Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Once again, intellectual property law has made satire superfluous

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about Apple patenting wedge shaped tablet computers. For a title I tried to think of a design feature that no one would possibly have the gall to patent. I came up with this:

Has anyone patented rounded corners yet? If not, I see an opportunity

Then this morning I hear the following on Marketplace:

Kai Ryssdal: A high-stakes and high-tech game of 'Did TOO! Did NOT!' got going today in federal court in San Jose. Apple is suing Samsung for $2.5 billion for -- Apple says -- stealing the designs for the iPad and iPhone. Samsung, in turn, says Apple stole its design from somebody else to begin with. 
As for the technology at the heart of this whole thing? Marketplace's Queena Kim explains that might not really matter at all.

Queena KimPaulette Taylor has been a jury consultant on patent lawsuits for about 20 years. She says for jurors when you’re called to a patent case: 
Paulette Taylor: It’s like being set down in the middle of foreign land where you don’t speak the language and you have no ideas what the customs are. 
And so, she says, the lawyer becomes the jury’s guide to this strange place. In the case of Apple versus Samsung, I’ll quote from Apple’s “pre-trial brief” here, the jury must decide whether Samsung violated “Apple’s D’677 and D’087 iPhone design patents and D’889 tablet design patent.” Translation: Did Samsung copy the rectangular shape, rounded corners and the button at the bottom of the iPhone.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Journalistic outsourcing

This American Life digs into the future of journalism and discovers that, not surprisingly, it uses a fake name:
And in fact in all the time he's worked at Journatic, he's never spoken directly to his supervising editor, who sits in St. Louis. They communicate exclusively through the computer. When Ryan has a question about how to do something, his supervisor sometimes answers by posting a private video on YouTube. That's the only time Ryan's ever heard the guy's voice. It's all very future.

After he got the student of the week assignment, Ryan was put in charge of editing death notices and little business briefs for Newsday, a newspaper on Long Island.

Ryan Smith And my job was just to copy edit it and again, put it in the database.

Sarah Koenig And where were these stories coming from? Like who was doing the writing that you were editing?

Ryan Smith I was told, actually, that they're located in the Philippines.

Sarah Koenig That everything you were editing was coming from the Philippines?

Ryan Smith That's what I was told at the time, that these obituaries and these business stories were all written in the Philippines.

Sarah Koenig I know, right? In the Philippines-- which means when you look up the death notice, say, of a man named Eugene Squeleney Jr. on newsday.com, you see a story about him. But there's no reporters name attached to it. It just says special to Newsday under the headline. But the story was actually written by someone in the Philippines. Journatics internal records listed her as Diana D. and say that Diane got the story from the obituary website legacy.com and just slightly rewrote the information there.

I called Newsday's newsroom to ask about this, why they would use Journatic for this work. I didn't get too far. Mostly I learned that Newsday has exciting hold music. I talked to an editor who didn't want to go on tape. When I pointed out the Squeleney story with no reporter's name on it, just special to Newsday, the editor said, quote, "I am totally unfamiliar with this. I don't know what it is," unquote.

Then I talked to a company spokesman who cheerfully said he'd look into it. But a few days later, I got an email saying he quote, "could not provide any information on this." He wouldn't even say whether Newsday was working with Journatic. Ryan says he learned about the Filipino writers after complaining to his supervisor that the copy he was getting was rife with basic grammar and spelling errors. That's when his editor told him to cut the writer some slack. They weren't native speakers. So Ryan wondered, why do we have these writers at all?

His editor wrote back quote, "well someone has to summarize the obits for the death briefs. And it's cheaper to pay an outsourced writer than to have an American writer editor do it. Unfortunately they're basically paid pennies for these. I have Filipinos asking for better pay on a regular basis. I wish I could do something for them." An ad Journatic placed seeking Filipino writers offered 0.35 to $0.40 per story. I confirmed with a Filipino writer that they are paid 35 to $0.40 a story and more for longer stuff. But wait, there's more. Here's Ryan.

Ryan Smith When I ended up looking at the names on a lot of the stories-- and the names on the stories that were published weren't the ones that I saw that had written the stories.

Sarah Koenig Here's what he's talking about. In the Chicago Tribune's local site covering the towns of Homewood and Flossmoor, for example, you can see that Eric and Joan So-and-so have listed for sale their 4 bedroom, 4.5 bath home on such-and-such a street for $695,000, that Eric is a general manager of a building company, that he attended Roosevelt University. And there's a picture of him.

The reporters name on the story is Jenny Cox. But there is no Jenny Cox. Or even if there is a Jenny Cox somewhere out there, she didn't write the story. The writer was someone named Giselle Bautista in the Philippines who works for Journatic. Again, looking at the computer system the company uses to manage its stories, it seems that when Giselle worked on this real estate story, there was a button called Select Alias. When she clicked on it, she had a choice. She could either be Jenny Cox or Glenda Smith.

Which lead to this gem of a defense from the CEO:

Brian Timpone Really what they're doing is assembling and copy editing a bunch of facts, right? So they write the lead. If there's a paragraph about a person, the paragraph is technically written by someone in the Philippines, but not written. It's like they have to type out who the person is, right? So they have to know how to write to send it over. I mean but to say oh, it's written in the Philippines-- I mean there might be a paragraph of it that the first draft is written in the Phillipines.

If you drop by the TAL site, make sure to checkout the fallout to the story.

What is in a name?

So I have been wondering for a while if the blog name, Observational Epidemiology, really reflects the direction of the blog.  It seems more like we have become a bit more broad; looking more at education, economics, the media and statistics (and less at my original focus).

Is it time to update this blog's title?

Red flags -- few quick thoughts on Hacker and algebra

Following up on the previous post, we do need to have a serious debate on curriculum, but most attempts at starting these discussions are undercut by poor understanding of the subtle and complex way that what we learn in the classroom prepares (or fails to prepare) us for, if you'll pardon the phrase, real life. This lack of understanding is often accompanied by warning signs and, with no disrespect intended toward Dr. Hacker, a number of these show up in this NYT op-ed.

Here are a few examples.

State regents and legislators — and much of the public — take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.

Using polynomial functions as an example makes me very, very nervous. Functions may be the most indispensable concept for real world applications and having a feel for them may well be most important foundation of mathematical intuition. This really bad example, particularly given his follow-up defense of "quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance." Has Hacker really thought through these skills?

Then there's this:

Nor will just passing grades suffice. Many colleges seek to raise their status by setting a high mathematics bar. Hence, they look for 700 on the math section of the SAT, a height attained in 2009 by only 9 percent of men and 4 percent of women. And it’s not just Ivy League colleges that do this: at schools like Vanderbilt, Rice and Washington University in St. Louis, applicants had best be legacies or athletes if they have scored less than 700 on their math SATs.

An old professor of mine, Bill Condon, once referred to the SAT as the toughest ninth grade math test you'll ever take. That about covers it. The questions are difficult but the algebra is extremely rudimentary and the geometry is so simple it can literally be covered in less than a page. The rest of the test is logic and basic  skills like reading graphs and tables. Nothing here is relevant to his proposal. Another really bad example.

I have to run now, but it's because I'm out of time, not out of red flags.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

I need to read this in depth before I comment further

Though my initial impression is not positive.

From Andrew Hacker via Dana Goldstein:
A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.

My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus. State regents and legislators — and much of the public — take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.

There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)

This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

Felix Salmon tries to keep'm honest

Not so long ago, journalism was a much more difficult job. Sources were only accessible through land lines and face to face conversations. Only brief documents could be transmitted. Most were unindexed; none were searchable. Misinformation did slip by from time to time but not that often, and when it did happen the response was an appropriate level of shame.

Now what would have been days worth of research can be done with a half hour of Starbucks WiFi and yet, if anything, documents are more likely to be skimmed and questionable statements from interested parties are more likely to go unchecked.

The following post from Felix Salmon shouldn't be exceptional -- all he does is take a close look at a widely covered report -- but we've reached the point where this level of journalistic professionalism is the exception.
Are crowdfunding statistics the new counterfeiting statistics? Certainly they seem to have become a meme. If you know that crowdfunding is a big deal, it’s probably because you read all about it in TechCrunch, in May (“these portals raised $1.5 billion and successfully funded more than 1 million campaigns in 2011″), USA Today, a few weeks later (“About $1.5 billion was raised in 2011 by about 450 crowd-sourcing Internet sites worldwide”), or maybe the Economist, a week after that (“$2.8 billion will be raised worldwide this year, up from $1.5 billion in 2011″). More recently, Forbes upped the ante even further: “This year alone, an estimated $3.2 billion dollars is expected to be raised through donation-based crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter”.

All of these statistics, you won’t be surprised to hear, come from the same place: a May report from Crowdfunding.org and its research arm, Massolution. The report lists — by placing their logos on five successive pages of the report, so that their names can’t be searched — 135 different “participating companies”, starting with Lending Club and Kiva, and ending with… um, hang on a sec. Lending Club and Kiva? Since when are they “crowdfunding platforms”?

It turns out, if you look at the definition of a “crowdfunding platform” that the report uses, it’s incredibly broad: “an operator of a funding platform that facilitates monetary exchange between funders and fundraisers.” Which turns out to include not only peer-to-peer lenders but also FirstGiving, a website which non-profits use to accept donations, and which claims to have moved $1 billion of funds through its system. For that matter, the definition doesn’t even say that the crowdfunding platform needs to be online: I reckon that if anybody hosting a political fundraiser probably counts as a crowdfunding platform under this definition. Hell, the New York Stock Exchange would even qualify.

Oh, and guess what: if you add up all the money raised in 2011 from all 135 companies listed, it doesn’t come to $1.47 billion at all. It comes to just $575 million. Where does the other $895 million come from? The report basically pulls it out of thin air, reckoning that since it didn’t manage to get numbers from all of the crowdfunding companies in the world, it would try to extrapolate, somehow.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Loan Sharks, Facebook and the Growth Fetish

Think about the following game. I'm going to let you pick seven or twelve then I'm going to role a pair of dice. If you pick seven you win seven hundred dollars if seven turns up and you lose one hundred if it doesn't. If you pick twelve you win two thousand dollars if twelve turns up and lose one hundred if it doesn't.

I assume everyone who reads this blog would pick seven at this point but what if I added the following detail, there's a loan shark waiting outside with a large gun and he is going to shoot you dead if you don't hand him two thousand dollars.

Suddenly, that twelve is starting to look pretty good.

This example is extreme, of course, but it's not all that unrealistic. There are lots of situations where the value of money follows a nonlinear or even stair-step curve. (ever been a nickel short at the coke machine?). Unfortunately we often make all sorts of assumptions about smoothness and well-behaved functions when talking about finance and economics.

Think about stock options. Let's say you bought a share for one hundred dollars. Furthermore, lets say that the CEO (whose options are also pegged at one hundred) has a choice between two strategies: one has a fifty/fifty chance of a share price off 100 or 105; the other has basically a fifty/fifty chance of lowering the price to 50 or raising it to 110.

Which is the better strategy? That depends on whether we're talking about the point of view of you, the stockholder, or of the CEO.

This is, of course, another toy example, albeit a more realistic toy than the first. For a real and timely example consider this from Marketplace:
Facebook's ad revenue is growing steadily, but not fast enough to justify its stock price.

Williamson: Everybody is going to be looking for is some traction in mobile revenue.

If Facebook's ad sales aren't gaining momentum, the social network could face another problem: share overhang -- meaning, jittery employees could dump shares and the stock plummets. Since the IPO, employees haven't been allowed to sell shares. But starting in August, they will be.

Brian Wieser: If the revenue turns out to be way above expectations, it is possible to alleviate some of the share overhang.

Brian Wieser is an analyst at Pivotal Research Group. But he says if earnings disappoint, employees could stage an ugly sell off.
Other than the marketing analytics aspect (where Facebook is very sharp) I don't have any special expertise here, but to a casual observer, the company appears to be facing a seven/twelve choice.

The seven is to shore up the mobile side of the business, get costs under control,and focus on deepening the relationship with existing customers.This strategy has an excellent chance of paying off handsomely for many years.

The twelve is to try to try to grow fast enough to justify the stock price which is a hell of a long shot (When you're closing in on a billion members, a business plan that assumes further explosive growth may not be realistic). Unfortunately, even having a chance at that goal requires pouring money on the problem and squeezing more cash out of members in ever more annoying ways. This strategy runs the risk of leaving the company cash poor with a tarnished brand and unhappy members.

All of this takes us back to the growth fetish, the tendency to overvalue short term growth even when it may end up reducing the long term returns of a company.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Remember that ongoing conversation about the decline of journalism?

From Marketplace:

Vigeland: OK, excellent. Give us a rundown of some of the subjects that you have been quoted as an expert on. 
Holiday: Turntables, insomnia, barefoot running and -- my favorite, of course, is boat winterization. 
Vigeland: And do you own a boat? 
Holiday: I don't own a boat. I don't own a turntable either. And I don't suffer from insomnia. 
Vigeland: All right. So what was your ultimate goal here? Why bother with this kind of thing? Were you bored, you needed something to do? 
Holiday: No, absolutely not. So I discovered about a year ago, there's this service that's called HelpAReporterOut.com. Basically, the reporter needs a subject for a trend piece; I'm promoting something, I say, 'I'll be your trend subject,' and we trade. The reporter doesn't really have to do their job, and the source gets free publicity. So what I wanted to prove was that this backroom arrangement left the front door wide open to all sorts of media manipulation. And so, in about six months, I was able to deceive almost every major media outlet -- not a single one fact-checked, not a single one asked, 'Hey, why are you giving us this information? What's in it for you?' Look, sources have always been self-interested -- we've known this -- but we've almost embraced that self-interest and not asked: 'What are the consequences of doing so?'

Sunday, July 22, 2012

More on microfoundations

Speaking of the stuff of the queue, Joseph and I have been talking about questionable defenses of economic rationality. Now Paul Krugman (who pumps this stuff out at an astounding rate) has another example of theory not matching reality:

So: I’m old enough (you kids get off my lawn) to remember the rise of self-service gas stations, which coincided with the oil shocks of the 1970s. Suddenly gas was much more expensive — and drivers, eager to limit the blow, were willing to pump their own to save a few pennies. 
At the time, being either in or fresh out of grad school, I thought, wait, this makes no sense: the decision to pump your own gas is about making a tradeoff between money and your own effort, and should have nothing special to do with the price of gasoline per se. Yet people acted as if they had a limited budget for fuel, as opposed to an overall budget constraint, and responded to a rise in gas prices with a seemingly irrational effort to hold down the size of that sub-budget. 
What the new paper by Hastings and Shapiro does is to show that the same kind of behavior continues to apply, with consumers shifting to lower-grade gasoline when gas prices rise, to higher-grade when they fall; the upshift happens even if incomes are falling. 
What does this have to do with the macro wars? Well, if the assumption of perfect rationality breaks down even in the most standard of micro settings — if consumers behave in a way inconsistent with full maximization even when doing something as mundane as choosing which type of gas to put in their tank — how absurd is it to insist that, say, Keynesian stories about the economy can’t be right because we can’t fully derive them from intertemporal maximization?

Two anecdotes on how (and how not) to run a business

I'm going to be discussing both of these businesses in future posts but since my queue is pretty full at the moment I thought I'd get these two examples out while they were still current.

The first involves Weigel Broadcasting, probably the best run business you've never heard of. As with sports and politics, there's an aesthetic pleasure to watching business done well and under that criteria, Weigel is in Joe Montana territory.

Take the response to the death of Andy Griffith on their MeTV network. The network ran a slate of shows featuring Griffith including the Make Room for Daddy back door pilot. Nothing particularly surprising there. I'm sure they plan these in advance and have already laid out the shows they'll air when other notables like Dick Van Dyke or Mary Tyler Moore pass away.

What was notable was the timing. The tribute aired on the Fourth of July. It was an inspired choice -- no living performer was more associated with Americana than Griffith -- but what makes it notable was the fact that Andy Griffith died on July the third.

Let's run through the timeline:

1. Decide on the Fourth

2. Reschedule the day's shows

3. Record the promos

4. Put the promos into heavy rotation

5. Issue press releases.

I've seen simpler corporate processes stretch on for months. At Weigel, this took six hours on the outside. If we had better business journalists, you'd be hearing more about Weigel.

Now for something completely different...

I was checking Hulu last night when I noticed an item about the Dark Knight. I immediately assumed it was something about the shootings (keep in mind, the time you see at the bottom of the screen is West Coast time) but instead it was a jokey piece on fake spoilers. It was still there when I went to bed.

When you get a big, tragic story like this, smart nimble businesses immediately ask themselves if there's a negative PR aspect that they need look out for and if possible, avoid. This is particularly true for websites because

1. it's easy to make changes

2. screen captures are forever.

I suspect that someone at Hulu saw this and thought "we really ought to pull that" but the company wasn't set up for that kind of rapid response. This is also consistent with other things we've seen from Hulu, but that's a topic for other posts.

(also posted at MippyvilleTV)

Krugman on Climate Change

Paul Krugman makes a couple of essential points about climate change. The first points to a new paper by James Hansen. As Krugman puts it:
The first is the relationship between extreme weather events and climate change. The normal, cautious thing is to say that there’s no way to attribute any particular event, like a heat wave in the Ukraine, to global warming — and news media have basically been bullied by this argument into rarely mentioning climate change even when reporting on extreme weather. But Hansen et al make an important point: this argument is much weaker when we’re talking about really extreme events, like temperatures more than 3 standard deviations above historical norms. Such events would almost never happen if there weren’t a rising trend in global temperatures; so when they become quite common, as they have, it’s fair to call them evidence of warming.
The second addresses something that has bothered me for a long time, the "won't there be winners with global warming?" argument. My rebuttal has always been that we have optimized agricultural land use based on our current climate. Krugman makes that point but takes it further:
The second point is how we know that climate change is a bad thing — a question I sometimes get asked. The questioners wonder why the fact that, say, more of Canada becomes agriculturally viable doesn’t offset the damage in places that get too hot. 

My first-pass answer is that we have a global economy that is adapted to historically normal climate — not just in terms of what is grown where, but in terms of where we locate our cities. In the long run, after a couple of centuries’ worth of urban development and infrastructure has been drowned by rising sea levels and/or made useless because previously habitable regions need to be abandoned, we might be able to reconstruct an equally productive economy; but in the long run …
On a related note, we are now having to worry about invasive species in in Antarctica.

Saturday Afternoon in LA

I'm typing this sitting under the umbrellas at Irv's Burgers, a Fifties era hamburger stand in West Hollywood. It's a notoriously friendly neighborhood place and it reminds me of something that first struck me when I moved to LA from Atlanta: for all its trendiness, LA has a distinctly old fashioned attitude toward dining. In most of the country, if you drive down the street looking for a quick bite to eat, you will see the same places serving the same food.

It's true that national chains are eating away at local dining, but the independents and local chains like Tommy's and Zankou's still dominate much of the town. Part of the reason is certainly the loyalty these spots inspire. Pulitzer Prize winning food writer Jonathan Gold once refused to say whether he preferred Apple Pan or Pie N' Burger because he didn't want to deal with the letters from the patrons of the spot he didn't pick.

I was having a cheeseburger at Apple Pan last week and I got into a conversation with the man sitting next to me. He had been coming there weekly for over fifty years, only slightly longer than the counterman had been there.

There are plenty of regulars here at Irv's, walking in and picking up old conversations through the pick-up window with the family that owns the place. There's a comfortable, small town vibe here that you can find in most of LA.  That's not something most of the world associates with LA, but the locals know. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Marissa Mayer: Outlier

There has been a lot of talk about Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo!  A lot of the interest seemed to be in the fact that she was six months pregnant when appointed and not just that she is the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company right now.  In particular, so close to the Anne-Marie Slaughter discussion about "women having it all", people wondered if she was a good example of women having it all or not.

But Ms. Mayer, you I admire greatly, has nothing to contribute to the debate except (perhaps) to act as an existence proof.  She is a 37 year old worth 300 million dollars.  I think it is fair to say that she is not going to  be unable to provide extensive child care services as well as working.  Might a bracing schedule interfere with breast feeding?  Yes, but many children are bottle fed (I am one) and did fine.  Might it interfere with seeing everything about your children?  Yes, but only in the same way that rules out a serious quest for enlightenment in a Buddhist monastery as well.  In life there are always some degree of trade-offs between activities -- none of us can do everything.

But most importantly, her career track and resources add nothing to the debate about work life balance for young women in the United States.  The normal barriers to career success are things like access to childcare and needing to balance housework.  Or with being a single mother and needing to do it all on your own.  The wealth to hire a team of housekeepers and childcare providers makes most of this far less concerning.

It is like worrying if Warren Buffet has health insurance or not.  It is pretty clear that not being insured would not be a serious barrier to Warren Buffet getting and and all treatment that he desires.  After all, he has the resources to overcome these issues.

So I think the real narrative is "lack of resources".  That being said, it turns out I am a fairly big Marissa Meyer fan and I hope that she is an amazing success in her new role.  I do think she is a good example as a businesswomen and engineer about how to climb the corporate ladder and become highly successful.

Friday, July 20, 2012

"The corporate equivalent of ketosis"

An excellent post by Felix Salmon on the mishandling of the USPS:
To put it another way: the Post Office is broken, in large part thanks to unhelpful meddling by Congress. And it won’t get fixed unless and until Congress gets out of the way and stops forcing it into the corporate equivalent of ketosis, essentially consuming its own flesh in order to survive.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

AHRQ Questions

The Incidental Economist is writing about a House Bill to remove AHRQ as an agency and to remove economic research from the National Institutes of Health. 
I am of decidedly mixed feelings. I can definitely see how the focus in the NIH should be on the science. Single, focused mandates can improve the ability of an agency to perform a critical task.

But that, if anything, is why AHRQ is critical. If we want to remove economic research from the NIH (to improve focus and metrics) then it would make a second agency, with the appropriate mandate, even more important. This is very similar to the FDA, which focuses on safety, needing a partner organization that is considering cost.

So that rather inclines me towards the view that I like the improved NIH focus but see pairing it with the elimination of AHRQ as being a very questionable decision.

NOTE: the preceding was entirely personal opinion. It does not represent any institution that I have been affiliated with or will be affiliated with. I have received funding from AHRQ.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Quote of the Day

Via Twitter
davidfrum @davidfrum 15 Jul One of the many evils of the employer-based healthcare system is that it makes unemployment an almost total personal catastrophe ...
It is true that if we wanted labor market mobility then we would face this issue head on. Lot's of other financial services (bank account, auto insurance) don't depend on employers.  The one bright side of plans like the 401(k) is that they also decouple the dependence of former employees on the health of the employer's pension plan.  Why can't we do the sdame thing for health insurance? 

Monday, July 16, 2012

I dream of distant verdant fields

And as I walk toward those fields, I realize that I'm looking at millions of terracotta figurines of small animals, cartoon characters and busts of the President, all with grass growing out of their heads.

Spies like us

I've been seeing how many calories I can log on the exercise machines at the gym (I realize those numbers may not accurately measure what I'm burning but they make a good motivational metric). To keep myself distracted I've been digging up all the files I can for my cheap media player, including a number from the wonderful Internet Archive.

One of the shows on the playlist was Ziv Television's I Led Three Lives. I had never actually seen the show but I had heard about it and knew the basic premise -- a fictionalized account of a man who infiltrated the communist party for the FBI. It was a well done show (Ziv always knew how to get the most out of a limited budget and often hired some interesting talent like Harlan Ellison and Gene Roddenberry), but what stood out was just how much a product of its time the show was and how difficult it would be to imagine the '53-'56 show ten years later.

We often talk about the Sixties as being the height of the Cold War but that certainly isn't the picture you get from pop culture. Light entertainment like Man from UNCLE and Hogan's Heroes as well as message films like the Russians are Coming featured sympathetic Russian communists. More serious fiction like the Harry Palmer and Matt Helm books (no, really) and most of all the novels of John LeCarre depicted counter-intelligence agents as morally compromised as their counterparts. Even the Bond films never used the Russians as primary villains.

The difference in attitudes is particularly sharp when the Bond movies are compared to the corresponding novels of a decade earlier. Other than the Blofeld arc at the end of the series (which also happened to be the Sixties books), the villains in Fleming's books were Russians and they were every bit as despicable (and somewhat more cartoonish) than the fifth columnists in I Led  Three Lives.

Of course it was possible to find evil Russian communists and (thanks to Stan Lee*) even rhe occasional fifth columnist, but the public mood had clearly changed. I would guess this was primarily a reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis but I'm open to other suggestions.

*On a related note, Lee's famous break with the comics code was prompted by a request from the Nixon administration'

(From Wiki)

An early 1970s Spider-Man story led to the revision of the Comics Code. Previously, the Code forbade the depiction of the use of illegal drugs, even negatively. However, in 1970, the Nixon administration's Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asked Stan Lee to publish an anti-drug message in one of Marvel's top-selling titles.[1]:239 Lee chose the top-selling The Amazing Spider-Man; issues #96–98 (May–July 1971) feature a story arcdepicting the negative effects of drug use. In the story, Peter Parker's friend Harry Osborn becomes addicted to pills. When Spider-Man fights the Green Goblin (Norman Osborn, Harry's father), Spider-Man defeats the Green Goblin, by revealing Harry's drug addiction. While the story had a clear anti-drug message, the Comics Code Authority refused to issue its seal of approval. Marvel nevertheless published the three issues without the Comics Code Authority's approval or seal. The issues sold so well that the industry's self-censorship was undercut and the Code was subsequently revised.[1]:239 
[Also posted at Mippyville TV]

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Schadenfreude alert

Marketplace approaches this as a story about the importance of timing the sale of a company. I think there may be a bigger point here about the actual value of some of these companies:
When Digg launched in 2004, it was a startup darling. It let users post links to their favorite news and websites. Then their friends could vote the link up-or-down. In its heyday, the site had 14 million visitors -- and a line of offers. Google reportedly put $200 million on the table in 2008. But no deal was ever done. So that $500,000 selling price has got to hurt. But could Digg have known?

Ezra Klein makes a point that should be obvious but apparently isn't

Yesterday's Washington Post had an excellent piece by Klein yesterday, Here's the money shot:
Actually, I got something wrong there. I said “almost nothing.” But that 1.459 percent doesn’t account for inflation. And so when you do account for inflation, it’s not “almost nothing.” It’s “less than nothing.” Here are the latest “real yield curves” for Treasurys, which is to say, the yields after adjusting for inflation:

They’re negative. Negative! The market will literally pay us a small premium to take their money and keep it safe for them for five, seven or 10 years. We could use that money to rebuild our roads and water filtration systems. We could use that money to cut taxes for any business that adds to its payrolls. We could use that to hire back the 600,000 state and local workers we’ve laid off in the last few years. 
Or, as Larry Summers has written, we could simply accelerate payments we know we’ll need to make anyway. We could move up maintenance projects, replace our military equipment or buy space we’re currently leasing. All of that would leave the government in a better fiscal position going forward, not to mention help the economy. 
The fact that we’re not doing any of this isn’t just a lost opportunity. It’s financial mismanagement on an epic scale.
As noted before, Paul Krugman and company spend a great deal of time arguing that financially  governments are not like households or businesses. It's a valid point, but the economists making it often lose sight of the fact that, in this context, it's also a moot one. In this situation, a government, a family or a business, if responsibly managed, would take advantage of these better-than-free funds for investment and maintenance.

There is no context in which our current course makes sense.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

An immunity to cognitive dissonance now seems to be the sole requirement for a journalism position

First consider this from Politico (via Chait)

"The Obama complaint claims we erred in saying Mitt Romney gave up active management of Bain Capital in early 1999 to run the 2002 Winter Olympics, insisting we were then wrong in saying Romney was not responsible for shipping U.S. jobs overseas," FactCheck's Brooks Jackson and Robert Farley wrote in a response to the Obama campaign, which had complained about an earlier article by the authors.

"In fact, if the Obama campaign were correct, Romney would be guilty of a federal felony by certifying on federal financial disclosure forms that he left active management of Bain Capital in February 1999."
This would seem to be a convincing argument. Romney is too smart and too much of a professional to casually misrepresent himself on a federal filing. The only trouble is that, according to recent reports, at least some of those forms seem to tell a different story.
Romney said he left any managerial role at Bain Capital behind in February 1999, delegating all voting shares of stock to 26 managing directors and leaving day-to-day operations to focus on running the Olympics. But subsequent SEC filings list him as “sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president.” A 2001 SEC filing first reported by TPM lists his “principal occupation” as “Managing Director of Bain Capital, Inc.” and theBoston Globe reviewed additional filings containing similar claims.
I don't know enough about the law to say where the line is here but I'm pretty sure that there are legal connotations to these terms and that listing yourself as chairman, CEO, president and managing director of a firm you have no managerial role in has got to put you in a legally gray area. I doubt that's a risk Romney would take. 

Which takes us back to Factcheck which reacted as follows:
"We see little new in the Globe piece. So far, nobody has shown that Romney was actually managing Bain — even part-time — during his time at the Olympics, or that he was anything but a passive, absentee owner during that time, as both Romney and Bain have long said," Brooks Jackson, a co-author of the FactCheck piece, told POLITICO today.

Are 83% of Medical Doctors considering leaving medicine?

Aaron Carroll rightly argues that any such claim is silly:

Let’s get past even that. Let’s just take the top line result. Does it pass the smell test? Do you really believe that 83% of doctors are considering quitting because of the ACA? Do you really believe that only 17% of docs are NOT considering quitting? Really? Anecdotally, I’ve heard of no physicians whatsoever who are quitting; I work with a lot of docs. But let’simagine my experience is abnormal. Remember that about 20% of physicians make an earning placing them in the top 1% of the country. Medicine, above any other profession, is more likely to earn you that much. This survey would have you believe that more than 80% of us are willing to throw all that away, just because of the ACA.
Notice that this implies that medical doctors would have to be complete and utter morons in order to do this.  And over ACA?  Now, I could imagine a scenario in which medicine was becoming less attractive as a career path and some doctors might have decided they would have been better off as MBAs, for example -- ignoring whether they could have been a successful MBA even if they had wanted to.

Heck, would not the MA experiment have shown these kinds of effects if 83% of MDs were honestly considering leaving? 

Why can't we have a press corp that would make fun of such an unlikely claim? 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Stock Market Bubbles and the Near Miss Effect

This American Life had another remarkable episode a few weeks ago on blackjack (which I just got around to). As usual, there's lots of good stuff here, but two parts in particular caught my eye. The first was this work from two researchers at Southern Illinois University, Reza Habib and Mark Dixon (the second will have to wait for an upcoming post):
Sarah Koenig
In 2006, Dixon teamed up with Habib to see if they could figure out what was happening to people neurologically when they saw near misses. They scanned the brains of 22 gamblers-- 11 addicted, or what they called pathological gamblers, and 11 non-pathological gamblers-- as all these people watch near misses on slot machine displays. 
 The results surprised them. Because while both addicted and non-addicted gamblers said the near misses felt more like wins, their brains said something different. Here's Reza Habib. 
Reza Habib
What you see in the non-pathological gamblers is that the regions that are activated for losses, those same regions tend to be also activated for near misses. And so the brain, at least, processes these near misses in the same way that it processes losses in the non-pathological gamblers. In pathological gamblers, the same regions that are activated for wins are also activated for near misses.

And so these include regions such as the amygdala, which is a region involved in emotional processing, as well as parts of the brain stem which are involved in reward and dopamine function, which is part of the reward system. So the pathological gamblers, their brains, at least, are responding to these near misses in the same way that they respond to wins.

Mark Dixon
This is Mark again. And one of the effects of this, or the implications of these data, are that a pathological gambler going into the casino who's actually losing, his brain is firing like he's winning. Disturbing, isn't it.

Sarah Koenig
Yeah. It's crazy.

Mark Dixon
Oh, it's way crazy. And so you are experiencing those same sensations as a win when you're not winning.
This got me thinking about bubbles. Even in normal times, traders experience constant near-misses; they get in a bit too late or stay in a bit too long or buy a dud only to watch its nearest competitor shoot through the roof. In bubbles those near miss moments easily increase by an order of magnitude. Every time a trader talks to a friend or picks up the Wall Street Journal, he or she hears about an almost-purchased stock doubling in value.

I wonder how much of the curious behavior of markets in bubbles is driven by those traders whose brains are scoring near misses as wins? I'm sure someone's looking at this from the neuroscience side. It might also be worth factoring in when doing agent-based simulations of the market.

"The mind reels with sarcastic replies"*

Today is International Media Ethics Day.

* A quote from the great Charles Schultz

The part where the vet sees the closet should break your heart

Two incredibly touching and (for what they imply) troubling stories from NPR, one about veterans and one about families with small children. Two groups that receive ever-increasing lip service and steadily diminishing support.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"I give up a little bit of my world each day"

NPR is running an extraordinary series on the return of a disease we thought we had beaten:
The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 was supposed to sharply cut exposure to coal mine dust. The act set a standard for coal dust exposure (2 milligrams per cubic meter of air), which was as little as 1/4 of the concentrations miners breathed at the time.

The act's passage followed a 23-day unauthorized and rowdy strike in which 40,000 West Virginia coal miners demanded government efforts to prevent the disease and to compensate victims.

By the end of the year, tough dust exposure limits were in place. Miners were offered free diagnostic chest X-rays every five years, and federal compensation became available. The X-rays showed 4 in 10 miners tested had black lung. The disease killed 1,800 miners in a single year. But diagnoses soon plunged more than 90 percent, according to NIOSH data.

"They anticipated that no one would develop progressive massive fibrosis," says 84-year-old Donald Rasmussen, a pulmonologist in Beckley, W.Va., who says he's tested 40,000 coal miners in the last 50 years.

"In 1969, I publicly proclaimed that the disease would go away before we learned all about it," he adds. "And I was dead wrong."

Rasmussen first started charting an increase in serious black lung cases about 15 years ago.

"We began to see the appearance of younger miners who had worked in the mines only since the dust suppression following the '69 act that were showing up with complicated pneumoconiosis or progressive massive fibrosis," he says.

Since 1970, NIOSH epidemiologists documented test results for 43 percent of the nation's coal miners. In 1995, the tests began to indicate more and more black long, rapid disease progression and the unexpected occurrence among relatively young miners.

"From the patterns and from the severity, from the prevalence of the disease, this must be a situation in which the dust in many, many mines is simply not adequately controlled," says Edward Petsonk, a pulmonologist at West Virginia University and a consultant for NIOSH. "There's nothing else that could possibly cause this."
And its human toll:
"Now it feels like I've got a heavy wet sack on each lung," McCowan says, between long, deep breaths. "Breathing has become a conscious effort. ... It seems like I give up a little bit of my world each day, that it gets smaller and smaller." 
Simple tasks become enormous challenges — "a Mount Everest every day," he calls it — including holding his 2-year-old grandson.

"I say, 'Little buddy, I got to put you down for a few minutes,'" McCowan says with a deep sigh. "And he's learned to run a little bit. He'll say, 'Run, paw-paw, run.' He wants me to chase him. And I can't."

Monday, July 9, 2012

The sad part is the may not be the worst education reform proposal I've seen.

From the in box
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I suspect that English may not be the first language here.

Quote of the day

Matt Yglesias:
I'm not much of a car guy, but the way I understand this metaphor to work is that if you want to give rich people credit for being "the engine of the economy" then if the economy is performing subpar it follows that something's wrong with your engine. And yet I suspect Zambrelli wouldn't take kindly to that diagnosis.
I actually found this interesting as it speaks to an odd sort of logic.  People wanting to claim credit for the good pieces but not for the bad ones (like economic downturns).  And yet if you want the credit for good performance you really ought to take your lumps for when things are bad. 

The increasingly self-serving ethics of journalism

(As usual, Brad DeLong gets credit for spotting this one)

Just to recap, I've been complaining (whining, moaning, bitching, etc.) about the state of journallism for a while. Many of those complaints assume (explicitly or implicitly) that journalism is forming a dangerously insular and cohesive group identity (I'm writing outside my field so my terminology might be a bit off -- if a social scientist out there has any notes, I'm open to suggestions).

Assuming I'm on to something here, one of the things we would expect is an ethical code that has notably different standards of behavior inside and outside of the group. Intra-group crimes (like plagiarism where the primary victim is another journalist) would be viewed as grave while offenses against subjects and readers would be seen as less serious. This difference would be particularly notable where journalists and non-journalists are mutually responsible for an offense.

Which takes us to the example of the day. As you probably know, the recent health care decision has produced as usual amount of leak-driven coverage. This has deeply offended Charles Lane of the Washington Post. Here's are some of the phrases that Lane uses when discussing the leaks and leakers:


"oozing slime"

"Cassius and Brutus inside the court, creeping up behind the chief justice with their verbal daggers"

"shame on the treacherous insiders"

And here's how Lane talks about Jan Crawford, the reporter who published the leaks,

"a fine journalist"

"kudos to Jan Crawford for a nifty little scoop"

According to Lane, Crawford's story damages the Supreme Court and misleads the reader, but the responsibility is apportioned so that all of the blame falls on the sources for passing the story on to the reporter. He even goes further and praises the reporter for passing the story on to us.

I suppose it might be possible to come up with a situation where two parties knowingly work together to produce something bad for society and yet one party shoulders all of the blame while the other is praiseworthy but Lane is no where near making that case here, nor does he seem to realize that he needs to.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

One more locavore note

While I was looking up background on Pierre Desrochers (author of the Locavore's Dilemma) for the last post I noticed a favorable notice by Tyler Cowen and it got me thinking. Cowen is well known as what we used to call a gourmet. He has written extensively and knowledgeably on all matters culinary. He obviously cares deeply about good food.

As mentioned before, Desrochers is a defender of the far-traveled Florida tomato, a type of produce notable only for its durability (as described here by Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland, in an NPR interview):
Yeah, it was in southwestern Florida a few years ago, and I was minding my own business, cruising along, and I saw this open-back truck, and it looked like it was loaded, as you said, with green apples.
And then I thought to myself wait, wait, apples don't grow in Florida. And as I pulled up behind it, I saw they were tomatoes, a whole truckload mounded over with perfectly green tomatoes, not a shade of pink or red in sight. As we were going along, we came to a construction site, the truck hit a bump, and three or four of these things flew off the truck.
They narrowly missed my windshield, but they did hit the pavement. They bounced a few times, and then they rolled onto the shoulder. None of them splattered. None of them even showed cracks. I mean, a modern-day industrial tomato has no problem with falling off a truck at 60 miles an hour on an interstate highway.

I can't help but wondering what it would take to get Cowen to actually eat one of these things.

"Is not" journalism and our excessive tolerance of silliness

On Marketplace yesterday, Pierre Desrochers, author of the Locavore's Dilemma, presented his case against locavores. It did not go well.

There are good arguments against the locavore movement, that it's a distraction, that it isn't scalable, that it's a solution only available to the well-off, that the superiority of local produce is largely due to suggestion, that there's no good business model to support it, that frozen vegetables are actually more nutritious. I don't necessarily agree with all of these, but they're serious arguments that an advocate of the locavore movement have to address.

Desrochers doesn't make any of these arguments, nor will you see him addressing issues like asymmetry of information or monocultures. Instead we get what we so often get from contrarians, shrill and unadulterated silliness. The bar for these "is not" pieces is so embarrassingly low as to barely exclude grunts and spit bubbles. In this case, Desrochers' "arguments"* depend on the following assumptions:

1. Almost everyone will become a locavore;

2. Rather than trying to eat more locally grown food, locavores will eat nothing but local;

3. Even in times of shortage and crop failure, there will be no imports;

4. and despite all of this locavores will continue eating the exact same food in the same seasons.

On top of this, Desrochers doesn't even seem to have kept up with the debate. Consider this:
It's better to grow tomatoes in the Florida sun than in a heated greenhouse in upstate New York because the energy required to transport them 1200 miles is only a fraction of that required to heat greenhouses for several weeks. 
Florida tomatoes are literally the worst possible crop  to use as an example here.
In addition to being tasteless, Estabrook also points out that compared to tomatoes from other sources or from a few decades ago, the modern Florida variety have fewer nutrients, more pesticides (particularly compared to those from California), and are picked with what has been described as 'slave labor' (and given the use of shackles this doesn't seem like much of an exaggeration). 

Estabrook's book got a tremendous amount of press and it's hard to imagine that anyone who encountered any of that coverage would use Florida tomatoes as an anti-locavore example.
By the same token it's hard to imagine that anyone who had been following the discussion of the trend toward fewer varieties of crops with more geographic concentration would use blights and pests to support the status quo as Desrochers does.

I don't want to spend too much time on the locavore debate (if that's what you're looking for, Felix Salmon's a good place to start ). What interests me here is the journalistic phenomena of is-not-ism, We start with a trendy, over-hyped movement. For bonus points, its promoters tend to be self-satisfied, upper class liberals, they kind who annoy even other liberals.

At this point, if you can get someone with reasonable credentials to write an "is not" book taking the opposite position, that's really all that's required. The actual content doesn't matter. Commentators of similar persuasion will promote the book (even those who are smart enough to see through it).. Mainstream media outlets will give the authors airtime in the name of openness and balance.

>But openness to new ideas is only a virtue if it's accompanied by some sort of critical facility. We need to start recognizing silliness again and, more to the point, we need to start demanding more.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

"Does Medicaid Make People Healthier?"

From NPR's Planet Money:

On the face of it, it seems like Medicaid would make people healthier, by giving them access to health care they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. 
But there is a counterargument. It says that being on Medicaid is really worse for you than being uninsured, because it provides you with such low-quality health care. 
The debate has raged for decades because every study has lacked a control group. There was no way for researchers to randomly assign people to either receive Medicaid or go without. The Oregon lottery allowed them to do just that. 
Katherine Baicker, a professor of health economics at Harvard University, compared those who won the lottery, and those who entered but did not get covered. 
Fifty thousand mail surveys and 750 in-person interviews later, they concluded that Medicaid did, in fact, make people healthier. 
"People reported their health to be much better once they were insured," Baicker says. "The probability that they reported themselves to be in good, very good or excellent health increased by 25 percent." 
People on Medicaid were far less likely to borrow money or have a medical bill sent to a collection agency. And total health care spending (including what is covered by insurance) increased for people on Medicaid.

Happy 4th from 1909

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Full Employment

This really is a good point from Matt Yglesias:
One concept that I was surprised to see both sides of the debate leave off the table is full employment. Nothing is quite so empowering in the workplace as the knowledge that if your boss treats you like a jerk, you'd be able to quit and go get a roughly similar job with a less jerky boss. Even a guaranteed social minimum isn't nearly as good as another job because there's disapprobrium attached to being unemployed. In a world of human beings, some bosses are always going to be two standard deviations jerkier than the average boss. Full employment punishes asshole bosses as a class rather than seeking to bureaucratically circumscribe them with a narrow list of specific prohibited abuses. Conversely, most of the pragmatic economic arguments against labor market regulation are developed assuming a background condition of full employment. If governments are going to fail to deliver full employment over extended periods of time (as the governments in the US, EU, Japan, and UK are doing right now) then all those assumptions are thrown out of whack. Both those who yearn for micro-efficient labor markets and those who yearn to empower people vis-a-vis their bosses have an enormous amount to gain from a robust full employment agenda.
In this case, I am very sympathetic to Matt's view here.  A lot of the issues about employment regulations go away when people have labor market mobility.  I have worked in a "at will" employment environment in a full employment environment and it never bothered me in the least.  After all, so long as I was an effective employee my employer would have been nuts to let me go.

In the same sense, the ridiculous rules linking employment to health insurance drastically reduce labor mobility once you enter your forties and develop medical conditions.  In this sense, the health insurance exchanges of ACA will help this issue a lot.  Still, if people could easily change jobs most of the paradoxes of employment regulation would go away.

So clearly the best way to improve people's lives would be to create economic opportunity.  If people who want to work are able to do so then a surprising number of difficult (nearly intractable) problems can end up being somewhat beside the point.

Remembering Andy Griffith

The television play No Time for Sergeants was the breakthrough for Griffith and for adapter Ira Levin (yes, that Ira Levin), both of whom would take the show on to a successful Broadway run and a popular film. 

"America's wealth gap -- in 1776"

The good people at Marketplace have a sharp Independence Day spin on a big ongoing story.
Jeffrey Williamson: In 1774, the top 1 percent of households got 9.3 percent of income. 
Compare that to America today, when the top 1 percent is bringing in about 20 percent of income. Nine percent, versus 20 percent. Wow. 
Williamson: Wow. 
Even when you include slaves, Williamson says America was actually the most egalitarian country in the world when it came to the difference between rich and poor. 
So what did the founding fathers have to say about that? I called up a guy who should know. 
Clay Jenkinson: Hello my dear citizens, this is Thomas Jefferson. 
Actually it's Clay Jenkinson, a historian and Jefferson impersonator. And he says the writer of the famous phrase -- "All men are created equal" -- thought a lot about income inequality. In a letter to a friend describng the 13 colonies, he wrote "The great mass of our population consists of laborers. The rich, being few and of moderate wealth..." 
Jenkinson (Quoting Jefferson): Can any condition of society be more desireable?
I realize that we shouldn't treat the writings of the Founding Fathers as sacred text but you know they were pretty sharp...

Monday, July 2, 2012


Sean Rust:
What this means is that unionization can be forced on 49 workers by the vote of 51. This type of system disenfranchises and forces fees of those who may not regard the union as a benefit in the workplace.

There is an odd sort of thinking that has been going on in libertarian circles about just how free the right of entry or exit should be.  In this case (a nearly evenly divided workforce), one side or the other is not going to get the outcome that they desire.  Why do we privilege the "don't want a union" side over the "want a union" side? 

This seems to be the same issue with democracy.  There are lots of decisions made in a democratic state that I do not agree with.  But at some point we need to decide how to organize groups.  Giving a small group veto power over change simply removes adaptability from the society as whole.

Now in terms of the post, itself, minority unions might be fine.  What one has to deal with are the asymmetries of power in the situation.  A recent discussion about these issues asked if a boss could make sexual relations part of the employment situation, on the premise that the employee always had the right to quit their job.  In a world without leases and with easy employment this might be true, but it clearly does not define the actual world we live in.  In the same sense, minority unions would be very interesting ideas in a world where the employer could not just ignore the striking minority union and hire more non-union workers. 

More on Felix and Education

Some choice quotes and reactions from Felix Salmon's recent post (already mentioned by Mark)
One big axis of tension is between the long-term view of the teachers and the unions, on the one hand, and the shorter-term view of pretty much everybody else, on the other. Is it possible to radically transform an entire educational system during the tenure of a single elected official, or before your tween enters high school? Realistically, no, it isn’t. Good teachers and good principals stay in the same place for decades and tend to take a long view of things; politicians and parents and children and venture capitalists, on the other hand, don’t have that kind of luxury. As a result, they tend to want to do big, drastic things which could have immediate results, whether it’s nationwide testing, or vouchers, or charter schools, or a multi-billion-dollar wiring of classrooms, or a mass culling of underperforming teachers, or a large-scale move onto some trendy new online educational platform.
One element that is neglected here is the problem that fast moves that show short term gains could work out very badly in the long run.  For example, simply by breaking one's word on pensions it is possible for a politician to look like a fiscal genius.  But the long term erosion of trust can actually result in worse outcomes. 
But there’s a really big problem here, and that’s the strong move on the part of reformers to fire underperforming teachers. The first thing you need to know if you want to fire the underperformers, of course, is who those underperformers are. And the best way to find that out is to use all that lovely new ed-tech data. As a result, teachers tend to be very suspicious of any attempt to collect data about them and their students: they fear that such moves are a means of collecting dubiously-reliable empirical evidence which will ultimately end up getting many of them fired.
I am unclear why firing teachers has become such a popular talking point.  Why have we, as a society, become convinced that firing is a good plan?   I think that the reason is that "tests" are becoming the entry point to social status.  So a bad teaching experience could have massive life-long effects on the students (simply because we make the tests so high stakes). 

But the idea that data should be used to train and educate teachers to do a better job seems to be somply beyond the pale.  And I am unclear why that would be so.  Do we really think a culture of fear and instability provides a better working environment or improves performance? 
In which case, how should bad teachers be fired? I do have sympathy for reformers and parents who put that action at the top of their to-do lists, and I’m even willing to believe the assertion, which I heard a few times at Aspen, that a handful of bad teachers can end up significantly bringing down the performance of an entire school. At the same time, however, if you look at say Finland, or some similar educational system with very high outcomes, you’ll also find almost no teachers being fired. Or, to put it another way: if bad teachers can bring down the performance of a school, then good schools can bring up the performance of all their teachers. Look at the various super-principals who get occasional gushing media coverage: they can turn around schools, given time, and generally don’t need to fire many or even any teachers in order to do so.
I love this switch -- why are we so focused on individual teachers and not the school environment itself?  I think that the short term fix environment is the reason.  I don't care about future kids -- I care about my child who is with Mrs. X right now.  I don't care about 5 years from now, I care about what happens before the next election. 

But the long term result of this will be to focus teachers on individual performance numbers.  And if you think that is a good plan, just think of how you would react in a position of constant instability and fear where a few numbers can change your life? 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Speaking of essential reading

Twilight of the elites is simply the must ready book of the year (if not the decade).  I am 25% through it via Kindle and it has already pointed out how standardized educational testing is doomed to failure so long as there are resource imbalances (simply due to the test preparation industry and the ability of the elite to hire tutors).  It also points out that, when we tolerate corruption, bad practices drive out good.

A lot of the book challenges my intuitions (as I am a meritocrat myself,by nature) but it points out some real limitations to the way we have arranged society.  It seems that inequality of outcome is a serious problem for a meritocracy (and there is still 75% of a book to go)!

If nothing else, this book makes the case for regulators (with teeth) being vastly more important in a meritocracy (which us the opposite of the idea of getting government out of the way).

Definitely work a few minutes.

Of course, people hate taxes, but they love paying penalties

Josh Marshall is wondering how many of his colleagues will acknowledge the obvious.
Whether you want to call the ACA health care mandate a tax or not is mainly a semantic point. It’s a penalty or tax or perhaps a tax penalty on people who refuse to purchase health insurance, even after they received subsidies that make it possible. But Republicans are now saying it’s the ‘biggest tax increase in history’ — either of America or the universe of whatever. But this is demonstrably false. 
The Congressional Budget Office says the mandate penalty will raise $27 billion between 2012 and 2021. $27 billion over a decade. Anybody who cares to can do the math. But if you want to call it a ‘tax increase’ — which is debatable — it’s clearly one of tiniest ones in history.
I’d be curious how many interviewers are (or are not) stopping folks who make this claim and pointing out this fact. Send me examples.
It's amazing how quickly silly ideas can become part of the standard narrative and how willing journalists are to accept silliness once it becomes part of that narrative. I know you've heard this before if you're a regular but journalism is in such a rotten state not just because standards have declined but because the profession has adopted an incredibly self-serving code of behavior that justifies the decline. Journalists who don't have the courage to confront liars or the dedication to get at the truth can point to the industry's peculiar definitions of balance and objectivity and say they're just doing their jobs.

There are journalists who do good work, but they do so in spite of their profession's code. That's not how the system is supposed to work.

And the bookshelf grows heavier

Here's another one I need to add to the list:
Of Williams's twenty-two novels, sixteen were paperback originals—eleven of them Gold Medals; he is described by Gorman as "the best of all the Gold Medal writers."[8] Pulp historian Woody Haut calls Williams the "foremost practitioner"[9] of the style of suspense that typified American pulp literature from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s: "So prolific and accomplished a writer was Charles Williams that he single-handedly made many subsequent pulp culture novels seem like little more than parodies."[10] Fellow hardboiled author John D. MacDonald cites him as one of the most undeservedly neglected writers of his generation.[11] O'Brien, singling him out as especially "overdue" for "wider appreciation," describes Williams as a stylist consistently faithful to "the narrative values which make his books so entertaining and his present neglect so inexplicable."[12]

On Andrew Sarris

The film critic Andrew Sarris died a couple of weeks ago. When I was an undergrad getting my extremely marketable BFA in creative writing, I read a lot of of film critics, such as Sarris and Pauline Kael. Of these, Kael has aged the best, but Sarris still holds up. He was a serious and intelligent critic and though I have problems his approach and what it has led to (spelled out here in some detail), it was well thought-out and often useful.

It should be noted that though Sarris, by popularizing auteur theory, might bear some responsibility for the current practice of assuming that the author of every movie is the director, he never fell into that trap. Sarris's criticism was more sophisticated and sensible than that. Auteurs were, for him, more the exception than the rule and he was quite capable of praising a film like Casablanca while admitting that it broke his critical framework. (Putting him one up on Dwight McDonald who often forced the data to fit the model, but more on that later.)

Directors are the most over and under-rated artists. Over-rated because they get credit for all sorts of things they have little or nothing to do with. Under-rated because most of their actual work goes unnoticed. As Kael puts it on Trash, Art and the Movies:
 I don’t mean to suggest that there is not such a thing as movie technique or that craftsmanship doesn’t contribute to the pleasures of movies, but simply that most audiences, if they enjoy the acting and the “story” or the theme or the funny lines, don’t notice or care about how well or how badly the movie is made, and because they don’t care, a hit makes a director a “genius” and everybody talks about his brilliant technique (i.e., the technique of grabbing an audience).
That's OK for the audience. Unfortunately most critics function on the same level. When Sarris and Kael talked about the direction of a film, they actually meant the direction of the film. This was one of the things that made their exchanges so memorable.

Roger Ebert (a friend of both critics) has an appreciation of Sarris here.

For an example of great direction working with other elements to create a great movie, click here. For great direction in a not-very-good movie, click here.