Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Four Somes Rule

Musing about reports on educational reform and progress.  My interest dates back to high school when "Why Johnny Can't Read" was a best seller and concern about education shortfalls skyrocketed after Sputnik went up.  More recently Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler, Megan McArdle, and Kevin Drum have often commented on reforms. 

I've come up with the "four somes" rule: some teachers in some institutions using some techniques can effectively teach some pupils.  The implication is some pupils won't learn,some teachers can't teach, some techniques don't work, and some institutions are the pits.  But innovations in one place will work some of the time, but may not apply across the board.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Guantanamo: 1800 for 40?

According to recent reports there are now 40 prisoners left in Guantanamo, an installation which has 1800 personnel.  The way the Times report was worded it sounded like therywere all military and all devoted to the prison but that seems absurd.

If the facts are true, in my opinion we should either do as Obama wanted, move the prisoners to max security prisons in the US which presumably wouldn't require extra personnel at all.  Or, if you don't like that, let's just release the prisoners.  They've been detained for 17 years. 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Wittes on Mueller

"I see a group of people for whom partisan polarization wholly and completely defeated patriotism. I see a group of people so completely convinced that Hillary Clinton was the enemy that they were willing to make common cause with an actual adversary power at a time it was attacking their country to defeat her. To me, it matters whether the conduct violated the law only in the pedestrian sense of determining the available remedies for it—and in guiding whether and how we might have to change our laws to prevent such conduct in the future. 

Ben Wittes on Mueller

Friday, April 26, 2019

Taxes--the Rise of Intermediaries

There have long been tax-preparation services.  H&R Block was an early one.  One of the brothers who founded the firm, Henry Bloch, died recently.  His obituary in the Post says this:
business boomed in the mid-1950s as the Internal Revenue Service began discontinuing its free tax-preparation services, and the Bloch brothers began advertising their discount tax service in a local paper.
Who knew the IRS once did returns for free?  Now of course H&R Block is one of the firms lobbying Congress to be sure that IRS doesn't resume the service,.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Slaves in the North

Discussing with a relative the existence of slavery in the North.

I mentioned the idea/fact that New England settlers sometimes swapped Indian slaves (captured in war, particularly IIRC King Philips War) for black slaves by sending the former to British Caribbean colonies.   

On a  practical if very cynical basis, it makes sense.  Society recognized that when you won a war people were part of the booty.  Women to rape, men to work as slaves if they weren't killed.  (No conventions about treatment of prisoners of war back then.) But the problem with captures in the wars between the colonists and the Native Americans was it was relatively easy for the captives to escape and return to their people.  White colonists often did this, so would Native Americans.  The practical answer was to ship your war captives away to someplace where they were foreigners, where society was foreign.

(I suspect some part of the dynamic accounting for the capture and sale of black slaves to the slave traders was similar.  Keep your captives with you as slaves and they escape; sell them to the European trader who could provide weapons, etc. and it was a win.  Not for the slave.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Fruits of the Garden

Got my first planting in the garden in around March 15.  Spent a lot of time last fall trying to get spinach started and thriving.  Now we're being inundated with spinach (fall) and scallions (spring) and the spring lettuce is now big enough to eat the thinings.  

Thinking about my garden got me wondering about the White House garden.  Turns out it's still in operation, and you can tour it, though you've missed the spring one. You can see photos at Instagram, whatever that is, although very few of the photos there show the vegetable garden.  Here's one, though.  I suspect neither Melania nor Barron spend much time there--the regularity of the planting suggests a good Park Service bureaucrat is caring for it.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Thanks for a Beautiful Day

Today was about perfect: sunny, low 80's, low humidity, the trees are green.

The garden is doing well, although we've got a surplus of spinach from the plants which over-wintered and over which I sweated last fall.

I'm in no mood to discuss Trump, or impeachment, or bureaucracy.


Monday, April 22, 2019

The Proliferation of Popular Culture References

My wife and I subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime and watch regularly.  Maybe I'm just feeling out of it these days, but it seems to me there are more and more popular culture references in what we're watching, more and more of which I don't get.

Sometimes it's musical, which since I've not kept up with popular music since the Beatles it's understandable I'll miss them.  Often it's what critics like to call "homages" or "call-outs" to other programming.  Those I miss as well.

I think it's "Billions", the third season of which we just finished, which made me particularly aware of this.  It's possible it's just the writers of that show who are especially into references to other pieces of popular culture, but it seems more pervasive.  Although there are fewer directors' commentaries these days now that Netflix is shifting from DVD's to streaming, they're another way I become conscious of things I'm missing.

It seems a logical trend in our culture: the more time people spend watching and listening, the more likely creators will cross-reference things.  I suspect the trend also means fewer references to the older sources of reference material: the classics and the Bible. 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Continuing Effects of the Irish Potato Famine

Stumbled across a piece on the Irish potato famine.  Its effects varied in different parts of the island, hitting particularly hard in the south and west, areas which were much more dependent on the potato and had fewer other resources.

While many died and many left, others moved within Ireland, moving north and east to Belfast and Dublin.  For the former, the writer observed that where Belfast used to be almost entirely Protestant, because of the internal migrants being Catholic it became a more divided place. (I'm not sure whether Catholics also moved to other places in Ulster.)  Those divisions led to the "Troubles" of the last pat of the 20th century, which led to the importance of the peace agreement in British and Irish politics, which led to the Brexit conundrum   Incidentally, it reminds me of the anecdote about the horse who get hung up jumping a fence.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Dilemma of Trump's Appointees

The Mueller report has shown the tightrope which Trump's appointees must walk, particularly in the case of Don McGahn.  It's a question of how far you go in appeasing your boss, versus compromising your own ethics. 

As an ex-bureaucrat who had some people among my superiors whom I didn't much respect, I've some empathy for the McGahns of the current administration.  That perhaps leads me to undeserved sympathy for AG Barr.  He's gotten criticism for his summary of the Mueller report, spinning the conclusions to be the most favorable to his boss.  That's deserved.  But we need to remember that he did succeed in getting the Mueller report released, although with redactions.  That's not something I would have predicted back when he was nominated.  It's possible he regards the release as serving the public interest, a release important enough to justify his tactics in getting the release past his boss.  (Will Trump start blasting Barr for the release?  Maybe.)

Vertical Integration for Dairy?

A comment in this twitter thread suggested that some form of vertical integration would be coming for the dairy industry, as it has for poultry and hogs.

That makes sense to me.  Dairy is under more and more pressure--the other day I found not 3 but 5 thermos of "milk" at the Starbucks counter--to the usual nonfat, milk, and half and half they'd added soy and another "milk" which I forget now.  

With the divorcing of cows from pasture and the proliferation of robotic milkers the capital cost is only going up.  

And finally there seems to be closer ties between outlets, like Walmart, and their suppliers. 

Maybe another 15 or so years there will be only smaller, "truly organic" dairies feeding a niche market and perhaps encouraging tourists who experience nostalgia, and the big operations with 5 digits worth of cows.  

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Answer Is Google, Always Google

Supposedly intelligent people still aren't current with the modern world.  Two instances:

  1. Mr. Kushner tried to find out the name of the Russian ambassador to the US (that's in the Mueller report) in late 2016.  So he called someone who might know.  
  2. Scott Adams tweeted out a reward of $100 to the first person who could tell him how to change the footnotes in a Word document from "i, ii, iii..." to "1, 2, 3".
In both cases simply typing the question into Google would have produced the answer in a matter of seconds.

I hope our young are learning this lesson better than their seniors (both of whom could be my children, God forbid).

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Score One for Neustadt

One conclusion from the Mueller report is that prof. Neustadt, author of the classic book on Presidential Power, wins again.

His thesis was that presidential power was not automatic, not like starting a car and driving it, but it was a matter of respect and reputation.  Certainly Trump has little of either, hence his attempts at obstruction were foiled by resistance of his subordinates to carrying out his orders.  Nixon had his "Germans", Erlichman and Haldeman, who'd carry out his orders.  Not so Trump.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Paul Coates

I followed  the blog Ta-Nehisi Coates hosted for several years and read his first book, a memoir.  So I found this interview with his father quite interesting, particularly as he's about my age.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Controlled Environment Agriculture

Quartz has this entitled "The Urban Farming Revolution has a fatal flaw. (see the source at the end of this post).

I'm sorely tempted to write "I told you so", since I've been skeptical of vertical farming and similar efforts in cities.   On a fast read it seems the drawbacks are: cost of urban real estate, cost of energy for lighting, low nutritional content of the greens usually grown, and the premium prices charged.  The study was of New York City "controlled environment agriculture" (CEA) farms, which gives me a new term for a label. 

I would think some of the factors are more serious than others.  Roof top farming in NYC might be susceptible to competition from other uses, like leisure  and recreation  I'm not clear how much cheaper and more efficient LED lights can be, but I'm hesitant to rule out further innovation.  The ability and willingness of people to pay premium prices is likely growing.

In a larger sense, CEA is what farmer have been doing since the dawn of agriculture: arrtificially changing the environment  for plants and animals to grow faster, better, more disease free, etc. etc.  Outside the city it looks as if "precision agriculture" (PA) is the approach taken. 

Will the CEA and PA sets of innovation start to merge at some point?  Stay tuned.

Source: Goodman et. al. “Will the urban agricultural revolution be vertical and soilless? A case study of controlled environment agriculture in New York City.” Land Use Policy. 2019.
This piece was originally published on Anthropocene Magazine, a publication of Future Earth dedicated to creating a Human Age we actually want to live in.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Community Effects: Measles Versus Eastern High

The outbreaks of measles have focused attention on community effects.  When a high percentage of the community has been vaccinated, there's herd immunity--the virus can't maintain itself.  So the choices made by individual families affect the whole community.

By chance the Post Sunday had a good article on the choice faced by a white family on Capitol Hill  Their teenage daughter was in an integrated DC intermediate school,but now is facing the decision of which high school to attend.  Does she go to Eastern, the local high school, almost entirely black (like the intermediate school) with known problems and the possibility it's on the upswing, or travel across town to a selective public high school.

On the one hand the daughter gets greater certainty of a good and challenging education with less risk of a bad experience; on the other hand she might be missing a unique experience and, more importantly, she contributes a bit to the community effect.

Recent research on upward mobility has shown the importance of community effects: the better the community by our customary standards (two-parent families, etc.) the better everyone does, particularly the poor. 

I'm not an anti-vaxer, but I think it's true a measles vaccination carries a risk, a very small risk, to the individual. But the risk to the individual is outweighed by the benefits to the community if everyone gets vaccinated, or at least in the neighborhood of 95+ percent.  So I've no problem in saying the individual should be vaccinated, and mandatory vaccination laws are good.  But why would I, and the liberal parents of the daughter in the Post article, hesitate to require her to attend her neighborhood school?  I think the answer is the probable cost to the individual is much higher and the probable benefit to the community, in the absence of many others in the same situation is minimal, meaning the tradeoff is unfair.

While that calculus seems to be convincing, it leaves the $64,000 question of how do we get positive community effects: how do you get a herd, a crowd, all moving in the same positive direction?

Saturday, April 13, 2019

On Recognizing Faces

Saw a piece in the Post about people remembering when schools in Arlington integrated. Several interesting points, but I liked this one:
"He chuckled as he recalled his reaction to so many new faces. “The only white kids I knew were the families on TV, like ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ ” he said. “They talk about all black people look alike? It took me months to distinguish one white face from another.”
IMHO facial recognition is a combination of experience and capability--that's my story..  I regard myself as having problems with both, so it's reassuring when I find others have similar problems, confirming my narrative.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Samuelson and Education

He concludes education programs have failed, because they haven't changed the gaps between ethnic  groups.

Logically it's possible that they've been successful, in that in their absence the gap would have widened.  It's possible over 60 years the amount of knowledge to be imparted has increased a bit.  A simile: education is like rowing a boat up a river.  Over the years we may have improved the oars, gotten the rowers more fit, etc., but meanwhile the flow of water down the river has increased, so the boat stays in roughly the same place.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Corporate Transparency: Canadians Are Ahead of Us

This article shows that at least one Canadian province is going where the US ought to be (and FSA is getting to):  recording the real people behind paper entities.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Do Toads Climb?--One of Life's Mysteries Solved

Was cleaning oak leaves out of one of our window boxes when doing so revealed a stone, rather slivery in appearance.  Strange, I thought, I've only put potting soil in the box in the past so how did a stone get there?

Looked closer and found it wasn't a stone, but a toad, immobile.  That's even stranger, I thought--how the hell did a toad get there as the window box is 8 feet or so off the ground.  Dropped by a bird, maybe, and finding refuge under the leaves?

Anyway, I cleaned out the leaves, realizing the toad would then have no hiding place from hawks or whatever and no cover from the sun, which is getting stronger.  So I got an empty plastic seedling pot and put it on its side in the window box.

An hour later the toad had retreated to the pot, so I could put my hand over the top and carry toad and pot outside and release it.

It turns out toads of various kinds can climb, some are tree toads and some just plain garden toads.

Virginia even has a society devoted to amphibians.

I'm going to say my  "toad" is this guy:

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Good for IRS

In the midst of a not very good week, I was pleased by an IRS website.

It turns out that you can get your old tax returns from IRS, or at least the data from them, in case your house burns down or computer file systems crap out on you.  To do so you go to an IRS website which gives you options: online, phone, or mail.  I of course chose on-line and was impressed by the process.  They obviously require data to confirm you're who you say you are, but the process of getting it is easy and well-thought out.  (The only glitch was they weren't able to recognize a smartphone using Google FI--I assume there's a semi-valid reason for that.)  You end up creating an on-line account, which judging by the username which was available isn't all that well patronized.

If I had any ambition left after this week I'd suggest to Sec. Mnuchin that he have Treasury Direct scrap their log-in system, which hasn't changed for years, and have them use the IRS system.

I might write my Congressional delegation telling them I deeply oppose the legislation which would ban the IRS from creating a free online tax system, as reported by ProPublica.  I'm almost tempted to support Sen. Warren for president, since she proposes to beef up IRS. 

Friday, April 05, 2019

Combining Organizations

I tend to think of the outcome of two organizations combining as based on physics, sort of like two objects in space.  An asteroid colliding with the earth doesn't affect the earth's path through space much at all.  Why shouldn't the same be true of two companies, like Perdue and Niman Ranch, which combined a few years ago.

Turns out humans aren't solid brainless objects, at least not always.  John Johnson has an interesting piece on the results of the combination of a big poultry producer and a smaller organic venture.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Have I Lived Too Long

I confess these are two developments I never expected to see:
  • a vegan burger from a fast-food chain (as it turns out, more than one such chain). BurgerKing
  • a country which buys more electric vehicles than conventional.(Norway, which will in a few years, and they have cold weather, too.)
But I hope to live long enough to see even more surprising things. 

Monday, April 01, 2019

Laws Aren't Self-Executing

My title is, I think, obviously true.  But just to recap:

  • some laws are enforced by a bureaucracy, the police or an executive agency which can invoke legal sanctions, fines or imprisonment after due process.
  • some laws are enforced by opposing parties which can file civil suits accusing their opposition of violating a legal provision.
  • some "laws" are applied by one part of a bureaucracy against the bureaucrats within it
Most laws rely on voluntary compliance; people incorporate their understanding of law and justice into their consciences and abide by it, until it becomes too inconvenient or their understanding of the situation or of law changes.  That means that the bureaucracies and the civil lawsuits mostly serve as backups, at least in most "advanced" countries.

But that leaves a hole--it's difficult to enforce laws on heads of bureaucracies, the top level who set policy and who therefore supervise those who are charged with enforcing the laws.  

We deal with that hole in two ways in the US: 
  1. each agency (i.e. cabinet department) has an inspector general who's independent of the heads of the subordinate units  
  2. each agency has Congressional committees and the GAO (which works for Congress) with oversight responsibility.  
That still leaves the big hole at the top of the government: enforcing the President's compliance with laws.  This Just Security article discusses a big one--the Presidentiall Records Act.  The Act is part of the overall structure of rules on government records, none of which get much respect.  NARA can try to enforce the rules on the agencies, but as the article discusses there's no way, outside of politics, to ensure the President follows the rules.