Friday, February 8, 2013

Fixing the H-1B immigrant worker visa program

Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute has an op-ed in the NYT, claiming that the US does not need to do anything to the current H-1B visa system. This is a response to Senator Orrin Hatch's bill to allow up to 300,000 more H1-B visas a year. This would be a dramatic increase over the current cap of 65,000 visas/year (excluding the first 20,000 visas issued to graduates from US universities, and those employed by US universities/government labs/non-profit research organizations.)

Eisenbrey claims that the proposed expansion would flood the market with "indentured foreign workers." That's an extreme claim, though somewhat rooted in the fact that employees are dependent on their employer, and may not be able to find more skill level-based employment till such time as they are approved for a Permanent Resident visa. For Indian and Chinese workers, this process can take over ten years. (Six years on an H-1B visa, followed by the time it takes to adjust the employee's status to PR, under the EB-2 category.) If the employee wants to switch employers, the new employer has to petition USCIS all over again, and this may or may not be subject to the afore-mentioned cap. (I don't think it is, but it is still a laborious process.) Any movement toward a Green Card is canceled by switching between employers, and the employee has to start all over again.

Among Eisenbrey's other claims are that if anybody is talented enough to get a job, they are almost guaranteed a visa. That's not quite true - I was unable to get a H-1B visa despite having a PhD in Engineering, and a job offer from a private company here in a highly-specialized field, because of the annual cap. I managed to get an O-1 visa (another painful process), only because of my research and publication record. A less-qualified individual - say, a software engineer - would not be able to get an H-1B visa after the cap has been met.
(Some of them might get an L1 - in 2010, the US issued almost 75,000 L1 visas, compared to 117k H-1B visas, and just 8589 O-1 visas. PDF. Still, it speaks to the demand for such workers.)

So the next claim is that salaries have not exploded in keeping with demand - just 4.5% between 2000 and 2011 for computer- and math-related fields for workers with a college degree. That's an interesting argument, though I'd like to see the actual trend over that period, which includes the Great Recession. Besides, one of the big inequality arguments is that wages for most workers have been largely stagnant since 1980. So an increase of 4.5% over a decade that included the Great Recession seems not too shabby. Of course, another factor to consider is that these are likely the average raises, and the composition of the work force might have changed in that time. Bottom line: I don't think this statistic is as clean-cut as it is presented.

Another claim is that the USA has "too many high-tech workers", based on the comparison of over 9 million STEM degree-holders, with 3 million who have a job in one. That is a conflation of STEM and high-tech. Not every STEM graduate can write code, and not every STEM graduate really wishes to be employed in the field of their qualification. A better comparison might be to look at graduates in fields directly relevant to high-tech fields.

And for high-tech workers, Eisenbrey finds the unemployment rate is 3.7% - low, but apparently more than twice as high as it was before the recession (references and links would be nice). There's a decent argument here, though I can't find that particular statistic in a quick FRED search - the closest I get is Bachelor's and higher degree-holders, 25 years and over: 2% pre-GR, and 3.9% at present. Still, saying "unemployment rate DOUBLED!" seems alarmist considering high-tech workers are still doing quite well at just a 3.7% unemployment rate.
(Aside: computers and software is a field where someone out of work can quickly get out-of-date. So, it may be possible for a company to look for, and not find, qualified people, even if there are American workers out of work. It's not exactly like other, conventional fields.)
(Further, does Eisenbrey/EPI also claim that Americans should not get a college education? After all, the unemployment rate for Bachelor's degree-holders is almost double that pre-GR!)

Overall, though, I am a little surprised that while Eisenbrey shows the flaws of the H-1B visa system, he doesn't propose any way to improve the plight of H-1B visa holders - an area where reforms are sorely needed. He'd apparently let the system be - let indentured status continue.

On the other hand, Senator Hatch's proposal is clearly geared toward big corporations - a GOP constituent. Given the problems with the H-1B system, I am not sure that's a great idea - but unlike Eisenbrey, I can't let the system be, either. If there's going to be comprehensive immigration reform, an attempt should be made to help workers.

An alternative proposed by some Democrats, is to "staple" a Green Card to foreigners graduating with a MS or PhD from US universities. That sure would have helped me. It is definitely a better solution than Senator Hatch's proposal. Further, it would help foreign graduates escape "indentured servitude" at the hands of American employers - a goal Eisenbrey and the EPI might be expected to support.

Now, there might be some fears that some American universities could capitalize on such a provision, and become degree-granting mills, as Matt Yglesias points out. One way might be to restrict the "stapled Green Cards" to graduates of well-known research universities. It's not simple - who decides what is well-known? The Carnegie Foundation apparently doesn't! But it would be a better system than what we have at present, and that's a start.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Texas Journal on Civil Liberties and Civil Rights: Texas's New Abortion Ultrasound Law

Texas Journal on Civil Liberties and Civil Rights: Texas's New Abortion Ultrasound Law: In Texas Medical Providers Performing Abortion Services v. Lakey , decided last month, the Court of Appeals upheld Texas’s new abortion ult...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Collection of videos

My favored method is Twitter or Tumblr, but neither provides the ability to combine multiple videos into one post, AFAIK. So here goes:

Prabhudeva, Kadhalan (Urvasi, Urvasi):

Prabhudeva, Gentleman (Chikku bukku... THE BEST! And Gauthami is BEAUTIFUL!)
[Key phrase: "If we ride a bike, you want a motorbike; if we ride a motorbike, you want a Maruti car!...If we wear jeans, you want baggy pants; if we wear baggy pants, you want a veshti!"
Also: The coolie, who is Prabhudeva's rival, is...Prabhudeva's brother, Raju Sundaram!]

Another Prabhudeva classic from Kadhalan (Mukkala, Mukkabala):

OOOOOH URMI!!! Rangeela (Tanha, Tanha):
(Confession: I once owned a pair of golden-colored pants and a black shirt with purple floral print accents, which I thought looked awesome. I was 17 or 18.)

Another video from Rangeela, Aamir Khan and Urmi (Kya karen, kya na karen):
[Key phrase: "On one hand, I I love her... on the other, I am afraid to tell her, fearing rejection!"]

Good night!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Managing conflicts of interest

A writer, Kim Brittingham, offers writers $200 to write a piece about her new book in various well-known periodicals. Mridu Khullar-Relph asks - does this go against journalists' code of ethics? Apparently, such practices - availing of free boarding/food in exchange for write-ups - are common with freelancers and the travel industry.
So, as Ms Khullar-Relph asks:
How do you write about an establishment objectively when they're paying for you?
I am not a journalist, nor a writer - as commonly understood. Except, of course, that as a scientist, I write up my research results, either as first author, or in collaboration with others. For the past four years, I have worked for a private, for-profit company that sells instruments, including the device I use to do research. And yes, my research is seen as part of an overall marketing effort - scientists see, scientists want to do! So I have to deal with conflict of interest issues. How do I do that?

First and foremost, as a scientist before I worked for my present employer (and probably in the future!), I have a reputation to protect. I may not be well-known even in the aerosol field in general (let alone climate research!), but there is a core group of very influential scientists (read: past advisors who write recommendation letters!) that will call out any hackery on my part. So I have to be very careful and impartial while writing up the research I do with my company's instruments.

Second, where-ever I have been listed as a first author or a co-author, my affiliation with The Company is prominently displayed, just as a professor's name is associated with her/his university or independent research lab. So it is easy for the reader to look out for any soft spots, as it were, in my portions of that article. This formalizes the first point.

The third part is not writing, but peer-reviewing others' manuscripts - part of the "community service" scientists do. Not many manuscripts have come my way that present a direct conflict of interest - just two come to mind, over the dozens I have reviewed over the past four years. In one instance, I told the editor of my position; s/he found an alternate, and I was not required. In the second, the editor knew me well enough, and knew that I was one of the few scientists who would be able to properly evaluate the manuscript - my sub-sub-field is not very big, and I am actually very good at what I do! The editor said my review met his/her expectations. (This is part of the first point - keeping up my reputation.)

Finally, there is presentation of my research at conferences - something integral to science these days. Only once have I been asked not present my talk - even though it had been approved by the technical committee. Apparently, the conference did not want any private company to present, as some take advantage of the opportunity to deliver a sales pitch. As my fellow scientists say, I make a horrible salesman, telling people both the good and the bad about my instruments - gotta preserve the hard-earned reputation!

Bottomline - all I have as a scientist, really, is my experience and my reputation. And without the latter, I won't get very far in this age of peer-review that drives not only publication (the life-blood of a scientist), but also funding (the real life-blood of a scientist!)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Losing sight of the big picture

This morning, President Obama released his long-form birth certificate. Yes, really, that happened. The democratically-elected leader of the free world, who happens to be the first Black President of this predominantly-White nation, had to produce his papers, thanks to a long-running campaign of misinformation and lies spread by Fox News and the Republican/Tea Party, most recently brought to the forefront by the asinine, apparent GOP Presidential hopeful and front-runner, Donald Trump and the media hordes that follow this joker.
The day was dominated by reactions from various sides. Thinking back over the day, I felt that we are losing sight of the bigger picture, focusing instead on minutiae. To wit:

1. Many in my Twitter timeline, dominated by liberals/Democrats, blasted Trump for playing to birthers who seem to dominate the GOP primary electorate. I humbly submit that Trump is just an opportunist, exploiting the latent racism and Islamophobia that underlies birtherism.
Note also that birtherism has a history much longer than Trump's involvement, thanks to Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, the Hillary Clinton primary campaign, and the sly nod-and-wink responses of Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders. When there are official documents available, one does not need to "take the President at his word."

2. Yesterday, progressive activist Nicole Sandler was arrested for creating a ruckus at Rep. Allen West's townhall. She later compared her temporary incarceration to Pfc Bradley Manning's solitary confinement. Defenders of President Obama on the Manning/Wikileaks issue were offended, and chastised Ms Sandler. This comparison by Ms Sandler is minor compared to the fact that an American, a resident of the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free, was put in prison for questioning her Congressman. At least, I'd like to think so.

3. Finally, the issue that really brought up this post. Jake Tapper is a fine journalist with a well-deserved reputation, e.g. see his pieces at on the Iraq War, e.g. this, or on Dubya's drunken sailor economics. Tapper's first report on today's marquee event appropriately calls birtherism "nonsense." But two hours later, he pens this report:
And what was the President lying about? That two weeks ago, the media focused on the birther story (thanks to Trump), rather than the budget battle between POTUS and GOP Rep. Paul Ryan. Tapper uses data from Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism to show that two weeks ago, the economy was indeed the main story by far. Ergo, the President lied.
But take a closer look at the Pew reports. The report, as quoted by Tapper himself, also states:
“The week was also marked by another sign that the media are gearing up for the campaign—rumors about Obama’s national origin resurfaced, this time from tycoon Donald Trump, a potential GOP contender for the presidential nomination. These questions made up much of the coverage that focused on the Obama administration, a topic that accounted for another 4% of the newshole.”
True, that 4% of the newshole may be a small fraction, and so far, Tapper is right. But take a look at Pew's report for last week:
Headline for April 18-24, 2011: "Trump pushes the 2012 race into the news"
And how did Trump do that?
For the week of April 18-24, the 2012 presidential race emerged as a big story, more than doubling its previous high water mark this year. It accounted for 8% of the newshole studied by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, making it the third-biggest story in the news last week. And a closely related story (at 3%) involved attention to Obama himself, with a particular focus on the “birther” movement that questions whether the president was born in the U.S.

In both cases, that was due in large part to the attention garnered by real estate developer, reality TV star and now possible presidential candidate Trump—who has embraced the birther issue and become the rising star of the GOP presidential field.

Indeed, Trump was the week’s second leading newsmaker behind Obama, registering as a dominant figure in 4% of all the week’s stories. That is six times more attention than the next most-covered potential GOP contender, Sarah Palin, generated last week.
Among the news organizations that carried Trump stories: Tapper's own ABC, including Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, with prime-time coverage and an interview.
I have no idea what the prime-time breakdown of the Pew's stories are, but if Trump is getting prime-time press coverage, fueled largely by his pandering to birtherism, seems to me the President has a very good case for stating that the press is focused on a triviality rather than more important issues. (I won't even go into the Ed Henry WH presser question, right after CNN themselves comprehensively debunked the birther claim.)

But all that said and done, Tapper's reaction to the President's speech stands in stark contrast to this visceral, oh-so-appropriate reaction from Baratunde Thurston, the web editor for The Onion:

Perhaps Tapper, as an objective journalist, does not have the freedom or perspective that Thurston does. But Thurston's reaction shows exactly why today is a shame not just for the GOP and Fox News, but all of America; that is the real story of the day.
I admire and respect Tapper. Maybe, that piece was a defensive reaction to something he knows is just wrong with the way news organizations like ABC helped sustain these ridiculous lies; deny Trump press coverage on this issue, and Trump will lose interest in birtherism or transcript-erism like the publicity whore he is.

Maybe, just as Tapper wrote that President lied about the Press, he will write about how the press was complicit in spreading lies about the President.

Maybe the rest of us will remember the big picture, and not get distracted by minutiae.

Good night, and good luck.

Update 1: Jake Tapper responds:

"1) that wasn't my "reaction." 2) It was 1 blog post, a fraction of our coverage of the issue yesterday."
When I wrote this post, I looked up Tapper's blog on the ABC website. I saw three pieces directly related to the birth certificate release; the two I cited above, and a video report, which seemed similar to the first story. (The other stories were on President Obama's birther-related jokes at fundraisers, and the CIA/SecDef appointments.)
If Tapper had cited last week's Pew report, as I did above, his second blog would have come off as an objective "correcting the President's error" - yes, he was wrong, but we cannot deny the rising tide that is the Trump media circus. Without that, the second blog looks factual, yes, but still a defensive reaction.

Update 2: Via Taegan Goddard: "Trump leads Republican field." Chalk one up for birtherism and the media circus...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Why I proudly support the Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers will face the Green Bay Packers in Superbowl XLV. Obviously, this is an exciting time for me - a staunch Steeler fan. In this piece, I try to lay out what exactly makes me such a strong supporter of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A little history. I grew up in India, and was not really aware of American football till I came to the US for graduate school - to Pittsburgh. But it was not till I moved to Urbana-Champaign, IL, for my post-doc, that I started really following the Steelers. At that time, I, an unapologetic city-slicker, felt lost in the small college town, two hours away from any city - and I did not drive at that time, either!
What to do? I started feeling nostalgic for Pittsburgh, the last city I was in. But I couldn't afford to go there very often. I had, however, started following American football - and guess what, the Steelers were becoming the powerhouse that they are today. It was Big Ben Roethlisberger's rookie year, and it was magical - the Steelers went 15-1, won the AFC No. 1 seed, and faced their nemesis, the New England Patriots, in the AFC Championship game. I went out and bought a television set specifically for this game, even though I feared the Steelers would lose. And they... lost.
But a connection was forged, and I have been a Steelers fan ever since - they were my link to "civilization" initially, but soon became part of my sentimental attachment to Pittsburgh, my "American hometown." (I even watched the Stanley Cup finals recently, just because the Pittsburgh Penguins were playing - and wouldn't you know it, they won!)

Since that year, the Steelers have been on a roll. They won Superbowl XL the following year, Bill Cowher's last as the Head Coach. The Steelers hired a young defensive co-ordinator, Mike Tomlin, as Cowher's replacement. Wonder of wonders, the Steelers went on to win Superbowl XLIII - Tomlin becoming the youngest head coach to win a Superbowl. And now, the Steelers and Tomlin might just win another ring.

But this year has been marred by Ben Roethlisberger's off-field shenanigans - he was accused of molesting/raping a woman (read more here.) No charges were filed, but Roethlisberger was suspended by the NFL for six games without pay. With good behavior, this was reduced to four. As a further consequence, many casual observers have started hating the Steelers, and purport to support the team with the "non-rapist quarterback" - any opponent of the Steelers.

Which makes me really sad. Don't get me wrong - I wish Ben Roethlisberger would keep it in his pants, so to speak. He has a past history of immature behavior - after winning his first Superbowl, he had an accident while riding his motorbike - sans helmet. And more crucially, he has now been accused twice of molesting/raping a woman.

But given that no charges have been filed, let alone proven, I cannot say with certainty that Ben Roethlisberger was guilty. And so this outpouring of hatred toward an organization that has a rich history, strikes me as highly unjustified.

Casual observers would do well to note that a football team is not just one person - there are 53 players on the roster, in addition to the coaches and management. And the Pittsburgh Steelers, I am proud to say, have many stalwarts in their midst. Here are some prominent examples:

1. The Rooneys, who own the team. They emphasize stability and give people a chance to develop their talents over many years - here's an excellent profile. Unlike many other NFL owners, they are not greedy. Asked his opinion on the NFL possibly switching to an 18-game regular season schedule instead of the current 16, Dan Rooney said:

"I’d rather not have the money."

The exact opposite of Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" mantra. Isn't that what we want our sports personalities to not just say, but actually do?
An interesting tidbit: After each game, the Rooneys go into the locker room, and shake hands with every player - win or lose. I think this exemplifies the "it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game" spirit.

Further, the Rooney Rule, named for the Rooney family and in particular, Dan Rooney, requires each NFL team to interview minority candidates for head coaching and other senior-level football operation positions. And the Rooneys followed through on their own rule by hiring Mike Tomlin, who at that time did not have NFL head coaching experience. Tomlin is now one of only two African-American head coaches to have won a Superbowl (the Colts' Tony Dungy is the other.) And without the Rooneys' belief, Tomlin may not have had a chance.

2. Superbowl XL MVP, Hines Ward, who is of Black/Korean descent. The Hines Ward Helping Hands Korea Foundation helps biracial Korean kids achieve a positive self-image. For his work, Ward received the inaugural 2010 UN NGO Positive Peace Award in the Professional Athlete category.

“Hines Ward changed the cultural landscape of Korea,” said Janet Mintzer, president/CEO of Pearl S. Buck Intl. “After Japanese invasions, Korea placed high value on being pure-blooded Koreans, creating prejudice of bi-racial people. As a successful bi-racial Korean-American, he returned to Korea, creating media attention, which sparked a cultural shift.”

3. Ryan Clark, Safety. Clark has "sickle-cell trait", and since 2007, has been involved in efforts to raise awareness about the disease - for example, see this visit to a school, and he has helped the Children's Sickle Cell Foundation in Pittsburgh. (I believe Sports Illustrated's Peter King picked Ryan Clark as the person he'd like his kids to be like, though I can't find the quote right now.)

4. Then we have Troy Polamalu - one of the most dangerous players on the field, but serene and very humble off it. He never disparages an opponent, always talks about the team before himself, and is a devout Christian - but does not push it on anybody.

The problem, as I see it, is that people tend to focus on sensational stories rather than uplifting lives. A pity.

Go Steelers!

Monday, January 3, 2011

The MetroPCS ads

A friend on Twitter alerted me to some ads that aired during a recent Superbowl and after, hawking MetroPCS' cellular services. These ads feature two South Asian/Indian-Americans, talking with very recognizable accents and using common Western stereotypes - cows, cobras and snake charmers. The ad campaign provoked a major backlash - a Google search for "MetroPCS ads racist" turns up ~29,000 hits, including calls to boycott MetroPCS. The campaign seems to have helped sales, though MetroPCS' Youtube channel no longer features the ads.

I watched the ads, and I must say - I was not offended by them. There are definitely some caricatures I would rather avoid - especially snake charmers and cobras. But maybe I am not offended as many others are, because:
1. I have known Indians who talk like the two characters, though without the cow and snake charmer references. Perhaps that's because I am a first-generation immigrant to the US - FOB! Second- or third-generation Indian-Americans are less likely to find these heavily-accented caricatures even remotely familiar. (I speak English with a distinct accent, though not as pronounced.)
2. Many of the aforementioned Indians-with-a-thick-accent were also very smart - and the two characters in the MetroPCS ads are shown offering useful ("smart") advice to the poor, frustrated cellphone user. This is a "good" stereotype, is there is ever such a thing.

There are other ads that caricature Indians as lazy and incompetent (a la "Sambo") - in particular, a Discover Card ad featuring a guy (who looks White!) with an Indian accent and calling himself "Peggy." These ads definitely make me uncomfortable, and I will probably give Discover a call over this, if not cancel my account altogether.

But the MetroPCS ads? Naah, not worth wasting my time over.