Notes on Reinhart/Rogoff

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Incompetent spreadsheet jockeys and Harvard profs Ren and Stimpy backpedal furiously

This is so much fun and I have no sympathy whatsoever for Rogaine and Braveheart, whose careers as pundits, at least, may be over; they should take a remedial class in Microsoft Excel at a Boston computer training firm and return to teaching Econ 101, using Samuelson’s textbook…which gives a fair and balanced treatment of macroeconomics.

It’s almost as fun as the time, years ago, I rocked my university by discovering that the former manager of info centers had inserted a subroutine for doing multiplication and division into an interpretive Fortran compiler not realizing that the uni computer had hardware multiply/divide, but only the minimum memory for Fortran, and that therefore the subroutine overlaid needed code, kaboom. I removed the subroutine and replaced calls on it with hardware multiply and divide.

Herndon, the kid from the less prestigious school with a slightly twerpy mien, reminds me of me back then. I hope his discovery helps him get further notice and perhaps one of those rocket science jobs usually reserved for Harvard students, if that is his desire.

It is a comment on our radically unequal society that Umass students like Herndon, and people who teach and study at shady, fly by night “computer training” schools operated for profit by men who abuse their teachers and sometimes cheat their customer/students, know not only more than the managers of the spiv schools but more than Harvard professors…about proof reading and testing complex Excel spreadsheets with deep structures of data and code, or perhaps about common decency if it is found that Rogoff and Reinhart deliberately changed the constant to get the desired pro-austerity results…results that, when used to guide policy, destroy the lives of UMass alumni and people taking “computer training” far more than Harvard students, alumni or professors.

Rogoff and Reinhart should have gone to Harvard’s “information center”, or whatever analogue of Princeton’s “information center” where I worked from 1987 through 1992 and gotten an Excel professional to code for them. But this would have possibly let leak their secret, if their secret it was, that they wished to support one conclusion: that austerity should replace stimulus.

In addition, this would have gone against the grain of tools such as Excel which are meant to eliminate professional programmers and put “The User” in command. This is a constant occurrence, epoch after epoch of technological change be damned; when Cobol was introduced in the late Fifties, pushed by the (USA) Department of Defense, an Air Force General was heard to say “now that we have Cobol we can get rid of all those beatnik programmers”: replace “beatnik” by “hippie”, then “slacker” and so on, to see that the social antagonism remained.

“The User” is a mysterious abstraction in computer talk, for “The User” shifts meaning depending on the goal of the user of the phrase. It’s not the mere secretary or functionary; its the “practical”, hard-headed business man or woman who can’t be bothered with talk about bugs when the spreadsheet seems to work, impresses the competition and gets desired policies (austerity) implemented. The “programmer” might be a left-winger and blow the whistle on the use of the incorrect value.

I also worked, from 1995 to 1998 or so, at one of these fly by night computer training firms, and I use the “fly by night” designation for a reason. The firms are all FBN because they don’t care about teaching the truth about computer usage, they seek to make a profit exclusively.

The firm where I worked provided an excellent interface, in the Fat Years of the 1990s, for learning Excel and other Windows 95 products in that distant era: good, self-paced programmed textbooks, a maximum class size and workstations for each student. I don’t think those students would have entered the wrong value in a critical cell. Perhaps R & R didn’t make a mistake; perhaps they entered the wrong value deliberately in order to show that debt over 90% of GDP slows growth when stimuli continue.

In that case they need to be charged with fraud or be targeted by civil lawsuits.

I am very glad to be retired altho I only get Social Security. My award is a bit more than the average since I had a long career in software with good jobs and living in China, even in Hong Kong outside Central and southern Kowloon, empowers the US pensioner with lower costs. From 1981, when I worked for an FBN consulting firm, to 1985 when my non-FBN job for a Silicon Valley R & D firm was ruined by the massive ingress of fools and greed heads to the Valley and to the firm, thru the mid-1990s when I did Windows training for an FBN firm, thru 2010 when I finally left an education firm which did academic and English tutoring but used the same profit-driven ideology, I felt like a character out of Film Noir.

Like Bob Mitchum in Out of the Past, in the computer business, I’d travel from coast to coast and down, not to Tampico but to Shenzen…to listen to “successful” guys like Kirk Douglas’ role and meet with Shady Dames.

In an almost comically naive way I’d left a fifth rate university where I probably could have gotten ingress to graduate school and a tenured teaching job, in order to bring what I’d discovered to be the Truth of computer software only to repeatedly hit a stone wall. I simply would not accept three lessons.

Lesson # 1: Society is Indeed Collapsing in Large Measure Due to the Ignorant TechnoApe

The late hero computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra’s prophecy that society would collapse in large measure due to the unmastered complexity of software has come true: as I maintain in my 2004 book on compiler development for .Net (“Build Your Own .Net Language and Compiler”, Edward G. Nilges, Apress 2004), part of the 9/11 intelligence failure was found in FBI tools that did not allow the use of Boolean operations. Furthermore, the banking collapse of 2008 may have been caused by excessive and ultimately unmanageable “general graphs” where each node was a software “object” such as a database and each arc, a reference to another node.

Programmers unfamiliar with graph theory would not realize that a “tree” (a general graph with no direct or indirect loops or cycles created by a directly referring to a or to a thru a chain of “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” references) is more easily inspected for correctness than a “graph” (a tree with at least one cycle added) whether or not it contains financial objects, military ranks or parts. Furthermore, this “correctness” is readily redefined, serving management or oversight by the public equally well.

Trees underlie quite a lot of applied rationality and powered old fashioned and disprised nonetheless effective, for its time, applications including Cobol and to this day the organization of clear documents and manuals. Anyone who hates manuals whether organized or not should see Youtube videos of hapless, endangered airline crew trying to locate information fast so they and their passengers don’t die. They also power clear organizational goals and expectations so that people know what to do on the job.

But because of the widespread and idiot anti-intellectualism of the American business world, literally no programmer, in 2008 or now, has the imagination to realize that financial contracts that are conditional on the result of another financial contract create a new arc in a general graph that by 2008 was completely unmanageable, no longer a tree, and which created numerous problems among them the unintentional creation of loops wherein (for example) a “reinsurance” policy may through a chain of reference to other reinsurance policies, resulting in a monstrosity that insures itself.

Edsger Wybe Dijkstra was proven right in 2001 and 2008.

Lesson #2: Programmers Considered Dogshit

The findings of Phillip Kraft in his 1978 book Programmers and Managers (Springer Verlag) that programmers are necessarily treated as dogshit because managers do not want “good code” or polished Excel spreadsheets (where Excel has become sufficiently powerful to be a programming language). They seek the labour-power of programmers in the Marxist sense as opposed to their time, which is why programmers who point to billable hours are accused of manufacturing the need for their hours: in Marx, labour-power means not hours on the job it means your physical ability to put in labour up to a max in which you have no life.

In my early experience which getting quality results from an absurdly limited computer in the early 1970s, a computer with only 8000 bytes of RAM, I learned that programs needed to be written in a structured way even if you were using an unstructured horror of a language such as “IBM 1401 Symbolic Programmiing System” or early Cobol (lord have mercy). Precisely because of the difficulty in getting useful results for real business problems from such limited tools, you need either to work intensely and in solitude, free from toxic, anti-intellectual “meetings” dominated by harridans and thugs, or to work, as I worked in the last years of my career, side by side in a Vulcan Mind Meld, all day long but no longer, with an equally qualified programmer at the same workstation. This is called “extreme” trs and it made me, to my considerable amazement, the manager of Chinese translation at a software firm for I don’t know Chinese; my job apart from “supervising” bright kids so eager to work they needed no nagging was easy.

In either mode you must, for most real problems which always contain nasty requirements (such as the requirement that reinsurance code check for cycles) conceive of a Grand High solution…a “High Concept” to use the Hollywood phrase. For even as screen-writers who want to create a new film must explain new movies to drunk, stoned or just hostile producers in a few short words, such as “Titanic…but with modern technology: we see in detail what happens when a ship sinks into freezing water”, or just “snakes on a plane”.

In spinning a new piece of software the programmer who can make what a screenwriter makes in some optimal circumstances, has to be able to say “PHP…a real language for the Web as opposed to HTML which has always been a non-Turing-complete joke” or “Facebook. People talk only to people they want to talk to. Plus they get to see who is hot. But they cannot ‘enhance’ their pages with music that sounds great when the page is tested but is a screech on a Mac”, or with animated sparkles and dancing unicorns.

Lesson #3: Computers are Used by the Wealthy Criminal Class to Hide the Truth

The ruling class likes computers for the same reason Henry Kissinger said he liked copying machines: both devices allow their users to change the record, whether by something so simple as using Liquid Paper to coverup a name on a form then making a copy which hides the Liquid Paper crust, or the way in which falsely “knowledgeable” bloggers accused Dan Rather’s producer of justifying her story about George Bush’s poor military record because the records of Bush’s dereliction had features such as justification which bloggers claimed typewriters did not have in 1973. In actuality Selectric technology and technology available from Olivetti et al., supported these features.

Computers, because of a widespread failure to apprehend essential truths about how they work such as Godel’s and Turing’s parallel results, can be used by the ruling elite to generate endless filibustering and confusion creating a complete fug and flight in this fug to authoritarianism.

It now appears that R & R wanted to support the switch from stimulus to austerity and like Kissinger were prepared to use a device to support their foregone conclusions. They may have committed academic fraud and should be terminated or at least put on notice that Harvard doesn’t support their behavior or carelessness depending on whether R & R deliberately changed Excel or failed to do due diligence.

Change Record
6 May 2013 Added commentary concerning anti-progammer ideology
8 May 2013 Various corrections and clarifications

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