Thursday, March 31, 2016

Location continued

Dean Dad points us to something I wish I had seen before writing the other location, location, location posts.
But with the shift in production has come a shift in geography.  As Joshua Benton’s recent piece notes, jobs in the new journalism are much more concentrated on the coasts than jobs in the old journalism are.  In a recent survey, almost 40 percent of the digital journalism jobs in America were physically based in the New York City and D.C. metros.  That’s compared to less than 10 percent of the jobs in television journalism.  Terre Haute may have a local news team, but it probably doesn’t have a freestanding digital news provider of any size.
I can't really recommend the rest of the Benton piece (too much conventional wisdom for my taste), but he deserves credit for digging up that remarkably telling statistic.

Pretty much all of us news-junkies consume the product on at least two levels: local and national. Ideally, the second should reflect a broad awareness and understanding of the parts that make up the first, not to mention the social and economic strata that make up the parts. This is extremely difficult when the people covering national stories tend to be geographically concentrated, particularly when they also tend to be economically and culturally homogeneous.

Of course,  we have to be careful about overgeneralizing -- there are, for example, food bloggers who just write about local scenes – but digital journalists play a big role in the discussion of national topics like transportation, and those journalists are disproportionately located in those two cities, as are the major print publications that dominate the national discourse. All of this is contributing to debates where not only do all of the participants have the same frame of reference; they are increasingly unable to imagine anyone having a different one.

If I lived in NYC or DC or San Francisco, I could imagine giving up my car and relying on Uber and public transportation. And if I and everyone I associated with lived in NYC or DC or San Francisco, some of the more optimistic Uber business scenarios might strike me as credible.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

This is not the mind behind ‘Dilbert’; this is the mind behind the 'Dilberito.'

If you are thinking about going into the corporate world, you will need to be prepared to sit through endless bullshit seminars. You will be exposed to countless PowerPoint slides from overcompensated consultants whose boss managed to sweet talk and/or liquor up your CEO. Most of these start with some fairly commonsense notion like the importance of maintaining a good reputation with customers or the advantages of a positive attitude then so embellish it with buzzwords and extravagant claims as to make it almost unrecognizable.

After one of these seminars, in the break room or a nearby bar, you will generally find strong reactions breaking down at the ends of the gullible/cynical spectrum. Some of the participants will come away absolutely convinced that they have learned the secrets to delighting customers or achieving business excellence or unlocking their personal potential. Those at the other end of the spectrum will point out flaws, list counterexamples, and mock the general silliness of the proceedings (though the more savvy of that group will be careful not to do any of these things around a supervisor).

I have seen people move from one end of the spectrum to the other, but I have never seen anyone occupy both extremes at the same time.

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, however, does provide proof of concept. Adams has an extraordinary way of combining strengths and weaknesses you would assume to be mutually exclusive. No one is better at spotting and laying out the flaws in business ideas and the absurdities of corporate culture, but his talents are wholly limited to the destructive. When he tries to come up with a new idea or just to offer constructive criticism of the ideas of someone else, it is as if the part of his brain that recognizes the stupid and the silly simply switches off.

He somehow manages to be an idiot savant of satire. I'd suspect it was a piece of performance art if the commitment wasn't so complete. When Adams has tried businesses not directly related to satire, his track record is terrible -- ideas, execution and outcomes. His attempts to create a themed restaurant and launch the previously mentioned Dilberito were pretty much case studies in amateurish entrepreneurship.

Even when he's simply throwing out suggestions and observations, if he strays from destructive criticism, the results are disastrous. Despite having an MBA from UC Berkeley, Adams relies almost exclusively on the kind of business advice you'd expect in a get-rich-quick seminar, not just in terms of the concepts themselves, but also the language, framing and depth (or lack thereof). The first indications of these tendencies came in The Dilbert Future (affirmations play a significant role), but it wasn't until recently that we got the full picture.

It was perhaps inevitable that this inclination would lead to a Trump fixation. Even before he launched the scam university, the mogul had a long history with get-rich-quick promoters. So it isn't that surprising that Adams has taken to predicting that Donald Trump will win the presidency in a landslide and has even gone so far as to suggest that the occasional primary loss was due to fraud.

You can get a pretty good brief summary of Adam's arguments in this Washington Post piece (and trust me, these arguments are best read in the most concise form available). They mostly come down to people being irrational and Trump being a “master persuader” (Adams claims extra insights here because he is, as he often mentions, a “certified hypnotist”). Both points are made through standard seminar-speak. Trump “warps reality” by “anchoring numbers,” “talking past the sale,” and using “linguistic kill shots” that relate to the “physicality of the subject.”

Reading passages like:

“Identity is always the strongest level of persuasion. The only way to beat it is with dirty tricks or a stronger identity play. … [And] Trump is well on his way to owning the identities of American, Alpha Males, and Women Who Like Alpha Males. Clinton is well on her way to owning the identities of angry women, beta males, immigrants, and disenfranchised minorities.”

It's easy to imagine Dilbert and Dogbert tag-teaming Adams, citing supporter demographics and pointing out that, by definition, alphas (let alone alpha males) have to be a relatively small minority (you're pretty much limited to one per group).

None of this is news to the readers of Gawker which has a long running thread on Adams' blogging exploits:

Here's Adams on arguing with women:
The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently. It's just easier this way for everyone. You don't argue with a four-year old about why he shouldn't eat candy for dinner. You don't punch a mentally handicapped guy even if he punches you first. And you don't argue when a women tells you she's only making 80 cents to your dollar. It's the path of least resistance. You save your energy for more important battles.

(The "angry women" comment from the Post interview is starting to come into focus.)

The analogy was later removed with the following explanation:
    That's the reason the original blog was pulled down. All writing is designed for specific readers. This piece was designed for regular readers of The Scott Adams blog. That group has an unusually high reading comprehension level.

    In this case, the content of the piece inspires so much emotion in some readers that they literally can't understand it. The same would be true if the topic were about gun ownership or a dozen other topics. As emotion increases, reading comprehension decreases. This would be true of anyone, but regular readers of the Dilbert blog are pretty far along the bell curve toward rational thought, and relatively immune to emotional distortion.

Then there was the sock puppet incident that started when people noticed a certain recurring theme in the comments of "PlannedChaos"
    If an idiot and a genius disagree, the idiot generally thinks the genius is wrong. He also has lots of idiot reasons to back his idiot belief. That's how the idiot mind is wired.

    It's fair to say you disagree with Adams. But you can't rule out the hypothesis that you're too dumb to understand what he's saying.

    And he's a certified genius. Just sayin'.

Followed by this memorable explanation of the deception:

As a general rule, you can't trust anyone who has a conflict of interest. Conflict of interest is like a prison that locks in both the truth and the lies. One workaround for that problem is to change the messenger. That's where an alias comes in handy. When you remove the appearance of conflict of interest, it allows others to listen to the evidence without judging.

And we won't even get into his theories about rape and  about suicide bombers. That's where things get weird.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Location, Location, Location continued -- more outliers

Over at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, Frances Woolley has an interesting post on transportation views then and now. This picture alone makes it blog-worthy...

... but it's also relevant to Monday's post. For various reasons, some more defensible than others, discussions of housing and transportation are disproportionately focused on geographically small, water-bounded cities like San Francisco and (in this case) Vancouver. Even compared to other port areas like Houston or Los Angeles, these cities are outliers. Their problems are fundamentally different and there's no reason to assume that their solutions will transfer. (L.A. also has some unique terrain-based challenges resulting from its mix of mountain, coast and desert, but that's a topic for later.)

Monday, March 28, 2016

Lessons in reading a business story -- location, location, location

There is a lot of interesting stuff in this article by Chelsea Hawkins on who uses Uber and Lyft and what it costs, but for now there's one aspect I want to highlight.

Whenever you read a news story, pay close attention to where the events take place and where the subjects come from. Think about the areas mentioned (look them up on Wikipedia if they're unfamiliar) and ask yourself is there anything about these locations that might change the way I should interpret the story.

Case in point, check out the four consumers quoted in this story. [Emphasis added]

Here's How Much Money You Can Save From Deleting Uber and Lyft From Your Phone
March 25, 2016

To find out exactly how much people are spending on ride-sharing services — and how much they can save by deleting them entirely — we asked Uber and Lyft users in various parts of the country to calculate their monthly expenses on the apps. Overall, they found that their cab habit cost them hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars per year. 


Steve Han, a freelance writer based in Manhattan, said he only uses Uber a few times a week, mostly during rush hour when the trains are too busy.


Ana Cosma, 25, who lives in Washington, D.C., said that until recently, her cab expenses were out of control.


Lauren Bell, 26, who lives in Boston, said her main reason for using Lyft was convenience.


Veronica Glover, 27, who lives in the Bay Area of Northern California, said she started using Lyft for her daily commute to and from work earlier this year. 

We've already mentioned that for a wide variety of topics, particularly transportation, infrastructure and housing, any story or study that uses the Bay Area as an example should be viewed with suspicion. The same can be said of New York City, D.C., and to a lesser extent, Boston. All four land on the far end of the spectra for cost of living, population density, and access to taxis and mass transit. As a result, there are a large number of business plans, policy proposals and generalizations about customer behavior that make sense in these cities and almost nowhere else.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Brooks on Trump -- Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance

I know I said I was out for the weekend and I realize that the Kübler-Ross bit is overdone, but after repeated (if not perhaps sequential) displays of all of the other stages of grief, today's David Brooks column is such a perfect example of acceptance as summarized by Wikipedia ("It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it.") that I couldn't let it pass without comment.

The Post-Trump Era

This is a wonderful moment to be a conservative. For decades now the Republican Party has been groaning under the Reagan orthodoxy, which was right for the 1980s but has become increasingly obsolete. The Reagan worldview was based on the idea that a rising economic tide would lift all boats. But that’s clearly no longer true.

We’ve gone from Rising Tide America to Coming Apart America. Technological change, globalization and social and family breakdown mean that the benefits of growth, to the extent there is growth, are not widely shared.

Republicans sort of recognize this reality, but they are still imprisoned in the Reaganite model. They ask Reaganite questions, propose Reaganite policies and have Reaganite instincts.

Now along comes Donald Trump, an angel of destruction, to blow it all to smithereens. He represents not only a rejection of the existing Reaganite establishment, but also a rejection of Reaganite foreign policy (he is less globalist) and Reaganite domestic policy (he is friendlier to the state).


That’s where the G.O.P. is heading. So this is a moment of anticipation. The great question is not, Should I vote for Hillary or sit out this campaign? The great question is, How do I prepare now for the post-Trump era?


We’re going to have two parties in this country. One will be a Democratic Party that is moving left. The other will be a Republican Party. Nobody knows what it will be, but it’s exciting to be present at the re-creation.

We could talk a bit more about how Brooks seems to have come around to Krugman's argument that Trump may be a "cleansing shock," but that would just be kicking a man when he's down.

Getting an early start to the weekend

Lots of serious stuff in the queue for next week. Until then, let's kick back and watch some videos

I miss James Garner.

This is a cool idea very well executed. New Order's "Blue Monday" is now a radio staple but when it came out in 1983 it was cutting-edge electronic dance music.This group (about which I know nothing) came up with a new arrangement that used only instruments available in the early Thirties yet still captured that weird, modern sound.

We are living in a Golden Age of political satire. I have to admit, I've fallen way behind. This is the first segment I've seen of Samantha Bee's new show. If this is representative, I need to catch up.

A clever sketch from College Humor

And finally to unwind

Thursday, March 24, 2016


One of the underlying issues of the no-excuses charter school thread is the way badly designed, badly maintained metric-based systems can go awry. Arguably the classic example is the Soviet factory producing unusable products to maximize some unrealistic standard.

Here's an account from economist Paul Craig Roberts (It's from American Conservative and I have to admit some doubts about the publications, but Roberts is knowledgeable and the piece seems solid):

For example, the success indicator for the construction industry was the number of projects under construction. Consequently, Moscow was littered with unfinished projects because all activity was concentrated in starting new ones. The plan produced a housing shortage because the incentive was to start new constructions not to complete ones already underway.

If a shoe factory’s gross output indicator was a specified number of pairs of shoes, there would be plenty of baby shoes, but none for large feet, because the same amount of material could be used to produce one large pair or several small pairs.

If nails were specified in number, there would be small nails but no large ones. If specified in terms of weight, there would be assortments weighted heavily with large sizes. A famous Soviet cartoon shows the manager of a nail factory being awarded Hero of the Soviet Union for over-fulfilling his quota. In the factory yard are two giant cranes holding one giant nail.

If light fixtures were specified in number, they would be small. If in weight, they would be heavy. Nikita Khrushchev complained of chandeliers so heavy that “they pull the ceilings down on our heads.”
I dug up the cartoon and (with the help of Google Translate) added an English caption.

" Who needs such a big nail? "
" Do not worry about it. The main thing is that we have met the quota for nails."

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Wages of Strauss* -- Part II (Josh edition)

[*Joseph (who knows more than a normal person should on these matters) took mild exception to the previous post in this thread, specifically the way I used Straussianism as a crude shorthand for an argument that goes back to Athens. He's right but I don't have the time to do it right. (What do you expect from a blog?)]

A few days ago, I argued that the conservative movement was based on "the assumption that governing must be done by the intellectually superior elite," so they had put in place "strategies and tactics designed to allow small groups to gain and hold power in a democracy" which left them "vulnerable to hostile takeover" such as the one launched by Donald Trump.

If I would have known about this piece by Josh Barro, I definitely would have included the following quotes:
It's not normal for a political party to rent frontrunner status to cranks and charlatans for weeks at a time. Disastrous candidates are supposed to be blocked by validating institutions. Policy experts explain that their proposals do not add up. The media covers embarrassing incidents from their past and present. Party leaders warn that they will be embarrassing or incompetent or unelectable.

The problem is that Republicans have purposefully torn down the validating institutions. They have convinced voters that the media cannot be trusted; they have gotten them used to ignoring inconvenient facts about policy; and they have abolished standards of discourse by allowing all complaints about offensiveness to be lumped into a box called "political correctness" and ignored.

Republicans waged war on these institutions for a reason. Facts about policy can be inconvenient — a reality-based approach would find, for example, that tax cuts increase the deficit and carbon emissions cause climate change. Acknowledging the validity of complaints about racism could require some awkward conversations with racist and quasi-racist voters in the Republican coalition.

Of course, we're now seeing the unintended consequence of the destruction of those institutions and the boundaries they impose around candidate acceptability: In doing so, Republicans created a hole that Donald Trump could fly his 757 through.

Josh Marshall is also making similar points:
If you look around over the last week there are a number of highly sophisticated Republican voices arguing that Donald Trump is the sort of demagogue and potential strongman our political system was designed to prevent from gaining power in our country. ,,, they would be far more credible if so many Republicans - not necessarily the same writers, but countless formal and informal spokespersons including numerous high-ranking elected officials - hadn't spent the last seven years ranting that the temperamentally cautious and cerebral Barack Obama was a 'dictator' who was trampling the constitution.

 Trumpism is the product of many things. But a key one of them, perhaps the key enabling one, is years of originating and pandering to increasingly apocalyptic and hyperbolic conspiracy theories, fantasies and fever dreams which put middle aged white men up against the metaphorical wall with a thug, foreign, black nationalist, anti-colonialist Barack Obama shaking them down for their money, their liberty, their women and even their lawn furniture.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Revisiting "The Battle for New York Schools: Eva Moskowitz vs. Mayor Bill de Blasio"

[from the teaching blog]

When following the education reform movement, it is enormously useful to step back from time to time and look at who was saying what a few years ago. As recently as 2009, it was almost impossible to find serious critics of the movement in the mainstream media (to highlight how much things have changed, I put together an e-book collection of my 2010 education posts, annotated but otherwise unrevised).

As far as I can tell, the Washington Post was the first of the major papers to start turning a tough, critical eye towards initiatives like charter schools, Common Core, and Glengarry Glen  Ross incentive systems. Recently, the New York Times has been aggressively investigating problems at Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies, but this is a relatively new position.

This  2014 NYT Magazine piece by Daniel Bergner is interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which being a reminder of how things have changed.

On the topic of scores, the U.F.T. and Ravitch insist that Moskowitz’s numbers don’t hold up under scrutiny. Success Academy (like all charters), they say, possesses a demographic advantage over regular public schools, by serving somewhat fewer students with special needs, by teaching fewer students from the city’s most severely dysfunctional families and by using suspensions to push out underperforming students (an accusation that Success Academy vehemently denies). These are a few of the myriad factors that Mulgrew and Ravitch stress. But even taking these differences into account probably doesn’t come close to explaining away Success Academy’s results.
First off, even at the time "vehemently" did not equate to "convincingly." There was already an enormous amount of evidence behind these accusations. Letting SA's denial go unchallenged did Moskowitz a huge favor, as did the unsupported claim at the end. Little more than a year later, the NYT itself was reporting on the Success Academies' "got to go" lists.

[Diane Ravitch was extremely upset both by how Bergner handled her interview and wrote a stinging post in response.]

As bad as this section was, the really troubling part (at least for me as a statistician) came later.

In talking to dozens of current and former Success Academy employees and parents, the critique with the most staying power involved the schools’ overly heated preparation for the state exams. A former fourth-grade teacher recounted that network employees made a mini­van run to Toys “R” Us and returned to unload a mound of assorted treasures in the back of her classroom. “It was a huge pile,” she says. “We called it Prize Mountain.” She would remind the pupils that a good score on a practice test meant a gift from the mountain.

Teachers also chart students’ results on the practice tests, posting their names and scores on classroom walls. Yet I heard from parents like Natasha Shannon, an African-American mother of three girls in Success Academy schools, that although the public posting could be painful for the children, it was important nonetheless.


For her part, Moskowitz asserts that the public charting is one aspect of the network’s emphasis on feedback, not only for the students but also for the faculty. Throughout the year, whether or not test prep is underway, scores on quizzes and writing assignments are analyzed at network headquarters. Each teacher’s outcome is tabulated, and bar graphs are instantly available to all faculty members. The teachers whose classes lag are responsible for seeking out advice from those who top the graphs, just as the students with red or yellow stickers by their names are guided to emulate the topic sentences of those whose stickers are green or blue.

Couple of points here.

1. We can go back and forth on different methods of rewarding academic performance in other contexts, but in this case we're talking about diagnostic tests. Doling out special rewards and punishments can and probably does undermine the quality of the resulting data. The fact that Bergner (and, to be fair, most reporters covering the story) seem completely unaware of fundamental education concepts is disturbing;

2. Even more disturbing (though we can't blame this one on Bergner.) is the fact that one of those model teachers whose advice was being sought was Charlotte Dial.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Musical Accompaniment

I was reading these posts by  Greg Sargent and Charles Pierce on the turmoil in the GOP over the upcoming convention and I realized that a familiar piece of music was running through my mind in the background, particularly when Pierce brought out the old family bible:
And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

—Matthew 13:42

The wailing is now at a pitch audible only to dogs and the teeth are gnashed right down to the gum line, and it's only March. The roosts are so full of chickens that the chickens are starting to cannibalize each other just to have a place to perch. The conservative movement is trying to govern itself again and the Republican Party, which has in that movement its only animating force, is being ground up by the process. A furnace of fire would be a vacation cabin in the Rockies compared to a spot in the withering wrath of one Erick Erickson and his endless escadrille of up-armored tricycles.

Next time you click on one of these stories in the Washington Post or (if you must) in Politico, I highly recommend queuing up this as a soundtrack.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Suspensions and Race

There's a new report on which groups are the most likely to get suspended. For kids who are African-American or who are disabled, the numbers are appalling. You can find my reactions at the teaching blog.

Budget spirals

I've recently gotten mildly addicted to the Trailers from Hell, not because any of them have been tell-all-your-friends great -- so far none have really blown me away -- but they're consistently pretty good and their subjects/presenters and their bite-sized length make them highly tempting (what would a three minute break hurt?). Occasionally, though, they hit on bigger topics like how budgets spiral out of control.

This segment on the notorious 1963 flop Cleopatra ("the only film ever to be the highest grossing film of the year yet to run at a loss") brings up lots of interesting points, starting with the fact that Fox actually had to sell off part of its lot to stay out of bankruptcy.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Missing White House Tapes -- you can find everything on Youtube

A friend I grew up with was a big fan of comedy albums. One of his favorites was National Lampoon's Missing White House Tapes.

The Missing White House Tapes was a sketch comedy voice recording which was a satiric commentary on the Watergate scandal. It was a spin-off from National Lampoon magazine. The recording was produced by Irving Kirsch and Vic Dinnerstein. It was released as a single on Blue Thumb Records in 1973. In 1974 it was expanded into an album, which was subsequently nominated for a Grammy Award as Best Comedy Recording of the year.

The single consisted of a doctored speech, in which Richard Nixon confesses culpability in the Watergate break-in. Side One of the album contains additional doctored recordings of Nixon's speeches and press conferences. Side Two contains sketches performed by John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Rhonda Coullet, and Tony Scheuten.

I hadn't thought about, let alone heard the record for years, but recently something (I don't remember what) reminded me of it. A quick Google search later...

I made some notes for a post I might actually write up one of these days but, in the meantime, for those interested in the period it's a fascinating relic (not to mention a reminder that the National Lampoon brand used to be associated with humor).

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Policy tangle

This is Joseph

One thing that I always find challenging is how to interpret different participation rates in education.  For example, this mini-post by Tyler Cowen suggests that Swedish men are under-represented in college level education.  The original OECD articles notes:
In contrast, only 31% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and engineering went to women.
But this is the same percentage of men who go to university at all in Sweden. 

So what is the threshold to consider policy interventions?  Because if we see the low level of participation in science and engineering by women to require efforts to encourage women to enter these fields, then shouldn't Sweden be intervening to encourage men to complete Bachelor's degrees? 

I admit that just examining the participation rate is divorced from historic context (e.g. gender inequality), and I am sympathetic to these arguments.  But the general issues that under-participation in higher education are likely to bring seem to be the foundation for future issues for current generation of young men and seem to be worth understanding more clearly. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

When did following up become the exception instead of the rule?

From Jim Avery writing for
In recent years, the national minimum wage has become a hot topic, with people debating about the importance of a living wage vs. the value of certain kinds of jobs. However, one CEO, Dan Price of Gravity Payments, shocked everyone on April 13 of this year by announcing that all of his employees would be receiving a minimum salary of $70,000 a year; not only that, he'd be substantially cutting his own salary to pull it off. In one of the many interviews he had after the announcement, he stated that he had learned how raises can mean the world to lower-income employees, especially after talking to one of his lower-paid workers, like a highly condensed version of A Christmas Carol.

Unfortunately, it wasn't all happy for Price, who ended up being sued by his brother shortly after the raises were announced. His brother Lucas owned about 30 percent of the company, and apparently wasn't happy with this newfound generosity.


Actually, it turns out there was a small error in the above paragraphs. We said that Dan Price was sued after the pay raise, but as it turns out, the lawsuit was actually filed before the controversial move. Also, by "small error," we mean "enormous mistake that changes everything about the story." Our bad.

According to Dan Price, the lawsuit was filed two weeks after the pay raise, which is true. However, Bloomberg did some digging and discovered that Price was served on March 16, nearly a month before. According to the lawsuit, Dan Price abused the company's assets to give himself a huge salary, while cutting down on what Lucas would be paid, in a somewhat Zuckerberg-esque move.

So when you look at that timeline, it seems a lot less like the headline is "CEO Has Change Of Heart, Becomes Generous" and more like it's "CEO Tries To Hide Douchebaggery By Acting Like Santa Claus." Though Santa probably doesn't pay elves much more than minimum wage either.
First of all, I don't want to take anything away from the Bloomberg article. It's a very well-done piece and the reporter  Karen Weise deserves a great deal of credit for breaking the real story. My concern is that a lot of other reporters stuck with the decidedly unreal story for far too long. This story broke in April; Weise came out with the corrected version in December.

Monday, March 14, 2016

You should read the whole thing

Brad DeLong has an excellent piece of long form economic history up at his blog. I'm going to try to revisit this in future posts if I have time (there's a lot here to talk about), but for now, here's a samplee presented without comment.

From Robber Barons by J. Bradford DeLong (1998)
First draft October 13, 1997; second draft January 1, 1998.
In the 1860s, on the western slope of California's Sierra Nevada mountain range, Colis Huntington and Leland Stanford won a government contract to build a railroad from San Francisco to the east. The government offered them, in incentives, $24 million in government financing and 9 million acres of land. They had then negotiated with the cities and towns of central California: if a town did not contribute funding to the railroad, the railroad would avoid that town--and it would in due course disappear.

It was claimed that Huntington, Stanford--then also Governor of California--and their partners had built the railroad without putting up a dime of their own money (see U.S. Congress, 1873).

By 1869 they had built the Central Pacific Railroad was built, from San Francisco out to Ogden, Utah, where it met the Union Pacific. The stockholders of the Central Pacific then discovered that the railroad was in horrible financial shape.

Some $79 million of stocks and bonds (including the $24 million from the government) had been floated, and the cash had been expended. $79 millon in cost of materials and payment for construction had been paid to the Central Pacific Credit and Finance Corporation. The Central Pacific Credit and Finance Corporation had spent some $50 million in wages and materials costs to build the railroad, and its shareholders had pocketed the remaining $30 million.

Who were these shareholders? Colis Huntington, Leland Stanford, and two of their other partners. Who were the Central Pacific executives who had approved this arrangement with the Credit and Finance Corporation? Colis Huntington, and Leland Stanford...

Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, is today a very nice place indeed.

Friday, March 11, 2016

One of these days, we need to have a discussion of Kickstarter...

... and about crowdfunding in general. Though some of the lines get a bit blurred, I think that most of us would like to see these sites funding deserving (fills a social need, is genuinely innovative) projects that can't get money through conventional channels. Most of use would also agree that it's a problem when the funding is diverted to high profile sequels, actors cashing in on their celebrity and products that major manufacturers would already be making if they were workable ideas.
Second only to the Pebble as one of the most successful Kickstarters ever, Coolest Cooler raked in more than $13 million in funding during its month-long campaign. The portable cooler is a barbecue-er’s dream, offering a battery-powered blender, a cutting board, waterproof Bluetooth speaker, a USB charger, and storage space for up to 55 quarts of chilled refreshments.
Unfortunately, the ultimate camping complement is becoming a nightmare for the company and backers alike. CEO Ryan Grepper announced last year that problems with the blender would delay the shipment of the unit this spring. Because it had to find a new source of blenders, the company also confirmed it was going to sell a select number of units on Amazon to “keep the lights on” and “make certain that every single backer’s Coolest can get made and shipped.” This decision caused an outcry among supporters, who wondered why these completed units were being sold to new customers instead of being sent to pre-order customers.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The wages of Strauss are Trump

[Yet another topic that I will have to rush through to get something on the blog -- literally dictated to my phone -- then hopefully come back later and fill in the details.]

If you start from the assumption that governing must be done by the intellectually superior elite and that handing over power to the masses will lead to disaster, you are basically faced with two choices:

You could openly tear down the democratic institutions of the country and replace them with something authoritarian;

Or, you can subvert the democratic processes so that a small, powerful group can hold power even when it entails regularly going against the will of the majority.

How can you accomplish the latter?

-You can make voting less representational, either by suppressing the vote of those who disagree with you or by seeing that it counts less through measures such as gerrymandering.

-You can make sure to control certain strategic points such as K St. or state governments during redistricting.

-You can take advantage of what might be considered inefficiencies in the issue market, finding voters who put so much value on one issue that they consistently undervalue the rest and are willing to trade them away.

-You can create a favorable media environment. For supporters you construct an immersive world of tailored news and opinion. With the mainstream media you undermine, manipulate, and intimidate.

Obviously this is just an outline. Each of these bullet points could be the jumping off point for long discussions, but I am working under the assumption that everyone reading this pretty much knows what would be said.

The point of this post is that, almost by definition, strategies and tactics designed to allow small groups to gain and hold power in a democracy are vulnerable to hostile takeover.

The fact that we just saw such a takeover isn't that remarkable; the fact it caught so many people by surprise is.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Hard to believe we've never heard of this guy

I've got a new post up at the teaching blog about showing kids how to spot questionable claims, using this article from the generally reliable Wikipedia as an example:

Wallace L. Minto (August 6, 1921, in Jersey City, New Jersey, United States – September 3, 1983) had a passion for science at a very young age. For instance, at age 13, he and his father, Wallace Milton Minto, stock piled more than 50 tons of uranium rich ore in Sparta, NJ. He was also the first to split the uranium atom while still a teenager. This nearly created an atomic explosion in his family home. At age 16, Wallace synthesized radium and invented what is now known as "Scotchlite". He had a copyright on his own periodic chart which renamed all the elements.

When only 16, he was a student at Columbia College and was later instrumental in convincing Albert Einstein to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (dated August 2, 1939) stressing the need for the United States to expand its experimentation with Atomic Energy, leading to the Manhattan Project. Consequently, Minto sold his uranium rich ore to the U.S. Government for use in the Manhattan Project.[1]

On June 26, 1944, Minto was enlisted by Dr. Andrew H. Dowdy, director of the Manhattan Department of the University of Rochester, to take charge of the Special Problems Division of the Manhattan Project. Minto reported directly to General Leslie Groves and reportedly threw Groves out of his lab for tampering with his beakers.

A useful reminder of a key life lesson

This is Joseph

A useful reminder about following one's passion:
As I've written here before, I am not a big believer in the philosophy, "Never give up on your dream. If you keep at it and never surrender, eventually you will make it." I believe the person who came up with that also used to invent "can't lose" strategies for the game of Roulette. In any game where there's a chance of winning, there's a chance of losing and in any profession that requires skill, there are those who just plain don't have enough of that skill.

And it might not be skill at writing. It might be skill at selling the work, which can be a separate but equally-necessary talent. Before you throw good years after bad, ask yourself if there's something else you could be happy doing…

This is in the context of writing, but it applies to a lot of other things.  In a real sense, the time, space, and money to fail is a benefit of social class.  This doesn't mean that people are not happy as supermarket clerks or taxi drivers -- one can enjoy that type of job.  But it's rarely a passion the way fighter pilot or astronaut (or, heck, even writer) are. 

None of which is to say that one should give up easily -- that would be too far the other way.  But if things are not improving and one keeps encountering failure then the individual best decision is to think about ways you could end up happy pursuing another outlet for one's creativity. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Context for the No-Excuses/Campbell's Law discussion

I've got a new post at the teaching blog that might be of interest.

Thinking about "teaching to the test"

Trade and Taxes

This is Joseph

This by Mark Kleiman point is excellent:
The Econ-101 case for free trade is straightforward: Trade benefits those who produce exports and those who consume imports (including producers who use imported goods as inputs). It hurts the producers of goods which can be made better or more cheaply abroad. But the gains to the winners exceed the gains to the losers: that is, the winners could make the losers whole and still come out ahead themselves. Therefore, trade passes the Pareto test.
especially when paired with:
So when the modern Republican Party (R.I.P), in the name of “small government” and opposition to “class warfare,” set its face against policies to redistribute the gains from economic growth, it destroyed the theoretical basis for thinking that a rising tide would lift all the boats, rather than lifting the yachts and swamping the trawlers. Free trade without redistribution (especially the corrupt version of “free trade” with corporate rent-seeking written into it) is basically class warfare waged downwards. 
I wonder if it is the combination of policies that is mobilizing opposition to trade agreements?  After all, to make trade deals work as a popular policy, it makes sense that one needs to make sure that the "losers" are also (at least potential) beneficiaries.  If certain social groups see trade agreements as making other people better off (while they are worse off) then it undermines the whole enterprise.

Now this argument is oversimplified (as the author acknowledges) but it's not obviously wrong and it makes sense as to why anti-trade candidates are starting to gain traction.  It's also worth noting that the decision to make trade free and taxes low is a policy decisions to favor certain groups -- not an inescapable law of markets.  Markets work fine in the presence of tariffs. 

Definitely worth thinking about

Monday, March 7, 2016

Rob Long on the television content bubble

For at least three years now, we've had a thread going questioning the viability of the scripted television boom. Back in 2013, it was an unusual argument.These days, under various names, it has become one of the hot topics in the entertainment industry.

If you are looking for a good running commentary on the industry, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything smarter or more entertaining than Rob Long's podcast martini shot. Here's his take on "peak television."

Friday, March 4, 2016

Rational decisions based on incorrect assumptions

Recently, Marco Rubio gave a speech in which he more or less boasted about calling Trump out as a con man " five days ago." This hits on a question Joseph and I have been discussing and texting over for quite a while now, why did it take so long? Why did topics like Trump University go unmentioned until the candidate was on the verge of cinching the nomination?

Joseph suggested glass houses. Lots of Republican candidates would prefer that the topic of for-profit education not come up. I am sure there is something to that but I think there is a bigger and scarier factor.

What if the people in charge of the Republican Party actually believed what they read in the paper? Even without the threat of a third party run (though that may have been the main factor), the Party had plenty of reason to be reluctant to piss off Trump. He had money, power, media access, a devoted following and a proven willingness to play nasty.

Balanced against the considerable risks of attacking Trump, what were the risks of letting him be? That depended on who you listened to. Among those with good track records, there were basically two camps: the guardedly nervous and the confidently optimistic. The first group (Paul Krugman, Josh Marshall, Jonathan Chait, et al.) considered a Trump nomination a long shot but still something to be taken seriously, partially because long shots do come in and partially because Trump would almost certainly exert considerable influence even if he didn't win the primary. The second group (which included most major data journalists) argued that Trump had virtually no chance of winning, was “not a real candidate,” and would have no significant impact on the rest of the race.

Even at the time, a lot of us pointed out problems with the optimistic camp position. The statistics cited were piecemeal and didn't come together in a coherent argument. Important parts were left out of the historical analogies. Conflicting evidence was ignored. Narratives took the place of models.  Nonetheless, the optimistic position was the overwhelming establishment favorite.

Working from those favored assumptions, the delay in hauling out the serious charges against Trump would have been entirely rational. Why engage in a costly battle against an opponent who was already on the verge of imploding?

And when those assumptions have their final, fatal encounter with reality, outcomes like this were entirely to be expected:
So many things are happening right now - mostly with the actors in question having no clear plan for what they're doing - that it's very hard to know where our politics will be a week from now let alone in six months. But there's one thing we can see clearly and it's worth noting: top Republican stakeholders are breaking a lot of china right now that will be very, very hard to unbreak. What seems most relevant to me is that almost all of this is being done with no clear sense of an end-game or even a clear plan.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

‘If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across’

More Success Academy details worth mentioning.

Mother of Girl Berated in Video Assails Success Academy’s Response

By Kate Taylor FEB. 25, 2016
In two lengthy interviews, she said that she did not know what was happening in her daughter’s classroom before she saw the video. She said that she was so upset by what she saw — and by the network’s rush to rally around Ms. Dial, while showing little concern for her daughter or other students — that she took the girl out of the school in late January.

Ms. Miranda said that while Ms. Dial had apologized to her, the teacher had never apologized to her daughter. She said that a public relations specialist for Success drafted an email for her, asking The Times not to publish the video, and that at a meeting Ms. Moskowitz held at the school on Jan. 20, Ms. Moskowitz asked the parents to support Ms. Dial and to defend the school to the paper. Ms. Miranda said that when she stood up, identified herself and objected that Ms. Moskowitz was asking parents to support the teacher without even showing them the video, Ms. Moskowitz cut her off.

“She’s like, ‘You had enough to say, you had enough to say,’ and she tried to talk over me,” Ms. Miranda said. “So I just really got frustrated, and I just walked out, and the parents that were concerned followed me, and the parents who were against me and for the teacher” stayed in the auditorium.

Ms. Miranda took her daughter home that morning and did not bring her back to the school. The next week, after confirming that there was a seat in the regular public school where her younger son is in prekindergarten, she withdrew her daughter and placed her in that school.


The video was recorded surreptitiously in the fall of 2014 by an assistant teacher who was concerned by what she described as Ms. Dial’s daily harsh treatment of the children. The assistant teacher, who insisted on anonymity because she feared endangering future job prospects, shared the video with The New York Times after she left Success in November.

After being shown the video last month, Ann Powell, a Success spokeswoman, described its contents as shocking and said Ms. Dial had been suspended pending an investigation. But a week and a half later, Ms. Dial returned to her classroom and her role as an exemplar within the network.


In an interview and at the news conference, Ms. Moskowitz dismissed the video as an anomaly, but Ms. Miranda’s daughter, now 8, said that Ms. Dial frequently yelled at students for infractions like not folding their hands. She said that she did not remember the specific incident captured on the video, but that she was afraid to ask questions in Ms. Dial’s class, because asking Ms. Dial to explain something a second time would lead to a punishment. She said Ms. Dial had on other occasions ripped up children’s papers when she thought they were copying others’ work.

She said she did not complain to her mother, because “I was scared of Ms. Dial.”

It is important to remember that we are talking about a literal "model teacher," someone whom the Success Academy officially held up as an example to train others, and she was promoted to that position because (and this is supported by everything else we know about the program) Ms. Dial provided the school with exactly what it was looking for, a high pressure environment that would get the most out of the students who could stand up to it and would chase off those that couldn't.

From the previous NYT article in the series:
Success is known for its students’ high achievement on state tests, and it emphasizes getting — and keeping — scores up. Jessica Reid Sliwerski, 34, worked at Success Academy Harlem 1 and Success Academy Harlem 2 from 2008 to 2011, first as a teacher and then as an assistant principal. She said that, starting in third grade, when children begin taking the state exams, embarrassing or belittling children for work seen as slipshod was a regular occurrence, and in some cases encouraged by network leaders.

“It’s this culture of, ‘If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across,’” she said.

One day, she said, she found herself taking a toy away from a boy who was playing with it in class, and then smashing it underfoot. Shortly after, she resigned.

“I felt sick about the teacher I had become, and I no longer wanted to be part of an organization where adults could so easily demean children under the guise of ‘achievement,’” said Ms. Sliwerski, who subsequently worked as an instructional coach in Department of Education schools.

This is the business model. You design everything around the sole purpose of optimizing one arbitrary metric regardless of the toll on the students, families and faculty, a metric that is very probably losing its value as an indicator of academic progress thanks to these practices.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

In an age of open-carry, that video would have ended very differently

From TPM

"I must say: I am completely baffled by the Trump and evangelical numbers. Bizarre," Michael Cromartie, the Vice President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, first said in response to a query on the topic.

Cromartie said that either evangelical voters are not prioritizing their values when they go to the ballot box or the definition of "evangelical" or "born again Christian" has grown too broad.

“The definition of evangelical is starting to get elastic," Cromartie said "In the past, evangelicals were people who had moral and culture conservative values and they cared less about the economy and jobs. ... Either they have put on deep dark sunglasses and are saying they like a person who speaks bluntly and emphatically about the fact that we don’t win anymore or the definition has grown too broad."

In exit polls, large numbers of Republican voters identify themselves as "evangelical or born again." In South Carolina, 70 percent of Republican voters identified as evangelical, according to a report in the National Review. But if you look more closely at the numbers, the National Review's analysis indicates that Cruz performed better in counties in South Carolina where voters reported they went to church more often. Trump, meanwhile, did better in counties where voters went to church less frequently.
This is just the latest chapter in a long-running thread. Traditional Fundamentalist Protestant evangelicalism has been dead as a political force for years now, long since replaced by a more manageable social reactionaryism. Though they share many positions, social reactionaries are generally in favor of popular public secular displays such as Xmas pageants, by definition more inclined to undo social reforms and far, far more willing to play nice with other denominations.

And, of course, more likely to vote for agnostic sybarites who promise to make America the way it used to be.

Here's what evangelicals were like when I was young.

[Courtesy of Joe Bob Briggs]

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Still don't want to push the 1964 analogy too far, but...

One of the many lessons this campaign has taught us about the press is that many, perhaps most, pundits are really bad at what George Polya would call inference by analogy. Rather than looking at historical parallels as the source of plausible hypotheses about the underlying relationships (relationships that can be explored, tested and very slightly extrapolated beyond the range of data), a shocking number of otherwise smart people seem to believe that these parallels suggest that history is simply about to repeat itself. For all its intellectual trappings, that reasoning is no more sophisticated than that of the sports fan who always puts on his lucky underwear before a big game.

Trump is not Goldwater and both the country and the Republican Party were very different in 1964 than they are today. With that in mind, there are some parallels worth considering. I've already posted the Daisy spot in response to Cruz's comments on nuclear weapons. LBJ's ads are even more relevant to recent developments in the Trump campaign.

Goldwater had similar issues. [Make sure to mute the sound if you're in public.]

The Living Room Candidate - Transcript
"KKK," Johnson, 1964

MALE NARRATOR: "We represent the majority of the people in Alabama who hate n-----ism, Catholicism, Judaisim, and all the -isms of the whole world." So said Robert Creel of the Alabama Klu Klux Klan. He also said, "I like Barry Goldwater. He needs our help."

As noted many places, the moderate wing of the GOP is freaking out over Trump (see here and here)

The Johnson campaign brilliantly exploited a similar reaction to Goldwater.

The Living Room Candidate - Transcript"Confessions of a Republican," Johnson, 1964

[TEXT: Confessions of a Republican]

REPUBLICAN: I don't know just why they wanted to call this a confession; I certainly don't feel guilty about being a Republican. I've always been a Republican. My father is, his father was, the whole family is a Republican family. I voted for Dwight Eisenhower the first time I ever voted; I voted for Nixon the last time. But when we come to Senator Goldwater, now it seems to me we're up against a very different kind of a man. This man scares me.

Now maybe I'm wrong. A friend of mine just said to me, "Listen, just because a man sounds a little irresponsible during a campaign doesn't mean he's going to act irresponsibly." You know that theory, that the White House makes the man. I don't buy that. You know what I think makes a President - I mean, aside from his judgement, his experience - are the men behind him, his advisors, the cabinet. And so many men with strange ideas are working for Goldwater. You hear a lot about what these guys are against - they seem to be against just about everything - but what are they for?

The hardest thing for me about this whole campaign is to sort out one Goldwater statement from another. A reporter will go to Senator Goldwater and he'll say, "Senator, on such and such a day, you said, and I quote, 'blah blah blah' whatever it is, end quote." And then Goldwater says, "Well, I wouldn't put it that way." I can't follow that. Was he serious when he did put it that way? Is he serious when he says I wouldn't put it that way? I just don't get it. A President ought to mean what he says.

President Johnson, Johnson at least is talking about facts. He says, "Look, we've got the tax cut bill and because of that you get to carry home X number of dollars more every payday. We've got the nuclear test ban and because of that there is X percent less radioactivity in the food." But, but Goldwater, often, I can't figure out just what Goldwater means by the things he says. I read now where he says, "A craven fear of death is sweeping across America. What is that supposed to mean? If he means that people don't want to fight a nuclear war, he's right. I don't. When I read some of these things that Goldwater says about total victory, I get a little worried, you know? I wish I was as sure that Goldwater is as against war as I am that he's against some of these other things. I wish I could believe that he has the imagination to be able to just shut his eyes and picture what this country would look like after a nuclear war.

Sometimes, I wish I'd been at that convention at San Francisco. I mean, I wish I'd been a delegate, I really do. I would have fought, you know. I wouldn't have worried so much about party unity because if you unite behind a man you don't believe in, it's a lie. I tell you, those people who got control of that convention: Who are they? I mean, when the head of the Ku Klux Klan, when all these weird groups come out in favor of the candidate of my party — either they're not Republicans or I'm not.

I've thought about just not voting at this election, just staying home — but you can't do that, that's saying you don't care who wins, and I do care. I think my party made a bad mistake in San Francisco, and I'm going to have to vote against that mistake on the third of November.

MALE NARRATOR: Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.