Friday, July 21, 2017

Brooks underplayed the only cultural signifiers that matter -- "All you need is juice and a whole lotta money"

In recent years, I have become something of a compulsive Wikipedia checker. When I see a business story, I look up the industry. When I hear a politician make a particularly offensive comment, I look up his or her district. And when I come across someone who has achieved a high position in an extremely competitive field at a young age without displaying any special talent or intellect, I look up his or her background. In a plurality and perhaps even a majority of the cases, biography reads: well-to-do and well-connected parents; obnoxiously expensive prep school; elite university; dream job straight out of college.

Obviously, this is a very small group, more the 0.1% than the 1%. The chances against picking such a person random are vanishingly small, Nonetheless the institutions that keep us informed and often make our decisions for us are absolutely lousy with them. While we are not exactly talking about a lifeboat situation here, it is fair to say that in some cases smarter, more capable candidates were pushed aside to make way for Horace Mann School alumni.

This greasing of the skids leads back to our previous discussion of David Brooks' recent column. In all the brouhaha over Brooks' ill-conceived trip to the deli, a more serious flaw was largely overlooked. Brooks has a habit of starting a piece with a strong, clear-eyed examination of some substantial problem like income inequality or the rise of pseudoscience. He then, however, has a tendency to divert the conversation into distracting, trivial, and sometimes even dishonest arguments. The honest initial assessment allows him to maintain his standing as the conservative that liberals can love; the triviality and distortion allow him to avoid the logical conclusions of those premises. He generally ignores policies and attitudes that are likely to have a direct impact because those are not the sort of policies that a conservative (evening New York Times conservative) can get away with endorsing too often.

The now notorious sandwich column holds true to this formula. His opening points about upper-class entrenchment are valid and well presented. He then slides into a discussion of possibly valid but certainly secondary factors like zoning laws, before completely giving himself over to the food culture silliness.

The spine of this story is brutally simple. More money means more connections. More connections mean more money. Repeat. Policies that limit access to economic opportunity, that encourage greater and greater concentration of wealth and power make this situation worse. Furthermore, there is no great mystery as to what these policies are or how to reverse them, and the solution has nothing to do with introducing the masses to artisan bread, heirloom produce, or the healthful miracle that is kombucha (Gwyneth Paltrow swears by it).

Thursday, July 20, 2017

New York Magazine has a problem with pseudoscience*

Not just New York Magazine, of course. The issues here are almost industry-wide (Cracked and the Gawker remnants have fairly clean hands), but NYM might be a bit worse than average and is, at the very least, a good place to start given its association with the conspicuous consumption lifestyle porn that drives so much bad health science.

There is a troubling symbiotic relationship between journalists and people like Gwyneth Paltrow who can be subjects, sources, advertisers, even potential colleagues and employers.

Here's what came up next to one of the stories below.

The problem is compounded by an ethical code focused on covering your ass rather than getting at the truth. NYM reporters are particularly adept at working that system, including just enough snark and caveats to give themselves just sufficient distance. Take a look at this recent example:

I Took the Best Nap of My Life on a $9,000 Crystal Bed by Allie Jones

I hate to do this, but I have to recommend a moderately expensive wellness practice that has no scientific basis or proven medical benefits whatsoever. Last week, I tried Crystal Bed Therapy at the recently opened alternative medicine studio Modrn Sanctuary, and I was changed. I don’t think it did what it was supposed to do (realign my energy field?) but it did make me feel intensely relaxed and also sort of high.

To belabor the obvious, “no scientific basis” doesn't mean much if it's followed by a testimonial, but it does immunize Jones to a degree from the criticism that she's promoting pseudoscience. That's clearly what she is doing, but if challenged, she has plenty of qualifiers to point to.

If you do the promoting in passing, you don't even need the caveats. Check out the end of
Gwyneth Paltrow and Serena Williams are Getting Into the Food Business Together

Subscribers of the DIY-smoothie company can choose from among three plans that ship frozen “superfoods” to their door on a weekly or monthly basis. Plans run between $48 to accommodate the ingredients for six smoothies and $168 for a month’s supply. It is unknown if the smoothies are delicious, but they will undoubtedly be healthy.

“Undoubtedly”?!? First off, there are no “superfoods.” Second, the suggestion that you can count on a Paltrow product to be healthy (or safe, for that matter) is somewhere between funny and sad.

Of course, those are just quick little fillers. Is the standard higher for a major feature? Yes and no...

The Wellness Epidemic by Amy Larocca

Wellness is a very broad idea, which is no small part of its marketing appeal. On the most basic level, it’s about making a conscious effort to attain health in both body and mind, to strive for unity and balance. And it’s not a new idea either. Homeopathy, which uses natural substances to promote the body’s ability to self-heal, was popularized in Germany in the late-18th century, and 50 years later, the YMCA set its mission as caring for the body, mind, and spirit. Dan Rather did a 60 Minutes segment on wellness in 1979, but it was approached more as a fringe phenomenon. “Wellness,” he said, “that’s not a word you hear every day.”

Putting aside the annoyance at seeing the Y (an organization based on giving young men an alternative to taverns and brothels) in bad company, you can't simply say this about homeopathy. This is not a practice that “uses natural substances to promote the body’s ability to self-heal”; it is a practice that does nothing. It is the poster child for medical pseudoscience.

Or later on...
It can be easy to be cynical about wellness, about the $66 jade eggs that Gwyneth Paltrow suggests inserting in your “yoni.” There’s something grotesque about this industry’s emerging at the moment when the most basic health care is still being denied to so many in America and is at risk of being snatched away from millions more. But what’s perhaps most striking about wellness’s ascendancy is that it’s happening because, in our increasingly bifurcated world, even those who do have access to pretty good (and sometimes quite excellent, if quite expensive) traditional health care are left feeling, nonetheless, incredibly unwell.

Cynical is not nearly a strong enough response.  Writing for Gizmodo, Kristen V. Brown explains:

“A lot of things here are concerning,”said Jen Gunter, a San Francisco OB/GYN. “For one, this is a porous rock you’re putting in there, not medical-grade silicon, and who knows what bacteria can lodge in those nooks and crannies. Then there’s also this magical belief that putting something inside you can do something to your aura or chi.”

Gunter, whose practice specializes in pelvic floor disorders and infectious disease, said it’s not just that Paltrow is peddling pseudoscientific eastern mysticism—it’s actually bad medical advice.

If you really wanted to strengthen your vagina’s pelvic floor, for example, Gunter said that sleeping with a weight down there or walking around with it inside of you won’t do the trick. The key, she said, is exercises to tighten and relax the muscles. Keeping an egg up there, she said, could actually do the reverse and damage those muscles.

21st Century journalism has a problem with pseudoscience, It's time for an intervention.

* And real science, too.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

One more quibble with Goldfarb – – why Netflix and not Redbox?

I'm starting to feel really bad about this. Brent Goldfarb recently wrote one of the best and most important analyses of the Tesla business model and of the larger question of the disruption fetish, but so far, all we've managed to do is complain about relatively minor issues in his piece. That said, this one has bothered me for a long time. Furthermore, I believe the point that follows, though it somewhat contradicts Goldfarb's account, actually strengthens is argument.

Here's the passage in question:
A disruption theorist would explain Kodak’s downfall by arguing that Kodak ignored the threat posed by digital photography because it was too focused on the seemingly steady and solid profits produced by selling film. Likewise, Blockbuster ignored Netflix’s DVD-by-mail model and later streaming, leading to its bankruptcy.

Ignoring these innovations may have seemed sensible at first: Low-resolution digital photography did not appeal to Kodak’s customers, and Netflix started out by offering odd and old movies, i.e., not blockbusters. Why would Blockbuster bother to compete with that?

Why talk about Netflix and not Redbox? It is not at all clear to me that the DVDs by mail model is any more innovative or "disruptive" than the DVD by kiosk model. Nor is it immediately obvious that Netflix played a bigger role in Blockbuster's demise. Redbox targeted virtually the same market as the rental giant and it did so very successfully.

Redbox Automated Retail, LLC is an American company specializing in DVD, Blu-ray, and video game rentals via automated retail kiosks. Redbox kiosks feature the company's signature red color and are located at convenience stores, fast food restaurants, grocery stores, mass retailers, and pharmacies.

The company surpassed Blockbuster in 2007 in number of U.S. locations, passed 100 million rentals in February 2008, and passed 1 billion rentals in September 2010. Competitors include Netflix and Blockbuster. In Q2 2011, kiosks accounted for 36 percent of the disc rental market, with 38 percent of that attributable to rent-by-mail services and 25 percent to traditional stores, according to the NPD Group. As of Q2 2011, 68 percent of the U.S. population lived within a five-minute drive of a Redbox kiosk. The numbers for Q2 2013 shows that the Redbox rentals had surpassed 50 percent of the total disc rentals in the country.

At the risk of oversimplifying, you could argue that competition from these two companies killed the Blockbuster chain, but for some reason, only one of the two makes it into the narratives. Why is the still highly visible kiosk service so often forgotten? Some might suggest that it has to do with the decline of the DVD, but while that might affect the valuation of the company going forward, it is not at all relevant to the period in question.

The reasons that you hear more about Netflix than about Redbox, are the same reasons you hear so much about Netflix. First, the company has considerable Silicon Valley sheen, the kind that guarantees excessive hype. Second, and far more important, Netflix spends a god-awful amount of money making sure that people talk about it. The marketing and PR budget for the company has been astounding and astoundingly successful. Think about all of the news stories you seen about the company, including the stunningly embarrassing "look what's coming to Netflix this month" which regularly runs in otherwise respectable news publications.

Goldfarb argued that bullshit hype and the disruption fetish distort markets and divert money and talent into bad projects. The fact that even he is influenced by this hype only goes to support his larger thesis.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

David Wallace-Wells, autism and bad science

David Wallace-Wells has been catching a lot of flack (most of it richly deserved) for his recent New York Magazine article on climate change. It is a hugely troubling sign when the very scientists you were claiming to represent push back against your article.

This controversy illustrates a larger problem with science reporting at the magazine. We already have a post in the queue discussing the neutral-to-credulous coverage of topics ranging from homeopathy to magic crystals to Gwyneth Paltrow's goop empire. The Wallace-Wells piece takes things to another level and goes in a very different but arguably worse direction. Rather than giving bad science a pass, he takes good science and presents it so ineptly has to do it a disservice.

I am not going to delve into that science myself. The topic has been well covered by numerous expert and knowledgeable writers [see here and here]. The best I could offer would be a recap. There are some journalistic points I may hit later and I do want to highlight a minor detail in the article that has slipped past most critics, but which is perfectly representative of the dangerous way Wallace-Wells combines sensationalism with a weak grasp of science.

Other stuff in the hotter air is even scarier, with small increases in pollution capable of shortening life spans by ten years. The warmer the planet gets, the more ozone forms, and by mid-century, Americans will likely suffer a 70 percent increase in unhealthy ozone smog, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has projected. By 2090, as many as 2 billion people globally will be breathing air above the WHO “safe” level; one paper last month showed that, among other effects, a pregnant mother’s exposure to ozone raises the child’s risk of autism (as much as tenfold, combined with other environmental factors). Which does make you think again about the autism epidemic in West Hollywood.

No, David, no it doesn't.

I want to be painstakingly careful at this point. These are complex and extraordinarily important issues and it is essential that we do not lose sight of certain basic facts: by any reasonable standard, man-made climate change is one of the two or three most important issues facing our country; the effect of various pollutants on children's mental and physical development should be a major concern for all of us; high ozone levels are a really bad thing.

But the suggestion that ozone levels are causing an autism epidemic in West Hollywood is both dangerous and scientifically illiterate. You'll notice that I did not say that suggesting ozone levels cause autism is irresponsible. Though the study in question is outside of my field, the hypothesis seems reasonable and I do not see any red flags associated with the research. If Wallace-Wells had stopped before adding that last sentence, he would've been on solid ground, but he didn't.

Autism is frightening, mysterious, tragic. This has caused people, particularly parents facing one of the worst moments imaginable, to clean desperately to any explanation that might make sense of their situation. As a result, autism has become a focal point for bad science, culminating with the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. There is no field where groundless speculation and fear-mongering are less welcome.

So, if ozone and other pollutants may contribute to autism, what's so bad about the West Hollywood claim? For that, you need to do some rudimentary causal reasoning, starting with a quick look at ozone pollution in Southern California.

Here are some pertinent facts from a 2015 LA Times article:

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy selected a limit of 70 parts per billion, which is more stringent than the 75 parts-per-billion standard adopted in 2008 but short of the 60-ppb endorsed by environmentalists and health advocacy groups including the American Lung Assn. The agency’s science advisors had recommended a limit lower than 70 -- and as low as 60.


About one-third of California residents live in communities with pollution that exceeds federal standards, according to estimates by the state Air Resources Board.

Air quality is worst in inland valleys, where pollution from vehicles and factories cook in sunlight to form ozone, which is blown and trapped against the mountains.

The South Coast air basin, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, violated the current 75-ppb ozone standard on 92 days in 2014. The highest ozone levels in the nation are in San Bernardino County, which reported a 2012-2014 average of 102 parts per billion.

Now let's look at some ozone levels around the region. West Hollywood, it should be noted, is not great.

But just over the Hollywood Hills, the situation is even worse.

Go further inland to San Dimas and the level is even higher…

Higher still in Riverside ...

Though still far short of what we find in San Bernardino.

If you look at autism rates by school district and compare them to ozone levels, it is difficult to see much of a relationship. Does this mean that ozone does not contribute to autism? Absolutely not. What it shows is that, as with many developmental and learning disabilities, the wealthy are overdiagnosed while poor are underdiagnosed. It is no coincidence that a place like Santa Monica/Maibu (a notorious anti-vaxxer hotspot) has more than double the diagnosis rate of San Bernardino.

The there's this from the very LA Times article by Alan Zarembo that Wallace-Wells cites [emphasis added]:

 Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiologist at UC Davis, suspects that environmental triggers such as exposure to chemicals during pregnancy play a role. In a 2009 study, she started with a tantalizing lead — several autism clusters, mostly in Southern California, that her team had identified from disability and birth records.

But the hot spots could not be linked to chemical plants, waste dumps or any other obvious environmental hazards. Instead, the cases were concentrated in places where parents were highly educated and had easy access to treatment.

Peter Bearman, a sociologist at Columbia University, has demonstrated how such social forces are driving autism rates.

Analyzing state data, he identified a 386-square-mile area centered in West Hollywood that consistently produced three times as many autism cases as would be expected from birth rates.

Affluence helped set the area apart. But delving deeper, Bearman detected a more surprising pattern that existed across the state: Rich or poor, children living near somebody with autism were more likely to have the diagnosis themselves.
Living within 250 meters boosted the chances by 42%, compared to living between 500 and 1,000 meters away.

The reason, his analysis suggested, was simple: People talk.
They talk about how to recognize autism, which doctors to see, how to navigate the bureaucracies to secure services. They talk more if they live next door or visit the same parks, or if their children go to the same preschool.

The influence of neighbors alone accounts for 16% of the growth of autism cases in the state developmental system between 2000 and 2005, Bearman estimated.

In other words, autism is not contagious, but the diagnosis is.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Maybe Brooks' lunch date was just a horrified food critic

I have to confess that I've tended to be overly dismissive of Besha Rodell.  By replacing the irreplaceable Jonathan Gold,  she immediately became the Roger Moore of restaurant critics. To make matters worse, (depending on your feeling toward Henry Rollins) Gold had frequently been the only good thing about the Village Voice owned LA Weekly.

I need to reevaluate my opinion on Rodell. This review beautifully lays out the fundamental rottenness of conspicuous consumption dining and nicely rebuts the infamous David Brooks column that came out a day later.

There's an odd, pervasive myth about the way Americans eat that at its most basic goes like this: The privileged among us eat well, while the poor eat poorly. It's an assumption that's deployed frequently when discussing food deserts, obesity, nutrition and other issues of food insecurity and hunger. But it also smacks of classism and ignores the fact that most Americans, regardless of financial status, eat poorly. In fact, I'd say that if we are going to generalize, it would be more accurate to say that the very wealthy in this country have some of the worst taste when it comes to food.

What other explanation accounts for the mostly terrible (yet very expensive) restaurants in Malibu, a city with one of the highest median household incomes in L.A. County? The dumbed-down selections on so many Beverly Hills wine lists? Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, many very good (and also very expensive) restaurants survive thanks to customers with both the money and taste to patronize them. But my guess is that if you surveyed the dining-out proclivities of the 1 percent, you'd find mostly crappy chardonnay, too-sweet cocktails, safe but expensive steakhouse fare and terrible pan-Asian food.


Perhaps it's unfair to pick on Tao. The food isn't that much worse than what's available at any number of popular chain restaurants, from the higher end through fast food (though I would much rather eat the orange chicken at P.F. Chang's or Panda Express than the orange chicken at Tao). But I wanted to try to understand this very popular thing — surely there's something to learn from Tao's massive success. We in the food world live in our food-world bubble; we tie ourselves in knots talking about the peril of cultural appropriation in Portland food trucks while the highest-grossing restaurant in America blithely offers bottle service under a giant, reclining Buddha statue as paintings of demure geishas cast their eyes alluringly downward behind the bar.

I have stepped out of my bubble long enough to appraise Tao and to declare it bad in almost every way, and now I'll go back to my comfort zone of real Asian food (whatever that means) and Californian small plates, thanks very much. I set out to understand Tao's allure, to find the fun in Hollywood's gaudiest glam, and have found myself only more bewildered — and more aware of the cultural schisms that separate us.

Friday, July 14, 2017

We could have just run this post weekly for the past six months

Near the beginning of the year, we ran a post about how the incumbency advantage is based on processes and mechanisms that, at least on the Republican side, appear to be breaking down. Since then we've gotten dozens of examples. This recent piece by TPM's Matt Shuham is amusingly representative.

Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME) dodged questions about Republicans’ health care bill on Tuesday, according to video of a tumultuous press conference published by a progressive group.
Poliquin had visited Nason Park Manor, an assisted living facility in Bangor, Maine, to promote his proposal to sell off federally owned buildings in order to fund a one-year cost of living increase for Social Security recipients.

A photo on Poliquin’s website shows him chatting with Nason Park Manor residents.

But video clips from the event posted by the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive group, show Poliquin dodging questions about his support for the American Health Care Act, House Republicans’ Obamacare repeal bill that would carry with it deep cuts to Medicaid.
“Representative, my son is not going to have a wonderful summer with a cut in Medicaid,” Walker is heard saying at the end of the event, as Poliquin scurries toward the door.

“Congressman, you promised to take a question from this constituent, would you keep your promise for once?” another voice is heard saying, as the congressman disappears to his car.

Walker told TPM by phone that Poliquin has a habit of ducking tough questions from Mainers.
“He does nothing open to the public,” she said. “We did have a town hall, and he didn’t show up.”

Slate’s Jim Newell described a similar response in May, after asking Poliquin for his thoughts on an earlier version of the AHCA: “He said nothing and made a beeline to the restroom,” Newell wrote. “Unfortunately it was the door to the women’s restroom that he had first run to, so he corrected himself and went into the men’s room. When he emerged several minutes later, he was wearing his earbuds and scurried away.”

That was July 12th. Here's what we were saying on February 8th.

Though, to be perfectly fair, Tennessee has always been a hotbed of leftist radicals
We have all heard the statistics about how difficult it is for a Congressional representative to lose his or her job. This is partially because of things like gerrymandering and spigots of campaign cash, but it also reflects a process that does a pretty good job allowing a reasonably competent and dedicated legislator to keep the constituents fairly happy in his or her district. A big part of that process is the maintaining of good relationships and lines of communication with voters and communities. Many political career has ended when voters felt someone had "lost touch with the people back home."

In this context, stories like the following from Talking Points Memo's Allegra Kirkland take on a special significance.
Constituents requesting that Rep. Jimmy Duncan Jr. (R-TN) hold a town hall on repealing the Affordable Care Act aren't being met with a polite brushoff from staffers anymore. Instead, Duncan's office has started sending out a form letter telling them point-blank that he has no intention to hold any town hall meetings.

“I am not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals,” the letter read, according to a copy obtained by the Maryville Daily Times. “Also, I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them.”

In the first weeks of the 115th Congress, elected officials dropping by their home districts were surprised to find town halls packed to the rafters with concerned constituents. Caught off guard and on camera, lawmakers were asked to defend President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and provide a timeline on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

Now, many of them are skipping out on these events entirely. Some have said large meetings are an ineffective format for addressing individual concerns. Many others have, like the President himself, dismissed those questioning their agenda as “paid protesters” or radical activists who could pose a physical threat.

Voters turning out to town halls are pushing back hard on this characterization, arguing that they represent varied ideological backgrounds and have diverse issues to raise. Constituents unable to meet with their elected officials over the weekend told TPM that they’re not attending town hall events to make trouble. Instead, they say they want accountability from the people they pay to represent them.

Kim Mattoch, a mother of three and event planner, told TPM that she tried to go to a Saturday town hall in Roseville, California with GOP Rep. Tom McClintock but couldn’t make it in. The 200-seat theater hosting the event was quickly filled to capacity, leaving hundreds waiting outside.

“I’m a constituent of McClintock and a registered Republican in a very Republican district—though I don’t really align very well these days with the Republican Party,” Mattoch said in a Monday phone call. “So I wanted to go to the town hall because I legitimately had questions for the congressman.”

Mattoch said the protesters waiting outside had a wide range of “legitimate concerns.” She personally hoped to ask her representative about how the GOP was progressing on repealing and replacing the ACA and why House Republicans last week voted to kill a ruling aimed at preventing coal mining debris from ending up in waterways.

Yet McClintock told the Los Angeles Times that he thought an “anarchist element” was present in the crowd outside his event, and said he was escorted to his car by police because he’d been told the atmosphere was “deteriorating.”

Ramon Fliek, who attended the McClintock event with his wife, told TPM on Monday that police “were kind enough to block the whole road” to make space for the overflow crowd, and that he overheard protesters thanking law enforcement for “doing their jobs.”

“If you look at the videos from the event, you can’t get any notion that it was aggressive,” he said. “There was an older woman with a poodle that ran after him and it’s like, okay, the older lady with the poodle is not going to threaten you. I understand that he might want to give that impression, but it was very pleasant.”
Admittedly, it is a long time until midterms, but possibly not long enough to repair this kind of damage.
And since we like to end the week with a clip...

Thursday, July 13, 2017

In his first draft, he took her to Red Lobster for chipped beef

David Brooks has gotten a lot of attention for this passage from a recent column:

I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

Surprisingly few of the commenters, however, have picked up on the overwhelming sense of déjà vu in the anecdote. One of Brooks early successes was an essay analyzing class differences in America based on things like where we ate and shopped. It was a hugely popular and influential piece, slightly marred by the fact that many of the most memorable illustrating examples were not true.

 Sasha Issenberg did the definitive take down.

There’s just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false. According to sales data, one of Goodwin’s strongest markets has been deep-Red McAllen, Texas. That’s probably not, however, QVC country. “I would guess our audience would skew toward Blue areas of the country,” says Doug Rose, the network’s vice president of merchandising and brand development. “Generally our audience is female suburban baby boomers, and our business skews towards affluent areas.” Rose’s standard PowerPoint presentation of the QVC brand includes a map of one zip code — Beverly Hills, 90210 — covered in little red dots that each represent one QVC customer address, to debunk “the myth that they’re all little old ladies in trailer parks eating bonbons all day.”

“Everything that people in my neighborhood do without motors, the people in Red America do with motors,” Brooks wrote. “When it comes to yard work, they have rider mowers; we have illegal aliens.” Actually, six of the top 10 states in terms of illegal-alien population are Red.

“We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books,” Brooks asserted. A 2003 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater study of America’s most literate cities doesn’t necessarily agree. Among the study’s criteria was the presence of bookstores and libraries; 20 of the 30 most literate cities were in Red states.

“Very few of us,” Brooks wrote of his fellow Blue Americans, “could name even five NASCAR drivers, although stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country.” He might want to take his name-recognition test to the streets of the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series’s highest-rated television markets — three of the top five were in Blue states. (Philadelphia was fifth nationally.)

As I made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home. “On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu — steak au jus, ’slippery beef pot pie,’ or whatever — I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most-expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee’s,” he wrote. “I’d scan the menu and realize that I’d been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and ’seafood delight’ trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it.”

Taking Brooks’s cue, I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The “Steak and Lobster” combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75. “Most of our checks are over $20,” said Becka, my waitress. “There are a lot of ways to spend over $20.”

The easiest way to spend over $20 on a meal in Franklin County is to visit the Mercersburg Inn, which boasts “turn-of-the-century elegance.” I had a $50 prix-fixe dinner, with an entrée of veal medallions, served with a lump-crab and artichoke tower, wild-rice pilaf and a sage-caper-cream sauce. Afterward, I asked the inn’s proprietors, Walt and Sandy Filkowski, if they had seen Brooks’s article. They laughed. After it was published in the Atlantic, the nearby Mercersburg Academy boarding school invited Brooks as part of its speaker series. He spent the night at the inn. “For breakfast I made a goat-cheese-and-sun-dried-tomato tart,” Sandy said. “He said he just wanted scrambled eggs.”

Issenberg's expose got plenty of attention and you might expect Brooks to shy away from dubious anecdotes about the dining habits of “the lower 80 percent.” We might even use this as a jumping off point for a critique of Brooks's character (a man who teaches a course entitled “humility” kind of opens himself up for that sort of thing), but that would be a rather petty exercise of questionable value.

The important question is not "what kind of man is David Brooks?" But "why does someone like David Brooks do so well in 21st-century American journalism?"

David Brooks has a long history of distorting events, omitting pertinent details, making convenient mistakes, and sometimes simply making shit up. The New York Times knew about all this when they hired him, but it didn't particularly bother them because David Brooks was and is the ideal conservative columnist for the paper.

This is because Brooks, better than anyone else, addresses the fundamental paradox of the New York Times political identity, that of a basically liberal paper with a legacy of class bigotry going back at least to the 19th century. Brooks writes thoughtful, literate, often elegant columns that let the readers feel bad, but in a good way, a way that never uncomfortably challenges deeply held beliefs.

There is something almost cute about Brooks' apparent belief that a mishmash of Food Network reruns and lifestyle porn constitute some kind of impenetrable cultural code. It's a bit like listening to second-graders who are convinced they've fooled the grownups when they speak in pig Latin. For the target audience, however, it is a nearly ideal message. It perfectly balances liberal guilt with a sense of class superiority.

To be fair, there are valid points here (as there are with almost all of Brooks' columns) -- Inequality and a lack of mobility are massive problems and the imbalance in education expenditure greatly exacerbates the issues. (I'm a bit more skeptical about the zoning explanation.) – though it's worth noting that the drivers of the great compression (highly progressive taxes, stronger social safety nets, substantial government investment in education, infrastructure and research) don't make much of an appearance.

Brooks is not some soulless hack like Bret Stephens, He is an intelligent, interesting, and in all probability, generally sincere writer. He is also a deeply flawed one, and those flaws and the way his employers react to them, are often highly informative.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"Every fool aspired to be a knave"

Today's excerpt from Charles  Mackay's  Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds quotes perhaps my favorite line about a time of bubbles, up to and including 2007.

Exchange Alley was in a fever of excitement. The Company's stock, which had been at a hundred and thirty the previous day, gradually rose to three hundred, and continued to rise with the most astonishing rapidity during the whole time that the bill in its several stages was under discussion. Mr. Walpole was almost the only statesman in the House who spoke out boldly against it. He warned them, in eloquent and solemn language, of the evils that would ensue. It countenanced, he said, "the dangerous practice of stockjobbing, and would divert the genius of the nation from trade and industry. It would hold out a dangerous lure to decoy the unwary to their ruin, by making them part with the earnings of their labour for a prospect of imaginary wealth." The great principle of the project was an evil of first-rate magnitude; it was to raise artificially the value of the stock, by exciting and keeping up a general infatuation, and by promising dividends out of funds which could never be adequate to the purpose. In a prophetic spirit he added, that if the plan succeeded, the directors would become masters of the government, form a new and absolute aristocracy in the kingdom, and control the resolutions of the legislature. If it failed, which he was convinced it would, the result would bring general discontent and ruin upon the country. Such would be the delusion, that when the evil day came, as come it would, the people would start up, as from a dream, and ask themselves if these things could have been true. All his eloquence was in vain. He was looked upon as a false prophet, or compared to the hoarse raven, croaking omens of evil. His friends, however, compared him to Cassandra, predicting evils which would only be believed when they came home to men's hearths, and stared them in the face at their own boards. Although, in former times, the House had listened with the utmost attention to every word that fell from his lips, the benches became deserted when it was known that he would speak on the South Sea question.

The bill was two months in its progress through the House of Commons. During this time every exertion was made by the directors and their friends, and more especially by the Chairman, the noted Sir John Blunt, to raise the price of the stock. The most extravagant rumours were in circulation. Treaties between England and Spain were spoken of, whereby the latter was to grant a free trade to all her colonies; and the rich produce of the mines of Potosi-la-Paz was to be brought to England until silver should become almost as plentiful as iron. For cotton and woollen goods, with which we could supply them in abundance, the dwellers in Mexico were to empty their golden mines. The company of merchants trading to the South Seas would be the richest the world ever saw, and every hundred pounds invested in it would produce hundreds per annum to the stockholder. At last the stock was raised by these means to near four hundred; but, after fluctuating a good deal, settled at three hundred and thirty, at which price it remained when the bill passed the Commons by a majority of 172 against 55.

It seemed at that time as if the whole nation had turned stockjobbers. Exchange Alley was every day blocked up by crowds, and Cornhill was impassable for the number of carriages. Everybody came to purchase stock. "Every fool aspired to be a knave." In the words of a ballad, published at the time, and sung about the streets, "A South Sea Ballad; or, Merry Remarks upon Exchange Alley Bubbles. To a new tune, called 'The Grand Elixir; or, the Philosopher's Stone Discovered.'"

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – part V: the Tesla of education companies is also...

[This buzzword-filled and often somewhat patronizing (particularly at the beginning) New York Times Magazine account of entrepreneurs and Ivy League grads from the USA rescuing the poor children of Africa from poverty and ignorance is so filled with disturbing details, portents of disaster, and indications of general bullshit that we will need to take more than one pass at this.]

As mentioned before, the people behind the Bridge have promised the moon both in terms of social good and investor returns. These incredible achievements will supposedly be possible due to tremendous innovations in the way children are taught and businesses are operated.

However, given what we've seen so far, the company is largely devoid of ideas that could be called new by any stretch of the imagination. From the scripted lessons to the hook'em and collect account management, this is all numbingly familiar. What's worse, the business practices often tend toward the sleazy. In addition to the previously mentioned (horrible facilities, nasty collection techniques), the company engages in that veritable litmus test of corporate evil, the low-level blanket noncompete.

Yes, the Tesla of education companies is also the Jimmy John's of education companies.

Bridge teachers are discouraged from talking to the press, and their contracts remind them that they may not speak on behalf of Bridge, but some agreed to talk to me provided they were not identified. A few said they were grateful for the job and happy to have a lesson script. Others expressed frustration about hoped-for bonuses that they never were able to achieve. Teachers can receive extra money if they maintain enrollment of at least 25 pupils per class. A middle-aged teacher who provides science instruction at a Bridge school told me she was encouraged to go to the market and try to enroll the children of the fruit sellers when her teaching day was done. But it was hard to recruit new students.

All the teachers I spoke to appreciated the regular paycheck. But they chafed at how they were managed, often by unseen bosses communicating with them via text or robocall. Some Bridge staff members described what they saw as a stark contrast between their hopes for Bridge and a grittier reality. One school administrator, an academy manager, described how the pressure to ensure that parents made their payments on time was disheartening. ‘‘I didn’t realize how hard it would be to talk to parents,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re ill, they’re out of work, they had a fire. No one is in the house who’s making any money. How can they pay when they have no money for food?’’ And working at Bridge, teachers said, can disrupt a career: Instructors are required to sign an employment agreement that includes a noncompete clause that prevents them from working at other nearby schools for a year after they leave.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – part IV:If your marketing is good, you don't have to be

[This buzzword-filled and often somewhat patronizing (particularly at the beginning) New York Times Magazine account of entrepreneurs and Ivy League grads from the USA rescuing the poor children of Africa from poverty and ignorance is so filled with disturbing details, portents of disaster, and indications of general bullshit that we will need to take more than one pass at this.]

When you strip away all of the hype and buzz, the apparent pedagogical and business models of the Bridgeare largely devoid of anything that could be called innovative, let alone cutting-edge. as for the latter, it seems to consist of the tried-and-true formula of hooking customers into a hard-to-quit service through extensive marketing, cutting costs wherever possible, and employing strong-arm collection practices.

The Bridge founders, Weinstein wrote, decided that every school opening thereafter would as soon as possible feature a ceremony and that every new student would be given a free month of school. Kirchgasler, who studied Bridge for his dissertation, pointed out that this often ended up putting parents in what could become a difficult situation. If a family found that they couldn’t make payments, say, in the middle of the term, it was often difficult to transfer a child to a new school. ‘‘Among the families I studied, moving a child to a new school was a gamble,’’ he said. ‘‘Public and informal schools were reluctant to take students back if their new school didn’t work out’’ — potentially leaving a child out of school and making it difficult for a parent to work.

A former Bridge employee told me that the company’s own marketing could sometimes create bad feelings among the people they wanted to serve. ‘‘Many times, they would open a school and invite a local official to a grand-opening ceremony, and the local official took offense,’’ the former employee, who asked that her name not be used, says. The local officials ‘‘wanted to be engaged.’’ Another former employee told me that the free tuition was confusing to many of the poorest parents. ‘‘I believe the word ‘international,’ combined with foreign founders, led parents to expect higher quality than in other schools,’’ she says. ‘‘I believe they did become disillusioned. I believe many of them became disempowered when they wanted changes in their schools — like electricity, permanent structures — but that didn’t happen. They definitely missed the connectedness and mutually beneficial relationships that they would find in other schools.’’

Similar concerns were voiced by Salima Namusobya, executive director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, a civil rights group in Kampala, Uganda, that, along with the union there, has campaigned against Bridge and other private-school operators. Far from educating poor children, she says, Bridge uses aggressive marketing to enroll children who are already in public schools. ‘‘The fact that they have the word ‘international’ in the school name, they think they’re getting an international curriculum.’’

The lack of electricity was just the beginning of the problems with the facilities.

In the public and informal Kenyan schools I visited, school administrators welcomed my impromptu drop-ins warmly, showed me their classrooms and introduced me to their teachers, who spoke frankly about their challenges. Bridge teachers and managers say that sort of openness is not allowed. At some Bridge schools I visited unescorted, staff members said that they would need to contact superiors if I didn’t leave.

One of these schools was Bridge Diamond in Mukuru, a slum of 600,000, just east of central Nairobi. The schoolyard fence was made of patched, bent gray metal and barbed wire. The school building itself was shabby and neglected. In the schoolyard, about 30 feet away from where children enter their classrooms, was a deep trench of fetid garbage and rotting bags of feces; when residents can’t use the communal latrines they use ‘‘flying toilets’’ — defecating in a plastic bag and throwing it as far as they can. The chicken-wire windows were rusted and ripped. Some classrooms were empty. One had 15 students sitting at desks but no teacher.

Staff members at Diamond were eager to show the poor conditions in their school but also urged me to leave quickly. Last summer, a University of Alberta doctoral candidate, Curtis Riep, was gathering enrollment information in Uganda for an international organization of teachers’ unions, which later put out a report on the number of children enrolled in Bridge in that country and the number of untrained teachers at the head of Bridge’s classrooms. He made unescorted visits to three of its schools near Kampala. The acad­emy managers contacted company executives, and Riep was arrested by the Ugandan police, though the charges, criminal trespass and falsely identifying himself, were quickly dropped. Riep calls it ‘‘pure intimidation.’’ May says Bridge acted responsibly because a stranger was at the school.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Yeah, "self-honouring" sounds much better

We've been so focused on the embarrassing pseudoscience of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop that we've neglected all of the other embarrassing parts. Fortunately, the Guardian's Lindy West is on the beat.
Towards the end of his speech, Sadeghi tells a story about an epiphany he had in the anatomy lab. He says he discovered that the first valve of the heart flows straight back into the heart: “Selfish little organ there! No, no, not selfish – self-honouring. Wooo! What a difference! I could never give anything to anybody – ask my beloved wife – until I take care of me. Until my needs are met. Right? Right? When you fly down, the first thing that they tell you is that before you put the mask on anybody else, put it on yourself.”

I hear that idea repeated over and over again at the Goop conference – take care of yourself so you can take care of others. Put your mask on first. Hold space for yourself. Be entitled. Take. At a certain point, it begins to feel less like self-care and more like rationalisation. I don’t know anything about the personal lives of the women at In Goop Health – who they give money to, what hardships they have endured, why they were drawn to this event – and every person I interact with is funny and smart and kind and self-aware. But it is self-evident and measurable that white people in the US, in general, are assiduous about the first part of that equation (caring for ourselves) and less than attentive to the second (caring for others).

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – Part III: burying the lede

[This buzzword-filled and often somewhat patronizing (particularly at the beginning) New York Times Magazine account of entrepreneurs and Ivy League grads from the USA rescuing the poor children of Africa from poverty and ignorance is so filled with disturbing details, portents of disaster, and indications of general bullshit that we will need to take more than one pass at this. You can find part one here and part two here.]

NYT Magazine pieces tend to be heavily formulaic. The second act often introduces the complications and reveals the flaws. It's the journalism school equivalent of something from the Save the Cat beat sheet. It makes a certain amount of sense in terms of story structure, but it means that really, really important stuff (like the hero's a fraud and the miracle cure will actually kill you) doesn't show up until the middle of a very long piece.

In this case, author Peg Tyre waits till about a third of the way through before making her way to the feet of clay.

At the start, the Bridge founders quickly learned that Kenyan parents did not necessarily see Bridge schools as a better option. ‘‘When the first academies opened, our mentality was a bit like, ‘If we build it, they will come,’ ’’ said Marie Leznicki, then Bridge’s vice president of brand strategy, in the Stanford case study. The case study authors explain that one challenge for the company was that parents were largely illiterate and therefore saw little difference among schools. But some academics who have studied the for-profit, low-fee chain say that some poor Kenyan parents were wary of the model. Sending a child to Bridge was more expensive than the village public school, though less expensive than some informal schools. The poorest families simply couldn’t afford the tuition and additional payments that Bridge required. ‘‘They have to pay enrollment fees, they have to pay for uniforms, they have to pay for lunch,’’ says Christopher Kirchgasler, a former charter-school teacher in the United States who spent 10 months studying Bridge schools in Nairobi and Nyeri County, north of Nairobi, for his doctoral dissertation. ‘‘For us, a matter of a few dollars is nothing, but for these very poor families, it can be a monumental obstacle.’’

For many who did enroll, Bridge’s strict payment system quickly became onerous. Bridge’s business in Kenya depends on most parents making routine electronic payments by mobile phone. But slum-dwelling parents in Kenya are mostly occasional workers who rarely have a predictable income. In informal settlements around Nairobi, I visited 10 or so parents in their homes who explained the fragile finances of their lives. A sick child, an uptick in the price of corn meal or even a prolonged rainstorm can throw a family on the margins into an economic crisis. In most informal and public schools, payment terms are flexible, and the subject of protracted negotiation. Bridge says that it works with families to meet their needs. But many people told me that the school sends children home if fees are not paid.

‘‘They tell you, ‘Sit at home with your child until you get the money,’ ’’ says one parent, a vegetable seller married to an unemployed welder who has two children enrolled at a Bridge school in Nairobi’s Mathare slum. Another mother with a 9-year-old child says she found it difficult to make Bridge payments: ‘‘At times I’ve gone without eating so I can pay school fees.’’

Bridge executives say their schools depend on paying customers. ‘‘We get criticized for being bloodless capitalists,’’ Michael Conway, Bridge’s East Africa director of operations, told me when I met him in Nairobi last September, ‘‘but we know families make choices about who gets paid first. We don’t want to be the last vendor paid. If we become that, then our financial model would be difficult to sustain.’’

 At the risk of spelling out what can probably stand on its own, the whole  raison d'être of this company was supposed to be doing well by doing good. If you can't sustain your model without putting the screws to the very people you're supposed to be helping...

Bridge does not comment on the details of its financial performance, so neither May nor Kimmelman would say how many of Bridge’s Kenyan schools maintain enough enrollment to sustain their model. May says that Bridge currently has 80,000 students enrolled, down 10,000 from last year. ‘‘Before the campaign to attack Bridge began, the academies across Kenya were financially sustainable,’’ she says. Conway acknowledged that the situation on the ground made things complicated. ‘‘It is difficult to keep up enrollment and make the schools break even,’’ Conway said, ‘‘because the churn is so high.’’ He explained that in 2017, thousands of enrolled children were not paid up.
We need to stop and mention that the notably bloodless term "churn," which us corporate types generally use to discuss credit cards and gym memberships, in this case refers to major, possibly traumatic disruptions in children's schooling.

Some education experts say that Bridge’s plans for an international chain of low-fee, for-profit private schools rests on a flawed assumption. While such schools can work well for the relatively small number of families in poor communities who have salaries, says Keith Lewin, a professor emeritus of development and international education at the University of Sussex in Britain who has opposed the model, it is unrealistic to expect the most impoverished families to be able to pay. ‘‘People who engage in a discourse around making a vast number of the poorest people in Africa pay $6 every month for school tuition are people who have no idea what the lives of people living at or below the poverty line are actually like.’’

Keep in mind this article started with the familiar disruption narrative: tech entrepreneurs jump into a field with no real background or experience, shake things up with their fresh ideas and radical approaches and blow through problems that had left the established "experts"" befuddled for decades. If it turns out that the disruptors didn't know what they were talking about, their solutions didn't work, and the "experts" were pretty damned expert all along, that probably should have made it into the first few paragraphs.

Haggling for medical services

This is Joseph

Lawyers, guns, and Money had an excellent pair of articles on shopping for health care, here and here.  I especially liked this example in the comments of the second article from @randomworker:
I've tried this. My deductible is $7200. First, if you want any amount you pay to go against the deductible you have to confine your shopping to the network.
Ok so you priced out your "initial consultation" with your ENT specialist. In the middle of it she suggests a minor procedure to get a better look. Oops. Now what? Do you say no, and then start the shopping process all over again? But now you have to include another office visit in your calculations. Wait! No ENT specialist is just going to sit you down and poke that thing up your nose without the "initial consultation."
So I just asked her "how much?"
She performs 30 second procedure.
The bill comes. $425. I call. "She doesn't know, don't listen to her. If you need to know, the prices are on the website."
"Oh, yes, here they are. It says $375."
"Those are last year's prices, you dummy. See, it says 2016 right there, at the top!"
"Where are this year's prices?"
"We don't have them yet."
"It's May."
It seems like a parody, but it is exactly the sort of way that a modern medical office is set up to handle costs and billing.  Nothing is set up to handle quotes or prices.  The idea that you would have a transparent price list is an odd one and only really exists in niche areas of medicine where free market assumptions are plausible: think vision correction or laser hair removal.  Nobody's life is at stake fro these procedures but notice that they set up a completely different pricing set-up than most medical offices based on trying to make sure that the customer is able to puzzle out a price.

In particular, like in this example, medical stuff is very susceptible to "creep" in a way that a lot of other fields are not.  In the areas that are, think car repairs, we have had to create a world in which shops are held to binding quotes.  And, even then, who hasn't heard horror stories about new problems showing up in the process of a repair job, leading to unexpected expenses (it's hard to abandon a disassembled car, even harder to abandon a disassembled body).

It is not impossible to imagine ways to make medicine work a lot more like auto shops, but there is a ton of work that needs to be started first to change the whole way medicine currently works.  I am not sure it is a good idea, at all, but if we want to try and make it act more like a market for non-emergency services I see a ton of regulatory issues that need to be addressed.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – Part II: Maybe too-good-to-be-true claims might be too good to be true

[This buzzword-filled and often somewhat patronizing (particularly at the beginning) New York Times Magazine account of entrepreneurs and Ivy League grads from the USA rescuing the poor children of Africa from poverty and ignorance is so filled with disturbing details, portents of disaster, and indications of general bullshit that we will need to take more than one pass at this. You can find part one here.]

If you take down a few pages, there is some good, substantial reporting by Peg Tyre on this story. Unfortunately, as is all too often the case with New York Times Magazine articles, the first act is almost entirely credulous and laudatory. For example:

By 2015, Bridge was educating 100,000 students, and the founders claimed that they were providing a ‘‘world-class education’’ at ‘‘less than 30 percent’’ of what ‘‘the average developing country spends per child on primary education.’’ This would represent a remarkable achievement. None of the founders had traditional teaching experience. May had been an unpaid teacher at a school in China; Kimmelman worked with teachers and administrators developing an ed-tech company. How had they pulled it off? In interviews and speeches, they credited cutting-edge education technology and business strategies — the company monitors and stores a wide range of data on subjects including teacher absenteeism, student payment history and academic achievement — along with their concern for the well-being of the world’s poorest children. That potent mixture, they said, had allowed them to begin solving a complex and intractable problem: how to provide cheap, scalable, high-quality schooling for the most vulnerable, disadvantaged children on earth. Their achievement, they believed, could change the world — the subject line of a 2014 Bridge company email read, ‘‘What do Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jay Kimmelman and Shannon May have in common?’’ The next year, the venture capitalist Greg Mauro, who is a Bridge board member, told The Wall Street Journal that if all went as planned, the company would seek an initial public stock offering in 2017.

The following needs to be an immutable law of journalism: when someone with no track record comes into a field claiming to be able to do a job many times better for a fraction of the cost, the burden of proof needs to shift quickly and decisively onto the one making the claim. The reporter simply has to assume the claim is false until substantial evidence is presented to the contrary. Put another way, the appropriate response is not "How had they pulled it off?"

In addition, the journalist cannot allow those making the claims to frame the argument or decide what qualifies as satisfactory or innovative. In this case,  Kimmelman and May should never have been allowed to label their own tech and strategies as "cutting-edge," particularly since the examples they give appear to be fairly standard and not merely powerful enough to support their highly implausible assertions.

Later on in the piece, Tyre actually does start digging into the business model, where the key drivers seem to be using cheap, substandard buildings, hiring undertrained and unqualified instructors, employing strong-arm collection tactics, and doing lots of marketing. There is nothing especially groundbreaking about this approach and it is unlikely to "change the world," at least not in a good way.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Copland and Bernstein, plus Cohan rebutted

Some music for the holiday.

Listening to Cohan, it's easy to forget how controversial going to war in Europe was.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – part I: "the Tesla of education companies"

[This buzzword-filled and often somewhat patronizing (particularly at the beginning) New York Times Magazine account of entrepreneurs and Ivy League grads from the USA rescuing the poor children of Africa from poverty and ignorance is so filled with disturbing details, portents of disaster, and indications of general bullshit that we will need to take more than one pass at this.]

Occasionally in one of these hype-tastic articles, you get a moment of apparently unintentional truth so startling that you wonder if the author is winking at you. This piece has a number of these moments, but perhaps the most striking comes near the beginning:
Bridge operates 405 schools in Kenya, educating children from preschool through eighth grade, for a fee of between $54 and $126 per year, depending on the location of the school. It was founded in 2007 by May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, along with a friend, Phil Frei. From early on, the founders’ plans for the world’s poor were audacious. ‘‘An aggressive start-up company that could figure out how to profitably deliver education at a high quality for less than $5 a month could radically disrupt the status quo in education for these 700 million children and ultimately create what could be a billion-dollar new global education company,’’ Kimmelman said in 2014. Just as titans in Silicon Valley were remaking communication and commerce, Bridge founders promised to revolutionize primary-school education. ‘‘It’s the Tesla of education companies,’’ says Whitney Tilson, a Bridge investor and hedge-fund manager in New York who helped found Teach for America and is a vocal supporter of charter schools.

In some ways, the analogy could hardly be further off. Tesla makes a product; Bridge provides a service. Tesla is a luxury brand; Bridge is supposed to serve the extremely poor. Tesla's strategy has been to establish a foothold by targeting a very small niche market; Bridge has always been broad-based. Tesla was notable for competing directly with huge, well established companies; Bridge is targeting an underserved market (and doing so with the cooperation of huge, well-established companies).

In another ways though, the comparison could not be more apt. With the possible exception of Uber, there is no company that has made more out of hype, buzzwords, and modern myths as has Tesla. [From the essential  Brent Goldfarb analysis]:

Silicon Valley investors love to talk about “disruption” — they are besotted with the storyline of small, scrappy, high-tech underdogs upending boring “legacy” corporations. And nowhere is this disruption fetish more evident than in the valuation of Tesla, maker of expensive, well-reviewed electric cars that bestow status on their owners.

Recently, Tesla’s valuation surpassed both Ford’s and General Motors’. BMW is among the other major carmakers in the rearview mirror. The logic of this is intriguing, given that Ford, for example, is coming off its second-best year in its 112-year history, earning $4.6 billion while selling more than 5.5 million cars worldwide. General Motors earned $9.4 billion selling 9.8 million vehicles.

Tesla, meanwhile, sold 76,000 cars while losing near $1 billion. Judged by the valuation, anyway, Tesla appears to be the first successful American entrant into the automobile industry since Chrysler in 1922.
Tesla's paths to profitability are murky. Its chances of justifying its valuation are virtually nonexistent. For all the fanfare, it doesn't even dominate the electric vehicle market. When you strip away all the smoke and mirrors, perhaps the most notable thing about the company is the $99 million in compensation it provides for its CEO.

Mr. Tilson is almost certainly trying to invoke the myth of Tesla, but I'm not sure the real Tesla won't turn out to be a better fit.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Murphy Apartments

[Actually, the bathroom analogy does a much better job making a similar point. Damn you, Joseph!]

The following is some combination of actual ideas, satiric commentary, and just me yanking people's
I was thinking about writing a post with the title "why aren't we seeing Murphy beds?" when I actually saw a store selling upscale, urban-chic Murphy beds.Rather than let events get a jump on me again, this time I'm going to throw deep and talk about applying the Murphy bed principle on a much larger scale.

I've noticed that a lot of advocates for things like zip car and rideshare services like to point out how little time per day the average car owner actually spends behind the wheel. Putting aside concerns with the hours-per-week metric, what's strange about this argument is the implication that it particularly applies to automobiles. With a handful of exceptions, how many things do you own that are actively in use more than a few hours a week?

One obvious exception is your residence, but what if we think in terms of individual rooms? Even the non-claustrophobic need a certain amount of space. Maybe in the near future, we can get around this with virtual-reality, but, for now, I don't think it's realistic to convince people to spend time in much smaller rooms than they currently find acceptable.

We do, however, have the technology to change the dimensions of rooms while they are not being occupied. Obviously, there would be some details to work out but Broadway set designers have been doing this sort of thing for years. With a combination of moving walls and furniture that collapses or moves out of the way like a Murphy bed, you could have an apartment where the space allotted to each room changes depending on the situation. For instance you could have a bedroom that goes from spacious to cramped to wall against wall.

Of course, this would allow you to get by with roughly the same lifestyle in a much smaller place, but the more interesting application lets us bring a market-based solution into the picture. What if you could set a price on how much space was worth to you on a day by day basis? When you need more space, pay the neighbors to let you move the walls out a few feet. When money is tight, squeeze in a bit. And when you're away for the weekend, reduce your floorspace to the absolute minimum.

I can't see any way around the monopoly/monopsony problem and clearly, there would be loads of other issues to work out with this but, it can't be any less practical than some of the other solutions we've been hearing.

chains. If some of these ideas actually pan out (stranger things have happened), I plan to claim that I knew it all along.]

With all the talk of insanely expensive housing prices in places like San Francisco and New York, I've been wondering when we would see an upscale, urban-chic version of the Murphy bed.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

An analogy for self-driving cars

This is Joseph

I see this sentiment a lot with self-driving cars:
Many industry observers, yours truly included, believe autonomous vehicles have the potential to be far more disruptive than EVs, because they upend the logic of automobile ownership. Most cars sit idle at least 20 hours a day, which is incredible wasteful. But if you could simply summon a private, robot car at will, utilization would increase. This, in turn, has the potential to make mobility much cheaper — it’s public transportation on steroids!
I am not going to say that this idea is wrong.   But let's consider something else that is idle 20 hours per day, has both public and private versions, and there could be efficiencies in reducing duplication of facilities.  I speak of the restroom.

It is immediately obvious that we could make plumbing a lot more efficient if we had a public restroom building on each block and no restrooms in houses.  Or shared restrooms for hotels and apartments.  Restrooms spend a lot of time empty and we could make houses smaller/cheaper if we did not include them.

Why don't we do this?
  1. Queuing -- people often want to use the shower or toilet at similar times of the day (say the morning before work)
  2. Convenience -- even if the walk is short, it's shorter to have the toilet inside your own house
  3. Upkeep -- who is responsible for cleaning and repairing the facilities, especially at 2 am when somebody gets sick
  4. Privacy -- people like private spaces
  5. Customization -- maybe you want a handicapped shower or a bigger mirror
This doesn't mean we don't have public restrooms.  We do.  But we are also in no danger of replacing the personally owned restroom with the public version.  And I think a lot of the same objection apply to this transition.  

Now this is an analogy -- it's not exact.  But I think we can immediately see that there are reasons that the robot car model might have issues with implementation.  Now, this doesn't mean people won't own their own robot cars -- they sure will.  But the public transportation fleet of robot cars is going to either be a company or the government (today's options).  

So maybe this innovation will happen.  But it would be most successful among income constrained urban dwellers.  These are also people most likely to share other things.  But the road to instantly summoned robot cars is not absolutely clear without a lot more coordination than I expect to see.  

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A hump-day post from Charles Mackay

I'm rereading Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and I am struck once again by what a fine novelist's eye Mackay had. As he himself puts it "Many other anecdotes are related, which even, though they may be a little exaggerated, are nevertheless worth preserving, as showing the spirit of that singular period.":

Law was now at the zenith of his prosperity, and the people were rapidly approaching the zenith of their infatuation. The highest and the lowest classes were alike filled with a vision of boundless wealth. There was not a person of note among the aristocracy, with the exception of the Duke of St. Simon and Marshal Villars, who was not engaged in buying or selling stock. People of every age and sex, and condition in life, speculated in the rise and fall of the Mississippi bonds. The Rue de Quincampoix was the grand resort of the jobbers, and it being a narrow, inconvenient street, accidents continually occurred in it, from the tremendous pressure of the crowd. Houses in it, worth, in ordinary times, a thousand livres of yearly rent, yielded as much as twelve or sixteen thousand. A cobbler, who had a stall in it, gained about two hundred livres a day by letting it out, and furnishing writing materials to brokers and their clients. The story goes, that a hump-backed man who stood in the street gained considerable sums by lending his hump as a writing-desk to the eager speculators! The great concourse of persons who assembled to do business brought a still greater concourse of spectators. These again drew all the thieves and immoral characters of Paris to the spot, and constant riots and disturbances took place. At nightfall, it was often found necessary to send a troop of soldiers to clear the street.

 Law, finding the inconvenience of his residence, removed to the Place Vendome, whither the crowd of agioteurs followed him. That spacious square soon became as thronged as the Rue de Quincampoix: from morning to night it presented the appearance of a fair. Booths and tents were erected for the transaction of business and the sale of refreshments, and gamblers with their roulette tables stationed themselves in the very middle of the place, and reaped a golden, or rather a paper, harvest from the throng. The Boulevards and public gardens were forsaken; parties of pleasure took their walks in preference in the Place Vendome, which became the fashionable lounge of the idle, as well as the general rendezvous of the busy. The noise was so great all day, that the Chancellor, whose court was situated in the square, complained to the Regent and the municipality, that he could not hear the advocates. Law, when applied to, expressed his willingness to aid in the removal of the nuisance, and for this purpose entered into a treaty with the Prince de Carignan for the Hotel de Soissons, which had a garden of several acres in the rear. A bargain was concluded, by which Law became the purchaser of the hotel, at an enormous price, the Prince reserving to himself the magnificent gardens as a new source of profit. They contained some fine statues and several fountains, and were altogether laid out with much taste. As soon as Law was installed in his new abode, an edict was published, forbidding all persons to buy or sell stock anywhere but in the gardens of the Hotel de Soissons. In the midst among the trees, about five hundred small tents and pavilions were erected, for the convenience of the stock-jobbers. Their various colours, the gay ribands and banners which floated from them, the busy crowds which passed continually in and out—the incessant hum of voices, the noise, the music, and the strange mixture of business and pleasure on the countenances of the throng, all combined to give the place an air of enchantment that quite enraptured the Parisians. The Prince de Carignan made enormous profits while the delusion lasted. Each tent was let at the rate of five hundred livres a month; and, as there were at least five hundred of them, his monthly revenue from this source alone must have amounted to 250,000 livres, or upwards of 10,000 pounds sterling.

 The honest old soldier, Marshal Villars, was so vexed to see the folly which had smitten his countrymen, that he never could speak with temper on the subject. Passing one day through the Place Vendome in his carriage, the choleric gentleman was so annoyed at the infatuation of the people, that he abruptly ordered his coachman to stop, and, putting his head out of the carriage window, harangued them for full half an hour on their "disgusting avarice." This was not a very wise proceeding on his part. Hisses and shouts of laughter resounded from every side, and jokes without number were aimed at him. There being at last strong symptoms that something more tangible was flying through the air in the direction of his head, Marshal was glad to drive on. He never again repeated the experiment.

 Two sober, quiet, and philosophic men of letters, M. de la Motte and the Abbe Terrason, congratulated each other, that they, at least, were free from this strange infatuation. A few days afterwards, as the worthy Abbe was coming out of the Hotel de Soissons, whither he had gone to buy shares in the Mississippi, whom should he see but his friend La Motte entering for the same purpose. "Ha!" said the Abbe, smiling, "is that you?" "Yes," said La Motte, pushing past him as fast as he was able; "and can that be you?" The next time the two scholars met, they talked of philosophy, of science, and of religion, but neither had courage for a long time to breathe one syllable about the Mississippi. At last, when it was mentioned, they agreed that a man ought never to swear against his doing any one thing, and that there was no sort of extravagance of which even a wise man was not capable.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Asking me not to overbill you means you hate children

I always like to preface these stories of education reform abuse with a reminder that the vast majority of people on both sides of this issue are motivated by a sincere desire to improve the lives of children. Unfortunately, this assumption of goodwill is often very much lacking in the reform movement. Instead, movement reformers all too often assume that people who oppose them are motivated by self-interest, fear of change, etc., while (and this is the really dangerous part) their allies are as dedicated and sincere as they are.

As a result, the movement has been defenseless against truly sleazy operators. In this recent case from Ohio, a major political donor set up an enterprise that allowed him to divert tens of millions of dollars to his side businesses. Then, when caught overbilling the state, he fell back on the human shield defense, running ads that suggested that attempts to make him pay back the money he owes are somehow attacks on Ohio's children (with added chutzpah points for doing it with taxpayer money).

From a report in the Columbus Dispatch by Bill Bush.

Even after ECOT announced that it will lay off 350 workers within weeks, the internet charter school continues to use taxpayer dollars for a barrage of television ads attacking the Ohio Department of Education’s decision to claw back $60.4 million because of the charter’s poor attendance records.

“The Ohio Department of Education wants to end school choice and stop parents from deciding what’s best for their children,” says a former student identified in the ECOT ad as Lionel Morales, a 2017 graduate, in an ad airing in Columbus. The end of the ad is signed “Ohio’s children.”

“That’s why I and the over 36,000 students and alumni of ECOT are hoping our elected leaders fix what’s broken and save our school.”

“Sadly, the Ohio Department of Education says many of us don’t count,” Morales says.

The department said it is ECOT that wasn’t counting how many kids actually participated in classwork after logging in. The department found that ECOT had overbilled the state, invoicing for more than double the number of students it could document.


Even before ECOT turned to the airwaves to fight the state over its funding, the school was a big advertiser. The Dispatch reported in 2015 that ECOT spent $2.27 million on advertising to attract students, about 2 percent of its state tax receipts.

But it is unclear whether a school district can legally spend tax money on political ads to urge the legislature to take action.

In the case of ECOT, if the ad campaign succeeds, the tax revenue spent on it could help protect the profit of ECOT founder William Lager via two for-profit companies, IQ Innovations and Altair Learning Management. According to ECOT’s latest audit, for the 2015-16 school year, the school paid the two firms almost $22 million, or about one-fifth of all the tax revenue the school received. Altair is paid to manage the school, while IQ Innovations provides curriculum software.

By comparison, it spent about $47.2 million on salaries, 43 percent of revenue, the audit states.

Lager is one of Ohio’s largest political donors to the GOP, having rained millions of dollars on Ohio politicians.
By the way, this is not our first post on the good people at ECOT or on Ohio's charter school issues.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Goop criteria

There's a lot of good reporting by Beth Skwarecki in this long but never boring expose of the Gwyneth Paltrow pseudoscience empire (which is still respectable enough for New York Magazine). Difficult to single out the best part, but this exchange struck me as especially pertinent to some of our previous discussions of science journalism.
When Goop publishes something weird or, worse, harmful, I often find myself wondering what are they thinking? Recently, on Jimmy Kimmel, Gwyneth laughed at some of the newsletter’s weirder recommendations and said “I don’t know what the fuck we talk about.” I know Goop is Gwyneth’s brainchild, but I also know a woman of her status does not write a weekly newsletter by herself.

Luckily, there is an “Ask Me Anything” stop staffed with Goop editors. They lounge on white-cushioned chairs, under umbrellas for shade, and are dressed in light blue button-down shirts. The editors are mobbed all day. Whenever I stop by to eavesdrop, it sounds like attendees are pitching them products to feature.

I find the station quiet during one of the more popular talks, and end up speaking with editorial director Nandita Khanna. “You publish a lot of things that are outside of the mainstream. What are your criteria for determining that something is safe and ethical to recommend?”

Khanna starts by pointing out that they include a disclaimer at the bottom of health articles. This is true. It reads:
    The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

Okay, but how do you decide that something is worth including in Goop to begin with? “We definitely do our homework,” she says, and insists that the team extensively discusses and researches the things that end up in the pages of Goop. She won’t go into detail about the process, but she points out that some of their sources are doctors. Do you ever ask the doctors to vet new ideas? I ask. Yes, she says, often.

But she says they don’t have any specific guidelines. Sometimes Gwyneth will say she doesn’t think this or that story is the right one to tell, or maybe it’s not the right time to tell it.

So I ask: “What responsibility do you believe you have to your readers?” Here at Lifehacker, I recently killed a post I was excited about—a trick for stopping kids from unbuckling and escaping from their car seat—after a car seat expert nixed it. I feel like if I’m providing information people might act on, I have a responsibility to make sure that information is reasonably accurate and that people won’t hurt themselves (or their children) if they take me at my word.

Goop’s editors don’t see it that way. “Our responsibility is to ask questions, to start the conversation,” Khanna says. Even if the product or advice doesn’t work? “I think it’s up to each person to decide what works for them,” says another editor sitting nearby. Khanna agrees. “Medicine is so subjective.”

(Medicine, actually, is not subjective in this way. The point of randomized controlled trials, a key concept in medical research, is to set aside subjectivity and figure out what’s useful and what’s a waste of time. Nobody here, staff or attendees, seems even the least bit interested in separating the worthwhile stuff from the garbage.) [I'm not crazy about Skwarecki's phrasing here (I would have mentioned double blinding, placebo effects and the need for well defined objective metrics), but the basic point is important -- MP]

I turn the conversation to Goop’s infamous jade eggs. They are for sale that day in the pharmacy shop, and I got to hold one in my hand. It was smaller than I expected, not the size of a chicken egg but more like a grape tomato. Both the jade and rose quartz eggs have a hole drilled through the smaller end, and at first I imagined a Goop acolyte taking the egg out of her vagina, rinsing it off, and hanging it around her neck. I learned later that the hole is the answer to the question in the jar: you can attach dental floss to give it a removal string, like a tampon.

The idea of the jade egg, or its prettier rose quartz companion, is to “cultivate sexual energy, increase orgasm, balance the cycle, stimulate key reflexology around vaginal walls.” The grain of truth here is that using a small weight for vaginal exercises can help strengthen the muscles in that area. You can do this without a weight, too.

But Jen Gunter, a practicing gynecologist who is one of Gwyneth’s most vocal critics, has explained that jade eggs are a terrible idea. Stones can be porous enough to grow bacteria, and she says the instructions for using the egg are incorrect and could harm people. For example, a Goop article suggests walking around with the egg inside of you. Gunter counters that overworking your vaginal muscles this way can result in pelvic pain.

The Goop editors remember the jade egg backlash, and they are unfazed. “Did you read the letter from Layla?” Khanna asks. Layla Martin, who sells jade eggs and a seven-week course on how to use them, wrote a 2,000-word “letter to the editors” defending the eggs. Goop published it in their newsletter, and underneath it, their disclaimer, and underneath that, a link to their shop.

Khanna says they “never considered backing down.” She points out, as if it were a defense, that the eggs were very popular and sold out right away. I ask her: Has there ever been a health article in Goop that you thought afterward, maybe we shouldn’t have run that?

No, she says, never.