July 31, 2006

Throwing everything against the wall   {Comments: 0}

Two interesting bits of news about online media today: first is the announcement that the Washington Post and a couple other papers will be providing links to competitors' stories. This step fits right in with the Post's open, free-content approach; in some ways it's an extension of the trackbacks they already have linking to relevant (usually) blog posts. It'll be interesting to see how it affects their bottom line.

Then there's this story about Yahoo and Google paying the AP and other big news services for syndicating their content. This is great news if you're concerned about the viability of the news business, but I'm a little confused about what it is they're paying for. Obviously Yahoo rebrands a lot of content, reproducing it in its entirety under the Yahoo News banner. But as far as I know Google simply aggregates links, which is a different kind of use altogether. If simply being allowed to aggregate or link to content is of value to Google, maybe they should be paying me too...

Underworld   {Comments: 0}

July 27, 2006

More content   {Comments: 0}

Quickly just wanted to note that I've added a link to my del.icio.us account over to the right; I've been using del.icio.us pretty actively this week and I will very likely continue to do so. I'm looking at other ways to integrate that into the blog here, but for now you have the link.

July 25, 2006

NewAssignment.net   {Comments: 0}

Jay Rosen is trying to piece together a new kind of collaborative news oragnization, taking some elements of the traditional news gathering structures and introducting some of the collective thinking mechanics that have worked best elsewhere on the internet. The concept is provocative but I think very plausible, and I plan to participate when the site makes its debut.

Whose baby gets kissed   {Comments: 0}

Here's an elegant way to change the electoral college, and one that seems to be gaining some political traction. I've always liked the idea of doing away with the college, if only for the sake of conceptual transparency -- although I do think there's the potential aggravation of dealing with ballot counting on a nationwide basis rather than in contested areas. I haven't read Koza's 620-page plan, but presumably it details some follow-up federal legislation to bring polling procedures in line with each other. Certainly if enough states form a coalition on this it will force Congress's hand.

The article mentions the possibility that such a change would force presidential candidates to focus on large urban areas. This may be partly true, but I think more importantly we would see a lot more sophisticated political marketing targeted at different kinds of demographic groups that have nothing to do with location of residence. It has the potential to dramatically increase the political power wielded by large constituencies that are either easily mobilized or easily marketed to.

July 24, 2006

Curvature of the Earth   {Comments: 3198}

Umberto Eco: "On various occasions I have written about 'literary madmen,' but they are not merely a fixation of mine. I find that reflecting upon outlandish theories that were taken seriously for a long time teaches one to distrust many ideas that are accorded full credence in the media, and even in some scientific circles."

Rigidity   {Comments: 0}

July 21, 2006

Stuck in the middle with you   {Comments: 3}

Probably should have posted about this yesterday, but this story about torture and the Chicago Police Department blew me away, not so much because the torture happened, but because of the seemingly indifferent response and the crocodile tears over the timeframe under the statute of limitations having run out. How is it, anyway, that there isn't a law that gets you around the statute of limitations in a case like this? If the people who are supposed to be doing the investigating are also the people who are being investigated (or at least part of the same machine) then it just becomes another tool in the coverup shed.

It's also interesting that none of the coverage mentioned the possibility of civil suits against the city, which (presumably) would be much more likely to succeed after an official affirmation that torture did occur. As far as I know, the statute of limitations doesn't apply to civil suits.

UPDATE: Will Baude informs me via email that "almost every civil cause of action has a statute of limitations." He can't speak authoritatively about this case, however.

July 20, 2006

The judge, he smiled as he picked up his pen   {Comments: 0}

This is cute (both the footnote and Will's nitpicky correction of it). I was wondering just yesterday just what it was that made Jay-Z pick 99 as the number of problems he has... apparently, he was just following lyrical precedent.

The murky world of culinary ghosting   {Comments: 0}

Here's a column bemoaning the widespread use of ghost writers in food writing. I'm not sure what the fuss is all about (why should I care whether ghost writers are used or whether they get credit?) but there's still something interesting in this paragraph:

Who's to blame for this deception? The blame may lie with you, if you've bought into the absurd notion of personality as a central component in recipe writing. A recipe is rarely a personal statement, like a poem or a painting. True originality in recipe writing is exceptionally rare. Nearly every cook relies on other people's recipes as a starting point for experimentation, and the best recipes often come from collaborative effort. We readers should stop demanding the stamp of spurious authenticity from every single recipe writer.
I'm not going to argue that most people's recipes (or improvised lunches) rise to the level of art, but it does seem like there's a bit of intermodal snobbery going on here. Why is it OK to romanticize writing as a form of identifying expression but not OK to think about personality or originality for a recipe? It's no accident that he's using poems and paintings to make his point, and not the more workaday business of advertising copy or even (!) a column in the FT. No, we can't all be Ferran Adria, but we can't all be John Ashbery either -- don't look now, but there are plenty of "poets" out there whose work is banal, and we have no truck with them.

For the record, nothing on this blog has been ghost-written. The three recipes that have appeared (for spinach mushroom quiche, cream of poblano soup, and a lemon tart) can hardly be accused of "true originality" -- although they are yummy!

July 19, 2006

Spare capacity   {Comments: 2}

Alex Tabarrok and his commenters are trying to figure out what's behind the distribution of the prices for regular, premium, and superpremium gasoline. I had a similar thread on this problem last year, and I still don't feel like I have a satisfactory answer. I will say that over the past year I've seen a lot more variation in the spacing of these prices than I ever noticed before.

The (unrelated) thing that's been irking me lately about the gas station: When I buy my gas from the computer in the pump (I no longer deal with human beings), it asks me if I want a receipt. I have two choices for my response: Yes, and No, thank you. IMHO there's just a teensy bit of passive aggression in these choices, as if I somehow can't be trusted to be polite to this machine on my own. Can't I please just say no?

July 18, 2006

With selected characteristics taken into account   {Comments: 2}

Here is a huge finding that didn't make much of a splash: when you control for parental income, race/ethnicity, books in the home, and other known factors on children's school performance, students in public schools peform just as well as those in private schools. This doesn't mean that private school students don't do better, it just means the differences can be entirely explained by demographic differences between the students who attend private vs public schools.

If you're interested in demography at all it's interesting to check out the full report from the Department of Education. I was disappointed to see that they didn't have a separate model to measure the effects of the demographic makeup of a classroom on performance -- that is, to look at the effect the other students in the classroom have on your scores. It would be interesting to measure this effect completely apart from the effect of the school as a whole, and it seems completely doable within their experimental design. Oh well.

Obviously this should give public educators a huge morale boost, and it may also provide an argument for those opposed to school vouchers (although that particular policy structure is more about local choice than the overall quality of private vs public schools). If you believe in the market's ability to ferret out the value of a particular service, then the results here are a little disconcerting, because you have to look elsewhere (prestige? the desire to self-segregate?) for what's of value here.

July 16, 2006

Hierarchy   {Comments: 1}

July 14, 2006

Attention venture capitalists   {Comments: 6}

As always, the plan is to profit off the latest unbalancing government dictum, in this case the City of Chicago's decision to outlaw (!) foie gras. Others are finding ways to cash in on the impending shortage, and there's no reason to let them have all the fun. Since I live in the Harrison Arts District of Oak Park, just four blocks outside the city borders and on a major thoroughfare to/from downtown, I've decided the best thing would be to open a suburban (but only just) restaurant specializing (revelling?) in foie gras. All I need is a backer. Call it Eat Free or Die, Vive la Liverte, or maybe even Coup de Gras. Serve up the forbidden fruit in every course, from the amuse bouche to the after dinner mints. With several vacant storefronts on Harrison at the moment, it shouldn't be too hard to find the perfect location -- of course this would be tiny, a boutique restaurant with boutique prices. (Remember, regulation is turning this stuff into culinary crack! Practically a sure bet.)

My email is to the right. Get in touch, we'll talk numbers.

July 13, 2006

Hysterical left-wing propaganda   {Comments: 5}

Steve Snyder is a graphic artist (and friend of the family), and he recently sent along a series of good old fashioned political posters he did about our fine president and the state of things. Click the thumbnails to expand. I also have these in PDF format if anyone wants to print them big. He asked me to mention that these are freely available, but they are copyrighted and not to be reprinted for profit.

By the way, this is the same Steve Snyder whose painting is detailed in the banner up top.

July 12, 2006

Immediate, unfiltered, and true   {Comments: 0}

Interesting (and disappointing) that there doesn't seem to be any kind of organized photographical record on Flickr of the bombings in Mumbai yesterday. I immediately looked when I saw the news (the idea of Flickr as a sort of hive newsfeed was at the top of my mind because of suttonhoo's post last week) but there are only a few people posting. I've been on the commuter trains in Mumbai, and while I wouldn't expect to find cameraphone saturation there, it seems like many people would have them. Maybe the difference is cultural rather than economic?

It should probably go without saying, but my heart goes out to all those affected by this tragedy.

Borderline disingenuous   {Comments: 0}

Clearly we shouldn't believe Mayor Daley when he says the Chicago Public Schools are "on the way to becoming the best urban school district in the nation." But does the unprecedented rise in test scores tell us anything at all? The various articles in the press are pretty confused on the matter, and offer all kinds of reasons for the gains without saying anything definitive.

One possibility mentioned -- and one that's supported anecdotally by a CPS teacher I Know -- is that teachers are teaching to the test. But it's not clear why things should be any different in 2006 than they were in 2005; didn't teachers know how to teach to the test then? Perhaps the effort was more systematic and coordinated; if so, that would be news.

Another problem with the results is that for the test which showed the highest gains, they changed the passing requirement:

The jump in eighth-grade math -- once the hardest test to pass -- was astronomical, from roughly 33 percent passing to 66 percent. However, that increase came after state officials lowered the passing score from the 67th to the 38th percentile.
If I understand percentiles properly, they are scaled against the raw test score based on where the test taker would be expected to fall in a distribution (presumably of the population you're testing against). So, if you set the bar at the 67th percentile, you would expect 33% to pass if the distribution of your test-takers looked like the population you were scoring against; and of course this is exactly what happened. Then if you lower your bar to the 38th percentile, you should expect 62% to pass, which again is pretty close to what happened. Whether or not that 4% increase beyond what might have been expected (from 62% to 66%) is significant or otherwise explicable I can't say -- again, that might be news. My point though is that most of that particular increase is a statistical triviality built into the way those scores are calculated and where the bar is set.

(I'm also aghast that the old passing standard was the 67th percentile; this means 2/3 of students were expected to fail. Maybe math skills are just so unfathomably bad that it's appropriate to fail this many students, but it really makes me wonder 1) how they arrived at that requirement and 2) how they decided to change it.)

Other possible reasons given for the increase -- more colorful testing materials, more time given to students to complete the test -- shouldn't make a difference on a test like this if it's properly scaled. Of course, it's good that they're making progress on test design.

July 11, 2006

Differentiation   {Comments: 5}

Just wanted to record a few links on stem cell-rich cord blood, which you can either cryogenically preserve on the off chance that your baby will need it later on (Wikipedia gives the odds as 1 in 2700) or donate to a local blood bank. Here are a couple of FAQ's, and here is a warning not to be vulnerable to emotional marketing.

Yes, my wife is pregnant -- we're expecting a girl in November.

It depends   {Comments: 0}

Again via 3quarksdaily, Sean Carroll has an interesting post about some middling poker hands and the odds of winning with any of them. For some reason (well, not just some reason; there's actually a pretty striking structural similarity if you're willing to think about the flop as "votes") it brough to mind the Arrow Theorem, which is worth trotting out now and again anyway, especially when I've just been critiquing democracy as a governmental system.

By the way, Sean's blog is apparently the fourth most popular blog on the internet written by a scientist, at least if we're to believe this article. Pretty cool.

July 10, 2006

Bright marquees and dark divisions   {Comments: 0}

Wanted to express my support for The Outfit, a new blog by some Chicago crime writers that promises to have some diverting content. Either there's all too little of this kind of thing on the web, or I'm running in the wrong circles... probably the latter. Anyway they start publishing for real on Wednesday.

MORE: Maybe apropos and maybe not, but this phenomenon (if it is a phenomenon) is interesting in and of itself. Check out The Unbinding here. [via 3quarksdaily]

Further inconvenienced   {Comments: 3}

I ended up spending half my weekend arguing with a friend about the environment, so maybe Gore achieved his goal (if that was his goal). Most of the argument centered around this idea that we could all, by changing our behavior in numerous but relatively small ways, bring this problem under control. I hate this line of rhetoric; it makes it sound so simple, when changing behaviors en masse is actually enormously difficult. This free rider problem is so big that it can't be fixed without a huge cultural shift (laws require political capital, which requires popular support); this is why I was ranting the other day about the defects of democratic government.

One quick aside: the movie mentions ethanol as a possible solution (or part of a possible solution) to the global warming problem, and this seems like a pretty good indication that Al Gore will run for president in 2008. Are there any other reasons one would support ethanol? I can't think of any.

July 9, 2006

Picnic area 1   {Comments: 0}

July 7, 2006

Cassandra   {Comments: 0}

I finaly had a chance to see the Al Gore movie last night. A few thoughts:

Despite the whole Al Gore lovefest aspect of it (I really need a print of Al's Melancholy Gaze for my living room), there is some serious energy here. Obviously it's a movie that seeks to create buzz about a particular issue, and for me it has to be a huge success on that dimension. I've never been an environmentalist, and yet I found the movie both sobering and affecting. It hit all the right notes, and the science was plainly comprehensible thanks to the avoidance of any statistical gyrations.

As I understand it, the movie has also fueled Gore's comeback hopes, or rather created a Gore fanbase who are now agitating for a comeback. I don't know what his intentions are or what will happen, but it's pretty clear that this kind of narrative single-issue approach can work for him. I think what it does more than anything is establish some identity for him, beyond just his long history in politics and a single unfortunate event. Democratic political strategists should take note, because Democrats across the country are having difficulty establishing an identity; the lesson here might be that working passionately through a single issue can capture imaginations.

One thing I did note with concern was the extent to which the rhetoric on this issue is tuned to instill fear. I guess the nature of the threat is such that we're surrounded by ghoulish eventualities, but it's hard not to see parallels in the justifications for the War on Terror. Gore mentions our form of government and his commitment to it a couple of times in the movie, but I can't help but dwell instead on the gross deficiencies of representative democracy: for questions of such staggering consequence, we the people are on one hand expected to trust some authority, on the other hand required to choose a course of action. In this context it's no surprise that politicians are playing on our fears, but the disconnect between the issues we're facing and the government we've constructed to deal with them is a little jarring.

Open for business   {Comments: 2}

I have reenabled comments, and more importantly I seem to have recovered everything that was lost. It was actually a pretty simple matter of just having the database check and repair itself; thanks to Barrett at TMC for showing me the way. I'll probably make a couple of minor changes to the templates again soon (I'd very much like comments to appear inline after the posts on the individual entry pages), but otherwise I think everything is stable now (knock on wood).

Oh, I have made one other change: you'll now have to leave your email address (or some email address anyway) if you want to leave a comment here.

July 6, 2006

Personal computing for the masses   {Comments: 2}

Greg at BTD writes at some length about Google's plans for world domination; he's pretty much convinced that Google is building the network-based, server-based future, and who wouldn't be? It's happening now, and it's been happening for some time.

But does Google really have such a big long term advantage here? Yes they have the biggest server-complex and yes they have a head start with some kickass applications, but if the model is for applications to be available through the internet, I see no reason why they can't be provided by many different companies. In fact, if anything this kind of setup would reduce the cost to a user of switching applications, making it easier for competitors to enter. So despite the fact that Google has a head start, I don't really see how a Google-dominated world happens. Obviously the whole advertising business model does respond to scale (since the company with the most applications knows the most about you, its advertising is more precisely targeted), but there are other ways of structuring an online business -- Flickr for instance seems to work well with a subscription model. Others wil follow suit.

Anyway my point, beyond agreeing with the premise about the general direction of things, is that there's no reason to presume we'll end up in a unipolar computing world in the future. Rather, the diversity and ubiquity of the internet should continue to foster widespread creativity even as the interface changes.

July 5, 2006

Looking back   {Comments: 0}

Thanks to Will Baude for pointing out this weird argument from Matthew Yglesias suggesting we would somehow have been better off without the American Revolution (and all the various amused and amusing responses). Color me completely indoctrinated, because for me the American system of government at the moment it appeared was absolutely crucial for both this country and the world, whatever sad state of affairs we happen to be in today notwithstanding. The main hypothetical Yglesias is looking at -- the idea that somehow being minions of the great British Empire would have led us, like Canada and Australia, to enter WW2 sooner and saved everybody the trouble -- is totally bizarre... in that event, wouldn't this country have looked a lot like Canada and Australia, and had a somewhat lesser impact on the course of that war?

I also don't see what's so interesting or suggestive about the fact that we're allies with the British today. After all, we share with them language, culture (!), and their most singular achivement, the common law legal system, which determines those crucial commerical similarities, among other things. The Irish "whip up anti-English sentiment" not because they were once subjects of the British, but rather because some of them still are.

Looking forward   {Comments: 2}

In case it's not evident, I've been having trouble finding any motivation to write here lately. The comment problems fill me with dread, and I find myself alienated by the mechanics of blogging after spending so much time on Flickr, which is like crack, but spoonfed. The new job has made things more difficult as well, both because I'm busier (a good thing!) and I'm travelling a lot. But anyway I do plan to move forward with the blog even after this caesura, mainly because I get so much out of the intellectual engagement and awareness that goes with it. Consider yourself warned.

If you have any advice about the comments, please email me at the address to the right; basically there is some major problem with the database, and no comments are registering on any of the blogs associated with this MT installation. For now, my solution is to have no comments, which suits me just fine for now. When I started blogging, it was actually my plan to have no comments, until Haggai Elitzur came along and insisted they were a necessity.