Thursday, December 30, 2010

POW: David Eisenhower

Milt Rosenberg put out a nice interview with David Eisenhower, grandson of Ike.  Interesting enough that I’d look at his book.  I see it as a complement to Nixon Agonistes.  Perhaps what Wills saw as contempt looked like formality to a member of the family…  I wonder how that worked once the kids got married.


T.A. Barnhart has an interesting post on party primaries.  He makes an argument that specific interests are better pursued through major party participation rather then splitting and forming a third party.  It’s the inverse of Bob Packwood’s conception that major parties are dominated by special interests, driving away moderate voters. 

The bottom line to me is that participating in a major party is good, whatever your interest.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Teacher Ranking: A Pessimistic Note

From the NY Times.  You can always find examples of misclassification when you apply a discrimination function:  A mispriced insurance risk, an unfair speeding ticket, a student penalized because of poor handwriting.  What is important is to have clear channels of redress.  If a teacher thinks their ranking is unfair, they should by all means make the case to change it. 

Note how that doesn’t happen when the rankings aren’t part of the evaluation.  If the rankings don’t matter then teachers have no reason to correct them and they don’t mean anything.  In other words, it isn’t a ranking at all if there are no consequences.

Friday, December 10, 2010

More goodness in teacher evaluations:Students

Courtesy of the Gates foundation.  Novel concept- students who spend an ungodly number of hours with teachers over the course of a year maybe come out knowing something about how effective or ineffective the teacher is.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Kudos to Hillsboro

This is the second time I’ve seen the Hillsboro School District aggressively seek to engage the public in navigating the coming budget cuts.  Good things can happen when you try, even in dark times.  PPS is still asleep at the switch.  Will they cut gym?  Cut a week or two off the school year?  Not talking about it now guarantees a rushed decision when the time comes, and inevitable push back from parents who don’t know any better.

Maybe their plan is to make writing letters to congress into an annual tradition- like writing letters to Santa Claus.

More efforts on teacher rating

The Gates Foundation gets into the act in a big way.  I especially liked the comments on using retired principals or teachers to review video of teacher performance.  Why not expand that to parents as well?

One of the craziest mismatches in education is the number of people who want to help their kids vs. the number of people who can improve what goes on in school.  Video allows time-shifting and space-shifting, vastly expanding the pool of people a principal could draw on.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Chicago Politics

There are many things I miss about living in Chicagoland, its political apathy and concomitant tolerance for corruption and government waste is not one of them.  Any effort to hold a politician to account before the law is something to be applauded.  That it is a creep like Rahm Emmanuel makes it all the better…

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

SharePoint Adoption

Economics of Information noted a recent survey showing business users by and large ignoring Microsoft’s structured file sharing service, SharePoint.  They ask why people still use email to collaborate, despite its nominal inefficiencies.  Here are my thoughts based on my experiences in the finance industry:

  • Disclosure matters.  Having a simple, understandable-by-a-judge document that says A sent X to B on such and such date is critical on a number of levels.  It can prove whether a contract was respected or violated or whether or not a department or employee did it’s job correctly or incorrectly.  And yes, intra-company conflicts are no less bloody or consequential even if lawyers are not involved.  SharePoint nominally accomplishes this, but with more ambiguity.  Say a file changes, how do people know what changed and whether it’s pertinent to them?  How do you set policy so that you even know whether everyone knows that a file changed?  Unless you are very, very careful in how you set policy you lose knowledge about disclosure.  Most managers don’t have time to figure that out and won’t take the risk in adopting something could reduce their control of process.
  • Collaboration in the creation of office documents is over-rated.  Most technical documents have a two step life.  An analyst level person creates the document and a manager reviews and makes changes as necessary, and it’s done.  When I have seen manuscript type documents where you need multiple managers reviewing/editing a single document, it’s almost always a formal sign-off process where you need documentation that everyone reviewed and approved.  I could imagine SharePoint doing that but again you’d need a lot of policy work to automate the documentation, this time cutting across departments.
  • Another note on collaboration- I’ve had SOX auditors tell me they don’t like seeing office documents involved in material financial calculations at all.  I can’t imagine them being comfortable with something that introduces even a shred of additional ambiguity.  SOX compliance is another reason managers are probably reluctant to change process.

All of this is to say that you need a lot of policy work to control notification and documentation of such.  That can be done but requires an investment of time by managers, and the payoff compared to using email doesn’t cut it.

If I were running a startup I’d demand people use a structured file system with lots of opportunity for markup information (what is this, what does it pertain to etc.) and I’d expect businesses that use it to have a considerable advantage down the road (how much time do you spend trying to untangle the work of predecessors?)  I would not expect established businesses, especially big ones with lots of history, to lead the charge.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wireless Responder Networks

Why do politicians crave wireless networks for responders?  Is there an example anywhere, anywhere in the country where one of these projects produced any kind of positive return on the money dumped on them?  Thanks to the passage of ballot measure 26-117 I get to pay for TWO of these fiascos.  Joy.

Monday, November 15, 2010

POW: Bob Packwood

Interesting speech by Bob Packwood at Portland City Club a few weeks ago.  Packwood was a popular republican known for his skill in building bipartisan coalitions.  Key legislative accomplishments include the 1986 tax reform and deregulating the trucking industry.

His comments on the need to disempower the parties and the wingnuts who control them are particularly apt given the results the recent election.  Perhaps some people were paying attention:

There were also reports last week of moderate Republicans and Democrats meeting to form a new majority coalition that could elect its own speaker.

Good luck, folks!

PS.  to Bob Packwood:  Don’t be a stranger!

Bike Injuries

Interesting article in today’s O.  One in 5 chance of injury over 12 months, one in 20 requiring medical attention.  What exactly would happen if a car manufacturer put out a vehicle which injured 20% of it’s passengers in a 12 month period?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

POW: Ha-Joon Chang

LSE sponsored an interesting lecture by Ha-Joon Chang.  An asia centric economist, worth listening to for his dismissal of western veneration of entrepreneurialism (stability matters).

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What I’m reading now

The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, and the Battle for the Supreme Court by Sloan and McKean.  A popular history of Marbury vs Madison and it’s historical context.  I’m a sucker for accounts of the Adams-Jefferson years.  So many coincidences and contingent outcomes, it gives you hope that no matter how screwed up things seem now it won’t seem so bad in retrospect…

Cool Quote

The history of finance is partly the history of a struggle for a stable, secure way to measure value.

I like that.  It captures how measure is both integral to the economy and uncertain.  It makes for interesting conversation when you have to explain things like IBNR reserves to a SOX auditor.  The whole article is interesting, even a little prescient of the current political layout.  What else has this guy written?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Russ Roberts better get moving

If he wants to preserve his narrative that the real estate bubble was because of Fannie and Freddie.  Conservatives jump all over government when it fails to live up to it’s ideals, but they give a pass to private businesses even when they engage in blatant fraud and embezzlement.  Private enterprise has no inherently virtue, and when scaled up to the size of investment banks their missteps are every bit as consequential as anything the government does.  So why the free pass?

Wow, I like something by Jeff Jacoby

I’ve read his columns on and off since I was a teenager, this is the first time I’ve seen one I’d recommend.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

School Performance Data: an untapped resource

Patrick Emerson writes about school reform.  These lines stood out to me:

What is needed is a little humility and a desire to learn what works on the part of policy makers.  PPS, for example, is sitting on a mountain of incredibly valuable data, but as far as I am aware no real study of this data is being done.

Data indeed!  Every homework assignment, quiz, or test creates comparative data by student and class.  The volume of that data compared with standardized tests is overwhelming.  What happens to it?  Aside from being added to some semester average that ultimately results in a letter grade, what use is made of it?

Success stories like Bridger or Pauling show good things can happen when you actually use that data by making coursework contingent on performance, constantly evaluating and adjusting as you go.  Those schools make coursework dynamic, teaching students what they need to learn versus what the teacher thought the class needed to learn when they set lesson plans at the beginning of the year.  That is what information technology does best- making something specific and relevant instead of general and irrelevant.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bad Documentation = World of Pain

Just when you thought the real estate market couldn’t get more screwed up along comes this.  And it’s corollary, this.  Managing documentation is not rocket science.  It’s kind-of sort-of legally required when it comes to numbers through Sarbanes Oxley.  So why is it that big companies still get caught with their pants down like this?  Sound business processes- don’t leave home without them.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

POW: Geoffrey Robertson

LSE sponsored Geoffrey Robertson speaking on the Vatican’s possible criminal liability under international law for it’s conduct in covering up and perpetuating the sexual abuse of children.  Robertson made a compelling case, far stronger then I expected.  The money line was the anecdote about how the pope had made the act of ordaining  a woman as serious an offense against the church as molesting a child.  This should be considered progress, as previously the Church thought ordaining women was worse…

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Things that make me laugh, Mel Gibson edition

The Guardian published a reasonable discussion of historical fiction and it’s place in literature.  But the second comment had me laughing out loud:

In 1997 a statue of Gibson as "William Wallace" was placed outside the Wallace Monument near Stirling, Scotland. The statue, which includes the word "Braveheart" on Wallace’s shield, was the cause of much controversy and one local resident stated that it was wrong to "desecrate the main memorial to Wallace with a lump of crap". In 1998 the statue was vandalized by someone who smashed the face in with a hammer. After repairs were made, the statue was encased in a cage at night to prevent further vandalism. This has only incited more calls for the statue to be removed as it now appears that the Gibson/Wallace figure is imprisoned; an irony, considering that the statue bears the word "Freedom" on the plinth.

Picture here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Information Technology at it’s best…

Information Technology at it’s can best makes things which more specific and relevant, instead of general and irrelevant.  Think about what you watch on Hulu or On-Demand Cable, vs. the old days of network TV.  Here we see IT applied to non-profit organizations.  By making donors more informed their donations can more effectively serve their interests, and that is a good thing.

New Toy

I got my first ever personal laptop.  I can remember back in 94 sitting in a friend’s room in college while she showed me her powerbook.  I thought at the time it was tacky.  Who knew?


Sunday, September 5, 2010

POW: Bacevich on Extension 720

Milt Rosenberg recently had Andrew Bacevich on his show, Extension 720. This was a very brave discussion as Milt in the last few years has evolved into a conservative wing-nut. I'm shocked and immensely pleased that Milt hosted the show as well as he did.

Bacevich is one of the most perceptive critics of American foreign policy writing today, and his views deserve far more attention then they get. Kudos to Milt for giving him a platform, and constructively engaging his ideas.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Race to where?

Not that I want to encourage Oregon in blowing off federal grant money, but there is an interesting story on where the Race to the Top funds actually went. Food for thought: If urban bias was pervasive, how did North Carolina and Georgia win?

Friday, August 20, 2010

LA Times Grades the Teachers

This is an enormously interesting article.

I'm sure this isn't the first time a researcher has ranked teachers, or that a district has reviewed such rankings, but to put such rankings into the hands of parents is radical. It's the first time I've seen anyone- company, school district, non-profit, ANYONE- put into the hands of parents a tool for evaluating individual teacher quality.

Action in the face of trouble

It's good to see a community taking control of it's destiny and confronting the long term funding issue. A lot more inspiring then anything the Portland Public School District has done.

Friday, August 13, 2010

IT in Hospitals

Interesting review of the impact of IT investment by hospitals.  Bottom line- without business process improvement better tech doesn't help.  That jives with work by Brynjolfsson & Saunders that real value lies in improving business process and tech in tandem, whereas the former in practice tends to lag the latter by many years.

My own two cents:  Process improvement can't be done by IT folk.  You can't properly re-engineer someone's business if you don't know it, and by the time IT folks learn it the tech will be outdated.  Better to put a system up fast, and then give the people who actually do the work pathways and incentives to improve their own processes.  Let it evolve, with supervision.  It's easier to teach them a little tech then teach a tech person a lot of [whatever].

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bookstores of the Future?

This passage in a NY Times article stood out:
“The shift from the physical to the digital book can pick up some of the
economic slack, but it can’t pick up the loss that is created when you
don’t have the customers browsing the displays,” said Laurence J.
Kirshbaum, a literary agent. “We need people going into stores and
seeing a book they didn’t know existed and buying it.”

As a customer, I don't see any need for that whatsoever.  As a method of discovery browsing is a terrible waste of time compared with shopping on the web.  If you like thumbing lots of books just because you can, libraries are superior. 

If I were a literary agent this is the question I'd try to answer, "How can I better connect my author with readers, both current and potential?"  If the answer involves bookstores you are probably barking up the wrong tree.

Monday, August 9, 2010

David Cameron Watch

More on the implementation of budget cuts in Britain.  How about a holding a lottery to allocate lottery funds to filmmakers?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Another chapter from the book of IT Hell

It isn't funny seeing a story like this in times like these.  Their finance and IT group employs all of 22 people.  How could that have ever made sense?

Sticky Wage Suicide

A police union in a high crime district prefers laying off a third of its staff rather then accept a pay cut.  Not only is it self destructive in the sense that the union is choosing to have far fewer union members, it is literally self destructive in that the remaining officers face increased risk of injury or death as a result of less backup.  Who says wages aren't sticky?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Kitzhaber got a lot of scratch from the health care industry

What sticks out to me is that 30% of Kitzhabers funds come from the health care industry.  Normally when you see an industry give gobs of money to a politician there is a reason- like how the next governor will be instrumental in implementing the national health insurance reforms.  Kitzh may be a decent guy and the contributions could be entirely circumstantial (he probably knows a lot of hospital CEO's), but still this doesn't look good.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Followup on Oregonian article

Jeff Alworth picked up on the Oregonian story about the state budget problems.  He mostly picks over causation- are public employee benefits to blame, did we spend too much in 2007, is the kicker at fault...  I'm disappointed with the discussion.  What it boils down to is defend employee benefits, defend democrats, and attack the kicker.  Only the last of those addresses balancing the budget, and that has virtually no chance of passing in time to affect the next biennium.

This is all dancing around the issue, which is that a lot of cutting is going to happen.  How should government agencies make those cuts?  How should the public be involved?  There is time to figure those things out, but only if we try.  The alternative is what we saw with PPS recently- the school board looking like deer caught in the headlights for weeks on end, arbitrary cuts that elicit mass public opposition but no alternatives...  Basically crap government (PPS still hasn't passed a reality-based balanced budget, the school year begins in 6 weeks).  Is that really how this has to play out?

State Budget

The Oregonian began a sobering series on the Oregon state budget outlook for the upcoming biennium. 

The money quote:

For decades, we put ourselves at the same status level as Washington, our wealthier sister to the north. Now, Tapogna says, 'we are beginning to look a lot more like Idaho.'

The article put the magic number at 3.7 Billion, that is the gap to be filled by either tax increases or spending cuts. Given political realities, it is extremely unlikely significant tax increases will be passed. That leads to the question: How do we determine where spending will be cut? I’m assuming there is not $3.7B of “fat” in the budget. Therefore at some point we will have to tell someone who depends on state funding that they will have to make do with less. How do we pick who?

I ask because I believe this to be THE issue for the next legislative session and governor. How effectively that question is answered is how effectively state government will function, perhaps for years to come.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

For-Profit College=Monster?

per the Economist.  I don't understand their criticism.  If students are abusing education loans and taking on too much debt, maybe the government shouldn't lend them so much money?  I don't see how that is the responsibility of the colleges.

More broadly, the article casts aspersions because the for-profits are picking up excess demand that community colleges can't meet.  Why is this a bad thing?  Would the world be better if students unable to go to community college had nowhere to go?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

David Cameron

When Obama was elected I expected a radical break with policies of the past, a wholesale rejection of the Bush regime and the cynicism that underlie it.  What a disappointment.  Britain appears to have embarked on a far more ambitious course.  What stood out to me:
If successful, it will lift what the new leaders say is the state’s
heavy hand on public life, restricting its reach into schools and
hospitals, slashing welfare benefits and reviewing intrusive
law-and-order Labour programs that have alarmed advocates for civil

This is the first time I've seen anyone in power, conservative or liberal, challenge the primacy of national security.  The economics may be shady, but anyone who takes civil liberties seriously gets a star in my book.  On the other side of the balance sheet there is this from Labor:
Weakened and divided by its May election defeat and temporarily
rudderless as it awaits the election this fall of a new leader to
succeed Mr. Brown, Labour has resolved to halt many of the changes by
all means possible.

Sounds an awful lot like the GOP.  That isn't a  compliment.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Anna Griffin on Oregon Unions

Anna Griffin put out a sharp column criticizing public employee unions in Oregon and particularly Portland.  The short version:
Back before government started regulating industry and muckraking
reporters decided that 18-hour workdays weren't healthy, union
organizers were the true reformers.

They kept factories safe,
made whistle-blowing possible and generally looked out for the little


Yet public employee unions now seem to block change more than promote

How fair is this?  Griffin cites four examples to back up her claim.

First, deputies and corrections officers stopped Multnomah County from changing the County Sheriff's position to one appointed instead of being elected.  That qualifies as blocking change, but is it blocking a reform?  That looks more to me like a turf battle, the kind that afflicts any large bureaucracy.  Ted Wheeler wanted a sheriff subordinate to the county commission, the sheriff and his people wanted to retain independence.  Where is the reform?

Second, Portland police and civilian oversight.  Griffin is on firm ground here, sadly.  The union under Westerman was nuts and an emarrassment to the city.  I give this one to Griffin with an asterisk for the fact that union leadership makes a big difference, for better or for worse.

Third Griffin cites the Portland teachers union for balking at reopening their contract and accepting a salary freeze.  The union may be harming the public good, but I don't see this is a reform issue.  I've heard of many large corporations where there was no union and management unilaterally announced wage freezes.  That may have been for the good of the company but was it reform in any meaningful sense?  Griffin could actually make a much better case against the teachers.  They oppose switching class schedules from a 5/7 (teach 5 out of 7 periods and take 2 for prep) to a 6/8.  The 6/8 allows more total sections and increases the potential offerings of a school without increasing cost, it is also the norm in the metro region outside of PPS.  There is also the union's opposition to charter schools.  Either of those make a more compelling case for obstructing reform then seeking higher wages.  I'll give a point here because the teachers union is obstructing reform, even if it isn't for the reasons Griffin gives.

Finally, Griffin cites state employees for opposing cuts in benefits.  At first blush this looks like a fight over pay, like the teachers union issue above.  However I think the pension issue deserves special consideration.  The pension plan essentially acts as deferred compensation, it allows the state and municipalities to put people on the payroll now and pay later.  That is a terrible practice policy wise, it allows agencies to avoid balancing their budget and saddle future taxpayers with deferred compensation payments.  I'd say ending that constitutes reform.  The fight over health care benefits is not as that is paid up front.  So half a point here.

Griffin says that 3 points make a trend, by that measure she comes up short at 2.5.  I wish she used a finer brush in painting her criticism of the unions.  There are real problems that have to be confronted, using loose rhetoric doesn't make that task easier.

Monday, July 19, 2010

POW: Clay Shirkey

I just got around to listening to a very good lecture by Clay Shirky sponsored by LSE.  Shirky discusses his concept of "Cognitive Surplus".  The gist of it is that by converting a small sliver of the time otherwise spent watching TV (passively consuming) into active creation we are able to reap enormous benefits.  For example, the total number of all hours spent creating wikipedia is less then the time we spend watching commercials on any given weekend. 

The internet thus far has provided mostly private benefits.  Those interested in a particular topic are empowered to discover and create content virtually cost free, excluding time.  That isn't a bad thing, but what Shirky looks forward to is projects with a global impact- voluntary collaborative efforts that fundamentally change cultures.

This was an entertaining and interesting lecture, I strongly recommend it.

Fans of Shirky's work can find an Econtalk interview from 2008 here.