Friday, July 31, 2015

Supply and demand

This is Joseph

I'm often talking about how direct supply and demand relations seem to have broken with respect to managerial salaries (why aren't we outsourcing CEOs to India?).  In these cases, I am often skeptical that the high wages paid to senior managers are really required to attract a competent candidate.  But Cathy O'Neil points out that this issue is happening in reverse with entry level workers, where raising wages is seen as a taboo:
Of course, $50K isn’t nothing. But on the other hand, truckers have to be trained, competent, and regularly spend many days on the road. Moreover, the current surveillance technology has severely degraded their quality of life, which I learned by reading about Karen Levy’s work on the industry. Also, new truckers probably make substantially less than $50K when they start.

Partly the surveillance arose from the very real risk of truckers driving too much per day – it was an attempt to make sure truckers were driving safely. But since the technology has been installed in many large-company fleets, the companies have used it to essentially harass their drivers, telling them when break is over and so on. This has worked, in the sense that larger companies with more surveillance have managed to lower costs, pushing out smaller and individual truckers. And that means that truckers who used to own their own business now reluctantly work for huge companies.
And consider:
When you make your workers lives worse, and you don’t compensate them with cash money to make up for it, you find your workers quitting. That’s what’s happening here.


In the comments we also have:
There’s no shortage of older, experienced drivers who publicly contemplate getting out of the business in response to the micromanagement of their workday. It’s not that the drivers don’t want to comply with the rules, though many of them do think many of the new rules make no sense, it’s that what they have to do to comply is often unrelated to real time conditions and circumstances and is often the wrong thing to do for both safety and efficiency. I often hear that they are blamed for not meeting schedules or other metrics even though they have no ability to do the things that would allow them to do so due to controls on both their driving and the engines of their trucks.
Taken as a whole, I think that these issues are illustrative of a complete failure of industry to pay attention to the basic rules of supply and demand.  If you offset the costs of training onto workers (get a license first), make the working conditions poor (constant surveillance), and then don't raise wages then it is unsurprising that you suddenly have worker shortages.  Raise wages and give fixed term contracts (to make sure employment covers the cost of obtaining a license) -- then you might see the worker shortage vanish instantly.

It is remarkable that companies are acting like this and not addressing shortages with wages.  It makes me suspect that there is some sort of "moral virtue" in paying workers less (or a political point about not wanting to pay people).  Part of it is likely the "something for nothing" game -- if you don't count the costs of your new system on employee retention/morale then it looks like free productivity gains.  Since people are "sticky" (it takes time to find a new job and the employees may hope that the bad plan will go away), there is a lag between the implementation and the subsequent HR issues.

The proposed solution to reduce the criterion for licenses is a short term fix that won't hold in the long run.  A sufficiently bad job (high stress, low autonomy, moderate pay, much travel) is simply going to have to pay more to be competitive.  If you don't believe me, double wages and see what happens. 

However, the big point I want to make is that is appears that these companies don't seem to believe in the market economy, except when it is helpful to them.  Otherwise they would respond to changes in worker supply by paying more for workers (essentially passing down some of the efficiency gains in the form of increased wages).  Since this approach would also improve domestic demand that the time that the economy is a bit stagnant, it would probably be good for everyone. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

When your business model depends on finding miracle workers, you learn not to check behind the curtain

[This is not a post about the suicide of Jeanene Worrell-Breeden. As Slate pointed out, Ms. Worrell-Breeden was facing a number of personal tragedies and there is no value in speculating what role the cheating scandal played.]

Andrew Gelman is perplexed (perhaps rhetorically) by the decision of Columbia University Teachers College to hire a scandal-ridden administrator to run their elementary school.

Ummm, how bout this:
    The principal of a popular elementary school in Harlem acknowledged that she forged answers on students’ state English exams in April because the students had not finished the tests . . . As a result of the cheating, the city invalidated several dozen English test results for the school’s third grade.

The school is a new public school—it opened in 2011—that is run jointly by the New York City Department of Education and Columbia University Teachers College.

So far, it just seems like an unfortunate error. According to the news article, “Nancy Streim, associate vice president for school and community partnerships at Teachers College, said Ms. Worrell-Breeden had created a ‘culture of academic excellence'” at the previous school where she was principal. Maybe Worrell-Breeden just cared too much and was under too much pressure to succeed, she cracked and helped the students cheat.

But then I kept reading:

    In 2009 and 2010, while Ms. Worrell-Breeden was at P.S. 18, she was the subject of two investigations by the special commissioner of investigation. The first found that she had participated in exercise classes while she was collecting what is known as “per session” pay, or overtime, to supervise an after-school program. The inquiry also found that she had failed to offer the overtime opportunity to others in the school, as required, before claiming it for herself.

    The second investigation found that she had inappropriately requested and obtained notarized statements from two employees at the school in which she asked them to lie and say that she had offered them the overtime opportunity.


After those findings, we learn, “She moved to P.S. 30, another school in the Bronx, where she was principal briefly before being chosen by Teachers College to run its new school.”

So, let’s get this straight: She was found to be a liar, a cheat, and a thief, and then, with that all known, she was hired to two jobs as school principal??

The news article quotes Nancy Streim of Teachers College as saying, “We felt that on balance, her recommendations were so glowing from everyone we talked to in the D.O.E. that it was something that we just were able to live with.”

On balance, huh? Whatever else you can say about Worrell-Breeden, she seems to have had the talent of conning powerful people. Or maybe just one or two powerful people in the Department of Education who had the power to get her these jobs.

This is really bad. Is it so hard to find a school principal that you have no choice but to hire someone who lies, cheats, and steals?

It just seems weird to me. I accept that all of us have character flaws, but this is ridiculous. Principal is a supervisory position. What kind of toxic environment will you have in a school where the principal is in the habit of forging documents and instructing employees to lie? How could this possibly be considered a good idea?
Before we try to answer Andrew's questions, let's fill in some context.

This 2010 piece from the NYT spells out the idea behind the school.
One of the main arguments for charter schools is that they will improve the school system as a whole by introducing innovations that traditional schools then adopt. But charter school critics charge that this is not happening — and they say that charters on the whole are weakening the schools around them by siphoning off their resources.


A new primary school proposed by Teachers College at Columbia University aims to address this issue head-on. The school’s goal, its founders say, is to transfer some of the best charter school features to a school run by the Department of Education, while showing how a primary school can benefit from a close affiliation with a college.
The new school proved enormously popular.

From the Columbia Spectator:
Though Teachers College Community School is younger than the kindergartners who are starting there this fall, the four-year-old Columbia-affiliated school on Morningside Avenue and 127th Street received more applications for its kindergarten seats this year than any other school in its district.


Applications for the school’s kindergarten have been steadily increasing since it opened in 2011, school officials say. With 469 kids vying for 50 spots this year, TCCS has become the most sought-after kindergarten in most of Northern Manhattan.


“I think we’re on a very good trajectory,” Nancy Streim, TC’s associate vice president for school and community partnerships, said.


The increase comes even as parents voiced concerns earlier this year that the New York City Department of Education’s new online application portal, Kindergarten Connect, might prevent families without Internet connections from applying.


Streim, however, said that the school hasn’t experienced any problems on that front.
And was held up as a great success.

From Susan Fuhrman, president of Teachers College [emphasis added]:
A contingent from the conference toured TCCS on a chilly April morning. The visitors got to see the 1st- and 2nd-grade classes in action, with the students working in groups and independently. They also saw the new library and the demonstration kitchen, as well as specialized art, science and music classrooms. Then they heard from the school’s dynamic principal Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a veteran New York City school administrator and a TC Cahn Fellow who has created an inclusive culture for the school’s students and active parent community. She described TCCS to the visitors as the culmination of her dream for a true community school.


...

TCCS students have been achieving positive outcomes thus far. For example, among kindergarten students, 99 percent completed the 2012-2013 school year at or above grade level in reading and writing. Among first-grade students, 83 percent ended the year at or above grade level in reading and writing. In math, 96 percent of kindergarteners and 90 percent of first-grade students ended the year at or above grade level. Next year, we’ll have the official city test results for third-graders.


TCCS also has received high marks from teachers and parents in a NYC Department of Education’s annual school survey that rates every school on perceptions of academic expectations, communication, engagement and safety and respect.


As TCCS shows much promise to improve student achievement and well-being, we are looking beyond our neighborhood to encourage other universities and their partners across the country to adapt this model for their own public community schools.
A lot of that success was credited to principal Worrell-Breeden.

From Slate:
This tragedy seems to have come out of nowhere for the wildly popular Teachers College Community School, which is partnered with Columbia University’s Teachers College. Since opening in 2011, the school has become so sought-after that, this past year, it fielded 464 applications for just 50 kindergarten slots.


Worrell-Breeden had worked on Wall Street before starting a career in education 25 years ago. Though she’d been embroiled in scandal at her previous school—collecting overtime pay for supervising an after-school program when she was in fact working out with a personal trainer in the school gym three times a week—Worrell-Breeden landed the spot as founding principal of the Community School, where she made $138,000 a year. She was by all accounts a devoted and inspired leader of the school, and expectations were high for the school’s first year of testing. And maybe the expectations were part of the problem.
Now some answers.



I apologize for hammering this point yet again, but it is important to note how strong cultural forces are within the education reform movement. This translates to a reflexive distrust and hostility to outside critics and a comparable sense of loyalty to those perceived as insiders. The most extreme case of this circle-the-wagons mentality is may be Michelle Rhee who still has the support of liberals like Talking Points Memo's lead education writer even after years of scandals, union-busting, and alliances with standard TPM villains like Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.

Worrell-Breeden appears to be a well-established insider, having put in a quarter-century in the epicenter of the education reform movement (New York City) and having worked closely with the department of education. Add to this the Wall Street background (a huge plus in the world of education reform).

Under these circumstance, I'm not surprised that the people at CUTC were "able to live with" their new principal's serious (lying, stealing, forging) but relatively brief lapses. If anything, I suspect that even those mild reservations are being retconned in due to this latest scandal.

We should also keep in mind that Worrell-Breeden combined this insider status with very real accomplishments.  Did she have a talent for conning powerful people? I don't think so, at least not in the way Andrew suggests. Rather she demonstrates one of the fundamental rules of organizational politics: if you're likable and useful, your superiors will forgive almost anything as long as you didn't do it directly to them.

As for the useful part, Worrell-Breeden looked like a possible miracle worker and that's what CUTC needed because the expectation of miracles was baked into the system. The stated mission of the school was to replicate the accomplishments of schools like the Success Academy schools, which was going to be difficult since SA largely relied on the educational equivalent of stage magic. The effect works on illusions and misdirection (if the audience's attention wanders to the wrong test the trick falls apart).   

This is not to say that you can't find charter school successes (you certainly can) or that the much-touted no-excuses model can't do some good (there is research that suggests it can, though how far these results can be generalized is very much an open question), but the truly amazing stories that you hear about so often almost never hold up to scrutiny and those miracles have become a fundamental part of the movement's mythology.

To her credit, Worrell-Breeden did manage a great deal of what was asked of her. The school was wildly popular and got great press. CUTC was always happy to associate itself with her successes while the PR was good and if she had cooked her test data instead of falsifying it (which would have produced exactly the same result), they would probably still be bragging about their "dynamic principal."

Sometimes you just need the punchline

This is a very old joke with endless variations. You've probably heard it before, but I find the punchline useful in a wide range of situations, so I'll repeat it one more time to make sure everyone catches the reference.
A pilot, Michael Jordon, Bill Gates, the Pope, and a pizza delivery man were all in a plane together traveling through stormy conditions.

Suddenly, the pilot came running back to the passengers and announced that lightning had hit the plane, and they were going to crash in a matter of minutes. "There are only enough parachutes for four of the five of us," he announced. "Since I'm the pilot, I get one!" After saying this, the pilot grabbed a parachute and jumped out of the plane.

"I'm the world's greatest athlete," proclaimed Michael Jordon. "This world needs great athletes, so I must live." Michael Jordon then grabbed a parachute and leaped out of the plane.

"I'm the smarest man in the world," bragged Bill Gates. "The world needs smart men, so I must also live!" Bill Gates grabbed a parachute and jumped out of the plane.

At this point, the Pope began to speak. "I have lived a long life compared to you, and you may take the last parachute. I will go down with the plane."

"You don't have to stay here! The world's smartest man jumped out of the plane with my backpack."


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The strange loves of pundit centrists



I've been meaning to write some posts about how the combination of bad polling data analysis combined with flawed but unquestioned assumptions have made the vast majority of recent political writing such an embarrassing waste of time. On that second point, Paul Krugman has been doing excellent work in response to the Trump surge, spelling out the odd rules "centrist" pundits play by then showing just how, in his words, delusional these pundits have become.

This is Krugman in prime pointing-out-the-naked-emperor mode. The writing is sharp and well-observed, but pretty much everything in the following paragraphs has long been obvious. I often hear these points made in conversation or the blogosphere, but (with this one exception) almost never in the mainstream press.

Pundit centrism in modern America is a strange thing. It’s not about policy, as you can see from the many occasions when members of the cult have demanded that Barack Obama change his ways and advocate things that … he was already advocating. What defines the cult is, instead, the insistence that the parties are symmetric, that they are equally extreme, and that the responsible, virtuous position is always somewhere in between.


The trouble is that this isn’t remotely true. Democrats constitute a normal political party, with some spread between its left and right wings, but in general espousing moderate positions. The GOP, on the other hand, is a deeply radical faction; even its supposed moderates are moderate only in tone, not in policy positions, and its base is motivated by anger against Others.


What this means, in turn, is that to sustain their self-image centrists must misrepresent reality.


On one side, they can’t admit the moderation of the Democrats, which is why you had the spectacle of demands that Obama change course and support his own policies.


On the other side, they have had to invent an imaginary GOP that bears little resemblance to the real thing. This means being continually surprised by the radicalism of the base. It also means a determination to see various Republicans as Serious, Honest Conservatives — SHCs? — whom the centrists know, just know, have to exist.


We saw this a lot in the cult of Paul Ryan, who was and is very obviously a con man, whose numbers have never added up, but who was nonetheless treated with vast respect — and still sometimes is.


But the ur-SHC is John McCain, the Straight-Talking Maverick. Never mind that he is clearly eager to wage as many wars as possible, that he has long since abandoned his once-realistic positions on climate change and immigration, that he tried to put Sarah Palin a heartbeat from the presidency. McCain the myth is who they see, and keep putting on TV. And they imagined that everyone else must see him the same way, that Trump’s sneering at his war record would cause everyone to turn away in disgust.


But the Republican base isn’t eager to hear from SHCs; it has never put McCain on a pedestal; and people who like Donald Trump are not exactly likely to be scared off by his lack of decorum.






Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Meritocracy

This is Joseph

I am a big fan of the idea of meritocracy -- the idea that personal qualities should sort people out into professions such that the "best" at a task (and who want to do a task) get to do it.  It seems to be a very efficient way of jointly selecting on ability and inclination. 

Then I read articles like this one and it becomes clear that we are certainly not living in this world now.  Nor are we likely to get there soon under any modest tweak to the current economic system:
Then there is the group that the Zillow study dubs “double lucky.” These are the select few whose families had enough money to not only help them with college, but to then also assist them with a down payment on a home. This group accounts for more than half of the Millennial homeowners in the Zillow’s data, though they account for only 3 percent of the total Millennial population.
Sure, there are small tweaks that we could do to reduce this level of intergenerational subsidy.  Very high taxes on above median outcome sure could not hurt.

But for this system to be a meritocracy, you would have to assume a very high level of correlation between parents and children in terms of ability.  And that ability was some sort of general thing, that could persist even as the nature or type of employment evolves over time.  I suppose a very strong heritability model of something utterly general (like "IQ") might do*, if there were good research here showing massive effects**. 

Absent that rather strong assumption, these types of associations suggest that, whatever social structure might cause meritocracy, the current culture does not qualify. 


* Recent research (e.g. Maciej Trzaskowski, Nicole Harlaar, Rosalind Arden, Eva Krapohl, Kaili Rimfeld, Andrew McMillan, Philip S. Dale, Robert Plomin, Genetic influence on family socioeconomic status and children's intelligence, Intelligence, Volume 42, January–February 2014, Pages 83-88.) suggests that genes are associated with both SES and IQ (creating some real issues with effect separation).  Also note that the proportion of variance explained is small.  One needs huge effects to presume inherited wealth isn't an issue and we're not seeing this at all. 

**Also see this NBER paper (abstract below):
Wealth is highly correlated between parents and their children; however, little is known about the extent to which these relationships are genetic or determined by environmental factors. We use administrative data on the net wealth of a large sample of Swedish adoptees merged with similar information for their biological and adoptive parents. Comparing the relationship between the wealth of adopted and biological parents and that of the adopted child, we find that, even prior to any inheritance, there is a substantial role for environment and a much smaller role for genetics. We also examine the role played by bequests and find that, when they are taken into account, the role of adoptive parental wealth becomes much stronger. Our findings suggest that wealth transmission is not primarily because children from wealthier families are inherently more talented or more able but that, even in relatively egalitarian Sweden, wealth begets wealth.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Outlier by the Bay

As we have mentioned before, San Francisco is almost always a bad choice when trying to find cities to use as examples for economics, social science or urban planning. We are all an outlier on one axis or another, but San Francisco is a serial offender. Due to a number of extreme conditions and a long string of historical accidents, it is almost impossible to generalize any kind of conclusion drawn about the city.

But the very thing that makes San Francisco so unsuitable for analysis, also makes it incredibly attractive. There is a major subgenre of research and think tank fodder based on arguments and hypotheses that are only possible due to this and a handful of other equally extreme outliers. Of these, one of the most active and quite possibly the silliest involves housing prices and construction.

Check out what Gabriel Metcalf (president of the urban planning and policy think tank, SPUR) wrote in the Atlantic's CityLab:
But for cities like San Francisco that now have 35 years of growth behind them, the urban problems of today are utterly different from what they were a generation or two ago. Instead of disinvestment, blight and stagnation, we are dealing with the problems of rapid change and the stresses of growth: congestion and, most especially, high housing costs.

When more people want to live in a city, it drives up the cost of housing—unless a commensurate amount of places to live are added. By the early 1990s it was clear that San Francisco had a fateful choice to make: Reverse course on its development attitudes, or watch America’s rekindled desire for city life overwhelm the openness and diversity that had made the city so special.

When San Francisco should have been building at least 5,000 new housing units a year to deal with the growing demand to live here, it instead averaged only about 1,500 a year over the course of several decades. In a world where we have the ability to control the supply of housing locally, but people still have the freedom to move where they want, all of this has played out in predictable ways.
Metcalf goes on and on in this vein, but he spends virtually no time on what ought to be the lead paragraph.

San Francisco is a postage stamp.

The entire city has less land area than a seven-by-seven mile square. It's a great city. I love to visit. I have friends and family there. But it's a freaking POSTAGE STAMP! If you lose your keys, you can cover pretty much the whole thing just by having your friends link hands and walk slowly watching the ground.

The fact that this postage stamp is some of the world's most desirable real estate and it's just up the street from the epicenter of one of the world's major economic driver raises serious questions about the feasibility of building its way out of its problems..

Nor is Metcalf alone on this. Take a look at this graph from the Washington Post article,
How big cities that restrict new housing harm the economy from last year.


See what happens when you drop the Bay Area and other obvious outliers like Vegas and Honolulu. Then, just for fun, check out how much of the variability in both price and construction can be explained by density (gotta love Wikipedia).

For the record, I'm not taking a position on the relationship between housing costs and restrictions; I'm just saying that here, as with so many "data-driven" discussions, that rely heavily on the same handful of  outliers and which ignore essential data and alternative hypotheses that often provide a better fit, are not worth taking seriously.

Friday, July 24, 2015

REPOST -- Maybe the [2012] Republican primary [was] going just as we should [have] expect[ed]

[This article by Sam Wang got me thinking about some posts I've been meaning to write about how most popular poll analyses could use more complex assumptions an about how everyone, including political scientists might benefit from more orthogonal data. I hit some of these topics four years ago so I thought I'd do a repost. Other than the correction of one typo, I'm leaving everything the way it was despite having some misgivings about the post.

One thing I do want to emphasize is that this is not a serious proposal; I'm just playing around with the idea that the interaction between desirability and perceived electability might explain some of the weirdness we saw in the last Republican Presidential primary (and the batshit craziness that we are, no doubt, about to see.]

I don't mean that in a snarky way. This is a completely non-snide post. I was just thinking about how even a quick little model with a few fairly intuitive assumptions can fit seemingly chaotic data surprisingly well. This probably won't look much like the models political scientists use (they have expertise and real data and reputations to protect). I'm just playing around.

But it can be a useful thought experiment, trying to explain all of the major data points with one fairly simple theory. Compare that to this bit of analysis from Amity Shlaes:
The answer is that this election cycle is different. Voters want someone for president who is ready to sit down and rewrite Social Security in January 2013. And move on to Medicare repair the next month. A policy technician already familiar with the difference between defined benefits and premium supports before he gets to Washington. What voters remember about Newt was that some of his work laid the ground for balancing the budget. He was leaving the speaker's job by the time that happened, but that experience was key.
This theory might explain Gingrich's recent rise but it does a poor job with Bachmann and Perry and an absolutely terrible job with Cain. It's an explanation that covers a fraction of the data. Unfortunately, it's no worse than much of the analysis we've been seeing from professional political reporters and commentators.

Surely we can do better than that.

Let's say that voters assign their support based on which candidate gets the highest score on a formula that looks something like this (assume each term has a coefficient and that those coefficients vary from voter to voter):

Score = Desirability + Electability(Desirability)

Where desirability is how much you would like to see that candidate as president and electability is roughly analogous to the candidate's perceived likelihood of making it through the primary and the general election.

Now let's make a few relatively defensible assumptions about electability:

electability is more or less a zero sum game;

it is also something like Keynes' beauty contest, an iterative process with everyone trying to figure out who everyone else is going to pick and throwing their support to the leading acceptable candidate;

desirability tends to be more stable than electability.

I almost added a third assumption that electability has momentum, but I think that follows from the iterative aspect.

What can we expect given these assumptions?

For starters, there are two candidates who should post very stable poll numbers though for very different reasons: Romney and Paul. Romney has consistently been seen as number one in general electability so GOP voters who find him acceptable will tend strongly to list him as their first choice even if they may not consider him the most desirable. While Romney's support comes mostly from the second term, Paul's comes almost entirely from the first. Virtually no one sees Paul as the most electable candidate in the field, but his supporters really, really like him.

It's with the rest, though, that the properties of the model start to do some interesting things. Since the most electable candidate is not acceptable to a large segment of the party faithful, perhaps even a majority, a great deal of support is going to go to the number two slot. If there were a clear ranking with a strong second place, this would not be a big deal, but this is a weak field with a relatively small spread in general electability. The result is a primary that's unstable and susceptible to noise.

Think about it this way: let's say the top non-Romney has a twelve percent perceived chance of getting to the White House, the second has eleven and the third has ten. Any number of trivial things can cause a three point shift which can easily cause first and third to exchange places. Suddenly the candidate who was polling at seven is breaking thirty and the pundits are scrambling to come up with an explanation that doesn't sound quite so much like guessing.

What the zero property and convergence can't explain, momentum does a pretty good job with. Take Perry. He came in at the last minute, seemingly had the election sewn up then dropped like a stone. Conventional wisdom usually ascribes this to bad debate performances and an unpopular stand on immigration but primary voters are traditionally pretty forgiving toward bad debates (remember Bush's Dean Acheson moment?) and most of the people who strongly disagreed with Perry's immigration stand already knew about it.

How about this for another explanation? Like most late entries, Perry was a Rorschach candidate and like most late entries, as the blanks were filled in Perry's standing dropped. The result was a downward momentum which Perry accelerated with a series of small but badly timed missteps. Viewed in this context, the immigration statement takes on an entirely different significance. It didn't have to lower Perry's desirability in order to hurt him in the polls; instead, it could have hurt his perceived electability by reminding people who weren't following immigration that closely that Perry had taken positions that other Republicans would object to.

Of course, showing how a model might possibly explain something doesn't prove anything, but it can make for an interesting thought experiment and it does, I hope, at least make a few points, like:

1. Sometimes a simple model can account for some complex and chaotic behavior;

2. Model structure matters. D + ED gives completely different results than D + E;

3. Things like momentum, zero sum constraints, convergence, and shifting to and from ordinal data can have some surprising implications, particularly when;

4. Your data hits some new extreme.

[For a look at what a real analysis of what's driving the poll numbers, you know where to go.]

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Apple Tax

From the Onion: Al Franken and the FTC are investigating the so-called “Apple Tax” for rival streaming services
In a sentence that would make frighteningly little sense to a someone who fell into a coma in 1995 and just awakened today, [As a side note, if I were writing for that publication, I don't think I'd open with a "things were sure different twenty years ago" gag. As a friend of mine mentioned in a conversation recently, twenty years ago, the Onion was the place to go for smart, fresh humor writing while Cracked was a tired magazine your father used to read. -- MP] Saturday Night Live-writer-turned-senator Al Franken has called on the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department to investigate whether successful computer manufacturer and music provider Apple may have engaged in anti-competitive behavior against rival music streaming services like Spotify or Rdio.

...
The crux of the investigation comes down to the multi-faceted relationship between Apple and the streaming services it both supports and competes against. As the proprietor of iOS’s App Store, the company has a huge amount of control over those streamers’ access to their consumer base, many of whom use their iPhones to play music while on the go. But with the advent of the company’s own Apple Music service, Apple is now in direct competition with those same companies, who it assigns a 30 percent surcharge to operate in the Store.

...
The company was previously suggested to have manipulated music licensees into dropping out of Spotify’s free streaming service, a practice that also invited investigation from the FTC.
It's too late to go into a big discussion of anti-trust and vertical integration and monopsony and all that jazz (or, more accurately, too late for me to read through all of the Wikipedia pages on anti-trust and vertical integration and monopsony so I can sound knowledgeable about all that jazz), so I'll leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions about the concentration of economic power in media and finish up with this clip from College Humor.

[I assume by this point everyone knows these aren't safe for work.]










Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Let's all take a moment to close our eyes and picture ourselves desecrating the grave of William Proxmire

It hit me the other day that, while I frequently go after Republicans for taking cheap shots at science and research for personal and political game, I don't think I have ever mentioned that the politician who perfected the art was a Democrat. So the next time that John McCain and Maureen Dowd go all giggly over agricultural research, we should all take a moment and thank William Proxmire for getting things started.
Golden Fleece Award

Proxmire was noted for issuing his Golden Fleece Award.,[5] which was presented monthly between 1975 and 1988, in order to focus media attention on projects Proximire viewed as self-serving and wasteful of taxpayer dollars.[1] The first Golden Fleece Award was awarded in 1975 to the National Science Foundation, for funding an $84,000 study on why people fall in love.[1] Other Golden Fleece awards over the years were awarded to the Justice Department for conducting a study on why prisoners wanted to get out of jail, the National Institute of Mental Health to study a Peruvian brothel ("The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy," reported The New York Times), and the Federal Aviation Administration, for studying "the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the 'length of the buttocks.'"[1]

Proxmire's critics claimed that some of his awards went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs. In some circles his name has become a verb, meaning to unfairly obstruct scientific research for political gain, as in "the project has been proxmired". In 1987, Stewart Brand accused Proxmire of recklessly attacking legitimate research for the crass purpose of furthering his own political career, with gross indifference as to whether his assertions were true or false as well as the long-term effects on American science and technology policy.[13] Proxmire later apologized for several cancelled projects, including SETI.

One winner of the Golden Fleece Award, Ronald Hutchinson, sued Proxmire for defamation in 1976. Proxmire claimed that his statements about Hutchinson's research were protected by the Speech or Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that clause does not immunize members of Congress from liability for defamatory statements made outside of formal congressional proceedings (Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111 (1979)). The case was eventually settled out of court.[14]
If you read some of the descriptions of the awards, it becomes obvious that, like McCain and Dowd after him, Proxmire didn't care about the potential of the research or even the magnitude of the waste; all that mattered was whether or not he could frame the project in a way that made it sound silly. Here's my favorite example: "He gave the award to a study of the sex life of the screw-worm fly. The results were used to create sterile screw-worms that were released into the wild and eliminated this major cattle parasite from the US and reducing the cost of beef across the globe."

Proxmire wasn't even an ethical whore. When a project he'd mocked became too popular (such as SETI), his principled opposition suddenly vanished. He was relentlessly and transparently self-serving, but he was able to get away with it because there were plenty of reporters willing to print a good story even if it wasn't actually true.

In a sense, he is still getting away with it. The ongoing war on data owes a great deal to the late senator.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

"The Fallen of World War II"

I like this video a lot, both as an example of visualizing data and for the way it tells its story. It also brings up a question I wondered about over the years but lacked the historical background to answer:

How much of the Russian Post-War national character, the nationalism and the dogmatism, can be traced back to the shared trauma that the Russian people went through in the second world war?







Monday, July 20, 2015

Let's see how many people I can piss off with this one: Fox news is not all that conservative

Feel free to post angry comments but please make sure to read a few paragraphs first. What follows is by no stretch of the imagination a defense of Fox News; rather it is an appeal for more precise language when we discuss it.

In his recent paper on Fox news, Bruce Bartlett made an important distinction between ideological and partisan. These two concepts, while closely related, are quite different and yet people conflate them all the time and, as a result, most discussions of press bias don't make a lot of sense.
Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein: “It’s a real mistake to call Fox a conservative channel. It’s not. It’s a partisan channel…. To begin with, bluntly, Fox is part of the Republican Party. American political parties are made up of both formal organizations (such as the RNC) and informal networks. Fox News Channel, then, is properly understood as part of the expanded Republican Party.”
Ideologues support positions that align most closely with their belief system. Partisans support positions that they see as furthering the interest of their party. I'd argue that when we talk about "liberals" in the media we are almost always referring to ideological positions while when we refer to "conservatives" in the media we are generally referring to partisan positions. The Tea Party muddies the question somewhat but we're going to put that aside for the moment.

I realize there is a lot of gray area here, but, just as a thought experiment, try thinking about Fox News stories in relation to three continuous variables:

Emphasis ;

Ideology;

Partisanship.

If you tune in regularly to Fox News, you will see a lots of stories with significant partisan and ideological components like marriage equality (which though a losing issue nationwide is still useful for energizing the base). You will also see a lot of stories like Benghazi with little apparent ideological components but with huge partisan ones. What you will very seldom see is a story in heavy rotation without a partisan component.

This Ideology vs, Partisanship distinction is particularly notable when a relatively conservative idea is adopted by a Democratic president and suddenly becomes unacceptable. In 2008, you could see cinservative pundits talking up Mitt Romney and listing his healthcare plan as a major selling point.

Coming from the Bible Belt (where Fox is enormously influential), there are a few other examples that strike me as particularly dramatic. Historically, there are few things that evangelicals hate more than Mormonism, Catholicism and the standard celebration of Christmas.

[Courtesy of Joe Bob Briggs]



From a partisan standpoint, there are huge advantages to building denominational unity and to using Santa and Rudolph to attack "political correctness," and that is consistently the approach Fox and conservative media in general have taken despite the ideological concerns of the audience. [There's another big story here about the way the center of power shifted in the conservative movement, but that's a tale for another campfire.]

It is easy to conflate ideology and partisanship -- they often overlap and there is a great deal of collinearity -- but confusing them can lead to bad analysis, particularly when discussing journalistic bias and balance.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Euro-area thought of the day

This is Joseph.

When even Greg Mankiw has decided that austerity is probably not the best way forward (he suggests that it would be wise to show "mercy"), then you have probably reached the point where the morality narrative has reached its logical limits.  It is also worth noting that the more painful this experience ends up being for Greece, the more likely it is that the Euro group has maximized its size and can only decline from here.

Because who would want to risk ending up like Greece?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Update on the Washington Post piece

Jill Diniz (Director of Eureka Math/Great Minds) has a response to the WP post. It's very much from the MBA damage-control playbook -- dismiss the problem as minimal, insist everything is OK now, ignore the remaining problems, shift the conversation. I'll get to the rest later.

Before I get to the full reply, though, I do want to take a look at her first paragraph[emphasis added]:
The missing parentheses noted by the blogger, when introducing the concept of raising a negative number to a positive integer, was caused by converting the online curriculum to PDFs. This has been corrected. A benefit of open educational resources, such as Eureka Math, is they are easier than traditional instructional resources to improve upon quickly.  

But I'm still seeing this when I download the PDF:



Here's a crop of that screen capture.



Apparently, my plans to retire the Eureka thread were premature.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why Eureka (and implementation in general) belongs in the Common Core debate




Clyde Schechter had an extended reply to a recent post.
Let's follow the lead of the mathematicians here and first be clear about our definitions. Common Core is a set of standards: it is a list of behaviors that students are supposed to achieve at each grade level. And it is the intention that those who attain those standards will, at the end of high school, be prepared for college or for certain non-college-degree-requiring careers.

That is quite a separate matter from issues of textbooks and teacher-training. These are key for successful implementation of the Common Core standards, and I do not deny the importance of these things. But unless you want to argue (and perhaps you do) that the Common Core standards are inherently impossible to implement, you cannot rationally attack the standards by criticizing specific textbooks, or even the present lack of any adequate textbooks.

I think it would be helpful to your readers if you would make it clear whether you disagree in any substantial way with the Common Core Math Standards. I personally have read them and they strike me as quite appropriate. Do you agree or not? If not, what are your concerns?

Then if you want to blog about the inadequacies of Eureka math or other textbooks, do so--but don't cast it as a problem with the Common Core standards. My own daughter is learning math under the new Common Core standards--and, in plain English, her textbook sucks! So I'm with you on this.

But let's be clear what we're talking about: the standards themselves, the implementation of the standards in the classroom, or the assessments of achievement of those standards, or the utilization of those assessments to evaluate students, teachers, and schools. These are all separate issues and nobody is truly served by conflating them.
I'd take the opposite position that the issues involving the standards and those involving implementation are so tightly intertwined that they can and should be discussed as a unit.

1. Virtually no one discusses Common Core in narrowly defined terms. Not Wu. Not Coleman. Nobody. This is largely because the standards have no direct impact on the students. Their effect is felt only through their influence on curriculum and assessment. Pretty much everything you've read about the impact of Common Core was defining the initiative broadly. (Add to this the fact that, to anyone but another math teacher, actual math standards are as boring as dirt.)

2. Nor does treating the standards and their implementation separately make sense from an institutional point of view. Many of the same people and processes are behind both, and all phases were presumably approached with an eye to what would come next. This yet another reason for treating the standards, the lessons and the tests as an integrated unit.

3. If we are going to consider implementation when discussing Common Core, we will have to talk about Eureka Math. Not only is it held up as the gold standard by supporters; its success and wide acceptance make it the default template for other publishers. Barring big changes, this is the form Common Core is likely to take in the classroom.

4. All of this leaves open the hypothetical question: how much of the Eureka debacle could've been avoided had someone else handled this stage of the implementation of the Core math standards? The big problem with that question is that the education reform establishment still sees Eureka as a great success. That indicates a systemic failure. Unless you could find someone with sufficient distance from the establishment, I don't see any potential for a better outcome.

5. Finally, speed kills. The backers of Common Core have pushed a narrative of urgency and dire consequences so hard for so long that I am sure they now believe it themselves. The result is a hurried and unrealistic timeline that is certain to be massively expensive and generate tons of avoidable errors, particularly when combined with processes that lack adequate mechanisms for self-correction and a culture that tends to dismiss external criticism. On the whole, my impression is that the Common Core standards are generally slightly worse than the system of state standards and de facto national standards which they are replacing, but the difference, frankly, is not that great. However, even if the standards represented a big step forward, that would not justify implementing them at a breakneck speed that all but guarantees shoddy work (not to mention being massively expensive).


And as a footnote, the phrase "And it is the intention that those who attain those standards will, at the end of high school, be prepared for college or for certain non-college-degree-requiring careers" is deeply problematic on at least two levels:

First, we already have standards in place with basically these same objectives and which aren't all that different from CCS (the fact that we still have an unacceptable number of unprepared students is just another reminder of the limited impact of standards). If we were just interested in improving college and career readiness, it would be far easier and cheaper to simply tweak what we have (cover this earlier, spend more time on this, raise the test cut-off for this);

We don't see this because these reforms are about more. In a classic case of not letting a crisis go to waste, Coleman et al are looking to make sweeping administrative and pedagogical changes to the educational system and while I'm sure that they believe those changes will improve readiness, that's not the focus. If this were just a get-kids-through-college conversation, we would not be talking about mathematical formalism and close reading.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Godzilla vs. Rodan -- digital media edition

When giant, hideous monsters clash it's difficult deciding who to root for. 



Questions of team loyalty aside, this Slate article by Will Oremus raises interesting questions about attitudes toward and incentives for copyright infringement.
Last year on his podcast Hello Internet, the Australian filmmaker Brady Haran coined the term freebooting to describe the act of taking someone’s YouTube video and re-uploading it on a different platform for your own benefit....

Unlike sea pirates, Facebook freebooters don’t directly profit from their plundering. That’s because, unlike YouTube, Facebook doesn’t run commercials before its native videos—not yet, at least. That’s part of why they spread like wildfire. What the freebooter gains is attention, whether in the form of likes, shares, or new followers for its Facebook page. That can be valuable, sure, especially for brands and media outlets. But it might seem like a relatively small booty compared with the legal risk involved. Sandlin’s lawyer, Stephen Heninger, told me he believes Facebook freebooting amounts to copyright infringement, though he also said the phenomenon is new enough that the legal precedent is limited.
...
Freebooting, to be clear, is not the same as simply sharing a link to someone’s YouTube video on Facebook. When you do that, Facebook embeds the YouTube video, and all the views—and advertising revenues—are properly credited to its original publisher. No one has a problem with that, including Sandlin. It’s how the system is supposed to work.

But it doesn’t work that way anymore—not well, anyway. That’s because, over the past year, Facebook has decided it’s no longer content to be a venue for sharing links to articles and videos found elsewhere on the Internet. Facebook now wants to host the content itself—and, in so doing, control the advertising revenue that flows from it....

To that end, Facebook has built its own video platform and given it a decisive home-field advantage in the News Feed. Share a YouTube video on Facebook, and it will appear in your friends’ feeds as a small, static preview image with a “play” button on it—that is, if it appears in your friends’ News Feeds at all. Those who do see it will be hesitant to click on it, because they know it’s likely to be preceded by an ad. But take that same video and upload it directly to Facebook, and it will appear in your friends’ feeds as a full-size video that starts playing automatically as they scroll past it. (That’s less annoying than it sounds.) Oh, and it will appear in a lot of your friends’ feeds. Anecdotal evidence—and guidance from Facebook itself—suggests native videos perform orders of magnitude better on Facebook than those shared from other platforms.

Facebook’s video push has produced stunning results. In September, the company announced that its users were watching 1 billion videos a day on the social network. By April, that number had quadrupled to 4 billion. An in-depth Fortune story in June on “Facebook’s Video-Traffic Explosion” reported that publishers such as BuzzFeed have seen their Facebook video views grow tenfold in the past year. One caveat is that a view of a Facebook video might not mean quite the same thing as a view of a YouTube video, because Facebook videos play in your feed whether you click on them or not.
That caveat might be worth a post of it own on apples-to-oranges data comparisons. Maybe next time