Category Archives: Ranting and Raving

Recruiters’ new (spam) tools

Intro

I’ve recently been getting a slew of e-mails from recruiters.  Horray!  Right?  Except…no.  Don’t get me wrong: we all have jobs and I’m happy to get e-mails from recruiters.  The issue is that these are e-mails to an address which I never published on my resume and have intentionally hidden from any public space.  So how have they come into possession of these e-mails?  Enter pseudo-spam companies….

The Nadir of the Internet

It took a long time to track down how my private e-mail address was being distributed, probably because I’m not as in-tune to recruiting.  However, I’ve had a number of exchanges that went something like the following:

Recruiter: Hi!  I’m looking for qualified individuals for …

Me: Hi!  Where’d you get this e-mail address from?

At this point, the recruiter went silent… So I tried a different tactic:

Recruiter: Hi!  I’m looking for qualified individuals for …

Me: Hi!  I’d be happy to take a call as long as you tell me where you got this e-mail from.

Recruiter: Sure, it’s from a tool we’re using to contact qualified individuals from.  When can we schedule a chat?!

At this point, it becomes clear that they know what they’re doing is shady at best… Why wouldn’t they tell me which?  My guess is that the tools are encouraging the end users to not tell which tool.  So I refuse to take a call until they tell me which specific tool and we see follow-ups like:

Me: I’m interested in which specific tool.  I’ll take a call, but only on the condition that you tell me specifically which utility you’re using.

Recruiter: OK, it’s this maybe illegal thing called _____

Aha!  And now we’ve found them.   It turns out that _____ company is basically set up to gather e-mail addresses through various sources (my guess is most are illegal) and then resell them to people that want to contact you in an unsolicited manner.  Some of them harvest through public and non-public sources while some guess your e-mail address through heuristics (e.g. “<first initial>.<last name>@yourcompany.com”).  By my understanding, e-mail harvesting is illegal in most countries, including the US, but they’re reselling to 3rd parties (recruiters) that are ultimately e-mailing you, so it’s extremely difficult to track down.  There’s never an unsubscribe link and never an easy filter to put on to prevent this garbage.

Companies

Turns out there are a variety of companies that are all in competition for the best possible spam-enablers.  These companies include:

  • Contactout
  • Lusha
  • Hiretual
  • Entelo
  • ZoomInfo
  • Connectifier
  • EmailHunter
  • FindThatLead

and many others

What can we all do about it?

In order to help everybody out, I collected the most common of these companies at https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1EiiMwVO49oi4NIYEeMDoA9684RkD5oOCBuRVYS9d-p0/edit?usp=sharing .  I also made a single, simple link on that page to remove yourself from all of these in one go.  Please do share this with your friends to help them from getting unsolicited e-mail from recruiters.  If there are other companies like these that you know about, please submit them at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1XYYcas9DZexd9HEsgrgfuzLxH8UAdJHDW-Ec_QwVrqU/edit and I’ll review & add them in.  This page also includes a link to report them to their hosting providers as they are (probably) violating their terms of service by being complicit in helping companies send unsolicited e-mail.

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Government debt, GDP growth, and taxes, oh my!

Government debt sounds scary!  If debt is bad on an individual basis, shouldn’t we seek to eliminate debt?  And “you can’t spend your way out of debt!”  Except all of this is a pretty simplistic view.

In any monetary situation, we have to consider where the money comes from and goes.  At home, it (mostly) comes from your income.  In business, it’s (mostly) payments from your customers.  In government it’s (mostly) taxes from your citizens.  Where it goes is also important: at home, maybe food and rent or mortgage, in business to employees or to your investors or creditors, and government to various programs and to its creditors.  Lots of times, people associate government debt with personal debt: if personal debt is something you want to pay off entirely, shouldn’t we want to pay off government debt entirely?  And if so, how can we do that?

Measuring debt

First things first is how to measure debt.  Typically, it’s given as either an absolute number in order to terrify people (e.g. this) or as a % of the country’s GDP, or debt-to-GDP ratio.  Practically, the debt-to-GDP ratio is more inherently useful due to tax rates.  $1 billion in debt would be crazy for a single home and a lot for a business, but next to nothing for most nations because inherently their incoming income/payments/taxes are different orders of magnitude.  The current US debt-to-GDP ratio is around 104%.  The next question you should ask is “is 104% debt-to-GDP too high?  Is it low?  What would be a good number to get to?”

One way to approach answering that would be to look at the landscape of countries out there.  There are countries with higher ratios (as a few examples, Japan with 229%, Greece with 177%) some about the same (Belgium with 106%, and Singapore with 105%), some with a bit lower (UK with 89%, Canada with 91%, France with 96%), and some with a lot lower (Afghanistan with 6%, Russia with 18%, Nigeria with 12%, Mexico with 43%, and Australia with 37%).  In general, less developed nations keep lower debt-to-GDP ratios because their lenders don’t trust them with large debts and thus raise their rates if they try to increase their debt.  The debt rates for the US have been pretty low because both internal and external investors trust the US to repay the debt.

The US is in the upper quartile of debt-to-GDP ratios, but nowhere near Japan and nowhere near its historic high, and it also has a great history of repaying its debt, so maybe that’s not a terrible thing.  Still, if it’s possible to pay less on debt, that sounds intuitively like a good thing to do — though we should also acknowledge that intuition is often faulty.

Paying off debt

By cutting programs

One way to approach cutting back the 104% number and repaying faster is to look broadly at what you could spend things on if you weren’t paying (as much) interest.  By cutting back on existing government programs, you could pay off your debt, which would then lower your debt-to-GDP ratio.  This is fairly intuitive and one of the easier arguments to make.  However, the danger is that it often ignores what downstream impacts those programs you’re cutting may have on the GDP.  As a few examples, a higher skilled work force, e.g. through better education programs, can raise GDP in a semi-permanent fashion.  Improving the average citizen’s health can also do this.  Racial inequality has been shown to lead to declined GDP.  So when cutting programs in order to decrease debt, one should be careful of weighing what the long-term impacts of the programs are that you’re cutting.  These are hidden costs of cutting the program which may not show up for years, depending on the cycle and beneficiaries of the program.

By increasing taxes

Of course, nobody likes to hear the phrase “raise taxes” unless it’s on someone you don’t feel you’ll be affected by.  But this could have a positive impact on the net receivables of the US which they could then use to repay taxes.  Of course, the opposite of this is that people could move themselves or their businesses out of the US to avoid paying US taxes altogether, in favor of a different country’s tax scheme.

The net tax revenue as a % of the GDP in the US is just shy of 27%, so for every $1 billion you can get the economy to expand, the US government will have $270m to pay down debt.  Again looking at “peers”:

  • The UK is 34.4% net tax rate
  • Russia is 19.5%
  • Australia is 25.8%
  • Canada is 32.2%
  • Belgium is at 47.9%

The United states is pretty “average” here.  The OECD average is 34.8%, which puts the US below that, but above several less developed nations with lots of oil and other natural resources to export.

By increasing GDP

A third way to approach it is to take a completely different approach and look at how much you could grow your GDP:  if GDP grows faster than your debt as a result of your actions, your debt-to-GDP ratio shrinks.  Fundamentally this is an easy argument to make, but many people often miss the subsequent step: on how government spending could increase GDP.  What’s interesting is that this argument is also completely valid for two reasons.  First, simply because government spending is actually included as a piece of the GDP function (GDP = C + G + I + NX where C = consumer spending, G = government spending, I = investments, and NX = net exports), so increasing government spending directly affects GDP.  Second, government spending has to be spent on something: materials, contracts, etc, and that money ends up in business hands which ultimately ends up in a combination of investors and employees hands’.  Those businesses, investors and employees get taxed at some government rates and they use their leftover money to spend, invest, or save.

Generally, most everything done in the economy is taxed at some rate.  Various sales taxes tax consumption, there are personal and business taxes on incomes/revenues, taxes on imports, etc.  Thus, if the net volume and value of transactions that go on in an economy increase, the net taxes tend to increase as well, obviously dependent on what the various tax rates are.  Again, in the US, the net tax rates as a % of GDP are currently 26.9%.

By multipliers

In the last paragraph, I skipped over a secondary element of GDP going up, which lies in what GDP does and results in.

Before going further, I have to talk first about a Keynesian economics term called the marginal propensity to consume, or MPC.  That is, for every dollar I get, what % of if am I likely to spend (consume) vs save?  Currently, the numbers in the US are 20-40%, though it varies by age, wealth, and income as well as a number of other factors, including where the money gets spent.  This has an interesting multiplicative effect as a result of government spending.  I’ll walk through a hypothetical example.

Let’s say the government issues debt to spend $1 billion on a new project and for simplicity purposes, all of it goes to American companies/contractors.  And let’s say that we have a uniform MPC in our American economy of right in the middle at 0.30, or 30%.  Due to the wonder of mathematics, the $1b results in $1b * 1/(1-0.3) = $1b * 1/0.7 = $1.43 billion in total GDP, because people keep spending their money.  So if we start a $1 billion project and it has no value whatsoever, it’s likely to result in about a $1.43 billion increase to the GDP.  With a tax rate against GDP of 26.9%, $1.43b * .269 = $385 million in taxes, this means that the net tax burden from the project actually comes out to $1b – $385m = $615m.  And that’s with the project creating no value whatsoever.  If that project actually had a positive impact on the GDP because it was a good project, it could actually grow much larger.  If the $1 billion project has an (independent) positive impact on the economy to the tune of $615m in increased (independent) GDP, then it can actually be net positive.

Conclusion

It’s not clear at this point that the US is at an inherently bad debt situation.  However, with interest rates set to rise, it wouldn’t be bad to pay off some debt.  In any case, we should be careful of how and why we do so.  Cutting programs, raising taxes, and spending all have underlying costs to them, some of which may not be immediately obvious.  The impacts of any program need to be evaluated.  Statements like “we need to tighten our belt” without evaluating the medium, and long-term costs associated with the removal of the programs is a naive approach that can hurt our children’s generation.

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Feel free to “like” this post

Recently, I’ve read a few articles published about the “Like” button on Facebook.  These have been done after some “research” conducted by the author using their own Facebook page as a source of data.  One, published by Wired, is done in such a way that the author decides to “like everything” for a few weeks and see how his news feed changes.  Another, published on Medium.com, is exactly the opposite: the author decides to not like anything for a few weeks and see how this affects things.

In both the articles, the authors ultimately make the case that the like button seems to be this magic button that drives everything in your news feed for better or worse and thus you must be very careful about if/how you use it.  It’s almost like they’re elevating the “like” button to some sort of medieval sorcery button.

Should be the

This should be the header image for these articles.  Or maybe replace “Here Be Dragons” with “Like At Your Own Risk.”

The problem with both of these is that they pick out one facet of an overall algorithm, try to do something to the extreme of it, and then report their anecdotal “findings.”  The way these articles are written have a level of encouragement to the readers to use the “like” button carefully.  And that’s fine: you probably shouldn’t go click “like” on everything because that’s simply a stupid thing to do.  I mean, does anybody really need to tell you that clicking “like” on things you don’t like is probably going to adjust your news feed toward things you don’t like?  That seems like an exercise in tautology.

The unfortunate thing is that, since these articles have come out, I’ve seen people saying things like “well I guess I won’t click ‘like’ anymore, I’ll just start using comments instead so I don’t fall victim to this ‘like’ button thing.”  Well guess what: comments are counted by Facebook too!  And that’s where these articles really lost me in a sense: they tested 1 variable but completely ignored other variables that Facebook is tracking.

Facebook's old EdgeRank algorithm

Facebook’s old EdgeRank algorithm

Facebook used to provide an approximation of their news feed algorithm which they used to call “EdgeRank.”  There were weights for different types of things (including, but not limited to likes).  Commenting, tagging, creating posts, etc… those all were part of this algorithm and they all had their own weights.  So yes, “liking” certainly would affect things, but in the Wired article, the author doesn’t mention anything about what he commented or tagged or created during the period.  So how much of what he saw was affected by the “liking” as opposed to other things he was doing?

How many licks to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Or how many likes to the center of the Facebook algorithm?

How many licks to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Or how many likes to the center of the Facebook algorithm?

Since the “EdgeRank” algorithm was replaced circa 2013 and replaced with an algorithm that takes into account “100,000 individual weights in the model that produces News Feed,” it’s only gotten more complicated.  They no longer provide real insights to what/how they’re tracking, but I’m sure that’d be pointless anyway as I’m sure it’s evolving still to this day.  So I’m not going to end this with pretending to know exactly what Facebook’s News Feed algorithm is or hint at ways to sidestep it or fool it into “giving you better results.”  That’s for the Facebook engineers to work out.  However, it is simply worth noting how naively these articles were written by looking at the fact that none of them published what else they did while on Facebook.

Just a few examples of what Facebook could (and probably does) track to adjust your news feed:

  • What articles you share
  • What articles you comment on
  • What status updates you make
  • What the textual content is of those comments, status updates, and shares and how that relates to the articles and other things you are (or may be) interested in
  • How long you linger on an update or parts of your timeline
  • What articles you click on from your news feed
  • What applications you use
  • What in-app purchases you’ve made
  • … and so many others

I will end it with my own piece of anecdotal evidence.  A few weeks ago, I had a really bad experience with Norwegian Airlines.  I posted a status update on Facebook about how bad it was, simply mentioning their name and where we were delayed.  Within a day or two, I started receiving advertisements on my news feed for Norwegian Airlines.  Was I their ideal candidate for advertising?  Probably not.  In fact, I’m probably happier with Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and Raytheon as companies than I am with Norwegian Airlines.  But it didn’t require me clicking “like” on anything from Norwegian to start getting them to show up in my feed… I just had to mention something they were targeting: flights to Scandinavia.

 

In short, you don’t need to go through and “like” anything to get the  “loathsome” or “banal” things in your news feed or affect your friends’ news feeds.  You just have to actively be on Facebook; it comes with the territory.

 

So go ahead and like, comment on, and share this post.  You’re not fooling anyone.

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Norwegian Air: The Worst Thing to Come Out of Europe Since the Black Plague

So to kick off our European travel experience, it’s worth going through our planned itinerary first.  We found a flight on Norwegian Air one way to Copenhagen from Oakland with a layover in Stockholm for about $520 per person.  Summer in Europe, like the US, is peak travel season so this is very cheap indeed.  I’ve flown a variety of airlines, both cheap and otherwise, so I knew to be wary but nothing could have prepared me for this mess…  It was great timing because it would leave Oakland at 7:30pm and arrive in Copenhagen at 6pm, which would leave us 3 hours time to get out of the airport and downtown to watch the World Cup final in Copenhagen

July 12, 5:30pm

Arrive at Oakland airport.  Go to check in and find that my bag is 11 kg — 1 kg too heavy to be considered a carry on.  Now the reason I was carrying this on in the first place was that Norwegian nickles and dimes you for every little thing you do…  And by that, I mean not only is there no free meal on the 9+ hour flight, there’s also not a single allowed free checked bag.  So here they charge me about $50 to check my bag and that $520 ticket is now $570 after this expense.  I get that the overhead bins only are rated up to 34 kg (75lbs) which typically holds 3 bags, but I’ve never had a problem with this thing before.  I later noticed that their scale wasn’t tared and showed 0.4kg when nothing was on it but didn’t throw a fit.  Looking back, maybe I should have…  But the small print does say 10kg bags max, so maybe my fault.  Who knows.

July 12, 7:10pm

Norwegian starts boarding families with small children.

July 12, 7:30pm

Flight is supposed to have left by now.  For some reason, it’s taken them 20 minutes and they still haven’t even finished boarding families with small children.  Kem and I both wonder why it takes 20 minutes to load less than 40 passengers and begin to get concerned about how long it’ll take to board everybody.

July 12, 7:50pm

Families with small children are fully boarded just in time for Norwegian’s automated text service to text me that the new time for departure is 8:30pm.

July 12, 8:00pm

The gate agent informs us all that the plane is delayed until 8:20pm.  Not sure why it took 10 minutes for the gate agent to tell us what their service texted us nor why he has announced 10 minutes earlier than the text did.  Agent tells us it’s something to do with the radar tests and they think they know how to fix it.

July 12, 8:25pm

Norwegian’s automated text service texts me to inform me that plane is delayed until 9:30pm.  Families with small children are offloaded from the plane.  I feel bad for them because they had to get on the plane and left their seats, which are now fully taken.  Now these families with small children are forced to sit on the ground.  About 20 minutes after the text, the gate agent lets us know that maintenance is going on as they think it’s something wrong with the radar cables, which “should be a quick fix” and leave us out in “less than an hour.”

July 12, 9:45pm

Norwegian’s automated text service texts me to inform me that plane is being delayed for overnight repairs.  The new time is July 13 at 9:30am.

July 12, 10pm

Norwegian’s gate agent announces that plane is being delayed for overnight repairs.  The new time is July 13 at 9:30am.  “Show up back at the ticket counter at 7am” the gate agent suggests.  Now here is where the real crapshoot starts.  Before we can do any of this, we apparently have to:

  • Return our boarding passes to the gate agent
  • For those that need hotel accommodations, get a voucher
  • Get our checked bags from the bag carousel, which they will offload from the plane

Let’s go through each of these, in order…

Returning boarding passes

First, why we have to do this at all is beyond me.  Are they going to give our same boarding passes back to us the next day?  Is there some other reason they need them back?  I can’t figure it out, but at this point I’m so angry I don’t really care.  In order to give them back, the gate agent asks us to just walk up and return them to him.  Of course, this is a madhouse as there’s no order whatsoever as everybody goes to return their boarding passes at the same time.  5 minutes into this madness, the gate agent then makes a correction and says that, actually, if you want a hotel accommodation, you shouldn’t give your pass back to him yet but instead should wait to the side.  I’m sure the people that had already given him their passes but also wanted a hotel were quite happy about this change.

Getting hotel accommodations

Given I live in San Francisco and the flight was leaving out of Oakland, I did seriously consider getting a hotel from them, as it’s usually a 45 minute / $100 taxi each way.  But one look at the line for the people waiting for a hotel told me that would be a bad idea and the taxi was cheaper and would take less time than getting through that line.  I’m glad I went with this decision, as I spoke with somebody the next day that did wait through this line and they said they started “halfway through the line” and it was 2:30am before they got their hotel.  There were other passengers behind them.

11:45pm: getting our checked bags back

Yes, we didn’t receive our bags until 11:45pm — almost 2 hours after the gate agent announced the flight was delayed to the next day.

July 12, 11:15pm

I call customer service to let them know of our flight situation, knowing that we’d be missing our connection to Copenhagen.  At this point, all hopes of watching the World Cup final there are completely gone.  It takes almost 30 minutes for anybody at Norwegian’s customer service to pick up, but otherwise, the experience was fine.

July 13, 12:30am-5:30am

Get home from taxi ride and go to sleep.  Kem and I both decided that we should get to the airport early the next day because everybody showing up at 7am trying to get their tickets all at the same time sounds like a recipe for disaster, so we leave SF in a taxi at 5:30am to get there early.  $100 taxi each way leads the overall cost to $670 each.

July 13, 6:15am

Arrive at the airport.  Show up at the same counter we had received our tickets at the previous day, but today it says “Hawaiian Airlines.”  We decide that we should go scour the airport for a Norwegian employee to ask what’s going on, but alas, after half an hour of searching, we couldn’t find a single one.  Other passengers had the idea to show up early and they all look just as confused as we do.  I’m starting to feel like maybe I’ve been pushed into some very real-life version of The Game.  Eventually, we find another Norwegian ticket counter and decide to hang out there until a Norwegian employee shows up.

July 13, 7:20am

Norwegian’s automated text service texts me to inform me that plane is being delayed an additional 2 hours.  The new departure time is 11:30am.  Kem calls our hotel to let them know that we we’ll be delayed by a day due to this mess.  There’s another $150 lost.

July 13, 7:45am

First Norwegian that we’ve seen employee shows up and goes to the ticket counter.  Shortly joined by a second.  They spend over half an hour there organizing the lines, chatting to each other, and changing the flight number.

July 13, 8:45am

They print us new boarding cards, so now I’m doubly confused as to why we had to give our boarding cards last night.  Kem and I think longingly of our intoxicant of choice and both decide we should get a Bloody Mary at the airport bar to avert yelling and people.

July 13, 11:30am

Flight is supposed to have left by now.  They start boarding passengers now.

July 13, 12:30pm

Flight departs Oakland to Stockholm.  17 hours late.

July 14, 6:00am (Stockholm time)

We arrive in Stockholm and wait by the baggage carousel for our bags, somewhat uncertain as to whether they’ll show up here or be put on a flight to Copenhagen.  At this point, because our flight was so delayed again, we’ve now missed the connection which we were rebooked on.  We decide to wait and see if they come off with the rest of the bags of the flight.  When they don’t, I decide we need to talk to a Norwegian employee to ascertain two pieces of information:

  • What our bags are doing and where they may be/be going to and when
  • What flight we can be booked on next to Copenhagen, as we’ve missed our connection once again

I call up Norwegian customer service for this information.  I give my reference number and explain the situation to one employee.  He transfers me to somebody else.  The next customer service rep asks for my reference number again and asks what my situation is.  She transfers me to somebody else.  The next customer service rep asks for my reference number again and asks what my situation is.  He transfers me to somebody else.  All this time, being bounced around I’m paying international rates on my phone.  Finally, an employee (“Dessi”) finally books me on another flight.  Unfortunately, everything is booked full until 5:15pm, which means we’re spending the next 11 hours in the Stockholm airport.  We begin to wonder about how long a train would be from Stockholm to Copenhagen.

Unfortunately, Dessi is not able to tell me where our bags would be or if they’d be going to Copenhagen without us or not.  Fortunately, while I’m bleeding money through my cellphone rates, Kem finds our bags spinning around on their own carousel.  One of the metal zippers on mine has been broken and one of the handles shredded in transit.

July 14, 6:15pm

Arrive in Copenhagen, over 24 hours after when we were supposed to show up and an additional $400 down the drain.  And we missed the World Cup final.

August 5, 5:16pm

I apply for a refund on my flight, which should be granted under Regulation 261/2004.  For those unfamiliar, this is a regulation that is out there to help ensure that passengers aren’t subject to this type of behavior without having to pay for it.  It provides cash rewards for long delays, which are treated as though they were cancelled.  In our case, because we were delayed >4 hours, we should be entitled to up to 600 euros in compensation.

August 6, 6:47am

Norwegian says they will not refund under Regulation 261/2004.  No reason is given.  Instead, they state

We are not able to prepare detailed reports of each case to our passenger and, unfortunately, cannot send the requested documentation. If you do decide to take this case to a National Enforcement Body then we must send this documentation to them.

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