Follow our ground school at MIT via the miracle of streaming video

If you’re not happy with the latest from Netflix and Amazon you’ll love our MIT Ground School course, streaming in real time and on-demand:

Experienced pilots: Start with “Day 1-PM” from the on-demand menu and then scroll to 2:13 for a lecture on F-22 flight controls.

Today was the end of Day 1. We’re also running tomorrow and Thursday.

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Mindless Enthusiasm for Mindfulness

From Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich:

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Zen-trained psychologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had already extracted what he took as the secularized core of Buddhism and termed it “mindfulness,” which he extolled in two bestsellers in the late 1990s. I first heard the word in 1998 from a wealthy landlady in Berkeley, who advised me to be “mindful” of the suffocating Martha Stewart– ish décor of the apartment I was renting from her, which of course I was doing everything possible to unsee. The probable connection to Buddhism emerged when I had to turn to a tenants’ rights group to collect my security deposit. People like me— renters?— she responded in an angry letter, were oppressing Tibetans and disrespected the Dalai Lama. During the same stint in the Bay Area, I learned that rich locals liked to unwind at Buddhist monasteries in the hills where, for a few thousand dollars, they could spend a weekend doing manual labor for the monks. Buddhism, or some adaptation thereof, was becoming a class signifier, among Caucasians anyway, and nowhere was it more ostentatious than Silicon Valley, where star player Steve Jobs had been a Buddhist or perhaps a Hindu— he seems not to have made a distinction— even before it was fashionable for CEOs to claim a spiritual life. Guided by an in-house Buddhist, Google started offering its “Search Inside Yourself” trainings, promoting attention and self-knowledge, in 2007.

In a stroke of genius, Gordhamer found a way to raise the issue while actually flattering the tech titans. He claims to have discovered that, while the rest of us struggle with intractable distraction, leaders from Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other major tech companies seem to be “tapped into an inner dimension that guides their work.” 22 He called it “wisdom” and started a series of annual conferences called Wisdom 2.0, based originally in San Francisco, in which corporate leaders, accompanied by celebrity gurus, could share the source of their remarkable serenity, which was soon known as mindfulness.

Mass-market mindfulness began to roll out of the Bay Area like a brand-new app. Very much like an app, in fact, or a whole swarm of apps. There are over five hundred mindfulness apps available, bearing names like “Simply Being” and “Buddhify.”

While an earlier, more arduous version of Buddhism attracted few celebrities other than Richard Gere, mindfulness boasts a host of prominent practitioners— Arianna Huffington, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Anderson Cooper among them. It debuted at Davos in 2013 to an overflow crowd, and Wisdom 2.0 conferences have taken place in New York and Dublin as well as San Francisco, with attendees often fanning out to become missionaries for the new mind-set— starting their own coaching businesses or designing their own apps. A recent Wisdom 2.0 event in San Francisco advertised speeches by corporate representatives of Starbucks and Eileen Fisher as well as familiar faces from Google and Facebook. Aetna health insurance offers its thirty-four thousand employees a twelve-week program and dreams of expanding to include all its customers, who will presumably be made healthier by clearing their minds.

How well does it all work?

What there is no evidence for, however, is any particularly salubrious effect of meditation, especially in byte-sized doses. This was established through a mammoth federally sponsored “meta-analysis” of existing studies, published in 2014, which found that meditation programs can help treat stress-related symptoms, but that they are no more effective in doing so than other interventions, such as muscle relaxation, medication, or psychotherapy.  … So maybe meditation does have a calming, “centering” effect, but so does an hour of concentration on a math problem or a glass of wine with friends. I personally recommend a few hours a day with small children or babies, who can easily charm anyone into entering their alternative universe.

[Based on the last sentence, I think it is safe to say that the author has never been to our house.]

More: read Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer 

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Women’s March: three of our best friends are Jewish

The second annual Women’s March is today. This raises a few questions…

If the march is protesting female victimhood, when can victory be declared? When women have more income than men? When women have more spending power? When women occupy a majority of seats in Congress? Or will women become a perpetual victim class, marching every year for the next few hundred years?

(And where does that leave other would-be victim classes? If the best jobs are set aside for white and Asian women, for example, doesn’t that necessarily exclude members of other victim classes? Two victims cannot simultaneously hold the same job.)

Is it legitimate to have a “Women’s” march in a fully transgender/gender-fluid age? For whom are the marchers advocating? People who currently identify as women? People who might one day identify as women? People who formerly identified as women, but changed to male because of the prejudice in our society against women?

“The Heartbreak of the 2019 Women’s March” (nytimes):

Serious allegations of anti-Semitism have dogged some of the Women’s March’s leaders for over a year, but they’ve lately reached a crisis point. … Leaders of Women’s March Inc. — as the nonprofit organization is officially called — tried to make amends. It added three Jewish women to its steering committee.

When will they say “Three of our best friends are Jewish!”? (i.e., instead of changing their views, statements, or behavior, they’re dragging in a few token members of the group they’re accused of bigotry against)

[This reminds me of a recent Facebook exchange, which I’m fairly sure reduced my friend count. A post that was shared into my feed:

Americans haven’t become more sensitive. We’re not suddenly overcome with political correctness. You’ve ALWAYS offended us. You holier-than-thou, hypocritical, sanctimonious Haves have always walked through the world not noticing the cringing around you, the anger, the devastation. But now when you say that you jewed someone down on the price, I speak up for my friend Jennifer. When you refer to The Orientals, I gently point out that the correct term is Asians. When you call someone a tranny, even in the locker room, I defend my transgender family members. And when you call someone a faggot I don’t shrink back into my seat and try to become invisible. I stand up for MYSELF and tell you that you can’t use language like that in my presence. And I now know, unlike 25 years ago, that there will be people around who have my back. Don’t long for the days when everyone was less sensitive. Step up and acknowledge a lifetime of being an asshat, and change.

My response (to the share, not the original post):

He has multiple transgender family members, but knows only one Jew? (“Jennifer”)

Separately, I would love to know where this guy hangs out and hears people regularly using the out-of-favor terms that he references! “Tranny” in the locker room?]

Readers: What’s going on with the Women’s March in your neighborhood?

Related:

  • post from 2018: I know of a well-educated medium-income woman in her 20s. She was sufficiently passionate about feminism to go to the Women’s March in the off-the-charts-expensive city where she lives. She met a man in his mid-50s who owns a modest (i.e., $3+ million) house. She is now protesting the patriarchy by living in this man’s house.
  • “The Future is Female”: Women’s March in Boston 2018
  • Donald Trump-themed mini golf course: Hole 7: Women’s March. Mechanical string of pussy hats drawn across the fairway. If ball gets stuck in one, 20 points are added to player’s score in the “child support” row. If there are any attorneys on the course, player makes their mortgage, car, and kids’ college tuition payments.
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Are there any razors as good as Gillette’s?

A Boston-based company is in the news: “Gillette #MeToo ad on ‘toxic masculinity’ gets praise – and abuse; Backlash includes call for boycott of P&G, complaining commercial ‘emasculates men’” (Guardian).

As someone too old and unhip to have a beard, I’ve been a loyal Gillette customer for decades. Now it seems that there is a virtue offset bonus. Gillette will take some of its spectacular gross margin on every blade and use it to educate un-woke men on how to behave.

What about for the guys who aren’t happy to support Gillette’s new crusade? Can they buy a blade system that is actually as good or better? If so, what is it and who makes it? Are there any multi-subject tests to show that one brand is actually better than another? I found this comparison that concluded the Korean-made Dorco Pace 7 is superior to Gillette’s best, but it is just one guy (the Koreans are better at making TVs, ships, and smartphones than we are, so why shouldn’t they also be better at making razors?).

Related:

  • Dorco Pace 7 at Amazon (searching for “Gillette” within the reviews reveals that some people prefer the Dorco and others went back to Gillette)
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Barron’s: 70 percent tax rate will be awesome

“What a Top Income-Tax Rate of 70% Would Mean for the Economy” (Barron’s) is a bit surprising, considering that the publication is targeted at the same rich investors that would get hit by any tax rate increases. The author points out that the no-extra-tax states aren’t able to gather up all of the rich bastards:

Top-earning Americans have shown surprisingly little appetite to move from high-tax jurisdictions, such as California (top state-tax rate: 13.3%) and New York City (top state and local rate: 12.7%), to states with no income tax. The people who tend to leave California and New York for Nevada and Texas are poor and middle-class workers in search of affordable housing, rather than rich people seeking lower taxes, according to Lyman Stone’s analysis of data from the U.S. Census and the Internal Revenue Service.

Ergo, a person who is getting hit with an 83.3 percent income tax (70% federal plus 13.3% California) will just pay it. As with https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2015/06/01/book-review-the-redistribution-recession/ the article points out that we already have some super high tax rates in the U.S. …. on the poor:

Making matters worse is that “means-tested” benefits are withdrawn as income rises. The net result is that the poor and middle class often face effective marginal tax rates equivalent to or higher than what Ocasio-Cortez has proposed for the rich. According to data from the Congressional Budget Office, a typical married couple with two children pays an effective marginal tax rate of 78% as wages rise from $30,000 to $60,000, while a single parent with one child pays an effective marginal tax rate of 69% as wages rise from $22,000 to $42,000. These implicit taxes are huge disincentives to work and affect many more people than tax proposals aimed at the top 10,000th of the distribution. 

(The rate actually reached over 100 percent during the Obama Administration when mortgage payment relief was factored in; see the above link to The Redistribution Recession book review.)

See also John Cochrane’s calculation that, due to property tax liabilities, the top marginal tax rate in the U.S. is already over 70 percent, and his analysis of optimum rates.

I still think that this is a pipe dream unless capital gains taxes are also raised to 70-83 percent. Otherwise people can just come up with ways to convert ordinary income into capital gains, as was conventional in the 1950s. (And can it really work to have 70-83 percent capital gains taxes in the U.S. when “socialist” Denmark maxes out at 42 percent (Deloitte) and when London is at 10 percent (see https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2019/01/02/move-to-the-uk-if-youre-an-entrepreneur-10-percent-capital-gains-tax/))?

Readers: What do you think it means when even Barron’s is saying that maybe a 70+ percent tax rate will be optimum? (Of course, as someone who earns less than the proposed income threshold for this new rate, I personally think that a rate of closer to 100 percent would be fair!)

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Investing in stoners inadvertently

The Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-US Small-Cap Index Fund shows that its fifth largest holding is Canopy Growth Corp. Some sort of real estate holding company? Wikipedia: “Canopy Growth Corporation, formerly Tweed Marijuana Inc., is a cannabis company based in Smiths Falls, Ontario, …”

I don’t like this purported “industry” (see https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2015/06/08/legal-marijuana-questions-1-why-does-it-cost-more-than-spinach/) because I can’t see any sustainable competitive advantage in growing marijuana (any more than spinach). As a mutual fund investor, though, am I doomed to be a shareholder?

[Separately, this fund has a 0.25% annual expense ratio. The equivalent ETF, also from Vanguard, charges 0.13%. Wouldn’t they actually prefer people to hold the fund rather than trade in and out of the ETF?]

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Irish tradition + no-fault divorce = unusual living situations

At one of our dinners-for-8 on Empress of the Seas, a lively fellow told us about his life in The Villages and how he could be more popular with women if he were a dancer. He said that he was just getting out of a marriage that began in 2015: “I’ve been single, married, widowed, single, half-single, married again, and now divorced.” (his three–year marriage isn’t long enough to trigger Florida’s permanent alimony provisions)

An Irish passenger explained that the Irish tradition is for adult sons to build houses on their parents’ land and thus settle down with their kids right next to the grandparents. As a significant chunk of land may be only 1 acre, the houses are quite close to each other. This system worked well for centuries, but with today’s no-fault divorce law a common outcome is that the daughter-in-law divorces the son and the Irish family court will award the house and children to the mother. “The son has to move out and the grandparents now find themselves across the garden from an unrelated female and her new boyfriend.”

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Jobs at the Kennedy Space Center

The government that says it is working to reduce inequality eliminates low-skill low-wage cashier jobs via touch-screen ordering kiosks… (Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex cafeteria):

I posted this on Facebook and it attracted the following comment from a New York City resident:

I don’t see a problem with eliminating jobs. Most jobs are going to be eliminated over the coming years including high paying white collar jobs. Eliminating jobs is simply accelerating a society with a guaranteed minimum income.

So it is okay if folks who want to work as cashiers can’t get jobs and/or must accept lower wages (due to lower demand) for a period of some years because it will usher in the glorious future of guaranteed minimum income. (See https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2016/11/30/long-term-effects-of-short-term-free-cash-guaranteed-minimum-income-experiments/ for how we actually did have guaranteed minimum income in the U.S. for a few years)

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Bezos divorce shows how people conflate community property with 50/50 division

“Jeff Bezos, World’s Richest Person, Announces Divorce After 25 Years Of Marriage” (Forbes):

The couple lives primarily in Washington State, which requires divorcing spouses to equitably divide “community property,” including all income generated during a marriage. “It seems very likely, if not 100% a certainty, that whatever Jeff Bezos has earned at Amazon has been community income,” says David Starks, a partner at the Seattle-based law firm McKinley Irvin.

If MacKenzie Bezos, 48, does indeed receive half of her husband’s assets, she would be worth more than $68 billion, making her the fifth-richest person in the world.

The Forbes journalists pride themselves on precision, presumably, when it comes to what happens to $68 billion, yet here they conflate “community property” with “50/50 division”. Somehow Americans seem unable to educate themselves on family law, which may have far more impact on their spending power than choice of career, whether to attend college, etc.

From the Washington chapter of Real World Divorce

Are the assets split 50/50? “We’re a ‘fair and equitable’ state,” says DeVallance. “It is not a 50/50 state. The property division can be a disproportionate.” Does the fact that Washington State is a “community property” jurisdiction mean that assets acquired before the marriage remain with each party? “No,” explains DeVallance. “All property is before the court, including separate property, though it is somewhat rare to invade separate property.” DeVallance pointed to a November 25, 2013 appeals court decision in the divorce of Julian Calhoun and Christopher Larson (see http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/698338.pdf ). After a marriage that lasted more than 20 years, Calhoun won $139 million as her share of community property and more than $40 million from Larson’s separate property (stock in Microsoft acquired prior to the marriage):

According to the trial court, the separate property award served two objectives. First, it recognized Calhoun’s intangible contributions to the marital community. The court explained, “This was, after all, a long-term marriage in which the wife made a major contribution to all that the community accomplished, measured in terms of their children, their foster children, their impact in the broad community and their more narrow business interests.” … In other words, while Larson generated the couple’s considerable wealth, Calhoun’s intangible contributions served equally to benefit the marital community. Second, the award helped ensure Calhoun’s short- and long-term financial security. The court found that Calhoun held a college degree in English literature but was not “gainfully employed” during the marriage. Larson, in contrast, obtained significant employment and investment experience during the marriage. The court found he had a “keen business sense” and that, “[i]n recent years, he has stayed busy actively managing his extensive investments and philanthropic endeavors.” As between the two, Larson was in a better position to acquire and manage future wealth. … The $40 million separate property award—consisting of Microsoft stock and cash—provided Calhoun with immediate liquidity.

Calhoun’s request for attorney’s fees for the appeal portion of the lawsuit was unsuccessful, though not on the grounds that someone who has won $180 million in a divorce can afford to pay her own attorney.

Regarding our hypothetical scenario DeVallance says “On the basis that she is the primary parent she can ask for the house and may get it. She would receive a disproportionate share of community assets.”

[Mrs. Bezos is fortunate not to be living in Germany, where, assuming Mr. Bezos checked the “separate property” box on the marriage certificate application, she would be getting nothing more than child support (capped at $6,000 per year per child).]

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Does it still make sense for a software company to have a research lab?

Back in the 1970s and 1980s it was conventional for software and hardware companies to have research labs, modeled to some extent after AT&T Bell Labs and IBM’s various labs. This way the cash cow product could soldier onward with incremental changes while the replacement incubated. IBM, for example, kept selling efficient-but-inflexible hierarchical DBMS software for mainframes while its Almaden (San Jose) research lab created our modern RDBMS and SQL (initially unusably sluggish).

Product cycles are much shorter today. In theory a company with a popular program can push out new features or fixes every day or at least every week (“Update and Restart”!).

I was chatting with the CEO of a successful one-product software company. Making a change to this software involves getting signoffs from a huge number of constituents, a massive testing effort, etc. The result is a lot of interface that everyone agrees is suboptimal. I suggested starting a research lab with a comparative handful of developers to knock together working prototypes that can be used by a few thousand people and then, if anything catches on, use that experience (if not much of the actual code) as inspiration for making the painful and expensive changes to the core product.

He reasonably asked if I could cite currently successful companies that are doing a formal “labs” department as opposed to simply having hackathons or similar informal ways of pulling together proofs of concept. So now I’m going to bounce the question over to readers!

Readers: Is the idea of a separate “labs” group within a company essentially obsolete due to (a) faster release cycles from the main product engineering group, and (b) hackathons and similar venues that can be sources of inspiration for the main team?

Also, what other examples can people think of for a big innovation coming out of a separate group within the same company? It has to be in the same area where the company already has a successful product, preferably software. So Bell Labs developing the transistor or HP Labs the ink jet printer wouldn’t count (since HP’s business wasn’t primarily printers prior to the lab innovation and AT&T was not primarily in the business of making vacuum tubes).

Related:

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