Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Some things to keep in mind if you see Annie on New Year's Day

There's a lot of history here.

Most of the regulars probably know, I've got a great fondness for comics and their history, whether we're talking panel, strip, book or animated. The adventure strips of the Thirties are are particular favorites. In an age when graphic novels win Pulitzers and superhero movies break a billion at the box office, it can be difficult to remember that in the Golden Age, newspapers were where the action was. With the qualified exception of Will Eisner (whose groundbreaking title the Spirit was a newspaper supplement), the comic book artists of the late Thirties and Forties were mainly imitating people like Alex Raymond, Roy Crane and Milton Caniff.

At their best, these men created bodies of work that stand up remarkably well to this day both in terms of art and narrative. I have no trouble killing lots of hours with Terry and thePirates or captain easy. Little orphan Annie is more problematic. Annie was a beautifully drawn and inventively written strip, butit is difficult to read more than a few strips without being reminded that politically Gray was a Proto-Randian and personally was something of a creep.

Here's an example from Brian Cronin.
[Harold] Gray felt that this travel was integral to the strip (in fact, speaking of the first legend, years after the fact, Gray tried to give his own origin of how he came up with Little Orphan Annie, and it involved him talking to a young orphan girl – it is a dubious story at best [Cronin pointed out earlier that the original title was little Orphan Otto and that the gender change was suggested by his publisher -- MP]). Well, during World War II, gas was rationed. Gray was already no fan of the federal government (as he viewed Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the enemy to basically all of his ideals of self-reliance for the American people), but when he requested and was denied extra gas ration coupons to effect his travel, he was furious. It was an Office of Price Administration clerk named Flack who turned Gray down, determining that Gray’s cartoons were not vital to the war effort.

Gray, a great supporter of the war (Annie formed a group called the Junior Commandos to help the rationing effort in the United States and it soon grew from the strip into a reality) and he was outraged that what he felt were his great patriotic efforts were being unrecognized. Gray asked for a hearing and he received one, but Flack’s decision stood.

Gray then took to his strip by starting a series of strips where he would berate a “fictional” character named “Fred Flask.”

Editorials piled in denouncing Gray and a couple of papers even dropped the strip. Flack threatened to sue over libel. Gray never apologized, but he did drop the series of strips.
Just to put things in context, unnecessary travel was considered a big deal at the time.

But the Flask strips are far from being Annie's low point.
In a series of strips in 1944, upon Roosevelt receiving the nomination for his historic FOURTH term as President, Gray began a series of strips where Warbucks was slowly dying of a mysterious disease. The disease, clearly, was that of the country itself. The current generation was killing the hero of capitalism, Warbucks…

Gray dragged the death out for some time, with many strips similar to the above.

However, as you all know, Roosevelt died early in 1945. Well, what do you know, Warbucks turned out to have faked his death!!

And then, Gray went even further by explaining how happy Warbucks was about a certain change in the “climate.”

I first came across these strips when I picked up a large collection of Annie strips at a library sale. I knew Gray was conservative (start with the lovable war profiteer...), but I had no idea how intense the feelings were or how open he was about them. I remember reading these and thinking "he didn't just say that, did he?"

In retrospect, it shouldn't have been that surprising. Gray hated a lot of people, particularly those he considered "do-gooders" and that hatred was never far from the surface of the strip. Given the changes the films made to his creation (included an appearance by FDR in the 1982 version, I'm pretty sure that Gray would have added the people behind those movies to his enemies list.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

I'll explain why later...

but in the meantime, go download the Wake Up Now segment from This American Life. At least a half dozen threads converge on this one.

Robots, Railguns and Rube Goldberg

I'm starting a weekly video feature over at the teaching blog (part of a bigger educational media project, but more on that later). For now I'm collecting fun little STEM videos that teachers can start off the week with or use as filler or as writing prompts.

The purpose is generally more inspirational than instructional. Unless it fits in with the day's lesson plan, it is difficult to get across a complex scientific concept in a five minute YouTube clip. You can, however, get across quite a bit of cool, particularly with a young audience.

I'm looking for short videos with big visual impact (visual enough that most can be played with or without sound). They should appeal to a broad age range (ideally K through 12) though probably for different reasons -- we'd like a high school physics student to watch at the first video and think about majoring in engineering; we'd like first graders to watch at the video and think "wow, a robot cheetah!" (because the second reaction has a way of leading to the first).

Right now, the candidates are mostly from engineering but I'd like to broaden that later. I've been mainly looking at MIT and IEEE. There is also a TED, which somewhat violates my principles but when you see it, you'll understand. I'm also looking for off-beat Rube Goldberg devices and pre-industrial tech. I'm not crazy about the two historic examples here. I love the tech but the videos leave something to be desired.

Does anyone have any suggestions for filling out this list?

Robotic Cheetah

Magnetic Hair

Squishy Robots

Three Strokes of Upward Lightning

Small cubes that self-assemble

Soft autonomous earthworm robot at MIT

A Swarm of One Thousand Robots

Atlas Human-Powered Helicopter - AHS Sikorsky Prize Flight

Levitating Superconductor on a Möbius strip

Soft Robot Uses Explosions to Jump

1,000,000,000,000 Frames/Second Photography - Ramesh Raskar


Hero's steam engine

World record trebuchet at Warwick Castle

Monday, December 29, 2014

The perils of bell curving

This is Joseph.

As people probably know, I tend to be a bit of a Marissa Mayer fan.  However, this one item from a recent piece is definitely something that I would prefer not to see in a company that I worked for:
Mayer also favored a system of quarterly performance reviews, or Q.P.R.s, that required every Yahoo employee, on every team, be ranked from 1 to 5. The system was meant to encourage hard work and weed out underperformers, but it soon produced the exact opposite. Because only so many 4s and 5s could be allotted, talented people no longer wanted to work together; strategic goals were sacrificed, as employees did not want to change projects and leave themselves open to a lower score.
The problem with this sort of approach is twofold.  One, it makes people reluctant to join elite teams and groups (where they get to be rated as sub-average) instead of letting these teams mentor and nurture up and coming talent.   Two, since any ranking is partially a political process (only so much of the data can be objective, especially since the manager presents the evidence), it encourages political infighting among the managers of closely related teams.

Neither process is ideal.  Furthermore, you have to pay extra to compensate for the fear and uncertainty around a low ranking (base salary gets more important when bonuses can be variable). 

Now I am not saying that this process cannot work effectively under some circumstances, but it has notable downsides that need to be thought carefully about. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Modern War

This is Joseph.

Paul Krugman:
Angell’s case was simple: Plunder isn’t what it used to be. You can’t treat a modern society the way ancient Rome treated a conquered province without destroying the very wealth you’re trying to seize. And meanwhile, war or the threat of war, by disrupting trade and financial connections, inflicts large costs over and above the direct expense of maintaining and deploying armies. War makes you poorer and weaker, even if you win.
I think that this insight is something we should think about a lot more.  In the modern and interconnected economy, even the peaceful absorption of a state (think East and West Germany) can be fraught with difficulty.

Once imperialism looks cost ineffective, it really does change the best ways to deal with opponents.  It's no longer the case that Alsace-Lorraine is really what we want to be fighting for -- instead it is the human capital where a lot of the value lies and it is hard to loot that.  This is not to say that resources are not a good thing (the resource curse can be over-rated) but that they are no longer the sole thing that drives a states economic power. 

This is likely to be a good development, in the long run. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Today's Principal Agent Problem

This is Joseph

From Mark Miller:
The fix moving through Congress would revised the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to grant plan trustees broad powers to cut retired workers' benefits if they can show that would prolong the life of the plan. That would mark a major change from current law, which calls for retirees to be paid full benefits unless plan assets are exhausted; then, the PBGC steps in to pay benefits, albeit at a much lower level. The bill also would increase PBGC premiums paid by sponsors, from $13 to $26 per year.

The big problem here is that the plan fails to put retirees at the head of the line for protection. When changes of this type must be made, they should be phased in over a long period of time, giving workers time to adjust their plans before retirement. For example, the Social Security benefit cuts enacted in 1983 were phased in over 20 years and didn't start kicking in until 1990.
My problem with this approach is that it does not appear to give the people who manage the plans (i.e. the corporate entities) any incentives to manage the plans successfully.  The focus on short term performance and the linkage of these metrics to managerial compensation, creates a severe principal agent problem -- the group responsible for managing the plan doesn't bear any of the cost if the plas end up dramatically underfunded.

It is often the case that such schemes do not end well, as it can be very easy to boost profits by underfunding the pension scheme.  Under these rules, the potential long term cost to the business is quite mitigated.  Do we really want incentives aligned like this? 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Movies in the modern age

This is Joseph, trying something new.

I was very interested to read this piece on the focus on sequels:
I believe that what studios see when they look at the bumper-to-bumper barricade of a 2015–20 lineup they’ve built is a sense of security — a feeling that they have gotten their ducks in a row. But these lists, with their tremulous certainty that there is safety in numbers, especially when numbers come at the end of a title, represent something else as well: rigidity and fear. If you asked a bunch of executives without a creative bone in their bodies to craft a movie lineup for which the primary goal is to prevent failure, this is exactly what the defensive result would look like. It’s a bulwark that has been constructed using only those tools with which they feel comfortable — spreadsheets, P&L statements, demographic studies, risk-avoidance principles, and a calendar. There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing.
I must admit that is interesting that the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit became a six movie extravaganza and that the Marvel/DC comic book movie line-up is . . . daunting.  Sure, some of these movies are surprisingly good (see the latest X-men movie).  But the focus on doing more of the same is exactly what led to a long period where TV was pretty much a dead art form.  Now roles are reversed, and it might well be that movies have a long slump before something new and daring pops up.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays

Since 2009, Mark and I have used this as a forum for a lot of different topics.  From a blog that started about Epidemiology and a little bit of Dungeons and Dragons, we've become instead an eclectic opinion blog, talking about a wide range of fun topics.  Education reform was probably the first deviation, but since then we've seen media criticism, financial advice, and a general willingness to be skeptical about strong claims.

It's been a great ride and we look forward to continuing it in 2015. 

Incentives and proper incentive alignment: a never-ending series

This is Joseph.

Mark has promised a post on this topic, so I thought that I'd start the show by revisiting the issue with Amazon and warehouse workers.  From Megan McArdle:
Should you get paid for standing in line? Workers at an Amazon warehouse thought they should. I kind of agreed. But the Supreme Court disagreed, holding 9-0 that the Amazon contractors could be forced to stand in line to clear security at the end of their workday but did not have to be paid for their time.
The issue here is that the wait could be lengthy.  That added unpredictability to the end of the shift and, if time in line was unpaid, the employer has no incentive to improve matters.  Screening costs and the more efficient it is then the more costly it would be.  Increasing waits to exit protected Amazon profits by reducing shrinkage (which is good) but cost workers (standing in line).

It is legal outcomes like this that check my libertarian streak,  If the law isn't constructed to handle these sorts of external costs on workers (and everyone else) then it makes the preconditions for basing the social contract on contract law to be questionable -- even if this ruling should happen to be correct on the merits.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sony's hypercube -- they keep finding new sides to cave in on

First they caved in when Rogen and Franco came in with a bad idea for a movie that was certain to be more trouble than it was worth.

Then they caved in due to threats and cyber-attacks from North Korea.

And finally(?) today they caved in to criticism and bad PR and announced a small and largely symbolic theatrical release.

Is this really the end? I can't think of anyone else to whom they could cave, but we do have about thirty-six hours till the theaters open on Christmas Day, I have faith in Sony executives' ability to surprise me.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

This is an off-topic post by Joseph

I just wanted to point out this review.  I think Howard Taylor hits most of my high points and he is quite astute about the book versus movie piece.  The movie is better if you just pretend it isn't adapting a book and take it on its own merits. 

Accountability is for little people continued -- more thoughts on the Sony hack

I'm not quite sure what to call it, but most business reporting suffers from the journalistic equivalent of regulatory capture. There are exceptions of course – I can think of lots of sharp, independent writers covering this beat – but the vast majority of what you read in the business section reflects the viewpoint and very often the spin of the companies being covered.

This "journalistic capture" becomes particularly apparent when companies have massive screw ups. You get lots of stories about how various disasters were unforeseeable and/or unavoidable. The part about the highly paid C-level executives being grossly incompetent has a way of being buried.

The last post covered an almost comic level of incompetence in Sony's IT department. That is probably the bigger part of the hacking story, but there were other questionable decisions that led up to this fiasco, starting with the decision to greenlight the Interview in the first place.

Mark Evanier, who has been around the industry for decades, has a very good post on the subject. His treatment of the freedom of speech issues is extremely sharp, but it is his discussion of the movie itself that is relevant to this post.
Thursday night at the screening I attended, there was what we call an Industry Crowd, meaning the entertainment industry. I heard much talk about the whole matter and I kept hearing — this is the rumor mill speaking now — that everyone at Sony thought the film was awful and that they were just hoping to get it into theaters and make some bucks before reviews and word of mouth killed it. It's common knowledge the film's release was delayed from last August because Sony demanded changes.

I'm not suggesting that good films deserve to be defended and bad ones don't. But before the hacking and threats, Sony had the right to decide the film was a lox that wasn't worth releasing. Some execs at Sony felt that way; that the film shouldn't be released…or maybe wasn't worth the problems it might cause. (No one in the film business is dense enough to think a movie about assassinating a foreign leader couldn't possibly get anyone upset.) And they had the right to make that decision. I'm suggesting they still have that right.
Evanier is almost certainly correct here, but, from a business standpoint, was making this film a good idea in the first place?

Let's be clear, this decision was never about art or making a statement. We're not talking about Dr. Strangelove; at best we're talking about a Hope and Crosby "Road to" picture with gross-out gags . The only considerations were financial and the only political element was the studio politics involved in telling a couple of big, spoiled stars that they couldn't make a vanity project. From Sony's point of view, the Interview was probably a bad idea for a movie and was likely to create all sorts of problems (keep in mind, this is a Japanese company which makes concern about North Korea a bit more immediate). It appears that the main argument for making the movie was that it kept the stars happy and the studio didn't have to make Green Hornet II.*

As I said before, none of this in any way diminishes the severity of the criminal acts involved, but there's blame enough to cover both malicious and the negligent. In theory, we shouldn't have to worry about the latter because the market for top level executives is supposed to be efficient -- we are told that companies get what they pay for when they pay the big bucks.

With that in mind, take a look at this graph from Fusion.

 (The metric used is “market posture,” which measures each level of employee pay compared to the market median for that level.) According to the chart, SPE pays its level 10 employees 113.1% of the median, but only pays its level 1 employees 92.2% of the median.

Assuming level 10 is the top of the scale, it is difficult to see how that above average pay has translated into above average executive performance.

* The Green Hornet probably did turn a profit (between the massive marketing budget and the peculiarities of Hollywood bookkeeping, it's difficult to say for certain), but the box office was not great and the reaction to the film effectively killed the anticipated franchise.

Monday, December 22, 2014

I'm more comfortable blaming the victim a little when the victim has a market cap of twenty billion

While in no way taking away from the magnitude of the criminal acts involved in the Sony hacks, it is important to remember that upper-level management gets such high salaries in part because they are supposed to anticipate threats and take steps to minimize their potential impact.

At Sony, not so much...
The new trove appears to include a collection of documents the hackers came across on the Sony Pictures network that had “password” in their titles, and includes digital keys for everything from Sony computers and servers to magazine subscriptions and YouTube accounts for Sony movies. (As much as we’d like to log into This is the End’s YouTube page, we haven’t actually tried any of these passwords to see if they work.) It is generally a bad idea to store all your passwords in a document on your computer. It is an even worse idea to title that document something like “My Passwords.”
The hackers leaked a new file that includes a collection of all the documents Sony Pictures employees used to store passwords

Sony Pictures employees and former employees are flipping out about the leak and the unexpected debut of their personal information on screens across the world. But some former employees, who asked to remain anonymous, have told us that they’re disappointed but not surprised by the massive hack given Sony Pictures’ long-running lax attitude toward security. They say that employees highlighted specific vulnerabilities on company websites and systems that were never addressed.

“Sony’s ‘information security’ team is a complete joke,” one former employee tells us. “We’d report security violations to them and our repeated reports were ignored. For example, one of our Central European website managers hired a company to run a contest, put it up on the TV network’s website and was collecting personally identifying information without encrypting it. A hack of our file server about a year ago turned out to be another employee in Europe who left himself logged into the network (and our file server) in a cafe.”
Part of that joke was an org-chart straight out of a Dilbert cartoon.
The information security team is a relatively tiny one. On a company roster in the leaked files that lists nearly 7,000 employees at Sony Pictures Entertainment, there are just 11 people assigned to a top-heavy information security team. Three information security analysts are overseen by three managers, three directors, one executive director and one senior-vice president.
Keep in mind, this is more than three years after Sony suffered "one of the largest data security breaches in history."

Just to be clear, the great majority of the upper-level executives I've encountered (no C-level, but quite a few directors and VPs) have been smart, hard-working and conscientious. I certainly don't want to make a blanket condemnation, but stupid, incompetent people do sometimes make it through, and if they get to a high enough rung, it is amazing how small the consequences are for their screw-ups. Accountability is for little people.

On a completely unrelated topic.
In 2005, Sony Pictures Entertainment was audited to ensure the company was keeping in line with federal regulation regarding information security practices. The auditor found, among other things, that Sony had deliberately engaged in insufficient digital security practices, including allowing employees to use basic proper nouns as passwords instead of requiring them to use a complex system involving random letters, numbers and punctuation marks.

If Sony were a bank, the auditor said, its lackluster security practices would put it out of business.

Sony’s then-executive director of security information Jason Spaltro pushed back: If a bank was a Hollywood film studio, he said, it would already be out of business.

“It’s a valid business decision to accept the risk (of a cyberattack),” Spaltro told CIO Magazine in 2007. “I will not invest $10 million to avoid a possible $1 million loss.”
As mentioned earlier, a few years after that interview hackers would steal  personally identifiable information from 77 million Sony PlayStation accounts. What happened to the executive of security information who gave that embarrassing interview?
By the way, Jason Spaltro — the executive from the beginning of this article who suggested the company not spend $10 million to combat a potential $1 million risk — still works at Sony. He has since been promoted to vice president of information security — one of the top executives tasked with ensuring things like the Sony Pictures hack don’t happen. He makes close to $700,000 a year: $300,000 base salary and a $400,000 initiative-based bonus. We know this because hackers published his employment information last week.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Checking in on the last next big thing

I'm working on a longer piece that involves Uber and I got to thinking about the big discussion we had about Groupon back in 2011. Many of the arguments currently being used to justify Uber's $40 billion valuation (rapid growth, huge potential market, a foundation of new economic and technological paradigms) were also being used to justify faith in Groupon.

I don't want to make too much of the analogy -- they are very different companies with very different business models -- but it is still useful to stop and think about how that bet worked out.

[If you want to get a head start on the Uber thread, check out these exceptionally thorough analyses from Talking Points Memo and NYU Finance Professor Aswath Damodaran.]

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A quick note on Kružno, official game of the village of Kružno*

I've got a couple more post I'd like to do on Kružno, the abstract strategy game I developed a few years ago, a post on abstract strategy games and another on trying my hand at small scale manufacturing (and why I ended up using chess pieces in a checkers variant). Unfortunately, I'm a bit pressed for time and I really wanted to get something out today, so this will have to do for now.

You can find the rules here and the game itself here. The game takes about three to five minutes to explain, perhaps a bit longer working from the instructions (some parts are a bit unclear and need to be rewritten).

If you are, or someone you know is, a teacher (particularly at a school where money is tight) who would like to make more use of games in the classroom, let me know and I'll try to set you up with some game sets or at least some extra boards.

* That's also a subject for another post

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Perhaps claims that are almost certainly false should be fact-checked more thoroughly

If you read Talking Points Memo or the Washington Post, you've probably heard about this story from New York Magazine by up and coming journalist Jessica Pressler:
Late last year, a rumor began circulating at Stuyvesant that a junior named Mohammed Islam had made a fortune in the stock market. Not a small fortune, either. Seventy-two million.

An unbelievable amount of money for anyone, not least a high-school student, but as far as rumors go, this one seemed legit. Everyone at Stuy knew that Mohammed, the soft-spoken son of Bengali immigrants from Queens and the president of the school’s Investment Club, was basically a genius.

As the news spread, Mo’s stock went up. The school paper profiled him, Business Insider included him on a list of “20 Under 20,” and Mo became “a celebrity,” as his friend Damir Tulemaganbetov put it on a recent Friday night at Mari Vanna near Union Square. “A VIP!”
Like [Jordan] Belfort, Mo started with penny stocks. A cousin showed him how to trade. He loved the feeling of risk—the way his hand shook making the trade—but he swore it off after losing a chunk of the money he’d made tutoring. “I didn’t have the balls for it,” he said. He was 9.

It was a while before he was ready to try again. In the meantime, he became a scholar of modern finance, studying up on hedge-fund managers. He was particularly enamored of Paul Tudor Jones. “I had been paralyzed by my loss,” Mo said. “But he was able to go back to it, even after losing thousands of dollars over and over. Paul Tudor Jones says, ‘You learn more from your losses than from your gains.’ ” Mo got into trading oil and gold, and his bank account grew. Though he is shy about the $72 million number, he confirmed his net worth is in the “high eight figures.” More than enough to rent an apartment in Manhattan—though his parents won’t let him live in it until he turns 18—and acquire a BMW, which he can’t drive because he doesn’t yet have a license. Thus, it falls to his father to drive him past Tudor Jones’s Greenwich house for inspiration. “It’s because he is who he is that made me who I am today,” Mo said.
[I emphasized the part about “high eight figures.” It becomes important later.]

Islam fills in some more details on his website:
My interest in finance started at the tender age of 8, but I really started trading when I was 10 years old. I paper traded for a year or so and finally opened a real trading account using my own capital that I saved from entrepreneurial endeavors. 
So we're looking at six or seven years to go from tutoring money to more than fifty million dollars trading part-time. That's a difficult statement to believe but Pressler and her editor at NY Magazine managed to swallow it, as did the New York Post which ran "High school student scores $72M playing the stock market" and CNBC which had Islam and friends scheduled to appear until...

From the New York Observer:
Monday’s edition of New York magazine includes an irresistible story about a Stuyvesant High senior named Mohammed Islam who had made a fortune investing in the stock market. Reporter Jessica Pressler wrote regarding the precise number, “Though he is shy about the $72 million number, he confirmed his net worth is in the ‘high eight figures.’ ” The New York Post followed up with a story of its own, with the fat figure playing a key role in the headline: “High school student scores $72M playing the stock market.”

And now it turns out, the real number is … zero.

In an exclusive interview with Mr. Islam and his friend Damir Tulemaganbetov, who also featured heavily in the New York story, the baby-faced boys who dress in suits with tie clips came clean. Swept up in a tide of media adulation, they made the whole thing up.
The Washington Post picks it up from there:
Then on Monday afternoon, Mo backed out of a spot on CNBC, confessing the $72 million figure was inaccurate. “The attention is not what we expected — we never wanted this hype,” he said. New York, however, stood by the story: “Our story portrays the $72 million figure as a rumor … we did not know the exact figure he has made in trades. However, Mohammed provided bank statements that showed he is worth eight figures, and he confirmed on the record that he’s worth eight figures.”
Just to be clear, the NY editors initially pinned much of their defense on the distinction between $72 million and “high eight figures,” and on the easily faked bank statement provided to the fact checker. Apparently the fact-checker didn't ask to see additional documentation or to speak to the parents (who are, according to the Observer, really pissed).

New York Magazine finally came out with a retraction but even here they don't seem to have learned their lesson:
After the story's publication, people questioned the $72 million figure in the headline, which was written by editors based on the rumored figure. The headline was amended. But in an interview with the New York Observer last night, Islam now says his entire story was made up. A source close to the Islam family told the Washington Post that the statements were falsified. We were duped. Our fact-checking process was obviously inadequate; we take full responsibility and we should have known better. New York apologizes to our readers.
The process would have been inadequate if the claim had been credible; for a story this incredible, it was grossly negligent.

This is not an isolated case. Standards for journalistic accuracy have been dropping for at least a couple of decades, but perhaps more troubling is the disconnect between fact-checking and credibility. Even at the venerable BBC, the most unbelievable of claims is not subjected to any extra scrutiny. Fact-checking has become a CYA process, not something you do because you want to get the story right.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Infrastructure part 2

This is Joseph

In the same vein as some of my recent comments on infrastructure, the latest example of tricky projects is happening on the west coast.  Consider:
Transit advocates are often accused, absurdly, of engaging in a “war on cars”. If we were indeed committed to such a war, I’m not sure we could have come up better with anything than this. The overruns will likely cannibalize WSDOT’s budget, including all manner of road repair and construction projects (some of which are necessary and useful) for the foreseeable future. If, as appears increasingly likely, the viaduct must be shut down before the tunnel is ready, transit will become even more crucial for accessing downtown, and far fewer cars will be able to do so with any efficiency at peak travel times.  Meanwhile, Sound Transit’s tunneling project for light rail, using well established, off the shelf tunneling technology and conservative cost estimates, chugs along ahead of schedule and under budget, and Seattle just voted itself a tax increase to fund more bus service.
I don't like the terms luddite and ddulite (I prefer technophile and technophobe), but it is a classic example of a series of expensive decisions caused by trying to save money through a clever technological solution.  I return to my thoughts in the previous post, that the real point of concern is our inability to use off the shelf technology effectively in terms of infrastructure.

From an economics point of view, we really have a case of misaligned incentives.  How do we make more projects look like Sound Transit and less like the projects that have been encountered in the viaduct replacement?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Our annual Toys-for-Tots post

[Slightly modified from last year.]

A good Christmas can do a lot to take the edge off of a bad year both for children and their parents (and a lot of families are having a bad year). It's the season to pick up a few toys, drop them by the fire station and make some people feel good about themselves during what can be one of the toughest times of the year.

If you're new to the Toys-for-Tots concept, here are the rules I normally use when shopping:

The gifts should be nice enough to sit alone under a tree. The child who gets nothing else should still feel that he or she had a special Christmas. A large stuffed animal, a big metal truck, a large can of Legos with enough pieces to keep up with an active imagination. You can get any of these for around twenty or thirty bucks at Target, Wal-Mart or Costco. Toys-R-Us had some good sales last year;

Shop smart. The better the deals the more toys can go in your cart;

No batteries. (I'm a strong believer in kid power);*

Speaking of kid power, it's impossible to be sedentary while playing with a basketball;

No toys that need lots of accessories;

For games, you're generally better off going with a classic;

No movie or TV show tie-ins. (This one's kind of a personal quirk and I will make some exceptions like Sesame Street);

Look for something durable. These will have to last;

For smaller children, you really can't beat Fisher Price and PlaySkool. Both companies have mastered the art of coming up with cleverly designed toys that children love and that will stand up to generations of energetic and creative play.

* I'd like to soften this position just bit. It's okay for a toy to use batteries, just not to need them. Fisher Price and PlaySkool have both gotten into the habit of adding lights and sounds to classic toys, but when the batteries die, the toys live on, still powered by the energy of children at play.

Heroic bureaucrats and annoying foodies -- one reason so many reforms fail

As promised, here are some more thoughts on West Virginia's promising initiative to improve school lunch programs.

From a transcript of the interview with writer Jane Black:
People in Huntington across the board were very interested and concerned about what he was doing. But the place that the show focused probably the most was in the schools. There he went in and was shocked and horrified that they were eating breakfast pizza and what he called luminescent strawberry milk. He tried to get them to start cooking from scratch. He said it didn't really matter that the food met the guidelines of the USDA as far as nutrients were concerned, but it wasn't fresh.

Of course what people saw on TV were the school lunch ladies being furious about this and feeling like he was stepping on their toes. They also saw the kids taking those lunches, which are paid for by taxpayer dollars, and dumping them in the trash.

What happened in the aftermath was really interesting. After he left, they were audited by the USDA, who came in and said, "These meals may be fresh, but they don't meet our requirements for nutrients." The head of school food, Rhonda McCoy, basically could have gone back to the way she'd always been doing everything. Even though on the show she came across as this cold, aloof bureaucrat, clearly the message had gotten through.

What she did over the next summer was redevelop the recipes, change the flavors a little bit. For example, she took some of the garlic out of his garlicky greens so that the kids liked them better. Within a year they were basically cooking all their meals from scratch.

I went down there. In this kitchen that any New York restaurant would be happy to have, there were 10 cooks making chicken, rolling it in a spice blend, baking it in the oven, taking potatoes, cutting them up, putting them in olive oil and roasting them in the oven. The meal that I ate there included a salad that had lettuce from a student farmer. It was incredible.

What's even more amazing is that since then, Cabell County, the county that Huntington is in, has trained I think 52 of 55 West Virginia counties to do the same. I would say West Virginia, which is not known as a very progressive state, probably has one of the best school lunch programs in the country.
If you follow reform movements, you see this all the time (particularly in education). Outsiders come in with lots of valid criticisms and some good ideas, but they also come in with unacknowledged personal preferences and cultural biases amplified by a subjective viewpoint and a dangerous lack of humility.

Jamie Oliver had some useful things to say about a tremendously important topic, but his initiative was a failure. His creations were, in many ways, less nutritious than the "unhealthy" meals they were supposed to replace. They didn't meet federal guidelines, making the whole enterprise a non-starter. Oliver brought the sensibility of a celebrity chef from a Michelin-starred London restaurant (specializing in Italian cuisine which might explain the level of garlic). He didn't think through the problems of dealing with kids or the other constraints school officials work under.

The difference between success and failure was Rhonda McCoy. We normally think of bureaucrats like McCoy as being, if not out-and-out villains, then at least being part of the problem, but it was McCoy who understood both the kids' tastes and the constraints of the program and who took this dead-in-the-water proposal and made it work. McCoy managed to take the best parts of Oliver's ideas and make meals that were both appealing to the students and manageable from a standpoint of budget, logistics and federal standards.

The press loves stories of the heroic outsider who shows up and fixes everything in a few easy steps. It's a plus if the outsider is a celebrity but an economist is almost as good (for some reason, this is one discipline that is always granted instant expert status). One of the main problems with these stories is that they tend to assume that the people in the field before the outsider showed up were either criminally lazy or dumb as a box of ball-peen hammers.

Finding an entire field full of idiots is rare (finding one with a dysfunctional culture is a bit more common but that's a subject for another post). That means that it is extremely difficult to come up simple ideas that are good and easy to implement but which haven't already occurred to almost everyone already working on the problem. That doesn't mean that people who are new to a field can't make a contribution, but it does mean that these contributions usually need to be collaborative. Fresh perspectives make for good first drafts, but it generally takes experience to fashion them into something usable.

How do you move diagonally in hexagonal chess?

As mentioned before, I've been selling an abstract strategy game called Kruzno. I've got a couple of posts coming up on the game, but in the meantime, I'm doing a thread on a few of the many other games that can be played on a six by six by six hexboard.

One of the most popular hexboard games is Glinski's Chess. I've got the moves posted at the teaching site. Most are fairly straightforward analogs to the game you're all familiar with. The bishops are probably the most counterintuitive, but if you think about it for a minute, you'll see that is a reasonable way of making diagonal moves on hexagonal tiles.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Differential levels of technological progress

This is Joseph

Mark and I often talk about how technology often improve at different rates even in similar areas.  Our go to example is cars (much better now than in 1980) versus airplanes (which have had a more mixed improvement record).  However, the Oatmeal offers up a really good example in terms of computers versus printers.  In a lot of ways, I suspect that this is an even better example than the cars versus planes one, as the modern desktop is massively cheaper and more powerful than what was state of the art twenty years ago

Worth a quick read for a Friday lunch break smile.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The death of the comic book industry (circa 1970)

I've been working my way through the archives Mark Evanier's site. I was familiar with his work as a writer and comics historian, but I only recently caught on to his blog. Many of the posts from a decade ago suffer greatly from a loss of topicality, but most stand up fairly well and a few actually benefit from the added perspective.

This post from 2004 has certainly remained current. We frequently see stories (many of which grow into accepted narratives) about media and industries that are shrinking and facing serious new challenges. The standard response is to assume that trends will hold and business models will remain unchanged until the institution in question rides off into the sunset to join the ice wagon and the rag-picker.

This does, of course, happen, but not that often. In order to completely wipe out a product or service, you have to replace it with something that's better in almost every respect (think chemical film, 8-tracks and, while we're on the subject, ice boxes). If there is still value in something, the market is very good at finding a way to exploit that value.

Creative destruction has become one of the most beloved buzzwords of the Twenty-first Century. It is seen as a moral good, an inevitable force of nature and an irrefutable argument (you can't stand in the way of creative destruction"). The result falls somewhere in between conventional wisdom and a better-a-gram-than-a-damn Pavlovian response. In these cases of groupthink, it is always useful to remind yourself of counter-examples, in this case a major branch of the publishing industry that looked like it was about to disappear.
Around 1970, when I got into the comic book business, the consensus was that there wouldn't be a comic book business for long…and not because of me.  The traditional method of distribution — comics sold on a returnable basis to newsstands around the country — was failing, or at least it was failing comic books.  The biggest distributor, Independent News, was making large sums off more expensive, adult publications like Playboy and Penthouse, and some there suggested that newsracks were no longer a place for kids or low-priced periodicals. Since comic books were low-priced and largely for kids, this was a pretty ominous suggestion, especially when you considered that Independent News not only distributed DC Comics but was a part of the same company.  In other words, DC's wares were being sold by an outfit that no longer believed there was a future in selling comic books.  With that attitude, there couldn't be much of one.

The "returnable" part was what was really hurting comics.  Marvel would print 500,000 copies of an issue of Spider-Man and would get paid only for those that actually sold.  So if the racks were crowded (or the distributor trucks filled with an extra-thick issue of Playboy that week), 50,000 might not make it to the racks at all.  Many more copies would get damaged and returned with all the unsold copies for credit.  300,000 might actually be sold and the rest would get pulped…obviously, not the most efficient way to do business. In the past, the ratio had not been that bad, and a publisher could make a tidy profit…but by the seventies, the numbers were closing in on the comic book industry.

To the rescue came not Superman or Batman but a Brooklyn school teacher named Phil Seuling.  Phil ran the big comic conventions in New York for years so he knew the fan market and its buying power.  Around 1973, he began proposing to DC and Marvel that he sell their comics in a different manner, by-passing traditional newsstands and getting them directly to comic book dealers and shops.  He would pay slightly less per copy to the publisher but he'd be buying the comics on a non-returnable basis, so a sale would be a sale; no printing five copies to sell three.

At first, publishers rebuffed his proposal.  The "direct market," as it would come to be called, did not seem lucrative enough to warrant the attention, to say nothing of how it might further destroy the old method.  But before long, it became apparent that the old method was being destroyed, with or without selling books the Seuling way, so DC, Marvel and other companies tried it.  Within a year, around 25% of all comic books were being sold via "direct" distribution, through Seuling's company and about a dozen others, with 75% still on conventional newsstands.  Within ten years, those percentages were reversed.  Today, the "direct market" is the primary market…though Phil, sadly, did not live to reap the full benefits of his idea.  He died in 1984 at the age of 50.
There's also an interesting demographic side to this story, but that will have to wait for another post.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I should really come back to this one

"The Splendid Table" is one of those names that make it easy to get annoyed at public radio, but it's a pretty good show and this is a very good story, both for the points it makes and the issues it raises. Lots of threads intersect here, from nutrition and public health to behavioral economics to class tensions. Definitely worth a listen.


This is Joseph

Larry Summers (via the Mad Biologist):
Walk from the US Airways shuttle at New York’s LaGuardia Airport to ground transportation. For months, there has been a sign saying “New escalator coming in Spring 2015.” The Charles River at a key point separating Boston and Cambridge is little more than 100 yards wide. Yet traffic has been diverted for over two years because of the repair of a major bridge and work is expected to continue into 2016.

The world is said to progress, but things that would once have seemed easy now seem hard. The Rhine is much wider than the Charles, yet Gen. George S. Patton needed just a day to create bridges that permitted squadrons of tanks to get across it. It will take almost half as long to fix that escalator in LaGuardia as it took to build the Empire State Building 85 years ago.
I think that this really does hit on something important.  Yes, in some cases things like safe labor practices matter and have a real cost.  But on the other side, it seems impossible to think that we have simply lost the ability to generate infrastructure.  At the very least, regulatory and financial incentives are failing to properly align. 

Whatever it is that is causing this malaise, I think it is crucial that we understand it -- no matter how much it may annoy entrenched interests.  By that I do not only include workers/unions, but also things as diverse as courts, regulatory structures, and the rest that make it hard for public infrastructure to be efficient, or which impede a properly competitive private sector. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Agon alert -- a post for board game geeks

I believe I mentioned earlier that I recently set up an Amazon store to sell Kruzno, an abstract strategy game I developed a few years while I was teaching high school math. I'll be posting more on the game (partially for the obvious promotional purposes but also because this corner of the blogosphere is actually nerdy enough to read posts on developing abstract strategy games).

On a related note, I used a six by six by six hex board so it could serve as a "utility player" in the game library. Lots of very cool games are played on this board including Gliński's hexagonal chess and the forgotten gem, Agon. I have a write-up over on the teaching blog. Definitely worth a look if you're into two player strategy games.

From commie to Randian and back in under four minute

Nat Hiken was a writers' writer. William Faulkner, who disliked television as a rule and who did not own a set, was a fan of Car 54 and would regularly go over to a neighbor's house to catch the show. Ken Levine called him the "greatest sitcom writer of his era." Larry David lists Bilko as a primary source for Seinfeld.

The Seinfeld connection is easy to spot. Hiken was perhaps the all-time master of the unexpected-consequence plot, where a small and seemingly harmless event would spiral into a series of bigger and bigger complications. An attempt to get a citation or help a couple avoid their weekly fight would spiral out of control, often upending the precinct, the police department or the entire city.

"Toody & Muldoon Meet the Russians" is not good introduction to the series. Rather than building up, the Russian characters pretty much start at eleven and much of the political satire has age poorly (One, Two, Three is one of my least favorite Billy Wilder films for similar reasons). It is, however, an interesting time capsule of JFK's America. Check out the specific business strategies the commissar proposes before spotting his KGB tail.

p.s. It doesn't come up in this clip but both Bilko and Car 54 were notable at the time for their integrated casts featuring African-Americans as as professionals and co-workers.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The challenge of discussing racism is finding definitions under which you and your friends don't qualify as racists.

We are probably all guilty of the above from time to time but among the commentariat it's more or less a job requirement. One popular technique is to couch racist statements in terms of class. Arguing that poor people are genetically inferior -- less intelligent, less disciplined and less moral -- has somehow become an acceptable position in publications like the New York Times

Other times, journalists avoid acknowledging the racism of colleagues by simply pretending to ignore what's in front of their faces. This leads us (via Brad DeLong) to a couple of pieces on the New Republic.

Here's Ezra Klein writing in 2009 about TNR and its editor-in-chief Marty Peretz [emphasis added]:
[Jeffrey ] Goldberg's article was a particularly weird piece of work, but it fit neatly into the "anti-anti" Israel genre. The thing about criticizing Israel is that you get called an anti-Semite rather a lot. This doesn't happen when you criticize sugar subsidies or come out against the stimulus bill. And make no mistake: Anti-Semitism is a serious charge. A genuine anti-Semite would be, should be, drummed out of political journalism, just as a legitimate racist should find no home at a serious opinion outlet. For that reason, being called an anti-Semite by hobbyist Zionists who happen to own and control prestigious domestic political magazines seems like it would be a bad thing. But the charge has been rendered tinny through overuse.
That 'should' gives Klein a bit of wiggle room but a reader could certainly come away with the impression that this sort of thing is not tolerated.

Via Max Fisher (who provides a notable exception to my first paragraph), here's a sample of what Peretz was routinely printing in one of the country's most prestigious journals.
The truth is that no one has ever really cared about the lives of Africans in Africa unless those lives are taken out by whites. No one has cared, not even African Americans like [Jesse] Jackson and [Susan] Rice. Frankly -- I have not a scintilla of evidence for this but I do have my instincts and my grasp of his corruptibility -- I suspect that Jackson was let in on the diamond trade or some other smarmy commerce.
Well, I am extremely pessimistic about Mexican-American relations, not because the U.S. had done anything specifically wrong to our southern neighbor but because a (now not quite so) wealthy country has as its abutter a Latin society with all of its characteristic deficiencies: congenital corruption, authoritarian government, anarchic politics, near-tropical work habits, stifling social mores, Catholic dogma with the usual unacknowledged compromises, an anarchic counter-culture and increasingly violent modes of conflict.
But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imaam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.
I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) "atrocities." They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures. That comparison shouldn't comfort us as Americans. We have higher standards of civilization than they do. But the mutilation of bodies and beheadings of people picked up at random in Iraq does not scandalize the people of Iraq unless victims are believers in their own sect or members of their own clan. And the truth is that we are less and less shocked by the mass death-happenings in the world of Islam. Yes, that's the bitter truth. Frankly, even I--cynic that I am--was shocked in the beginning by the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq. But I am no longer surprised. And neither are you.
Fisher goes on to spell out the reaction of fellow journalists to this "overt racism."
And no one resigned — including me, while I was an intern at the magazine for four months. Though I was unpaid, I eagerly accepted the resume-boosting prestige that came from working there. And, like the rest of the staff, I did it knowing it meant turning a blind eye to Peretz's frequent screeds on the magazine's website, fully aware that they were not just the crazy rants of an old racist but were in fact palpably damaging to the minority families who had to live in a society that was that much more intolerant because Peretz enjoyed a platform that legitimized his views.

I am thinking about this today as I watch senior editors and contributing editors resign en-masse from the magazine, in response to the firings of Foer and Wieseltier. Many of them are friends, and many never worked under Peretz at all.

But a number of the journalists who are resigning their positions as "contributing editor," typically an honorific title granted to former staffers who are no longer actually contributing or paid, did work under Peretz, or did accept this same honorific title from him.

Some of these resigning editors chose to tolerate and lend tacit support to Peretz; I am in no position to critique them for this. But the fact that many of them found Peretz's promulgation of racism to be tolerable, whereas Chris Hughes' firing of two beloved colleagues was not, speaks to a larger problem of how we think about racism in American society and particularly in the elite media institutions that have badly lagged in employing people of color.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Mars One -- libertarian ideology, ddulite fantasies and the decline in journalistic standards

[Update: Before posting, I try to follow up on all relevant links. This time I missed at least one. My apologies to Ms. Keep.]

There is a lot to complain about in the coverage of science and technology and, God knows, I do my share of bitching about the way the NYT et al. report on topics like driverless cars. Just to be clear, though, my complaints are generally meant to be focused on specific problems that tech journalists tend to overlook, usually involving issues like implementation, compatibility, scalability and infrastructure. For example, Google's autonomous car is a tremendous piece of engineering, but it currently requires road-data that cannot be gathered cheaply on a large scale. Google appears to have gotten stuck on this and a handful of other problems that effectively keep the technology from being commercially viable.

Most tech stories play out like that. They start with interesting, even promising ideas from smart, serious people, then the journalists covering them either choose to ignore or don't understand the subtleties and caveats. The researchers aren't always completely innocent here -- there's often a temptation to feed the hype -- but in their primary role they are doing respectable work.

Not all of these stories are cases of good research badly reported. Sometimes the rot goes all of the way down with lazy writers uncritically reporting bad technology and questionable science. Elmo Keep is neither lazy nor credulous. Writing for Medium, she has produced a devastating take-down of one of the most notable of these bullshit stories:
I will have to tell him that from everything I can find, Mars One doesn’t appear to be in any way qualified to carry off the biggest, most complex, most audacious, and most dangerous exploration mission in all of human history. That they don’t have the money to do it. That 200,000 people didn’t actually apply. That, with all the good faith one can muster, I wouldn’t classify it exactly as a scam—but that it seems to be, at best, an amazingly hubristic fantasy: an absolute faith in the free market, in technology, in the media, in money, to be able to somehow, magically, do what thousands of highly qualified people in government agencies have so far not yet been able to do over decades of diligently trying, making slow headway through individually hard-won breakthroughs, working in relative anonymity pursuing their life’s work.
I started to excerpt a few paragraphs of Keep's article but you really need to read the whole thing to grasp just how unlikely it is for this enterprise to go beyond the asking for money stage. Every single aspect collapses under scrutiny, from the unrealistic funding model to the wildly optimistic cost estimates to the nonexistent specs and contracts to the unresolved technical issues.

There is no excuse for a respectable news organization to treat this as a serious and yet we still get articles like this from Vibeke Venema and the BBC:
Could you leave everyone you love for the chance to settle on Mars? Sonia Van Meter describes herself as an "aspiring Martian" - she hopes to be one of the first humans on the planet in 10 years' time. But it would mean never seeing her husband again.

"I don't think you can apply for something like this and not be the tiniest bit insane," says Sonia Van Meter. "But this is the next great adventure, and I'm going to do absolutely anything I can to be a part of this."

The 35-year-old political consultant from Austin, Texas, is one of 705 people in the running to form a 20- to 40-strong human colony on Mars - a group whittled down from 200,000 who sent applications to Dutch not-for-profit organisation Mars One last year.

"I thought: 'Shoot, this sounds like fun!'" she says. "I didn't think there was the slightest chance that I would be selected, I just wanted to be a part of it."

For her husband Jason Stanford, her application - and the fact that she now appears to have a 35-to-one chance of leaving forever - evoked mixed emotions.

"Like any good red-blooded American male, at first I thought this was all about me. I thought: you're leaving me," he says.

Over time he changed his mind. "The more she talked about it, the more I realised she was doing this for the right reasons - she was doing this to show humanity what we can all do if we work together," he says.
There is one quick cover-your-ass 'if' buried deep in the piece ("The mission, if it goes ahead, will be dangerous, some say suicidal."), but even in that single brief sentence, the possibility of it not happening is just an aside. There is no real effort to put this in a realistic context. Instead, we're given figures like that 35-to-one chance; it's almost certainly false but it makes for a good story.

The press likes to maintain the convenient fiction that it is "open to all voices." This is an obviously absurd proposition – – even though the Internet has greatly expanded what news organizations like the BBC can offer, they can still only cover a tiny fraction of the information and opinions out there – – but it serves the purpose of absolving journalists and, more to the point, editors and publishers from taking responsibility for what they present to the public.

When something appears in a major news outlet, particularly when it is presented noncritically, that outlet is implicitly endorsing the story; it is, in effect, saying that this story is something important enough to spend time learning about. I have seen numerous stories on this proposed Mars One mission but Keep's article is the first of those to make any real effort to address the sheer silliness of the proposal.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A very specific definition of 'exclusive'

I spend a lot of time on Netflix, but I'm afraid that I often don't do a very good job focusing on the main point. What's important here is not the strengths and weaknesses of the company -- let the day traders do their own research -- but rather the way that the story illustrates so many of the problems in the way the press covers business, particularly the tech sector.

For example, the coverage of "Netflix Originals" shows how persistent a factual error can be if it fits a popular narrative. In this case, the narrative is that Netflix is the next HBO which has lead many journalists covering the story to assume that Netflix is building a content library similar to HBO's. They aren't. Netflix doesn't own shows like House of Cards. They just license it. Anyone who researches the story should know this, but more often than not, you see something like this from Seeking Alpha:
Reed Hastings can now promote Netflix as the only place to see "House of Cards" and other Netflix original series that are gaining momentum, like "Orange is the New Black." These productions will generate millions of new members. One other major benefit is that Netflix owns ALL rights to the shows, and can easily now start offering some kind of service in new markets like Asia.
I've been banging this drum for quite a while, but I have to admit I was surprised to learn how narrow even the streaming rights are.

Apparently, Netflix's rights to exclusive access only cover unlimited streaming options like Amazon Prime. You can still buy episodes online from other sources if you're willing to cough up a couple of bucks.

Is purchasing very limited rights a smart business strategy on the part of Netflix? That's a question for another post.  For now, though, let's just say that this is yet another story where the narrative sometimes obscures the facts.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

False flags

Frances Woolley has a nice post about retirement and women's rights:

Yes, there are older female academics who will enjoy greater financial security as a result being able to work past 65. But let's think not about anecdotes - the stories of particular men and particular women. Overall, how many of the beneficiaries from the end of mandatory retirement are men, and how many are women? Who bears the costs of the transition?

Two thirds of university teachers between 65 and 69 are men (p. 22 here), as are three quarters of those over the age of 70. This is not simply a reflection of an academy that, 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, when these folks were hired, favoured men over women. Let's rewind five years, to when the people who are now 65 to 69 were 60 to 64. This is more or less the same group of people, just at two different points in time.

In 2005-6, just before the standard retirement age ended, 65 percent of academics aged 60 to 64 were male (p. 22 here).

In 2010-11, when that same cohort of people were 65-69, 68 percent of those working as university teachers were male. There is hardly any hiring of individuals into university teaching in that age group. The only plausible explanation of the three percentage point increase in the proportion of men in the academia is that the more women than men retired in that cohort.
In other words, while there might be other reasons to end mandatory retirement, it is pretty clear that it did very little to increase the participation of women in the academy.  Furthermore, since it is very costly (professors at the end of their careers make a lot in Canada), it may well outcompete alternatives like a massive pay equity program. 

You see this sort of principal a lot when people don't want to admit the actual reasons that they are doing something.  Or, even worse, when they are pretending to be on the side of the people who will lose the most from the policy.

My current favorite example is the opposition to gas and congestion taxes under the rubric that they hurt the poor the most.  That can only be true in a very narrow sense.  First of all, the poorest of people don't actually own cars (which are expensive).  Second, subsidizing car commuting makes it more difficult to put in alternative systems like public transit -- as this approach both makes driving easier and starves government of revenue.  Who benefits the most from public transit?  I'll give you a hint -- it's not the people with brand new SUVs. 

Furthermore, the real test of a false flag is when people resist alternative ways to help the populations who are under discussion.  For example, do the people who are against mandatory retirement also want to ensure strict gender equality in pay?  What about paying for long maternity leaves to make it easier for women to retire at 65 with full pensions? 

Similarly, why can't we increase the gas tax and then give money to poor people (who could spend it on gas or something else)?  Heck, to be logically consistent, the tax that would hurt the poor the least would be a wealth tax.  Why not do that instead of a gas tax? 

Now this is not to say that these policies may not be okay on the merits without the false flags.  The policy alternatives that I pointed out may have other good reasons to be rejected.  But the failure to even engage these adjacent arguments is a pretty good evidence that the main priority is not the concern for the group in question but rather worry that the policy argument is weak on the merits.

And we should be less forgiving of that. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Remembering a couple of conservative college columnists

A quick digression to set up the story. After getting a B.F.A. in creative writing, I did what seemed at the time to be the sensible thing and went off to a master's program in a very big out-of-state school. It didn't go well -- the main thing I learned was that I didn't want to be an English professor -- so I returned to my alma mater to get a teaching certificate. The education requirements didn't fill up my schedule so I decided to take some math courses and get a double certificate (which eventually led to a much more pleasant grad school experience but that's another story).

While I was making that initial run at grad school, a conservative columnist at the university paper (which was big enough to be a multi-section daily) was kicked off the staff for repeatedly lifting large chunks from George Will columns. It wasn't a big story even around the school but there was something slightly funny about the columnist's name that made him lodge in my memory.

A year later, back at the then-small college in Arkansas (it has grown considerably since I left), I noticed something in that school's paper (a far less impressive weekly tabloid of about twelve pages).

The paper's conservative columnist was an odd, bitter fellow, antisocial and prone to bizarre feuds with faculty members and student groups whom he felt were promoting a leftist agenda. His column that week was focused on the ways conservative voices were persecuted in academia and exhibit 1 was the previously mentioned plagiarist. Not that plagiarism figured prominently in this account. The column was written under the assumption that the dismissal had been politically motivated and any charges of journalistic impropriety had been trumped up to silence a someone willing to challenge the liberal establishment.

The slant was not unexpected given the author. What did surprise me was the reference to this obscure story from a school hundreds of miles away. This was in the late Eighties, years before the internet so it's not like they got it from a friend on Facebook. I was fairly certain that I was the only student at the small school who had attended that big university the year before and the only reason I remembered the incident was because of that odd connection I had made with the name. How did the story make that long trip and how did it get transformed from embarrassing lapse to heroic stance?

After I started paying more attention to this columnist in particular and to other conservative writers at other colleges, it started to make more sense. Both the left and the right had channels for distributing useful information and in some cases misinformation, but the channels on the right tended to be more centralized and obviously better funded. When a conservative journalist ran into trouble, there was a national network in place to disseminate his side of the story.

Things may have always been this way with more money and support available on the right, but I suspect that much of what I observed was the result of the rise of the conservative movement and that today's right-wing media owes at least some of its DNA to those information exchanges of the Eighties.

Monday, December 1, 2014

What's wrong with the press part 10^100 -- people who use 'summer' as a verb

One of these days, I want to do some long posts on race and class prejudices. The two topics are so closely intertwined and so complexly related that you can't have an in-depth conversation about one without addressing the other. That's a huge problem because, thought the press might be willing to address its racism, it is in complete denial about its class bigotry and lack of diversity.

This anecdote from the Philadelphia Inquirer says a lot.
Jill Nelson says she had misgivings from the start.

On the day she was interviewed for a writing job at the Washington Post's new magazine in 1986, she recalls, the conversations seemed less about her work and more about her.

Editor Ben Bradlee, who has since retired, warmed up, according to Nelson, only after she told him she'd summered each year at Martha's Vineyard. The privileged background that Nelson had alternately enjoyed and eschewed had given her an "in."

But getting there was one thing, she writes; surviving was another.

Her book, Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience, is a juicy expose of life at one of the nation's most venerable institutions. In this memoir, published by Noble Press, Nelson describes four puzzling, disillusioning and demeaning years at the job and severe family strains that she had to deal with at the time.

Faced with the challenge of keeping her integrity and meeting the expectations of editors portrayed as callous and ignorant about African American sensibilities, Nelson says she knew four months after her arrival that it wasn't going to work. But she hung in, she said in an interview last week, for the money and out of a sense of responsibility. Success, she said, was an expectation of her upper-middle-class upbringing. The subtitle, she said, underscores lifelong feelings that her background had allowed her to elude the experiences of most blacks.

Friday, November 28, 2014

A recent exchange I had with my iPhone

You know those ads where people have those amazing Turing-certified conversations with Siri.

Here is what one of my recent conversations with Siri sounded like.

Me: "Call _____ home."

Siri: "There's no home number for _____. Would you like me to use mobile instead?"

Me: "Call _____ home."

Siri: "Which phone number for _____?"

Me: "Call _____ home."

Siri: "Calling _____ home."

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"As God as my witness..." is my second favorite Thanksgiving episode line [Repost]

If you watch this and you could swear you remember Johnny and Mr. Carlson discussing Pink Floyd, you're not imagining things. Hulu uses the DVD edit which cuts out almost all of the copyrighted music. .

As for my favorite line, it comes from the Buffy episode "Pangs" and it requires a bit of a set up (which is a pain because it makes it next to impossible to work into a conversation).

Buffy's luckless friend Xander had accidentally violated a native American grave yard and, in addition to freeing a vengeful spirit, was been cursed with all of the diseases Europeans brought to the Americas.

Spike: I just can't take all this mamby-pamby boo-hooing about the bloody Indians.
Willow: Uh, the preferred term is...
Spike: You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not goin' around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.
Buffy: Well, I think the Spaniards actually did a lot of - Not that I don't like Spaniards.
Spike: Listen to you. How you gonna fight anyone with that attitude?
Willow: We don't wanna fight anyone.
Buffy: I just wanna have Thanksgiving.
Spike: Heh heh. Yeah... Good luck.
Willow: Well, if we could talk to him...
Spike: You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.
Xander: Maybe it's the syphilis talking, but, some of that made sense.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

It's not a question of being too positive or negative but of being wrong in both directions

Given some recent discussions, I perhaps ought to go back and clarify my position on Google's driverless cars. The Google part is important. Lots of companies, particularly big auto makers like GM and Nissan, are seriously pursuing this research. However, when you read a news account about autonomous vehicles, most of the time it's a story about Google which is troublesome for at least two reasons: first because there are some big concerns that are particularly applicable to Google's approach; and second because Google has a way of playing to the worst tendencies in tech reporters. The result is a standard narrative that manages to get both the pros and the cons wrong.

The official account goes something like this: from a technological standpoint, the Google driverless car is virtually good-to-go. There is every reason to expect you will be able to buy one in a couple of years; the only clouds on this horizon are concerns with safety and, more importantly, regulation. This version is extremely popular. It is regularly reported in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It also gets both the pros and cons wrong.

Though it's too early to say for certain, safety appears to be the one non-issue for this technology. All transportation carries an element of risk, but based on a pretty good sample of road tests, that risk appears to be considerably smaller for Google's self-driving cars than it is for other ways of getting around.

Regulation is only a slightly greater concern We have had well over a century to work out the problems associated with insuring and regulating a wide variety of high-speed and potentially very dangerous vehicles. The idea that a viable, highly anticipated, and, relatively speaking, very safe technology will be kept off the market due to legal issues not just in the United States but in Europe and Asia is simply not believable.

So, if the concerns are not safety and regulation, what are they?

As previously discussed many times, much of the more gee-whiz reporting has been based on the idea that autonomous cars will quickly reach 100% adoption. As unrealistic as that assumption is, it pales in comparison to another jump tech reporters seem to have made.

Based on this Slate article, it appears that Google's approach to fully autonomous cars requires a specialized and highly expensive data infrastructure, specifically a collection of incredibly detailed maps. In order to compile this level of data, dedicated vehicles with human drivers have to travel the roads in question multiple times. What's more, the process needs to be constantly repeated to keep the data up-to-date. Road construction, new houses, all sorts of things need to be taken into account by the system.

The primary advantage of automobiles over other forms of transportation is their flexibility. A car can go pretty much anywhere you want. You can even decide on a new destination while traveling. In order to be viable, new automotive technology needs to keep that flexibility. Apparently Google's current approach means it would take a prohibitive amount of time and money to map out more than a tiny fraction of the nation's roads. Put bluntly, if this is true, given these infrastructure costs and be wide array of transportation alternatives, the Google's autonomous cars will never be viable in its present form.

Caveats are important here. It is entirely possible that Google is on the verge of a breakthrough that will allow its cars to operate off of existing Google maps. That would come close to making the technology viable. For all I know, the company could be preparing a press release as I write this. If this is the case, I'll pen a sheepish retraction then call friends and family members who don't drive and share the good news.

For now, though, this appears to be a very difficult technical nut to crack and, rather than showing signs of progress, Google seems to be trying to divert attention from the problem. You'll notice that their latest highly touted 'advance' was actually a step down in this respect, going from actual road tests to far less demanding closed tracks.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

New side project up at Amazon.

A few years ago, I developed this checkers variant based on non-transitive relationships to help my students get some experience working with the concept. I'll talk more about the game and its development later, but in the meantime, here's a link to the webstore at Amazon.

For another example of non-transitive play, check this out. If nothing else, it will give you something to talk about if you ever meet Warren Buffet.

This isn't about Ferguson, but it may be the most relevant thing you'll read on the subject.

This is an excellent time to go back and reread "Against Law, For Order" by Mike Konczal. Since this essay appeared in April of 2012, we've seen the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the grand jury ruling on Darren Wilson and any number of additional incidents that support Konczal's troubling but convincing argument.

More bad behavior from your friendly neighborhood cable company

There's another flight going on between Viacom and a cable provider. Suddenlink, a major provider for much of the middle of the country, has recently dropped all of by a calms basic cable channels. This includes big names such as MTV, Nickelodeon, TVland, and Comedy Central. In Their place Suddenlink has scheduled some decidedly second-tier alternatives. Fans of Jon Stewart now have to make do with Jon Lovitz.

The story hasn't gotten a lot of attention (as often happens when you're on Central Time), but it's worth digging into if you're trying to keep up with the media landscape. It also ties into our ongoing rabbit ears thread.

Having lost most of the cable channels he regularly watched, a friend of mine recently called up Suddenlink and tried to downgrade his service. If you've been following the news you probably know what's coming next. He was immediately referred to a "specialist" who spent the next half hour badgering him ("why don't you want to get the best deal?").

At one point my friend (who has suffered through many of my tirades on the subject) said he was thinking about going over to an antenna. That was largely a bluff -- between terrain and distance to a broadcast tower, he probably wouldn't get very good reception unless he put up quite an antenna -- but the response was interesting. The specialist told him that going to over-the-air television would mean giving up HD.

Like I said, my friend had heard more on this topic than a reasonable person would care to so he knew this simply was not true -- not only can you get HD over the air; the quality is often better than what you get from cable -- so he challenged the company rep on this point and got him to back down to a "I'm pretty sure you can't get HD." My friend still didn't get them to accept the downgrade but he did get a rate reduction, which counts as victory when dealing with a cable company.

This ties into perhaps the most important point in these terrestrial TV stories. Competition is good but it's not not good enough by itself. When American television joined the rest of the world and went digital,the market should have become more competitive but years after the conversion, cable and satellite companies are still able to act like near-monopolies in large part because of asymmetry of information.

I've argued that digital over-the-air television is a great technology that more people ought to be using, but it may turn out to have the most impact on those stick with cable. Dealing with Comcast et al. will be much easier when the companies start facing more market pressure.