Sanity on skilled immigrants

The US immigration system is flawed in many ways, but one particular flaw is self-defeating. It is easier for family-based immigrants (e.g: parents of citizens) to get green cards (3-4 months) than it is for scientists and engineers to get green cards (7-8 years). Needless to say, that's exactly the reverse of what the immigration system needs to do. Skilled immigrants create jobs; unskilled immigrants fill jobs.

So, the Democrats' immigration proposal makes an important step to making the immigration system saner in this regard [emphases mine]:
This proposal will reform America’s high-skilled immigration system to permanently attract the world’s best and brightest while preventing the loss of American jobs to temporary foreign labor contractors. At the moment, high-skilled workers are prevented from emigrating to the Unites States due to restrictive caps on their entry. In order to accomplish this goal, a green card will be immediately available to foreign students with an advanced degree from a United States institution of higher education in a field of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, and who possess an offer of employment from a United States employer in a field related to their degree. Foreign students will be permitted to enter the United States with immigrant intent if they are a bona fide student so long as they pursue a full course of study at an institution of higher education in a field of science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
Another problem is that there are per-country caps on immigration. These country quotas date back to a more racist era and while Congress has tinkered with the quotas, they've never removed them. Nowadays, the two countries primarily affected (because of their high populations) are China and India. And guess where the majority of science and engineering graduate students hail from? Pretty self-defeating and the proposal addresses this:

To address the fact that workers from some countries face unreasonably long backlogs that have no responsiveness to America’s economic needs, this proposal eliminates the per-country employment immigration caps.

But there has been fraud in previous skill-based immigration. The key gaming was to have "body-shops" -- companies that would put workers on their payroll, get them green cards and then try to place them in American companies for rock-bottom salaries. This was "dumping" in the labor marketplace and is the main reason that H-1 visas have drawn significant opposition from high-tech workers (as opposed to high-tech companies who love the cheap labor).

This proposal also adds fraud and abuse protections for existing temporary high-skilled work visas. It will amend current law regarding H-1B employer application requirements to: (1) revise wage determination requirements; (2) require Internet posting and description of employment positions; (3) lengthen U.S. worker displacement protection: (4) apply certain requirements to all H-1B employers rather than only to H-1B dependent employers; (5) prohibit employer advertising that makes a position available only to, or gives priority to, H-1B nonimmigrants; and (6) limit the number of H-1B and L-1 employees that an employer of 50 or more workers in the United States may hire. The proposal also authorizes the Department of Labor (DOL) to: (1) investigate applications for fraud; and (2) conduct H-1B compliance audits. DOL will also be required to conduct annual audits of companies with large numbers of H-1B workers and initiate H-1B employer application investigations. Penalties for employers who violate the law will be increased.
For L-1 visas, the proposal prohibits, with a specified waiver by the Secretary of Homeland Security, an employer from hiring an L-1 nonimmigrant for more than one year who will: (1) serve in a capacity involving specialized knowledge; and (2) be stationed primarily at the worksite of an employer other than the petitioning employer. The proposal also specifies L-1: (1) employer petition requirements for employment at a new office; (2) wage rates and working conditions; and (3) employer penalties. DHS will be authorized to initiate investigations of L-1 employers suspected of being non-compliant with the law. DHS shall also report to Congress regarding the L-1 blanket petition process.

Not quite in perfect health

Yesterday, my health insurer was running a health fair. I showed up at 11.40 am to have my pressure, cholesterol, body mass index, etc. checked. "You're in perfect health!," beamed the nurse as she went over the results.

Leaving the health fair, I felt hungry, so I skipped my usual lunchtime visit to the gym and went back to eat lunch at my desk. Surprisingly, the hunger didn't go away but I didn't think much about it. I even went to play bridge at the Norman club in the evening. The bridge game ended at 10.30pm and the abdominal pain by then was quite severe. I didn't even wait for the last pair to turn in their results -- this even though we were coming in second at the time (thanks, W!) and there is nothing I like more than seeing how many Masterpoints a good showing translates to.

I went home and promptly threw up my dinner. By midnight, the pain was getting quite unbearable. By 1.30 am, the wife called a doctor friend who came by (yes, an amazingly good friend), felt my stomach, listened to my story of how the pain had spread from the mid-abdomen to the right and told me that I likely had appendicitis.

He then drove me to the emergency room. As luck would have it, at 2am on a Thursday morning, there was another trauma case -- this one a police pursuit with bleeding victims. I was doubled over in pain, but the nurses were all treating the bleeding fugitives. My friend (he works at that hospital) went out and found a nurse to give me painkillers intravenously. A CAT scan later, I was scheduled for surgery and by 9 am I was out of surgery missing an appendix. 12 hours after the surgery, I feel good enough to type in this blog post.

Over a course of 24 hours I went from being in perfect health to having and losing an inflamed vestigial organ.

My degree is no good

I changed auto insurance carriers recently and the new company said that they had a group discount for engineering graduates. They wanted a copy of my degree certificate though. A month later, the group discount got denied. The reason?
the certificate that we have is for a Doc of philosophy not engineer so we will need that certificate
I'm not making this up.

Arizona law on immigration: nothing's really changed

I don't understand why people are getting so worked up about the Arizona law allowing police to request proof of legal residency. It has long been a federal law that legal residents of the United States have to carry their "green cards" or visa papers around. Now, the USA is not a totalitarian state, so this law is pretty much not enforced -- the police are not going around at Cinco De Mayo parades asking folks to show their papers. The Arizona law does not change the legal rules that immigrants are supposed to follow -- what it might do is to change how police behave. But police could have changed how they behaved without any change to the laws at any time. They haven't and I doubt that they will.

In the 17+ years that I have been in the US, I have been asked to show my green card only thrice (I'm not counting airport immigration etc. where you know you need your passport):
  1. When trying to get a driver's license in Oklahoma in 1995 (long before the "new" law that everyone made such a fuss about). I didn't have it with me, so I went back a few days later with my green card and got the driver's license.
  2. When returning from Big Bend National Park. Big Bend is far away from the nearest town and right on the Mexican border. When we were coming back from the park, just before we hit the town, we were stopped by the Border Patrol. We did not have our green cards on us (in clear violation of the law!), and this time home was 1000 miles away. The officer called in our driver's licenses and then let us go. Total inconvenience: 5 minutes.
  3. At airport security when I showed up with an expired driver's license. "Your license is expired," I was told, "do you have some other form of government id? Your passport or green card?". I didn't have either. So, I was frisked and then let on the plane. I came back to Norman and promptly got my license renewed.
I never carried my green card because the risk of losing it was much greater than the chances of being asked to produce it. And as you can see, each time I was asked to show my green card, it was a reasonable request. The first time was state law -- I should have known that I needed proof of legal residency and I didn't. The second time was iffier -- I hadn't crossed the border of the US even though we were on a road that was probably heavily used by smugglers. Whether we'd have been asked to produce a birth certificate or passport if we were white, I don't know. The third time, the TSA officer was trying to be helpful.

Like the Oklahoma law (this is what I wrote when that happened), the Arizona law doesn't really change anything. The law remains what it always was. It's just one more thing to mollify the zealots and rile up the others.

Unstifled by Tyagaraja in Oklahoma

Imagine Bach and Mozart rolled into one -- in other words, a single composer who does both grandeur and melody -- and you'll get an idea of how important Tyagaraja is to Carnatic music. He was extremely prolific -- more than 400 of his compositions still exist -- and the repertoire is hugely varied, so it can get a little stifling to go to Carnatic music concerts and find that 80% of the program was composed by Tyagaraja alone.

Every year, in a small temple town near Thanjavur (he was a musician in the court of that kingdom), everyone who's anyone in Carnatic music comes to a music festival held outdoors along the banks of the Kaveri river. My dad taught in an area college one year and so I got to experience it first-hand and it still ranks as one of my favorite musical experiences ever. Oklahoma City's Tyagaraja festival is never going to compare to that, but it was still good to get the handful of people interested in Carnatic music under one roof.

It was also wonderful to see four separate groups of kids sing. They were all from either Stillwater or Norman -- what is about college towns that prompts parents to try to raise their kids knowing their cultural heritage? S1, who's been learning for a few months now, sang two songs with the other kids in his "class". The first song (Padumanabha: YouTube video) is quite typical of Carnatic music songs, but the second song (Vande Meenakshi) is more upbeat and probably much more accessible. So, I'll embed that one here:

The funny thing is that neither of the songs is by Tyagaraja. Vande Meenakshi is by his contemporary Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Padumanabha is by Purandara Dasa.

Scenario analysis meets a one-track mind

You can't make this stuff up.

NOAA, trying to be all hip and business-y, decides to carry out a scenario-analysis of what climate change will mean to NOAA's mission. Their three scenarios? (1) Too little too late: people do energy conservation and switch to alternate energy, but not enough to shift the curve (2) Green chaos: magically, engineering and behavioral innovations manage to mitigate climate change and (3) Carbon junkies: The public and industry carry on business as usual, so the world goes on getting warmer and America's coasts and South become uninhabitable. Again, these are three different scenarios, not predictions.

A Slate journalist gets hold of this document and what does he see? How the scenario no. 3 will affect the electoral map. Seriously, the only outcome he focuses on is that there will be movement from the Republican South and Democratic coasts to the Blue Dog plains. He sees a sober document considering what an organization can do as the nation's way of life is severely impacted and all that he can think about is ... electoral politics.

Synthetic satellite visible imagery

Although numerical weather forecast models can provide high-resolution forecasts up to a day ahead, it can be hard to visualize what the forecasts actually mean because the forecast variables -- pressure, mixing ratios, etc. are not what someone thinks about when they think "weather". One way to address this problem is to create synthetic radar and satellite images from the model forecasts. Synthetic radar images are common (for example, see here) and very useful for forecasts of convection. But what about simple cloud cover? For that, you'd need to simulate satellite visible images. And those turn out to be very hard. It takes tremendous processing power to create a synthetic satellite visible image.

One of the things I worked on in the past year or so is to create a statistical approximation to the radiative transfer model that is used to create synthetic visible images. You can see the synthetic visible image for today's forecast run (essentially a prediction of the weather until tomorrow) here (click on "US").

p.s. One thing that's readily obvious from that loop is that our statistical model incorporates the sun angle, so the synthetic satellite image darkens over time (real satellite visible images are not available at night). Obviously, this is pointless -- we'll have to create a training set that doesn't incorporate terminator lines. This is harder than it sounds.

p.s.2: Our statistical model approximates the transfer model, not the real data because model forecasts have significant position errors. This means that you can't train a pixel-to-pixel transfer function.

Acronym collision

Just when I'd gotten my head around one ACA (the Affordable Care Act aka health-care reform), comes another ACA (the company that was supposed to have built the tranche that a short-seller actually built).

P.S. If you are confused about what is supposed to have happened, this is an excellent, concise explanation of the SEC's allegation. You can understand it even if (like me), you don't understand what exactly a CDO is.

Fox News will harp on about mail-order inner city black brides

I've read three stories recently. It would be quite ironic and funny if their effects combine in the way I envision.

Because America jails so many of its black men, the marriage market is heavily skewed against black women:
“I thought I was a catch,” sighs an attractive black female doctor at a hospital in Washington, DC. Black men with good jobs know they are “a hot commodity”, she observes. When there are six women chasing one man, “It’s like, what are you going to do extra, to get his attention?” Some women offer sex on the first date, she says, which makes life harder for those who prefer to combine romance with commitment.
With widespread prenatal gender testing and the abortion of female fetuses, the marriage market in rural North India is now heavily skewed against men. Poor rural Indian men are resorting to marrying illegal immigrants from Bangladesh:
By the age of 30, says Mr Singh, he had given up hope of finding a girl from his own village, Nandgaon, or from his state. His wife, Sona Khatum, comes from an impoverished family in one of India’s poorest states, though village rumour mutters that she may be an illegal migrant from Bangladesh. Mr Singh paid handsomely.
The fact that so many Russian children are in orphanages causes deep shame in Russia, especially by people who remember the Soviet glory days, and makes its media sensationalize of the abuse of Russian children who are adopted by foreigners.
Foreign adoptions have long touched a sensitive nerve here. Russians often find it hard to accept that their country, which they consider a resurgent world power, cannot take care of its own children and has to give them up to outsiders.
What's the scenario where all this could combine? Look forward a few years. The gender ratios in inner city America and rural India get even worse. Poor Indians start looking for mail-order brides from among black American women. And this causes deep shame in the USA, leading Fox News to constantly harp on stories of abused black women.

Hey, could happen. You heard it here first.

Complaining about dhokla and halwa

A letter to Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson, billed as "the world's funniest complaint letter", is making the rounds lately. The letter (it's more than a year old) is quite funny but the complaints are that of someone who doesn't know his food.

He complains about a sponge-like thing served with a green sauce on top and says that an odor of curry is emanating from it. Sounds like he got served dhokla and although it's too mildly spiced for my taste, it would definitely beat other airlines' standard fare of penne-pasta any day.

The second thing he complains about is the dessert: "what animal would serve a dessert with peas in?" Well, those are not peas. Those are pistachios. He got served a halwa with pistachios and he complains?

Scientific expertise does not carry over to new fields

Chuck Doswell has an extremely good blog post on allegations by climate change deniers that scientists raising alarms about climate change are doing so because that's one way to get more funds. He ends the post saying:
I have no logical claim to seek to overthrow the IPCC consensus until such time as I become a participant in the process and have established my credibility in that domain, via the process of publishing research results in refereed journals. Since that's not likely to happen, I will defer to the experts. I believe most of the critics of global climate change science should do the same.
Because scientific expertise does not carry over between fields, it always surprises me that people who with no expertise in a field can so easily imagine themselves on par with smart people who've engaged with those problems for years.

Unfortunately, this is not limited to politicized areas like global warming. Because I work in a cross-disciplinary field (the intersection of image processing, statistical learning and meteorology), I get to interact with specialists in each of these fields. A meteorologist assumes that statistical learning is just a matter of throwing variables in a hopper and out comes a system that's learnt all the relevant details -- it's hard to convince him that things are trickier than that. A mathematician assumes that comparing two images is as simple as computing a distance metric between objects; it is a long time (weeks!) before he realizes that objects in meteorological images are ill-defined and that metrics like the Hausdorff distance produce counterintuitive results all too often. A statistician can not believe that I built a real-time statistical model based on a handful of cases. He fails to realize the challenges inherent in working with rare events that are in the extremely long tail of possible outcomes. An image processing researcher can not believe that incorporating contiguity constraints into a well-known clustering procedure can have any impact. And so on and so on. The commonality is each of the specialists is extremely knowledgeable about the outstanding issues in his/her field but is all too willing to take a simplistic understanding of other scientific disciplines to the battlefield.

Television meteorologists who deny climate change are making the same mistake -- they are extrapolating the difficulties in short-term weather forecasting (models that get progressively less accurate over time periods of a few days) to a completely different scientific discipline. The problems and issues are different. To take a simplistic example, it's quite easy for a climate model to predict that next February, it'll be colder in Oklahoma than it will be this July even though a numerical weather prediction model couldn't begin to tell you what the temperature will be on February 17, 2011.

As Chuck says, I'm not a climate scientist, so I'll defer to those who are. Just as when cancer researchers said that they had proof that tobacco causes lung cancer, I believed them too.

Corrupt city governments: is Norman one?

Matt Taibbi narrates the story of Birmingham, Alabama and how it got financing to build a sewer plant. In short, banks paid a middle man who paid off corrupt commissioners. In return, the city put itself in hock for far more than it could afford. The commissioners have gone to jail, but the banks got off with fines that are so small that they are less even than the fees they got on the deal. The story ends with a classic Taibbi screed:
The city of Birmingham was founded in 1871, at the dawn of the Southern industrial boom, for the express purpose of attracting Northern capital — it was even named after a famous British steel town to burnish its entrepreneurial cred. There's a gruesome irony in it now lying sacked and looted by financial vandals from the North ... These guys ... find suckers in some municipal-finance department, corner them in complex lose-lose deals and flay them alive. In a complete subversion of free-market principles, they take no risk, score deals based on political influence rather than competition, keep consumers in the dark — and walk away with big money.
The Norman city government has been going around trying to raise bonds to build all sorts of things -- everything from parks to schools to bridges. And in the last election, they did refinance the stuff to a long-term, fixed low-interest rate. On the surface, it sounds like the opposite of what Birmingham did -- prudential refinancing and not any complex swaps. But is it? Another memory gives me pause.

Taibi's story also talks about "consulting companies" that essentially get paid by banks. They then go out and bribe city commissioners to purchase the banks' services. And this is what reminded me of something: when Norman wanted to build a new library, they went out and got a consultant who'd had experience designing libraries for other cities.

I volunteered to be on the city committee to advise them on the library -- my aim was to ask why we needed a new library in the first place -- we're quite happy with the existing library and any extra money could go towards a better collection. Imagine my surprise, when at the first meeting, the citizens on the committee were told that the question of whether the city needed a new library was "settled" and we couldn't address it. Instead, we were asked to put down what we'd like to see in the extra space the new library would have. And a few weeks later, our list came out as part of an advertisement on what city residents wanted in a new library -- with no mention that we didn't get to sound off on whether we'd want a new building in the first place. Voters voted down the new library building anyway (luckily).

With the new information about how these consultants work, the whole episode strikes me as being incredibly suspicious.

Off by an order of magnitude

My father, talking to the five-year-old, on the phone.

"So where did you go today?", the grand-daughter asks.

"To the 80th birthday celebration of _".

"Is he also eight, just like S1?"

What are the odds?

What are the odds that an attractive (legs so long her friends called her "High Pockets"), divorced woman in Arkansas would have a fling with Bill Clinton?  The article is about Norman Mailer's sixth, and final, wife.