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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.

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.

Scaling Up North Carolina April 9, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education, energy efficiency, politics, society, sustainability, transportation.
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North Carolina is a brilliant state. One all states should strive to emulate. They have Duke. They have a mini-Silicon valley. They have NASCAR giant deep-fried turkey legs. They sent noted racist and segregationist Jesse Helms, who once held a 16-day filibuster to stop the institution of the federal MLK holiday, to the US Senate for five terms. Now they are sending Kay Hagan, a Democrat! A red state turned blue! Also, I have many friends who live down there. And did I mention the giant deep-fried turkey legs and greased pig races?

One of the things we can learn from NC is how to better utilize resources, specifically by time-multiplexing them in extreme and novel ways. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle area is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Roughly 20 people move to the area every day. One of the results is that schools are overflowing and the county can’t build new ones fast enough to meet the growing demand. Their solution? Cut the school year into continuous 12-week chunks. Kids go to school for nine weeks and then have a three-week break. Now chop up the classes into four and rotate such that at any time only three-quarters of the kids are going to school. The overcrowding problem is solved or at least pushed back. And school facilities aren’t sitting around idle during the summer months. Brilliant! Of course, this creative solution creates problems for working parents, who now can’t send their kids off to summer camp for months at a time but rather have to occupy them somehow for three-week periods four times a year. But guess what? A whole cottage industry has sprung up to fill in this gap.

Which brings me to my point. And yes, it usually takes me 250 words before I get to my point. Why don’t we apply this strategy much more broadly to improve utilization and reduce peak load on all sorts of resources? Why don’t we spread out and stagger work and school schedules, at any granularity–in the course of a day, during the week, or during the year as NC does–to a greater degree than we already do? Middle-schools, high-schools and elementary-schools start and finish times are already staggered so that the same fleet of school buses–by the way, why aren’t school buses hybrid?–can run triple duty. Why aren’t more things staggered this way or some other way? Specifically, why isn’t the entire American workforce staggered this way?

Hear me out. What if all businesses moved to a rotating nine-week-on/three-week-off work schedule, effectively furloughing one quarter of their employees every three weeks? If every business did this, i.e., effectively operated at three-quarter capacity, there would be 25% less commuting traffic, 25% less peak load on electricity, and so on. Of course, everyone would get paid 25% less too. But before you say “I don’t want to earn 25% less”, wouldn’t you agree to do it if you could also work 25% less? I would! I understand that I live comfortably above the poverty level and a 25% reduction in income for me is not the same as a 25% reduction in income for someone below 2x. But if you are furloughed from one business 25% of the time, there won’t be anything to stop you from filling that gap at another business.

Of course, there would be 25% less economic output also, so I am not really suggesting this. And this is where the second part of the plan comes in. Forget about 25% less traffic and 25% less peak electrical load. We have to give those back. What if to ramp back up to full capacity, every business hired 33% more workers? Wouldn’t you agree to earn 25% less if you worked 25% less and lived in a country with essentially no unemployment? I would!

I’ve never run a business, and I can see some downsides. The ratio of benefits to salary would increase. It would, but not as much as one might think, and even less if health insurance reform goes even further and costs go down. Employer taxes and contributions to retirement plans are proportional to salary. Any maybe a nine-week-on, three-week-off rotation would create too many project disruptions. Maybe if you are that kind of business, you could furlough at a finer granularity, rotating one quarter of your workforce out four out of the five weekdays. Either way, the upside seems much bigger–a healthier, better-rested, and more productive workforce.

If I started a company today–and I am not–I would try to run it this way. And since I am not, perhaps I will just start doing this in my current place of business. See you in three weeks!

P.S. Not to make an inappropriate soapbox out of tragedy, but 25 people would never be killed by a wind turbine or solar panel explosion.

P.P.S. What a shame. Republican pundits are calling Stupak the first casualty of Obamacare. But that’s ridiculous. Stupak is not a casualty of Obamacare. He’s a casualty of the mindless anti-abortion movement which doesn’t realize that what Stupak actually did was force an executive order to enforce the current restrictions on abortion coverage on the passed health care bill. The anti-abortion movement should hold up Stupak as a hero. If not for him, Obama would have gotten someone else on board without the abortion language amendment. All this shows is that, again, the abortion issue in this country is primarily a tool for political evil wielded by the right. That is all.

P.P.P.S. Thank god Stevens waited to retire until there was a Democratic congress and president! Thanks, J.P. It’s a great last act.

No Teacher Left Behind March 14, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education.
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Happy Pi day, people!

The Obama administration had a full agenda for year 0 (I’m a computer scientist and we start counting at 0. In case you don’t know why and are curious, it’s because the address of an array in memory is the address of its first element. Get it? Never mind). Anyways, TARP, Fannie/Freddie bailout, the stimulus bill, Afghan troop surge, health insurance reform, fending off filibusters, Ben “60th vote” Nelson, and Joe “party of one” Lieberman, trying not to laugh when saying the words “tea bagging” and “cloture” (a word I actually used at a recent faculty meeting). Despite an effective Democratic minority in the senate, year 1 is looking similarly ambitious. Health insurance reform, fending off filibusters, “60th vote” Ben, “party of one” Joe, and “perfect game” Jim Bunning, a jobs bill, and now … sweeping education reform!

The primary aspect of this reform appears to be a reorientation of the preverse “No Child Left Behind” law that was one of 43’s first gifts to this country. I have read a few things about NCLB including that it spawned a practice in which schools would encourage weak students to stay at home on standardized exam days to raise the school’s average score. Lovely. The Obama/Duncan proposal would rephrase NCLB benchmarks from “measuring absolute student performance relative to grade level” to “measuring student improvement” and rephrase the end goal from “proficiency in reading and math” to “graduate from high school ready for college or a career.” Wow! I can’t wait to see the “ready for college or a career” standardized test. I hope it’s the Wonderlic.

Strangely, business leaders are cheering. Not so strangely, teachers unions are grabbing their torches and pitchforks. The Times piece didn’t cover this explicitly but I sincerely hope that “measuring student improvement” is code for “measuring teacher performance” and more significantly “rewarding and/or penalizing teachers based on that performance rather than based on seniority.” Performance-based employment and compensation is the teacher’s union worst nightmare. But it’s a necessary component of fixing the education system. Data that was recently released by Teach for America shows that a good teacher can teach students as much as 1.5 year’s worth of material in one year whereas a bad teacher can teach as little as 0.5 year’s worth of material at the same time. In other words, the difference between a good teacher and a bad one is a year’s worth of material per year. Quantitatively, the difference between having a good teacher and a bad one, is in absolute terms, the difference between having an average teacher and not going to school at all! Our education system will be infinitely better off if we could cull the lowest quartile of teachers and pay the remainder according to their performance. And this means paying the top teachers high-five/low-six figure salaries independently of seniority. If you have been teaching for three years and you have demonstrated the ability to consistently raise your students’ abilities 1.5 grade levels per year, you should be rewarded accordingly! Performance-based employment and pay is the norm in every successful enterprise. And it’s the only way to attract better talent to education. I am not saying that there aren’t talented teachers in the system already. There are. But these are people with rare passion and high pain thresholds who are succeeding despite the system, not because of it. The people who are succeeding because of the system have mediocre talent and a do-the-minimum attitude.

Unions are not inherently evil and collective bargaining is a useful mechanism in many industries, but teacher’s unions should be forced to accept individual teacher evaluation and performance based employment and pay, hopefully in exchange for a larger salary pool. If they refused, they should be locked out. And if kids don’t go to school for a year, so what? Going to a school with bad teachers is not that different than not going to school at all. If this happens, I would consider becoming a school teacher myself! I am pretty sure that there is something in the Obama/Duncan plan along these lines. Here is a wonderful article that describes all of this in much more detail and eloquence.

Of course, the other necessary component of fixing the education system is decoupling its financing from local property taxes. But that’s a different post.

P.S. Good news, nano Bloom Box may be on the way!

P.P.S. 2,500 meters in 61 minutes.

P.P.P.S. And finally, here are this week’s viral videos from CNN. Two things about this. First, the guy doing a handstand on his index fingers (second clip). Second, Josh Levs (the VJ) was my freshman suitemate in college. I hope he’s as proud of that fact as I am.

That’s My School February 22, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education, politics.
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Have you heard of Harriton High School in Rosemont, PA? That’s right, it’s the school that spied on its students through the webcams of the laptops it issued to them. The school that’s now being sued for a breach of the fourth amendment. I graduated from this school in 1990. Larry Summers (former Treasury Secretary, former Harvard President, and current National Economic Council director) graduated from there in 1971 at the age of 16. I wonder what Larry thinks about this.

Here’s what I think. Who didn’t see this coming? Let me tell you something about Harriton that you probably already figured out. For a public high school, it has one of the wealthiest student bodies in the country. Harriton students may not be as wealthy as the ones that go to Beverly Hills high, but it’s closer than you think. I don’t know how things were circa Larry, but in 1990 I knew many people who lived in 5,000 square foot houses, drove BMWs to school, and took yearly vacations to Vail and St. John’s. Not that this matters and not that I have anything to complain about financially, but my last four houses/apartments together haven’t totaled 5,000 square feet, I have never been to Vail or St. John, and although I did drive a BMW twice, it was only for ten minutes apiece. Coincidentally both BMWs belonged to people named Charlie. Thanks Charlies! Point is, Harriton students don’t need school-issued laptops and everyone knows it. I would bet actual money that most Harriton students already had a laptop when they were issued one by the school. Given this, what could have possibly been the justification for this huge outlay? The stated one was that Harriton is a forward-thinking school that prides itself on innovative use of technology, but the real justification feels like its something much more depraved. At best, it’s narcissism gone wild. More likely, it’s closer to “Girls Gone Wild” (TM). People are going down over this. Hard. And that’s exactly what they deserve. In fact, everyone involved deserves to get dirtied by this. School officials. The students and their parents. The county.

School officials? Enough said. I don’t know that anyone is going to “prison” over this, but I wouldn’t bet against it at this point. Over-privileged defendants in high-profile cases have gone to “prison” over less. American society likes to see people knocked off of high pedestals even for small transgressions (see Stewart, Martha). It’s our national sport, with apologies to NASCAR and partisan politics.

The students and their parents? What hubris would lead you to accept such ridiculously superfluous gift from the school? Was it the same hubris that led the Trojans to accept a bronze horse from Greece? This is what happens when you are used to getting free stuff. You don’t question it. “Of course I should get ridiculous free stuff! I’m wealthy!” To quote Monty, “I’m rich! I should be able to run over as many people as I want!”

The county and the taxpayers? I cannot believe there wasn’t a public outcry over this program when it was first floated. How could you possibly justify your tax dollars bankrolling this extravagance? Have you no sense of proportion whatsoever? Does it not dawn on you that there could be better uses for this money? Does the fact that Harriton has a shiny new campus that would make most liberal arts colleges blanche not stroke your collective egos sufficiently? I sincerely hope that one of the things that comes out of this case is a realization that the current system of public education funding through local property taxes is seriously broken. On the one hand, school systems in low and middle income areas across the country are crumbling. Just eleven miles away from Harriton, the Philadelphia public school system is in dire straits. On the other hand, school systems in pockets of wealth essentially do … this. If ever there was an illustration that some school districts have too much money for their own good!

This summer is my 20 year high school reunion. I don’t know that I was necessarily going before this story broke. Now I question whether there will even be a reunion at all. Larry, next year is your 40 year reunion. Are you going?

Siberian Khatru February 18, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education, family, music.
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I was the YES concert at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC on Monday night. Row B. About 15 feet from Chris Squire. 12 feet from Chris Squire’s gut. And only 8 feet from the speakers. Oy, my ears! It’s been two days and there is still a low-grade ringing! Also, I had the flu and on the drive down could hardly bend my fingers around the steering wheel. But ears and flu aside, it was amazing.

Despite collectively being 180+ years old, Squire, Steve Howe, and Alan White absolutely wailed. White did a 5 minute drum solo in the middle of Astral Traveler. Howe (one of the most underappreciated guitarists in rock history) was ridiculous. I spent half the night just watching his fingers. The other half I spent watching his face. He looks like the Crypt Keeper. And this is actually less freaky than he looked when he was younger. Squire rocked too although at times I thought he was bass-syncing. The three original members certainly out-wailed the two younger “replacements.” For this tour (or maybe even permanently), Rick Wakeman was replaced by his son Oliver. Or maybe a time machine brought circa-1980 Rick to the present. Either way, except for Siberian Khatru (one of my favorites) and Astral Traveler (another) he wasn’t featured prominently. Jon Anderson was replaced by a French Canadian named Benoit David who was separated at birth from Peter Scolari and who doesn’t sing at the nearly-female register that Anderson did. A quick Google search performed seconds ago shows that Benoit is the lead singer of a YES tribute band called Close To The Edge. Hmmm. If I were to form a YES tribute band, and I would if not for my lack of musical talent, it would be called MAYBE. Actually, I don’t need to form my own YES tribute band of my own, Close To The Edge must be looking for a frontman. Call me, guys! I know the words! Mostly.

The audience was as ridiculous as the band. I had floor tickets for a Violent Femmes concert once. I was also on the floor at a Bowie concert. OK, so this wasn’t like either of those. But it was pretty wild considering I must have been one of the ten youngest people there. The median hair color at the concert was gray. Going in, there were multiple faces I recognized. I am not from Washington and I am not a YES groupie despite what you might think from this post. One of them may have been Eric Bach, a professor at the University of Wisconsin (Eric, was that you?) But the others must have been politicians or other national figures. Steven Chu? Rahm Emmanuel? Who knows! There was a 50 year old behind me who screamed “WE LOVE YOU!” after every song and sometimes within songs. YES songs are long. Behind him was a 90 year old guy in a wheelchair with his two 70 year old sons. The sons knew the words to every song. The guy on my left was wearing a YES hat, a YES tie, had a YES license plate with Bill Bruford’s signature on it and watched most of the concert with is eyes closed. During the encore a bunch of 50 year old women rushed the stage. One of them may have been Michelle Bachman.

But the most amazing thing about the concert was that my little brother got us the tickets. When I said to him “I didn’t know you liked YES” he said “I have YES on the brain from growing up with you.” Not that you read this blog, E, but I love ya. Oh, and thanks for letting me crash on Monday night.

P.S. While on the subject of Washington, DC … happy birthday American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. What would we have ever done without you? Maybe things would have been much worse. Possibly. Maybe things would have been the same. Possibly. Maybe things would have been better. Not likely. At any rate, you are now just a political football and a $862 billion check my kids will pick up. Cheers!

P.P.S. Great article about teachers in this month’s Atlantic. Actually, most Atlantic articles are great. This is just the only one I’ve read from this month’s issue.