Friday, April 26, 2013

Friday Mad Science: They Call Me the Working Man

Before we start today, let me own up to the fact that I got Sally a subscription to the New York Times Weekend Edition, and it came with an all-access pass to their internet content.  So if it seems like all of these articles come out of the Times, well, that’s kind of what’s happened.  
What can I say?  I’ve been reading the Times a lot lately.

I can’t decide if it’s a real trend or just a bogus piece of journalism based on one guy’s anecdotal evidence, but the New York Times reported this week that Big Data is starting to play a part in corporate Human Resources decisions.  The example they use in the article is based on call center supervisors; essentially, the effectiveness of a call center is more-or-less directly governed by the success of the center’s supervisor, and that compared to this one single factor, all other considerations are far less important.  So finding the right supervisor is important; it is, in fact, more important than anything else you can do to help your call center succeed.
All of that, however, it doesn’t exactly explain which call center supervisor you ought to hire.  It’s possible that the relevant data is available via some kind of study of the relevant data, but if so, the point seems to have been lost on the Times’ reporter.
Still, I think we can all welcome a more data-driven approach to hiring and career success.  I mean, I can hear the concerns—that individual cases ought to be treated individually, that data can’t necessarily capture the full range of a person’s value—I just don’t happen to believe them.  Instead, I find it easy to imagine a world in which hiring managers are happy with their delusions, where they prefer to go on “gut feel” rather than actual data, where cronyism and emotional factors continue to hold sway over what ought to be rational, profit-motivated choices.
Is it wrong to want to have more objective methods of choosing winners and losers in Corporate America?  I personally think that it’s only scary if you don’t think your actual performance and abilities will match up favorably with your ability to kiss ass and curry favor.
While we’re talking about work issues, the Senate this week is considering a bill that would increase “merit-based” green cards while eliminating some other kinds of immigration (like green cards given to family members of resident aliens already within the US), essentially increasing the number of H1-B visas so that US companies can continue to important engineers from overseas.
I’ll admit that I get annoyed whenever I hear that the U.S. isn’t training enough engineers, that there’s some kind of engineer “shortage” in this country.  Like it’s not a direct result of simple supply-and-demand.  Which is to say that engineering is complicated; it requires a lot of education and study, and most folks who can do the work choose instead to go into either finance, law, or medicine because the monetary rewards are—at least perceived to be—better in the long run.  Now, it’s better for me personally, of course, for the “shortage” of engineers to continue because I’m part of what is a limited supply which can therefore command something of a premium price.  
But this idea that we can’t successfully address the number of engineers this country trains is idiotic.  Of course we can, we simply have to pay folks enough that they think the difficulty of obtaining the credentials is worth the effort.  Or we can do what Corporate America has increasingly been trying to do, i.e. bring in cheaper engineers from overseas.
Now, I’m not overly in favor of immigration that directly competes with my own compensation for obvious reasons, but I will admit that foreigners have a right to make a living, too.  What’s troubling, however, is the way that the H1-B visa program works currently.  Companies who bring workers in essentially have them utterly at their mercy—and can therefore pay them wages that are far below the market price of comparable domestic workers.
But why would anybody sign up for that?
Two reasons: because they want to get to America, and because they don’t understand the standard of living they’re going to be forced into once they get here.  Remember, we’re not talking about migrant farm workers here; these are professional people from overseas, mostly electrical engineers and programmers with real talent.  People who could earn real money in their home countries—or here, for that matter, so long as they are allowed to test the boundaries of the free market.  
Which is why I’m at least a little mollified by the fact that the new Senate bill has a provision to make it easier for engineers on H1-B visas to switch jobs once they’re in the U.S.  It won’t essentially mean deportation for them to leave whatever intellectual sweatshop brought them over; they’ll be free to explore the free market the same as the rest of us, and thereby prevent wage gouging by unscrupulous companies.  Granted, that’s not as good an outcome for me personally as a simple redress of supply and demand using purely domestic resources, but at least it doesn’t force engineers all over the country to worry about having to take a sixth of what they’re currently paid just to compete with super-cheap overseas labor.
Paul Krugman, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Like a lot of economists, Krugman wears a beard.
Still the same essential topic: Paul Krugman had an op-ed in the Times this week about the deleterious effects of austerity and long-term unemployment.  To put it mildly, Mr. Krugman thinks that austerity is creating a permanently disenfranchised class of Americans, with disastrous long-term effects for the country.
The main reason our economic recovery has been so weak is that, spooked by fear-mongering over debt, we’ve been doing exactly what basic macroeconomics says you shouldn’t do — cutting government spending in the face of a depressed economy.
It’s hard to overstate how self-destructive this policy is. Indeed, the shadow of long-term unemployment means that austerity policies are counterproductive even in purely fiscal terms. Workers, after all, are taxpayers too; if our debt obsession exiles millions of Americans from productive employment, it will cut into future revenues and raise future deficits.
Our exaggerated fear of debt is, in short, creating a slow-motion catastrophe. It’s ruining many lives, and at the same time making us poorer and weaker in every way. And the longer we persist in this folly, the greater the damage will be.
He may well be right, but I think most people would agree with me that it’s a hard sell to decide, no we don’t need to pay our bills and live within our means.  That flies in the face of common sense for a reason.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Marvel/Disney recently admitted that the movie and TV rights to Daredevil have reverted back to them after having been at 20th Century Fox for the past few years.  I don’t know if that means we’re gonna get another DD movie, or if maybe the Internet will get its way, and we’ll get some kind of TV project, but at least we aren’t likely to see Ben Afleck in a movie that nobody likes or understands again.

One of the covers from the Bendis/Maleev era, my
all-time favorite run in an ongoing comics series.
I'm not sure which issue this is from.
Given the recent developments of shale gas in this country, I’ve been waiting for an article like this one for awhile now:
The natural gas boom has already upended the American power industry, displacing coal and bringing consumers cheaper electricity.
Now the trucking industry, with its millions of 18-wheelers moving products like potato chips, underarm deodorant and copy paper around the country, is taking a leap forward in switching from petroleum to cleaner-burning natural gas. And if natural gas remains cheap, consumers may benefit again.
It only makes sense, right?  I mean, it’s a straightforward thing to make an internal combustion engine that runs on natural gas, and users are gonna go where the money is.  Granted, there is quite a bit of work to do in building out the infrastructure to support our national transportation network running on gas, but that’s an opportunity, not an actual problem.  
Whether we like it or not, natural gas is the thing that’s going to get us from where we are to whatever’s next.  
Hydrogen economy?  Nuclear fusion?  
I don’t know, and I really don’t care.  The next fifty years at least are gonna run on shale gas.
[W]ealth held by the richest 7% of households rose 28% 2009 through 2011, while the net worth of the other 93% of households dropped 4%...
The upper 7% of households owned 63% of the nation's household wealth in 2011, up from 56% in 2009, said the report, which analyzed Census Bureau data released last month.
I’ve tried to explain this to my kids by likening the economy to the act of surfing.  You either catch the wave, or you get smashed.  
Which is why I tell my kids that they need to study hard.  Because this world has become so fucking competitive that it takes an amazing amount of skill, dedication, and perseverance just to keep your head above water.  If you don’t have a good education and useful skill behind you, frankly, I don’t see how you make it in the world today.
And on that cheery note, it’s finally time for the weekend.
 Tri Club has our Y-Tri Race Rehearsal this weekend, although frankly, I don’t know how many folks are gonna be there.  One of my regulars already told me that he’s got a competing engagement, and most of my kinda-sorta’s haven’t been willing to get up too much lately.  Still, the Race Rehearsal is important for my novices, so I hope they come out.
Have a good weekend!

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