The Inventor of Email™

VA Shiva AyyaduraiToday, I learned about VA Shiva Ayyadurai. If you ask him, he invented email. One summer. In 1978. When he was 14. It’s an interesting claim. For one thing, you know I’m not fond of the idea of the romantic individual who revolutionizes the world. Generally, when someone is way ahead of his time — think: Gregor Mendel — no one even notices. In general, ideas are in the air. There are many people working on things. And the person who gets credit is usually just whoever managed to go public first.

When it comes to email, the question is just stupid. There are so many aspects to email that any discussion of The Inventor of Email™ will necessarily come down to definitions. I’m so not interested in which particular innovation we are going to claim is what made “messaging” into “email.” And this is very much going on with Ayyadurai. But you don’t even have to go that far.

As far as I can tell, Ayyadurai’s intelligence is only exceeded by his drive for success. And it is exceeded by a great deal! If you look at his Wikpedia page, you will see a far longer page than would normally represent someone of his accomplishments. For example, it is longer than either of the pages for Unix inventors Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson. Am I saying that Ayyadurai has an overzealous public relations department? You can decide for yourself. I want to be careful because he strikes me as the kind of guy who checks his name every hour to see what’s being written about him.

The actual story of the development of email starts before Ayyadurai was born. When he was less than two years old, MIT was using a primitive email system. In 1972, when he was eight, the idea of addressing email as username @ computer had been developed. There is no question that one summer in 1978, when he was but 14 years old, Ayyadurai created an email system. And there is no doubt that that is a remarkable and admirable thing to have done. But it is not clear that he invented any part of email — even the word. He certainly didn’t invent email itself.

Mike Masnick at tech dirt wrote a great article going over the whole thing, Why Is Huffington Post Running a Multi-Part Series to Promote the Lies of a Guy Who Pretended to Invent Email? It’s well worth reading, if for no other reason than to learn about some of the many people who were part of the development of email — which continues to this day.

I’m more interested in why Ayyadurai continues to go around pushing this nonsense about inventing email. Normally, technical people are just pleased to be part of the greater advancement of science and technology. If you look at his Twitter account, the description begins, “Inventor of Email.” To understand why he would care to brand himself as The Inventor of Email™, even while the entire computing community throws up its hands in frustration, all you have to do is look at the last sentence in his Twitter description, “Entrepreneur.”

If you make the mistake of reading his actual Twitter feed, you will see the kind of guy he is. It’s filled with marketing babble like, “#Email is still the most relevant tool for reaching #customers. Find out why in this well written article. #marketing” It’s right up there with, “One #WeirdTrick to reach more #customers! #charlatan” It’s sad that someone who has actual skills feels the need to use them in this way.

In his article, Masnick gets to the point of pleading with Ayyadurai, hoping that he can be convinced to accept being a reasonable part of computer history:

He’s clearly quite proud of the email software he wrote in 1978, and that’s great. He should be. It may have made some incremental improvements on what else was already out there, but it is not inventing email. It’s also entirely possible that he was wholly unaware of everything else that was out there. And, again, that’s great. We’ve talked many times in the past about multiple people coming up with the same ideas around the same time. Ayyadurai should be quite proud of what he’s done. But he’s simply not telling the truth when he claims to have invented email. His website is full of accolades from the past, including his Westinghouse award (which is a prestigious award for high schoolers), his copyrights and his later patents. There are local newspaper clippings. That’s all great. It reminds me of the folder my mother has on all the nice things that happened to me as a kid. But none of it means he invented email.

The problem is that I don’t think Ayyadurai wants credit for the purpose of credit. I think he wants it for branding purposes. He wants to be The Inventor of Email™ because he makes money off it. And that just makes him pathetic. But I’m sure he has made a whole lot of money from this claim. And I’m sure he will continue to do so. After all: Huffington Post has now published a series of articles all about him.

H/T: Michael Hiltzik

Economy Does Better Under Democrats: It’s the Policies, Stupid!

Democrats and RepublicansIf you look at economic data even as casually as I do, you cannot have missed noticing that the United States’ economy does better under Democratic presidents than it does under Republican presidents — a lot better. Looking at all the presidents after World War II, the economy grows at about twice the rate under Democrats as it does Republicans. I’ve never thought that much about it. I’ve always figured that it was due to a lot of luck.

Well, I was just over at Mark Thoma’s blog (absolutely essential daily reading if you are at all interested in economics) and he posted a paper by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson, The US Economy Performs Better Under Democratic Presidents. Why? These two Princeton economists look seriously at this question and conclude… Well, they are academics and so it is all very nuanced and complicated. But let me see if I can lay it out for you.

First they looked at both fiscal and monetary policy to see if that explained anything. There was no correlation with fiscal policy (stimulus), and the monetary policy actually favored the Republicans. So the two colossal economic drivers have nothing to do with the fact that Democratic presidents are far better for the economy than Republicans. That’s important to remember.

They next looked at five kinds of economic shocks that might indicate that it is just a matter of luck. The shocks are: oil price; productivity; foreign growth; consumer expectations; and defense spending. When they included all of these, half of the effect was explained. But that doesn’t mean that these things are all random. Oil and military shocks are both affected by government policy. What’s interesting is that consumer confidence goes up during Democratic presidencies. This is a big part of the correlation. The authors ask, “Did [the public] know something economists didn’t?” All I can say is that it wouldn’t be surprising; the economic profession is known for its cluelessness.

But that leaves half the effect of better economic performance under Democratic presidents unexplained. I have an idea: it’s the policies, stupid. Especially over the last four decades, Republicans seem far more interested in enriching their already rich friends than doing what is best for the economy. For example, I’m sure that the Iraq War was terrible for our economy. The economy did grow through the early years of it, but that was what it was already doing. I’m talking opportunity cost here. We could have built roads and bridges and factories; we could have educated more people and done more research; in other words: we could have built our nation’s infrastructure with the money we spent blowing up things in Iraq. I have been very hard on both Presidents Clinton and Obama for their foreign policies. But there is no doubt that as lethal as their policies are, they are not huge economic drags.

Similarly, when Republicans want to stimulate the economy, they generally do it in the most inefficient way possible: they give lots of money to people who already have more money than they can spend. Democrats are much more efficient with programs like the payroll tax holiday and extended unemployment benefits. While Blinder and Watson looked at total fiscal policy, they didn’t look at it’s effectiveness. I suspect if they did, they would find a big effect there as well.

So the bottom line is that Democratic presidents produce better economic growth because they offer better economic policy. The Republican prescription of convincing people to vote for them to “get the darkies” so they can give tax cuts to the rich and start bloody good wars does not lead to a good economy.

The Skills Gap Myth

Skills Gap - Click for Whole CartoonMark Thoma wrote an interesting article over at CBS Money Watch, Sagging Job Growth: It’s Not Just a Skills Gap. The idea is that the reason the rich are getting richer than the poor is because they went to college and so their job prospects are better because their skills are more in demand. There’s just one problem: that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, readers of this blog should be well aware of the issue.

Thoma is a careful guy, so he won’t come right out and say it. But I will: the “skills gap” is little more than apologetics designed to minimize economic inequality. Paul Krugman is fond of pointing out that all the 80,000 odd public school teachers in New York have a combined salary equal to a single hedge fund manager, even though the education level of the jobs is about the same.

This isn’t to say that education and training have nothing to do with inequality. It is just that it isn’t a primary cause and that is what the research Thoma reported on demonstrates. The big issue is what David Harvey has been ranting about for many years: capital can move anywhere, so jobs go where they are cheapest. This causes what seems to be a problem in the system: businesses can only sell things as long as people have the money to buy them. An impoverished middle class today implies an impoverished upper class tomorrow.

Regardless, there is a fundamental problem with the idea that it is the skills gap that creates inequality. Dean Baker wrote about it on Tuesday, Actually, the Chinese Can Do the High-Skilled Jobs at Lower Cost Too. The idea that only Americans can do highly skilled work is, in addition to being arrogant, just wrong. As I am well aware: there no kind of high tech work that you can’t find someone in Romania who is just as qualified to do for half the cost. This is why American companies are so keen to get more H1-B Visas approved in the United States. It ain’t about getting skills that are unavailable here. It is about getting skills that are available all over the world for less money.

It isn’t limited to high tech either. As Baker talks about a lot, there are great doctors all over the world. The reason that they aren’t here is because the American Medical Association has managed to get the government to protect their jobs. So over the last three decades, we’ve see the government allow globalization as it is related to manufacturing workers. But doctors, lawyers, and college professors have been protected. So that’s the reason that there is any kind of basis for the skills gap: if you can get into one of the protected professions, you will do well. But that isn’t because of the skills gap. Rather, it is just government policy.

Whenever you hear someone talking about how the reason we have inequality in this country is that the poor are not getting college educations, remember this. Of course, I think in ten years no one will be able to make this argument. As it is, those with recent college educations are finding the job market really hard. The main thing they have to show for their college degrees is large amounts of debt. And that too is government policy.

DC Circuit Delivers Blow to Halbig

DC Circuit CourtHooray for the DC Circuit Court! It just withdrew the July decision of a three judge panel that upheld the Halbig v Burwell challenge to Obamacare. I wrote about this case just last night, Originalism, Textualism, and Politics on the Supreme Court. Halbig is a stupid case based upon what is little more than a typo in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which itself is contradicted by other language in the law.

But there really has been an amazing degradation of judicial thinking on the right over the last three decades. One can certainly argue that liberal justices were “reaching” in the 1960s and 1970s. But since that time, “legislating from the bench” is almost entirely a conservative activity. And that is especially true on the Supreme Court where there is only one liberal compared to five conservatives, three of the nutty variety.

In July, the two Republican appointed judges on the Circuit Court panel found as their politics dictated. So the Obama administration asked for an en banc rehearing. This is a hearing where the whole court is involved. Since the Democrats have now appointed most of the judges, we assume that they will find against the plaintiffs because it is only reactionary conservatives looking for any excuse to destroy Obamacare who would find the logic of Halbig compelling.

Because a Fourth Circuit Court panel unanimously found against the same argument, there was good reason for the Supreme Court to look into this case and make a final decision. (There are a total of four very similar cases making their way through the courts.) But with today’s DC Circuit Court decision, that becomes less likely. Of course, those pushing this case have already petitioned the Supreme Court. According to Jonathan Cohn in the article above, most legal scholars think the Supreme Court will at least wait to see how the DC Court finds. But you just can’t say with this court.

Regardless, this is very good news. If the Fourth and DC Circuit Courts had stayed in conflict, the Supreme Court would have been forced to clear up the law. Assuming the DC Circuit Court overturns the panel decision, there is no necessity to do so. But it only takes four Supreme Court justices to request a review. And we have three extremists on the Court. And when it came to Obamacare the last time it was at the Court, it seemed that Anthony Kennedy was as extreme as anyone. So we can’t say for sure.

Cohn quoted Andrew Koppelman who said pretty much what I think:

If the Court was going to blow up Obamacare, it would have done so in the big case in 2012. After Roberts paid a big political cost for doing that, why would he now adopt this hyper-technical and unpersuasive legal argument, yanking away benefits that a lot of people are already receiving?

I think that’s the one thing that keeps Obamacare relatively safe: Chief Justice Roberts’ concerns about going down in history as the partisan hack he is. Sometimes vanity is a good thing. I just wish that Roberts would expand his view of what hurts the reputation of the Court. Obamacare is the least we could expect. It will be Citizens United v Federal Election Commission that Roberts will be remembered for. In fifty years, people will ask, “Couldn’t they see that would destroy democracy in America?” But that apparently is too much to ask of the savior of Obamacare. I’m not saying he will be remembered like Roger B Taney, but history won’t be much kinder. As for the others: if they even decide to hear the case, it will be yet another nail in their historical coffins.

Darius Milhaud on the Roof

Darius MilhaudOn this day in 1892, the great French composer Darius Milhaud was born. He was a member of Les Six — the six French composers of the early 20th century that I have such a love of. And of them, Milhaud is probably the most charming. He integrated traditional melodies into his work. And although most jokes that composers put into their works are subtle, Milhaud is kind of like the Charlie Chaplin of composers.

In addition to everything else, Milhaud composed at a furious pace. I’ve only heard a small faction of his work. But I quite enjoy it all. His speed was not an indication of a lack of quality. You will see this if you bother to listen to the music I’ve embedded below. I really encourage you to do so. Unlike most modern composers, his work is lyrical and fun.

He was also a major music teacher during the last century. In 1940, he and his family were forced to flee France because he was nominally Jewish. He ended up at Mills College, which is just down the road from me. Leave it to a French man to end up at a woman’s college! But the school did accept men in its graduate program, which is where he taught such luminaries as Dave Brubeck, Philip Glass, and Burt Bacharach. Apparently, Milhaud once told Bacharach, “Don’t be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle. Don’t ever feel discomfited by a melody.”

And speaking of melodies, here is Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit (“The Bull on the Roof”), which is based upon music he heard in Brazil while working there. It has very lively counterpoint with polytonal harmonies that often come crashing together for great effect.

I can’t find a live performance of it, but if you want to hear something really charming, check out his Suite per Violino, Clarinetto e Pianoforte. He wrote it in 1939. Imagine: the Nazis would have killed the man who wrote this. In addition to just being evil they had no sense of beauty and the joy that it creates.

In 1922, Milhaud first visited the United States and got to hear his first “real jazz” in New York. This led to his composition, La Création du Monde (“The Creation of the World”). It is a wonderful piece, but all things considered, not one of my favorites. But it is an important piece. If you are only going to listen to one piece, I’d pick one of the two above.

Happy birthday Darius Milhaud!