing cigarettes.

Theft is a risk because there is excess demand unmet at the price asked.* Counterfeit goods are a risk for the same reason, and because the cost of manufacture and distribution is so much lower than the price asked that even at cheap street prices the product is still profitable.

The same applies to Coach bags, Guggi purses, Ford auto parts, and Rihanna’s latest hit single. It might apply to the Apple iPhone, but Samsung prices the Nexus as a premium product.

* if demand exceeds supply at the price offered, then there is unmet demand, and thus lost profit. Lower the price, let the supply meet the demand, and reap the benefits.

You’re Dead. Stop Kicking Me.

Interactive Television has always failed, and will always fail.

A lesson from the early days of telephony is significant. Early on it was thought that telephony would provide a subscriber with a way to listen to opera in the convenience of his own living room. And while that was sold for a while, it turns out that humans are social animals, and that the profit lies in enabling communication, not in delivering content. We want to talk to each other.

The ONLY reason that television has been around so long is that the cost of communicating with video was beyond the reach of all of us.

That is no longer the case.

Television as we’ve known it is dead. But like a chicken with its head cut off, it’s still running around.