Professor Karen prefers to stay home this fall

“Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen Is a Fantasy” (nytimes), is by a 67-year-old professor whose paychecks are guaranteed to keep rolling in. What does Professor Karen (a.k.a. “Laurence Steinberg”) say?

Safety plans border on delusional and could lead to outbreaks of Covid-19 among students, faculty and staff.

Most types of risky behavior — reckless driving, criminal activity, fighting, unsafe sex and binge drinking, to name just a few — peak during the late teens and early 20s.

First, this is the age at which we are most sensitive and responsive to the potential rewards of a risky choice, relative to the potential costs. College-age people are just as good as their elders at perceiving these benefits and dangers, but compared with older people, those who are college-aged give more weight to the potential gains. They are especially drawn to short-term rewards.

This is fascinating to me! The alter cocker calls the students reckless and implies that they are not properly weighing “dangers” when, in fact, healthy 18-22-year-olds don’t face any “danger” from coronaplague! Out of 7,647 people killed in Massachusetts by/with Covid-19 through June 15, exactly 15 were under 30:

Maybe those 15 were running around the soccer field the day before coronavirus struck them down? Not likely. 98.3 percent of Covid-19 deaths in Massachusetts are among those “with underlying conditions” (dashboard example).

The old cower-in-place advocate for Zoom continues to write with the assumption that young people are taking “risks” unreasonably.

Finally, college-age people show more activation of the brain’s reward regions and are more likely to take risks when they are with their peers than when they are alone. There are no such effects of peers among people who are past their mid-20s.

Not all adolescents are risk-takers, of course, and not all adults are risk-averse. But it’s hard to think of an age during which risky behavior is more common and harder to deter than between 18 and 24, and people in this age make up about three-fourths of full-time American undergraduates. … It’s one of those perfect storms — people who are inclined to take risks in a setting that provides ample temptation to do so.

The NYT reader will infer from this that two slender undergraduates meeting for coffee are taking roughly the same level of personal risk that Andy Green took while driving ThrustSSC at 763 mph.

My pessimistic prediction is that the college and university reopening strategies under consideration will work for a few weeks before their effectiveness fizzles out. By then, many students will have become cavalier about wearing masks and sanitizing their hands. They will ignore social distancing guidelines when they want to hug old friends they run into on the way to class. They will venture out of their “families” and begin partying in their hallways with classmates from other clusters, and soon after, with those who live on other floors, in other dorms, or off campus. They will get drunk and hang out and hook up with people they don’t know well. And infections on campus — not only among students, but among the adults who come into contact with them — will begin to increase.

I look forward to a time when we are able to return to campus and in-person teaching. But a thorough discussion of whether, when and how we reopen our colleges and universities must be informed by what developmental science has taught us about how adolescents and young adults think. As someone who is well-versed in this literature, I will ask to teach remotely for the time being.

In other words, “Science (TM) tells me to stay at home and watch the direct deposits stack up in my bank account while occasionally checking in via Zoom.”

In what other universe would a national newspaper run a plea by an old guy who wants to sit at home and do almost nothing, but still get paid at 100 percent?


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What I learned about teaching computer nerdism remotely

My favorite kind of computer nerdism class is the lab class. Software development is a skill and the only way to learn it is by doing. A lecture from a successful programmer will not turn beginners into successful programmers.

In mid-March we got kicked out off campus. We had been teaching successfully (at least from our self-serving point of view!) in a classroom at Harvard Medical School. Three groups of three students each in the same room. By walking around we could fairly quickly see what was on everyone’s screen, help as necessary, and talk either to the entire group of 9 or to one group of 3. Groups of 3 could talk amongst themselves without disturbing the others.

Using Webex and Zoom reduced productivity by at least 70 percent. We could work with only one student’s screen at a time and essentially only one team at a time. Switching from screen to screen is a cumbersome time-consuming heavyweight process.

Now that we’re going to stay home for the next 20-50 years (even if we cure coronavirus, we still have influenza as our mortal enemy, right?), what would the ideal infrastructure be for teaching our brand of computer nerdism?

In addition to a personal monitor or two, the teacher needs an array of 9 monitors, each one at least as large physically as a student’s screen (teachers have older eyes than do students, typically!). This will enable the teacher to see what each student is doing and interrupt with help as necessary. We need four voice chat channels: one for each student group and one for the entire class. Each student needs two physical screens. One for himself/herself/zerself/theirself to use for editing and running SQL and R code and one as a mirror of the teacher’s screen (how else will students know which sites teachers like to visit?).

If we had had this infrastructure, I think we could have been 80 percent as productive as we had been during our physical meetings.

Readers: What else would help for hardware and software infrastructure for teaching?


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iCloud for Windows creates a single folder with 44,000 items

Trigger Warning: A First World problem.

A recent example of software engineering from the best and brightest of Silicon Valley is iCloud for Windows version 11. Want to see the picture that you just took on your phone? It will be zapped automatically to \Pictures\iCloud Photos\Photos … where it is mixed in with 44,000+ additional photos and videos that you’ve taken since 2014 (thumbnails only, which load slowly even with a 1 Gbit fiber connection).

Yes, a single flat directory of however many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of photos and videos that you’ve ever taken. Even worse, the software no longer converts from Apple’s unconventional choice of HEIC to JPEG. Except that if you edit the photo on the device, e.g., because the orientation sensor got it wrong, the corrected version comes through as a JPEG. So now you’ve got a directory with a mixture of HEIC and JPEG files.

Is there any way to change this behavior? The 10.x version of iCloud would take the HEIC files captured by the phone, convert them to JPEG, and actually download them into a \Pictures\iCloud Photos\Downloads

Stylish Macintosh users: does it work the same way on the Mac? One enormous flat folder with every photo that you’ve ever taken?

(Maybe Apple is just leading the way into a HEIC future? Apparently not. The Apple-brand silicone case for the iPhone 11 Pro Max failed and I tried to send them a picture of the failure so they’d send me a replacement. Apple support has a web-based system for uploading “files”. If you try to upload a photo that you took with Apple’s own device, from Apple’s own browser (Safari), into Apple’s own server, it fails with no further explanation. If you try to do it from Windows, you get the same unexplained failure. If you convert the HEIC to JPEG on Windows and then upload… it works.)

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Facebook pay cuts for remote employees who move to Nevada or Texas prove that the labor market is rigged?

“Zuckerberg says employees moving out of Silicon Valley may face pay cuts” (CNBC):

The company will begin allowing certain employees to work remotely full time, he said. Those employees will have to notify the company if they move to a different location by Jan. 1, 2021. As a result, those employees may have their compensations adjusted based on their new locations, Zuckerberg said.

“We’ll adjust salary to your location at that point,” said Zuckerberg, citing that this is necessary for taxes and accounting. “There’ll be severe ramifications for people who are not honest about this.”

If there is a market for productivity and accomplishment, the remote worker should be able to get paid the same regardless of location, no? For items where there is a functional market, we can’t say “Oh, this is of excellent quality, but was produced in Cambodia so I am going to pay only half as much as I would pay for the same item, same quality, made in higher-cost China, right?

Readers: Does the fact that Facebook can unilaterally set the price it will pay for labor depending on the cost of housing from which the labor toils show that the market for Silicon Valley labor is rigged?


  • High-Tech Employee Antitrust Litigation (Wikipedia): High-Tech Employee Antitrust Litigation is a 2010 United States Department of Justice (DOJ) antitrust action and a 2013 civil class action against several Silicon Valley companies for alleged “no cold call” agreements which restrained the recruitment of high-tech employees.
  • Hacker News thread on this post (my favorite: “Supply and demand makes sense as an explanation [for why on-site workers in different locations are paid different amounts], but it doesn’t actually explain this one. If facebook were just charging a market rate determined by supply and demand, then your salary would drop when you become remote, regardless of where you actually live, as your location has nearly no bearing on your productivity or competition for the same job. The fact that Facebook wants workers to report their location, as they cannot easily see the difference, shows their motivation cannot be driven by supply and demand.” Also good: “Salary based on an individual’s needs is quite the ‘hmmmmm’ moment. It is one of the reasons Violet Newstead — Lily Tomlin’s character in 9 to 5 — is given when she furiously demands to know why she was passed over for a fair promotion. The guy who got the job instead? Well had a wife and kids to support. He needed it more.” And quoting American academia’s favorite thinker: “No, it just proves that Marx was right about the nature of the wage/salary. The value of labour power is the cost of reproducing/maintaining that worker at a particular standard of living, not some particular fraction of the value generated at work.”)
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Time for life-sized videoconferencing?

Is everyone sick of seeing friends and co-workers compressed into a portion of an already-small monitor?

The only good video conference experience that I have had was back in 2000 in Australia. A university with two campuses used the rear wall of a lecture room as a life-size window into a room that was about 20 miles away. People in that remote room appeared life size on the rear wall. The data link speed was, I’m sure, nowhere near as good as the standard fiber-to-the-home services today. The projectors could not have been as good as today’s projectors. But it was surprisingly natural to converse with people who seemed to be just on the other side of the wall.

Multi-city law firms today often have advanced systems. A huge direct-view TV (85″?) on one wall of the room in New York can show what is going on in a similar room in D.C. It doesn’t seem as effective as the system that the Australians had back in 2000, though, because the people who appear on the screen are not as big as the people who are live in the room (or as “live” as anyone can be who is working on a patent infringement question!).

Back in 2003, I wrote up an idea for a infrastructure that would enable a person to work side-by-side with an assistant in another part of the world: “it is as if a wall in one’s office is opened up to the assistant’s office thousands of miles away”. Why not build home offices like this as standard? A window in front and video walls left and right. If the plague returns, everyone who currently works side-by-side in a Silicon Valley coding plantation can go home and still work side-by-side with at least two co-workers at a time.

I’ll cut and paste the research idea from 2003…

Americans make expensive employees. Productivity is measured as economic output per dollar of labor input. In the absence of technological advances, the only way to improve labor productivity is to move the job to a low-wage country. Pairing every American office worker with an assistant in a low-wage English-speaking country (or a low-wage part of the US) would be an excellent way of boosting productivity without exporting jobs, assuming that an effective coordination system can be constructed.

The Labus Novus coordination system will comprise the following components:

  • a life-sized two-way video conferencing system; it is as if a wall in one’s office is opened up to the assistant’s office thousands of miles away
  • an information system that records everything relevant to the high-wage worker’s job, including facts, reference material, contacts, correspondence, appointments, and relationships among these items [like a more sophisticated Microsoft Outlook]
  • robot arms and other robots within the high-wage worker’s office that can be manipulated by the low-wage worker, thus enabling the assistant to pull folders from file cabinets, position papers on a desk, etc., from the other side of the planet

Current state-of-the-art video conferencing systems require 6 Mbits of point-to-point bandwidth. Thus the requirement of extremely high quality video conferencing implies the need for research in video analysis and compression, network protocols and routing, and semiconductors and optics for very bright images.

[Ooops! This is rather unfortunate to read, 17 years later! 6 Mbits?!?]

Outlook-on-steroids might sound straightforward but doing the job right can be as challenging as all of Artificial Intelligence. We are building support for a computer-mediated assistant rather than attempting to build a fully automated personal cognitive assistant. This does not reduce the difficulty of achieving a complete solution but it does increase the utility of an incomplete solution.

A desire to give the assistant the ability to manipulate physical objects half a world away (telepresence) justifies research in broad areas of robotic actuators and sensors.

Funding Possibilities: Phone companies are logical sponsors for this research. Telcos built a tremendous amount of network capacity in the 1990s but then neglected to offer any services besides voice communication, thus resulting in falling prices and bankruptcies. Only about 10 percent of the fiber installed through the U.S. is actually being used. Continuously active high quality video conferences have the potential to consume all of currently unused bandwidth in the networks.

Note that the system could be used domestically, yoking together a worker in an expensive crowded place such as New York City with an assistant in a low-wage uncrowded place such as Iowa.

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Invest in Estonian-style e-governance to be ready for the next plague?

Quite a few Boston-area businesses have shut down their physical offices. Employees of Amazon, for example, are working from home. Towns and cities, however, can’t close down their respective Town Halls and City Halls because the only way to access quite a few government services is to show up in person. The same enterprise of state/local government that tries, via its public health department, to get everyone to stay home, may ironically end up being one of the only information processing operations that insists that everyone show up and get within contagious distance.

Supposedly Estonia allows citizens to do almost anything that they’d do at a city hall from the disease-free safety of their own homes.

The U.S. track record for government-run IT is admittedly mixed, e.g., with the $1 billion insurance site. But maybe if we could adopt the Estonian system unmodified for state and local transactions we would be able to save time in non-plague periods and save lives in plague periods.

Readers: What do you think? Should people have to brave coronavirus to get (or issue) a building permit?


  • “Estonia, the Digital Republic” (New Yorker, 2017)
  • e-Estonia (Wikipedia)
  • e-governance (from Estonians themselves): “Estonia is probably the only country in the world where 99% of the public services are available online 24/7. E-services are only impossible for marriages, divorces and real-estate transactions – you still have to get out of the house for those.” (don’t get too excited about those family law transactions; they are not as lucrative as in the U.S. From a 2017 post: “In all three Baltic countries I learned that having sex with the richest person in the country would yield only about 200 euros per month in child support” (similar to nearby Sweden))
  • “Estonia: Tough campaign stop for Bernie Sanders”
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Iowa Caucuses, Boeing 737 MAX, and Apollo 11: software is usually the weakest link

From Techcrunch:

A smartphone app tasked with reporting the results of the Iowa caucus has crashed, delaying the result of the first major count in nominating a Democratic candidate to run for the U.S. presidency.

Previously, I wrote about how a handful of lines of code could have prevented the Boeing 737 MAX’s software from trimming the airliner into a dive-bomber-at-Midway nose-down attitude (see “Boeing 737 MAX crash and the rejection of ridiculous data”, for example).

I recently visited the Kennedy Space Center visitor center. In the building housing one of the leftover Saturn V rockets there is a compelling “Lunar Theater” presentation explaining that software overloaded the computer system in the Lunar Module during Apollo 11, the first landing on the moon. According to the dramatic retelling, the mission was saved only because the crew hand-flew the spaceship to a successful landing. In other words, all of the civil, mechanical, electrical, and aeronautical engineering challenges were met, but the software failed.

[Update: See comments below for how the the software in this case may have been blameless!]

The books for sale at the KSC do not encourage young visitors to become computer programmers…

Maybe it is time to switch to Haskell?

Also, what if the Iowa debacle had happened in some other country? Would U.S. media report it as resulting from a fundamental problem with that country’s culture and educational system? Whereas if it happens here in the U.S. it is just an unfortunate freak event?


  • Apollo 11: Mission Out of Control (WIRED): “The inside story of how Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin struggled to touch down on the moon, while their guidance computer kept crashing. Again and again.”
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Masters Thesis Idea: Conversational Flight Planner

In working on the slides for a flight planning section of our FAA Private Pilot Ground School at MIT (videos and slides available free online), it occurred to me that none of the fancy computer tools were as convenient or efficient as talking to a competent human.

What about a system where the input is, e.g.,”I’m thinking about going from Bedford to Washington, D.C. this weekend.” (could be entered via menus; does not have to be natural language)

The Conversational Flight Planner responds after looking at the voluminous official FAA briefing and some of the long-term weather forecast products, such as MOS:

There will be a strong wind from the north so you should consider paying up to fly into Dulles and land Runway 1R rather than deal with the crosswind at KGAI.

Looks like ice is possible on Sunday evening so you’ll need to depart Sunday at noon.

It will be below freezing overnight Saturday night so you need to arrange for a hangar or a preheater plug-in.

Interesting Master’s Thesis project for a computer science or aero/astro major?

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When does the great age of machine intelligence reach our desktop computers?

Turning Google Contacts into address labels for Christmas/New Year’s cards is a task that I expected to be simple. The plan was

  • export to “Google CSV” format
  • upload to to generate a PDF for printing

This fails because the Google export process produces a CSV file with nearly 100 columns, which is too many for the Avery system to handle.

No problem, open in Microsoft Excel and cut down to about 5 columns, right?

What happens when you combine programmer’s from two of the world’s smartest companies? Excel is not smart enough to recognize a column of 5- or 9-digit values as ZIP codes, even if they appear right after a column of two-character state abbreviations. The leading zeros are trimmed off, turning Massachusetts ZIP codes into four-digit values, e.g., “02138” to “2138” (the ZIP code of the great minds of Harvard and Harvard Square, who will soon be tapped by President Warren to optimize our government).

What if we keep this as a Google-only process? The people who built Contacts apparently don’t talk to the people who built Sheets. There is no way to export directly from Contacts to a Google spreadsheet.

Save to the local disk and then upload, right? The behavior is exactly the same as with Excel: leading zeroes of all of the five-digit ZIP codes are trimmed off. This is the company we’re going to trust with medical diagnoses? (“The doctor will Google you now” turning into “The Google will doctor you now.”)

As with most other challenges, if you’re a skilled user of Excel the solution is straightforward: create a blank workbook and then use the Data tab to import “From Text/CSV”. Even on the full automatic setting, it correctly infers that the ZIP column is text, not number. But if the fully automated import works, why doesn’t it work simply to open the CSV file in Excel?

(The whole process ended up taking way longer than if I’d simply addressed 180 envelopes by hand, of course.)

The particular challenge of wrestling with Google Contacts or generating addressed envelopes is not that interesting, but I think it is a good starting point for a discussion of how machine learning and AI can ever be integrated back into the computer systems we use day to day. Google Translate does some impressive stuff, but why isn’t it easy to enhance Google Sheets?

Separately, the Google Contacts software has a long way to go to reach the same level of quality as what Sharp was shipping with the Wizard organizer in 1989. A contact with a single street address, once exported, will appear in a CSV-file row without any street address. Why is it difficult for Google to do what Apple, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, and Sharp were doing successfully in the 1990s?

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Feel better about the time you’ve invested in writing documentation

During a recent rental car excursion I became curious about the USB-C port in the front of the Nissan Maxima. Could one run a laptop from the car, for example? I decided to open the glovebox and read the specs from the owner’s manual. After one year and more than 20,000 miles of rental by perhaps 100 different drivers…

(still in its shrink wrap)

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