Free speech on campus: Is the argument really about the purpose of college?


Students at various American colleges are asserting a right not to hear anything that upsets them. I’m wondering if the reason the “free speech” and “no hurtful speech” groups can’t agree is that they disagree about the purpose of college.

Consider this open letter from a bunch of old people who work at, or used to work at, Yale. They start off by saying essentially the following: yes, being liberal/progressive is the only proper way to think, but Erika Christakis is actually a proper liberal with safe ideas. The old folks continue “While the university stands for many values, none is more central than the value of free expression of ideas.” The old people conclude by pointing out that the targets of student anger have been working “toward social justice,” e.g., by “making house visits to underserved populations.” So students should attack conservatives instead of the liberal Nicholas and Erika Christakis? (The letter does raise the question of what would happen if someone cracked into the Christakis set-top box and discovered that the social justice crusaders were secretly watching Fox News. Would they then no longer have a right to express their point of view regarding Halloween costumes?)

Let’s focus on the unsupported proposition that “none is more central than the value of free expression of ideas.” What if the young people who are protesting don’t agree? Perhaps to them Yale is a high-priced vocational program. What they want is to get a degree and then a high-paying job. Why should they be subjected to upsetting points of view during this process of vocational training, any more than they would if they went to tractor-trailer driving school? And if the students are going to prepare for work, where exercising freedom of speech will typically cost them their jobs, doesn’t it make sense to set up an environment where ThoughtCrime is punished?

The old people assume, without evidence, that Yale is the Agora of Socrates. Suppose that the students see it instead as an alcohol-soaked stepping stone to the Agora of the Kapeloi? Is that enough to account for the current discord on campus?



Las Vegas rolls out the welcome mat for migrants


Some photos showing that the Statue of Liberty spirit remains strong in the desert heart of our nation…

Touring the Mediocrity Factory (meeting with principal of rich suburban public school)


Everyone knows that the U.S. spends more per student on public education than nearly any other country on the planet (see page 205 of this OECD analysis, for example) but that the measured learning outcomes are mediocre. But how exactly is this mediocrity produced? I went to a “forum with the principal” event in a rich white suburban school district to find out (as noted in The Smartest Kids in the World, while Americans love to blame non-white and/or low-income for our poor performance, even rich white public schools and private schools in the U.S. underperform public schools in the successful countries, such as Finland). This was in Massachusetts, which, as noted recently in the New York Times, has some of the nation’s more effective schools (along with New Jersey, Texas, and Florida). This town’s school system is ranked as one of the better ones in Massachusetts so its performance is “elite” by American standards if not by international ones.

Based on what people said at the forum, the core driver of mediocrity seems to be the dual function of the American school. A home-schooled child studies for three hours per day. A Russian child studies for about four hours, from just after breakfast until just before lunch (with 10-minute breaks, but no recess). Children are parked at an American school for 6-7 hours per day and thus necessarily much of the time is spent on stuff other than learning. This leads to the school becoming a place for “social/emotional development” during 2-3 hours per day. The “social/emotional” aspects were the foremost concerns of the parents at the forum. One mother described how the first 20 minutes out of a 25-minute parent/teacher conference were spent discussing a child’s social life during recess. This was not a complaint, just a response to the question of how such conferences were going. When asked what was on their mind, nearly every other parent led with “social/emotional.” It makes sense if you step back from the situation and ask “What is urgent for a parent?” Of course we would all like our children to be well-educated at age 25 (or 30?) when they are done with the master’s degree that is now our entry-level credential. But the immediate (and therefore urgent) goal is to see one’s child smiling. If a child comes home in tears because of something that happened at recess it would be a rare parent who would say “let’s talk about how what you learned writing this history essay is going to affect your performance in college.”

As this was a new principal and the forum was a place for open discussion, I asked if anyone had read The Smartest Kids in the World, which was a New York Times bestseller and recommended heavily by Amazon, The Economist, and various newspapers. Everyone in the room was either employed by a school or interested enough to take time to show up at this forum, but nobody had read the book. So I mentioned that the Russian system (not much better results than ours, but absurdly cheap to run by comparison) and the Finnish system had schools and teachers concentrate on the single mission of academics. Day care, sports, and social/emotional were handled by people other than teachers in venues other than school. Then I asked if there were state regulations that would prevent the town from setting up a Russian-style system in which teachers taught until lunch and then a separate set of employees took over for the lunch+afternoon social/emotional/daycare shift. That way parents could concentrate on academics when talking with teachers. The principal responded that “children aren’t built that way” (i.e., the American way of alternating academic and daycare activities for 6-7 hours is the only possible way to run a school).

Despite the epic length of the school day, the elementary school kids are assigned homework and one parent asked what was the point of additional drill pages that were similar to ones previously done in class. The principal responded only that there were various theories as to the value of homework, the implication being that nobody knew whether or not assigning homework improved academic outcomes.

The previous forum had concerned math instruction within this school system. There is a single set of standards for all students in any given grade (i.e., everyone in 4th grade gets more or less the same assignments). A person with a basic knowledge of probability or statistics would assume a Gaussian distribution of mathematics knowledge among children within a grade. If the assignments are aimed at the average student, the mathematically competent person would therefore expect three groups of parents showing up: parents of children at the lower end of the math competence distribution complaining “too hard”; parents of children in the middle saying “just right”; parents of children at the high end objecting “too easy”.

This was apparently not what happened, however. The principal said that there were essentially two groups of parents: (a) those who felt that the math assignments were appropriate for their children, (b) those who felt the math assignments were too easy. From the absence of the “too hard” group, the person with an intro probability background would infer either that (1) a non-representative sample of parents had turned out, or (2) math in this school system is targeted at roughly the 30th percentile child. The principal, however, threw up her hands, implying that there is no way to please everyone and that any differences in opinion regarding the math challenge were likely due to personality differences among the parents.

I asked “Suppose that a child comes to the first day of 4th grade and knows everything that would be expected of a graduate of 4th grade. Will that child be given 5th grade problems to work on?” The answer was “no” and a denial of the possibility that a child at the beginning of 4th grade could have a true understanding of all of 4th grade math, even if tests showed an ability to do all of the required calculations. “We try to keep all of the children at the same level,” was the principal’s summary.

The principal described having recently completed an every-five-years certification process for kindergarten. She profusely thanked her bureaucratic predecessor for having teed up the paperwork in binders and said it was stressful for the teachers to be observed by the accreditation folks (unclear why this should be; after three years in this district it is effectively impossible for a teacher to be fired for poor performance (previous posting)). The principal said that it was possible to get certified in older grades but the only reason to do that would be to use the accreditation organization’s report identifying deficiencies to seek more taxpayer funding for a school (i.e., the purpose of certification was not primarily to increase performance).

The room was full of smart well-meaning people with, by global standards, near-infinite cash to be spent. Everyone was working effectively toward achieving the same kinds of results that better American schools were able to achieve in the 1950s or 1970s. Nobody seemed concerned about the possibility that other countries have gone above and beyond that standard.


[looking at a book jacket] Is this guy on the left Bill Gates?
A [9-year-old] girl in school said today “When I grow up, I will marry Bill Gates, then quickly divorce him, and take half of his money! Mua-ha-ha-ha-ha!”

Humboldt Biography: Climate Change Alarmism Not New


I have finished reading Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. If you’re more familiar with Humboldt’s work than his life, there is a lot of material that will be new to you. Here are some examples:

despite their privileged upbringing, Alexander and his older brother, Wilhelm, had an unhappy childhood. Their beloved father died suddenly when Alexander was nine and their mother never showed her sons much affection. Where their father had been charming and friendly, their mother was formal, cold and emotionally distant. Instead of maternal warmth, she provided the best education then available in Prussia, arranging for the two boys to be privately tutored by a string of Enlightenment thinkers who instilled in them a love of truth, liberty and knowledge.

It was particularly difficult for Alexander who was taught the same lessons as his precocious brother, despite being two years younger. The result was that he believed himself to be less talented. When Wilhelm excelled in Latin and Greek, Alexander felt incompetent and slow. He struggled so much, Alexander later told a friend, that his tutors ‘were doubtful whether even ordinary powers of intelligence would ever be developed in him’.

During the summers their mother often stayed behind in Tegel, leaving the two young brothers with their tutors at the family’s house in Berlin

Humboldt was friends with Goethe and apparently social conventions were not unbreakable, at least for society’s headline figures:

In 1788, six years before Humboldt’s first visit, Goethe had shocked Weimar society one more time when he had taken the uneducated Christiane Vulpius as his lover. Christiane, who worked as a seamstress in Weimar, gave birth to their son August less than two years later. Ignoring convention and malicious gossip, Christiane and August lived with Goethe.

Wulf credits Humboldt with the idea of studying the environment as a whole and with concern for the effect of human actions on climate:

When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel. After he saw the devastating environmental effects of colonial plantations at Lake Valencia in Venezuela in 1800, Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about harmful human-induced climate change. Deforestation there had made the land barren, water levels of the lake were falling and with the disappearance of brushwood torrential rains had washed away the soils on the surrounding mountain slopes. Humboldt was the first to explain the forest’s ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion. He warned that humans were meddling with the climate and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on ‘future generations

It was here, at Lake Valencia, that Humboldt developed his idea of human-induced climate change.

“When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, with an imprudent precipitation, the springs are entirely dried up, or become less abundant. The beds of the rivers, remaining dry during a part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall on the heights. The sward and moss disappearing with the brush-wood from the sides of the mountains, the waters falling in rain are no longer impeded in their course: and instead of slowly augmenting the level of the rivers by progressive filtrations, they furrow during heavy showers the sides of the hills, bear down the loosened soil, and form those sudden inundations, that devastate the country”

As a former mining inspector, Humboldt had a unique insight into the environmental and economic consequences of the exploitation of nature’s riches. He questioned Mexico’s dependence on cash crops and mining, for example, because it bound the country to fluctuating international market prices. ‘The only capital,’ he said, that ‘increases with time, consists in the produce of agriculture [note that the Industrial Revolution was raging all around Humboldt, thus illustrating how much easier it is to understand a period from the perspective of a historian!]

Humboldt was to some extent the Edward Tufte of his day:

They also discussed Humboldt’s invention of isotherms, the lines that we see on weather maps today and which connect different geographical points around the globe that are experiencing the same temperatures.

Until Humboldt’s isotherms, meteorological data had been collected in long tables of temperatures – endless lists of different geographical places and their climatic conditions which gave precise temperatures but were difficult to compare. Humboldt’s graphic visualization of the same data was as innovative as it was simple. Instead of confusing tables, one look at his isotherm map revealed a new world of patterns that hugged the earth in wavy belts. Humboldt believed that this was the foundation of what he called ‘vergleichende Klimatologie’ – comparative climatology. He was right, for today’s scientists still use them to understand and depict climate change and global warming. Isotherms enabled Humboldt, and those who followed, to look at patterns globally. Lyell utilized the concept to investigate geological changes in relation to climatic changes.

About half of the book is devoted to the effect of Humboldt’s work on other scientists and writers. It turned out that a lot of these folks believed the collapse of Planet Earth’s environment was imminent:

Man had long forgotten that the earth was not given to him for ‘consumption’. The produce of the earth was squandered, [George Perkins] Marsh argued, with wild cattle killed for their hides, ostriches for their feathers, elephants for their tusks and whales for their oil. Humans were responsible for the extinction of animals and plants, Marsh wrote in Man and Nature, while the unrestrained use of water was just another example of ruthless greed.2 Irrigation diminished great rivers, he said, and turned soils saline and infertile. Marsh’s vision of the future was bleak. If nothing changed, he believed, the planet would be reduced to a condition of ‘shattered surface, of climatic excess … perhaps even extinction of the [human] species’. He saw the American landscape magnified through what he had observed during his travels – from the overgrazed hills along the Bosporus near Constantinople to the barren mountain slopes in Greece. Great rivers, untamed woods and fertile meadows had disappeared. Europe’s land had been farmed into ‘a desolation almost as complete as that of the moon’. The Roman Empire had fallen, Marsh concluded, because the Romans had destroyed their forests and thereby the very soil that fed them. The Old World had to be the New World’s cautionary tale. At a time when the 1862 Homestead Act3 gave those who headed out to the American West 160 acres of land each for not much more than a filing fee, millions of acres of public lands were placed in private hands, waiting to be ‘improved’ by axe and plough. ‘Let us be wise,’ Marsh urged, and learn from the mistakes of ‘our older brethren!’ The consequences of man’s action were unforeseeable. ‘We can never know how wide a circle of disturbance we produce in the harmonies of nature when we throw the smallest pebble in the ocean of organic life,’ Marsh wrote. What he did know was that the moment ‘homo sapiens Europae’ had arrived in America, the damage had migrated from east to west. Others had come to similar conclusions. In the United States, James Madison had been the first to take up some of Humboldt’s ideas. Madison had met Humboldt in 1804, in Washington, DC, and later read many of his books. He had applied Humboldt’s observations from South America to the United States. In a widely circulated speech to the Agricultural Society in Albemarle, Virginia, in May 1818, a year after his retirement from the presidency, Madison had repeated Humboldt’s warnings about deforestation and highlighted the catastrophic effects of large-scale tobacco cultivation on Virginia’s once fertile soil. This speech carried the nucleus of American environmentalism. Nature, Madison had said, was not subservient to the use of man. Madison had called upon his fellow citizens to protect the environment but his warnings had been largely ignored.

Humboldt was the great apostle,’ Marsh had declared when he began Man and Nature. Throughout the book he referred to Humboldt but expanded his ideas. Where Humboldt’s warnings had been dispersed across his books – little nuggets of insight here and there but often lost in the broader context – Marsh now wove it all into one forceful argument. Page after page, Marsh talked about the evils of deforestation. He explained how forests protected the soil and natural springs. Once the forest was gone, the soil lay bare against winds, sun and rain. The earth would no longer be a sponge but a dust heap. As the soil was washed off, all goodness disappeared and ‘thus the earth is rendered no longer fit for the habitation of man’, Marsh concluded. It made for gloomy reading. The damage caused by just two or three generations was as disastrous, he said, as the eruption of a volcano or an earthquake. ‘We are,’ he warned prophetically, ‘breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling.’ Marsh was telling Americans that they had to act now, before it was too late. ‘Prompt measures’ had to be taken because ‘the most serious fears are entertained’. Forests needed to be set aside and replanted. Some should be preserved as places of recreation, inspiration and habitat for flora and fauna – as an ‘inalienable property’ for all citizens. Other areas needed to be replanted and managed for a sustainable use of timber. ‘We have now felled forest enough,’ Marsh wrote.

So obsessed was [John] Muir that he even highlighted the pages that referred to Humboldt in his Darwin and Thoreau books. One topic that particularly fascinated Muir – as it had George Perkins Marsh – was Humboldt’s comments on deforestation and the ecological function of forests. As he observed the world around him, Muir realized that something had to be done. The country was changing. Every year Americans claimed an additional 15 million acres for fields. With the advent of steam-powered reapers, grain binder machines and combine harvesters that cut, threshed and cleaned grains mechanically, agriculture had become industrialized. The world seemed to spin faster and faster.

Oddly enough, it was the digging up of fossil fuels that interrupted the trend of complete planetary deforestation. Certainly these folks couldn’t have imagined the current levels of human population, energy consumption, and forestation. On the other hand, maybe they got the broad idea right but were wrong about the timing and final mechanism!


It took two hours for ambulances to reach victims in Paris


“The Long Night” is a disturbing New Yorker article on the Paris attacks. Here’s one of the worst parts:

A few medical workers came to the scene almost immediately. Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon, which also came under fire, are down the street from l’Hôpital Saint-Louis, one of Paris’s largest hospitals. But because of the number and severity of the attacks, and a confusion about whether the killers might still be at large, it took nearly two hours for ambulances to begin evacuating people. [emphasis added]

Diamond Aircraft DA62 at NBAA 2015


I sat in the Diamond DA62 at NBAA. There is plenty of space for a long-legged pilot, even in the “very back” seats that are designed for children (not enough headroom back there, however, for a 6′ tall person). The twin diesel engines sip fuel and are supposedly remarkably quiet. The plane can climb to 20,000′ and cruise at nearly 200 knots. It can be de-iced and air-conditioned. It should share the wonderful handling characteristics of other Diamond products.

The bad news is that the airplane, fully pimped out, costs $1.3 million. There apparently isn’t a large enough market for piston aircraft anymore to spread out engineering and other fixed costs. At $700,000 this would be a formidable competitor to the Cirrus SR22. But at $1.3 million one is forced to ask “Why not a ragged-out Piper Meridian with a PT6 engine that will never quit? Then we can climb to 30,000′ in pressurized comfort. We can buy an older Meridian for $700,000 and have $600,000 left over to pay for the higher operating costs compared to the Diamond.” If you wanted to spend all $1.3 million on an airplane, that buys a 12-15-year-old TBM 700, larger and longer-range than the Meridian.

In a shrinking market with crazy high regulatory compliance costs it is hard to see how any new design can compete with the legacy aircraft.

Diamond DA62

Diamond DA62

Civil wars last longer these days


This short New Yorker article by Steve Coll is worth reading for, among other things, some interesting statistics:

In 2004, James D. Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford, published a study, “Why Do Some Civil Wars Last So Much Longer Than Others?,” in which he and a colleague analyzed scores of civil wars fought between 1945 and 1999. … two discouraging findings stand out. In 1945, many civil wars were concluded after about two years. By 1999, they lasted, on average, about sixteen years. And conflicts in which a guerrilla group could finance itself—by selling contraband drug crops, or by smuggling oil—might go on for thirty or forty years. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has been around since 1964, sustained in no small part by American cocaine consumption.

The good news is that we are stronger than most insurgents; the bad news is that it doesn’t matter:

From the American intervention in Somalia, in 1992, through the French intervention in Mali, in 2013, industrialized countries have been able to deploy ground forces to take guerrilla-held territory in about sixty days or less. The problem is that if they don’t then leave, to be replaced by more locally credible yet militarily able forces, they invite frustration, and risk unsustainable casualties and political if not military defeat. This has been true even when the guerrilla forces were weak: the Taliban possesses neither planes nor significant anti-aircraft missiles, yet it has fought the United States to a stalemate, and the advantage is now shifting in its favor.

Lithium-ion battery that won’t set your airplane on fire


Would you like to carry lead in your airplane or helicopter? Probably not. How about acid? Also, a bad idea, right? Why then would you want a lead-acid battery? The answer to date has been “because every other kind of battery has tended to overheat and set the aircraft on fire.” NiCd batteries were all the rage in the 1970s and the superior energy density resulted in aircraft manufacturers engineering in temperature sensors and cockpit warning lights specific to these batteries. Ultimately they proved impractical for operators, though, and most were ripped out in favor of the older inferior technology of lead-acid.

Boeing was a pioneer in using lithium-ion batteries with the 787 and we all know how that worked out. At NBAA 2015, True Blue Power was all over the show with their newly formulated lithium-ion battery that supposedly won’t overheat anywhere near as fast as batteries with the older chemistry. The battery is stuffed full of fancy electronics to regulate and monitor what is going on within the cells, but you will still need some kind of cockpit indicator light. A battery with roughly 45 amp-hours at 24V will cost about $13,000 compared to $2,500 for the lead-acid equivalent (or $200 for a car battery with 90 amp-hours at 12V?). Supposedly the cost over time will be similar due to reduced expenses associated with annual capacity checks (for a higher-end aircraft the batteries must be removed every year and tested by a mechanic).

If “the third time is the charm” proves to be the case with advanced battery technology, True Blue Power will be adding about 5 percent to the payload of a typical light aircraft.

Thanksgiving thoughts


I want to thank Planet Earth today, for supporting us all a lot better than anyone could have predicted.

I’ll save the maudlin private thank-yous to individuals for Facebook!

Example of legal fees in employment litigation


Atlantic magazine has an article on a professor to whom the University of Illinois revoked a job offer back in August 2014. A linked-to piece says that the employer spent roughly $850,000 in legal fees  and paid $275,000 in legal fees to the plaintiff (plus $600,000 in damages). Unlike in the Ellen Pao case, the lawyers didn’t have to sift through years of work-related documents because the plaintiff had never started work.

Thus, even if the employer had beaten the rap it would have been out at least $2-3 million by the time a trial rolled around.


  • a detailed report from a committee, which includes an offer of tenure and an $85,000 salary for nine months of work. [How does this compare to the revenue from a one-night sexual encounter in Chicago? The tenured faculty salary is $59,922/year after taxes (ADP), an amount that could be obtained through the Illinois child support system by suing a co-parent earning $299,610 after tax or by suing two co-parents each of whom earned $149,805 after tax.]
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