Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tobias Putrih’s Re-projection: Hoosac

When I wrote up my trip to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, I focused on its centerpiece, the Sol LeWitt retrospective. The museum also has other exhibits by other artists.

My favorite was Re-projection: Hoosac by Tobias Putrih. Here is a description from a Boston Globe article:

One installation, by Tobias Putrih, stretches long strands of fishing line across a dark and cavernous gallery. Bunched neatly together, the parallel lines start high on one wall, ending low on the opposite one. A single light source illuminates the strands at about the midway point, causing an optical effect reminiscent of spinning rotor blades or a mystical halo.

You can follow the path of the stretched filaments, which slowly descend below head height to waist level, in a tunnel-like space the dimensions of which become harder to perceive as you move away from the light.

When we were there, the gymnasium-sized room had a buzz of wonder, as people moved within and around the installation, and watched other people do the same. Here is a minute’s worth of video, shot by someone moving through the installation.

For further background, here is what the exhibit notes say:

Influenced by the utopian projects — and notable failures — of innovative artists and designers such as Buckminster Fuller, Frederick Kiesler, and Charles Eames, Tobias Putrih likens his works to experiments, or design prototypes. His use of cheap materials, including egg crates, cardboard, and plywood signify both a sense of potential and impending collapse. Many of the artist’s works reference the architecture and spectacle of the cinema: a space suspended between fantasy and reality, image and environment. With Re-projection: Hoosac Putrih distills the cinema to its most basic element: fishing line stretched across the gallery mimics the conical trajectory of a beam of light. A spotlight hits the strands of monofilament which in turn become a screen, reflecting an image in illuminated dots. Inspired by the Hoosac Tunnel just east of North Adams — a storied, engineering marvel that draws ghost-hunters to the area — Putrih’s tunnel is, likewise, both real and a representation, an optical trick that invites both wonder and investigation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto

A man spends six months living with wild turkeys as their surrogate parent, raising them from eggs to young adults. He spends most waking hours with them, seven days a week. He starts as teacher and finishes as student.

The book is Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto. It’s nonfiction.

Absent a plot or other tricks to entertain, Illumination in the Flatwoods simply describes the day-to-day existence of Hutto and the turkeys. Over the year, there are dramatic moments—if it was reality TV, they’d be called unscripted—but most of the “action” is foraging, exploring terrain, and even more mundane forms of being.

The turkeys seem subdued, and we feed slowly up the through the field. I think they are sun hungry and would like to dust, but we have only dark clouds and wet sand. They are concentrating very heavily on seeds today for some reason. I also hear green pods snapping around me, as they eat the creeping Crotalaria, known commonly as one of the rabbit bells (C. sagittalis) that grow abundantly in these pine woods. Some species of Crotalaria have a reputation for being poisonous to grazing livestock, but this particular species has a green pod that smells as fresh and sweet as any English pea. The wild turkeys are extremely fond of them. I find myself nibbling on one occasionally as well.

On the surface, such passages may seem as interesting as a collection of weather reports. But the cumulative effect of a year’s worth is meditative, altering one’s awareness.

The field and surrounding hammock are pulsing with the hypnotic drone of insects. The repetitive overlapping voices of several species of warbler combine to gently weave a warm blanket of experience. The words of Joseph Campbell quietly overtake me: “Illumination is the recognition of the radiance of one eternity through all things.”

Hutto’s suspicion is that human consciousness may have over-evolved, and that real meaning—the spiritual wholeness pursued by mystics and religions—lies at a deeper level, long ago lost to our big brains’ abstractions. Thus…

As we leave the confines of my language and culture, these graceful creatures become in every way my superiors. More alert, sensitive, and aware, they are vastly more conscious than I. They are in many ways, in fact, simply more intelligent. Theirs is an intricate aptitude, a clear distillation of purpose and design that is beyond my ability to comprehend.

Make of it what you will. For my part, I found Illumination in the Flatwoods a unique, satisfyingly different read.

Thanks to John for the recommendation.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

States with Places with English Names (or, How Much More English is New England?)

New England comprises six states in the northeast corner of the United States: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Here you’ll see so many English names on highway signs—New London, Cambridge, Glastonbury, Gloucester, Ipswich—that you might as well be driving on the left side of the road.

Of course, other parts of the United States have English names for their places too. For example, 27 states have a Manchester. So let us ask: How much more English are the place names in New England states versus others?

To answer this question, I found lists of English and U.S. place names—place name being a generic term for cities, towns, townships, villages, boroughs, and such. I then intersected the lists so each U.S. state’s place names were reduced to those that matched English place names. The names needed to match exactly except for the prefixes “New,” “North,” “South,” “East,” and “West.” That allowed matches like “New London” to “London” or “West Manchester” to “Manchester.”

I then calculated the percentage of each state’s names that matched English names. By this measure of relative Englishness, the winner was Rhode Island: 45.3% of its place names matched English place names. New Hampshire, Massachusett, and Vermont were only a few percentage points behind. At 39.4%, Connecticut was a few points further behind. More important, Connecticut was 15 points ahead of the next contender, Delaware, at 24.4%.

This 15-point gap between between the top five, which are all New England states, and the rest confirmed that the New England states have significantly more Englishness in their names.

But wait. What happend to Maine? It was on the other side of the gap, below Delaware. (Maine, you’ll be hearing from the Queen about this.) Still, even with that laggard Maine, the New England states averaged 36.9% English place names, whereas the rest averaged 12.77%.

So, to the question of how much more English are New England place names, we can say roughly three times. For the specifics on each state, see the chart below, after which are notes on my sources and methods.

The list of U.S. place names was from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 U.S. Gazetteer Files. I merged the names in the Places file with those in the County Subdivisions file.

The UK Office for National Statistics did not seem to have equivalent files, so I ended up using Pandemedia’s UK & Ireland Town and County Database, filtered to only include places in England.

The intersecting process yielded this file of states’ place names that match English place names. Browsing the file showed the names were indeed English, although close inspection revealed some quirks. For example, it’s safe to say that Washington, present and accounted for in 30 states, was not named after the English town Washington. And the 18 states with an Eagle probably weren’t inspired by the English village of that name. However, to keep this project doable in a few hours, I declined to venture onto the slippery slope of special-casing such situations. I assumed that their errors were distributed evenly enough across the states to not be a problem.

Also, as a final sanity check, I looked at the place names for a sample state (Connecticut) that were not matched. The first time I did this, I found I was missing obvious names like Avon. At the time, I was using only the Gazetteer “Places” file for the U.S. names. Merging the additional names from the “County Subdivisons” file corrected the obvious non-matches.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

John Adams Puts John Cage In Context

In today’s New York Times Review of Books, composer John Adams reviews a biography of John Cage, the most famous—and, depending on your perspective, most infamous—of 20th century avant garde composers.

Cage is best known for 4’33”: four minutes and thirty three seconds of a performer not playing the piano. At its premiere, 4’33” irritated many audience members, who thought they were getting the musical equivalent of the silent treatment. About them Cage later said:

They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.

In his review, Adams aptly summarizes that Cage “upended long-held conventions about the listening process and prodded us to re-evaluate how we define not only music but the entire experience of encountering art.” However, Adams’ most interesting comments are elsewhere in the issue. In the “Up Front” section, where the editors provide a brief profile of Adams, they write:

Does Adams listen to Cage very often these days? “It sounds absurd to say that Cage was ‘hugely influential’ and then admit you rarely listen to his music, but that’s the truth for me, and I suspect it’s the same for most composers I know,” Adams said by e-mail. “Cage helped to open my awareness and acceptance of sound — all sounds, not just the pitches of the musical scale. And he set an example for liberating musical forms from the hand-me-down archetypes of European tradition. I don’t agree with those who consider Cage the most important composer after Stravinsky. I think much of his later work is fundamentally, even tediously, didactic. A work like 4’33” is a demonstration, a lesson in how to listen, so to speak. But to equate its artistic value, as some have, with a work like The Rite of Spring is to confuse art with philosophy.“

On the paradox that is John Cage’s legacy, the above is the best paragraph’s worth of wisdom I’ve ever seen.

[The quote by Cage is from his Wikipedia page, sourced there to Richard Kostelanetz’s Conversing with John Cage.]

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ham the Astrochimp

Ham the Astrochimp was the United States’ first pre-astronaut in space. I knew that. But reading Craig Nelson’s Rocket Men, I learned how tough a job it was.

January 31, 1961: Mercury-Redstone 2 took off from Cape Canaveral’s LC-5 carrying three-year-old Cameroonian pilot Ham (aka “#61”), who had been trained by Holloman Air Force Base at White Sands with carrots (banana pellets) and sticks (electric shocks to the soles of the feet). For those who believed NASA was ready to launch human beings, this mission upended that hope. First the training system in the capsule went haywire, administering to Ham repeated electric shocks, even while he was perfectly executing his chores. The capsule was supposed to travel at 1,970 meters per second; instead, it raced along at 2,298. An abort call was made, which yanked the retro rockets, but Mission Control could not slow the capsule for reentry. Then a snorkel valve lost its pin, and the cabin lost its pressure—but since Ham was in his own spacesuit, he was unharmed. He also seemed unharmed by being subjected to just under 15 g’s, instead of the 11 that was expected. On splashdown, the heat shield punctured the capsule, and between the holes it made and the broken valve, by the time the navy hauled the Mercury out of the sea, it had taken on eight hundred pounds of water and was sinking fast.

After recovery, Ham got an apple and an orange for surviving his mission, but tried to bite anyone who dared draw near; as the mission log noted, “Sometime later, when he was shown the spacecraft, it was visually apparent that he had no further interest in cooperating with the space flight program.”

Ham subsequently went into retirement, spending his remaining 22 years in zoos. He has a Wikipedia page.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Wooden Boats by Michael Ruhlman

Early in Wooden Boats, Michael Ruhlman presents a paradox. The vast majority of today’s boats are fiberglass, their parts stamped out on assembly lines. Yet a magazine dedicated to hand-built wooden boats, WoodenBoat, is among the most popular in the boating world. It has 100,000 subscribers, ten times the number of wooden boats in the United States.

With that ten-to-one ratio of aspirants to owners, something needs explaining. Ruhlman does so via the people and boats of Gannon & Benjamin (G&B), a boatyard in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts. He follows the design and construction of two G&B boats, covering everything from the wood’s provenance to shop-floor techniques.

Through it all, Ruhlman tells the G&B people’s stories, especially those of the principles, Ross and Nat, and their stubbornly idealistic way of boat-building: You must build a boat that, with proper care, will live forever. Your design must be worthy of forever, honing form and function to a point of perfection. Your materials must be natural complements to the air and water the boat will sail on, and against. You have thousands of years of wooden-boat practice to study. Learn it, preserve it, and carry it forward.

This worldview matters because mechanized production and modern materials can create good boats at relatively low cost, but they cannot create great, timeless boats.

Caring about such things is peculiarly human. The G&B boat-builders care. So do the 100,000 people that read WoodenBoat, even if most have settled for fiberglass in their own boats. Ruhlman wants you to care too.

It will help if you have a taste for the details of craftsmanship—why the cotton caulk is placed just so around countersunk bolt heads—because Wooden Boats has a lot of that. But it’s the people’s stories that make the book shine, assuming you see light in others’ idealism.

Not everyone does, a point Ruhlman makes in a vignette about visitors to the G&B shop:

Two strangers who had heard about the schooner walked along the staging, having a look around. They were a middle-aged man and woman, one a pragmatist, the other a romantic. They hung over the transom and stared down into the cavernous hull.

“You can see the world in here!” the woman exclaimed.

The man said, “That’s a lot of wood.”

Wooden Boats is about what people choose to see when they look down into that cavernous hull.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Waiting for Superman

I see a lot of documentary films. Few have hit as hard, both emotionally and intellectually, as Waiting for Superman. By way of summary, here are some critics’ quotes from Metacritic:

  • “Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s scathing, moving critique of American public education, makes you actually want to do something after you dry your eyes.” (The Washington Post)
  • “This is more than an Important Documentary: it is engaging and, finally, enraging - as captivating as any ‘Superman’ movie, and as poignant as a child’s plea for help.” (Time)
  • “This is one of the most galvanizing documentaries I’ve ever seen.” (New York)
  • “This movie isn’t just a necessity (listen up, do-nothing politicians) - it might change your future.” (Rolling Stone)

Waiting for Superman goes beyond the familiar story of failing inner-city schools to show solutions that are working. It also addresses the hidden failures of suburban public schools, many of which have acceptable average test scores that hide a giant achievement gap between students “tracked” for success and the rest.

Most of all, Waiting for Superman puts a face on the victims of bad schools. You will meet kids whose only view of “equality of opportunity” is a long-odds lottery for placement in a good school. You will feel the wrongness in your heart, not just of these particular kids’ fates but of the system stacked against them.

See the film. It’s a testament to the power of what a documentary can be.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings at MASS MoCA

Located in a sprawling, former factory complex in North Adams, Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) is the largest contemporary art museum in the United States. Its centerpiece is Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, three floors of wall-sized drawings and paintings conceived by LeWitt.

I say conceived because LeWitt’s role in the works is to describe how to make them. Others do the interpreting and executing, like how musicians interpret and play a composer’s score.

Here is an example, the fourth wall of Wall Drawing 289, with LeWitt’s instructions below the image.

A 6-inch (15 cm) grid covering each of the four black walls. White lines to points on the grids. Fourth wall: twenty-four lines from the center, twelve lines from the midpoint of each of the sides, twelve lines from each corner. (The length of the lines and their placement are determined by the drafter.)

Keep in mind, the little image above is of an entire wall. To give you a better sense of scale, consider this image of Wall Drawing 146A, including its surroundings.

This piece encompasses an entire room. It immerses you.

For LeWitt, the exhibition space itself was like a blank canvas. Given 27,000 square feet of open floor plan, LeWitt configured the space not just in which, but on which, his work would be displayed, down to individual wall specifications for each piece. He did this shortly before his death in 2007.

In 2008, over a period of six months, 62 artists rendered 105 of LeWitt’s wall drawings. This nine-minute video shows the process.

Process is an apt word because understanding LeWitt is as much about the processes and ideas as it is looking at the art. The MASS MoCA exhibit affords plenty of opportunities to learn about this context while providing a unique and impressive venue for the works themselves.

The only hitch is North Adams’ location. It is an hour from Albany, NY; two hours from Hartford, CT; and three hours from Boston, MA. The nearest interstate highway is almost an hour away, so chances are low that you’ll be in the neighborhood for other reasons.

Defying those odds, we arranged a weekend trip from West Hartford to Vermont, knowing MASS MoCA would be on the way. It was a great trip. Vermont’s fall foliage was on fine display. However, Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective was the highlight.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Wildlife Documentaries Exposed?

Are wildlife documentaries as staged as pro wrestling? You’ll get that impression from a Washington Post article on the subject.

It’s about filmmaker Chris Palmer, whose book Shooting in the Wild “exposes the unpleasant secrets of environmental filmmaking: manufactured sounds, staged fights, wild animals that aren’t quite wild filmed in nature that isn’t entirely natural.” Even Marlin Perkins is on the wrong side of the name-dropping.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, but I was still struck by this: “[I]f you see a bear feeding on a deer carcass in a film, it is almost certainly a tame bear searching for hidden jellybeans in the entrails of the deer’s stomach.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Does the Future of Testing Need Tests?

I’d like to highlight three recent articles, each a worthy read. Together they illuminate a trend in educational testing from big, scary tests to smaller, frequent tests to maybe no need for tests.

Testing, The Chinese Way

Consider Testing, the Chinese Way. In it, Elisabeth Rosenthal says, “When my children were 6 and 8, taking tests was as much a part of the rhythm of their school day as tag at recess or listening to stories at circle time.”

Rosenthal’s family was living in China, where “a march of tests for young children was regarded as normal, and not evil or particularly anxiety provoking.” From this experience, Rosenthal asks, “What makes a test feel like an interesting challenge rather than an anxiety-provoking assault?”

This Test Has Been Canceled

In This Test Has Been Canceled, Keith O’Brien says, “[T]here is growing evidence that final exams — once considered so important that universities named a week after them — are being abandoned or diminished.”

O’Brien suggests a prime cause is the growing favor for frequent, small tests over big, end-of-term finals. In support, O’Brien cites numerous experts and research examples, including these results from a poll of 600 students in a University of Arizona astronomy class:

93 percent of students said they’d prefer weekly quizzes over a couple of large midterms and a final. Seventy-eight percent reported actually learning more that way, and almost all of them — 98 percent — said they were less stressed taking short, weekly quizzes than they were taking large exams.

Learning by Playing

If educators are already tilting toward smaller tests, technology in the classroom may push things further. In Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom, Sara Corbett profiles a New York charter school...

...organized specifically around the idea that digital games are central to the lives of today’s children and also increasingly, as their speed and capability grow, powerful tools for intellectual exploration....Once it has been worked over by game designers, a lesson doesn’t look like a lesson anymore. It is now a quest....

A well-built game is, in essence, a series of short-term feedback loops, delivering assessment in small, frequent doses....[G]ames themselves could feasibly replace tests altogether. Students, by virtue of making it through the escalating levels of a game that teaches, say, the principles of quantum physics, will demonstrate their mastery simply by finishing the game. Or, as [Arizona State’s James Paul Gee] says: “Think about it: if I make it through every level of Halo, do you really need to give me a test to see if I know everything it takes to get through every level of Halo?”

That’s a provocative question. It asks us to consider whether the future of testing needs what we today call tests. I doubt the answer will be a simple yes or no. But the fact such a fundamental question is in play suggests interesting times ahead.

[See also, from 2007: Review: Shaffer’s “How Computer Games Help Children Learn”]

Sunday, October 3, 2010

David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers

David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers is a firsthand report from an Army battalion’s deployment in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. Finkel takes you there with the American soldiers, many still teenagers, as they drop into a bewildering world of hostility, horrid conditions, and ambient dread.

[Upon landing] the air caught in their throats. Dirt and dust coated them right away. Because they arrived in the dead of night, they couldn’t see very much, but soon after sunrise, a few soldiers climbed a guard tower, peeked through the camouflage tarp, and were startled to see a vast landscape of trash, much of it on fire....They had been told that [roadside bombs] were often hidden in piles of trash. At the time it didn’t overly worry them, but now, as they looked out from the guard tower at acres of blowing trash across dirt fields and ashes from burned trash rising in smoke columns, it did....

Out they went through the heavily guarded main gate of [their base] and were instantly on the front lines of the war. In other wars, the front line was exactly that, a line to advance toward and cross, but in this war, the enemy was everywhere, it was anywhere out of the wire, in any direction: that building, that town, that province, the entire country, in 360 degrees.

The enemy’s main weapon was the roadside bomb—something you can’t fight, only avoid if you’re lucky. It made going on patrol like Russian Roulette: Who’s going to get hit today? Finkel unflinchingly reports the carnage of the inevitable hits. It is ugly, harrowing, and, as far as Finkel is concerned, necessary reading if you want to understand the actual war as opposed to the made-for-TV political bickering about the war.

[W]hile the news in Rustamiyah on September 4 was all about three dead soldiers and a fourth who lost both legs, and a fifth who lost both legs and an arm and most of his other arm had been severely burned over what remained of him, that wasn’t the news in the United States. In the United States the news was all macro rather than micro. It was about President Bush arriving in Australia that morning, where the deputy prime minister asked him how the war was going and he answered, “We’re kicking ass.” It was about a government report released in the afternoon that noted the Iraqi government’s lack of progress toward self-sustainability, which Democrats seized on as one more reason to get out of Iraq pronto, which Republicans seized on as one more reason why Democrats were unpratriotic, which various pundits seized on as a chance to go on television and do some screaming.

The soldiers tried to win hearts and minds. By training they were not diplomats or social workers or nation builders. The people they were supposed to be helping either wanted to kill them or were at risk of being killed for accepting the soldiers’ help. Local leaders were often corrupt and infighting. As recipes for success go, this one was full of bad ingredients.

Nevertheless, amid the violence and despair, personal acts of bravery and kindness sometimes redeemed scraps of a tattered, seemingly unfixable whole. A soldier ignored the rules to save a hurt Iraqi child; a soldier pulled his paralyzed buddy from a burning Humvee. In an environment where the months, days, and hours varied only among shades of dark, perhaps such moments of grace were all that was left for good soldiers.

A convoy of three platoons and two body bags left at 3:22 a.m. By 3:40 a.m., the first IED had exploded and flattened some tires. By 3:45 a.m., the first gunfight was under way. By 3:55 a.m., soldiers had found and destroyed three EFPs. By 4:50am, they were at the DAC, where the ruined Humvee had been taken. By 5:10 a.m., they were lifting and then scooping Bennett and Miller into the body bags. By 5:30 a.m., they were on their way to COP Cajimat to rendezvous with Nate Showman and his soldiers. By 5:47, they were in another gunfight. By 5:48, the vehicle leading the convey was hit by some type of IED but was able to keep going. By 5:49, the same vehicle was hit with another IED but was still able to keep going. By 6:00 a.m., the convoy had made it to COP Cajimat. By 7:00 a.m., the soldiers were escorting Showman, his ruined platoon, the ruined Humvee, and the remains of Bennett and Miller to the FOB. By 7:55 a.m., everyone was back, and the mission was officially a success.

Most people, understandably, won’t be up for hundreds of pages of this stuff. But if you’ve read this far, I hope I have been able to convey some of The Good Soldiers’ impact.

Finkel deserves a medal for living enough of the story to write it. And the U.S. Army deserves credit for allowing him the unfettered access to do so.

Here is the link to the book at Amazon, where it deservedly has 4.5 out of 5 stars across nearly 100 reviews.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Ultimate Niche Business

While on a business trip near Dallas, TX, I ran across what may be the ultimate niche business:

So if you are a Hun, and you are in the Dallas / Fort Worth metropolitan area, and you need a tailor, accept no substitutes.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Warrent Buffett versus The Efficient Market Hypothesis

My wife Jacqueline got her MBA from the University of Chicago, where the efficient market hypothesis (EMH) was religion. EMH says that in the long run, no one can beat the stock market because it is too efficient. An investor might beat the market for a year, or maybe several years, but that’s just luck.

This was the standard view at Chicago during Jacqueline’s time there, and it was well supported by data: The long-term performance of professional fund managers against market indexes was notoriously poor.

But there was always the standard challenge, “What about Warren Buffett?”

That challenge had its own standard reply: If you have enough investors, somebody like Buffett is inevitable—just like if you have enough people flipping coins, you’ll get someone who tosses twenty heads in a row.

It made sense at the time. However, this year Jacqueline was surprised to read about a debate held in 1984—well before her time at Chicago—that pitted an EMH advocate, University of Rochester Professor Michael Jensen, versus Buffett. The episode is recounted in Sebatian Mallaby’s More Money Than God.

Jensen presented the standard argument that Buffett was a random fluke. In response, Buffett continued Jensen’s line of thinking. He said that if 225 million people (then roughly the population of the United States) were in a coin-flipping contest to get the most heads in a row, 215 people should achieve 20 heads in a row by chance. Buffett then said that if those 215 people were randomly distributed, he would agree that chance was merely at work. But if a significant number of those people all had something rare in common—say, a specific coin-flipping technique—that would be a different situation. As Mallaby summarizes, “If you found that a rare cancer was common in a particular village, you would not put that down to chance. You would analyze the water.”

Buffett went on to argue that the few investors who beat the market over the long term were not randomly distributed. As evidence, he cited nine fund mangers, including himself, whose value-investing strategies descended from those of investor Ben Graham. As Mallaby writes:

Buffett insisted that he had not cherry-picked his examples; he was reporting the results of all Graham-Newman alumni for whom there were records and all the fund managers whom he had won over to the value-investing method. Without any exceptions, and without copying one another’s stock choices, each of Ben Graham’s heirs had beaten the market. Could this be simple fortune?

Buffett later converted his debate comments into an article, which has its own Wikipedia page. The page is perhaps most notable for its “Rebuttals” section, which suggests that academia has ignored, rather than rebutted, Buffett’s argument: “A 2004 search of 23,000 papers on economics revealed only 20 references to any publication by Buffett.”

Of course, EMH is about a model. A model can be wrong in some respects but right (or at least useful) in many other ways. Buffett’s challenge may have exposed some wrongness in EMH, as have more recent critiques from behavioral and complexity economics. Moreover, the financial crisis that started in 2007 further undermined EMH as a safe assumption. But a widely accepted, “less wrong” alternative to EMH has not emerged.

What has emerged is a questioning of standard views. Such questioning always existed—even at Chicago—in rarefied theory classes. But I suspect today’s equivalents of Jacqueline’s MBA classes have a little less of Jensen’s perspective and a little more of Buffett’s skepticism.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

America the Start-Up

I was reading William Goetzmann’s Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism, when I came across this:

Thanks to [the American revolutionary thinkers’] efforts, certain Enlightenment qualities or habits of mind became traditional American values. Among these were a reverence for principles, particularly individual liberty, a dedication to reason and the rational solution, a belief in order and at the same time constant change, a talent for practicality and down-to-earth political organization, a faith in learning, a sense of world responsibility and mission, and perhaps most important of all, an extreme and sensitive receptivity to new ideas, and a confidence in intellect.

Don’t those values seem similar to the best traits of great start-up companies?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Grading Teachers Based on Their Students’ Test Scores

In a tour de force of investigative journalism, The Los Angeles Times analyzed thousands of teachers’ performance over seven years, based on their students’ progress on standardized tests. Here are some key findings, quoted from the excellent lead article of a series:

  • Highly effective teachers routinely propel students from below grade level to advanced in a single year. There is a substantial gap at year’s end between students whose teachers were in the top 10% in effectiveness and the bottom 10%. The fortunate students ranked 17 percentile points higher in English and 25 points higher in math.
  • Some students landed in the classrooms of the poorest-performing instructors year after year — a potentially devastating setback that the district could have avoided. Over the period analyzed, more than 8,000 students got such a math or English teacher at least twice in a row.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the best teachers were not concentrated in schools in the most affluent neighborhoods, nor were the weakest instructors bunched in poor areas. Rather, these teachers were scattered throughout the district. The quality of instruction typically varied far more within a school than between schools.
  • Although many parents fixate on picking the right school for their child, it matters far more which teacher the child gets. Teachers had three times as much influence on students’ academic development as the school they attend. Yet parents have no access to objective information about individual instructors, and they often have little say in which teacher their child gets.
  • Many of the factors commonly assumed to be important to teachers’ effectiveness were not. Although teachers are paid more for experience, education and training, none of this had much bearing on whether they improved their students’ performance.

The analytical technique used is called a value-added analysis, explained in the article this way:

In essence, a student’s past performance on tests is used to project his or her future results. The difference between the prediction and the student’s actual performance after a year is the “value” that the teacher added or subtracted.

For example, if a third-grade student ranked in the 60th percentile among all district third-graders, he would be expected to rank similarly in fourth grade. If he fell to the 40th percentile, it would suggest that his teacher had not been very effective, at least for him. If he sprang into the 80th percentile, his teacher would appear to have been highly effective.

Any single student’s performance in a given year could be due to other factors — a child’s attention could suffer during a divorce, for example. But when the performance of dozens of a teacher’s students is averaged — often over several years — the value-added score becomes more reliable, statisticians say.

The Times quoted experts who said students’ test performance should not be the only way a teacher is evaluated, especially in high-stakes decisions like firing. Academic and government supporters of value-added analysis in education, including the Obama Administration, suggest that it comprise half a teacher’s evaluation.

Nevertheless, the president of the local teachers’ union responded, “You’re leading people in a dangerous direction, making it seem like you can judge the quality of a teacher by...a test.” The teachers’ union launched a boycott of The Times, asking the union’s members to cancel their subscriptions.

Bad response. Better would have been to respond like two low-scoring teachers did when interviewed by The Times. They said they want to use the data to help them improve. The Los Angeles Unified school district has always had the data, but never used it for teacher feedback.

That said, there are legitimate questions to be asked when teachers are rated largely by students’ scores on standardized tests. I know too many good teachers who say it forces teaching to the test, which leads to standardized, least-common-denominator teaching—not what comes to mind when you think “great teacher.” And of course no one wins if we create a generation of ace test-takers who lack any deeper understanding or motivation.

Acknowledging those concerns, I’d still say the lesson of The Los Angeles Times investigation is that its type of teacher-targeted analysis has merit. The questions are how to maximize such an analysis’ fairness, how to integrate it into a larger evaluation of a teacher, and how to avoid undesirable side effects like teaching only to the test.

In other words, we can argue about issues like how to choose the data, how to analyze it, and what decisions it should affect. But please let’s have those arguments rather than the one about whether test data should be used at all. If you ever had doubts, The Times series should put those to rest.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Fates of Wristwatches and Email

Earlier this week The New York Times had an article about Beloit College’s Mindset List for the Class of 2014: a set of observations about how college kids’ lifestyles and worldviews are changing.

Among the observations were, “With cell phones to tell them the time, there is no need for a wrist watch,” and “Email is just too slow.” (The observations came from a professor and a former public-affairs professional who divined and distilled the incoming class’s zeitgeist into statements like these.)

For me, the main point of interest was how the Times’ headline writer spun the story. The headline said, “For the Class of 2014, No E-Mail or Wristwatches,” as if email and wristwatches were fast becoming things of the past. Do you see the potential fallacy?

It is true that fewer people are wearing wristwatches for functional purposes, as opposed to fashion purposes. Because many college kids never wore a watch to begin with, their generation exemplifies this change. Fair enough.

But can we say the same for email? College and younger kids communicate primarily with family and friends. This type of informal communication has trended toward texting, instant messages, and quick updates via social networks. But when the Class of 2014 hits the working world, its members will find that, unlike a wristwatch, email is still a necessity. For many types of communications with customers and co-workers, email is not just expected but is still the best way to connect.

That said, instant messaging and social networking are finding places in the working world. In some cases, they are relieving email of duties it was never suited for, like rapid back-and-forth exchanges or quick updates. That is a real trend, but it does not amount to email going away any time soon.

So, the fact that the Class of 2014 isn’t into wristwatches and email is true on the surface, but leaving it at that is misleading. The reasons why—and the implications for the future of wristwatches and email—are different.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Lessons from “Million-Dollar Murray”

Million-Dollar Murray is a Malcolm Gladwell essay from 2006. The title character, Murray, was an actual homeless man whose alcoholism landed him in jail or the emergency room so often that he cost Nevada taxpayers one million dollars over ten years.

Murray was an extreme case, but that is Gladwell’s point: What would happen if we attacked a seemingly intractable problem like homelessness at the extremes, where the cost/benefit is obvious? That is, if taxpayers are paying $100,000 per year for the state to react to Murray’s problems, what could be done proactively for, say, $50,000? Rent him an apartment, pay for treatment, and get him close monitoring?

Gladwell recognizes the moral hazard: The worse Murray screws up his life, the more the state can justify spending on him. Although economically rational for the state, solutions like this...

...have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness [targeting only the part of the problem that is cost-effective to address] suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago-school cost-benefit analysis.

Gladwell explores this dilemma with his usual mix of masterful storytelling and data-mongering. The kicker is, the dilemma is not necessarily about the morality of homelessness. It’s about societal problems that are concentrated in a relatively small percentage of extreme cases. For homelessness, Gladwell cites research that only 10% of homeless people are chronically so, and a subset of those approach Murray’s level. Gladwell finds similar concentrations of extreme cases in police brutality and auto emissions. These issues have less moral complexity than homelessness, yet targeting the concentrated part of the problem is still the exception, not the norm. For auto emissions, it’s common to test all cars the same even when the vast majority, especially newer ones, are near-certain to pass. With police brutality, the tendency is to spread an even dose of reform across an entire police force rather than focus strong medicine on the relatively few offenders.

So, Million-Dollar Murray is less about Murray’s problems than about society’s dealing with a class of problems that Murray represents.

It’s Gladwell at his best. Check it out.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Two By David Grann

David Grann is a writer for The New Yorker. I like his work a lot. Here are a couple worthy reads:

  • The Mark of a Masterpiece” is a New Yorker piece about the world of art authentication: the people and processes that determine whether an old painting is a lost Leonardo or a worthless pretender. The difference may only be discernible by a small group of self-appointed experts—art historians, scientists, and others aspirants—who don’t necessarily agree. With millions of dollars riding on some judgments, the field is rife with intrigue, so much so that Grann’s survey evolves into a real-world detective story. By magazine standards, it’s a long read (maybe an hour’s worth), but it has the richness of an entire book.
  • The Lost City of Z is about a British explorer’s quest for the ruins of “Z,” an Atlantis of the Amazon. Circa the early 1900s, Percy Fawcett had superhuman survival abilities in uncharted jungles that routinely claimed those who entered. Yet even he eventually disappeared, searching for Z. Almost one hundred years later, Grann follows Fawcett’s life path, culminating in Grann’s own Amazonian search for Z and Fawcett’s fate. The book’s preface is here, so sample away.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Six Million Dollar Turkey?

A few days ago, Jacqueline and I were walking along a road in Vineyard Haven, on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. We had heard that wild turkeys roamed around, so we were not surprised to see one. It was about 50 feet away, under a tree.

To appreciate what the turkey did next, you need to know the 1970s television show The Six Million Dollar Man. In it, a man is retrofitted with “bionic” technology that gives him superhuman abilities. When he does a standing jump, he starts with a normal jumping motion, yet he keeps going up. It looks wrong because it violates what we know humans can do.

Since Jacqueline and I thought turkeys don’t fly, we had a Six Million Dollar Turkey moment when the one we saw launched itself straight up to a branch fifteen feet above, wings flapping. It’s a testament to the power of mental models that our initial thought was, “How did the turkey do that?

And only after, “I guess turkeys can fly.”

Subsequent research showed that wild turkeys can fly, not particularly far or high, but they can fly. The idea that turkeys are flightless comes from domesticated turkeys, the larger versions of which cannot fly.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Wisdom of Water Towers

Why do water towers exist? You pump water up into the tower, only to have it come back down before it goes to its destination. Why not save the up-down circuit and just pump straight to the destination?

This question arose a week ago on my family’s annual summer visit to a small town amid the Illinois cornfields. Out there all the towns have water towers. Here is why.

Towns have pumping stations that can pump water directly to homes and businesses. However, demand for water is not constant. Overnight water use is low, but demand peaks in the morning when people are showering and starting their days. Building a pumping station to handle the peak demand is inefficient because the pumping station would only use a small fraction of its capacity most of the day.

Enter the water tower. It allows a town to build a pumping station that handles only the average daily demand, using the water tower as a cache. When demand is low, such as overnight, the pumping station fills the tower. When peak demand occurs in the morning, the tower releases water. Gravity acts as a virtual pump, allowing the tower to augment the actual pumping station. (The water tower can also be a temporary substitute for the pumping station in case of maintenance or a power failure.)

Water towers are prominent features of midwest towns because the geography is flat. The only way to elevate the water to the necessary height is to use a tower. In more varied terrain, the equivalent of a water tower is a big tank on a hill. In an urban downtown with skyscrapers, tanks may be on the roofs.

Whatever the location, an elevated cache of water is a simple, effective idea.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Charter Cities

Sebastian Mallaby’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty (The Atlantic, July/August 2010) is an intriguing read on multiple levels. Here is the synopsis:

In the 1990s, Paul Romer revolutionized economics. In the aughts, he became rich as a software entrepreneur. Now he’s trying to help the poorest countries grow rich—by convincing them to establish foreign-run “charter cities” within their borders. Romer’s idea is unconventional, even neo-colonial—the best analogy is Britain’s historic lease of Hong Kong. And against all odds, he just might make it happen.

Because it’s the key to Romer’s thinking, I will quote the Hong Kong example at length:

For much of the 20th century, Hong Kong’s economy left mainland China’s in the dust, proving that enlightened rules can make a world of difference. By an accident of history, Hong Kong essentially had its own charter—a set of laws and institutions imposed by its British colonial overseers—and the charter served as a magnet for go-getters. At a time when much of East Asia was ruled by nationalist or Communist strongmen, Hong Kong’s colonial authorities put in place low taxes, minimal regulation, and legal protections for property rights and contracts; between 1913 and 1980, the city’s inflation-adjusted output per person jumped more than eightfold, making the average Hong Kong resident 10 times as rich as the average mainland Chinese, and about four-fifths as rich as the average Briton. Then, beginning around 1980, Hong Kong’s example inspired the mainland’s rulers to create copycat enclaves. Starting in Shenzhen City, adjacent to Hong Kong, and then curling west and north around the Pacific shore, China created a series of special economic zones that followed Hong Kong’s model. Pretty soon, one of history’s greatest export booms was under way, and between 1987 and 1998, an estimated 100 million Chinese rose above the $1-a-day income that defines abject poverty. The success of the special economic zones eventually drove China’s rulers to embrace the export-driven, pro-business model for the whole country. “In a sense, Britain inadvertently, through its actions in Hong Kong, did more to reduce world poverty than all the aid programs that we’ve undertaken in the last century,” Romer observes drily.

The article’s other main example, about a similar story from 12th-century Germany, is an interesting historical nugget by itself. However, the examples are there to illustrate that Romer’s idea is based on what has worked. The politically incorrect part is the implication that uncle rich country needs to be in charge for success to occur.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. Maybe you know the story of the fisherman who encounters a hungry man? If the fisherman gives the hungry man a fish, the man will still be hungry tomorrow. But if the fisherman teaches the hungry man to fish, the man can get his own fish ever after.

If that sounds more like charity than colonialism, it is. Think of Romer’s idea as Foreign Aid 2.0—informed by the experience of traditional foreign aid, which despite efforts to the contrary often failed to get beyond giving fish. In contrast, Romer’s approach is to transplant the equivalent of a fishing infrastructure, including the laws and experts to manage it.

It’s an audacious idea, susceptible to criticism from all quarters. There is an army of devils in the details, so much so that the idea may never get a real try. But Romer deserves huge credit for tackling a hard problem from a new angle.

The article is a worthy read.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sizing Up Nicholson Baker’s The Size of Thoughts

The Size of Thoughts is an essay collection by Nicholson Baker, originally published in 1996. The book caught my eye during a saccadic browse of a local bookshop. (Saccadic browse is the kind of phrase Baker might use, although I think that was me channeling him, rather than him verbatim.)

The essays vary in topic and style: Here we have a brief, folksy wedding speech; there we have an expansive elegy to libraries’ disappearing card catalogs—not the books; rather, the physical index cards and their enclosures.

My favorite essays were about model airplanes and nail clippers.

On the B-2 Stealth bomber: “[It] is beautiful from a distance, although in a worrisome, Transylvanian sort of way.”

On nail clipping:

When I want a really authentic experience, I sometimes use a toenail clipper on my fingernails, shuddering with the thrill of fulcrumed power; and then, for my toes, I step up to Revlon’s veterinary-gauge Nipper, a parrot-beaked personal-pruning weapon that, despite its chrome plate, looks as if it should be stored in the toolshed. A dense, semiopaque shard cut by this nineteen-dollar piece of spring-loaded Brazilian craftsmanship recently rose from what was left of my ravished toenail and traveled across the room, landing in a box of tax records, where it remains.

Later, still on the subject of nail clipping, Baker invites us to, “Think of the fearful Norse ship of the apocalypse, Nagflar, made of dead men’s nails, which will break loose from its moorings during the Monstrous Winter, when the Wolf has swallowed the Sun.” In that same paragraph, he goes on to note the connections with “a related Finno-Urgic tradition” and Lithuanian folklore.

It would take a lot more quoting to accumulate a representative sample of this book’s eclecticism. So I’ll summarize this way: You know the stereotype of the brilliant, mad scientist? Baker is like that, except he’s the mad librarian. He haunts the crevices of human knowledge for lenses that refract topics in unfamiliar ways—unless you are one of those people already dialed into the Finno-Urgic aspects of nail clipping.

With his deep dives into curio, Baker can be earnest, mischievous, funny, and wise. His prose is a demanding delight, its sprigs of wordcraft jutting out and about. (There I go trying to channel him again.)

His challenge, especially with the longer pieces, is staying on the right side of “satisfyingly obscure” versus “tediously obscure.” It’s a sliding scale, depending on the reader. I confess that I repeatedly surrendered to fatigue by minutia, and that’s saying something given my threshold—c.f., postings in the Pseudorandom category of this blog.

So, I don’t know if this book is for you. I don’t even know if it was for me. Let’s just say I respected it, with particular affection for a few essays.

However, one thing is clear: For anyone who takes wonder in humanity’s diversity of knowledge, Baker would be an endlessly interesting person to be around, provided you could keep him within hailing distance of what you think is interesting.

If you give The Size of Thoughts a try, may you meet him somewhere on that terrain.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Square with Four Circles: More Interesting Than It Sounds ;)

The image below looks like an orange design is superimposed on a photo, right?

Actually, the orange design is superimposed on the real world. It is painted on the left alley wall, the right alley wall, and the parking garage further away. The three parts do not touch, but from the end of the alley where the photo was taken—off Chapel Street between College and Temple in New Haven, CT—the parts form a convincing whole.

For the full effect of walking down the alley, this article has a video (highly recommended), plus additional background about the piece, Square with Four Circles by Felice Varini. He just finished it this past week. It will be up until 2011.

Thanks to Greg and Nina for pointing it out as we passed by.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Give Data, Get Stuff: Always Present and Evolving

Last week The New York Times had an article, Web Start-Ups Offer Bargains for Users’ Data, that started like this:

As concern increases in Washington about the amount of private data online, and as big sites like Facebook draw criticism that they collect consumers’ information in a stealthy manner, many Web start-ups are pursuing a more reciprocal approach — saying, in essence: give us your data and get something in return.

The article cites relative newcomers like Mint and WeShop, yet it omits that The New York Times itself was a pioneer in this practice circa 1997. The email address I registered with is from then, and I distinctly remember the ask for demographic data at the time.

Here is a third party’s description from 1998 of the Times’ registration process and rationale:

Registration to the New York Times online is free, although you do have to give a valid email address and you are asked some demographic questions like your age, sex and household income. This service, and many thousands of others on the Net, is free because you have paid for it with information about yourself. Personally identifiable information is rapidly becoming “coin of the realm” of the online world. Those “free” registrations are a barter of your information for a product.

It’s true that newer services like Mint are more direct in their use of your data on your behalf, but the idea of “give data to get stuff”—and the attendant privacy concerns—is not so much a new trend as an ever-evolving constant of the Internet age.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Congratulations, West Hartford!

My professional life is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I live in West Hartford, Connecticut. While everyone knows about the Bay Area’s qualities, I am pleased to see West Hartford on Kiplinger’s top 10 list for “Best Cities for the Next Decade.” A few snippets from the article:

  • “idyllic place to live and raise a family”
  • “regional destination for shopping and dining”
  • “two hours from both Boston and New York City”
  • “schools — both public and private — are the biggest draw for newcomers”

I am often asked what the Bay Area equivalent of West Hartford is. Imagine Palo Alto as a suburb of Sacramento. It’s something like that, albeit with more New England tradition than Bay Area tech.

Having lived in West Hartford for a few years, I can happily confirm it deserves Kiplinger’s praise.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Review: Dirt by David Montgomery

As the soil goes, the civilization goes. That is David Montgomery’s argument in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. He explains how numerous civilizations, from ancient times to the present, committed slow suicide by depleting their soil and other natural resources.

What happened to those first farmers, the Sumerians? They exhausted their soil, which in turn starved the army, which let rivals take over.

The overstretch and fall of the Roman Empire? Brought to you in part by the constant need to go further afield for farmland, as the soil closer to home eroded under intense cultivation.

Migration of Europeans to the New World? If you look at the waves of immigrants, they largely came according to when their own countries were running out of usable farm land.

Every time, the pattern is similar. When humans farm the land without regard to the soil, erosion becomes a problem. However, because the soil erodes gradually, over decades or centuries, no one deals with it. Instead, when it gets bad enough, the farmers just move somewhere else. At some point, it becomes impractical to continue moving or to acquire more land. Then things get ugly.

The ultimate case study is Easter Island, where the inhabitants depleted their key natural resources far below sustainability for the population, withering the local civilization.

Those aware of Jared Diamond’s Collapse will remember that story, and Dirt indeed shares much in common with Collapse. Both authors make the point that despite a popular view to the contrary, the golden age when all people lived in harmony with the land never existed. Modern and ancient civilizations alike have trashed their environments. However, not all have done so. There are examples of ancient and modern civilizations that practiced sustainable agriculture, using techniques like manuring and crop rotation.

Therein lies the hope of both books: that today’s civilizations can learn from the failures, and occasional successes, of past civilizations’ environmental approaches. In Dirt, Montgomery is upbeat about the rise of organic farming, at least in its original spirit of rotating diversified crops and using natural forms of fertilizer and pest control. However, he cautions, “California’s newly industrialized organic factory farms are not necessarily conserving soil. When demand for organic produce began to skyrocket in the 1990s, industrial farms began planting monocultural strands of lettuce that retained the flaws of conventional agriculture—just without the pesticides.”


...[the United States] government subsidizes conventional farming practices, whereas the market places a premium on organic produce....Over the past decade American farm subsidies averaged more than $10 billion annually. Although subsidy programs were originally intended to support struggling family farms and ensure a stable food supply, by the 1960s farm subsidies actively encouraged larger farms and more intensive methods of crop production focused on growing single crops. U.S. commodity programs that favor wheat, corn, and cotton create incentives for farmers to buy up more land and plant only those crops. In the 1970s and 1980s, subsidies represented almost a third of U.S. farm income. A tenth of the agricultural producers (coincidentally, the largest farms) now receive two-thirds of the subsidies.

Although Montgomery does not raise the issue, I wonder whether government subsidies could target “soil neutral” farming, similar to how incentives are emerging for “carbon neutral” businesses. The goal would be to channel innovation away from the farm as a factory that consumes its inputs (including soil) to the farm as a productive system that supports and is supported by its local ecology. Historically, market forces have not driven innovation in this direction because the return on investment is distant in time. But when you put things in terms of how we want to the leave the earth for our grandchildren—and how so many civilizations have unintentionally failed on this account—it’s worth asking how we can do better.

That is what Dirt is about. I’m not qualified to judge Montgomery’s historical analyses or his prescriptions for what to do, but he is making an important case. However, as a consciousness-raising exercise, the book can be a challenge because it wavers between textbook-like scientific detail and more accessible narrative. For those who want a seminar along with a story, that may be just right. Otherwise, Collapse may be the better bet. Either way, their subject matter is worth knowing about.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Engage and Persuade: San Francisco Cabbie Edition

I’d like to highlight a fine example of persuasive writing. It’s about an obscure topic, so the author needs a way to engage us. Here is how he starts.

After 25 years as a San Francisco cab driver, I’ve accumulated enough stories to yak my way through a dinner party: celebrities, hookers, a $103 tip, a hand­gun held to my head, and—the blockbuster—a $20,644.90 ride from the Golden Gate Bridge to the White House. But whenever I begin to tell my most important (but perhaps driest) tale, the one about how the mayor and a handful of transportation officials are working together to strong-arm a large fortune away from the cab industry, I notice eyes glazing over and hear minds switching channels. So tell you what: Hang with me for as long as a $10 cab fare might take, and next time you’re in my backseat, the ride’s on the house. Assuming my cab hasn’t been stolen out from under me. Deal?

The author, Brad Newsham, wants us on his side. But he knows we’re not up for a lecture on the issues. Instead he weaves the issues into a story about himself and his cabbie colleagues: They worked hard to succeed in San Francisco’s old system, where a long-time cabbie could earn a medallion to operate his or her own cab. With a medallion, the cabbie could make money not just from driving but also, when not driving, from renting the medallion to other drivers. This system...

...enabled hundreds of medallion holders to buy a home, put a kid through college, afford healthcare, or just relax a bit. Many senior drivers consider Prop K’s largesse the best break—often the only break—they’ve ever gotten. So, since I enjoyed the work, I shook off my inaugural mugging, cleaned up after the pukers, and just kept grinding, with that shiny medallion always dangling in the distance.

Shoulder to shoulder with me were hordes of other hopefuls, many of whom had clawed their way out of political or economic chaos in the developing world. Wondwossen had left Ethiopia after the Communist government killed hundreds of his friends. Moham­med, a former driver at the American Embassy in Kabul, had led his family on foot across the Hindu Kush just ahead of the Russian invasion. Ali had fam­ily living not far from the pyramids of Giza who still counted on his support.

While waiting, we cheered friends who summited the list. Adam’s medallion allowed him to take care of some much needed dental work. Mulugeta splurged on horse-riding lessons for his son. Gary, a lifelong baseball fan, bought a Giants’ season ticket. But not everyone made it: My friend Chris died of AIDS before achieving medallion status; Ron became a full-time teacher and dropped out of the hunt; Zareh was past 70 and nearing the top of the list when his cab was broadsided on Broadway by a drunk—he and a pas­senger died instantly.

Newsham uses the struggles and camaraderie of his fellow drivers to imply a larger camaraderie with the reader. This set-up is key because he then tells us the city of San Francisco wants to confiscate all the medallions and auction them to the highest bidder—which will be companies, not cabbies. How can that happen? Voters approved an ordinance that included, buried somewhere in the middle, a few lines that nobody noticed about changing the rules for cabs.

But Newsham doesn’t just tell us that. He puts it in terms of the cabbies and their connections to you:

San Franciscans have always had a soft spot for their cab drivers. We are the late-night ride home, occasional entertainment, the city’s unofficial ambassadors. The cab world is seen as foreign and vaguely exciting, and often as a potential backup strategy: If my life ever blows up, I can always drive a cab. So people hope we’re being treated decently. And if this new bill had not been conceived in darkness and disguised in camouflage gear (“Rescue Muni!” was a campaign rallying cry), it wouldn’t have had a chance. As is, it passed with the votes of only 15 percent of the electorate, most of whom had—and still have—no idea they were dynamiting the cab industry.

Please read the whole piece. It’s a case study for how a skilled writer can make something matter when, for the vast majority of people, it otherwise wouldn’t.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Owl Pellets Again?

Last week I wrote about the owl pellet economy, a random find so obscure I expected to never run across the topic again. But one week later, dear reader, I must report a second random, related encounter.

Sunday I was at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City, where I came across Alastair Mackie’s untitled (+/-):

Here is the description from the artist’s Web site:

over a period of one year barn owl pellets have been collected and processed in to their raw components of mouse fur and bone. the fur has been spun in to yarn and, with the use of a loom, the yarn has been woven in to a sheet of fabric. the skeletons have been left as a heap, the size of which correlates directly with the size of the sheet of material.

I trust that now—really—I have fulfilled my lifetime quota of owl pellet marginalia.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Owl Pellet Economy

I rarely click on ads in Gmail. But when I saw this...

Extra Large Owl Pellet -  - For the price of a regular In stock now

...I had to know if it was real. It is, which brings us to today’s lesson in unlikely reality: People buy owl pellets—that is, feces—to examine what the owls ate.

For example, $24 buys you item P41: “A Gallon of Possibilities: Small pellets and fragments, heat-treated and unwrapped. We found over 100 skulls in an average gallon.”

Don’t think it stops at pellets. There are cross-sells aplenty: pellet kits for the classroom, “bone sorting sheets,” posters, and videos.

And don’t think this purveyor of owl pellets is alone. The landing page says, “Anyone buying owl pellets has many choices. Just try searching ‘owl pellet’ and the options are baffling!”

Sure enough, a search for “owl pellets” has more than 100,000 results and 11 sponsored links. By comparison, I searched “ipod” and got 6 sponsored links.

So there you have it, the owl pellet economy. Someone tell Steve Jobs he’s addressing the wrong market.

[Postscript: Why did I receive the ad in the first place? The message that triggered the ad included an analogy about an entrepreneur friend’s taking a company “from the seed to the oak tree.” That’s the only thing remotely connected to owls or owl pellets. However, the fact I clicked the link rewarded Gmail’s wacky ad targeting. So if you start seeing owl pellet ads, it’s my fault for egging them on.]

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Privacy Noise

The press has always been eager to cover Internet privacy issues, rightly so. There are real threats to what most reasonable people would consider privacy. However, in its eagerness to find privacy angles on hot topics, the press sometimes generates privacy noise.

For example, Thursday’s USA Today (4/15/2010, Money section) had an article titled, “Library of Congress plans to archive Twitter posts.” The subtitle was, “Privacy concerns raised, but tweets offer slice of history.”

Despite the subtitle’s foreboding, the privacy angle gets a total of one paragraph, buried in the middle of the article:

The idea of archiving public tweets might be unsettling to Twitter users like Naomi Reagan, 28, a social-media marketer in San Francisco who worries others may shy away from Twitter over privacy concerns. Direct messages and tweets deemed private by their authors will not be archived, Twitter says.

Now, some context: Twitter is a global system for publicly broadcasting short messages. The default behavior is that anyone can “follow” the messages of anyone else. Public Twitter messages are already searchable on Google, Bing, and Twitter itself. The Library of Congress plans to archive those same messages. How is that a privacy concern?

Predictably, the article fails to define what the concern is. In fact, the person referenced is not concerned for her own privacy; she is concerned that, in some unstated way, other people will be concerned.

To casual readers, articles like this come across as, “Here’s another cool Internet development, but there are privacy concerns.” It’s a familiar refrain. But when everything comes with vague privacy concerns, the things that merit real privacy concerns won’t stand out.

For example, another story from this week was about the U.S. government’s request for access, without search warrants, to certain Yahoo Mail user accounts. While the government had arguments for its position, from which it backed down, major privacy issues were obviously at stake, the kind that concerned citizens should understand no matter what side of the issue they end up on.

Yet I suspect the Yahoo Mail story was, to most people, just more privacy noise. And that’s the problem.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Review: Scott Patterson’s The Quants

In the past twenty years, “quant” hedge funds like Renaissance, Citadel, and AQR each came to manage tens of billions of dollars, consistently beating the market. They did so using mathematical models and fast computers. But with the recent financial crisis, their winning formulas went bad in ways that weren’t supposed to be possible.

Scott Patterson’s The Quants tells this story by following the careers of several quant luminaries: Jim Simons (Renaissance), Ken Griffin (Citadel), Cliff Asness (AQR), Peter Muller (Morgan Stanley’s Process-Driven Trading group), and Boaz Weinstein (Deutsche Bank’s Saba group). They rose to prominence in the 1990s and 2000s, yet they all followed in the footsteps of Ed Thorp, a professor who wrote the original quant playbook Beat the Market in the late 1960s. Thorp went on to succeed with his own quant funds, starting in the mid 1970s. However, he got out of the game in 2002, citing the dramatic increase in the number of new quant funds all plying the same strategies.

Thorp saw that an increasingly crowded field caused everyone to take more risk to maintain their returns. And indeed as the party continued, the use of leverage—borrowing money to make bigger bets—increased. Despite the leverage-fueled implosion of Long Term Capital Management, one of the largest quant funds at the time of its demise in 1998, the quants thought their models were accurate enough to manage the risk of additional leverage. That seemed to be true through the mid-2000s. The leading quants kept winning, even as the market slumped.

A reporter at The Wall Street Journal, Patterson captures the quant heydays with details like Griffin’s Paris wedding, where he rented out the Palace of Versailles. Patterson also illuminates the power shift that was happening out of the spotlight:

By the early 2000s, [Morgan Stanley’s Process-Driven Trading group] had become so successful that it commanded the largest proprietary trading book in Morgan Stanley’s mammoth equities division. Its traders were treated like hothouse flowers, allowed to ditch the standard attire of an investment bank—the bespoke suits, the polished Italian leather shoes, the watch worth more than a minivan. Traditional bankers at Morgan started sharing elevators with slacker nerds in ripped jeans, torn T-shirts, and tennis shoes. Who the hell are these guys? When queried, PDTers would respond vaguely, with a shrug. We do technical stuff, you know, on computers. Quant stuff.

“Whatever,” the banker would say, adjusting his Hermes tie. Little did the banker realize that the nerdy slacker made ten times his bonus the previous year.

Then came August 2007, when everything went wrong. Although the public stock market did not notice, quant hedge funds were feeling, then feeding, the beginning of a financial crisis. When the subprime mortgage market started collapsing, some major hedge funds were caught highly leveraged in subprime. Because of hedge funds’ lack of transparency, it’s still unclear who these funds were or even if they were quant funds. Whoever they were, they were in trouble: They had borrowed much more than they actually owned, and all of it was underwater and sinking fast. They needed to quickly generate cash to pay back the borrowing, but their subprime assets were no longer worth much. Thus, they needed to find the cash elsewhere.

At least one major fund found the cash by liquidating its quant fund’s non-subprime positions—that is, positions that still had value. However, this sell-off tripped the trigger of many other quant funds that had taken similar (non-subprime) positions. Because these other funds were also highly leveraged, their models told them to sell too.

In other words, a large hedge fund, possibly several large hedge funds, was imploding under the weight of toxic subprime assets, taking down the others [who were not necessarily into subprime] in the process, like a massive avalanche started by a single loose boulder. All the leverage that had piled up for years as quant managers crowded into trades that increasingly yielded lower and lower returns—requiring more and more leverage—was coming home to roost.

Patterson follows the various players through the fire, where a daily loss could be $100 million. Into early 2008, some funds had lost more than half their value—a wipe-out that would have been beyond contemplation, until it happened. Patterson dutifully includes appearances by a few outsiders who saw the train wreck coming, such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb. They were only taken seriously after the fact.

The book concludes in 2009, with the various players mostly back on their feet, making money again like before. Although you might infer good or bad from this, the main point is that it just is. The quants were a key part of the financial crisis because they had become a key part of Wall Street. They had become a key part of Wall Street because what they were doing—at least what the most successful of them were doing—worked. When things went bad, the quant world’s (more generally, the hedge-fund world’s) lack of transparency contributed to the financial meltdown. But as Patterson illustrates above, many quant funds were side-swiped by the subprime mess, as opposed to being perpetrators of it.

Thus, it is not a surprise that the previously successful quants returned with the overall market; a few even posted major gains well ahead of the overall market’s recovery.

That said, beyond the big players profiled in the book, The Quants largely ignores the rest of the quant-fund crowd. It also does not address whether the returns across all quant funds were any higher than market averages during the heyday or during the 2007-2008 bust. We’re left to wonder, are the book’s stars just outliers who happen to be using quant strategies, or is there something about quant strategies that has proved—no pun intended—quantitatively better overall?

Quibbles aside, The Quants is a good read, a page-turner almost. It’s not deep technically, even by popular-business standards. Instead, it leans on the big stakes, the big personalities, and the extreme events of the recent financial crisis to document quantdom’s rise and effect on Wall Street.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

iPad: It’s Not Your Father’s Apple II

Amid the rapturous anticipation of Apple’s iPad, a line of discontent has emerged from several notable techies. They recall their formative years as teenagers tinkering with Apple IIs: You could take ’em apart, hack the software, and learn-by-doing without restriction.

That openness let many kids make the jump from personal-computer consumers—playing games on their Apple IIs—to creators who could make their own games. Many of those kids went on to create software, services, and companies in the Internet era.

Now middle-aged, the concerned techies see the iPad as a squandered opportunity to spark the next generation’s imagination. You can’t open it, you can’t hack it, and you can’t put your own apps on it unless they’ve been approved by Apple. To make the iPad safe for grandma to use, Apple has shut out the kids who will be tomorrow’s creators!

That’s the spirit of the critique. But even as someone who fits the concerned techies’ profile—having spent my early teens hacking an Exidy Sorcerer (an Apple II niche competitor)—I don’t agree.

Here’s why: The iPad versus Apple II comparison implies a limitation, as if today’s teens won’t be able to do what we did in the past because of the iPad. But we no longer live in a world where the Apple II (or iPad) is your only computer. Its capabilities do not determine your fate.

If you are a kid with any proclivity toward exploring computers—and let’s face it, that proclivity was necessary for the early PC teens too—you can just buy a PC and run Linux. That is today’s equivalent of exploring Apple II-era PCs, except the cost is lower, there’s a lot more software (not to mention that newfangled Internet thing), and it’s better documented. And if you’ve got the money for an iPad, you almost certainly have that PC already.

John Gruber has suggested that a better comparison might be the iPad versus the Atari 2600. That is, the average kid with an Apple II also had an Atari 2600 game console, the latter being a closed, dedicated gaming computer. So even back then, it was not “this or that”; it was “this and that.”

Thirty years later, it’s more like “this and that and that and that,” and so on. However, one thing hasn’t changed. Kids with that proclivity toward computers, who want to understand the inner workings, will always find their way to something that lets them explore. It may not be the iPad, but that’s okay. Today’s teens still have many more options than we ever did to find their own ways into computers, as deep as they want to go.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Common Sense versus the Uncommon Situation

When I was starting my career at SRI, I was roped into being on the Emergency Action Team. I had a white helmet with “EAT” on it.

During EAT training, I learned of the hierarchy. I and a few others were at the bottom. In an emergency we were supposed to get people to a designated place. There we would meet the next person up the hierarchy. That person would not only have an EAT helmet but also a walkie talkie. From the walkie talkie would come instructions from the next level up the hierarchy.

I was surprised to learn the designated place was inside the building. I asked our building’s EAT chieftain what I should do if, given a blaring alarm, people did the common-sense thing of heading for the exits. To which he replied: “Common sense is a bad thing in an uncommon situation. Your job is to get them away from the exit and to the designated place.”

“Is there really any harm in people just going outside?”

“If there’s a sniper on the roof, then yeah, there might be some harm.”

Monday, March 22, 2010

Worm Grunting

File this under “I learned something today”: Worm grunting is the practice of luring earthworms out of the ground.

Per Wikipedia, worm grunting “generally refers to the use of a ‘stob,’ a wooden stake that is driven into the ground, and a ‘rooping iron’ which is used to rub the stob.” That’s in contrast to worm fiddling, which “also uses a wooden stake but utilises a dulled saw which is dragged along its top.”

The Wikipedia article goes on to note, “Techniques vary from sprinkling the turf with water, tea and beer to acupuncture, music or just ‘twanging’ with a garden fork. In some organized competitions, detergents and mechanical diggers have been banned.”

Here is a brief video on the subject.

And for those wondering how I came to know about worm grunting...

I was trying What Do You Suggest?, a site that shows Google’s suggested topics given an initial letter or word. I clicked for a random word and got worm. Out of the suggestions, grunting immediately caught my eye. In turn, its suggestions looked like this:

That prompted a few minutes’ additional research on Wikipedia and Google, which led to this posting.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Jason Roberts’ A Sense of the World

In A Sense of the World, Jason Roberts makes the case that James Holman was the greatest traveler not just of his time, in the 1800s, but of all time before then. On his own funds and initiative, Holman covered at least 250,000 miles. If that was not remarkable enough, Holman was blind.

As Roberts sums up Holman’s achievements:

He could claim a thorough acquaintance with every inhabited continent, and direct contact with at least two hundred distinctly separate cultures....Alone, sightless, with no prior command of native languages and with only a wisp of funds, he had forged a path equivalent to wandering to the moon.

Roberts reconstructs Holman’s time and travels with a vivid narrative style. The hero makes Roberts’ job easier by being continuously remarkable: learning to ride a horse by echolocation, playing politics with Queen Elizabeth, getting thrown out of Siberia by the Russian czar, and (literally) so on.

Along with drawing on Holman’s own writings, Roberts deftly taps other original sources and literature for additional color, such as this comment from the time about Edinburgh’s polluted air: “you might smoke bacon by hanging it out the window.”

I liked the book a lot, but recognizing that the subject matter is well off the beaten path, I suggest you test-drive this short excerpt at the author’s site. You will know quickly whether A Sense of the World is for you.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Copy and Paste Provenance

In today’s New York Times, Public Editor Clark Hoyt, wrote about a recent case of alleged plagiarism by a Times reporter. Here is the explanation of how the plagiarism happened:

[The reporter] said he would copy stories from wires, paste them into a file in the editing system, verify the information and then put the material in his own words. At least, he said, that is what he intended to do. When I asked him how he could fail to notice that he was copying someone else’s work, he added further explanation: He said the raw material in the computer files in which he assembled his stories included not only reports from other sources but also context and background from previous articles that he had written himself. When putting it all together, he said, he must have thought the words he copied were his own, earlier ones. “It was just my carelessness in trying to get it up quickly,” he said.

It seems like those accused of plagiarism often have this explanation. Hoyt goes on to note...

The explanation was similar to one offered only days earlier by Gerald Posner, a reporter for The Daily Beast, who was caught by Jack Shafer of Slate cribbing sentences from The Miami Herald. Posner, who resigned after even more plagiarism was found, also said that he did not do it intentionally. He said he had poured all his research — interviews, public documents, published articles — into a master electronic file and then boiled it into an article under tight Web deadlines, a process that led to disaster.

This isn’t just about reporters cranking out stories on deadline. You might also recall historian Doris Kearns Goodwin had a similar explanation for her appropriation, without quotes, of another author’s verbiage in one of Goodwin’s books.

In all these cases, the explanation is more believable than not. The benefit of copying was minimal yet the cost, upon detection, was high.

What these people needed was a special copy-and-paste mode that retains the provenance of the copied text. That is, every piece of copied text would automatically say what document or URL it came from. Especially for an organization like The Times, which apparently has its own dedicated “editing system,” making such a feature available (or perhaps mandatory) seems like a good idea.

And for the rest of us who use Microsoft Word or Google Docs’ word processor, maybe it’s an option we will see someday too.