Misc: May 2008 Archives


May 25, 2008

AP reports that the FCC is considering significantly restricting cell phone service provider early termination fees:
Cell phone companies routinely charge customers $175 or more for quitting their service early. Under a proposal to the Federal Communications Commission, the wireless industry would give consumers the opportunity to cancel service without any penalty for up to 30 days after they sign a cell phone contract or until 10 days after they receive their first bill.

The proposal also would cap such fees and reduce them month by month over the course of a contract based on how long customers have left, according to people familiar with the offer speaking on condition of anonymity because the FCC has not accepted it. The plan would not abolish cancellation fees entirely.

In exchange for the government's approval, the agreement would let cell phone companies off the hook in state courts where they are being sued for billions of dollars by angry customers. If approved by the FCC, the proposal also would take away the authority of states to regulate the charges, known as early termination fees.

The nation's No. 2 wireless company, Verizon Wireless, offered the proposal to the FCC for its review after high-level meetings with senior FCC officials. It did so in consultation with other leading wireless companies, whose executives indicated they would not oppose its provisions, people familiar with the offer told the AP.


Cingular's current plan is:

  • Up-front $30 or so activation charge.
  • 30-days to cancel.
  • $175 cancellation fee, reducing $5 every month.

So, this new plan wouldn't be much of an improvement, since $7/month would decay to 0 over the life of a 2-year contract, especially as this article doesn't say that the fees would actually decay to 0. Reading between the lines, this looks a lot more like a plan for the cell companies to preempt state action than it does like the FCC intervening to help you out.


May 23, 2008

One of the weird tropes in the mortgage crunch is reports of people walking away from their houses when the value of their loan exceeds the value of the house. Obviously, this works better if your mortgage is non-recourse, meaning that the lender can't go after your personal assets once they foreclose. If you don't have any other real assets anyway, this doesn't make much difference, but if you're someone with substantial other assets who just made a bad investment, then this is pretty convenient (though it doesn't exactly do wonders for your credit score). As far as I can make out, in California, first mortgages are generally non-recourse, but refis are often recourse (see the FTB's discussion here). That could be a nasty surprise...

May 22, 2008

The Times reports on a study (press release here) by the Center for Work Life Policy on women in science and technology fields. The study isn't available yet, but the press release and the NYT article seem to confuse a number of issues:
The 147-page report (which was sponsored by Alcoa, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Pfizer and Cisco) is filled with tales of sexual harassment (63 percent of women say they experienced harassment on the job); and dismissive attitudes of male colleagues (53 percent said in order to succeed in their careers they had to ?act like a man?); and a lack of mentors (51 percent of engineers say they lack one); and hours that suit men with wives at home but not working mothers (41 percent of technology workers says they need to be available ?24/7?).


The result, she said has been a work environment that dismisses women. Female employees come up against "the kind of culture that evolves when women are in the extreme minority," she said. (Think "Lord of the Flies.") The ideal worker in this realm is "the hacker who goes into his cubicle and doesn't emerge for a week, having not showered or eaten anything but pizza. Those people exist and they are seen as heroes."

So, there are five complaints here:

  1. Sexual harassment
  2. Dismissive attitudes
  3. Lack of mentors
  4. Long hours and inflexible schedules
  5. A culture that rewards lone work

When evaluating these complaints, we need to examine two axes: the pragmatic question of what would benefit companies, and the fairness issue of how companies ought to behave. In many cases, these are aligned. For instance, it's clearly unfair to subject women to sexual harassment and it's doubtful that it's somehow favorable to the company either, since at minimum it demoralizes a significant fraction of your workforce.

On the other hand, in some cases these forces may be in tension. To take one example: if engineers willing to work 80 hours a week are a lot more productive than engineers who can only afford to work 40 hours week (I'm not saying this is so; I suspect the relationship is a lot more complicated than this), then expecting your engineers to be willing to work long hours might well benefit the company; it's a tradeoff between the additional effort you get out of your existing staff and the reduced population you're able to draw from (assuming that some people simply can't work those hours). Similarly, it could be true that lone hackers slaving away in their cubicles is the best way to produce software (it's far from clear that that's true, but I've certainly seen plenty of high quality software produced that way), in which case again it may be in the company's best interest to rely on such people, even if they're harder to find than the average programmer.

Now, obviously one could say "yes, it's true that practice X would be more efficient, but it's so difficult for a large segment of the population that it's unfair to engage in it". It's not clear to me that this argument has anywhere near the moral force that (for instance) an argument against practices that aren't beneficial to the company are, since you're asking the company to do something that's against their interest. Ignoring the question of male vs. female, if I'm the kind of worker who would like to put in my 40 hours and then go play PS/2, I'm going to be at a disadvantage compared to my co-worker who is prepared to spend 70 hours a week at work. It's not clear to me that when he gets promoted and I don't that that's inherently unfair.

Let's try turning this around and look at a job where most of the employees are women: day care workers and day care. Now, I haven't done a scientific study, but it seems to me pretty likely that the reason that most of these workers are women is that women like working with kids a lot more. Yet, I don't think it would be reasonable to say that this was an anti-male environment and that employers should find some way to remove the aspects of the environment that make it less congenial to men (i.e., the kids). That would obviate the whole point of the job!

So, at minimum we've got some kind of spectrum of practices that are preferential to some types of employees:

  • Practices which are actually detrimental to job performance (these absolutely exist)
  • Practices which are neutral.
  • Practices which improve job performance.
  • Practices which are essential to job performance.

So, I think we can all agree that we should move away from practices that disadvantage women and that are also bad for job performance and we can probably agree that practices which are neutral should be changed as well. This leaves us with how to handle practices which are beneficial to the organization but preferential to some types of employees. [I should note at this point that it can be hard to assess which category any given practice falls into. The people in charge of the organization will generally defend any existing practice, no matter how stupid.] The general social consensus seems to be that organizations should have to make accomodations as long as the hit to their productivity isn't too large. But of course, this leaves us in the uncomfortable position where the organization which is faced with making a change which would probably reduce productivity somewhat is incentivized to claim that it would result in a huge productivity reduction while activists for whoever is on the disadvantaged end of the practice (in this case, women), have an incentive to claim that there wouldn't be any impact on productivity, with neither side being much interested in the truth.


May 15, 2008

I totally agree that banning (or even significantly restricting) people with HIV from entering the US is nuts, but despite Andrew Sullivan's protestations to the contrary, it's really not unenforceable.

This law has lasted so long because no domestic constituency lobbies for its repeal. Immigrants or visitors with HIV are often too afraid to speak up. The ban itself is also largely unenforceable -- it's impossible to take blood from all those coming to America, hold them until the results come through and then deport those who test positive. Enforcement occurs primarily when immigrants volunteer their HIV status -- as I have -- or apply for permanent residence. The result is not any actual prevention of HIV coming into the United States but discrimination against otherwise legal immigrants who are HIV-positive.

Rapid HIV tests are readily available, and the OraQuick test involves only an oral swab and reads out in 20 minutes minutes. It wouldn't be at all hard to design an immigration system that forced people to go through oral HIV testing. You'd just need somewhere to hold them for 20 minutes, which I suspect CBP could easily arrange.

More to the point, the idea that for such a ban to be enforceable requires point of entry testing strikes me as basically wrong. We have a whole array of immigration controls (not a terrorist, not a nazi, etc.) that are based on matching up information that's indexed by personal identity (i.e., your name, age, passport #, etc.) against the person standing in front of the immigration agent. But those checks to a great extent rely on accurate record keeping and enforcement by the country who issued that individual's passport. If my country of origin doesn't bother to check identity before issuing passports, I'll be able to get in even if I'm actually Osama bin Laden. The United States certainly could require that people who wish to enter the country come with a certification that they've had recent HIV testing and are HIV negative. Those who didn't could be deported or tested on entry.

Even absent such infrastructure, there are plenty of immigration requirements that don't get routinely checked but if you're found to have lied are used as the basis for prosecution or deportation. When Mrs. Guesswork got her green card, they asked her if she was a Nazi. I doubt they checked up on that, but I'm sure if it later came out that she was Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS they'd find some way to punish her.


May 13, 2008

Watched the first couple episodes of Rome last night. Looks like a generally pretty solid show, though I notice that being a Roman seems to involve having a lot of noisy, semi-public sex. Anyway, I was particularly struck by the scene where Lucius Verones gets home after 8 years away with the legions and his kids don't recognize him. Times sure have changed now that we don't have the Roman Legions. These days when that happens it usually means you've made United Global Services..