Posts tagged ‘payoff’

## Geeky Reflections -- Simulated Annealing

When I was an undergrad, my interest was in interfacing microcomputers with mechanical devices.  Most of what we did would be labelled "robotics" today, or at least proto-robotics (e.g. ripping the ultrasonic rangefinder out of a Polaroid camera, putting it on a stepper motor, and trying to paint a radar image of the room on a computer screen).

In doing this, we were playing around with S-100 bus computers (PC's were a bit in the future at that point) and I got interested in brute force approaches to solving the traveling salesman problem.  The way this is done is to establish some random points in x,y space and then connect them with a random path and measure the length of that path.  The initial random path is obviously going to be a terrible solution.  So you have the computer randomly flip flop two segments, and then you see if the resulting total distance is reduced.  If it is, then you keep the change and try another.

This will lead to a much shorter path, but often will not lead to the optimally shortest path.  The reason is that the result can get stuck in a local minimum that is not the optimum.  Essentially, to break out of this, you have to allow the solution to get worse first before it can get better.

The approach I was playing with was called simulated annealing.  Everything I said above is the same in this approach, but sometimes you let the program accept flip-flopped segments that yield a worse (ie longer) rather than better path.  The allowed amount worse is governed by a "temperature" that is slowly lowered.  Initially, at high temperatures, the solution can jump into most any solution, better or worse.  But as the "temperature" is lowered, the allowed amount of jumping into worse solutions is reduced.  Essentially, the system is much, much more likely than the previous approach to settle closer to the actual optimum.  This is roughly an analog of how annealing works in metals.  The code is ridiculously simple.   I don't remember it being much more than 100 lines in Pascal.

Anyway, if you lived through the above without falling asleep, the payoff is this site.  After 30 years of pretty much never thinking about simulated annealing again, I found Todd Schneider's blog which has a great visual overview of solving the travelling salesman problem with simulated annealing.  If you really want to visually see it work, go to the customizable examples at the bottom and set the iterations per map draw for about 100.  Then watch.  It really does look a bit like a large excited molecule slowly cooling.  Here is an example below but check out his site.

## Another Possible Reason for Obama's Minimum Wage Push

Obama's minimum wage push could be an honest attempt to reduce poverty, but since only a trivial percentage of the American work force earns the minimum wage, and most of those are in starter jobs rather than trying to support a family, it does not make a lot of sense.

On the other hand, it could be another cynical payoff to unions that form the backbone of Obama's political support

Organized labor's instantaneous support for President Obama's recent proposal to hike the minimum wage doesn't make much sense at first glance. The average private-sector union member—at least one who still has a job—earns \$22 an hour according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's a far cry from the current \$7.25 per hour federal minimum wage, or the \$9 per hour the president has proposed. Altruistic solidarity with lower-paid workers isn't the reason for organized labor's cheerleading, either.

The real reason is that some unions and their members directly benefit from minimum wage increases—even when nary a union member actually makes the minimum wage.

The Center for Union Facts analyzed collective-bargaining agreements obtained from the Department of Labor's Office of Labor-Management Standards. The data indicate that a number of unions in the service, retail and hospitality industries peg their base-line wages to the minimum wage.

The Labor Department's collective-bargaining agreements file has a limited number of contracts available, so we were unable to determine how widespread the practice is. But the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union says that pegging its wages to the federal minimum is commonplace. On its website, the UFCW notes that "oftentimes, union contracts are triggered to implement wage hikes in the case of minimum wage increases." Such increases, the UFCW says, are "one of the many advantages of being a union member."

The labor contracts that we examined used a variety of methods to trigger the increases. The two most popular formulas were setting baseline union wages as a percentage above the state or federal minimum wage or mandating a ﬂat wage premium above the minimum wage.

## Harvard Business School and Women

The New York Times has a long article on  Harvard Business School's effort to change its culture around women.  Given that both my wife and I attended, albeit 25 years ago, I have a few thoughts.

• I thought the article was remarkably fair given that it came from the NYT.  Men who are skeptical of the program actually are allowed to voice intelligent objections, rather than just be painted as Neanderthals
• I would have abhorred the forced gender indoctrination program, as much for being boring as for being tangential.  I am fortunate I grew up when I did, before such college group-think sessions were made a part of the process everywhere.  I would presume most of these young folks are now used to such sessions from their undergrad days.   I would not have a problem having an honest and nuanced discussion about these issues with smart people of different backgrounds, but I thought the young man they quoted in the article said it really well -- there is just no payoff to voicing a dissenting opinion in such sessions where it is clear there is a single right answer and huge social and even administrative penalties for saying the wrong thing.
• I went to HBS specifically because I loved the confrontational free-for-all of the classes.   It was tailor-made to my personality and frankly I have never been as successful at anything before or since as I was at HBS.   I say this only to make it clear that I have a bias in favor of the HBS teaching process.   I do think there is an issue that this process does not fit well with certain groups.  These folks who do not thrive in the process are not all women (foreign students can really struggle as well) but they are probably disproportionately women.  So I was happy to see that rather than dumb down the process, they are working to help women be more successful and confident in it.
• It is interesting to see that the school still struggles to get good women professors.  When I was there, the gap between the quality of men and women professors was staggering.  The men were often older guys who had been successful in the business and finance world and now were teaching.  The women were often young and just out of grad school.  The couple of women professors I had my first year were weak, probably the two weakest professors I had.  In one extreme case our female professor got so jumbled up in the numbers that the class demanded I go down and sort it out, which I finally did.  I thought it was fun at the time, but now I realize how humiliating it was.
• To some extent, the school described in the article seems a different place than when I was there.  They describe a school awash in alcohol and dominated by social concerns.  This may be a false impression -- newspapers have a history of exaggerating college bacchanalia.   At the time I was there, Harvard did not admit many students who did not have at least 2 years of work experience, such that the youngest students were 24 and many were in their 30's and 40's.  A number were married and some even had children.   To be there, they not only were paying a lot of money but they were quitting paying jobs.  The school was full of professionals who were there for a purpose.  I had heard that HBS had started to admit more students right out of college -- perhaps that is a mistake.
• The fear by the women running the school that women would show up on Halloween wearing "sexy pirate" costumes represents, in my mind, one of the more insidious aspects of this new feminist paternalism (maternalism?) aimed at fellow women.  Feminism used to be about empowering women to make whatever choices they want for their lives.   Now it is increasingly about requiring women to make only the feminist-approved choices.
• I actually wrote a novel where the protagonist was a confident successful female at HBS.   So I guess I was years ahead of the curve.

Postscript:  Below the fold is an excerpt from my novel.  In it, the protagonist Susan describes how an HBS class works and shares my advice for being successful at HBS.

## Words That Mean the Opposite: "Shareholder Rights Plan"

Today's entry:  "shareholder rights plan."  Example usage:

Less than a week after activist investor Carl Icahn announced a 10 percent stake in Netflix, the online video company is moving to protect itself against hostile takeovers.

The Los Gatos, Calif., company said Monday that it has adopted a shareholder rights plan.

Icahn disclosed his stake in Netflix Wednesday.

Under the plan, rights are exercisable if a person or group acquires 10 percent of Netflix, or 20 percent in the case of institutional investors, in a deal not approved by the board.

This is basically a poison pill that can be triggered by the Board that can dilute the value of a hostile investor's share of the company.  What it does is force investors to negotiate with management for takeover of the company, rather than directly with shareholders.  As such, it is actually a "management rights plan" as it empowers management at the expense of shareholders  (as evidence of this, in a rising market today Netflix stock fell on this news -- shareholders know that such moves have nothing to do with their well-being).  Managements use it either to protect their jobs (by disallowing hostile takeovers their shareholders would otherwise support) or at least to get a nice payoff on the way out the door as the price for agreeing to the deal.

## What a Bunch of Wusses

It would be difficult to find many folks who are more paranoid protectors of privacy information than I am.  But I have to say the tone of this is really pathetic.  (via Overlawyered)   Seriously, how many people think these folks feel truly harmed and how many think they are acting in order to try to score a tort payoff?

Consumers are hoping to cash in on last week's state Supreme Court ruling that it's illegal for retailers to ask customers for their ZIP Codes during credit card transactions, except in limited cases.

More than a dozen new lawsuits have been filed against major chains that do business in California, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bed Bath & Beyond Inc., Crate & Barrel andVictoria's Secret. More filings are expected in the coming weeks.

The flurry of litigation stems from a decision last week againstWilliams-Sonoma Inc. in which the state high court ruled unanimously that ZIP Codes were "personal identification information" that merchants can't demand from customers under a California consumer privacy law.

This rush to court is pathetic on a number of levels

• Zip code is personal, really?  Do you believe that?
• Just say no.  Seriously.  I do it all the time -- I get asked for a phone number or a zip code and I always answer "no, sorry."  You know how many retailers have decided they did not want to make a sale to me at that point?  Zero.
• It's ex post facto law.  Nowhere was it made clear to retailers that the law barred collecting zip codes.  Not until a group of judges effectively made this individual practice illegal did it become so, and then it was enforced retroactively on stores.  If the legislature wants collecting zip codes to be illegal, it should have written in the law that collecting zip codes is illegal.  Or, as a minimum, liability should begin on the day after the court decision.  Suing someone for taking a zip code last year when it only became clear this week it was illegal is classic ex post facto law.
• Ira Stoll has a funny comment - guess what the first piece of information Jerry Brown's web site asks for?

## Worst. DA. Ever.

Andrew Thomas was very competitive in Radley Balko's Worst Prosecutor of the Year voting.  But if he had just waited a few days, this news could have easily put Thomas over the top:

The same people responsible for tens of millions in claims being filed against Maricopa County are now drooling after their own pot of gold.

Former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and David Hendershott, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's former right-hand man have filed a notice of claim along with Thomas' former lackey, Lisa Aubuchon, for a combined total of \$60 million.
Aubuchon had already filed a \$10 million claim; she's revised that to \$22.5 million. Andrew Thomas, who quit the job voters gave him and failed in his bid to become state Attorney General, has the gall to seek \$23.5 million from taxpayers. And Hendershott, the infamous Chief Deputy now under investigation following a co-worker's allegations of corruption and abuse of power, wants \$14 million.

For the first time in my life, I voted in a partisan primary for the Coke/Pepsi parties this year specifically to vote against Thomas.  I cannot even imagine why they think they deserve this kind of payoff.  If anyone should be suing, it is the citizens of Maricopa County who should be suing these three.  Lots of articles about him on my site, but this one in the ABA Journal covers a lot of the ground.

## The Anti-Responsibility Law

Congress just passed a new \$26 billion payoff to state governments, easing the pressure on states to institute some sort of fiscal responsibility.  The follows on the heals of last year's tens of billions of dollars in direct aid to state budgets in the original stimulus bill.

Taking the pressure off states for real fiscal reform is bad enough, but this is worse:

Maintaining the salaries and generous benefit plans for members of teachers unions is indeed a top Democratic priority. That's why \$10 billion of the bill's funding is allocated to education, and the money comes with strings that will multiply the benefits for this core Obama constituency.Specifically, the bill stipulates that federal funds must supplement, not replace, state spending on education. Also, in each state, next year's spending on elementary and secondary education as a percentage of total state revenues must be equal to or greater than the previous year's level.

This is roughly equivalent to the government telling mortgage holders that took on too much debt that the government will bail them out, a clear moral hazard.  But then it goes further to force the mortgage-holder to promise to take on a bigger mortgage next year.  Unbelievable.

In a move right out of Atlas Shrugged, Texas is singled out for special penalties in the law because, well, it seems to be doing better than all the other states economically and is one of the few that seem comitted to fiscal responsibility

For Texas, and only Texas, this funding rule will be in place through 2013 [rather than 2011]. This is a form of punishment because the Beltway crowd believes the Lone Star State didn't spend enough of its 2009 stimulus money.

So much for equal protection.  This Congress sure has set an incredible record for itself in choosing to reward and punish individual states (remember Nebraska and Louisiana) in its legislation.

The WSJ thinks perhaps a different kind of multiplier, other than the Keynesian one, is behind this legislation.

Keep in mind that this teacher bailout also amounts to a huge contribution by Democrats to their own election campaigns. The National Right to Work Committee estimates that two of every three teachers belong to unions. The average union dues payment varies, but a reasonable estimate is that between 1% and 1.5% of teacher salaries goes to dues. The National Education Association and other unions will thus get as much as \$100 million in additional dues from this bill, much of which will flow immediately to endangered Democratic candidates in competitive House and Senate races this year.

## Saw This Coming

Yours Truly, on July 16, 2009:

It is totally clear to me that Obama and Pelosi will spend any amount of money to pass their key legislative initiatives.  In the case of Waxman-Markey, the marginal price per vote turned out to be about \$3.5 billion.  But they didn't even blink at paying this.  That is why I fear that some horrible form of health care "reform" may actually pass.  If it does, the marginal cost per vote may be higher, but I don't think our leaders care.

Barbara Hollingsworth, 11/4:

The Heritage Foundation's Dennis Smith says that a "manager's amendment" to Pelosi's controversial 1,900 "“page health care bill includes new provisions that will allow back-door payoffs to specific members of Congress, such as more favorable Medicare reimbursements to particular doctors or hospitals and lower taxes on medical device manufacturers in certain congressional districts.

One such earmark - which Smith says "suddenly appeared" after the Energy and Commerce Committee had already completed its work - creates a new \$6 billion Medicaid slush fund for nursing homes to be doled out by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, with no input from the states, ordinary rulemaking or administrative review.

This is nothing but a blatant attempt to buy off wavering Blue Dog Democrats. Just when you thought this bloated behemoth couldn't get any worse, it does.

## This Is What You Get For Cooperating with the Government

Ken Lewis gets his payoff for knuckling under to Paulson and Bernanke on the Merrill Lynch acquisition

Kenneth Lewis, outgoing chief executive of Bank of America Corp., will get no salary or bonus for 2009, according to people familiar with the matter, the biggest Wall Street name thus far to come under the thumb of the government's pay czar.In fact, Mr. Lewis will have to repay the North Carolina-based bank more than \$1 million in salary he has already earned.

The move was demanded by Kenneth Feinberg, the U.S. Treasury Department's special master for compensation, and was agreed to by Mr. Lewis and the bank.

After forcing Lewis to deal fraudulently with his shareholders, they cut his pay to zero. Nice. Lewis will do fine, he has a nice fat retirement, but it is still a pretty scary development for those of us who still care about contracts and individual liberty.  Just ask yourself - what objective standard did Feinberg apply?  Can't come up with one, can you?

This week, we in Phoenix are supposedly getting our payoff for subsidizing the hapless Arizona Cardinals with a billion dollar football stadium that is used for its intended purpose (football games) for 33 hours per year  (3 hours per game times 11 games:  2 Cardinals pre-season, 8 home regular season, Fiesta Bowl).  In exchange we get a nicer stadium (if I were to want to see a Cardinals game live) but worse TV options (because instead of the best game of the week, we have to see our home team).

The big selling point, the cherry on top of the sundae the NFL uses to push new stadiums, is a Superbowl.  Which is in town this week.  So far, the huge economic stimulus has not really poured into our household, but I guess I need to be patient.  Anyway, the timing seems good to link this article, which comes via the Sports Economist:

If you build it, they will come. This is usually the mantra of those in
favor of publicly financed sports stadiums, including the current
proposal for a new soccer stadium in Chester. In this case they
are visitors whose spending would turn devastated cities and
neighborhoods into exciting destination points. Local schools,
merchants, and residents all would benefit as municipal coffers swelled.

There's only one problem with this scenario. It's not true. Never has been. They
do come, but cities are not saved. Over the past two decades, academic
research has generated literally hundreds of articles and books
empirically challenging the alleged economic wonders of new stadiums,
even when they're part of larger development schemes. I have been
years and cannot name a single stadium project that has delivered on
its original grandiose economic promises, although they do bring
benefits to team owners, sports leagues and sometimes players....

Why, then, given the overwhelming academic research challenging
average citizens) still support such projects? In a just-released
article in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, my colleagues and I
studied media coverage of 23 publicly financed stadium initiatives in
16 different cities, including Philadelphia. We found that the
mainstream media in most of these cities is noticeably biased toward
supporting publicly financed stadiums, which has a significant impact
on the initiatives' success.

This bias usually takes the form of uncritically parroting stadium
proponents' economic and social promises, quoting stadium supporters
far more frequently than stadium opponents, overlooking the numerous
objective academic studies on the topic, and failing to independently
examine the multitude of failed stadium-centered promises throughout
the country, especially those in oft-cited "success cities" such as
Denver and Cleveland.

I can attest to the latter.  During the run up to various stadium-related referenda, the media was quite rah-rah for the stadium subsidies.  In fact, on radio, several talk show hosts denigrated voters who opposed the stadium subsidies as "stupid old retired people."  I remember calling in to a couple of talk shows opposing the stadium bills and being treated like a Luddite.

## Great Moments in Taxation

A few weeks ago, my wife's car was totaled when a guy in a large van fell asleep and slammed into her car when she was sitting at a red light.  Since he admitted culpability, his insurance company quickly came up with a settlement amount for the totaled car based on blue book values and such.

Here is the interesting part -- since the insurance company is technically buying the wrecked hulk from us, Arizona treats the payoff as a taxable transaction, and charges its full automotive sales tax rate on the settlement.  It's incredible to me that having my car wrecked is considered by the state of Arizona to be a taxable event, and that the tax is owed in this case by the victim.  I am glad my house didn't burn down, the state might have bankrupted me!

This all seems odd to me, since if I had sued the driver to make us whole, rather than accepted the insurance settlement, any amount I won in court would not be taxable.  My guess (and hope) is that they are only taxing me on the scrap value of the hulk, not the entire transaction, but I have to do more checking.

Note before commenting that laws and rules on this are highly variable by state.

## Defending Your Enemy When They Are Right

There is a tendency in politics, once you have an enemy, to attack that enemy no matter what position they take.  Conservatives of late have (rightly) attacked Liberals for being un-supportive of Iraqi democracy, just so they can embarrass their arch-enemy GW Bush.  However, conservatives can be guilty of the same thing.

Ed Morrissey of Captains Quarters has been on Governor (of Wisconsin) Jim Doyle's case for historically opposing and promising to continue to oppose reforms in election controls, despite very suspicious voting numbers in Milwaukee.  In this case, Captain Ed has done a great job bringing focus to election fraud and "over-vote" issues in Milwaukee, E. St. Louis, and Washington State, especially since the MSM has preferred to focus on potential "under-vote" issues in Ohio and Florida.

However, in piling on Mr. Doyle, I fear that Morrissey has put aside his political and/or philosophical beliefs in favor of giving his enemy another good bludgeon.  His post points out that:

executives involved in a controversial health-care merger gave Doyle over \$28,000 in donations shortly after he allowed the merger to go through. Critics at the time wondered why Doyle didn't ask for common-sense economic concessions

OK, lets take this in two parts.  First, lets look at Doyle's decision on the merger.  The article says that Doyle is being criticized basically for NOT holding two companies for ransom.  Often anti-trust law is used as "merger tax" to extract some sort of pay-off from the parties, in the form of reduced prices or a spun-off properties or whatever.  However, no matter what you call it, this is a bribe the government is demanding to let individuals carry forward with a private business transaction.  Usually this bribe is waved around by some politician in order to score some populist political points toward their next reelection (the Europeans and Elliot Spitzer are both good at this).

Is this really what Morrissey thinks Doyle should have done?  As a libertarian, I find that conservatives' support for truly free market capitalism sometimes runs hot and cold, but I would generally expect a conservative to oppose this kind of extortion and interference with the free market.  So does Morrissey really think Doyle did the wrong thing?

The second part of the story, of course, are the campaign contributions.  First, I would argue that if Doyle's merger decision was not wrong, then donations based on this decision are not wrong either.  Many, many companies out there donate to politicians who promise to keep the government off their back.  I certainly do - does that make my contributions graft?  Finally, Morrissey admits that

These donations do not appear to have broken any laws, although the timing strongly suggests some sort of payoff

Look at it the other way around:  If Doyle HAD extracted concessions to approve the merger, it would not have strongly suggested a soft of payoff, it would have been a definite payoff.

Captain Ed- I enjoy your site immensely, even when I disagree with it.  It is OK for you to say that Doyle made the right decision on the merger without backing off of him over the election issue -- just as it is OK for those of us who had concerns about the war in Iraq to gleefully support that country's return to democracy.