Student Loan Debacle

Ripping Off Young America: The College-Loan Scandal
The federal government has made it easier than ever to borrow money for higher education – saddling a generation with crushing debts and inflating a bubble that could bring down the economy
http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/ripping-off-young-america-the-college-loan-scandal-20130815

This is a very sad thing to read, but none-the-less I recommend it strongly to my reader(s). I complain about student loans from time to time and still expect to be paying on mine for the next decade (I graduated in ’95). This should be something that gets everyone worked up, but somehow no one seems to give a damn.

Ain’t America Grand?

Born lucky

Practice and Genes
http://dilbert.com/blog/entry/practice_and_genes/

I used to believe that plenty of perspiration with a dash of inspiration would lead to success achieving goals. Now, in my cynical old age, I believe it boils down to the three factors of real estate: luck, luck and luck. If you aren’t born to the right parents (or have the right genes), don’t go to the right schools (or get the right training) and hang out with the right friends (have the right training partners/coaches) your chance of success is about the same as winning the lotto, or, as I like to say, about the same chance of getting struck by lightning, dancing naked on a golf course, at midnight. Though I have achieved notable success on an average scale (though, to be fair, much of that was from the cratering ‘middle class‘ and not so much on me), I have achieved, statistically speaking, zero along my chosen path (to build space stations, for those of you not regular reader(s)). Maybe it was rose colored glasses when I was a youth, but it seems to me that when I was young (going on 35 years ago now, man that is a big number!) there were people who achieved their goals through perspiration and inspiration. Today those people are lotto winners (also for you not-regular-readers: ‘lotto winners’ is a generic term for me to represent big payouts at very long odds) and for the most part are individually trumpeted. Back in the ‘good old days’ these kinds of success were not lauded because they (as I recall) were common enough to be boring.

Genes go a very long way to having success in many areas, but genes alone, meaning without extensive practice AND the determination to succeed, account for very little once one is out of high school. Self successful people tend to have a variety of common traits and while the right genes (parents) are certainly among them, they also have a wide streak of determination and the willingness to put in long hours training (which, for a more sedentary position, like a PhD or MBA, might be hours and hours of research). Genes without perspiration and genes without determination are just amusing stories to tell others about ‘lost’ potential. So, yes, luck plays a huge part (get a lock on the parents, schools and friends and you have to work hard to screw it up), but not an exclusive part. Luck without the ‘genes’ to take advantage of the random opportunities that life throws at you on a daily basis is just more sad stories about ‘lost’ potential.

Smart dust

Devices Connect with Borrowed TV Signals, and Need No Power Source
Devices that can make wireless connections even without an onboard battery could spread computing power into everything you own.
http://www.technologyreview.com/news/518111/devices-connect-with-borrowed-tv-signals-and-need-no-power-source/

It has been a while, sorry to my regular reader(s). Nothing has really grabbed me until this…

One of the reasons for the phenomenal increase in wireless gadgets has been the phenomenal _decrease_ in energy consumption to operate them (remember the initial cell phones? They weren’t nicknamed ‘bricks’ for nothing! My parent’s was practically hard-wired into their car and while in principle portable, it was too heavy to move regularly, and that was just a couple of decades ago). Our current environment is awash in electromagnetic radiation (of radio/microwave origin, it is also awash in sun light half of every day and light is electromagnetic radiation) and I have often wondered about extracting that energy for some sort of use (see rectenna). This article is interesting because they have demonstrated that it is indeed feasible, now someone just has to develop a compelling use case and produce the product for less than what it is worth…

Prisoner’s Dilemma Writ Large

The prisoner’s dilemma:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there is a catch … If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

It is an interesting idea in game theory and when I have read about it in the past it was sort of an academic idea that didn’t speak to me in a visceral level. This was compounded when I would see the same dilemma play out in several of the police procedural shows my wife and I like to watch. However, I was just over at another blog where I was prompted to comment on what I termed the Walmart phenomenon. After I clicked ‘send’ I started to think that my little theory is a real-world example of the prisoner’s dilemma, but with many actors who are in isolation because of their reluctance to communicate.

So here is my basic idea: When a Walmart comes to town often the locals get up in arms in anger because they expect that dramatically fewer shoppers will choose to spend at the local shops because of the (often dramatically) lower prices at Walmart. In most instances the Walmart opens anyway and an interesting thing happens: many of the same people that complained about the store are none-the-less in there shopping. Each consumer, individually, makes the best decision for their own circumstances (pay much less for the same or functionally identical product), yet in aggregate, those decisions have a dramatic negative impact on their collective future. When their dollars are spent on goods domestically produced (as opposed to goods produced overseas), those dollars have a multiplication effect in the domestic economy. As a consequence, for instance, paying $10 for a domestically produced T-shirt might actually pay back the individual (through an overall gain to society) more than the savings than if they paid, say, $5 for the functionally identical T-shirt at Walmart that was produced overseas. Thus, as a society, we are all in the prisoner’s dilemma…

Much like how the cooperating prisoners get a lesser charge, but if one squeals on another the squealer goes free, if we, as a society, all could agree that spending the $10 on the T-shirt was best (something I believe has the potential to be proven mathematically) there still exists the opportunity for individuals to buy the $5 T-shirt and thus double the sentence of the cooperating consumers. Of course, acting in aggregate a small enough fraction wouldn’t have a noticeable impact, but that is probably not a stable situation and society could easily follow the ‘squealers’ over into non-compliance (become squealers) and everyone winds up with a worse sentence (the loss of the multiplier effect).

As I put it in my comment, “I think that the majority of us are complicit in the slitting of our own throats, one tiny decision [purchase] at a time.” Is there a way out? Walmart has become the successful behemoth it is by catering to the ‘squealers’ and I can’t conceive of a situation that would make a rational board change their behavior. Any sort of government ‘interference’, even if it could somehow be pushed past our ruling oligarchy, would run into all sorts of widespread resistance (even in absence of our highly polarized electorate) because individually each person would rather make the decision to save a few bucks now. Perhaps if we switched to the pure virtual economy (something I keep thinking about, but have yet to do any writing about), but that probably implies a level of globalization we, as a society, are likely not yet ready to contemplate.