Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Increase the Minimum Wage! It's the Right Thing to Do! For WalMart!

Have you ever worked with someone who needed to be fired? The guy who habitually walks in the office a half-hour late, with a ready excuse in his hip pocket? The guy who hands in work that's either overdue or shoddy or both? The guy who leaves for lunch before everyone else and returns an hour after them? Who seems to spend an unusually long time in the bathroom or is otherwise missing in action? Who seems to go through an awful lot of office supplies, like Scotch tape, especially around Christmas? And when confronted, seems to have an excuse for everything?

Of course you have. We all have. You may even be that guy yourself.

How much is that guy worth? What should he be getting paid?

If you answered, "Nothing - he really needs to be fired," welcome to Realville.

Now, have you ever worked with someone whose work was barely adequate? The guy who's constantly skating the edge, whose work is just good enough, who you can trust with the simplest tasks in his job description, but no more, who can't be asked to take on any extra work at crunch time? Yeah, you know him, too.

Now, some questions:

How much should your company be paying that first guy? We already answered that - nothing. He should be fired. Duh.

That's cold and heartless, isn't it? But he's actually costing the company money; they are losing money because of him. Why should any employer keep someone who's sending more money out the door than he's bringing in? If his sloppy work costs his company a net $25 every single day, why should they pay him any salary at all on top of that $25? Why should any employer deliberately lose money? If it cost a widget manufacturer $10 to manufacture each widget, would that employer deliberately price them at $9 each, knowing he would lose $1 every time he sold a widget? So why should he treat the cost of keeping that worthless employee any differently?

What about that second employee? The one who's barely adequate? Who's barely pulling his weight, but isn't about to get fired? How much should he get paid?

Well, that's a tougher one, isn't it?

Okay, I propose he gets paid a thousand dollars an hour.

What? What do you mean that's ridiculous?

If you pay him a thousand bucks an hour, he would have no financial worries; isn't that a Good Thing? Yeah, but his employer would have big-time worries, especially if that employer is a mom-and-pop crafts store that only employs ten people and has only about a thousand dollars in sales per day.

Okay, how about a hundred bucks an hour?

Still doesn't work; if the worst employee gets $100 an hour, and you have ten employees, your labor costs have eaten up all your $1000 in daily sales an hour after you open your doors.

Let's lose another zero; we'll pay him ten dollars an hour.

Okay, $10 an hour, times ten employees, times eight hours, gives a daily labor cost of $800, leaving $200 daily profit for the owner.

Not so fast. That's not profit. The owner is also paying to keep the lights on and paying rent to the landlord. Not to mention the cost of buying the merchandise he's trying to sell. That reduces his $200 down to zero profit pretty quickly.

Okay, how about five dollars an hour? That leaves mom and pop with $400 a day to pay for the costs of keeping the doors open; whatever's left over after that is their profit, from which they can pay buy their own food, clothing, and shelter for themselves and Bobby and Susie. After they've paid the tax man, of course.

The only problem is that it's illegal to pay employees only five dollars an hour. Even an employee whose work barely covers the expense of employing him in the first place.

Minimum wage laws say this: If an employee isn't bad enough to fire, his work is automatically worth whatever the minimum wage law says it's worth. President Obama says we should pay everyone $10.10 an hour. In other words, President Obama believes that the difference between an employee barely worth keeping and one barely worth firing is $10.10 an hour. There's no gray area. Our president is telling us that there is no work that is worth less than $10.10 an hour, that an employee who's one step away from getting fired is worth $10.10 an hour until his boss pulls the trigger and sacks his sorry ass, at which point, in an instant, he goes from being worth $10.10 an hour to being worth $0.00 an hour. According to President Obama, there is no such thing as an employee who is worth $9.90 an hour, or $8.80, or $2.20. Nope - if you're good enough to work at all, you're worth $10.10 an hour. Why? Because income inequality! Or something.

So while everyone with average intelligence understands that there are people who would be getting overpaid at ten cents an hour, our president, being the Smartest Man in the Room TM and therefore of far greater than average intelligence, is wiser than that, and understands that all work is worth at least $10.10 an hour. So let it be written. So let it be done.

So, what's going to happen when the federal minimum wage jumps from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour? What happens when mom and pop suddenly find their labor costs have jumped almost 40%?

What's going to happen is that mom and pop are going to do one of two things - maybe both.

Thing the first: They'll lay off employees or cut back their hours, starting with the least-productive ones. The guy who was barely worth $7.25 an hour will find himself out of a job when, with the U.S. Department of Labor standing firmly behind him, he commands $10.10 an hour. "Sorry, Fred, you were barely worth keeping at $7.25 an hour, so you sure as hell aren't worth keeping at $10.10. Good luck and write if you get work!"

Thing the second: Mom and pop will raise their prices.

You know who won't raise their prices or lay anyone off, if your communist leftist socialist liberal progressive  friends are to be believed?

WalMart. Evil WalMart.

Because we all know that Evil WalMart makes billions of dollars in profits, and Evil WalMart can afford to pay more without laying anyone off and without raising prices. So when the minimum wage goes up to $10.10 an hour, Evil WalMart will suck it up and pay.

Meanwhile, mom and pop will find they can't afford to pay $10.10 without raising their prices, so that's what they'll do.

And rip their hair out in frustration as they see their loyal customers start shopping at Evil WalMart.

And when mom and pop, unable to compete with Evil WalMart, go out of business, they, and their remaining seven employees will all head for the unemployment office. And the TV news will report that "unemployment remains stubbornly high as the economic recovery shows no sign of strengthening..."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Under the Tip of the Iceberg is a Giant Shipwrecking Machine

If you know just a little about database management (that describes me to a T), Flynn, over at NightShiftPolitics, makes a convincing case that the system underlying Obamacare is a cruise ship full of  fail - and the website is the least of its problems. I raised a number of the issues he discusses here; he brings an experienced data and web developer's eye to them. His conclusion is that it's almost certainly the entire system that's a catastrophic mess, not just the website.

If perchance you don't know doodly-squat about database management, never fear - NightShiftPolitics puts it all in plain English. Don't know what call latency is? You will before you've read for five minutes, and will understand it well enough to explain to your saintly, white-haired mother why it's gumming up the works. Then you can explain to her what a data warehouse is.

Read it here. When you're done, you'll decide you're safer risking the fine for being uninsured than registering.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

If You Like Your Vogon Poetry, You Can Keep Your Vogon Poetry

Today's assignment: Compare two selected items from Al Gore's Amazing Internet TM and determine which one is more subject to rational description.

The first is a sample of Vogon poetry found in Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But first, a little background on Vogon poetry:

Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem "Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning" four of his audience members died of internal haemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council, survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been "disappointed" by the poem's reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled My Favourite Bathtime Gurgles when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leaped straight up through his neck and throttled his brain. The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator, Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England, in the destruction of the planet Earth.

Here is the Vogon poem, written by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council :
Oh freddled gruntbuggly,
Thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
Groop, I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes,
And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts
With my blurglecruncheon, see if I don't!

Below is a diagram of all the known interfaces in Obamacare. If you would like to see it in a size that makes it readable, click on the diagram below, and when the page comes up, click on the diagram again to get it to full size..

As anyone who's worked in IT can tell you, the greater the number of interfaces in a system, the greater the complexity and difficulty involved in building the system architecture that executes it. And the greater the likelihood of an execution failure somewhere. If you're reading this in October, 2013, you're already seeing the system's failure, as the simple task of registering people and allowing them to log on to the system has brought it to its virtual knees.

Your assignment: Choose either the poem or the diagram and explain it to a person of average intelligence so that he or she understands it.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Your Data Is Safe - Trust Us

So by now, you're familiar with the horror stories surrounding, AKA the Affordable Care Act website, AKA the Obamacare website, AKA the biggest tech disaster since Chernobyl. People trying to register spend hours, or even days trying to get in, ambiguous error messages pop up, the website can't even locate its own error messages, and (I like this one best), call center reps were telling everyone who called they had to change their passwords.

And of course there are the "What the hell were they thinking?" design stupidities, requiring you to register even before you could browse the site to see what kind of insurance you might be able to buy. Imagine if Amazon did that to you. Or your friendly neighborhood automobile or homeowner's insurance sales person:

Sales Person: We won't talk to you or let you see what we have for sale until you tell us who you are and let us set up a customer file on you.

You: Fuck you very much.

But these are minor issues. Seriously. I mean, building a couple of pages to set up a user logon ID and password is relatively easy. Your bank does it on their website, your gym does it, Amazon and eBay and PayPal do it. It's not rocket science.

And letting people see what wares you have for sale before they buy isn't just good web design; it's simple good business sense. And it's a problem that could probably be resolved by moving the location of a few modules of code in the logic stream.

So again, these are minor issues. Here's the major one, the one that should scare you to death.

Obamacare wants to know everything about you. Your name. Your date of birth. Your Social Security number. And more. And Obamacare is going to share all kinds of information all around the U.S. government. It'll share your name and SSN with the Social Security Administration to confirm that you are who you say you are. It'll share your SSN with the IRS so the IRS can send back income information so Obamacare can decide how much of an insurance subsidy the taxpayers should fork over to help you pay for your health insurance. And it'll tell the IRS if you don't have government-approved health insurance so the IRS can fine you (or is it tax you? I'm still waiting for a rational explanation of how what you have to pay for not having insurance can be both a tax and a fine, or one or the other, or neither...). And it'll share your SSN with Immigration and Customs Enforcement so you can be thrown out of the country if you're not here legally.

So all this information about you is going to get kicked around the government like a hockey puck and reviewed by all kinds of government employees.

The federal government has roughly 2 million employees, plus an untold number of contractors. Some of them can not be trusted, even those with all kinds of security clearances. There's Sandy Berger, who tried to steal classified documents from the National Archives. Edward Snowden, a contractor, who stole top-secret U.S. government surveillance documents and handed them over to Russia and China.

And there's Lois Lerner, who was at the center of the conspiracy at the IRS to target conservative groups for their political leanings.

Now that those three bad apples are out of government, do you really believe that there's nobody left who would misuse your private information?

And here's the real ticking time bomb in We now know that the contract wasn't given to the low bidder; it was given to the only bidder, and they fouled up things so badly that people can't even do something as simple as log on to the system.

That problem will surely be fixed. But if it took them this long to discover the problem (where was your volume testing and beta testing, CGI?), what other problems are lurking that they haven't fixed yet?

When Jay Carney gets up at a press conference, someone should ask him the following questions:
  • Who was/is the project manager for Has that person and his entire staff been fired? If not, why not?
  • was supposed to roll out October 1. It is clearly not working as designed. Please tell us the date by which it will be working properly. Who will be fired if that target date is not met?
  • In project management, there's a rule of thumb: On time, under budget, bug-free: pick any two. rolled out on time, but five times over budget, and completely broken. How soon will the American people get their money back?
  • It took over three years to design a website that won't let people log on. Shouldn't Americans be concerned that the much more complex parts of the site are even more broken?
  • Once people can log on and easily access their records, what will keep their records secure from snoopers like Snowden? "Trust us" is not an acceptable reply, nor is offended self-righteousness.
  • Once people can log on and easily access their records, what will keep political operatives like Lerner from using confidential medical information for political purposes? "Trust us" is not an acceptable reply, nor is offended self-righteousness.
  • Once people can log on and easily access their records, what will keep their records secure from outside hackers? "Trust us" is not an acceptable reply, nor is offended self-righteousness.
Frankly, I don't know how those last three questions can be answered. Which is why, if I didn't already belong to an HMO, I wouldn't sign up for Obamacare unless a real gun (not a Pop Tart or someone's fingers) were literally being pointed right at my head. Because the question isn't if my personal data will be compromised; it's only a question of when. The Obamacare fine would cost a lot less than getting my stolen identity straightened out.

Go ahead. Sign up, log on, and hand over all your personal information. What could possibly go wrong?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Strange Visitors From Another Planet

Of course you understand that when high-tech civilizations meet low-tech civilizations, low-tech always loses badly, even when high-tech isn’t deliberately trying to exterminate low-tech.

So when the tentacled aliens arrive in their high-tech spacetime warping vehicles, it will mean very bad things for us, even if we do have the advantage of opposable thumbs. There’s only one thing that can save us, even if they arrive with the best of intentions: the first one that gets off its spaceship, before it can gabble out “znɚʂx pɷʆwrnaʡɮ snȜʑʥϢxx” (“We come in peace! Behold, we bring you gifts of beads,  trinkets, and digital watches!”), we kill it and eat it and hang a few tentacles by our front door in plain view of whatever else is in that high-tech spacetime warping vehicle.

When word gets back to the home planet, they’ll decide our crap-covered hornet’s nest of a planet is too disgusting to mess with, when Argelius II is right next door to us (next door for a galaxy-hopping civilization, anyway) and has a “Gun-Free Zone” sign prominently posted in the front yard to boot.

As precedent, I refer you to the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador and Peru. The Spanish conquistadors utterly destroyed the great civilizations of the Aztecs and the Incas, but the Jivaro are still there today. Why? Because they never tried to make nice with the high-tech civilization; they simply regarded shrunken Spanish heads as delightfully chic accessories for their mud huts. It wasn’t long before everyone needed a couple of shrunken Spanish heads hanging on the front door
and the conquistadors decided to move on to less-hazardous and more-promising enterprises like searching for the Seven Cities of Gold and the Fountain of Youth.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

If You Don't Play, You Can't Lose

Heard the Powerball math on the radio the other day; it was a conservative talk radio station, so it goes without saying that all the math that follows here is racist and homophobic. 

So you pay two dollars for a Powerball ticket. Only half of it goes into the award pot. The other half goes to your state government, allegedly for education, though in your heart, you know full well what your public servants really do with it.. When the prize is $500 million, that means the total revenue from tickets sold is around $1 billion. So you're paying a 50% tax right off the top.

Say you win the $500 million. If you take the lump sum, you get $327 million, but that's before federal tax. After the IRS gets its 25% cut, you're down to $245 million. Then your state tax kicks in. Virginia's is 4%, so knock another $13 million off. So now you're down to $232 million.

So on $1 billion in Powerball ticket sales, the government takes all of it except $232 million, right off the top. In other words, running Powerball gets the government an effective 77% tax rate.

But your government isn't done yet. That's assuming you don't spend all your winnings before you die (a surprising number of people end up filing for bankruptcy just a few years after winning a ton of lottery money, believe it or not). The death tax is currently 35% and applies to estates over about $5 million (may go up to 55% on estates over $1 million on January 1). So if you've spent only about $32 million before you take your long dirt nap, Uncle Sam gets at least another $68 million, and maybe as much as another $109 million if the full death tax is reinstated on January 1.

Conclusion: Don't complain your taxes are too high while you're at the 7-Eleven buying a Powerball ticket. There's a reason lotteries are called a tax on the numerically illiterate.

And speaking of innumeracy... You want a graphic idea what you're up against when you play the lottery? The recent Powerball odds of winning the jackpot were something like one in 175 million. In case you can't visualize what "one in 175 million" means, try the following thought experiment:

Imagine a row of 175 million pennies. Start walking along that row of pennies, and when the spirit moves you, pay your lottery agent two dollars and have him pick up a penny entirely at random from the row at your feet. You're hoping that the penny you just paid two dollars for is the single penny in that entire row of pennies that has the words, "Powerball Jackpot!" etched into it.

Did I tell you that row of pennies would stretch all the way from Washington, DC to El Paso, Texas?

Yeah, your odds of winning the Powerball are about the same as your odds of picking out one particular penny in a row of pennies that's about two thousand miles long. 

Still can't visualize it? Try having a look at this. That's a pile of 100 million pennies. So imagine seeing a pile almost twice as high as this one, and plunging your hand into it and miraculously pulling out the Wonka Golden Ticket "Powerball Jackpot!" penny on your first try.

If you're rich enough to play the lottery, you're rich enough to just flush a couple of bucks down the toilet every morning.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What Do You Do With A Great River?

Cunegonde and I recently got back from a Mediterranean cruise that included stops in Egypt and Israel.

Our two Egyptian tour guides - one each in Alexandria and Cairo - mentioned that their cities are having problems with increasing population. The cities are more and more crowded, traffic congestion and its attendant air pollution are getting worse all the time (a problem brought home to us during the nearly three hours we spent stuck in traffic in our tour bus during our day in Alexandria).

Most people know that the Nile River runs all the way through Egypt. Not many are aware that both Alexandria and Cairo have canals running through them.

Call me simplistic, but it seems to me that the answer to Egypt's overcrowding problem is as close as the Nile: run aqueducts and irrigation systems from the Nile out into the desert. Where there's drinkable water, people will follow.

I know the Egyptians hate the Jews who live next door to them, because as we all know, the Jews are responsible for all the ills of the world, not to mention being the both the cause of World War II and its loss by a major European power. But Cunegonde and I were both surprised at just how prosperous Israel is. You could drop Israel into the middle of Indiana and the only way you could tell there was something odd going on would be by looking at the funny lettering on the highway signs (okay, the Negev Desert looks more like Arizona or Utah). There are modern towns and cities everywhere, and in between them are farms, with fields and orchards growing all manner of vegetables and fruits. So the Egyptians should be able to do the same thing - and they wouldn't even have to become Jews to do it.

Yes, just build aqueducts and irrigation systems.

The Egyptians have a better idea what to do with their water supply.

Have you ever seen photos of a city in the middle of a garbagemen's strike? Trash all along the sidewalks and into the streets? That's Egypt. Except that the garbage isn't just in the cities. It's between the cities. Cairo and Alexandria are 120 miles or so apart, and there's trash on the road every inch of the way between them. There's trash all over the ground even in the city parks. During the two days we were in Egypt, I spotted a grand total of two trash dumpsters and one trash can about the same size you have in your bathroom..

Well, those same people who don't mind trash covering the solid ground where they live aren't shy about dumping it into their water supply. Remember those canals I mentioned? They're full of trash. In many places, the garbage pile is so deep that it effectively blocks the flow of water completely; the canal is literally turning into a landfill.

You see this filthy water and the thought crosses your mind that Cairo and Alexandria shouldn't have an overcrowding problem because everyone there should be dead of dysentery or typhoid or cholera. Our cruise ship advice was to not buy any food or drink from anyone on the street in Egypt. Hell, I was afraid to breathe the air (there's an old Tom Lehrer song in there somewhere).

One of the great rivers of the world, instead of being treated as a precious, valuable  natural resource, is used as an open sewer. And the government tells its ignorant people (school is compulsory only to age 12, according to one of our guides) that they're poor and wretched because of the Jews next door.

It's jaw-dropping, but understandable in a crazy sort of way in a country that has been ruled by kings, dictators, or generals for the last 4,000 years, that has no history of capitalism or liberal democracy, and where the populace is in the thrall of a religion that tells them their wretchedness is Allah's will and defiance of Allah's will is punishable by death.

So before you try to tell me that I'm killing Mother Gaia because my car doesn't get 40 miles per gallon, shut up.