Friday, May 24, 2019

When I Was Little. A Trivial Story For Friday.

When I was little, my grandmother owned a very ramshackle farm where she lived with one aunt and two uncles of mine.  The place was a haven for inquisitive children:  pastures, woods and hills for play, horses, cows and pigs to tend and pet,  and then those very interesting falling barns we were sternly told not to enter.

Which made them the most intriguing targets for me.  One barn was a tall building, built into the side of the hill so that it was three floors high on one side but only one floor high on the other side.  The top floor had been a large hen house at one time, but now stood empty.  I could see the little gates in the wall, high above the pigsty, for the chickens to come out and descend to the pigsty area.  Right below those gates, all closed with wooden shutters, were the chicken ladders:  Long pieces of wood with many short cross-pieces nailed to it so as to make a stairway for them.

And I so very much wanted to climb down those ladders!  That this was forbidden fruit made it so much juicier.

One day, after carefully scouting the area for any adults, I got into the old hen house.  It was a wonderful place, empty, silent, with dust floating in the air, visibly dancing where the gaps in the roof let the sunlight in.  I crossed the floor on tiptoes, in case the building collapsed, and managed to get to one of the tiny gates which I opened.

I was small then and fit into the gate opening with a little squeezing. It was the perfect perch, offering me quite distant views from a new angle, but even at that age I could see that the chicken ladder would not be safe for me to attempt.  So I just sat there for a while, enjoying the sun and the mild breeze and the beauty of summer.

My uncles' two horses were pastured in an area which could not be seen from the farmhouse or from the yard or from the road that led to the farm, but where I sat I could see the pasture and the horses.  They, however, did not see me.

As I sat there, watching them eat grass, one horse suddenly walked to the other horse, they put their heads together, as if having a conversation.  They then turned and moved, together, to the gate opening to the pasture, which was blocked by only one steel wire, stretched across the gap at their chest level.

They proceeded to bite through the steel wire, which allowed them to leave the pasture.  They sedately, side by side,  walked down the road away from the farm, turned right on the main road, and disappeared from my view.

This put me into a dilemma.  I knew that I had to tell some adult the horses had escaped, but doing that would reveal my rules violation.  I did the right thing, anyway, found one of my uncles and told him what I had seen.

He refused to believe me, because the pasture wasn't visible from most parts of the farm.

Only when a neighbor called him and told that the horses were in his cabbage patch, having a succulent dinner, did he rise to action.


I remember this incident so vividly, because even today the best explanation for what I saw is that the horses planned the escape and then carried their plan out, and that they did this because they thought they were not overlooked.  Other explanations are more likely, but I treasure that one. 

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Elizabeth Warren Earned A Lot? The Horror!

Don't you just love the way Washington Post chose to write about Elizabeth Warren's past legal work?  I can't stop laughing.

Here's the headline to the story:

While teaching, Elizabeth Warren worked on more than 50 legal matters, charging as much as $675 an hour

You have to scroll to the seventh paragraph in the story to find this statement:

Warren’s $675-per-hour rate of compensation to consult on several asbestos-related cases, described in court documents, was at or below market rate for her level of experience and was less than what some law firm partners charged to work on the same matters.

Bolds are mine.

So it goes.  The authors of the piece justify their analysis of Warren's work by stating that "outside income has become a campaign issue for candidates such as Warren who have positioned themselves as crusaders for the working class."

I'm still laughing.  This whole shit is utterly hilarious (1).  For instance, because Trump campaigned for the crook class, the size of his income and the way it was acquired is nobody's business, right? 

But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should live on the streets and not in a luxury apartment because she has made housing affordability one of her issues.

And Elizabeth Warren should have earned a lot less than men with similar training and experience in her field.  Indeed, she probably shouldn't have earned anything at all, because the acceptable scale of payments is different for female politicians.

This story reminds me of the 2016 furor over Hillary Clinton's high speaking fees (2) and the fact that she gave speeches to Wall Street capitalists.

To put that into some kind of perspective, last October Joe Biden gave a speech in support of a Republican politician in Michigan and got 200,000 smackers for it.  That sum included 50,000 dollars as a travel allowance (3).   The linked article (from last January) notes that

If Mr. Biden were to have charged a similar range of fees for all his comparable speeches since leaving office, he would most likely have collected between $4 million and $5 million through speeches over the last two years.
Biden did get some flack for that October speech, but nothing on the Hillary Clinton level.  We shall see if his past is scrutinized in the Washington Post with the same microscopic attention as Warren's now has been.

If that's the case I'm willing to admit that this particular piece wasn't quite as sexist as it now seems to me.

(1) It isn't, but I need my gallows humor.

(2)  Her fees were (or are) high compared to what other female speakers charge, but they are not the highest among all political speakers. In fact, it appears that the highest fee for a speech went for Donald Trump in 2005, possibly around $400,000, but Trump boasts that the fee was $1.5 million.

As an aside, scrutinizing Warren's hourly fees without considering the context is dangerous.  Fees are high for lawyers on her level of training and skill, and they are high in places such as Boston for all professional services.

But an additional context that matters here is linking this discussion to the one about why women don't get raises at work.  One reason is that they don't ask.  But once it becomes common knowledge that women work for less money, then each of those refusals to ask will have a small effect on the likely earnings of other women in the future.

So there's a wider feminist argument which says that women should make sure they are not being underpaid, compared to the men with equal qualifications and experience, even if they themselves for some weird reason won't mind earning less. 

(3)  I'm imagining him riding across the United States, like a medieval king with an entourage: 150 faithful courtiers in feathered velvet hats  riding on milk-white horses  followed by 200 wagons of wine, spices, fruit and smoked hams, all surrounded by a troop of stern soldiers on large black stallions waving their spears at all bystanders.  That's what I would have bought for 50,000 dollars.




Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Competition in Amazon Warehouses

Amazon is using the economic theory of tournaments in its warehouses!   That theory bases compensation on the relative productivity ranking of firm's workers. The "tournament" name tells us that competition between workers is actively encouraged, and how much someone ends up earning depends on how many other workers they can beat.  The winner, ideally, gets quite a bit more than all those losers.

I was taught that the tournaments model might be used for compensation when it's expensive to measure the actual output of individual workers but easy to rank them according to some related measure. Among the problematic aspects of this form of compensation is that someone can win by not only outperforming others but also by sabotaging the ability of others to perform well.*

But Amazon doesn't justify its new gaming environment in such a manner.  Rather, playing a game is supposed to make boring work more interesting:

But they aren’t whiling the time away playing Fortnite and Minecraft. Rather, they’re racing to fill customer orders, their progress reflected in a video game format that is part of an experiment by the e-commerce giant to help reduce the tedium of its physically demanding jobs. And if it helps improve the efficiency of work like plucking items from or stowing products on shelves for 10 hours a day or more, all the better.

Developed by Amazon, the games are displayed on small screens at employees’ workstations. As robots wheel giant shelves up to each workstation, lights or screens indicate which item the worker needs to pluck to put into a bin. The games simultaneously register the completion of the task, which is tracked by scanning devices, and can pit individuals, teams or entire floors against one another to be fastest, simply by picking or stowing real Lego sets, cellphone cases or dish soap. Game-playing employees are rewarded with points, virtual badges and other goodies throughout a shift.
Think Tetris, but with real boxes.
Participating in the games is voluntary, we are told, and the nonparticipants are supposedly not punished for choosing not to game.

So one way of looking at what Amazon is doing is that it's alleviating boredom and making routine work more exciting.  Another way of looking at the same thing is to note that it's trying to squeeze more productivity out of a given number of workers, and at least so far the rewards for that extra productivity (and thus its costs to the firm) are very minor:

Amazon’s experiment is part of a broader industry push to gamify low-skill work, particularly as historically low unemployment has driven up wages and attrition. Gamification generally refers to software programs that simulate video games by offering rewards, badges or bragging rights among colleagues.

And things can get even better for the firm if it quietly keeps modifying the targets in the game, as Gabe Zicherman, an expert on gamification in firms notes:
But, he said, gamification can be used to mask higher productivity goals, because the games’ algorithm is typically kept secret. In customer service jobs, for instance, gold stars awarded for resolving 20 customer concerns may over time require 22 or 25. “When [employers] want to generate more output, they can ratchet those levers,” he said. “It’s like boiling a frog. It may be imperceptible to the user.”
* An example of this from a somewhat different context could be a graduate student who messes with the work of other students in the lab so as to guarantee that they won't graduate early enough to be able to apply for postdoctoral grants or jobs at the same time as the saboteur.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Fourth Fundraising Post 2019. What Percentage Of American Men Are Biological Fathers?

Please give if you read here and can afford to give.  It takes a lot of chocolate to run my creative engine. 

Just kidding.  But those of you who know about opportunity costs (what Echidne could earn if she wasn't fashioning and researching blog posts) might be aware of the sacrifices I make for your well-being.  (Let's see if guilting works here!)


A conversation I had with some people tried to establish what percentage of American men become biological fathers during their lifetimes.  One person Googled for the answer and found a summary of supposedly a CDC study from 2006 with this information:

By the age of 44, only 47% of American men are fathers.

Wow!  That cannot be right, right?  (And no, it's not right.)

But if you Google, say,  "percentage men fathers, " the link to that summary is the third on the first results page.

This is a huge problem, because the real statistics, more recent ones, give us a very different percentage:

Most estimates of fertility measures for men and women aged 15–44 in 2011–2015 were similar to those reported in 2006–2010. For 2011–2015, 85.0% of women had given birth and 80.4% of men had fathered a child by ages 40–44.

Bolds are mine.

I have no idea why that 2006 summary is so wrong*.  But note that anyone trying to find a quick Google answer to the question will be badly misinformed.

And so in no time at all we might find the incels quoting that 2006 summary to explain why only the alpha males are allowed to mate, how they are justified in hating all womankind, and how beta males are undergoing extinction by women not allowing them to pass on their seed**.

At the minimum we are going to find all sorts of people making theories about why so few men become biological fathers when most women become biological mothers.

All because of flawed data.

The point here is naturally that the validity and reliability of online information matters, and Google should take those demands more into account in creating their algorithms.


*  And it had to be wrong in 2006, too.  I have contacted the website and asked them to remove the flawed summary.  I'm sure they will do that when pigs fly.

** Because men are much more likely to become first-time parents after the age of forty-five than women, the overall percentages of men and women who are biological parents during their lifetimes is probably roughly the same at the end of one's life.  This is awkward for the incel theories.