Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Tan Sox Explanation

The December 1 issue of The New Yorker has an excellent article by John Cassidy about Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank. It contains a brief anecdote that I think provides a pretty good illustration of why George Bush has been able to preside so nonchalantly over the greatest financial debacle of his (or my) lifetime.

In June, 2005, Bernanke was sworn in at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. One of his first tasks was to deliver a monthly economics briefing to the President and the Vice-President. After he and Hubbard sat down in the Oval Office, President Bush noticed that Bernanke was wearing light-tan socks under his dark suit. “Where did you get those socks, Ben?” he asked. “They don’t match.” Bernanke didn’t falter. “I bought them at the Gap—three pairs for seven dollars,” he replied. During the briefing, which lasted about forty-five minutes, the President mentioned the socks several times.

The following month, Hubbard’s deputy, Keith Hennessey, suggested that the entire economics team wear tan socks to the briefing. Hubbard agreed to call Vice-President Cheney and ask him to wear tan socks, too. “So, a little later, we all go into the Oval Office, and we all show up in tan socks,” Hubbard recalled. “The President looks at us and sees we are all wearing tan socks, and he says in a cool voice, ‘Oh, very, very funny.’ He turns to the Vice-President and says, ‘Mr. Vice-President, what do you think of these guys in their tan socks?’ Then the Vice-President shows him that he’s wearing them, too. The President broke up.”
If you can fully occupy your mind with the color of officials' socks, what need to clutter it up with information about the nation's economy?

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Computer Science Outside the Box

Although the "outside the box" metaphor has become overworked, don't let that stop you from reading Ed Lazowska's post on the CCC Blog. I won't quote from it here, because it's pretty short, and worth reading in its entirety.

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The Laws of IT Physics

As found in Congressional testimony titled "Actions to Avoid 'IT' Train-wrecks: An Agenda for Change," by Norm. V. Brown, Executive Director, Center for Program Transformation.
  1. Planning is a continuous process, not a one-time event.
  2. Complexity kills IT projects since defects and security vulnerabilities increase nonlinearly with increased complexity.
  3. Schedules and project chaos create Event Horizons, from which a project cannot recover.
  4. The initial requirements for any large system will be incomplete, independent of the resources expended to develop them.
  5. Unvalidated requirements pave the road to project failure.
  6. You can’t manage what you can’t see.
  7. Not controlling the right things assures failure.
  8. Poor defect management causes high rework and leads to project failure.
  9. Unknown and untreated vulnerabilities originating in ineffectually implemented Processes destroy IT projects.
  10. Development Contractors will do what is in their financial interest, and government organizations may be led toward a project Event Horizon.
  11. Thoughtful, knowledgeable, committed people operating as a team are critical to IT Project Success.
The testimony contains corollaries and much further discussion.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

California Climate Risk and Response

The costs of currently predicted climate changes in California over the next century could be as low as $7.3 billion per year, or as high as $46.6 billion per year, according to a new report by two University of California-Berkeley agricultural and resource economics professors. The 127-page report was funded by the nonprofit Next 10 foundation that studies California's future and the intersection of the economy and the environment.
From the most general perspective, our review of the evidence on climate risk and response supports four overarching findings:
  1. Our estimates indicate that climate risk — damages if no action is taken — would include tens of billions per year in direct costs, even higher indirect costs, and expose trillions of dollars of assets to collateral risk.
  2. Climate response — mitigation to prevent the worst impacts and adaptation to climate change that is unavoidable — on the other hand, can be executed for a fraction of these net costs by strategic deployment of existing resources for infrastructure renewal/replacement and significant private investments that would enhance both employment and productivity.
  3. At the sector level, there will be some very significant adjustment challenges, requiring as much foresight and policy discipline as the state can mobilize. In this context, the political challenges may be much greater than the economic ones. The state’s adaptation capacity depends upon flexibility, but divergence between public and private interests may limit this flexibility. As in the current financial dilemma, resolving this will require determined leadership.
  4. Despite the extent and high quality of existing climate research reviewed in this document, the degree of uncertainty regarding many important adjustment challenges remains very high. This uncertainly is costly, increasing the risk of both public and private mistakes and the deferral of necessary adaptation decisions. The process of improving research and understanding of climate effects may itself be costly and difficult, but policymakers must have better visibility regarding climate risk and response options.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

The "Curb Cuts" approach to computing

Very thoughtful blog post on As Your World Changes about how accommodation of various disabilities can benefit us all.
Curb cuts for wheelchairs also guide blind persons into street crossings and prevent accidents for baby strollers, bicyclists, skateboarders, and inattentive walkers. The “curb cuts” principle is that removing a barrier for persons with disabilities improves the situation for everybody. This hypothesis suggests erasing the line that labels some technologies as assistive and certain practices as accessibility to maximize the benefits for future users of all computer-enabled devices. This paradigm requires a new theory of design that recognizes accessibility flaws as unexplored areas of the design space, potential harbingers of complexity and quality loss, plus opportunities for innovation in architectures and interfaces.

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