Monday, June 30, 2014

On the bright side, they are supporting the press

The Detroit Free Press has been running an exceptional series on the corruption and mismanagement of Michigan's charter schools. The coverage should be read in full and discussed at length, but for now I want to high light one darkly amusing detail.

Take a look at this list of abuses:
The Free Press found that questionable decisions, excessive spending and misuse of taxpayer dollars run the gamut:

■ A Sault Ste. Marie charter school board gave its administrator a severance package worth $520,000 in taxpayer money.

■ A Bedford Township charter school spent more than $1 million on swampland.

■ A mostly online charter school in Charlotte spent $263,000 on a Dale Carnegie confidence-building class, $100,000 more than it spent on laptops and iPads.

■ Two board members who challenged their Romulus school’s management company over finances and transparency were ousted when the length of their terms was summarily reduced by Grand Valley State University.

■ National Heritage Academies, the state’s largest for-profit school management company, charges 14 of its Michigan schools $1 million or more in rent — which many real estate experts say is excessive.

■ A charter school in Pittsfield Township gave jobs and millions of dollars in business to multiple members of the founder’s family.

■ Charter authorizers have allowed management companies to open multiple schools without a proven track record of success.
Here's how National Heritage Academies responded.

The trick here is numbingly familiar to anyone who has followed the debate closely. These corrupt schools wrap themselves with heart-warming images of school children the way scandal-ridden politicians wrap themselves in the flag. The hope, of course, is that people will form such a strong association that they won't notice that these schools are looting money that was supposed to go to these very kids.

For a closer look at National Heritage Academies, check here.

Friday, June 27, 2014

There's a Belleville/Bellevue joke here somewhere

[As a side note. It is surprising how often I find solid reporting on neglected stories coming out of local TV news rooms. I know we're all supposed to make fun of these guys just as we're supposed to respect the New York Times, but I think there may be a lesson here about conventional wisdom.]

The following is a prologue to an upcoming post in the tenure (here's a spoiler), but it can also stand alone as a depressing but illustrative example. One of the explicit assumptions of the education reform movement is that teachers should have less authority and fewer job protections. The implicit corollary to that is that administrators should have more authority and fewer checks.

If you add to that large amounts of money and a culture that tends to turn a blind eye to corruption, then you're asking for trouble.

And in Belleville, NJ, trouble is exactly what they're getting.
The Belleville School District has a budget deficit, classroom computers that are nearly 15 years old, and textbooks in such short supply that high school students say they are often asked to share.

"Our science books are outdated and our history books don't have 9/11 in them," says Michael Mignone, of the Belleville Education Association.

But last spring, the Belleville Board of Education spent $2 million on a brand new security system so advanced that no other school district in America can even come close to it, according to Clarity Technologies, the company that installed it. "Was it suspicious? Yeah, yes it was," says Jeff Mattingly, a Belleville resident and member of a concerned citizens group.


Clarity Technologies, based in Mine Hill, was the only bidder for the $2 million security upgrade, which includes more than 700 cameras and ID swipe cards with radio frequency chips that allow students and faculty to be tracked. "We were the only bidder because we were the only ones with an understanding of that particular project," says Bruce Kreeger, Clarity's president. "That's not negating the competition, but nobody else chose to compete."

But Kane In Your Corner's investigation reveals Clarity's competitors would have found it extremely difficult to compete, given the way the Belleville School District handled the bidding process. Four months before the project was sent out for bids in May 2013, the Board of Education hired Clarity to evaluate security districtwide, which means its competitors would essentially have been bidding against Clarity on its own plan. They were also given very little time in which to do that. Public records show that while Clarity took approximately six weeks to deliver its initial security recommendations, the timeframe for competitive bidding, from the day bids were advertised until the day the Board of Education awarded the winning bid, was just 12 business days.

"When you see something moving at that rate of speed, it tells you one of two things," Mattingly says. "Either your bid is just being used for ballast or it's already a done deal."

After it obtained the job, Clarity also hired relatives of two key people at the school district, the brother of school board attorney Alfonse DeMeo, who approved the contract and first introduced Clarity to board members; and the son of Board of Education Trustee Joe Longo, who spearheaded the security upgrade. Longo insists he never asked for special treatment for his son and Kreeger denies that politics were involved in either hire. Kreeger also says he eventually terminated Longo's son because of public criticism, even though he was a model employee.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Great Moments in management consulting

I know I blow through a lot of pixels on this topic but I don't think most people who haven't navigated a large corporation realize just how much of a drain charlatans and trendsters put on American business. The best analogy I can come up with is with corruption. Like the brothers-in-law of some Third World cabinet official, these con artists use an association with power ("the CEO is following this very closely.") to ask for money, make demands and generally be a nuisance to the productive.

As with corruption, the damage done by charlatans can occasionally rise to the level of existential threat (Barry Ritholtz has some examples we've discussed previously). Most of the time, though, they are just an irritant, a drag on the people who are actually trying to satisfy customers and make money for stockholders.

To get a feeling for just how far back this goes, check out this exceptional piece from the New Yorker's Jill Lepore (from which I've quoted before and will, undoubtedly, quote again):
Taylor is the mortar, and the Gilbreths the bricks, of every American business school. But it was Brandeis who brought Taylor national and international acclaim. He could not, for all that, have saved the railroads a million dollars a day—the number was, as a canny reporter noted, the “merest moonshine”—because, despite the parade of experts and algorithms, the figure was based on little more than a ballpark estimate that the railroads were about five per cent inefficient. That’s the way Taylorism usually worked. How did Taylor arrive at forty-seven and a half tons for Bethlehem Steel? He chose twelve “large, powerful Hungarians,” observed them for an hour, and calculated that, at the rate they were working, they were loading twenty-four tons of pig iron per man per day. Then he handpicked ten men and dared them to load sixteen and a half tons as fast as they could. They managed to do it in fourteen minutes; this yields a rate of seventy-one tons per man per ten-hour day. Taylor inexplicably rounded up the number to seventy-five. To get to forty-seven and a half, he reduced seventy-five by about forty per cent, claiming that this represented a work-to-rest ratio of the “law of heavy laboring.” Workers who protested the new standards were fired. Only one—the best approximation of an actual Schmidt was a man named Henry Noll—loaded anything close to forty-seven and a half tons in a single day, a rate that was, in any case, not sustainable. After providing two years of consulting services, Taylor billed the company a hundred thousand dollars (which works out to something like two and a half million dollars today), and then he was fired.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Warren Buffet and “the institutional imperative.”

"Sometimes. it's a bad thing for a company not to be able to lose money."

For years, Joseph and I tried to give each other credit for that line until we finally realized it came from a mutual friend. Regardless of the source, it's an important concept. More often than you might think, companies will find themselves, at least for a while, with relatively idiot-proof business models (usually involving underserved markets or niches with IP walls or other high barriers to entry). This can be a problem, particularly if the models were stumbled on or the people who developed them have left the company (both of which also happen more often than you might think).

These companies are especially vulnerable to what Warren Buffett calls “the institutional imperative.” You should read the whole essay but I found this passage particularly sharp (via DeLong).
My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call “the institutional imperative.” In business school, I was given no hint of the imperative’s existence and I did not intuitively understand it when I entered the business world. I thought then that decent, intelligent, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned over time that isn’t so. Instead, rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.

For example: (1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law of Motion, an institution will resist any change in its current direction; (2) Just as work expands to fill available time, corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds; (3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and strategic studies prepared by his troops; and (4) The behavior of peer companies, whether they are expanding, acquiring, setting executive compensation or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated.

Institutional dynamics, not venality or stupidity, set businesses on these courses, which are too often misguided. After making some expensive mistakes because I ignored the power of the imperative, I have tried to organize and manage Berkshire in ways that minimize its influence. Furthermore, Charlie and I have attempted to concentrate our investments in companies that appear alert to the problem.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Autism and pesticides

Back when I was teaching in the Mississippi Delta, I would often see crop dusters during my morning 
drive. They would make slow, sweeping turns then dive down low for their passes then pull up just in time to clear the trees at the ends of the fields. I always enjoyed the show, but even at the time I wondered what those chemicals were doing to the people who lived next to those fields.

From Reuters:
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - In a new study from California, children with an autism spectrum disorder were more likely to have mothers who lived close to fields treated with certain pesticides during pregnancy.

Proximity to agricultural pesticides in pregnancy was also linked to other types of developmental delay among children.

“Ours is the third study to specifically link autism spectrum disorders to pesticide exposure, whereas more papers have demonstrated links with developmental delay,” said lead author Janie F. Shelton, from the University of California, Davis.

There needs to be more research before scientists can say that pesticides cause autism, she told Reuters Health in an email. But pesticides all affect signaling between cells in the nervous system, she added, so a direct link is plausible.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Warning: our IP thread is about to include some very geeky strands

The impetus is this lawsuit by the children of Jack Kirby who are trying to get a share of some of the revenue generated by the characters he helped create or created outright for Marvel/Disney (two companies that both built their early business models on public domain and, in some cases, not-so-public but poorly guarded intellectual properties). It's another telling if depressing story of just how far the regulatory capture of copyrights has gone.

To kick off the strand, those of you reading this in NYC might want to check out this new play about Kirby. The New York Times is impressed:

Crystal Skillman and Fred Van Lente, the husband-and-wife playwrights behind “King Kirby,” know the score. She wrote the smart Off Off Broadway shows “Cut” and the fangirl-friendly “Geek”; he was a co-author of the graphic novel “Cowboys & Aliens,” later adapted for a Hollywood sci-fi western. With this supple, informative and poignant portrait, they offer penetrating insight into the tirelessly prolific Kirby (1917-94), whose brawny and dynamic yet nuanced style dominated comics for more than 40 years. Their play (Kirby was known as the king) documents a creator who attained immortality even as his life ended amid a morass of corporate exploitation.
At a lean hour and a half, this production hits nary a speed bump, thanks to its fluid script and the director John Hurley’s assured pacing. Janie Bullard’s sound design and Olivia Harris’s set and lighting are unobtrusively effective, while Holly Rihn’s costumes nicely evoke changing times. The cast is uniformly on target, with Steven Rattazzi’s Kirby a sympathetic blend of street smarts, boyish creativity and a hard-working, over-trusting disposition.

Friday, June 20, 2014

"We somehow took the education system that produced the individuals who put a man on the moon with technology less powerful than the phone in my pocket and characterized that education system as a failure using the word 'accountability.'"

I recently had a post on New Math up at the Monkey Cage. One of the comments was simply a link to a Youtube video. I watched with some trepidation (it was, after all, a TED talk), but, though I didn't agree with all the points, a lot of them were quite valid and all were stated with considerable eloquence.

Toxic culture of education: Joshua Katz at TEDxUniversityofAkron

Thursday, June 19, 2014

New slogan: "Don't be evil... That's what we have subsidiaries for"

Between abuse of monopoly/monopsony* power, media consolidation and beating up on the little guy, there's a lot of evil to go around here.

From NPR's All Things Considered:
Stuart Johnson, president of the Canadian Independent Music Association, says YouTube has put the independents on notice.

"What we're seeing is YouTube dictating terms to the independent music community with the proviso that if those terms are not agreed to or met, then the repertoire of that label will be removed from YouTube," Johnson says.

Johnson says YouTube has already negotiated with the three major labels: Universal, Sony and Warner. Neither the site nor the labels will reveal the specifics of the deal, but Rich Bengloff of A2IM — the American trade group for independent labels — says YouTube paid more to the majors than it wants to pay independents, despite the fact that independents account for more than a third of music revenues.

James McQuivey is an analyst at Forrester Research. He says there are parallels between this fight and the current dispute between Amazon and the publisher Hachette over the cost of print and eBooks. Amazon is delaying delivery of some Hachette titles and has eliminated pre-orders for others. [a pretty appalling story in its own right -- MP] McQuivey says it signals a shift in the Internet economy, which is now centered on the small number of players that get the most eyeballs.

"Digital aggregation creates power, and now these companies — after years of talking about a big, open Internet future — are finally starting to show when it comes to be tough in negotiations," McQuivey says. "They're willing to use their access point as a source of power."

Representatives at YouTube would not talk to NPR for this report, but McQuivey says it's clear that its planned subscription service will somehow incorporate music video and audio streaming. Since the site is a place where fans are already able to hear and watch videos for free, it may be hard to get them to pay. Meanwhile, McQuivey says YouTube, while profitable, has never made the kind of money its owner, Google, would like to see.
[Don't you just love the phrase "would like to see"?]

Not to put too fine of a point on it, but this is why we don't like to see high concentrations of money and power combined with and almost complete lack of competition. Google effectively holds monopoly and or monopsony power in a number of markets. It even has a ruling from a federal judge saying that Google has a first amendment right to use that power to destroy other companies.

This kind of power is always worrisome, but combined with a willingness to bully small players in the pursuit of rent seeking, it makes you wonder if we shouldn't consider dusting off the concept of anti-trust.

P.S. I spotted this relevant Business Week article just before I was about to post this.

* Unrelated to this story but the spellchecker on Blogger sucks.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Framing of discussions is key

I think that there are good reasons that this is not the debate we are having:
But thus far to an amazing extent we haven't been having that debate. Instead we've been having a debate over whether Obamacare works, over death panels, over enrollment numbers, over income verification procedures, and over the minutia of premiums and payments. It's time to put that debate behind us. It's clear — as it always should have been — that if you offer people large subsidies to go buy health insurance, lots of people will happily take the money and go buy some health insurance.

It's time to start debating the real issue: should we do that, or is it more important to keep taxes on high-earners low than to give low-earners comprehensive health insurance?
There are extremely good reasons that people attacking programs like the Affordable Care Act or public school funding focus on efficiency or effectiveness and not on first principles.  Because the argument that money should be used to improve health care for 50% of the population is extremely hard to refute in a world where effective tax rates can be extremely low (see the carried interest exemption). 

Instead, the line of attack seems to be that these are poor uses of cash -- that the programs so funded will be filled with rent-seeking, waste, and so forth.  That makes the idea of rich people simply keeping their money seem like a pretty decent idea, as nobody wants to contribute to bloated and inefficient systems. 

So I am skeptical that we'll be able to reframe the argument this way.  It's rather like Singapore -- people focus on the pieces that are the most useful for their argument. 

Eli Broad's mixed messages*

A bit more context for understanding the complexities of the West Coast chapter of the education reform movement and the question of the relationship between philanthropy and influence.

David Sirota recently posted some interesting thoughts on the latter:
Later in his discussion, [Al] Gore said that “democracy has been hacked” by moneyed interests. Then, in response to a question about tech billionaires spending big on allegedly philanthropic enterprises, he said: “That’s a good thing, as long as the rest of us don’t ever fall prey to the illusion that charity is going to do the job of what democracy needs to do.”

Those latter comments come only a few weeks after Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced a $120 million donation to San Francisco-area schools. That donation came only a few years after California considered a ballot measure to increase funding for its schools. Zuckerberg was notably absent from the campaign to pass the measure.

That detail is germane to Gore’s point about charity and democracy. Indeed, there seems to be a trend of billionaires and tech firms making private donations to public institutions ostensibly with the goal of improving public services. Yet, many of these billionaires are absent from efforts to raise public resources for those same institutions. Zuckerberg is only one example.

For instance, hedge funders make big donations to charter schools. Yet, the hedge fund industry lobbies against higher taxes that would generate new revenue for education.

Likewise, there are the Koch Brothers, who simultaneously finance the nationwide anti-tax movement while making huge donations to public institutions.

Meanwhile, Microsoft boasts about making donations to schools, while the company has opposed proposals to increase taxes to fund those schools.

To understand the conflict between democracy and this kind of philanthropy, remember that private donations typically come with conditions about how the money must be allocated. In education, those conditions can be about anything from curriculum to testing standards to school structure. No matter what the conditions are, though, they effectively circumvent the democratic process and dictate policy to public institutions. While those institutions can reject a private donor's money, they are often desperate for resources.

In this, we see a vicious cycle that undermines democratic control. Big money interests use anti-democratic campaign finance laws to fund anti-tax policies that deprive public institutions of resources. Those policies make public institutions desperate for private resources. When philanthropists offer those resources, they often make the money contingent on public officials relinquishing democratic control and acceding to ideological demands.

Disruption theory is usually the defense of all this—the hypothesis being that billionaire cash is the only way to force public institutions to do what they supposedly need to do. But whether or not you believe that theory, Gore is correct: It isn't democratic. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
We've already discussed how Bill Gates sped up the adoption of Common Core (and arguably circumvented much of the vetting and quality control of the slower process). What we haven't mentioned and what Sirota surprisingly omits is the role of billionaire Eli Broad, founder of the Broad Superintendents Academy and unquestionably one of the most influential figures in the education reform movement.

Broad was recently involved in a recent minor scandal that is remarkably relevant to Sirota's argument.
A state investigation into a network of nonprofit groups that funneled $11 million into initiative campaigns in California last year has revealed the identities of dozens of previously hidden donors to the various organizations.

Those contributors include owners of the Gap Inc., for which California First Lady Anne Gust Brown was once a top executive, investor Charles Schwab and Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad. The groups they donated to gave money to other organizations, which gave to the campaigns.

One of the campaigns was an effort to derail a 2012 tax measure pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown -- which Broad had said he supported. The other supported a separate initiative that would have limited the power of labor unions to raise political cash.

The Fisher family, which owns the Gap, gave more than $9 million to Americans for Job Security, a Virginia-based group which eventually sent millions to an Arizona-based non-profit that ultimately wound up in a California campaign committee. Gust Brown formerly was the company’s chief administrative officer.

San Francisco investor Schwab gave more than $6.2 million to the same group. Broad gave $1 million despite his stated support for higher taxes on the wealthy.
If you're interested in a highly critical but well-researched view of the Broad Academy, check out The Broad Report, a blog that consists almost entirely of excerpts of newspaper and magazine stories about graduates of the Academy, pretty much all negative but presented with a minimum of editorializing. The selection is certainly biased but the stories are allowed to speak for themselves. If you're in a hurry, check out the Parents' Guide, a lengthy but pithy post that lays out the blogger's concerns about Academy's influence, supported with an extensive set of links to supporting articles.

* Assuming we define political contributions as a form of free speech.

Brad DeLong has an interesting approach to the cost of college problem

I don't remember a time when there were more things I wanted to write about. Professor DeLong just added another one to the pile. 

From an individual point of view, the questions are:
1. Could you finish a two-year program that opens doors in three years or less?

2. Could you finish a four-year program in five years or less?

If the answers are "yes", go for it. If the answers are "no", don't. And if you go for it, make sure you do finish: otherwise you will be behind the eight-ball in what looks to be for the foreseeable future a much worse job market, especially for the young, relative to our reasonable expectations than America has ever seen before. 
For public policymakers, the questions are more complicated and subtle. There are six groups: 
1. Those who would finish college whether or not college were made more affordable, who will be windfall gainers from policies to make college more affordable.

2. Those who would not attempt college unless college were made more affordable, but who would complete it if it were--these are the people at whom the policy is directed.

3. Those who would not attempt college unless college were made more affordable, but who would attempt it if it were but would fail to complete it--these are the losers from the policy.

4. Those who would attempt college but not finish it anyway--these are small gainers because more-affordable college reduces their student loan debt.

5. The taxpayers who pay for government policies to make college more affordable.

6. The academic administrators, faculty, entrepreneurs, and businesses who skim off their share from policies that make college more affordable.

We want policies to make college more affordable that maximize the number of and the value for people in group (2), and we are happy at the reduced debt burden on those in group (4).

We are really unhappy if such policies lead to an increase in the number of those in group (3), and we are also unhappy at the existence of groups (1) and (6), for the redistribution of the money of group (5) to them is a societal bad.

How large are the money flows between these six groups, and how large are groups (2) and (3), and how much extra education do groups (2) and (3) get?

Those are the questions that discussions of education policy should focus on. Yet when I look at the literature, those are not questions the answers to which I find readily.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The LA Times' Steve Lopez on the defenestration of Stuart Magruder

I've never seen a project hit FUBAR as quickly or as completely as John Deasy's iPad initiative has. Almost invariably, when you see something crash and burn this badly, you'll find with a little digging that:

There were people in the organization who anticipated the problems;

They were repeatedly told to shut up.
Supt. John Deasy and the Board of Education have been salivating over the chance to get their hands on some of that money to buy a digital tablet for every student, teacher and administrator. Last year, they began purchasing tablets for classrooms, and now they would like to tap about $1 billion in bond money to finish the job.

But there have been questions about the legality and efficacy of using the bond money for portable tablets with an estimated three-year life span in a district with an estimated $50 billion or so in needed repairs and upgrades. And even more questions about whether the district has a well-considered plan, or a get-out-of-the-way compulsion to plow ahead as quickly as possible, with Deasy leading the charge.

Nobody expressed more concerns than Magruder, an architect who was appointed to the oversight committee two years ago. He thought the district's legal justification for buying tablets was flimsy, and that was just part of his objection.

"My primary concern was that there clearly was no strong pedagogical idea behind this program, and they were literally throwing all this technology and money at teachers and students, expecting great things to happen with no proper preparation," Magruder said.

There's not enough space here to itemize all the issues raised at various times by Magruder and other committee members, along with members of the media.

But to name several:

Why iPads versus other, possibly less expensive tablets or laptops?

Why did the need for detached keyboards, at a cost of millions, seem to be such an afterthought?

Why did the district buy software sight unseen and only partially developed?

Why had there been so little teacher training and preparation?

Why so little consideration of who would be responsible for lost and damaged tablets?

And how useful could the tablets be if, by one legal interpretation, students wouldn't be allowed to take them home each night?

"I'm invested in this," said Magruder, who has two kids in L.A. Unified and got a first-hand look at the problems when his daughter's school was included in an early phase of the iPad rollout.

Magruder didn't find the programming engaging, compelling or linked to a larger curriculum strategy in a way that had been explained to teachers, parents or students.

"Technology doesn't solve problems unless humans and teachers use it well," said Magruder, who noted that the software company did manage to neatly promote itself to students with a logo on its programs.

"Not an 'M' for math or an 'E' for English, but a big 'P' for Pearson," he said.

Scott Folsom, another member of the oversight committee, and Tom Rubin, the committee's consultant, both told me they thought Magruder and others consistently raised important questions in a fair, thoughtful and constructive way, forcing the district to slow down and rethink some of its plans.

But that was Magruder's downfall. In raising inconvenient truths, he exposed and embarrassed district officials. Three weeks ago, the petulant school board threw a little tantrum and refused to reappoint him to the committee, a move that's being challenged by Magruder, the oversight committee and the architect association that nominated him to the board.

The rise and fall of "innovator"

In a positive review of Jill Lepore's recent article on the myth and reality of creative destruction, Paul Krugman wonders if Lepore underestimates just how long 'innovation' has been a buzzword.
Lepore tells us that innovation became a popular buzzword in the 1990s. I guess I thought it came much earlier — I wrote about product-cycle models of trade back in the 1970s, and even then I was formalizing a much older literature.
That sort of question is why god invented Google so I decided to check out what the n-gram viewer had to say. Based on a search of the books in Google's digital collection, it appears that both 'innovation' and 'innovator' took off in the early Forties and continued shooting up through the Post-War era. Nothing surprising there. The Forties, Fifties and Sixties were a period of rapid economic and technological growth and the topics of progress and innovation were very much on people's minds.

What seems strange though is the decline of 'innovator' starting around 1970. My first thought was Apollo but the peak here appears to be 1971 rather than 1972. 'Innovation' also flatlined briefly in the mid-70s but it quickly picked back up. I have a feeling I'm missing something obvious here but I'm not familiar enough with the data to know where to dig.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Putting aside the question of why Cantor lost

What I want to know is how something like this happens.
An internal poll by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-VA) re-election campaign had him with a 34-point lead over primary opponent economics professor David Brat.

The poll, conducted by John McLaughlin of McLaughlin & Associates between May 27 and May 28 found Cantor with 62 percent to Brat with 28 percent, according to The Washington Post on Friday.

Cantor lost to Brat on Tuesday. With 90 percent of precincts reporting Brat defeated Cantor 55.4 percent to 44.6 percent. It was perhaps the biggest upset of any primary contest in the 2014 election cycle.
I know of a lot of mistakes in the design and analysis of polls (I've even made a few), but I can't recall any that produced results like this. I've seen numerous articles on what went wrong with Cantor's campaign. I want to know what was going on with his pollster.

Well, that didn't take long -- more on Vergara and the perils of legislating from the bench

As mentioned before, one of the problems with legislating from the bench is that it usually entails reasoning backward -- starting with a conclusion then coming up with arguments to justify it -- which leads to bad law. The precedents take on a life of their own. As Harvard's Noah Feldman wrote in Bloomberg View, "The court’s two-part reasoning was thin to the point of being emaciated," and that thin reasoning means that the ruling can be applied in ways that even many of its supporters are likely to object to.

You can certainly argue that California's system for assigning tenure and removing bad teachers is flawed (you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone on either side of the reform debate willing to defend it). Most of those cheering the decision seem to be taking an implicit ends-justify-the-means line -- the policy was bad and the decision made it go away, therefore it was a good decision -- but the sloppiness and the sparseness of the reasoning makes it applicable to a wide range of far more questionable cases.

If you were looking for a state at the other end of the tenure policy spectrum to California, you might pick Connecticut.
Danbury's Deputy Superintendent of Schools William Glass also said the California ruling won't have an effect on the educational community in Connecticut.

"We have a very effective process for dismissing a teacher with cause," Glass said.

"It takes time and we provide support for a teacher to see if they can improve. But if they can't, we are now down to a 10-month process for dismissal," he said, referring to the new reduction in due process.

Glass also said most teachers who are not a good fit will voluntarily resign.

No one wants an ineffective teacher because the principal, the school and the district all are held responsible for that teacher's ineffectiveness in teaching students, Glass said.

"Accountability has never been as clear as it is now," Glass said. "The days of hiding are gone. It's all very visible."

In California, tenure can be earned after only two years in front of a classroom. In Connecticut, it takes four years to earn employment protection.

Connecticut also recently added language to its tenure laws that allow ineffectiveness -- as determined by new teacher evaluation procedures -- to be a cause for dismissal.
Glass may have gotten one thing wrong. When he said the California ruling won't have an effect on Connecticut, he probably should have said 'shouldn't.'

[from the same article]
A California judge's ruling this week that teacher tenure laws deprive the state's children of their constitutional right to a quality education has some wondering if Connecticut could face a similar challenge.

"The Vergara case exposed the fact that children have unequal access to quality teachers in California. This problem exists in Connecticut as well," said Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer of ConnCAN, an organization that supports school reform.
This is how bad law works

Sunday, June 15, 2014

My ed reform ddulite study list

I'm working on a big thread on the the interlocking disasters of the LA school system. Part of that process is reading up and making a reference list. It greatly speeds things up when the actual writing begins and it reduces the chances of me getting my facts badly wrong.

In case anyone out there wants to play along, here are some of the sites I'm using to get a handle on the LAUSD iPad fiasco.

1. An LAUSD introduction to The Common Core Technology Project.

Troubling for its vagueness, motivational-speaker language and lack of insight into the way technology works. All problems that would get worse as things spiraled out of control.

[Though off-topic here, one of these days I'm going to have to come back to the connection between the influence of management consulting and the belief in the miraculous curative powers of standards like Common Core.]

2. The vision statement for the project

,,, because it tells us that the people behind the project are the kind of people who believe in writing vision statements.

3. An early warning about Superintendent Deasy's somewhat questionable relationship with Apple. Spelled out in more detail here.

4. Suppression of internal critics.

5. A piece on where the iPad funds were being diverted from.

6. A devastating comparison with another school district's successful iPad rollout.

7. An inside account of what went wrong from two LAUSD contractors.

8. The comically fast security breach,

9. Failure to anticipate even the most obvious complications.

10. Still more problems.

and a very nice wrap up by Michael Hiltzik.

I've been arguing for a while that ddulites and flaky management theories are doing great harm to our education system. Those arguments are about to get a bit more shrill.

Michael Hiltzik has perhaps the definitive summary so for of the California tenure ruling

Michael Hiltzik has perhaps the definitive summary so for of the California tenure ruling so far. If you're looking to get up to speed quickly, this is an excellent place to start.

If you have the stomach for it, also check out Hiltzik's account of LA's iPad fiasco.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

I'll be getting back to this when I'm less disgusted

Diane Ravitch shares a telling passage from a post-trial brief in the Vergara case:
Plaintiffs Monterroza and Martinez both attend charter schools that are not subject to the challenged statutes at all. Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara both attend a “Pilot School” in LAUSD that is free to let teachers go at the end of the school year for any reason, including ineffectiveness.
Just to be clear, none of the nine plaintiffs could show that they had been assigned teachers who would have been fired if not for the challenged statutes. Four of them weren't even in schools where the statutes applied.

If that weren't enough, here's an example of one of the plaintiffs' "grossly ineffective" teachers.

p.s. I'm still looking for a transcript but in the meantime check out the brief and the original complaint.

I don't think Tyler Cowen is right here, but I hope he is

Elon Musk made a big announcement last Thursday:
Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters. That is no longer the case. They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.

Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.

When I started out with my first company, Zip2, I thought patents were a good thing and worked hard to obtain them. And maybe they were good long ago, but too often these days they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors. After Zip2, when I realized that receiving a patent really just meant that you bought a lottery ticket to a lawsuit, I avoided them whenever possible.

At Tesla, however, we felt compelled to create patents out of concern that the big car companies would copy our technology and then use their massive manufacturing, sales and marketing power to overwhelm Tesla. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The unfortunate reality is the opposite: electric car programs (or programs for any vehicle that doesn’t burn hydrocarbons) at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent, constituting an average of far less than 1% of their total vehicle sales.

At best, the large automakers are producing electric cars with limited range in limited volume. Some produce no zero emission cars at all.

Given that annual new vehicle production is approaching 100 million per year and the global fleet is approximately 2 billion cars, it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis. By the same token, it means the market is enormous. Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.

We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.

Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers. We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard.
Tyler Cowen thinks that "this announcement will be discussed in business schools for years to come much like Henry Ford’s announcement of the $5 a day wage." I don't.

My co-blogger Joseph and I have consistently taken the position that, on the intellectual property spectrum with too little protection failing to encourage creation and innovation and too much stifling competition, our laws have long ago abandoned the sweet spot in the middle  and become far too excessive. That puts us in general agreement with Cowen.

Where I, at least, disagree is with the likely outcome. Musk deserves a huge amount of credit for this but given Tesla's size compared with the magnitude of this problem, I don't see it making much of a difference.

For what it's worth, though, I hope I'm wrong.

Friday, June 13, 2014

More on the California decision

A good question:

Rather than gutting hard-won protections for teachers, the next legal case should go after economic segregation itself. Instead of invoking Brown in a broad metaphorical sense, why not bring a state-level suit against actual segregation by class and race? If it is a violation of the California state constitution to have tenure laws that make it hard to fire bad teachers in poor and minority communities, why isn’t it a violation when the state and districts draw school boundary lines in a way that promotes deeply unequal, economically segregated schools that many strong educators won’t teach in?
I am also interested in why the new policy has to be a complete loss of job security.  After all, if the issue is

Los Angeles School Superintendent John Deasy testified it can take over two years on average — and sometimes as long as 10 — to fire an incompetent tenured teacher. The cost, he said, can run from $250,000 to $450,000.
Then why not make a new plan where firing a teacher comes with one years salary as a good-bye present?  Or have fast pension vesting as well (say 5 years).  It would bring excessive firing under scrutiny (as it would increase costs), but would save enormous amounts of money compared to the costs above and be cheap compared to the estimates people are making as to harm.  Of course, this presumes that there really is an effective teacher waiting to be pulled into a classroom, which isn't impossible but seems to be less likely in the poorest school districts. 

What this suggests is that the real issue isn't unequal student outcomes but rather these types of measures are aimed at degrading the working conditions of teachers.  Are we sure that this will end well? 

Understanding McKinsey

In style, rhetoric, preferred approaches, and general worldview, it is difficult to overstate how much David Coleman is a product of McKinsey & Company, the extraordinarily successful management firm that launched him. This is nowhere better illustrated than in this Washington Post account of the origins of the Common Core standards.

How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution
The pair of education advocates had a big idea, a new approach to transform every public-school classroom in America. By early 2008, many of the nation’s top politicians and education leaders had lined up in support.

But that wasn’t enough. The duo needed money — tens of millions of dollars, at least — and they needed a champion who could overcome the politics that had thwarted every previous attempt to institute national standards.

So they turned to the richest man in the world.

On a summer day in 2008, Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, an emerging evangelist for the standards movement, spent hours in Bill Gates’s sleek headquarters near Seattle, trying to persuade him and his wife, Melinda, to turn their idea into reality.
As Barry Ritholtz noted in a memorable post, McKinsey & Company has walked away from some of the most notorious corporate fiascoes of the past 50 years while somehow managing to keep their reputation and hourly rates intact.

This is, by no means, a matter of luck. Rather it reflects just how good McKinsey is at their core mission: winning over high-level executives and spinning compelling narratives for the press. As long as the C level executives like the consultants and the consultants make them look good, the executives will happily hand out shocking sums of money.

One of the challenges that management consultants often face is trying to sell a very expensive product or service to a company that is capable of providing something similar internally at a much lower cost. For this reason, firms like McKinsey are very good at driving a wedge between top level management and the rest of the company. If you can convince high level executives that the people two or three tiers below them are incompetent and/or untrustworthy, you can justify charging exorbitant fees for things could that which can be done cheaply and quickly in-house.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, Coleman approach to Common Core follow this template exactly. He had a set of radical (and by some standards rather flaky) changes he wanted to make in American education. Instead of building support through research or grassroots lobbying, he approached one of the world's richest and most powerful former CEOs and, having secured his support, mounted a tremendously effective charm offensive on the press.

An essential part of Coleman's pitch has been to undercut the standing and authority of the education rank and file, from partnering with Michelle Rhee to patronizing the statisticians in his own organization, the College Board, to being openly dismissive of teachers who questioned some of his more extreme pedagogical ideas. This last point led a fawning NYT reporter to talk about Coleman's unwillingness to suffer fools (I'm trying to maintain an elevated tone in this post. You can see me addressing the article in a less refined mood here).

None of this means that Coleman is wrong or that his ideas should be dismissed, but if you want to understand what's going on in the education reform movement, you have to understand the culture that produced David Coleman.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

An excellent take on Vergara v. California

Dana has a characteristically thoughtful and balanced take on the controversial ruling. It's that balance that makes the final paragraph quoted all the more striking.

Is the premise of Treu’s ruling correct? Will axing tenure and seniority lead directly to better test scores and higher lifetime earnings for poor kids?

Here’s where the judge is right: It is difficult—actually, close to impossible—to argue that California’s teacher-tenure system makes sense. Research shows that most first-year teachers are mediocre at best. But good teachers tend to make huge jumps in effectiveness by the end of their second year on the job, and those improvements are often visible through classroom observation and students’ rising test scores. Yet California evaluates teachers for tenure in March of their second year of work, before two full years of student-teacher data are available.

This means that under current California law, principals are forced to make high-stakes decisions about teachers without enough evidence. This disadvantages students, who might get stuck with sub-par instructors, but it also hurts teachers, who aren’t given enough time to prove their skill. Once a teacher earns tenure, it can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars—and countless administrative and legal man-hours—for a district to permanently remove him from his job. And in the event of budget cuts or school closings, California law mandates that the least experienced teachers be laid off first, even if they are more effective than their older colleagues, a policy known as “LIFO,” or “Last In, First Out.”

[I have a couple of questions about the metrics that determine the effectiveness of those teachers but that can wait for another post -- MP]

California is an outlier. Only 12 states have formal laws on the books mandating LIFO. Nationally, teachers work an average of 3.1 years before they become eligible for tenure. Not even teachers support the idea of tenure after less than two years on the job. A 2012 survey of 10,000 teachers found that, on average, they believed it was reasonable to work 5.4 years before being evaluated for tenure. As Treu noted in his ruling, the arguments in Vergara revealed remarkable consensus between the prosecution and defense on the fact that California’s tenure policies are far from best practices.

But here’s where Judge Reulf’s theory is faulty: Getting rid of these bad laws may do little to systemically raise student achievement. For high-poverty schools, hiring is at least as big of a challenge as firing, and the Vergara decision does nothing to make it easier for the most struggling schools to attract or retain the best teacher candidates.

From 2009 to 2011, the federal government offered 1,500 effective teachers in 10 major cities—including Los Angeles—a $20,000 bonus to transfer to an open job at a higher poverty school with lower test scores. In the world of public education, $20,000 is a major financial incentive. All these teachers were already employed by urban districts with diverse student populations; they weren’t scared of working with poor, non-white children. Yet less than a quarter of the eligible teachers chose to apply for the bonuses. Most did not want to teach in the schools that were the most deeply segregated by race and class and faced major pressure to raise test scores.

Principals have known about this problem for ages. In Chicago, economist Brian Jacob found that when the city’s school district made it easier for principals to fire teachers, nearly 40 percent of principals, including many at the worst performing, poorest schools, fired no teachers at all. Why? For one thing, firing a coworker is unpleasant. It takes more than a policy change to overturn the culture of public education, which values collegiality and continuous improvement over swift accountability. That culture is not a wholly bad thing—with so many teachers avoiding the poorest schools, principals have little choice but to work with their existing staffs to help them get better at their jobs.

I'm not a lawyer...

[It has become a bit of a running joke that when Republican lawmakers say "I'm not a scientist,"  they mean "I'm not a scientist but you should listen to me anyway." When I say "I'm not a lawyer," I mean go out and find someone who knows something about the law and ask him or her about the broader potential ramifications of the topic at hand. The following has no expertise behind it and should be treated strictly as a starting point for a discussion.]

Let's crudely sum up the ruling of Vergara v. California as follows: if there is a reasonable possibility that an incompetent member of a given profession can cause serious and disproportionate economic or personal damage to certain disadvantaged groups, then any law making it more difficult to fire a member of that profession is unconstitutional.

Yes, I realize that's grossly oversimplified and I'm almost certainly missing some important nuances, but for the sake of the discussion, take a minute and think about the logical implications of such a precedent. Can you think of any fields other than education where the broad outlines of this ruling might apply? The police come to mind immediately. All of the major arguments used to argue for reducing/eliminating tenure (the importance of the work, the potential for damage, the likelihood of discrimination) could be used to argue for making all police officers at-will employees. Nor is there any immediately obvious reason this should stop there.

I'm not saying that the lawyers who argued against California's tenure policy, or the judge who ruled against it or the people who support the ruling want to see things go that far. I suspect that pretty much all of them would prefer that this decision is applied narrowly and applied to this specific context, but that's not how precedents work.

One of the many reasons why legislating from the bench is a bad idea is because legislatures have the freedom to be irrational and inconsistent. They can invent nonsensical justifications for their laws and they can change their standards from day to day with little real harm. In court rulings, the reasons are the most important part. When a judge is sloppy or, worse yet, reasons backwards (starting with a desired conclusion and inventing arguments for it), the result is bad law.

 I don't know if that's what we have here. I do know it's something we should be talking about.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Two quotes presented without comment

Far too much of school districts' money and administrators' time has been spent trying to dismiss ineffective teachers — funds and time that could have been spent far more productively on improving education.
LAUSD superintendent John Deasy on tenure (previously discussed here)

Los Angeles schools chief John Deasy has offered to resign in February, according to a proposed settlement obtained by The Times and other media outlets Tuesday.

Under the proposed agreement, which was presented last Friday to Board of Education President Richard Vladovic, Deasy would resign Feb. 1, 2014. He would then continue to be available as a consultant through June 30, 2015. That arrangement would have allowed Deasy to receive his $330,000 annual salary for the balance of his contract.
From a 2013 news story. Deasy, of course, ended up staying.

Accountability is for little people

I'll have more to say about the Vergara trial later but for now I'd like to point out one particularly egregious bit of hypocrisy from LAUSD superintendent John Deasy.
Once tenure was granted, dismissing a bad teacher became burdensomely difficult. And in times of budget cutbacks, the law required that the last teachers hired were the first fired, which robbed administrators of the ability to make layoff decisions on the basis of which teachers were most effective.

As a consequence of these laws, which were challenged in the Vergara lawsuit, too many students throughout the state have been saddled with grossly ineffective teachers, and administrators have had little power to remove them. Far too much of school districts' money and administrators' time has been spent trying to dismiss ineffective teachers — funds and time that could have been spent far more productively on improving education.
It is worth taking a moment to dwell on the sheer chutzpah of this editorial. Deasy is channeling the man who killed both of his parents then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan. He complains about budget cuts but omits to mention that one of the reasons that the LAUSD's finances look so bleak is because its superintendent was...

so stunningly arrogant as to propose $1 billion purchase of tablet computers for largely unproven educational approaches, while pushing brutal cuts in the schools...

so ethically challenged that, rather than seeking out competitive offers, he grossly overpaid and awarded contracts to companies with which he and members of his administration had inappropriately close relationships...

And finally, so freaking incompetent that he didn't bother to check the specs for the project before committing the schools to a billion-dollar purchase.

Deasy was a mediocre administrator before this fiasco hit, but even if he had been God's gift to education, there's no way he should have kept his job. Fortunately for him, though, he managed to luck out in at least three important ways: he came in with the right connections (particularly Eli Broad and Bill Gates); most major media outlets (especially, in this case, the LA Times) remain highly sympathetic to the education reform movement; and sadly, we live in a time when holding people at the top of an organization responsible for their failures has gone strangely out of style.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Does this make sense?

Rules on non-compete agreements accept the sanctity of contracts, even when it hurts future income for workers who are unable to find new jobs:

Daniel McKinnon, who had been a hairstylist in Norwell, Mass., lost a court battle with his former employer who claimed that Mr. McKinnon had violated the terms of his agreement when he went to work at a nearby salon. Mr. McKinnon said that he did not think the original restriction — to wait at least 12 months before working at any salon in nearby towns — still applied because he had been fired after years of friction with the manager there. Shortly after being fired, he went to work at a nearby salon.

But a judge issued an injunction ordering him to stop working at his new employer.

“It was pretty lousy that you would take away someone’s livelihood like that,” said Mr. McKinnon, who for the following year lived off jobless benefits of $300 a week. “I almost lost my truck. I almost lost my apartment. Almost everything came sweeping out from under me.”
But now talk about teacher tenure and suddenly the potential for future economic losses is a compelling reason to break existing agreements:

In striking down several laws regarding tenure, seniority and other protections, the judge said there was compelling evidence of the harm inflicted on students by incompetent teachers.

"Indeed, it shocks the conscience," Treu said.

He cited an expert's finding that a single year with a grossly ineffective teacher costs a student $50,000 in potential lifetime earnings. 
No data is given on how many teachers are "grossly ineffective", how confounding by school neighborhood was handled, or whether the replacement of these teachers with somebody else would necessarily improve matters.  Notice how we don't show the same level of heightened concern over actual lost wages for real workers as we do about potential losses. 

Interesting to ponder. 

Charter vs. Charter?

Specifically big vs. little.

For a number of years now, there's been a growing but little discussed tension between the big chains of charter schools like KIPP and the individual neighborhood charters. It was often the small schools with close ties to parents that the industry pointed to, but their political clout was generally negligible.

So it was pretty much inevitable that, at some point, the big players would start aggressively acquiring market share held by other charters just as they had been acquiring that held by vulnerable public schools. All of this brings us, perhaps unsurprisingly, to New Jersey:
The Christie administration quietly told two charter schools over the last month that they must close, one of them among the most established in Newark and the other a brand-new school in Camden.

The first to be signed by acting commissioner David Hespe, the decisions were not publicly announced, but came in letters to each of the schools as they were finishing up the year. The schools must close by the end of June.

In both cases, the shutdown orders were largely due to student test scores below those in the host district, even if for just one year, and the lack of necessary steps to improve them, according to the letters sent by Hespe.

For the Greater Newark Charter School, opened in 2000 and in its 14th year, it may not have been wholly unexpected as the school had been on probation and a decision on its charter’s five-year renewal was delayed since March.

The leader of the City Invincible Charter School in Camden said it came as more of a surprise, as the school was only in its second year.
If that 'second year' part seems odd, just wait...  It gets better. As the Vice President on the Board of Trustees for City Invincible Charter School.points out:
First, we must not overlook the simple fact that this decision came two days before the 2014 NJASK testing began. The State did not even bother to see if our students’ scores have improved. This decision is entirely based off of a single set of data that comes from a test administered seven months into our first year of operation.
I just think it reeks of politics that they have suddenly decided to close our school in the very same year KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon schools are set to open. Because there’s a dearth of facilities in the city that can serve as schools, you shouldn’t be surprised to see one of their banners hanging over our doors come September.
I haven't run across Mastery that often, but KIPP and Uncommon have been on my radar for a while, particularly their share practice of pumping up their metrics by brutally dumping their most vulnerable students. From Nashville:
One of the first things a visitor sees when stepping into Kipp Academy is a graph that shows how Kipp is outperforming Metro schools in every subject.

However, Kipp Academy is also one of the leaders in another stat that is not something to crow about.

When it comes to the net loss of students this year, charter schools are the top eight losers of students.

In fact, the only schools that have net losses of 10 to 33 percent are charter schools.

"We look at that attrition. We keep an eye on it, and we actually think about how we can bring that back in line with where we've been historically," said Kipp Principal Randy Dowell.

Dowell said Kipp's 18 percent attrition is unacceptable.
As I pointed out earlier, Dowell is being stunningly dishonest here. You simply don't get this level of attrition unless the administration wants it. Uncommon has been caught using similar strategies:
Tops on the list: Roxbury Preparatory Charter, a college prep academy for 5th-8th graders that is part of the Uncommon Schools network and sent home an Uncommonly high 56% of its students in 2012.
As I've said before, there are some very good independent charters out there with innovative programs and strong neighborhood ties. I wish them the best, but I advise them to watch their backs.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Pranks as natural experiments

Ken Levine, as previously mentioned, is an enormously accomplished writer and director of sitcoms going all the way back to MASH, but he started out in radio and still keeps a hand in. A few years ago he was co-hosting Dodger Talk with Josh Suchon on KABC, Los Angeles where part of his job was to deliver local traffic reports...
But I always wondered – was anybody actually listening to these traffic reports? One evening, late in the season, the Dodgers were in San Francisco and I was at the station preparing for my big minute. I was hanging out with Howard Hoffman, the production director, and I suggested a way to see if listeners paid any attention. He laughed and said, “you wouldn’t dare.” (This is where that paragraph on pranks pays off.) I gave him a sly smile and headed for my booth.

I opened the report by saying, “If you’re going to the Dodger game tonight, there’s a fifteen minute delay on the Golden Gate Bridge, the 880-Nimitz in the east bay reports slow and go from Concord…”

I just gave the San Francisco traffic report. Super straight, as if this were a San Francisco station. And I tagged it with the Sprint commercial.

Howard came into the booth hysterical. Now we waited to see how many phone calls we got. This was 6:45 in the evening, during the peak afternoon commute.

So how many did we get? I bet you’re ahead of me. That’s right. None. Not a single one. Zero. The big goose egg. No one from the station ever called me. No one from the Dodgers. Nothing. 
The following year there was no traffic. I hope [the sponsor] Sprint took that money and used it to buy another repeater tower.
Perhaps it would have been different with a home game, but these results do look conclusive. This got me wondering. I can imagine situations where a prank might lead to useful data. I wonder if anyone knows of any actual examples other than this one.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Weekend blogging -- famous but underrated

I had originally planned this post as a Twilight Zone Memorial Day marathon, then something more topical came along. Of course, in the blogosphere nothing ever really goes away. Here are a few of the episodes that rank high on my personal list but which don't seem to get a lot of press.

"When the Sky Was Opened" creeped me out in a way that's hard to explain. It also, like many of the episodes included here,  features a remarkable performance from a wonderful but under-recognized actor (in this case Charles Aidman).

"Two" is a nearly perfect, fantastically economical love story. Up until 1970 or so, Charles Bronson could do no wrong. From the Magnificent Seven to Once Upon a Time in the West, he was, for my money the most interesting star of the decade. Add in Elizabeth Montgomery's amazing smile and that wonderful final shot from writer/director Montgomery Pittman...

"Once Upon a Time" has Buster. Nothing more needs to be said.

 "The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank," and "Jess-Belle" feature another actor who needs to be better remembered, or at least remembered for better things, James Best.

"Miniature" and "Nothing in the Dark" are fine episodes featuring excellent turns by future stars (particularly Duvall). "The Bard" is a weaker entry on the whole but a must for Burt Reynolds fans.

"Occurrence" won a well-deserved Oscar.

"The Hunt" What can I say? Us Arkansas folk have always been real proud of Arthur.

Finally, "The Grave" featuring, get this, Lee Marvin, James Best,Lee Van Cleef, and Strother Martin. Another outstanding episode from writer/director Montgomery Pittman.

The Grave

Friday, June 6, 2014

It never rains but pours

I have been silent lately.  My leg now has two open ulcers plus an infected surgical wound mid-way up the calf.  Antibiotics held things in check, but things went poorly when they stopped. 

So I have been quite under the weather and posting will likely stay light for a while. 

Mark has been doing amazing content in the interim

Agricultural round-up

These are bigger stories than their coverage indicates and when I get some time, I plan on tying them in with some ongoing threads (there's definitely a ddulite angle here).

Scientists Crack Sheep Genome, Shining Spotlight On Rumen Evolution And Lipid Metabolism
Shenzhen, June 5, 2014--- The latest study, led by scientists from Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, BGI and other institutes, presents a high-quality sheep genome and reveals genomic and transcriptomic events that may be associated with rumen evolution and lipid metabolism that have relevance to both diet and wool. The work was published online today in Science.

Sheep are ruminants with a complex, 4-compartmented "stomach", the largest compartment is the rumen, which is thought to have evolved around 35-40 million years ago, and has the ability of converting the ligno-cellulose rich plant materials into animal protein. Wool is the most economic feature of the sheep, while the synthesis of wool is supposed to be linked to fatty acid metabolism. The genome data yielded in this study will lead to a better understanding of all those unusual evolution traits of sheep.
3,000 rice genome sequences made publicly available on World Hunger Day
The open-access, open-data journal GigaScience (published by BGI and Biomed Central), announces today the publication of an article on the genome sequencing of 3000 rice strains along with the release of this entire dataset in a citable format in journal's affiliated open-access database, GigaDB. The publication and release of this enormous data set (which quadruples the current amount of publicly available rice sequence data) coincides with World Hunger Day to highlight one of the primary goals of this project— to develop resources that will aid in improving global food security, especially in the poorest areas of the world. This work is the completion of stage one of the 3000 Rice Genomes Project, a collaborative effort made up of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and BGI, and is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology.

With more than 1/8th of the world's population living in extreme hunger and poverty, and an every-increasing world population (estimated to reach 9.6 billion by 2050), there is a huge need to create new resources to improve crop yield, reduce the impact of agricultural practices on the environment, and develop food crops that are of high yield and nutrition and can grow successfully in environments stressed by drought, pests, diseases, or poor soil quality. While rice research has greatly advanced since the completion of the first high-quality rice genome sequence in 2005, there has been limited change in breeding practices that are important for producing improved and better adapted rice strains.

The 3000 Rice Genomes Project provides a major step forward for addressing these challenges by creating and releasing an extensive amount of genetic information that can ultimately be applied to intelligent breeding practices, which take advantage of the natural variation between different plant strains and information on the genetic mechanisms that underlie these traits to select strains for breeding that will be more successful in producing hybrid strains with characteristics that are highly suited for growing successfully in different environments.
For a bit of context, here are some relevant previous posts.

First on the way media covers agricultural research:

Really not that damned funny (Insert Dowd joke here)

Earmarks and Agricultural Research

Sure it saved us twenty billion, but it sounds funny

and on agriculture in general

Back on the subject of agricultural research

How are genetically engineered crops like AAA rated structured bonds?

And one I still need to get to

Seed saving: An alternative to industrial agriculture in India

The near miss effect -- what compulsive gamblers and tech reporters have in common

A few days ago I posted a bit of a rant about how excited tech reporters got over a Google press release about the company's driverless car. The problem was that, based on the details available in the reports, there didn't seem to be any significant indications of increased functionality.

Of course, reporters have a strong incentive to see signs of progress -- "just around the corner" sells better than "don't get your hopes up" -- but I think this eagerness has more than one cause (most things do) and I wonder if one of those factors might have something to do with the near-miss effect as described in this memorable story from This American Life:

Sarah Koenig

Habib and especially Dixon have spent a long time studying what's called the near-miss effect. In slot machines, a near miss is just what it sounds like. It's when, say, two cherries line up on the payoff line, and then the third is about to come but stops just short or just past the payoff line.

Sarah Koenig

In 2006, Dixon teamed up with Habib to see if they could figure out what was happening to people neurologically when they saw near misses. They scanned the brains of 22 gamblers-- 11 addicted, or what they called pathological gamblers, and 11 non-pathological gamblers-- as all these people watch near misses on slot machine displays.
The results surprised them. Because while both addicted and non-addicted gamblers said the near misses felt more like wins, their brains said something different. Here's Reza Habib.

Reza Habib

What you see in the non-pathological gamblers is that the regions that are activated for losses, those same regions tend to be also activated for near misses. And so the brain, at least, processes these near misses in the same way that it processes losses in the non-pathological gamblers. In pathological gamblers, the same regions that are activated for wins are also activated for near misses.
And so these include regions such as the amygdala, which is a region involved in emotional processing, as well as parts of the brain stem which are involved in reward and dopamine function, which is part of the reward system. So the pathological gamblers, their brains, at least, are responding to these near misses in the same way that they respond to wins.

Mark Dixon

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

Sarah Koenig

Yeah. It's crazy.

Mark Dixon

Oh, it's way crazy. And so you are experiencing those same sensations as a win when you're not winning.

Just as casinos are very good at eliciting the reactions associated with winning even when very little winning is going on, companies like Apple and Google have become very good at eliciting the reactions associated with technological progress even when the technology is advancing little and sometimes not at all. In this case, Google assumed correctly that, by showing journalists a prototype that looked different but apparently did nothing new, the reporters would react as if they had seen an advance in the technology. They respond to these meaningless press conferences in much the same way as a pathological gambler responds to two cherries out of three.

If anything, the shift to custom-made, low-speed cars would seem to be a sign of trouble. Google's stated goal is to release this technology to manufacturers in 2018. Whenever you're designing complex systems that have to work with complex systems designed by others, compatibility is usually more than half the battle. I would therefore expect some of the most daunting engineering challenges to come from getting Google's technology to work smoothly with a wide range of makes and models. The decision to go from road testing Toyota Priuses ('Prii' believe it or not) and Audi TTs to track testing what are basically go-carts does not make the four year goal look more likely.

What happens if that deadline isn't met? I suspect it will still be business as usual. Google has proven that merely symbolic progress or, failing even that, just bringing the subject up is enough to create the desired effect of public perception. My guess is that the only real deadline is beating GM, Mercedes-Benz, or Nissan or any of the other companies that have equally gifted engineers working on these problems (but with less gifted PR departments to promote them).