pyehouse
20May/130

Short Term Pain for Long Term Gain

A recent story that's shown up a number of places concerns a Houston couple giving away around $4 billion for causes they deem worthwhile and, more importantly, that appear to be provably effective. The idea being that they want to make sure their dollars go toward things which have a higher likelihood of permanent change and for which metrics are in place or can be put in place to measure that effectiveness. Additionally they want proposals to have already thought things through, showing the path from getting to where the problem is now to where the solution may be. That said, supposedly there is some sort of backlash over this because they are spending their money on things which do not necessarily help people in need right now.

Let's overlook the absurdity of telling them how they can spend their money for a moment. After all, if that were an issue we should be storming the gates of every rich person out there who lives the playboy/playgirl lifestyle and does precious little for their fellow human and we don't see that. As far as I'm concerned the fact that this couple is spending any of their money on social reform is a good thing and to be lauded.

I dislike the argument that they should focus their efforts on short term solutions to long term problems, which is one aspect of the argument being made against their activities. To begin with there are already a lot of entities providing help to the needy in many aspects. Could more money help some of them? Absolutely. But wouldn't it be better if, instead of pouring money into addressing the symptom you put money into finding a cure? If instead of simply buying more aspirin, you could stop the fever and watch it die out?

There are some, however, who don't so much disagree with the idea of finding a permanent solution as they do with the hubris associated for daring to believe that some solutions can be found or even paid for. And yet, why not at least try? If nothing else some of the money spent on trying to find and enact a solution to a social ill could turn up information that leads to an actual approach that works or just increased awareness of the problem. Again, all of this is a positive outcome. At worst, the money simply disappears into a black hole with zero results. That would be unfortunate on many levels but not a catastrophe for anyone besides the funding couple.

Personally I am excited to see this approach taken. While I firmly believe that too much measurement can bog down a process or a system, I also believe the opposite end of the spectrum is adverse as well; too little measurement results in massive inefficiency. In this case the measurement isn't even focused on whether an organization is spending their money on those in need, getting by on as little as possible, etc. It is solely focused on getting the most long term bang for the buck, seeing to it that the focus is on eliminating or at least scaling down the problem as much as possible rather than just treating the symptoms. If this works, and any effects would necessarily be felt only in the long term, it could become a blueprint for how to best go about addressing issues that have plagued mankind for far too long. I can't wait to see how it turns out!

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17Oct/122

Mitt-Math

Mitt Romney has been proclaiming his tax plan is designed to lower tax rates in a revenue neutral manner without reducing the share of taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans and without increasing the tax burdens on middle class and poorer Americans. His general theme includes several points:

  • Cut all tax rates by 20% in all brackets
  • Eliminate a number of deductions
  • Provide a boost to the economy to increase revenue through tax collection

Note this is not the same as his five point plan. I'm just talking about the general tax related portions. I don't see how this works and I'm not the only one.

Imagine for a moment that the taxes collected by the IRS form a pie. A very small number of tax payers, the wealthiest 5% or so in America, provide 60% of that pie. Other tax brackets make up the remaining 40%. If you cut all tax rates by 20%, it would be akin to cutting off the outermost portion of that whole pie. The relative sizes of the slice remain the same but you have a smaller pie. He said he doesn't want the rich to pay a smaller share of overall tax revenue, and this is in keeping with that. He says he wants middle class families to not have to pay so much money and this works there too. He wants to do this in a revenue neutral manner and now we have some problems. What next?

Thing is, the US government is pretty hungry and wants that pie. You've made it smaller. We're not revenue neutral. So now we eliminate some deductions. This would add some pie back into the mix. But, and here's a problem that Romney has yet to address, he has not told us what deductions he would suggest eliminating. That's pretty important. At one point, he suggested possibly eliminating the mortgage interest deduction. While his campaign later backed off the idea, that would have been problematic as it would disproportionately affect the middle class he says he doesn't want to hurt. How? Simple... the mortgage interest deduction represents, in relative terms, a larger write off for middle class households than upper class. Take that away and that family is now paying a higher amount of their own money in taxes than they were before. But it gets better.

I watched the debate last night and was surprised that Romney was pitching the idea of eliminating capital gains taxes as a boon to the middle class. The fact is that upper class earners would benefit far more than middle class earners if the capital gains tax were eliminated. So if this were pushed through, not only would middle class families not see much of a positive from this, now the taxes paid by upper class earners are going to go down, quite a bit. For the wealthiest earners, most of their income comes from capital gains, not from regular income. That is why their overall tax rate is so much lower than the rest of us. Eliminate taxes on capital gains and you eliminate taxes on the bulk of the money they earn. All of a sudden, not only is the pie much smaller but that 60% has shrunk a bit too.

The final piece of the puzzle is stimulating the economy. This is where Romney pitches his various plans to help create jobs and increase trade. With more money earned, more taxes will be paid. Great! Except capital gains are now off the table, so the business owners who are now making more money aren't paying any more in taxes. So who is picking up the tab here? Oh, the middle and lower classes of income earners. The ones Romney says he doesn't want to make pay more.

Now, whether you think it is fair that 5% of Americans are responsible for providing 60% of the tax revenue is an entirely different question. The point here is that Romney's plan does not work as he says it does. And the biggest tell is that he refuses to provide any details. There's a lot of hand waving but when it comes down to it, his plan is less of a plan than a wishlist. If he starts laying out details and those details make sense, I'll be the first to agree that it is a workable solution. But until then all I've seen are smoke and mirrors.

 

Filed under: personal 2 Comments
12Feb/120

Interviewing for Your Next Tech Job

For those unaware of such trivialities, I recently found myself needing to find a new employer. This weekend caps my first week with my new employer, Resource Data, Inc. As was recently (minutes ago!) pointed out to me, "You never quite know if you've made the right decision until the first few days have passed." I am happy to report that after my first few days, I'm content in the choice I've made. Everyone has been very welcoming and I'm looking forward to becoming a productive member of a good group of people doing quality work. That said, as I've discussed the process of bringing me aboard with my project manager, it was stressed to me how important interviewing is and how frequently it seems that tech candidates have problems with the interview step. I want to share my approach to interviewing for anyone who may find it helpful.

27Oct/110

Occupying the Occupation

I've been reading the Occupy Wall Street movement for awhile now. I'm sure many have. I'm interested for several reasons; I believe there is an inequity though I don't know that I've managed to put my finger on the precise nature of it, there is potential for a great deal of change which may be good or bad, plus change is just exciting. One common complaint is that there is no single message other than expressions of fiscal inequity among the occupiers and that there is no one single voice to represent this growing movement. I believe that if the movement goes on for very much longer, someone is going to make an attempt to scoop up these people and try to wield them like a big heavy club. I only hope that when that happens that person is the right person doing the right thing.

The first observation I had about all of this was that I hadn't noticed it at first. Here was this group of people protesting, making a lot of noise in one of the most populous and newsworthy cities on the planet, in my own country, and there was virtually no news coverage of it. I have watched as it gained more traction among blogs and indie news sites but still heard nothing coming from the standard media outlets. Then when that coverage did come, there was a definite bias against the occupiers with very little by way of attempts to glean what it was they were there to protest.

Now as I hear news reports come in, many times the protests and the reactions to same are peaceful. Sometimes they are not. Perhaps there is bias because of the news sources I had to rely on early on but it seems to me that the police reaction has been over the top in a handful of cases. Unacceptably so. There is fear everywhere. Protesters who fear for their livelihood which has driven them to protest, and who fear for their lives because they don't know what the official response will be. Police who fear that riots will ensue. Politicians and powerbrokers who see this emotion and power, chaotic and untamed but present, and fear that they will not be able to combat it or control it.

Emotions are running high and as interactions escalate into more violence, as fears are realized, more will be drawn into this movement. An opportunity will be made visible. Someone will step forward who seems to "get it". Who knows how to talk, how to charm, how to cajole the crowd. They will become the leader, not because they were elected but because the protesters will see them as someone who represents them well, who can be the front man or woman to present their needs to the powers that be. To get things done. And things will get done. There is a power here, deep, hidden but there. It's possible it will disperse, though that will still leave the undercurrent of frustration and anger and fear to latch onto. It is also possible it will be harnessed. They say nature abhors a vacuum. And historically we see that this sort of movement, this sort of power, rarely goes unclaimed for very long. I only hope that we don't regret who takes the reins.

Filed under: personal No Comments
14Oct/110

Silver Linings

I have been hard pressed to focus on the blog of late. My 9 year old daughter plays soccer and several days ago, during practice, was on the receiving end of a kicked soccer ball. Unfortunately the ball was kicked by one of the dads and from about 10 feet in front of her. She did not lose consciousness but was knocked to her back. He apologized and she got up on her own, which is likely why my initial reaction wasn't more visceral. She has, however, been diagnosed as having a grade 1 concussion, the symptom in her case being a lingering headache that has persisted the entire week. She is getting better and the CT scan today revealed no subdural bleeding, so I think it's only a matter of time before she gets better.

I don't think I need to say this, but there is no reason to kick the ball hard when playing with 9 year olds. There is nothing they learn from a projectile moving more quickly than they are likely able to react to in response. You prove nothing more than that you are a grown up acting very irresponsibly around other people's children as well as your own. I don't think I need to say this, but then I wouldn't have thought I needed to say it before, either.

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11Oct/110

Genius

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. -Albert Einstein

Apple - iPod nano with Multi-Touch

12 Key Features Apple iPad Lacks

Ridicule is the tribute paid to the genius by the mediocrities. - Oscar Wilde

Apple Releases iPod

Genius always finds itself a century too early. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Apple Predicted Siri 24 Years Ago

The man of genius inspires us with a boundless confidence in our own powers. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Apple - iLife - iMovie

To see things in the seed, that is genius. - Lao Tzu

Apple - OS X

Apple - Safari


Steve Jobs was a genius. No, he did not personally invent everything Apple produced during his tenure. No, he did not even push Apple engineers to directly invent everything they produced. Rather, he was inspire what he saw around him and he used his vision to create products that simply worked and worked simply. Apple products have a reputation, be they hardware or software. To the naysayers and detractors, it centers around form over function, imitation and naive simplicity. To the proponents and fans, it centers around form fitting function, inspiration and naive simplicity. The art is in making what was once complex, simple. Part of making products that appeal to people, not merely to consumers, is making them appealing. The design of Apple products is not simply a marketing ploy, it is one of the defining characteristics. The simplicity of design is not a dumbing down but a purification. That is the genius that Steve Jobs brought to Apple.

3Oct/111

The Best Programming Tool… Ever

The best programming tool I've ever used was a whiteboard with dry erase markers. When I worked for IBM, we had a team of, oh, about 10 or so developers working on an internal project with usage spanning the globe. We turned out tight code on a tight schedule and we did it with relatively few errors and hell if we didn't come in under budget, just for kicks. We had a really great team of developers but one thing which I think had a big impact was having a huge whiteboard in every. single. office.

We were, at the time, technically part of the services division, even though we had absolutely no outside contact with customers. We provided purely internal benefit through our software. In a nutshell, we wrote the ticketing and billing software for the maintenance and support services for IBM. When you called IBM for support on your AS/400, we were the ones responsible for tracking that little guy and making sure you were billed appropriately. This involved working with several systems and a home brewed database (it was some time before we completed our migration to DB/2) but it was well done. We didn't get many complaints.

I don't know if it was due to being part of the services division or if it was something IBM was doing as a whole (I suspect the latter) but at the time, we were undergoing a management shift as well as a process management shift. Our management shift was moving to matrix management where projects had business managers and individuals had HR managers so you were reporting to two entities and.. well.. the less said the better. The process management involved weekly meetings, lots of status updates and tons of charts. But in spite of all of this, the whiteboard kept us on time and under budget.

Each office held two developers (or architect or team lead, whatever). The wall as you walked in was taken up by a massive whiteboard with two or three dry erase markers plus an eraser and maybe some whiteboard cleaner. You had to go the breakroom and grab some paper towels if you wanted to actually use the stuff.

Anyway, we used the hell out of those things. You could walk into any office and immediately know what they were working on by checking out the edges of the board, where long term task lists were kept. But the big plus were the middle areas, where technical notes and diagrams were kept. We would do object designs and data flows and leave them up for a month or so until things were complete. Need a gigantic scratch pad to work out the logic for your module? No problem, just stand up and walk over to the whiteboard and write down the contents of your mind.

Perhaps the lone problem was lack of space. Make no mistake, these whiteboards were huge, wide enough to span two cubicles. Still, if the problem was sticky enough, you wanted, nay, needed more space. And of course you were sharing with your officemate, so you had to be mindful of what space they needed. As it happened, we had a few extra rooms where we could use whiteboards unfettered by occupancy restrictions. It was a wonderful time.

Since then, I have been to many locations and seen many team sharing arrangements. The supremacy of the whiteboard has typically received at least a nod in the form of a shared whiteboard in a common area but never was worshipped as it was when I was at IBM.

Things have probably changed since then. Times certainly have. There are whiteboard software applications that allow users to draw to a shared space on their computer, but it's not the same. Using a mouse to try to draw programming diagrams and notes is like trying to build a ship in a bottle using salad tongs. And if you have a Wacom tablet or similar device you're probably not the focus of this post. No, there is no substitute for the real thing. The whiteboard is the king of programmer tools. Long live the king!

23Sep/110

More MiniStumble Hacking Fun (We Have v2.0!)

Just a quickie here. We have a version 2.0 of MiniStumble, the StumbleUpon Safari extension bar! You can find more details on the MiniStumble page.

19Sep/110

Netflix and Qwikster, Breaking Up Is Hard

Netflix logoI swear, I'm going to quit sleeping. I go to sleep and all sorts of things happen overnight. I wake up and it's like gremlins have come in and moved things around. Now it seems my DVDs aren't coming from Netflix anymore, they're coming from some Qwikster place? Same label and everything, just a different name. Anyone see this coming?

It's interesting they did this, though not completely surprising. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, has made no bones about wanting to grow the streaming side and speculation has been running high that they were looking to the streaming business as the focus of their future. Honestly, in the long run I think physical media delivery is going to only be decreasingly attractive, both as a business venture and as a product (the two do go hand in hand after all). But that shift is only going to happen when fast internet is available in more homes and, more importantly, when content is given equal availability via streaming as well as physical media. Until then, sure, if you ship, they will come.

I said not 'completely' surprising though, didn't I? And I mean it. For streaming to take off, one of the two factors is going to be having more content, and higher quality/current content, available for streaming. But Starz is taking their ball and going home because Netflix didn't want to pay the new, much higher rates Starz requested. I get that. I just hope Netflix has a plan in place to replace some of that content.

Of course this may be a way to mitigate potential disaster, too. Consider... if the streaming business does take off, it won't be hampered by what I imagine will be declining business on the DVD side in years to come. Yay. And if this gambit doesn't pay off because Netflix can't secure that higher quality content and all goes to hell in a handbasket... well, they've still got their DVD business, though at the loss of a well established brand in preference to a newly minted brand. Which they now have to share with a pothead on Twitter.

On a personal level, I really want to see Netflix succeed (you know, the new super sleek, purely streamy Netflix, not that mangy old dual business channel, clearly crufty Netflix) because I prefer to stream. It appeals to my whimsical nature when it comes to deciding what I'm going to watch. With a delivered DVD sitting there on the TV stand, I feel compelled to watch. Like I'm obligated to watch it as quickly as humanly possible just so I can return it because "oh my gosh they might be missing it and what about that mother of seven in Wichita who really needs this DVD gaaaaahhhhh". So, dear overlords of movie and tv content, please help me out. Destress my life. Let Netflix have reasonable rates for streaming your schlock er, content. A rising tide lifts all boats and all that.

Now let me get back to watching this next episode of 'Haven'. Gotta get this disc back this week.

8Sep/110

Katy ISD Air Quality Alert

Ordinarily, I reserve my blog for tech related content, but I just got this from KISD and wanted to share for those who may have kids in the district but don't receive these messages.

Updated @ 12pm:

This morning, the concentration of smoke from wildfires to our north has significantly increased and is not expected to subside during the day. Therefore, the district is taking the following steps to maintain the health and wellbeing of students and staff:

There will be no outdoor PE or recess activities for the remainder of the day.
There will be no outdoor athletic or fine arts practices. Athletic and fine arts after school practices will be held indoors if possible. Students should check with their coaches/sponsors for exact details as to the status/location of their practice.
Campuses will work to load students on buses quickly to minimize time outdoors.
District officials will continue to monitor the situation closely for possible impact on operations for Friday. By noon Friday, district officials will make an announcement as to what, if any impact, the air quality may have on Friday night athletic events.

Please continue to monitor the Katy ISD website for more information about this situation as it becomes available.

Original:

The Katy ISD Office of Emergency Management has been monitoring the situation regarding the wildfires north of our area. These fires, located in the Montgomery, Grimes and Waller County area continue to burn and produce smoke that continues to cover the Katy area.

This morning, the concentration of smoke in our area has significantly increased. Therefore, the district is limiting outdoor activity for all students until noon. In addition, we are closing the outside air intakes on our HVAC systems to help maintain the air quality in the buildings. District officials will continue to monitor the situation and will make a decision later this morning as to whether or not to restrict after school outdoor activities, such as athletic and band practices.

Teachers and school nurses will continue to monitor those students who are asthmatic and those with other respiratory conditions. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, "Common symptoms of smoke exposure include coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes and runny nose." If a teacher sees a student with an increase in these symptoms, the student will be directed to the school nurse.

Please continue to monitor the Katy ISD website for more information about this situation as it becomes available.