Limitations of technology and resources are not “inherently cruel”

In her commentary on speech recognition software (“Speech Recognition Tech Is Yet Another Example of Bias“, Scientific American, Oct 2020), author Claudia Lopez-Llorenda derides the limits of technology because of her need to alter her speech pattern to a non-accented version of her own voice in order to be recognized fluently. In her words, “[changing] such an integral part of an identity to be able to be recognized is inherently cruel.”

The technology community is a scientific one, subject to the same limitations of other sciences: those of resources, knowledge, and capabilities. It is also subject to the same limitations of economics: funding and supply and demand. To imply that technology (and technology companies) are ignoring smaller demographic groups or populations for reasons other than those limitations is short-sighted, and ignores the complexity of the problem and the allocation of available resources to solve it.

Speech recognition has become mainstream, and we have seen solutions delivered to market in the past ten years that were likely considered science fiction 20 years ago. It is still far from a complete solution, and that is shown by the continued rapid advances and developments in the field. Apple, Google, Amazon, and others have brought speech recognition to dozens of languages in just a few years, delivering an imperfect solution to a complex problem that consumers today expected to work without fail, much like we expect our cars to work when we turn the key.

The difference, of course, is that cars are all the same; people are all different, and even though many of us speak similarly, many of us do not, as we use dialects of the same root language — and that is where the economics of science come to play. When you want to implement language support, you will start with the baseline language, to capture the widest population of potential users. As technology improvements come, the availability to pick up smaller and smaller populations of users who speak in dialects will come with it. These are not limitations built into a solution; rather, they are limitations based on technological capabilities and available resources to implement them.

When companies decide to do this, it is not to be exclusive; rather, it is to be inclusive of as many people as possible. Turn on the television in the US and watch the news, and you will largely see newscasters speaking in a standard form of American English. This is by design; they are speaking in a way that people with nearly any dialect or understanding of spoken English can follow, thereby being inclusive of the most number of people by resorting to a common baseline. Technology companies do the same. This decision does not take away anyone’s cultural identity, nor should it be seen as “inherently cruel”.

Over the next ten years, Ms. Lopez-Llorenda will undoubtedly see incredible advances in speech recognition. As technological capabilities grow, and as company resources are freed up by completion of tasks for larger populations of users, she will see improvements in language support (including dialects) and eventually will see that speech recognition is able to recognize an individual’s speech (for example, picking up the l in salmon, for the one person I met in my life who pronounced it that way). The inherent cruelty will go away, not because anyone felt it was cruel, but simply because technology has caught up.

In the meantime, I will continue, at times, to mask my New York dialect in conversations — not because I am trying to hide my cultural identity. Rather, perhaps I am trying to be inclusive of the listener, who may be unfamiliar with such a dialect; or perhaps I don’t want to come across as a paisano — because, after all, if you heard me ordering a cup of cawfee (milk, no sugah), you probably would quickly make a certain opinion of who I am. And that opinion may be right or wrong, and you are entitled to make it, and I don’t take it as an insult. You’re merely taking in speech, and making a decision based on the limited amount of data and information you have to process it — which is, ironically, the same thing Siri is doing.

Is there gender inequality in education (or anywhere else)?

I stumbled across this on the web today, courtesy of Mark Perry / Carpe Diem, and had to share it, because it does a good job of illustrating the perceived gender inequality in education.

57% of students in postsecondary education are men.

52% of students in gifted and talented education programs in 2009 were boys.

In 2009-10, men received 62% of all associate’s degrees, 57% of of all bachelor’s degrees, 62% of all master’s degrees, and 53% of all doctorate degrees.

One would read that and likely say it is conclusive evidence that women are under-represented in education, and there is gender inequality against them.

However, that would be a lie. In copying the above from the source, I changed all references from women to men. The actual facts should read as follows:

57% of students in postsecondary education are women.

52% of students in gifted and talented education programs in 2009 were girls.

In 2009-10, women received 62% of all associate’s degrees, 57% of of all bachelor’s degrees, 62% of all master’s degrees, and 53% of all doctorate degrees.

To show the same in a table:

  # of Men # of Women
Postsecondary Education 10 13
Gifted and Talented Education Programs 10 11
Associate’s Degrees 10 16
Bachelor’s Degrees 10 13
Master’s Degrees 10 16
Doctorate Degrees 10 11

Obviously, there are many reasons for this, some of which are:

What does this mean? To me, it means this: men and women are interested in different things, have different goals, and make different choices in life. Men make choices such as military service (or crime) more than women; they choose to be firefighters (98% male) and engineers (89% male), whereas women choose to be teachers (about 85% female), social workers (81% female), and registered nurses (94% female).

So is there a “gender gap”? No more than there is a “pet acceptance gap.” Consider the differences in dog and cat acceptance in U.S. households, where there are 10% more cats than dogs in U.S. households. Why? Because cats and dogs are different, so people accept them differently, and in different numbers.

The bottom line: There are gender differences; the gaps are created by those differences.

Disclaimer: Obviously, there are specific instances where men and/or women are unfairly treated in education, or in certain professions, or in certain social circles. This commentary is not to focus on the individual experience, but on the experience as a whole. Though there may be injustice in life at times, it does not mean that all of life is unjust. And, of course, correlation does not imply causality.

Comparing the cost of signing and implementing legislation

Legislator 1: “Let’s create a new law that creates an emergency phone number for health care emergencies, just like 911!”
Legislator 2: “Awesome, I’ve just drafted it, let’s use ‘011’!”
Legislator 3: “OK, it’s passed!”

Cost for legislators to sign their name to the bill: trivial.
Cost for compliance and implementation: priceless.

Beer and Taxes

The following has been circulated around for a long time. It just resurfaced to me, and I wanted to share it! I wish I knew who to credit it to. 🙁

Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to $100.
If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this…

The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing
The fifth would pay $1
The sixth would pay $3
The seventh would pay $7
The eighth would pay $12
The ninth would pay $18
The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59

So, that’s what they decided to do.

The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve ball. “Since you are all such good customers,” he said, “I’m going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20”. Drinks for the ten men would now cost just $80.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes. So the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free. But what about the other six men ? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his fair share?

They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody’s share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer.

So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man’s bill by a higher percentage the poorer he was, to follow the principle of the tax system they had been using, and he proceeded to work out the amounts he suggested that each should now pay.

And so the fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% saving).
The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33% saving).
The seventh now paid $5 instead of $7 (28% saving).
The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% saving).
The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% saving).
The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% saving).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free. But, once outside the bar, the men began to compare their savings.

“I only got a dollar out of the $20 saving,” declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man,”but he got $10!”

“Yeah, that’s right,” exclaimed the fifth man. “I only saved a dollar too. It’s unfair that he got ten times more benefit than me!”

“That’s true!” shouted the seventh man. “Why should he get $10 back, when I got only $2? The wealthy get all the breaks!”

“Wait a minute,” yelled the first four men in unison, “we didn’t get anything at all. This new tax system exploits the poor!”

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

The next night the tenth man didn’t show up for drinks so the nine sat down and had their beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn’t have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

On Snow Removal and Garbage Collection

(Cross-posted on the Staten Island Libertarian Party web site.)

Like most people, I struggled to get around after the snow storm hit. On Monday Dec 27, I checked the MTA web site, which said “Good Service” for all express bus routes. Walking to the bus stop (Arden Ave & Drumgoole Rd), I saw one bus, stuck at the intersection, unable to get up the hill at Arden Ave. I then walked to the train station. The platform was nicely shoveled, and the waiting area was open, and there were signs that a train came by at some point (the rails themselves had little snow on them). No sign was posted about services (or lack thereof). After about an hour, myself and other people waiting started to give up. One person, after repeated attempts, got through to someone at the MTA, who said service wasn’t running at all, and they have no idea when it will be running. I stopped at a local deli (which of course was open), bought a coffee and egg sandwich, and walked back home.


The amount of work to deal with a significant snowfall is tremendous. Staten Island was reported to get between 18 and 29 inches (varying reports I’ve gotten from different news sources). A news report stated that “every inch of snow costs $1 million to remove”. Keeping trains and buses moving, and streets clear, is a lot of work for a lot of people.

It took two to three days, but things started to return to normal, thanks in part to hard-working public sector workers and hard-working residents (like me, who dug a trench through the hard-packed snow at the end of my block so the snow melt can work its way towards a sewer and not create street and sidewalk flooding). At least, MOST things returned to normal.

Garbage pickup has been suspended since December 25 (the Christmas holiday), and has not resumed until January 3 — a span of NINE days, including two major holidays. I can understand the difficulty in cleaning up snow AND picking up garbage, especially when the same group of people do both. Recycling, however, is not resuming today. The Dept. of Sanitation can not give an estimate as to when recycling pickup will resume.

My garbage pickup days are Wednesday and Saturday, with Saturday being the recycle day. So, assuming my garbage pickup resumes on Wednesday of this week, I will have gone 14 days without garbage pickup. Assuming my recycling will not be picked up this Saturday (since recycling pickup is suspended until further notice), I will have gone 21 days without recycling pickup.

I called 311 last night to find out what I’m supposed to do with my recycling. A summary of the dialog follows:

Me: “Do I put out the recycling with my normal garbage?” ”
311: “No, you still have to recycle.”
Me: “But no one is coming to pick up the recycling.”
311: “Correct, you can’t put it out with the regular garbage. You still have to recycle.”
Me: “So where am I supposed to put three weeks worth of recycling?”

311: “I don’t know.”

In the week since the snowstorm hit, I have seen plenty of private garbage companies and carting companies hauling commercial trash. They do this because (1) they get paid to do it, and (2) people who hire them get fined if they don’t do it. There’s an incentive to pick up the trash — as there should be; keeping trash off the streets is important.

Also in the past week, I have seen garbage trucks driving up and down streets of Staten Island — with a plow affixed to the front. Is there any reason why these trucks can’t also pick up garbage? They’re already going down the street, aren’t they? Even more perplexing was the garbage truck (with plow) driving in my neighborhood, with a salt truck (with plow) directly behind it. Why do you need to send a garbage truck with a plow to escort a salt truck with a plow? Can’t the garbage truck go to another block that needs plowing — or, better yet, pick up garbage?

The reason why private carting can do its job where others can’t is that there is no incentive for the Department of Sanitation to pick up trash. They don’t get fined if they don’t do it; in fact, if you put your garbage out and they don’t pick it up, and you leave it at the curb, they’ll fine YOU for leaving garbage out. They can get around to it when they get around to it, because they know the residents can’t fire them for a job poorly done.

Which is why I want out. I no longer need the services of the Department of Sanitation. I will take care of my own garbage. I’ll find a company to take it. Maybe I’ll have to transport it to them, or maybe they’ll transport it to me. In fact, one of my neighbors expressed interest in the same. So we’ll hire a company to pick up the trash on our block. I’ll take the money spent off my NYC tax bill, since I no longer use those city services. The Dept of Sanitation can now focus on keeping the city street clean (the street I pay taxes to maintain), but they don’t have to stop at my house any more — or perhaps, on my block. Maybe I’ll get two blocks, or heck, maybe my entire neighborhood to join me. I’m sure some private companies would love the opportunity to take residential garbage for a fee, and the competition would be welcome.

Does this sound crazy? It shouldn’t. Earlier in 2010, Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith said he wouldn’t rule out fees for residential garbage pickup. Prior to 1957, the city picked up commercial garbage; things changed in 1957 when the city opted out of that business (much to the happiness of organized crime). Crafty ways to handle residential garbage is already happening in other places (Toronto, New Jersey).

It should happen here, too.

The cost of mandating rear-view cameras on cars

(Cross-posted on the Staten Island Libertarian Party web site.)

This morning, I read a news headline from the LA Times which read, “Rear-view cameras on cars could become mandatory.” An excerpt follows.

The federal government wants automakers to install back-up cameras in all new vehicles starting in late 2014.

Rear-view camera on a car, courtesy of Motor Trend

The plan, announced Friday, received a strong endorsement from insurance industry and other analysts and is likely to get some level of support from car manufacturers.

Of course car manufacturers will support it; it brings in significant revenue. The same article states, “The rear-view camera system adds about $400 to the price of a Ford.”

As per the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, new car sales have averaged around 7.5 million per year for the past ten years. 7.5 million cars at $400 a pop is an additional $3 billion a year. Granted, technology will reduce the cost of implementation, but we’re still looking at lots of money here.

And what do we get for our money? The LA Times article also states, “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that, on average, 292 fatalities and 18,000 injuries occur each year as a result of back-over crashes.” That’s $164,000 per fatality or injury (assuming the $3 billion cost.) Or, $3 million per fatality and $118,000 per injury. Seems expensive to me. Couldn’t we install a device on cars which create an audible beeping sound when the car is in reverse? After all, it’s on most large trucks, specifically to mitigate the same problem (look out, a big vehicle is backing up). I’d imagine such a device would be much cheaper than $400 per car, and would likely have a similar effect on reducing injuries and accidents while moving in reverse.

Want a more effective solution? Tell your lawmakers to legalize a driver’s side mirror which eliminates blind spots (source: Scientific American). Yes, such a device has been patented since 1994, which, according to the patent, would help eliminate up to “4 percent of vehicular accidents in 1994″ caused by merges and lane changes. It’s illegal because “current federal safety standards for motor vehicles require driver’s side mirrors to be of ‘unit magnification’” — in other words, flat. Sure, it won’t solve the rear-view problem, but maybe it would solve a bigger problem — at a lower cost.

More government-inspired inefficiency. Let’s hope this one dies before it becomes law.

We will not rest [once our vacation is over]

From “Al Qaeda Takes Credit for Plot” in today’s Wall Street Journal (emphasis added):

We will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable,” Mr. Obama said in remarks broadcast on television from Hawaii, where he is on vacation.

OK, I know, the President of the United States is never really on vacation, but it is funny nonetheless.

Bureaucracy’s insatiable appetite: The Federal Register

From the essay Computer Productivity: Why it is Important that Software Projects Fail by Dr. Anthony Berglas:

The boundless creativity of politicians and bureaucrats to develop new and more complex regulation is bounded only by the bureaucracy’s inability to implement them.

Considering the 2008 Federal Register is 80,700 pages, and that it grows every year, it’s safe to say that there appears to be no upper limit to scope of the problem.

Incredibly, the Federal government actually believes that people should, or could, read the Federal Register. It even answers the question, “Why should I read the Federal Register?”. The only real reason should be to cure insomnia.

Metrics on reading the Federal Register

Let’s presume you had to read the Federal Register, taking the following assumptions:

  • The document, as of its final 2008 version, is 80,700 pages.
  • You sleep eight hours a day.
  • You have a full-time job, five days a week, eight hours a day.
  • You commute to/from work for an average of one hour each day.
  • You spend two hours a day for personal and domestic matters – bathing, eating, housekeeping, etc..
  • You spend four hours on each weekend day to address random matters (paying bills, playing WoW, etc.).
  • While reading, you take a 15-minute break every two hours.

Considering that, you have about 39 hours per week to read. If you can read two pages per minute (a good clip that assumes comprehension rates don’t matter), it would take you nearly 121 days (17 weeks) to read all 80,700 pages of the Federal Register.

Keep in mind that such a clip requires reading on average 5 1/2 hours per day. In reality, the average American spends just 21 minutes a day reading. At that rate, the average American would take nearly 2,000 days (about five and one-half years) to read the 2008 Federal Register.

To make matters worse, the Federal Register continues to grow, at a pace of about 1.5% per year (Federal Register Pages Published Annually, PDF). That means an extra month of reading each year for Joe Sixpack if he wants to read all the applicable laws in 2013 after spending more than five years reading the 2008 Federal Register.

In closing: To understand the laws of America, start reading now, and don’t plan on stopping for over five and one-half years. Then, expect to spend a month of reading each year just to catch up.

Of course, this doesn’t include the state or local laws where you live… but that’s a whole other matter.

Bad government: Spending $250,000 to create or save one job

From the Wall Street Journal Online, Oct 30 2009: White House Data Shows 650,000 Jobs From Stimulus:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Friday that the government’s fiscal stimulus program has helped create or save almost 650,000 jobs…

The new jobs figure — 640,329 specifically — represents direct stimulus spending through Sept. 30 on projects or activities…

[T]he reports cover only $160 billion of the $339 billion in stimulus spending that has occurred through Sept. 30.

I’m not an economist or a mathematician or a politician, but I can do basic math:

$160 billion divided by 640,329 equals $249,871.55 per job created or saved.

As a comparison: the median full-time salary for a U.S. worker was $27,756 in 2005 (source).

Why does it cost $250,000 to create or save a job in a market where the average worker makes under $30,000? Can someone explain to me how spending a quarter of a million dollars to save one job is a smart way to spend money?

Seriously, can someone explain?!?!

How a cup of coffee per week equals 210,000 jobs over ten years

Posted today on Emphasis added:

The White House will unveil reforms to the nation’s international tax code on Monday intended to close loopholes for overseas tax havens and end incentives for creating jobs overseas.

The administration expects these initiatives to raise at least $210 billion over the next 10 years “to cut taxes for American families, increase incentives for businesses to create jobs in America and reduce the deficit.”

What does $210 billion in new taxes mean to Americans? Let’s review.

  • The median U.S. household income is about $50,000 per year.
  • Let’s assume that the typical cost (insurance, office space, pens, etc.) of an employee to an employer is double an employee’s salary. (It varies quite a bit by industry, but this is a fair back-of-the-envelope number.)
  • The “cost” of one $50,000 per year job over ten years is therefore roughly $1 million.
  • $210 billion in new taxes over ten years can result in up to 210,000 less jobs being created, if you assume how that money could otherwise be spent providing a job to 210,000 people for ten years.
  • To compare, only 16 American companies have more than 210,000 employees.

The flip side:

  • The population of the United States is about 304 million.
  • $210 billion in new taxes over ten years equals about $690 per person over ten years, or $69 per year, or 19 cents per day.

Feel free to thank the White House for eliminating the potential of 210,000 well-paying jobs over ten years so you can enjoy an extra $69 per year – about enough to buy one cup of coffee per week.

Depressing, isn’t it?