2014-06-14

The joys of hard drive death

The IRS (US tax service) ex-head Lois Lerner has been under the spotlight in the past year about the IRS allegedly targeting organisations for audit based on their political allegiances. Apparently Tea Party related organisations were much more likely to be targeted than left-leaning organisation. Lerner retired from the agency in September last year, but the Republican party has unsurprisingly been chasing her. Lerner took the 5th at a hearing in March, refusing to testify to avoid the risk of incriminating herself, so the investigators have been looking for other sources of information.

Of course, most communication these days is done by email, and the IRS is no exception. The obvious place to start in finding the details of Lerner's involvement - if any - would be to trawl her email. Except that this appears to be difficult:

Today, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) issued the following statement regarding the Internal Revenue Service informing the Committee that they have lost Lois Lerner emails from a period of January 2009 – April 2011. Due to a supposed computer crash, the agency only has Lerner emails to and from other IRS employees during this time frame.
Oopsie. Still, these things happen occasionally. It's just bad luck, right?

The IRS has 89,500 employees. It's not unreasonable to estimate that every one of them has an email account, and most of them have a computer. Say they have 70,000 personal computers on their network. Every computer has at least one hard drive. A hard drive's average life is 2-3 years; let's say 1000 days. On average, if you have 1000 hard drives, one will be failing each day. In the case of the IRS we'd expect to see 70 hard drives a day, nearly 500 per week, failing. Hard drives failing are a completely normal part of IRS IT operations.

Given that, you put together an IT system that lets your executives lose all their emails whenever their personal computer hard drive crashes? This seems... not the approach one would normally take.

What I find interesting is an IRS note from 1998 announcing that they were standardising on Exchange:

The new e-mail package will use Microsoft Exchange Server Version 5.5 along with the Microsoft Outlook 98 desktop product. The IRS will switch over to the new system during the next 12 months
I'm assuming that by now they've done several migrations to more modern versions of Exchange. By 2009 they should have been on Exchange 2003 at least, maybe 2007. A user's emails would be in folders on replicated central storage, not just on a personal machine; the Outlook client would copy mails from the central storage to the local computer for speed and ease of access, but they would remain in the central storage precisely because personal computers fail all the time. Suppose the power supply exploded, or the motherboard shorted, or coffee spilled into the CD-ROM drive slot, or the user has to get email access out of office hours (e.g. via Outlook Web Access) - there has to be a way to get to their data when the PC is not available. The replicated storage copies the data to several physically separate machines, using a scheme such as RAID which lets you trade off the number of copies of data, read performance and write performance.

What I would believe, and I should make it clear that this is pure speculation, is that someone was deleting old emails off the replicated storage for some purpose; perhaps for perfectly legitimate purposes. They ended up deleting much more than they expected. Once this was discovered, they tried to recover the data from the daily / weekly tape backups that were almost certainly being made from the central storage. When they did this, they discovered that for the past 1-2 years the backup data being written wasn't being written correctly - taken from the wrong source, missing indexes, taken from a source that was being updated as it was being read, whatever. This was so embarrassing given the amount of money that they were spending on their storage and backups that they cooked up a story about a hard drive failing and hoped no-one would ask any inconvenient questions. Bad luck, boys!

If the details of IRS's excuse haven't been mis-reported - a possibility we should not reject out of hand - then either they have a painfully badly assembled and operated IT system, or someone is telling pork pies.

2014-06-05

RAGE

I really shouldn't follow cases like this; it's terribly bad for my blood pressure. Let's assume that you're a law graduate training to be a barrister. You're doing badly in your exams because you go out drinking and partying every night. What do you do? Apparently, "party less and study harder" is too passé - the hip modern approach is to accuse your boyfriend of a series of rapes and assaults:

The allegations made by Rhiannon Brooker meant Paul Fensome was arrested, charged and held in prison for 37 days.
Following an 11-week trial, the jury of 10 men and two women at Bristol crown court on Thursday found Brooker, who has an eight-month-old child, guilty of perverting the course of justice. She was given bail but could be [my emphasis] jailed when she is sentenced later this month.
Could be? I'm not sure that there are the words. At minimum, Brooker should be given the same sentence as Mr. Fensome would have received given the rape sentencing guidelines which looks to be a 15 year starting point (Repeated rape of same victim over a course of time or rape involving multiple victims) with one possible aggravating factor (ejaculation) and one possible mitigation (sex with victim before offence). The guidelines for perjury regarding rape notes that "If there is any question as to whether the original allegation might in fact have been true, then there is not a realistic prospect of conviction, and no charge of perverting the course of justice should be brought" so the CPS is clearly convinced that the accusation was indeed false rather than not provable. The sentencing guidelines indicate aggravating factors (premeditated, persistent, arrest of innocent person) and indicate a likely sentence of 1-2 years.

Giving this woman a non-custodial sentence would send an appalling message to other women who falsely accuse their innocent boyfriends of rape to get out of a sticky situation. The message would be "it's worth a try - in the absolute worst case where you get found out, prosecuted and convicted you still won't see the inside of a jail." I'm hopeful (though not certain) that her potential career as a barrister has come to a screeching halt, but despite her 8 month old baby this woman needs to spend serious time in jail. Her reckless accusations were a gnat's chuff from jailing an innocent man for a decade or so, and as a law graduate there is no question that she knew the consequences of her accusations.

WAR has not been helping their case:
A War [Women Against Rape] spokesperson said the prosecution of Brooker was "completely disproportionate", adding: "Time and again we see police resources diverted from rape and put into prosecuting women instead."
First, would anyone like to point to a "Women In Favour of Rape" group? No? Then let's focus on this "spokesperson"'s assertion. Yes, the police put resources in to prosecuting women like this. They happened to persuade a jury, beyond reasonable doubt, that Rhiannon Brooker made up these allegations and tried to send Mr. Fensome (poor bastard) away for a good number of years as a sexual offender, thereby giving him a sporting chance of being stabbed to death in the shower or having boiling hot cocoa poured over him. This seems like the sort of crime that we would expect the police to prosecute, n'est ce pas? Or should the police never prosecute women for crimes where men are the victims?

God. If Mr. Fensome happened to throw WAR's spokesperson into a manure pit and I was on the jury, I'd declare him innocent and ask for the prosecution witness to be put to death. If WAR want to help women who have been raped, they can start by ensuring that juries don't think that rape accusations can be motivated simply by spite: give women who make false accusations some skin in the game by giving them a realistic prospect of spending years in jail for this kind of perjury.

2014-06-01

Marcela Trust update: 2013 accounts

The Marcela Trust has sent in their accounts for their fiscal year ending July 2013 so I thought I'd take a look to see how our favourite salt and sugar haters are doing. For comparison, have a look at my analysis of their 2012 accounts.

A quick summary:

  • Their donations this year were £300K to the Camelia Botnar Foundation, £170K to Fauna and Flora International (like last year, for their Western Transylvania work and to fund their student at Cambridge), £20K to the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre and £7.5K to support the annual exhibition of the Society of Portrait Sculptors; these were funded in the usual way by restricted donations (totaling just under half a million quid) from OMC Investments which holds all the money that the Marcela Trust distributes.
  • Nothing was sent to CASH or Action on Sugar this year; perhaps the Marcela Trust trustees are not keen on the attention they received as a result of the CASH donations.
  • The 300K donation to the Camelia Botnar Foundation is interesting; I wonder what it was for? I looked at the Camelia Botnar Foundation 2012 accounts back in December and they looked in reasonable shape; their net funds had jumped from £5.1M to £6.3M. So was the 300K for something specific that the Marcela Trust wanted to set up but not fund directly? If so, what? The Marcela Trust report says that it "was made contribute [sic] to the foundation's annual running costs." We'll have to wait until December to see how this materialises in the CBF accounts and why it was needed.
  • This year the Trust got £2.5K in donations and £22K in interest on funds, comparable to last year. They raised £5.6M (property rentals, hotel operating income etc) but spent £6M doing this, which is rather surprising; last year they raised about the same at a cost of only £3.7M. Where did they lose the extra £2.3M or so? Looking at the subsidiary activities trading costs, it looks like that was mostly due to extra impairment of investments (things they have are no longer as valuable as they used to be).
  • Their funds had an OK year, rising £1.5M in value to £67M, about a 2% gain.
  • They sold £3M of investment assets (property, presumably) but lost another £1M on revaluation of assets they held; this wasn't quite as bad as last year's £1.5M loss but must have still smarted a bit.
  • They moved about £24M from investment assets to cash, nearly a mirror of last year's move of £24M cash to tangible assets (after raising £12M in loans); that loan is still outstanding in the creditors line, now due within 1 year.
  • Fortunately the poor investment performance didn't stop the Trust increasing its wages paid. Wages were up about 6% overall and pensions about 19%. Dawn Pamela Rose was paid about £250K again, with £58.5K going into her pension scheme (up from £40K last year).
  • Dawn Pamela Rose's QHH Limited subsidiary of OMC Investments commenced trading as a hotel during the previous financial period; it lost £15K on turnover of £1.1M this year.
I think QHH Limited must be the Queen's Head Hotel (Google is fairly definite on this link) but I'm not sure which of the eponymous establishments in the UK corresponds to this.

So overall a year which is interesting mostly for the sudden arrest in the flow of funds to CASH, a property investment performance which looks less than stellar, and a £300K donation to Camelia Botnar Foundation which did not look to be needed. Let's see what the CBF accounts reveal when they appear in December...

Minimum wage: Seattle airport workers find out that TANSTAAFL

An interesting tidbit from the Northwest Asian Weekly about the effect on airport workers of Seattle-Tacoma Airport's $15/hr minimum wage:

"Are you happy with the $15 wage?" I asked the full-time cleaning lady.
"It sounds good, but it’s not good," the woman said.
"Why?" I asked.
"I lost my 401k, health insurance, paid holiday, and vacation," she responded. "No more free food," she added.
For non-Americans, the 401k is like a money-purchase pension scheme where employers normally match some level of employee contributions. It's possible that the loss of health insurance wasn't strictly related to the $15/hr minimum wage, which took effect at SeaTac on Jan 1st, since employers across the country have been diligently pushing workers onto the state health insurance exchanges where they can get away with it. However, the rest of the losses are quite instructive.

It seems that you can legislate a minimum wage, but where you force employers to pay more than they would otherwise they have a surprising number of ways to reduce the impact on their bottom lines.

The effect of the minimum wage hike has been seen in other ways as well. Labor-intensive businesses are finding ways to shed employees:

At the Clarion Hotel off International Boulevard, a sit-down restaurant has been shuttered, though it might soon be replaced by a less-labor-intensive cafe. The nearby Cedarbrook Lodge, by contrast, is undergoing a $16 million expansion.
The SeaTac $15 minimum is a great case study because it only applies to businesses which have dealings with the airport; as such, you can see the difference between nearby similar businesses where one is affected by the law and one is not.

I did wonder about an assertion in an article that unionized businesses were not affected; but indeed, the ordinance is clear about this point:

7.45.080 Waivers
The provisions of this Chapter may not be waived by agreement between an individual Covered Worker and a Hospitality or Transportation Employer. All of the provisions of this Chapter, or any part hereof, including the employee work environment reporting requirement set forth herein, may be waived in a bona fide collective bargaining agreement, [my emphasis] but only if the waiver is explicitly set forth in such agreement in clear and unambiguous terms. Unilateral implementation of terms and conditions of employment by either party to a collective bargaining relationship shall not constitute, or be permitted, as a waiver of all or any part of the provisions of this chapter.
So unionized businesses can agree with the workers' union to waive this (e.g. if it's posing a profitability problem that may otherwise result in firings) but non-unionized businesses have no such option even if the workers are willing - they would have to unionize first. A nice touch, and one that seems to have been under-reported in the press. I wonder why?

Hat tip: The Advice Goddess who has a new book coming out this week: "Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck".

2014-05-24

Software - Everything Is Broken

I don't agree with 100% of this article, but it's sufficiently true and well explained that it's worth reading the whole thing. Quinn Norton reports that "Everything is broken":

It was my exasperated acknowledgement that looking for good software to count on has been a losing battle. Written by people with either no time or no money, most software gets shipped the moment it works well enough to let someone go home and see their family. What we get is mostly terrible.
This near-perfectly expresses the problem with software. The only point I'd differ on is that it's not even that it "works well enough" - in reality it's shipped when it's perceived to work well enough by people who generally aren't able to tell how well it's actually working.

It's certainly true that people are awful users of software. This is generally because software is written and tested by people who are completely unrepresentative of the software user base. Here's an example from today. I try to connect, using Firebox, to a website which I happen to know has a problem with its security certificate (it's been revoked by the owner). Here's what I get:

OK, so let's suppose that I'm my mother. What the hell am I supposed to do with that information? It's good that Firebox has recognised that the site is broken and has stopped me connecting to this site - but "Please contact the website owners to inform them of this problem"? Seriously? How do I even know who the "website owners" are? Chrome is a little bit better - it warns that "if you try to visit [site] now you might share private information with an attacker" and suggests reloading the site in a few minutes or using a different wifi network, but it says that "something is interfering with your secure connection" when it would be better to say something like "I can't make a secure connection to this website - I've checked a couple of other websites and secure connections to them are OK, so it's probably just something wrong with this particular website". Chrome and Firefox's error messages in this situation are reasonably useful, but they're written for reasonably technically-savvy people - not for the vast majority of their user base.

As Quinn notes, for relatively non-technical people who don't generally have control over their computers, security is essentially impossible:

What's the best option for people who can't download new software to their machines? The answer was unanimous: nothing. They have no options. They are better off talking in plaintext I was told, "so they don’t have a false sense of security."
I think this is slightly pessimistic. Doing everything in plaintext makes it trivially easy for the intelligence agencies, crackers and other ne'er-do-wells to scoop up everything. Better is to ensure that the world uses such a diverse and changing ecology of software and hardware that even concerted efforts to compromise a security system will only yield a relatively small fraction of the world - we can't stop those people from compromising our security if they really want to, but at least we can make the bastards work hard for it.

2014-05-13

SELECT, JOIN and a bit of Perl? $10K

Database nerds will like this one. The state of Nevada has a database system for the permanent records of children in the state education system. One parent, an opponent of the Common Core national curriculum which is sweeping the US public education, wanted to know what his childrens' permanent record said. He asked for a copy, but it wasn't available for free:

Because the SAIN system is not designed to create reports that display individual student data in a readable format, the parent was initially told that the requested reports do not exist and cannot be produced
[...]
[Nevada Department of Education] staff determined that it would take at least 3 weeks (120 hours) of dedicated programming time to fulfill the parent's request. At the applicable wage rate of $84.95/hour, the requested work resulted in a $10,194 price tag.
Not designed to create reports that "display individual student data in a readable format"? That's a new one on me. So when education officials threaten to put a student's trangression on their permanent record, that actually means "a place that no-one will look because it's not readable"?

The really shocking aspect is that Nevada is employing IT experts at $85/hour who can't knock up an appropriate couple of SQL statements like:

SELECT GradeReport.Grade, GradeReport.Text, Students.StudentName, GradeReport.ReportDate
FROM GradeReport INNER JOIN Students
ON GradeReport.StudentID=Students.StudentID
WHERE Students.StudentName = "Fred Eppolito" AND 
 Students.SchoolID = 12345;
 -- choose whatever fields are needed to uniquely identify a student
I'm fairly sure that writing the query, testing it, dumping that data out in CSV format, eyeballing it to check that nothing's bad and then sending on the file can be done in the space of an hour.

If the Department of Education IT staff can't do this for $85 per hour, which is about $175K per year, perhaps they shouldn't be paid so much. Otherwise, one might think that the state of Nevada can't be trusted to spend taxpayer money at all...

2014-05-12

Healthcare.gov - it's not over yet

After the well-publicised last-minute save of the Healthcare.gov federal health insurance exchange in 2013, there was a general sighing of relief from the Affordable Care Act's supporters. The months of suspense and error codes had been very painful, but finally the federal exchange was working more or less, and millions were able to enroll in time for the deadline (even if they couldn't then find a doctor who would accept their plan).

It seems that such confidence may have been misplaced; the federal site was fixed but a number of states decided to implement their own exchanges and it hasn't turned out too well for many of them, and people with badges are looking at Oregon's exchange quite hard:

The various state exchanges were funded by the U.S. Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. As of March 28, it had awarded $4.7 billion in grants nationally. Oregon has been awarded $303 million in five increments.
Typically in federally funded projects, states must show evidence they've met certain milestones before they get additional grants. In Oregon's case, the Oregon Health Authority at first, and later Cover Oregon, had several "gate reviews" where federal officials reviewed progress on the project.
Documents show Oregon may have presented a misleading picture to the federal government.
Oregon has a population of about 4 million people. Since ACA sign-up is about 2.5% of the US population, let's be generous and say 3% for Oregon; that's $303 million for 120K people, or about $2500 per sign-up - just for the website. They've now dropped the idea entirely and fallen back to use the federal site which at least kind of works.

Most of the money went to Covered Oregon's contractor Oracle, who probably won't be promoting this as a triumph because the website has not managed to enroll a single private customer:

After discovering a series of technical problems before the Oct. 1 launch -- including inaccurate calculations of the tax subsidies for which consumers would be eligible -- Cover Oregon decided to scratch its plans to go live along with the rest of the country and never managed to get online enrollment started.
This hasn't come from out of the blue: back in November Oracle were being grilled about missed deadlines. Their VP Tom Budnar reported that they were bringing in an Oracle "SWAT team" but it would appear their efforts were in vain. Oracle's stock price has steadily risen from $39.5 to $42 in the past month, so at least Mr. Budnar doesn't have to worry about loss of public confidence in the company. Mind you, a search of Oracle's website doesn't show any results with his surname, so maybe they're already planning to cut him loose - if they've not done so already. He's going to have a difficult round of interviews if that's the case; I'd advise him to take a year of sabbatical and hope most people have forgotten about Oregon...

Oregon is egregiously bad, but unfortunately not too far out of line with other states' exchanges. As NPR reports this week, costs per enrollee of the exchanges have made the federal effort look like a model project:

Even Covered California, the most efficient of the state-run exchanges at $758 per enrollee, still spent more than the average for the federal exchange. And California was the only state-run exchange with a per-person average under $1,000.
Okay, so why did this cost so much? We can look at a comparable solution in the private sector in the USA: TurboTax (web edition) which is delivered by the firm Intuit. Filing federal and state taxes in the USA is a substantial undertaking; most people either go to a tax preparer (H+R Block is a popular one for lower-income taxpayers) or use some tax prep software. Filling in Form 1099 and its many supplemental forms by hand is a great way to lose money, get audited, develop a drinking habit and hate of humanity, or all three. TurboTax is a popular web system for filing taxes; it does automatic imports of data from a number of sources (major employees and brokerages), has a user-friendly interface, lets you submit forms electronically, and generally makes tax preparation a breeze. My expat colleagues who have used TurboTax sing its praises as being slightly easier to use than the short-form UK tax form, performing substantially more complex calculations and optimizations.

US tax season is not dissimilar to healthcare signups - a short period (1-2 months) after you get the tax information from your employer and brokerages and before the April 15th deadline, usage spiking in evenings and on weekends. So lots (millions, I'd estimate) of users crowd onto the TurboTax site in a short time, with downtime or even slowness being commercially unacceptable - there are several alternatives to TurboTax. Turbotax covers its costs and generates income by serving basic users for free, simple uses for $30 per user and complex uses for $50 per user (state filing is an additional $20 or so). You can even cover your costs if you use Amazon heavily.

It's not an exaggeration to say that if the states and federal goverment had contracted TurboTax's Intuit to build and operate the site for $70 per user - one tenth of the current cost in reality - then they could probably have made it work. They already have the storage and serving systems capable of handling that level of traffic, the marginal cost is probably less than developing from scratch. So why didn't the states and feds do this? Why did Oregon contract Oracle? Because Oracle and other consulting firms are very good at bidding for federal and state contracts. They're pretty awful at making them work, but this doesn't matter - strange to relate, contracts are not issued and paid based on whether the delivered solution actually works. The incentives in government contracting have generated an ecosystem where actual ability to build working systems is one of the less important characteristics for which the environment selects.

The defence of the federal contracting system (instead of assigning the contract to a company who might actually be able to make the contract work) starts with "we have to protect the taxpayer from being exploited in no-bid contracts." Except that it seems that the taxpayer is already being exploited. If Intuit charged $400 per user, made out like a bandit, gave bonuses through the company right down to the mailroom boy's cat and sent the execs off on 1 year fact-finding trip to the Bahamas, the taxpayer would still come out ahead, and would have the bonus of a website that actually worked well and was user-friendly.

2014-05-11

The next stage in the gentrification wars

This is going to be interesting. The "techie scum" who are moving into and gentrifying various parts of San Franciso and Oakland have had a few months of their buses being blocked and Google Glass ripped off their faces, but now the local residents have decided to up the ante and attack the businesses that serve the gentrifyers. Four high-end grocery stores were tagged with graffiti demanding that they clear out of town:

Milgrom and his workers spent the day cleaning graffiti from all four stores. He says this isn't the first time it's happened. Recently windows have been broken as well.
I suppose it's quite a clever strategy; don't go after individuals, because if they move out then others will just replace them. Instead target the aspects of the area that they like and that you don't like. I wonder who will be the next target: Chi-chi cocktail joints? Places that sell coats for small dogs?

Looking at the reviews for the local market part of the business you can see its target market: its provisions include lamb ragu, Japanese pumpkin and duck confit. This is clearly not catering to low-income locals. The fact that it's a group of four establishments means that you can amplify your message and make it clear that this isn't just some random graffiti - the owners are left in no doubt that they are being targeted. The Local's Corner restaurant part of the business has a negative review giving more clues:

Funny that this place is called Local's Corner, as it's a new restaurant that is part of the gentrification of the Mission and thus directly involved in displacing long-term residents (ie, locals)
Apparently the opposite of gentrification is "neighbourhood decay" but I'm sure there should be a snappier term for it; I'm plumping for "communirot".

Local communirotter Mary Magee of "Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment" (who needs better branding) is not a big fan of the establishment, claiming that groups of "people of color" are not welcome at Local's:

Magee said ACEE [sic] is asking people to boycott all four stores, claiming people in the area have complained that they were told to leave or turned away because they didn't fit the restaurant's clientele. [...] Magee went on to say the Local brand also has a high price point, which ACEE feels is a form of gentrification because many of those living in the area can't afford it.
Judging by Mary's Facebook page she's as white as they come and painfully right-on. Her colleague Julien Ball is possibly even more of a cliche: anti-Israel, anti-death-penalty, active on change.org, anti-discriminatory-lending... I find it amusing that Mary and Julien chooses to speak for the "people of color" rather than, say, letting them speak for themselves. But it becomes clearer when the article reports that ACCE wants Local to hold "sensitivity training". How nice for poor bespectacled owner Yaron Milgrom:
Milgrom told KTVU he fell in love with the area because of its diversity. He can't believe he is now being accused of not embracing it.
Oh, believe it Yaron. If you're lucky, this is merely a shakedown operation to whip you into line and make it clear that the community activists in the area are in charge. If you're unlucky, they've taken a dislike to you and you're going to have to sell up and eat a huge loss (for what sane gentrifying business would want to take your place in the firing line?) or be run out of town on a rail.

2014-04-23

Tanya Gold on mountaineering

Alas, Tanya Gold of The Guardian has descended to clickbait headlines to keep up interest in her articles; her latest on the Everest avalanche that killed thirteen Sherpas is particularly painful:

As commercial climbing has exploded, Everest has shifted from an explicit wasteland to a moral and internal one which also serves as a perfect metaphor for the contempt in which we hold the planet.
It is not simply the ordinary exploitation of the Sherpas, which is soothed away with the knowledge that in Nepal, where the average annual wage is $700, a Sherpa can make $5,000 in a two-month season – although it is impossible to imagine this kind of death rate being tolerated if the dead were rich and white.
The fall of a serac in the Khumbu icefall was tragic, but by no means a bolt from the blue. Jon Krakauer's account of the 1996 Everest disaster that killed eight climbers (which Tanya references) describes how perilous the icefall can be - falls of huge, building-sized chunks of ice can happen without any more warning than a "look out!" from your companions, and even an injury such as a broken leg can prove fatal in the perilously hazardous conditions of 18000+ feet altitude where simply being there can provoke debilitating or fatal altitude sickness.

The Everest climber fatality rate between 1922 and 2006 is about 2% overall, and about 1.4% if you exclude porters (Sherpas and others). Certainly, being a Sherpa is more dangerous than being a paying climber, but as a Sherpa you're still about the fatality rate of an astronaut and your relative compensation is better - if a Sherpa makes 7x the average annual wage, look at a top-end salary for an astronaut based in Houston, TX which is about $141K, or about 2.5x the mean US wage. This is not comparing apples to apples, but at least gives you a ballpark picture of how well Sherpas are compensated. Sure, they have a dangerous job, but no-one is forcing them into it and they probably have a better understanding of the dangers than most of the climbers. So when Tanya says:

...although it is impossible to imagine this kind of death rate being tolerated if the dead were rich and white.
it turns out we actually tolerate this death rate already, even though the dead are moderately well paid and mostly white. Perhaps Tanya doesn't have a great imagination.

Looking at Tanya, I think it's safe to say that she's in no danger of attempting to summit Everest (or indeed any peak more challenging than Brown Willy) any time soon. Perhaps then she cannot appreciate what drives people to push themselves to their physical and mental limits to overcome the imposing challenge of high altitude mountaineering, and we should not blame her for that. We should, however, nail her to the wall for comments claiming that money trumps humanity for climbers:

But more tourists claim "tunnel vision" and "summit fever". They do not pause; they are slaked on their own fantasies; they paid too much. Madness indeed.
At Everest summit altitudes, even a very fit climber has to draw on all their reserves of strength to survive the Death Zone. Even a small amount of additional exertion in aiding a fellow climber can cause them to collapse and double the number of people that need help. When you're on a climb to the summit of Everest, your survival is your own responsibility; it's unlikely that anyone will be able to help you; trying to help someone else can make you pay much, much more than just your climbing fees. All climbers who have reached the final base camp will know and understand this, much more than someone like Tanya can even strain to appreciate.

2014-04-20

Strategy in 2048

I've been playing the 2048 game which (if you haven't played it yet) is the most phenomenonal time sink invented. To save people from sanity, here are some general game hints; using this strategy I manage to obtain the 2048 tile in roughly 50% of games.

  1. Start by building up the big numbers in the lower left corner, spreading along the bottom row.
  2. As the bottom row is nearly full (say you have [16, 8, 4, _] start filling the third row with numbers starting from half the lower left number (say, [8, 4, 2, _)
  3. When the opportunity arises to have the bottom row full and the third row filling 3 of 4, right shift the board so the third row numbers line up above the same numbers on the bottom row and then drop them down and shift left to increase your bottom row numbers by a factor of 2.
  4. When the bottom row starts getting big (say, 64+ as the left corner number) start trying to order the third row in the opposite direction. If the bottom row is [128, 64, 32, 16] start trying to create 16 at the end of the third row. Whenever you can, drop numbers into the bottow row.
  5. At nearly all cost, avoid filling row 2 so that you have no option but to move the board up - that will trap small numbers under your row of big numbers. If that happens, drop the board again immediately (and hope).
  6. If you end up with 2 or 4 tile to the left of a big number tile on your bottom row, focus on increasing that tile number until it matches your big number so you can left-shift the bottom row and have the biggest tile in the bottom left corner.
Good luck!