Tuesday, October 3, 2017

An Open Letter to Project fi Director John Maletis

Update: I got a call from Mr. Maletis. I had already found out that I could indeed switch off wifi calling contrary to the tech support advice. He admitted that the Google voice integration was a problem. I'll leave and come back.

Dear Mr. Maletis,

I think that this may be the first open letter I've written to a company and posted online, but given the lack of a mailing address that I can find and the difficulty of going beyond a support specialist that offers to relay my concerns I see no other way to get this message to you.

I am a big Google fan. I used to work in IT. I've used Adwords and Adsense, gmail, Google calendar, my entire family uses android phones and of course I use Google search. So, when I heard about Project Fi I made the leap, leaving the rest of my family on T-mobile without me. I regret that decision because it is clear to me that decisions made at Project fi are not made in a manner that puts customers first.

While at T-mobile I gave my cell number to hundreds of family and friends and my Google voice number to hundreds of business contacts. I simply forwarded my Google voice number to my cell and could get both business and personal calls on that phone. When setting up my phone I was told that I could no longer do that. I could forward Google voice to my cell only if I was a customer of one of Project fi's competitors. Can you think of another company that will give you a free service, but only if you buy from one of their competitors? I can't.

Recently, my phone started to pick up calls at my home over data instead of over the cellular network. While the network signal may be strong, the latency is large, especially if my kids start playing Overwatch or streaming video while I'm on the phone. Voice quality degrades to the point of being unusable. Project fi pushed an update that disables my ability to set Android to route calls over the cellular network, making my cell phone all but useless in my own home. Support's answer is to tell me to turn off wi-fi, which reduces the utility of my smartphone greatly. That was the last straw. I'll be leaving project fi but I wanted somebody at the top to know how unhappy I am before I go.

David Annis

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Is inflation really theft?

A few weeks ago I read an article posted on Forbes website that claimed inflation was theft based on the idea that a little girl who saved her money would be able to buy less with it in the future, meaning that inflation had stolen some of the value of her money. That viewpoint overly simplifies economics to the point that it is just wrong.

To show that it is wrong, let's start with an economy in which I am an apple farmer and you are a copper miner. In our simple world there is no money. I store my savings in apple sauce and you store yours in copper. I charge you 1 kilo of copper for a kilo of apples. Now, a new copper mine opens and there is a lot more copper so, based on the law of supply and demand the price of apples goes up to 2 kilos of copper per pound. Did the new copper miner rob you of half of your savings? I don't think so, you just chose to denominate your savings in copper which was a bad choice. Conversely, if one year there is a bumper crop of apples and apple sauce becomes plentiful is it theft if you decide you will trade 1 kilo of copper only for 2 kilos of apple sauce?

Now in our fictional economy suppose that you want a car but the car maker doesn't need copper, he wants steel. The steel maker doesn't want copper, he wants iron ore. The iron miner doesn't want copper he wants railroad ties. And so it goes. You finally work out a series of trades that gets you a car but the chain of trades takes weeks to arrange. There has to be a better way, so you invent money.

Now that we have money, we need to decide how to control the money supply. We could back it with copper but we've seen that the value of copper varies against that of other goods. Do we really want our money supply linked to one particular metal, the value of which fluctuates? We know from history that fixing the money supply to a gold standard makes it very hard to get out of a depression (but more about that later).

So, we decide to have a currency whose supply we control. We can try to have one with a constant buying power. One that can buy the same amount of copper or apple sauce today or a year from now. However, since the value of apple sauce and copper move independently it's just not possible to do that. If copper becomes more expensive relative to apple sauce we either get copper inflation, apple sauce deflation, or some combination of both. We can decide to hold the value of the currency stable to a basket of items, but which basket? Ones bought by manufacturers, young people, old people? A money supply that yields constant prices for a basket of goods bought by 25 year olds would create inflation for old folks who consume a lot of health care, which gets more expensive relative to other goods and services. Even if we settle on a basket of goods that we hold at a constant average price, how do we deal with advances in technology? My car, computer, TV, and TV dinners are certainly not the same as those available 25 years ago. 

So, we quickly conclude that there is no perfect zero inflation. However, we invented money to make our lives better and there is more to the economy than purchasing power. We want to avoid excessive inflation and we want people to be able to find jobs. We decide that the money supply should grow roughly at the rate that the economy does.

Deflation is an even bigger risk than inflation. In a deflationary spiral you have little incentive to spend $1,000,000 hire miners to build a new mine today when a year from now you'll be able to do so for $900,000. This leads to out of work miners, reduced demand for mining equipment and even faster deflation. The great depression was a deflationary spiral. Japan has stagnated for decades in a deflationary spiral. Since we can't measure inflation perfectly and deflation is a huge risk, we decide that we'll target just a bit of inflation to be on the safe side. Currently that target rate is 2%. If you are worried that you won't be able to buy as much copper a year from now you can always buy it now and keep it. Be careful though, the same thing can happen to the price of copper that happened to the price of gasoline. Speaking of which, if when the price of gasoline goes up (inflation) it is theft by the Federal Reserve, when it goes down are we stealing from them?

Friday, September 5, 2014

I've been TPed -- Bad web design at TinyPrints.com

I would like to share my recent experience ordering cards from your website. I spent a lot of time choosing and designing two invitations and my wife didn't like either, so we started over and did them together. Once we had the cards that we wanted, I began the process of ordering.

The problems began when I tried to upload an address list in csv format, which I made based on the template that I downloaded from the tinyprints website and got the following message:

No problem I thought. I'm a technical guy. I owned a software and web development firm. I'll use Tiny Prints help to figure out what the problem is. Unfortunately, every time I clicked on any of the links that might have gotten me information I needed (and I tried a number) I received the following error message:

Well, I'd invested a lot of time formatting the cards and getting addresses into Tiny Prints csv format, I decided to try live chat. That got me the following message:
Although the message you see above says that phone support is available at 5am if you call the number listed the recorded message tells you that they don't open until 6am. So, I posted my problem (never got a response) to Tiny Prints Facebook page. At 6AM I called back. Due to exceptionally high call volume nobody could get to me for forty minutes until 9:40. I then spent over an hour on the phone with support. I emailed the files, which the support person (who was very polite) imported for me. The first time it imported with every record duplicated. The support person did not know why it wouldn't import for me or why it imported twice for her. Eventually she said that she would call me back.

When technical support finally called me back, she mentioned that I had some blank addresses in my list. I thought that was odd, because I had spent a lot of time going over the addresses. So, I took a look while she was on the phone. Turns out that all of the foreign addresses just didn't import. No problem, she'd put them in and call me back.

Eventually she called back and I verified that the foreign addresses were there. After she hung up I tried to add the addresses to the envelopes by selecting all the addresses in the group, using the convenient checkbox at the top of the list.
Click to view full screen

You'll notice that on the upper right it tells me that there are 0 cards with recipients and 3 without.  That caused me to worry, so I looked at the list in more detail. Despite checking the box that selects all addresses not all of the addresses were selected and when it failed to select all the addresses THE SYSTEM DID NOT GIVE AN ERROR MESSAGE. Well, luckily I caught it even though the addresses that were not selected were off the bottom of my screen. I feel badly for people who missed getting an invite because the person using Tiny Prints selected all, didn't get an error message, and assumed everyone was getting an invitation. After going through the process several times I see that under the import recipients button it says "82 selected of 89 available."

So, I started investigating and found that none of the foreign addresses were selected. They all had the country typed into the address line and on the country drop down had United States selected. 

I tried to correct one and got the following error:
Click to view full screenshot

Well, I wasn't asking Tinyprints to mail them, just to print the address. So, I decided to change the address back and then got the following message:

So, I couldn't make them foreign addresses, using the country field provided. Foreign addresses are just not supported in any real way and they leave you to figure that out.

I gave up and just ordered extra blank envelopes. If I knew in advance that you did not support international addresses I would never have paid to address the cards, since I'll need to set up a mail merge anyway.  Oh well, on to the checkout. I get the following informative error message because I pick the wrong state.
Click to view full screenshot

I fix that and it blanks out my phone number and loses my Costco discount. (unfortunately I didn't screen shot it with and without the discount). So, I back up, put in the Costco member number again, and get the order done, carefully checking that the discount is there before I hit the final submit. I hit the button to place the order and it produces a receipt with no discount. The confirm e-mail also shows no Costco discount.

I emailed and snail mailed a few general suggestions:

1.     Fix the csv upload. I Googled it and I'm not the only one to have that issue. A csv file format is not esoteric or hard to deal with.
2.     Fix the infinite redirect issue. I will help your programming staff find it FOR FREE (though I'm sure they will hate me for seeming to be a know it all) if they need me to. That type of error can be tricky to find and fix.
3.     Correct the phone hours on your pop-up when live chat is closed.
4.     Display a warning message if some addresses in a list don't import (foreign addresses).
5.     Display a warning message if somebody clicks the select all checkbox if not everything is selected when addressing envelopes.
6.     Add support for printing (and I would argue for mailing to) foreign addresses. I can't be the only one to invite relatives from abroad to an event.
7.     On checkout, if a field is wrong, tell the user which field(s). Make sure that ALL data that the user input is echoed back to them.
8.     On checkout make sure that the process does not lose discounts.

 I got no response. 

Then the order arrived. One of the two sets of envelopes had no addresses printed. Oh well, I had to mail merge the foreign addresses anyway. 

I tweeted the CEO. I posted on FaceBook. I got a call back and they gave me a 25% discount, not minimum wage for the time I'd spent. I followed up about a week later saying that I'd noticed the address problem was not fixed and asking when it might be resolved. They answered that management was aware of the issue but they had no idea when it would be fixed.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Website to Learn Japanese

I have created a website to help English speakers learn Japanese. It is interactive and employs proven techniques to speed learning and aid in retention. Check it out and help me beta test it.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Inner City Immersion Language Education vs. an Affluent School Without Language

My dilemma

Although I live in an affluent school district and have two kids who attend local schools I have a child who attends Post Oak Elementary in Lansing, MI. It is an inner city Title I school, with inadequate funding and a disadvantaged student population. I've been very happy with my choice to send him there because they offer an immersion Chinese program, allowing him to spend half of the day learning in Mandarin and half of the day learning in English. However, I definitely give up a lot by sending him there and now I am struggling with whether I should send him to fourth grade in Lansing or move him back to Okemos. I will outline the pros and cons of leaving him in the immersion program, in part because putting it on screen will help me think the issues through and in part because I hope others will give me insights into what I should do.

A bit of history

My wife and I both learned languages as children and have become increasingly convinced that having children learn a foreign language when they are young is the most opportune time. All three of my children are learning a foreign language. My fifteen year old is reasonably fluent in Japanese. My twelve year old takes Greek lessons twice a week. Often I get asked why I bother doing something as difficult as teaching them languages. While I don't expect that they will necessarily use the language they learn as adults, they learn many skills that I don't expect them to use in their professional lives, from playing sports to learning to read music and play an instrument. Like these other activities, learning a language helps them develop into smarter, more well-rounded individuals. There is research showing that serious language study helps children improve their ability to discriminate between sounds,
increase their vocabulary and do better in math, and even enhances cognitive flexibility.

Zachary started learning Chinese in an immersion preschool and moved to Post Oak in kindergarten. He can read and write hundreds of Chinese characters. While it is difficult for me to independently assess his ability to speak and understand Mandarin, the Chinese people he speaks to while he is with me almost always compliment his pronunciation. He seems to understand a lot of Chinese and on a few topics can speak so that he is clearly understood. When we recently went to a Chinese New Year's celebration that consisted of skits by MSU Chinese students he loved it, laughing in all the right places and clearly understanding (at least at some level) the dialogue.

The Quality of the Teaching

 In the four years he's been at Post Oak he's had six 3 English and 3 Chinese teachers (the kindergarten teachers moved up to first grade with him. Since I have volunteered extensively over the last decade in both Okemos and Lansing Schools I have had a great opportunity to observe many teachers at work and think I can evaluate how they teach reasonably well. My assessment is that Zachary has had 3 excellent teachers, two that are average, and one below average (a similar distribution to what I've seen in the wealthy district with my other children though neither dataset is statistically significant).

The Results (Other than Chinese)

Zachary, though certainly not a prodigy, has consistently been ahead of where his brothers were at the same point in their education in math, though he is not as far ahead of grade level as he once was. Though he was not ahead of his oldest brother in reading that is only because my oldest was linguistically precocious (beginning to read at 18 months and correctly spelling puerile in a first grade assignment).  He seems basically happy and well adjusted, though at times has minor social issues.

The Problems

I began rethinking leaving him in Lansing Schools last summer when the district fired all of its elementary school art, music, and physical education teachers due to lack of funds. In theory the regular teachers picked up teaching those subjects, but from what we see coming home, hanging on the school walls, and hear from our child, there has been a real drop in how much they are getting. However, we supplement with Tae Kwon Do and twice weekly piano lessons. After school resumed last fall I learned that they also gutted the gifted and talented program, cutting the number of students drastically and changing it from a year round program to one that is three months long.

In contrast, this year the Okemos School district has an award winning music program and great art at all grade levels. My middle son has been learning viola in school for two years. My oldest son is taking photography in high school, using a nice dSLR and high-end computers with Photoshop. Next year he'll take AP art. This year Okemos passed a bond proposal that will fund a personal learning device (iPad) for every student.

I'm not a big believer in standardized test scores as a good measure of school performance. Often, they only reflect the socioeconomic status of the test takers. However, at my local elementary school, Bennett Woods, scores are at the 93rd percentile and at Post Oak they are at the 14th.

There is clearly a real difference in how much a typical student has learned by the third grade. The children in Post Oak are not less smart. Part of the difference in achievement is because the children in the school don't have the same enrichment opportunities that my children (and other economically privileged children) have over the summer, so they experience a bigger summer slide. As the children that he goes to school with fall behind, it affects their attitudes toward academics and their interests. The influence of a child's peer group may be as important as the influence of parents and teachers and I fear that the effects of poverty on my son's peer group will lead to a less enriching set of peers. My older sons often play with friends who share their interests in foreign languages, chess, computer programming, and rocks and minerals, incorporating those interests into their social lives. I don't see that type of interaction with Zachary and his schoolmates. Furthermore, falling behind because of the summer slide and less stable home lives forces teachers to focus attention on remediation.

Other Issues

It is not just the academics that I worry about, I also worry about my son's social development. It is much harder to get him together with friends since we are about half an hour away by car. As he ages, the peer group becomes less diverse economically and geographically as parents like us who send our kids through the school of choice programs drop out to send our kids to more economically privileged districts. They are not replaced by new school of choice parents since few students begin an immersion language program in later grades.

The School District

While the school has an amazing and highly dedicated principal, the district itself is dysfunctional and underfunded. The immersion language is supported by FLAP grants from the department of education with assistance from MSU's Confucius Institute and the Chinese government. The school district is less than committed to the program and as the grants expire, may reduce or eliminate Chinese instruction.

Extracurricular Activities

Because of the lack of funds, the range of extracurriculars available is smaller than in Okemos. For years, Zachary was jealous of his brothers' after school chess club. Okemos parents who want their children to participate pay a couple hundred dollars each to hire two of the top chess players in Michigan. They go to tournaments, for which the parents gladly pay USCF and MCA membership fees, the registration, and a markup that pays for the coaches' time and a room rental.

Being a Good Citizen

Trying to be a good parent, I give to the PTA, donate school supplies, donate money to the Okemos Education Foundation and the Lansing Education Advancement Foundation, and I have volunteered to help in the schools every year since my oldest son (who is now in tenth grade) was a first grader. This year, in addition to doing math pullouts for the gifted kids I decided to start a chess club for Zachary. I'm a mediocre chess player at best and I'm not really qualified to perform classroom management on lots of kids at one time. Nevertheless, I enrolled 26 kids in an after school chess club. Unlike in Okemos, where there is a mandatory fee for the club and another for each tournament I emphasize on every flier that no child will be turned away for lack of resources. I've tried applying for grants, holding fundraisers, and have asked for donations. I won't break even.  There is no way, even doing much of the work myself that I can give Zachary and his peers the same caliber of after school opportunities that Okemos students have.

Differences in Curriculum

In an attempt to decide whether to move Zachary to Bennett Woods next year, I visited Bennett Woods where the principal showed me anonymized schoolwork of typical third and fourth graders. While there were differences from what Zachary is bringing home, they were subtle. In math there was a little less rote problem solving and a bit more synthesis and application (in story problems, for example). In English, there was more emphasis on proofreading, revision, correction, and polishing. Nonetheless, I am concerned that the gap will widen and that eeven if I move him to a better district later those small differences will become larger as those with a slight edge are encouraged and given more opportunities (I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell).

Change to Pattengill

If I move Zachary into our home district I may want to do so next fall. In a move designed to save money Lansing changed from k-5 schools to k-3 and consolidated grades 4-6 at Pattengill Academy. The immersion program is supposed to be a school within a school, but I have questions about how separate the school within a school is. I hear complaints from Post Oak kids who share busses with Pattengill students about the behavior of the students on the bus. I have had parents tell me that their kids learn things (and language) from those students that they would rather not have their kids exposed to.

Does it Apply to my Kid?

I am trying to balance the ability to learn a language well, at an early age against the things that we'd give up in a poor school district. I know that to some extent the enriching environment I can give my kids ameliorates some of the problems with an inner city school, so perhaps those drawbacks are less important. On the other hand, I have been able to successfully provide language education to my other children through in-home tutors, online courses, college courses, immersion language camps, computer software and trips to Japan and Greece, so I should be able to do so with Zachary. Moreover, my attempts to go above and beyond the Post Oak curriculum at home in math and English have been extremely difficult and largely ineffective.

What would you consider? What questions would you ask?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Nature vs. Nurture: Does Parenting and Enrichment Matter to Outcomes

As parents, Andrea and I are have read numerous books, articles, and studies on child rearing. We have read about how an enriched home environment generally leads to readiness and success in school. As an example, this New York Times article discussed the differences between homes in different economic classes:

They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children’s I.Q.’s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.

When Hart and Risley then addressed the question of just what caused those variations, the answer they arrived at was startling. By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child’s home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child’s vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class. In the professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 “utterances” — anything from a one-word command to a full soliloquy — to their children each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour.
I've also read books like NurtureShock that make a strong case that in child rearing, providing enrichment opportunities leads to long term economic success and hence more opportunities in life.
Annette Lareau, in a landmark study titled Invisible Inequality: Social Class and Childrearing in Black Families and White Families claims that "middle-class parents engage in concerted cultivation by attempting to foster children's talents through organized leisure activities and extensive reasoning," and concludes that "middle-class children gained individually insignificant but cumulatively important advantages. Working-class and poor children did not display the same sense of entitlement or advantages."

Our three children participate in organized sports, competitive chess, music lessons, language lessons, and many other organized activities. In fact each child has between 6 and 10 organized activities each week. Sometimes this is logistically difficult (like on Wednesdays, when my middle son goes from school to assisting me coach elementary school chess, to Hebrew School and finally to soccer practice, eating dinner and changing in the car along the way). So, when my wife recently heard a Freakonomics podcast arguing that enrichment makes little difference, it gave her pause. Dubner and Levitt essentially argued that success depends on IQ, which is highly heritable and so it makes little difference if you provide your kids with piano lessons and immersion language experience or use the television as an electronic babysitter; the kids will turn out how they will turn out. In fact, during the show one interviewed economist/parent said that there was "great culture" on TV and that he'd be very upset if his kids did not enjoy The Simpsons.

The economists on the podcast made a strong case, and made me aware of a whole other body of literature like Bryan Caplan's book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Further research turned up gems like Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption, that hold that genetics accounts for almost all of the difference in outcomes between children.

If how we raise our kids has no real effect on their income as posited in this excerpt, then why bother with the enrichment:
"The Korean War orphans were adopted in the ‘50s and ‘60s at a time when it was much easier for low-income families to adopt. So, families were eligible as long as they were twenty-five percent above the poverty line, which would be quite unusual today. So, these kids were raised by a much broader range of the socio-economic spectrum than would happen to adoptees today. And yet, the finding of the study by Bruce Sacerdote was that the kids raised by the very poorest families grew up to have the same income as the kids raised by the very richest families. It’s striking that it’s the kind of thing that you would think of as being more about upbringing broadly defined than a lot of other traits. So it could be that it’s actual upbringing where your parents instill the value of a dollar and hard work in you. Or it could be something more like nepotism where because you get raised by the right kind of parents you get good connections, they actually make a phone call for you. And yet, actually the very best studies of the nature and nurture of income find that parents do have a moderate effect on your early income when you’re in your twenties, but basically zero for the rest of your life."
So, that leaves me with a mountain of evidence that claims that parenting style makes a huge difference in outcomes and that other parents are investing ever more heavily in providing an enriching environment to secure spots for their children in ever more selective colleges, and another mountain of evidence that says I'm driving myself crazy acting as a taxi to get my children to an immersion Chinese School, Tae Kwon Do, music lessons, etc. and that all that work will in the end make little difference in outcome except to make my children, my wife, and me more stressed.

I cannot reconcile these two views of how to parent, but in discussions with my wife I've had several thoughts on the matter. Let's start with this: If the Freakonomics view of the world is right - that you will grow up to be as successful as your genes for intelligence allow and that environment makes little difference in that outcome-  it leads to some very strange questions and conclusions.

There has been a marked decrease in social mobility in the United States over the last thirty years. If genes determine income and environment has only a small effect on outcomes, how did the genes for IQ become suddenly so much more segregated along class lines in under a generation? What about social mobility in other countries? If genes determine outcomes why should that be more truly the case in the United States than in other Western countries? If parenting makes so little difference, if it is all nature and not nurture, does that lead to a world where the poor are inferior and reducing social stratification is impossible? Isn't this the same "the poor are poor because they are genetically inferior" eugenics reasoning that was used to stigmatize and sterilize the poor in decades past?

Andrea argues that it is possible that a certain amount of environmental support and "enrichment" provide linear gains in ultimate adult achievement, but that beyond a certain point, additional enrichment makes little difference. So is it possible that all the studies showing a large benefit of enrichment were done in environments with little base intellectual stimulation, while the studies showing little difference in outcomes as a result of environmental enrichment were done in environments that were already near the asymptote?

Could the study of adopted Koreans that showed no significant benefit to being raised by affluent families be confounded by a society that in the 50s and 60s discriminated against Asians, which limited their upward mobility?

I think that the idea that environment makes no difference flies in the face of the evidence I see every day. I have two children in an award-winning school district whose peers are solidly upper middle class, and one child who is in an impoverished district that has fired all of its elementary school art, physical education, and music teachers and greatly reduced its gifted and talented program. I have been volunteering in both school systems for 15 years, several hours a week, almost all of it spent with K-4 children. I can tell you that the children in the impoverished school system did not appear to be significantly less smart than their counterparts in the affluent district, but have fallen behind for a variety of reasons that have to do with environment (to the point where I am seriously considering giving up an immersion Mandarin program that I value highly to move my son to the more affluent district, but that is a whole different post).

I'd appreciate feedback on this post but may have to find a more trafficked place to put my questions.

Thursday, September 26, 2013