Move to Canada?

Posted in Canadian life, Gay rights, Politics at 11:39 am by ducky

To all my GLBT friends in California who want to live somewhere that respects them, there’s always Canada.

Canada wants immigrants.  Here’s the funny version; here’s the serious version.

Do think carefully, however.  Canada is not the US.  There are some
subtle but important differences in the culture, outlook, and
priorities.   They are not better or worse in one country or the other,
they are different.  Exceptions: it is easier to shop in the US and the
Canadian governments have better customer service.

If you are thinking about emigrating to British Columbia, I’d be happy to talk to you about it.

Update: Here’s a blog post by an American lesbian talking about what it’s like to live in a country where she and her partner are fully completely legally married.

Prop 8 looks like it will pass

Posted in Gay rights, Politics at 11:20 am by ducky

It’s looking like California’s Prop 8 is going to pass, and that’s a very sad thing.

However, I think it was far, FAR more important that Obama get elected than that Prop 8 fail.  If McCain/Palin had won, we would have seen a significant shift in the Supreme Court to the right. We could have kissed goodbye to any hopes of getting marriage equality through the Supreme Court for twenty-five or thirty years.

With Obama in office, it will probably stay roughly the same in liberal/conservative makeup, but get younger.  I expect that we will now see a federal Supreme Court case in five to ten years about marriage equality.  And we will win that one — not just for California, but for everybody.

There is no good legal argument against marriage equality.  Let me repeat that: there is no good legal argument against marriage equality.  The arguments are emotional or religious, not rational.  The rational arguments — the one on which our legal system is founded — say that citizens get equal protection under the law.  It’s in the Constitution.  It’s fundamental to the constitution.  So unless the SCOTUS has people whose judgement is influenced by religion or emotion, we will win that fight.  (This will be especially true after five or ten more years of seeing same-sex marriages function in Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut, Canada, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Israel, and South Africa without destroying the fabric of society.)

So yes, it is disappointing.  It would have been nice to put this issue to rest in California forever.  However, it is not dead.  We will overcome.

(Update:  Andrew Sullivan has a similar post, written with eloquence.)


I nominate Fivethirtyeight.com

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:10 pm by ducky

I nominate fivethirtyeight.com for a Pulitzer Prize for their absolutely outstanding electoral poll coverage.

Yes we did!

Posted in Politics at 10:59 pm by ducky

President Barack Obama.

Yay!  Thank you, America!


For Barack Obama

Posted in Politics at 10:50 am by ducky

Andrew Sullivan wrote an endorsement of Barack Obama that made me cry.  It wasn’t that his prose was so poetic that I got a form of Stendhal Syndrome.  It wasn’t that he inspired me.  It was that he reminded me, in clear and vivid detail, just how badly Bush messed up the country.  He brought up all of my grief and dismay about — and all of my shame for — my government’s actions.  He reminds me why I left my beautiful country.

One of my best friends is Lebanese.  In about 1996, I asked him why he never talked about Lebanese politics.  Had he just written it all off?  No, he said that it was too painful to talk about.  At the time, I didn’t understand.  Now I do.

My productivity in the past few weeks has gone way down as I continually hunt for more stories about the election.  It’s a destructive, addictive, action.   It’s not like me reading the stories are going to change the outcome of the election. ( I voted several weeks ago, so it’s not like the stories are going to change my vote.) I know that it is pointless to read about the election, but I can’t help it, I must read — because every story that I read about Obama leading gives me a tiny flicker of hope.

I left.  I turned my back and walked away.  So why does it still matter?  The best analogy I can think of is of being in love with an absolutely wonderful man who two or three times per year beats the crap out of me.  I’ve metaphorically walked away and found another — one who is incredibly sweet and nice, but who isn’t as good a fit as my ex.  There is nothing wrong with my new beau, and I admit to a little bit of excitement at something novel.  But the fit isn’t quite right: he puts the toilet paper on backwards, he really likes foods I can’t stand, and he just doesn’t have the same shared context that I do with my ex.  I have to keep explaining things to him that my ex understood right away.  My new beau is certainly a fine and wonderful person, and I could be very content with him for the rest of my life, but there isn’t that same level of passion.  Really I want a reformed version of my ex, one who fits but who doesn’t beat me.

I want Obama to win.  Very much.  I then want him to get my beautiful country out of this mess.  (Er, these messes.)  I want that very, very much.  I’d like to think that someday I might have the option of coming home.

programmer productivity update

Posted in programmer productivity at 10:17 am by ducky

Lutz Prechelt wrote a technical report way back in 1999 that did a more rigorous, mathematical analysis of the variance in the time it takes programmers to complete one task. He finds that the distribution is wickedly skewed to the left, and the difference between the top and kinda-normal programmers is about 2. It’s nice to find supporting evidence for what I’d reported earlier. Here’s the money graph:

Prechelt's graphs of time-to-complete probability distribution

Time to complete a task probability distribution

This graph shows the probability density — which is very much like a histogram — of the time it took people to do programming-related tasks.  As this combines data from many many studies, he normalized all the studies so that the mean time-to-complete was 1.

Prechelt notes that the Sackman paper — which is the origin of the 28:1 figure that many people like to quote — has a number of issues.  Mostly Prechelt covered Dickey’s objections, but he also notes that when the Sackman study was done in 1967, computer science education was much less homogenous than it is now, so you might expect a much wider variation anyway.

Evidence against my theses

As long as I’m mentioning something that came up that supports my stance, I should mention two things that counter arguments that I have made.

1. When I’m talking to people, I frequently say that it’s far more important to not hire the loser than to hire the star.  My husband points out that the type of task that user studies have their users do are all easy tasks, and that some tasks are so difficult that only the star programmers can do them.  This is true, and a valid point.  Maybe you need one rock star on your team.

2. I corresponded briefly with my old buddy Ed Burns, the author of Secrets of the Rock Star Programmers.  He is of the opinion that the rock star programmers are about 10x more productive than “normal” programmers.  Interestingly, he thinks the difference is mastery of tools.  I think this is good news for would-be programming stars: tools mastery is a thoroughly learnable skill.


rebuttal to "Diseconomies of Scale"

Posted in review, Technology trends at 8:44 pm by ducky

Ken Church and James Hamilton have a blog posting of Diseconomies of Scale which doesn’t seem right to me.

They suggest that it is more expensive to run a data center than to buy a bunch of condos, put 48 servers in each, wall up the servers, rent out the condo, and use the servers as a distributed data farm.

Capital costs

Church and Hamilton figure that the capital cost of a set of condos is about half of the cost of a data center.  However, they use a sales price of $100K for the condos, but according to a news release issued by the US National Association of Realtors, the median metro-area condo price in the US was $226,800 in 2007 Q2.

Perhaps you could get cheaper condos by going outside the major metro areas, but you might not be able to get as good connectivity outside the major metro areas.  I don’t have a figure for the median condo price in cities of population between 50,000 and 100,000, but that would be an interesting number.

A rack of 48 servers draws 12kW (at 250W/server, his number).   For a house wired for 110V, this means that the current draw would be 109A.  That is approximately five times what a normal household outlet can carry, so you would need to do significant rewiring.  I don’t have an estimate on that cost.

Furthermore, my construction-industry source says that most houses can’t stand that much extra load.  He says that older houses generally have 75A fuseboxes; newer houses have 100A to them.  He says that it is becoming more common for houses to get 200A fuseboxes, but only for the larger houses.

While it is possible to upgrade, “ the cost of [upgrading from a 100A fusebox to a 200A fusebox] could be as high as $2000.”  I suspect that an upgrade of this size would also need approval from the condo board (and in Canada, where residential marijuana farms is somewhat common, suspicion from the local police department).

If, as Church and Hamilton suggest, you “wall in” the servers, then you will need to do some planning and construction to build the enclosure for the servers.  I can’t imagine that would cost less than $1000, and probably more like $2000.

They also don’t figure in the cost to pay someone (salary+plane+rental car+hotel) to evaluate the propterties, bid on them, and buy them.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this would add $10K to each property.  While there are also costs associated with acquiring property for one large data center, those costs should be lower than for aquiring a thousand condo.

Bottom line: I believe the capital costs would be higher than they expect.

Operating costs

For their comparison, Church and Hamilton put 54,000 servers either in one data center or in 1125 condos.  They calculate that the power cost for the data center option is $3.5M/year.  By contrast, they figure that the condo power consumption is $10.6M/year, but is offset by $800/month in condo rental income at 80% occupancy, for $8.1M in income.  I calculate that 800*1125*12*.8 is $8.6M, and will use that number, giving a net operating cost of $2M/year, or $1.5M/year less than a data center.

Given a model with 1125 condos, this works out to $111 per condo per month.   Put another way, if they are off by $111/month, a data center is cheaper.

Implicit in their model is that nobody will ever have to lay hands on a server rack.  If you have to send someone out to someone’s residence to reboot the rack, that will cost you.  That will depend upon how far the condo is from the technician’s normal location, how easy it is to find the condo, how agreeable the tenant is to having someone enter their condo, etc.  I believe this would be a number significantly larger than zero.  You might be able to put something in the lease about how the tenant agrees to reboot the servers on request, but this inconvenience will come at some price.  Either it will come in the form of reduced monthly rent or a per-incident payment to the tenant.

I believe that the $800/month rental income ($1000/month rent less $200/month condo dues) is overly optimistic.

The median rent for a metro-area apartment was $1324 in 2007, but that’s for all housing types, not just condos.  The median rent nationally in 2007 was $665.  If you want the metro income, you need to pay the metro purchase price of $227K; if you want to save money by going outside the metro areas, you won’t get the high rent.

Eyeballing a few cities on Craigslist, it looked to me like the metro rent for two-bedroom condos was about $800/month.

Church and Hamilton also didn’t account for

  • management fees (~5-7% of gross rent per month, or $50-$70 on income of $1000)
  • property taxes (~2%/year of purchase price, so $160/month if he finds condos for $100K)
  • maintenance that isn’t covered by the condo association like paint, new carpeting, and the hole the tenant punched in the wall ($40/month)
  • reduction in rent for part of the condo being walled off and/or inconvenience of rebooting the servers (~$50/month)
  • Liability insurance. If a short in the servers burns the condo complex down, that’s bad.
  • Internet connectivity

While they didn’t account for Internet connectivity in either the datacenter scenario or the condos scenario, this is an area wherethere seem to be large economies of scale. For example, a T3 (44.736 Mbit/s) seems to cost between $7,500 and $14K/month or between $167 and $312/Mbit/sec/month.  A T1 (1.536 Mbit/s) seems to cost between $550 and $1200/month or between $358 and $781/Mbit/s/month.  The T1 is thus about twice as expensive per byte as the T3.   I don’t know how much connectivity 54,000 servers would need, but I expect it would be significant, and expect that it would be significantly more expensive in 1125 smaller lots.


I can imagine there some significant additional costs in time and/or money.

  • Obstreperous condo boards.  If the condo board passes a rule against having server farms in your unit, you’re screwed.
  • Obstreperous zoning boards.  If the city decides that the server farm is part of a business, they might get unhappy about it being in a building zoned residential.
  • Criminal tenants.  What’s to stop your tenants from busting into the server closet and stealing all the servers?

Church and Hamilton close their article by saying, “whenever we see a crazy idea even within a factor of two of what we are doing today, something is wrong”.  I think they are correct, and that their analysis is overly simplistic and optimistic.

Legacy of Proposition 13

Posted in Politics at 2:45 pm by ducky

I went looking today for my blog posting about Prop 13, and was stunned that I couldn’t find it.  I was sure I had written one, but I guess I hadn’t.

This is a story of unintended consequences of lowering taxes.  As a result of Prop 13, it costs cities more to provide services to residents than it can get from the residents in property taxes. They only make money from business (in sales taxes).   Cities thus work really hard to avoid zoning for residential — especially high-density residential! — and do everything they can to attract businesses  The result is that the cost of housing close to jobs has gone way, way up.

Meanwhile, there is a loophole that lets cities get some money from residents: developers’ fees.  If a big developer wants to put in a subdivision, cities are allowed to charge the developer fees for that.  (I think the fees can be arbitrarily high, but don’t know for sure.)  Some cities can use the fees that developers pay now for future housing to allow them to cover the costs of services to the current residents.  It’s a Ponzi scheme, however: you have to keep building in order for this to work.  Thus this only works for cities that have a lot of land, i.e., ones way out in the exurbs.

This means that the housing is waaay far away from the jobs.  Note that the long-haul roads are paid for with either state money or federal money, so neither the city with the jobs nor the city with the housing cares how much the road costs.  Massive sprawl has ensued.

This means that housing is expensive in general, and even higher in cities close to jobs.  Meanwhile, cities’ revenues increase at a little bit more than 1% per year, but inflation — which influences how much they have to pay — has gone up way faster than that.  In particular, the salaries they need to pay are influenced by the cost of housing, which has skyrocketed.

Meanwhile the state has no money.  It got hammered by the difference between what they took in and what they had to pay out, just like the cities.  Furthermore, in the 1980s, the federal government either took money from the states or stopped giving as much (I forget which) as part of the Reagan Revolution.  Thus the state just took money from the cities.  Just took it.  And because it was bigger, it could.  This contributed to cities’ difficulties.

Because of the sprawl, building public transportation is expensive.  Because the state has no money, it can’t afford to build public transportation.  This means that people have to spend a looooong time in their cars.  This is expensive in time, and more recently, in money.

Because the state has no money, the public education system has gone into the toilet.  California ranks 36th from the top in per-pupil public school expenditures (just below Missouri) and 35th from the top in SAT scores (just below Virginia).  There are only two states that spend less when you adjust for the cost of living.  Because the public school system is so bad, many people send their kids to private schools, which decreases their desire to pay taxes for the public school system.

Because of Prop 13, the citizens of California pay significantly extra housing, schooling, and transportation for the privilege of spending more time in their car.

How do you fix it?  Well, you can’t really raise taxes because the citizens are already getting squeezed — they aren’t going to want to raise taxes.  Furthermore, the ones that already own houses have a strong disincentive to make housing in general more affordable.  They get rewarded if the price of their house goes up.  The only thing I way I can see to fix it is to amend Prop 13 so that over a long period of time, the amount that property taxes can rise loosened — perhaps capped by inflation. I left California because, in part,  I am very pessimistic about the chances of this structural weakness in the California economy changing.

Where did all the money go?  It went to people like my husband: people who bought a house, held it for long enough for it to appreciate, and sold it for a huge profit, and then left the state.  It went to people who owned land and sold it to developers.

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