January 30, 2012

Study: Class size doesn’t matter - The Washington Post

Well worth a read, although specifically focused on studies done in New York City. (Full 48-page report not readily available to the general public.) Thousands of studies have been done to show what's wrong with K-12 education and how to fix it. Will this one also wind up in the education reform dustbin?

Knowing what works and penetrating the status-quo inertia of the present system is a Herculean effort and usually goes nowhere except where real leadership and champions for change exist for the long term. Will these insights fare better within the education establishment?

"Two Harvard researchers looked at the factors that actually improve student achievement and those that don’t. In a new paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Will Dobbie and Roland Freyer analyzed 35 charter schools, which generally have greater flexibility in terms of school structure and strategy. They found that traditionally emphasized factors such as class size made little difference, compared with some new criteria:

We find that traditionally collected input measures — class size, per pupil expenditure, the fraction of teachers with no certification, and the fraction of teachers with an advanced degree — are not correlated with school effectiveness. In stark contrast, we show that an index of five policies suggested by over forty years of qualitative research — frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations — explains approximately 50 percent of the variation in school effectiveness..." [emphasis added dju]

Barnes & Noble, Taking On Amazon in the Fight of Its Life - NYTimes.com

I believe print books will become a niche market in just a few years. Why do I say that? Look at the music industry and realize that the CD is a dying breed. As young people have grown up with electronic devices, it's only natural for them to read on the devices as well as listen and view. Whether 'books' in the traditional long form survive as a popular format remains to be seen because attention spans are also notoriously shortened in this digital world.

The big music stores have long ago disappeared from my area.  Music is still sold at Best Buy and Walmart, but I see relatively few shoppers in that department. Instead, people buy and pirate music online. We have one large Barnes & Noble store, and it seems busy enough in a university town, but can it last?

I think I am a realistic example of why printed books will die rapidly. I'm an elderly voracious reader, but infrequently  long-form books, perhaps only a half dozen annually. I read news stories, columns and opinions mostly from my desktop PC, which means, the NY Times, WSJ, various technology and other news sites are my sources.

I am also a Google junkie and use about 20 of their cloud services. It's very difficult to beat 'free' with good apps that are always improving. So reading time on my PC means fewer traditional print books in the easy chair. That's reserved mostly for TV. At first I bought a few Google Books which I read mostly on my Android phone, but occasionally on my desktop PC, too. I like the great convenience of books I own available everywhere without having to lug them around and take up space storing them.

As a dedicated Amazon fan, I buy hundreds of dollars of stuff from them every year for reasons of selection, price and convenience using the Amazon Prime service providing the $79 unlimited 'free' shipping. I also bought myself a Kindle Fire for Christmas and really do like it for convenience and ease of use to read content, browse and buy. Amazon has a real winner here, because it is a gateway to all that Amazon offers, content as well as hard goods. I usually keep it on a table by my easy chair, using it during commercials or when dull TV content prevails. Barnes & Noble lacks this competitive advantage.

The Times story makes no mention of this massive Amazon competitive advantage. For me the choice is simple. Buy a device that provides me the the ability to buy nearly anything, rather than just reading material. It's the reason that I also bought a few shares of Amazon stock at the time I purchased my Kindle Fire. 

bought a couple of Amazon books for the Fire and I really like the ability to send PDF files to it via email for reading or to take documents such as agendas and minutes to a meeting. However, I find that Google does not make it easy to convert documents in their Docs cloud to PDFs for sending via email. (Instead, you download it as a PDF, then attach it to an email to send it from a PC to the Kindle. It would be so much more convenient to to convert to PDF right in Google Docs and send immediately.) I suspect Google makes it a multi-step process for competitive reasons.

In summary, Amazon will win this battle and the traditional print publishers need a different business model. Smart authors will not restrict themselves to books in print, at least not if they want my business.
"...Without Barnes & Noble, the publishers’ marketing proposition crumbles. The idea that publishers can spot, mold and publicize new talent, then get someone to buy books at prices that actually makes economic sense, suddenly seems a reach. Marketing books via Twitter, and relying on reviews, advertising and perhaps an appearance on the “Today” show doesn’t sound like a winning plan.
What publishers count on from bookstores is the browsing effect. Surveys indicate that only a third of the people who step into a bookstore and walk out with a book actually arrived with the specific desire to buy one..."

January 27, 2012

Sixteen Concerned Scientists: No Need to Panic About Global Warming - WSJ.com

Bravo for these scientists' and engineers' willingness to speak out about climate change and for the WSJ to publish their statement.

The climate is always changing, sometimes slowly and sometimes more rapidly. When advocates for rant about 'doing something' to control climate change, my first question is "What is the average temperature of the earth that you would like to reach?" With that answer in hand (or maybe not), my follow-on question is, "How much will it cost and how long will it take." "Finally, who will pay?"

"...A recent study of a wide variety of policy options by Yale economist William Nordhaus showed that nearly the highest benefit-to-cost ratio is achieved for a policy that allows 50 more years of economic growth unimpeded by greenhouse gas controls. This would be especially beneficial to the less-developed parts of the world that would like to share some of the same advantages of material well-being, health and life expectancy that the fully developed parts of the world enjoy now. Many other policy responses would have a negative return on investment. And it is likely that more CO2 and the modest warming that may come with it will be an overall benefit to the planet..."

Camapign for Vermont Electric/Energy Policy Statement

We are beginning to see some policy positions from Bruce Lisman's Campaign for Vermont Prosperity. Here is an excerpt from a recent statement about energy and electricity.
There's another by Jeanne Keller recently issued about Vermont's health care direction.

So far, I like what I'm reading. Whether the Campaign can generate momentum for a different direction remains to be seen because so many Vermont forces are aligned in a direction that relies on government rather than the private sector for prosperity.

Governments can only foster economic prosperity by creating an environment where private sector capitalism can thrive. That's not what this Vermont Administration and Legislature are about.

"Campaign for Vermont believes our state needs an electricity plan without empty sloganeering. Politicians say building a 90 percent renewable energy future will create jobs, save the climate and foster energy independence. It all sounds good. And it is, in the abstract, until we learn about the cost and reliability. For example, most renewable power
sources are intermittent; that is they don't operate reliably all the time. But citizens and job creators need affordable, on-demand "base load" electricity every minute of every day.
Furthermore, Vermont state law obliges utilities to provide customers with low-cost, reliable power."

Google, Look Out Behind You! | TechCrunch

Worth a read to understand one guru's view of the battle royal between Google, Apple and Facebook. (No mention of Microsoft) in light of Apple's 'blow 'em away' earnings reported last quarter. Apple's profit was greater than Google's revenue!

In summary, it's all about mobile and the absolute control that Apple has over its ecosystem of devices and software to control the customer experience. I wonder if that dominance will eventually lead to anti-trust scrutiny as Microsoft faced with it's Internet browser?
"Google is also threatened by the inexorable rise of the social internet. Its admirable roll-out of Google Plus over the recent past is almost entirely related to that threat. And at now 90 million users and growing, Google Plus is definitely off to a good start. The decision to change Google Search into a “Search plus Your World” experience this week is probably a necessary part of the response to Facebook also. The controversy that led Larry Page to reportedly suggest that employees who are hanging onto the old Google to go and work elsewhere is a misplaced loyalty to a model that can no longer be sufficient to ensure Google remains relevant. However, by focusing on the strategic threat posed by Facebook almost exclusively, Google may have waited too long, and have the wrong strategy, to beat a more serious challenger – Apple."

North Korea threatens to punish mobile-phone users as 'war criminals' - Telegraph

The leaders of North Korea are so far removed from reality as to be considered fools. How does the world negotiate with fools, nuclear fools at that?
"North Korea has warned that any of its citizens caught trying to defect to China or using mobile phones during the 100-day mourning period for Kim Jong-il will be branded as "war criminals" and punished accordingly."

January 20, 2012

Judge Rules Vermont's Legislature has Overreached ...Yet Again

The decision yesterday by U.S. District Judge Murtha in the case brought by Entergy against the State of Vermont is a clear victory for the plaintiff and one more rebuff of Vermont's Legislature for making laws that are unconstitutional. Vermont Attorney General Sorrell sits in an even darker shadow for apparently failing to provide proper legal guidance to the Legislature at the time these laws are considered.  Even to a layman the outcome of this case was obvious long before it was filed. The Commerce clause of the Constitution would prevail and Judge Murtha has ruled correctly.

Whether a Vermonter is for or against nuclear power generated in Vermont, one cannot fail to recognize that in this case and in prior cases dealing with election laws and prescription drug information, Vermont continues to step beyond the U.S. Constitution and has a losing record when challenged in Federal court. Let's hope that wisdom will prevail and that Vermont will not appeal this case to waste yet more money.

Vermonters deserve better from their Governor, their Legislature and their Attorney General. This and prior litigation at the Supreme Court has unnecessarily wasted millions of taxpayer dollars. More form the national media on the the Vermont Attorney General's court performances here from Dave Gram, a Vermont AP reporter, in the San Jose Mercury News.

Voters should pay heed to these events and elect people who have greater respect for the Constitution and who will resist their ideology-driven law-making.

Finally, kudos to those in the Vermont Senate who voted against these laws that have been found unconstitutional.

January 19, 2012

No Anti-Corporate Amendment to the Constitution

In Vermont we are watching an effort led by various liberal/socialist elements to amend the Constitution in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case. We have slogans such as "Money is not speech," "a corporation is not a person" and others to gin up the emotions of their followers. We see State Senators (Lyons & Campbell) leading rallies calling for a resolution supporting an Amendment to restrict free speech. [There are several versions floating around. The former link is just one.] And the usual activists, including Ben And Jerry's founder Jerry Greenfield, are beating the drum against political free speech by corporations.

I'm not an attorney, but in reading portions of the Citizen's United decision which has raised the hackles of these people who would amend the Constitution, I find this comment by Justice Scalia writing in response to Justice Stevens' dissent most relevant:

"But to return to, and summarize, my principal point, which is the conformity of today’s opinion with the original meaning of the First Amendment. The Amendment is written in terms of “speech,” not speakers. Its text offers no foothold for excluding any category of speaker, from single individuals to partnerships of individuals, to unincorporated associations of individuals, to incorporated associations of individuals—and the dissent offers no evidence about the original meaning of the text to support any such exclusion. We are therefore simply left with the question whether the speech at issue in this case is “speech” covered by the First Amendment. No one says  otherwise. A documentary film critical of a potential Presidential candidate is core political speech, and its nature as such does not change simply because it was funded by a corporation. Nor does the character of that funding produce any reduction whatever in the “inherent worth of the speech” and “its capacity for informing the public,” First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U. S. 765, 777 (1978).
Indeed, to exclude or impede corporate speech is to muzzle the principal agents of the modern free economy. We should celebrate rather than condemn the addition of this speech to the public debate."

Scalia has it right. To the detriment of our public discourse, the 'class warfare' element of today's deeply partisan politics paints large, for-profit corporations as society's 'enemy.' Operating on that belief, some reject capitalism as the basis of our free society and would restrict free speech by restraining corporations from exercising that right.

Americans should reject that belief and premise if they support the Constitution. We should allow and encourage political speech of all kinds, but demand transparency in who pays for it.

No Constitutional amendment is necessary or desirable to constrain free speech in nothing more than a blatant attempt to muzzle certain speakers.

Some argue that the Constitution already provides Congress a remedy for constrain the Judiciary. Whether Congress would act under Article III, Section 2
to restrict the Judiciary

[ this part of Section 2: "In all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be party, the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction. In all the other cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction, both as to law and fact, with such exceptions, and under such regulations as the Congress shall make."] [emphasis added]

in the domain of political speech/spending is doubtful. After all, they are politicians who are financed by all sorts of 'special interests.'

January 18, 2012

Recession in 2012? Likely Says Hoisington Investment Management Company

This report is commented on by John Mauldin in his 'Outside the Box' newsletter this week and is also referenced in "The Big Picture" blog/newsletter by Martin Rithotlz
"...In highly indebted countries, governments have expansively taken resources from the private sector through taxing and borrowing. This leaves the private sector with less vigor to produce jobs and increase productivity, and subsequently wealth for its fellow citizens. This theory, which dates back to David Hume's essay, Of Public Credit published in 1752, is now being played out in real time in the United States. We judge that when an economy is expanding in such a meager fashion it is exposed to an increasing frequency of recessions. We expect such a recessionary event to emerge in 2012 [emphasis added]...."

January 16, 2012

The Rise of the New Groupthink - NYTimes.com

Support for the creative introvert! Groups are useful for some tasks, but truly useful work gets done when people can focus quietly and itently on the problem or issue they are working on.

Bouncing ideas off other people is essential, but inwardly motivated people do better with periods of solitude, deep thinking and intense work. They may participate in crowd-sourcing, but their well-thought-out ideas are better formed if first created alone, then tested with others.
"...But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority....”"

January 12, 2012

Justices Recognize ‘Ministerial Exception’ to Job Bias Laws - NYTimes.com

Thankfully, the Supreme Court rejected the Executive Branch arguments that a religious group should be viewed the same as any other organized group of people under civil rights legislation and administration policy. This decision shows that the Constitution clearly protects freedom of religion and trumps the desire of the Congress or the Executive to meddle in non-secular affairs.

"Many religious groups were outraged when the Obama administration argued in support of Ms. Perich, saying this was evidence that the administration was hostile to historically protected religious liberties.

The administration had told the justices that their analysis of Ms. Perich’s case should be essentially the same whether she had been employed by a church, a labor union, a social club or any other group with free-association rights under the First Amendment. That position received withering criticism when the case was argued in October, and it was soundly rejected in Wednesday’s decision."

January 10, 2012

Slow Job Recovery - More Technology, Less Labor

(Chart courtesy of "The Big Picture " blog (Ritholtz); originally from thechartstore.com)

The chart below shows that the recovery from this Great Recession as measured in jobs is considerably slower than the composite of all periods since WWII. Why is this?

My reading and observation convinces me that we are in a period of what I'll call rapid digital productivity (RDP).

We have been through massive technological change in the past, e.g., from manual labor to steam, the Industrial Revolution, and electrification where job dislocation occurred. Employment rebounded because the average Jane and Joe could learn new skills relatively quickly and adapt to the requirements of a new work environment and different industries. Training and apprenticeships enabled most people to cope so that they became employable and could earn a decent wage in these new or expanded industries.

More recently in the 20th Century, institutions such as public education, government, private sector, and union training programs helped people learn new skills and find new jobs in basically the same economy that existed in the former 'good times.'

I believe this era in the 21st Century is different. As digital technologies, massive networks of information, quantum leaps in software capability, miniaturization, robotics and other advances in digital/computer technology (RDP) pervade more industries, the actual work available that requires humans to perform is shrinking. Businesses are finding that they can easily substitute capital investment in these RDP technologies for labor. The inputs required for the same or increased output have become far less labor intensive. That means fewer jobs while growth, albeit more slowly, occurs.

I think we are in the midst of a massive transformation that will continue to reduce the need for labor to produce the goods and services that we need to live reasonably well. Machines and systems will continue to eliminate labor as the RDP technologies are more broadly deployed. Thus, the recovery and growth in the economy to create jobs will be far slower than promised by politicians of all stripes.

Many simply do not understand the radical transformation underway. They may believe that we will return to the 'old days' when jobs came back when a  recession ended. Some leaders prefer to talk about the hollowing-out of the middle class and blame the 'rich' as the problem, seeking a redistribution of wealth as a panacea. The problem is far deeper than that polarizing rhetoric and the solutions exceedingly more difficult than simply changing Presidents or members of Congress.

What has worked historically such as government stimulus and deficit spending may have a short term positive impact by pumping money into the economy. Demand for goods and services and some job growth may result, but this will not suffice for the long term because of the radical nature of the RDP technological transformation underway.

Instead, we need a basic re-thinking of the nature of work and the institutions that provide people the skills and resources to work productively in an economy that has declining need for the traditional skills of middle-class people. The inertia of our institutions far exceeds the increasing momentum of technological change.

A recent (January 2012) analysis of jobs and income in Vermont by the Public Assets Institute fails to even allude to the effects of technology (RDP) in the hollowing out of the middle class in the past decade or two, preferring to resort to political and policy reasons. This leads me to believe that many simply do not understand the deep effect that technology has had on the nature of work and middle class jobs in America.

January 9, 2012

Embezzlement BFP Editorial DJU Response 010212 - Google Docs

My comments below published on Sunday, January 8, 2012 on the Burlington Free Press Forum Page with the headline "Transparency Won't Stop Embezzlers."

"Your editorial on Friday, December 30, 2011 (“As a matter of trust, state must guard public welfare”) incorrectly conflates a lack of government information transparency with state government’s failure in its responsibility to have prevented Vermont’s embezzlement epidemic.
You opine: “...state government is as responsible for the misbehavior as any official with the League of Cities and Towns or the Town of Bethel who has not employed preventive measures. State government at best has been indifferent and at worst irresponsible in regard to its obligation to provide at least a minimally effective watchdog. By this inaction, the custodians of grass roots governance have become the enablers of thievery.”
 The primary reason people steal from the public (and private) till is because they are dishonest. Surely, proper oversight by those closest to the action, i.e., supervisors and others who are responsible for the safety of funds, has been deficient for any number of reasons. To cast the blame for the rash of embezzlements on state government and connect it to your vendetta for government information transparency misses the mark. 
People steal because they want to or fail to resist the temptation of easy pickings. You may argue that more government is needed to make up for the moral deficiencies of humankind, but the truth is our ‘me first’ culture, the breakdown of morality, family connections and community values, is the root cause of this epidemic. This deficiency cannot be cured by yet more government laws, regulations and employees.
 Government transparency has nothing to do with this epidemic. A growing lack of individual responsibility and morality is the cause, pure and simple. Because that’s the underlying cause, anyone with fiduciary responsibility must guard the funds for which they are responsible and enforce safeguards already known and prescribed. Vigilant local supervision and safeguards are the solution."

January 7, 2012

Why Islamism Is Winning - NYTimes.com

This piece makes sense. We may not like it, but the Islamist revival in some of those countries that experienced the 2011 Arab Spring may well turn into an Arab Winter.

"...Political Islam, especially the strict version practiced by Salafists in Egypt, is thriving largely because it is tapping into ideological roots that were laid down long before the revolts began. Invented in the 1920s by the Muslim Brotherhood, kept alive by their many affiliates and offshoots, boosted by the failures of Nasserism and Baathism, allegedly bankrolled by Saudi and Qatari money, and inspired by the defiant example of revolutionary Iran, Islamism has for years provided a coherent narrative about what ails Muslim societies and where the cure lies. Far from rendering Islamism unnecessary, as some experts forecast, the Arab Spring has increased its credibility; Islamists, after all, have long condemned these corrupt regimes as destined to fail."
"Liberalism in 19th-century Europe, and Islamism in the Arab world today, are like channels dug by one generation of activists and kept open, sometimes quietly, by future ones. When the storms of revolution arrive, whether in Europe or the Middle East, the waters will find those channels. Islamism is winning out because it is the deepest and widest channel into which today’s Arab discontent can flow."

January 5, 2012

Internet Access Is Not a Human Right - NYTimes.com

Mr. Cerf is absolutely correct in his view about the Internet. It is certainly not a human right, and arguably not a civil right, important as it is to our personal and social well-being.

The same rationale applies to health care. Despite the recent campaign here in Vermont by the The Workers Center, health care is not a human right. Unfortunately too many Vermont legislators believe that false rhetoric and now we are on a deliberate path toward single-payer socialized medicine, mostly on a wing and a prayer.

"Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection — without pretending that access itself is such a right."

January 4, 2012

Google's New Year resolution must be Android's virtualization | ZDNet

Google should fix this problem right away. While Android is an 'open' platform, to deny end users updates for their phones because of a lack of coordination between Google, phone manufacturers and carriers is a problem that should have been solved by now. This creates unnecessary ill will, finger-pointing and customer frustration
"...If this Android fragmentation and update problem is left unchecked, it could ultimately result in customers defecting from the platform and pursuing other options, such as as the iPhone as well as even Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 offering, both of which do not have these types of problems.
Why don’t they have these problems? The answer is simple. In the case of both iOS and Windows Phone 7, both Apple and Microsoft have full control over their platforms..."

January 3, 2012

Building Storehouses for the Sun’s Energy, for Use After Dark - NYTimes.com

This approach seems sensible and likely to succeed because energy storage has always been the problem with renewable sources like the wind and the sun.
However, it's probably only viable for those portions of the grid served by very high sunlight locations, i.e., the Southwest. Unlikely that this technology would ever be viable in the northeast U.S. or the Pacific Northwest where cloudiness rules.

"If solar energy is eventually going to matter— that is, generate a significant portion of the nation’s electricity — the industry must overcome a major stumbling block, experts say: finding a way to store it for use when the sun isn’t shining.
That challenge seems to be creating an opening for a different form of power, solar thermal, which makes electricity by using the sun’s heat to boil water. The water can be used to heat salt that stores the energy until later, when the sun dips and households power up their appliances and air-conditioning at peak demand hours in the summer.

January 2, 2012

Nobody Understands Debt - NYTimes.com

Nobody Understands Debt - NYTimes.com

Krugman is the ultimate Keynesian, even winning a Noble prize for his work. He seems also to posess a massive ego because he's so certain that he's right! But what if he and the Keynesians are wrong?

I'm no economist, but I think he's wrong about government spending and debt because today's and tomorrow's economy is unlike that of the past where the theory arguably worked fairly well.

I believe accelerating technological change makes for a very different economic reality than in the past. I am persuaded that we are entering a future where jobs will continue to disappear because human work, even complex human work, will increasingly be done by powerful computing networks and robotic systems. As this change accelerates, the need for workers with the "middle skills" (the middle-class) will continue to diminish while the population grows.

Of course, people will continue to be needed in certain service work such as plumbers, technical service, equipment and infrastructure maintenance and health care. Lower paying work like food service, agricultural labor, gardening, etc. that aren't yet adaptable to automation will certainly be required.

Higher skilled jobs designing and servicing these complex digital and robotic systems will be in short supply, because people are changing and re-skilling more slowly than technology is advancing. Our institutions and education have inertia that is unequal to the momentum of society's adoption of advancing technology. The economy seems to be much more capital than labor intensive for the same output.

More than likely, so-called structural unemployment will not disappear quickly, but may become worse. This means fewer taxpayers and increasing burdens on society's productive people to support those who receive ever-increasing benefits provided by government spending which now requires borrowing about 40 cents for every dollar spent.

Krugman's approach may have worked for yesterday's economy, but will likely fail tomorrow's reality. He offers scant evidence that increasing government spending and debt will produce the kind of skills and jobs that will be essential to success in tomorrow's economy. Presumably, he's not advocating 'make-work' jobs with debt spending. Or is he?

If his theory and advocacy is wrong, we face government growth and costs that we cannot afford.

"...So yes, debt matters. But right now, other things matter more. We need more, not less, government spending to get us out of our unemployment trap. And the wrongheaded, ill-informed obsession with debt is standing in the way."