Thursday, February 27, 2014


From Beat the Press:
The big winners get to be big winners because the government is prepared to devote substantial resources to copyright enforcement. This is crucial because if everyone could freely produce and distribute the music or movies of the biggest stars, taking full advantage of innovations in technology, they would not be getting rich off of their recorded music and movies.

The internet has made copyright hugely more difficult. The government has responded by passing new laws and increasing penalties. But this was a policy choice, it was not an outcome dictated by technology. The entertainment industry and the big "winners" used their money to influence elected officials and get them to impose laws that would restrain the use of new technology. If the technology was allowed to be used unfettered by government regulation, then we would see more music and movies available to consumers at no cost.

In other words, it is government regulation that makes a winner take all economy in this case, not technology.
I think that this really is the piece of the whole puzzle that is worth discussing.  The regulation of the market place creates outcomes that are going to favor some actors over others.  It is the sad true of rules -- all rules will hurt some people and help others.  But we cannot treat the current set of rules as if they are divinely ordained or immutable -- even if current winners would enjoy that approach.

It is also the place where a Libertarian perspective seems most at odds with the marketplace.  The idea that laws need to be enacted to protect the profits of specific industries (what was once called "industrial policy") seems to be the main concern of key thinkers in the movement (consider Ayn Rand and the plot of Atlas Shrugged). 

Since the argument for copyright is about the social benefits of encouraging innovation (i.e. it is an ends based argument, not a natural rights based argument), it does seem that we should consider whether these aims are being well met in the current legal environment.  I am not an expert on this area, but it does seem that it is possible that we are too far on one side of the spectrum, where the rewards are more than are needed to incent innovation.  After all, do we really believe Walt Disney would have abandoned Mickey Mouse as unprofitable if now, 48 years after his death in 1966, the early films left copyright? 

NOTE [from Mark]:

Here are a couple of links to some previous posts that provide some background on the Mickey Mouse angle.

Alice in Lawyerland

Intellectual property and business life-cycles

Do copyright extensions drive innovation? -- Hollywood blockbuster edition

Back (momentarily) on the terrestrial superstation beat part 1 -- GetTV

While checking the TV listings a couple of weeks ago I came across an interesting but unfamiliar station showing what appeared to be a Jack Lemmon film festival. A visit to Wikipedia revealed that GetTV was a new terrestrial superstation from Sony Pictures and a quick perusal of the channel and its schedule revealed a heavy unacknowledged debt to Weigel's ThisTV and (particularly) Movies!

If you're going to steal, you from the best. As I've mentioned before, Movies! is, after TCM, probably the best channel for film buffs currently broadcasting. Technically, it's a collective effort from Weigel and Fox, but the division of labor has Fox providing the brawn (stations, money, libraries) and Weigel providing the brains (concept, programming, ad campaigns). Sony has stuck closely to the Movies! model and the result is a nice addition to the free-TV landscape.

It also provides a telling data point, especially when you take a close look at the timeline. I'll explore this in more depth in an upcoming post, but the broad outline will do for now. Six years ago, the idea of using over-the-air television to launch TBS-style superstations was not generating much interest. The only entrant was the well-respected but decidedly minor regional player, Weigel.

The first effort, ThisTV, was successful enough to convince Weigel to take its popular local format national with METV. Weigel's historic crosstown rival WGN soon followed with AntennaTV. Then came Bounce (combining elements from Weigel and BET). Then NBC/Universal's COZI. Then Weigel and Fox's previously mentioned Movies! and now, GetTV. There are a few points that need to be emphasized here:

This has a remarkably slow and steady process with increasingly large investments coming in as new information has flowed into the system;

That information is quite detailed. Since terrestrial superstations are generally broadcast in partnership with other stations, lots of parties have rich, reliable data about viewership and revenue;

As far as I know (and I've been following this story closely), all of the stations launched in this market over the past six years are still around with either their original format or a significantly upgraded one. What's more, they all appear to be making money.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Also true for Epidemiology

From the ever interesting Andrew Gelman:
Don’t model the probability of win, model the expected score differential. Yeah, I know, I know, what you really want to know is who wins. But the most efficient way to get there is to model the score differential and then map that back to win probabilities. The exact same issue comes up in election modeling: it makes sense to predict vote differential and then map that to Pr(win), rather than predicting Pr(win) directly. This is most obvious in very close games (or elections) or blowouts; in either of these settings the win/loss outcome provides essentially zero information. But it’s true more generally that there’s a lot of information in the score (or vote) differential that’s thrown away if you just look at win/loss.
This is the same principle in a lot of medical problems.  There is often a tendency to define diseases based on continuous distributions as binary outcomes.  Consider:
  • High blood pressure = hypertension
  • High cholesterol (especially LDL) and/or low cholesterol (HDL) = dyslipidemia
  • High blood glucose = diabetes
Now, there are case where the true value is obscured by treatment.  That can be a reason to dichotomize, especially if the effect of the drugs is variable.  However, even in such cases there are options that can be used to estimate the untreated values of the continuous parameter. 

But I think that you will see much better prediction if you first model change in the parameter (e.g. blood pressure) and then convert that to the binary disease state (e.g. hypertension) then if you just develop a logistic model for prob(hypertension). 

Light posting

The last major push of traveling season is upon me and I know Mark is in the later stages of a pretty cool project.  So we might be updating a tad less than usual. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Outlier by the Bay

[Homonym alert -- I dictated this to my smart phone then edited it late in the evening.]

There's an energetic debate going on over at Andrew Gelman's site regarding Richard Florida's theories of the creative class. I can understand the urge to rise to Florida's defense. After all, there's great appeal to the idea that the kind of smart, innovative people who tend to drive economic growth are attracted to diverse, tolerant, livable cities with vibrant cultures. To  some extent, I believe it myself, but I find myself having the same problems with Florida I have with the rest of the urban utopianists: first that they have a tendency to take interesting but somewhat limited findings and draw impossibly sweeping conclusions and TED-ready narratives; and that these narratives often mesh badly with the facts on the ground. I've already discussed the latter (in probably overly harsh but still heartfelt language). Here are some thoughts on the second.

Part of my problem with a lot of urban research is that there just aren't enough major cities out there to make a really good sample, particularly when you have data this confounded and so many unusual if not unique aspects with each area. For some cities, with New York and San Francisco being very close to the top of the list, these unique aspects make it difficult to generalize findings and policy suggestions.

When I look at Richard Florida's research, at least in the form that made it to the Washington Monthly article, the role of San Francisco strikes me as especially problematic.

What is by many standards the most Bohemian and gay-friendly area in America is also arguably the country's center of technological innovation. Even if there were no relationship in the rest of the country, that single point would create a statistically significant correlation. That would not be so troubling if we had a clear causal relationship or a common origin. Unfortunately, the main driver of the tech boom, if you had to limit yourself to just one factor, would have to be Stanford University, while the culture of San Francisco does not appear to have been particularly influenced by that school, particularly when compared to Berkeley. In other words, had Stanford chosen to establish his college in Bakersfield, we might still have had Haight-Ashbury but we almost certainly would not have had Silicon Valley.

What's more, when we start looking at this narrative on a city by city basis, we often fail to see what we would expect. For example, if you were growing up in a relatively repressive area of the Southeast and you were looking for a Bohemian, gay-friendly metropolitan area with a vibrant arts scene, the first name on your list would probably be New Orleans followed by, roughly in this order, Atlanta, Savannah, and Memphis. Neither Cary. North Carolina nor Huntsville, Alabama would have made your top 10.

Rather bizarrely, Florida discusses both the Research Triangle and and New Orleans in his WM article, apparently without seeing the disconnect with his theories.:
Stuck in old paradigms of economic development, cities like Buffalo, New Orleans, and Louisville struggled in the 1980s and 1990s to become the next "Silicon Somewhere" by building generic high-tech office parks or subsidizing professional sports teams. Yet they lost members of the creative class, and their economic dynamism, to places like Austin, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Seattle---places more tolerant, diverse, and open to creativity.
There are lots of reasons for leaving New Orleans for Austin, but tolerance, diversity and openness to creativity aren't among them.

Even stranger are Florida's comments about the Research Triangle:
Kotkin finds that the lack of lifestyle amenities is causing significant problems in attracting top creative people to places like the North Carolina Research Triangle. He quotes a major real estate developer as saying, "Ask anyone where downtown is and nobody can tell you. There's not much of a sense of place here. . . .The people I am selling space to are screaming about cultural issues." The Research Triangle lacks the hip urban lifestyle found in places like San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Chicago, laments a University of North Carolina researcher: "In Raleigh-Durham, we can always visit the hog farms."
Remember, Florida said "Places that succeed in attracting and retaining creative class people prosper; those that fail don't," so is this spot withering away? Not so much:
Anchored by leading technology firms, government and world-class universities and medical centers, the area's economy has performed exceptionally well. Significant increases in employment, earnings, personal income and retail sales are projected over the next 15 years.

The region's growing high-technology community includes such companies as IBM, SAS Institute, Cisco Systems, NetApp, Red Hat, EMC Corporation and Credit Suisse First Boston. In addition to high-tech, the region is consistently ranked in the top three in the U.S. with concentration in life science companies. Some of these companies include GlaxoSmithKline, Biogen Idec, BASF, Merck & Co., Novo Nordisk, Novozymes, and Wyeth. Research Triangle Park and North Carolina State University's Centennial Campus in Raleigh support innovation through R&D and technology transfer among the region's companies and research universities (including Duke University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).
This is not to say that there is not some truth to Florida's narrative or validity to many if not most of his insights. It does appear, however, that the magnitude of the effects he proposes are far less than he suggested and that the absolute claims he is fond of making are often riddled with exceptions.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Weekend blogging --Hard boiled (foreign edition)

A couple more from the Criterion Collection for your cinematic to-do list (free for the next nine days).

 Akira Kurosawa's High and Low:

This next one is not as well known but it sounds interesting:
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud is a 1958 French film directed by Louis Malle. It was released as Elevator to the Gallows in the USA (aka Frantic) and as Lift to the Scaffold in the UK. It stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as criminal lovers whose perfect crime begins to unravel when Ronet is trapped in an elevator. The film is often associated by critics with the film noir style. According to recent studies, it also introduces very peculiar narrative and editing techniques so that it can be considered a very important experience at the base of the Nouvelle Vague and the so-called New Modern Cinema.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Context is everything

There has been some vigorous discussions about the Congressional Budget Office's claims that increasing the minimum wage would cost jobs.  But there really are two things to keep in mind. 

One, noted by Jon Chait, is that we don't seem to be worried about job losses in other contexts:
And yet the Congressional Budget Office, now brimming with conservative credibility, has spent the last five years issuing report after report assailing the Republican position. Republicans weeping for the half-million or so jobs that would be destroyed by a higher minimum wage would be shocked to learn that, according to the CBO, they have destroyed 200,000 jobs by blocking the extension of emergency unemployment benefits (which lift the incomes of destitute workers, creating higher demand). Likewise, the budget sequestration they have embraced as their cherished second-term Obama trophy has destroyed 900,000 jobs.
The other issue is that costs are being talked about in the absence of benefits:

As economic policies go, that's not bad. In the real world, there's no such thing as a policy that has benefits with zero costs. There are always compromises. In this case, in return for the small job losses, 16 million workers would get a direct wage increase; another 8 million would get an indirect wage increase; and nearly a million workers would be lifted out of poverty. That's about as good as it gets. 

The argument against the extensions of unemployment benefits is the cost to the deficit (or the need to increase taxes).   It is not a good plan to consider both costs and benefits for the policies that you do like, and not to consider benefits for the policies that you do like. On point is:

There is no policy I can think of that generates only benefits without any costs, and policy makers always have to weigh the two sides. In the case of the minimum wage, on the benefits side of ledger, the budget office shows that 16.5 million low-wage workers would directly get a much-needed pay increase at no cost to the federal budget.

Finally, the magic trump card of "innovation" can be considered.  The argument against increasing taxes is that it might reduce innovation by high performers.  Robert Downey Jr might make fewer movies, for example, as he might value his leisure time more.  I am not convinced by this argument, but at least there is some theory that links these two things (high taxes and innovation) together. 

However, with minimum wage you have the opposite problem.  Low wages are known to stifle innovation.  It is well accepted that one of the problems with slavery (in Rome, as a common example) was that the cheap labor made the returns on labor saving innovations small.  So making labor cost more could have the expected costs and benefits plus drive innovation.  And there is no tax increase to be considered. 

Now does this mean that this policy is a "no-brainer"?  No.  But it does mean that there really has to be a much deeper engagement with the pros and cons of such an argument. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Chip and Pin

Kevin Drum:
Americans are already accustomed to using PINs, and would have no more trouble managing multiple PINs than Danes and Italians do. And while using one PIN for ten cards might not exactly be best practice, it's certainly better than no PIN at all. How could it possibly increase fraud? Signature cards can be used with nothing more than a scrawl.

And then we get to the last paragraph. If cards have PINs, banks and card issuers will have to spend a bit of money helping people change their PINs. 
And that seems to be what we're left with. Merchants are willing to make the switch. Consumers would get used to the switch pretty quickly. But card issuers don't want to bother because it might increase their customer support costs a bit during the transition.
 So clearly we are in a situation where there is not a really open market.  The quote from Capital One in another Kevin Drum post makes this even more clear: the banks are blaming retailers not wanting to adopt this system.  But I look at major events like the recent Target hacking and figure that secure payment systems would have huge market value.  Or the actual statements from retailers wanting the more advanced system and, again, ponder why this is so hard to arrange.  So why can't one specific bank just pioneer the new system (well tested in Canada and Europe) as a market advantage?

Well, the unified payment systems would seem to me to be the issue.  But that is an issue of infrastructure as we go to a post-cash world.  If fraud mostly affects merchants, the incentives for banks is to offload costs. 

Why can't we get to an equilibrium where everyone is better off? 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

French inefficiency

So I had always presumed we make a painful choice between efficiency and social support.  That the United States has an efficient and dynamic economy because we make the hard decisions to leave workers with a lower support network so that companies can be more agile. 

But then I read about the French:
And they do this with early retirement, unions, and a dense network of government regulations.  I don't want to make the mistaken attribution that they are perfect -- that would be clearly untrue.  But I want to think a bit more clearly about precisely where our advantages lie.  Because these were the areas that I thought might be the most likely candidates for the US to dominate, given low levels of  regulation and flexible labor. 

"The Wolf of Sesame Street"

I'm not sure whether this David Sirota exposé is a pension story (which is Joseph's beat) or a media story (which is more my territory). Either way it's something you ought to check out.
On December 18th, the Public Broadcasting Service’s flagship station WNET issued a press release announcing the launch of a new two-year news series entitled “The Pension Peril.” The series, promoting cuts to public employee pensions, is airing on hundreds of PBS outlets all over the nation. It has been presented as objective news on  major PBS programs including the PBS News Hour.

However, neither the WNET press release nor the broadcasted segments explicitly disclosed who is financing the series. Pando has exclusively confirmed that “The Pension Peril” is secretly funded by former Enron trader John Arnold, a billionaire political powerbroker who is actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering.

In recent years, Arnold has been using massive contributions to politicians, Super PACs, ballot initiative efforts, think tanks and local front groups to finance a nationwide political campaign aimed at slashing public employees’ retirement benefits. His foundation which backs his efforts employs top Republican political operatives, including the former chief of staff to GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey (TX). According to its own promotional materials, the Arnold Foundation is pushing lawmakers in states across the country “to stop promising a (retirement) benefit” to public employees.

Despite Arnold’s pension-slashing activism and his foundation’s ties to partisan politics, Leila Walsh, a spokesperson for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), told Pando that PBS officials were not hesitant to work with them, even though PBS’s own very clear rules prohibit such blatant conflicts. (note: the term “PBS officials” refers interchangeably to both PBS officials and officials from PBS flagship affiliate WNET who were acting on behalf of the entire PBS system).

To the contrary, the Arnold Foundation spokesperson tells Pando that it was PBS officials who first initiated contact with Arnold in the Spring of 2013. She says those officials actively solicited Arnold to finance the broadcaster’s proposal for a new pension-focused series. According to the spokesperson, they solicited Arnold’s support based specifically on their knowledge of his push to slash pension benefits for public employees.

The foundation’s spokesperson said PBS executives approached Arnold “with the proposal for the series, having become aware of LJAF’s interest” in shaping public pension policy, and moving that policy toward cutting retirement benefits for public workers.

According to newly posted disclosures about its 2013 grantmaking, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation responded to PBS’s tailored proposal by donating a whopping $3.5 million to WNET, the PBS flagship station that is coordinating the “Pension Peril” series for distribution across the country. The $3.5 million, which is earmarked for “educat(ing) the public about public employees’ retirement benefits,” is one of the foundation’s largest single disclosed expenditures. WNET spokesperson Kellie Specter confirmed to Pando that the huge sum makes Arnold the “anchor/lead funder of the initiative.” A single note buried on PBS’s website – but not repeated in such explicit terms on PBS airwaves – confirms that the money is directly financing the “Pension Peril” series.
Much more of this if you follow the link.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Felix and pensions

I wish I could write as clearly as Felix Salmon:
Isn’t it better to just keep all your money for yourself, and make sure to save enough that you can live well in retirement?

This is a pretty libertarian, every-man-for-himself view of retirement: it makes few concessions to the idea that there’s a societal obligation to the elderly, or that groups can achieve more together than they can individually. At heart, it’s a view which benefits people like John Arnold, who pay a lot of taxes, at the expense of the poorest members of society, who might take out more than they put in. And, of course, it’s a view which benefits successful investors, like John Arnold, over schmucks who have no idea how to best invest their paltry 401(k) funds.

In reality, big pooled pension funds are much more efficient — and generate much higher returns — than anything an individual is likely to be able to manage. And in the specific realm of public finance, the case for group-funded defined-benefit schemes is even stronger. That’s because public servants — police officers, elementary school teachers, you name it — tend to have much longer tenure at their jobs than, say, hot-shot fund managers. They are also willing to work for relatively low salaries precisely because they know that their pension benefits are good: that they don’t need to worry about how they’re going to make ends meet in retirement. That peace of mind is hugely valuable, and rarely factors in to the calculations of the pension opponents, who seem to think that worrying about your individual retirement investments is a good thing.
I think that this point cannot be emphasized enough  -- the shift to defined contribution pensions is not a social neutral decision.  It's also worth noting that the wage depressing effects of security (noted as early as Adam Smith's day in the 1700's) can generate a lot of social benefit.  It's not that abuses do not occur -- we are a big country.  But there is a case to be made for efficiency . . .

Thursday, February 13, 2014

More on the animosity of the education reform movement toward professional teachers

Following up on Joseph's post on Jonathan Chait and the education reform movement and on the ensuing discussion..

I've talked before about the inevitable tension between profession teachers (particularly highly competent and experienced teachers) and movement reformers like Chait.
First, because, pedagogically, the system has a reactionary bias, made worse by the fact that the most effective teachers, the ones you would want in your corner, are also the ones who are most reluctant to trade their methods in for something new and unproven.
I'm afraid, though, I've only discussed the point tangentially and I may have left readers with the idea that this was some sort of a hypothetical particle, that theory predicts reformers might occasionally want to get rid of teachers, not because they were incompetent but because they were reluctant to adopt untested methods (some of which can strike outsiders as a bit flaky).

Not only does this sort of thing happen, but, as pointed out in this Boston Globe story (via the invaluable Edushyster), it sometimes constitutes recognized policy.
But in most cases, the teachers at Dever and Holland should be of high quality. Principals of those schools were granted enormous flexibility to hand-pick their staffs under a 2010 state law that aims to rapidly overhaul failing schools. That hiring flexibility enables principals to get rid of any teacher, including those who perform well but disagree with the turnaround methods.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Free markets: a continuing story

Capitalism in action:
The NYT has a fascinating piece about threats that Tennessee Republicans are making against Volkswagen if they recognize a union formed by its workers . . . This is an interesting view coming from people who usually claim to be supporters of a free market and to believe that the government should not interfere in the running of a business.
Once again, this goes to the whole question of whether market outcomes are somehow moral.  Given that government is willing to provide pressure to distort the market based on ideology, there cannot be a clean economic meritocracy.  Which is fine -- I think mixed markets have some real benefits from an optimization point of view.

But we should all just note that "we should distort markets because, in the long run, unions in our state will do more harm than good" isn't really all that different in form than the whole idea of government regulation for health, safety, or equality (i.e. minimum wage laws). 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Points to Ponder

I don't always like the perspectives of this blogger, but this is a very good point in any world in which we are worrying about the knock-on effects of things like corporate taxes:
In the "debate" about welfare benefits, there's one point which is underweighted but so obvious that I'm embarrassed to mention it - that some form of welfare is beneficial not just to its recipients, but to capitalists.

Rightists like to point out - correctly - that the burden of taxes doesn't necessarily fall upon those who nominally pay it: corporation tax, for example, is paid by workers and not just capitalists.

But just as there's tax incidence, so there is benefit incidence; the benefits of benefits don't flow merely to their nominal recipients.

Housing benefit, for example, helps to sustain high rents and so could well be renamed landlords benefit.
Thinking about things in this sort of interlinked way makes it hard for me to understand why welfare programs are seem so negatively.  After all, they still create opportunities and it is not like the levels of pay-out make it actively fun to be employed. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Feynman beautifully summarizes the problem with 'rigor' in primary and secondary math textbooks

From the previously mentioned essay by Richard P. Feynman, this does a perfect job boiling down the reaction that teachers with math backgrounds so often have to the books they're told to teach from.
It was a pretty big job, and I worked all the time at it down in the basement. My wife says that during this period it was like living over a volcano. It would be quiet for a while, but then all of a sudden, "BLLLLLOOOOOOWWWWW!!!!" -- there would be a big explosion from the "volcano" below. 
The reason was that the books were so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples (like automobiles in the street for "sets") which were almost OK, but in which there were always some subtleties. The definitions weren't accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous -- they weren't smart enough to understand what was meant by "rigor." They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn't understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Jon Chait and Education reform

I honestly think Jon Chait and I are participating in completely different debates.  Consider this:
A major reason for this is obviously that charter schools are more aggressive about creating accountability standards to promote good teachers and coach up or replace bad ones. This puts them at a crossways with teachers' unions and their allies, which defend paying teachers by seniority and subjecting them to minimal performance accountability.
Now match this up with Mike the Mad Biologists description of the games that are being played with these tests (example from here).  Or the compensation paid to executives.  Also, there are concerns about the retention rates that charter schools have of problematic students.

So these are my issues:

  • Are we really sure that an "at will" standard of employment is better than unions?
  • Can we be sure that the testing is fair, objective, and measures what we want to measure? And that it will not be managed for "optics"?
  • Is reducing teacher compensation to increase executive compensation where we should shift resources?
  • Private day-cares and universities can expel students for any reason  Are we sure that won't become an issue when there is not a strong public school system that has to take students in the absence of strong evidence of problems for other students?
I also ask this in the context of the TPM article arguing that the current evidence isn't showing superior student outcomes.  Because, if the students are doing the same, then I think we should pay attention to the teachers who are worth protecting as well.

These are really the unanswered questions that I have.  Now would I trade charter schools for other policy gains.  For example, robust and progression taxation could create the possibility of redistribution which might lead to wider social benefits (and make me less wary of the corporate model of shifting earnings to the top).    

Mark: This is more your area.  Any perspectives on your part?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

"Judging Books by Their Covers" by Richard P. Feynman

Andrew Gelman has a heated discussion going on this Answer Sheet post (previously discussed here). One of the comments on Gelman's post quoted an amazing anecdote from Richard Feynman about his experiences with a curriculum committee in the Sixties. Given the striking parallels between the Sputnik/New Math and PISA/Common Core relationships, I decided to dig up a copy. It makes for fascinating reading.

Judging Books by Their Covers

Richard P. Feynman

I was giving a series of freshman physics lectures [in 1964], and after one of them, Tom Harvey, who assisted me in putting on the demonstrations, said, "You oughta see what's happening to mathematics in schoolbooks! My daughter comes home with a lot of crazy stuff!"
I didn't pay much attention to what he said.

But the next day I got a telephone call from a pretty famous lawyer here in Pasadena, Mr. Norris, who was at that time on the State Board of Education. He asked me if I would serve on the State Curriculum Commission, which had to choose the new schoolbooks for the state of California. You see, the state had a law that all of the schoolbooks used by all of the kids in all of the public schools have to be chosen by the State Board of Education, so they have a committee to look over the books and to give them advice on which books to take.

It happened that a lot of the books were on a new method of teaching arithmetic that they called "new math," and since usually the only people to look at the books were schoolteachers or administrators in education, they thought it would be a good idea to have somebody who uses mathematics scientifically, who knows what the end product is and what we're trying to teach it for, to help in the evaluation of the schoolbooks.

I must have had, by this time, a guilty feeling about not cooperating with the government, because I agreed to get on this committee.

Immediately I began getting letters and telephone calls from schoolbook publishers. They said things like, "We're very glad to hear you're on the committee because we really wanted a scientific guy . . ." and "It's wonderful to have a scientist on the committee, because our books are scientifically oriented . . ." But they also said things like, "We'd like to explain to you what our book is about . . ." and "We'll be very glad to help you in any way we can to judge our books . . ." That seemed to me kind of crazy. I'm an objective scientist, and it seemed to me that since the only thing the kids in school are going to get is the books (and the teachers get the teacher's manual, which I would also get), any extra explanation from the company was a distortion. So I didn't want to speak to any of the publishers and always replied, "You don't have to explain; I'm sure the books will speak for themselves."

I represented a certain district, which comprised most of the Los Angeles area except for the city of Los Angeles, which was represented by a very nice lady from the L.A. school system named Mrs. Whitehouse. Mr. Norris suggested that I meet her and find out what the committee did and how it worked.

Mrs. Whitehouse started out telling me about the stuff they were going to talk about in the next meeting (they had already had one meeting; I was appointed late). "They're going to talk about the counting numbers." I didn't know what that was, but it turned out they were what I used to call integers. [Actually, they're non-negative integers but that's a minor point -- MP] They had different names for everything, so I had a lot of trouble right from the start.

She told me how the members of the commission normally rated the new schoolbooks. They would get a relatively large number of copies of each book and would give them to various teachers and administrators in their district. Then they would get reports back on what these people thought about the books. Since I didn't know a lot of teachers or administrators, and since I felt that I could, by reading the books myself, make up my mind as to how they looked to me, I chose to read all the books myself. . . .

A few days later a guy from the book depository called me up and said, "We're ready to send you the books, Mr. Feynman; there are three hundred pounds."
I was overwhelmed.

"It's all right, Mr. Feynman; we'll get someone to help you read them."

I couldn't figure out how you do that: you either read them or you don't read them. I had a special bookshelf put in my study downstairs (the books took up seventeen feet), and began reading all the books that were going to be discussed in the next meeting. We were going to start out with the elementary schoolbooks.

It was a pretty big job, and I worked all the time at it down in the basement. My wife says that during this period it was like living over a volcano. It would be quiet for a while, but then all of a sudden, "BLLLLLOOOOOOWWWWW!!!!" -- there would be a big explosion from the "volcano" below.

The reason was that the books were so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples (like automobiles in the street for "sets") which were almost OK, but in which there were always some subtleties. The definitions weren't accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous -- they weren't smart enough to understand what was meant by "rigor." They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn't understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.

I understood what they were trying to do. Many [Americans] thought we were behind the Russians after Sputnik, and some mathematicians were asked to give advice on how to teach math by using some of the rather interesting modern concepts of mathematics. The purpose was to enhance mathematics for the children who found it dull.

I'll give you an example: They would talk about different bases of numbers -- five, six, and so on -- to show the possibilities. That would be interesting for a kid who could understand base ten -- something to entertain his mind. But what they turned it into, in these books, was that every child had to learn another base! And then the usual horror would come: "Translate these numbers, which are written in base seven, to base five." Translating from one base to another is an utterly useless thing. If you can do it, maybe it's entertaining; if you can't do it, forget it. There's no point to it.

Anyhow, I'm looking at all these books, all these books, and none of them has said anything about using arithmetic in science. If there are any examples on the use of arithmetic at all (most of the time it's this abstract new modern nonsense), they are about things like buying stamps.

Finally I come to a book that says, "Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars." I turn the page, and it says, "Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees . . ." -- so far, so good. It continues: "Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of . . . (some big number)." There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It's vaguely right -- but already, trouble! That's the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn't know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don't quite understand what they're talking about, I cannot understand. I don't know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!

Anyway, I'm happy with this book, because it's the first example of applying arithmetic to science. I'm a bit unhappy when I read about the stars' temperatures, but I'm not very unhappy because it's more or less right -- it's just an example of error. Then comes the list of problems. It says, "John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?" -- and I would explode in horror.

My wife would talk about the volcano downstairs. That's only an example: it was perpetually like that. Perpetual absurdity! There's no purpose whatsoever in adding the temperature of two stars. Nobody ever does that except, maybe, to then take the average temperature of the stars, but not to find out the total temperature of all the stars! It was awful! All it was was a game to get you to add, and they didn't understand what they were talking about. It was like reading sentences with a few typographical errors, and then suddenly a whole sentence is written backwards. The mathematics was like that. Just hopeless!

Then I came to my first meeting. The other members had given some kind of ratings to some of the books, and they asked me what my ratings were. My rating was often different from theirs, and they would ask, "Why did you rate that book low?" I would say the trouble with that book was this and this on page so-and-so -- I had my notes.

They discovered that I was kind of a goldmine: I would tell them, in detail, what was good and bad in all the books; I had a reason for every rating.

I would ask them why they had rated this book so high, and they would say, "Let us hear what you thought about such and such a book." I would never find out why they rated anything the way they did. Instead, they kept asking me what I thought.

We came to a certain book, part of a set of three supplementary books published by the same company, and they asked me what I thought about it.

I said, "The book depository didn't send me that book, but the other two were nice."

Someone tried repeating the question: "What do you think about that book?"

"I said they didn't send me that one, so I don't have any judgment on it."

The man from the book depository was there, and he said, "Excuse me; I can explain that. I didn't send it to you because that book hadn't been completed yet. There's a rule that you have to have every entry in by a certain time, and the publisher was a few days late with it. So it was sent to us with just the covers, and it's blank in between. The company sent a note excusing themselves and hoping they could have their set of three books considered, even though the third one would be late."

It turned out that the blank book had a rating by some of the other members! They couldn't believe it was blank, because [the book] had a rating. In fact, the rating for the missing book was a little bit higher than for the two others. The fact that there was nothing in the book had nothing to do with the rating.

I believe the reason for all this is that the system works this way: When you give books all over the place to people, they're busy; they're careless; they think, "Well, a lot of people are reading this book, so it doesn't make any difference." And they put in some kind of number -- some of them, at least; not all of them, but some of them. Then when you receive your reports, you don't know why this particular book has fewer reports than the other books -- that is, perhaps one book has ten, and this one only has six people reporting -- so you average the rating of those who reported; you don't average the ones who didn't report, so you get a reasonable number. This process of averaging all the time misses the fact that there is absolutely nothing between the covers of the book!

I made that theory up because I saw what happened in the curriculum commission: For the blank book, only six out of the ten members were reporting, whereas with the other books, eight or nine out of the ten were reporting. And when they averaged the six, they got as good an average as when they averaged with eight or nine. They were very embarrassed to discover they were giving ratings to that book, and it gave me a little bit more confidence. It turned out the other members of the committee had done a lot of work in giving out the books and collecting reports, and had gone to sessions in which the book publishers would explain the books before they read them; I was the only guy on that commission who read all the books and didn't get any information from the book publishers except what was in the books themselves, the things that would ultimately go to the schools.

This question of trying to figure out whether a book is good or bad by looking at it carefully or by taking the reports of a lot of people who looked at it carelessly is like this famous old problem: Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor of China, and the question was, What is the length of the Emperor of China's nose? To find out, you go all over the country asking people what they think the length of the Emperor of China's nose is, and you average it. And that would be very "accurate" because you averaged so many people. But it's no way to find anything out; when you have a very wide range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don't improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging.

At first we weren't supposed to talk about the cost of the books. We were told how many books we could choose, so we designed a program which used a lot of supplementary books, because all the new textbooks had failures of one kind or another. The most serious failures were in the "new math" books: there were no applications; not enough word problems. There was no talk of selling stamps; instead there was too much talk about commutation and abstract things and not enough translation to situations in the world. What do you do: add, subtract, multiply, or divide? So we suggested some books which had some of that as supplementary -- one or two for each classroom -- in addition to a textbook for each student. We had it all worked out to balance everything, after much discussion.

When we took our recommendations to the Board of Education, they told us they didn't have as much money as they had thought, so we'd have to go over the whole thing and cut out this and that, . . . . When the senate budget committee got to it, the program was emasculated still further. Now it was really lousy! I was asked to appear before the state senators when the issue was being discussed, but I declined: By that time, having argued this stuff so much, I was tired. We had prepared our recommendations for the Board of Education, and I figured it was their job to present it to the state -- which was legally right, but not politically sound. I shouldn't have given up so soon, but to have worked so hard and discussed so much about all these books to make a fairly balanced program, and then to have the whole thing scrapped at the end -- that was discouraging! The whole thing was an unnecessary effort that could have been turned around and done the opposite way: start with the cost of the books, and buy what you can afford.

What finally clinched it, and made me ultimately resign, was that the following year we were going to discuss science books. I thought maybe the science would be different, so I looked at a few of them.

The same thing happened: something would look good at first and then turn out to be horrifying. For example, there was a book that started out with four pictures: first there was a windup toy; then there was an automobile; then there was a boy riding a bicycle; then there was something else. And underneath each picture it said, "What makes it go?"

I thought, "I know what it is: They're going to talk about mechanics, how the springs work inside the toy; about chemistry, how the engine of the automobile works; and biology, about how the muscles work."

It was the kind of thing my father would have talked about: "What makes it go? Everything goes because the sun is shining." And then we would have fun discussing it:

"No, the toy goes because the spring is wound up," I would say. "How did the spring get wound up?" he would ask.

"I wound it up."

"And how did you get moving?"

"From eating."

"And food grows only because the sun is shining. So it's because the sun is shining that all these things are moving." That would get the concept across that motion is simply the transformation of the sun's power.

I turned the page. The answer was, for the wind-up toy, "Energy makes it go." And for the boy on the bicycle, "Energy makes it go." For everything, "Energy makes it go."

Now that doesn't mean anything. Suppose it's "Wakalixes." That's the general principle: "Wakalixes makes it go." There's no knowledge coming in. The child doesn't learn anything; it's just a word!

What they should have done is to look at the wind-up toy, see that there are springs inside, learn about springs, learn about wheels, and never mind "energy." Later on, when the children know something about how the toy actually works, they can discuss the more general principles of energy.

It's also not even true that "energy makes it go," because if it stops, you could say, "energy makes it stop" just as well. What they're talking about is concentrated energy being transformed into more dilute forms, which is a very subtle aspect of energy. Energy is neither increased nor decreased in these examples; it's just changed from one form to another. And when the things stop, the energy is changed into heat, into general chaos.

But that's the way all the books were: They said things that were useless, mixed-up, ambiguous, confusing, and partially incorrect. How anybody can learn science from these books, I don't know, because it's not science.

So when I saw all these horrifying books with the same kind of trouble as the math books had, I saw my volcano process starting again. Since I was exhausted from reading all the math books, and discouraged from its all being a wasted effort, I couldn't face another year of that, and had to resign.

Sometime later I heard that the energy-makes-it-go book was going to be recommended by the curriculum commission to the Board of Education, so I made one last effort. At each meeting of the commission the public was allowed to make comments, so I got up and said why I thought the book was bad.

The man who replaced me on the commission said, "That book was approved by sixty-five engineers at the Such-and-such Aircraft Company!"

I didn't doubt that the company had some pretty good engineers, but to take sixty-five engineers is to take a wide range of ability -- and to necessarily include some pretty poor guys! It was once again the problem of averaging the length of the emperor's nose, or the ratings on a book with nothing between the covers. . . .

I couldn't get through to him, and the book was approved by the board. . . .

[During my time on the commission,] there were two books that we were unable to come to a decision about after much discussion; they were extremely close. So we left it open to the Board of Education to decide. Since the board was now taking the cost into consideration, and since the two books were so evenly matched, the board decided to open the bids and take the lower one.
Then the question came up, "Will the schools be getting the books at the regular time, or could they, perhaps, get them a little earlier, in time for the coming term?"

One publisher's representative got up and said, "We are happy that you accepted our bid; we can get it out in time for the next term."

A representative of the publisher that lost out was also there, and he got up and said, "Since our bids were submitted based on the later deadline, I think we should have a chance a bid again for the earlier deadline, because we too can meet the earlier deadline."

Mr. Norris, the Pasadena lawyer on the board, asked the guy from the other publisher, "And how much would it cost for us to get your books at the earlier date?"

And he gave a number: It was less!

The first guy got up: "If he changes his bid, I have the right to change my bid!" -- and his bid is still less!

Norris asked, "Well how is that -- we get the books earlier and it's cheaper?"

"Yes," one guy says. "We can use a special offset method we wouldn't normally use . . ." -- some excuse why it came out cheaper. The other guy agreed: "When you do it quicker, it costs less!"

That was really a shock. It ended up two million dollars cheaper. Norris was really incensed by this sudden change.

What happened, of course, was that the uncertainty about the date had opened the possibility that these guys could bid against each other. Normally, when books were supposed to be chosen without taking the cost into consideration, there was no reason to lower the price; the book publishers could put the prices at any place they wanted to. There was no advantage in competing by lowering the price; the way you competed was to impress the members of the curriculum commission.

By the way, whenever our commission had a meeting, there were book publishers entertaining curriculum commission members by taking them to lunch and talking to them about their books. I never went.

It seems obvious now, but I didn't know what was happening the time I got a package of dried fruit and whatnot delivered by Western Union with a message that read, "From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving -- The Pamilios."

It was from a family I had never heard of in Long Beach, obviously someone wanting to send this to his friend's family who got the name and address wrong, so I thought I'd better straighten it out. I called up Western Union, got the telephone number of the people who sent the stuff, and I called them.

"Hello, my name is Mr. Feynman. I received a package . . ."

"Oh, hello, Mr. Feynman, this is Pete Pamilio" and he says it in such a friendly way that I think I'm supposed to know who he is! I'm normally such a dunce that I can't remember who anyone is.

So I said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Pamilio, but I don't quite remember who you are . . ."

It turned out he was a representative of one of the publishers whose books I had to judge on the curriculum commission.

"I see. But this could be misunderstood."

"It's only family to family."

"Yes, but I'm judging a book that you're publishing, and maybe someone might misinterpret your kindness!" I knew what was happening, but I made it sound like I was a complete idiot.

Another thing like this happened when one of the publishers sent me a leather briefcase with my name nicely written in gold on it. I gave them the same stuff: "I can't accept it; I'm judging some of the books you're publishing. I don't think you understand that!"

One commissioner, who had been there for the greatest length of time, said, "I never accept the stuff; it makes me very upset. But it just goes on."

But I really missed one opportunity. If I had only thought fast enough, I could have had a very good time on that commission. I got to the hotel in San Francisco in the evening to attend my very first meeting the next day, and I decided to go out to wander in the town and eat something. I came out of the elevator, and sitting on a bench in the hotel lobby were two guys who jumped up and said, "Good evening, Mr. Feynman. Where are you going? Is there something we can show you in San Francisco?" They were from a publishing company, and I didn't want to have anything to do with them.

"I'm going out to eat."

"We can take you out to dinner."

"No, I want to be alone."

"Well, whatever you want, we can help you."

I couldn't resist. I said, "Well, I'm going out to get myself in trouble."

"I think we can help you in that, too."

"No, I think I'll take care of that myself." Then I thought, "What an error! I should have let all that stuff operate and [kept] a diary, so the people of the state of California could find out how far the publishers will go!". . . .

Friday, February 7, 2014

Silcon Valley collusion

Dean Baker:
The real news here is how the Silicon Valley barons allegedly broke the law. The charge is that they actively colluded to stifle market forces. They collectively acted to prevent their workers from receiving the market-clearing wage. This means not only that they broke the law, and that they acted to undermine the market, but that they really don't think about the market the way libertarians claim to think about the market.
This is a big deal.  After all, if collective action can be used to improve economic outcomes then why are we against unions?  Furthermore, if the tech industry doesn't believe in free markets then who does?  I am suspicious if the argument is the financial services industry.  Instead, it suggests that extreme views of market forces don't necessarily line up with how business works in practice.  And that has huge implications for the moral interpretation of market outcomes as a pure measure of merit in a free and open market. 

I think Matt should be sad

Personally, it would make me very sad to have a job that was more about explaining who was perceived to be right about important arguments than a job that's about trying to explain who is in fact right
 I really do have to agree with this sentiment.  It is true that there has never been an ideal world of informed voters.  But to raise the idea that perception trumps reality as a defense of reporting seems to be a new low.  I'd almost rather hear "I was taken in by the Democratic/Republication/Your choice of Party spin" as an explanation.  It happens from me as well, and it at least keeps the goal of the activity clear. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

“I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate”

Still on limited bandwidth blogging. I was planning on weaving this pair of quotes into a couple of our ongoing threads (particularly this one), but that will have to wait. For now I'm just going to present them without comment and let you very capable readers draw your own conclusions:

From a Rick Perlstein piece on Mitt Romney and the conservative movement:
M. Stanton Evans, a legendary movement godfather, stood up. He said my invocation of Richard Nixon was inappropriate because Richard Nixon had never been a conservative. He proceeded, though, to make a striking admission: “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate”—at which point, apparently, Nixon finally convinced conservatives he could be one of them.
And from a recent (February 2nd -- post-scandal) story on Governor Christie:
“We are very excited to announce that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will speak at CPAC 2014," American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas told Yahoo News. "At this year's CPAC — and through our theme 'ACU's Golden Anniversary: Getting It Right for 50 Years' — we will celebrate how conservatism has shaped our past and look to the future with excitement. This will be the year that conservatives begin pulling the nation back from the brink of Barack Obama's disaster with a movement that inspires, unites and discovers new solutions to our current challenges.”

An invitation to speak at the conference, held near Washington each spring, is traditionally a prime opportunity for aspiring Republican presidential candidates to make an impression on some of the party’s most active supporters, as well as the national media.

Last year, the ACU, which organizes the three-day confab, made the controversial decision not to invite the rising GOP star. The group withheld its invitation as punishment for what some in the movement viewed as Christie’s insufficiently conservative record the year prior, Cardenas said. Christie lost favor with some Republicans when he gushed over President Barack Obama’s response to Superstorm Sandy just weeks before the November presidential election. His sharp criticism of House Republican leaders who delayed recovery funding after the storm also created tension at the time.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Talking Points Memo misrepresents the Washington Post's Answer Sheet

As mentioned before, this is the busy season here at West Coast Stat Views so a full discussion of the problems with Conor P. Williams' recent TPM post on charter schools but this one point is worth addressing separately.
The upshot: it’s unproductive to treat charters as the source of public education’s problems or as the answer to its prayers. Instead of asking “Are Charter Schools Making a Difference?” we should be asking what charters’ heterogeneity tells us about improving schools’ effectiveness. If charters in some states work much better than others, we should be looking to scale the policies that support this success.

And there’s no reason to limit this reflection to the sector itself. Ask teachers and administrators in traditional public schools what they think about a new district oversight program and you’ll hear plenty of hunger for more professional freedom. Ask them about charters, and you’ll often hear that traditional public schools are often hamstrung by needless conformity, that so much of its problems would be solved if we got out of the way and “let teachers teach.”
There's something really odd about that last sentence. Given that the biggest and best known charter chains are known for requiring both students and teachers to conform to extremely specific standards, why would teachers single out the "needless conformity" of public schools when asked about charters?

When a quote seems to be a non sequitur, it's usually a good idea to click on the link. In this case, that click takes us to a rather surprising place, Valerie Strauss's Washington Post blog, The Answer Sheet. Strauss is one of the best reporters working the education beat but she's a bit of a muckraker and a considerable amount of her time is spent uncovering questionable practices in the education reform movement.

So is this Answer Sheet article, a guest post by LouAnne Johnson, a teacher's response to being asked about charter schools? No.

Does the post suggest that we should be looking for ways to "scale the policies" of successful charter schools (particularly, as Williams suggests earlier, of making those schools more accountable)? Hell, no.

Here's the opening of Johnson's piece:

We don’t have to wait for Superman to save our public schools. We can save our schools ourselves. Right now. Without firing the teachers or disbanding their unions. Without creating more standardized tests. Without pitting schools against each other in a race for dollars which should rightfully be divided equally among the school-age children of this country.

As with many complex problems, the answer is a simple one -- so simple that it is overlooked.

The answer can be stated in seven words that even a child could understand: Train teachers well -- then let them teach.

The problem with public schools isn’t lack of parental support or computers or equipment. It isn’t an overabundance of television or junk food or violence. Those things contribute to the problem. No argument. And money is helpful. But throughout the world, there always have been students who learned to think and read and write with very limited supplies, sometimes without a classroom or textbooks, without standardized tests, without merit pay for their teachers. Those students learned because their teachers were permitted to teach.

Most American teachers are good at their jobs -- when they are allowed to do their jobs. And that is the primary problem with our public schools. Teachers are not allowed to teach.

Or rather, they are told how to teach in such great detail and required to document what they are teaching in such great detail and expected to spend so much time teaching students to pass the tests that will prove the teachers have paid such great attention to detail that the teachers don’t have time to teach the information and skills their students need.
First, you'll notice that charters are only alluded to tangentially in the 'Superman' reference. In no real sense is this what a teacher said when asked about charters. More importantly, though, Johnson pretty much says the opposite of what Williams implies. She proposes fewer tests, less standardization, less focus on accountability for schools and carrot/stick approaches to motivating teachers, in other words, moving 180 degrees from the standard charter school model.

There are numerous other problems with Williams' piece, some more substantial than this from a policy and statistics standpoint, but for a piece that decries the lack of "productive conversations." this sort of misrepresentation deserves special mention.


The issue of inequality has been around for a long time:
James Madison, the Constitution's main author, described inequality as an evil, saying government should prevent "an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches." He favored "the silent operation of laws which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigents towards a state of comfort."
There really does seem to be some intellectual confusion about disliking inequality versus disliking private ownership.  The classical model of a healthy society had small farmers and wealth concentration has been an issue going back to Rome:

The system of small estates developed during the Republic gave way to the system of the great imperial private estates. The growth of the large estate was a catalyst to the general decline of Rome as a symptom.
So I don't think it was an accident that classically trained men worried about the issue of inequality and how it could be poisonous.  But I think that a confusion arose between "confiscate everything" (aka 20th century totalitarian communism) and "redistribute" (aka 20th century Sweden or Denmark).  It's like conflating surgery with lethal duels, because both involve a blade.  There are real differences of scale.

In the same sense, a healthy system is balanced and this point of balance is unobservable with the macroeconomic data we have.  I do not think that it is even predictable in theory (happy to be proven wrong).  But difficulty in finding the optimal point of leverage doesn't mean we should lose sight of the goal of balancing competing objectives (incentives versus equality) nor does it suggest either extreme is optimal. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Andrew Gelman opens a couple of cans of worms

Over at the Monkey Cage, Andrew Gelman has some kind words for West Coast Stat Views and our recent post on nepotism. I have to admit I was less pleased with this comment (though for a somewhat perverse reason):
Good question. As a political scientist, my question is: Can this be studied empirically in some way? I’m not quite sure how, but I think it could be worth looking into. It fits into some of our general questions about political discourse and economic perceptions.
It's not the topic I object to. Quite the opposite, this opens up a couple of big questions that I've been wanting to discuss in depth for a long time:

Are we adequately tracking the attitude and perceptions that need to be in our models?;

Are the standard technique of data collection and analysis up to the job?

For example, in the 2012 election, we spent a lot of time asking whether Obama had successfully painted Romney as a plutocrat but perhaps not enough asking how people felt about plutocrats and, possibly more importantly, how those attitudes have shifted over the years (and whether attitudes in the media have stayed in alignment).  We analytic types also relied heavily on polling data rather than other sources like text mining, non-verbal response data and implicit association tests, to name a few, Of course, the standard approaches proved more than adequate for the purpose of prediction but did they give us what we needed to understand the underlying dynamics? And will these standard approaches continue to provide reliable data in the future?

So what was my problem with Gelman's comment? It was the timing. I've set aside most of January and February for other projects and now I don't have the bandwidth to jump into this debate in a serious way.

So much to blog about, so little time.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Legal uncertainties

It is well known that in any functional justice system there will be problems.  It is a sad truth that false positives are inversely correlated with false negatives.  Fewer of one will get you more of the other, and in any system with actual uncertainty there will be plenty of both.  A traditional approach has been:
It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer

The modern approach has drifted more in the direction of public safety, but the general principle of there being an unpleasant trade-off remains intact. 

So the Amanda Knox case has been in the news and it is a perfect example of when these principles come into conflict.  What seems clear is that that there was at least one killer, Rudy Guede, who left a lot of forensic evidence (bloody handprint, for example).  So the real question is whether this was a group killing or the act of a lone killer. 

But here the evidence gets tough.  She clearly lied to the police, was convicted of this crime, and spent three years in prison for it.  Witnesses, of possibly dubious reliability, seem to contradict her story which isn't good but also doesn't prove much, either.  The evidence seems mixed, with the question of additional weapons needing to be raised to make the case work and the lack of a motive for Knox and Sollecito to work with a complete stranger is ambiguous.

The latest comments from the judge also worried me:
Judge Alessandro Nencini also suggested in an interview with Corriere della Sera published Saturday that the decision of Knox's ex-boyfriend and co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito, not to testify may have worked against him.

"It's the defendant's right, but it certainly deprived the process of a voice," Nencini was quoted as saying. "He limited himself to spontaneous declarations. He said only what he wanted to say without letting himself be cross-examined." Knox did not appear at the trial, but sent a letter to the court saying she feared wrongful conviction.
This is getting awfully close to forcing testimony, which is a deadly game when open-ended questions can be asked, people are nervous, and perjury is a crime.  Or this:
"At the moment I can say that up until 8:15 of that evening, the kids had other plans, but they skipped them and an opportunity was created," Nencini was quoted as saying. "If Amanda had gone to work, probably we wouldn't be here."

Which I am hoping is a bad translation from Italian, or that it means that Kercher would still be alive and thus there would be no case. 

So obviously I am not an expert on this case nor have I followed it in great detail.  But I remain confused by why the prosecution isn't putting forth their best case.  As it is we have ambiguous DNA evidence (with the girls being housemates), another party clearly involved in the crime (at some level) with every reason to lie, and a lot of complex theories. 

So far, what I see, is pretty good evidence that Amanda lied to police and that she served time for that offence.  I am a little unclear why the better evidence isn't being presented publicly, as the public nature of criminal proceedings are a great way to inspire confidence in the justice system.  The courts appear to be very worried about false negatives in this case, and perhaps they should re-evaluate just what trade-offs they are willing to make.