How Did “Deportation” Become a Dirty Word?

This is inspired by a New York Times editorial: Yes He Can, on Immigration

As a liberal, I do not understand why liberals are calling for the President to selectively execute the law. This amounts to making up his own laws, which would clearly usurp Congress’s power. Sure, the law leaves some room for executive discretion; however, only deporting violent gang members does not fall within what immigration law requires. “I must execute the law” is not an excuse; it is a sacred duty.

For whatever reason, liberals seem all to eager to turn a blind eye toward a simple fact: sovereign countries have the authority to set laws governing immigration. In this country, we have a political process for determining such laws. Furthermore, the process allows for changes, when the people desire such change. The President cannot, and should not try to get around the democratic process.

I think Obama’s non-enforcement on the ban of marijuana has created the false expectation that he is free to pick and choose what laws are practically in effect. That is a dangerous precedent. Haven’t liberals in recent years been clamoring for greater limits on executive power? This kind of discretion takes us in the exact opposite direction.

Another thing that liberals are doing that I cannot understand is to blame deportations on the chief executive. It seems to me that much of the blame falls on illegal immigrants themselves. Obviously, children who were brought by their parents did not have a choice. But their parents did have a choice, and they chose to break the law (such as it is). In an ideal world, children would not have to suffer for the crimes of their parents. But the real world is much messier than that.

Sure, these illegal immigrants probably didn’t do it to flout the US government; more likely, they did it out of simple economic desperation. I don’t see how that translates into some kind of moral imperative for the US to allow such immigration. What this means is that illegal immigrants took a risk: on the one hand, stay in their home country that lacks economic opportunity, or enter the US with the possibility of being deported. As with many things in life, just because something sucks for you does not require someone else to accommodate you.

Politically speaking, if the point of Obama’s aggressive deportation strategy was to demonstrate how serious he is about enforcement, it has (or at least should be) succeeding: Republicans aren’t accusing Obama of being “soft on illegal immigration”. They have no excuses to hide behind, laying bare their true motivation: they don’t like immigrants, despite having descended from immigrants themselves.

Speaking of being a nation of immigrants, my parents legally immigrated to this country. I’m not going to say that just because they did it, so can everyone else. The truth is that the waiting lines to get a green card are about a decade long. That is an absurd amount of time to wait. The biggest immigration problem we face is making it practical to immigrate legally. Until that happens, we will be powerless to stop desperate people from running across our gigantic border. This whole debate over what to do with existing illegal immigrants does nothing to address that; therefore, we can rest assured that the problem will grow indefinitely, regardless of deportations, until we start focusing on the real issue: making legal immigration practical.

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Blame the Test

This is inspired by a New York Times article: Standing Up to Testing

Patents are declining public standardized tests for their kids in what has become known as the “opt-out movement”. While I’m sure their kids are happy to comply, is it really a good for them?

Parents in the opt-out movement claim that the tests cause teachers to “teach to the test”. Why is that a bad thing? What if the material that the tests cover is highly beneficial for kids? If that were the case, then teaching to the test is exactly what you’d want. “teaching to the test” would be a bad thing if there was something wrong with the contents of the test. However, this does not seem to be the parents’ main concern.

Another claim is that tests are “killing creativity, enthusiasm, etc.”. It seems that such claims are based on parents observing that enthusiasm for school declines as their children age. That may well be the case, but a crucial question remains: Why is the test to blame? Kids were losing interest in school long before the rise of tests. I suspect many people have experienced school killing the joy of learning.

Ultimately, pulling your kid from test accomplishes very little. A more constructive thing to do is suggest how testing can be reformed to promote the characteristics that we want. If you think the current test kills creativity, then you should suggest ways of testing that promote creativity. Perhaps it is parents themselves who need to get creative.

If you think that school isn’t fostering your child’s interest in a subject (e.g. the ocean), buy her books about it. Bring her to the aquarium. Better yet, take your next vacation in the Galapagos, the place that inspired Darwin to develop the Theory of Evolution, and take her diving. These are the kind of things that only a parent can provide. There is simply no way to get this kind of individual attention at school, because there is no way to pay for the amount of staff that would be needed. If you thought that shipping your kids off to school during the day, and making sure they do their homework at night is all that they need to learn, you couldn’t be more mistaken.

If your child’s interest in the ocean seems to be declining, it might not be the test (or the kind of pedagogy that results from it). Another explanation is that her previous enthusiasm was never really going to go anywhere. Maybe, it was just excitement over some novelty that was destined to wear off with time. Maybe, it was just a phase.

It seems that the opt-out movement is against any kind of big system-wide test, not just tests in its current form, because I don’t see any suggestions for how tests could be improved.

The job of education administrators is to engineer the system to get the outcomes that we want. A critical element of this is recognizing and promoting the best teachers. In order for this to work, administrators need to give teachers a clear standard by which they will be judged. Otherwise, teachers will not know what is expected of them in order to be promoted. Or worse: promotions will be based on personal favors.

If there were a brain scanner that could tell us whether kids are as smart as we want them to be in the areas that we care about, we wouldn’t need tests. Until the day such a device becomes available, testing seems to be the next best thing. Therefore, unless someone comes up with a better alternative, the question should not be whether to test, but what to test? In what form? How often? I’m sure there’s plenty of areas in which the test can be improved; however, that does not suggest that you throw the baby out with the bath water.

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Exposing Privates

Let’s say I have

foo.h

class Foo {
 public:
  void Complicated();

 private:
  void Helper();
  int my_data_;
};

Helper is kind of complicated too -> I want to be able to test it, but it shouldn’t be a public member of Foo. I could use friend to expose Helper to test, but that’s dirty. How about this solution:

foo.h:

class Handle;

class Foo {
 public:
  Foo();
  ~Foo();

  void Complicated();

  // etc.

 private:
  /* Moved to Handle
  void Helper();
  */

  int my_data_;

  Handle* handle_; // Seems I cannot use std::unique_ptr :(
  friend class Handle;
};

foo.cc:

#include "foo.h" // existing include
#include "private.h" // New!

Foo::Foo() : handle_(nullptr) {
  new Handle(this); // Handle constructor sets this.handle_
}

Foo::~Foo() {
  delete handle_;
}

/*
void Foo::Helper() {
  my_data_++
}
becomes...
*/

void Handle::Helper() {
  foo_->my_data++;
}

// etc.

private.h:

class Foo;

class Handle {
 public:
  Handle(Foo* foo) : foo_(foo) {
    delete foo_.handle_;
    foo_.handle_ = this;
  }

  void Helper();

 private:
  Foo* foo_; // Not owned.
};

I don’t ship private.h (only foo.h), but my test can include it! I can construct Foo as before, but now, I can make a back door from test like so:

TEST(FooTest, Helper) {
  Foo foo;
  Handle* handle = new Handle(&foo);
      // Foo takes ownership ->
      // No need to worry about deleting handle.

  handle->Helper(); // Accessing "private" from test. BWAHAHAHA!
}

This is similar to pimpl in that the privates go in a separate holding class. The difference is that you can INCREMENTALLY move stuff in an existing to the holding class.

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Educating Myself on Personal Finance

I recently finished reading A Random Walk Down Wall Street, and I’ve just started reading Irrational Exuberance. Financial literacy seems like the sort of thing that ought be taught in high school. Sadly, one learns hardly anything of practical value in high school. I don’t remember where I’ve heard about these books, but for some reason, I thought they were famous. In the case of Random Walk, that seems quite likely, since eleven editions of it have been published since 1973, and for what it’s worth, it has its own Wikipedia page. Irrational Exuberance was first published much more recently in 2000 (the second (most recent) edition came out in 2005). Indeed, the phrase is a famous one, but it was not coined by the author, Shiller, one of the co-developers of the Case-Shiller home price index. Rather, the phrase gained instant fame when former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan uttered it in a speech, sending stocks tumbling in financial markets around the world. The latest edition of Random Walk also mentions Irrational Exuberance (the book) several times.

I have to admit, one reason that I picked up Random Walk is its title. Unlike so many books about personal finance and business success, the title is NOT of the form “N Secrets/Rules of Being Super Successful”, where N is some nice round number between 5 and 12. Those books are clearly engineered to maximize sales for the author and/or publisher. Therefore, sound advice is unlikely to be found in such books. It becomes obvious upon cursory reflection that the world isn’t simple enough to be described by a handful of rules. If things were that simple, economists would be able to predict and even prevent economic crises. The reality is that economists can’t even agree with one another on fundamental issues.

Another thing that appealed to me about the title is that it pays homage to an important concept in mathematics: random walks. An example of a random walk is a drunkard stumbling around. Where he ends up depends on how many steps he takes and is the product of a random walk. The book does not (over) promise certainty or success. Instead, it acknowledge one of the most disappointing facts about reality at the expense of mass appeal: we have a really poor grasp of how the world (particularly the economy) works, and our best models are non-deterministic. People are too often uninterested in models of the form “the outcome of A is sometimes B, sometimes C, and sometimes D”. They (understandably) prefer “the outcome of A is always B”, because the certainty of such models is very comforting, and does not require thinking about probability, which people find intimidating (rightfully so, since most people have poor intuition when it comes to probability). Despite the topic heavily relying on probability, both of these books strive and manage to be accessible to the layman.

I hate to obsess about the title, but one last comment that I have about it is that unlike other books on related topics, it does not try to impress you with “suits and ties”. Always look past the tidy presentation for the substance. I find it refreshingly whimsical.

What Can You Expect to Learn from Random Walk?

If I had to sum up the advice of this book in one sentence, it would be this: do not try to trade in and out of individual stocks (even the professionals fail at this); instead, buy indexes, and hold them for a long time. The main lesson of this book is that nobody knows how to predict stock prices, not even professional investors. This is a consequence of the “efficient market hypothesis” (EMH), perhaps the most important assumption in all of economics, and one well worth understanding, even if you don’t entirely believe in it (as I do not).

I just got done explaining how the world is complicated, and understanding it requires more sophistication than a small set of rules can possibly contain. A corollary of this is that the previous paragraph is a gross simplification, and that you should read the book to understand what you can expect from various investment strategies. Anyone who gives you advice without explaining it is selling you snake oil. Purveyors of snake oil often have a story for their advice too, but don’t confuse a story with science. What I mean by “story” is something that sounds plausible, but which offers little or dubious scientific support. Sadly, evaluating scientific evidence is another critical skill that is practically neglected by high school education.

This book not only contains practical advice like what I described above, it tries to give you a fundamental understanding of the stock market, one of the most important, interesting, and challenging parts of personal finance. It explains two basic theories for stock values: Fundamental Value, and Castle in the Clouds. It also explains two broad classes of investors: fundamentalists vs. chartists. It then goes on to criticize these theories and strategies (among others). This, again, throws to the wind spoon feeding comforting stories for the sake of appealing to a mass audience in an effort to drive book sales, and is the reason that this book should have real credibility. The book does not try to convince you of these theories. Rather, it explains the reasons you should believe them, as well as the reasons that you should not. Most theories have limits, which must be understood if they are to be applied effectively. Anyone who tries to sell you a theory but cannot explain its limits should not be trusted.

In addition to explaining the problems with the most important theories about the stock market, the book tries to inoculate against irrational exuberance by giving a brief history of finance, particularly highlighting bubbles, which we all hope to avoid repeating. The most famous (and colorful) of these is “tulip mania”, which occurred in 17th century Europe. The lesson that I take away from tulip mania (and other bubbles) is that it is easy for the public (professional investors included) to get caught up in rising prices and drive prices up still further (on the basis that some greater fool will buy from you in future) until they reach a point of collapse (the chain of fools runs out, much like a ponsi scheme).

Most of us have heard two of the basic rules of personal finance: have a well diversified portfolio (buying an index fund gives you this automatically), and allocate away from stocks and more toward bonds as you get older, because you will be less able to survive the the downturns of the stock market as you approach, and achieve retirement. The book elaborates on basic principles such as these.

The book also delves into more esoteric topics such as options and futures (the most important types of derivatives), although it doesn’t particularly recommend using them. Even if you have no intention of using them, you have no doubt heard about derivatives, assuming that you have been paying any attention to the financial news over the past six years. It seems that, for better or worse, an understanding of derivatives is becoming an important part of general awareness and civic participation. How can you know who to vote for, if you do not understand the positions that candidates hold on financial regulation (or lack thereof)?

Hopefully, I have convinced you that this book will not only give you sound advice, and reasons to believe such advice, but more importantly that it will give you much to think about. This is the mark of a truly great book, a quality that you will not find in “N Secrets/Rules to Being Super Successful”.

What About Irrational Exuberance?

Frankly, I haven’t gotten very far yet. But if you read my blog at all, you know I am quite interested in poking holes in the notion of rational agents (supposedly you and me) running the economy. Thus, I look forward to adding fodder to that pile of knowledge :) So far, it has failed to disappoint. It focuses on bubbles, such as those that occasionally occur in the stock and real estate markets, and tries to find explanations for them.

With respect to real estate bubbles, it is interesting to note that the second edition was published shortly prior to the 2007 collapse in house prices. This graph (taken from Wikipedia) of the Schiller-Case index tells much of the story:

Case-Shiller house price index from 1890 to 2012.

Case-Shiller house price index from 1890 to 2012.

Imagine you are looking at this graph around the time the second edition was released (i.e. a couple of years before the big peak near the far right). I suspect that with this long perspective of history, most people would be worried about prices falling, but like other bubbles, people were paying more attention to recent price increases, while paying little attention to such historical data, and concluding that jumping into the market was a smart move, fueling further price increases. It was a virtuous cycle, until the music stopped. Let’s hope we learned some lessons from that experience. That seems doubtful to me.

On a Personal Note

I was recently considering buying a house. What I saw was that prices are (again) rising steeply (in the San Francisco Bay area). I feared prices skyrocketing beyond my means. But fear of prices rising can be just as powerful as optimism about rising prices. The problem with following these emotions is that they tend to make one give less weight to the factors that anchor prices. When everybody is buying on these emotions, price stability suffers. If the Case-Shiller index prior to 1994 is indicative of trends in house prices over the long term (i.e. the economy has not, as many have repeatedly claimed, entered a new era of continual price increases), then houses are not a great financial investment, because they tend not to go up very much. The only sustained price increase in the graph coincides with troops returning from World War II. Instead seeing a house as a financial investment, it seems better to focus on other benefits that come with home ownership, like a sense of stability.

I’ve since stopped searching for a house to buy. Prices have increased dramatically in the past year. To me, this is a sign that prices are now high, and as we all know, buying high is a recipe for financial failure. I can’t say for certain house prices won’t continue to rise and sustain, but I also don’t have a particularly good reason to believe that would happen either. That seems like a good reason not to jump in. I haven’t given up researching housing though. It is, after all, a basic necessity.

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Restaurant Review: Imperial Tea Court

If you’ve been drinking Lipton your whole life, consider this your initiation to the world of tea. Easily one of the best tea places in the Bay Area, come find out why billions of people around the world have made tea their beverage of choice (the US is really more of a coffee country). Appreciate the culture, and have a perfectly paired bite to go along with (not the other way around :P).

The setting is fabulous. Even before you step into the shop, you take a nice stroll on a bending path through a Chinese tea garden, replete with babbling brook to calms your nerves. As you arrive, you start settling into a nice secluded feeling. The place really is set back away from the din of the street. Also notice the circular doorway; it’s a classical motif in Chinese tea garden architecture. The shop interior is beautifully decorated as well with thick wooden furniture, Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and fine tea sets (that are for sale) adorning the walls. Like a hip coffee shop, the place is setup for you to settle down for a while, soak up the sights and the smells while enjoying a few cups of tea, and maybe some food.

I’ve been here twice, once this evening, once a few years ago, before I moved out of town. It’s so great to be back. Tonight, I ordered tea house noodles, and Puerh Topaz tea. It came to $20 + $4 tip. $12 for the food, 8 for the tea. The noodles come in a hearty beef steef stew (there’s actually a choice of meats), deliciously tender, with a bit of spice, and sprinkled with green onion. I put a small dollop of chili sauce from the cup that they put out on all the tables. If you’re not into spicy foods, you can skip this part, but I highly recommend it.

Steeping your tea is done at the table. First, your waitress wets the leaves, and allows you to smell them, kind of like how you might be offered to smell the wine cork before being served at a fine restaurant. Tea is an aromatic experience, after all. She’ll also show you how to steep and pour your own tea. It’s a bit of a process, because you pour hot water from a kettle into a lidded cup containing the leaves. Once the tea is steeped, you pour into a second cup that you actually drink from, using the lid to keep the leaves from escaping. If you need more hot water, just pop open the kettle, and they’ll come around to refill it. As you can see, drinking is a bit of a ceremony; it’s all part of taking it slow and mellowing out.

A couple of times on my way home, I caught a faint but distinct whiff of tea. I’m not sure if it was on my breath or coming off my clothes, but it felt great. It was like the place was following me home, beckoning me to return, which I probably will :).

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Assault Rifles

If you are asking what the technical lawyer definition of “assault rifle” is, you are missing the point entirely. The definitions that are on the books were crafted to minimize the impact on gun manufacturers. What actually matters is how efficient a gun is at killing large numbers of people very quickly. From what we have witnessed this week, there is little confusion on that point: you can do a pretty good job using “just” a semi-automatic.

If you prefer, let’s just stop using the term “assault rifle”; let’s pick a new word. For this post, I’m going to go with “Sandy Hook class weapon”. To ask technical questions such as “does a Sandy Hook class weapon need to have a folding butt stock?” would be premature. Putting those questions aside, the bigger question, the one that people are asking around the dinner table is this: Should Sandy Hook class weapons be allowed? Is there a net benefit to society?

It’s not too hard to guess what the NRA has to say about that question; you might as well be listening to a broken record. Instead, let us turn to our hearts and our minds. Are we willing to put up with the occasional shooting rampage in exchange for being able to carry such weapons ourselves? To assume that we can have the latter without the former, to call Sandy Hook an “anomaly” is to ignore history. The sad truth of the matter is that Sandy Hook is just another data point in a trend that was already obvious to folks not blinded by dogma.

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Freedom to Deluge

I think it’s fair to say that most people would find it disgusting to learn that political spending by a small cabal of big donors play a decisive role in elections in this country, especially if those donors are from outside the region they affect. Somehow, that doesn’t seem democratic. In fact, the Supreme Court has established a pithy principle to encapsulate this: one person one vote. Yet they also decided that groups can spend unlimited money on advertising, as long as they don’t “coordinate” with campaigns. In the (in)famous Citizens United case, they ruled that this is allowed under the First Amendment. Furthermore, it is possible for donations to political groups to remain undisclosed.

I don’t think the people who were responsible for the First Amendment would have been able to imagine how mass (political) communication works today. Sure, they had political tracts, but it wasn’t like you could throw down a wad of cash, and suddenly be able to reach millions of people in their living rooms the way you can today thanks primarily to TV. One key difference is that most individuals don’t have the resources to buy vast amounts of TV ads the way a single rich person can. Sure, non-rich people can pool their resources, but they face much bigger hurdles in organizing and getting out their message compared to the rich. Yet their comparative difficulty in making “speech” has nothing to do with the merit of the content. The problem that they face is that organizing many people is inherently more difficult than making an individual decision.

Another key difference is that it’s much harder to ignore an unwanted TV ad compared to an unwanted political tract. Think about the impunity with which you ignore a street peddler handing out flyers (walk past, try not to make eye contact), junk mail (straight to trash), or even a possessed person yelling on a street corner (take a different route, or call the police if he starts assaulting people). Now, compare that to how difficult it is to divert your attention away from an unwanted TV ad. The only effective ways I can think of to do that are 1) Only watch PBS 2) use a DVR. Both of these things work by making sure you don’t see any ads at all, not just the ones you don’t like.

I think that the primary function of free speech in a democracy is that it gets all the ideas out into the “marketplace of ideas”. People then rally behind the ideas that they like best, and an election is held to officially determine which ideas win. A fundamental, yet implicit assumption that underlies the proper functioning of the idea marketplace is that “vendors” compete on a level playing field. The problem with the vast amounts of shadow money in our political system is that the field is very much tilted in favor of the rich, and corporations. I don’t think anyone is saying that the rich should not have their say. The problem is that they have much more say than everybody else regardless of what they actually have to say.

If you don’t have a problem with that, you probably believe that having more money gives a person a right to have more say. Well, if that’s the case, then the whole notion of corruption is vacuous. If I manage to buy a politician, then that’s just me exercising the right that I’ve earned from having lots of money. If that’s what you believe, then I think you’ll find that a huge majority of people disagree with you. This also runs contrary to the principle I mentioned earlier: one person, one vote. The Court did not say, one dollar one vote. If the rich can drown out the rest of us simply by spending lots of money, how is free speech being protected?

The solution is to have limits, and disclosure. For the sake of discussion, let’s say the limit is $50k (inflation adjusted). Up to that amount, you can do whatever you like, and nobody has to know about it. After that, any ad that is paid for in part with your dollars must be traceable back to you. Supporters of Citizens United would claim that this impinges on people’s freedom of speech. What it really does is ensure that the voices of ordinary individuals cannot be drowned out by a few rich folks. This idea doesn’t even limit how much one can spend. It just holds big spenders accountable.

If that cannot be done, another solution would be to require ads to disclose that they are funded with untraceable money. That way, people can take that into account when evaluating an ad. Without such disclosure, people assume that advertisers are accountable for the content of their ads. This would not be unprecedented: when a campaign puts out an ad, it must include “I am ${candidate}, and I approve this message”. I remember when that became a requirement. It was added, because candidates were denying responsibility for bad ads. It was refreshing to hear that phrase during the next election cycle. Another precedent is laws that we have against false commercial advertising. Again, this would not stop free speech. It simply sets a standard for accountability, one that’s pretty easy to meet, too easy if you ask me.

This post was inspired by a recent episode of Frontline, Big Sky, Big Money.

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