27 February 2010


I forgot to mention something a couple of days ago when I posted some commentary by Eric S Raymond, which is that I really like the approach of a project he spearheads called "NedaNet."  It's a hacker community dedicated to providing proxies, anonymizes, and other internet resources to aid communication between Iranian revolutionaries.

I don't know how successful they have actually been, but judging from the amount of chatter I hear about the Iranian regime clamping down on internet traffic (e.g. the announcement earlier this month that they would ban gmail) this seems like a good place to be picking a fight.  More importantly the people involved in NedaNet are actually doing something.  They're not raising awareness, or putting bumper stickers on their cars, or chanting outside an embassy or any of the other standard maneuvers in the activist playbook.  They're lending tangible aid the good guys.

Check out their website for information on setting up a Tor relay if you don't already have one, and do something more effective than putting a green ribbon on your messenger bag.

This goes hand-in-hand with the Seasteading approach.  Say what you will about the feasibility of that particular project but I think founder Patri Friedman is right that we're a hell of a lot better tackling technical problems than social ones.  Ergo if you want to bring about a social change you should look for a technological advance that you can leverage towards your social goal rather than writing letters to editors and calling your congressman and passing out fliers and holding rallies.  Home appliances advanced feminism more than Betty Friedan; cable news did more for pacifism than Leo Tolstoy.

Salaries & Majors & Gender

I saw a study a while back which I can't put my finger on now that managed to explain a majority of the salary gap between college educated men and women based on the different subjects men and women tend to major in.  Since, for instance, chemical engineering graduates tend to be very well compensated, and there are more men than women studying CHEG, it skews the aggregate salaries in favor of men.

Noah Brier at Barbarian Blog has a link to some data at Sociological Images which breaks down salaries within majors.  Unfortunately it doesn't also give the proportion of each gender studying each subject, but at least among topics colloquially thought to be male-dominated, womens' starting salaries are higher.  The 25 majors listed with higher salaries for women are

  • agricultural science
  • management information systems
  • marketing
  • advertising
  • computer programming
  • computer science
  • computer systems analysis
  • physical education
  • aerospace/aeronautical engineering
  • bioengineering & biomedical
  • chemical engineering
  • electrical engineering
  • environmental engineering
  • industrial technology
  • industrial engineering
  • materials engineering
  • mechanical engineering
  • mining & mineral engineering
  • nuclear engineering
  • petroleum engineering
  • systems engineering
  • nursing
  • clothing/apparel/textile studies
  • history

I would say 20 of those 25 are traditionally thought to be male-dominated.

Granted, that doesn't even rise to the level of back-of-the-envelop calculations, but I still find it interesting.  Frankly, the analysis presented by Sociological Images from Kent Gilbreath's work aren't exactly sophisticated either.  It's pretty basic to just sort every major into Category A (with M > F) and Category B (with F > M) without regard to the magnitude of the differences.  Based on the data here men make more than women after studying architectural engineering, but only by $314, or 0.65% of the average woman's starting salary.

Not to disparage Gilbreath.  I have no idea if he did more analysis in his papers, and I don't have time to check them out.  But as reprinted by Sociological Images, I wouldn't draw too strong of conclusions from this.  Nonetheless, something to rub your chin and think on.

26 February 2010

ESR on employment

Hacker community legend Eric S Raymond has a nice post up about two marginally employable friends of his who have fallen on hard times.
Armed and Dangerous | Eric S Raymond | Marginal Devolution

These are the people who go to the wall when the cost of employing someone gets too high. We’ve spent the last seventy years increasing the hidden overhead and downside risks associated with hiring a worker — which meant the minimum revenue-per-employee threshold below which hiring doesn’t make sense has crept up and up and up, gradually. This effect was partly masked by credit and asset bubbles, but those have now popped. Increasingly it’s not just the classic hard-core unemployables (alcoholics, criminal deviants, crazies) that can’t pull enough weight to justify a paycheck; it’s the marginal ones, the mediocre, and the mildly dysfunctional.

If that doesn’t scare the crap out of you, you’re not paying attention. It’s a recipe for long-term structural unemployment at European levels of 10%, 15%, and up. What’s even crazier is that the Obama administration wants to respond to this problem by…raising taxes and piling more regulatory burden on employers.
As Alex Tabarrok pointed out this afternoon, the Obama administration is making raising the costs of hiring an explicit goal, not just a side-effect.

I'd add that we've not only spent 70 years raising the overhead costs of employing people, we've also been raising the productivity of workers, so the minimum revenue per employee threshold has gone up as the revenue each employee can generate has gone up.  More overhead hasn't just been hidden by borrowing.  (In fact, I'd be surprised if rising productivity wasn't several orders of magnitude more important as an explanation.)  So the goal isn't just lowering the threshold of employing people, it's some combination of that and increasing productivity.

If you have not read Raymond's classic The Cathedral & the Bazaar I highly recommend it. It's available here in multiple formats and languages. At the very least it helps to explain why there are so many libertarian geeks (like Raymond himself).

(Via Arnold Kling, who is rapidly becoming my most-linked-to blogger. He's just on a huge roll recently.  About the above Raymond point, he says "health insurance costs could be a huge factor here (and don't tell me that justifies single-payer health care, because that would simply shift the employer's cost from the health benefits line item to the tax line item)."

For more on patterns in employment, check out Kling's post today on "Demand Stimulus in a Jones-Minsky Economy." I find Jones' story of employees as producers of organization capital rather than actual output very convincing.  That posts a more optimistic picture of the coming employment situation.)

If Jim Bowie was alive to read this he'd be spinning in his grave

The Agitator | Radley Balko | Texas Public Intoxication Laws Allow Arrests Without Intoxication. Or Even Drinking.

Various jurisdictions in Texas have made news over the last several years for sending vice squads into bars and arresting patrons for drinking. Not drinking and driving, mind you. Just drinking. In a bar.

In a scary piece for Mother Jones, Adam Weinstein delves into just how ridiculously broad and vague the state’s public intoxication laws really are. Exceprt:
The public intoxication standard, backed by the Texas-based Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is so broad that you can be arrested on just a police officer’s hunch, without being given a Breathalyzer or field sobriety test. State courts have not only upheld the practice but expanded the definition of public intoxication to cover pretty much any situation, says Robert Guest, a criminal defense attorney in Dallas. “Having no standard allows the police to arrest whoever pisses them off and call it PI,” he says, adding, “If you have a violent, homophobic, or just an asshole of a cop and you give him the arbitrary power to arrest anyone for PI, you can expect violent, homophobic, and asshole-ic behavior.”

For some officers, PI has provided a ready-made reason for detaining minorities. A Houston defense attorney, who asks to be unnamed since he specializes in misdemeanors such as PI, puts it this way: “If you’re brown and you’re around—you’re going down.”
It's absurd to have a law based on police officer hunches. It is impossible to prove your innocence when all a cop needs to do is say "well, he looked guilty to me." Completely absurd.

This is why I don't like laws that are passed with the intention of never being fully enforced, like texting-while-driving. It gives too much discretion to police to arrest whoever they don't like.

PS MADD once again proves itself to be a bunch of moralizing wowzer fascists with dull, one-track minds.

Friday Photo

I'm loving DCist's Photo of the Day today, a great shot of the SR-71 at the Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center. Great lighting, great use of depth of field. Well done to photographer Kenneth Paige.  The SR-71 is one of those artifacts that remind me how absolutely sexy a nice piece of engineering can be.  What a beautiful piece of work by the folks at Lockheed.

25 February 2010

"People sitting around arguing into microphones is what we do!"

(Via Random Scrub)

"News for Wives"

True/Slant: Neuroworld | Ryan Sager | News for Wives

In Neuroworld’s grand tradition of posting items that might piss off my wife, here’s a little item: How hard is it for men not to look at a pretty woman? Pretty hard:
Facial beauty has important social and biological implications. Research has shown that people tend to look longer at attractive than at unattractive faces. However, little is known about whether an attractive face presented outside foveal vision can capture attention. The effect of facial attractiveness on covert attention was investigated in a spatial cuing task. Participants were asked to judge the orientation of a cued target presented to the left or right visual field while ignoring a task-irrelevant face image flashed in the opposite field. The presentation of attractive faces significantly lengthened task performance. The results suggest that facial beauty automatically competes with an ongoing cognitive task for spatial attention.
Via Barking Up the Wrong Tree. As mentioned, this doesn’t actually separate out by gender. But I’d love to see a study that does.
I am preemptively sorry, Future Mrs South Bend 7. I can't help it. IT'S SCIENCE!

(Hmmmm.  Perhaps I would be better served by apologizing on her behalf to all of her co-workers for the distraction she surely causes them by being pretty in their non-foveal visual field.  Wouldn't that be endearing?  Nothing says "aren't you glad you're marrying me?" like buttering a woman up with references to perceptual cognitive psychology research.)

"Health Care Summit Pre-Mortem" -or- There *Still* Aint No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Health Care Summit Pre-Mortem

Thoma comes very close to saying that in Medicare we need to cut costs, not benefits. That would be wonderful. Don't reduce consumption of medical services, but make costs magically disappear. That is not going to happen. There are certainly ways to improve efficiency, but there are no big free lunches out there. The only way to significantly slow the growth of health care spending is to make less use of procedures with high costs and low benefits.
This is somewhat pedantic of me, but actually the only way to slow the growth of health care spending is to make less use of procedures with costs. Full stop.

The relative mix of high cost and low cost procedures doesn't matter. More importantly, the benefits of the forgone procedures doesn't impact the total bill.*  As long as some procedures go undone total costs are cut. Ideally we'd like to forego the procedures with poor cost/benefit trade-offs, but strictly in terms of limiting aggregate spending it doesn't matter whether that analysis is done well or poorly, wisely or foolishly, logically or irrationally, scientifically or politically. Which is exactly what scares me.

(* "But what about preventive care?" you ask.  Preventive care may keep your total costs down as an individual (or it may not) but aggregating over society as a whole it is unclear whether it lowers total spending.  Some procedures, like giving TB vaccines, save us money.  But witness last year's hullabaloo over mammograms for an example of a procedure that may not only raise costs, but introduce risks that are not offset by their benefits.  (I'm referring specifically to frequent mammograms for younger women, not all mammograms, just to be clear.))
There are two ways to approach reducing the use of high-cost, low-benefit procedures. You can have the government tell people what they can and cannot have. Or you can have individuals pay for a larger fraction of the medical procedures that they consume. It really comes down to those choices.

Advocating either one of those is political suicide, and talking about anything else is a waste of time. The Democrats will not advocate government rationing, and the Republicans will not advocate scrapping most of our current system of third-party payment in medicine. Instead, the summit, like the entire "health reform debate" this year, will be a waste of time.
Actually there is a third way. Well, really it's the worst of both those ways, but disguised as something else.  Have the government impose de facto limits on procedures and spending, but make insurance companies be the ones to deliver the bad news. This is the worst approach, though the most politically tractable. And wouldn't you know it? That's the approach Obama is proposing.  Coyote Blog has more on this.

Vikings are the new pirates

Or are vikings the new vampires, which are themselves the new pirates?  Did we skip over hobos?  I've lost track.


Is it weird that the US release date on IMDB is the day that Valhalla Rising was shown at the Toronto Int'l Film Fest? They didn't move Toronto, did they? Anyone know when this guy actually comes out with more specificity than "spring" or "soon"?

24 February 2010

Toyota in Perspective

John Stossel's Take | John Stossel | The Parasite Circuit

To put the Toyota problem in perspective, before all the media hype, 19 fatal accidents were linked to faulty gas pedals and floor mats over the last decade. That's fewer than 2 each year. Compare that to America’s 40,000 annual fatal car crashes.

As David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports, said to The Guardian:
"I find it a little odd that we're going to have a Congressional hearing to look at those two deaths out of 40,000... you have to look at death rates in safety terms rationally."
Odd that none of the media reports I've seen before now have mentioned that this hoopla is about 0.005% of car fatalities.  That explains why no one at Toyota inductively determined there was a problem based on observations of a pattern in accident reports. There was no pattern to find.

They still could have (and perhaps should have) deduced the existence of the accelerator assembly flaw based on the design, but even that could be overridden by a potentially defensible normalization of deviation.

Honestly, I have no idea how obvious or egregious the design flaw was.  I bet no one at today's congressional hearing on this did either.  I've studied enough engineering of risk to learn that the amount of public outcry is entirely uncorrelated to how badly designed a product actually was.

I understand part of the problem was the reluctance you usually see in these gong shows to pass the bad word up the Toyota chain of command.  That's never a good sign.

Tab Clearing

I'm having enough trouble as it is drumming up serious thoughts for work today, so there is zero surplus for blogging.  However, various neat or interesting or educational stuff has come to my attention on the internet.

First up, RamenBox — a mix-and-match service to order an assortment of hard-to-find-in-America ramen.  Where was this when I was in college?  Oh, who am I kidding.  I still eat tons of ramen in grad school.  (Via World's Best Ever.)

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I've seen more than a few re-designed movie posters in retro styles lately, but these Tavis Coburn pieces are some of my favorites. Here's his take on An Education. (Via Kempt.)

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Read this New Yorker article by Louis Menand entitled "Head Case: Can psychiatry be a science?" As someone who has been diagnosed with depression, and someone who has presented a paper at a scientific psychology conference from the perspective of another scientific discipline, these are issues I've wrestled with. Suffice it to say that I have various and often conflicting opinions about the rigorousness of psychiatry and psychology as sciences, the definition of mental illnesses, the treatments and "treatments" offered for them, and the general societal outlook regarding them. (Via Russ Roberts)

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How have I not blogged anything about the Lower Merion School District laptop spying thing? I have no idea. It's like a perfect storm of things I'm interested in: government overstepping their bounds, foolish school administrators, moral panic about drugs, privacy & technology, and on and on. To top it off it was a school disciplinary action I got hit with for actions outside of school grounds, time or activities which put me on a course to libertarianism, and the school where this happened is a handful of miles from Special Lady Friend, whom I was visiting when the story broke.

We need a word for something that is unlikely enough that you would never have predicted it, and yet makes enough sense that you aren't really surprised by it. That's how I would describe this situation. If I was a parent I would never suspect in advance that a kid's school-supplied laptop, which they are required to use, would be used to record me in my home. But hearing about this story I am not at all surprised that's what happened.

Oh, and as if it needs to be said, whoever participated in this foolishness needs to lose their job and their pension at all possible speed.  Not that I'm holding my breath for that.

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Here's another good Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal that has a lot of truth about computing: computers do what they are told to do. It sounds obvious, but it's something a lot of beginning programming students have tons of trouble with in my experience. Conversely, it's exactly what I love about programming and why I think it helps to make your own pattern of thought so rigorous. If you want something to happen, you need to make it happen. And if you describe how to do it incorrectly, or sloppily, you don't get what you wanted. Your intention is irrelevant, only the instructions you give matter. It's a lesson I wish regulators would learn. Maybe we'd have fewer of them shocked! shocked! to find out there are "unintended" consequences happening.

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I haven't gotten to it yet, but this Steven Levy article about Google looks like a must-read. Levy is one of the best popular science authors out there when it comes to computing science. For students or the more technically inclined, you should really read Brin and Page's seminal 1998 paper on PageRank, and Dean and Ghemawat's 2004 paper on MapReduce if you're interested in how Google works.

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PLoS Medicine formally announced it will not accept papers from researchers who derive funding, even for research unrelated to the paper in question, from tobacco companies. I think this is a little silly because, as the editors of PLoS Medicine admit, there are innumerable sources of bias besides tobacco companies. They single out food and pharmaceutical companies as biasing agents, but bias extends way beyond for-profit corporations.

NIH, for instance, banned outdoor smoking on their campus two years ago and admitted it was an attempt to influence their public image in spite of evidence that outdoors second-hand smoke isn't dangerous. I'd say that any tobacco-related research funded by NIH could be suspect, since they have obviously allowed a moral and aesthetic agenda to trump their commitment to science before.

Another instructive example is all of the muddled science, much of it biased, surrounding the Great Salt Ban Debate. John Tierney lays out the situation here, and further discusses possible sources of bias here.

People are influenced by way, way more than just desire for profits. I wish PLoS did more to recognize that.

(Via Seed's Daily Zeitgeist.)

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On the political front, this is a pricelessly naive quote from Danny Williams, the Premier of Newfoundland, who recently traveled to Florida for heart surgery rather than using the semi-nationalized Canadian health care system:
"It's my health, it's my choice."
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Finally, Glenn Greenwald takes the GOP out behind the woodshed for their "'small government' tea party fraud."
When in power, they massively expand the power of the state in every realm. Deficit spending and the national debt skyrocket. The National Security State is bloated beyond description through wars and occupations, while no limits are tolerated on the Surveillance State. Then, when out of power, they suddenly pretend to re-discover their "small government principles." The very same Republicans who spent the 1990s vehemently opposing Bill Clinton's Terrorism-justified attempts to expand government surveillance and executive authority then, once in power, presided over the largest expansion in history of those very same powers. The last eight years of Republican rule was characterized by nothing other than endlessly expanded government power, even as they insisted -- both before they were empowered and again now -- that they are the standard-bearers of government restraint.
Speaking of people who only have principles when out of power: how are all the pacifists and civil liberties types enjoying the Obama administration so far? I haven't heard much from you all.  What happened?

(I've got to say though, I typically can't stand Xeni Jardin but even she admitted a couple of days ago that she agrees with criticism of Obama for his ramped up use of UAV-executed assassinations.)

While Baudrillard Gently Weeps

Murketing | Rob Walker | The worst Olympic uniform

This is what members of the U.S. snowboarding team — men and women — are wearing. Back in December ESPN dubbed this lame grunge getup an “(anti) uniform.” Riiiiight. Super-”anti.” It’s as transgressive, subversive, threatening, and spectacular as, um, stuff half the kids at the mall have been wearing for ten years, and that nobody really notices anymore.

The mission statement for this supposedly radical outfit comes from the “vice president of creative” at snowboarding megabrand Burton:
The inspiration behind the U.S. Snowboarding Team outerwear for the 2010 Olympics is classic Americana, Although we are creating a uniform, our first objective is to express the individuality of snowboarding. As such, we are taking vintage American looks and interpreting them in a very unique and unexpected fashion. Finally, we will ensure that all of the highest technical attributes are maintained in the pieces, so that performance and function are not jeopardized. The result will be a progressive and fresh look that challenges the former conservatism of the Olympics.
Oh really? A challenge to conservatism? Via "classic Americana"? Yes, nothing challenges conservatism like classic-ness. [...]

For years the hollow claims of every marketing guru who insists that consumers “demand authenticity” has been neatly debunked by the success of the high-end “distressed” denim phenomenon. Buying jeans whose wear-and-tear is implemented by far-flung factory workers and machinery, according to specific standards devised and overseen by layers of corporate design-management — and in fact paying extra for such jeans, and pretending that this somehow signals rebel style — is a capitulation to simulacra-culture so Xtreme it would make Debord giggle and Baudrillard weep. Or vice versa. Whatevs.

The point is that characterizing these monotonous garments as “a uniform” is an essentially redundant act. Nothing here “expresses the individuality” of the wearer. That rather simple assignment could be fulfilled by simply letting the individuals wear whatever they wanted to! Instead, what is being “expressed” is the market research and trend forecasting of a large retail brand.

All of which just makes me appreciate those Norwegian curlers even more.
I watched a few episodes of some video blog whose name I now forget, and their thing was going around to different cities and pulling aside people they considered to be stylish and asking them about their clothes. A lot of those episodes were dominated by interviewees wearing what was obviously standard-issue contemporary hipster garb, in all it's quasi-ironic glory.*  I loved that when asked to describe their style these people said, to a man, something like "oh, I don't really have a style or follow trends, I just pick out whatever I think is interesting and do my own thing be different." The only defining aspect of their personal sartorial expression was an attempt to be individual, and they all ended up wearing the same things.

But blah blah blah you've heard this kind of thing before. Let's have some related thoughts from Monty Python.

(* At least the episodes in places like Austin and Madison and Philadelphia and London were populated with those folks. There were actually a few interesting characters in places like Dubai and Kiev.)

Marriage and Jobs

Twitter | GarettJones

In last two decades, people taking longer to get married and to find jobs. I wonder if the two trends are related.
I'd be shocked if they weren't.

Jones was this week's guest on EconTalk. I thought it was quite a good episode, covering a range of topics.  The bit about increasing productivity in recessions was especially worth a listen.

All the images

Barbarian Blog | Andrew Bell | Running out of images

The total number of pixels [in a 1080p HD image] is 1920 horizontally x 1080 vertically = 2,073,600 pixels. There are 256 possible intensities of red, green and blue for each pixel, so that’s 2563 = 16,777,216 possible colors. To figure out how many possible images there are, we need to raise the second number to the power of the first, so 16,777,2162,073,600 = 1.5 * 101,4981,180 possible images. That’s a pretty big number — it’s almost a million and a half digits long. Printing it in 10 point Monaco would take over 2,700 pages of paper. Scientists estimate that there are 1080 atoms in the observable universe — a tiny number in comparison.
To give you an idea of just how tiny it is in comparison, if you were to convert the entire universe into viewing screens, using only one atom per pixels, and you ran images through all of these screens in parallel at a rate of one per Planck time, you would need something on the order of 45 million times the age of the universe to get through them all.
However big it may be, the fact that the number is finite is a surprising thing to realize. It means that every possible image has a unique ID number. So instead of asking me, “did you see that picture of MIA performing pregnant at the Grammys”, you might ask, “did you see image number 1,394,239,...,572?” Obviously that is totally impractical and it would make you a huge nerd, but it’s interesting that you could.
We think of visual artists as generally creating things that are original, and if they’re doing their job, they are. But I think it’s also surprising to realize that in another sense, they are just exploring a fixed set of possibilities. “After all that hard work and all those revisions, we decided on image number 884,297,...,493.”
Another weird thing is that the answer to nearly any question is contained in these numbers. Who killed JFK? There is a number which is a picture of the answer. What would Michael Phelps hitting a bong wearing an orange floral sari on the moon on July 19, 2033 at 3:19pm look like?
This reminds me of my favorite Borges story, The Library of Babel, in which the entire universe consists of nothing but an infinite library containing all possible books.
Wikipedia | The Library of Babel

Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for many of the texts some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of a vast number of different contents.

Cool stuff from Robert Hodgin

This is more what I had in mind for some awesomeness to perk me up.

Some magnetic sculptures, a reaction-diffusion based texture map from Hodgin's latest gallery show, and a particle-based stippling algorithm.

23 February 2010

Time Lapse

I'm in various sorts of bad moods right now, and I need some awesomeness to get me in better whack.  This isn't quite what I had in mind, but it's still fairly awesome, so up on the blog it goes.  I could do without the soundtrack, but the beauty of the fluid dynamics of the fog makes up for it.

Deadlock and governability

Yesterday I was pleased by the Economist's recent article about America not being "ungovernable".

(Can we stop and get one thing out of the way, in the name of precision and accuracy in language? Somalia is ungovernable. Vast swaths of Afghanistan are ungovernable. The deep jungles of the Amazon are ungovernable. Governments literally are not functioning in those places. Nations are unable to exercise authority over those areas.

We have government out the ears in America. They exercise control over more activities of more Americans than ever before.  People may not like the governing that's going on, but it's definitely happening.  America has never been more governed.)

In a podcast today they mentioned a counter-argument of sorts to their own story, which is that the evidence for ungovernability has nothing to do with the failure of the Obama administration to enact its sweeping health care or climate agendas, but that America isn't very good at addressing long-standing structural problems like entitlements.

I'd counter that the government hasn't been able to do anything about those problems largely because the American people don't want anything done.  Oh sure, if you ask them "do you want to fix this problem?" we'll all say "yes."  But if you actually ask them about specific ways to fix the problems — raise taxes, cut benefits, raise the retirement age, cut defense spending, do less of this, require more of that — suddenly the support evaporates.  It's not just that we don't agree which is the best way to address the problem, it's that there isn't broad support for any of the potential solutions.  All of the irrational, wasteful, profligate things the government does are pretty popular.

So yeah, a democracy is responding to the will of the people.  The people's will doesn't make much sense and is viewed by many to be somewhere between silly and catastrophically dumb.  But that's how America is supposed to work.  If the populace doesn't agree on what should be done, then neither can the government, and nothing gets done.

The problem isn't one of "governability." It's that the people don't want to make hard choices.  If anything the government of the past century has only made this worse by promising people that they can make those choices later or possibly never have to make them at all.  To the extent that's the case then I don't see how you can blame it on cloture rules, or politicians with insufficient party loyalty, or voters with too much party loyalty, or the impact of talk radio and cable news, or any of the other things I've heard bemoaned in this debate

Compounding the problem, we've raised the last several generations of children to believe there aren't any trade-offs in their personal lives either: they're all precious snowflakes who can do it all and everyone is a winner and everyone gets a trophy for showing up and blah blah blah. TANSTAAFL.

(Well that turned out rantier than I expected when I started this post.)

The Great Hot Dog Menace

Schneier on Security | Bruce Schneier | Mark Twain on Risk Analysis

From 1871:
I hunted up statistics, and was amazed to find that after all the glaring newspaper headings concerning railroad disasters, less than three hundred people had really lost their lives by those disasters in the preceding twelve months. The Erie road was set down as the most murderous in the list. It had killed forty-six—or twenty-six, I do not exactly remember which, but I know the number was double that of any other road. But the fact straightway suggested itself that the Erie was an immensely long road, and did more business than any other line in the country; so the double number of killed ceased to be matter for surprise.

By further figuring, it appeared that between New York and Rochester the Erie ran eight passenger trains each way every day—sixteen altogether; and carried a daily average of 6,000 persons. That is about a million in six months—the population of New York city. Well, the Erie kills from thirteen to twenty-three persons out of its million in six months; and in the same time 13,000 of New York's million die in their beds! My flesh crept, my hair stood on end. "This is appalling!" I said. "The danger isn't in travelling by rail, but in trusting to those deadly beds. I will never sleep in a bed again."
Wow. I'm so glad that Mark Twain bothered to run some basic actuarial math 139 years ago and in doing so, educate the journalists and advocates of the next century and a half about probability, preventing them from writing fear-inducing, innumerate, panicky screeds about extremely rare risks blown entirely out of proportion.

Oh. Wait.

The American Academy of Pediatrics — a supposedly scholarly organization! — is all in a tizzy about children choking on hot dogs, which is less likely to kill a child than a lightening strike. And journalists, politicians and assorted do-gooders are indulging their embarassingly poor math in order to give them a chance to Do Something! Shame on all of you.

The Platonic Ideal of a Policy Initiative

There are some interesting thoughts at Porch Dog about the VAT, or rather, about the debate about the VAT.  I want to expand on those a little bit.

The basic idea is that we shouldn't compare new policy proposal to miscellaneous other, idealized proposals.  In this case there isn't much to be gained by saying "No, the VAT is rubbish compared to my flat tax proposal."

In general, I agree.  Especially considering that nothing comes out of the sausage factory looking as good as when it went in.  (Which should tell us something about the behavior of our sausage makers.)  We've seen this with health care and cap-and-trade and TARP and ARRA and ...

My concern is that people can misapply this argument in order to beg the question.  Merely by making a credible proposal for a VAT, for example, it becomes possible to shut down counter-proposals, say, for a flat tax, by demanding that people only debate the actual measure being considered.  The real question in this case isn't "What are the merits and demerits of the VAT?" it's "How do we raise more revenue?" so debating other policy proposals isn't really out of bounds.

I don't think that's what Porchy is trying to do, but some people are, and their arguments are going to sound quite similar to his on the surface.

A second point I'd like to make is that while it is silly to compare idealized proposals to those that have actually survived encounters with the likes of Ben Nelson, some policies are naturally more resistant to the legislative process than others.  That's a difference that's worth debating.  To continue with the tax example, both a new VAT or a flat tax lend themselves to less sausage making than redefining the current income tax code.  (The flat tax more so than the VAT, in my view, but both are cleaner and simpler and have less room for shenanigans than what we've got now.)  Would they eventually end up looking like our current tax system?  Sure, but for the next few generations we may have bought ourselves some simplicity.  Similarly a cap-and-trade system is always going to be easier for legislators to game to their advantage than a carbon tax would be.  I don't want to compare an idealized carbon tax to a legislative reality cap-and-trade system, but if you put both through the mill the carbon tax is going to come out closer to where it started than the cap-and-trade scheme will.  That's worth keeping in mind.

"I am scared of what happens when people stop thinking."

Kids Prefer Cheese | Mungowitz | Fat, Populist, and Stupid is No Way to Go Through Politics, Son
For some blue-state conservatives who honed their political skills by continuously debating liberal peers, mingling with attendees presented unique challenges. Jesse Eiseman and Tyler Trumbach, who came from Columbia University to attend the conference, interrupted a spirited debate over the fall of the Roman Empire to complain to The Daily Beast about the anti-intellectual bent of fellow conservatives at CPAC. 'They have an opinion, but they don't give evidence to back it up, they don't use logic,' Trumbach said. Eiseman added, 'In a lot of ways I feel closer to left-wing intellectuals...I love the populists, I agree with them on many things, but I am scared of what happens when people stop thinking.' The two quickly took to hiding their name badges showing their college in order to avoid ridicule after speakers trashed academic elites onstage. 'There are a lot of anti-Ivy Leaguers around,' Eiseman said....For all the differences between them, however, most attendees said they felt little tension with their fellow conservatives on a personal level.

“We respect each other's viewpoints,” Travis Korson, a George Washington University student, said. “You just don't talk about things you disagree [about].”

[Benjamin Sarlin, The Daily Beast]
If having been to college is embarrassing, the "movement" has a problem. (Nod to Kevin L)
Too true.

And I can testify that living in an area where you're vastly outnumbered by the political opposition does make you much more rigorous in your thinking.

Price controls are tape on the dashboard

Once in a while when Tom and Ray Magliozi, hosts of Car Talk, can't figure out why a warning light is lit on a caller's dashboard they will recommend the "black tape solution" — just put a piece of tape over the light and hope the problem goes away.

That's what Obama is proposing to do with health care spending: cover up the signaling mechanism and ignore the underlying reality.  Prices are just signals of how many resources as activity consumes.  Ignoring that signal doesn't make things cheaper.  Only arrogant numbskulls like Richard Nixon and Hugo Chavez think otherwise.

(See also:  Greg Mankiw, "How Not to Stop Health Care Inflation" and Peter Suderman, "Obama, Standing Athwart Health Insurance Rate Increases, Threatens to Yell "Stop!"".)

PS Congress did a similar thing with the new rules on credit card fee structure that went into effect yesterday. Providing unsecured, revolving credit to people you don't know is a risky and expensive proposition.  Limiting the types and forms of fees that can be charged to make up for that is like squeezing one end of a balloon and expecting the whole thing to shrink.  Then the reformers have the gall to get on TV full of outrage and faux-naivete and be shocked (shocked!) that banks are thinking up different ways to recoup their money.  I'm especially upset about all this because it's resulting in a direct transfer from me to customers who are too irresponsible, stupid and/or lazy to use their cards well.

22 February 2010

Facebook: oppressing us by giving away something popular for free?

World' Best Ever | T-Shirt of the Day for a Cause

Leif Harmsen, a Toronto based artist is campaigning against Facebook. After his group, “nude cyclist” was deleted from the Facebook world, Leif began campaign against the totalitarian state of Facebook. His main message to take away from all of this. You do not own your Facebook profile it’s not yours its FB’s.

“The more we come to depend on the site for socializing, the more Facebook controls our lives—and, by selling ads, profits from us”.
Let me rephrase that quote so that it isn't duplicitous prevarication:
"The more we voluntarily choose to use the site for socializing, the more Facebook controls our lives—and, by selling ads, profits by providing us with a service we value."
People "depend" on Facebook, and are "controlled" by Facebook in the same way you "depend" on and are "controlled" by a sandwich shop you frequent.  They could stop selling you light mayo, or start telling other customers about your bread preferences, or demand that you but chips with every meal.  They control you! Of course, you can stop buying their sandwiches.

That's what happens when you trade with people and when you introduce relationships into your life.  You give up some control in exchange for something else you value: a sandwich, the ability to share pictures with friends, someone to have a laugh with, or not being eaten by wild boar.  You can't expect all upside and no downside.

I barely use Facebook.  I fully support people dialing back their usage or ending their accounts entirely if that's what strikes their fancy.  Go for it.  But Facebook (and Google, and Starbucks, and Walmart, and...) isn't oppressing you, they're trading with you.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty.


The Economist takes a hearty swing at the notion that America is "ungovernable."  If only American media had this much understanding of American government.

(See also:

I get a kick out of people making the claim that America is "ungovernable" based largely on Congress not being able to pass a piece of legislation that is epic in scope, price tag and unpopularity.  Yeah, it's some kind of terrible tragedy of democracy that the political elites can't do something that most people don't want done.

"Ungovernable" is used in this context as a synonym for "people aren't shutting up and doing what I want them to do," in the same way that "compromise" really means "everyone should just agree to do what I want to do."

"The New Holy Wars"

Limited time for blogging today, so I'm going to pass along a new book Arnold Kling mentions that soudns interesting: Robert H Nelson's The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America.

I'm interested because...
  • Nelson is a faculty member here at UMD.

  • I think politics and state-worship, for lack of a better word, is the new religion of the 20th century.
    • As a semi-subset of the above, environmentalism has taken on tons of religious overtones and syntactic trappings.  Even many within the environmental movement have embraced this.

    • A lot of libertarian, free-market types also hold their beliefs in a sort of dogmatic, down-from-Sinai manner.  I'd like to think it's only the gold-bugs and other weirdos in my loose collection of co-travelers that do this, but let's be honest — it's not.

      • (As a side note, I'd point out that there's a thin line between the dogmatic assertions of Moses and the axiomatic assertions of Euclid.  I'm a big supporter of laying out your first principles, even if you have to admit they're unsupported by anything but faith or belief, and proceeding from there.  So is Rothbard, for example, being religiously dogmatic in The Ethics of Liberty?  In a way, yes.  But viewed another way he's just being rigorous in defining his postulates.  As long as you're honest about admitting what you take as a a given I'm okay with it.)

  • I'm interested in examining things from a religious angle.  (You can thank ND for that.)

  • I think most popular movement, whether explicitly religious or not, operate in much the same ways, so I think religion is an interesting lens through which to view all of them.  (You can thank Hoffer for that.)

  • It's blurbed by Deirdre McCloskey, who I'm not terribly familiar with but I really like what I know about the "McKloskey Critique" of modern economics. The premise of her two most recent books also interest me, the first being The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives and the second (probably more related to Nelson's book) being The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.  I found out about the latter through the related essay published by Cato.

  • I might be reading too much between the lines here, but between McKloskey's view of economics being wrongfully focused on physics-based paradigms, Nelson's work on environmental issues, and a seminar I'm currently taking on nature-inspired computing, I'm interested in a view of economics with a more biologically paradigm.  I think Nelson's book may at least hint at such things.

21 February 2010

Two links on voter anger

Following on from Thursday's post about the mis-analysis of the Tea Party:
EconLog | Arnold Kling | Paranoia About Paranoia

I would be the last person to impute rationality to mass political movements. Nonetheless, I am fed up with the psychoanalysis of the tea party movement. When people say that they do not like big deficits and government activism, why not take them at their word? Why say that what they really believe are wild conspiracy theories?

It would not surprise me to learn that many tea partiers believe strange things. But it would not surprise me to learn that many people of all political stripes believe strange things. [...]

I think that a lot of pundits would be comfortable describing the 2008 election as the a rational, focused statement in favor of the progressive agenda, rather than an emotional outburst of frustration with economic circumstances. Yet those same pundits would feel comfortable describing the tea party movement and the election of Scott Brown as an emotional outburst of frustration with economic circumstances, rather than a rational, focused statement in opposition to the progressive agenda.
I would quote the entirety of Kling's post if propriety allowed it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Reason: Hit & Run | Matt Welch | Angry Americans Confusingly Hate Both Bailouts and Bailouts

New Yorker financial columnist James Surowiecki, who can be very smart when talking about microeconomics, is less than very smart when talking about macroeconomic politics. At least that's the case in this new column, on "The Populism Problem," which posits that "this new populism has stitched together incompatible concerns and goals into one 'I'm mad as hell' quilt." Excerpt:
The bailout of the auto industry, after all, was as unpopular as the bailout of the banks, even though it was much tougher on the companies (G.M. and Chrysler went bankrupt; shareholders were wiped out, and C.E.O.s pushed out), and even though the biggest beneficiaries of the deal were ordinary autoworkers. You might have expected a deal that helped workers keep their jobs to play well in a country spooked by ballooning unemployment. Yet most voters hated it.
Well, yes. They have also continued to hate, as Tim Cavanaugh has been pointing out since at least the summer of 2008, bailing out underwater homeowners. Could it be that rewarding failure with taxpayer dollars is just widely and persistently perceived as unfair and unwise? Especially when the country's media and governing elites continue to pat these confused little Americans on the head and tell them to swallow their medicine?
Again, Surowiecki is sticking to his hypothesis in the face of contradictory evidence and then getting all confused that people aren't fitting into his pre-determined narrative rather than adjusting his narrative.

Welch makes this anciallry point at the end which I also agree with:

I sincerely do not understand how it is supposed to automatically follow that a crisis spurred in no small part by cheap government money and loose-credit government lending incentives is supposed to make us conclude, after eight years of massive government growth on all levels, that the problem was the insufficient involvement of government. I'm open to persuasion on specific acts of deregulation (like the repeal of Glass-Steagall) or non-regulation (as in the trading of certain derivatives) or sideways-regulation (as in the seemingly capricious changes to various reserve requirements for financial institutions), but it is rare to hear about such tangible policies anywhere near blanket statements about how "the government should be more involved in the economy," and rarer still to see much analysis of how malfeasance took place under regulators' perfectly empowered noses.
The generic cry for more regulation is much too facile. I want to know what regulation specifically, how it would have prevented the last crisis and how it will prevent the next crisis. "More" doesn't cut it.

19 February 2010

"Why you want to be an engineer"

Today's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is going to end up on the bulletin boards of every engineering department in the county.

Etymology fact of the day ("Archimedes bathing edition")

the ragbag | raynor | words wholly related: eureka! & heuristics

both words come from the greek verb εὑρίσκ (to find). the former was exclaimed by archimedes when he discovered some boring principle that nobody cared about (literally, “i have found it.”) the latter is a method of problem solving and is used widely by computer programmers and identity thieves.
Hmmmm. Cool.

I'll need to find a way to work that into the next conversation I have with the computing theory and algorithm types when the start going off the rails about wether my methods are provably optimal. Yeah, I get it, they're "just" heuristic. Get over it.

Not that I expect this etymological gem will actually convince them of anything, but it might provide enough distraction to make good my escape.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This is totally geek-bragging but I can't resist mentioning it — I've been to the (probable? apocryphal?) site of Archimedes' tomb, and it was a pretty moving experience. He was such a scientific giant. I remember as a young kid first learning solid geometry and being blown away by the relationship between the volumes of spheres, cylinders and cones, which he discovered.  Math, science, engineering: he did it all.  He calculated irrational numbers to silly precisions.  He built one of the first orreries, making huge strides in differential gearing.  He invented block-and-tackle pulleys.  The Archimedes Screw is still in use today.  He built the first odometer.  An odometer on a chariot!  That's stranger-than-fiction stuff.

He was killed by a Roman legionary who was mad that Archimedes told him to bugger off because he was busy doing geometry. Is there a more badass death in the history of Science?  No.  No, there is not.

"Back off, dude! Can't you see I'm doing Science?"

Quote of the Day

Well, more of an excerpt than a quote perhaps. Nonetheless, a bit of a follow on from the previous post.
The Freeman | Steven Horwitz | Constitutional Consistency

Both left and right claim that their particular concerns are sufficient to ignore the plain text of the Constitution in order to achieve some higher goal. But these dueling claims only serve to remind us that the whole point of having a constitution is that it should provide consistent protection for individual rights no matter who is in power or what the rationale is for weakening that protection. Having a constitution is a way of trying to avoid these sorts of arguments over what “social goals” are more important than protecting our rights. A constitution reminds us that no social goals are that important.
(Via Jeffrey Ellis)

Voting as a tool

PLF Liberty Blog | Timothy Sandefur | This American Life on Citizens United

After my comments [on This American Life], a law professor is quoted saying that "conservatives" have "turned the First Amendment into democracy's foe." I think this is a very revealing comment, for two reasons.

First, the view that the government should censor the speech of people who do business in the form of corporations is rooted in the idea that free speech is an instrumental good that serves "democracy." That is the Progressivist interpretation that sees "democracy" as the central value of the Constitution, and sees individual liberty as a privilege that is created by the government in order to promote "democracy." This is the opposite of the view of the Constitution's authors: they believed that the fundamental constitutional value was liberty, and that democracy existed only to serve liberty. That's why the first sentence of the Constitution declares that liberty is a "Blessing," and why the Constitution goes on to impose serious limits on democracy. In their view, speech is protected because individuals have the right to express themselves--not because speech has a relationship to democracy. Obviously they understood that free expression was good for democratic decision-making, but their primary concern was protecting the rights of individuals, not with preserving some vague conception of "democratic society."
Hrrrm.   I need to think about this, but my inclination is to agree. That distinction between democracy as a goal and democracy as a method is an interesting one.

It always gets me when people start saying around Election Day that voting is the most important freedom we have have, or the highest duty of a citizen or things like that.  Ditto around Memorial Day when people make comments about servicemen making sacrifices so we have the right to vote.

Voting, and by extension democracy, is a mechanism, not a goal. There is nothing especially Good about the act of casting a vote (especially if you feel like you're choosing between "the lesser of two evils."). Voting is only an instrument to help keep the ship of state on the right course.

If there was some magic potion which could be relied upon to keep a leader moral and honest and wise and just I would have no problem with turning over the reins of government to a king and letting him provide for Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. But we don't have that philosopher-king juju juice and never will, so we rely on democracy and voting as a tool.

(Via Damon Root.  For more on the over-valuation of voting, see Coyote Blog classic "I Don't Necessarily Treasure the Right to Vote.")


By (or by way of?) kevinmarks:

(Click to biggify)

As annoying as I find the all the warning screens and unskipable ads and such, I'm not sure there's really that huge of a difference in this case, but the broader point that people who pirate media get a better product at a lower price than those who pay for it is an important one. This in itself isn't a justification for "piracy,"  but it's an economic reality of DRM that is rarely if ever addressed.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This is as good an opportunity as any to raise a point that's been bouncing around in my melon for a while. What's the morality of pirating TV shows?

For simplicity let's stick to network shows or at least non-premium cable shows. Those shows are literally given away for free. There are several thousand people in America who volunteer to have the viewing habits recorded.*  These people determine the ratings of shows, and those ratings determine ad prices. If you're not one of those people I don't see how it matters whether you watch while a show is being broadcast, DVR it, watch it one Hulu, or BitTorrent it. Either way the network is giving something away with zero marginal cost, and doesn't loose anything when you "pirate it."

(*Yeah, there are fifteen (binary) orders of magnitude more TVs in America than there are raters.  Not what I call a good sample, but so be it.  In the age of digital cable I can't imagine why this system persists.)

I contend it is better for networks to have people watching the show, even if pirated, than not watching at all.  Since there are network externalities to show viewership, every viewer (or every viewer who publicly acknowledges being a viewer) makes it more enticing for other people to also be viewers, either through making direct recommendations or by providing a more robust viewership community.

Because of this I believe networks may actually gain from people who pirate TV shows in order to shift their viewing time or device if the option they face is either (1) not watching the show at all or (2) downloading it to watch later.

People, for instance, like me. I'll admit I pirate TV shows in order to watch them the following day when I'm eating or taking a break from work. I'm not going to take an hour out of my evening, when I'm usually working, to watch anything but the best shows, but I'll definitely be willing to watch in 15 or 20 minutes chunks on my laptop the next day.

I'll grant there's an implied agreement between me and advertisers that I am breaking by watching a downloaded version with ads stripped out. Two points:

  1. I'm no more violating this agreement than I am when I switch the channel or turn off the volume or walk away from the TV during commercials. Either way I'm avoiding the ads.
  2. I'd download a copy with ads in it if it was available. No guarantee I wouldn't fast forward through them, but you can do that on a DVR anyway and no one objects to that on moral grounds, and it's still no different than walking away from the TV when ads come on, which isn't wrong either.

Note that I actually want to download a copy, not stream it. For various reasons relating to time shifting and computing resource consumption that's all I'm interested in.

I'm having difficulty seeing how my behavior is immoral here.  All the discussion of digital piracy I've seen is focused on music, with some of the attention shifting in the last couple of years to movies.  I don't think these even approach being good analogs to television downloading.

I'm sincerely interested in arguments about why what I'm doing is wrong.  No promises it will change my behavior, but I'd be interested in hearing any critiques.

18 February 2010

DOT finds a way to make air travel even more annoying

Reason: Hit & Run | Katherine Mangu-Ward | Your Flight to Cancun is Canceled. You're Welcome.

[...] In December, the government announced that it would soon begin enforcing new rules that fine airlines per passengers for any tarmac delay that lasts more than three hours. The fines go into effect on April 29, meaning that a delayed 747 jammed full of people headed to their summer vacations could cost the airline more than $13 million.

But wait! If a flight is canceled, then the fine is void. Too bad no one can see the future to know what will happen next. Just kidding. We know exactly what will happen next.

So let's just go ahead and make this an official announcement: Starting in April, every flight that is delayed more than three hours in the United States of America is canceled. The flight that was delayed for the rainstorm that shows signs of clearing at 2 hours and 55 minutes? Canceled. The flight delayed for a repair that will take 3 hours and 4 minutes? Canceled.

And, of course, should an airline violate the delay rules and be forced to pay the fine, the cash won't go the passengers. But the passengers sleeping on the floor of the airport will enjoy the full realization of their "fundamental right to be treated with respect," according to Department of Transportation spokeswoman Maureen Knightly. So that's nice.
WTF.  "If a flight is canceled, then the fine is void."  That is the dumbest rule I've heard in [a long period of time of your choosing].

Rules have consequences.  You can't impose new rules on a complex system and then fail to ask "and then what?"

You know what?  This is dumb enough that I'm breaking out my second facepalming bear of the day.  It's that kind of day.

PS There is no right to be respected.  There is no more right to have everyone respect you than there is to have everyone like you.  Respect is a part of someone else's state of mind.  You don't have any right to influence another person's mental state.  The end.

Put your feet up

Proch Dog brings my attention to some Red Team wackjobs who are angry that a Blue Team president proped his feet up on the Resolute Desk.

I know! How totally disrespectful! How dare he!!!!!!!!!!

Wait, what's that? It's no big deal? Oh, that's right. It isn't.

Jeeeeezus. The President is just a another guy. He's not a king, he's not the Pope, he's not the Most Serene and Puissant God-Emperor of a Million Lands. He's a dude.  Dudes pop their feet up on desks. It happens. I bet you he's even picked his nose once or twice in the Oval Office. He's probably squeezed out a fart in the Official Chair of the President of the United States. Get over it.

Oh, and furthermore...

Hit me one more time...

This is the kind of thing that makes me slightly embarrassed to have even considered myself a conservative once upon a time.

More of everything

Since I'm on the topic of high school education and college prep:
Ideas | David D Friedman | Cookie-cutter Elites
"There is no single academic path we expect all students to follow, but the strongest applicants take the most rigorous secondary school curricula available to them. An ideal four-year preparatory program includes four years of English, with extensive practice in writing; four years of math; four years of science: biology, chemistry, physics, and an advanced course in one of these subjects; three years of history, including American and European history; and four years of one foreign language."
(From Harvard College Admissions)

Consider the passage quoted above. Despite the initial disclaimer, the description of an "ideal four-year preparatory program" implies a pretty uniform picture of the ideal student. It is a picture that any reasonably intelligent and hard-working student should be able to fit—provided that he is more interested in getting into Harvard than in getting an education.


Studying a language is for some people an interesting intellectual activity; speaking a foreign language can be a useful skill. But the world is full of interesting things to do and skills to learn. This particular skill is well short of essential for someone living in the middle of some three hundred million English speakers. So why make it the key to Harvard—in preference to the ability to build furniture, or write sonnets, or survive in the woods?
Yes. Finally.

People always ignore the opportunity costs of putting more things in the high school curriculum. I can't tell you how many times I've had some version of the following conversation:
Some person: "Everything is so global now, we need to teach kids more foreign languages. People in other countries know their language and English. It's disgraceful we don't know their language too."
Me: "So what are you not going to teach kids in order to free up the time to teach them Spanish or Chinese? The dance card is already full. What's getting cut? Is that really the single most important skill we need to improve in our children?  If you had more time to spend you would spend it on Spanish and not math or writing or ..."
I've done the same thing with people who want to teach more civics because democracy is so important, people who want to teach more science because it's the 21st century now, people who want more gym because obesity is gross, and people who want more music and art because ... actually that's always presented to be as a self-evidently good thing to do, without much justification.

Based on my observations, most people in polite company seem to believe all of those things concurrently. It never occurs to them that you can't do more of everything without drastic changes to how the education system is organized like making the school year 12 months long.

PS Here's my prior post on how I would reform the math curriculum specifically, complete with suggestions for what I would actually cut.

17 February 2010


I don't have much in the way of commentary, but I want to draw your attention to Jacob Sullum's post about the recent NY Times spread about the Tea Party movement.  Mostly I just like that Sullum calls author David Barstow out for making the mistake of trying to shoe-horn American politics into a one-dimensional red-blue spectrum.  Hardly new territory for a writer at Reason, I know, but that's a theme that's been on my mind recently.

I suppose the other point to make is that I feel like the more sloppy coverage of the Tea Party the media gives the more sympathy I have for them.  I don't take much time for complaining about main stream media bias because I think that's just not very interesting, and anyway leftward bias isn't really what gets me with this coverage.  It's the ham-fisted way most commentators try to cram the Tea Party into whatever narrative they're already invested in writing.

Sullum happens to point out Barstow saying in effect, "Look at this sub-group of Tea Partiers who would agree with the ACLU about things like warrantless wiretapping and violations of habeus corpus — what a paradox!  How can these right wing lunatics have such liberal views?!"  I've seen that kind of thing a lot.  It never occurs to these authors to throw out the hypothesis that these rallies are 100% right-wing instead of scratching their heads and then ignoring the inconvenient data point.

I don't have a ton of sympathy for Tea Party-types because (a) a lot of them really are cranks, and (b) I think the take-to-the-streets-with-protest-signs is an ineffectual and usually immature thing to do, and that seems to be all they've got up their sleeve.  But every time I hear Keith Olberman sneer about "teabaggers" or people like Barstow shoehorn the Tea Party into the paranoid-racist-right-wing-kook narrative I get a little more sympathetic.

Last thing I'll say about the Tea Party, just because I don't think I've posted it before, is that I find it nauseating how many GOP "leaders" are coming out of the woodwork trying to elbow their way to the front of this parade.  After the last decade of utter disregard by the Red Team for any sort of limited government — be it fiscal restraint or respect for liberty or rejection of paternalism — for these jokers to pop up and pretend to be plugged into the Tea Party is just a farce.


The Economist: Free Exchange | R.A. | Back on tracks

Tracking, the practice of testing students and directing them along different instructional paths based on performance, has long been a dirty word in America. This, despite generally good results from tracking-based educational systems in Europe and positive research results from breaking up students by ability in American experiments. But this seems to be changing, as a rather significant experiment with the structure of secondary education indicates:
In an experiment that could reshape American secondary education, high schools in eight states will introduce new courses next year, along with a battery of tests for sophomores, that will allow students who pass to get a diploma two years early and immediately enroll in community college.

Students who pass but aspire to attend a selective college may continue with college preparatory courses in their junior and senior years, organizers of the new effort said. Students who fail the 10th grade tests, known as board exams, can try again at the end of their 11th and 12th grades. The tests would cover not only English and math but other subjects like science and history.
Hmmm. Without having given it much thought I think this is worth trying.

I'm most interested because it has potential to cut down on wasted time. A lot of the focus when discussing higher education is student loan debt, but that ignores a much more serious problem: opportunity costs of lost wages from spending extra years pursuing a degree in field with minimal earnings benefits.

Another thing that isn't mentioned enough is that there's only a lifetime earning increase from college if you actually get that degree. Pursuing a degree and coming up short is a huge waste of students' time and resources. The fact is that most people in the bottom quartile of their high school classes who go to four year colleges won't have a degree within six years.*

(* It's actually worse than that, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Marty Nemko: "Among college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high school class, 76 of 100 won't earn a diploma, even if given 8½ years."  For that matter, only 54% of all matriculants have a diploma in hand six years after entering a "four year" school.)

By discussing education in a way that makes a four year liberal arts degree the be-all-and-end-all of education we're only setting those people up for failure. They should be welcome to give it a shot if they want, but I wish our society didn't put so much focus on getting bachelor's degrees.

If programs like the one mentioned above make it easier for kids to have an associates degree in hand when they're 18 or 19 years old we'll be a lot better off. Then they have an entire credential rather than years spent pursuing one in vain, they have a taste of college education so they know better if they can handle a bachelor's program at this point in their life, and if they decide that's not for them then they have extra years of earning potential at their disposal.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I always feels vaguely uncomfortable making arguments like this because I can always hear a voice in the back of my head saying "Oh sure, easy for you to say, guy who already got his bachelor's degree and is in grad school. Of course it doesn't matter to you whether poor kids get a chance to go to college."

First of all, try adressing my argument rather than questioning my motives, annoying guy in the back of my head.

Second, nothing could be further from the truth. I think the mind is the only real natural resource and I want as many of them developed as fully as possible.  Letting potentially productive minds lying fallow only makes me (and all of us) poorer.

Thirdly you'd be surprised how lucrative skilled-but-"uneducated" labor can be, and even more surprised how high job satisfaction can be.  That work definitely isn't for everyone, but compared to the multitudes of people who sleepwalk through generic majors they aren't particularly interested in and which don't confer great job opportunities, and then end up as cubicle farmers in Generic White Collar Job #17, learning high-pressure plumbing may be the better option.

Finally I have seen more than enough of my friends and family members falling into this trap of thinking that the BA is the only acceptable goal. I have one cousin who just turned 26, is still working on his bachelor's and has accumulated no real work experience. I have another who's 22 and only has a year of college credit to his name but also has no work experience because he's spent the last four years drifting in and out of school.  I could go on and on with other examples.

My cousins, and many like them, would have been better off without the societal pressure to go to college.  They'd be better off if they had started learning a skill when they were 18 or 19.

I don't want to prohibit or discourage kids from going to college, but the pendulum  has swung too far towards the supposition that everyone should go to college.  Pushing college enrollment is the new version of pushing people into buying homes.