~ Archive for Uncategorized ~

Why scrolling is important

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A friend’s Facebook status, as displayed in my browser:

125,000 people, a sea of pussy

Scrolling revealed that this was not the complete status. The continuation:

hats, colorful and creative signs…

Why you’ll get your next electronic device from Asia

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Facebook friend’s status:

When you look at the huge crowds for the Women’s Marches everywhere, notice the seas of pink hats. Most are hand knitted or hand crocheted by marchers and their friends and supporters. It takes maybe four hours to knit a hat. Those seas represent tens of thousands of hours of commitment.

My response:

For every hour that an American spent knitting a hat or marching with an Asian-fabbed mobile phone in his or her pocket there was a corresponding Chinese, Taiwanese, or Korean citizen who spent the same hour studying semiconductor physics and integrated circuit fabrication.

I wonder where my next SSD will come from… (2014 fab capacity, by country; boring stats: there were more than 5 million engineering students in China in 2013, with the number doubling every 10 years)

Separately, my Facebook feed is full of people gloating that Barack Obama attracted larger crowds for his inauguration than Donald Trump did. But might this simply reflect the fact that Trump supporters have to work on a weekday? (the Federal government and D.C.-area schools shut down on inauguration days, so Democrats with government jobs are free to come down to the Mall without taking a vacation day; roughly 95 percent of federal employees supported Clinton)

Finally, the march here in Boston seems to have proved Donald Trump correct regarding the incompetence of U.S. local, state, and federal government. Despite soaking up 40-50 percent of GDP, the government couldn’t adapt to the forecast demand for transportation today by, e.g., adding extra trains. A guy (of course it was a guy!) from our suburb who had wanted to participate watched the commuter train, completely full, drive through the local station without stopping. He then tried to drive to Alewife and catch the Red Line but turned back when confronted by a multi-mile traffic jam. Was the challenge actually insurmountable? Supposedly there were roughly 100,000 people demonstrating in Boston. If half of them were residents of Boston/Cambridge that means 50,000 came into the city on this Saturday; the number of inbound commuters on a typical weekday in 2012 was 787,000 (Boston Globe).

Related:

  • this recent New Yorker article on how transit project costs to the U.S. taxpayer are “often five to six times higher here than in other developed countries.”

Will the women’s march have the opposite effect of what is intended?

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My friends in Cambridge and the rest of the Boston area are excited about the Women’s March on Washington. I asked some what they were protesting, given that Donald Trump hasn’t actually done anything yet as president. One said that she was protesting him appointing the least qualified people imaginable to be cabinet secretaries.

Perhaps the assumption that the march is intended to have an effect on policy or Trump’s governance is incorrect. But let’s assume that the marchers want Trump to follow their instructions. Wouldn’t protesting the guy before he has done anything work against this goal? Couldn’t Trump reasonably infer from a protest prior to him taking any action that he will never win the support of these people and therefore there is no point in considering their point of view? (Kind of like Mitt Romney acknowledging that 47 percent of Americans could never be reached by a politician advocating for a smaller government and reduced handouts.)

(At a minimum, the march does promise some innovation in the English language: “I Stand with the Women’s March” (photo below from a child support profiteer’s temporary Facebook profile picture)

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)

History of tax incentives for having kids

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A couple of months ago I asked When and why did it become necessary to pay Americans to have children?

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg (professor at Louisiana State University) provides the answer: about 100 years ago. From the book:

[Teddy] Roosevelt was an unabashed eugenicist. He used the bully pulpit of his office to insist that women had a critical civic duty to breed a generation of healthy and disciplined children. He first endorsed eugenics in 1903, and two years later he laid out his beliefs in speech before the Congress of Mothers. Worried about “race suicide,” as he put it, he recommended that women of Anglo-American stock have four to six children, “enough so the race shall increase and not decrease.”

Because children produced by unfit parents could cost taxpayers if they became criminals, society had the right to protect itself. Far more dangerous was the cost to the nation’s human stock if degenerates were allowed to breed. In 1913, Roosevelt wrote supportively to the leading eugenicist Charles Davenport that it was the patriotic duty of every good citizen of superior stock to leave his or her “blood behind.” Degenerates, he warned, must not be permitted to “reproduce their kind.”50 It was during the eugenic craze that reformers called for government incentives to ensure better breeding. This was when the idea of tax exemptions for children emerged. Theodore Roosevelt criticized the new income tax law for allowing exemptions for only two children, discouraging parents from having a third or fourth. He wanted monetary rewards for breeding, akin to the baby bonuses established in Australia in 1912. He also promoted mothers’ pensions for widows—an idea that caught on. As one defender of pensions claimed in 1918, the widowed mother was “as much a servant of the State as a judge or general.” Her child-rearing duties were no less a public service than if she had toiled on the battlefield. Like Selective Service, which weeded out inferior soldiers, the pensions were allotted exclusively to “a fit mother.”

The author describes a group of Americans who mostly marry within their group and who have low academic and economic achievement that persists for centuries.

By the 1850s, poor whites had become a permanent class. As nonslaveholders, they described themselves as “farmers without farms.”

World War I fueled the eugenics campaign. …  The war advanced the importance of intelligence testing. Goddard had created the “moron” classification by using the Binet-Simon test, which was succeeded by the IQ (intelligence quotient) scale promoted by Stanford professor Lewis Terman and then used by the U.S. Army. The army’s findings only served to confirm a long-held, unpropitious view of the South, since both poor white and black recruits from southern states had the lowest IQ scores. Overall, the study found that the mean intelligence of the soldier registered at the moron level—the equivalent of a “normal” thirteen-year-old boy. Given the results, observers wondered if poor white men were dragging down the rest of the nation.

Throughout the book Professor Isenberg argues using proof by repeated assertion that there is no genetic component to this group’s failure to get educated, to get good jobs, to support liberal Democrats, etc.

Location is everything. Location determines access to a privileged school, a safe neighborhood, infrastructural improvements, the best hospitals, the best grocery stores. Upper- and middle-class parents instruct their children in surviving their particular class environment. They give them the appropriate material resources toward this end. But let us devote more thought to what Henry Wallace wrote in 1936: what would happen, he posed, if one hundred thousand poor children and one hundred thousand rich children were all given the same food, clothing, education, care, and protection? Class lines would likely disappear.

Statistical measurement has shown convincingly that the best predictor of success is the class status of one’s forebears. Ironically, given the American Revolutionaries’ hatred for Old World aristocracies, Americans transfer wealth today in the fashion of those older societies, while modern European nations provide considerably more social services to their populations. … Class wealth and privileges are a more important inheritance (as a measure of potential) than actual genetic traits.

This is some of the same rationale that leads legislators and judges to set up the family courts such that money is transferred, after a brief marriage, from a high-income litigant to a low-income one (see the Rationale chapter of Real World Divorce). Isenberg doesn’t reference The Son Also Rises, in which the economist author presents data suggesting that inheriting money from parents is a small factor in individual success. Successful parents tended to have successful children, but that was true whether they had 1 child who inherited everything or 10 children who shared the inheritance pie.

Yet she explains Dolly Parton’s achievements in terms of genetics:

Maureen Dowd quipped that Palin was a “country-music queen without the music.” She lacked the self-deprecating humor of Dolly Parton—not to mention the natural talent.

So there are no genes that relate to academic and career achievement, but Dolly Parton has “natural” (genetic?) talent and that is why people want to hear her sing and play the guitar?

The book also contains an economics lesson. It is not a poor education, lack of willingness to work hard, or mediocre skills that keep Americans from earning as much as folks in Singapore (CIA Factbook; we’re now behind Ireland too). Poverty could be practically eliminated, at no cost to taxpayers, by changing a single number:

a depressed minimum wage keeps millions in poverty

Roughly half of Americans are oppressed due to gender:

We know, too, that women historically have had fewer civil protections than corporations

(Did she test this theory by starting a corporation, sending it a bar to meet a married dermatologist, and then seeing if the corporation could collect a few $million in tax-free child support?)

Many of the remainder are oppressed by their own stupidity:

we have a large unbalanced electorate that is regularly convinced to vote against its collective self-interest. These people are told that East Coast college professors brainwash the young and that Hollywood liberals make fun of them and have nothing in common with them and hate America and wish to impose an abhorrent, godless lifestyle. The deceivers offer essentially the same fear-laden message that the majority of southern whites heard when secession was being weighed.

(but it is not genetics that accounts for their credulity in failing to vote for Democrats)

The One-Percenters are ruining it for everyone else:

In 2009, the 1 percent paid 5.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the poorest 20 percent paid 10.9 percent. States penalized the poor with impunity.

(How can this calculation be performed? The poorest 20 percent of Americans would quality for subsidized public housing, food stamps, Medicaid or Obamacare, an Obamaphone, etc. (total average cost to taxpayers over $60,000) What is the “income” of a person who gets almost everything for free from the government?)

Conservative Americans are bad people:

Poor women lost state-funded abortions during the Carter years, and today they are proscribed from using welfare funds to buy disposable diapers. To modern conservatives, women are first and foremost breeders.

(Let’s assume that she is right about “conservatives” obstructing the purchase of diapers. If they are opposed to more babies, doesn’t this make them stupid? The source of this allegation against “conservatives” seems to be that food stamps or SNAP cannot be used to buy diapers or any other non-food item. But welfare moms who get TANF or similar cash benefits can in fact buy diapers with them (example from California).)

The evidence that Republicans are stupid and simplistic is remarkably strong:

Through a process of rationalization, people have long tended to blame failure on the personal flaws of individuals—this has been the convenient refrain of Republicans in Congress in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when former Speaker of the House John Boehner publicly equated joblessness with personal laziness.

Related:

Best alternative to Adobe Acrobat Pro?

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Today has been a momentous day for me. I spent much of the morning watching a backlit LCD television screen anxiously waiting for updates… on the progress of setup of a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 PC. I will always remember January 20, 2017 as the historic occasion on which I got my first 2-in-1 device.

This does lead to a question… what is a good alternative to Adobe Acrobat Pro? I subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud, but it works on only two devices and I already have it set up on two desktop computers. The process of an individual adding a third device is simply not contemplated by Adobe (their support folks suggest creating a new email address and then setting up a second Adobe account).

I have never liked the interface of Acrobat Pro anyway. It always seems to take a few extra clicks to find the features that I actually use: OCR, clipping out sections to paste into Word or Google Docs, adding a signature or some other text to an existing PDF.

Is there an alternative to Acrobat Pro that has the above capabilities and can be purchased for a reasonable price, ideally with a more intuitive interface? I’m already paying Adobe about $700/year so I don’t want to go crazy with additional license fees.

Not sure how I am going to survive the next four years…

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… said a guest at a party last month in a $5.11 million (Zillow estimate) Back Bay townhouse here in Boston, while drinking 20-year-old Napa Cabernet. Two other guests nodded in agreement.

King Donald the First’s Inauguration

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Inauguration Day thoughts…

In terms of their separation from the public and the difference between their lives and that of a commoner, the American president seems more like a king than a citizen.

Surely there was an even wider disparity in the 18th-century days of monarchy, right? Wrong, says Catherine the Great (Massie):

No serious barriers were placed between the imperial family and the public; all parks in the capital and the nearby countryside were open to all who were “decently dressed.” This included the park at Tsarskoe Selo. One day, Catherine was seated on a bench with her favorite personal maid after their early morning walk. A man passed by, glanced briefly at the two elderly women, and, failing to recognize the empress, walked on, whistling. The maid was indignant, but Catherine merely remarked, “What do you expect, Maria Savichna? Twenty years ago this would not have happened. We have grown old. It is our fault.”

How about in the old days here in the U.S.?  Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People:

The president-elect [Thomas Jefferson] walked from his boardinghouse to the newly constructed Capitol as his predecessor, John Adams, slipped out of town. But the occasion was nevertheless momentous: power transferred peacefully from one political party to another for the first time in the history of the young United States. Jefferson had work to do. He was committed to cutting taxes, trimming the military, and scaling down government, but even as he favored a contraction of federal power, he was also committed to expanding opportunities for the country’s independent farmers.

Our own Congresswoman, Katherine Clark, won’t be attending the coronation (Boston Globe). She tweeted that “families in my district are fearful that the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and divisive promises that drove the Trump campaign will become the policies affecting the health and safety of every American.” As she ran unopposed and “won re-election by default” (Ballotpedia), it is tough to know why she bothered to explain her decision to do something else today. Her constituents were surely not under the impression that she supported a Republican president. Was it to remind people that she is “pro-woman, pro-immigrant, and pro-Muslim”? Or that she is demonstrating her passion for inclusion (and against “divisiveness”) by boycotting an event where people who disagree with her will be present?

Berkshire Hathaway now that Warren’s friend won’t be in the White House?

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Folks:

What do you think of Berkshire Hathaway stock? BRK-A and BRK-B?

The company has a great track record, but a friend who retired from money management about 10 years ago said “there are a LOT of embedded capital gains since Warren never sells anything. If he croaks and the portfolio makes some changes or liquidates, you will generate a boatload of phantom capital gains and get taxed on them even though you never actually got them.”

Are there risks to BRK-A associated with Warren Buffett’s potential retirement or death? If they sell stuff themselves it gets taxed at 35 percent federal plus any state corporate tax (C corporations don’t get a special rate for long-term capital gains) and then if they pay that out to shareholders it gets taxed at about 24 percent (dividend tax rate plus Obamacare tax, right?). Could they do a tax-free spin-off, though, of one of their portfolio companies? Then you have a crazy low basis if you ever sell it?

Since Berkshire Hathaway functions more or less like a mutual fund, would it be smarter to buy a Vanguard fund where any capital gains have been distributed to shareholders and taxes paid on them gradually?

What about political risk? Warren Buffett had friends in the White House for the last eight years. Presumably he won’t have any influence with the Trumpenfuhrer. Are there tax law changes that Congress and Trump are proposing that would have an adverse effect on Berkshire Hathway?

Berkshire Hathaway has done some stuff in the past that perhaps the incoming administration might shut down. See this Washington Post story:

In transactions in 2014 and last year, Berkshire did three “cash-rich split-off” transactions that allowed it to end up with lots of cash and assets while avoiding what I estimate to be a total of about $2.5 billion in capital gains taxes.

Berkshire did what amounted to complicated trades with three companies whose shares it had owned for years, swapping those holdings for a combination of cash and operating assets. The transactions are treated by the IRS as tax-free trades, rather than sales.

By my count, the three transactions that yielded cash and assets were worth $6.2 billion more than Berkshire’s $1 billion total cost for its stock in the companies, which in the case of Graham Holdings dated back more than 40 years.

At a combined state and federal tax rate of about 40 percent—there is no special capital gains rate for corporations—selling its holdings in those three companies for cash would have triggered a $2.5 billion tax bill.

Related:

Bill Murray shows us how to praise Obama

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Today’s the last full of day of Barack Obama’s job in the White House. My Facebook friends are falling over themselves talking about how Americans (especially those who voted for the Trumpenfuhrer) have been unworthy of this great man.

If you’re looking for inspiration on how to praise Barack Obama appropriately, I suggest the Good Morning America scene in the movie What About Bob?

Bob: What I’d really like to do, is put the greatness of this man in perspective. I think that there ‘s only 3 names…Dr. Albert Schweitzer, ah, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, probably, and…Leo Marvin

this YouTube clip at about 3:25

Also at 2:10: “It’s this man. It’s the compassion. It’s the dignity. It’s the wisdom. It’s the horse sense of the guy that gets you…” and then “What do I say to someone who has turned my whole life around? Who has given up so of their time and their vacation to make me better?”

Real-world examples of systems of linear equations?

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My sojourn in the world of 8th grade math continues. As pointless and repetitive as the exercises are, the feeble attempts by the textbook authors to make the problems relevant are worse. Here’s a “real world” example of linear equations:

  1. You and your friend together sell 58 tickets to a raffle.
  2. You sold 14 more tickets than your friend.
  3. How many did you and your friend each sell?

Even if an 8th grader were willing to consider a world in which this kind of partial information were available (maybe Enron did accounting like this?) and someone cared about the answer, why would it matter?

Readers: What’s an example of a system of linear equations that has obvious practical value, as perceived by an 8th grader?

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