Thursday, January 31, 2013

Shamisen heroes and free TV

I had been working on another piece about over the air television when I happened to surf across this video on one of the many Asian-themed channels you can get with an antenna in LA and it struck me as an appropriate accompaniment for a quick note about over the air TV.

With a pair of rabbit ears I pick up programming in at least a half dozen languages. That's an indication of the diversity of the medium and its importance to some underserved segments of the population, but it also represents a real competitive weakness. Terrestrial television suffers from a crippling lack of attention. Both Journalists who cover both media and personal finance are almost completely oblivious to this innovative, totally free source of programming.

If you're a medium trying to get the attention of the mainstream media, having a large part of your viewership consist of recent immigrants is not going  to help.

I'll leave you with something a bit more traditional from the Yoshida brothers, though still, well... Hell, just watch it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Unintended consequences

I normally agree with pro-immigration stands, but this one strikes me as likely to do something different than expected:

While I think the region-based visa would be a positive step by itself, there is an additional twist I would recommend adding to the policy: require the purchase of a home from the visa recipient. This would be similar to the EB-5 program, which gives green cards to rich foreigners who invest in the U.S. This would allow non-rich immigrants to make an investment in the region sponsoring their visa. Not only does this increase the political popularity of the program and provide a way to transfer some of the gains of immigration to the native born population, but it also serves as an enforcement mechanism. Workers are less likely to leave the region their visa ties them too if they have made a large investment in that area which they cannot sell for the length of their visa.
I love the idea of a regional (i.e. state level) work VISA.  But the house thing is a terrible idea.  First of all, how do you get a loan?  If the requirement is "cash on the barrelhead" then we are only opening the market up to wealthy immigrants.  High skilled people just starting out are squeezed out of the market.  Or you get an asset, with little money down bought by people with a weak understanding of the local market who have the ability to flee overseas if things collapse. 

Nor am I sure we want even more price support for housing in the United States (mortgage deductions already support prices).  And I doubt that, in world with sublets, that this would really help keep people local over and above the what we already have in place. 

Plus, the rich enforcement mechanisms we have for work VISAs are already pretty scary, without adding this new level

Friday, January 25, 2013

Paul Krugman on progress

Paul Krugman gets skeptical:

By and large, I’m in the camp of those disillusioned about technology — mainly, I think, because the future isn’t what it used to be. A case in point is Herman Kahn’s The Year 2000, a 1967 exercise in forecasting that offered a convenient list of “very likely” technological developments. When 2000 actually did roll around, the striking thing was how over-optimistic the list was: Kahn foresaw most things that actually did happen, but also many things that didn’t (and still haven’t). And economic growth fell far short of his expectations.
It is often the case that Krugman has a relatively unique take on things.  Still, he is slowly coming around to having some upside views on one innovation:

But driverless cars break the pattern: even Kahn’s list of “less likely” possibilities only mentioned automated highways, not city streets, which is where we will apparently be in the quite near future.

I have been seeing a lot of comments on automated cars lately.  Of the West Coast Stat bloggers, I think I can be fairly described as the technological optimist.  But even I worry that there could be some rather unexpected consequences to such a change, espeically if you have both humans and automated cars operating at the same time on the same roads. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A different take on grades and money from home -- part 1 Hypothesis Shopping

New study claims more money from home is associated with lower grades.

I came across this in a post from Andrew Gelman who had some sharp criticisms for the analysis that lead to this conclusion (criticisms seconded by Joseph in these previous posts). I clicked through the links with a slightly bloodthirsty attitude, already toying with ideas for posts mocking Dr. Hamilton, the hapless researcher. As I followed through, though, I felt less and less like mocking and more inclined to a shaded, even positive view, particularly given my previously noted feelings about looking at research in context.

Not that I disagree with Andrew and Joseph's criticisms -- the survivor bias is really difficult to get past -- but on some big how-we-do-science questions, I see a lot to like here, starting with where Hamilton started (and where she didn't).

Back in 2004, Hamilton and a group of other researchers spent a year studying a group of mostly first year students at large university, then continued to track their progress and interview them for the next five years. One of the things they observed was that the students who didn't have to work or struggle financially due to checks from home tended to take school less seriously, study less and get worse grades. Hamilton decided to follow this up by seeing if this pattern held nationally.

The resulting analysis was not well done, but I like the general approach: use case studies, participant observation, interviews and similar techniques to study your subjects extensively, form your hypotheses based on those observations, see how they hold up when tested against more general data. (or, put more broadly, actually devote time and effort into coming up with your hypotheses.)

That may seem like damning with faint praise, but I think a lot about where hypotheses come from and I give quite a bit of credit to researchers who put the work in to do it right, particularly in an age of hypothesis shopping.

Hypothesis shopping is one of our two leading sources of bad studies. The other is the epicyclism. The first entails running through endless unlikely relationships until one turns up significant (sometimes mistaken for data mining by people who know nothing about data mining). The second entails coming up with increasingly convoluted hypotheses to fit the data, often to preserve an ideological position. Sadly there's a nontrivial overlap between the two.

Hypothesis shopping has always been around but only recently has it become what you might call "cost effective" due to huge advances in the availability of data and the power of computers. Today, anyone with a large data set and a late-model laptop can crank through thousands of possible relationships looking for something with a good p-value. Just start with a couple dozen potential dependent variables, a few hundred independent variables, and some reasonable sounding transformations and interactions. You are pretty much certain to find something at least as impressive and "significant" as the the findings you'll routinely see in Slate or the New York Times.

The results of these processes are often absurd enough to be obvious to everyone (with the exception of the aforementioned publications), but for every watching-sports_before-conception-makes-you-more-likely-to-have-a-boy (I really hope that's a made up example), there's a provocative but not easily dismissed story with huge policy implications. It would be useful to know if we're talking about an effect that has been observed in other contexts or if it's just the green jelly bean.

Knowing the provenance of a hypothesis doesn't protect us from bad research but it does, to a large degree, inoculate us against certain kinds of bad research.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Survivor bias

There has been some discussion about meony from parents leading to a lower GPA from both Andrew Gelman and I.  One of the comments at Andrew Gelman's site got me thinking:

” The higher graduation rate of students whose parents paid their way is not surprising, she said, since many students leave college for financial reasons. (…)
Oddly, a lot of the parents who contributed the most money didn’t get the best returns on their investment (…) Their students were more likely to stay and graduate, but their G.P.A.’s were mediocre at best, and some I didn’t see study even once.”
What is the actual target of inference here?   Is it GPA or is it graduation? 

When I was in the corporate world I never was asked for my transcripts (my degree, all of the time but my transcripts never).  Having 2 years of college and then dropping out leads to worse life outcomes than having a degree, so far as I can tell. 

Or put it another way, what would you prefer:

  1. A child who got high marks but did not complete their program?
  2. A child who got low marks but earned a degree?
Insofar as university education is a credentaling and signaling system, the second piece would be far better. 

But even more interesting, the authors comments support my intuition precisely -- parental funding keeps marginal students in school.  From a causal perspective this is way more interesting than the headline effect of giving dropping grades and is way more intuitive as well. 

Health Care spending

I often worry that comparison between the United States and Canada understate the room we have to improve health care costs.  But Matt Yglesias points to a health care chart showing spending per capita by the government in the United States and Canada:
This is the chart that I think ought to dominate the conversation about public sector health care spending in the United States and yet is curiously ignored. The data show government health care spending per capita in the United States and Canada. The United States spends more. And that's not more per person who gets government health insurance, it's more per resident. And yet Canada covers all its citizens and we don't. That should be considered shocking stuff, and yet I rarely hear it mentioned.

Even odder is that the most recent time I heard it mentioned was Valerie Ramey talking at the American Economics Association conference in San Diego and her conclusion was that this showed U.S. health care needs free market reforms. The more straightforward interpretation, I would think, is that the U.S. needs to make its system more like Canada's. It's important to note that the example here is Canada. Not some radically different society. Not some far-off distant land. And the gap is actually growing.

In 2010, the Canadian government was spending roughly ~$3,000 per capita and the US government was spending ~$4,000 per capita.  Not per beneficiary, but per capita!! 

Now Canada is not some sort of dystopia without private medicine.  Emergency services are fully covered but it was common when I was last there to go to a private clinic for health care like an X-ray to avoid the queue in the public options.  But this is still catastrophic coverage for all citizens, which is an impressive feat. 

At the end of the post, Matt talks a little about the less innovation counter-argument.  Closely related is the MD shortage argument.  Now there are two responses.  One, is to note (as Matt does) that we want health care costs to go down in the United States and that this will have bad effects as well as good effects. 

But the second is more compelling.  We could just invest money in medical research and in awarding prizes for drug discovery.  It would make innovation costs transparent and separate it out from rent-seeking and administrative costs (which would be lower in the single-payer insurance or out of pocket expenses world). 

As for educating MDs, we can steal a leaf from Canada and subsidize education a wee bit more and lower wages will still have no trouble attracting people to a high status and still relatively high pay profession.  No solution is perfect, but why is this one not being debated?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

More reflections on a study (EDITED)

Okay, before I get to the meat of this post, this quote by Andrew Gelman is dynamite:

. . . I’m generally suspicious of arguments in which the rebound is bigger than the main effect.
How many "counter-intuitive" studies would survive this kind of skepticism.  Not that a rebound effect can't be larger, but like many unlikely things it requires a higher level of proof.

The context is an education study which suggests that the more parents pay for education the lower the grades of the student will be.   The authors apparently tried to control for a lot of possible confounders (like SAT scores) but the whole process ends up looking like "what not to do in regression analysis". 

There is an intermediate variable (problem), a restriction of range problem (extrapolating parental support out to values that exceed annual income), and an issue with differential drop-out that does not seem to be addressed.  All of these points are present in Andrew's nice write up

What I want to focus on is the sharp counter-factual.  I am not always a fan of counter-factual reasoning, but I think that it would provide a ton of clarity in this case.  The real claim is that if you decreased exposure X (parental support) then you would increase outcome Y (GPA).  The direct causal model would suggest that the fastest way to improve student grades would be to make your contributions zero.  But, the last time I looked, Pell grants require a non-zero parental contribution in most cases (it is a little hard to tell precisely what the thresholds are but they definitely are not zero for most students).  So clearly this is a floor on parental contributions (and if it was the only source of contributions the effect would become the richer the parents the worse the grades of the student). 

So maybe, to have a realistic counter-factual, the exposure should be dollars of support above the minimum expected contribution? 

So, really what we have to be talking about the the effect of a marginal dollar separate from the (non-linear) scale of what the parents are required to pay.  But, even there, the direction is unclear.  Imagine that your not especially inspired child gets admission to Stanford but they are struggling with the material.  Do you insist, on principle, that they get a job or do you pay more so that they have a better chance to be a "C average" Stanford graduate (which is much better than a Stanford drop-out). So the causal direction is actually unclear. 

But if the idea is that giving more resources to students decreases performance then there are a lot of experiments we could try.  For example, we could decrease wages (for everyone including upper managment) and see if performance goes up.  Or we could randomize students to improved levels of support.  Better yet, we could look at experiments that have already been done:


We examine the impacts of a private need-based college financial aid program distributing grants at random among first-year Pell Grant recipients at thirteen public Wisconsin universities. The Wisconsin Scholars Grant of $3,500 per year required full-time attendance. Estimates based on four cohorts of students suggest that offering the grant increased completion of a full-time credit load and rates of re-enrollment for a second year of college. An increase of $1,000 in total financial aid received during a student’s first year of college was associated with a 2.8 to 4.1 percentage point increase in rates of enrollment for the second year.
 So not only is the main effect in the opposite direction (at least in terms of retention) but it has precisely the impact on a GPA analysis that Andrew expects: students are more likely to leave with lower levels of support.  Do we think that leaving school is completely independent of performance (that there is no GPA difference between the drop-outs and those who persist)?  Or is parental support different, in some magic way, than government grant support?  People are more careful stewards of government money than they are of money from their close community (and think about what this would mean for charity versus government welfare programs, if true)?

I agree that the current form of this study is impossible to interpret. 

[EDIT: Talking with Mark, it is clear that I was unclear on one point above.  The experiments show money from a specific source (i.e. government funding) go in a specific direction but don't at all address whether money from parents has a similar causal effect (Mark is promising to talk about this in a post himself).  The issues of selection, intermediate variables, and experimental evidence from other sources are all important, but without re-analyzing the data it is impossible to prove the directionality of the bias.  As an epidemiologist I am trained to speculate on bias direction/strength but I recognize that is all I am doing.  ]

One more cognitive dissonance post

Andrew Gelman has a good, skeptical response to some questionable claims from Herbalife, but there's one point where we're in disagreement, not so much as to the conclusion as to the reasoning behind it.

Gelman says:
Amusingly, one of Herbalife’s points is “Fact: Majority of Former Distributors Would Recommend Herbalife to Friends and Family.” But that’s exactly what you’d expect of a still-active pyramid scheme, no? Existing members want new people below them on the pyramid. I’m not saying this means it is a pyramid scheme, but it doesn’t seem like evidence against the hypothesis!

Perhaps I'm misreading this but I'd assume that former distributors no longer have a direct interest in the company. If this is true, does this mean we can take former distributors as impartial judges? Not by a long shot.

This is where we segue back to a recent thread, cognitive dissonance and the psychology of marketing. Companies like Amway and Herbalife are textbook examples of marketing psych (literally for Amway, in two different chapters, no less). And it's important to remember that this relationship goes both ways. While the psychologists writing these texts study these companies, many of the executive in these companies have read these books and taken these classes and they've thought seriously about how best to apply these principles.

[My background in this field is spotty so I would highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Cialdini's Influence (either regular or textbook version) or some other good text on the subject and make sure I'm getting this right... ]

There have been a number of studies that show that when you convince people to believe something based on one reason, they have a tendency to come up with additional reasons to support that belief and that these reasons do not go away just because the original reason is removed. This effect is even stronger when the belief is stated publicly, particularly to friends and family or in writing (Amway training makes a big deal about getting things in writing).

The former Herbalife distributors are another one of those cases where what happened was exactly what the textbooks said would happen: people who had sold a line of products to friends and family in the past now tend to hold the reassuring belief that those products were good. This doesn't prove that they weren't good and it certainly doesn't say anything one way or the other about Herbalife being a pyramid; it simply serves as another reminder that things often happen the way your professor said they would.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Alexandria Word Searches -- a new kind of puzzle for the weekend

I've got a post on a different kind of word search puzzle at You Do the Math. Mainly pitched toward teachers, but hopefully still fun for the general audience. Here's a Shakespeare-themed example with, at last count, eighteen Bard-friendly answers.

There are more puzzles (in larger formats) at the original post.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Edward Tufte Wants You to See Better"

I was looking for an interview for a post on the way we cover health issues, when I came across this interview with Edward Tufte. I haven't had a chance to check it out yet so this isn't really a recommendation but, given the depth of my to do list, I decided it would be better to pass it along now.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Just another (incredibly bizarre) data point

I dislike posts and op-eds that use the latest big news story as an excuse to mount a favorite hobby horse, but I can't pass this one up.

One of the recurring themes here has been the decline in journalistic standards, particularly regarding accuracy and fact-checking. This brings us to the incredibly strange case of Manti Te'o and the imaginary dead girlfriend. It was one of the year's most widely covered stories. Everybody from Sports Illustrated to CBS to the New York Times  ("He has personified hope after more than a decade of mediocrity. He has lived the university’s core values at a place where that matters, said Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick.") had carried moving accounts of Te'o's story, but it wasn't until a few days ago that the sports site Deadspin actually dug into the details.
Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, the stories said, played this season under a terrible burden. A Mormon linebacker who led his Catholic school's football program back to glory, Te'o was whipsawed between personal tragedies along the way. In the span of six hours in September, as Sports Illustrated told it, Te'o learned first of the death of his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and then of the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua.

Kekua, 22 years old, had been in a serious car accident in California, and then had been diagnosed with leukemia. SI's Pete Thamel described how Te'o would phone her in her hospital room and stay on the line with her as he slept through the night. "Her relatives told him that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice," Thamel wrote.

Upon receiving the news of the two deaths, Te'o went out and led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 upset of Michigan State, racking up 12 tackles. It was heartbreaking and inspirational. Te'o would appear on ESPN's College GameDay to talk about the letters Kekua had written him during her illness. He would send a heartfelt letter to the parents of a sick child, discussing his experience with disease and grief. The South Bend Tribune wrote an article describing the young couple's fairytale meeting—she, a Stanford student; he, a Notre Dame star—after a football game outside Palo Alto.

Did you enjoy the uplifiting story, the tale of a man who responded to adversity by becoming one of the top players of the game? If so, stop reading. Manti Te'o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.

Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar's office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there's no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.

The photographs identified as Kekua—in online tributes and on TV news reports—are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua. She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te'o.
It has since come out that some journalists had checked some facts and noticed something was wrong but not wrong enough to keep them from running this incredibly dramatic but completely untrue story.

For a reporter looking for a touching human interest story, this was too good to be true and many of the nation's biggest and (sadly) best news organizations ran it without bothering to determine if it was true. That's  troubling.

But unfortunately no longer all that surprising.                                                                                              

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ray Fisman has a new book you might want to check out

Though we've disagreed strongly in the past, Ray Fisman is a smart guy with some insightful things to say about a problem Joseph and I have been thinking a lot about, how interests go out of alignment and how we can engineer big, complex organizations to keep that from happening.

Fisman has a new book out on the subject: “The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office.” Here's a quote from an enthusiastic review in the New York Times.
This suggests a good rule of thumb to determine when a private company will outperform the public sector: if the task is clear-cut and it’s possible to define concrete goals and reward those who meet them, the private sector will probably do better. “If I can write a perfect contract in which I pay for a concrete observable outcome, can rule out cream-skimming and can ensure the measure is not gamed, there is no reason that the private sector can’t do it better,” Professor Fisman said.

Safety Nets and Canada

Dean Dad has an interesting observation:

I was reminded of that a few days ago, in a discussion with a Canadian colleague.  We have similar senses of humor, so we got to talking about The Kids In The Hall, SCTV, and national styles of humor.  (For my money, “Brain Candy” is a neglected classic of dark, dark, dark comedy.)  She offered the theory that Canada punches above its weight culturally because its social safety net -- health care most conspicuously -- makes it possible for people to take chances on creative careers.  As a result, they get Holly Cole, and we’re left with Adam Sandler. 

That was then expanded on in the comments

While I disagree with the specific point about Canada punching above its weight culturally (quick name a great Canadian film that's not "Strange Brew"), I do think that a robust safety net does make entrepreneurial risk taking more likely because people can afford to take the risk of starting a business without having to worry about losing health insurance or other benefits.
I used to have a state government job where this dynamic was apparent: the secretaries in the agency were fairly low paid, but had very good benefits. 3/4 of the secretaries in my officer were married to husbands who had their own small contracting or (vaguely) construction related business. They made much more than their wives made, but had no independent health benefits of their own  
I think that this is a neglected conversation.  The ability to take risks is not just driven by rewards but also by the costs of failure.  If you make the rewards extreme and failure punishing then you create incentives for cheating and "doing anything to win".

This effect shows up in a number of areas -- imagine you are a high school teacher diagnosed with a major illness.  In the real world, COBRA is unaffordable and unemployment is over eight percent.  You are teaching less well due to health issues.  One can see a lot of pressure to find a way -- any way -- to keep test scores above the retention threshold.

You can also see this with small businesses.  The reforms of bankruptcy law (making it harder to go bankrupt) and the cost of health care for those without insurance makes starting up a small firm really risky.  It makes a lot more sense to stay in your sub-optimal office job with the result that you have less innovation and dynamism in the economy.

These effects are just as predictable as free markets are and it can make a lot of sense to invest in ways to pool or mitigate the risk associated with being an innovator.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Stop me if you've heard this one before

Michael Shermer has an interesting post over at Scientific American, but there's one paragraph I'm not too happy about.
Cognitive dissonance may also be at work in the compartmentalization of beliefs. In the 2010 article “When in Doubt, Shout!” in Psychological Science, Northwestern University researchers David Gal and Derek Rucker found that when subjects' closely held beliefs were shaken, they “engaged in more advocacy of their beliefs ... than did people whose confidence was not undermined.” Further, they concluded that enthusiastic evangelists of a belief may in fact be “boiling over with doubt,” and thus their persistent proselytizing may be a signal that the belief warrants skepticism.
I'm way out of my field on this one. My knowledge of psychology is limited to an undergrad intro course and a copy of Cialdini's Influence, but I'm pretty sure that researchers have been finding this sort of thing since the mid-Fifties when Leon Festinger wrote about doomsday cultists proselytizing more the day after the world failed to end and confirming this and related aspects of cognitive dissonance ever since in a large group of studies. (Discover did a better job with the context, though that is comparing a paragraph to a whole post.)

I don't mean to suggest Gal and Rucker were not doing important, original work. I'm sure they were. My beef here is with Shermer and the lack of context. A reader coming on this paragraph cold would be left with the impression that this was a new idea rather than the latest brick in a decades long wall.

I can understand the appeal of the cutting edge. The new stuff is sexier. It gets people's attention. The trouble is, those cutting edge studies often collapse under scrutiny. Some can't be replicated. Others prove to be not that important.

Confirmation, on the other hand, is not sexy. It doesn't drive traffic. It's harder to fit into a paragraph. In a way, though, it's more interesting because it has a high likelihood of being true and fills in the gaps in big, important questions. The interaction between the ideas is usually the interesting part.

Of course, this may be awfully picky given that we're talking about a single paragraph, but this is a recurring issue. New developments are frequently reported in a vacuum, and the result is often a badly misled reader. In these situations a few lines of context can go a long way.

Misleading graphics

This infographic has been coming under criticism from the usual suspects.  The group that got hit the worst was the married couple with two children making $650,000 per year.  According to the census bureau, in 2009 the median income for a household was $49,777.  So there is a tax increase of 3.3% on couples making 13 times the median US household income. 

Needless to say, this really doesn't reflect the likely impact of these tax law changes on the typical American (it is just to easy to ask hard questions about the representativeness of a single mother who makes $260K/year). 

[note -- label typo corrected]

More thoughts on Education

A couple more thoughts on the whole education reform movement, both hoisted from comments.

First, there was a comment by Stuart Buck:

As a matter of basic social science, what should concern one is not the absolute level of a state's performance now but the counterfactual (what would its performance otherwise be).
This is absolutely correct.  However, what we are really missing is a time frame for improvement as well as an expected magnitude of improvement.  So if we look at 1999, the top rated state in StudentsFirst (La) had a Grade 8 reading score of 252 (compared to an average of 261).  In 2011 the score was 255 (improved 3 points) versus a national average of 264 (which also improved three points).  Between 2009 and 2011 both La and the national average also improved by the same amount.  DC is even more interesting.  In 2007 (when Rhee began her reforms) Grade 8 reading was 241 (versus 261 nationwide).  In 2011 it was 242 (versus 264 nationwide). 

So we would have to explain the unexpected drop in performance we expected in Louisiana that simply did not happen or the reason by DC lagged even further 4 years into a reform program.  Even longitudinally, first in the nation seems odd given a lower baseline (thus more room for improvement due to lower hanging fruit and maybe even regression to the mean) and an absolutely dead standard increase. 

Second, at lawyers, guns and money a commenter said:

That being said, using it for evaluative purposes is misguided and unfair to educators. I proctor the test, and I see a large number of students who don’t take the test seriously at all. They just click through to get it over with. Our student population has taken the test in the grips of a horrible flu outbreak. Those kids who were actually in school at the time were sick, getting sick, or struggling to get over being sick. When you have to spray down the computers with Lysol after every class comes through, you really have to question the validity of the results obtained. Technical difficulties that require restarting the computer and/or test can also have a suppressive effect on students’ scores.
As the Tech coordinator in a school, this seems to be a reasonable position to make such an evaluation.  That raises the question of "high stakes for whom"?  I am actually a fan of looking at SAT scores.  Why?  Because not only is the test well respected but the test makers have a financial incentive to make sure the test does what they say it does (so it can continue as a national standard).  The students have an incentive to do well on this test because high scores open doors for them.  So when a teacher is evaluated on SAT performance, I am pretty comfortable saying that the other actors are likely to have aligned incentives on giving an unbiased estimate.

Finally, the thing that really seems to be mixed up in the Rhee report is the difference between efficiency (cost savings) and quality (performance).  By analogy, consider military pensions.  They exist, in large part, so that we can retain top performers in the armed forces.  If anything the defined benefit pensions improves quality by keeping soldier with 15 years of valuable experience in the military.  The problem with pensions only arises if the military gets bad at weeding out incompetent performers (which, so far as I can tell, is not currently a major problem).  It is good to keep experienced people around while they are still effective but it is expensive.  So the empirical question is does it cost more than it is worth?

The same issue arises with the class size metric.  I have been in large and small classes with an excellent teacher.  I learned a lot more in the small class because the teacher could focus more attention on each student.  Is it better to have large classes (like StudentsFirst claims)?  Well, only if you have identified top performers and can assure yourself that you are compensating for class quality with teacher quality.  This is a hard claim to support.  On the other hand, almost no luxury is as expensive as small classes.  Notice how universities have reacted to this pressure by putting hundreds of students into a single classroom.  So is the cost worth the improvement in quality is a legitimate question. 

So the issues here are twofold.  One, the data on performance do not seem to map easily onto the counter-intuitive rankings of StudentsFirst.  Two, the type of high stakes test that seems to be a key feature of the education reform movement has some work to do in properly aligning incentives. 


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hat tip to Yglesias

Mark and I have been hard on Matt Yglesias lately.  But this post was a really clever idea.  He took Kevin Drum's idea that lead was responsible for a rise in violent crime and asked "if this explanation is correct then what else must be true?".  Since impulse control is also linked to high school graduation he plotted high school graduation (which has been unexpectely rising) and sees the same pattern as with violent crime. 

Now nothing rules out a confounder that affects both of these outcomes.  I worry about simple explanations for complex phenomena.  But it was a clever idea to try and falsify the hypothesis by looking at things that should be related to violent crime.  And, if there was going to be a candidate for such a broad level of toxicity, a substance implicated in brain damage going back to classical Rome isn't a bad choice. 

Felix Salmon on personal finance

Felix Salmon has beaten me to the punch here but I do think that this statement needs to be properly understood for what it means:

It surely comforts modern parents who have spent fortunes educating their children to know that these children are spending money on pork belly and not, for instance, cocaine. But what solace can it offer to realize that $300 a week put into an S. & P. 500 Index fund over the past five years would have provided an annual rate of return of 10.34 percent and grown to $100,354 today? Even saving $300 a week at a 6 percent rate of return would have yielded about $91,000, Mark X. Chemtob, a financial adviser at Ameriprise, said, adding that in both cases, the sums would qualify for a down payment on a starter apartment in New York.
So if a person invested for five years, and got a retern of 10.34 percent they would have a lot of money.  So have happened 5 years ago (2007)?  Here is wikipedia:

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, Nasdaq Composite and S&P 500 all experienced declines of greater than 20% from their peaks in late 2007. 
So if you had perfect market timing then you could have invested directly after a crash (as opposed to during it) taking advantage of the recent market crash.  Unless, of course, you were the 23 year old in the article who is likely in school and not making $300/week of investable income. 

The other side of this coin is that it is very hard to be 23 years old, just graduated from school, making real money for the first time in your life and not enjoy some of it.  After all, perpetual deferred gratification is never being able to enjoy the rewards of your career.  Nor is it clear that somebody in their first year out of college should be buying a Manhattan apartment (a highly leveraged investment) until they find out if they are going to be successful in New York. 

Nor can you drop the cost to zero.  I would find it hard to eat in New York city for less then $75/week.  Remember, we are taking a city where space is at a premium and everything bought in the city is expensive (including kitchen facilities).  So eating 21 meals at about $3 apiece is actually pretty tough, even if you have good skills for cooking from scratch.  And, even more interesting, the person in this example is taking on extra work to fund her leisure time (as opposed to, for example, debt). 

So I agree -- a very misleading example. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Technological stagnation bandwagon

Looks like this idea may actually be getting fashionable (from the Economist):
So it may come as a surprise that some in Silicon Valley think the place is stagnant, and that the rate of innovation has been slackening for decades. Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal, an internet payment company, and the first outside investor in Facebook, a social network, says that innovation in America is “somewhere between dire straits and dead”. Engineers in all sorts of areas share similar feelings of disappointment. And a small but growing group of economists reckon the economic impact of the innovations of today may pale in comparison with those of the past.
Now we just have to figure out what to do about it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Matt Yglesias -- Defending the indefensible

[I've been off line most of the week so instead of participating in the discussion on the Students First report card, I am, with apologies for the length, putting down my reaction in one big, ugly lump]

At some point in the past year, it became impossible to mount a serious defense of Paul Ryan. There had always been cracks in the facade -- numbers that didn't add up, unlikely claims, extremist quotes -- but most of these could be ignored and those that couldn't were invariably excused that Ryan was sincere, he was a serious budget guy and he was getting us to discuss important policy questions.

Eventually though, the discrepancies started to accumulate, and by the time we got the specifics (or non-specifics) of the Ryan budget and the close scrutiny of the campaign, the standard excuses simply weren't sufficient. This left a large number of journalists with a difficult choice: distance themselves from a politician they had invested great emotional and reputational capital in; or invest still more in increasingly strained defenses. The most memorable example of the first was William Saletan's amusing break-up letter. The most embarrassing example of the second probably comes from James Stewart.

In many ways, Michelle Rhee has occupied a Ryan-like niche in the education. Both started out as camera-friendly media darlings with highly marketable bipartisan appeal and reputations as serious problem-solvers. In both cases there were, from the beginning, troubling details that undercut these reputations but at the time these details never got much traction. As with Ryan and fiscal responsibility, criticizing Rhee was often read as indifference towards the education gap.

But, as they did with Ryan, nagging questions started to accumulate. There were incidents that seemed to show Rhee abusing her authority. There were questions about cheating under her watch. There was increasingly pointed anti-teacher rhetoric. There was the aggressive pursuit of self-advancement.  At each stage, more of Rhee's liberal supporters started getting uncomfortable.

For many, such as the New Republic's Seyward Darby, the tipping point came when Rhee partnered with Florida's Rick Scott. Before Scott, Rhee's liberal supporters had taken the position had been that she was tough on teachers, but reluctantly, and only because it was necessary in order to improve education. With Scott these outcomes were reversed. He was willing to pursue a "reform" agenda if it hurt a faction he saw as hostile.

The alliance with Scott and similar figures alienated some supporters on the left, but it still allowed the possibility that Rhee was acting in good faith. With the release of the Students First state report card, even that is gone. There is not even a pretense that this is about anything other than promoting Rhee and her allies. The Washington Post had a good summary.
In Rhee’s grading system, the D.C. school system that is implementing the reforms she instituted got a higher grade than the states of Maryland and Virginia — which consistently are at or near the top of lists of high-performing states — and Virginia. Maryland got a D-plus. Virginia got a D-minus. The District? The urban system with the highest achievement gap in the country? It got a C-plus. 
The states that got the highest score handed out — a B minus — were Florida and Louisiana. No surprise there.

Florida’s reform efforts were spearheaded more than a decade ago by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who was the national leader in these kinds of reforms. The school accountability system that Bush set up, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, is scandal-ridden, but he still travels the country promoting his test-based reform model.

Louisiana is the state where Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal instituted a statewide voucher program that gave public money to scores of Christian schools that teach Young Earth Creationism, the belief that the Earth and the universe were created by God no more than 10,000 years ago. Kids learn that dinosaurs co-existed with humans. That’s the state that got Rhee’s top grade.
A quick digression on some good indicators of when a metric has been cooked:

1. It reaches an unexpected, even unbelievable conclusion in the favor of the person designing the metric;

2. It leaves out important variables;

3. And leaves in other variables only tangentially related to the central question;

4. It uses an odd, difficult to justify weighting scheme, making certain factors dominant for no apparent reason.

This report is not only cooked till it's charred; it also flies in the face of Rhee's own rhetoric on tests and accountability. It is, in a word, indefensible, but just as Ryan had James Stewart, Rhee has Matt Yglesias.
Michelle Rhee is a controversial figure, and anything her advocacy organization, Students First, does is going to attract a lot of derision. But having had the chance to play around with their "report card" on state policy, I think there's a lot to like here.

The best thing about it, really, is just that they did it. Importantly it's a report card assessing the state of education policy in different places, not outcomes. ... Only two states score above C+ on their ratings—Louisiana and Florida—and student learning outcomes in those states are far from the best in the nation. If Louisiana starts making a lot of progress in closing the gap with, say, Maryland, then that'll be powerful evidence for the Students First approach. But if it doesn't, then you get the reverse.
In policy terms, the most interesting thing about the Students First report is probably its treatment of charter schools. ... The Students First perspective more wisely dings states that make it too hard to open charters but also dings states (like, say, Arizona) that do much too little to hold charter schools accountable for performance.
You should probably read the whole thing (it's less than 300 words) but this gets at the gist. The entire piece is pretty much just a pander and two short, flawed arguments.

Let's start with the "powerful evidence" argument. Yglesias here treats the report card as not really being a measure of school quality (he doesn't have much choice since the score is actually inversely related to school quality), rather a measure of where schools fall on a policy spectrum so we can basically treat their score as an independent variable when evaluating these policies by comparing score with improvement.

It's worth noting that Rhee's site introduces the report card as follows "We hope this helps reveal more about what states are doing to improve the nation’s public education system so that it serves all students well and puts each and every one of them on a path toward success." Here and elsewhere, Rhee clearly means that the states with better scores are doing a better job. This doesn't align very well with Yglesias's argument.

More to the point though, the argument doesn't hold up even in isolation. The idea of providing a useful indicator would only make sense if we scored the schools at the beginning of implementation of the policies. Instead we have a collection of initiatives with varying start dates, most a few years old, some dating back to Jeb Bush. Perhaps as bad, Yglesias leaves the time frame open (always a bad idea) in a situation where a shake-up in the achievement rankings for any reason will tend to favor states at the top of the Students First list. (Louisiana can't really go that far down.) Any kind of causal inference drawn from a change in one of these top scored states would be meaningless.

The only other specific Yglesias can come up with is that the report supposedly requires schools to hold charter schools accountable for performance. Putting aside the obvious "accountable for performance" irony, this claim is a bit difficult to accept at face value given the related question of holding private institutions that receive state money accountable. Remember, Louisiana is Rhee's top ranked state despite a voucher system notorious for its lack of accountability:
The school willing to accept the most voucher students -- 314 -- is New Living Word in Ruston, which has a top-ranked basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition.

The Upperroom Bible Church Academy in New Orleans, a bunker-like building with no windows or playground, also has plenty of slots open. It seeks to bring in 214 voucher students, worth up to $1.8 million in state funding.

At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, pastor-turned-principal Marie Carrier hopes to secure extra space to enroll 135 voucher students, though she now has room for just a few dozen. Her first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains "what God made" on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution.

"We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children," Carrier said.

Other schools approved for state-funded vouchers use social studies texts warning that liberals threaten global prosperity; Bible-based math books that don't cover modern concepts such as set theory; and biology texts built around refuting evolution.
That's it. Out of the "lot to like" here, Yglesias can only come with a flawed we-can-see-how-we're-doing argument and a highly suspect claim about accountability. Less than three hundred words total and he's clearly scraping bottom to put those together.

This whole affair is a case study in how bad ideas lodge themselves in the discourse through journalistic convergence and superficiality, the fetishizing of balance, and the inability of otherwise smart, responsible people to admit (perhaps even to themselves) that they've been proven wrong.

update: link added.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Sometimes I need to read more clearly

I had noted that the presence of defined benefit versus defined contribution pension plans in the evaluation of state education systems.  This was obviously hard to fathom as the way you handle retired teachers seems to have limited predictive ability for the quality of education.  I had not realized it was an anchor category:

 Amazingly, the methodology being used by Rhee’s grifters gives states a “4″ (the highest score) if they have defined contribution pensions and a “0″ if they have defined benefit pensions. In other words, states get higher rankings for their education systems if they make their pension benefits less attractive! Even more amazingly, pension “reform” is an “anchor” category, meaning it gets three times the weight of some of the other categories that might actually have a clear positive relationship with improving a state’s educational system.

So even if you thought there was some small effect here (older teachers hanging on for a couple of extra years to improve their pensions who could easily have found a job elsewhere?), it's hard to imagine that this is a key metric that should be given special weight.

This sort of revelation really does point out the problem with models: bad data in, bad results out.  

Causal Inference

Andrew Gelman comments on an article linking genetic diversity (both high and low) with less economic performance than countries with middling levels of diversity.  His take-away is quite good:
High-profile social science research aims for proof, not for understanding—and that’s a problem. The incentives favor bold thinking and innovative analysis, and that part is great. But the incentives also favor silly causal claims. In many social sciences, it’s not enough to notice an interesting pattern and explore it (as we did in our Red State Blue State book). Instead, you’re supposed to make a strong causal claim even in a context where it makes little sense.
But I also think it omits one piece that is crucial for causal claims: what does a counterfactual look like?  This happens a lot with complex phenomenon in both medicine and social science.  Just look at the question of whether or not to adjust for variables like blood pressure and cholesterol when estimating the effect of obesity on mortality:

 It's possible that most of the thin people who die are meth addicts or have cancer, but even a study which threw out the folks who died within three years of entry into the study found that once you accounted for physical activity*, "underweight" BMIs were correlated with excess mortality risk, while "overweight" BMIs were not. And arguing that the study fails to control for things like blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol seems like fairly weak sauce; those are the very mechanisms by which obesity is supposed to kill us. 
So what would it mean to make a person thinner and not influence the mediating factors through which the disease operates?  It would be a thin person with a lot higher risk of mortality, I suspect.  It's the same example as imagining an antihypertensive medication conditioned on blood pressure -- one would suspect that the causal effect of the drug on the participant would be different if it failed in its primary function. 

In the same sense, the question of how to change genetic diversity without influencing a lot of other variables is a tricky one.  What would it mean for a country whose genetic composition was unrelated to migration to change their level of diversity without changing other factors?  What is the mechanism by which we think this operates?  Mechanisms are not very important for randomized trials because the design eliminates confounding.  But for a non-randomized study, this is a very important piece.

And if we argue that this is just a proxy variables (which seems to be the route that Andrew is taking in his discussion)  then the hard causal claims are unecessary.  Even worse, they may well obscure factors on which we could imagine basing a strong counter-factual.  Exploring data like this is an extremely interesting exercise but I agree that I wish we could admit when we see an interesting pattern that we may not know why this pattern exists. 

Professors and stress

This reply to the classic Forbes article by Susan Adams is worth reading. My favorite piece:

Write a grant application, get three anonymous reviewer critiques. Submit research results for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, get anonymous reviewer critiques. Submit your tenure portfolio or post-tenure portfolio to a college promotion and tenure committee, get anonymous reviews. While one may know the general composition of grant review and promotion and tenure committees, you don’t know precisely who is gunning for you. Anonymity is sometimes useful but more often allows petty vendettas to occur that are independent of the work at hand.
It is amazing how true this can be and how hard it is to try and modify your approach based on feedback when the next set of anoymous reviewers could be completely different. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Metrics on education

Matt Yglesias has a post up about the StudentsFirst report claiming that outcomes are complicated to measure.  While this point is, in the abstract, true, it is informative to see what the highest ranked state (Louisiana) does in the grade 8 reading tests results that he shows.  He gives a number of groups: Everyone, Africian American, Latino, Low income, and White.  Louisiana is in the below average group for all groups except Latinos (where they are average).  It is also worth noting that Latinos make up about 3% of Louisiana's population, whereas African Americans make us around 34% of the population.  So they get average results only in a very tiny minority population.

Now there are lot's of reasons why a school system might be doing the best that they can and student results are divorced from a lot of complex social phenomenon.  However, when the top ranked states is below average on most student outcomes and above average for no populations that should be concerning. 

Now maybe the reforms have been too recent to have results.  But if reforms have very long lag times then we have another problem -- how do we properly evaluate the quality of reforms if it takes a decade to be seen in the test results? 

UPDATE: See here for the actual correlation coefficients.  Consider:
Looking more rigorously at the results, the correlation coefficient on the rankings in the StudentsFirst report card with state rankings on reading scores is -0.20. (The correlation coefficient is a measure of the similarity of two sets of numbers, ranging from -1.0, completely dissimilar, to +1.0, perfect similarity.) That’s not a large number, but the negative sign means that the correlation is in the wrong direction: the higher the StudentsFirst score, the lower the NAEP reading score. The correlation on math is even worse, -0.25.

It's not a good sign when the outcomes data is in the wrong direction. 

EDIT 2: Missing link inserted

Charter school tricks: an ongoing saga

This is remarkable:
Boston’s Commonwealth charter schools have significantly weak “promoting power,” that is, the number of seniors is routinely below 60 percent of the freshmen enrolled four years earlier. looking at it another way, for every five freshmen enrolled in Boston’s charter high schools in the fall of 2008 there were only two seniors: Senior enrollment was 42 percent of freshmen enrollment. in contrast, for every five freshmen enrolled in the Boston Public Schools that fall there were four seniors: Senior enrollment was 81 percent of freshmen enrollment.
High graduation rates seem to be misleading if the weaker students are simply being pushed out and back into the public system (or even worse not in the system at all).  An honest conversation about choice requires that we be aware of the ways that private institutions are different than public ones.  I know people who have had their kids kicked out of a daycare because it wasn't working out and because a private institution can do what it wants with customers.  The ability to remove disruptive students is certainly a nice benefit, but does the likely arms race really work out for the children involved? 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Educational Performance?

StudentsFirst just released their state rankings.  You know who came in first?
Louisiana is the top-rated state, according to StudentsFirst. It ranks 49th of 51 on eighth grade reading scores and 47th of 51 on eighth grade math scores.
Washington, DC (dead last on NEAP scores) comes in 4th in the nation for educational performance as rated by StudentsFirst.  Now it is possible that these scores predict improvement in these states and that this is the result of bad past policy.

It's also interesting to see some of the categories.  Look at page 77 of the methodology report and see that they lower the rating of school system that restrict class sizes (bigger classes = better) and, even more interestingly, rate a state more poorly for having a defined benefit pension plan.  How does a defined benefit pension plan and the absence of class limits IMPROVE education.  I could imagine these being orthogonal to educational outcomes and thus argued to be options for fiscal improvement.  But it is hard to argue that they worsen student outcomes.

The Ddulite Bifurcation

From inappropriate aggregation to silly juxtapositions.

For the original definition of Ddulite check the link. For now it's sufficient to say we're talking about people (particularly journalists) who have an emotional, gee-whiz reaction to technology without really thinking seriously about the functionality.

Ddulite journalists can be spotted by a few defining characteristics: a remarkable ability to be impressed by the unimpressive; a focus on shiny, sexy toys; a tendency to report on technologies that really aren't that close as being just around the corner; a recurring amnesia about the slow development of similar technologies; general obliviousness to questions about implementation and demand; and what we might call the ddulite bifurcation.

The typical bifurcation consists of two applications of a new technology, one application mundane but realistic, the other impressive but so wildly ambitious that it may not even be theoretically possible with the technology being discussed.

I was going to make up an absurd example here but now that I think about it, I'm not sure I could do better than this actual story from Planet Money. The subject is 3-D printers and it's worth listening to.The Planet Money people are good, solid reporters and they do a reasonable job putting things in economic context, even bringing in Tyler Cowen to shoot down some of the more extravagant this-is-the-future claims.

But you can count on any story like this to have at least a few ddulite moments and you can certainly find them here, including this classic bifurcation. First we get this claim from a CEO named Pete Weijmarshausen:
Now, I think in a few years, we can print clothing, and then you can have clothing without sizes, but you have the size that fits you.
(Note the qualifiers here: "I think"; "in a few years.")

This is followed a few lines later by analyst Terry Wohlers saying:
WOHLERS: You lose a finger, you print out a new one.
CHACE: Yeah, like, actual body parts, printing out new fingers using your cells.
WOHLERS: Bones and bladders and eventually kidneys and so forth.
(glad he put the "eventually" qualifier with kidneys)

At the risk of belaboring the obvious and working under the assumption that most of you reading this know waaaay more about regenerative medicine and therapeutic cloning than I do, the day when we can easily grow new limbs is probably not just around the corner. Important fundamental research is being done and it's reasonable to talk about being able to do this someday but it could be a long way off. As for 3D printing approaches, we seem to be at the appears to be theoretically possible stage where we can work with masses of tissue rather than just a few cells by creating synthetic vascular systems.

This is exciting research but it's the sort of thing that's probably years away if it ever proves viable. Like most reporting about nanotech, the story mixes the ongoing with the theoretically possible in a way that obscures the huge gap between the two.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Professors and adjuncts -- inappropriate aggregation watch at Forbes

As a follow-up to Joseph's last post on this much-maligned piece from Susan Adams at Forbes, I'd like to add yet another complaint based on this bit from Adams' post:
As for compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for professors is $62,000, not a huge amount of money but enough to live on, especially in a university town.

Another boon for professors: Universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professors by 2020, according to the BLS. All of those attributes land university professor in the number one slot on‘s list of the least stressful jobs of 2013. 
As I've mentioned before, adjuncts have no job security and work very hard for little more than kind words and Pez (the median being a lot less than 62K). By jumping from a statement about professors to one about professors and adjuncts, Adams is using a variation on the rhetorical deception I call the cigarettes and cocaine argument.

"We just don't have the money for you to keep smoking. Do you realize that between your smoking and my cocaine habit we're spending more than two thousand dollars a week? You're just going to have to give up cigarettes."

The gold standard of the C and C argument is the ever popular case for Social Security reform that goes like this:

I. We have to do something about SS

II. The combined costs of SS and Medicare is projected to be more than a gazillion dollars in the red by twenty-whatever

III. That's why we need to cut/privatize/phase out SS

Of course this is just one of many problems in Adams' piece (as Joseph said, James Joyner does a great job addressing the major flaws here), but inappropriate aggregation is an embarrassingly large part of the public discourse and it supports any number of bad arguments and ill-conceived policies despite being relatively easy to spot and correct.

Professor is low stress?

Wow.  Just wow.  James Joyner has a great response to this article on how low stress University Professor is as a job.  I especially liked:

The other thing most of the least stressful jobs have in common: At the end of the day, people in these professions can leave their work behind, and their hours tend to be the traditional nine to five.
Really?  That is a rare state of affairs for a professor and is mostly experienced by senior faculty on the verge of retirement.  But developing classes, doing research, and writing grants is not a time limited activity that can be trivially executed in a nine to five sort of way.  Living withy constant uncertainty about funding and whether you will still have a job next year (dependent on successful of grant applications) is also not a low stress lifestyle. 

I don't want to say that there are no professors like this . . . but there are members of any profession who manage to get a very cushy position.  But it seems very unlike the lifestyle I see for the median member of the profession. 

You want flying cars? I'll give you flying cars

As mentioned before, I'm a fan of David Graeber's recent essay, "Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit" but I really dislike the title.  Flying cars have become the go-to cliche when discussing underperforming technological progress. On top of that, they have a slightly goofy quality and often come with the at least the implication that no one serious ever actually believed this stuff.

The last part is especially unfortunate because for most of the Twentieth Century, personal aviation was seen as something very close that was going to be very big. Exactly which technology (flying cars, personal planes, and, in the post-war era, jet-packs) would come to dominate was an open question, but serious people believed that flying would become very much like driving for things like commuting and they were willing to back up that belief with money and research.

I n 1933 the U. S. government spent half a million dollars to produce a ‘poor man’s airplane through the efforts of Eugene Vidal, promising a 2-3 seat, all metal aircraft costing $700 (the approximate price of a nice car and considerably less than any aircraft). While this effort was not embraced by the aircraft manufacturers of the time and portrayed as “an all mental aircraft”, the idea was enthusiastically greeted by the public. A direct result of this research was the Erco Ercoupe, which achieved new levels of ease of use, along with a spin-proof, safe stalling, smallfield capable, inexpensive aircraft. T.P. Wright, the Administrator of Civil Aeronautics, wrote an extensive review of NACA small aircraft efforts to “meet the needs of the family”. “When the market for all other types of planes is grouped it is apparent that what may be termed a really large industry, and one having an important effect on national economy, will not be provided. Of course the market for military aircraft will for a long time represent possibly the most important field in aircraft development and manufacture. However, even considering this with the others it can readily be seen that, developed to an adequate extent, the personal aircraft can easily become the most important factor in the aircraft industry. Used both for business and pleasure it is here only that an almost limitless potential market is available.”
Vidal was so committed that he even used his young son to demonstrate (at least briefly) how safe and easy flying these aircraft could be.

Gore Vidal, born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. on Oct. 3, 1925, in West Point, N.Y., was the only child of First Lieutenant Eugene Luther Vidal and Nina Gore, a socialite. His father was the first aeronautics instructor of the U.S. Military Academy and later the director of the Commerce Department's Bureau of Air Commerce during the Roosevelt Administration. Vidal's father had so much faith in the Hammond flivver-type plane that he sent 10-year-old Gore aloft to fly it. Vidal is pictured at the controls before takeoff. 
The flying car starts looking a bit less goofy in this context. Personal aircraft were soon supposed to be common. Neighborhoods would have their own airstrips. The idea of an airplane that was easily transportable and could double as a family automobile had obvious appeal.

By the Forties, these ideas had even reached the prototype stage

Taylor's design of a roadable aircraft dates back to 1946 [first flight 1949]. During a trip to Delaware, he met inventor Robert E. Fulton, Jr., who had designed an earlier roadable airplane, the Airphibian. Taylor recognized that the detachable wings of Fulton’s design would be better replaced by folding wings. His prototype Aerocar utilized folding wings that allowed the road vehicle to be converted into flight mode in five minutes by one person. When the rear license plate was flipped up, the operator could connect the propeller shaft and attach a pusher propeller. The same engine drives the front wheels through a three-speed manual transmission. When operated as an aircraft, the road transmission is simply left in neutral (though backing up during taxiing is possible by using reverse gear.) On the road, the wings and tail unit were designed to be towed behind the vehicle. Aerocars can drive up to 60 miles per hour and have a top airspeed of 110 miles per hour.
Mid-century Americans had every reason to have high expectations for this type technology. The past fifty years had seen far cruder prototypes of technology such as the car, airplane and helicopter develop into impressive and commercially viable machines. With the Depression and the war out of the way, there was every reason to believe that the turn-around time from early working model to full production would only get faster. If they could build one jet pack today, surely they could have the bugs worked out in a year or two.

That's a Bell Rocket Belt, in case you're curious.

We could argue about exactly why personal aviation never grew beyond the small niche it has occupied for the past few decades, but there's no question that a time traveler from fifty years ago would be surprised at our lack of progress in this area.

Nor do we have a lot of progress to report in the rest of transportation. I'm still not sure how to explain why we actually regressed in terms of transatlantic travel speeds from what we were doing thirty years ago.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Of outhouses and automobiles

Both Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias have interesting posts about how important network effects can be to the adoption of new pieces of technology (Megan is talking about indoor plumbing, Matt about automobiles).  An except

Saying that people are choosing the a cell phone over an outhouse is not the same as saying they’re choosing a cell phone over an indoor toilet. Maybe that’s the choice they’d make, if they had it—I don’t know! But as Kelly’s own account acknowledges, they don’t actually have that choice, and certainly not at anything like the same cost.

Indoor plumbing requires either electricity to pump the water, and a nearby well to pump it from, or a connection to a public system with enough pressure to force the water high enough to flush your toilet. That’s a lot of power, not a trickle charge off of a small solar cell; I believe my great grandparents used a gasoline generator when they installed indoor plumbing in the mid-thirties. Gasoline generators are fairly expensive, as is the gasoline to run them, and I gather that they were only able to do it because their newly married son (my grandfather) saved up to help pay the installation cost, and then paid them rent that covered the cost of the fuel. Most farmers, I am told, waited until rural electrification brought them grid power.
Mark also pointed out just how important these elements of infrastructure were in transforming American society.  It's humbling to think about just how much effort was required to actually do all of these things (and concerning that infrastructure moves much slower today). 

However, I am hoping that the shift to an information based economy will have other benefits.  In some sense, there is a possibility that information, stored as pixels, could be something of real value (think of books or television programs) yet require very little resources to create.  In that sense maybe we could end up being happier (overall) while using less resources.

That being said, I have also used an outhouse and have absolutely no interest in giving up my indoor plumbing.  I am not even all that happy camping, unless there is a rest area in the middle of the campground with flush toilets (essential) and showers (highly desierable). 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

"Back when 50 miles was a long way"

Over at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, Phil picks up on the then-and-now theme and points us to this post from Michael Graham Richard with historic maps showing travel time from New York City in 1800, 1830, 1857, and 1930.

The maps are worth spending some time with (as is the comment section on Phil's post). They're also a nice segue to this observation from David Graeber's excellent essay:
Toffler’s use of acceleration was particularly unfortunate. For most of human history, the top speed at which human beings could travel had been around 25 miles per hour. By 1900 it had increased to 100 miles per hour, and for the next seventy years it did seem to be increasing exponentially. By the time Toffler was writing, in 1970, the record for the fastest speed at which any human had traveled stood at roughly 25,000 mph, achieved by the crew of Apollo 10 in 1969, just one year before. At such an exponential rate, it must have seemed reasonable to assume that within a matter of decades, humanity would be exploring other solar systems. 
Since 1970, no further increase has occurred. The record for the fastest a human has ever traveled remains with the crew of Apollo 10. True, the commercial airliner Concorde, which first flew in 1969, reached a maximum speed of 1,400 mph. And the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144, which flew first, reached an even faster speed of 1,553 mph. But those speeds not only have failed to increase; they have decreased since the Tupolev Tu-144 was cancelled and the Concorde was abandoned.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Miles instead of years

Phil has a great follow-up to Mark's when 50 years was a long time ago post.


P.S. I was personally struck by just how isolated the Puget Sound area really was in 1857; 6 weeks is an amazingly long trip to still be in the same country.

P.P.S. I should look at the scheduled posts before saying anything.  Suffice it to say, a post with a lot more actual thinking is forthcoming and, having run across it in the archives, it is worth the wait

Megan McArdle's collectivist libertarianism

McArdle has come in, quite rightly, for a great deal of criticism following her recent post suggesting:
I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.
In terms of tactics, simply rushing a gunman whose weapons may be fully automatic is an extraordinarily bad idea, truly a last resort. It looks good in the movies but in real life, every aspect of the maneuver -- range, position, response time -- plays to the shooter's advantage. This is pretty much the situation that assault weapons were designed for.

In terms of implementation, it is arguably even less practical. As an old history professor of mine (who happened to be ex-military) explained, when someone shoots at you, the overwhelming instinct is to run away which is why so much military culture is designed to condition soldiers to reflexively follow orders (and why officers sometimes point their sidearms at their own troops).

Jonathan Chait pointed out that even in the familiar and controlled setting of a football practice, it takes considerable training to get kids to rush toward large, threatening opponents without hesitating or flinching. The idea of getting typical elementary school children to instinctively swarm an armed gunman is so absurd that Chait concluded:
Unless I am missing a very subtle parody of libertarianism, McArdle’s plan to teach children to launch banzai charges against mass murderers is the single worst solution to any problem I have ever seen offered in a major publication.
That's the one part I disagree with, not about it being the worst solution but about it being libertarian. McArdle is suggesting that we institute what can only be a massive government program to indoctrinate kids to put aside personal choice and individual initiative and instead automatically take collective action to serve the interests of the group. I honestly can't think of a recent proposal more at odds with libertarian principles.

This last point has no real significance in the gun control debate. McArdle's idea was next to impossible to implement and was unlikely to work even if you could get it in place. The fact that it contradicted her stated core values has no bearing on the question of guns and safety.

It does matter, however, when we consider the larger and, in the long run more important, question of how to have a discussion (more important than keeping our children safe? Yes. We have to be able to intelligently discuss the problem before we can hope to address it). A great deal of our discourse on almost every major issue is staked out by nominal libertarians like McArdle.

Libertarianism is often treated as the respectable and intellectually coherent branch of conservative thought, particularly when compared with say. social conservatives or nativists, but if you start with the same axioms these groups hold about the validity and interpretation of certain sacred texts or about cultural identity respectively, then most of the positions held by social conservatives and nativists are at least coherent. By comparison, much. perhaps most, of what we hear from leading libertarians like McArdle is completely inconsistent with the defining assumptions of libertarianism.

With a few exceptions, most of the nominal libertarians seem to take a curiously pro-authority stance, particularly when that authority preserves the social order. Even when the authority is governmental, actions that greatly reduce aggregate liberty (the war on drugs, extensions of copyrights and patents), are objected to less strenuously than are policies that arguably increase aggregate liberty such as civil rights laws.

Update: You can see Megan's response to this post in the comment section.

When Patents attack

Kevin Drum has an interesting story about a software patent case:

This hits home for me in two ways. First, the alleged patents date from 1996, and I was personally involved in a project to put scanners on networks starting around 1994. It was cleverly called NetScan, and it eventually failed for a variety of reasons, but by 1996 we had an actual box on the market that allowed you to connect a scanner and program it to send documents to your internal email account. I have no doubt that the patent trolls in this case would argue that the technology we used was subtly different from theirs (we emailed TIFF files, for example, while their patent covers PDFs), but that's almost certainly legalistic nonsense. You connected a scanner to our box, entered a bunch of data identifying users, and then you could scan documents and have them automatically emailed to your desktop. We didn't even bother patenting it because the idea was pretty obvious.
I think that this makes it pretty clear how silly a lot of modern patent law has become.  There is not really any innovation being protected here and, instead, we have a lot of lawyers becoming rich because somebody decided to take out a patent on what people were already doing. 

This makes me extremely skeptical that patents are a direct correlate with innovation, unless you sub-group them very carefully.   And it is highly disturbing to see small businesses (which don't have deep pockets for legal fees) being increasingly targeted by patent lawyers.  There are already a lot of barriers to being a small business.  A catalogue of patents for simple things (like scanning a document to email) would be cumbersome and trying to be compliant with it would be the most onerous set of regulations I can imagine.