Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sometimes threads collide and you don't even know it

Over the past few years I written quite a bit about Taylorism, that early and largely discredited school of scientific management that has managed a sustained presence thanks to management consultants and MBA programs and which became the guiding principle of the education reform movement. I've also been working for a long time on a series of long-form pieces on the way that the huge spike in technological progress around the late 19th and early 20th centuries affected and continue to affect our perception of innovation and the future.

I don't know, however, that I ever really made the connection between the two before now. We tend to think of the era in quaint terms, a simpler, slower-moving time, but it was in reality a period of explosive change. Contemporary accounts tell us that people were not only aware that they were living in a revolutionary age; they were fascinated by the process. The promise of Taylorism  – – that scientific and engineering principles could revolutionize the human aspect of work the same way they had revolutionized virtually every other aspect of the world – – was immensely appealing and eminently sensible to the audience of the 1890s and early 1900s. It is hardly surprising that people even attempted to apply the approach to child rearing.

From  Uncovering The Secret History Of Myers-Briggs by Merve Emre

Although Barb invokes Jung's name with pride and a touch of awe, Jung would likely be greatly displeased, if not embarrassed, by his long-standing association with the indicator. The history of his involvement with Myers begins not with Isabel, but with her mother Katharine Cook Briggs, whom Barb mentions only in passing. After the photograph of Jung, Barb projects onto the screen a photograph of Katharine, unsmiling and broad necked and severely coiffed. "I usually don't get into this," she says, gesturing at Katharine's solemn face. "People have already bought into the instrument."

Yet Katharine is an interesting woman, a woman who might have interested Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem or any second-wave feminist eager to dismantle the opposition between "the happy modern housewife" and the "unhappy careerist." A stay-at-home mother and wife who had once studied horticulture at Michigan Agricultural College, Katharine was determined to approach motherhood like an elaborate plant growth experiment: a controlled study in which she could trace how a series of environmental conditions would affect the personality traits her children expressed. In 1897, Isabel emerged — her mother's first subject. From the day of her birth until the child's thirteenth birthday, Katharine kept a leather-bound diary of Isabel's developments, which she pseudonymously titled The Life of Suzanne. In it, she painstakingly recorded the influence that different levels of feeding, cuddling, cooing, playing, reading, and spanking had on Isabel's "life and character."

Today we might think of Katharine as the original helicopter parent: hawkish and over-present in her maternal ministrations. But in 1909, Katharine's objectification of her daughter answered feminist Ellen Key's resounding call for a new and more scientific approach to "the vocation of motherhood." More progressive still was how Katharine marshaled the data she had collected on Isabel to write a series of thirty-three articles in The Ladies Home Journal on the science of childrearing. These articles, which were intended to help other mothers systematize their childcare routines, boasted such single-minded titles as "Why I Believe the Home Is the Best School" and "Why I Find Children Slow in Their School Work." Each appeared under the genteel nom de plume "Elizabeth Childe."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The GOP needs the crazies more than the crazies need the GOP.

The following is not really a voting paradox, but it is kind of in the neighborhood. You have three stockholders for a company. A holds 48% of the shares, B holds 49%, and C holds 3%. Assuming that any decision needs to be approved by people holding a majority, who has the most power? The slightly counterintuitive answer is no one. Each shareholder is equal since an alliance of any two will produce a majority.

Now let's generalize the idea somewhat. Let's say you have N shareholders whom you have brought together to form a majority. Some of the members of your alliance have a large number of shares, some have very few, but even the one with the smallest stake has enough that if he or she drops out, you will be below 50%. In this scenario, every member of the alliance has equal veto power.

I apologize for the really, really basic fun-with-math explanation, but this principle has become increasingly fundamental in 21st-century politics. At the risk of oversimplifying, elections come down to my number of supporters times my turnout percentage versus your number supporters times your turnout percentage. Arguably the fundamental piece of the conservative movement has been to focus on ways to maximize Republican turnout while suppressing democratic turnout. (Yes, I'm leaving a lot out but bear with me.)

There are at least a couple of obvious inherent dangers in this approach. The first is that there is an upper bound for turnout percentage. This is especially worrisome when the number of your supporters is decreasing. Sen. Lindsey Graham was alluding to this when he observed that they weren't making enough new old white men to keep the GOP strategy going.

There is, however, another danger which can potentially be even worse. When you need nearly 100% of your supporters to show up to the polls in order to win, you create a situation where virtually every faction of your base has veto power. One somewhat perverse advantage of the large base/low turnout model is that groups of supporters can be interchangeable. You have lots of situations where you can alienate a small segment but more than make up for it elsewhere. In and of itself, this allows for a great deal of flexibility, but the really important part is the power dynamic. You have to represent a large constituency in order to wield veto power.

Probably since 2008 and certainly since 2012, pretty much every nontrivial faction of the GOP has held veto power which means the question is no longer who has it, but who is willing to use it. The Tea Party was the first to realize this. Now the alt-right has caught on to the dynamic as well.

Even with increasingly aggressive and shameless voter suppression techniques, Republicans tend to get fewer votes. It is true that they have, through smart strategy and tactics, managed to get an extraordinary number of offices out of those votes, but it is a precarious situation. We can debate how many people really believe in shadowy Jewish banker conspiracies or Martian slave labor camps, but it is almost certainly a large enough group to sway some close elections if the crazies collectively decided to go home or, worse yet, opt for a third party.

Ed Kilgore (whom I follow and generally respect) had a badly ill-informed post Trump Should Emulate Buckley and Tell Racists: ‘I Don’t Want Your Vote.’ That simply won't work for Trump or the GOP. They need the crazies more than the crazies need them.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Yes, I am planning on making this another food stamps post

Admittedly, the cases described here are extreme, but they do remind us of the cost of early childhood malnutrition can be devastating.

From the World Bank:

Brain imaging in Bangladesh. Nelson also shared findings from a study using neuroimaging tools (EEG, fNIRS, MRI) to study cognitive development in children 6 and 36 months old exposed to multiple types and levels of early adversities in Dhaka, Bangladesh. For both cohorts, results show reduced cognitive outcomes for those children growing up in the most adverse conditions. Factors such as maternal education, inflammation, and stunting due to chronic malnutrition mediate these poor outcomes. As the figure below shows, these kids’ brain anatomy, metabolism and physiology are all impacted by adversity, particularly stunting.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Some days you just need some Rube Goldberg

I know we've done some of these before, but these days it can be an enormous relief to see absurdity that's intentional.

For those unacquainted with the concept...

Rube Goldberg's cartoons became well known for depicting complicated devices that performed simple tasks in indirect convoluted ways. The example on the right is Goldberg's "Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin", which was later reprinted in a few book collections, including the postcard book Rube Goldberg's Inventions! and the hardcover Rube Goldberg: Inventions, both compiled by Maynard Frank Wolfe from the Rube Goldberg Archives.[3] The "Self-Operating Napkin" is activated when soup spoon (A) is raised to mouth, pulling string (B) and thereby jerking ladle (C), which throws cracker (D) past parrot (E). Parrot jumps after cracker and perch (F) tilts, upsetting seeds (G) into pail (H). Extra weight in pail pulls cord (I), which opens and ignites lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K), which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M), allowing pendulum with attached napkin to swing back and forth, thereby wiping chin.

We've already shown one clip from the Japanese educational series PythagoraSwitch, but I think this one is even better.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Significance of "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"

For what seems like decades, I have been collecting notes for an essay on how the huge technological advances of the late 19th/early 20th Centuries and of the postwar era shaped and eventually distorted our perception of progress. One of the points I plan on hitting is the way that scientific frontiers came to replace geographic frontiers in the American imagination.

That particular argument pretty much has to start with the opening of this seminal essay:
In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: "Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports." This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.
"The Significance of the Frontier in American History"
Frederick J. Turner. 1893

I don't want to get too caught up in the rightness of Turner's thesis; what's important here is its resonance. People responded to the idea that the frontier was the defining influence on the country. It struck them as sensible and profound and it was something they wanted to talk about.

From Wikipedia:

Turner's emphasis on the importance of the frontier in shaping American character influenced the interpretation found in thousands of scholarly histories. By the time Turner died in 1932, 60% of the leading history departments in the U.S. were teaching courses in frontier history along Turnerian lines.

One frontier that had obsessed and arguably defined the nation closed just as another frontier that would do exactly the same thing was opening. I'd argue that this deepened the mystique of technology, but that's a point for a future post.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

On the bright side, he's probably not smart enough to be a Russian agent

The fringe is a strange beast. Almost by definition, it consist of splinters, belief systems that are highly diverse and often mutually exclusive, seemingly sharing only improbability. Furthermore, the members of those groups are often incapable of functioning at what we would generally call a normal level of competence. The very idea of a coherent fringe that can be channeled and useful directions would seem to be absurd.

But contradictory beliefs often mask similar, or at least compatible, personalities. It is remarkably difficult to reconcile flat earth and alien invasion theories, but adherents of both can frequently find common ground in their sense of isolation and, more to the point, persecution by society in general and the scientific and academic establishment in particular.

I'm not sure it makes much sense to impose a left/right ideological framework on fringe groups before, say, 1980. Not only do you find them at every point on the political spectrum, most of them can't really be described in those terms at all, like rowing complex numbers into a discussion that requires real solutions. After the Reagan era, however, the conservative movement started making consistently effective use of these groups. The movement was fundamentally and often explicitly Straussian, misinforming the base to drum up anti-goverment feelings was a logical step.

The system works great until the misinformation starts flowing in the wrong direction. Here's how we put it earlier.

I know we've been through all of this stuff about Leo Strauss and the conservative movement before so I'm not going to drag this out into great detail except to reiterate that if you want to have a functional  institution that makes extensive use of internal misinformation, you have to make sure things move in the right direction.

With misinformation systems as with plumbing, when the flow starts going the wrong way, the results are seldom pretty. This has been a problem for the GOP for at least a few years now. A number of people in positions of authority, (particularly in the tea party wing) have bought into notions that were probably intended simply to keep the cannon-fodder happy. This may also partly explain the internal polling fiasco at the Romney campaign.

Which leads us to this piece from Ars Technica by Eric Berger
On Thursday, the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee held a hearing to look into NASA's forthcoming big-ticket planetary exploration missions. Those missions include a Mars 2020 rover, a Europa flyby mission, and potentially a follow-up lander to the Jovian moon Europa.

[California Republican Dana Rohrabacher ] asked, "You have indicated that Mars was totally different thousands of years ago. Is it possible that there was a civilization on Mars thousands of years ago?"

 [Kenneth Farley] calmly answered, "So the evidence is that Mars was different billions of years ago. Not thousands of years ago."

"Well, yes," Rohrabacher says. As if duh, of course he knew that.

"And, umm, there would be, there's no evidence that, uhh, I'm aware of," Farley continued, gamely trying to answer the question.

"Would you rule that out? See, there's some people... Well, anyway."

"I would say that is extremely unlikely," Farley responds.

That exchange would be troubling enough on its own, but Berger goes on to speculate that the cryptic “some people” might have referred to this.
On Thursday (June 29), a guest on Alex Jones' radio show named Robert David Steele claimed that Mars is inhabited — by people sent to the Red Planet against their will.

"We actually believe that there is a colony on Mars that is populated by children who were kidnapped and sent into space on a 20-year ride, so that once they get to Mars, they have no alternative but to be slaves on the Mars colony," Steele told Jones, the founder of the controversial InfoWars website.

 "Look, I know that 90 percent of the NASA missions are secret, and I've been told by high-level NASA engineers that you have no idea," Jones told Steele, who the show billed as a "CIA insider." "There is so much stuff going on."

Jones went on to add that "clearly, they don’t want us looking into what is happening; every time probes go over, they turn them off."
Just to be clear, I'm not saying that Rohrabacher got this directly from Jones, but that informationn from sources like Jones are likely to flow in unexpected directions, which is, in many ways, worse.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Charter school movement reaches the every faction for itself phase

Jennifer Berkshire  points us to this article from Chalkbeat:

Has the charter school movement gone awry? A new book says yes, and it’s causing a stir
By Matt Barnum

It's an interesting discussion, but one that arguably tells us more about the debaters than about the nominal topic. Until recently one of the fundamental characteristics of the education reform movement was the way various factions saw it as the coming fulfillment of their often very different and sometimes mutually exclusive desires. It would close the achievement gap, bring back old-fashioned rigor, fix the economy, remove the yoke of excessive government. The optimistic assumption of each group was that, if everything changed, it might just change in their favor.

There were always two dominant factions. The first was technocrats. These were scientific management types whose specific ideas and general worldview owed everything to MBA programs and corporate culture (with a dollop of freshwater economics added.) It was no coincidence that the man who was arguably the founding father of the movement, David Coleman, came from a background not of education but of management consulting.

The second group was antigovernment, anti-regulation, antiunion (in many cases, socially reactionary). A nontrivial segment of this faction had started out in the pro-voucher movement until that had crashed and burned years earlier.

In many ways, the goals of the two factions were diametrically opposed. One was economically focused and socially progressive, looking not just to close the achievement gap but to end poverty through innovation and technology. The other was focused on tradition conservative goals. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), the two groups shared a libertarian tilt and a great faith in market-based solutions. Perhaps more importantly, though, both saw the tremendous buzz and bipartisan support for education reform as the best chance they had to advance their objectives.

Along with entitlement reform and balancing the budget, education reform was the sacred cow of public policy initiatives, one of the very few issues that respectable publications like the New York Times could and would present only the pro side for.

Of course, that was then. Topics like charter school initiatives, standardized testing, and common core have become highly controversial, and the result has been a fraying of alliances within the movement.

Which brings us to this
The book, a collection of essays edited by the Center for Education Reform’s Jeanne Allen and Cara Candal and the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, makes the case that the charter school movement has gone awry: it’s over-regulated, hyper-focused on tests, and dismissive of families.

They appear to have an ally in U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. In a recent speech to charter school leaders, DeVos criticized lengthy charter applications, warning that “many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats.”

What’s needed now, the book’s authors say, is more innovation and less of a focus on test results. That argument prompted Checker Finn, the former president of the Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education think tank, to call the book “idiocy.” In an email exchange among a number of well-known education reformers, Allen shot back, saying Finn was “catching the same disease that befell Diane Ravitch,” the school choice advocate-turned-reform-critic.

Allen and Eden say charter school advocates can be divided into two camps.

In one corner are “system-centered reformers,” who, in the authors’ telling, trust tests to measure school performance and trust themselves to oversee those schools.

In the other are “parent-centered reformers.” They want to see a system “where educational entrepreneurs are freer to open new schools and parents decide which schools should close and which should expand based on whether they want to send their children there.” DeVos — who appeared at a private reception held by Allen’s Center for Education Reform in June — has described her vision in similar terms.

Eden and Allen close the book with recommendations that include expanding the number and type of charter authorizers, ensuring charters are not bound by teacher certification rules, and reducing charter school regulations.

One interesting point here is that neither side is taking a particularly popular stance. Rather they are dividing up the unpopular parts of their once shared platform.

The excessive amount of time spent both directly and indirectly on standardized testing has become highly controversial, as has the use of test scores for the promotion or firing of teachers, the allocating resources, and the closing of schools. The backlash has led to, among the things, an opt-out movement that threatens the entire system. Likewise, the technocrats other favorite policy, Common Core, has reached punchline status.

But the positions on the other side have no great popular support either. The term "deregulation" scores high with fellows at the Cato Institute, but it doesn't have much resonance with the public. What's worse, when you dive down into the specifics, you quickly get to things like the mistreatment of the disabled, corruption/self-dealing and excessive compensation for founders and executives. There is no powerful grassroots movement pushing for kicking LD kids to the curb or giving million-dollar bonuses to the CEOs of charter schools. And, contrary to what the authors may think, it is remarkably difficult to find a parent who wants to see fewer certified teachers in his or her child's school.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Eventually you get to Elon Musk...

Brian Merchant  makes a really important point here, but he glosses over a fundamental distinction. Putting aside for the moment the equating of the two men's impact (with all due respect to Jobs, it isn't even close), it is valid to point out that both are often credited with the work of the teams under them, Edison was able to set up his research lab (itself a tremendous innovation) because of the money he made as an inventor. It's true that most of the patents he held were primarily or entirely the work of others, but he remained an engineer supervising engineers. Jobs was a genius when it came to design, consumer psychology and the future of personal technology, but he was not an engineer.

We've gone from crediting the engineer/manager (Edison) to the marketing/design guy (Jobs) to the promotions/financing guys (take your pick). This trend will not end well.

“The thing that concerns me about the Steve Jobs and Edison complex,” Bill Buxton, who helped pioneer multitouch in the 1980s (Jobs said Apple invented it in 2007), told me, “is that young people who are being trained as innovators or designers are being sold the Edison myth, the genius designer, the great innovator, the Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates, or whatever,” Buxton says. See: The current myth of the founder-hero, that is partly to blame for steering companies like Uber into peril. “They’re never being taught the notion of the collective, the team, the history.”

Which is why it pains me a bit to see the story of the iPhone reduced to Jobs, brilliant as he may have been. The true version is more intense, messy, convoluted—and human. And it’s not just a matter of doling out credit, either; it’s a matter of understanding how innovation actually happens, so we might facilitate it better in the future. There are lessons here for anyone who might try to build a product, advance a technology, stir progress—or understand how innovation really unfurls. The iPhone is the product of a collaboration carried out on a scale that’s so massive it can seem almost incomprehensible—but it makes more sense than the lone inventor myth. And we can learn more about where we're headed if we look into the iPhone's black mirror and try to see the huge host of faces reflected back—not just Steve Jobs'.

Friday, August 4, 2017

It turns out that the key to bipartisanship is pseudoscience and bone broth

We've been spending a lot of time recently here at the blog on health-related pseudoscience, particularly the kind espoused by Gwyneth Paltrow and all too often non-critically covered by New York Magazine. We even got a little into the demographics which tend to match places like Santa Monica, white, upper and upper-middle class, and generally limousine liberal. We have previously noted that far left is even more susceptible to medical quackery than are the normal goop subscribers.

This characteristically sharp and funny segment from John Oliver on Alex Jones reveals an interesting parallel. Jones's audience virtually defines the alt-right, but when you scrape away the xenophobic and homophobic claims about immigrant-borne diseases and the feminization of the American man, you get down to pitches for products that are virtually identical to what you might see at a Gwyneth Paltrow wellness seminar, the same ingredients promising to cure the same ailments based on the same questionable medical arguments.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Enron, charter schools and related-party transactions

I meant to post this analysis by Preston Green III when it first came out. Then I saw something shiny and got distracted.
Enron’s downfall was caused largely by something called “related-party transactions.” Understanding this concept is crucial for grasping how charter schools may also be in danger.

Related-party transactions are business arrangements between companies with close associations: It could be between two companies owned or managed by the same group or it could be between one large company and a smaller company that it owns. Although related-party transactions are legal, they can create severe conflicts of interest, allowing those in power to profit from employees, investors and even taxpayers

Without strict regulation, some bad actors have been able to take advantage of charter schools as an opportunity for private investment. In the worst cases, individuals have been able to use related-party transactions to fraudulently funnel public money intended for charter schools into other business ventures that they control.

Such was the case with Ivy Academia, a Los Angeles-area charter school. The co-founders, Yevgeny Selivanov and Tatayana Berkovich, also owned a private preschool that shared facilities with the charter school. The preschool entered into a sublease for the facilities at a monthly rent of $18,390 – the fair-market value. The preschool then assigned the sublease to the charter school at a monthly rent of $43,870.

The Los Angeles district attorney’s office charged the husband-and-wife team with multiple counts of fraud. Selivanov was sentenced to nearly five years in jail in 2013.

Fraudulent related-party transactions can also occur between education management organizations (EMOs) and their affiliates. EMOs are for-profit or nonprofit entities that sometimes manage charter schools, and might also own smaller companies that could provide services to those schools.

For example, Imagine Schools is a nonprofit EMO that runs 63 charter schools enrolling 33,000 students across the country. It also owns SchoolHouse Finance, a for-profit company that, among other things, handles real estate for many of Imagine’s charter schools. Though charter schools typically spend around 14 percent of their funding on rent, some of the Imagine Schools were paying SchoolHouse Finance up to 40 percent of their funding for rent.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A few points to keep in mind when reading any upcoming story about the Hyperloop (first off, it's not a Hyperloop)

{UPDATED -- now with handy video example.}
[Last time we tried this it went really well, so...]

1. Here was Elon Musk's initial description of the Hyperloop:

"[A] cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table"

or more prosaically

“[R]educed-pressure tubes in which pressurized capsules ride on an air bearings driven by linear induction motors and air compressors."

The idea of air bearings has been around for a long time and has proven useful for a number of applications, but, after a great deal of effort, researchers concluded sometime around the 1970s that it was not workable for high-speed rail. When companies started trying to build even small, very limited working models of the Hyperloop, the first thing that most, possibly all, did was to scrap the one aspect that set Musk's concept apart from more conventional maglev vactrains. This is a small detail but it is enormously telling. They dropped much of the actual idea, but they kept the name and the associated buzz.

2. Neither the Hyperlop or the “Hyperloop” offers much new.

At least in the broad strokes, there's is little new in any of the recent proposals. Musk's original presentation relied mainly on Disco-era technology. I believe most of the current efforts have updated that with passive levitation systems developed in the late 90s. Either way, the systems that are now promised as just around the corner are not that different from proposals from twenty years ago which begs an obvious question: why weren't these trains built a long time ago. The answer is…

3. You didn't see supersonic trains twenty years ago for the same reason you aren't likely to see them in the near future.


Whenever people looked seriously at these projects, they concluded that the cost was prohibitive. And no, this didn't have anything to do with land rights or onerous regulations.

4.  A question of tolerance and other things

Even under the best of circumstances, big projects cost a great deal of money, and with maglev vactrains, the conditions are about the worst imaginable. This is supposed to be a brief overview, so I'm not going to make a deep dive here, but I will mention three factors: reliability, safety, and most of all tolerance.

You've got people traveling hundreds of miles an hour in a near vacuum. Just to get the damn thing to work, every part has to be manufactured to the tightest possible tolerances, every piece of work has to be done perfectly. But just working is much too low a bar here. With a Hyperloop, even a fairly minor failure can turn catastrophic, causing tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure damage, not to mention loss of life. Those standards of construction and maintenance are tremendously expensive, particularly for a piece of infrastructure that will stretch hundreds of miles.

5. Beware science-fair level demonstrations

When trying to follow the Hyperloop discussion, it is absolutely essential to distinguish between the easy parts and the hard parts. Many elements of the proposed system are well understood and in some cases widely used already. If you went through the Birmingham Airport in the late 80s or early 90s, you've probably already traveled on a maglev train propelled by linear induction.

Other elements are extraordinarily difficult to pull off. For instance, radical new construction techniques will need to be developed to make the system commercially viable. As mentioned before, the combination of extremely high speeds with the need to maintain a near vacuum over hundreds of miles requires a stunning degree of reliability and adherence to incredibly tight tolerances. Every seam has to be literally airtight.

You will notice that the "test runs" we have seen from various Hyperloop companies have focused almost entirely on the aspects that don't need testing.

[Ran across this shortly after posting.]

6. So what would a real Hyperloop test look like?

We will know that the Hyperloop is actually getting closer when we start seeing demonstrations that address concerns of civil engineers and transportation researchers (specifically those not in the employ of Musk or companies like Hyperloop One). For example, a process or manufacturing tube segments of sufficient quality cheaply or a system for joining these segments quickly and requiring few if any skilled workers.

7. And no, this is not just like SpaceX and Tesla.

The long-popular "we should take Musk seriously because he has done impossible things" genre has recently spawned the subgenre "we should take Musk seriously because he's doing the same thing with [Hyperloops/brain chips/giant subterranean slot car tracks] that he did with SpaceX and Tesla" This is simply not true. The approach is almost exactly the opposite. With the latter, Musk proposed plans carefully grounded in sophisticated but entirely conventional technology. With the former, he made vague, underdeveloped suggestions that left experts in the respective fields pulling out their hair.

To be clear, Tesla and particularly SpaceX certainly had their doubters, but the skepticism was focused on the business and finance side. Elon Musk unquestionably accomplished some extraordinary things, but he did so by the deviating from conventional wisdom in terms of how you set up companies while staying safely in the mainstream when it came to technology.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A tale of three talks

This is Joseph

Apologies for the simplifications of the descriptions of the talk, but I am going for the main themes and not necessarily all of the nuances of the authors.  All three talks are worth watching.

Here is a TED talk on reversing diabetes by restricting carbohydrates and adding fat

Here is a TED talk about reversing diabetes by becoming a vegetarian

And here is a third TED talk, not on diabetes but improving hunger issues by eating unprocessed foods (third strategy)

Are you confused yet?

I think that there are two major points here that form an underlying theme that links all of these approaches together.

One, humans are remarkably plastic in our ability to adapt to different diets.  The low carbohydrate crowd have long brought up the Inuit, who eat an inherently low carbohydrate diet due to food source availability.  But there are cultures (in which many people live to very old ages) that eat relatively high carbohydrate (Japanese culture comes to mind).  So it would be very surprising if there were not a multiplicity of effective diets, and it is possible, if not likely, that there is more than one way to improve diets to stop diabetes and manage weight.  The best diet is one that the patient can actually follow and succeed with.

Two, and the reason for the third video, is that both of the strategies that appear in the first one naturally shift people towards more complex foods, the point of the strategy in the third one.  Generally speaking, that seems to be a common theme in the actual recipes given.  For example, the Zone Diet could use a chocolate bar to make up the carbohydrate portion of the diet.  But they then immediately bring up glycemic index, which pushes you towards fruits and vegetables.  The second video uses examples of carrots and vegetarian chili as food, not a 2 liter bottle of coke (which is a vegan according to the company).  The first speaker uses the example of sauteing mushrooms, again the use of a vegetable product.

So I suspect (I don;t know for sure) that these three approaches are a lot more compatible than it first appears.  It is hard to overdose on sugar as a vegetarian if I am getting my carbohydrates from apples and broccoli.

Now, I do want to point out that this is a very complicated topic and the research into it is ongoing and challenging.  Food is the classic example of something hard to remember: how many bananas did you eat last year?  But the search for common themes may yet be very useful in puzzling out what might actually be effective.  

Monday, July 31, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – Part VI: Campbell's Law et al.

The familiar concerns with factors that undermine and distort educational metrics appear to have crossed the ocean.

I asked two experts in statistics — Nat Malkus, from the American Enterprise Institute, and Bryan Graham, from the University of California, Berkeley — to help me evaluate the findings. “This is good evidence of positive effects,” says Malkus. Both pointed out that the study’s results are complicated by Bridge’s high dropout rate: While a third of public-school students dropped out, nearly half of Bridge students left during the study and were unable to take the final assessment. ‘‘The high attrition rate should give one pause,’’ Malkus says, ‘‘when considering the full effect of the program.’’ Graham, co-editor of The Review of Economics and Statistics, says that ‘‘organizations are under a lot of pressure to do these studies and ‘prove’ their program works. Reasonable and informed people could look at the information in that report and come to widely different conclusions about the effect of Bridge on academic achievement as they measure it. It’s information, just not especially actionable information.”

Another area of achievement that Bridge trumpets is the success of its students on the eighth-grade K.C.P.E. test. In 2015, according to Bridge, 63 percent of Bridge students who had been there for at least two years passed, compared with 49 percent of Kenyan students nationwide. But it’s unclear whether Bridge’s approach will be sustainable as the company grows. Former Bridge employees told me that in preparation for the 2015 exam, those on track to get a lower score were asked to repeat a year. The rest were taken to a residential cram school and prepped for the test by teachers who flew in from the United States.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The nuclear moose option

[Just to be clear, I am not claiming that any of the following is inevitable or even likely, but I do think it falls in the category of things to consider.]

We've been arguing for quite a while now that the conservative movement's social engineering experiment has achieved its considerable success over the past few decades at the cost of exposing the party to genuinely existential threats. I had meant to precede this post with a bit more foundation, but events seem to be accelerating and I need to get this down.

Political parties have survived major rifts before. We could find numerous notable examples for both Democrats and Republicans, and, in all of those cases, the wounds were real but temporary. However, these divisions, though bitter, took place in broad-based relatively healthy political parties, I would argue that the Republican Party of 2017, though nominally controlling most of the government, is perhaps uniquely fragile and cannot survive a nasty internal conflict.

Here is a scenario of how such a conflict can arise and grow into an existential threat. I won't say that it is probable, but I think each link in the chain is definitely plausible. This is certainly true for the first link since between the time I outlined the concatenation of events and the time I sat down to write this, the first one had already happened. (That's why this is something of a rush job.)

First, a bit of background from our game theory post back in February  (Charles Schumer predicted a break between Trump and the party in three or four months. I said a year of two. Perhaps we should have split the difference):

The relationship between the Trump/Bannon White House and the GOP legislature is perhaps uniquely suited for a textbook game theory analysis. In pretty much all previous cases,  relationships between presidents and Congress have been complicated by numerous factors other than naked self-interest--ideological, partisan, personal, cultural--but this time it's different. With a few isolated exceptions, there is no deeply held common ground between the White House and Capitol Hill. The current arrangement is strictly based on people getting things they care about in exchange for things they don't.

However, while the relationship is simple in those terms, it is dauntingly complex in terms of the pros and cons of staying versus going. If the Republicans stand with Trump, he will probably sign any piece of legislation that comes across his desk (with this White House, "probably" is always a necessary qualifier). This comes at the cost of losing their ability to distance themselves from and increasingly unpopular and scandal-ridden administration.

Some of that distance might be clawed back by public criticism of the president and by high-profile hearings, but those steps bring even greater risks. Trump has no interest in the GOP's legislative agenda, no loyalty to the party, and no particular affection for its leaders. Worse still, as Josh Marshall has frequently noted, Trump has the bully's instinctive tendency to go after the vulnerable. There is a limit to the damage he can inflict on the Democrats, but he is in a position to literally destroy the Republican Party.

We often hear this framed in terms of Trump supporters making trouble in the primaries, but that's pre-2016 thinking. This goes far deeper. In addition to a seemingly total lack of interpersonal, temperamental, and rhetorical constraints, Trump is highly popular with a large segment of the base. In the event of an intra-party war, some of this support would undoubtedly peel away, but a substantial portion would stay.

Keep in mind, all of this takes place in the context of a troubling demographic tide for the Republicans. Their strategic response to this has been to maximize turnout within the party while suppressing the vote on the other side. It has been a shrewd strategy but it leaves little margin for error.  Trump has the ability to drive a wedge between a significant chunk of the base and the GOP for at least the next few cycles, possibly enough to threaten the viability of the party.

With that in mind, consider the following possible developments:

1. Trump fires Reince Priebus. Keep in mind, the choice of Priebus was (probably accurately) seen as an early indicator that, for all of his outsider talk, Trump intended to run a partisan administration with close ties to the Republican establishment. The firing has to be seen as a weakening of that relationship;

2. After ever increasing harassment, Jeff Sessions jumps or is pushed out of the administration;

3. This, along with other transgressions, prompts Graham and a few other Republican senators to start actively pushing for investigations into and greater accountability from the White House;

4. The strongest remaining link between the administration and the GOP establishment, vice president Mike Pence, is finding it increasingly difficult to keep his skirts clean from the Russia scandals. He does his best to distance himself and, as a result, further marginalizes his role;

5. Further developments in the Russia scandal exacerbate existing tensions;

6. While Trump does have his loyalists and the number of Republicans willing to publicly attack him remains fairly small, the majority of the party starts to see the president as a dangerous liability and attempts to distance itself from him, whenever possible refusing to take sides;

7. Angry at the lack of loyalty and feeling pressure from the investigations, Trump escalates his attacks on the GOP;

8. (Any of the following)
a. Trump fires Mueller
b. Mueller or some other investigator uncovers a major criminal conspiracy involving Trump, his family, or his business
c. Polls start showing serious erosion in support for Trump and the GOP in the conservative base
d. Things just keep getting ugly

9. At some major events such as a large rally or even the state of the union address, Donald Trump announces that, in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, he has realized that both parties are hopelessly corrupt and the only way to drain the swamp is by starting a third-party. So it is his intention to run in 2020 as the candidate for the MAGA Party and to field candidates in every major statewide contest.

Now, I want to be careful about how we frame this. Trump forming a third party remains unlikely, but it would not that unlikely if we hit events 1 through 8 and, taken individually, none of these events seem all that improbable.

I should probably polish this post a bit more, but given the pace of things these days, you have to make your predictions as quickly as possible.

Health care reform can have consequences

This is Joseph

Steven Attewell
When I heard Republican Congressmen talking about how only people who’ve led “good lives” deserved coverage for pre-existing conditions, I would scream at the monitor that the idea that health is tied to moral virtue is a medieval fantasy, that illnesses like mine could strike anyone at any time for no reason at all. My cancer hadn’t been the result of smoking or poor diet or environmental factors or genetic predispositions; it was just two genes in one cell mis-transcribing themselves next to one another randomly. So for the next sixth months I walked around in a daze knowing that if the Republican plan became law, I would be a health care pariah, forever marked as a cancer survivor.
I want to say more about this line of argument at some point.  But I think that the big issue here is that, at the costs we currently have, it's basically impossible to self insure against this type of cancer.

These decisions have real consequences for real people.  Let's try and get them right.