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Did the government actually spend $70 million to run a bank with $34 million on deposit?


“Treasury Ends Obama-Era Retirement Savings Plan” (nytimes):

An Obama-era program that created savings accounts to help more people put away money for retirement is being shut down by the Treasury Department, which deemed the program too expensive.

The 30,000 participants in the program, known as myRA and intended for people who did not have access to workplace savings plans, were sent an email on Friday morning alerting them of the closing.

President Barack Obama ordered the creation of the so-called starter accounts three years ago, and they became available at the end of 2015. Since then, about 20,000 accounts have been opened, with participants contributing a total of $34 million, according to the Treasury; the median account balance was $500.

The program has cost $70 million since 2014, according to the Treasury, and would cost $10 million a year in the future.

So it cost $3,500 per customer to administer a $500 account? And it was going to cost $950 per year going forward to hold onto $500?

Peasantry complains about the imperial Gulfstream on an eclipse jaunt


Here’s a fun New York Times article showing an imperial minister’s wife getting out of what seems to be a taxpayer-funded Gulfstream G550 (7 oval windows minus 2 = basic model number for the new series). The article doesn’t explain why someone would want to take a free Gulfstream trip to Kentucky on August 21, 2017, but I am going to guess this was eclipse-related.

As a measure of how times have changed, below is a photo of  President Eisenhower’s short-hop Air Force One, an Aero Commander 500.

The twin-piston Aero Commander had a value of about $53,000 in 1962 (classified ad in December 1962 Flying). That’s about $432,000 today, about 1/100th the value of a Gulfstream G550 or 1/10,000th the cost of the latest B747-based Air Force One program.



Did you see the Eclipse? How was it?


Dear Readers:

Happy Eclipse Day!

Did you see it? If so, from where and what was it like?

Thanks in advance for comments.


[Update: After about two weeks of planning and a week of watching cloud forecasts, we flew to KSRB, the Upper Cumberland Regional Airport, in Sparta, Tennessee. The sky was clear for totality and there were just a few clouds passing in front of the partial eclipse, which added interest. They never ran out of grass parking for light aircraft. The pattern was a little crazy for landing, with planes landing every minute or so up right up until the first moments of totality. Then there was a mad rush to take off, with some planes that must actually have started up before totality was over. We waited until the eclipse was completely over and departed behind about four other airplanes (no wake turbulence issues with little airplanes, so departures were every 15-30 seconds). Air Traffic Control was completely unprepared for the event, with single controllers working multiple frequencies per usually. Requests for VFR advisories were denied within about 200 miles of the eclipse path.]

Stupid iPhone question: Why can’t it orient photos based on text?


Part of the software expert witness’s job is delving into computer science history. Sometimes the most efficient way to do this is to go to the library and browse among the books (sadly MIT seems to be archiving anything that doesn’t relate to C, Java, or Big Data; books on our home-grown MULTICS operating system are now banished, for example). My note-taking technique is to use my iPhone 7 Plus as a copier: open book, snap photo, turn page, snap photo, put book back on shelf. When I get home I find that a lot of these photos are upside-down. If there is nothing in the photo except for a book page and there is nothing on the book page except for Roman characters, why isn’t the software smart enough to orient the JPEG file correctly?

Boston’s reenactment of the Nuremberg Rally


Some folks a scheduled “Free Speech” rally in Boston today. This was characterized by “counter-protesters” (not sure the term is apt, given that the Free Speechers may not have been “protesting”) as Nazi-oriented, hate-oriented, racism-oriented, and/or white supremacist. Here’s my IM exchange with a friend who attended:

  • How was the rally? How many Nazis showed up?
  • dunno. i think just a few dozen people showed up for the whole rally (vs. about 10,000 counter-protesters), but i never saw them. being in a large crowd is not necessarily the best way to know what’s happening at an event

In other words, my friend was protesting people whom he never saw and opposing ideas that he never heard expressed.

As a reenactment of the Nuremberg Rally, it seems as though Boston was a bit short on Nazis.

It is interesting to me that nobody seems to care what the purported Nazis had to say. A New York Times article on the rally provides detail on the “counter-protesters”. There were about 40,000 of them in Boston and their mission was “to denounce racism, white supremacy and Nazism.” They “shouted down their opponents.” But there was no reporting on the number of Nazis and no detail on what they said before they were shouted down.

Shiva Ayyadurai, the inventor of email, was quoted briefly, but no other speaker is even mentioned. (Ayyadurai is running for U.S. Senate against Elizabeth Warren, a race that an MIT friend characterizes as “Indian v. Indian.)

Readers: Did you find a source of information about the speeches that the “protesters” gave? If so, please share!

[Separately, I’m wondering if we run short of Nazis whether some of the counter-protesters will step in to handle both sides of the altercations. Otherwise how can counter-protesters say “We fought against Nazis like those brave souls depicted in the Dunkirk movie”? Related phenomenon: In The Elements of Style, the authors noted that “another segment of society that has constructed a language of its own is business. … Its portentous nouns and verbs invest ordinary events with high adventure, executives walk among toner cartridges, caparisoned like knights. We should tolerate them–every person of spirit wants to ride a white horse. … A good many of the special words of business seem designed more to express the user’s dreams than to express a precise meaning.”]

Export market for Confederate-themed statues?


“Subway Tiles That Look Like Confederate Flags to Be Altered” (nytimes) and “Confederate Monuments Are Coming Down Across the United States. Here’s a List.” (nytimes) suggest that there will soon be a lot of used statutes available.

Plainly we don’t want cities to sell them to private citizens to put up in front yards (also need a law to make possession and display of replicas illegal?).

We don’t want to destroy statues due to the effort put in by the artists and, in the case of equestrian statutes, the fact that the horses depicted were not guilty of secessionist or pro-slavery sympathies.

What about an export market? This would help cities with their pension deficits and also ensure that the hated statues are eliminated from the U.S.

The British were fond of pointing out American hypocrisy back in the 18th century, e.g., “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” (Samuel Johnson) Soviets took over this task in the 20th century.

How about a theme park at the end of one of the Moscow subway lines? Visitors would be assured of trains running to the park every minute on weekdays and every two minutes on weekends. Moscow tends to be rather spread out so there should be plenty of space for all of the statues and monuments that we are discarding.

Within the park, a Museum of Empty Words:

  • Room 1: Public school classroom. Animatronic schoolteacher explains to mannequin children (eyes glazed; staring into space) that seceding from Britain was noble while seceding from the Union was traitorous. Countdown clock shows days, hours, and minutes remaining before teacher can retire. Countup clock shows taxpayer pension obligation for the teacher growing (calculated using cost of TIPS).
  • Room 2: Silicon Valley. 1/3-scale three-bedroom house with $3 million pricetag next to the front door. Living room contains pussy hat knitting tools. Sign in front yard advocating for the suburb to be made a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants. Tableau of childless worker-slave couple turning away immigrant family seeking sanctuary in their spare bedrooms.
  • Room 3: Sundar Pichai declaring Google’s commitment to hearing diverse points of view while simultaneously shoving James Damore into the parking lot.
  • Room 4: FBO. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton on the stairs of their respective chartered Gulfstreams talking about how Americans need to trim CO2 emissions.

Readers: Ideas for additional rooms of the Museum of Empty Words?

Americans gradually catching up to Chileans mentally?


In Two big questions for economists today, a January 2015 report from the American Economics Association convention, I wrote the following:

Justine Hastings, of Brown University, presented “Earnings, Incentives and Student Loan Design: The Case of Chile.” It seems that Chile did what the U.S. did, i.e., offered a lot of student loans for higher education. Their program was more intelligently designed, however, in that they didn’t allow universities to raise tuition in response to this new source of funds. Schools ended up with more students, but not more money per student as has been prevalent in the U.S. Nonetheless, the default rate has been high, especially for graduates of non-selective schools and especially for those who majored in humanities and arts. Unlike Americans, Chileans don’t like to keep flushing cash down the toilet, so now they are experimenting with adjusting the maximum loan amount according to the expected return to getting a particular degree (in Chile you don’t apply to “University of Santiago” you apply for a specific major). It turns out that when students see that the government won’t lend them the maximum for a particular degree program they get the message and try to switch into a degree that will result in higher post-graduate earnings. … Hastings has a separate paper “The Labor Market Returns to Colleges and Majors: Evidence from Chile” with the discouraging result that attending a lower quality college and majoring in poetry will not set the country’s employers on fire and, in fact, many people would have higher lifetime earnings if they refrained from attending college.

“Programs That Are Predatory: It’s Not Just at For-Profit Colleges” (nytimes) shows that Americans may gradually be catching up:

The Harvard program is run by the A.R.T. Institute at Harvard University (A.R.T. stands for American Repertory Theater). It’s a small program, admitting about two dozen students each year into “a full-time, two-year program of graduate study in acting, dramaturgy or voice pedagogy.” On average, graduates earn about $36,000 per year.

The problem, from a regulatory standpoint, is that they borrow a lot of money to obtain the degree — over $78,000 on average, according to the university. The two-year tuition total is around $63,000. And because it’s a graduate program, students can also borrow the full cost of their living expenses from the federal government, regardless of their credit history.

After accounting for basic living expenses, the average Harvard A.R.T. Institute graduate has to pay 44 percent of discretionary income just to make the minimum loan payment.


Japan proves that macroeconomics is a branch of astrology?


“Japan Buries Our Most-Cherished Economic Ideas” (Bloomberg) is kind of interesting for folks who’ve taken Macroeconomics and then watched various world economies over the decades. Excerpts:

Japan is the graveyard of economic theories. The country has had ultralow interest rates and run huge government deficits for decades, with no sign of the inflation that many economists assume would be the natural result.

Some economists think more fiscal deficits could help raise inflation. That’s consistent with a theory called the “fiscal theory of the price level,” or FTPL. But a quick look at Japan’s recent history should make us skeptical of that theory — even as government debt has steadily climbed, inflation has stumbled along at close to 0 percent:

Japan’s persistently low inflation comes even though essentially everyone in Japan who wants a job has one.

Basic econ theory says that as the labor market gets tighter, competition should push up wages, which will then boost consumer prices via increased demand and higher costs. In Japan, nothing of the sort has happened — wages and prices show little sign of rising despite the disappearance of unemployment. So much for the Phillips Curve.

is Japan’s lack of inflation really such a bad thing? The country’s per capita growth is pretty low, but that’s just because of population aging. Measured in terms of real gross domestic product per employed person, the country has been growing in recent years: [chart shows GDP per employed person, in 2011 dollars, growing from $64,000/year in 2000 to $73,000/year in 2016]

In other words, despite a near-total lack of inflation, Japan has managed to grow and increase employment. That means Japan is in the midst of that rarest of situations — a disinflationary boom.


Encouraging young people into STEM is like boring folks at a cocktail party?


A day without a James Damore-related post is like a day without sunshine…

“I’m An Ex-Google Woman Tech Leader And I’m Sick Of Our Approach To Diversity!” is way more hostile to Google’s diversity crusade than James Damore ever was. The author, Vidya Narayanan, shades into infidel territory rather than being merely a heretic:

I can tell you that our obsession with diversity and attempts to solve it are only fucking it up for the actual women in tech out there!

  • What do I mean by this?
  • We get upset about the state of gender diversity in tech
  • We make a pact to hire more women
  • The pool has (a lot) more men than women
  • After some rounds of low to no success, we start to compromise and hire women just because we have to
  • These women show up at work and perform not as great as we want them to
  • It reinforces to the male population that was already peeved by the diversity push that women aren’t that good at tech after all
  • They generalize that observation on the entire women in tech community
  • Sooner or later, some such opinions get out there
  • The feminists amongst us go crazy
  • The diversity advocates are caught in a frenzy and make a pact to hire more women (again)
  • This loops. Infinitely.

In the name of diversity, when we fill quotas to check boxes, we fuck it up for the genuinely amazing women in tech.

[I.e., the female ex-Googler says the thing that Damore was wrongly accused of saying: “women on the tech job at Google actually are inferior because they were hired to fill quotas.” Yet nobody is outraged by Ms. Narayanan’s statement.]

The topic of today’s post is part of Ms. Narayanan’s conclusion: “Go out and talk to freshmen and sophomore women about why they should pursue a career in tech.”

My comment:

But why should they? Why is a career as a software engineer better than a career in health care or finance or law or something else? Why is selling undergraduates, regardless of Gender ID, on programming doing them a favor? Wouldn’t young people be more likely to find careers that suit them if we provide neutral information?

Personally I love to program in SQL and Lisp, but this weekend when my friend’s daughter said that she wanted to be a screenwriter I set her up with some friends and cousins who work in Hollywood. It didn’t occur to me to try to sell her on the beauty of E.F. Codd’s relational model or lambda calculus. I also love helicopters, but I didn’t say “Instead of screenwriting, you could be a Robinson R44 instructor and then move up to medevac AStar pilot. Let’s spend the next two hours talking about helicopter aerodynamics because everyone should know about angle of attack, retreating blade stall, and dissymmetry of lift.”

What’s the definition of boorish behavior at a cocktail party? Someone comes up to you and starts talking about what is interesting to them without first checking to see if it is interesting to you. How is it good manners to wade into a sea of college students studying premed and talk at them about the wonders of software engineering?

Narayanan responded reasonably:

The reason to go out and talk to students (all the way from middle school to college) about tech is to dispel the myths that it is a tough field for girls/women. That there is no such thing as tech is for boys/men. All the way from long haired pretty princesses, the image is all messed up for girls! And it takes a lot to correct it really.

Legitimately, after showing the possibilities that tech can bring, if someone makes a choice it’s not for them, that’s totally fine. The point is not that tech is superior to any other field — it’s just that there isn’t enough talk about tech for girls and women to even form an opinion about it.

Is she correct? On the one hand, being an engineer or computer nerd is so common (1.1 million software developers alone, according to BLS, plus a range of related subcategories within nerdism and then millions of workers within engineering per se) that women within the fields are commonplace even if they are a minority of nerds. On the other hand, there is a constant drumbeat of material from do-gooders in politics and the media highlighting that women and nerdism are not compatible. “Until I came to the U.S. and started reading the New York Times,” said one female immigrant, “it never occurred to me that women were intellectually inferior when it came to math and science. But all of the articles saying ‘women aren’t inferior’ have made me doubt myself.”

Readers: What do you think? Can we consider ourselves to have helped young people by telling them about why they should abandon their current dreams and embrace C++? And do we have an obligation also to point out that we have colleagues who haven’t been to find work after age 50 or who haven’t enjoyed their lives in tech? Would it be more reasonable to tweak ““Go out and talk to freshmen and sophomore women about why they should pursue a career in tech.” to “Go out and talk to freshmen and sophomore women about what it is like to have a career in tech“?

Related 1: An MIT graduate in the mid-1990s couldn’t figure out what to do with herself so she got a job at the MIT Admissions Office. One of her responsibilities was traveling around to talk to high school students about how to apply to MIT and what the school was looking for. She was given a standard response to questions about race discrimination in admissions. MIT definitely did not have quotas or different standards for white versus black applicants. In the spring, however, she sat at the big table with stacks of folders, one for each applicant. A collaborative process terminated with about 1,500 folders in an “Admit” pile. The director of admissions asked “How many black students did we admit?” She didn’t like the answer and said “Pull 50 black students from the Reject pile and add them to Admit.” Our young friend later asked “Doesn’t this mean we’re using a quota?” The answer turned out to be “no.”

Related 2: A programmer friend in Silicon Valley said “Lawyers always come up as some of the least happy workers [Forbes], but programming is an even worse job. It’s just that programmers can get into the field faster and quit once they realize how bad it is. Lawyers, on the other hand, get trapped by three years of law school. It is too late for them to quit by the time they find out what working as a lawyer is like.”

Mazda will take down Tesla?


“Mazda announces breakthrough in long-coveted engine technology” (Reuters):

The new compression ignition engine is 20 percent to 30 percent more fuel efficient than the Japanese automaker’s current engines and uses a technology that has eluded the likes of Daimler AG and General Motors Co.

A homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI) engine ignites petrol through compression, eliminating spark plugs. Its fuel economy potentially matches that of a diesel engine without high emissions of nitrogen oxides or sooty particulates.

Mazda’s engine employs spark plugs under certain conditions, such as at low temperatures, to overcome technical hurdles that have hampered commercialization of the technology.

On a pure “energy-consumed” basis it was always tough to justify an electric car compared to putting a super-efficient diesel engine in a lightweight vehicle, right? Now it seems that Mazda will be changing the efficiency calculations. But maybe it doesn’t matter because people buy electric cars with their hearts, not their heads? (or at least governments use their hearts to hand out electric car subsidies to virtuous rich people?)

Separately, this would be truly revolutionary if it could be adapted to aircraft. People have used Mazda rotary engines in experimental planes before. Imagine this new engine in a legacy airframe, such as the Cirrus. The range could be extended from about 1000 miles to at least 1250 miles, for example (or payload increased due to the need to carry less fuel on any given trip).


  • Porsche PFM 3200 engine, about 80 of which were sold in the 1980s. This Flying Magazine review highlights the lack of vibration compared to the conventional 1950s engines, and implies that efficiency was improved by at least 20 percent (fuel capacity was reduced from 75 to 60 gallons).
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