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Comment: No so sure about this (Score 4, Insightful) 88

by damienl451 (#47564533) Attached to: Reglue: Opening Up the World To Deserving Kids With Linux Computers

Can we please stop with the "children who have no PC will be at a disadvantage in the classroom" charade? Computers are great and useful, but we don't need to pretend that they will magically help children do better in school. If anything, the limited evidence available from larger-scale voucher programs suggests that they may very well reduce test scores. Which is rather intuitive. Sure, you can use your computer to do your homework and prepare your next presentation. But you can also use it to play games or go on Facebook and Buzzfeed instead of doing more productive tasks. If you're a child with low impulse control/intrinsic motivation to study, having a PC only means one more source of distraction.

This kind of program appeals to nerds like us because we remember getting our first PC, learning how to use Linux to set up our first home server, learning how to code, spending a lot of time online acquiring new knowledge, etc. That's literally the first paragraph of the article. But we're not the average person. Most children will not do that: ask non-nerds around you how they felt about the time their parents bought their first computer and you'll get a "meh" because, in the pre-internet era, you could easily see them as glorified typewriters if you weren't a nerd. Nowadays, the average child will start playing Flash games on the web and be content. And gaming is much more fun than doing your homework.

I think it's also good to distinguish between "cannot afford a computer" and "does not think a computer is worth the cost". What I mean is, if instead of providing a computer or a voucher that can only be used to buy a computer, charities gave people $200 (enough to buy a Chromebook or Chromebox that's sufficient for all school-related uses), would they go out and buy a PC? Or is it a paternalistic endeavor that insists that poor households REALLY need a PC because WE couldn't live without one, so they must just not know what's good for them? Of course, if you give away something for free, people will take it. That doesn't mean they value it as much as you think they do. I see that they're trying to identify people who really need it, so kudos to them, but it's difficult and, so far, willingness to pay remains to best way to do that. Provided of course that people have enough money to have real options. This is where I start my rant about how charities are at best a stop-gap solution fraught with problems such as the fact that people always start them because they think they know what poor people REALLY need ("a PC", "no, toys", "no, cans of food", etc.). What about: a decent income so they can make their own choices rather than having to rely on handouts?

At least, when it comes to PCs, money is quickly becoming a non-issue. A Pi with case, keyboard, mouse and Wifi dongle can be purchased for perhaps $60-$70. Spend a little more and you can buy a Banana Pi or another cheap Chinese ARM machine. When you factor in the time it takes to check that donated computers still work well, set up the Linux OS, coordinate donations, etc., I'm sure 'free' PCs end up being more expensive.

Comment: Re:france has law designed to protect bookshop (Score 1) 309

I've seen this argument on many French websites, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around it.

Before the law:
- €10 book on Amazon: €9.5 (+free shipping)
- €10 book in a bookstore: €9.5 (+ no need to ship it, though the store is free to offer it)

After the law:
- €10 book on Amazon: €10.01
- €10 book in a bookstore: €9.5

Clearly, this tilts the balance in favor of bookstores who can now sell books cheaper than Amazon. They didn't just fix the law, which already ensured that both Amazon and other stores had to sell the book at the same price, but they made books more expensive on Amazon.

You could say that offering free shipping is an extra advantage that should be taken into account. But not only could other stores also offer free shipping if they wanted to, they also offer other advantages that have value to the customer: advice, instant availability, free gift wrap, etc. Why is free shipping any different?

This goes far beyond what the previous iteration of the law did. When the law was passed in the 1980s, no-one suggested that big box stores should be prohibited from offering free parking since that put downtown bookstores at a clear disadvantage.

Comment: Re: Not France vs US (Score 4, Informative) 309

Actually, the law says no such thing. Before this new law, booksellers in France could sell a book with at most a 5% discount relative to the mandatory price set by the publisher. The idea was to prevent supermarkets and larger booksellers from competing on price and driving smaller shops out of business. In the 1980s, it made some sense, as people were afraid that supermarkets would only stock bestsellers and that smaller shops were necessary to ensure the availability of more specialized, less popular books. Back then, the only people shipping books were mail-order book clubs, which re-published bestsellers after a year or two and did not have much market share.

With the advent of the internet, booksellers started complaining that Amazon and FNAC were too successful. Since they could offer both the 5% discount and free shipping, customers paid as little as it was legally possible and enjoyed the extra convenience of not having to visit several bookshops to find the rare book that they'd been looking for. This is definitely a good thing for consumers and Amazon takes care of the long tail much more effectively and efficiently than smaller booksellers. Plus everyone was treated equally: smaller shops could also offer free shipping if they wanted to: they just could not afford it due to the lower volumes involved. Amazon can negotiate very good shipping rates and buy books much cheaper. Publishers sell them their books with a 50% discount, versus 30-40% for smaller bookstores.

The law now says that you can still offer a 5% discount BUT, if you ship the book to the customer, this 5% discount must be deducted from the shipping fees, which cannot amount to zero. Thus, if Amazon sells a €10 book, they probably charge a €0.51 shipping fee, which ends up being €0.01 after the 5% discount. They're still at a disadvantage since a physical store can sell the same book for €9.5. Which means that the law now clearly favors physical stores, much more than it did small bookstores vs supermarkets before.

Comment: Re: Not France vs US (Score 1) 309

France does not prohibit websites from storing credit card information. The regulations say that the merchant must first ask the customer whether they agree to let them store their CC information. If the customer agrees, the customer name, CC number and expiry date can be stored in an encrypted format. What cannot be stored is the CVV number.

This is a common-sense rule that minimizes the risks of identity theft and fraudulent use of credit cards in case customer information gets in the wild, as has happened repeatedly in recent years.

Comment: Re:This just illustrates (Score 2) 365

by damienl451 (#47339749) Attached to: Germany's Glut of Electricity Causing Prices To Plummet

They already do it, but negative prices are a rare occurrence and it's probably not worth investing in additional capacity. Storage and reducing production are both more expensive than paying people to accept the extra electricity. In a way, this is the same as installing resistors, except that you're just letting other people dispose of the electricity without incurring capital expenses yourself.

Comment: Not a coding opportunity (Score 1) 155

by damienl451 (#47292731) Attached to: Computational Thinking: AP Computer Science Vs AP Statistics?

I spend a lot of time writing R code, with occasional forays into SAS-land. But I don't really consider it a coding opportunity, nor would I want people like me to do the actual lower-level coding that is needed to make these software packages work adequately (yes, I know that lots of function in R are written in R, but there's still a majority of C/Fortran code under the hood. Because I'm not a computer scientist or a software engineer. I can write ok code in that it runs, does what it needs to do, and is not grotesquely inefficient. But I have no interest in writing production-quality, well-optimized code since I only want to get statistical results as easily as possible. I enjoy writing the code, but it's a purely utilitarian endeavor and definitely not something that would make me employable in the software industry. Which is okay since my comparative advantage is analyzing and interpreting data, but means that there's room for CS graduates and 'code monkeys'.

Comment: Re:Yep. (Score 1) 649

by damienl451 (#47270733) Attached to: Teaching Creationism As Science Now Banned In Britain's Schools

The largest US denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention, which a) is rather big on creationism, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" and b) is not connected to the Church of England. Their "ancestors" are English nonconformists who were being discriminated against in England because they did not belong to the state church.

Historically, Baptists were staunch defenders of the separation of church and state. For instance, the phrase "wall of separation" has its origins in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to a Baptist association, who had stated their belief that "Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals" and "that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor".

However, now that conservative Christians and Southern Baptists are the majority in many places, they have decided that having government support for their own brand of religion was rather attractive. It's very important for a religion to maintain a plausibility structure: it's much easier to keep people "in" and to find new adherents when your brand of religion is the default option, is very visible in public, has prominent people within its ranks (evangelical Christians and Tim Tebow, scientologists and famous actors, etc.), and is considered "reasonable". Teaching "the controversy" reinforces the plausibility structure of conservative Christianity by making it look like YEC and evolution are two equally reasonable hypotheses about origins, which only differ in terms of presuppositions (atheism vs theism).

To go back to the OP, the only denomination that is directly connected to the Church of England is the Episcopal Church, which is one of the most progressive denominations. I'd suspect that, in terms of ethics, many Episcopalians would find more common ground with humanists than with a conservative Baptist.

Comment: Re:It works for Delaware, too. (Score 4, Insightful) 155

by damienl451 (#47213357) Attached to: Apple To Be Investigated By the EU Over Tax Affairs

They cannot just emulate them. Ireland derives their advantage from their having low taxes relative to other countries, not from having low taxes in absolute terms. What you suggest is a global race to the bottom, which may be the default "solution" in the absence of effective mechanisms for collective action. Each country has an incentive to attract more business by lowering tax rates, but, if all of them lower rates, most of them will probably end up with lower total revenues than if they could just strike an agreement not to engage in tax competition. This is what the European Union is trying to do.

Whether it is good or bad depends on what you think the effects will be and on how important a weight you place on the welfare of large multinational companies (or rather, some combination of their employees, customers and shareholders, since the tax burden falls on people) versus the public purse and the welfare of their smaller competitors.

This is one of the main reasons why countries are up in arms against these companies. Until recently, Starbucks was not paying corporate tax in the UK. Now, perhaps they were truly unprofitable, although it's hard to believe that such an iconic company would spend more than 14 years constantly opening stores without ever turning a profit AND would also tell investors that its UK operations were profitable when they were not. And there must be something deeply wrong with the UK market since many large, generally profitable companies (Apple, Google, Facebook) often fail to turn a profit there.

The real reason of course is that they use outdated tax laws that were never meant to apply to the kind of international transactions that are possible today to artificially record profits where they will be taxed the least. This is perfectly legal but contrary to the spirit of the tax agreements that were originally meant to prevent rather than encourage tax avoidance. The arms' length principle worked well when a UK company used to buy tomatoes from its Spanish subsidiary to make soup (there are publicly-available market prices for tomatoes), but not so much today when it comes to valuing the right to use the Starbucks logo, name, products and processes. If you manage to pay artificially-inflated fees to a shell corporation in a tax-haven or another EU country that you have made a deal with, you can make it look as if you did not make any profit in a country regardless of its actual profitability.

This makes no sense at all: how much you pay in tax is not a function of real economic factors but of how transactions between units within the company were structured on paper. And it is greatly unfair to smaller competitors who will have to pay taxes. Why should a small coffee shop pay at least 20% on its profits while Starbucks gets to pay a much lower rate even if it sells the same amount of coffee for the same price and has the same cost structure apart from the gimmick of using its own intellectual property?

Comment: Re:Who is being taxed, exactly? (Score 2) 322

by damienl451 (#47189779) Attached to: Fixing China's Greenhouse Gas Emissions For Them

The point is to change relative prices, not make the poor worse off overall. It is true that carbon pricing would be regressive but the revenue can and should be used to alleviate that problem by transferring money to those who will be disproportionately affected by the tax/tariffs at the bottom of the income distribution. Another option is to use the revenue to lower other regressive taxes (e.g. the payroll tax), provide income tax reductions, or boost the EITC, which should again mitigate the problem. Even if the revenue is not sufficient to make the poorest families whole, we may decide that additional transfers from general funds are necessary, which can definitely be paid for given that the US is an outlier among OECD countries in terms of how low taxes are.

Looking at the problem from a global perspective, even if we were unable to offset the costs to the first-world poor, there is good evidence that the countries that will be hit the hardest by climate change are third-world countries with a heavy reliance on subsistence farming. And, within these countries, it is against the poorest people who will be hit the hardest. Which means that, from a utilitarian standpoint, it may still make sense to hurt relatively poor first-world people if it benefits those who are much poorer than them.

Comment: Attempts to limit users typically backfire (Score 1) 195

by damienl451 (#46201795) Attached to: Is Whitelisting the Answer To the Rise In Data Breaches?

The powers that be had the great idea of launching a policy of locking down PCs where I work. Which is ridiculous considering that we're a large research university and that, believe it or not, bureaucrats can't predict what researcher X in lab Y will want to put on their computer. Because users were unable to do anything on their own, the IT people were spending a lot of time going from one office to the other installing the software that people needed. It lasted for maybe a week, at which point some "helpful" IT person decided that it was much easier to just give "trusted" users the admin password! However, that was the XP era and people soon realized that they could not easily install .msi packages for instance because you could not just right-click, "run as admin" them. But if you were logged in as admin, you could install everything easily.

So, eventually, lots of people started using the admin account FULL TIME and leaving the password in plain sight on post-it notes. So, to "improve security", we went from people using regular user accounts, with a small risk of their machine being infected/compromised, to people logging in as admin with full rights on the machine. What a great improvement!

I suppose that white-listing may solve the problem if it's really impossible to do anything. But it's 2014 and you can't predict what people will want to use.

Comment: Re:This is backwards (Score 1) 264

by damienl451 (#45251799) Attached to: France Moves To Protect Independent Booksellers From Amazon

How is this any different from the present situation? Do you think that Amazon will print books that have gone out of print because they were too old and are being kept in copyright limbo by the publisher? Do you think that independent booksellers carry those in their inventory? Obviously not since no publisher will want to reprint a book whose copyright status is not clear. That leaves used copies, which Amazon also sells. Your argument makes no sense whatsoever: if a publisher wants to keep a book in print, they can do so whether they go all digital or not. But if a book turns out to be unprofitable, which version is more likely to remain available: the print version that must be kept in a controlled environment and will take up valuable shelf space, or the electronic version that can be sold at near zero marginal cost?

Your last sentence is also fact-less bigoted drivel.

Comment: Re:In other news... (Score 2) 264

by damienl451 (#45251757) Attached to: France Moves To Protect Independent Booksellers From Amazon

But prices are higher in France for best-sellers, which is what really matters for most people. Take Plonger, the latest recipient of the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française. It's a 448-page hardcover book that retails for EUR19.95. Now take Eleanor Catton's "The Luminaries", which received the 2013 Man Booker Prize. It retails for GBP9.49 in the UK (EUR11.12) or USD16.74 (EUR12.12) in the US. That's almost twice as much, for half the number of pages.

But perhaps the difference is due to them being two different books, and very recent ones.

So you can also compare translations of the same book: let's have a look at 1Q84. In the US, you can get the paperback version for USD13.10 (EUR9.49). In France, you can get it for EUR9.12. So it's about the same price. Except that the French version only has Book 1, and Book 2 and 3 cost the same price. Which means that the book is three times as expensive.

Obviously, you can find other, less popular books that are cheaper in France than abroad. So there's no across the board increase in prices, you're right. However, there are distributive effects that should be taken into account. If niche (read: more intellectually rigorous) books are more affordable, this primarily benefits higher-educated, wealthier consumers. In practice, the French model asks the masses to subsidize the consumption habits of the educated rich.

Comment: Re:Long distance travel (Score 4, Informative) 168

by damienl451 (#45168709) Attached to: Black Death Predated 'Small World' Effect, Say Network Theorists

There are other ways that the plague could spread. Yes, someone infected with the plague would die before reaching their destination. However, ships also carried cargo, which could be contaminated. Standard procedure was to quarantine ships and their cargo but, understandably, there could be pressures to rush things because people didn't like their precious fabrics to be kept on an isolated island for forty days, especially since they could easily get damaged in the process.

This is how the Great Plague of Marseilles began: a ship laden with cargo belonging to important people was not quarantined according to procedure. Unfortunately, it had come from the Middle East where the plague was rampant and it starting spreading through the city.

Comment: Re:This is not EU law... (Score 1) 246

by damienl451 (#45103991) Attached to: EU Court Holds News Website Liable For Readers' Comments

Why should they interfere? It's not like there's a great moral principle at stake here. Every country has some limits on free speech. The ECHR is only there to make sure that these limits don't go too far and start limiting legitimate but controversial forms of speech. If legitimate, substantiated criticism of companies or people were made illegal, the ECHR would side with the defendant. There is in fact case law about this: English courts had found people guilty for written a pamphlet critical of McDonald's, and the ECHR ruled against the UK because Article 10 protects free speech.

I think virtually every country agrees that it's a bad idea to let people ruin someone's reputation by spreading false information. But they disagree about whether they should assume that people acted in good faith and make it very difficult for the offended party to sue, or whether they should make it a bit easier. It's not a matter of human rights but of striking the right balance between encouraging people to express themselves freely and making sure that others don't get hurt in the process. Different countries will come to different conclusions about where to draw the line.

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