California, the Poverty-Stricken State

California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, after factoring in the cost of living. And just like the 19th century pioneers trailblazed west in search of a better life, dispossessed Californians are migrating east to, uh, do the same. Manifest Destiny!

For the last decade, California’s low-income residents have been leaving mostly for Texas, but also to neighbor states like Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona. At the same time, wealthier people move in from the east. From the Sacramento Bee:

The jobs with the biggest net loss to other states from 2005 through 2015 were cashiers, cooks, truck drivers, material movers, retail sales reps and customer service reps. Those jobs alone accounted for a net loss of 200,000 California workers.

The professions with the highest net gain from other states? Software developers and physicians.

Ordinarily, when salaries rise for jobs that see increased labor productivity, the salaries for surrounding jobs rise as well. Service and transportation-sector employers have to provide competitive wages, or all their workers will quit and go work at Google (see also: Baumol effect).

But wages outside of tech jobs aren’t keeping up. There’s such huge income disparity between the San Francisco Bay Area and the Central Valley that people in poorer parts of the state will commute for hours to take advantage of slightly better opportunities in the city. Then we end up with sad stories of Uber drivers who sleep in parking lots during the week, and return to their hometown 3 hours away on the weekends. Same with shuttle bus drivers for tech companies.

Central Valley: Farmland and poor people.

I wonder if we’ll eventually reach some sort of equilibrium where the low-wage laborers have all left for Texas, and the only people left in California are rich people and robots. Silicon Valley would love that.

Technical Interviews From the 1960s

Hey kids! Wanna get a job as a programmer? Here are some questions from a Programmer Aptitude Test that IBM uses to screen job applicants.

Yes that’s right, they’re asking you to match shapes. It’s like those exams they used to administer in primary school to determine which children needed special attention. Here are some word problems:

8th grade algebra, right? And I’m talking 8th grade public school here; fancypants private schools probably teach this stuff to their kindergarteners.

The IBM Programmer Aptitude Test is from 1960 (? I think. It’s tough to read the date on the mimeograph). Is it just me or have technical interviews gotten much harder? Today’s interviews involve tasks like determining whether a binary search tree is balanced— Oh wait, wrong kind of interview.

Seriously though. I interviewed for a programmer job at Facebook several years ago, and one of the questions I got was, “Given a set of obstacle coordinates, write a function that finds the shortest path between two cells for a knight on a 3-D chessboard while avoiding the obstacles.”

Bear in mind that this is a company that makes all its money selling ads. I remember this question because it was one of the few that I managed to solve. Probably a half-dozen others ended in fumbles. Not surprisingly, Facebook didn’t give me an offer. I’ve never interviewed at Google, but word on the street is that Google interviews are even worse.

Tech interviews have undergone some massive difficulty inflation since the 60s. I blame immigration. Prior to 1965, a high-school graduate could land a decent programmer job by demonstrating a basic ability to recognize shapes. Then the Hart-Celler Act was passed, which not only repealed the prohibition on Asian immigrants, but also removed the quota system that prioritized northern and western Europeans. Now we have the finest technical talent flooding in from the East and the Far East to compete for jobs, and the bar has been raised to stratospheric levels. My future descendants might be flipping burgers, if the robots don’t get there first.

See Also:
IBM Programmer Aptitude Test — Take the entire test! If you do well, invent a time machine and go back to 1960 to get a job at IBM!
Technical Interview Questions for Equal-Opportunity Employers

Happy International Women’s Day!

The male-dominated field of software engineering was once the domain of women. Early computer stuff was considered a form of clerical work, like data entry or switchboard operation. Prior to the Equal Pay Act of 1963, gender-based wage discrimination was both legal and socially acceptable, thus employers hired women to fill the ranks of low-skilled labor at bargain bin rates. (If today’s gender pay gap allegations are true, why aren’t tech companies taking advantage of this good deal?)

1950s and 60s computer programmers were also known as computer “feeders”, because the programmers fed data into a machine (“data feeds”). The job involved taking a flow chart, translating it into logic operations, looking the operations up in a machine language table, and punching the corresponding machine codes into cards.

Here is your assignment. Your boss is likely a systems analyst.

Translated into logic operations.

Resulting machine code.

As a mathematician at Remington Rand, Dr. Grace Hopper realized that computers would see wider adoption if they weren’t such a pain to program. She recommended that a new programming language be developed using English words. Her employer dismissed the idea, insisting that computers were machines of math.

You know the quote “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”? That came from Grace Hopper. She created her own English-like language anyway, and called it FLOW-MATIC because it described flow charts. FLOW-MATIC was later expanded into COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language).

More importantly, Dr. Hopper created a tool that could convert the new programming language into machine code, and thus invented the compiler. With this invention, computer-feeding jobs were automated out of existence. Software’s carnivorous rampage had begun, and women programmers were its first casualties.

Pre-Compiler Programming Tools for the UNIVAC I:

Stencil for drawing flow charts

See Also:
Univac FLOW-MATIC, 1957

Decentralize all the Thingz

The postwar period was all about decentralization. During World War II, we saw the destruction that could be wrought with a single bomb on a high value target. Cuz, you know, we dropped a whole lot of those bombs ourselves.

Previously, our missiles and bombers were manufactured in coastal cities like Seattle and San Francisco and Los Angeles, a natural extension of naval shipyards. After the Soviets developed nuclear submarines, coastal cities started looking like a very bad place to be.

Pittsburgh Press, Jan 21 1949

The best way to avoid getting bombed is to have nothing worth bombing. President Truman established the National Industrial Dispersion Policy and awarded big defense contracts contingent on relocation to flyover states. Boeing moved B-52 manufacturing facilities to Wichita and Omaha. As far as nuclear attack targets go, Wichita ranks pretty low on the list. Most people can’t even find it on a map.

The Deseret News, Feb 12 1950

Then there’s ARPANET. Operating under the assumption that we would get nuked (so much optimism!), the military commissioned research into a communications system that would survive an atomic bomb. Yes, it would be terrible if we got blown to pieces and the Pentagon wanted to command a counterattack but the phone lines were dead.

Centralized switchboards and telegraph lines can be knocked down, but a distributed communications network routes around failure. The initial ARPANET was literally four modems connected through long-distance telephone calls.

Things tend toward centralization. Blame economies of scale and inertia. Today, 70% of global internet traffic passes through an Internet Exchange Point in Northern Virginia, where Amazon had its datacenter failure on Tuesday. And everyone’s crammed into the coastal cities again.

Given the imminent threat of nuclear war, I hereby urge President Trump to sign a new Dispersion Policy that relocates Google and Facebook out of the San Francisco Bay Area and over to Wichita. Palantir should be dispersed to an offshore oil rig. Hurry, national security is at stake!

Silicon Valley: How to Deal with Sexism in the Workplace





Find somewhere else to work. It will be nicer and have higher pay. Tech companies are sooo desperate to boost their diversity numbers right now. If you are a halfway decent engineer and identify with one of the thirty gender identities that are not male, Silicon Valley Wants You.

(Seriously though, tech companies are hiring; women and minorities especially encouraged to apply.)