Software Nerd

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

State government's cheating the Feds

The FIRM blog spoke about state governments colluding with hospitals to make the Feds pay more for healthcare. This reminded me of my own encounter with Fed "matching" funds.

I was working on a state software project (forgive me father, for I have sinned!). The Feds wanted the states to computerized one functional area and hook up to some Fed systems. States would benefit from computerization, but the Feds were pushing the project. So, the Feds agreed to pay part of the cost, in "matching funds".

The Fed would pay 75% of the cost if the state kept project-costs in check, according to certain criteria. One such condition: the states had to use an existing state system as a starting point (about 10 states were already computerized). The Feds figured that would save a lot of money.

West Virginia played more or less by the rules. They brought in my employer, who had developed another state's system, and had us tailor it. Then, another state brought us in, but told us they wanted to develop from scratch. However, they still wanted the full Fed matching money. Their project managers were pretty explicit. They told us that we had been selected so we could bring in all our documentation and put it on the shelves, and that was the sense in which they would be starting from an existing system. Sure, they were "re-using our previous knowledge", but that was not what was intended by the Feds.

During the course of the project there were some cost-escalations, and the managers never considered the whole cost. All they looked at was their 25% share. This is hardly surprising -- it is tough enough getting managers in private companies to look beyond their own departments, and consider corporate objectives. A typical state-government manager is a poor steward for Federal money.


Monday, May 26, 2008


I did some catching up on Iraq news. The situation has improved significantly in the last year or so.

Sunni areas: After the U.S. invasion, Kurdish areas were peaceful, but many Sunnis allied with the Al Queda, while the Shia allied with Iran. In the last two years (remember the battle for Fallujah), the Sunni areas have been brought around to where they are peaceful enough for life to begin again. (Michael Totten files informative reports from the Sunni areas of Iraq.)

The primary characteristic of the so-called "surge" seems to be the strategy of taking back the streets -- taking control of neighbourhoods, rather than simply establishing bases on the outskirts of cities and making patrols. The Sunnis are being paid by the U.S., to keep the peace; but, the peace does appear to be genuinely popular.

One also sees the Al Queda leadership addressing the Iraqi Sunni community in threatening tones, and complaining that other Muslims are not doing enough to help the islamist insurgency in Iraq. Mosul is the last major city with significant problems; but, the Iraqi government is trying to take control there too.

The Shia insurgency -- with cleric Sadr as the most public face -- had declared a ceasefire, probably hoping to wait the U.S. out. Nevertheless, with the Sunnis relatively quiet, the Iraqi government has moved against Sadr. They started with a fight in Basra, in the south (Iraq's only port). The Iraqis said they would do it without U.S. help, and some news-reports spoke of how they needed to call in U.S. support after all. I don't think that's a big deal, since they did do much on their own, and since the political willingness to take on the Shia militants is a bigger step than the actual fight.

Having shown force in Basra, the Iraqi government turned to Sadr city in Baghdad. This time, the U.S. support was closer, but the Iraqi units were out front. Again, some news-reports said that many Iraqi soldiers deserted rather than fight, and some units shrunk back when faced with particularly dangerous situations. The bigger point is that -- overall -- the Iraqi army won this battle. (More reports on Basra here and here.)

Cleric Sadr warned that he would lift the cease-fire and spoke of "open war". His fighters were being killed, and he was threatening to fight back -- how lame is that? Soon, he issued a clarification, saying that his "open war" would not be with the Iraqi government, but with the U.S. Now, he's declared a truce. This seems like a potential turning point.

In an odd development, Sadr's Iranian supporters distanced themselves from him. According to one article linked above, Sadr's militia were gaining over the Badr militia that is closer to Iran. So, Iran still remains a huge threat, but it is good to see the Shia-militia on Shia-militia rivalry, and -- more importantly -- to see the government has that moral authority to act against them. [A good summary of the initiative against Shia militia from the WSJ, here.]

Problems remain: There are rumours that the Al Queda and the Shia are trying to cooperate against their common enemy. The bigger threat is Iran's ability to support an insurgency, particularly if the U.S. pulls out.

Iraq still has a long, long way to go. Still, the Sunni areas reached a turning point about a year ago, and need to consolidate. The Shia area are in the middle of a potential turning point. If the Iraqi government can build on these successes, in a few years, Iran will be the only remaining major threat.

What next? The Iraqi government is finally holding together and taking baby steps in the right direction. However, it does not seem to be strong enough to take on various militia without help from the U.S. Even if McCain wins and keeps the U.S. there for another 4 years, there are real problems. Given the history of the region, there's a strong likelihood that any coalition will slowly break, along Shia, Sunni, Kurd lines.

I have an Iraqi neighbor with family in Iraq, who is there now as an Army interpreter. He tells me that things have settled down, and he feels that -- given time -- it can be stable. I think his optimism reflects what the "silent majority" would like, not what their politicians will deliver. I don't think the big risk is ascendant Islam. The more likely risk appears to be a sectarian split, and a division of the country into three major areas. the way the Balkans have split.

That's my "capsule" on Iraq.


Friday, May 16, 2008


With Fidel out of the way, Cuba has probably reached a turning point. Here are some reforms that have been set in motion:

  • Small farmers can buy some seeds, fertilizers etc. from government stores, instead of simply getting their assigned quotas.
  • People are now allowed to buy microwaves, cell-phones and DVD players (not completely free, but according to a quota and schedule). People can buy computers.
  • People can stay in hotels that had been reserved for foreigners
  • Some wage-limits have been lifted

Also, there are rumors that the government might ease travel restrictions, allowing some citizens to go abroad.

The reforms might seem "too little" to American eyes, but we've seen a similar process play out in other communist countries. They try some tiny reforms; happily, no body parts fall off, so they feel confident enough to try some more. At some point the rulers figure they can be richer as socialist rulers controlling a slightly more free economy.

Yes, this could well be a bottom, and a turning point for Cuba.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

"Nature"... illustrated for children

A Chinese children's book has this illustration, titled "Nature".

Does it look like a reasonable depiction of nature for a child's book? It does to me.

To my surprise, someone thought this was oddly funny, and submitted it to the Boing-Boing site as humor.

Turns out that nature being depicted as something humans use is seen as oddly funny. Well, not by the Chinese, it would appear!


Saturday, May 03, 2008

Philosophy for Salespeople?

In "The Art of Fiction" (Ch 10), Ayn Rand speaks of dramatizing a scene versus narrating it. While narrative is indispensable, important parts must be dramatized. This makes them concrete to the reader. If supported only by narrative, they remain "floating".

Worse still, narrative can sometimes contradict the concretes. Rand says: "Whenever you make estimates in narrative... sure that the action and dialogue support your estimate. If you say that a man's conversation is sophisticated—show it. Otherwise, do not make the estimate."

A good salesman understands this. Even a rookie salesman won't say something as abstract as "this car is good"; but, even saying "this car is fast", or "this car is silent", or "it's economical" is a little "floating". One has to help the customer concretize what that means. Concretes: "even today, a full tank of gas will only cost you $25", "this uses half the fuel of your current car, in a year that'll save you $1,500 on gas", etc.

A silicon valley venture-capitalist got so tired of sales-pitches that were long on narrative that he laid down what he described as the "no adjectives" rule. Here is a little of what this investor said:

I hate adjectives. I don't want to hear that one of the company founders is a "fantastic sales exec." I want to hear that she was Presidents Club the last twelve years running.

I don't want to hear that the product is "revolutionary and paradigm-shifting." I want to hear about the specific features of the product that are differentiated and how.

I don't want to hear that the company has "massive market traction." I want to see a graph of progressive quarterly sales and a giant sales pipeline.

How's that for everyday philosophy.


Thursday, May 01, 2008

Clever Idea: The "Free Aire" system

Here's a clever little idea I read about. Imagine you live some place that's freezing in winter, with snow outside for a few months of the year. While it's cold outside, you heat your home. While your home is warm, you cool your fridge.

Now, if you could rig up in and out ducts to bring cold air into your fridge, you would need a small fan and some electronics, but would save electricity on the fridge's compressor.

You wouldn't break-even on a typical residential fridge, but apply this principle to a grocery store freezer aisle, and it becomes practical.