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future dystopia

This is not the first time Jaron Lanier gets a post on Weird Things, in fact we met him before as he quickly went off the rails in describing AI, then became more incoherent while bemoaning all social media as a dehumanizing waste, all the while trying to pick a fight with the Singularitarian version of a machine-directed utopia. Now, the former virtual reality pioneer has moved on to a book length rumination on how technology is killing the middle class by eliminating jobs. And as per his current modus operandi, he starts off with a tiny kernel of a reasonable statement, and proceeds to strap it to the Hyperbole Rocket and launch it into deep space. Is it true that a new software package or a robot might make your job obsolete? Yes, it absolutely can. But does the technology prevent you from getting a new job? No, it doesn’t because the reasons why you’re going to have trouble finding work in a globalized economy are more political than technological, and it’s short term greed, partisan bickering, and ignorance of the powers that be at fault.

Here’s an example. Lanier’s opening salvo says that when Kodak was at the height of its market domination of personal photography, it employed more than 140,000 people. Now, he says, the face of personal photography is Instagram which has only 13 employees. Therefore, jobs were lost because of technology, Q.E.D. Um, no. First and foremost, Kodak died the slow and painful death it did because it first refused to adapt to a world of digital photography, then couldn’t, as it wasted years assuming that as long as they can at least sell the tools to develop all those digital photos on glossy paper, they’ll be fine. They never even thought that paper may be useless for most of the pictures being taken today as social media and smartphones took off. Secondly, as much as tech blogs may have hyped it, Instagram was not "the new face of photography." Take away cheap, mainstream digital photography and it couldn’t exist. It was a distribution network, a network that Kodak could’ve built. But instead of innovating, it slowly withered away.

All right, so what happened to those tens of thousands of people laid off by Kodak? Well, they could find new jobs because among those laid off were managers, assistants, chemists, and IT specialists who could’ve applied their skills in other companies, doing other things, and I assure you that there aren’t 140,000 middle class workers out there who haven’t worked a day since a Kodak executive pink slipped them to meet the quarterly numbers. Eeyore would’ve been more optimistic about their future than Lanier, but then again, for optimism, Lanier would’ve needed to see technology as something more than a nefarious tool to use and abuse the populace. Where the disciples of Ray Kurzweil see immorality, sunshine rainbows, and unicorns frolicking in the meadows, he seems to see impending chaos, destruction, and socioeconomic dystopia adapted from the pages of very gloomy science fiction. And yet, Lanier plans to live with this grim future. For a fee of course. You see, in his version of if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them, he’s suggesting that if social media sites use our data to survive, they should pay us for it, and that’s how we will start solving the impending job crisis caused by these evil machines taking our place.

Certainly, while being paid to mess around on Facebook would be a great deal, the problem is that paying all of its users even pennies a day would leave the company insolvent. Social media sites simply don’t make all that much money because they fell short of the promises they give a lot of advertisers when it comes to moving product for them. All the data you submit simply won’t give them nearly as good of a picture of who you are and what you like as Lanier and so many tech pundits think it does when they fall for the company’s wild claims. In fact, predicting what a person will do based on his or her social media footprint is an exercise in warm reading. There’s plenty of detail to go on, but a lot of this detail may be useless and lead to broad conclusions or incorrect recommendations. Advertisers are not moving nearly as much product as they thought they would, people are giving them incomplete and misleading information, social media makes money but not as much as it thought it could, and now Lanier wants this struggling ecosystem to pay its users for making it profitably mediocre? Does he also have a bridge to sell us?

Yes, the world is changing. Yes, technology is doing things it’s never done before, and it’s now taking us places where we’ve never been, physically, socially, and economically. But instead of trying to figure out a way to productively deal with with the change of pace, by investing in R&D and shifting more jobs into innovation and design, while letting robots do more of the execution, people like Lanier want to take their ball and go home. The problem is that they can’t. Arguing if our sprawling data centers and powerful software needs to be scaled back and dumbed down is like protesting against the wind blowing. You can waste your oxygen telling it to slow down or go in a direction you’d personally find more acceptable, or you can raise some wind generators for an extra kilowatt hour or two to take advantage of the situation. At no point has any civilization ever grown or met a challenge by saying "no, we’re done," or demanding payment to participate in new ideas, new economies, and new social structures. Many have died and stagnated doing exactly that, which is why we shouldn’t take Lanier’s technophobic musings seriously.

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empty cubicles

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer received a massive heaping of criticism for her decision to revoke all employees’ ability to work from home over the last several weeks. From the tech press, most of the wired pundits groaned that Mayer just doesn’t get it. News and blog sites constantly harped on the fact that she had a nursery built onsite so she could stay in the office no matter what and that her expectations about her workers’ lives were completely unrealistic. Token contrarians did their half-hearted best in reminding us that working from home is not for everyone, Yahoo is not exactly a prison but a rather cushy place to work, and that a lot of people in Silicon Valley spend an inordinate amount of time in the office. And from all the sociological and technological bits of punditry created in response to Mayer’s decision, I’d like to declare the tech writers as those who did the best job explaining why her choice was ill advised. They’re the ones who got it.

A while ago, I tackled some pointed criticisms of telecommuting and why they usually showed a problem with the organization not understanding what telecommuting is and how to do it rather than a fundamental problem with the concept. The very same points are present in Mayer’s big decision and what they show is someone obsessed with putting in time at the office not realizing that the number of hours spent in a cube or how many cars there are in a parking lot are not an indicator of how well the company is or isn’t working. In fact, her decision was motivated by how employees came and went according to the usual tech reporter sources, and the fact that there weren’t as many cars outside at 5 pm as she’d like rather than some sort of study as to why the number of cars was so low. Are the employees no longer engaged? Are they more productive when they work from home? Herding them back into the office and keeping them there does not answer these questions. It just makes the parking lot full and the current CEO happy, and this is why she was loudly booed by the tech press which abhors the ass-in-the-chair metric.

So let’s say that you’re an executive of a tech company going through hard times and you work late nights in the office with few people around after the informal quitting time. Wouldn’t you want to see how well the telecommuting employees are doing? Did they get everything delivered? Did they get the projects working? Were they around when questions needed to be answered or call in during the big meeting? Next, since the company isn’t doing well, how about trying to find out if your workers feel trapped or like they’re on a sinking ship and looking for a way out? Is there an actual mission for them to fulfill? Are they being challenged? Do they feel like working for you is advancing their knowledge and careers? If not, of course they’re not going to stick around more than necessary. Likewise, you need to look at how productive the company is and how many of the projects it started are on schedule. More hours at the office does not mean more work and better products. Sometimes they just mean more hours behind your computer.

Of course I appreciate that there are projects which need you in the office and you have to be there until everything is done and ready to go. We’ve all been there, especially before a product launch. But when someone is spending 10 or 12 hours in the office on a routine basis and very proudly brags about running on five hours of sleep and adrenaline, one starts to wonder what it is precisely that requires this person to spend half a life at work. How much is he or she getting done and what exactly does it bring to the company’s bottom line? Is there a better use of all this time and if so, what? These are not rhetorical questions. Running a company costs money and every hour you spend in the office needs to have a reason behind it. If this reason is to show all your subordinates how dedicated you are to work, is that really a good use of a company’s time and resources? And does it mean that you’re wasting time with e-mails that shouldn’t have been written or sent, meetings that are a waste of everyone’s time, and fluffy meets and greets? And would all this cost a lot less if you just let people work from home and get things done?

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minimalist office

Generally the informal rule around Weird Things is not to persue the same topic two days in a row, but there are always exceptions, especially in the case of hard data that brings the points discussed the day before into better focus. So while yesterday we talked about the mismatch in what science advisers recommend to the government about the job prospects of STEM grads and what really happens, today we’ll peek at the other side of the debate. As noted previously, one of the reasons why companies today claim they can’t find qualified employees is because they believe that the only qualified employee is one who has done the exact job the position for which they’re hiring entails and anything other than that is an unwarranted gamble. But they’re also very down on colleges overall, with more than half saying that they have trouble finding an applicant pool worthy of their time and dinging the grads’ communication, critical thinking, and problem solving skills in a way that makes it sound as if colleges hand diplomas to anyone.

And yet, amazingly enough, some 93% say that college graduates work out well and make fair and good employees, with the good employee designation being awarded to college graduates more than twice as much as fair to boot. Likewise, more than half believe that a college degree, especially the four year kind, is just as important as it was five years ago, if not more, and about two thirds will refuse to wave any educational requirement before reading a resume. So to sum all of this up, colleges are churning out barely literate, functionally useless candidates who can’t find their way out of a paper bag and are way over their heads when applying for a job, and yet they become good employees and college education is an extremely important qualifier during the hiring process. Wow, and the companies that took this survey criticize college students for a startling inability to communicate since these results are completely contradictory when taken at face value. But you see, there’s an underlying thought that clears up these odd results.

One of the more frequently cited complaints by companies is that college graduates can’t jump into a new job and hit the ground running. Now, this would make sense since colleges teach the theory, the basics, and the science behind something, not necessarily how to do a specific job function, and argue that it’s not their job to do so and never has been. To companies who don’t want to spend money on training, internships, and long term commitments to their employees to mold their workforce over years rather than the quarterly reports, this is unacceptable. They do want college graduates and they do want the colleges to give them the basics, but they’re also looking for colleges to become high end vocational schools. The graduate they want to hire out of school doesn’t just have good grades but can plop behind a desk and use industry standard tools when shown to his or her cube. So when a newly minted computer science grad can’t get into a chair, load up, say Visual Studio, and start weaving a UI with jQuery and Knockout, they think that colleges have come up short in their duty to produce qualified workers.

We can go back and forth about all the issues in higher education today. We can talk about all the useless degree programs, the high profile terrible advice given to young students, the fact that not everybody needs to go to college, and that the current college system can actually stall your career if you don’t balance your degrees and work history just right, and we should try to address the downright predatory and unfair system of student lending in place today. But even though these discussions need to be held to fix the problems we’re facing in colleges, perhaps the most important discussions we need first and foremost are negotiations between academics and companies that hire their students. Certainly colleges do fail some graduates and I’ve seen perfectly bright and intelligent students left years behind the industry despite going to schools with good names and reputations, given unrealistic expectations of what their degrees would do in the real world. At the same time, for companies to force students and parents to pick up a big tab for specific job training and turn professors into underpaid corporate trainers is absurd.

We need to move past nebulous qualitatives and settle some real requirements for what we’re trying to expect from a college education, honestly aware that the system cannot be all things to all people and there needs to be a balance between learning the theory and learning a job. And if we can accomplish that, students will have an easier time deciding their majors, paying on the loans they took out to go to school, and then getting jobs after they’re done. Maybe companies will have more realistic expectations of what colleges can do for them and start training people, just like they did in the good old days, when employees were a lot less disposable than they are today and new hires were expected to grow with the company and expand their skill sets instead of performing the required units of work to then move elsewhere. A good way to start this sort of debates would be to think through the system from the viewpoint of a student rather than how to hit a macro metric that could easily be changed by the powers that be…

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mass media advice

Nature recently published a thorough look at Norman Augustine, an engineer who now advises political bigwigs on how to allocate research and development dollars for scientific ventues. A lot of his recommendations are praised as overdue, common sense, and essential. But there’s one nagging criticism that emerges every time. Augustine argues that the United States needs to get more STEM students from around the world because the United States can’t compete with entire armies of new engineers and scientists emerging from China and India. Sounds like good advice as well because science is fundamentally a collaborative process and the more ideas germinate and can be tested, the faster we can advance the task of acquiring and applying the brand new knowledge universities and research labs are supposed to produce. Unfortunately the data that lies under this recommendation appears to be fundamentally flawed…

The first version of the report ended up including at least one major exaggeration: that China graduated nearly ten times more engineers than the United States (600,000 versus 70,000) — a comparison used to argue for increasing the number of scientists and engineers in the United States. But the Chinese data probably included two-year technical degrees whereas the US figure did not. The error “contributed to the alarm quality of the report”, says Michael Teitelbaum, an economist at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York… “I don’t know of any serious analyst with an open mind who has concluded there are shortages in the science and technology workforce,” he says. In fact, many US scientists and engineers were struggling to find high-quality jobs in academia and industry, a trend that continues today.

Whoops. True, the "serious analyst with an open mind" part sounds a lot like a fallacy because there are analysts who disagree that there are enough STEM grads in the United States, but the problem of scientists and engineers being unable to find jobs is very real. We churn them out in significant numbers but companies don’t want to hire them because they’re too busy looking for perfect fits into their exact jobs, not transferable skills, and severe budgets cuts in higher ed can leave PhDs on food stamps. Which brings us to the real dilemma in American STEM disciplines today. Students often take on huge debts, study for 6 to 8 years for a shot at a $35,000 a year post-doc by professors who believe that it’s not their duty to prepare them for jobs, then with an immense debt burden and little pay face companies who refuse to hire them because they want someone with three years of very particular experience for an entry level position or prefer to offshore the positions to save money up front despite the often mixed results.

Augustine’s voice joining major tech companies who support massive offshoring and H1-B visas, which are dominated by a small clutch of Indian consulting companies, only makes the problem worse for the STEM grads. Now not only can they not find work, but they’re being told that we’re not graduating enough scientists and engineers and need to import them from abroad. What an incredibly cruel, mixed message! We have the best universities in the world. Only they don’t get enough STEM grads through the system and those they do are apparently unfit for work, while a technical college half a world away apparently churns out a surplus of the STEM grads we want those being produced by the world’s best colleges to be? Now, it is just me or does this make no sense whatsoever? Do the people who advocate this line of debate really research the quality of the data they use? Or do they simply brush it aside and assume that the complains about a lack of properly qualified STEM workers is the honest truth of companies with no ulterior motives?

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cyborg integration

Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before. As computers keep getting faster and more powerful and robots keep advancing at a breakneck pace, most human jobs will be obsolete. But instead of simply being pink-spilled, humans will get brand new jobs which pay better and give them a lot of free time to enjoy the products of our civilization’s robotic workforce, create, and invent. It’s a futuristic dream that’s been around for almost a century in one form or another, and it has been given an update in the latest issue of Wired. Robots will take our jobs and we should welcome it because we’ll eliminate grunt work in favor of more creative pursuits, say today’s tech prophets, and in a way they’re right. Automation is one of the biggest reasons why a lot of people can’t go out and get jobs that once used to be plentiful and why companies are bringing in more revenue with far fewer workers. Machines have effectively eliminated millions of jobs.

When we get to the second part of this techno-utopian prediction, however, things aren’t exactly as rosy. Yes, new and higher paying jobs have emerged, especially in IT, but they’re closed to a lot of people who simply don’t have the skills to do these new jobs or for whom no position exists in their geographical vicinity. Automation doesn’t just mean that humans get bumped up from an obsolete job, it means there are fewer jobs overall for humans. And when it comes to positions in which dealing with reams of paperwork and mundane office tasks is the order of the day, having computers and robots in them eliminates internships college students or young grads can use to build up a resume and get their feet in the door. They’re now stuck in a Catch-22 where they’re unable to get experience and more education puts them further behind thanks to a machine. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is not what the techno-utopians had in mind.

Of course humans will have to move up into more abstract and creative jobs where robots have no hope of ever competing with them, otherwise the economy will collapse as automated factory after automated factory churns out trillions of dollars worth of goods that no one can buy since some 70% of the population no longer has a job. And at 70% unemployment, every last horrible possibility that sends societal collapse theory survivalists screaming themselves awake at night has a high enough chance of happening that yours truly would also start seriously considering taking up gun hoarding and food stockpiling as really good hobbies. Basically, the failure to get adjusted to the growing cybernetic sector of the workforce simply isn’t an option. Companies, no matter how multinational, would be able to eliminate so many positions that the robot takeover of human jobs with no replacements in sight that it wouldn’t start feeling the economic pain as they hit maximum market saturation and can go no further because no one can buy their wares.

But all these good news aside, just because we’ll have time to adjust to an ever more automated economy and feel the need to do so, doesn’t mean that the transition will be easy and people will not be left behind. Without a coordinated effort by wealthy nations to change the incentives they give their companies and educational institutions, we’ll be forced to ride out a series of massive recessions in which millions of jobs are shed, relatively few are replaced, and the job markets will be slowly rebuilt around new careers because a large chunk of the ones lost are now handed off to machines or made obsolete by an industry’s contraction after the crisis. And this means that when facing the machine takeover of the economy we have two realistic choices. The first is to adapt by taking action now and bringing education and economic incentives in line with what the postindustrial markets are likely to become. The second is to try and ride out the coming storm, adapting in a very economically painful ad hoc manner through cyclical recessions. Unlike we’re being told, the new, post-machine jobs won’t just naturally appear on their own…

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internet cat

For the last few years, we’ve all been told that ill-considered pictures on social media sites were going to come back to bite us. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter if you had a few crazy or wild pictures from your college days on Facebook because you’d just limit the access to your friends and it’s college so those days are past and should have nothing to do with your ability to do the job for which you’re applying. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Employers are judgmental and your privacy settings can be manipulated or circumvented, and lately there have been too many cases of employers doing exactly that. And without a court order and a lot of hard work, you will not be able to prove that you were rejected for a job not because you didn’t have a high enough GPA or enough years of experience, but because a picture of you having — gasp! — some fun once in a while, made a prudish HR manager purse his lips in disapproval and ditch you.

To help remedy this state of affairs, Viviane Reding, a high ranking European politician, is now trying to introduce a "right-to-forget" law which would mandate that pictures you no longer want on social media sites are removed and stay gone. Technically, social media sites already comply with takedown requests but the process can be slow and cached versions can still rear their ugly heads if someone knows how to rephrase a search. This law basically wants the image to vanish from the web as much as possible, and by doing, is asking too much. Once a picture is out on a website, it can be downloaded and reposted, cached, and distributed at a whim and any picture that goes viral can have literally thousands of different copies residing on servers around the world. Just try to track all of these copies down. You won’t be able to because the very nature of the internet today will be against you. That means that if you become internet famous for taking some very awkward body shots at a bar snapped by an amused stranger, you’ll just have to live with knowing that there’s little you can do to make sure that picture is wiped out.

So this is a bit of an issue, isn’t it? With everybody carrying around a camera linked to a social media ecosystem that’s not going anywhere anytime soon, despite its poor profitability, you will either have to watch your every step, become a homebody, or just deal with the consequences as they come. We can no longer get away with stashing embarrassing or questionable photos of ourselves in a shoe box or throwing them in the trash. How do we handle that? My suggestion is purely non-technical. We adapt our culture to deal with it and think twice before anything goes online under our names. That’s all we can really do because adding more filters, blocks, hacks, and privacy settings just tends to create new security holes and rarely deter determined sleuths with a good grasp of how social media and exploits work. And employers looking through profiles on social media sites will need to stop looking just because they can, since so many of them will already perform background checks, credit checks, employment verifications, education checks, and drug tests. Really, that should be more than enough.

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exchange abstract

There’s a part of the Republican economic policy that I never understood and really can’t seem to wrap my mind around because the more I think it about it, the more self-contradictory it gets, and the more it resembles an almost prayful fantasy rather than a sound plan. Now I know that the ardent disciples of the right wing will chuckle and say "well duh, you don’t get it because you must be one of those stupid liberal Obamocrats, I mean hell you’re from the former USSR," as it tends to be the level of partisan debate nowadays. But my problem with this policy doesn’t come from some sort of meditation on morality and society. It comes from my wallet since I’m not just a consultant by trade, I’m an independent consultant, so according to the Republican speeches, it’s a miracle that I haven’t been strangled out of business by the socialists in Congress and if I vote for GOP, I’d make so much money thanks to their tax cuts, I could hire a whole staff. This is, in a nutshell, their plan for nurturing the economic recovery. Give entrepreneurs and business owners tax cuts so they hire people in appreciation.

There are a few slight problems with this rosy outlook. First and foremost, have you noticed the surge in productivity as fewer and fewer people have jobs? That’s thanks to new technology. An uncomfortable truth is that a lot of jobs are being made obsolete which is why the job training for those other than master treadespeople will need to be tied to the STEM fields and into a major coalition of research and development labs for government and big corporate clients if we ever hope to make a serious, permanent dent in unemployment. So why would I want to run off and hire someone if I get a tax cut if I can just build some software to do things for me? I can write a program to look for differences in data for tens of thousands of reports and it’ll do the job in just a couple of seconds. Certainly the GOP would balk at the idea that instead of writing a program, I should’ve went out and found someone to manually sift through the reports for me for days and bill me $10 to $15 an hour. But why would they expect me to do the same thing if they give me a tax refund or a tax holiday, especially if I need the job done today, not next week?

Secondly, employees are expensive and the hiring practices of many companies to ensure that the money they spent will go to an employee they’re 100% sure should do the job make it even more expensive and tedious to hire someone. Basically, companies hire as a last resort and for every job they don’t create, they can divert more towards paying down debt, buying new tools, and paying dividends to those who invested in them. There’s nothing corrupt or evil about this. It’s really the same as you not going out for nights on the town to save some money so you can buy that new couch and pay down your credit card bill. You need the couch, your savings need some replenishing in case of a rainy day, and the bills don’t pay themselves. And when the GOP argues that you should spend money because dammit, people are counting on you to pay them so we can maintain a strong economy, I’m sure your first question is whether they’re paying any attention to what they’re saying. But that’s exactly what they’re proposing. Go out to spend your tax refunds, give them to businesses and the businesses will hire you. This view of the economy is simplistic to a fault and ignores what companies actually need to do to stay profitable.

People who are in business do it to make money. If they feel charitable, they donate and get to write off the money they donate off their taxes, which if fair since they’re using it to help those in need or to advance a project that helps educate others. What the Republican idea proposes is an unworkable merger between the two, in which people who need to make money for those who invested in them expecting a return within three to five years, are being relied on to give jobs to people who need them as a reward for their spending despite this arrangement not being in the best long term interests of the companies they run. On top of this, the Republicans play a rather bizarre blame game in which companies that don’t want to hire people because the profits they earn can be invested elsewhere, are victims of a government that’s not creating the necessary environment to get companies to hire. And when people are laid off, the government is blamed for mishandling the economy even though whether people stay or go depends on the policies of an individual company. There are businesses who lay off right and left to make the quarter look better and there are those who refuse to lay people off even in hard times.

The fact of the matter folks is that blaming the government for why you’re not doing well or why you had to lay people off is terrible management. I’ve heard conversations in which people who closed their businesses said that they were lucky they closed up shop before Obama took the oath of office and it always struck me as a handy way of excusing one’s mismanagement. If you had a successful business that brought you a lot of money and with which you paid yourself well, why would you kill this golden goose just because a certain politician came to power? What kind of savvy businessperson decides to do this sort of thing? Maybe the business wasn’t doing very well and you had no idea how to fix it, so you closed up shop and blamed Obama so it doesn’t look like you failed but that you had no choice but to get out? Companies with good models and great products and ideas almost always make money regardless of who occupies Congress and the White House. And our goal should be to give these companies the incentive to invest here, rather than in an emerging market by offering new and more innovative technologies and ways of doing things to help boost their bottom line over the long haul.

We can’t do that with a tax cut and spewing fire and brimstone about government regulations as talking points are chanted with the zeal of a cultist at the apogee of an incantation. We have to expand R&D grants to help improve industrial designs and manufacturing techniques, play up all the strong intellectual property protections American law gives and the kind of infrastructure and government protection of their international interests no emerging market can offer. A quick and easy tax cut is the lazy politician’s way of solving big problems and the effects are short term. If a lawmaker drops my rent for three years and promises to raise it on the fourth, guess what I’ll be doing when the third year is up? That’s right, moving. These inducements are like the weekend sales at the mall, there to help bring in the crowds for those three days. Investments in R&D for retooling our economy which yield tools that can help companies more profitable over the long term and prompt them to hire workers who actually understand how these tools work is what will require hard work and long term planning, but will bring the biggest bang for our buck. Though for an average politician with a two year shelf life, this is simply too big of a project to consider…

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create poster

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Why is NASA spending $2.5 billion to land a rover on Mars when there are poor people still starving on Earth and the national debt has to be paid down? I’ve posted about this again and again, but it bears repeating. If you’re someone who thinks that we shouldn’t peruse high budget, high stakes science because there are starving orphans in the world, then you simply don’t understand math or science, and may well be a hypocrite to boot. Allow me to explain. How many of those who expect us to equate a Martian rover with starving children have a roof over their heads, food in the fridge, and computers on which to vent their frustrations at NASA’s “waste” in news story comments and on Facebook? Why do they not give up most of their possessions and give them to the needy? Why bother with a computer when half of all people on Earth can’t read? How do they justify a trip to the grocery store to buy fresh produce when more than a quarter of the world’s population has to go to bed hungry? And if they take vacations, what possible excuse can they make for such luxuries when a third of the planet is mired in abject poverty?

Seems a little ridiculous to be so demanding, doesn’t it? Well, it’s equally absurd to argue that we need to give up advancing the species forward until Earth is a utopia where no child goes hungry and no adult falls victim to a terrorist or a secret police of an authoritarian thug. Ultimately, there’s only so much we can do about poverty in general and this well-meaning effort to save the planet despite the fact that throwing money at poverty and hunger won’t solve these problems alone, can’t become a giant anchor around our neck. The Martian rovers are generating jobs and technology we can use in the future. Manned space exploration helps us discover more about our bodies and come up with new ideas for treatments of degenerative diseases, the kind that almost invariably kill or hobble us. To forgo this research so another wad of cash can end up in the greasy palms of some neo-feudal warlord or dictator, as it so often does, is a far greater waste than even the worst scientific experiment. At least we’d learn something from that.

And when we tackle the idea that ditching Curiosity could’ve helped us pay down the national debt, that’s when things get really asinine. Do the people who advocate this know how big the debt is? Do they realize that they’re talking about the equivalent of helping to pay off the mortgage on a modern luxury apartment at the London Ritz Carlton with change they find on a street corner? The entire budget of NASA amounts to one tenth of one percent of the debt, a rounding error barely even worth mentioning in the same breath. But then again, Americans think that NASA’s funding is on par with the Department of Defense despite the fact that if the space agency had a tenth of the defense budget, it would be so ecstatic, it would redefine what is it to have a multiple nerdgasm. If those were the figures with which we were dealing, humans would be flying to Mars on plasma rockets on a routine basis by now and we’d be taking vacations on the Moon. In fact, NASA provides such an amazing bang for our buck that to start ridiculing it for “wasting” $2.5 billion on building and landing a nuclear-powered SUV on another world while helping thousands of jobs in the process, is utterly absurd.

The national debt is as bad as it is today not because we flew to Mars just a few too many times but because more than a trillion dollars were spent on war (some necessary, a good deal not so much, to put it mildly), another trillion plus was spent on bailing out banks which gambled with the mortgage market, lost, and threatened the public into a lucrative bailout, and many billions were spent trying to induce them into hiring more people in the bizarre belief that companies will magically give people jobs if they get more tax cuts, tax incentives, and tax havens rather than do what’s in their best interests and pocket the profits. At no point in American history has the nation spent so much on science that it didn’t have enough money to buy ammo and issue social security checks. Likewise, no nation that I can think of was ever held back by investing in science and technology. Muslim sultans and European kings didn’t lament that astronomers found better navigation techniques, engineers built better roads and more advanced weapons using algebra, optics, and new advances in physics, and more soldiers could be treated by medics who found new medicinal uses for herbs that would make their way into modern medicine. We constantly underfund science and education, and yet it helps us move the world forward on a pittance. To lament that even this is too much is simply not a sane or informed argument.

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Say you’re an employer in today’s economy and you’ve reached a point when you need to hire more people to meet customer demand. Considering the high unemployment rates and the most educated workforce on a quest to either get hired or advance their careers, the absolutely last thing you could complain about would be a lack of potential employees, right? Surely there must be plenty of people you can hire, many of them with the kind of skills you can use and out of a job through no fault of their own. And yet, the biggest complaint that some 52% of businesses constantly voice is a supposed lack of employable candidates with the right skills, and this complaint sent many a politician and activist looking for a solution to an educational crisis. But a new book by Peter Cappelli, an expert in management at one of the nation’s top business schools, lays out a case that it’s not the potential employees that are the problem, it’s the employers’ unrealistic expectations and a stunning lack of vision and imagination that are to blame for their hiring shortfalls. And it’s a strong case…

We all know people who have impossibly high standards for a romantic partner. We’ve all met the guy whose insistence that he will only date professional, doe-eyed underwear models with doctorates in particle physics from an Ivy League institution had us rolling our eyes. And we’ve all heard the girl whose dreams of a perfect, tall but not too tall and handsome but not too handsome modern day knight in shining armor made us doubt she’d ever even manage to have a relationship. Cappelli argues that from what he’s seen, many companies today behave just like those characters, seeking only the perfect employee and refusing to either train a new generation of workers, or raise the wages to attract the employees of their dreams. And since they either want an employee who’s been doing the exact job for which they’re hiring for at least three years at a competitor, or will train someone overseas how to do the same job for half the pay, they either end up competing over a very small number of people working for their competitors or hiring for the short term while plowing cash into new overseas ventures that can quickly become a massive liability due to many, many factors. This is not a gap in skills or a deficiency in education on the workers’ part, concludes Cappelli. It’s bad management.

And there’s more. There’s an ongoing boom in vocational schools and medical and tech related fields, so the supposed massive shortage of STEM workers may well be overblown, and we actually do have just enough scientists and engineers out there. However, employers are refusing to pay them adequately and expect them to have not just work experience in the field, but a very specific kind of work experience. Forget the much talked about “transferrable skills” from past careers. No one wants to hear about them. Even worse, while you might be the golden candidate now because you’re applying for the same job at company after company, you’ll have trouble moving up the career ladder because those hiring you want you to keep doing the same job that you’re doing now, not advance into new roles. Or your job could fall out of favor and you’ll find yourself unemployed in short order, and you’re likely to stay unemployed because employers are now often discarding resumes from those who lost their jobs, often assuming that if you were a good employee, you would still have your job, and if you don’t, this means that you simply weren’t valuable or good enough to keep. How do you combat such an obsessive, all-consuming myopia? And why do we allow the employers who refuse to hire anyone but dream candidates get away with blaming the workers for not living up to their wildest hopes and dreams?

What if we were to continue to follow this game of musical jobs? Employment wouldn’t grow much without an occasional economic bubble to prop up job creation, workers would constantly have to change careers in the attempt to keep up with the latest fad, amassing degree after degree and mountains of debt gambling on the latest major they undertake paying off into a job, wages would remain stagnant, and employers would still be complaining about a lack of qualified candidates, using the term “qualified” as a synonym for “perfect in every single way.” They’ll keep outsourcing, creating economic bubbles elsewhere and spending billions on efforts to manage the liabilities of sending work thousands of miles away to a group of people they barely know, in a country that will more often than not employ protectionist measures that allow former subcontractors to build their own versions of the companies that once employed them with their bosses-turned-competitors footing the bill for their creation and growth. This is an unstable, unsustainable trajectory, but unfortunately, it seems to be the trajectory we’re following, assuming that the market knows best even when it never did…

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After years of warnings about low graduation rates in STEM disciplines from tech companies and DARPA, the call for more enrollments in scientific and engineering programs, and better, more science-centered primary schooling is being echoed across the media. It seems that the United States has been lagging behind and a new influx of chemists, biologists, physicists, computer scientists, and engineers is urgently needed to drive the economy and keep the nation from falling farther into the economic doldrums. To aid in that goal, the Bad Astronomer is writing inspirational paeans to experimental learning, and everyone is being urged to learn how to write code for the sake of our future. What’s so bad about outreach meant to inspire kids to put on lab coats or tinker with robots so when they grow up, they can quite literally build and grow our future? Ordinarily, I would say "not a damn thing" because the more people study how to apply the scientific method, the more we can inject rational debates into our currently badly suffering and appallingly hysterical civil discourse. But if we encourage them to peruse a scientific career without any changes to the system, things may end badly.

Here’s the dilemma. We value scientific education and expertise but we don’t seem to want to pay for it. When you go through the occupational reports and projections by the BLS, you can optimistically gather somewhere around a million scientific jobs if you don’t restrict yourself to only the occupations requiring a PhD. How could that be? What about all the colleges and large companies with R&D departments? Well, colleges don’t need hundreds of physics professors per department, they only need a small handful. Big companies also need a handful of researchers at best and many can’t afford them or aren’t willing to boost their R&D budgets since a department which doesn’t consistently produce a reliable stream of profits by its very definition looks less like an asset than a necessary evil on a quarterly report and elicit grumbles from impatient investors. A handful in this college and a handful in that lab and a handful in a few companies only makes a few handfuls. So with a lot of scientific jobs being few and far between, it’s insanely difficult to land one and when you do, you have to fight to keep it or you’ll be quickly pushed out because without constant breakthroughs or popular papers, a department chair or executive will want to give another of the thousand applicants for your job a shot.

On top of that, while compensation for PhDs in STEM fields reaches between $70,000 and $110,000 per year depending on their profession and experience, most post-docs have to make do with $35,000 a year at most and assistant jobs are not exactly the best paying scientific ventures. In fact, the only STEM fields that’ll reward graduates are computer science and engineering, but only because there are many companies in need of an engineer or a programmer on a constant basis and they’re highly unlikely to do any sort of R&D while they are employed. As I mentioned before, the market for professional IT workers is approaching 1.5 million jobs and the market for computer scientists is approaching 35,000 in the same time frames. So we’ll inspire all those young, eager, new STEM graduates into what exactly? Tiny job markets, 1 in 1,000 odds of being hired, and a career unlikely to last past their late 40s or early 50s? Who would want to subject themselves to it? Yes, there are a lot of people who just want to do what they love and aren’t worried about becoming millionaires. I really, really do get that. Unfortunately, love doesn’t pay the bills and we’re not talking about not being able to go on a luxury tour of Europe in a hypersonic train, or whatever it is that’s all the rage among millionaires these days. I was talking about paying the rent and paying down those often downright predatory college loans.

Just like we’re finally discussing that a college degree is no guarantee of financial stability despite being very aggressively pitched as such for more than two decades, and that far too many undergraduates have little in terms of income and too much in terms of debt while there are PhDs subsisting on food stamps, we really need to get realistic about the effects of a STEM boom based on little more than supportive rhetoric. Is minting more scientists a noble pursuit? Absolutely. But to insist on educating them through test-based droning, then send them through as many as eight years of grad school to throw them into a market with endless demand for cheap and highly educated assistants but room for only a small handful of researchers and experts, would be a huge disservice to the kids we’re now trying to inspire to peruse STEM fields. We have to change how we educate kids and refuse to allow testing as a crutch for politicians to pretend they’re actually doing something to improve schools. We have to fund more scientific pursuits and treat grants and productive research not as an expense but an asset. We have to create more jobs for PhDs and provide incentives to invest in research, whether it’s with tax breaks or credits, or by offering government competitions for contracts the way NASA has been doing with its COTS program. Yes, we need more STEM grads. But we need to treat them well too.

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