Walmart closing stores

The Beeb is reporting that Walmart’s going to close 269 stores worldwide.

I wonder if it’s too much to hope that the local businesses that failed when Walmart came to town will re-appear, phoenix-like, from the ashes? According to the Austrian economists, they should. But even if they do, it seems to me that once the wages go down, they are going to stay down, unless labor becomes scarce. And the increasing automation of shopping and stocking means there’s not going to be any shortage of retail laborers any time soon.

How many unemployed?

In this post-Reagan era, you can use the Government’s “official” count of unemployment – which is broken up into categories from U1 to U6, but everybody uses the U3, currently 5.3% – or you can check out John Williams’ Shadow Government Statistics, with puts the current count at 23%. Williams attempts to use the pre-1990 method of calculation (which is difficult because the government is trying really hard not to obtain anything resembling real unemployment figures) so that you can compare modern unemployment figures with historical data.

The problem with privilege metaphors

It seems to me that we are all the recipients of unearned privilege. You were formed in the womb of your birth mother, to her great discomfort and inconvenience; and obviously nothing you did yourself made you worthy of this privilege – it was a gift, literally the gift of life itself, that you received for free. You had already been a freeloading moocher for nine months before you were even born!

But not every birth is equal. Recent research claims that poverty diminishes mental capacities from birth. It’s fairly clear that the richer your parents and community are, the more unearned privileges you will eventually enjoy – for example, the children of Barack Obama enjoy vastly more privilege than the children of impoverished Arkansas sharecroppers, or the children of impoverished Native Americans on the Res.

Right Wing radio pundits like to split common people along color lines by screaming of “black criminality” and “black on black violence”, but criminality and violence correlate far more with poverty and lack of opportunity than with any skin color. Left Wing bloggers like to split common people on color lines by screeching “white privilege” – as though privilege did not correlate with wealth, and as if there were no privileged people of color.

These talking heads, Right and Left, are of their own free will servile to the ruling class. The .001% of humanity whose titanic wealth makes them immune to law would prefer that the rest of us split on color lines, gender lines, religion, anything that will keep us from uniting. If we could put aside our differences, it might interfere with the continuing concentration of the Earth’s vast resources into fewer and fewer hands – or even reverse that trend.

Don’t answer the phone.

Courtesy + civility = emotional intelligence?

The problem with this video is that it restricts itself to business settings – in real life, it’s always difficult to ignore purposeful rudeness, whether you’re in a meeting or not. If someone is talking to you, and you do anything with a phone without first explaining why your phone is more important than what’s being said, you are being extremely discourteous.

My friend Pedro, who is on call at all times, invariably says, “Excuse me, hold on a moment, let me see if I have to take this call” and checks his screen – if the person calling is an important customer, he’ll say “I’m really sorry, but I have to take this call. I’ll make it as short as I can” and then after he gets off the phone he will apologize briefly but sincerely for the interruption.

These simple apologetics invariably waste less of Pedro’s time than his incoming call wasted of anyone else’s time, and cost him literally nothing. Nonetheless this small gesture of courtesy and respect, this trivial acknowledgement of an inconvenience, has a huge impact on how others see him and act towards him.

If you want others to treat you with courtesy and respect, you need to start by treating others that way. Answering your phone while another person is taking the time to talk or listen to you is purposeful rudeness. It’s ignorant and disrespectful, and it makes you look shallow and stupid.

240 VAC hurts

When I was much younger, I worked one summer as an Electrician’s Mate in a munitions plant. I was hired (and paid) as unskilled labor – fetch and carry, hold the flashlight, etc. – but the electricians I worked with soon discovered I had a pretty strong familiarity with electricity, mostly thanks to my father. I was good at soldering, I knew P=IE and E=IR and I could calculate resistances in parallel, and all that put me in a different category from the other helpers. So before long I was helping to wire breaker boxes, replacing outlets, and so forth.

I should point out here that my senior co-workers were not exposing me to unnecessary dangers by allowing me to do the more complex jobs. Among the tasks normally expected of unskilled helpers was weeding inside the caged-off areas around extremely high-voltage sources, tens of kilovolts, where a misstep could easily mean an ugly death. And of course we are talking about a factory that existed to create dangerous items and situations in the first place… it was never supposed to be a place where a person could blunder around unthinkingly and expect to survive. Unlike most American workplaces, staff there were treated as fully self-actualized human beings, capable of making life and death decisions routinely without reference to rulebooks. So as an employee, you were not just expected but required to understand what you were doing and required to do it safely. Once I had I proved to persons in a position to make such a judgement that I could work with electricity without harming myself or others, they permitted me to do so.

But maybe I got a little too cocky, being the only guy without a journeyman’s rating that was allowed to work with very little supervision. And maybe I was a little too bold, willing to volunteer for tasks the older, family men weren’t so quick to take on.

Anyway, there’s a small valley in the woods behind the plant that’s full of magazines. Magazines are these little concrete and steel shacks, made of six pre-cast panels held together solely by gravity. They’re kept from falling down by big galvanized steel pins at the corners; a crane drops each of the four walls onto the base slab, then a slab roof is dropped on top. Deep-buried wires provide electricity to each magazine’s electric heater and an air conditioner, and one slab wall has a thick steel door in it.

If the extremely powerful explosives stored in a magazine blow up, the blast berm around the magazine directs the force of the expanding gasses upwards into the air, and afterwards you bring a crane down and pick up the surviving pieces of the magazine and put it back together again.

Aerial shot of a small group of magazines

Aerial shot of a small group of magazines

Magazines are kept at very specific humidity and temperature levels, so it was often necessary to run the heaters and air conditioners simultaneously on humid summer days. You had to condense the moisture out of the air with the AC unit, which meant you had to run the heater to maintain temperature. These things run unattended for years, sometimes for decades, so there’s remote monitoring and alarms go off whenever a piece of equipment malfunctions or the temperature begins to creep outside allowable limits. And on some sort of schedule, a watchman would visit and sample the humidity with a sling psychrometer (I’m sure they use electronic hygrometers these days).

It must have been about 90 degrees outside the day I volunteered to fix the air conditioning in one of the magazines. I can’t remember how it came about that the A/C service guys determined that a relatively skinny person was needed to wriggle into the blisteringly hot space just below the roof of the magazine and replace a bit of control wiring with a soldering iron. I do remember that when they called the electrician unit, they were in a big hurry, because the temperature and humidity were already rising precipitously. None of us knew exactly what was in the magazine, but everyone was vaguely half-expecting an earthshaking BOOM accompanied by shattering windows throughout the plant.

This is what I learned that day.

#1) Most air conditioning systems (other than American window units) run on 240 volts. I have no idea why I ever thought otherwise, nor do I know why nobody told me the control circuitry for these particular AC units was running full voltage. But I had grown pretty blase about 120 volts, and didn’t take a lot of precautions while I was sliding around in the dark by the light of a weller gun.

#2) Although perfectly pure water is an insulator, and dry human flesh is a poor conductor, a sweaty human will spasm like a click-beetle if given a good old-fashioned electric shock. When I accidentally touched a live 240 lead my sweat-soaked body conducted enough juice into my muscles that I got bruises all over my body, particularly on my knees, elbows and the back of my head, which slammed into the top of the magazine at least once. But you can’t scream (or think, really) when you’ve got that much current passing through you… and nobody can hear you thumping around from outside of a steel-reinforced concrete box six inches thick.

#3) A healthy teenager can survive brief contact with 50 amps of 240 volt alternating current. (Due to the thrashing mentioned in lesson #2, my contact was extremely brief.) And within fifteen minutes or so, said teenager will be sufficiently recovered to lie convincingly about the incident if asked why the job took so long.

My mother still doesn’t know this ever happened, so don’t tell her.

John Carney is bragging.

So what, you ask, is US Congressman John Carney, D-DE, bragging about?

Here, let him speak for himself:

Last week in Congress, a bill I introduced to save 500 Delaware jobs passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 268-150. The bill fixed an oversight in the Affordable Care Act that would have put American companies at a disadvantage to their foreign competitors, and put 500 Delaware jobs on the line. Senators Carper and Coons are now working hard to get the bill passed in the Senate.

That’s an interesting way to talk about what happened. Here’s another way.

Under the bill, any insurance plan for an American who is out of the country for 90 days or 15 trips or a foreigner working in the United States who is gone from his or her country for 90 days or 15 trips would be exempt from the Affordable Care Act. Their families would be exempt, too. That means they are exempt from all of it — from requiring young adults under age 26 to stay on a parents plans to the new mandatory coverage benefits. And the health plans wouldn’t have to pay ACA-related taxes and fees.

Labor and immigration groups, such as the AFL-CIO and the SEIU, oppose the bill, too. They say it would encourage companies to hire foreign workers instead of Americans, because they wouldn’t have to provide the same comprehensive coverage. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported the bill.

“This bill contains too many loopholes that amount to an extraordinary bailout for insurance companies,” Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said on the House floor.

So why did Democrat John Carney spend three years subverting his own party’s efforts, against the expressed will of Democrat President Barack Obama? And why would he brag about this to me, a registered Republican?

Well, I guess money talks, and Cigna walks.

Health insurance giant Cigna Corp. is using the threat of 500 Delaware layoffs to press a demand that federal policymakers exempt their Claymont-based international insurance business from new rules in last year’s federal health care law.

The demand from Cigna, a $21.3 billion Philadelphia-based company, comes just months after Gov. Jack Markell’s administration awarded the company $2.4 million in grants to keep those employees in Delaware — and add to the staff here.

Markell, economic development director Alan Levin, and members of Delaware’s congressional delegation are now working on a fix for Cigna and other insurance companies who offer similar “expatriate” health insurance plans.

So lessee; first, Cigna took 2.4 million dollars of Delaware tax dollars in a deal to keep 500 jobs in Delaware, right, got it… then they threatened to dump those 500 jobs if our senators and congressman didn’t hack out an exemption in Obamacare so that migrant workers would not have to be insured (they are “expatriates” after all)… right, OK, I think I’ve got it. The goal is to use the tax money of people living in Delaware to make it uneconomical for businesses to actually hire those same people? So that more Delawareans will be out of work, in order to save jobs, of course. Then Delaware won’t be making as much tax revenue and the state might have to raise taxes to pay for Cigna’s next round of corporate welfare, oh, excuse me, “grants”? No, I guess I’m not really getting this at all.

It’s said that one shouldn’t assume malice where incompetence is a sufficient explanation. And after all, Jack Markell seems a nice enough man. But at this point the government of the First State has displayed such an incredible level of fiscal incompetence that it might be comforting to suppose they are a bunch of crooks – rather than the chuckle-headed corporate dupes they appear to be. Did I mention Cigna’s making record profits and also refusing record numbers of insurance claims? It’s a good thing they’ve got John Carney, Chris Coons, Tom Carper and Jack Markell looking out for their interests, I guess.

NASA Asteroid Grand Challenge offers $35,000 payout


Welcome to the Asteroid Grand Challenge Series sponsored by the NASA Tournament Lab! The Asteroid Grand Challenge Series will be comprised of a series of topcoder challenges to get more people from around the planet involved in finding all asteroid threats to human populations and figuring out what to do about them. In an increasingly connected world, NASA recognizes the value of the public as a partner in addressing some of the country’s most pressing challenges. Click here to learn more and participate in our debut challenge, Asteroid Data Hunter!

NPR has an article about the series here.

the Mad Scientist look

Back in the day, you couldn’t get hired at a big company if you were a male with an earring. And frankly, there were very few people other than sailors and homosexuals who had one.

So I’d take it out for interviews with personnel goons, and as soon as they handed me off to the people I’d be actually working with, I’d sneak it back in.

The tech staff would invariably spot it (good engineers are detail-oriented!) and you could see the gears turning in their heads… If this guy can get past HR with a frickin’ earring, he must be a bona fide techno god. I do believe it made them pay more attention to my opinions and show me more respect.

But in the end, you have to back up the “mad scientist look” with some actual Mad Science, or the appearance of unconventional brilliance will wear off. So I never got to rest on my laurels.

Bonus side effect: I didn’t have to listen to very much stupid racism, homophobia or misogyny from the older guys, because they found my appearance very confusing and rarely made assumptions about what they could get away with saying to me. Win!

Of course my single tiny earring is very staid and boring these days. You see bankers with dreadlocks and tongue piercings now and nobody bats an eye.

I rarely see that requirement in job postings.

* Ability to ignore existing machine learning and associated algorithms, and concomitant ability to develop new algorithms to solve novel AI problems
* Appreciation of the art and science of coding
* Evidence of creative achievement in one or more field
* Evidence of cultivation of “jamais vu” and independence from the zeitgeist.
* Understanding of game theory or evidence of advanced ability in a particular game (may be substituted by deep knowledge of current developments in philosophy, political discourse, or other field that combines linear and intuitive thought)

obama spending binge never happened

If you’re wondering why the much-vaunted “Stimulus” didn’t get your kid off the dole, you might want to look at this article over at marketwatch.

Reagan and Bush remain the greatest spendthrifts in US history, of course, putting the lie to Republican claims of conservatism. To be conservative, you really ought to believe in conservation and fiscal responsibility. Stephen Bloch has done an interesting analysis that shows some of the complexities of measuring this stuff.