H-1B program means that MIT graduates aren’t special anymore?

I got the cold shoulder from a couple of aviation companies when I invited them to come speak and demo in our three-day FAA Ground School class at M.I.T.  Maybe it is Boston’s typically miserable January weather that is putting them off, but I wonder if the main reason for the lack of interest is the ease of recruiting skilled foreigners via the H-1B visa program (created in 1990).

In the 1980s, companies that needed nerds would flock in-person to MIT, a rich source of a scarce resource. Companies would organize presentations about what they did and why it was interesting and then invite audience members to apply for jobs. Certainly it was unusual for a company to turn down an invite to show up and get in front of 70 young folks studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Aeronautical Engineering.

Readers: What do you think? Is on-campus recruiting suffering in the H-1B age?

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The Amazon HQ2 deals show how to implement a planned economy?

I’m wondering if the Amazon HQ2 deals show how to implement a planned economy without having to acknowledge that one’s country has transitioned away from the market.

Planned Economy v1.0: It is illegal for anyone to operate a business without approval from a government ministry. Government experts decide which companies can operate, from which locations, and engaging in which businesses.

Planned Economy v2.0: Set up tax rates that are, by global standards, punishingly high. It is therefore impractical to do business if a company must pay the headline rates. Government experts decide that certain companies, in certain locations, and engaging in certain activities, can operate with tax rates that are closer to global norms.

We’re not quite to this point, but with a few upward tweaks of the tax rates I think that we could be.


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Surveillance Nation

“The Subway Bomber’s Journey to 42nd Street, Captured on Camera” (nytimes, November 5, 2018) is a little shocking for showing just how many security cameras are running in our cities these days.

There is a lot of speculation on why crime is less prevalent today compared to 30 or 50 years ago. I wonder how much of the credit for this reduction can be claimed by the developers of the integrated circuit. Now that cameras and memory are almost free, maybe criminals know that it is tough to get away with crime (though plainly Akayed Ullah did not expect to get away with his actions and did not regard what he was doing as a “crime”).


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Amazon settles into low-tax New York City

“Amazon Announces New York and Virginia as HQ2 Picks” (nytimes):

Amazon could receive more than $2 billion in tax incentives across the two top locations, the company said in its announcement. Up to $1.2 billion of that will come from New York state’s Excelsior program, a discretionary tax credit. In Virginia, the company could receive up to $550 million in cash incentives from the state.

Plainly both New York and Virginia will be low-tax environments for Amazon (not for small competitors, though! The Tax Foundation ranks New York almost dead last in business tax climate; only California and New Jersey are more punishing places to have a company), but how exactly are the “tax incentives” ladled out?

Amazon will pay less in state income tax? In payroll taxes? In property taxes? A combination of these taxes? 

“The mystery tax breaks bringing Amazon to LIC; New York has an incentives package for Amazon, but taxpayers may never know what’s in it” talks about “tax credits,” but doesn’t say if these are credits against state income tax or local property tax or what.

[Separately, anyone planning to sue an Amazon employee for child support or alimony should probably wait for the lawsuit target to be transferred from Washington (capped child support and limited alimony) to New York ($100,000 per year in tax-free child support readily obtainable and far longer taxable alimony duration). New York enables child support profits to be collected through age 21, while Washington cuts them off at age 18. New York is also more favorable for plaintiffs seeking to obtain sole custody of a child (see TMZ for why it was smart for Katie Holmes to sue Tom Cruise in New York rather than in California). For plaintiffs suing the very highest Amazon earners, the Virginia location offers unlimited child support by formula, but a child stops yielding cash at age 18.]

I wonder if the Amazon New York location will end up presenting the nation’s largest contrast in leisure time. “Amazon’s New Neighbor: The Nation’s Largest Housing Project” (nytimes) says that 6,000 people who have no financial incentive to work (they may actually suffer reduced spending power by working due to the welfare system structure) will live right next to people that the same newspaper says are essentially slaves (see “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace; The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.”: “When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” she said.)

Readers: What do you think of New York residents paying the nation’s highest tax rates (tied with California?) so that Amazon can be in NYC but be taxed more like a business in Florida or Nevada?

Also, does this mean that the New York transportation system will melt down? How can it handle 25,000 more commutes per day via subway, Uber, private car, train, etc.? Every mode of transit in NYC (even walking in Midtown!) seems to be gridlocked and/or overburdened currently.

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Veterans Day Observed (F-35)

Today we observe Veterans Day.

In addition to remembering those who died in previous wars, let’s consider our arsenal for the next ones.

The F-35 was used in combat by the US for the first time in September (Reuters story on attacking a ground target in Afghanistan; maybe a drone could have done this?). Wikipedia says that taxpayers began funding this program in 1992 and that the plane first flew in 2000 (prototype) and 2006 (production version). So it was 26 years from the start of development to the first military use, longer than the interval between World War I and World War II.

Comparison: The B-29, the most technologically advanced plane that we had in World War II, was requested by the Air Corps in December 1939, first flew in 1942, and was used in combat in June 1944 (5.5 years after the start of the program).

Should we be happy with Donald Trump for not starting any new wars? Or unhappy with him for not disentangling us from places where we apparently can’t win (or even define “win”)? See “Who Is Winning the War in Afghanistan? Depends on Which One” (nytimes, August 18), for example.

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Veterans Day with a B-29 crew member

We went to the New England Air Museum today, home of a beautifully restored B-29, and met two former B-29 crew members. One is 92 and one is 94. Both were navigators, which meant a lot of radar work (identifying islands and cities both for navigating and bombing through clouds). Every B-29 crew member endured missions 12-15 hours in length and horrific weather encounters (see “Plowing through the weather in a B-29”).

It is a great museum in general, but it was wonderful to be there on Veterans Day and have a Huey crew chief from Vietnam show us around the Huey, two B-29 crew members show us the B-29, etc.

Sad to think that the World War II veterans will be gone soon.

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Boeing 737 crash is first mass killing by software?

The Lion Air 610 mystery/tragedy seems to be mostly solved. The Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane, which uses a de Havilland Comet (1949; also BBC)-style hydro-mechanical flight control system, has a touch of intelligent software layered on top. This NYT article and an Emergency Airworthiness Directive #2018-23-51 explain how the airplane will trim itself into a crazy nose-down attitude in the event of a single angle-of-attack (AOA) sensor going bad.

“At Doomed Flight’s Helm, Pilots May Have Been Overwhelmed in Seconds” (nytimes) explains 

[disabling the system] would not have been a simple matter of pushing a button. Instead, pilots said, Captain Suneja could have braced his feet on the dashboard and yanked the yoke, or control wheel, back with all his strength. Or he could have undertaken a four-step process to shut off power to electric motors in the aircraft’s tail that were wrongly causing the plane’s nose to pitch downward.

Can we consider this the first mass killing by software?

[Background: an airplane wing will suffer an aerodynamic stall, in which the airflow over the top of the wing is no longer smooth, and lose Bernoulli effect lift, if the angle between the relative wind and the wing is too large. This is what limits an airplane’s ability to hover. To generate sufficient lift, the wing has to be within about 12 degrees of level and the wing needs to keep moving. It isn’t possible to fly super slowly at a 45-degree nose-up angle and still have enough lift to remain at the same altitude. The helicopter works by spinning a conventional airfoil so that, even if the fuselage isn’t moving, the wing is still moving rapidly and generating lift.]

What are some alternatives to Boeing’s design, you might ask? The Airbus philosophy, as embodied in the A320 and subsequent airliners, is to turn everything over to the computer(s). Despite holding the stick all the way back, Captain Sully was not able to stall the A320 that landed in the Hudson River. If the fancy computers on an Airbus aren’t getting what they think is good or consistent data from the various sensors, they hand over the machine to the pilot who can look out the window or at the attitude indicators in the cockpit and do something sensible (or panic like a student pilot, as with Air France 447).

Stepping down the food chain, we have the Pilatus PC-12, a Swiss-designed 11-seat turboprop. The plane starts out with a standard light aircraft flight control system. The pilots’ yokes are connected directly to control surfaces via pushrods and cables. On top of this Pilatus has layered a stick shaker to warn pilots that the airplane is nearing a stall and a stick pusher that yanks the yoke forward. The airplane has a great safety record despite being operated into some challenging short runways and being flown, in some cases, by inexperienced pilots.

Instead of Boeing’s single AOA sensor and software to run the trim, the PC-12 has two AOA sensors and two computers. If both sides agree that it is time to go nose-down, then and only then will the stick pusher be engaged. If somehow both sensors and both computers are defective and push inappropriately, a “pusher interrupt” button is always right there on each yoke. From the AFM (“owner’s manual”):

A friend who is a Silicon Valley engineer texted me incredulously “Wouldn’t they do fusion from zillions of sensors?” My response on the FAA certification process:

It is like ISO 9000. Boeing had binders of paperwork and bureaucratic approval for their design, but the design itself may never be scrutinized.

Almost certainly if the B737 had the same system design as the PC-12 all 189 folks aboard Lion Air 610 would have arrived safely at their destination. The worst that would have happened is the pilots being briefly annoyed by a shaking stick and having to hit a checklist.

I’m not sure if this crash can fairly be attributed to a software problem, since the software presumably did function as designed. It seems that we can attribute the crash to a poor system design, but ultimately the plane was crashed into the water by software.


  • Wikipedia has a good article on the various aircraft flight control system alternatives
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If the migrant caravan demands buses, why not give them plane tickets to Canada?

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau says that Canada welcomes any refugees or asylum-seekers that the U.S. rejects. “Central American Migrants in Mexico Want Buses to US Border” (nytimes) says

Central American migrants in a caravan that has stopped in Mexico City demanded buses Thursday to take them to the U.S. border, saying it is too cold and dangerous to continue walking and hitchhiking. About 200 migrants, representing the roughly 5,000 staying in a stadium in the south of Mexico’s capital, marched to the United Nations office in Mexico City to make the demand for transportation.

What is the practical obstacle to giving them plane tickets to Toronto?

Separately, “Caravan Walks Quietly On, U.S. Opposition a Distant Rumble” (nytimes, 11/9/2018) is interesting for describing the experience of the folks in the current caravan:

Ms. Alvarado and her relatives left their home on the outskirts of Comayagua, a city in central Honduras, on Oct. 12. They came from a family of farm laborers who worked for abysmal wages in coffee plantations. Generations of residents from Comayagua had made the trek to the United States to find better-paying work, and the possibility was always forefront in the minds of those who remained behind.

Ms. Alvarado, one of the few in her family who had managed to escape the coffee fields, had been working as an assistant in a government social development program, but barely getting by on a salary of $200 a month.

(So the woman who gets a monthly paycheck from the Honduran government will have to claim in her asylum hearing (2-3 years from now?) that she is being persecuted by the Honduran government?)

Do-gooders should considering seeting up a shoe distribution center on the southern border of Mexico, rather than thoughts and prayers on Facebook:

They, like most members of the caravan, were ill-prepared for walking. Ms. Jiménez was wearing pink plastic sandals. Ms. Banegas and her son wore flip-flops. Ms. Jiménez’s 3-year-old had to be carried by the adults for much of the way.

The mechanics of getting into the U.S.:

The group did not plan to apply for asylum. Rather, like many other families in the caravan, their plan was to cross between official border entries and turn themselves into the United States Border Patrol. Since they were women traveling with children, they hoped they would be released quickly from detention and allowed to remain in the United States pending the outcome of their deportation cases. It’s a practice that has been widely used for years, but one that Mr. Trump is seeking to end.

Ms. Banegas said she picked Elmer, who left school three years ago to work in the coffee fields, to travel with her to the United States because he was her oldest minor child.

With him, “I might have a better chance of getting in,” she said.

The women had heard that the Trump administration policy of family separation had ended. Other migrants from their hometown had successfully crossed into the United States since then and had been released with their children.

I’m still confused by the policy of limiting refugee/asylee status to those who are fit enough to make an overland trek to the U.S. If we are humanitarians, given that Honduras has an awesome airport with a 9,500′ runway (MHLM), why aren’t we sending a daily Airbus A380 to pick up the elderly and disabled in 900-person groups? If we are not humanitarians, why do we accept any low-skill refugees/asylees?

Circling back to the top of this post… even if we take Canada out of this, why buses? Why wouldn’t the U.N. charter an Airbus A350 (after the A380, the world’s quietest airliner so that caravan members can relax!) to bring caravan members to the U.S. destination of their choice? If the U.S. objects to the daily arrivals, the U.N. can simply cite that the U.S. signed up to the 1967 refugee protocol.


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Family background of the California shooter?

The professor in Why You Are Who You Are: Investigations into Human Personality cites research that personality is highly heritable and disordered personality characteristics are even more heritable.

The Son Also Rises finds that personal success is highly correlated with extended family success.

The perpetrator of the recent Thousand Oaks shooting was plainly someone with a disordered personality and also not a very successful person. The media seems to blame his actions on PTSD from his time in the U.S. Marine Corps. Certainly a high percentage of Americans who serve in the modern military become disabled due to PTSD, but is that enough to explain a shooting rampage?

I’m wondering about this guy’s family background. Were his biological parents, aunts, and uncles simply mild-mannered accountants? Does he have siblings? What are they like?

Readers: What have you heard? Would someone who looked at this guy’s relatives have had any inkling that he was likely to do something crazy and violent?


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Why does Eric Schneiderman run free while Harvey Weinstein is criminally prosecuted?

“Schneiderman Will Not Face Criminal Charges in Abuse Complaints” (nytimes):

After a six-month investigation, prosecutors said Thursday that they would not pursue criminal charges against Eric T. Schneiderman, the former New York State attorney general who resigned in May after four women accused him of assaulting them.

“I believe the women who shared their experiences with our investigation team,” Ms. Singas wrote, “however legal impediments, including statutes of limitations, preclude criminal prosecution.”

The women, who had been romantically involved with him, accused him of choking, hitting and slapping them, sometimes during sex and often after drinking. All of them said the violence was not consensual.

Harvey hasn’t been accused of being violent, right? He is accused of trading roles in movies for ordinary non-violent sexual favors?

This former New York politician was inflicting non-consensual violence on women, possibly every night year after year (since the women continued their romantic relationship with him despite the violent attacks). Why isn’t that more worthy of prosecution than Harvey’s casting bathrobe operation?

[Separately, the Times also says 

In the immediate wake of the allegations, Mr. Schneiderman at first denied assaulting or abusing anyone, saying he had “engaged in role-playing” with the women. But in a statement issued Thursday morning, he apologized both to them and to the people of New York. He also said that he had spent time in “a rehab facility” and was “committed to a lifelong path of recovery and making amends to those I have harmed.”

What kind of “rehab” would be effective for changing someone’s sexual proclivities? We ridicule anyone who says that they are going to “rehab” people out of homosexual desires, right? Why would it be more effective to rehab this guy out of whatever he was enjoying in bed for the last 5-10 years?]

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