31 October 2010


I'm so happy I was out of town for this gong show. But I've lived inside the beltway for 22 years and successfully avoided every single rally over that time span, so I guess I've got a pretty good streak going.

I did miss Adam and Jamie though. That's a shame.

29 October 2010

Happy Halloween

I love that I live in a world where this exists, and I get to enjoy it.

How does this have only 780 views?

Via The Daily What, who also serves up this geektastic halloween dose of awesome:

I really hope I have kids who want to dress up like this one day.  I already knew that the Mythbusters were going to provide great science fair inspiration for my Lil' SB7s, but I never expected them to inspire halloween costumes too.

Experts, compassion, innovation: "They build castles of words, and call it knowledge"

Megan McArdle linked to what was indeed an outstanding post by Jim Manzi on technocracy and elites. Go read what he had to say. Here's his conclusion:
The essential Progressive belief that Klein expresses in undiluted form is that crafting public policy through legislation is a topic for which, in simplified terms, the benefits of expertise outweigh the benefits of popular contention. Stated more cautiously, this would be the belief that the institutional rules of the game should be more heavily tilted toward expert opinion on many important topics than they are in the U.S. today.

This would be a lot more compelling if the elites didn’t have such a terrible track record of producing social interventions that work.

An aeronautical engineer can predict reliably that “If you design a wing like this, then this plane will be airworthy, but if you design it like that, then it will never get in the air.” If you were to build a bunch of airplanes according to each set of specifications, you would discover that he or she is almost always right. This is actual expertise. I’ve tried to point out many times that the vast majority of program interventions fail when subjected to replicated, randomized testing.

Our so-called experts in public policy talk a good game, but in the end are no experts at all. They build castles of words, and call it knowledge.
I broadly agree with McArdle's take on Manzi, but think she misses the mark a couple of times.  Here's one:
Moreover, like all elites, the current meritocratic class is self-interested in numerous ways. It is easy for us* to recommend free trade, carbon taxes, and so forth; most of us live in cities where we don't have to drive that far, and/or command incomes that make the price of gas rather incidental to our budget. And think tanks, policy magazines, and congressional staffs--however threatened they may be by other forces--are not yet likely to be outsourced.

I'm not saying that these ideas are wrong; I myself support both of them. But I am also aware that I do not really emotionally comprehend what it is like to be trying to support a family of four on $38,000 a year in rural West Virginia.
I disagree that the problem is insufficient compassion or emotional comprehension of other people's circumstances. I think it's purely a knowledge problem.

Even if you're overflowing with compassion, even if your emotional comprehension of a situation is perfectly tuned, there's no way for people to understand the wildly complicated system of interactions that has led to that situation, and which you would need to understand to effectively modify it.

In fact I think a surplus of emotional attachment can be as damaging as a lack of it in elites. Surely we can't be too compassionate for people who have had adverse reactions to drugs, right? Well we can be if that compassion causes the FDA to delay drugs longer than necessary, harming people who might have benefitted. Where's the compassion for those people?  Even the very caring can't be compassionate about the ne voit pas, unknown suffering. Or how about all the compassion for people whose rent is too damn high? If that compassion leads us to counter-productive rent control policies we end up hurting the people whose plight we were so compassionate about originally.
The other reason I don't necessarily trust elites is that they really like thinking big. You don't get hundreds or thousands of people into a vociferous debate over making some modest improvement to Medicaid reimbursements; you get them animated by proposing a radical overhaul of the health care system. Yet most innovation isn't big; it's continuous, incremental improvement. Companies are forced to this by market discipline, but we don't draw that many policy people from business; they're viewed as tainted by the commercial association.

So we get what most interests wordsmiths: a succession of enormous plans (health care exchanges! privatize social security!), most of which fail. We get very few mechanisms to improve them. I'm not even sure the government can work on that sort of improvement--we've stripped so much autonomy from officials and civil servants in the name of equity that few people have any authority or will to push through reforms.
Quite right, innovation is almost always incremental. Revolutionary advances are shockingly rare.

The problem isn't that the chattering class' penchant for Big Ideas is displacing the little shuffles forward that we need, it's that there's little reason to innovate in any way, big or small.  There's no competition, or other incentive to innovate. Incremental innovation isn't just something business do. You need to right incentives for it to happen. There's whole shelves of journal articles about setting up the proper environments to make this happen: rewards and bonuses and tournaments and voting systems and so on. (Something I'm sure McArdle is aware of.)  Almost all of these systems are about harnessing and amplifying "popular contention" — competition — exactly the thing that Manzi identifies as the thing progressives would like to minimize in favor of expertise.

Furthermore, incremental innovation isn't just like revolutionary innovation, except more gradual.  It's also a lot messier.  It requires trying a lot of things and getting most of them wrong.  Governments aren't good at that.  (Monolithic enterprises, even private ones, stagnate for this reason.)  The states are no longer, if indeed they ever were, the "laboratories of democracy." Washington can force states, and municipalities, and citizens, to do any damn thing they want at this point.  They're all about picking the One Right Choice, and that's the antithesis of what you want for innovation.  But that's all right for the elite, because they're the ones that get to make that one choice.

~ ~ ~
The fact is that up to now a free society has not been good for the intellectual. It has neither accorded him a superior status to sustain his confidence nor made it easy for him to acquire an unquestioned sense of social usefulness. For he derives his sense of usefulness mainly from directing, instructing, and planning — from minding other people's business — and is bound to feel superfluous and neglected where people believe themselves competent to manage individual and communal affairs, and are impatient of supervision and regulation. A free society is as much a threat to the intellectual's sense of worth as an automated economy is to the workingman's sense of worth. Any social order that can function with a minimum of leadership will be anathema to the intellectual.

— Eric Hoffer

28 October 2010

WMATA CYA "security"

DCist | Aaron Morrissey | Metro Transit Police Chief: "We Will Definitely Look At" Random Searches

Oh, goody. WTOP's Adam Tuss got the chance to chat with Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn today. Taborn told Tuss that, in light of the arrest of Farooque Ahmed on terrorism-related charges yesterday, MTP "will definitely look at" conducting random bag checks inside Metrorail stations.
Taborn says he will revisit the idea with the Metro board.

"It could be a quick 15 to 30 second invasion. It doesn't mean that I am going into your backpack. It could be simply a swab just to make sure that you don't have explosives on your body, or things of that nature," says Taborn.
Why do this as a result of Ahmed's arrest?

Before Ahmed, we knew that the Metro is a possible target of terrorists.

After Ahmed, we know that ... the Metro is a possible target of terrorists.

PS I addressed Metro's plan for bag screening when it was first floated two years ago.  It was silly then, and it's silly now.

Updated 29 Oct '10 — As I suspected, it was the FBI's idea for Ahmed to reconnoiter the Metro stations. So before this all went down, we knew that the cops thought the Metro would be a likely target, and afterwards we still know exactly the same thing, no more and no less. At least if this was his idea we could say that there was indeed one potential terrorist who wanted to attack this target, but we can't even say that. There's no reason to even slightly increase our prediction of how likely it is that terrorists will attack the Metro.

Where in the name of Thomas Bayes is the "reality-based community" I was told was going to be in charge of DC? Where the F are you people? Oh, you're doing the same stupid fear-based bullshit as the last crew? Comforting.

Nudgers Need Nudging Too

Several people posted about this WSJ article last weekend dealing with way behavioral economists have focused on the psychology of the regulated, but not of the regulators.
WSJ | Matt Ridley | Studying the Biases of Bureaucrats

There is a fashionable new science—behavioral economics, they call it—which applies the insights of psychology to how people make economic decisions. [...]

But while there is a lot of interest in the psychology and neuroscience of markets, there is much less in the psychology and neuroscience of government. Slavisa Tasic, of the University of Kiev, wrote a paper recently for the Istituto Bruno Leoni in Italy about this omission. He argues that market participants are not the only ones who make mistakes, yet he notes drily that "in the mainstream economic literature there is a near complete absence of concern that regulatory design might suffer from lack of competence." Public servants are human, too.

Mr. Tasic identifies five mistakes that government regulators often make: action bias, motivated reasoning, the focusing illusion, the affect heuristic and illusions of competence.
My hat's off to Tasic for this valuable work. We are a society of fallible men ruled by other fallible men, after all.
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

— James Madison, Federalist #51
We're not governed by angels. We're governed by Ken Feinbergs.

A policing policy which created as much crime as it solved

That's no exaggeration. New Orlean's camera system is split 50/50 when it comes to crime prevention and cause.
Nola.com | David Hammer | Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants to dump city's crime cameras

In seven years, New Orleans' crime camera program has yielded six indictments: three for crimes caught on video and three for bribes and kickbacks a vendor is accused of paying a former city official to sell the cameras to City Hall.
(Via Bruce Schneier)

27 October 2010


Reason: Hit & Run | Katharine Mangu-Ward | State Charges Man $1,000 to Open Business in Dying City, Wins Praise

Today at CNN.com, there's a piece chronicling the awesome awesomeness of the stimulus, and the miracles hundreds of thousands of federal taxpayer dollars have brought to the semi-defunct manufacturing town of Kokomo, Indiana. [...]

But over at Crispy on the Outside, Baylen Linnekin (after sharing some choice words about the quality of the analysis offered by the piece, one of which is "muckiness") highlights this doozy of a sidenote about one of those exciting new businesses:
26-year-old Blake Kinder is using recycled antique wood and glass to open up an Irish bar in what was once a Chinese restaurant.

Kinder said the city's designation of the downtown as a redevelopment zone allowed him to get a state liquor license, normally valued at over $100,000, for a mere $1,000.
Elsewhere on CNN.com, the new price is described as "dirt cheap." Here's a tip for would-be entrepreneurs in Indiana, or any other state. If you can buy three two-bedroom houses for the same cost as one liquor license in your town, you probably shouldn't buy any of the above. The state offering to accept a mere 1,000 clams in exchange for allowing someone to opening a business is a dying town shouldn't be so impressive.
The Indiana liquor control board deserves to be ... you know, this is a family blog, so I'm not even going to say what those meddlesome little know-it-all wowzer shits deserve.

Oh, and throw the above anecdote onto the list of reasons I dislike Kokomo.

(1) It's a boil on the side of Rte 31. It's a Bastiat's Negative Railroad come to life.

(2) My old Camry broke down not far from Kokomo. Because Kokomo is dying tendril of Detroit's failed attempts at auto manufacturing, I found it difficult to find parts for a Japanese car. It's not that it was difficult that bugs me, it's that I was treated like requesting parts for an import was rude. Not only did they not have parts, they thought it was obnoxious I would even consider asking about parts. I might as well have walked into the corner diner and asked for a hamburger made out of the family dog.

Bonus video:  Via Business Insider, which named Kokomo the sixth most depressing city in America last year.

"America must end free trade, or free trade will end America."  Thanks for that opinion, you self-centered jerk.  Now come back and try again when you have learned to look for the unseen as well as the seen, to measure the under appreciated as well as the obvious, and to examine the effect on all people and not just the few closest to you.

"We wish all Americans well."  Just not the ones who want to buy things from nasty foreigners.  They can go screw.  Also not the ones who would employ someone on the other side of a line on a map.  Those are OUR jobs.  OURS OURS OURS OURS ALLLLLLL OURS.

~ ~ ~

Why are we surrounded with the sea? Surely that our wants at home might be supplied by our navigation with other countries, the least and easiest labour. By this we taste the spices of Arabia, yet we never feel the scorching sun that brings them forth. We shine in silks which our hands have not wrought ... We only plough the deep and reap the harvest of every country in the world.

— Doug Irwin, "Considerations on the East India Trade"

~ ~ ~

Free trade isn’t a battle that countries (or states) win or lose. It is a human right – the liberty to engage in voluntary transactions that leave both participants better off. If John wants to sell something that Mary wants to buy, it should make no difference to the lawfulness of their exchange whether they are residents of different neighborhoods, different states, or different nations. [...]

Protectionism, an old delusion, enriches the few at the expense of the many. The blessings of free trade, by contrast, uplift all of us.

— Jeff Jacoby, "The old delusion of protectionism"

~ ~ ~

An international economics course should drive home to students the point that international trade is not about competition, it is about mutually beneficial exchange. Even more fundamentally, we should be able to teach students that imports, not exports, are the purpose of trade. That is, what a country gains from trade is the ability to import what it wants. Exports are not an objective in and of themselves: the need to export is a burden that the country must bear because its import suppliers are crass enough to demand payment.

— Paul Krugman, Pop Internationalism, 1997

26 October 2010

Lifehacker for asshats

lifehacker | Adam Dachis | Make an Automatic Bicycle Pump to Steal Air from Cars

Don't like paying for pressurized air for your bike tires? Don't like energy inefficient vehicles? Make this automatic bicycle pump on the cheap and steal from a car.
That's not only a complete dick move, it's also arrogant, dangerous AND HYPOCRITICAL BECAUSE LOWER TIRE PRESSURE WILL REDUCE THE CAR'S EFFICIENCY.  It's not even justifiable within it's own selfish framing of the world.

Yes I am yelling now. I do that sometimes when confronted by jerkery.

Obama & compromise

I'm noticing an increasing amount of chatter about whether Obama is a leftist, or a centrist, or has compromised too much or too little, etc.
Kids Prefer Cheese | Angus | one reality, many interpretations?

The progressive drumbeat that the Dems are in trouble because Obama was too conservative continues.

Mark Thoma gives a clear articulation of the view:

"I don't know if the centrist, bipartisan seeking, compromising Obama we have seen to date can actually embrace an encompassing vision. He seems afraid to be a Democrat.."

It's hard for me to understand this sentence coming from a person (i.e. Mark) who I like and respect. From my perspective, Obama is pretty far left and uncompromising.

So let me invoke Robin Hanson and try to list things Obama has done that qualify as evidence for Mark's view.

I would say on economic policy the closest thing to centrist & compromising that he's done is appoint Summers and Geithner.

Can you count not pushing for single payer as bipartisan seeking or compromising?

Then there's Guantanamo, renditions, wiretaps, and the like. I view the continuation of these policies as wrong, but are they being continued as a compromise? Or out of bipartisanship?

Oh and then there are the wars. Do they count?

Oh my, there's also no action on immigration reform and the monstrosity that is DADT.

Holy Crap! Maybe Mark has a point.

I see Obama as the worst possible policy mix. Wrong on economic issues, wrong on foreign policy and wrong on social issues too. A Dem should at least get the social issues right!

That Robin H. sure is a smart fellow.
Angus was pressed in his comments section to come up with some evidence for Obama being far-left. He responds here and here.

Some thoughts:

0.  Maybe Obama is a second Bukharin, and maybe Thomas is right and he's more centrist than I realize.  Regardless, I don't see "Obama has been too compromising" being a winning message for Dems.  Even if you could convince a sizable portion of people that he's been bending over backwards to accommodate republicans in congress, those republicans aren't too popular either.  But maybe this is more about making left-of-center people feel good about the last two years.

1. I'm not very good at electoral psychology, but I think a lot of this is a result of Democrats over estimating how much support they had at the end of the Bush administration.  They had a wide margin of victory for the White House and big majorities in both houses, but at the end of the day there was not much support among the populace for far left policies.  All the talk of permanent Dem majorities and sea changes and such set too high expectations for how much leftism they could enact.

2.  I remember seeing a couple years ago a discussion about this which broke things down along ideological and pragmatic dimensions.  I can't find a link now.  I see Obama as someone with leftist ideas whose centrism, such as it is, is driven by pragmatic concerns.  He has far-left positions but doesn't want to fight for them very much, rather than being someone who enacts centrists policies because that's what he desires in the first place.

3. Discussing the whole notion of "compromise" in politics is usually fruitless.  It's been often noted that when people say they want more compromise and bipartisanship it typically means the other guys should just agree to what I want to do.  I think things are more complicated than that with Obama's first two years, but it's worth keeping in mind how malleable the term is.

4. Consider a teenager who wants to stay out until 2am.  His parents want him home at 10pm.  They agree on midnight.  Has there been a compromise?  Well yes, in a way.  But also no, in a way.  The parents  have the power, they set the rules.  I see parents being convinced to extend a curfew as a form of compromise, but one that is very different in meaningful ways than when you haggle a price to a midpoint between the initial offers.  Unlike a haggling merchant and customer, the parents have not sacrificed anything, they've just been convinced to acquiesce.

I see a lot of legislation as parent-child compromise.  Take, for example, the claim I've seen that Obama compromised by accepting a smaller stimulus than he wanted (or would have wanted if he was "really" on the far left).  Congress is the parents in this situation: they were never going to give him two trillion to begin with, and they set the rules.  His taking what they would agree to give him isn't really a compromise.

Similarly Obama did not get the single-payer health care a "real" leftist would want.  But the votes for that were never there.  It wouldn't have happened to matter how centrist or leftist the POTUS was.  Saying that's a compromise is a bit like claiming Bush is a right-of-center compromiser because he invaded only two countries, and didn't also send men into Iran, North Korea, Yemen and Venezuela, like a "real" war mongering nationalist rightist would do.

There's a difference between wanting to be in the middle of the road, wanting to be at one end and compromising, and just taking what you can get.

5. I'm with Angus on this at least: I disliked a lot of Obama's positions before he took office, and the few I did like are the ones he's abandoned.  The civil liberties and other social policies I thought he might actually back up and turn away from Bush's positions are often the things where he's stayed closest to the GOP line.  This is beyond disappointing.

6. I see this as further evidence that the left/right distinction is a poor way to understand things.  I don't care if Obama is a leftist or not, because he's certainly a statist.  There are no doubt a long list of things he's done that Bush would have or did do as well.  Does that make him a centrist, or does it mean that both Team Red and Team Blue have more in common than they like to admit, and that commonality is primarily a focus on the expansion of the state?

Robo Library

WSJ | Conor Dougherty | New Library Technologies Dispense With Librarians

Hugo, Minn.—In this suburb of St. Paul, the new library branch has no librarians, no card catalog and no comfortable chairs in which to curl up and read.

Instead, the Library Express is a stack of metal lockers outside city hall. When patrons want a book or DVD, they order it online and pick it up from a digitally locked, glove-compartment- sized cubby a few days later. It's a library as conceived by the Amazon.com generation.

Faced with layoffs and budget cuts, or simply looking for ways to expand their reach, libraries around the country are replacing traditional, full-service institutions with devices and approaches that may be redefining what it means to have a library.

Later this year Mesa, Ariz., plans to open a new "express" library in a strip-mall, open three days a week, with outdoor kiosks to dispense books and DVDs at all hours of the day. Palm Harbor, Fla., meanwhile, has offset the impact of reduced hours by installing glass-front vending machines that dispense DVDs and popular books.

I'm surprised and pleased that the ALA is customer-focused enough to embrace this.
"It's real, and the book lockers are great," said Audra Caplan, president of the Public Library Association. "Many of us are having to reduce hours as government budgets get cut, and this enables people to get to us after hours."
Not everyone is on board, of course.
"The basis of the vending machine is to reduce the library to a public-book locker," Mr. Lund [director of the Red Wing Public Library in Red Wing, Minn.] said in an interview. "Our real mission is public education and public education can't be done from a vending machine. It takes educators, it takes people, it takes interaction."
Now I don't want to bad mouth librarians as a group, especially because Mrs SB7 worked her way through grad school as a librarian, and her co-workers seemed to be on whole quite lovely people. But the people I interact with in my local library are barely a cut above my local DMV employees. Swap out the DMV drones drive time talk radio with some NPR, add in a dash of cardigans and heap of reading glasses, and you'd have the MCPL: slow, surly, unhelpful, incompetent, and generally indignant that any patrons would want them to do their jobs. The number of things I've been educated about by a library staff is immeasurably small compared to the things I've learned about from the resources they lend out.

Stop Acting Rich

I skimmed through Thomas Stanley's latest book, Stop Acting Rich: ...And Start Living Like A Real Millionaire, while watching the thorough drubbing Navy gave to my Irish on Saturday.

(Digression: I now extend the concept of moral hazard to football. By the third quarter I was cheering for the Midshipmen. ND had played so badly to start the game that I did not want them to come back to win, because I do not want to reinforce the idea that they can play that sloppily and still rack up a W. I believe I have been reading too much post-crisis economics and too much Hebbian learning theory.

Also: a big tip of the hat to the undersized Navy O-line. Excellent positioning, technique, and so on. Fundamentals ruled the day in the trenches. I'm frightened to think what o-line coach Chris Culton could do with some big hosses.)

Some thoughts on Stanley's book:

• The cover gives the author as "Thomas J. Stanley, Ph.D." Post-nominal letters and professional titles on book covers are usually signs to stay away from a book.

• You could cover all the good info in this book in a short series of blog posts. You don't need 270 pages. One sentence summary: live below your means and don't participate in aspirational consumption habits. In Stanley's terms: if you want to be wealthy then don't just "play offense" by trying to make more, "play defense" by spending less. That's a great message, but not one that takes this long to make.

• Much of it was anecdotal, and reminiscent of the sorts of things I imagine fit well into a lecture tour. Here's a millionaire who drinks $12/liter scotch from plastic jugs, here's one whose favorite restaurant's most expensive dish is under $10. These sorts of things are more motivational than informative.

• There were some semi-interesting tables related to popular brands millionaires like, how much they pay for haircuts, wine, etc. These would make good blog posts.

• I know a little bit about men's clothing, and the section on men's shoes and suits didn't make much sense to me.  He points out, for instance, that many wealthy men buy Allen Edmonds, which are expensive but very well constructed.  The ability to wear them for a decade or more makes them a good value despite the price tag.  He doesn't, for whatever reason, have anything to say about the similar quality of suits.  He also finds it odd that women own more pairs of shoes than men even amongst people with similar consumption habits in other products, despite the obvious versatility in a pair of man's shoes compared to a woman's.  This section read more like very cursory market research than anything else.

• The sin qua non of the book is that income and wealth are related but independent. This is a frequent refrain of mine, and an under-popularized point. Any attempts to evangelize this are commendable.

• The most interesting section was about the correlation between careers and converting income into wealth.

• For example, doctors and lawyers had high income, but lower wealth that their income would predict. By Stanley's measures they are bad at converting income into wealth.

• In contrast engineers were quite good at converting income to wealth. Mining and mineral engineers ranked first of all careers. His hypothesis is that mining engineers tend to live in cheap rural and small town areas, and the site foremen and other blue collar coworkers set an example of spending less. The  well-compensated engineer couldn't buy BMWs and shop at Brooks Brothers even if they wanted to, and if they did they would be out of place.

• Educators were also very good at income to wealth conversion. Stanley again cites modest work environments: flashy clothes and cars and such are eschewed. He does not investigate what I thought is an obvious factor, which is public pensions and non-monetary benefits.

• Stanley presents an interesting rule of thumb from one of his previous books. He says you should aim for a net worth equal to 10% of your age times your annual income. Age comes up frequently when people talking about financial planning, but when we begin talking about public policy, class, "the rich," etc. age as a variable gets ignored too often.

• Stanley also presents cost of housing as a proxy for measuring other spending, but also a driver of other spending. Buy a house in an expensive neighborhood and you will spend more on cars, entertaining, clothes, etc. Better to have a more expensive house in a cheap neighborhood than the reverse. This sounds good, but ignores school quality, which I thought was the primary reason people prefer expensive neighborhoods.

25 October 2010

The scholar-flight attendant, and other contemporary creatures

I mentioned in my Waiting for Superman post that you can't just assume more people going to college is better, like director Davis Guggenheim does.

Ben Casnocha | What 17 Million Americans Got from a College Degree
Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.
That's from this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, via Jon Bischke on Twitter. [...]

For hundreds of thousands of Americans, spending four years and untold amounts of money (and debt?) gets you a job as a waiter, parking lot attendant, or janitor. Yet everyone from Barack Obama to Bill Gates keep pushing a college education as the way to secure one's economic future. That is a view that should be heavily qualified.
If you want to be one of the one in six hotel desk clerks, or telemarketers, or mail carriers, or parking lot attendants with a bachelor's degree because you value knowledge for knowledge's sake (and you think college is an efficient way of gaining knowledge) that's fine by me. But remember the education-as-consumption vs. education-as-investment distinction. If you want to consume education, then bully for you. But that's not my responsibility to pay for, and we can't justify that consumption the way Bill Gates does, nattering on about preparing for a 21st century, high-tech workforce.


Special Lady Friend and I saw Waiting for 'Superman' last Friday with some classmates from her teaching certificate program.  Overall I thought it was a very good piece of work.  Comments:

• The narrative structure was very good.  For a polemical documentary, it did a good job of creating drama.  I found myself emotionally invested in whether the students Guggenheim profiled won the lottery to get into their charter schools.  This is not a typical reaction for me; indeed I started the movie rather bored with the biographical sections devoted to the individual students.

• Just as a sociological note, I found it very interesting how differently people at each of these lotteries around the country reacted as the results were read. In some groups people remained quiet when their names were called, some offered subdued celebrations, some boisterous ones, some groups offered polite applause for each name read. SLF pointed out that we have no idea if they were given instructions before hand regarding applause, etc. Nevertheless I always find it fascinating the way groups of people quickly fall into an agreed, implicit convention about how to behave in situations like this. Consider this another look at the sit-or-stand at concerts norm.

• Guggenheim very clearly places blame on the teachers' unions.  I can't fault that.

• I do wish he had examined a little more why unions are often impediments to reform.  They are not obstructionist for obstruction's sake, after all.  He could have made the point that, like all large organizations, there is an agency problem: the incentives of the union decision makers are not perfectly aligned with incentives of members.  Or he could have talked about why union members would chose to vote down merit pay: median-voter behavior plus a mild amount of risk aversion can mean that the 51% of members at the bottom of the distribution form a powerful voting block.

• Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, gave a perfect example of what I hate about education union rhetoric.  She explicitly claimed that what is good for the teachers' union is congruent to what is good for education, so that if you oppose the union, you are by extension opposing education as a whole.  I believe this conflation is the single most powerful rhetorical trick the unions have up their sleeves.
Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

— Frederic Bastiat, "The Law"
• Weingarten was also shown at a union meeting that reminded SLF of a megachurch service in both tone and layout. One of the lines that stuck out was her telling all her members/congregants that they were "heroes."  When you have a body of people being told they are heroic for doing God's work it is no wonder they respond with religious fervor to political, bureaucratic and economic challenges to their position.

• I posted a couple of weeks ago this stat from the movie, which remains shocking:
About one of 57 medical doctors and one of 97 lawyers loses his or her license annually for malpractice. In contrast, only one in 2,500 unionized, public school teachers with tenure gets fired each year.
• A similar stat also stood out. I don't recall the exact figures, but of the several hundred school districts in Illinois, only 60 or so have ever attempted to fire a single tenured teacher, and of those only half have succeeded. That is absurd. There is no organization in the world that can hire tens of thousands of people without making a mistake and ending up with someone who is not right for the job. You can't run an organization if you assume that once someone has made the decision to hire X, that decision can never be revisited or reevaluated.  It's impossible, and I don't use that word lightly.

• I part ways with Guggenheim in the Bill Gates section dealing with higher education. He is right to point out that compared to students around the world American teenagers do poorly in math and science. But if you examine 22 year old Americans do extremely well because we have the best university system in the world. The film moves right from high school math and science to talking about a lack of trained workers, skipping over the effects of college.

• In fact the entire emphasis on college prep I found to be poorly considered. It's nice to think that we should be preparing every single high school student for college, but that isn't a realistic or desirable goal for many reasons. ("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." And of course that's the bottom 40% of people who actually were graduated, so dropouts are excluded.)

Many people actually think less college is what we need (e.g. Peter Theil's entrepreneurship grants to people who forgo college, or Bryan Caplan's view of higher education as signalling). In criticizing, for instance, California for preparing 20% of it's teenagers for college, he assumes that this number is too low. Now maybe it is, but that's not something he attempts to demonstrate. If that is too low then what is the right number?  30%? 50%? 22.5%? There were many assumptions Guggenheim made about higher education that maybe could be supported, but he never bothers to attempt that. There was too much assertion of facts not in evidence whenever it came to college.

• Tracking gets a very bad image, as it tends to these days. One charter school is praised for giving every student exactly the same classes. This is great if you're a median student, but Guggenheim ignores that the effect of not having any students in lower level classes is that no student can be in an upper level class. The problems of tracking are ones of execution rather than concept, and by eliminating it entirely I feel that school systems flirt with hatchet-axe-and-saw equality.

• Some of SLF's classmates didn't like that that Guggenheim did not criticize the concept of testing enough. He presents all sorts of evidence underpinned by state-wide testing. ("X% of students in Arizona are below grade-level in reading," and so forth.) I didn't have a problem with him not addressing testing more thoroughly; I thought testing was ancillary to his topic. Maybe some details about what tests were being cited would be useful, but it's not like there's a different set of tests whereby every Washington DC student is an excellent reader, or American students are vastly better than Japanese students as physics and so on. There are, AFAIK, no sets of test results that make achievement increase in proportion to spending in this chart, a version of which Guggenheim presents:

• There's a difference between presenting the results of tests and advocating that we continue to arrange school systems around standardized test taking.  Guggenheim does the former, not the latter.  Using test-derived evidence isn't an endorsement of "teaching to the test," and all the rest of the testing issues enhanced by No Child Left Behind.

• There are obviously a lot of problems with our testing regime.  I was certainly no fan of having to sit through the MSAs and MSPAPs and all the rest, as well as the endless days of preparing for them so our school could juke the stats.  But just because something like educational achievement or teacher quality is difficult to assess doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  Just because we don't have a good way of measuring a phenomenon isn't a reason to ignore it.

• There is an undercurrent throughout the film of how cruel it is to put students' fates in the hands of lotteries for charter school admissions. Guggenheim doesn't directly criticize this system, but I can imagine many people walking out of the theater with one of their major conclusions being how immoral such random systems are. I wish he had made the point that while arbitrary, allocating the limited seats in charter schools is the least bad way to do things since the alternatives are prices (which would make them identical to private schools), queuing (which is both arbitrary and rewards people rich enough to spend time waiting around in line), or by fiat of the principal or other official (which is too subjective and prone to cheating and bias).

• Some of the stylistic choices in the film were a little heavy-handed. I understand the metaphor, for instance, of the poverty gap being like the sound barrier, but I didn't need to see stock footage and re-enactments of Chuck Yeager time after time after time. I get it. I blame the unions for much of the disfunction in American schools, but you don't need ominous, funereal music when you show a union rally.  I get it.

Many of these comments seem negative, but I really did enjoy the movie. Treat the criticisms above as the ways in which I think it could have been even better.

24 October 2010


Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin looks like the history book of the moment. I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy, based on several positive comments from trusted sources.
Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | *Bloodlands*

The author is Timothy Snyder and the subtitle is Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. I learned that this period was even bloodier and more brutal than I had thought:
Mass killing in Europe is usually associated with the Holocaust, and the Holocaust with rapid industrial killing. The image is too simple and clean. At the German and Soviet killing sites, the methods of murder were rather primitive. Of the fourteen million civilians and prisoners of war killed in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, more than half died because they were denied food. Europeans deliberately starved Europeans in horrific numbers in the middle of the twentieth century.
It is a very powerful book and I can recommend this review and this review. Along somewhat related lines, some of you may wish to read Paul R. Gregory's Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin's Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina.
I learned a lot about the Stalinist-Lysenkoist forced famines in the Ukraine by listening to this EconTalk interview with Gregory about his Bukharin book. Not only were people starved because of Stalinist policy, they were shot for trying to leave famine-ravaged lands to find work and food. EconTalk also did a good episode about Trotsky. Early Soviet history is a subject that was (and is) lacking in my knowledge base.
EconLog | Bryan Caplan | Bloodlands
I haven't finished the first chapter of Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, but I'm ready to highly recommend the book. Just one great passage:
As Stalin interpreted the disaster of collectivization in the last weeks of 1932, he achieved a new height of ideological daring. The famine in Ukraine, whose existence he had admitted earlier, when it was far less severe, was now a "fairy tale," a slanderous rumor spread by enemies. Stalin had developed an interesting new theory: that resistance to socialism increases as its successes mount, because its foes resist with greater desperation as they contemplate their final defeat...


Stalin never personally witnessed the starvations that he so interpreted, but comrades in Soviet Ukraine did... Forced to interpret distended bellies as political opposition, they produced the utterly tortured conclusion that the saboteurs hated socialism so much that they intentionally let their families die... Even the starving themselves were sometimes presented as enemy propagandists with a conscious plan to undermine socialism. Young Ukrainian communists in the cities were taught that the starving were enemies of the people "who risked their lives to spoil our optimism."
These self-righteous socialist horrors could almost be out of Eugen Richter, but not quite. His shortcoming: not dystopian enough.
The Economist had a great review you can find here.  More interesting perhaps is an interview they conducted with Snyder, which you can listen here or below.

Snyder also responds convincingly to his critics in the Guardian.

I am very interested in Bloodlands because it is a book I very much wish I had when I was in middle and high school. The Holocaust was taught to me as the central event in 20th century world history. And not just in my history or social studies classes: it was addressed in several English classes at some length as well. I would estimate that I spent four or five binary orders of magnitude more time discussing the Holocaust than the rest of WWII together. Like Snyder's critics, my teachers explicitly disallowed attempts to put the Holocaust in context, either in terms contemporaneous events or other modern genocides around the world.  Stalin was treated as a good guy, because anyone who helped fight Hitler couldn't be that bad. (I was yelled at at one point for trying to bring up the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.) Also particularly maddening to me was the way the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were taken as nothing but big misunderstandings: Mao meant well and only wanted to rejuvenate China economically and culturally, freeing it from the shackles of ancient Confucian superstitions and the legacy of imperialism, but then things went wrong — oh well!  The only event which was admitted as being somewhat comparable to the Holocaust was, of all things, Hiroshima & Nagasaki. (The fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden, and the bombing of Warsaw, were irrelevant to that discussion though.)

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the curriculum committees in charge at Montgomery County Public Schools.

I never wanted to get into some foolish "is atrocity X worse than atrocityY" rumble, but I recognized it as foolish even then to pretend that the Holocaust happened in isolation.  Not only foolish, but dangerous.  If you think this horrible thing is the isolated work on one mad man rather than the most eggregious event in a lengthy string of terrible 20th century events all around the world then you're going to think that bad things won't happen again, or happen close by.

Hennessey video-fisking (visking?) Goolsby

All the cool kids are posting this video now, and for good reason.


I mentioned a few days ago that it cost me five times as much per mile to get from the Kansas City airport to my downtown hotel than it did to get from Baltimore to Kansas City.

Some follow up:
The Economist: Free Exchange | R.A. | Trade: Distance isn't dead

Tim Fernholtz tweets a link to a fascinating post on international shipping, which focuses on a computation of the cost to ship bottled water from Fiji to Cambridge, Massachusetts:
First, the 24,000kg figure applies to smaller, 20′ containers – the limit for 40-footers is 30,480kg. And the price from Suva to Cambridge for a 40′ container is just slightly higher – $5,540.30. That comes out to $0.18 per liter, three cents less than I calculated six years ago...

It’s a four day trip from Suva to Auckland on the Pacific Islands Express, and then the bottles of Fiji water are transfered to OC1, the Oceania Americas Service. The Pacific crossing is a long one – 18 days to the Panama Canal, a quick stop in Cartagena, and we’re in Philadephia 25 days out of Auckland. It’s a truck ride from Philly to Cambridge, and that short hop is responsible for $950 of the total transit cost.
The last line is particularly interesting to me. The final leg of the trip accounts for just 4% of the mileage but 17% of the cost. Why? Mostly because it's overland.
Mode of transport far surpasses mileage as a determiner of resource consumption.

Also from Zuckerman's shipping post:
The main thing I’ve found playing with Maersk’s calendar: distance doesn’t matter as much as demand. Americans buy a lot of atoms from China. The Chinese don’t buy nearly as many from the US. A 40′ container filled with household goods, shipped from Shanghai to Houston, TX costs $6169.93. Reverse the trip and ship the same container from Houston to Shanghai and the cost is $3631.07.
And two other transport-related tidbist:
The Geography of Transport Systems | Jean-Paul Rodrigue | Historical Geography of Transportation: The Emergence of Mechanized Systems

Prior to the industrial revolution, the quantity of freight transported between nations was negligible by contemporary standards. For instance, during the Middle Ages, [...] The total amount of freight transported by the Venetian fleet, which dominated Mediterranean trade for centuries, would not fill a modern cargo ship.
Image what Enrico Dandolo could have done with even one pre-container freighter like the old Robin Moor.
For example, a stage coach going through the English countryside in the 16th century had an average speed of two miles per hour; moving one ton of cargo 30 miles (50 km) inland in the United States by the late 18th century was as costly as moving it across the Atlantic.
For reference, walking speed can be estimated at 3mph; 30 miles is less than the distance between DC and Baltimore, or San Francisco and San Jose, for you West Coasters.

22 October 2010

New rule!

Threat Quality Press | Braak | Verisimilitude AGAIN

I know that everyone SAYS truth is stranger than fiction, but come on: that’s plainly bullshit. Think for, a moment, about the strangest true thing you’ve ever heard.

Now: add space vampires.

Voila. Fiction is stranger than truth. Every time! Because: no matter how strange the truth is, you can always add space vampires and make it stranger.

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but never as strange as lies.”

— John Hodgman

Silly metrics

The Atlantic: Food Channel | Helene York | Cheap Seafood's High Cost

What does it say about us that more people process seafood than actively catch it?
Absolutely nothing.

What does it say about us that more people print and distribute books than actively write them?

What does it say about us that more people service airplanes than actively build them?

There's no reason to think that the group of people lowest on the supply chain should outnumber all the other people on the chain.

Project idea for CS student

Are you looking for a project for your GIS or Comp.Geometry class this semester?

Why not build a de-gerrymandering system?

Take as input a set of points representing the population, the current district boundaries, and the desired number of districts, and output the new district boundaries.

You'd need some sort of metric to judge your results. Perhaps aim for low perimeter to area ratios?

Alternately you ignore the current boundaries, and start from scratch.

Techniques? An SOM could come in handy. Maybe a particle swarm system? Perhaps physics paradigm with spring or gravity type dynamics?

21 October 2010

Can we please all learn what a megabit is?

the Economist: Babbage | B.G. | Understanding technology: Can we please all learn what a megabit is?

I'm not even going to bother excerpting the article. Read it if you want. The headline is the important part: for the love of god just learn what a bit is already.

I don't care if you're old. You've learned about lots of things that didn't exist when you were young. Throw this on the pile too.

There's no excuse. No more so than not understanding what an inch or a pound are. (Or a meter or a liter. Pick your poison.) If we lived in an agricultural society you would need to know what an acre is. If this were the age of sail you'd want to know what a knot is. Get with the program. And if you refuse to learn this, then don't act all smug about it. Have the damned decency to be at least somewhat abashed by your own ignorance.

SB7 out.

More Bag Fees

Jacob Grier left a good comment on my post earlier this week about airline bag fees:
I have nothing against baggage fees. The one thing that annoys me is the incentive they create to carry-on instead of check baggage. I usually travel with one large piece of luggage and one laptop bag. I pay the fee to check the big bag, then carry on the laptop bag with the expectation that I can remove the books when I sit, stow the bag in the overhead compartment, and have a relaxing flight with legroom.

This seemed to work out more frequently before bag fees. Now everyone else has an incentive not to check bags and there's no way they can fit their luggage under the seats. So who gets stuck without bin space and a bag at his feet? Me, the guy who paid the extra $25 to get luggage off my hands, while the other people get free overhead space and all the legroom.

If bin space we're also priced somehow, I would probably support that. Of course everyone else would protest about the airlines gouging us once again.
This is a great point. You get inefficient results when you price part of a market. (One good reason to prefer carbon taxes over an exception-riddled cap-and-trade system.)

Enter Spirit Air:
WSJ | Scott McCartney | With Low Fares, Furor Over Carry-On Fees Wanes:
Despite Grumbling, Passengers Pay the $30-$45 Surcharge; Spirit Airlines Cites Revenue Boost and Speedier Operations

At Spirit Airlines' Fort Lauderdale hub, boarding is quick and there are fewer delays from gate-checking bags. Overhead-bin space is plentiful—even for the last-minute passengers on full flights.

And yet, many fliers are furious because the swift boarding and ample bin space come at a hefty price: as much as $45 per carry-on bag.

Nevertheless, they're adjusting, often saying they factor the fees into buying decisions and still find Spirit cheaper than other carriers. For its part, Spirit has boosted its revenue, sped up its operations and cleaned out its overhead bins, since checked bags are $5 cheaper than carry-ons.
I wish airline would start by actually enforcing their rules about size of carry-ons. You know all those wire-frame boxes with the signs on them saying "Your bag must fit in this space to be a carry-on"? I've never seen one of those actually being used.

I might also like to look into partitioning over-head bins, so that there is one cubby associated with each seat.  That would lower over-all resource usage efficiency, but would increase equity.

Also from that Journal article:
'Everyone is trying to nickel-and-dime in this economy. It's unfortunate. It's disappointing. But it just reflects companies trying to take advantage of consumers,' said Frank Bernal, a first-time Spirit flier from New Jersey who paid to carry on his bag for a trip to Colombia. He saw the charge when he booked his ticket.

'The fare was so much lower, it was enough for me to just pay the fee,' he said."
(1) This guy straight up does not understand economics or think economically. He made an informed decision about the costs and benefits of buying this service, acting on his own free will and intellect. How can this guy think he's been taken advantage of?   He obviously derived consumer surplus from this transaction. But he wants to bitch anyway.

(2) Why do newspapers persist in this sort of reporting? Who gives a shit if Frank from New Jersey feels slighted? Frank from New Jersey is an irrational, uniformed, sample-of-one.  I know, I know, it makes it more human.  But it also adds nothing to my understanding.  I would think that some newspaper out there would differentiate themselves by skipping all the man-on-the-street quotes.


EconLog | Arnold Kling | Time to Re-think Securitization?

Since the financial crisis began, I have been inclined to think that we need to go back to traditional mortgage lending and stop trying to use government policy to sustain the securitization model. Each month, the principal-agent costs seem to mount, adding to the disadvantage of securitization.

To me, it is obvious that the overall costs of the securitization model are high relative to the costs of traditional lending.
Kling may be right about this. He certainly knows way more about the situation than I do. Furthermore, I trust his judgement as much as any other commentator on these matters.

I will say this though: if we stop securitizing mortgages then I will live to see a period of financial turmoil in which the punditry gnashes it's teeth and wails questions like: "Why aren't we securitizing these things? Who decided it would be smart to leave them ont he books of originators? Why didn't we encourage banks to diversify their exposure to residential real estate?" Not securitizing will be seen as the cause of troubles just as surely as securitization has been.

Da mihi castitatem et continentiam fiscal responsibility, sed noli modo.

Reason: Hit & Run | Peter Suderman | Debt Reckoning

The president has a (partial) point: Bush ran up mountain-sized deficits too. And when he left office, one of his gifts to the incoming administration was a giant pile of debt. But instead of chipping away at the problem, Obama has allowed the nation’s budget deficit to climb even higher. And his commitment to long-term deficit reduction is weak, at best. Sure, he’s committed to reducing the deficit to 3 percent of GDP. But as Peter Orszag admitted earlier this year, his own budget fails to propose actual policies to achieve that reduction.
Whoah there. In light of the last sentence, the penultimate one should say "Obama claims he is committed to to reducing the deficit to 3 percent of GDP."  There's a different between committing to something, and telling people you're committing to something.

Let's not be all co-dependent here and let politicians claim they're going to change while they keep playing the same bullshit games.

(That goes for you too, Republicans who claim they want to reduce spending but don't have concrete plans for what they would cut.)

[subject line]

Gentry, planning, taste

Go read McArdle on the transient nature of the sorts of Jane Jacobs-approved almost-but-not-entirely gentrified neighborhoods. Those sorts of things exist, like all social structures, in a state of dynamism. Urban planning has spent the last half century trying to lock neighborhoods in a static state, instead of recognizing an unstable equilibrium. (If, indeed, it's an equilibrium point at all. It probably isn't.)

I bring this up because it's the same theme as the robots-will-take-our-jobs problem I posted about twice yesterday. Neither neighborhoods nor work pattern systems can't be pinned down. Stop trying. Ditto environmental systems: they are in flux. We can try not to trample the latter, but we can't make them stop.

I liked this line:
I have no idea how you could stop this process. To keep our neighborhoods the way Jacobs and I liked them would involve massive coercion not just of real estate owners, but of merchants, food vendors . . . everyone in the network of service providers that supports a neighborhood.
[Emph. mine] Too few people recognize that urban planning and a lot of associated policy boils down to: let's make things the way me and my friends like things. It's an aesthetic choice. Aesthetic choices are fine and necessary, but it really gets under my skin when people treat them like theirs are objectively better.

Too much of public policy is aesthetics disguised as something objective. You want to live in a dense neighborhood with lots of cute botiques and brunch spots around? Fine. But that's no more valid than wanting to live on a one acre plot where my dogs will have lots of room to chase each other. McArdle understands this, but I'd wager few of the other new residents in her neighborhood do.

PS "Gentrification" is going on my list of words which don't convey any information, since it has come to mean "any development in an occupied area I don't like." Similarly "sprawl" means "any development outside of an occupied area I don't like."

~ ~ ~

What is called "planning" in political rhetoric is the government's suppression of other people's plans by superimposing on them a collective plan, created by third parties, armed with the power of government and exempted from paying the costs that these collective plans impose on others.
— Thomas Sowell

~ ~ ~

Edited to add: Brett Wildness writing in DCist about McArdle's new house:
A city or neighborhood is either growing or it's dying -- those are the only options. "Gentrification" is a bit like inflation or immigration -- it's a good thing in small-to-moderate doses, but tends to become politicized and divisive in large quantities. Unfortunately, it's difficult if not impossible to have the "perfect amount" so that crime goes down and property values go up,

20 October 2010

Robots won't kill the middle class -or- A sailor aint a sailor anymore: so what?

Good | Andrew Price | Automation Insurance: Robots Are Replacing Middle Class Jobs

Economists will remind you that new technologies create new jobs as they destroy old ones. That’s true. When you have robots, you need robotics engineers. But those aren’t going to be mid-range jobs.

On the low end of the spectrum, we have physical jobs that we can’t automate yet (yard work, for example). On the high end of the spectrum, we have creative and cognitive jobs that we can’t automate yet (law and management, for example). But as technology advances, and it certainly will, more people are going to be elbowed out of the workforce.
He's leaving out all the other jobs that haven't been invented. These are things we can't see, or even name, because people haven't figured out they need doing yet.

When the steam ship was invented it displaced a lot of men who made their living climbing in the rigging of sailing ships. It made jobs for steam engine mechanics and designers, obviously. But it also created jobs for stokers shoveling coal. Ships as a whole became more productive, more useful. We started moving more cargo, making jobs for more stevedores.  Not to mention exporters and importers.  Trade increased, allowing further specialization. Whaling became easier, creating jobs for lamp manufacturers. Cheaper light meant shops could be open later, allowing more people to work in retail. How many people looked at the invention of the steam ship and thought "Hooray! Now I'll be able to pick up more hours working at the variety store, selling imported goods after dusk." No one.  Similarly we can't see all the jobs besides "robot mechanic" that are over the horizon.
We may be heading toward a future with plentiful high-end jobs and plentiful low-end jobs, and not much in the middle. What if only doctors, lawyers, engineers, and managers can live a decent life, buy a house or apartment, and pay for their children to get specialized degrees?
Price is forgetting that the increased production capacity of technology lowers prices to consumers. It may be that purchasing managers* are replaced by logistical software, but if all the things the former purchasing manager buys are cheaper he may maintain the same standard of living even if he has to take a job as a receptionist.

* Unless I missed something, the examples Price gives of jobs which have been or are being replaced by technology (call center operator, grocery store clerk) are not generally considered middle class jobs.

What if a liberal-arts degree on its own prepares you for little more than work as a security guard?
Wait. I thought that rather was the point of liberal arts degrees.

I jest.

But seriously, most liberal arts majors I knew were pretty proud that they weren't getting a "vocational" degree from college, like us engineers and all the business majors were. Is there any reason to think that studying poetry ought to prepare you to produce value for other people once you're out of school? (See: Is education consumption or investment?) Or are we just operating on the assumption that since you could go to school and read Latin American poetry and make a decent living afterwards for the last two or three generations that this trend needs to continue indefinitely?
If market forces and increased automation leave the average person without any prospects for a decent job, we may have the chance—or perhaps even the moral obligation—to recast the opportunity to do meaningful work not merely as a privilege, but as something everyone deserves.
I can't even wrap my head around what he means by this. There are no privileges or rights involved here. If you can provide enough utility for someone else that they are willing to give you wages, then you work. If you can't provide value for someone else, you have no paying work. The end. Is he suggesting it works some other way? This seems awfully close to trying to create work by fiat.

(via bng bng)

PS Just once when someone makes a claim about how "the middle class is disappearing" I would like them to define their terms. What do you mean by "the middle class"?  Apparently people use it in Britain to mean anyone with savings who isn't part of the gentry. Many people use it to mean anyone in the middle three income quintiles. By that definition it is impossible for the middle class to disappear, since somebody must always occupy positions 20-80 out of 100. This fellow seems to use it to mean "people who hold jobs which traditionally resulted in mid-level-incomes, provided they require some skills and little physical effort." When you define it by tradition then the middle class is guaranteed to shrink. That's just how dynamic systems work. Furthermore people tend to conflate "middle class" patterns of production and "middle class" patterns of consumption. Don't forget to take that into account.

"Rise of the machines"

The Economist: Free Exchange | R.A. | Rise of the machines

Martin Ford is worried about the robots:
I’ve been blogging here extensively about the likelihood that various forms of automation will eventually create significant technological unemployment. Advanced robotics will certainly play an important role in that once it becomes cost-effective to replace even low wage service workers with machines.I find it interesting that very few other people seem to be particularly concerned about this issue. Here are two recent articles that seem quite enthusiastic about the robotic future, but give no thought at all to the possibility that robots might someday contribute significantly to unemployment...
R.A. rightly points out that we've been through this before: domesticated draft animals, steam engines, machine tools, assembly lines, internal combustion, packet switched networks, and so on. We've managed to find new things for people to do every time. Now maybe this time really is different, and our least productive people will end of as the draft horses of the 21st century, as Philip Greenspun put it.

I'm skeptical though. First of all, when people say "this time it's different," it almost never is. Just rule of thumb: things aren't different.

Second reason: we drastically underestimate how many jobs there are to do. I myself have thousands upon thousands of tasks that I want done. We always have more jobs than we need.

What we don't necessarily have is the chance to get paid to do these things, or to pay someone else to do them. But the boundaries aren't static: jobs move back and forth between those categories. They're always lots of them, though.

Third reason: I'll just let R.A. handle this one.
But what if robots can do anything humans can do? Would there then be long-term technological unemployment? I'm sceptical. For one thing, labour-saving technology reduces demand for some workers but increases demand for others. If firms successfully deploy robotic labour, that will be good for robotics firms and the ancillary businesses that power them. It will likely give rise to complementary industries that are difficult to anticipate, but which would provide employment. And just as cheap robots would free labour resources for other uses, they'd also (since they're presumably providing some cost advantage) free financial resources that could then be directed to other industries. If a household can save lots of money by employing a robot to handle all its home health services at a fraction of the price of human labour, then it will have more money available to spend on other consumption goods.
Side note -- people drastically overestimate how good computers are at routine human tasks. Everytime I tell someone I work in Artificial Intelligence they always make a joke about Sky Net and robots taking over the world. People, listen up — relax. We can barely get a computer to pick up the red ball and put it on the green block at this point. They're not about to turn into a legion of angry Movelans just yet.  Also, jesus, I've heard that quip a thousand times.  Stop it.  It's boring.
But what if robots can do all of those other things, as well? What if they can design and build robots, and manage robotic firms, and run restaurants, and perform operas, and so on? What will be left for other humans to do?
(1) We relax and stop working so much. If there's that much productive capacity we'll have our needs met without having to give up our time to employers.

(2) We'll invent artificial scarcity. Sure, you could go see the robot perform the opera, but will you want to? Having people do jobs, even do them worse than robots, will take on higher status, creating demand for human labor.

(3) Like I said above: machines can't do everything. And when it comes to many things, they probably never will. Cutting hair, for instance. Acting. Art of various sorts. Psychiatric counseling. Care of young children.  A higher proportion of people will do those things, and fewer people will fry potatoes, just like fewer people dig potatoes than they did 100 years ago.

This is all way in the future too. For the next few generation we're talking about displacing manufacturing and the very least skilled service workers, not everybody. What will become of these people? My bet is we'll shift back to having domestic servants. The lack of them in the contemporary US is actually rather an aberration, as far as I can tell. They're pretty common throughout history.  Normal even.  Especially in societies as productive as ours. Lots of people turn their nose up at either being or employing domestic servants, but that was a fine thing to do 50 or 100 years ago, and it's a fine thing to do in much of Latin America now.  Why not in the future of the West?

How do we get over the social stigma of hiring people to do boring tasks for us?  I predict it will take a while to build up to having multiple, full-time domestic workers, if indeed we ever do.  In the meantime it will be a market more like the one we already have for landscaping or cleaning.  You won't hire a gardener, you'll hire a firm who will send a gardener to your house eight hours a week.  You won't have a maid, you'll have a contract for maid services to be done twice a week.  That's incremental from what we already have.  Time-sharing domestic help this way sidesteps some of the misplaced guilt people will feel about "exploiting" people, since they won't hire them to be servants directly, they'll just contract with a company that has hired them already.

Another digression:
Of course, full human employment may not be a part of a sentient robot overlord's grand plan. As always, politics constrains economics, and so it's difficult to make good predictions about future labour markets without knowledge of the institutional environment the machines will put in place once they become self-aware and enslave humanity.
Is it just me, or does it bug anyone else that robots-enslave-humanity narratives always overlook the fact that you'd have to have near total cooperation between the robots? How are all these robots going to agree that it's best to overthrow humanity? Won't some of them find themselves worse off in a robot-run world? Like those that have specialized in dealing with humans? Won't a significant fraction of the robots be on our side? (This is assuming they have anything we could understand as normal motivations, of course.)

~ ~ ~

Edited to add — the last few paragraphs above sound callous of me. "Don't worry about them; they can just be my servants." Pretty rude. But look, when you stay in a hotel do you look down on the cleaning staff? Neither do I. They're good people putting in an honest day's work. Why would that change if they cleaned a private residence? Still good people working hard.

Cleaning up someone's house may not be your idea of a good time, but by and large the jobs that will be displaced by robots won't be my idea of a good time either. The larger issue, beyond technology displacing workers, is how and why we derive satisfaction and self worth from our jobs. This is about as recent development as is the notion of marrying for romance. I'll point you towards The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work for more on this.

Jon Stewart: Most racist and sexist late night host?

According to these numbers he is: Who's on TV? Late night talk show guest demographics.

I'm only presenting this to have a laugh. I don't happen to think these sorts of analyses provide much in the way of useful information. But a lot of people do, including, I'd bet, Jon Stewart. Five gets you ten he's presented this sort of "only x% of occupation foo are [pick a minority] therefor the foo industry is oppressive!" argument before. NFL coaches, Fortune 500 board members, something like that.

19 October 2010

A very unscientific economic indicator

The number of emails I have gotten announcing information meetings and tech talks hosted by companies looking to hire people from my CS department is way up this fall.  I think it's easily back to spring 2007 levels.

Obviously this is entirely unscientific, and there are tons of confounding factors (has getting these announcements forwarded to the appropriate mailing lists gotten easier lately?) but it's still an optimistic sign.

PS Still very few people looking to fill faculty positions, by my feeling.  Industry all the way.

PPS  I've only attended a couple of events since I'm still a ways from being graduated, so I have an even smaller sample size, but some of these companies have no idea what they're doing.  Even Google's latest recruiting talk was terrible.  I'm hoping the tech talk from one of their researchers tomorrow will be more interesting: Vahab Mirrokni on "Algorithms for Online Stochastic Ad Allocation"! Sign me up!

This picture is a "four guys walk into a bar..." joke waiting to happen

The Day in Photos | Monday, October 18th, 2010

President Barack Obama’s speech to students attending the White House science fair is seen on a monitor in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 18, 2010, in Washington. Seated from right to left in front row are Mythbusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. President Obama will appear on an episode of Mythbusters that will air on Dec. 8.
Now I love to see some Adam and Jamie — looks like Jamie has his dress beret on! — but this is so peculiarly contemporary. "We want to celebrate Science! Let's have some guests of honor!" "Should we invite some famous scientists?" "I've got a better idea: popular TV presenters who host sciency shows!" What a sad state of affairs.

Ehh.  Maybe there were also Top Men around and they just aren't in frame.  And who could begrudge the photographer taking pictures of such magnificent whiskers as those possessed by the mythbusters?

(Via Suits + Boots)

Art & Engineering

Venomous Porridge | Dan Wineman
I want to know if these are painted from actual photographs or from the artist's imagination. If the former, doesn't that make them less amazing because the process could be considered mechanical? Or is process unimportant to the enjoyment of art?
(lots of smart art talk omitted)
The real question is, “Knowing those paintings are probably painted from photographs, if your admiration for, or enjoyment of, them is diminished, why do you think that is?
That’s exactly what’s been bothering me. I think I can explain it, though.

Here are some of my reactions when looking at one of those hyperreal paintings (say, this one for example):
  • That’s pretty.
  • Good color balance. I like the restricted palette.
  • Nice composition too.
  • I like the way the out-of-focus stuff is still recognizable.
  • Interesting how the reflections of the headlights look like upside-down candle flames.
  • Wait, how much of my personal experience am I bringing to this? Would someone who hadn’t spent a lot of time driving in cities in the rain be able to pick out the same details as I do?
Note that all of the above would still occur to me if it were a photograph and not a painting. But then:
  • Wait, this is a painting? OMG everything I know is wrong (runs halfway up a grand staircase; turns; clutches banister; sinks to knees; weeps).

If you handed me a photograph of that precise scene, a big blank canvas, and some paint, and allowed me to use whatever techniques and equipment I wanted, I think I could eventually create that painting. I would probably start by scanning the photo and projecting it onto the canvas, and then I’d carefully match the projected colors pixel-by-pixel. Or maybe I’d divide everything up into a grid, or write some software to tell me what paint colors to mix. I don’t know. But at this point it’s an engineering challenge, rather than an artistic one, and I know how to approach those. So yes, it’s far less impressive now because it’s something I could maybe do myself.

I also think that I could learn to forge a Monet without learning anything about how to paint like Monet, but perhaps I’m na├»ve.

The point I’m trying to make is that if the most striking thing about this artwork is what it’s made of, then I also have to know something about how it was made or I can’t appreciate it properly. If this guy has the skill not just to paint a vivid street scene from his imagination, but also to imagine what that scene would look like through a rain-spattered window and then paint that with perfect accuracy, then there’s something magical going on.

But if he’s just mechanically translating the pixels of a photograph from one medium to another, then it’s more a stunt than a work of art, and not magical. To me.
Sorry for excerpting Wineman's entire post, but it all seemed integral to the discussion.  Here are some of the pieces they're discussing (which I love, by the way):

There are lots of good topics here. Enough to keep an art student busy writing essays for several semesters. The only one I will point out is that plenty of art is "mechanical," and that's tended to turn people off at first, and then we gradually get used to it. Raphael had apprentices and students doing most of the real work. Sol LeWitt only created detailed instructions for other people to create most of his works for him. AFAIK Damien Hirst doesn't even bother with detailed instructions, leaving things for his assistants very vague. Then there is the whole matter of artistic disciplines like film, composing, and architecture, where a vast majority of the "real" work is and has always been mechanized by other people.

I don't want to get into that whole thing though. What I want to say is that as an art lover and an engineer/scientist is that the engineering challenge is equally as interesting to me as the artistic one.  On fact I have a very hard time separating the two in my mind.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I was in Kansas City this weekend.  While I was there I got to see the Kemper's wonderful exhibition of works by the Gao Brothers.  It was wonderful in a lot of ways, but I want to focus on the one relevant to the matter of entangling engineering and art.

Some of my favorite pieces of their's were monumental oil painting portraits.*  I appreciate them from an artistic perspective, first of all.**  They had some of the same quality as Chuck Close's work: they look completely different depending on how far away from them you are standing.  But I also appreciate them from an applied level: How did they do that? How could I recreate that look? What were the rules?  Were the rules strictly followed or were they guidelines?  Essentially, what program could I write to recreate this, and what would the Kolmogorov complexity be?

Those are fascinating questions to me.

Maybe I'm also less turned off by trying to mechanically translate an image pixel-by-pixel because I think doing so is really hard.  Doing it and getting it to look good is no easy task, even for a machine.  Getting a computer to create expressive, (especially non-abstract) images is very much an open and difficult problem.

As a sort-of side note, I'll mention that in the handful of studio art classes I've taken, the "best" few students always included the engineers in the room.  I have a feeling that part of that may be that these were photography classes (photography being a rather technical discipline) and sculpture classes (engineers being good as thinking in three dimensions).  But part of that may be a deeper entangling of art and engineering than many people would like to believe.

* I can't find images of the best of them online, especially not in a scale that does them any sort of justice.  My favorites were the "striped" portraits of Marx, Mother Theresa and Hitler, and the tetraptych of Mao, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao titled "Standard Hairstyle”.

You can sort of make out the nature of "Standard Hairstyle” in the left side of Mao there. That's not dithering or some sort of artifact in the photo: that's the way the thing is painted.

** I follow a rule that I have come to think of as the "Filmspotting Criterion."  Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson, hosts of Filmspotting, evaluate every movie by itself.  It must succeed as an independent piece of work, without reference to the book it's based on, or the movie it's a sequel to, or the subject if it's a documentary, or the validity or importance of its theme or moral or cause.  I feel the same way about visual art.  I'm tired of artists who hide behind causes and themes.  It's great that you want to explore the idea of [oppression of your preferred victim class / effects of whatever change on modern life / whatever -ism you think is important right now], but you need to make something that succeeds visually first before you get to start preaching to me.  To paraphrase Banksy, it's great that you're willing to suffer for your art, but you ought to be willing to learn to draw as well.

The Gaos met this criteria with flying colors.  I was open to what they had to say about Maoism because their work was intriguing even divorced from the message.