Thursday, 15 November 2012

Be brave, be arrested if necessary

Why is the head of a quiet, careful Boston money management firm writing in Nature, one of the two most prestigious science journals in the world, that we need to risk being arrested to stop further global warming?

Here's his argument. The price of 33 crucial commodities went down 70% in the 20th century, helping a lot of economies to grow, but since 2002, prices of most of those commodities have tripled, mostly because of economic growth in the developing world. Climate change is wreaking havoc with food production. 

We're facing shortages of two fertilisers, phosphate and potash. Grain productivity growth is now no higher than world population growth, 1.2%. That's a safety margin of zero. 

If we're to avoid huge worldwide climate and food disaster, oil producers need to leave 80% of remaining oil reserves in the ground, but they own the US congress so the world's biggest economy is still driving climate change and doing virtually nothing about it.

To the world's scientists he says "Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives - it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave."

That's advice we all need to hear.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A man who knew but didn't know he knew

Perhaps unawares, Mitt Romney has acknowledged how important health care insurance is for people living in the US ...

"You can imagine for somebody making $25,000 or $30,000 or $35,000 a year, being told you’re now going to get free health care, particularly if you don’t have it, getting free health care worth, what, $10,000 per family, in perpetuity, I mean, this is huge."

As progressives have been saying in the US for eighty years. He went on to say:

"Our campaign, in contrast, was talking about big issues for the whole country---military strategy, foreign policy, a strong economy, creating jobs and so forth. And by the way ... our strategy worked well with many people, but for those who were given a specific gift, if you will, our strategy did not work terribly well."

There's a strategy the Democrats can use again and again: make sure you win the votes of the folks for whom universal health insurance is a priority.

Inequality and taxes

While Dems and Repubs are fighting about how to manage the US's intentionally misnamed "fiscal cliff", we'll hear a lot about whether to tax the rich more. 

Repubs say the rich in the US pay more total taxes than the rich in most other OECD countries. 

They do. But not because their rates are higher. Their rates are lower than in most other OECD countries. 

The rich pay more in total taxes because they enjoy a much bigger slice of the US pie than the rich of most other OECD countries.

Here's the arithmetic (courtesy Brad DeLong). Suppose the top 10% pay taxes at a 40% rate, and everybody else pays 20%. If the top 10% have 20% of the country's income, their share of total taxes is  (20*40 / (20*40+80*20) = 33%. If they have 40% of the country's income, their share of total taxes is  (40*40 / (40*40+60*20) = 57%. Same tax rates, different total shares just because of more inequality.

Total share of taxes is a biased measure of the tax burden on the rich. You have to look at their rates. And on that score, Paul Krugman's argument from marginal utility stands: the rates should be much higher.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

What to know before hiring professional Access developers

My Australian friends at Access Guru liked my post about "The Access Developer's Dilemma", and asked what I thought about the process of hiring Access developers. I thought that I'd share my response here.

One of the real strengths of Access as a development platform is that in the hands of a capable soloist, it can handle projects that, developed in another environment such as C#, would require require a team of developers as well as considerably more time. This is not to say that such development tools are overkill; they most certainly are not. It comes down to some combination of target market, development schedule,  developer skills available, budget and so on. That said, Access is an excellent vehicle for developing a wide variety of applications.

As the old saying goes, there are three types of developer: those who can count and those who can’t. In this context, I’m dividing Access developers into two camps: soloists and accompanists.

Soloists are one-person shops; they design the database, the User Interface more often than not, the release schedule (as opposed to the project’s deadline), the testing procedure if any, the on-line help if any, and the documentation (user and system), if any. As you can see, as we step through the list, the phrase “if any” recurs frequently. This is typically due to one or both of two facts: a) project size, and b) budget available. A soloist almost by definition works on bite-size projects, most often for small businesses and occasionally for much larger organizations such as government ministries, which in my experience might have a dozen projects on the go at once, outsourcing each of them to a soloist, thus mitigating the risk that all dozen projects fail; it is to be expected that one or two will either miss their budget or their deadline, or fail completely. A soloist project might take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to develop and release; seldom longer. But the point is, such a project is of a size that a single developer can manage. 

Accompanists have typically never run a project, and often know they are not ready for that level of responsibility. Their work experience is often in large corporate or governmental organizations, and the project size mandates both a larger timeline and a team of developers, one of whom takes the lead. This sort of project might take, say, 5000 person-hours to complete.

As the person in charge of hiring, you will know at once whether you are looking for a soloist or an accompanist. It’s not that one is “better” than the other. To think so is to miss the point, and let me try to explain why.

A soloist does everything herself. To put it another way, she is a team player only when forced to become one, typically due to lack of an immediately next client – in which situation, hard-pressed to cover next month’s expenses, she begins scanning the career sites and flinging CVs into the cybersphere.

An accompanist is first and foremost a team player. She knows that he cannot perform some or all of the tasks masterfully, yet is confident that she can provide a meaningful contribution to some aspect of the big picture. She wants to learn from the experience of the team members. Negatively stated, she wants to be shielded from full responsibility for the failure of the project. More positively stated, she wants the opportunity to surround herself with more experienced people, and is eager to learn. From the hirer’s viewpoint, she is willing to work lots of unpaid hours for the opportunity to learn and grow.

Any given project may be divided into three chunks:
a)      Hard – designing the database and the overall user interface (UI); this might be two separate roles, and in large projects, most often is. DB designers are seldom gifted at UI design. There is a huge benefit in separating these roles: the strength of the DB design can be combined with the strength of the UI, and even better, the UI can be revised and enhanced without touching the rest of the project.
b)      Medium – implementing the required queries that will support the forms and reports. This requires the ability to understand database diagrams, know all about the relative merits of various join types (and in the case of a SQL back end, the subtleties of calling stored procedures versus views, etc.).
c)      Easy – creating basic forms and reports, based on queries that have already removed the heavy lifting from the task.

A well-assembled team will consist of one or two members of each class. Follow the chain. The DB Designer figures out all the Normal-Form stuff and how deep to go with it (3NF, 4NF, BCNF, 5NF)[1]. The second aspect of this, which may or may not involve a second team member, is to design the overall UE. I am the first to admit that I would prefer that someone else design the UI. I can deliver basic UIs that work, but if you’re looking for elegant layouts, l need help.

When considering assembling a team, it’s useful to bear in mind Brooks’s Law[2]: The more programmers you throw at a problem, the longer it will take to solve. This is neither maxim nor theory; it is fact, borne out in thousands of projects worldwide, on everything from mainframes to PCs. The manager is thus caught between two pincers (which I might suggest is the definition of that position): Job A is to listen to your underlings’ estimates and shave them down; Job B is to fudge up those estimates and fatten the project’s schedule, explaining to your superiors why it will take so long, all the while knowing they will shave you back (hence the original fattening).

So. We have soloists and accompanists, and you need to know which you’re seeking. I avoided the word “classes” because neither is “better” than the other, in the same sense as neither a cow or a goat is better than the other – both produce milk and ultimately meat – everything depends on the environment.

Know which you need. If you need a soloist, fine. In that case, prior experience in the business domain of interest may be paramount. If you need an accompanist, other factors come into play; as I tried to describe, there are levels, and when dividing the Big Picture into Smaller Pictures, you need to be aware of which aspects can be handled by developers with which levels of experience. Don’t try to hire a crew of experts; not only will egos get in your way, but you’ll be overpaying somebody for doing easy work.

The worst mistake you could make is to try to assemble a team from a group of soloists. Egos, programming styles, and a dozen other things as trivial as one’s ability to carry a conversation at the coffee-making machine, will come into play.

[1] There’s lots of information on-line about these refinements. If you need more info, visit
[2] “The Mythical Man Month” by Frederick J. Brooks, is an absolutely essential read for any professional developer, regardless of programming language(s) chosen.

Canada's war on science

Stephen Harper's Conservative government seems determined not only to muzzle its scientists, but to eviscerate the agencies they work for, the guise of "trimming the fat". I'll list some of these cuts in a moment, but first I want to point out a stark difference between Canada and most other free nations: Canada's government must give its approval before any scientist working for any governmental agency may speak to the press.

Most often, the government withholds its approval. Less frequently, it delays such approval just long enough as to render it meaningless. These scientists and their research are paid for by Canadian taxpayers, but our own government muzzles its employees and for the most part prevents our hearing what they have to say.
This technique is necessary only because the government doesn't have the balls to do what it actually would prefer. The Conservatives know they cannot simply abolish Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, Library and Archives Canada, the National Research Council, Statistics Canada, and the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council -- that might awaken the sleeping populace. Instead, the government has chosen the path of evisceration, slashing the budgets of all these organizations to the point of almost complete paralysis.

(You might have noticed that the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was not mentioned. That's because the government killed it outright. Also absent from the list is the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory: in this case it was enough to terminate its funding.)

If this weren't sufficiently abhorrent, the government has gutted or rendered toothless most of Canada's environmental protection legislation, including the Environmental Assessment Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Fisheries Act.

The overall reason for all this butchery is not the belt-tightening the government alleges. Not at all: this is about silencing the critics and going full-bore ahead with such controversial projects as development of Alberta's tar sands, construction of a pipeline from Alberta through British Columbia to the coast, and similar resource-extraction initiatives.

Ironically, what may help save the Canadian environment is the recent announcement in the United States that thanks to "fracking", it will soon surpass both Russia and Saudi Arabia in oil production, and that by 2035 it will be totally self-sufficient in terms of energy. This leaves the Harper government with two choices: either continue headlong with the pipeline projects, hoping to sell the USA as much oil as possible before the shale oil is fully on-line, or -- much less likely, pause and take a deep breath and reconsider. A sudden plethora of American oil won't change the fact that Asian markets will remain thirsty for decades, and increasingly so. I'm not sure that I want that to be taken as approval of the pipeline to the Pacific project, which is not only environmentally risky but also strenuously opposed by the First Nations peoples in B.C., who happen to own the land.

Oh, piffle! Plod on, Mr. Harper. Just chuck out property rights (that is, First Nation property rights) along with all the science we've been wasting money on all these years.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Yet more marginalia

Trends exposed by this US election aren't favourable to the religious right. With each election, more voters voters identify themselves as having no religious affiliation. Now one in five do. Voters who say they're evangelical voted nearly 4-1 for Romney, but with each election they become a smaller and older sector of the electorate. 

Evangelicals and Catholic bishops fought same-sex marriage referenda in four states and lost all of 'em. Anti-abortion senate candidates lost. Wisconsin elected the senate's first gay woman. Two states voted to legalise recreational marijuana.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., told the New York Times “It’s not that our message — we think abortion is wrong, we think same-sex marriage is wrong — didn’t get out. It did get out. It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed. An increasingly secularised America understands our positions, and has rejected them.”

More election marginalia

The US Republican party has moved far to the right. How far? Remember David Frum, the Canadian son of CBC journalist Barbara Frum? He turned coat, became George W. Bush's speechwriter, and coined the term "axis of evil". Now he's speaking as the Republicans' conscience ...

"Since the loss of the election, we have heard an enormous amount of discussion from Republicans on television and newspaper columns about immigration as an issue... but all of us who are allowed to participate in this conversation, we all have health insurance. And the fact that millions of Americans don't have health insurance, they don't get to be on television. And it is maybe a symptom of a broader problem, not just the Republican problem, that the economic anxieties of so many Americans are just not part of the national discussion at all.

"I mean, we have not yet emerged from the greatest national catastrophe, the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. And what are we talking about? The deficit and the debt. And these are important problems, but they're a lot easier to worry about if you are wealthier than you were in 2008, which most of the people on television now are again, if you are securely employed, which most of the people on television now are. But that's not true for 80% of America. And the Republican Party, the opposition party, needed to find some way to give voice to real urgent economic concerns held by middle class Americans. Latinos, yes, but Americans of all ethnicities."

More at

Saturday, 10 November 2012

US election marginalia

Non-voters favoured Obama over Romney 59%-24%, nearly 2½-1.

Obama won the black vote 9-1, the asian vote 3-1. But he lost the "white" vote. Again. No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white voters since Republicans adopted their "southern strategy" in the 1970s to take advantage of white southern hatred of mid-sixties civil rights legislation to undo southern apartheid.

Complaining about Nate Silver's straightforward statistical arithmetic, the National Review's Jonah Goldberg says "I like to think that people are different, more open to reason, and that the soul — particularly when multiplied into the complexity of a society — is not so easily number-crunched."

The Romney campaign's confidence was based on what they thought was killer get-out-the-vote technology called Project Orca. Yes, they named it after that whale. The project is described here. An insider says “the Obama training manuals made Orca look like a drunken monkey slapped together in a powerpoint”.

Another insider says Romney consultants “looked at the guy who could raise the most money in history as a ride”. The Romney campaign was done in by private enterprise. Karma?

Republicans painted Obama as a socialist, but as Brad DeLong points out, "Obama broadly follows Ronald Reagan's (second term) security policy, George H.W. Bush's spending policy, Bill Clinton's tax policy, the bipartisan Squam Lake Group's financial-regulatory policy, Rick Perry's immigration policy, John McCain's climate-change policy, and Mitt Romney's health-care policy." 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Weather on steroids

Next time you hear your favourite climate change denier say global warming isn't responsible for disasters like Hurricane Sandy, show her this wee chart ...

Or (gasp) suggest she read the article that cites it.

Or send her to the "It's Global Warming, Stupid!" issue of BusinessWeek, which has given us the climate metaphor of the decade ...

“We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”