~ Archive for Uncategorized ~

Maybe companies that want to do an offshore inversion should start a rock band first?

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A friend of a friend just cited (in an email) the U2 rock band for having “social consciousness.” As noted in this February 2007 posting, referencing a New York Times article on the subject, the U2 folks had never paid any income tax and decided to invert themselves into an offshore Netherlands trust when the Irish tax man was coming for a piece of their pie.

If U2 is beloved despite minimizing their tax bill down to basically zero while U.S. companies are excoriated for trying to cut theirs to about 25 percent (see this Forbes article on Walgreen’s, for example, where the company was trying to cut from 36 percent as a U.S. company to “the high 20% range”), wouldn’t it make sense for these companies first to merge with a popular band and then do the foreign inversion?

What does the Apple Watch do that the Samsung Geek watch could not do?

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A year ago I tried out what I call the “Samsung Geek Watch” (Galaxy Gear; see this posting). I eventually gave up on it. What (useful things) does the new Apple watch do that the Samsung watch could not do? At first glance it looks like a pretty similar array of stuff. Of course, this might not necessarily render the Apple Watch uninteresting. The iPhone operating system and the Samsung Note 3 operating system mostly perform the same functions, but the Samsung implementation is comically bad in critical areas, e.g., in searching for a contact to call the phone gives priority to contacts without associated phone numbers.

Fact-checking at the New York Times

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A friend pointed me to a long New York Times article on yet another top-down idea for improving American schools. This is exactly the opposite approach taken by the country with the most effective schools (see my postings on The Smartest Kids in the World, including this one on Finland). To me the most interesting thing about the article is that the author, Andrew Ross Sorkin (“a financial columnist”!), writes toward the end “Teachers are not normal economic actors; almost all of them work for less money than they might fetch in some other industry”. A quick Google search brings up this reasonably thorough study, which comes to the conclusion that public school teachers are paid more than comparable workers in private jobs (a conclusion consistent with the fact that there are many more people who want to be teachers and have the qualifications than there are jobs). The fact-checkers (if there are any at the NYT) wouldn’t even have needed to search the Web but could have poked around in their own archives for stories such as “Still Doing the Math, but for $100K a Year” from 2009 (about teachers getting as much as $130,000 per year, plus benefits and pensions, in the economic wasteland of Rochester, New York).

Wikipedia says that Sorkin went to an expensively funded public high school (Scarsdale) and then an expensive college (Cornell). So his analytical skills are presumably about as good as what an American of his generation can develop.

Keeping teachers on their toes…

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From a friend’s Facebook status…

Our [8-year-old] drama queen caused an e-mail to be sent to all the parents regarding bringing nut-derived foods to school.

  • Mama, so I noticed that this girl was eating a sandwich with Nutella today…
  • Really, the school doesn’t allow nuts!
  • See, Mama, good, you are paying attention. Then, I came up to her, licked her sandwich and started choking, popping my eyes, and making weird noises with a red face… I do not have an allergy, but everybody freaked out!

[This Huffington Post article says that roughly 11 Americans die annually from food allergies.]

Citizen access to teacher union negotiations

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Harvey Silverglate wrote an article for WGBH where he describes his attempt, as a parent and taxpayer, to see what was going on with the City of Cambridge’s negotiation with its teacher’s union. Background: The city spends about $27,000 per year per student but that doesn’t include capital costs, so the total cost is probably closer to $40,000 per year per student.

Here are some excerpts:

I obtained the necessary permissions and showed up to the first negotiating session. When the head of the union saw me, she announced that the union would not bargain while I was in the room. The teachers’ negotiating team walked out. My letters from two School Committee members were soon revoked, and the contract negotiations proceeded comfortably in private.

It was at that moment that I became an opponent of public sector unions. Why? Because, it suddenly occurred to me, the public interest was not represented at the contract negotiations. The teachers were arguing for their own self-interest in terms of work conditions and compensation, as was to be expected, but the School Committee and school administrators were dealing with the taxpayers’ money, not their own. And it was in the pols’ political interests for there to be labor peace. The children and their parents figured very little in the whole enterprise. And so an outrageous number of provisions found their way into the contract year after year, seemingly all of them more protective of the teachers’ wallets and comfortable work-schedules – and the School Committee members’ elective prospects – than of the educational interests of public school students.

Who knows how to fix Google Chrome on Windows 7? (fonts stuck on italics)

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Folks:

Google Chrome on my Windows 7 machine has suddenly gone whacky with fonts. Almost everything in Gmail shows up in italics. A lot of stuff on various Web sites shows up as bold and italics. Microsoft Internet Explorer still works fine, so I don’t think that it is the machine.

My first thought was to play around with font substitution but I can’t find anything in the settings that is strange. Then I figured I would uninstall Google Chrome and reinstall it, but even on a freshly booted machine Windows says that it can’t uninstall the program until I “close all Chrome windows” (none had been opened subsequent to the reboot).

Any brilliant ideas from the community would be welcome!

Thanks,

Philip

California sex-on-campus bill shows that universities should get out of the housing business

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Newspapers are alive with stories (e.g., the Guardian) about California’s unanimously passed bill requiring each public college in the state to “adopt a policy concerning sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking”. Nobody seems to be asking the question “Should colleges run dorms?” If colleges got rid of the dorms, they could concentrate on teaching and not on complying with state and federal mandates regarding sex, a subject on which there is no evidence that university administrators are more expert than laypeople.

What to do with surplus on-campus dorms? Either sell off the real estate so that the former dormitories are no longer “on campus” or turn what had been dorms into collaborative study/lab spaces. Maybe students would work harder if they lived in a mixed-age commercial apartment building and saw the dreary jobs for which average college graduates depart every morning at 8:30 a.m. And certainly a student in a commercial apartment building who is the victim of a crime won’t waste his or her time calling a university administrator who will refer to a new state-mandated policy. He or she will dial 911 and people who actually know something about crime and criminals will show up.

End of summer reading

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I”m just back from Burning Man (photos to come) and did some reading on the way out and back.

In this 100th anniversary year of World War I, I read The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, which got excellent reviews but is deadly boring for the non-specialist. Do you want to know the name of every European diplomat and high government official circa 1900-1914? The take-away seems to be that the wise folks whom we entrust with half of our money and our safety as a society are not very good at predicting the future or the consequences of their actions.

Hoping that World War II would be more exciting, I read a book recommended by a Dutch friend, The Forgotten Soldier: The Classic WWII Autobiography. This is a reminder that the coherent view offered by war histories is not available to the soldier on the ground, for whom war is bewildering. Why read about the experience of a soldier in the German army? Sajer, an Alsatian, notes “By that time I belonged to the Victorious Allies, who were all heroes, like every French soldier I met after the war. Only victors have stories to tell. We, the vanquished, were all cowards and weaklings by then, whose memories, fears, and enthusiasms should not be remembered.”

Sajer writes about withholding the real stories from a girl whom he met on leave: “I did my best to embroider what I said. I described heroic deeds the like of which I’d never seen. I couldn’t believe that the filth of the steppe was what this girl wanted to hear about, and I was afraid of speaking too frankly. I didn’t want her to understand what our experiences had really been like. I didn’t want her to catch the stench of mud and blood through anything I said, or to see the huge gray horizon still stamped across my vision. I was afraid of infecting her with my terror and disgust, and afraid that if I did she’d resent it. My descriptions of heroism came straight from Hollywood, but at least we were able to laugh, and I could go on talking to her.”

Oddly, Sajer also tells us that we shouldn’t read his book or any book like it: “Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual. One should really read such accounts under compulsion, in discomfort, considering oneself fortunate not to be describing the events in a letter home, writing from a hole in the mud. One should read about war in the worst circumstances, when everything is going badly, remembering that the torments of peace are trivial, and not worth any white hairs. Nothing is really serious in the tranquillity of peace; only an idiot could be really disturbed by a question of salary.”

I’m halfway through The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway, which seems relevant because our cities are once again nearing a point of collapse from traffic congestion. It is interesting that just as the subways were being built there was genuine confusion about whether it made more sense to move cars via steam engine, vacuum, a cable, or electric motors. The author dug up a lot of detail but some of the simple stuff seems to have eluded him, e.g.,

A young man from Michigan was putting the finishing touches on an idea for a horseless carriage powered by gasoline. He called his five-hundred-pound invention the quadricycle, because it was no more than a bicycle with four wheels and a place to sit and steer. With its two-cylinder engine powered by ethanol, it motored along all by itself, and Henry Ford was so eager to show it off that in the summer of 1896 he traveled to New York to attend a convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies. When the thirty-three-year-old Ford met the world-famous Edison and described his gas-powered car, Edison was instantly intrigued and fired questions at the young inventor. Hearing the answers, Edison supposedly banged his fist on the table. “Young man, that’s the thing. You have it! The self-contained unit carrying its own fuel with it! Keep at it!” Ford would keep at it.

A casual glance at Wikipedia reveals that “Karl Benz built his first automobile in 1885 in Mannheim” (i.e., 11 years before the events described above in which Henry Ford was an “inventor” of the automobile).

If you’re looking for something compelling to read I recommend starting with The Forgotten Soldier.

Germany wins World War I… 100 years later

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I’m listening to The Modern Scholar: World War l: The Great War and the World It Made, lectures by the late John Ramsden that demonstrate we should not entirely give up on the lecture method of instruction. On the 100th anniversary of the war it is still somewhat hard to believe that Germany invested so much in a war with such modest aims, i.e., obtaining economic hegemony over central Europe. During World War I, according to Ramsden, Germany didn’t have a grand plan to conquer most of Europe and rule the territory directly. They wanted to dominate trade and politics. In listening to the lectures about the millions of lives wasted, it occurred to me that Germany has finally achieved its war goals of 1914. It just took 100 years and the Germans’ main weapon was working harder and being more organized than their neighbors.

[Separately, I wonder if historians will look back 90 years from now and ask "Why did the Americans waste so many lives and so much money in Iraq and Afghanistan if they did not have a goal of direct imperial rule?"]

Old book for our new war

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It seems that we have started a new war (against ISIS in Iraq). If you’re looking for some related summer reading, let me recommend either the print or the audio version of The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps by novelist William Styron who was also a Marine during World War II and the Korean War (and who summered on Martha’s Vineyard, the island from which President Obama will be commanding the initial phases of this latest war).

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