Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Hacking in South Africa

This is a little blast from my past, about 11 years ago now, when I was at school and a Robin Hood style hacker for attention.

You wouldn't have thought I would turn into a right wing troll one day.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Why minimum wage is bad for the little guy

Minimum wage and other worker protection schemes are put in place by politicians with seemingly good intentions. Even if the intentions are good, I don't believe it's good for the economy. Let me try to demonstrate:

Imagine you have lost your job and decided to start a hot dog stand. You get a stand and set it up at a busy location and hot dogs sell quite well. Business is going well, but with the money you make you can't send your kids to university, so you want to start a second stand.

First you have to save up for a second stand, or more likely you have to convince a bank to lend you money to buy the second stand. Then since you can't clone yourself, you also have to find someone to man the second stand. You now have a loan to pay off for the second stand, so you're a bit low on cash to pay the guy who mans the second stand. You make him a deal, you pay him very little, but for each hot dog he sells, he gets some money. He figures he'll take the risk, even though at worst it barely covers his bills, at the best he can do quite well. If it sucks, he can quit.

On a good day he can do very well. Also since you've given him an incentive scheme he puts in that extra effort in being nice to passers by and it's good for business. Imagine the second stand works out, both of you make money, the loan to the bank gets paid off, then you start earning enough money to risk a third stand, everyone lives happily ever after.

Unfortunately, when starting the second stand, there's no guarantee that it will make money. It is not like getting a job and knowing you'll get your paycheck at the end of the month. It's possible that the first location you try to sell hot dogs with the second stand have no one willing to buy, and you have to change locations for a while until you find a good place. Or it might be that in the entire region there's no more demand for hot dogs than at your first stand.

Imagine instead of it going well, it turned out to be a bad plan. In this case you sell the hot dog van (at a slight loss) and let your employee go. All you've lost is the loss of selling the van in a used condition along with the small salary you paid him. You haven't lost that much, a bit of saving and you've recovered. Now you can try an ice cream van, maybe the guy that worked for you before is keen on working for you on the same terms, maybe not. In the end you will find something that works, and you've created a job. You can keep on expanding and create more and more jobs.

Let's change the story. Bring in minimum wage controls and other forms of labour protection legislation. You still want to start a second hot dog stand. You borrow money from the bank for it, and you have to employ someone on a minimum wage to work for you. If the second stand works out, fine, everyone makes money and you live happily ever after.

Imagine it doesn't work out, which is more realistic because business isn't easy and you're rarely that lucky the first time with everything. This time, your employee is also on minimum wage. You also couldn't afford to give him an incentive structure on top of his minimum wage. Now there's no motivation for him to sell more since he knows he's guaranteed to get paid his minimum wage. Regardless of this, let's say the stand doesn't work out anyway, there's no one elsewhere willing to buy enough hot dogs to make it viable.

In this situation, you have to stop the venture, close the stand, and retrench the employee. He has all sorts of rights so you will have to offer him a retrenchment package. Your losses are now say a loss on selling the van, a few months worth of minimum wage, and the retrenchment package.

With minimum wage and labour controls, you've basically made the risk and the cost of opening a second stand go up significantly. This counts for all business, if you make it harder for businesses to expand then you kill job creation for the small business.

By making the risk more expensive, you're protecting the big business, since the hot dog stands can't ever grow to compete with McDonalds, but McDonalds can risk opening another branch and if it fails they can absorb the losses through their organisation.

People who defend minimum wage are either politicians who want to gain votes by it, and members of the public who's never done anything other than being an employee and at most has had to take on employees on their superior's budget. Apart from this, large companies, even Wal-mart, openly state they like to see a raise in the government mandated minimum wage.

If you look at the UK, a country traditionally filled with many small shops in the villages. This is disappearing. The English run Fish & Chips shops have mostly disappeared, it's mostly Kebab shops run by Turkish immigrants or the likes, and corner stores by Pakistanis, Chinese take aways. The rest are brands run by big companies. People are blaming the biggest supermarket retailer Tesco for killing the characterful shops on the high street.

The reason why the Chinese, Turkish and Pakistanis can operate their shops is because it's family run. That means when they start the business they employ their family members. They employ them with no contracts, no retrenchment options, and most importantly they certainly pay them less than minimum wage. They probably don't even pay them for the first few years. These small businesses can only grow as large as their family is. The few that makes huge profits while competing with large corporations, are lucky enough to take the risk on to expand and succeed, the rest will always stay small until their children has received and education and moved on to work for big corporations themselves.

If it wasn't for these families, the beer binge-drinkers would be getting their food from McDonalds after a night at the pub. The pub would also be part of a big corporation. All the corner stores will be Tesco Express. Big corporations would have won, all because everyone now obediently pay the minimum wage.

Image of the hot dog stand from the Museum of the City of New York

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Can we predict future temperatures?

We often see graphs from various places predicting how the world is going to warm up over the next 100 years. Weather prediction is a complex matter since weather is a complex system and a lot of work has been done to make these predictions. A big part of this work includes the use of super computers that simulate entire climate systems and everything affecting it, including the sea, clouds, air and sun.


Scientists have a fairly good understanding of the physical mechanisms that contribute to the weather, and fairly accurate models to predict how a particular component of this system will react to specific influences. What makes it extremely complex is how all these work together, down to each molecule around the surface of the earth.

Chaos Theory describes that small differences in an initial dynamic system can contribute to serious unpredictability later on. This theory came about during work on weather modeling because this is where the effects of it makes the most noticeable difference.

Source: UK Met office

The above graph is scoring the UK Meteorological office's predictions from 2002-2005, a total of 115 predictions for average temperature and precipitation. A score of 1 is for a 100% perfect prediction (and 0.5 would mean a 50% accurate prediction) Tmean is temperature and Precip is precipitation

As you can see from the above diagram, temperature predictions are more accurate than precipitation. It's also clear that 5-11 day predictions are the most accurate. Most importantly, 5-11 day predictions, on average, has been 35% accurate. That could also mean that it's wrong two out of three times.

Moving on to the extreme distant future of 19-32 days ahead, temperature predictions get a score of 0.05. That means one out of 200,000 times they would have the prediction spot on to the centigrade.

Predictions for future global temperatures 50 years from now show between a 1 and 2 degree warming. I believe this really has to be taken with a pinch of salt extracted from the warming ocean. We can't even get it right one month in advance.

Monday, March 12, 2007

What I learned from my day of fame on reddit

A site of my own that I submitted to Reddit, made the front page. It has made me a Reddit rock star, and I have to share this experience with all my fans and aspiring Reddit rock stars.

A few years ago I put up a web site demonstrating the Forer/Barnum effect of subjective validation. Yes, it sounds boring and obscure. I decided to submit it to Reddit to increase the amount of participants for analysis, but to also raise further awareness of subjective validation. Oh, and to become famous.

Here is what I have learned from this experience.

Will the traffic flood your server?

Not really, I'd say, unless perhaps you're hosting it from home on your ADSL connection and have a page full of large images. In my case the average visit took about 60k of data and at the time of writing I've done under 300Mb of outgoing traffic on the site since it was released to the Reddit scene. It was also reasonably spread out, even when it was number 4 on the front page I only got about 15 new visitors per minute. Since submitting it I have had just over 8000 visitors over a 24 hour period.

Are you mega rich now?

No way. I have some Google Adwords on my page but Reddit users aren't desperate to click on ads to take advantage of the great offers from other sites. The click through rate was 0.02%. In other words, from a whole day of fame, it resulted in only one click. So much for the big house, sports car and yacht.

Does the title make a huge difference?

I guess this one is obvious, but I think it became bleedingly obvious to myself today. I previously submitted the link with the title being something along the lines of "An interesting online personality test" or something equally as boring. The trick of the test is only revealed after taking it, so I didn't want to give it away in the link description already. This made me lose the audience, because few people would actually go through the whole thing to find out what's going on in the end unless they get told that it's worth their while. The link got about 8 votes and then disappeared into the unknown.

I resubmitted the title as "Personality test gives everyone the same results, but people rate it 74% accurate." That was the summary of what it was all about and the votes came in quickly.

Does the fame propagate to other sites?

Yes. The site ended up getting hit from various other sources. Blogs, forums and other community link sites, it was even submitted to digg where it faded out of fame rapidly. What I found most interesting is how many RSS readers and community link site aggregators and portals are out there, and how popular these must be. My top referrers were:

1. Reddit (90%)
2. (5%)
3. Google Reader (3%)
4. Netvibes (1%)

Apart from these, there was also about 60 other links from blogs, forums and other portals which would slowly end up improving the site's Google Pagerank.

Do you get a lot of groupies?

Er, no.

Anything you want to say to your fans?

Getting to number 4 on the front page of Reddit doesn't draw the kind of traffic that you would expect by getting Slashdotted.
The geek audience won't make anyone rich from ad traffic. However, it still could make quite a difference for raising the awareness of your site, so if you're working on an interesting piece of technology the few thousand extra eyeballs that could discover your work can be useful.

The title makes a difference, it helps if it actually describes what people will find once they've clicked on the link. Success on Reddit would also likely translate into a much improved Pagerank so it may pay if you're actually providing something good for the long run.

Most importantly, the Reddit community decides what is hot or not, and if you don't have something that appeals to them, forget it.