Archive for March, 2010

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#Economics, #Greg Mankiw

Greg Mankiw: Taxes per Person

Taxes. Nobody likes to pay them, but we understand for society to function, for our government to operate that is, we need to pay them. They help to ensure safety from foreign actors, as well as maintain a few of the necessary functions of government.

But how does our burden compare to the rest of the world?

The most common metric for answering this question is taxes as a percentage of GDP. However, high tax rates tend to depress GDP. Looking at taxes as a percentage of GDP may mislead us into thinking we can increase tax revenue more than we actually can. For some purposes, a better statistic may be taxes per person, which we can compute using this piece of advanced mathematics:

Taxes/GDP x GDP/Person = Taxes/Person
Greg Mankiw: Taxes per Person

Follow the link to find out our particular burden. You may or may not be surprised by the results, but I’m in the not camp. Entitlements will destroy this nation.



#Case Study, #Lake Michigan College, #Web Design

Lake Michigan College: A Case Study

Lake Michigan College is a relatively small and old community college located in beautiful Southwest Michigan. Founded in the period following the second world war, it has served to prepare individuals for the eventual transition to a four year institution, technical training, or for the completion of several different degree paths. It has become an integral part of the area’s success in many ways, mainly because of the pool of trained workers it provides local business.

For this reason, it is important to ensure the public can access information about opportunities at the college. In some ways they’ve worked towards this goal, but they can do better.

I’ve been a student at Lake Michigan College in the past and at the time found the website to be very frustrating to use as as a resource; this is perhaps a little less true now than when I attended, however, judging by my explorations of the site, the experience has only improved marginally in that the IA is a bit troublesome and the overall experience is a bit overwhelming visually.

Current Site
LMC Web Site as of 3/24/2010

My First Observations

The current site is a bit of a mystery to me. It appears to be run on the Joomla CMS, which in my mind is perhaps a little strange for a college of this size, though I can understand the appeal of open source (hello WordPress!); but what gets me is the URL structure of the site. You end up with a very long query string on the end, e.g. index.php?id=3342&Itemid=13. This creates a bit of a mess in terms of SEO, though their interests may be focused primarily on the front page. I find it hard to believe that they wouldn’t be interested in such a small but crucial part of their overall SEO strategy. From my small bit of research, it appears that enabling search engine friendly URLs in Joomla is relatively simple, though perhaps their server capabilities prevent it.

The front page focus is pretty evident when you browse the site, as EVERYTHING is located on the front page, gladly not all shoved “above the fold.” This might not be as much of a problem, but the various elements on this page have no evident unified structure or design to speak of. This is a bit chaotic, and can overwhelm the user with choice. It really is unnecessarily busy. In an organization like this, there are probably many competing factors going into the design decisions, though a more organized approach would help to increase ease of use for students.

Lastly, and this is really the part I like best, the drop down menus have markedly improved from the version preceding it, though this menu is not without its faults. The drop down menus on the site are a bit overwhelming in terms of how much choice an individual has, and in some cases choices are duplicated across a few different drop downs. While this structure has served to make it easier in relation to previous versions, the IA could use a great deal of work in order to simplify things for users.

Possible Solutions

First and foremost, I’m really only proposing one possible solution of many. I wanted to capture what makes LMC great for this community, and remind folks that it is an affordable institution, close to home, ready to get you the training you need.

To do that, I wanted to update the logo–but only slightly. Perhaps giving it just a little refinement in terms of type treatment, and in process ensuring any updates I made remained true to the college’s current identity. In a lot of ways that identity has a great deal of traction around here, and it would be a mistake to ignore that.

LMC Logos
Current Logo on the left, my proposed update on the right.

My first decision was to simplify the logo mark as much as possible while retaining it’s character. This was relatively easy to accomplish as I eliminated the border surrounding the mark, ensuring only the most important aspects of it remained. To my eye, this cleaned it up significantly.

My second decision was to refine the type; I’m not entirely sure what the typeface is for “Lake Michigan,” but it appears to be warped out of it’s designed ratios. This isn’t a particularly good practice as it can hinder legibility. In this case, it might not, but to get a good handle on its subtleties I needed to use a typeface I was mildly familiar with. I chose Jenson as an appropriate substitution for the serif and retained the small caps format, albeit a little more exaggerated. I wanted to set “College” apart, as it seems to be of secondary consideration in the overall scheme. I chose a sans-serif face, Futura, that would add a bit of distinction and would be appropriate to carry over into the rest of the web site.

Overall, the quality isn’t there quite yet, but the direction is obvious. A more refined logo mark and type treatment could go a long way towards polishing the college’s image. My ideas here are only a beginning, a possible direction, but I would like to see the institution refine an already well-known local brand.

The New Web Site

As discussed earlier, the current site is a bit of a mess, and my whole approach was designed to refine it and make things simpler for the user. After doing some studying of the current site I came up with a rough structure that I thought would help to address the needs of future and current students a little bit better by paring down some of the menu bloat that was evident before. Also, I wanted to clean up the front page in general, as there were a lot of different elements that served as distraction rather than as useful information. My focus in this redesign is to make it easier for prospective and current students to navigate the site and find what they’re looking for.

Proposed Site Design
The proposed new site design. See full size. See portfolio entry.

There was a lot happening in the current site that helped to focus attention away from primary content. Colors were one of those distractions in my view. There was no real coherence to the color decisions that were made and their actual branding materials, something a casual reader or browser might not be aware of. There is a great deal of red throughout their printed materials; in fact, school colors are red and gray, so color decisions were pretty simple. I decided to limit colors on the site for this rough mockup to red, gray, and black. Hopefully this will help to keep one’s attention on relevant information and aid user’s in deciphering the interface a bit better. And, more importantly, keeping a coherent branded message across all mediums.

Additionally, I wanted to re-purpose the, what I’ll call, pictographic highlight at the top of the site. Currently it’s a an image rotator, with no real purpose in terms of what it provides the user, yet it takes up a rather large portion of the screen. In order to take advantage of an element that could provide great photography, but also be useful, I decided it would be the perfect way to highlight some aspect of the campus that might interest a prospective student.

Conclusion

Overall the mockup is a solution designed to aid in the navigation of the site, create a more obvious information hierarchy, and hopefully address some of the underlying problems with the current site.

This isn’t an end all approach, but one solution of many based on my understanding of the needs of the possible users of this site. The aim was to improve upon, rather than to prove something about, the inadequacies of the current site; hopefully this helped to address them in some small way, and ultimately will get you thinking about the possibilities of a well planned site design.



#Economics, #Frustration, #Security

The Opportunity Cost of Security

Choosing a password has become more and more of a burden than is realistically necessary in my view. In a lot of cases, I’m stuck with a set of rules that make the password virtually impossible to remember, e.g. 7Yule#gF. Though that example is extreme, it’s just insane to expect users to remember this sequence.

My bank is particularly egregious–at least one of them anyway–in that they require your account name be typed in and submitted, then bring you to a page with a security image and an inaccessible password form that is produced using javascript. The password must contain one uppercase letter, a number, and some other set of letters that bring the total number of characters within a certain range.

The most ridiculous part of the process, though, is if your cache has been cleared, you are required to answer the security questions they have you set up on all of these sites. The questions are never the same, and it is difficult to remember exactly how you’ve spelled the answers.

No, this isn’t something I think about on a consistent basis; in spite of my annoyance, what got me writing on the subject had to do with a report from Microsoft Research that I became interested in reading more than anything else. It pointed something out that is becoming increasingly obvious.

In effect, the benefit gained from following such stringent security standards might be more costly than the actual damage incurred from a security breach.1

The advice offers to shield them from the direct costs of attacks, but burdens them with far greater indirect costs in the form of effort. Looking at various examples of security advice we find that the advice is complex and growing, but the benefit is largely speculative or moot.1

In particular, the notion that the benefit is “largely speculative” certainly makes the user less likely to follow the advice and makes me even more annoyed; there really isn’t enough data to backup any of the claims of security experts.

But is this where it should end for users? In determining potential damage, shouldn’t simple security advice be followed?

Of course it can be difficult to trace or predict the portion of a reduction in losses that springs from a particular piece of security advice. However if the increase in externalities is greater than the total direct losses, then a piece of advice certainly represents a poor cost benefit tradeoff for the user population. For example, a piece of security advice that requires an hour per year for the average user to follow should reduce direct costs to the users by at least $180e6 x 2 x 7.25 = $2.6 bn (again using twice the minimum hourly wage of $7.25 and an online population of 180 million) to be worthwhile. We will find that this is almost never the case with the attacks that we examine. Instead we find the direct costs are small, or unquantifiable, or borne by the banks rather than users, or are theoretical, protecting users against potential rather than actual losses.1

Security advice is meant to protect users and networks from malicious use, but the benefit to most users is minimal. And considering the large number of places we’re likely to use passwords, complex rules governing their content, and advice suggesting you not write it down, it makes the burden hard to justify.

I don’t think we should abandon what security experts have been suggesting, but in order to improve security, perhaps we should be looking at the construction of the internet itself. Finding ways in which to secure users at the gates of the city rather than expecting them to be armed and vigilant themselves.

And I’ll still follow the advice, for now, as long as I must maintain my own online fortunes.


  1. Herley, Cormac. So Long, And No Thanks. <http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/cormac/papers/2009/SoLongAndNoThanks.pdf>. Accessed 3/17/2010.


#Writing

I’ve Reached 300 Posts

In the beginning of the blogging craze, circa the beginning of the previous decade, I eschewed the blogging trend–didn’t want to do what the cool kids were doing, and never understood it. Why would anyone want to read the writings of some stupid person–writings that were likely to be full of personal nonsense? Self-congratulating lunacy.

Well, wouldn’t you know, but for some damned reason, I started blogging. I think it had more to do with wanting to just write than anything, and I think my random posts and interests are enough evidence of that fact.

This is a great book on history by the way. If you’re looking for a broad brush, this is it.

No one in their right mind would want to flounder about this site in search of anything interesting. I mean, I talk about politics, history, economics–without an expert’s knowledge of these things–and occasionally discuss my daily work of php, JavaScript, and web design. Hell, I’m reading A Penguin History of the World, by J.M. Roberts for Chrisakes–that makes me a very boring guy.

300 posts in roughly 2 years–not bad, could have been more. But it could have been less as well. Only thing I regret–not a lot of discussion taking place. Perhaps it’s because my blog is a little schizophrenic.

Now I’m off to conquer social media–seeing as how I’ve brushed it off in the same way as blogging.



#Economics, #Inflation

Disturbing Inflation in The United States

What disturbs me the most is the connection the gold standard had with the major upswing in inflation. In my view, the loss in value seems very connected to the policy of inflationary targeting, though this isn’t evidence of correlation, just my hunch; pegging world currencies to the dollar, and using the dollar as an exchange for gold for holders of said dollars, was probably a bit of a mistake on our part as we tried to hold gold at a particular value; and ultimately reneging on our promise to exchange dollars for gold, allowing the currency to float and ultimately creating a purely fiat currency helped to decrease value as we needed to pump more money into our efforts in Vietnam.

We made a lot of really terrible economic decisions in the past century, despite its last decade of unbounded growth, as we were declining a great deal in terms of industry and manufacturing. “Free” trade has been good for us, in that we can obtain products very cheaply as long as consumption is our primary concern, but quality isn’t there and we’ve lost a lot of our ability to produce quality products ourselves.

Additionally, that CPI index just seems extremely unacceptable on many levels. How does it stay relatively level over a 150 year span only to skyrocket in 60?

Chart of Inflation in the United States, 1787-2007
If only this were a chart of some company’s profits, Inflation in the United States (1774-2007)

I will add the caveat here that, uh, I’m a web designer, and my passing knowledge of economics is truly limited to mere hobby. But, in the latter days of the empire of Rome, we saw inflationary pressures causing widespread problems in terms of the empire’s stability. What does that chart tell you?

And frankly, this post isn’t meant to imply anything. Rome isn’t exactly burning, but it’s going to have difficulty maintaining and funding itself at some point; it doesn’t seem to me that we’ll be able to print money fast enough.