2019-09-27

The pace of PACER

Permit me a brief, hilarious diversion into the world of US Government corporate IT. PACER is a USA federal online system - "Public Access to Court Electronic Records" which lets people and companies access transcribed records from the US courts. One of their judges has been testifying to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, IP, and the internet and in the process revealed interesting - and horrifying - numbers.

TL;DR -

  1. it costs at least 4x what it reasonably should; but
  2. any cost savings will be eaten up by increased lawyer usage; nevertheless,
  3. rampant capitalism might be at least a partial improvement; so
  4. the government could upload the PACER docs to the cloud, employ a team of 5-10 to manage the service in the cloud, and save beaucoup $$.
Of course, I could be wrong on point 2, but I bet I'm not.

Background

PACER operates with all the ruthless efficiency we have come to expect from the federal government.[1] It's not free; anyone can register for it, usage requires a payment instrument (credit card) but it is free if you use less than $15 per quarter. The basis of charging is:

All registered agencies or individuals are charged a user fee of $0.10 per page. This charge applies to the number of pages that results from any search, including a search that yields no matches (one page for no matches). You will be billed quarterly.
You would think that, at worst, it would be cost-neutral. One page of black+white text at reasonably high resolution is a bit less than 1MB, and (for an ISP) that costs less than 1c to serve on the network. Therefore you spend less than 9c on the machines and people required to store and serve the data, and profit!

Apparently not...

The PACER claims

It was at this point in the article that I fell off my chair:

Fleissig said preliminary figures show that court filing fees would go up by about $750 per case to “produce revenue equal to the judiciary’s average annual collections under the current public access framework.” That could, for example, drive up the current district court civil filing fee from $350 to $1,100, she said.
What the actual expletive? This implies that:
  1. the average filing requests 7500 pages of PACER documents - and that the lawyers aren't caching pages to reduce client costs (hollow laughter); or
  2. the average filing requests 25 PACER searches; or
  3. the average client is somewhere on the continuum between these points.
It seems ridiculously expensive. One can only conclude, reluctantly, that lawyers are not trying to drive down costs for their clients; I know, it's very hard to credit. [2]

And this assumes that 10c/page and $30/search is the actual cost to PACER - let us dig into this.

The operational costs

Apparently PACER costs the government $100M/year to operate:

“Our case management and public access systems can never be free because they require over $100 million per year just to operate,” [Judge Audrey] Fleissig said [in testimony for the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, IP, and the internet]. “That money must come from somewhere.”
Judge Fleissig is correct in the broad sense - but hang on, $100M in costs to run this thing? How much traffic does it get?

The serving costs

Let's look at the serving requirements:

PACER, which processed more than 500 million requests for case information last fiscal year
Gosh, that's a lot. What's that per second? 3600 seconds/hour x 24 hours/day x 365 days/year is 32 million seconds/year, so Judge Fleissig is talking about... 16 queries per second. Assume that's one query per page. That's laughably small.

Assume that peak traffic is 10x that, and you can serve comfortably 4 x 1MB pages per second on a 100Mbit network connection from a single machine; that's 40 machines with associated hardware, say amortized cost of $2,000/year per machine - implies order of $100K/year on hardware, to ensure a great user experience 24 hours per day 365 days per year. Compared to $100M/year budget, that's noise. And you can save 50% just by halving the number of machines and rejecting excess traffic at peak times.

The ingestion and storage costs

Perhaps the case ingestion is intrinsically expensive, with PACER having to handle non-standard formats? Nope:

The Judiciary is planning to change the technical standard for filing documents in the Case Management and Electronic Case Filing (CM/ECF) system from PDF to PDF/A. This change will improve the archiving and preservation of case-related documents.
So PACER ingests PDFs from courts - plus, I assume, some metadata - and serves PDFs to users.

How much data does PACER ingest and hold? This is a great Fermi question; here's a good worked example of answer, with some data.

There's a useful Ars Technica article on Aaron Swartz that gives us data on the document corpus as of 2013:

PACER has more than 500 million documents
Assume it's doubled as of 2019, that's 1 billion documents. Assume 1MB/page, 10 pages/doc, that's 10^9 docs x 10 MB per doc = 10^10 MB = 1x10^4 TB. That's 1000 x 10TB hard drives. Assume $300/drive, and drives last 3 years, and you need twice the number of drives to give redundancy, that's $200 per 10TB per year in storage costs, or $200K for 10,000 TB. Still, noise compared to $100M/year budget. But the operational costs of managing that storage can be high - which is why Cloud services like Amazon Web Services, Azure and Google Cloud have done a lot of work to offer managed services in this area.

Amazon, for instance, charges $0.023 per GB per month for storage (on one price model) - for 10^9 x 1MB docs, that's 1,000,000 GB x $0.023 or $23K/month, $276K/year. Still way less than 1% of the $100M/year budget.

Incidentally Aaron Swartz agrees with the general thrust of my article:

Yet PACER fee collections appear to have dramatically outstripped the cost of running the PACER system. PACER users paid about $120 million in 2012, thanks in part to a 25 percent fee hike announced in 2011. But Schultze says the judiciary's own figures show running PACER only costs around $20 million.
A rise in costs of 5x in 6 years? That's approximately doubling every 2 years. As noted above, it seems unlikely to be due to serving costs - even though volumes have risen, serving and storage costs have got cheaper. Bet it's down to personnel costs. I'd love to see the accounts break-down. How many people are they employing, and what are those people doing?

The indexing costs - or lack thereof

Indexing words and then searching a large corpus of text is notoriously expensive - that's what my 10c per electronic page is paying for, right? Apparently not:

There is a fee for retrieving and distributing case information for you: $30 for the search, plus $0.10 per page per document delivered electronically, up to 5 documents (30 page cap applies).
It appears that PACER is primarily constructed to deliver responses to "show me the records of case XXXYYY" or "show me all cases from court ZZZ", not "show me all cases that mention 'Britney Spears'." That's a perfectly valid decision but makes it rather hard to justify the operating costs.

Security considerations

Oh, please. These docs are open to anyone who has an account. The only thing PACER should be worried about is someone in Bangalore or Shanghai scraping the corpus, or the top N% of cases, and serving that content for much less cost. Indeed, that's why they got upset at Aaron Swartz. Honestly, though, the bulk of their users - law firms - are very price-insensitive. Indeed, they quite possibly charge their clients 125% or more of their PACER costs, so if PACER doubled costs overnight they'd celebrate.

I hope I'm wrong. I'm afraid I'm not.

Public serving alternatives

I don't know how much Bing costs to operate, but I'd bet a) that its document corpus is bigger than PACER, b) that its operating costs are comparable, c) that its indexing is better than PACER, d) that its search is better than PACER, e) that its page serving latency is better than PACER... you get the picture.

Really though, if I were looking for a system to replace this, I'd build off an off-the-shelf solution to translate inbound PDFs to indexed text - something like OpenText - and run a small serving stack on top. That reduces the regular serving cost, since pages are a few KB of text rather than 1MB of PDF, and lets me get rid of all the current people costs associated with the customized search and indexing work on the current corpus.

PACER is a terrible use of government money

Undoubtedly it's not the worst[3], but I'd love for the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, IP, and the internet to drag Jeff Bezos in to testify and ask him to quote a ballpark number for serving PACER off Amazon Web Services, with guaranteed 100% profit margin.

Bet it's less than 1/4 of the current $100M/year.

[1] Yes, irony
[2] Why does New Jersey have the most toxic waste dumps and California the most lawyers? California New Jersey got first choice. [Thanks Mr Worstall!]
[3] Which is terribly depressing.

2019-09-22

Deconstructing Dr Rachel McKinnon

Those of my readers who are keen followers of trans rights issues - likely none - may be aware of the controversy surrounding Dr Rachel McKinnon (person's preferred Twitter handle) who is a man who identifies as a woman ("trans woman"). McKinnon was previously an OK-but-far-from-top-tier cyclist in the men's arena. Upon "becoming" a woman, McKinnon quickly powered to the top ranking, including a win in the UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championship in the 35-44 age group (female), and if you click through to that link you might have an inkling why.

McKinnon has been assiduous on chasing down (and blocking) anyone on Twitter who questions the fairness of a physiological man competing with physiological females. I can't imagine why, unless there's a certain element of feeling guilty about sudden un-earned success.

Luckily, the golden fountain of academic publishing has provided a definitive voice on the subject[1]. McKinnon has published a paper (co-authored with Dr. Aryn Conrad) in PHILOSOPHICAL TOPICS, VOL. 46, NO. 2, FALL 2018 which settles the issue once and for all. [Rachel, FYI, I've squirrelled away a copy of this in case you delete it.]

Aryn Conrad, if you were wondering, also appears not to have been born in the same gender to which they now identify. Apparently Aryn is "the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants" though I wonder whether that's exactly the same relationship that the grandparents would state.

Let's take a walk through this article. The abstract sets out their goal:

We argue that the inclusion of trans athletes in competition commensurate with their legal gender is the most consistent position with these principles of fair and equitable sport.
Gosh, that's not something we could have predicted, at all. But perhaps we're being unfair, what's the actual argument? Well:
We suggest that the justificatory burden for such prima facie discrimination [endogenous testosterone limits] is unlikely to be met. Thus, in place of a limit on endogenous testosterone for women (whether cisgender, transgender, or intersex), we argue that ‘legally recognized gender’ is most fully in line with IOC and CAS principles.
In other words, it doesn't matter if trans athletes have a material physiological advantage over women, the paper wants to talk about whether the existing regulations are fully consistent with respect to the issues of male-to-female athletes. This approach is certain to win over female athletes on the lower steps of the podium, of course.

It's a poor quality "paper", by the way; 61 double-spaced pages without diagrams before you get to the appendices, so about 30 normal pages. Contrary to what aspiring academics might think, length is generally inversely proportional to quality. If you can't make the core argument in 10 pages, you're probably relying on length to cover up plot holes. It also doesn't follow the usual structure of "tell 'em what you're going to say, say it, tell them that you've said it" - perhaps because that would make it much easier to check their claims.

Reading through the paper, the key claims are:

  1. Internation sport regulations, and their legal effect and scope, are complicated;
  2. There are some edge cases of people born as women with high testosterone, which have not been handled consistently;
  3. Sport regs say we must not discriminate on various grounds - is "gender identity" (as opposed to biological sex) one of those grounds? (you'll be shocked to learn that the authors think that it is);
  4. Apparently not clear that biological women with excess testosterone have a significant physiological advantage over other women;
  5. What is the meaning of "fairness / level playing field" in sport? There's a huge amount of waffle here, but seems to boil down to "gender identity is intrinsic, so you can't base fairness on it in the same way that you can't say that a 7 foot tall person has an unfair advantage in the high jump". (I'm doing some serious editing here, the text is sprawling and terribly structured and summarised).

At this point I'd like to pull out the quote:

So if trans women are female, we ask, why would 'male' physiological data be relevant to the question of fairness? We know this won’t be convincing. But it is an important question to confront.
Well, there's the tiny matter that male physiology is hugely relevant to performance in sport."We know this won't be convincing" - yes, because it is not at all convincing. It is, if you excuse the phrase in this context, bollocks.

Continuing, we have:

  1. Placing upper limits on testosterone in "women" is totes unfair;
  2. Trans women's physiological advantage is not that big, in fact men and women almost completely overlap in physiology (I swear, that's what they say);
  3. Trans women are actually just like regular hi-testosterone women in sports performance;
  4. Indeed, setting testosterone limits on women in sport is probably unfair and unreasonable;
  5. Bodies are complex and testosterone levels are not the whole story by a long chalk;
  6. Testosterone levels don't seem correlated with performance by elite men;
  7. Actually, just don't use testosterone to judge who's a man and who's a woman - just take their word for it;
  8. Let's look at Caster Semenya as an edge case of high-performing woman with testosterone, trans women are totes the same as her
  9. If you don't let men identifying as women compete in women-only events, it's just not fair dammit.
My goodness me. I'm glad I only had to read that once. If I were designing a paper structure to bury the facts and specific arguments, I don't think I could have done better. Props to McKinnon and Conrad. Of course, if they were actually trying to convince rather than write an obscure scrawl to point to as "academic validation of our argument, baby!" they'd have written it differently.

I don't know who the reviewers were for this paper, but if they got any remuneration then I'd recommend clawing it back, sharp-ish.

Rachel and Aryn: if you want to submit a more compact version of the paper to a journal with standards on conciseness, you're welcome to build from the above structure. I don't want any co-author credit because I think your arguments are ludicrous, but I'd like to see them at least argued clearly.

Rachel McKinnon and Aryn Conrad appear to be desperate to get external validation for their lifestyle choices. I'm reminded at this point of Robert Pirsig's comment in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance":

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

[1] No, not really.

2019-07-26

Scentrics is still worth half a billion quid, and other fiction

Suppose that you were a UK company with a real valuation of £500M. Would you - or indeed, your shareholders - tolerate you teetering on the edge of being de-listed as a UK company?

If your company name is Scentrics, it appears that you would:

Date: 04/06/2019
Ref: DEF6/06539484

Companies Act 2006 (Section 1000(3))

The Registrar of Companies gives notice that, unless cause is shown to the contrary, at the expiration of 2 months from the above date the name of
SCENTRICS INFORMATION SECURITY TECHNOLOGIES LIMITED
will be struck off the register and the company will be dissolved

Apparently Scentrics, as a nominal £500M valuation company, finds it too expensive to employ a £20K/year admin to ensure that their basic legal obligations to their national legal authority are covered.

But they are totally still worth half a billion quid, if you're a prospective investor. Swear it, cross my heart.

Scentrics did actually fix the problem - at least, for now:

Date: 06/07/2019

Cause has been shown why the above company should not be struck off the register and accordingly the Registrar is taking no further action under section 1000 of the Companies Act 2006 pursuant to the Notice dated 03/07/2019
Presumably, the previous notice scared the cr*p out of the Scentrics directors and got them to scramble to address the cause of the proposed strike-off. I'd give a good few quid to know that cause, by the way.

The Scentrics accounts for year end June 2018 still assert that Scentrics is worth a bit short of half a billion quid, but the directors certainly aren't acting like this is actually true; per the doctrine of revealed preference, one is left with the conclusion that those owning the shares believe that it's worth, on the balance of probabilities, only a small multiple of the employment costs of a part-time admin assistant with UK company law knowledge.

Sure, it's totally worth £500M. Practically all of its assets are intangible, it has £90M of liabilities, and no-one has taken a good hard look at its accounts. I have £100 that says it will not have more than £10K of tangible assets in 5 years time. Anyone like to take the other side of that bet?

2019-07-07

Diplomatic leak - USA ambassador to the UK

Followuing the leak of messages from the UK ambassador to the USA Sir Kim Darroch, your humble correspondent is pleased to report a rare coup [I'm totally making this up] of message intercepts from the USA's ambassador to the UK.

Let me repeat for the benefit of intelligence agencies, this is totally made up. If it turns out to be mostly correct, that's not my problem.


From: UKAMB Matthew W. Barzun Date: June 23 2016 Subject: Brexit OK, I totally didn't see that coming. Are USA diplomatic personnel strictly liable for debts to UK bookmakers? Asking for a friend.
From: UKAMB Matthew W. Barzun Date: July 10 2016 Subject: UK Conservative party leadership contest Met with one of the Conservative leadership contenders, one Treesa May. Polite, inoffensive, educated, terrible poker player. No chance she'll win unless the Conservative party members have lost their senses. Mind, they picked D Cameron previously, so who knows...
From: UKAMB Matthew W. Barzun Date: July 12 2016 Subject: Welcome to the new UK Prime Minister Tell Barack to brush up a bit on the rules of poker, but he can take the UK to the cleaners whenever he wants.
From: UKAMB Matthew W. Barzun Date: November 7 2016 Subject: Future diplomatic assignments Everything's looking good from my end. Theresa is available for the ritual congrats call whenever HRC wants. Thinking about a public leak of the convo - female Pres to female PM, looks good to the voters both side. Brooke's getting a bit tired of London and worried about the kids' accents. I hear rumors that Janie H has had enough of Paris - any chance we could swap? Just a thought.
From: UKAMB Matthew W. Barzun Date: November 9 2016 Subject: Fuck Fuck fuck fuckity fuck. Fuck. Any chance of a judicial review? How's HRC taking it?
From: DCM Lewis Lukens Date: January 18 2017 Subject: Testing Is this thing on? Any suggestions on format of messaging that DJT likes to hear? Current assessment on the ground is that Theresa will spring an election on the country in the next few months - and she'll cruise to victory, because the Opposition Leader is a less hygienic and more socialist version of B Sanders. Going to put a few $$ on a 50+ seat win at William Hill, anyone who wants in on the action pls send money in the next diplomatic bag.
From: DCM Lewis Lukens Date: June 9 2017 Subject: Predicting the future is hard I don't have access to replies to UKAMB Barzun, what was the advice re his query on UK bookmaker liability?
From: UMKAMB Robert Wood Johnson Date: August 22 2017 Subject: UK catch-up Anyone who says that they know what's happening with Brexit is a liar. This is the shit-show of all shit-shows. Theresa managed to lose her majority to a guy who would be pushed to win a minor role in Seattle politics. Say hi to Melania!
From: UMKAMB Robert Wood Johnson Date: Jan 15 2019 Subject: Clean-up Had a friendly poker game with Theresa May (alleged national leader), Olly Robbins (head of Brexit negotiations), and Philip Hammond (does something with the UK Treasury, I hear). Cleaned up nicely. . Hearing rumors about a leadership challenge if things go screwy before the March deadline. Frankly, this lot couldn't score in a brothel if they had $100 bills jammed in their orifices, so who knows what they'll do.
From: Woody Johnson Date: May 24 2019 Subject: Thank fuck for that Theresa has finally thrown in the towel. Only about three Goddamn years overdue but she was never a quick learner. I had $1000 on Boris J as Brexit PM back in 2016, and intend to roll this over to 2019. Anyone else wants a piece of the action, you know the drill - cash up front. Suzanne and kids are enjoying the increased buying power of the $. Tell DJT that now is a great time to visit, if he can stand the weather....

2019-05-18

Darn that undependable "climate change"

Poor Cody Petterson is despondent:

As a child, he had happily played and hiked among these statuesque conifers, which provide shelter to black bears and black-tailed deer. By the age of 37, he wanted to do his bit to conserve and repair the land.
But in the six years since he began, California has experienced severe drought, which scientists link to global warming, and 650 of Cody's 750 seedlings died.
Gosh, that's terrible. What's happening?
In California, the effects of climate change are ubiquitous - recent years have produced record-breaking temperatures, earlier springs and less reliable rainfall.

That would indeed be worrying, what does the per-location rainfall data say? Well, although 2018 was 50% to 70% of "normal" level, it seems that 2019 has already been up to 20% above normal - and there's more unseasonably late rain to come this week. Even worse, the data shows that 2018 was particularly dry in SoCal (25% of normal), and yet is still significantly above normal this year.

So the fact that Cody (or the article's author Georgina Rannard) makes the inference that "climate change" is causing irreversible changes to the California climate seems to be less than conclusively proven by the available data.

Incidentally [prediction] this year is going to be a really bad year for fires in California. We've had a wet, long winter to allow grass to grow and thrive. We're having a second, late, belt of rain that will feed the undergrowth. Fire season is going to start late, but when it starts there's going to be a staggeringly high amount of tinder and fuel for the fires.

  • Is this due to a change in weather? Sure! Very different from the past few years.
  • Is it due to "climate change"? Sure! The climate is always changing.
  • Is it due to man-made contributions? Definitely, but not the way you might think:
    It’s counterintuitive, but the United States’ history of suppressing wildfires has actually made present-day wildfires worse.
    “For the last century we fought fire, and we did pretty well at it across all of the Western United States,” Dr. Williams said. “And every time we fought a fire successfully, that means that a bunch of stuff that would have burned didn’t burn. And so over the last hundred years we’ve had an accumulation of plants in a lot of areas.
    (New York Times, by the way)

What's more, California has been very "successful" at preventing controlled burns, and preventing people from cutting down trees and brush near their houses to make their areas defensible against fire, which has resulted in a huge source of fire fuel right next to where people live. Great job, guys.

I assume the environmental lawyers all live in San Francisco and Sacramento, which are 95% concrete and immune to the consequences of their actions...

2019-04-27

CASSH 2018: feeling the squeeze

It's that time of year again, where "charities" are forced to release their annual accounts, and semi-numerate baboons such as your humble correspondent paw through the numbers to try to uncover a story. Today's tale is about "Consensus" Action on Salt, Sugar and Health (CASSH).

I have perused the CASSH 2018 accounts and noted in passing that no-one actually checks them. They're still referring to Blood Pressure (UK) as charity number 1059844 (page 2) - this is actually Wetherby Sports Association, they actually meant 1058944. I'm not surprised that the Charity Commission doesn't apply this level of rigorous scrutiny, but it's an interesting data point.

Anyhoo, the CASSH accounts are 50 pages long, and at least 30 pages is tedious self-promo on their salt- and sugar-related activities. News flash, people - nobody cares. The Charity Commission is skipping right to the end to check out the numbers, as did I.

And oh, what numbers. Props to CASSH for cutting their coat according to their cloth, they've basically halved spending on their main "awareness" activities year-on-year; £141K vs £251K. Nevertheless, their reserves dropped from £564K to £483K - down 15% in one year. Their accounts note:

A delay in payment of a large expected donation this Financial Year, plus the return to work of two employees who had been on maternity leave (with reduced pay), accounts for a deficit in income and a surplus expenditure, prompting action by Trustees. The Trustees reviewed the financial position and agreed to release funds from the reserves to cover all core salary costs until such time as the funding gap was filled, expected March 2019.
Hmm. And so we'll see a corresponding rebound in next year's accounts? Colour me sceptical.

Even with a sudden donation increase from £4K to £56K, and the aforementioned throttling of expenditure, the charity is still spending way more than it receives. Unless they can latch on to the teat of a government entity, they're going to run out of money in a few years. It turns out, shockingly, that most people don't really care about sugar and salt consumption, at least not to the point of spending their own money to reduce that consumption in others. Revealed preferences, darlings!

Good luck for 2019, CASSH. Looks like you'll need it.

2019-04-26

Marcela Trust 2018: not much charity, property speculation not working out

Dear reader, if you are still perusing my analyses of the accounts of the Marcela Trust (spending Octav Botnar's squirreled-away cash on trustee salaries and property speculation for a good number of years) then I can only admire your fortitude as I offer up this analytical tidbit based on their 2018 accounts.

Background for the casual observer: the Marcela Trust is sitting on about £80 million of money from OMC Investments Limited, founded in 1971, which seems to be from the former Nissan UK. Although a registered charity, they seem to be a bit tight with their charitable spending. In 2017, they spent £12K on charitable donations and £300K on trustee remuneration. Obviously this was a one-off, and we can expect 2018 charitable spending to resume at appropriate levels.

You know what's coming, don't you?

The Marcela Trust spent even less on charitable activities in 2018 compared to 2017: £11.5K instead of £12.2K. In practice, that's the same £7.5K grant plus a bit less auditor fees. Their spending on trustees was still around £300K, with a steady £225K going Mrs Dawn Pamela Rose (presumed family motto: "payment by results is for suckers!").

Again, this level of payment might be justified if the trustees' shrewd investment strategies in commercial property were paying off. Sadly, their fixed assets (mostly commercial property) took a hit of nearly £8M in the past year - that's nearly 10% of their total funds wiped out in one year. And this in a 10 year property bull market. Great job, guys. What happens when the next recession hits?

I repeat my observation from last year: this does not look like a charity. If I were the Charity Commission, I'd be asking some very pointed questions about the past few years' spending.

2019-04-22

Taking advice from Greta Thunberg

Suppose we were looking to build a bridge, say across Avon Gorge, to give us substantially more traffic capacity than the existing Clifton Suspension Bridge has. (The Dear Reader may insert their favourite joke about needing much more capacity for traffic leaving Bristol than for entering it).

It wouldn't be surprising that a lot of people would have strong opinions on what kind of bridge we should build. Imagine, however, that a 16 year old high school student was championing a bridge structure that comprised a sequence of road segments chained together and suspended from helium balloons. Imagine that such a proposal was lauded by at least 30% of the people involved as bold, innovative, and a wonderful example of youthful thinking, despite the fact that a first year engineering student could shoot the proposal as full as holes as a particularly perforated Swiss cheese.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is where we find ourselves with young Greta Thunberg.

Young Greta is clearly sincere , and cares deeply about the environment. Unfortunately, "sincerity" is as useful a factor in planning a 21st century industrial strategy as it is in building a bridge. If a bridge builder tells me that she "sincerely" believes it will support the expected peak weight of traffic in peak adverse conditions, and be durable for a lifetime of 50+ years, I will smile and nod; if anyone I care about will be traversing the bridge, I will then ask pointed questions about stress calculations, FEMs analysis, safety engineering analysis, and all the inconvenient hard science that lets us calculate at least a ballpark probability of the bridge suddenly failing and casting a few hundred people into the abyss. Nearly anyone can be sincere. To be correct requires actual maths, materials knowledge, ability to program R / Matlab / other mathematical tool of choice and produce a verifiable assertion, given generally accepted axioms, that the bridge will meet specs.

Somehow, I don't see this level of mathematical / physical / engineering rigour coming from young Ms Thunberg. Or her singer/actor parents, for that matter.

The correct response to Greta Thunberg and her parasitic (in every sense of the word) hangers-on is as follows:

  • Give us a practical - by which we mean can-be-implemented-with-existing-technologies - 20 year plan for reducing carbon emissions world-wide by X%.
  • Cover the top 10 current CO2 polluters; either assume they continue on current trend, or argue why they will change.
  • You cannot assume any existing technology improves by more than 4% per year for cost/efficiency.
  • Include the expected economic impact on the top 10 world economies.
Greta would (quite rightly) say: "I'm 16 years old, how could you possibly expect me to answer this?"

Greta käraste, if you can't be expected to answer the hard questions, why should we listen to your easy answers?

2019-02-07

Symbolic of California's struggle against reality - car insurance

Dear readers, it has been a busy couple of months, but I thought I'd check in after reading a barnstormer of a story from CALmatters. First, a little bit of background.

In October 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Senate Bill SB 179, which created a new gender "nonbinary" designation for all forms of state ID - including, of course, driving licenses. This then gave drivers the option of listing their gender as nonbinary. Regular readers of the antics of the Californian government will be forgiven for not falling off their chairs at the realization that this has had some unexpected consequences.

It seems that as a follow-on, California's outgoing Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones issued a regulation last month prohibiting the use of gender in automobile insurance rating. One can speculate why he did this, but (judging from the self-centeredness of transgender people I've met around here) if I were a car insurance company, I'd be giving a hefty premium bump to anyone checking that box ; perhaps this was Mr. Jones' attempt to get out in front of that problem. Ten out of ten for forward thinking, minus several thousand for economic illiteracy - of which, more later.

The proximate effect: California's Department of Insurance has decreed that auto insurance companies can no longer grant breaks in insurance rates to teen drivers who are female, or charge young men more. So if you're a woman - in particular a young woman - in California looking to insure a car, you can expect your new rate to take a sharp move skywards:

[California auto insurers' rep] Frazier said the gender of teen drivers can result in an additional cost for boys or discount for girls of about 6 percent on their premiums.
Honestly, that seems low-ball to me:
The association also cited a 2016 Insurance Institute report saying: "Men typically drive more miles than women and more often engage in risky driving practices, including not using safety belts, driving while impaired by alcohol, and speeding."
Yep, I'd agree with all of that, especially for late teens/early twenties. Given that, a 6% male-over-female premium seems really low. I'd expect it to be more like 25%. We'll know for sure when insurance renewal rolls around and California girls start yelling on Twitter.

The real prize for willful ignorance or brazen lies, however, must go to the new Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara:

Lara supports that policy, saying in a statement: “Gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation are beyond your control, and it is not a fair or even an effective way to predict risk.
That's right, Ricky. Any insurance company could charge boys the same as girls with no additional risk, and quickly get every single boy in the country insuring their car with them, but they don't do so because they... like leaving huge sums of money on the table? Yes, that must be it.
Commissioner Ricardo Lara made history in 2018 by becoming the first openly gay person elected to statewide office in California’s history. Commissioner Lara previously served in the California Legislature, representing Assembly District 50 from 2010 to 2012 and Senate District 33 from 2012 to 2018. Commissioner Lara earned a BA in Journalism and Spanish with a minor in Chicano Studies from San Diego State University.
I guess he skipped all the finite math classes in high school. Or worse, he know's he's talking bollocks but simply doesn't care because no-one will call him on it.

Consider yourself called on it, Ricardo.

It's possible, however, that it won't actually work out in practice as Ricky intends. We saw how this worked out in Europe after a European Court of Justice ruling. [note: link from that notorious right-of-center rag The Guardian]:

But what has happened since the rules came into force? Instead of the gap between men’s and women’s premiums narrowing, as expected, it has actually widened. In 2012, men on average paid £27 more for a car insurance policy than a woman, but rather remarkably they now they pay £101 more – nearly a four-fold increase.
...
What appears to be at work is that car insurance companies set a price very much according to all the other data they can find on you – without actually asking your gender. So the quote you get back reflects the risks attached to your occupation, how much you drive, the sort of car you drive and whether you have made any modifications to the car.

Perhaps this is fine with Ricky - as long as there is the appearance of fairness, and he's protecting his favored class of people from reality, this is all Working As Intended.