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Dressing up mobile phone users in traditional garb then hauling out the 4×5 view camera…


Some photographs from Before They Pass Away are on display in Manhattan right now (Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery). I went with an 11-year-old friend and pointed to the first image and said “It’s terrible that some people are so poor that they can’t shop at LL Bean. Also, I’m sure that it was tough to convince these native people to put down their iPhones and pose for half a day.” If you’ve been spoiled by our digital era, that Jimmy Nelson hauled a 4×5 (sheet film) view camera around is impressive. That he has been accused of “staging” images is hardly surprising. One is unlikely to get a surprise candid of a person, indigenous or otherwise, with a view camera (about the size of a toaster oven… plus tripod).

What do readers think of the protests around this work? (example; example) Are readers smart enough to know that modern tribal people are more likely to be found in a T-shirt and talking on a Nokia phone? That the complicated outfits in the book were more likely once-a-year celebration attire rather than everyday garments, even back in the old days?

What if the photographer had refrained from talking about how these groups are “passing away”? Just told tribal folks to get the fanciest old-style clothes that they could find, posed them, and presented the photos to speak for themselves? Would the criticism have been less intense?

More: see Jimmy Nelson’s web site.

Teacher jobs in Massachusetts; new jobs for healthcare.gov programmers


I attended a “morning coffee with the principal” at an elementary school in a rich suburb of Boston.

The principal explained the hiring process. For every open job “hundreds” of nominally qualified people will apply. There are, nonetheless, seldom more than two or three candidates about whom he is enthusiastic and these candidates may be getting offers from other districts as well. Once hired, a teacher gets “professional status” (what used to be called “tenure”) after three years. Back in the early 1990s Massachusetts imposed a regulation that all teachers must obtain a master’s degree within five years and thus teachers will spend a portion of their nights, weekends, and summers getting a degree that typically enriches our local universities even if there is scant evidence that it affects their classroom performance.

As with getting into many colleges, women are discriminated against when seeking employment as elementary school teachers. The principal explained that he favors the academically inferior sex (i.e., men) when screening applications. However, a disproportionate number of these guys turn out to be duds during interviews and therefore the workforce is mostly female.

What if a tenured (4th year or beyond) teacher does absolutely nothing, I asked? Tells the kids to look at their iPads and not bother him? The principal explained that after two years of complete non-performance he would be able to write a recommendation to the superintendent that the teacher be fired. So the teacher is gone after doing nothing for two classes of students? “No,” said the principal. “Of course there is a legal process that begins after two years.”

Parents asked a lot of questions about standardized testing. Massachusetts has its own MCAS system for grades 3-10. There has been talk of adopting a national PARCC test that is more aligned with the Common Core standards. Unlike the paper forms that we filled out in the 1970s with our #2 pencils and that found their way into a scanner to be graded by an IBM mainframe, the PARCC test must be taken on a computer. This leads to two problems for school districts. One is that they don’t have enough computers for all students to take the test simultaneously, thus creating a logistical challenge of herding batches of students into computer labs. The second is that the software has tended to be broken and students are unable to take the test at all. I said “Well at least this will provide jobs for the programmers who built healthcare.gov since it seems unlikely that Amazon and Google are anxious to hire them.”

How hard are these standardized tests for a group of children who are mostly from at least upper-middle-class families? The principal explained that about 87 percent of the students score “proficient” or “advanced” in the first years of the test and nearly all are “proficient” or “advanced” by the time they complete 8th grade.

Homework was another topic of conversation. With a school day so much longer than in other countries how come there is homework at all? The principal explained that there was no pedagogical theory behind the homework but the school assigned it because some parents demanded it. “It is really about preparation for high school,” he said, “but teachers can also use it to see what students learned the day before.”

Massachusetts bureaucracy gets 1 in 13 households to come in and beg


“Many In Mass. Await The Next Blizzard With No Heat” is supposed to be a heartstrings-pulling story about  how the government isn’t doing enough to help poorer families in Massachusetts pay for heat. What struck me is how many people had to jump through an extra welfare hoop. The article says “Roughly 200,000 households in Massachusetts qualify for help”. Census data show only about 2.5 million households in the state total. Thus 1 in 13 Massachusetts households has to apply every year to a government-paid worker who will decide whether or not to give them some cash. Note that these workers are different from the ones who decide whether or not to give out food stamps, so if you want food and heat you have to visit at least two offices. And those workers are different from the ones who decide whether or not to give out a free or subsidized house. There will be a separate process, with additional government-paid workers, to get free health insurance. And then there is a separate group of government workers who hand out unrestricted (TANF) cash…

Just how many government workers can a poor American support?

People knew that smoking was deadly back in 1900


I’m listening to Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Yearsas a book on tape (not sure that I will finish it; this is the kind of book where “unabridged” is not a selling feature). A couple of interesting items from the first disc:

  • Mark Twain wanted perpetual copyright. He was highly motivated to produce works that his heirs could earn an income from and lobbied Congress to make copyright work the same way as land ownership. (Though I don’t think he was advocating for a property tax as well!) Twain’s energetic efforts, including writing pieces scheduled for release decades after his death, proved Gregory Mankiw’s point in “I Can Afford Higher Taxes. But They’ll Make Me Work Less.”
  • Mark Twain’s doctor told him, and Twain believed him, that his tobacco smoking habit would kill him via heart disease. This was at least as early as 1900. (Twain lived from 1835 to 1910, from the Steam Age to the Aviation Age.)

The second point is the one that I find most interesting because it wasn’t until the 1960s that health warnings were placed on cigarettes. This was, presumably, because people in Washington, D.C. thought that there were a lot of Americans who believed that conducting what had been an occasional Indian ceremony every 10 or 15 minutes was part of a healthy lifestyle.

If Twain knew that smoking would kill him, which of course it did, why did it take so long for tobacco smoking to become a public health issue in the U.S.? Is it that a lot of other stuff was also dangerous back then and, once antibiotics and vaccines were widespread we finally had the time and attention to think about a habit that killed people in their 60s and 70s? Or something else?

[On the copyright point, Twain's testimony, delivered in what would become his trademark white suit, did help change copyright in the U.S. from "42 years" to "death of author plus 50".]

The jet charter needs of preschool children


A friend sent me a CNN article regarding Anne Dias Griffin’s attempt to get $12 million per year in child support for three children under the age of 10. Part of the reason that she can’t make ends meet on the $50 million that she already has in the bank (most of that is proceeds from her 10-year marriage to rich guy Ken Griffin, under a prenuptial agreement that she is challenging in an attempt to get more) is that she wants to spend $3.6 million per year on jet charter.

I emailed a friend who owns a jet charter business to ask what kind of plane would be sensible for a Chicago resident with three children going to New York, California, etc., and how much it would cost. Here’s his answer:

Lear 60 or Hawker at $3,500 per hour at most.

… when the alimony doesn’t work pack it all into child support.

Let’s back out the numbers then. Ms. Griffin wants her preschool-age children to fly roughly 1000 hours per year, the same number as the FAA maximum for a full-time airline pilot (see FAR 121.471: “No certificate holder conducting domestic operations may schedule any flight crewmember and no flight crewmember may accept an assignment for flight time in scheduled air transportation or in other commercial flying if that crewmember’s total flight time in all commercial flying will exceed— (1) 1,000 hours in any calendar year;”).

How far can one go in an 8-passenger Lear 60 in 1000 hours? The plane cruises at roughly 500 miles per hour. The children would thus be flying close to 500,000 miles every year, equivalent to circling the Earth at the Equator almost 21 times.

You might ask how far Ms. Dias Griffin could go in a jet-powered plane with only 4 passenger seats plus two up front for the pilots. That would be something like a Piper Meridian turboprop or perhaps the forthcoming Cirrus Jet (thanks to the miracle of Chinese ownership, the personal jet is now slated for certification and delivery in the “fourth quarter” of 2015 (i.e., December 31 at 11:59 pm)). With $3.6 million, she could buy a new one roughly every 6 months.  At $1000 per hour to charter, she and the children could fly 3,600 hours per year at roughly 300 miles per hour, more than 1 million statute miles.

What if she earned a pilot certificate during the time that the four nannies are taking care of the children? (she does not seem to have a job) She could then fly the children herself in a Cirrus SR22 at a cost of roughly $250/hour (flight school rental block rate, including fuel). The $3.6 million would then cover 14,400 hours per year of flying time. As there are only 8760 hours in a year, Ms. Dias Griffin would be able to fly up to 1.75 million miles each year with her three children in the SR22 and have $1.5 million left over to pay for sundries. As the SR22 can seat five, assuming at least one occupant is a child, she could take along an instructor for two-pilot safety.


My April 2014 posting on net neutrality


Net Neutrality is back in the news. I haven’t changed my views substantially since my April 2014 on the topic, though I am fearful that the cure of an additional layer of government regulation may prove to be worse than the disease. (Internet providers to consumers are already functioning under a certain amount of government regulation, e.g., municipal regulations that exclude competitors.)

What do readers think? Who has a good argument against net neutrality when both publishers and consumers are already supposedly paying for the bandwidth consumed?

Why you should never invest in a startup company


I was talking to some folks at an MIT spinoff company. They may need a cash infusion this summer. Why? They got a $1 million grant from the U.S. Navy. The money was supposed to start flowing last fall. But then the Navy installed a new computer system for managing these research grants and payments. It is now “chaos” in Washington, D.C. The Navy still wants them to do this research but the money won’t flow until this summer, roughly a 9-month delay.

This is a good illustration of why you never invest in a startup! It is impossible to predict all of the ways that things can go wrong and revenue can be delayed.

Incompetence of medical researchers leads to doubt regarding climate change?


“Feeding Infants Peanut Products Could Prevent Allergies, Study Suggests” (nytimes) is a recent example of the public learning about the incompetence of medical researchers. Previously these folks had told parents to keep children in a nut-free bubble so as to prevent nut allergies from developing. Now they are saying that a nut-free bubble may lead to a nut rash later in life. In a society that spends so much of its time and effort trying to separate children from nuts and so much money on medical research, how could this question not have been answered definitively and correctly many years ago?

From a consumer’s point of view an epidemiologist or other medical researcher is a “scientist” in the same category as a physicist or chemist.  So the manifest inability of “scientists” to answer a simple question such as “Is a child more or less likely to develop a peanut allergy given early peanut exposure?” could easily make a consumer skeptical when a “scientist” says “I have a pretty good idea what the average global temperature 100 years from now is going to be.”

What do readers think? Do these constant reversals on everyday questions make consumers wary of science in general?

Related: Back in the early 1980s the great mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota would say “The methods of the biologist are not distinguishable from those of the stamp collector.”

[Of course it may well be the case that Earth turning into Venus 100 years from now is a simpler question than the origin of nut rashes. But that would not be obvious to someone without a degree in the physical sciences.]

Frog by Mo Yan


The plague of snow here in Boston enabled me to read Frog by Mo Yan.  The book seems more accessible to a U.S. reader in its themes than the typical work of a non-American Nobelist. At the core of the story is an older infertile woman who attacks the fertility of younger women, i.e., in line with a lot of Western fairy tales. The “old witch” in Frog, however, attacks the younger women not with the aid of spells but through a “one-child policy” bureaucracy and the coercive power of the state.

The book opens with a discussion of traditional medicine being supplanted by modern techniques. We learn the philosophy of the wisest midwife in China circa 1950: “The melon will fall when it is ripe.” (Not something the American health care system generally agrees with, as noted in The Business of Being Born.)

The central section is the most familiar, covering the struggle between people who wanted to have at least two children and the state.

The last third of the novel covers the softening of the policy into cash fines, readily affordable for the successful but prohibitive for the poor. As in the U.S., the wealthy infertile also have access to surrogate mothers, though the medical bureaucracy is not as involved as here (think turkey baster!), and the surrogate mom is also the egg donor. Throughout the novel, but especially in the last third, there is a focus on the cash implications of children and child birth, what they cost parents and what has to be paid when things go wrong, e.g., a botched abortion that results in the death of the mother.

For people who’ve recently read The Son Also Rises (see below), Frog is interesting because it highlights how Chinese policy has shaped reproduction by social and educational class. In the early days of “one child” the government encouraged the least educated and economically successful people, i.e., peasant farmers, to have more children. More recently the “you can have as many kids as you want if you pay the fines” system encourages the most financially successful Chinese to have relatively more children. Frog should be interesting to Europeans because the Chinese have been working so hard in the opposite direction, i.e., to discourage fertility rather than encourage it. Frog should be interesting to American political thinkers (oxymoron to have those three words together?). Through immigration the U.S. will eventually get to the same levels of crowdedness as China did. What will we do then and what will it feel like to be a citizen living through it?

More: read Frog.


You know you’re a parent #452…


You know you’re a parent when (1) nobody invites you to an Oscars-watching party, (2) you forget that the Oscars are actually being broadcast, (3) you check out the awards on the Web and realize that you haven’t seen even one of the movies that earned awards.

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