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Week of 22 June 2009

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Monday, 22 June 2009
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08:00 - Jasmine turned 16 yesterday. Kim surprised her with a sporty red Saturn Ion quad coupe. While I was walking Malcolm about 9:00 last night, I noticed that the car was parked at the top of Kim's driveway, so I walked over to take a look at it. I noticed a slight glow coming from within, and realized that the car was occupied. Jas opened the door to say hello. She and one of her girlfriends had been sitting in the car in the dark, talking on their cell phones. I wished her a happy birthday and asked if she planned to sleep in the car. She said she wanted to, but Kim wouldn't let her.

Kim had mentioned that the salesman at Carmax had pointed out the hidden doors to her, and I finally was able to see what she meant. The Wikipedia image I linked to above shows a body panel behind the door. That body panel is actually another door, although it can't be opened from outside the car. So, it looks like a two-door car, but is actually a four-door car. Unless you're insuring it, because insurance companies consider that arrangement to be a two-door car, which carries higher insurance premiums.

Unfortunately for Kim, the combination of that car and Jas getting her license means her car insurance premiums are going to triple. I'm sure my parents' car insurance premium increased dramatically when I got my license. Back then, as now, teenage boys were so much more likely than any other class of drivers to have car accidents that it's surprising insurance companies were willing to issue policies at all. But the odd thing is that back then adding a teenage girl driver to a car insurance policy had little effect on the premium. Of course, back then--with very few exceptions, despite the Beach Boys' song about taking her T-Bird away--most teenage girls drove pretty much like adults, which is to say they generally drove sanely and pretty much obeyed the traffic laws. In fact, they were probably more likely to obey speed limits than were adult drivers. Nowadays, with few exceptions (and I think Jas will be one of them) teenage girls generally drive as maniacally as teenage boys.

Barbara and I watched the 1983 P. D. James Dalgliesh mystery, Death of an Expert Witness over the weekend. Neither of us even vaguely remembered seeing it, so we must have missed it on its first run on the PBS Mystery program.

As is common for British programs from that era, it was obviously done on a tight budget. The production values were relatively low, particularly the sound, which was obviously captured with an on-camera microphone and not overdubbed by the actors later. But, also as usual, the writing and acting were excellent.

I found this program particularly interesting because it was set in an old country home that had been taken over by the government and repurposed as a forensics lab. After watching the imaginary forensics work on Bones, it was refreshing to see a more realistic portrayal of forensics work. Not that they actually did much in the way of forensics work on-screen. But the facility and labs were backdrops for the action and dialog, and all of that was considerably closer to reality than what we've been watching on Bones.

Instead of the Angelator and similar imaginary forensics tools, we saw real-looking labs, with benches cluttered with microscopes and beakers and burettes. Instead of instant DNA results, we watched one scene where a cop was complaining that he'd been waiting for results for five weeks, only to have the chief of the forensics lab tell him that they'd submitted their report only ten days after receiving the evidence for study. (The cop had received the results; he just didn't like them, which is also common in real forensics labs.)

In one scene, they showed a microscopic view of three hairs, with the biologist telling the detective that all three were human, that the top two in the view were consistent with coming from the same person, probably male, and that the bottom hair was from a different person, possibly female. That's exactly the level of uncertainty that exists in a real forensics examination, absent DNA analysis (which did not exist at the time this program was made).


Tuesday, 23 June 2009
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08:42 - Kodachrome is no more, and it saddens me to see it go. I shot my first roll of Kodachrome back in 1962, when I was nine. It was the ASA 12 version of the film, which used the K-11 process. The new K-12 version, Kodachrome II (ASA 25) and Kodachrome X (ASA 64) was just then becoming available. I haven't shot a roll of Kodachrome in probably 30 years or more, but I'll still miss it.

When I walked Malcolm yesterday afternoon, Jasmine's new car was parked in her driveway. Jasmine was sitting in it. No surprise there. We talked for a few minutes, about the car, of course. I asked her what kind of gas mileage it got. She said she didn't know, but she hoped it was good because she was going to have to pay for gas herself. She said she'd gotten about $70 worth of gasoline gift cards for her birthday, but was worried that wouldn't last long.

I told her I was glad she'd mentioned that, because Barbara and I had planned to give her some cash for her birthday, figuring she'd need to buy gas. So I took out my wallet and tried to give Jasmine some cash. She wouldn't take it. She was very polite, but said she simply couldn't accept money from anyone but family members. I finally realized, duh, here I am, a middle-aged guy, trying to hand cash to a 16-year-old girl.

When Barbara and I walked the dogs after dinner, Mary (Jasmine's grandmother) came out to say hello. We told Mary what had happened, and gave her the money to give to Jas. Mary said she appreciated our wanting to give Jas a practical gift for her birthday, and that of course she knew there was nothing questionable about my intentions, but at the same time she was proud of Jas, because in refusing the money Jas had only been doing what she'd been taught. Mary said Jas isn't allowed to accept money as a gift even from male family members, including those her own age.

So, the next time I see Jas, I'm going to apologize to her for unintentionally putting her in an awkward position.


Wednesday, 24 June 2009
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07:55 - Business Week ranks Winston-Salem as #7 on its list of the best places to start over, just behind Richmond at #6 and ahead of the Washington, DC metro area at #10. That seems odd to local readers. Winston-Salem has suffered badly from the economic problems of late. If we're #7 on the list of best places to start over, most of the rest of the country must be in even sadder shape than we are. Here's the rest of the top ten.

• No. 1: Anchorage, Ala.
• No. 2: Provo-Orem, Utah
• No. 3: Kennewick-Richland-Pasco, Wash.
• No. 4: Yakima, Wash.
• No. 5: Omaha, Neb.,-Council Bluffs, Iowa
• No. 6: Richmond
• No. 7: Winston-Salem
• No. 8: Colorado Springs, Colo.
• No. 9: Amarillo, Texas
• No. 10: Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, Va.

Where exactly is Anchorage, Alabama, anyway?


Thursday, 25 June 2009
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07:55 - In response to yesterday's post, one of the folks over on the forums posted the following:

A friend of mine sent an email about leaving the Indianapolis (Indiana) area because of the job situation.  My wife and I were both wondering where one could move where the job outlook is better.  It's certainly worse in Detroit for example, but where is it better?

I started to reply as follows:

I'm sure there are bad places, like Detroit or any other town that's dependent on manufacturing vehicles or their parts, but overall I'm not sure that there's anywhere that's really better than anywhere else generally.

The fundamental problem, as I've argued privately with Pournelle, is that the entire left half of the Bell Curve is now useless in an economic sense. As a matter of fact, I think I'll do a post on this topic.

In Olden Days, essentially everyone worked other than nobles and clergy. When it was time to plant or harvest the crop, it was all hands on deck. It didn't matter if you were a moron or a world-class genius. You were out there with a scythe alongside everyone else, bringing in the sheaves. Your days were filled with manual labor, from sunup to sunset. You slopped the pigs, cut and split firewood, and made your own clothing. Intelligence was of minor importance. A genius does little better than a moron when it comes to scything wheat or mucking out a stall. Everyone worked, because if you didn't work you didn't eat. And even if you did work, there was a good chance of famine.

Things started to change with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, but for decades manual labor was still dominant. Mill owners soon found that they could replace 500 weavers with one mechanical loom, giving rise to Ned Ludd and the Luddites. But it wasn't just fabric mills. A factory that today might employ scores of people back then employed hundreds or even thousands. A coal mine that in 2009 employs two hundred people in 1909 might have employed 5,000. And, in 1909, if you're swinging a pick-axe against a coal face, it doesn't much matter if your IQ is 75 or 150. You do the same job. The breakdown in 1909 might have been 100 high-skill people--engineers, machinists, and so on--and 4,900 unskilled laborers. In 2009, that mine still employs 100 high-skill people, but only 100 unskilled laborers, for a net loss of 4,800 unskilled jobs.

So where do all these unemployed and essentially unemployable people end up? In the past, unions guaranteed them jobs by distributing a reasonable workload for one person onto two or three or ten, and demanding a living wage for each. Even today, that persists, particularly in traditionally union environments such as auto companies, with work rules designed to increase union employee headcount far beyond the number of people the employer would choose to employ in the absence of such coercion.

But that wasn't sufficient to absorb all of the unemployable, so the government to into the act in a major way, hiring thousands and eventually millions of otherwise unemployable people to do "jobs" that really didn't need to be done. But even that wasn't sufficient, so the government began passing laws and writing regulations to force private industry to employ as many of these otherwise unemployable people as possible. That's why corporations have so many excess employees that they wouldn't otherwise have hired, whether they were hired for equal-opportunity compliance or to process government-mandated paperwork or to staff diversity-training departments or other useless functions that private industry of course never saw the need for.

So we're now in a situation where probably one third of those employed are actually doing useful work and doing it competently. The other two thirds are dead wood, working in make-work jobs or in real jobs that they're not competent to do. Of course, the truly outrageous aspect of this is that often the competent are (mis)managed by incompetents who make more money than they do. Even that might be marginally acceptable if it were not for the fact that incompetents nearly always insist on interfering with the way the competent people do their jobs. See Dilbert, which is real life.

So, where does that leave someone who's looking for a job? If they're competent, they should be able to find a suitable position, although doing so may involve relocating and perhaps even learning new skills. The demand for competent people is steady, and likely to remain so. Although the article doesn't make it explicit, that good employment outlook in Winston-Salem is for competent people with technical skills, as is true just about anywhere. If you're incompetent or lack technical skills, it's pointless to move to Winston-Salem or any of the other cities on that list. The job outlook for those on the left side of the Bell Curve is no better here than anywhere else.

Increasingly, I think we're going to see the smart forcing out the stupid, leaving the stupid on the welfare rolls. There are fewer and fewer jobs available every year for people of average and below intelligence. Jerry Pournelle frequently uses auto mechanics and plumbers as examples of jobs that can be filled by such people. The problem is, that isn't true. We need a lot fewer auto mechanics than we did two or three decades ago, and those mechanics have to be much smarter to do their jobs well. Tim, who's been our mechanic for twenty years or more, is an extremely bright guy. His office wall is covered with certificates from training sessions he's attended, and his shop is packed full of computerized diagnostics equipment. Fixing cars is no longer something a person of average or lower intelligence can do successfully. And we need only so many plumbers, so the competition for those jobs will be increasingly fierce. Guess what happens when you have smart people competing with dim people for a limited number of high-paying plumbing jobs.

There are currently two strategies for getting and keeping a good job. First, master a skill that is in demand and likely to remain so, and then make sure you can do it as well as or better than anyone else, because you'll be competing with the whole world. Of course, this is an option only if you're extremely bright. Second, master a hands-on trade that can't be outsourced. Of course, if you choose this you'll be in competition with a lot of bright people who also want that job.

Speaking of which, I'm reminded of the old joke about the neurosurgeon and the plumber. The neurosurgeon arrives home one evening after a hard day of brain surgery. He finds he has a plumbing problem, so he calls the after-hours number for a plumber. The plumber shows up, fixes the problem in two minutes, and presents a bill for $300. The neurosurgeon is outraged. "$300 for two minutes' work? That's $9,000 an hour! I'm a neurosurgeon, and *I* don't make $9,000 an hour!" Replies the plumber, "Neither did I back when I was a neurosurgeon."


Friday, 26 June 2009
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08:40 - Jasmine is now a licensed driver. Jas turned 16 on the 21st, but she wasn't allowed to take the test for her license until she'd had her learner's permit for one full year. Yesterday was that anniversary. She and her mom had made an appointment for yesterday morning as soon as the DMV office opened. Jas was in and out quickly, and by 9:00 she had her license.

Her license has limited privileges for the first year or two. She's not allowed to drive during the hours of darkness unless she has an adult with her or is on her way to or from work or an approved school activity. She's not allowed to have more than one other teenager in her car at any time. Her driving privileges may be revoked if she has a serious moving violation. But otherwise she's good to go.

And go she did. Before noon yesterday, Jas had already run several errands for Kim, who is disabled, and taken Mary (her grandmother) to a doctor appointment. Then, I suspect, she did what she told me would be the first thing she'd do. She headed for the mall.

Today/tomorrow is my Netflix anniversary. I rejoined on Sunday, 26 April. They shipped my first discs on the 27th and I received them on the 28th. As of today, they've sent me 50 discs, with another to arrive today and two more tomorrow, for a total of 53 discs. That would have been a perfect maximum-possible 51/54 discs, had not the USPS mangled an envelope, which delayed its delivery to me by one day.

Netflix hasn't throttled me at all during these first two months. They've sent every disc at the first opportunity, and it's arrived the next weekday. They've acknowledged receiving every disc I've returned the day after I sent it. No disc has been scratched or otherwise unplayable. It's true that I have several discs at the top of my queue that are listed as "Very long wait", but that's to be expected. They send newly-released discs to light users first, putting us heavy users at the back of the line. But that doesn't matter to me. I want the discs at positions 50 and 100 in my queue just as much as I want the disc at position 1, and it doesn't matter at all to me which ones they send first (as long as the series are in order, of course).

I attribute Netflix's stellar performance to the fact that I do my best to save them money on return postage by returning two discs in one envelope whenever possible. If that sounds trivial, it's not. My doing that cuts their return postage costs by a full third. Instead of getting 51 separate envelopes back from me during those two months, they got 17 with one disc and 17 with two discs, for a total of 34. If first-class postage plus the BRE charge totals $0.45 each--which is a probably a reasonable estimate given the volume discounts they must get from the USPS--I saved them about $8 just by combining two discs in one envelope those 17 times. That $8 is pretty important when you consider that their total revenue from me for those two months was about $34. Counting outbound mailing costs, they're probably just about breaking even on me. If I started returning each disc in a separate envelope, they'd rapidly go into the red on servicing me, even if they started throttling.

So, we have an unspoken agreement. As long as we both play nice, they won't make any money on me, but they won't lose money either. If they stop playing nice, so do I, and we both lose.


Saturday, 27 June 2009
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Sunday, 28 June 2009
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.