Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dark doings

I'm not fond of conspiracy theories in general.  Even if I am an insider, I am enough of a democrat to believe that unshared information is harmful; if I happen to know there are layoffs coming at my place of business, my pleasure at being "in the know" is more than outweighed by the damage that the information will do (and the knowledge that dissemination will allow people to prepare for that damage).  The burden of secrecy rarely has its compensations for me.

For others, though, there is a kick to the whispering and the sidelong glances, and I am willing to concede that I am outside of the norm here.  Most people derive value from being privy to "the truth," though it's amazing how often that truth turns out to be only somewhat true.  Other people seem to enjoy getting just enough of a clue that they can endlessly speculate on what the insiders aren't saying.

So I will offer to my readers the opportunity to try to ferret out the mystery that is being alluded to concerning the disappearance of the blog Carrie's Nation.  The blog continues to link only to a message, "Blog has been removed," and I certainly have no insight as to its being gone.

But 2Truthy and Melvin Toast are hinting at some kind of secret over at 2Truthy's blog in the comments to her original post, and you can feel free to speculate among yourselves.

Note: my lack of interest in the arcana does not prevent me from a thank-you to 2Truthy for her kind words in the sixth comment.  I am inadequate, as I do not fill the same niche as Citizen Carrie did, and I am unlikely to start poring over the India Times any time soon.

And to my friend mcfnord, who takes another opportunity for some mild sniping, I can only offer the wish that he would engage in discussion on what I actually write, but I have conceded the unlikelihood of that.

The first 100 days

I'm sure we're all having fun with the media's obsession with totting up the successes and failures of Obama's first 100 days in office.  This perennial exercise in reaching conclusions about very complex initiatives that have only just begun tends to devolve into an evaluation of style, one which correlates very well with one's party, one's November vote, and one's position on the political spectrum.

I refuse to play.  I've expressed reservations about some of Obama's initiatives, even though I hope they will all work like magic and this nation will be restored to, well, wherever it is it ought to be, but I find it premature to even think about summarizing his wins and losses.

However, as a former math guy, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that, had we five fingers and a thumb on each hand, we would have to wait until June 13 for these retrospectives; were we cartoon characters with three fingers, we would have done this back on March 25.  And, if we were centipedes, we'd never see day 100.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Oh, by the way

I mentioned 2Truthy in my last post.  2Truthy is the blogger who, at Losing the War on Humor, weighs in on all manner of corporate and government shenanigans in a style that I cannot begin to describe.  It's one of those blogs that consistently offers posts that I wish, just once, I could write, so wry and funny and impassioned.  You should check it out for yourself, as I'm not doing it any justice, and I don't want to start quoting, because I'll get lost in reading and blow my whole day (as it is, I'm behind on some other stuff like replying to an e-mail from my brother...just go read LtWoH and leave me out of it).

My larger point is about how we all are constrained by our tools, a point that has some connection to my post from yesterday.  I rarely mention 2Truthy, despite my admiration, because, for some reason, LtWoH doesn't work as a feed to my Google Reader.  I have it there, but no new posts ever come through.  I know 2Truthy is posting, I go there, Carrie (please come back) mentions posts there, but the site doesn't regularly bubble into my consciousness because there's never a little (1) next to it in GR.

Two lessons here: 1) for me, I need to go out and check sites I like once in a while even if Google Reader doesn't show anything; and 2) we all need to stay aware of the limitations of our tools and work to overcome them.

[Update: OK, a taste, from a recent post about everyone's favorite Pulitzer winner, Tom "Jowls" Friedman:
Rather than Tom taking his puffed up journalistic backside down to North Carolina to interview the fired locals from Wachovia who have lost their jobs because of the legalized, Indian cheap labor lobby that Friedman triumphs, he instead is content to dispense quotes from officials at companies like Infosys who are complicit in this war on America’s white collar middle class.
Friedman goes on to proclaim that we need new banking regulations that reins in the leverage and speculative trading that big banks and insurance companies can undertake. Fair enough. But THEN he displays his salesy, bag-of burning rats in a meth lab, pseudo analysis here:

“And this is ALSO why we need a tax on carbon — so we and our power utilities don't become permanently addicted to cheap coal that makes for lower electricity prices today but spits out toxic greenhouse gases that have to be paid for by future generations tomorrow.”

Huh? Coal is bad. Check. Let’s tax all those American hillbillies who rely on coal to heat their dreadful shanties. Check. Let’s tax Utility companies that don’t do business with businessman Al Gore’s portfolio companies. Check. Let’s tax every effing body in this country, while we’re at it – to subsidize all of that other gre$n stuff that Gore’s VC firm is pushing. Check!
Put that on your Friedman shelf next to Matt Taibbi.]

Does the bad news never stop?

I just caught a look at a comment on yesterday's blogging effort, and 2Truthy has informed me that, as the title of her post states, Citizen Carrie Gone Missing.  The blog Carrie's Nation now is filled with the message, "Blog has been removed."

It would be easy to be flip here, as I would assume that this is more likely to be a Blogger technical mishap (my post editing screen has been acting peculiarly the past couple of days - related?  Who knows?) than something dire, so one's first thought turn to whatever humor can be derived from it (perhaps Obama's Chief Information Officer and Chief Technology Officer, both men of Indian descent, have tired of Carrie's concerns about the reckless use of H-1B visas and offshoring, and have invoked a super-secret Dick Cheney-style law to shut her down - one only hopes that Carrie is not right now on her way to Gitmo).  2Truthy has, more entertainingly than I, covered up her concern with some light-hearted musings.

So we who care about Carrie will watch, and wait, and hope that it is nothing more than the usual Blogger foolishness, and all will be restored before too long.

An unfortunate loss

I've ruminated before on how a relationship between bloggers can feel like a friendship in that you get to know someone on at least some level as they write day after day.  Given the somewhat tenuous nature of "real" friendships, it's not a surprise to me at all that the virtual world can seem just as vivid; I may not be cracking a beer with Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune, but I do have a look into his mind several times a day.

I understand there's an unfortunate asymmetry there.  I read Zorn, but, as far as I know, he doesn't read me; since I'm not a crazy wild stalker guy, I get that we're not really friends in any definition of the word.  But I know more about what he thinks and feels, what things concern him, than I do about the majority of people I would call friends (at some point I should write a post on my "friends," because they are just about the least friend-like people I can imagine, for the folks who never initiate contact to the 20-year-long acquaintance who always makes plans to see me when she's in town and never quite is able to make it happen...but I digress).

When a regular poster leaves for whatever reason, there is a feeling of loss.  I know there are people still saddened at the passing of Tanta at Calculated Risk.  Today, the economics of the newspaper business has caught up with John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun, the copy editor whose ruminations on language and newspapers (and Wikipedia and so on) have offered insight and entertainment and food for thought on the blog You Don't Say.  I will miss him (though he promises to keep blogging).

My first temptation is to take You Don't Say off my blogroll.  After all, why should I want to drive traffic to the site of a newspaper that would lay off my friend?  On the other hand, his work still lives there, so I should probably suggest you go there, partake of his thinking, but not to look at any ads you might find.  However, the click counts will remain, so I remain caught on the horns.  I shall agree to disagree with myself, and allow inertia to leave the link, for now.

There's not much I can offer that's fresh about the implications for the newspaper business, except for this.  Mr. McIntyre has spent 23 years at the Sun, and so, whatever his age, is not in the first blush of youth.  However, he has embraced new technology, the blog, the Twitter feed, the e-mail.  He hasn't been shuffling around metal sorts while his younger colleagues smiled sadly and indulgently as they slipped his work into the computer typesetting system.  And none of that was sufficient to save his position in the cold hard calculus of today's media business.  I'll leave it to the reader to infer what he or she can about anyone's future in this economy.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Isn't the medium the message?

Yglesias, in In Defense of Twitter, contends that:
The idea of a “banal and superficial” medium simply doesn’t make much sense.
Curiously, his quote is from Twitter-using Senator Claire McCaskill, whose defense is "ultimately not that interesting."  (Talk about backhanded....)

His contention is that the medium has little to do with the message, that content should be evaluated irrespective of how it's delivered.  He has a point, I suppose, but I think he overstates it.  There are limitations in the Twitter format which make it inappropriate for certain kinds of information conveyance, and I sense that its current popularity is pushing those boundaries.

The question is not, is the medium bad, but is it being used for the right purposes?  George Stephanopoulos interviewing John McCain using Twitter may enhance both men's credentials as with-it, modern, tech-savvy guys, but it did nothing to improve the knowledge of the body politic.  A Twitter message is 140 characters - think about that, 140 characters.  There may be forms of discourse that are appropriately expressed in that space, but there are many more that cannot.

One of the discussion topics for the future is how we're going to deal with the multiplicity of platforms on which we can express ourselves.  [A related topic is how that expression will fit into a business model, but that's for another day.]  And Yglesias may not be the best person to speak to that subject, as he has far more options than most of us.  If he's writing something for his Twitter feed, and he has a thought that will take him past the 140-character barrier, he can "repurpose" it for his very successful blog.  If he has a big thought that can't be contained within the confines of his blog (or is potentially more lucrative), he has a big enough name that he can find another outlet for it, up to and including a book.

But Twitter is smoking hot right now, much more than a new blog would be, and people are going to try to utilize it regardless of message.  We'll lose some deep arguments that might have some value.  In the end, it probably doesn't matter all that much; just as we can't add infinite blogs to our feed readers and have any hope of keeping up, so too will we tend to limit our Twitter feeds, and a lot of the hype and noise will settle down (when your boss and your parents and your children are all tweeting away, are you really going to care what Ashton Kutcher has to say?).  I expect Twitter to become much like the blogosphere; local clusters will emerge and be much more important than the mass that gets the attention now.

At the same time, we can't assume that the limitations of Twitter don't make it somewhat more likely to be "banal and superficial," and it takes only a few minutes on it to convince the discerning person of that.

Note: Yglesias stumbles at the end of his post, when he writes: "There’s no tool so good as to produce good work when badly used."  That has nothing to do with the rest of this entry, as no serious person contends that Twitter magically transforms garbage into they?

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Iacocca theory

I've searched my blog, and I find no evidence I've put forth my Iacocca theory before. I find that hard to believe, as it's something I've believed since, well, Lee Iacocca would have seemed like the best illustration of that theory.

What has induced me to bring this up is a post by Greg Glockner on Decidedly, where he asks the musical question, Are "Great" Companies Just Lucky?":
When you look at an old list of "top companies" or "top executives", how many are still tops? If someone is no longer tops, what can we learn? Were they just lucky at the time that someone said they were "tops"? Or did they make some strategic blunder that caused them to fall from the top?
The Iacocca theory says: Take 100 "Lee Iacocca's," and watch them through their lives. We can even cook the game by putting them in the same circumstances, presenting them with the same options. What will happen?

Obviously, they can't all become heads of car companies and American business icons - there aren't that many spots open in a generation. My guess is that one will become the Lee Iacocca we know and love(?), nine will do very well for themselves, 50 or so will top out somewhere below the very top levels of whatever organization they end up in, 30 will stall out early through some fundamental mistake or (yes!) bad luck, and 10 will end up abject failures (or will die early or something else dire).

[Clearly those numbers are totally made up - my wife wanted me to be sure to mention that.]

If you want to seem more au courant, substitute "Bill Gates" or "Larry Ellison" or whatever business hero you have. But the point remains the same, that confusing the result with the process is a common mistake people make, that is, the assumption is that the successful had some kind of distinguishing feature that made them so successful. And that's true of companies just as it is of individuals.

Of course, there's another reinforcing factor: someone has to be in that position. Some company is going to be the number one car company, and the leaders of that company are going to seem, well, near-magical as a result. Right now Toyota's riding relatively high, and it's natural (but misleading) to focus on everything they've done right; moreover, to believe that everything they've done has contributed to that "rightness," that they are beyond criticism.

Few business leaders were riding higher a year ago than GE CEO Jeff Immelt. He seemed to have seamlessly mastered the globalization trend, taking the "legendary" Jack Welch's accomplishments on into the heavens. Now it seems clear that he was just riding the bubble, that there is little magic there, and one could easily foretell a bad end for Mr. Immelt sometime in the future. My point is not to castigate Immelt in particular, merely to point out how a year can seriously unguru some of our biggest names.

It reminds me of the studies that have been done on clutch hitting in baseball. There are few more commonly-held ideas than that there are some players who are superb in the tough situations - they rise to the occasion and carry their teams, and so are worth more than similar ball players who can't come up as big when the pressure is on.

And study after study have found that there is pretty much no clutch effect at all, that a player who does well with the bases loaded one year ("well" being defined as beyond his own norm) does not tend to see this persist year after year. Obviously, there will be the occasional player who will seem clutch for ten straight years, but no more than one would expect by chance. (There's also the memory effect in which we tend to remember the dramatic moments, all the times David Ortiz clears the bases in the 8th inning with a long double, not all the times he pops up in similar situations.)

I'm sure that Bill Gates is a pretty smart guy. I'm not sure that there aren't a whole lot of other people who would have done just as well if they had been inserted into Bill Gates's skin 30 years ago. We can't rerun history, as the saying goes.

But we need to be wary, as we evaluate individuals or companies (or any other institution), of crediting the wrong things for success that may well be indistinguishable from luck. We would do well to remember that it took even the great Bill Gates a long time to acknowledge the importance of the Internet, and only the vast market power of Microsoft kept that from being a company-killing misstep.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Review - Alphabet Juice

» Alphabet Juice

The subtitle tells you a lot of what you need to know to evaluate this book:
The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
Roy Blount Jr. is a writer of numerous books and articles that cover a large spectrum of topics, and, apparently, all the while he was harboring a love of words. Not just words that he could put together into salable writing, but words as words, and this Alphabet Juice is an exploration of words.

This is a simply wonderful book, organized in the classic way, alphabetically, as Blount takes us through "A" to "Zyzzyva." Yet it is not the typical book of word and phrase origins (as in the books by the Morrises). There are poems, and stories, and strange little fragments of ideas, so it doesn't stand so much as a reference work, but as an excursion by one writer through the language he loves.

There are a couple of things you should know before picking up this book, as it may color your view of it. First of all, Blount is prescriptive, but idiosyncratically so. He laments the loss of certain meanings and connotations as definitions change, but he has no problem with the likes of "ain't." The best summary is his own (in the entry for worthy enough):
It's up to those of us who care about words to hang on to their intrinsics and their connections - connections to the world, and to our minds and fingers. We don't have to contribute to the inflation of words. We have to struggle to keep words from becoming arbitrary.
Second, Blount is a big advocate of what he calls "sonicky," something we learned in school as "onomatopoeic," that is, the idea that the sound of words somehow reflect their meaning. It's self-evident in coinages like "fizz," but most linguists believe it a limited theory.

On the other hand, Blount embraces it wholly, and, after reading Alphabet Juice, you may be convinced yourself. At the very least, you will think more about the sounds of words, and that's enriching no matter what theory of language you prefer.

I haven't given you a real flavor of this book, so I will close with a couple of short examples. If you like these, you'll probably enjoy the book. First, under id:
Odd that this and ID are so different; the latter makes you (and your ego) respectable, the former au contraire.
And, under reservationist:
Can this, at last, be my religion? I'm not an indifferentist or a nothingarian, I'm a reservationist. One who refuses to believe in anything - even the reservations - without reservations. I'm not boasting. I'm not trying to proselytize. I'm not even saying I'm a good one. I'm just saying, that's what I am, perhaps.
This from a story about trying to hire a car to take him to LaGuardia. (And I have a sneaking suspicion that I should have named this blog The Reservationist, perhaps.)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What Cheney did to America

Andrew Sullivan wrote an excellent piece on Cheney's assertion of the "unitary executive," the idea that, in extreme circumstances (which are defined by the executive branch), the executive branch needs to be given virtually unlimited power. This idea led directly to all numbers of heinous acts, in particular the repeated torture of bad guys who had no more to give. You should read the whole thing, but here are a couple of quotes:
It ended, as all regimes bent on total power always end, with torture. Why? Because reality may differ from ideology; and when it does, it is vital to create reality to support ideology. And so torture creates reality by coercing "facts" from broken bodies and minds.

This is how torture is always a fantastic temptation for those in power: it provides a way for them to coerce reality into the shape they desire. This is also why it is so uniquely dangerous. Because it creates a closed circle of untruth, which is then used to justify more torture, which generates more "truth."
Since the war had no geographical boundaries, since an enemy combatant could be an American citizen or resident, since the enemy could never surrender, and since the war could never end, the dictatorial powers, allied with the power to torture, destroyed the balance of the American constitution. Until this is fully accounted for and the law-breakers brought to justice, that constitution remains with a massive breach below its waterline.
[Note: I changed Sullivan's title, which was "What Cheney Did To Conservatism." I grow weary of Sullivan's attempts to distinguish his brand of conservatism from real conservatism; more importantly, the Bush-Cheney regime has damaged the moral standing and authority of this nation, not just a political philosophy.]

Friday, April 24, 2009

Methinks a rather limp defence

The Economist doesn't like the opinions of Peter Coy in Business Week:
PETER COY'S rant against the entire economics profession sounds a mite bitter.
This touches on one of my "favorite" points, that "bitter" is, like comparison of anything to Hitler and the Nazis, is supposed to end the conversation:
The word "bitterness" is rapidly becoming the end of all arguments. We're asked to believe, not just here but on my blog and many other places throughout BlogWorld, that an assignment of bitterness is the ultimate in argumentation. McIntyre is "bitter" about something, and should no longer offer his reasons on the topic. I'm "bitter" about something, as a (former?) commenter expressed, and so my judgment on, say, economics or politics is immediately suspect.

Anyone who's taken Intro to Logic recognizes this for the ad hominem argument it is, but the people who use it seem to find it a devastating critique. It isn't, of course, it's just a way for a weak arguer to claim, "I win. My comments come out of passion and logic, yours merely from bitterness."
Let's move on, and see what The Economist doesn't like in Coy's piece:
The rap on economists, only somewhat exaggerated, is that they are overconfident, unrealistic, and political. They claim a precision that neither their raw material nor their skill warrants. Too many assume that people behave like the mythical homo economicus, who is hyperrational and omniscient. And they take sides in quarrels that freeze the progress of research. Those few who defy the conventional wisdom are ignored.
I expect a devastating rebuttal, but I don't get it:
That's a rather sweeping conclusion of a profession that includes more than 20,000 people in a wide variety of applications. Besides, which economist ever claimed his model predicts the future precisely? When I learned economic modelling I was told it acts as a guide, sort of like a road map. If you allow for every detail, the map is intractable, so you must make some simplifying assumptions. Those assumptions introduce weaknesses into the model; it's the trade-off of tractability for usability. Well-trained economists are mindful of this and understand that an economic model simply gives you some sense of where you are going.
True as this may be, it's certainly not the impression that economists give when they appear on news shows or in front of Congress. When an economist is interviewed, does he or she answer "I don't know" to every question?

As I've pointed out before, economists are, in private, pretty realistic about the limitations of their profession. They understand that predictions exist within a probability space, and they offer their idea of the most likely outcome. But, publicly, that's not where the money is - the light of the cameras or the lure of the lucrative lecture creates a sense of certainty where none can exist. The world beats a path to the doorstep of the eminent, asks what will happen; can we really blame a human being for succumbing to the desire of all for definitude?

The worst sin is that The Economist didn't actually read all of Coy's piece, which goes on to contend that economists are necessary, but that they need to combat their own "hubris." This is pretty good advice for any "expert."

Obviously, the best thing would be for all of us to recognize that economists are not much better or worse than the sportswriters who predict the outcome of the Big Game. Of course, we want to believe that someone, somewhere, "gets" what's going on, because we sure don't. But economics isn't there yet, and The Economist doesn't provide us any reason to hope that it will get there soon. (Their "defence" comes down to, economists all disagree, so how can they be criticized for not knowing what's going to happen? What?)

By the way, I'm not completely defending Coy's piece. At the end, he anoints Nassim "The Black Swan" Taleb as "the scholar of unpredictability," and cites one of his weakest arguments: "that nature achieves robustness through a redundancy that economists would consider wasteful: two hands, two eyes, etc." Any economist who sees two eyes as redundant needs to take a basic course in biology. Coy may want to be wary of the expertise of his experts.

Walk on - McGwire/Noonan edition

Not to keep beating on Peggy Noonan (oh, why not?), but her unconscionable remark of last Sunday about prosecution of those who condoned illegal torture ("Some things in life need to be mysterious. Sometimes you need to just keep walking. ... It's hard for me to look at a great nation issuing these documents and sending them out to the world and thinking, oh, much good will come of that.") seems to engender ever more thoughts. I wrote some here, and Andrew Sullivan continues to follow up, this time by quoting Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings:
If most people tried to make the case that prosecuting their criminal acts was just "looking backwards", or a sign that the prosecutor was motivated by a desire for retribution, they'd be laughed out of court. Imagine the likely reaction if your average crack dealer were to urge the judge not to dwell on the past, or if someone who used accounting fraud to flip houses told offered a prosecutor the chance to be "very Mandelalike in the sense [of] saying let the past be the past and let us move into the future", or if I were pulled over for speeding and, when asked if I knew how fast I was going, replied that "Some things in life need to be mysterious ... Sometimes you need to just keep walking." I don't think any of us would get very far.
And I'm reminded of Mark McGwire, baseball player. He is, famously, the player who hit 583 home runs (with 70 in a single season) who, after retirement, testified in a Congressional hearing investigating steroids in baseball:
I'm not here to talk about the past. I'm here to be positive about this subject.
That testimony made McGwire the poster boy for all that's wrong in sports today, and has made it highly unlikely that he will have a serious shot at the Baseball Hall of Fame in the near term. His attempt to erase the past was seen as evasion, and called all his accomplishments into question.

And, if the world were fair, we would do the same to Peggy Noonan. The contrast between her status as a journalist and her unwillingness to discover the truth of American-approved torture would be seen as disqualifying, and we would not only not grant her the honors she continues to receive, we would efface her from her role as leading light pundit. Her name should be just as much a joke as is that of Mark McGwire.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The new journalism

I've talked about Dean Baker before.  His blog, Beat The Press, gives an economist's take on the way financial news is reported in the media (at least, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and a very few others).  I do enjoy reading it, but, to be honest, it's one of those where, if Baker put a general statement at the top, he could save us all a lot of trouble.  (I suggested this earlier this month, that a lot of the traffic on even the best blogs could be reduced if there was a statement of principles: "Andrew Sullivan supports all measures that allow gays to marry" would eliminate 10-20% of his posts, I think.)

Baker could do the same - why do we worry about protectionism in manufacturing when we don't care about doctors and lawyers? - and save himself a lot of writing.  But that's a minor quibble, he doesn't post that much anyway.

He's often at his most amusing when writing about the objectivity of journalism.  He's pretty old school, believing (as I do) that there is value in separating reporting from editorializing, that there is such a thing as objective writing without opinion, and he is outraged when that fails to happen.  Today he's written about a New York Times story about the apparent suicide of the CFO of Freddie Mac, and he notes:
It is hard to understand how these statements appeared in a news story. The article is speculating on issues about which it has no factual information. These comments might be appropriate for an oped, but they are not news.
That's the kind of statement very common in Baker posts, and I agree, but I also see what's happening to traditional journalism.  Perhaps he should have read my post of March 18, The future of journalism:
So what I think is going to happen is that reporters are going to have to become brands, and they will be charged with providing an endless stream of content that can be "repurposed" by "content managers" (no editors here) to the various media platforms that are part of the modern news organization.... We'll see more "controversial" writers in place of solid thinking and writing (hence, new media star Karl Rove).
Blame blogging or cable news for it if you must, but news consumers are increasingly comfortable with the idea of digesting opinions with their news.  I'm not convinced they're any better at separating fact from opinion, but they're used to having it all mixed together.  Not a lot of value is attached to old-style objective reporting.

So Baker had better get used to the kinds of stories at which he rails.  I think they're ever more likely, and we'll probably never really appreciate what we've lost.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I've written before about Decidedly, the company blog of Dwaffler, which produces decision software. Greg Glockner has ably manned the blog-writing chores for quite a while, and has now been joined by Carol A. Burch (I believe she's the CEO, but I didn't do an exhaustive search for this piece of information). Her writing is different from Greg's, but she has so far proved to be an interesting voice, and I hope that having two writers will make the posts come more frequently.

Today, Ms. Burch wrote about a New York Times feature that discussed the idea that teaching could become a "fallback" career for displaced professionals. To summarize the thoughts of the five contributors (three teachers, a professor, and an economist), anyone contemplating moving to the world of education should check it out thoroughly and shouldn't assume that they'll succeed. There may also not be as many jobs there as we commonly assume (statistics here are difficult to clarify, as some factoids will tell you that there's a shortage, others that schools are having little trouble filling positions - here's an interesting study that discusses this complex issue).

Ms. Burch helpfully abstracts out the qualities of a good teacher:
  • Has depth of subject matter knowledge
  • Has the ability to transfer knowledge
  • Has a passion for the subject matter
  • Has a passion for teaching
  • Has a demonstrated ability to build trust in others
  • Demonstrates flexibility to adapt content to the learning styles of the students
  • Engages/impassions others to want to learn subject matter
  • Understands students holistically (maturity, issues, personalities)
This is as fine a set of qualities as one could put together, and anyone with all of them would probably be pretty good at the front of the classroom. Her post goes on to point out that all of these criteria, after being ranked, should be used to evaluate prospective and existing teachers, and not to encourage people without all of them to use education as a fallback.

[A note here: something I've probably pointed out before, but Decidedly is one of the better corporate blogs I've ever read. They make decision software, and their posts usually concern making decisions, but it's never so overt as to be obnoxious - "Every school system should buy our product" - and that's quiet appreciated by this reader.]

I have no issue with Ms. Burch's conclusions, but I wish to point out the impossibility of finding the requisite number of people who fit these criteria. Remember, there are more than 3,000,000 elementary and secondary teachers in the U.S., meaning that roughly 1 out of every 70 adults has to be a teacher. Look again at the list of attributes, and ask yourself whether we're likely ever to find the needed number who fulfill all of those.

Let's take one as an example, depth of subject matter knowledge. This is very hard to measure in a meaningful way. One might think that more is better, but a knowledge of, say, differential geometry is useless in any K-12 setting. I'd be surprised if even a small fraction of people who use mathematics in their jobs retain detailed insight into the ins and outs of conic sections. There is a mismatch between the skills that one uses on the job, and what needs to be imparted to the young. (Obviously, one would expect that someone with a knowledge of higher mathematics would have an easy time reacquiring "lesser" math, and that's probably right. Still, there isn't necessarily a perfect correlation.)

We could go through each of the other seven categories and point out problems, but I'll let the reader take that on. My point is that, even if we get the weights right (we want high school math teachers to have more subject matter knowledge than a third grade teacher needs), we still have the problem that we're not going to find 3,000,000 people who score 4 or 5 (out of 5) in every one of these criteria - that's just not going to happen.

So the initial question, how do we find people who are top-notch across the board?, morphs into, how do we manage the trade-offs that are inevitable? And that's the part that I never see discussed. The solution always comes down to: find good teachers, and break the unions so that we can get rid of bad teachers, and education will become great for every student.

We assume that the evaluation function is perfect, but let me pose it to you: how would you design an evaluation process that would tell you how well a teacher "understands students holistically"? I'm not ridiculing the concept, I'd like to see every teacher do that, I'm just wondering how we rate a teacher on it.

But, even if we somehow get past that problem, we're still left with the challenge of how we manage the reality that most teachers will come up short on one or more of those. There's some lip service paid to the idea of Great Teachers mentoring the newcomers, but I've never heard of such a system working totally well. And some of those attributes may be more genetic than malleable (I have no idea how you teach someone to build trust in others, at least not without a commitment to one-on-one instruction that is unlikely in cash-strapped school districts).

I don't want to be totally negative; we should be working to upgrade our schools because it's the right thing to do (I still have reservations about upgrading the supply of graduates beyond the real demand of the economy). But we need to be realistic about the likelihood that these steps will transform our schools.

In a subsequent post, I'm going to explore a possible solution to this problem, one with no chance of being implemented, but one which would at least make explicit some of the assumptions we're glossing over in our current "fix the teacher" mentality.

[Note: I discussed some of the issues in the latter part of this post in one from last month, OK, we're saved, which talked about Obama's educational initiative. I'll just recall one thing from the President's speech that has stayed with me: "By 2016, four out of every 10 new jobs will require at least some advanced education or training." The majority of new jobs, then, won't, so what is all this upgrading for, exactly?]

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Noonan - Part 2

Andrew Sullivan:
Am I the only one to free associate from Peggy Noonan's infamous quote last Sunday to the church sex abuse crisis?...And it's the same reasoning: your loyalty to an institution requires covering up its crimes, not exposing them. But there is one difference: child abuse was not the actual policy of the Vatican. Torture was the actual policy of the Bush White House. And still she walks on.
I'm sure we could find any number of other analogies, once we get into it.

Just keep walking

It's been two days, and I'm still trying to get over Peggy Noonan's appearance on Sunday's This Week (with George Stephanopoulos) on ABC. I've written about this Wall Street Journal pundit before, her hunching forward in her chair as she whispers out pronouncements about the world from her perch that we are to take oh-so-seriously. Her reporting by walking around has allowed her to miss pretty much everything that's been going on in the country, and her self-important manner is in complete contrast to the wispiness of her ideas.

Peggy and the gang, Stephanopoulos, Will, Donaldson, and Roberts, were meandering in typical fashion through the news of the week, taking their predictable positions on all things, when they came to the release of the torture memos.

[Note: Perhaps the most ridiculous criticism of the release of the memos is that it would allow the terrorists to "prepare" for torture by revealing the methods. First of all, the techniques are already out there; there didn't seem to be anything new in the memos.

Second, Chertoff and Hayden, I have a suggestion: we're going to wire your genitals to a car battery in, say, three months. You have all that time to prepare, so I'm sure you'll breeze right through it, right?

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the average person can withstand a pain level of 3 on a 0-10 scale. So we tell our enemies that we torture, so they begin to prepare themselves. They get up to the point where 6 is no problem, then we capture them. And...we turn it up to 7.]

I've expressed reservations over putting various members of the Bush administration on trial. I'm not certain the country is well-served by what would be lengthy and partisan trials. (I'm unsettled by the prospect of a lengthy trial of Illinois ex-governor Blagojevich, but it must happen under our system.) There was a lot of fear in the aftermath of 9/11, so, while I support a complete release of the facts, I'm still not convinced that turning that truth into a criminal proceeding against Bush, Cheney, and the others who approved of these activities serves any purpose. Frankly, either option makes me ill.

And then comes Peggy. She definitely feels we need to move on, which she expressed as, "Some things in life need to be mysterious. Sometimes you need to just keep walking. ... It's hard for me to look at a great nation issuing these documents and sending them out to the world and thinking, oh, much good will come of that."

As a result, I've changed my opinion. That this wealthy, respected opinionator could, in her usual flippant manner, could believe that we should just gloss over this, the systematic (and ineffective) torture of prisoners in our custody is revolting. She would happily cloak herself in the 1st Amendment if anyone tried to abridge her freedom of the press, but her desire to discover the truth, which ought to serve as her job description, is conditional on what might be found - and who might be found under the rock.

If Peggy Noonan feels that our democratic government should cover things up, that we "need to be mysterious," that we "need to just keep walking," then she should walk right out of her cushy sinecure, her lush job pontificating to the great unwashed, and take some time to explore what other acts would deserve the brush-off. If someone breaks into her lavish digs and steals all her stuff, maybe the NYPD should just keep walking.

So, inspired by Peggy's limp thinking, I now believe we need to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. If Bush and Cheney violated the laws of this land, put them on trial. The lawyers who wrote the opinions that permitted the use of illegal tactics should be turned out; at a minimum, Bybee should be impeached and Yoo should be kicked out of Berkeley. Maybe Peggy will quit and join the defense team, using her novel strategy of "keep walking."

Monday, April 20, 2009

Will employment really get back?

A sobering post from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta studying the growth of employment after recessions. There is little in the way of hard and fast conclusions, given the small number of data points and the changes in the world, but the 2001 recession may be the closest indicator:
The two most recent recessions, which had relatively low rates of job decline, had very drawn-out employment recoveries. In 2001, employment—growing at an average annualized rate of 0.3 percent—took 35 months (nearly three years) to return to prerecessionary levels. The average rate of employment growth was also approximately 0.3 percent after the 1990–91 recession. But because the share of employment lost was less, employment returned to prerecession levels in 19 months.
The post tries to derive some sense of what could happen this time:
If the current recession ended today with a 2.7 percent job decline, and postrecession employment growth resembled the recovery from the 1981–82 recession, then employment would return to prerecessionary levels in approximately 14 months. But if the employment growth path is more similar to the two most recent recessions, then it would take well over eight years for employment to return to prerecession levels.
Since the recession does not appear to be ending today, this has to be seen as optimistic, and one would have to lean toward the eight-year side of things. This is scary.

Steve Benen had something similar in a piece about a Washington Monthly print story by economist James Galbraith. He quotes the editor's note by Paul Glastris:
If Galbraith is right -- and I fear he is -- it means that tens of millions more Americans will be out of work in a year or two or five, even if the stimulus creates all the jobs the president expects. It means that the big banks really are 'zombies' that will neither resume normal lending nor grow their way out of insolvency regardless of how much money the Treasury pours into them. It means that the auto companies will burn through every dime the government lends them and still not turn a profit.
(Galbraith's story is here. Essentially, he believes that the current situation may lie outside the traditional models, leaving us in a state from which proposed methods will be insufficient. Banking may not just come back, and the rest of the economy will be similarly crippled for years to come.)

It's growing increasingly difficult to look at what's happening and believe that, after some rough months, we'll just end up on the upward glide-path to success. It may well be that something is irretrievably broken, and we may just have to steel ourselves to living in a different America.

[Note: I didn't look at the comments to the Fed piece until after I finished this post, but there are some good thoughts there. Sandwichman points out the story is not told wholly by numbers:
Those red, blue and orange lines are not just measuring a change in quantity of an unvarying commodity, they are also concealing the changing characteristics of the jobs being measured. The recovery from this recession is likely to involve a much greater qualitative change in jobs than the previous recoveries. The pace of that recovery thus will reflect how quickly the process of change occurs, not simply a quantitative "return to pre-recession levels."
This part should never be forgotten when people talk about the recovery. The post-recession landscape will be seen as positive only if we end up with an increase in opportunity for all Americans, something that seems increasingly unlikely.]

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review - Pieces of My Heart

I can't say I've ever spent a lot of time thinking about actor Robert Wagner. He was one of the last products of the great studio systems that chose and groomed young talent, but he came along at a time when the industry was transitioning away from this controlled environment, and acting itself was under assault from the method acting that soon came to dominate the major films. Wagner always struck me as a minor talent, a very nice man, a pleasant actor who competently hit his marks and said his lines.

And there's nothing in his autobiography, Pieces of My Heart: A Life (2008), that will make you see him much differently. There are no moments in reading these 324 pages that will make you stop and say, "Oh, he was in that movie, maybe I've underrated him all these years." He was a young kid who loved the movies and grew up to be in them, and he's filled a slot in Hollywood history that could easily have been filled by any other reasonably good-looking fellow who worked hard enough to be competent at the craft.

I don't think, based on what I read here, that Wagner would be terribly offended by what I wrote in the above paragraph. He seems to have made his peace with the reality that he hasn't changed the history of cinema, with a perspective that is surprisingly sane and even-keeled.

For this book isn't really a movie memoir, but rather, as the title implies, a chronicle of the people he's met and who have mattered to him. The films and TV shows are here, but mostly as a device to frame the characters who have filled his fascinating life. Of course, he talks at length about his first (and third) wife, Natalie Wood, and even discusses her drowning in a way that he apparently never has before.

But there are so many others, and most are from so-called Old Hollywood. Wagner has had amazing fortune at getting close to many of the great stars (most notably Barbara Stanwyck, with whom he had a long-term affair when he was 22, she 44). He was also close to Gable and Tracy, and learned a lot about professionalism from them. There are some wonderful stories about Fred Astaire.

In many ways, Wagner appeared to be closest to David Niven. He tells many tales of Niven's personal kindness to his family, most particularly after the death of Wood. This seems fitting to me, in that Wagner and Niven have similar careers. Both had a certain charm, brought a sense of ease to their roles, but neither really ever had that star-making role; was the talent not there, or the hunger, or the luck?

But, again, that seems to be all right for Wagner. He's had a good life, one that hasn't entirely depended on the big roles or Oscar nominations, one that's been filled with good friends and good times (and a bit of heartbreak). His book will not force you to reexamine his career, but it is a pleasant walk through a piece of Hollywood history. It's not a whitewash - there are plenty of people Wagner didn't like at all - but it does add to the lore of some of the big names of movies.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Some yea, some nay

Steve Yegge is a big-time computer programmer, well-known in the industry, and he has a blog (Stevey's Blog Rants) where he posts about 15 times a year. This is not quite as limiting as it sounds, as his posts tend to be quite long; his most recent goes about 5500 words. His posts may touch on programming, but are by no means confined to that, and are always at the very least interesting.

His most recent post, Have you ever legalized marijuana?, is pretty good...for the first two-thirds, then goes off the rails. In that first two-thirds, you may wonder when Yegge will get around to discussing marijuana. After that, you'll wonder why he bothered.

The post is built around Dan Ariely's idea of "credit buckets," that is, partitioning people's credit limits by category. In that way, the consumer could manage credit at a more granular, and presumably more controllable, level. In effect, the very structure of the buckets would enforce a kind of spending discipline (you'd be limited in how much you could spend on gas, or on food).

The first inclination I have is to see the ways this wouldn't work. Wouldn't the average consumer just use more credit cards to get around these limits? I'm sure you can think of more. But I have to concede that awareness is a great deal of the problem, and the bucket idea might reduce the casual misuse of credit.

Ariely, in his book Predictably Irrational, goes on to talk about how he actually presented this idea to a bank board of directors, and how they never did a thing about it. Yegge then speculates that such a feature would work against the goal of the bank, which is, after all, to get people to use as much credit as possible, and it certainly has no problem with overdraft fees. This shows, yet again, according to Yegge, why "the banks are evil."

But then Yegge puts on his programmer hat, ponders how this simple idea would actually gets done, and theorizes as to the preliminary questions he would have to ask his boss (I will quote the entire list except for the last item):
  • Can customers control the buckets, or are they fixed?
  • If fixed, how many are there? What are their names?
  • Let's assume for the remaining questions that they are NOT fixed, since a predefined set of buckets would be "insanely stupid" and rejected by customers. So, how many buckets can a customer make? Min and max?
  • Can customers give the buckets names? If not, do they have to use numbers?
  • What characters can they use in the name? What's the maximum length? If we need to truncate the name in a printed statement, how do we truncate it?
  • Can a customer change their buckets mid-month?
  • Can a customer change their buckets between months? What if their balance is nonzero? Can they transfer balance between buckets?
  • Can a customer change the name of a bucket? Do names have to be unique?
  • Exactly how does a customer name a bucket? Online? Over the phone? By snail mail forms? Talking to bank teller? All of the above?
  • Same question for all other configuration settings. How? Where?
  • Do credit-card customer service reps have to know about the buckets? How much do they have to know? (hint: everything) Is there training involved? (hint: yes)
  • Do the customer-service tools have to be redesigned to take into account this bucketization?
  • What about the bank's customer self-service website?
  • What about the phone interactive voice-response tree?
  • What about the software that sends email updates to the customer?
  • What about the software that generates printed billing statements? How exactly does it represent the buckets, the individual spending limits and balances, the carry-overs from month to month, the transfers, the charge-backs, the individual per-bucket fees?
  • What about the help text on the website? What about the terms and conditions? What about the little marketing pamphlets? Should they try to explain all this shit, or just do some hand-waving?
  • Can a customer insert a new bucket into the list? How are the credit limits of the remaining buckets re-allocated? What if adding a new bucket puts one or more of the older buckets over the limit? Do we charge fees? Do we tell the customer they're about to be charged a fee right before they create the bucket? Is it, like, OK/Cancel? Do we send them a follow-up email telling them they just fucked themselves over? What exact wording do we use?
  • Can a customer delete a bucket? What if there's money in it? What if it's overdrawn? How do we represent the overdraft fee in the database? How do we show the deletion event in their bill?
  • Can a customer merge or consolidate buckets?
  • What if a customer has an emergency situation, plenty of limit in other buckets, and they really really need to charge to a couple of buckets, but they want to avoid an overdraft fee? What do they do? Are the buckets mandatory or discretionary?
  • How the hell do we even tell if they're buying "chocolate", anyway? The vendor doesn't tell us the purchase type. How do we know how to charge the right bucket? What if it's ambiguous? What if the buckets overlap? Does the customer need a point-of-sale interface for deciding which bucket to put the charge in? Can they do "separate checks" and split the charge into several buckets?
  • Where are you going? Answer me!
If you're not a programmer, or you've never been in a position in which you have to implement someone else's "great idea," you may not realize that this list is just the tip of the iceberg. These are just business-level questions, they don't even delve into the technical details. Chances are this bucket idea would cut across pretty much every existing system the bank has, which may well be divided by programming teams, so there are big organizational problems as well.

And for what? For a feature that might or might not bring in any additional customers, and would almost certainly only bring them in by promising them that they would end up paying less to the bank. It's going to be real hard for the financial analysts to create a scenario in which the return on investment is positive.

I've worked on quite a few development projects in my time, and occasionally one of these things gets championed by a high-enough executive that it gets approved, and they pretty much all end badly (some time I'll tell the story of what happened when my management decided a new order and inventory system "needed" to be accompanied by a new user interface paradigm; it was not delightful).

Yegge goes on to apply this same kind of analysis to the legalization of marijuana, which he in general favors. But then he thinks of all the difficulties of implementing such laws, and finds that they get mired in the same complexity as credit buckets, and this is where the post kind of goes off the rails.

Because Yegge believes that making these laws are analogous to creating a complex piece of software, that it's an implementation of a project. The reason that the analogy doesn't hold up is that our political/legal system is built around just these sorts of issues, and the questions that he raises are not seen as deterrents.

If even one component of the bucket software doesn't work, it can prove calamitous for the project as a whole. If one component of the marijuana law doesn't work, well, people work around it in some way. Either the unworkable parts are ignored by law enforcement, or the public attorney avoids bringing charges around the problematic pieces, or the whole thing is left to the judiciary to interpret or rule. The imperfections that come out of the inability for people to anticipate every possible implication are handled by other people; if the problems rise to high-enough awareness, new laws are passed to delineate or modify the old law.

And that's why this post is valuable, even for non-technical people. Yegge's list of questions about the credit bucket project needs to be answered before work can begin. You can't just write up some of it, throw it out there, and hope it works (note that I'm not claiming that's true of all software, as there are projects that can be rolled out incrementally - but even that needs to be explicitly planned out). I don't believe the average person realizes just how difficult it is to create computer systems, and I think they should.

Friday, April 17, 2009


I know I'm critical of Yglesias from time to time. Occasionally, in my opinion, he shorthands some items, likely in his haste to push out x number of blog posts a day. Perhaps it is true that standards for blogging should be lowered in light of its immediacy, but that's not an excuse for publishing something that's too doctrinaire, not thought out enough.

In general, though, Matt puts out some pretty good stuff, like this post (Ideas Matter). He agrees with Keynes that "the ideas of economists and political philosophers...are more powerful than is commonly understood":
I think that the questions that political philosophers have taken to debating professionally in recent decades have a limited relevance to contemporary politics. But I think a number of fairly abstract misguided ideas in ethics, political philosophy, and economics have come to have extraordinary cultural and political power in the United States and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the English speaking world, all to incredibly pernicious effect. What’s more, though most of these ideas are propounded, originally, by people whose degrees are in economics most of them are really ideas of a philosophical character.
Clearly, one reason I like this is that I have contended several times (on this blog, and many more in life - just ask my long-suffering wife) that modern economics, for all its supercomputer models and calculus equations, continues to be far closer to the field of political philosophy than its practitioners would like to admit.

Yglesias cites three examples:
1) One important set of ideas is the perverse notion that it’s wrong or inappropriate to subject people to moral criticism for making selfish decisions as long as the decisions don’t involve breaking the law.
On this, I'm not sure Yglesias goes far enough. For the last umpteen years, it has not only not been morally wrong to be selfish, it's been lauded as right, as desirable, as American. A great number of greedy people who have read only selectively from Adam Smith have convinced themselves that, in the words of Gordon Gekko, "Greed is good."

(Note: I wonder if it didn't unhinge Oliver Stone more than a bit to see the lesson he wanted to teach in the movie Wall Street be so perverted, to the extent that the above quote has been seen as a slogan, not a warning.)

There's been no end of economists backing this up, contending that unchecked greed is the basis for our wealth-producing capitalist system. We've focused so much on "growing the pie" that we missed the reality that a lot of people were getting none, while fewer and fewer had it all over their piggish faces.

2) Under guise of eschewing values, economics has adopted a philosophical value system which says that the well-being of rich people is more important than the well-being of poor people.
It may only be a coincidence that economists can do pretty well working for think tanks that are supported by rich people, or by giving lucrative lectures to audiences made up of rich people.

3) As a society we’ve become accustomed to the idea that when empirical evidence seems to contradict basic economic theory—as when the United States experienced rapid economic growth under conditions of widespread unionization and a high minimum wage—that we ought to accept the theory as true.
Belief in economic theory tends to come and go depending on the person who is paying the bills, or, at least, that person's political leanings. Furthermore, if basic economic theory conflicts with what people want to hear, that theory tends to get lost.

For example, if a wealthy country suddenly sees the expansion of a low-cost, accessible labor supply, basic economic theory suggests two things will happen: first, the number of jobs available in the wealthy country will decline; and second, the wages that the remaining jobs will pay will decline. (There is a trade-off between these two effects that depends on several factors - the slope of certain curves - but both should happen to some extent.)

That's a very ugly conclusion to try to sell to Americans (the wealthy country), that globalization, for all its wonders, has some deleterious effects on numerous categories of workers, that it represents a major redistribution of income. (That's actually pretty ironic if you think about it. The Republicans who are insisting that Obama is a socialist for raising a tax rate by a few percentage points are generally supportive of a policy that has resulted - and will result - in a massive redistribution of wealth and income.)

Yglesias concludes:
Ultimately I do think that these big ideas matter as well. They’re enormously important in terms of setting the terms of political debate, in terms of influence what’s considered “possible” and what kinds of people have standing to have their views taken seriously. Building a better world ultimately requires getting people to understand that both the empirical and philosophical underpinnings of America’s free market society are much weaker than is generally understood. That doesn’t mean these questions will ever be debated by politicians at a live town hall. But it does mean trying to press a better understanding of these issues on the mass elite who set the tone for much of American political life.
We might hope for that, but I'm skeptical. Not that our mass elite is blind to the things that matter. George Will, for example, has nailed down America's biggest problem: the wearing of blue jeans.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bigger scoops, I guess

Maybe someone can explain this to me. Several years ago, Kellogg's had a big ad campaign to show us that every box of Raisin Bran contained two scoops of raisins. [Note: I did some Googling, and apparently the slogan has been reintroduced to Canada.] While that isn't the big thrust of their marketing campaign, it's still featured on their box; we can see the words "Two Scoops!," and a smiling sun is holding a scoop of raisins in each hand.

Here's my question. The 20 ounce box features "Two Scoops!" The 25.5 ounce box features "Two Scoops!" I'm not going to make a trip to the store just for this meager blog post, but I would guess the 15 ounce box looks pretty much the same.

So, do the various sizes have different-sized scoops, or are we getting ripped off raisin-wise when we buy the large size?

Added note: There is a result from math, counter-intuitive to some, that in a container that holds two different sizes of bodies, if you agitate the container sufficiently, the smaller bodies fall to the bottom. Some people think the heavier ones drop to the bottom, but what actually occurs is that the small ones can easily move downward, so they congregate there.

I'm guessing some work went into raisin bran to get the size of the flakes right. If they're too big relative to the raisins, all the fruit would end up on the bottom. Generally, that doesn't happen.

Added added note: Before I published this, I decided to go out and see if anyone had looked into this before (nice Internet). Naturally, some people have. The two examples I found are both from students, which isn't too surprising.

The first just wanted to see what constituted a scoop, so he took a single box (475 g - cursed Canadians and their funny metric system - that's about 16-3/4 oz) and found that each scoop is about half a cup. No answer to my question here.

The second was far more methodical, taking two boxes each of the 15, 20, and 25.5 ounce sizes, and counting the number of raisins in each (of course, this work had more resources, involving a PhD and a JD). The two hypotheses tested were:

(A) Scoop size is independent of box size. In other words, the same scoops are used to add raisins to each box, regardless of box size, so that the number of raisins per box is constant.

(B) Scoop size is proportional to box size. In other words, larger scoops are used for the larger boxes so that the number of raisins per ounce of cereal remains constant.

The empirical data, which is limited in applicability by the small sample size (only two boxes of each size), failed to support either hypothesis. There was a lot of variability in the number of raisins, both within the sizes and across them. Raisins per ounce varied from 12.1 to 19.1.

My conclusion: Kellogg's may not be using a scoop at all!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How can we miss her if she never goes away?

From Philadelphia:
He mishandled her national rollout to the public, botched her relationship with the media and now supporters of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin are charging Sen. John McCain with snubbing his former running mate during an interview on NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” Monday night.

Mr. McCain is coming under fire for his conspicuous memory lapse when listing the names of Republican governors who could be the next in line to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012. Mrs. Palin did not make the cut.

“We have, I’m happy to say, a lot of voices out there,” Mr. McCain told host Jay Leno before listing Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Utah Gov. Jim Huntsman, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. “There are a lot of governors out there who are young and dynamic.”
Let's back up a minute. He "mishandled her national rollout," he "botched her relationship with the media"?

John McCain, whatever he might have improved operationally, took a no-name governor from a small-population state and turned her into a national figure by tapping her as his running mate. Without McCain, Palin doesn't have a PAC, isn't on everyone's short list for consideration in 2012 or 2016, is as obscure as Donald Carcieri.

She sat in the interview with Katie Couric, not John McCain. She was the one unable to answer simple questions, a lack that proved to a lot of people that she was nowhere near the level we'd expect of someone very likely to take over the presidency.

I understand that this Joe Murray who wrote the article is a former staffer for Wildmon's American Family Association, so unbiased journalism is not remotely possible here, but couldn't he at least try to be credible in making an argument?

Is there no shame?

In celebrity/political news:

When he was indicted, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich went to Disney World. Now that he’s been arraigned on federal corruption charges, Blagojevich wants to head off to the jungles of Costa Rica.

Blagojevich has signed on to do the “Survivor”-style reality show “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here” that’s to be filmed in June in Costa Rica.

The prime-time NBC program will pay contestants up to $80,000 an episode. Until they’re voted off, anyway.

Celebrity? An elected representative of the people who has abused the power of his office (even if we ignore the specific charges against him), who has accomplished very little other than self-aggrandizement, who preposterously believed that he would become President one day, this man is a celebrity?

There are families that would love to make $80,000 a year, and this pompous, laughable, despicable figure is going to make this per episode (and rub shoulders with the likes of Nancy Kerrigan - whoo!) after abusing the trust of the people who gave him what fame he has.

He clearly has no shame, no self-awareness. But what does this say about the people who will be watching?

Prices are down. That's good. No, it's bad...

From the AP:
Consumer prices dipped unexpectedly in March, leaving inflation over the past year falling at the fastest clip in more than a half-century. The recession is expected to keep a lid on inflation as widespread layoffs dampen wage pressures and weak demand keeps companies from raising prices....It was a better performance than the 0.1 percent rise in the Consumer Price Index that economists had expected.
So that's great news, right? "Better" performance?

Maybe not:

Over the past 12 months, core inflation has risen 1.8 percent. While some economists have expressed fears the recession could spawn a destabilizing period of falling prices, other analysts point to the rise in core inflation as evidence that deflation remains only a distant threat.

In fact, some economists worry that all of the moves the Federal Reserve has made to fight the recession and the worst financial crisis in 70 years could be sowing the seeds for inflation troubles down the road.

Well, that actually sounds pretty dire. I'm getting a little confused as to whether we have deflation or inflation, and whether we have good news or bad. If only some learned fellow could put my mind at ease:
In a speech Tuesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke repeated assurances that the central bank is always mindful of the threats of inflation and is prepared to remove the monetary stimulus it has provided once the economy shows signs of stabilizing.
Oh, OK then. The central bank is on top of it, and will suck all the money out of the economy, the billions and billions of dollars, once there are "signs" of things going better.

Sarcasm aside, we need to be very afraid of this. There are two massive forces colliding, one deflationary as wages and prices are cut, the other inflationary, as the Fed pumps money into the economy. As long as they remain roughly in balance, we'll see only mild price changes.

If we listen to the Chairman, we would believe that the Fed is so thoroughly attuned to the health of the economy that it will know exactly when things are turning around and will remove "monetary stimulus." This is code for money supply and interest rate changes (those are the two monetary tools the Fed has at its disposal).

This is the same Fed that did nothing to curb a tech boom 10 years ago, and did nothing to curb the housing boom of these past several years.

More importantly, monetary policy is not what we're using to put people to work and get the economy moving. We're using fiscal policy, as the government shovels money out the door to soak up all that unused supply of labor.

However, the stimulus money, quite a bit of it, has been marked for long-term projects, infrastructure improvements, just as all the economists and pundits told us it should be. These projects, despite the use of the term "shovel-ready," tend to take a certain amount of time to wind up, and they also are predominately atomic (that is, a single indivisible unit).

For this kind of fine tuning to work, we had better be prepared to see roads to nowhere, bridges half completed, wind farms abandoned...but we know that's not going to happen. Even after the economy starts to turn around, we're going to be committed to finishing these projects, and that will cause distortions in the recovery - even, potentially, more bubbles. We could very easily end up lurching back and forth from boom to bust, never quite getting a handle on doing things that lead to long-term growth and stability. And I don't even need to mention the political swings that will come about.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

(W)age discrimination revisited

I may have understated the problem last Saturday when I contended that age discrimination can be explained, at least in part, by expectations about the future:
If a company takes a chance and hires the older person for $40K, there is the real possibility that another company might come along two months later and decide to pay that person something closer to their previous salary. Then the company is out time and money, plus having their technology exposed to someone who's gone. It's a lot easier just to hire someone who's happy to get the $40K to begin with.
I still believe that's a real mechanism, but The New York Times has quite the sobering article:
But unemployed baby boomers, many of whom believed they were still in the prime of their careers, are confronting the grim reality that they face some of the steepest odds of any job seekers in this dismal market. Workers ages 45 and over form a disproportionate share of the hard-luck recession category, the long-term unemployed — those who have been out of work for six months or longer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics....Even when they finally land jobs, they typically experience a much steeper drop in earnings than their younger counterparts.
The piece also cites the fairly well-known study in which a professor sent out resumes that differed only in age. Younger workers were 40% more likely to be called for an interview.

There's a real disconnect here among various trends:
  • We're going to "reform" Social Security at some point by delaying payouts (we've already done that to some extent) under the theory that people are living longer and, therefore, can work longer.
  • An inability to effect meaningful monetary policy has created the necessity of less-effective fiscal policy, which is justified by one and all as filling the need of getting the un- and underemployed back to work, soaking up all that unused capacity.
  • Workers over 45 are finding it hard to stay employed or get reemployed - and they're only about halfway through their working lives.
These simply don't fit together, in that we have an experienced population that is going to be asked to work longer at jobs that don't exist for them. There will likely be people who contend that this is a good thing, that workers will have to plan their lives better, not count on 40 years of earnings and Social Security.

I'm not qualified to talk about whether this will eventually be better in the sociological sense. What I do know is that the large number of folks who worked under the old assumptions are going to be in a lot of trouble as the world changes, and we as a society ought to figure out how we're going to look after Grandma and Grandpa when their security guard jobs are still not enough to keep them from eating cat food.

Monday, April 13, 2009


It has come to my attention that someone has started a Facebook group for fans of this blog. I'm not exactly sure how I feel about that, just as I'm not sure how I feel about Facebook in general. It's flattering in a sense, but I have no idea how anyone is supposed to use it or enjoy it.

A few months ago, I got on Facebook, mainly to see what it was about (I've criticized it a few times for being relatively content-free, and I really can't do that unless I have some experience with it; my experience has not changed that opinion). I don't really feel like doing a detailed critique of social networking sites right now, but it strikes me that Facebook and MySpace tend to be relatively passive ways of maintaining what they have brilliantly called "friendships." There is an illusion of intimacy that comes from being enmeshed in the minutiae of someone's day-to-day life, but that's a far cry from being an actual friend.

I'm sure there are those who could find ways in which Facebook has actually enhanced life; I know it's been used as a platform for fund-raising (though I'm not certain that Facebook is required for that), but I wonder about costs vs. benefits. A lot of people spend a whole lot of time on what strikes me essentially as filling in a form (for those people who think that engaging in social networking is somehow high-tech, let me tell you - it's not). Are the benefits that these sites provide really worth the time and energy people spend on them? I guess that's a personal decision, but I didn't find it especially compelling.

Twitter is similar, something that I've been on and not been grabbed by, but I know quite a few people who find it useful (though they may actually mean "interesting," which is something quite different). Of course, I spend rather too much time on this blog, and I would guess many would find that a waste of time. Each to their own, I suppose.


A question for the gathered throng: When do titles expire, or become ex-? I ask this because, in watching This Week on ABC yesterday, George Stephanopoulos and his guests did something I've heard before, and that is to refer to guest Newt Gingrich as "Speaker."

Last I checked, Gingrich wasn't speaker of anything except his own particular (and rather strange) view of the world. He was Speaker of the House, but that ended over 10 years ago. While it might be ungainly to refer to him constantly as "ex-Speaker," that argues for dropping the whole thing, not for dropping just the "ex."

Is there some standard published somewhere that tells us which titles expire and which don't? I know that Miss America becomes a former Miss America the minute the crown is placed on another woman's head, and Presidents of the United States seem to remain "Mr. President," but, for all the titles in between, I just don't know.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A worthwhile hour

For me to write about a television show that has finished its run for the year, and won't be back for nine months, seems pointless. But Friday Night Lights, which had its season finale on NBC on Friday, is performing at such a high level that I'm going to call it out before memory fades.

You can find plenty of tributes to FNL on the Web - it's a real critical favorite - and I don't need to recount most of that. The actors, led by Kyle Chandler (and hasn't he done a nice job of overcoming his work on What About Joan; how has he kept his name off the IMDB page for that stinker?) and the writers have created complex, believable characters. The style, featuring handheld cameras and, apparently, improvisation, gives an intimacy to the show that's hard to match.

But I also like how issues are woven into the show through telling stories, rather than by didactically hitting the viewer over the head (the way this blog does sometimes, unfortunately). The conflict between the needs of education and the mania for the football team (a less artistic presentation here) was illustrated through the means of a booster-desired Jumbotron screen in the face of teacher cutbacks. That didn't come to a neat, happy resolution, which is pretty real.

The character of Tyra, well played by Adrianne Palicki, is a young woman who has come of age over the three seasons. Tyra, as we first knew her, was lost, hiding whatever her real talents were in romance and a who-cares attitude. Then she, for various reasons, got serious about school and her future. Without spoiling the final episode, I'll just say that it makes you think about the importance we place on young people making the right decisions off the bat, regardless of what role models they have or resources they can draw on. That a clearly smart young woman as Tyra can worry about whether she can go to college, even though her last two years were filled with achievement, feels wrong, in that we expect 14-year-olds to understand that their future depends on what they do right now.

The show is not, naturally, perfect. The football sequences are pretty poor, with far too many last second victories (or losses), and a real lack of coherence. There are times when characters are far too articulate - Tyra's mom has a speech in the next-to-last episode this season that has no precedent in anything we've ever seen from this character. Lyla is #2 in her class (because we know #1 just must be a grind, no one we'd ever want to hang with).

Some of these flaws are explainable by the exigencies of television. In real life, Tyra's mom might have said something far less articulate but equally understandable by her daughter, but it needs to be unpacked for the mass audience. The football games are meant to be significant, so are bended to the needs of the show.

These things aside, FNL is a welcome change from gritty police dramas and blue-lit procedurals and ersatz reality shows. If you haven't been watching (and, according to the ratings, most of you haven't been), you can catch up on NBC or buy the DVDs. I'd strongly recommend you add this show to your list - and it's been renewed for two more seasons, so you still have a chance to jump on board (even though it won't be back on NBC until it's finished its run on DirecTV, an unusual arrangement that splits the costs and helps the show survive).

Saturday, April 11, 2009

(W)age discrimination

There's been a lot of talk lately about age discrimination, especially in technical fields. It's been occurring to many of us that our experience and wisdom is being ignored in favor of the perceived advantages of youth, their "fresh outlook" and their "eagerness." For those of us in the knowledge fields who don't think enthusiasm trumps knowledge, that kind of statement is profoundly ignorant and insulting. While some people over 40 do become ossified in their thinking, stuck in a morass of 20-year-old knowledge, most I have known retain their interest and aptitude for solving problems by whatever means necessary. They are adept at learning new things, and the base of knowledge they already have makes that learning far easier than for someone, no matter how great their enthusiasm, who does not have that base.

None of what I've written so far is anything new, and other observers of this phenomenon have hit upon the idea of cost. Why pay an older person $80K, when you can get two young people for the same amount of money who will work incredible hours (no families yet) and bring cutting-edge ideas from their education?

That the older person may have the experience to know what does and doesn't work, allowing him or her to cut through the noise and solve the problem in less than half the time, doesn't occur to those who prefer to look, not at efficiency, but at cost per employee.

But there's another factor, and, that is, older people have been beaten down by the job market. Many of them would be perfectly happy to get to do what they want and love, even if the pay were considerably less than they received during the good times. Yet many still languish, working, if at all, in jobs that offer less challenge than they can handle, or worse working conditions than would be ideal. So why are they not snapped up?

[Note: I am not unaware of the argument that says employers prefer younger people because they have longer potential tenure. I just think it's wrong. I know of no statistics to back me up, but I'm guessing that it's at least as likely for a 55-year-old to still be with a company after 10 years as it is for a 25-year-old.]

It's easy to look at age discrimination as the answer, and de facto that's what we have, but I think the mechanism is a bit different from, "we don't like having old people around." Here's my analogy.

Let's say you engaged in an auction, but the rules were different. You would have to pay something every time you made a bid. Of course, this would change your behavior, perhaps to the point where the auction couldn't take place at all. If the payment was at all significant, you wouldn't make any trial bids early in the process, you'd wait until you were pretty much sure of winning...which you would never be.

This is analogous to what happens in the hiring process. If a company takes a chance and hires the older person for $40K, there is the real possibility that another company might come along two months later and decide to pay that person something closer to their previous salary. Then the company is out time and money, plus having their technology exposed to someone who's gone. It's a lot easier just to hire someone who's happy to get the $40K to begin with.

In this way we see the exclusion of people who have ever made more money than the current prevailing wage, creating a class of formerly successful people who now have far less chance of being employed. As a result, there is a tendency on the part of these people to downplay their experience (once again, I have no proof that this is happening, the "puffing down" of resumes, but I'd be very surprised if it isn't).

Economics doesn't do a good job of capturing this, given its propensity to believe that people move effortlessly up and down the wage scale. But this is a real problem, in that companies are deprived of utilizing the talents of the experienced, and the employees themselves who are prevented from working in their field.

Of course, companies could prevent this problem through the well-understood mechanism of contract law, but they really don't want to limit themselves in this way, no matter what the gains might be. It's hard to see the current model as the best way forward.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Big time ballin'

Eric Zorn asks, in light of the news that the Illinois Institute of Technology is dropping varsity basketball, "Why does any college or university give scholarship money to athletes in non-revenue producing sports?" He goes on to write:
In fact, with any non-revenue sport, you can make the case that non-athletes at a college or university end up helping to pay the freight for the athletes. What's the justification for this, given the core mission of higher education?
These are good questions, but I wouldn't limit the discussion to non-revenue sports. Someone may be able to make a case that the revenues from some sports (basically, men's basketball and football) are a positive for the college, but they seem only to contribute to a gigantism of those programs (as we see with new Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, who's going to get almost $4 million a year).

There are some interesting comments within the post, some reinforcing the Zorn opinion, others refuting it, like this one:
As a non-athlete, I disagree with the premise of EZ's argument. If athletic scholarships should only be given in revenue-producing sports, does that mean only basketball and football players (and baseball at a few schools) should benefit? This kind of thinking would screw women athletes especially. And while football and basketball programs make the money, colleges accrue a great deal of cachet competing in things like volleyball, rowing, soccer, swimming, wrestling and track.
Zorn responds:
Really? Colleges accrue "cachet" competing in volleyball etc? First, says who? And second, so what? What's the bottom-line value of having a volleyball or rowing team? How does it serve the core mission of the institution?

Does it attract a higher-caliber of student? More enrollments? Greater giving by alumni? Anything else that might attach to a school's bottom line?

Wouldn't have even tried expressing it better, but I couldn't entirely resist jumping in on the thread:
I would question the granting of money to so-called revenue-producing sports. That gets us into a difficult calculus where we try to decide which students bring in money and which do not (the perfect SAT kid beefs up the stats and attracts more top students, at least theoretically - what's the value of that?).

As for private universities, perhaps they "should receive no public funding," but they certainly do through grants and tax breaks. They have forfeited the right to do whatever they want.

Zorn goes on (and isn't it good to see a popular blogger who engages in some back-and-forth?):
Student achievement is part of the core mission of a college or university. I don't see how having a talented swimmer or juggler or foosball player or hacky-sacker or whatever necessarily advances that core mission.

Is it the building of "school community"? most sports have more participants than spectators, so money spent in that area should go not to scholarships, coaching salarie or travel, but to intramurals.

Nothing said so far persuades me that this is anything other than tradition run totally wild to the detriment of the institutions.

Who calculates what does and doesn't pay off? Why not let the schools make that calculation? If they can justify having fencing teams and golf teams and so on even in a tangential bottom-line, core mission way (that explains why it's better to invest resources there than in, say, science labs, library books, academic scholarships and so on), I'd like to hear it.

I think Zorn is dead on (except for his exclusion of revenue-producing sports; we should still ask if they serve the core missions of the institution). I've never really understood why every college, whatever the size, is compelled to offer an expensive football team. I know the arguments, in particular that it revs up the alums and their checkbooks, but I'd have a lot of respect for an institution that came out and said, "We take pride in our science and math and English graduates, we don't need to offer up five or six expensive shows every year heedless of cost."

I am a big sports fan, but that doesn't mean I can turn a blind eye to the disparity between what ought to be the objectives of an institution of higher learning and the actual practices. One hears about college presidents spending major amounts of time on NCAA investigations and "problems" with athletes, and it raises the question of how time should be allocated.

Of course, this is not a problem confined to tertiary education. Our high schools suffer from the same kind of misemphasis; even in these difficult times, no one ever seriously considers dropping or cutting back on football (at least in my area of the world), even as teachers are let go.

I know that there are benefits to team sports, at least for the relatively few who get to experience them. But it is not unfair to insist that we look at the benefits and the costs, and make these programs fit into a spectrum of activities that represent the actual purpose of what are, after all, educational institutions.

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