Saturday, March 31, 2007

Educational Shibboleths and Sound Policy

For some reason educational policy seems especially prone to the Shibboleth of the hour. Let me offer three examples.

#1 - No Child Left Behind - Everyone recognizes that the K-12 system is not as good as it should be with the range of children that are served by the American higher education system. There are tons of comparisons. Data from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that most of the other developed nations do a better job than the US in giving students a basic drilling in key subjects - the other countries (except perhaps Portugal and Mexico) are better at basic indicators of math skills (which leads to engineering proweress). We are not as good as we should be in getting the broadest range of kids to appropriate levels of higher math. Writing is also not a skill. A lot of that, it seems to me, comes from an increased industrialization of K-12 (the imposition of teacher unions has rigidified the administration of K-12 into a series of policy kabukis that are disfunctional). The response, at least since the beginning of the Bush administration, has been to increase outcomes measurements. That standardizes education to a national set of goals. But it is really not that simple. Hayek warned that the dangers of using numbers in economics is that we may be counting the wrong things. It seems to me that NCLB has the same defect.

#2 - Occupational and Non-traditional students in higher education - The US Department of Education released a report last week that suggested that 55% of the total students in higher education were occupational in focus. That has helped to begin to redefine how students pursue education after high school. Only an idiot would pursue a degree which trained them for their first job. We need more engineers and people in technical fields but getting students to simply focus on their first career is short-sighted. What should we do with all the people who trained to be key punch operators in the 1980s?
A second concern in this area came from a discussion last week. Increasingly, as we think about higher education a good percentage of the students are "non-traditional." But that should not blind our vision. A non-traditional student is over 22. We know that in many states that the demographics will create an increased demand for traditional aged students based on the bulge that is often called Tidal Wave II. So is the right policy to argue that we should increasingly concentrate on students who are outside those curves or those within the traditional bands of college attendance? If we reduce our commitment to 18 year olds a couple of things happen. First, we begin (as we have in the last couple of years) to see a decline in the full time attendance of all students, which in turn reduces the efficiency of higher education. There are basically two types of non-traditional students. The first are students who are returning to higher education for whatever reason at an age above the traditional college age population - many of those students are enhancing their skills either with an initial or a supplemental degree. Part time students are not as successful in completing their programs but they also have more resources to bring to bear on their educations than traditional college age students. The second are students who dropped out in their first try and are going back to complete a degree.
In both cases, it seems to me that public policy would benefit from focusing resources on traditional age students. The data is pretty unequivical. In the last decade the college going rate for traditional students, especially males, has declined. We are lousy at encouraging 18 year olds, especially Latino and Black males, to go to college on the first bounce. That is a costly error.
By increasing our attention to non-traditional students we are likely to allow these trends to continue. In the long term that is silly policy. A fundamental question that we should always ask is what is different about a college student from the same person and age who is not a student. Sound policy would focus resources on making it easier for students' direct need for resources.

#3 - Accreditation - This is again an issue of counting. Secretary Spellings has tried to force the regional accrediting associations to focus on "outcomes" measures. I would agree that higher education has often gotten a pass on how well we educate our students. It takes a longer time than it should for students to graduate and that number has increased over time. We now often count graduation rates in six year terms for a four year degree. But the risk of completely thinking about outcomes is that the science of making these measurements is bogus on at least two bases. First, outcomes measurements are at best crude. It is great to think you can reduce human motives down to a set of measurements - but it is folly to think that is possible. Second, the measurements in these kinds of situations tend to come to standardized measurements. That is nonsense. Two of the strengths of the American system of higher education make it much harder to reduce to a single set of numbers. Higher education is remarkably diverse - the differences in motives and aspirations between a student in a selective liberal arts college and a community college are wide. At the same time the measurements may produce a snapshot which is misleading. When I was an undergraduate I learned a lot about Cobol and Comecon. Neither set of knowledge is useful to me today, except at a footnote. But I also learned a lot about how to think about critical issues. And those skills are the very hardest to measure.

So should we allow education to be unmeasured? Obviously not. But at the same time we should be humble about the measures we are developing and constantly cognizant of the multiplicity of motives that students in American higher education pursue.

Friday, March 30, 2007

A Helpful Guide

This guide is from BB Spot it is pretty self explanatory, funny and probably pretty accurate!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Technological Backbone

The University of Maine has evidently told the Recording Industry Association of America to stuff it. RIAA has tried to harrass campuses by asking them to deliver their demand letters to students they suspect of infringing on their claims of copyright for downloads of recorded music. "It's not the university's role to, in effect, serve papers on our students for another party." Bravo!! Ditto for the University of Wisconsin.

The University of Nebraska has gone one step further and threatened the RIAA thugs that it will charge the association some dough for taking up employee's time. All this is quite good! Thanks toTechdirtfor continuing to follow this story. The RIAA should be embarrassed and harrassed in the same way they have tried to extort funds from students.

Were that not also enough - the holders of the copyrights of George Orwell's novel 1984 have filed an infringement suit against the Obama-Hillary ad that used old footage from the 1984 first Macintosh ad. According to one source ""The political ad copies a prior commercial infringement of our copyright," said Gina Rosenblum, president of Rosenblum Productions Inc. "We recognize the legal issues inherent under the First Amendment and the copyright law as to political expression of opinion, but we want the world at large to know that we take our copyright ownership of one of the world's great novels very seriously."
I really wonder what kind of dope Ms. Rosenblum is smoking. Indeed the reproduction of the novel's contents is protected until 2044 but that does not mean the images that were created when one read Orwell's powerful fiction. It is almost as if Ms. Rosenblum was doing a parity of the novel. "Four legs good, two legs bad!" (Oh wait, that was from Animal Farm and is being used as fair use.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tony Snow

On Sunday we went to the memorial service for our attorney who died on St. Patrick's Day of cancer. She was a good and thoughtful counselor who worked with us on a couple of very contentious issues and was able to bring them to resolution. She left an adoring husband and two young girls. But last week also saw the news that Elizabeth Edwards' cancer had recurred. And now we understand that Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, has seen cancer recur. This morning I ran into a blog by a guy named George M. Roper - who writes a blog called GM'sCorner - with one masthead that says Cancer Sucks (reproduced here). Roper had cancer and Tony Snow wrote him an advice piece - an excerpt is presented below. Roper is my age and is a counselor at University of Texas-Pan American. He writes with style. Two of the values he holds high are ones that are inviolate - integrity and honesty. I like this guy already!

Snow was a great newscaster on Fox. He chose to move into the Bush Administration and has been a first rate spokesman. As I think I have mentioned I worked in a position where I saw, at least at a short distance, the work of the White House press office during the Nixon Administration. It is a high intensity job that takes a mix of skill and energy but it also takes a certain amount of straight forwardness. A lot of the White House spokesmen are too cute by a half. Snow is not. He answers questions not with Zen Koans but with clarity. Tony Snow is among the best I have seen in many years. My prayers are with him and I hope everyone will join in those efforts. His advice to Roper was wonderful. Roper reprinted it today and hoped that Snow will take his own advice. What I have seen of Snow from afar suggests that he will.

Snow's advice -

"First, enlist as much love and support from friends as you can, and don't be shy. One of the great distinguishing characteristic of Americans is that they always want a chance to do something good. Many are doing good things for you right now, many completely unknown to you. Some people are afraid of admitting to cancer because they worry that others will treat them like freaks. A very few people will; most will rally in wondrous and suprising ways. Give them a chance to help. They'll come through for you.

Second, talk to other cancer patients. They have street cred others don't. For instance, you're probably now noticing twinges and random pains in far-flung parts of your body. This sort of stuff has been going on your entire life, and you have paid no heed. Now, however, the mere threat of cancer has you wondering whether the killer cells have fiendishly relocated to some unusual part of your body -- from your toes to your earlobes, along with every viscera and soft tissue in between. I remember thinking at one point that pressure in my forehead must have been a sure indicator of brain cancer. Instead, I just had sinus congestion. This sort of panic is normal: I don't know a single cancer patient who hasn't experienced it in one way, shape or form. I finally called my internist and informed him that I was going nuts and needed some sort of stuff to calm me down. He prescribed Xanax. I took exactly one -- conversations with doctors and other cancer patients managed to calm my nerves even better than drugs.

Third, learn as much as you can -- ignorance is your enemy -- but don't get too hooked on internet sites. Many of them are idiotic. Better to consult with your MD Anderson trained doc, who can steer you to stuff that might be helpful. Look especially for success stories. You'd be amazed at how far medicine has come in the last 15 years, and how effective the meds are.

Fourth, keep the fighting attitude. A friend of mine -- a survivor of simultaneous lung, breast and armpit lymph cancers -- described sitting in meetings with fellow breast cancer patients. Some just looked defeated, even though each one of them had far less severe cases than she had. Not one of the defeated-looking patients made it. You'll find that it's surprisingly easy to remain combative once you've begun to shuck aside some of the fear. Just think about the people you love and the things you want to do with them in the years ahead. That should be all the inspiration you need. Furthermore, you'll find that your attitude will change (likely for the better) the moment you get into treatment. It's like going from pre-game jitters to the game. Once the game is on, you don't have any choice. You have to play. So play to win.

Fifth: Realize that fear is a complete waste of time, even though it will creep up on you from time to time. Your full-time job now is to get well. Blogs are nice, but living is more fundamental. The most important part of the aforementioned fighting attitude is to set fear aside and get determined about getting well.

Sixth, relish and embrace your faith. I kept a file of what I called "healing verses," many of which had been forwarded through well-wishers. You can find them sprinkled everywhere in the Bible; Psalms and Proverbs are especially rich sources. Prayer is an amazing thing, and the healing power of prayer -- something I always suspected before getting cancer -- is palpable and real. You've seen the responses already on your site: These people are pulling for you, as are hundreds or even thousands who aren't writing. There's no greater honor than having somebody you don't know asking God to help you. Somehow, the word trickles back, and it will make you stronger."

Hippocratic Regulation

From the news wires today -

"Before we jump in to regulate competition on the market it is worth asking whether competition is actually harmed," the Commission's director general for competition, Philip Lowe, said at an antitrust conference in Munich, Germany. "Is there not vigorous competition between different bundles of mp3 players and music libraries?," said Lowe, the second-highest competition official in the EU.

For the past couple of years the EU has been trying to force Apple to open iTunes so that its' music could be played on all MP3 players. But this is the first time I have heard an EU official ask the basic question. Wouldn't it be good if more officials in government got down to these kinds of basics?

The great Greek doctor once said “Spontaneous lassitude indicates disease.” - in the case of bureaucracies the opposite is probably true.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Eric Clapton and the Orange Card

Last week I saw Eric Clapton in concert and then two days later was in a reception in the White House with the First Lady. I found some surprising similarities. First, graciousness. Clapton, as noted in an earlier post, is gracious about having his side men play. One reviewer suggested that he is losing it because he let his side men have so much center stage. I think differently. I have seen Clapton live twice - once with Buddy Guy and in both places he was great about being a part of the band not just the only performer on stage. Mrs. Bush has those same qualities. I am not sure how many of these events she has to do a year but it must be a lot and yet she was gracious to a fault in waiting through the pictures (described below) and then in giving us welcome.

Second, is repitition. Before Clapton could leave he had to do Lela. I wonder how old that song is getting for him. Clapton's musical contributions are huge. He revived several old time bluesmen. He wrote some very good electric and acoustic guitar music. He interprets other's work with great care (Me and Mr. Johnson - where he mixes some of his own and Robert Johnson's work is but one example.) On Thursday night there was a clamor for the "orange cards." In a White House reception, everyone wants a picture with the First Lady. Thus, you are required to get an orange card which has your name and home town. You are then escorted by a military person and introduced to the First Lady. This custom is odd. The picture is a great memento. But everyone clamors for the card so that they can get their 30 seconds with the First Lady. It is an efficient if not a bit surreal process. I expect that these formalities are often tiring for Mrs. Bush - but she certainly did not show it. I was greeted warmly had a chance to say a few things to her and Secretary Spellings and then moved on. The last time I was in the White House was during the Nixon Administration, which is quite a few years ago. Clapton and Mrs. Bush wear their status well.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Edwards Announcement

When I first read that John Edwards was going to continue his quest for the presidency (after a lackluster career in the Senate for only one term and a questionable career as a trial lawyer) I was a bit annoyed. But as I thought about it, this should be between Mr. Edwards and his wife.

I believe his run for the White House is a lot like what I consider his Senate career was like - a lot of talk and not much substantive success - but it is his choice whether to go forward and stranger things have happened (take Jimmy Carter, our surrealist president, for example). I am still convinced that the demo primary is between Obama and Hillary and that those two will crowd out any others. But if Hillary continues to stumble, there may be room for another candidate. There is no guarantee that anyone would choose Edwards as a running mate. He was not especially adept in his last race for VP. It is unclear whether he would bring any gravitas to the role or whether he could even carry his own state. But none of that matters - hope springs eternal in a politician's breast.

In my own case, were my wife to have a second (she has not had the first) bout with cancer, I think I would stop. But as some have pointed out (and I know from my own experience) that when you contract a dangerous disease, some us argue for the curative powers of hard work.

This is not to say I have found someone who I would support at this point - the most realistic at this point look like Romney and Thompson - but I guess I am more concerned about the shape of the Congress where last week the new majority loaded $25 billion of pork onto a faulty policy which specifies a time certain for withdrawal from Iraq. I believe the new democrats (who were once called "blue dogs" but now seem to be Nancy's lapdogs) will not fare well in 2008. But who knows?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Policy Vinegar or Honey?

I was a participant in the Summit on Higher Education yesterday, which was convened by the Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings (the photo is from a reception in the White House after the event). I must admit that I came to the meeting with mixed feelings. I am not a fan of the Secretary. Indeed, one could argue that I am not a fan of any Secretary of Education. I am not convinced that the Department of Education was a necessary creation.

But the discussion yesterday created two impressions. The first was that we rushed through a lot of issues. For example, one group on adult learners (or as some would call them non-tradtional learners) - argued that we had to treat those people in college the same way we treat traditional undergraduates. I wonder why. The dramatic expansion of college age eligible students (or at least potentially eligible students) is large enough in many areas to suggest that if we concentrated resources on 18 year olds we would do pretty well in solving some of the problems facing the country in terms of need for college educated people. As we were reminded yesterday - a high percentage of the returning students have a job and thus a high potential to complete their educations without assistance. That set of questions needs a lot more thought and care. I have several concerns about the way some of the issues were formed.

My second impression was that they got a good group of people together to discuss important issues and for the most part the groups (the 250 participants were divided into 5 working groups) covered the right (or at least the most important issues). Although there was a certain amount of surrealism in the discussions. For example, the Secretary and her Undersecretary reiterated the Administration's commitment to increasing need based aid. (Neither mentioned that the Administration has proposed to eliminate a couple of major need based financial aid programs for students.)

The most interesting part of the day was at the reception where I got to speak with a White House Fellow that I have met before. This guy is at the start of a career - he has finished his Ph.D. and wants to move back home (in a Southern state) when he completes his fellowship. His is committed to getting more students in his home state to go to college. He has worked in student affairs but he also worked for one of the best governors in the South.

We discussed whether the Secretary's rhetoric over the last year was appropriate or not. Spellings has made some outrageous claims about higher education and at the same time she has made some proposals which I believe would be fundamentally injurious to the enterprise of higher education. But the substance of our discussion was whether such inflated rhetoric was necessary to get a group as diverse as higher education (and complex and often resistent to change) to move. Obviously, there are some areas where higher education could improve.

One is in transparency - of telling clearly what we do to those who are interested. Spellings' initial solution was to propose creation of a massive data base of individual student records. That idea was silly and ultimately troubling - the Department has shown little ability to handle things like that. She has also yammered that it is hard to find information about colleges for families and students - silly again - there is lots. One of her problems is that she looks at higher education as an extension of K-12 - where she has some experience. In the end, the structure of higher education is different. (More complex, more diverse, more alternatives than K-12). She would also like to screw up the voluntary system of accreditation - which I think has been on the whole pretty good at moving in the right direction over the last decade or so.

I got back to the discussion with this Fellow - whether the extreme rhetoric was necessary. In the end, I think not. Yesterday, the substance of the discussion suggested that higher education has heard some of her comments and has begun to think creatively about some necessary changes. Moving 3000+ institutions, that range in size from a few hundred to several thousand and encompass a huge variety of educational backgrounds and abilities is never easy. After yesterday, while I still reject the rhetoric, I am also willing to withhold judgment about the next set of steps.

A good deal of trouble which higher education has lived through during my career has been caused by the following phrase "I'm from the government and I am here to help." Spellings' rhetoric is close to that - she would like to help higher education by regulating it more - that has never shown to be a good solution. The "helpers" are not just in the Department, nor the Congress but also in state legislatures. On the other hand, if higher education does not take some initiative on some of the key issues discussed yesterday, then regulation is probable. So let's see what happens next.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Geezer Rock

Last night we went to an Eric Clapton concert. It was not entirely what I expected. The opening band (The Robert Cray Band) was fine. And Clapton was Clapton – a mix of styles and guitars underlay with a profound technical mastery of his instrument and a real humility about his profession. Unlike some other aging rockers he seems to genuinely like to work with the rest of his band. While the concert had his name on it, every musician on stage got to strut his stuff.

As you would expect, Clapton did some work with both electric and acoustic guitars. The crowd seemed to be waiting for him to sing Lela but I am not sure that should be his signature song. He does so well in so many genres. The last time I saw him was at the Concert for New York, which was in Madison Square Garden, when he was on the stage with Buddy Guy. He is worth seeing more than once.

What was unexpected was the crowd. It was predominantly over 50 or older. There were some aging counter culture types but a lot of them were like me, easing into seniorhood but not quite ready to trade in the Levis for support hose.

Tiebout and Hayek in Mexico

Last Friday afternoon we decided to go back to Xalapa from Puebla, where we had been on Thursday night, to do some work at one of the universities I have worked with over the last several years. The University is doing a series of projects in the general region (Puebla and Veracruz) on development. But the focus is not a traditional one. They are trying to develop a model which can assess readiness or commitment for additional economic activity.

The problem with many models that try to think about those issues is they tend to be either overly analytical or anecdotal. The analytical models use a lot of numbers based on traditional economic surveys mostly collected by government. The anecdotal models tend to be a bit too chatty for my tastes.

The project will use traditional data on economic activity in a region but then will devise an index of capacity or more appropriately resource utilization. It works with ten indicators – for example an assessment of social conflict in the area – that when taken as a group give an understanding of the ability of the residents to use resources to their best advantage. These can be internal benchmarks to measure changes over time but if the model is developed well they can also be used as comparative indicators among cities in a region.

As we drove to Xalapa we stopped in two towns that are similar in size and close to each other, Acatzingo and Tepeaca. One, Tepeaca, has a history of some wealth as a locus of extraction – a marble quarry. Yet the feeling you get from the two towns is very different. Tepeaca is not an especially pretty town. You get the idea, when you enter town, that it is one of those places that has not spent a lot of time creating itself.

One of the contrasts is the zocalo in each town. Tepeaca’s town square is much prettier – with more trees but the rest of the town is not as pretty. Acatzingo, on the other hand, has a lot of indicators of energy. You get a very different feeling walking around each town.

One of the risks of using macro data to think about places is what Hayek called the “knowledge of time and place.” Hayek argued that individual knowledge about local conditions could often trump macro knowledge. The distinctive feeling you get from Acatzingo is a pervasive civic pride. That should count for a lot when you think about how a city will begin to attract new activity.

The other model here is the Tiebout hypothesis – an idea from economic geographer, Charles Tiebout, who suggested that individual areas can make specific decisions about how to face development. Their market basket of amenities will differ according to local choices. That will have the effect of allowing people who are looking for places to locate of giving them different options.

The UAX project (Universidad AnĂ¡huac de Xalapa) has the possibility to offer some new methods for understanding how communities develop. It also looks like a good model of how to involve a university in its region.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Devil is in the Details

In a post in Inside Higher Education this morning a new feature of presidential contract is covered for the president of Arizona State. Presidential compensation is increasingly tied to incentive structures. But the president of Arizona State has a new wrinkle - one sixth of his incentive payment is tied to the US News Rankings. No bother that as noted in an earlier post most academics believe that the rankings are baloney. The founder of the Education Conservancy called the action by the board of ASU “rotten, educationally irresponsible, wimpy,short-sighted and wrong.” (It is hard to tell how he feels but I think he does not like it.)

Raymond Cotton, the leading lawyer who works on presidential contracts commented that it is inappropriate “for a board of trustees to turn their own priority setting authority over to any third party, but especially a for-profit popular magazine.” Cotton is spot on. There are lots of ways to improve the performance of an institution and encouraging an institution to improve its reputation, based on reasonable measures, is an idea that is present in a lot of contracts. But most boards are into things that are measurable on the campus. The US News Rankings is an external source but it is also an uneven and quixotic one based in part on gossip.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Laguna Al Chichica

I want to write a bit more about this trip to Mexico but since I am sitting in an airport, I wanted to do one picture of a lake which I have seen on the road between Puebla and Xalapa several times but on Saturday we stopped and spent some time looking around. I have posted two photos to give you an idea about two issues. The first shows the sedementary nature of the surrounding land for the lake bed. Notice the volcanic stone stuck in the sedement and now protruding out. The second shot reminded me a lot of Mono Lake in Eastern California. This lake, Al Chichica, is a lot less eerie but still very striking. It turns out my friend Dermot was also good in Geology - which was about the only science that I really enjoyed. Seeing places like this lake rekindles that interest.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Exhibit at the Amparo

(The photo is from the entry to the museum and does not do the murals nor the installation justice.)

I am in Mexico for a couple of days. Thursday night we had a great dinner after an opening at the Amparo Museum in Puebla. I did not get to go to the opening because we got caught in traffic but the dinner was great.

The Amparo is a small museum that has a reputation much larger than its size It has a wonderful collection of Mexican art but it also has a continuing series of other art that puts it in a small group of museums that look beyond their own genre.

The museum has two special exhibits both running through June. The first is a presentation of the Miguel Covarrubias murals about the Pacific Rim. Covarrubias, in some ways, is less famous than other Mexican painters of the time. In one sense that is because his work is considerably less political. He lived for several years in New York and was a key part of that city’s art scene for a decade or more. He did covers for the New Yorker and had commissions from several prominent industrialists. His scenes from Harlem are magnificent for their energy. A good deal of his work captures his times but it is also timeless.

I first saw his work in San Francisco. The 1939 Expo in San Francisco featured a series of murals done by him that depict various aspects of life in the Pacific Rim. After the exposition they were displayed in San Francisco until the late 1950s and then boxed up for storage. As I remember them in San Francisco they were displayed without a great deal of imagination. That is not true for the Amparo.

Since the paintings are about the Pacific Rim they have a lot of blue in them. The Amparo has chosen to display them on a blue wall. But they also use the space well. The interpretive text is presented as it were floating in the space. Each of the murals (there are ones on the people of the rim, their dwellings, the fauna and flora of the region, means of transportation, and the economy) is displayed in a way that gives the viewer a chance to see the scope of the individual work. The exhibit even includes a lithograph of one mural which was lost on forms of art. (After being exhibited in New York this mural was lost on a train while being transported back to California.)

The second artist is Jan Hendrix who is Dutch but lives in Mexico City. The title of this exhibit is called Storyboard. Hendrix’ work has an immense amount of depth. The signature work is 1976 postcard sized prints of various forms of nature. The prints are all in black and white and repeat in form, but Hendrix changes perspective and color (black and white to white and black) to offer variation. A second work which is quite interesting is mounted directly on the wall. It is a series of paper or wood cut outs arranged like a forest floor but contained in a natural frame. Like the other work, this one must have taken a very long time to mount. But Hendrix also works in metal and displays some quite striking examples of intricate patterns. The exhibit also presents some very modernist images in a high gloss finish as well as some striking large serigraphs on primitive paper.

There is a lot of abstract art which I find a bit too abstract. But Hendrix use of color and light and depth makes these works come alive.

The Amparo is one of those places that is worth going out of the way to see. It is an excellent and ground breaking museum.

The Limits of the First Amendment

There is a fight in Minneapolis that all of us should watch. An Immam in Minneapolis has declared that the Moslem cab drivers in the city should not take passengers who are carrying alcohol because alcohol is prohibited by the Koran. Indeed, the First Amendment assures that people in this country have a right to the free exercise of religion. But this nonsensical notion should be opposed by the city officials.

Cab drivers are providing a public conveyance and if they want to solicit their fares on the public roads they should be required to live up to the civil rights protections that have impailed many other narrow minded ideas. The standard of public accomodations is applicable here. The cab drivers are compelled to not discriminate on the basis of religion. If riders in cabs actually consumed alcohol in the cab - then the Immam would have a leg to stand on. But the riders are simply carrying a legal good, which good Moslems do not consume.

If the Minneapolis authorities fail to understand the importance of this principle, it is a sad day for reasonable interpretations of First Amendment rights.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Obligations of US News

There is a love hate relationship with the US News Rankings on colleges and universities among college types. On the one hand the rankings are sought after - even for some of those colleges and universities that disdain them. When the rankings first began to come out I would notice when I went on campuses where they were derided that I would see the college ranking edition prominently placed on a coffee table in the administration building. But any serious student of colleges understands that a good part of the annual rankings are made up of dubious data and a lot of nonsense. But on the other hand there is a lot of concern, legitimate concern, that the US News rankings fail to accurately capture the qualities of colleges and that parts of the survey, especially the reputational rankings (a glorified gossip sheet) are quite inaccurate.

In recent weeks a story has been developing that a couple of places, like Sarah Lawrence, have expressed concern that the staff of US News had the intention of reporting inaccurate data. That came to an even higher level when the president of Sarah Lawrence wrote an Op-ed for the Washington Post. The president commented "U.S. News benefits from our appetite for shortcuts, sound bites and top-10 lists. The magazine has parlayed the appearance of unbiased measurements into a profitable bottom line." Sarah Lawrence, IMHO for sound educational reasons, decided to eliminate the use of standardized tests in admissions decisions. But according to the president, US News' research director said they would impute the data and made the absurd assumption that those places that do not use SATs will admit less qualified students.

A report in Inside Higher Education this morning suggested that the fight on the rankings is going a bit further. A group of small colleges are beginning to think about a coordinated response to the US News system which would have them refuse to participate in the annual survey which helps to create the issue (and ultimately to sell more copies of their magazine).

From my view, the role of these colleges is a good one and let's hope they stick to their guns. US News has been almost brazen in the way they operate this venture. The data freeze might be just the kind of ranking that US News could understand.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Numbers Guy in the WSJ

One of the regular features in the WSJ is one written Carl Bialik, call the Numbers Guy. It attempts to clear up confusion in stories in the media which use numbers. Bialik has a great way of explaining complex issues and he did it again in a story about the Discovery Channel's hyped up documentary about the supposed discovery of the tombs of Jesus and his family. As noted in an earlier post, the documentary's film-makers make a great deal of a statistics professor's discussion of probabilities - without offering the very logical alternative to the trail of numbers. Bialik commented in this morning's column -

"Had the professor assumed the inscription could be for any Mary, a very common name then, it would be far less likely that Christ's family is in the tomb. The mathematical finding would become "statistically not significant," Prof. Feuerverger tells me. Similarly, the name "Yose" -- as one of Jesus' four brothers was called in the Gospel of Mark -- is a derivative of Yosef, another common name. There, too, the finding would be less conclusive if the professor had considered "Yose" applicable to any Yosef.

Even if there was consensus on the interpretation of the names, there are no comprehensive records showing how frequently they occurred in the population at that time. Prof. Feuerverger relied on modern books about ossuaries and ancient texts to tally the occurrence of certain names in the area then. That falls far short of a complete census.

"As you pile on more assumptions, you're building a house of cards," says Keith Devlin, a Stanford mathematician and NPR's "Math Guy." (Scientific American also challenged the calculation on its Web site.)"

Last night as I was driving back from a dinner I listened to a guy on the radio named John Ziegler interview one of the other "experts" on the documentary - a professor from UNC Charlotte. ZIegler went on about how sure the data was - yet the key story is that the real numbers suggest a very shaky case. Ziegler was clearly trying to reinforce his own "agnostic" views rather than to discuss the implications of such a documentary. In the Bialik article UCLA assistant professor of statistics commented "I wouldn't be comfortable coming up with a number like this, becuse the general audience will not understand that it is very, very subjective," And indeed Professor Feuergiver commented that he was uncomfortable in the way that his calculations, which were calculated with the normal caveats of statistics, were used. What bothers me about this program was not the potential conclusion but rather the very sloppy way that the producers used the data. But then why should I be surprised about that with the MSM?

BIalik does what I think a journalist should do, on a consistent basis, he tries to explain complex stories (that use some form of numbers) in a way that clarifies rather than sensationalizes. He contributes a lot to making the world more understandable.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Rent Seeking in Two Examples

As the theory of rent seeking has developed it has become increasingly powerful as an explanation of why our government continues to grow despite protestations of the left and right. Rent seeking is the manipulation (or direction) of profits without the employment of a trade or a production function that would normally be associated with that profit. When you produce a product for $X and sell it at a higher level - the inputs of labor and capital produce something of value and the ultimate price charged between the value of your labor and capital and the final price is considered profit. In rent seeking, what often happens is costs are shifted - in essence often the costs are socialized and the benefits are privitized.

The WSJ had an article this week which argued that the whole cause of global warming is a series of rent extractions. Gore's response to the kerfluffle about his extravagent energy use was a good example. Gore's immediate response to the whole thing was - oh I offset my profligacy with carbon credits - never mind that the average stiff cannot do that. But as you look at the discussions of how to offset this supposed problem each of them involves some transfer of wealth from one group to another; from the energy users to the regulators, from the users of certain energy sources to others, etc. I am a skeptic, in part, because of the inherent distrust that proponents of the theory have of market systems as allocators.

But the left is not the only group guilty of these kinds of hidden transfers. The war on terror is a bunch of transfers that move all over the map. We are asked to spend more time in airport lines, to purchase certain dangerous liquids like shampoo in smaller and less economic quantities, etc. The rationale for all of these changes is "safety." The GOP jumped at the notion of making all of the inspectors public employees (which the democrats have tried to allow to organize). Most normal people can figure out how much risk there is for most airline travelers to do something terrible. But in the government equation, or at least the political allocation of risk and the calculations therein, they can't differentiate between an 80 year old granny and a traveller from Yemen. So we end up spending a bazillion dollars in protecting us from a peril that has about the same potential as getting tagged by a cow falling from the sky.

Smith, in the Wealth of Nations, has some long comparisons between productive and non-productive workers. While I think some of his chracterizations are a bit dated (he relies a bit too much on the relative value of land - the original perspective on rents and on production of physical goods) his initial conclusion that a good deal of government work is non-productive seems about right. It is too bad that much of our public discussions never look at the alternative costs and benefits of policies in these two areas and others.

What concerns me about both areas is the ability to bypass sound decision making for politics. One of the best debated parts of the public finance literature is the theory of merit goods - those things which, in theory, the market would underproduce. A lot of the discussion about moving items into the public sector come down to a distrust of individual decision making - so our policy makers think they can move something to where wiser heads will prevail. Unfortunately, as we have seen in many other cases and as I expect we will see (or have seen) in these areas, the wiser heads turn this into not a discussion of what is best for society but what is best for the decider's buddies. In the end society loses on that deal.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Followup on the Jesus Tomb Story

I got to see the Discovery Channel's "documentary" last night while in Dallas. After the earlier presentation (I think I saw it the second time the channel showed it) there was a roundtable discussion where the scholars were uniformly critical of the film. I especially concentrated on the statistics professor who, IMHO, has a bizarre sense of the power of numbers - his argument was roughly, if the names on the tombs were actually there is would be a huge coincidence (to X to the XXX power) that all of these names were in the same place without proving our hypothesis. Well of course if you accept the initial premise which most legitimate archeologists do not, then the power of statistics might have some validity.

One of the scholars on the after panel labeled the conclusions of the film to be "archeo-porn." That about sums it up for me.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

John Dvorak on WIFI

In an article for PC tech commentator John Dvorak argued that the cellular companies are "going to do whatever they can to kill WI-FI." I think his hysteria is a bit misplaced. First, the prices for cellular wireless data services has begun to come down. All those Blackberries and other smart phones are forcing the move. Second, WIFI in some places has over promised while in other places it has performed quite well. As I travel around the country I find all sorts of WIFI opportunities - some are paid (Boingo and T-Mobile (I use Tmobile because I like the convenience of having coffee and computers) are two of the most prominent) along with lots of free WIFI - in Portland OR and Sacramento Airport to name two. In many business establishments WIFI is offered as an amenity. Ultimately, those two technologies will continue to merge - the price of the providers will continue to drop and many business establishments will (as Kevin Kelly called in in 10 Rules for the New Economy) "Embrace the Free!" I am not sure where these trends are going but with the number of 801.11 enabled computers (now even in most Windows machines) I am pretty sure that WIFI is not going to disappear and with the growth and development of so many free sites I am pretty sure that the cellular companies, if they want to maintain their business model will have to either add services or lower their price - or probably do both.

With that kind of trend happening - it sounds like the best of all worlds for the consumer.

Dvorak's comments could not have been more timely Meraki Networks announced that they would offer free wireless in downtown San Francisco. Hmmmm.

Friday, March 02, 2007

What is the NYT intent on this story?

The story about a Discovery Channel presentation begins with "Creationists reject the theory of evolution. Religious pilgrims still line up for the Shroud of Turin. So it is unlikely that many Christians will lose sleep — let alone faith — because of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” on the Discovery Channel tomorrow." About half way into the story the following conclusion is offered "The archaeological arguments are plausible but not persuasive: this is a breakthrough that relies more on “what if” than “here’s how.”

The case that this site might be the family tomb of Jesus is one based primarily on statistics. "Andrey Feuerverger, a mathematics professor at the University of Toronto, calculates that the odds that all six names would appear together in one tomb are 1 in 600, calculated conservatively — or possibly even as much as one in one million." But the logic of the professor is absurd.

A lot bothered me about the way the Times handled this story. First, why should a lead in the story deal with creationists - do all Christians believe in creationism? The line of reasoning is also designed to elicit scoffs - the creationists and then the rubes who believe in the Shroud of Turin - clearly the writer here thinks that Christians are descendents of PT Barnum's best buddies. There is at least some reason to believe that some of the things that the Times derides are at least unexplained at this point by conventional methods.

Had the writer looked a bit more at the issues surrounding the Shroud of Turin there is still a lot to be explained. In a 2004 article in the Journal of Optics - science has not proven this is Jesus' shroud but neither has it been disproven and some of the images on the shroud cannot be explained by current methods of science.

A similar thing happens when you look at the Tilma in the Shrine of Guadalupe. Tilmas were made of a cloth of woven cactus fiber which has a life of about 20 years - but that garmet continues to this day. The image does not conform to art of the day.

The reason for a recitation of these issues is not to suggest that we know that either the Shroud or the Tilma are examples of miracles. But to suggest that there is a lot we do not know and at this point there may be very good reason to have faith about the objects.

But then there is the second concern - the article ignores the substantial body of evidence that the claims made in the documentary have been questioned by numerous highly qualified academics. The "evidence" from these digs in Israel has been the subject of peer reviewed research which has consistently argued that the claims made by some that the site found tombs is Jesus is bunk. Even the fundamental claim that Feuerverger offers is subject to dispute. Other known researchers have commented that the names on the tombs have no direct reference to Mary Magdalene and merely have inscriptions on them which make no reference to Jesus' family. But the Times for what ever reason ignored this body of commentary.

Why then in the story in the NYT seem to a) make fun of Christian belief and b) not present any of the scholarly evidence that this discovery is considered to be a hoax by many important academics?

I did not get to see this documentary, although I have read about this claim before. As I read about it when I originally heard about it I was reminded of the documentary of several years ago where Geraldo Rivera claimed to have found the secret vault of Al Capone - he spent a whole lot of time slinging (what Mayor Daley once called) insinuendos about his find and came up with nothing. Did Geraldo help co produce this for the Discovery Channel.