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No Trade Left Behind July 30, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education, politics, society, taxes.
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I was going to title this post “No Race Left Behind” as a play on “Race To The Top”® and “No Child Left Behind”®. Then it occurred to me that such a title may sound racist. Especially because the subject of the post is education and any discussion about education is bound to tread on racially sensitive ground. And so I thought better of it—yes, I know, what’s happening to me?—and settled for a subtle homage to the MLB trade deadline, which the Bluejay Phillies “aced” yet again. Ha!

Did you happen to catch POTUS BO’s at the National Urban League—henceforth, the “NUL”? If you haven’t figured this out yet, I overly fond of TLAs, FLAs, FLAs, and the occasional SLA. Just think of how long one of these posts would be without them. It would be like a cricket match. Anywhos, I caught BO’s NUL speech obliquely, listening to it while working. I filtered out most of the stuff about Shirley Sherrod and the de-ridicu-criminalization of crack cocaine relative to powder, and foregrounded POTUS during the RT3® part—RT3 is a registered trademark of Philly Bluejay along with Dumb-and-Plumber 2012®. If you are not familiar with RT3, here is a nice piece in the Atlantic that covers the basics in context. The premise is simple, compelling, and strangely revolutionary to the US and to the traditionally pro-union democratic party in particular—marry public education with free-market economics! Free information! Quantitative measurement! Performance-based pay! Frictionless labor markets! Competition! Unregulated derivatives! Collateralized debt obligations! Taxpayer funded bailouts! What a concept! RT3 would abolish the systems of teacher tenure and seniority based pay and replace them with a more conventional labor arrangement, potentially retaining some of the pieces of the current collective bargaining structure. And surely competition—on both the supply side and the demand side—will do the teaching profession some good. Teachers will compete with each other for better pay on performance metrics. Schools will compete with each other for better teachers on pay metrics—if you think schools are not competing, check out greatschools.org. Teacher performance will improve. Teacher pay will improve. Public education will improve. Everybody wins. Except for entrenched interests like poor teachers with tenure.

RT3 is certainly admirable. Whether POTUS BO, SOE Duncan, and the rest of the Sunday morning pickup basketball crew pulls it off remains to be seen. But here’s another aspect of the education puzzle that didn’t get any lip time during the NUL speech and is rarely mentioned in the press. RT3’s stated goal is “preparing every student for college”—a mission statement which has the twin positive attributes of being unassailably good and unassailably vague. But does it make sense? Not really. Yes, a college education increases lifetime earnings by nearly one million dollars. A Master’s degree by one million more. Seriously, they do. But this is the paradox of thrift all over again. A college degree increases earnings by one million dollars for one individual operating in a perfectly elastic job market. That person can trade in a low paying job for a higher paying one. But the economy as a whole has a pyramid of jobs and someone has to work the lower paying ones. Preparing the people who will ultimately work at lower paying jobs for college—not to mention actually sending them to college—is a waste of resources on the part of society and a waste of time and money on the part of the individual. Not to demean any particular honest profession, but would you go to—and pay for—college knowing that you would ultimately become a bus driver? Or a pizza tosser? Or a computer programmer? I’m not being facetious about this last one. Programming does not require a college education, witness the hordes of kids who learn to do it on their own in high school. If not earlier. Yes, programming well is difficult. Doing anything well is difficult. But becoming a passable programmer capable of carrying out 90% of tasks is not.

I’m all for neoteny, lifelong learning, and good citizenship and I would never tell any individual person not to go to college or to pursue a high-paying career. But public education needs to cater not only to future lawyers and dentists and MBAs. It needs to do a better and more efficient job for would-be bus drivers, and pizza tossers, and computer programmers. Is prepping these students to do well on the SATs/ACTs/TLAs the right thing? For these students, shouldn’t primary education be reoriented along the lines of a terminal (professional) degree? Shouldn’t primary education be—WARNING: politically insensitive suggestion alert—more vocation and less renaissance? In the US, assaulting teachers unions is past its political half life, but vocational education is still radioactive. Why? Because of the million dollar fallacy of composition. And because it smells racist. Or classist. Or X-ist. But in fact, it’s no more racist or classist or X-ist than funding public education using local property taxes. For many people, a free career-oriented terminal education would be a gift. Rather than graduating high school being prepared to do nothing in particular—and spending their lives doing nothing in particular—vocational students would graduate prepared for a job that paid a living wage. I am not advocating tracking based on IQ or aptitude tests—that’s the European model—or some other variant of Plato’s Republic. I am thinking of something much more voluntary. Not interested in general purpose stem cell high school? A vocational alternative would be available to you. Why should any voluntary system be political anathema?

Think of RT3 amended with a vocational “public option” for lack of a better term. There is still teacher competition. And school competition. But now “stem-cell” teaching is more attractive because class sizes are smaller and classes have fewer students not interested in stem-cell learning. And the pool of good stem-cell teachers is not only larger—because again such teaching is more attractive—it is also spread less thin. And vocational teaching is now a high volume career option. And there will be fewer people whose terminal degree doesn’t qualify them to do anything in particular.

POTUS BO. You, SOE Duncan, and the rest of the crew should discuss this as you are running up and down the court on Saturday mornings. And maybe you can talk about it at next year’s NUL address. You know, after the midterms. It’s a message that would sound better coming from you than from almost anyone else.

P.S. My latest Wikipedia entry? Michigan governator Jennifer Granholm. She’s packed quite a lot into 50 years. Did you know she’s a failed actress, a beauty queen—take that Sarah P—and a Canadian? That last fact is especially deplorable as Jen would have looked good on the 2016 Democratic ticket. That’s okay, Rachel Maddow will do nicely.

P.P.S. Speaking of Rachel. Watch her interview with Richard Holbrooke. Also speaking of Rachel? Come back soon! Because the guy who is sitting in for you is absolutely killing the show. Same goes to you, Mike Missanelli—John “Missanelli 1.7” Marks is not doing it for me. Olbermann? You can hang out wherever you are for a little while longer.

P.P.P.S. I have a new favorite television show. No, not Kate + boobjob + eight. How It’s Made on Sc. Who knew that it takes 428 machines to make a socket wrench? Or that soy sauce has to be fermented for four months? Or how peanuts are shelled by machine? Or how glass bottles with matching caps are made? I could watch this show for 48 hours straight! It’s really amazing not only how many different things there are, but what it takes to mass produce them. It seems like more goes into inventing and perfecting the process for mass-producing something than it takes to invent the thing.

P.P.P.P.S. As if you need one more reason to stop eating frozen mice. Notice, the piece was written by someone named Anemona, not to be confused with Anemone.

Little Miss Bluejay July 14, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in family.
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In order to protect their identities, I often refer to my family members using codenames. My wife is Mrs. Bluejay—in real life, she’s Mrs. McCoy-Bluejay. My son is Bluejay Jr.—in real life, he’s Bluejay the sixth, we call him “hex.” My daughter is Little Miss Bluejay, after the Roger Hargreaves Little Miss series. You know, Little Miss Chatterbox. Little Miss Bossy. Little Miss Naughty. In real life, she’s all of those. Plus Little Miss Trouble. But today she’s also Little Miss Birthday. Three going on seventeen. How someone so small can have so many opinions, such a sense of self, such an idea of who she is and what she wants is above me. Little Miss Bluejay, you’re the cat’s pajamas. Pink pajamas, of course. With matching bottoms and tops. And not too tight. And with short sleeves so you can see your bandaids.

Philly Bluejay Is Not A Facebook Page! July 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, business, education, music, society, sports, technology, weird.
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I recently finished Jaron Lanier‘s manifesto “You Are Not a Gadget.” I had started it a while ago. Then about 40 pages from the end I misplaced it. And so I started with another book—Len Fisher’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Then I found YANG and was immediately presented with a dilemma. Should I finish YANG while the first 150 pages are still edible, post about YANG, and then finish a still edible RPS and post about it? Or should I let YANG expire, finish a fresh RPS and post about it, then finish a rancid YANG and post about it? I decided to follow my culinary rule—always eat the oldest still-edible leftovers—and go with YANG first. Gulp.

If you haven’t heard of Jaron Lanier, he’s a computer-scientist-slash-musician-slash-I-guess-author. In computer science circles, he is known as the father of virtual reality. In music ellipses, he is unknown—at least to me. And in computer-science-slash-music hypocycloids, he is known, but not as well-known as Monzy. Lanier is an Edgie. He’s also a one-time roommate of Richard Stallman of GNU and Free Software Foundation fame. I know of both Lanier and Stallman and I did not know that—it’s always interesting to find out how famous people are connected to one another. For instance, did you know that George H. W. “41” Bush and Saddam Hussein were both Freemasons? Truth!

YANG is Lanier’s rant against “cybernetic totalism”—a term of his own coinage. Cybernetics is the study of control systems. Totalism is i) totalitarianism, ii) a new style of music that appeals superficially to neophytes and on deeper levels to sophisticates, and iii) a doctrine of wholeness imposed by brainwashing. Strangely, all of these definitions seem to fit Lanier’s dogma. As I understand it, cybernetic totalism is the opposite of humanism—it is the elevation of information and the machines that process it above humans. Cybernetically total ideas include “free culture,” open source software, crowd sourcing, and the Singularity—think “The Matrix.” Cybernetically total manifestations include Google, Facebook, Wikipedia—most of Silicon Valley and South Africa, actually—and hedge funds. Oh, and blogs! I have no use for Facebook—hi everyone, my name is Amir and I’ve been off of Facebook for ten months—or hedge funds. But where would I—or really anyone—be without Google and Wikipedia? And where would I be without blogs? In existential limbo! And how can anyone hate on open source software? Are Lanier and Stallman still on speaking terms?

Let’s start with open-source software. Actually, I understand the limitations of open-source development. There’s the “too many chefs spoil the broth” problem. There’s the “who let the cat out of the bag?” problem. And there’s the “you get what you pay for” problem. But open-source software not only provides free software, it provides “market” pressure on pay software! Yes, an open-source community may not be able to come up with a new product like an iPhone. In fact, open-source communities may be best suited to creating knock-offs. But knock-offs are a viable and a valuable economic niche. Where would we be without generic drugs?

Onto Wikipedia. Lanier doesn’t so much harsh on the idea of Wikipedia, but rather on the idea that information and its presentation should be shaped by an anonymous crowd rather than by individuals. He may or may not also be bemoaning the notion that the Wikipedia encourages shallow interaction with information—as if reading Wikipedia is akin to reading Cliff’s Notes. I love Wikipedia. I’ve learned many things from Wikipedia, even things about my own purported area of expertise. I probably read an average of ten Wikipedia entries a week. I just read the entry for Freemasonry (not quite like reading “Da Vinci Code”). Before that I read the entry for Italic Typefaces (more interesting than you would think). Other recent entries? Recession Shapes (ouch). The Avengers (my son asked me). The Sinister Six (ummm … yeah). Computational Fluid Dynamics. Navier-Stokes Equations (from latter). SSE4. NAMBLA (just checking if you’re paying attention, but it does does have a Wikipedia page). Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Clean Air Act. Reverse Osmosis. I understand that one could spend years studying each of these topics. But I don’t have years! I have half an hour and need a quick tutorial and perhaps a list of good references. Where else should I go?

Next, hedge funds. There was a lot of weird stuff in this book that I couldn’t really digest, but there was at least one suggestion that I thought was interesting and useful. And strangely enough it has to do with finance. The financial meltdown in October 2008—now that I write it, I don’t know whether that feels too recent or not recent enough—was at base a product of bad loans. But the real culprits were opaque financial instruments that chopped up the underlying risk so finely until it was no longer recognizable as risk—in the same way that industrial hamburger is no longer recognizable as beef. Lanier proposes to create a formal language for describing financial instruments and to outlaw instruments that cannot be written in this language. This would restrict financial engineers, yes, but not in a bad way. It would prevent them from creating contracts that they themselves don’t understand and which cannot be effectively tracked or regulated. When the next crash comes, we’ll know exactly who to blame and how much money was lost! I joke, but this is a really good idea and it needs to happen. Sadly, I don’t think it made it into the House finance reform bill.

Finally. Blogs. Lanier contends that most blogs are “unreadable” and urges bloggers to post only if they have something new to say. And that this something should be a non-knee-jerk reaction that took at least several weeks to ferment—lest the post dilute and devalue “real” journalism and reduce the signal to noise ratio of the noosphere. Ouch. On that note, I think I will end this post, shut down Philly Bluejay, and return to Facebook.

P.S. Speaking of Facebook. You think you have $12,600,000,000 coming, Paul Ceglia? I came up with the idea for Snuggie™ in 1995! I want my two dollars!

P.P.S. Today is the midsummer classic—the major league baseball allstar game for the unwashed. Every year around this time there is always talk about “fixing”—making better not rigging—both the game and the sport. I don’t have much to say about the game other than I don’t really care about it. As for the sport, I admit I haven’t thought a ton about this, but I have a simple and workable suggestion that should improve things and that I have not heard before. Currently, baseball’s 30 teams are divided into a 16-team National League and a 14-team American League. The NL consists of two 5-team divisions and one 6-team division. The AL consists of two 5-team divisions and one 4-team division. Both leagues send three division winners plus one “wild card” team to the playoffs. Both leagues primarily play within themselves, but each team also has 5 or 6 six inter-league series each year. You may have already guessed my suggestion—move to two 15-team leagues with three 5-team divisions in each league. This means that there will be one interleague series on every day of the schedule—occasionally there will be three—rather than packing all interleague series into a two-week stretch in June. But that’s presumably fine. The benefits will be improved fairness for NL teams, especially for teams in the 6-team NL central. Currently, teams in the 5-team AL East and Central have a 27.3% chance of making the playoffs—a 1 in 5 chance of winning their division plus a 1 in 11 chance of winning the wild card on the 4 of 5 chance they don’t win the division. Teams in the 4-team AL West have an even better chance of making the playoffs—32.3%. However, teams in the 5-team NL East and West have only a 26.2% chance of making the playoffs and teams in the 6-team NL Central have only a 22.8% chance of making it. Ignoring baseball’s economic structure—which arguably plays a bigger role in which teams make the playoffs than the division structure—is it fair that the Houston Astros enter each season almost 10% less likely to make the playoffs than the Texas Rangers? Economics aside, wouldn’t it be better if every team had an equal 26.7% of making the playoffs? I can’t believe NL Central owners haven’t gotten more upset about this.

LeBlog is LeBack July 9, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, drama, society, sports, television.
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I realize I have not posted in a little while. I was going to write an entry about Jaron Lanier’s book “You Are Not A Gadget,” but then about 40 pages from the end I misplaced that book. And then I started another book. Then the air conditioning in my house died—on a 102 degree day no less. And I hurt my finger which makes it hard to type. And the neighbor’s dog—I don’t have a dog—ate my laptop’s power cord. And. And. And. Speaking of and, here is a nice quote from Martin Gardner courtesy of little brother Bluejay.

“Wouldn’t the sentence ‘I want to put a hyphen between the words Fish and And and And and Chips in my Fish-And-Chips sign’ have been clearer if quotation marks had been placed before Fish, and between Fish and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and Chips, as well as after Chips?”

Not having posted in over two weeks, there’s lots to talk about. But the thing I wanted to weigh in on today is last night’s climax of the year-long LeBron James circus. In case you are either from another planet, comatose, or simply one of those people who cares more about the World Cup than you do about the NBA, you know what I am talking about. LeBron James, arguably the most coveted free agent in NBA history, is leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, where he will team up with fellow superstar Dwyane “Dwayne” Wade, superstar-wannabe Chris Bosh, and nine guys from the Boca JCC to form an NBA juggernaut. LeBron announced his decision in a one hour ESPN special called “The Decision.” It was the highest rated show in its slot—network or pay. I watched it. You watched it. Not you, mom. But everyone else!

What can I say about this that hasn’t already been said? By LeBron’s former owner, Dan “I want him DEAD! I want his family DEAD! I want his house burned down to the GROUND!” Gilbert. By Orlando Magic general manager Otis “My Man” Smith. By Bill “The Book of Basketball” Simmons and his readers. By less-interwebs-savvy Cavaliers fans. By Daily Rundown. By All Things Considered. By Marketplace—that’s right, back-to-back NPR shows had LeBron segments. Probably nothing. But let me rehash the tripe anyways.

Point one. LeBron made a bad basketball move. It makes no sense on any level. There was a better surrounding team in Chicago. A bigger challenge in New York. More money and more honor in Cleveland. Now? He joins Dwyane Wade’s team. The same team that just four years ago won a championship without him. LeBron could win the next six championships in a row. Wade will always have one more. And each of Wade’s will always be worth more. Teaming up with Wade is the weakest move LeBron could have made. The only weaker move would have been to join Kobe and the Lakers—not that Kobe would ever sign off on such a move. Can’t beat ’em? Stop trying and join ’em. By switching teams to join another superstar player who already has a ring, LeBron has effectively admitted that he doesn’t have what it takes to lead a winner. That he doesn’t have the drive and killer instinct to be an all-time great. You could tell during the show. He looked like he was going to throw up. Because individual play affects the outcomes of basketball games more than it does in other team sports, NBA greatness is measured by championships. The NBA’s inner circle is reserved for playoff killers. Bill Russell. Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant. LeBron has voluntarily taken himself out of the conversation to join that inner circle. When he came into the league, his ceiling was Michael Jordan. Actually, he had no ceiling. Even Jordan wasn’t that good that young. Now? His ceiling is Wilt Chamberlain—an athletic freak who couldn’t win if he was the best player on his own team and didn’t really care that this was the case. A prediction? LeBron’s professional arc will start to go down. Oh well.

Point two. LeBron obviously doesn’t care about being great. He also obviously doesn’t care about his “brand.” There is no other explanation for “Decision 2010.” Thinking that his decision warrants a one hour prime time special made him look narcissistic. Dumping his hometown team on national television made him look loutish. Pretending that he had made the decision that morning rather than months ago made him look disingenuous. And saying that “true fans” will understand made him look clueless. In between, he made third-person self-references—Bluejay would never stoop to such depths—talked about “his talents” and “everything he had done for the city of Cleveland and the Cavaliers franchise,” and threw up in his own mouth about twelve times. Not the most likable NBA star to begin with—he’s not a misanthrope but he’s not Magic or Barkley or Shaq either—LeBron is now seriously unlikable. Another prediction? LeBron’s marketing arc will go down as well. No tears here.

Point three. Is it really possible that professional sports matter this much? Is it really possible that 25-year old professional athletes matter this much? Is it really possible for NPR to run LeBron-themed segments in consecutive shows? Is it really possible that the Cleveland economy will suffer significantly because of this? Have we lost all perspective? The fall of the Roman empire comes to mind.

Point four. Dan, I feel for you. I think Coughlin said it best: “Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.”

P.S. It’s only fitting that “The Decision” would be spun as a charity event and held at the Boys-and-Girls club of Greenwich, CT—the US town that least needs a B&G.

P.P.S. Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry died last year when we was thrown off the back of a moving pickup truck driven by his girlfriend. Autopsy on his brain shows that he wouldn’t exactly have had a healthy and happy life going forward even had he lived.

P.P.S. On a somewhat happier note, here is a CNN article about Gordon Murray’s T.25—a 4′ wide car that gets 0.013 gpm (74 mpg). Almost as innovative as the T.25 is the method used to manufacture it.

P.P.P.S. This actually happened a few weeks ago, but I did finally finish the 5,000 piece puzzle of Breugel’s (the elder) “Tower of Babel.” It took over two months. I have so much free time now, I hardly know what to do with it!

P.P.P.P.S. Want to regain some perspective? Here.