~ Archive for Uncategorized ~

Universities are so good at marketing that they have to pay contractor to help them give away the product


“Venture Capitalists Help Connect Low-Income Students With Elite Colleges” is a WSJ article about a Silicon Valley startup that gets paid by elite universities with lavish marketing budgets to find low-income high school students to whom the schools can give away the product. (To call the university experience an “education” is a stretch for a lot of majors, as noted in Academically Adrift.)

Here are some choice quotes:

… QuestBridge, conceived in 2003 to connect disadvantaged students with elite colleges that pay a recruiting fee for the services.

“It seemed too good to be true and I thought it was a scam,” Francisco Guzman, who grew up in a low-income household in Elizabeth, N.J., said of when he first received a QuestBridge application by email. He landed a full scholarship to Stanford, and the 25-year-old is now a senior product designer for an Internet startup in San Francisco.

Students fill out online applications, and finalists are chosen by QuestBridge based on factors including academic performance, financial need and personal experiences such as having to work while attending school to help support their families. The list of finalists is sent electronically to participating colleges for their selections.

Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., accepted 22 QuestBridge applicants in 2008; last fall, that number increased to 70, representing 10% of its freshman class, said Art D. Rodriguez, dean of admission and financial aid.

If this QuestBridge startup is so much better than the (presumably vastly more expensive) college’s full-time staff, why not outsource all of the recruitment, not just recruiting for low-income students?

Quality is Job #?: The American workforce in Boston and Denver


A recent trip to Denver provided some insight into the American workforce to which politicians are ever-eager to supply raises (using employers’ money, naturally).

It started at Massport’s newly renovated Terminal B, whose budgeted cost was $124 million (Globe). The public WiFi was completely non-functional, as is typical at Logan Airport. Frustrated passengers, each of whom paid a fat fee (through their airline ticket purchase) to be there, could be heard asking each other “Did you get it to work?”

[We did better than New Yorkers financially; they are planning to spend $4 billion to update one of the terminals at LaGuardia (nytimes). This is just slightly less than what Dubai spent to build the largest building in the world. The new LaGuardia terminal is supposed to be 1.3 million square feet (source) compared to 18.4 million square feet for Dubai. So it will cost Americans nearly 13X as much per square foot, assuming that the LGA project comes in on budget. What’s interesting about this is that U.S. airlines say that the only reason Emirates can out-compete them is that Emirates is subsidized. (USA Today) Is it surprising to have lower costs when your main hub is in a country that builds stuff for 1/13th what it costs big-city Americans?]

Denver International Airport does have working WiFi (apparently one massive tech failure was enough for that airport).  The “Uber Select” driver, an immigrant from West Africa, had a fancy Mercedes but was unable to locate the 200-room downtown Ritz-Carlton. The “Uber Black” driver, an Arab immigrant, on the return trip had a yet-more-expensive car but was unable to operate the climate control system in automatic mode (it was an unseasonably cold rainy day and he arrived shivering with the system set to “Lo” temp and with manual fan set at about 75 percent; when I suggested raising the temperature above “Lo” he cranked up the fan speed to 100 percent).

What seems to be missing from the debate about wages in the U.S. is any discussion of worker quality. It is almost a Zen koan: What is the market wage for a WiFi engineer who can’t deliver WiFi?

Angelika Graswald Life Insurance versus Child Support net present value calculation


The New York Times reported that Angelika Graswald, the former Latvian au pair looking to profit from a third American marriage, “stood to gain $250,000″ from a life insurance policy on her fiance Vincent Viafore (story), the victim of a kayaking accident. This is the motive that authorities are citing for Graswald to allegedly murder Mr. Viafore.

However, a net present value calculation (spreadsheet) shows that Graswald would actually have made $231,026 in additional profit if she had simply gotten pregnant and harvested the child support at New York rates (17 percent of Mr. Viafore’s pre-tax income, reported as $167,000 in 2009).

Why would Graswald have incurred the risk of imprisonment if she could have made more money, on a net present value basis, as an unwed mother than as a murderer?

[The assumptions that went into this calculation were the following:

  • 2 percent inflation rate
  • 4 percent discount rate for NPV (since Graswald could have invested the $250k to earn perhaps a 2 percent real return)
  • constant inflation-adjusted salary for Viafore using his reported 2009 income as a basis
  • costs of ownership for the cash-producing child: $4300/year in 2015 dollars based on an analysis of U.S. government Consumer Expenditures data by UCLA professor William Comanor (previous posting)]


New York Times: American worker was going 2X the speed limit so… give him more money


“Amtrak Crash and America’s Declining Construction Spending” is a story about an American worker ($200,000/year including pension and other benefits?) driving a train at more than double the speed limit for a given length of track (resulting in deaths, injuries, the destruction of a train, the suspension of train service, etc.). From this the New York Times infers that the logical next step is to give this group of workers tens of billions of capital equipment.


Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (a.k.a. majoring in partying and football)


I’m a huge admirer of Jon Krakauer. After I posted skeptically about Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, Krakauer dug into this “party with the Clintons” do-gooder and came up with the truly stunning Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way. So of course I had to check out Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.

The book potentially sheds a lot of light on America’s stagnant economy. The college students Krakauer follows major in psychology and then spend all of their time either watching sports, playing sports, drinking heavily, or having sex. Nobody is raped in the physics lab in Missoula if for no other reason than nobody Krakauer followed took a physics course to begin with. (See the Wall Street Journal for how income varies by major.)

The incidents chronicled by Krakauer fall into three categories:

  • man+woman each had more than 10 drinks, were consensually together in a private space such as a bedroom, and then some sort of sexual contact transpired (nearly all)
  • woman voluntarily accepted a drink from a man in his dorm room and the drink was spiked with a drug, and then some sort of sexual contact ensued (two incidents; same man, a student from Saudi Arabia who returned home before the victims went to the police)
  • woman invited man to lie on her bed in a tiny bedroom, took off some of her clothes voluntarily; dispute regarding whether or not she consented to the rest of the interaction (one incident)

Why is there rape in the first place? Krakauer attributes the phenomenon to “male entitlement” and uses or quotes the word “entitled” in this context about five times. Another thing that leads to rape is “male privilege.” Krakauer never expresses any doubt as to what happens in these private bedrooms, even when the women concerned express their own doubts (typically due to intoxication). For example, a freshman expelled from the school by a Title IX “preponderance of evidence” (51 percent proof) court is referred to in the Dramatis Personae as “University of Montana student who raped Kaitlynn Kelly in October 2011.” (Both were more or less blind drunk at the time, the raped woman’s roommate and a gentleman friend were asleep in the same room on an adjoining bed, and, without going into Krakauer-style gynecological detail, the only contact alleged was with the expelled freshman’s fingers.)

Why is there more rape in Missoula than anywhere else? Statistically, there isn’t, says Krakauer. The incidence of rape in Missoula is lower than the national average of 0.27 percent of women (Krakauer cites only cases and statistics of men raping women). What’s remarkable about Missoula, Montana is that a journalist prior to Krakauer wrote about how the police and prosecutors in Missoula were ineffective at arresting and imprisoning rapists and were especially inclined to be lenient with male students at the University of Montana, football players in particular. This led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the local law enforcement apparatus, a bunch of new bureaucrats being hired, and the state going after defendants against whom the evidence wasn’t very strong (see below). (Note that the federal officials time their visits to coincide with beautiful spring and summer hiking weather in Missoula.)

Here’s how the first rape story unfolded…

Beau Donaldson, a junior at the University of Montana at the time of the assault, was on the school’s football team. Allison Huguet was attending Eastern Oregon University on a track scholarship. People played beer pong in the basement and held “tea races” to determine who could chug bottles of Twisted Tea (a brand of syrupy malt liquor favored by UM students) the fastest. … By 1:30 in the morning, the party was running out of steam, and the handful of people still there moved upstairs to the living room. Donaldson and Huguet sat down together on a couch. Huguet, growing sleepy, lay across the couch, put a pillow on Donaldson’s thigh, and placed her head on the pillow. But there was nothing remotely sexual about it, said Huguet and Williams. “Allison never had any interest in that type of relationship with Beau,” Williams insisted. “Absolutely none.”

Krakauer expresses shock that, as it happens, this is not the prelude to a G-rated Disney movie. Donaldson ultimately admitted, on a surreptitiously recorded phone call, that the sleepy encounter in this house full of drunken students was “taking advantage” of the drunk/half-asleep Huguet. He was pursued by the authorities and, facing up to 100 years in prison, accepted a plea deal of 10 years in prison (see “Torture and Plea Bargaining” for why we have this system).

The next story in the book should also give some cheer to tuition-paying parents:

When Fairmont and Belnap arrived at his apartment, at 5:45 p.m., Styron and his roommate, a Griz player who weighed almost as much as Styron, were smoking weed outside. The four students went indoors, poured themselves shots of 99-proof schnapps, and were soon joined by three other members of the UM football team. Belnap didn’t know any of the men except Styron and his roommate. The five Griz players began competing to drink the most, and they encouraged the two women to join them. “Every couple of minutes we would all take another shot,” Belnap told me. “It was a ‘Let’s see if you can keep up’ kind of thing. I was like, ‘Uh, okay.’ ”

By then Kelsey Belnap had consumed between eight and eleven shots in approximately forty-five minutes. She can recall very little about what happened thereafter.

“I remember my belt buckle being played with, and then somehow I was bent over the bed.” For the next two hours she drifted “in and out of awareness” as different men entered the room, had sex with her, and left.

When Belnap eventually regained control of her faculties, she burst into tears. Betsy Fairmont called a friend, who took Fairmont and Belnap to the Community Medical Center emergency room, where Belnap was admitted at 9:00 p.m. According to the nurses’ notes, she was “obviously intoxicated” and had slurred speech. Two and a half hours after she’d stopped drinking, her blood alcohol concentration was measured to be 0.219 percent, nearly three times the legal limit for driving. When asked if she was experiencing any pain, Belnap replied that her vagina hurt. When asked to elucidate further, she stated that she thought she “may have been raped.”

[Krakauer includes the word “vagina” 45 times in the book, though the relevance of the sexual specifics (which he provides in great detail) is unclear. Generally the men admit having had sex and the medical professionals who come into court and testify admit that whatever they saw when examining the victim could just as easily have been caused by consensual activity.]

The authorities are never able to do much with Belnap’s case because her friend who was present (albeit also drunk) in the same room told the police that “Belnap had willingly had sex with all four of Benjamin Styron’s teammates.”

The book is strong on describing the procedures at the “University Court”:

The seven individuals on the University Court are appointed by the president of the University of Montana. The court is composed of three undergraduate students, one graduate student, two faculty members, and one staff member. At Calvin Smith’s hearing on November 18, 2011, held in the basement of Main Hall, the chair of the court was a distinguished professor from the university’s School of Business Administration; she served as the academic equivalent of a judge and ran the proceeding.

A dean serves as prosecutor and all of the students Krakauer describes going in front of the court are expelled within a couple of months from the original complaint. (Krakauer praises this process and criticizes people who try to assist the accused in presenting a defense.)

The two not-very-drunk students alone in the bedroom story is the longest because the case against Jordan Johnson went to a three-week trial when Johnson refused to plea out. Johnson and “Cecilia Washburn” (Krakauer’s pseudonym) had been plastered the night before:

It was Friday night, February 3, 2012, the first night of the ball. Approximately fifteen hundred young men and women were in attendance. Although no alcohol was served at the event, most of the students had gotten sozzled before they arrived, including both Washburn and Johnson. Washburn slid her hand along the small of Johnson’s back, leaned into him, and drunkenly declared (according to Johnson and Bienemann), “Jordy, I would do you anytime.”

Well… the next night they’re alone together in her bedroom, the male roommate just outside the door in the living room, and something happens in the bedroom that (a) leads to a criminal complaint, and (b) is not loud enough to get the attention of the roommate.

The victim is the first witness:

“Maybe it was the clothes I was wearing, us making out, or me taking off my shirt that made Jordan think I wanted to have sex,” Washburn answered. … “I should have screamed out to my roommate in the living room,” she answered, “or used more force to resist him, yes.”

The state of Montana hires David Lisak, a psychologist who had previously been a professor at University of Massachusetts, Boston, but is now a full-time expert witness (his web site lists his first job as “forensic consultant”). They pay him $325/hour to fly out from Boston to talk to the jury about rape in general (he wasn’t asked to study any of the facts of the actual case):

He was asked to provide “educational testimony”: information about what the best research reveals about rapists and their victims. … Prosecutor Joel Thompson began by asking Dr. Lisak about “misconceptions about rape”—rape myths. When people hear the term “rapist,” Lisak said, many of them “think of a guy in a ski mask, wielding a knife, hiding in the bushes, breaking into a home. And it’s a scary image, and it does happen, but…the vast majority of rapes, well over eighty percent, are actually non-stranger rapes.” … “There’s no profile of a rapist that you can use to say either somebody is or that somebody isn’t,” Lisak said. “But surely rapists are creepier than the average population?” Thompson asked. “Actually, no,” Lisak answered. We all like to think that we would be able to recognize the sort of person who might be a rapist, he said, “but the truth is, we can’t.” “So rapists can be likable?” Thompson asked. “Absolutely,” Lisak answered. “Sociable?” “Absolutely.”… “Can they be thought of outwardly as kind?” Thompson inquired. “Yes,” Lisak answered. “Gentle?” “Yes.” “Even timid?” “Yes, even timid, some of them,” Lisak said.

Then the trial gets back to comfortable territory for Krakauer:

CLAIRE FRANCOEUR, the nurse-practitioner and forensic medical examiner at the First Step sexual-assault resource center who’d examined Allison Huguet and Kelsey Belnap, was called as a witness by the prosecution at the end of the trial’s first week. She showed the jury photographs and a video of Cecilia Washburn’s genitals while describing the forensic exam she performed the day after Washburn was allegedly raped. Prompted by questions from prosecutor Adam Duerk, Francoeur pointed out abrasions and a small laceration inside Washburn’s vagina, as well as minor bruises on her collarbone. She also testified that she found tenderness throughout the vaginal wall and tenderness on the side of Washburn’s head. All of which, she said, were “consistent with sexual trauma, though nonspecific.” After the video of Washburn’s genitals finished playing and the public was readmitted to the courtroom, defense counsel David Paoli, bent on impugning Francoeur’s credibility, began an especially contentious cross-examination. “Nurse Francoeur…,” he began, “your job is not to determine, and you can’t determine, nonconsensual versus consensual [sex]; isn’t that right?” “Correct,” she answered.

Paoli brought up the laceration inside Washburn’s vagina that Francoeur had identified in the video. “This small laceration, it’s approximately a millimeter, isn’t it?” he asked. “I’d have to look at the tape again,” she answered, “but that sounds about right: one to two millimeters.”…

“You said that part of your responsibilities as a medical professional was to refer her to a lawyer?…You referred her to an Atlanta law firm, did you not?” “I gave her a name,” Francoeur explained. “And you made contact with that law firm on her behalf, didn’t you?” “I did not.” “You had made contact with that law firm to tell them that Ms. Washburn was going to be calling them?” “It was not me who made that contact. … Paoli professed that he was shocked that Francoeur, a nurse, would accompany a patient to the police station or refer a patient to a lawyer. In a voice edged with scorn, he inquired, “That’s part of your medical professionalism?” Francoeur replied that such consultation was part of providing “patient-centered” care, in accordance with the standard protocols of her profession. “Patient-centered and litigation-fueled? Is that part of what it is?” … “Do these guidelines, the 2004 national protocols, talk about your duty to provide information about civil attorneys to a victim?” “They do.”

Note that Krakauer refers to the defense lawyer as “bent on impugning” and “hectoring” but he does not refer to the prosecutors as trying to convict the defendant. Krakauer generally portrays criminal defense work, at least for rape cases, as unethical.

The jury then hears from psychiatrists who are paid by the opposing sides and turn out to have opposing opinions:

The final two witnesses—one called by the defense, the other by the prosecution—testified on Thursday, February 28, 2013. The defense witness, a psychiatrist and neurologist named William Stratford, had never examined Cecilia Washburn, but he’d reviewed her counseling and medical records at the University of Montana’s Curry Health Center at the request of David Paoli and Kirsten Pabst. Stratford argued that although the records indicated that Washburn suffered from anxiety and depression in the aftermath of her sexual encounter with Jordan Johnson, the symptoms she exhibited did not rise to the level of post-traumatic stress disorder. The prosecution witness, David Bell, was a physician at the Curry Health Center who treated Washburn after she was allegedly raped. He testified that the symptoms she displayed matched all the criteria for PTSD.

What happens after about $2 million has been spent on attorneys and experts?

Prosecutor Joel Thompson finished his rebuttal at 1:08 p.m. Friday afternoon, prompting Judge Karen Townsend to tell the twelve jurors to gather up their notebooks, head for the jury room, and start deliberating. As the courtroom emptied, Jordan Johnson’s father leaned over the gallery railing and embraced his son. Just after 3:30, an announcement was made that a verdict had been reached, and the people milling around the courthouse hurried back to the courtroom. For a jury to arrive at a verdict in less than two and a half hours after such a long, complex trial was highly unusual, and it took almost everyone by surprise. “To the charge of sexual intercourse without consent: We the jury, all of our number, find the defendant, Jordan Todd Johnson, not guilty.”

Krakauer essentially advocates for the elimination of the presumption of innocence for criminal defendants in rape cases. Because he doesn’t reference the classic “Torture and Plea Bargaining” the reader is left with the impression that criminals have an insurmountable advantage over prosecutors. Krakauer’s argument for making it easier to imprison accused rapists is essentially the following:

It’s easy to forget that the harm done to a rape victim who is disbelieved can be at least as devastating as the harm done to an innocent man who is unjustly accused of rape …

There is no “cure” for PTSD. The repercussions of severe emotional trauma, whether from war or rape, are typically felt for decades.

[My personal take-away from the trial narrative: The trial occupied 2-3X as many days as a patent infringement lawsuit in which a lay jury needs to come up to speed on potentially very sophisticated and specialized technology. The “what happened in that room” trial could have been cut down to about one third of its length if the judge had simply excluded testimony from people who hadn’t been in the room or nearby. How is it possibly relevant what a paid-to-show-up psychologist from Boston says about rapists in general? What if the psychologist had said “In my experience they tend to be almost exactly the same height, weight, and age as the defendant.”? The medical exam should also have been excluded because the nurse couldn’t say more than “they had sex,” a fact that the defendant had admitted. The character witnesses should have been excluded because, especially if we are to believe David Lisak, PhD, a person with a good character is just as likely to be a rapist as a person with a bad character.

Krakauer describes how profitable it can be to drop a dime on a rapist, even if the victim does not take the nurse’s suggestion to contact the plaintiffs’ firm in Atlanta and sue the rapist himself:

In 2002, [Brian] Banks was a junior at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California, a six-foot-four, 225-pound linebacker on an extraordinary football team. … Banks was aggressively recruited by some of the nation’s top college football programs and accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Southern California. … While attending summer classes before his senior year at Long Beach Poly, Banks had a chance encounter with a sophomore named Wanetta Gibson that, according to Banks, culminated in consensual sex. According to Gibson, Banks raped her. In a note Gibson wrote to a friend, which became a crucial piece of evidence, she said Banks “picked me up and put me in the elevator and he took me down stairs and he pulled my pants down and he rapped [sic] me and he didn’t have a condom on and I was a virgin and now Im [sic] not.” When interviewed by the police, Wanetta Gibson told a more detailed version of the same story, and Brian Banks, who was seventeen years old, was charged with forcible rape. Were he convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. Like thousands of other defendants ensnared in the criminal justice system, … Banks agreed to plead no contest to the rape charge, spend at least five years in prison, remain on probation for an additional five years, and register as a sex offender. While Brian Banks was serving his time, Wanetta Gibson and her mother filed a lawsuit against the Long Beach Unified School District, claiming that lax security at Poly High School created an unsafe environment that led to her being raped. The suit was settled out of court, with the school district agreeing to pay Gibson $1.5 million.

… her conscience began to bother her. In March 2011, a few years after Brian Banks was released from prison, he logged onto Facebook and saw he’d received a friend request from Wanetta Gibson, his accuser. … Banks asked if she would meet with him in the presence of a private investigator, Freddie Parish, whose son had been a teammate of his at Poly. Gibson agreed, and during their meeting she admitted what Banks knew to be the truth all along: He had not raped her. Unbeknownst to Wanetta Gibson, Parish was secretly recording the conversation. … Brian Banks’s conviction was reversed in May 2012. Thirteen months later, the Long Beach Unified School District won a $2.6 million default judgment against Wanetta Gibson to recoup the settlement she had received, plus interest and damages.

Let’s not hold our breath waiting for that $2.6 million to be returned to the California taxpayers…

Conclusion: The book is a detailed look at a handful of cases and therefore shouldn’t be used as a policy argument one way or another. Krakauer’s point of view is not neutral (no Wikipedia authoring for him!) but that doesn’t affect the book’s value for understanding (1) behavioral norms among humanities and social science majors at residential colleges, (2) the functioning of a Title IX on-campus sexual abuse court, (3) the challenges faced by police and prosecutors in obtaining convictions in non-stranger rape cases, and (4) the challenges faced by defendants accused of rape either by a campus court or the real police/prosecutors. Young people heading off to a residential college would do well to read this book.


WSJ looks at what happens when you combine IT with government handouts


“Automated System Often Unjustly Boosts Veterans’ Disability Benefits” (May 11, 2015) has some fun stuff for students of (1) the use of IT, (2) the tasks faced by government workers, and (3) the attitude of Americans toward work versus cashing government checks.

Here are some excerpts:

A software system introduced in 2012 that automates veterans’ disability levels for compensation relies almost solely on a patient’s self-reported ailments, the employees say, even in the face of contradictory information.

Increased disability levels—the degree to which a veteran is considered impaired from earning a normal living—is partly why costs in the VA benefits branch have surged 65% to nearly $65 billion in 2014, from the end of 2011.

Approved veterans also are receiving compensation for more diagnosed problems: averaging 4.3 disabilities each in 2013, up from 3.9 in 2011. The VA expects to pay out nearly $72 billion in benefits in 2015, according to the agency.

“Regardless of our objective observations, we’re required to check off all the symptoms the veteran says,” said Gail Poyner, a psychologist who conducts disability examinations for the VA in Oklahoma City.

That information is passed along to a rater, who inputs it into the software.

Without the software, Mr. Adams estimates that a human rater would have determined the vet was only 30% disabled.

“Moving checked [symptom] boxes from one place to another,” he said of his work under the new system. “A monkey could do it.”

In one claim reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, a veteran admitted to his VA psychologist that he was capable of working, but preferred to “do nothing but watch TV movies or play video games” and “use marijuana all day every day.”

The example veteran got $37,200/year. As this is tax-free it exceeds median compensation for an American who works full-time (though child support in Massachusetts or Wisconsin could pay a lot better!). What the WSJ did not explore is the tendency of people who get these monthly checks to move to Colorado and smoke marijuana legally…


Baltimore: A city that functions well… for government employees


A lot of the press coverage on Baltimore has focused on ordinary citizens. The city doesn’t work well for them because they can’t get decent jobs and therefore have to collect various forms of welfare. Sometimes the situation is presented as a zero-sum game (as classic Marxism would require, I think). Because many people in Baltimore are poor there must be a corresponding rich businessperson who is exploiting them (Louis Hyman, a Cornell professor, says that poor people in Baltimore are suffering “economic oppression”; a Hopkins professor says in the NYT that housing and commercial real estate has replaced slavery). The specific businesspeople who are getting rich off the backs of poor Baltimore residents are never identified or interviewed, however, until this Wall Street Journal article. The author is an actual employer in Baltimore and he says that the city doesn’t function well for him either.

So whom does that leave? The city must serve someone’s needs, right? If we subtract private sector employees and private sector employers… that leaves government workers! If they are the ones who can effect change and they are prospering under the current system, why would they try to effect change?

The Wright Brothers: Stuff that I didn’t know


Wrapping up my review of The Wright Brothers by David McCullough… (previous posting)

My conception of the Wright Brothers was that they were able to draw heavily on the work of Otto Lilienthal and others for basic aerodynamics. McCullough says that this is essentially untrue. Textbook aerodynamics, such as it was back then, was simply wrong, except for the basics such as “Lift came from air moving faster over the arched top of a wing, thereby making the pressure there less than that under the wing.” The Wright Brothers had to build their own wind tunnel before they could succeed at Kitty Hawk:

It was not just that their machine had performed so poorly, or that so much still remained to be solved, but that so many of the long-established, supposedly reliable calculations and tables prepared by the likes of Lilienthal, Langley, and Chanute—data the brothers had taken as gospel—had proven to be wrong and could no longer be trusted. Clearly those esteemed authorities had been guessing, “groping in the dark.” … With their former trust in the calculations of Lilienthal and Chanute shattered, the brothers set out that autumn of 1901 to crack the code of aeronautics themselves. It was a brave decision and a crucial turning point. Of primary importance was to find a way to achieve accurate measurements of the “lift” and “drag” of a wing’s surface, and the ingenuity, as well as patience, they brought to their experiments were like nothing done by anyone until then. For three months, working in one of the upstairs rooms at the bicycle shop, they concentrated nearly all of their time on these “investigations” and with stunning results. They devised and built a small-scale wind tunnel—a wooden box 6 feet long and 16 inches square, with one end open and a fan mounted at the other end, and this powered, since the shop had no electricity, by an extremely noisy gasoline engine.

For nearly two months the brothers tested some thirty-eight wing surfaces, setting the “balances” or “airfoils”—the different-shaped hacksaw blades—at angles from 0 to 45 degrees in winds up to 27 miles per hour. It was a slow, tedious process, but as Orville wrote, “those metal models told us how to build.” Octave Chanute was astonished by what Wilbur had to report. “It is perfectly marvelous to me how quickly you get results with your testing machine,” he wrote. “You are evidently better equipped to test the endless variety of curved surfaces than anybody has ever been.”

It was even worse when it came to propeller design:

Meantime, the design of the propellers had become a still bigger challenge. “I think the hardest job Will and Orv had was with the propellers,” Charlie later said. “I don’t believe they ever were given enough credit for that development.” The problem became more complex the more the brothers studied it. Much to their surprise, they could find no existing data on air propellers. They had assumed they could go by whatever rule-of-thumb marine engineers used for the propellers on boats, and accordingly drew on the resources of the Dayton library only to find that after a hundred years in use the exact action of a screw propeller was still obscure. Once more they were left no choice but to solve the problem themselves. “Our minds,” said Orville, “became so obsessed with it that we could do little other work.”

They began to see the propeller as an airplane wing traveling in a spiral course, and that if they could calculate the effect of a wing traveling a straight course, why could they not calculate the effect of one traveling in a spiral course?

The new Flyer, as they called it, would have two propellers positioned between the two wings just to the rear of the operator. One would turn clockwise, the other, counterclockwise, so the spinning, or gyroscopic action, of the one would balance that of the other. Making the propellers with the proper diameter, pitch, and surface area proved no great problem. Each had a diameter of 8 and a half feet and were made of three spruce laminations glued together and shaped by hand with a hatchet and spoke shaver, or “drawknife,” as used by wheelwrights. That they were different from any propellers ever built before was certain, and the last major problem had been resolved.s

And they had to invent the aluminum-block engine:

It was shortly before the New Year when the Wright brothers sent out letters to manufacturers of automobile engines in seven states asking if they could supply an off-the-shelf engine light enough in weight but with sufficient power for their purposes. There was only one response, and in that case the motor was much too heavy. So again they had some original work to do and they had had no experience building engines.

For Charlie Taylor, however, the description applied almost perfectly, except that he was more than a clever mechanic, he was a brilliant mechanic and for the brothers a godsend. His only prior experience with a gasoline engine had been trying to repair one in an automobile a few years before. But that January, working in the back shop with the same metal lathe and drill press used for building bicycles, he went to work and six weeks later had it finished. The motor had four cylinders with a 4-inch bore and a 4-inch stroke. It was intended to deliver 8 horsepower and weigh no more than 200 pounds, to carry a total of 675 pounds, the estimated combined weight of the flying machine and an operator. As it turned out, the motor Charlie built weighed only 152 pounds, for the reason that the engine block was of cast aluminum provided by the up-and-coming Aluminum Company of America based in Pittsburgh.

McCullough is very weak on explaining aerodynamics and the challenges of flying. Here’s one passage:

In a glide later the same day, the machine kept rising higher and higher till it lost all headway, exactly “the fix” that had plunged Otto Lilienthal to his death. Responding to a shout from Orville, Wilbur turned the rudder to its full extent and only then did the glider settle slowly to the ground, maintaining a horizontal position almost perfectly, and landing with no damage or injury.

I’m not sure if it is the Wright brothers who used the term “rudder” for what we today call “elevator” or if McCullough simply conflated the two. It is tough to see how a high pitch attitude and incipient stall could be corrected with a rudder (yaw control). NASA shows a Wright Flyer having more or less conventional controls and nomenclature.

The Wrights were competing against a Smithsonian-led government-funded project run by the best minds of the time:

Langley maintained extreme secrecy about his efforts. Every aspect of his heavily financed Smithsonian experiments remained confidential. In sharp contrast to the affable Chanute, Langley, a thorough Boston Brahmin, had what his friends kindly termed a “shell of hauteur.” Since the launching of his pilotless, steam-powered aerodrome in 1896, Langley and his Smithsonian “team” had been at work on a far larger, and again well-financed, version of the same machine, except that this would be powered by a gasoline engine and carry a single operator.

On July 14 came the news that in a matter of days, Samuel Langley was to test his “latest contrivance” on the mosquito-infested banks of the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia, thirty miles south of Washington. This time it was to be a motor-powered “full-fledged airship” called “The Great Aerodrome,” capable of carrying one operator. It had cost $50,000 in public money—in Smithsonian resources and the largest appropriation yet granted by the U.S. War Department. Professor Langley and several of his friends, including Alexander Graham Bell, contributed another $20,000.

… neither [Wright] ever said the stunning contrast between their success and Samuel Langley’s full-scale failure just days before made what they had done on their own all the more remarkable. Not incidentally, the Langley project had cost nearly $70,000, the greater part of it public money, whereas the brothers’ total expenses for everything from 1900 to 1903, including materials and travel to and from Kitty Hawk, came to a little less than $1,000, a sum paid entirely from the modest profits of their bicycle business.

After their historic achievement, the Wrights tried to turn it into a business, something Wilbur didn’t expect them to be good at:

In business it is the aggressive man, who continually has his eye on his own interest, who succeeds [he wrote]. Business is merely a form of warfare in which each combatant strives to get the business away from his competitors and at the same time keep them from getting what he already has. No man has ever been successful in business who was not aggressive, self-assertive and even a little bit selfish perhaps. There is nothing reprehensible in an aggressive disposition, so long as it is not carried to excess, for such men make the world and its affairs move. . . . I entirely agree that the boys of the Wright family are all lacking in determination and push. That is the very reason that none of us have been or will be more than ordinary businessmen.

The U.S. military gave the Wright Brothers the cold shoulder for at least five years and the Smithsonian actually tried to say that their own Langley had been the first to build a flying machine. They blamed the early 1900s crashes on the launch mechanism and demonstrated the machine, now heavily modified by Glenn Curtis, the Wrights’ competitor, doing a bit of flying 10 years after the fact. The Wrights went to Europe and were warmly received, though the French government was not always helpful: “A dozen or more ribs were broken, one wing ruined, the cloth torn in countless places. Everything was a tangled mess. Radiators were smashed, propeller axles broken, coils badly turned up, essential wires, seats, nuts, and bolts, all missing. … But then Wilbur learned that the chaos and damage had not been caused at Dayton, but at Le Havre by careless French customs inspectors.”

It was not always a perfect match:

Léon Delagrange, who before becoming an aviator had been a sculptor and painter, could not help puzzling over what went on behind Wilbur’s masklike countenance, and, being French, found it hard to comprehend or warm to someone who seemed so devoid of the elemental human emotions and desires. “Even if this man sometimes deigns to smile, one can say with certainty that he has never known the douceur [sweetness] of tears. Has he a heart? Has he loved? Has he suffered? An enigma, a mystery

Further, Peyrey, unlike others, had discovered how exceptionally cultured Wilbur was, how, “in rare moments of relaxation,” he talked with authority of literature, art, history, music, science, architecture, or painting. To Peyrey, the devotion of this preacher’s son to his calling was very like that of a gifted man dedicating his life to a religious mission.

The Wrights took their patents to war in the courts (Wikipedia) and won a series of Pyrrhic victories.

Except for one brief training flight he gave a German pilot in Berlin in June of 1911, Wilbur Wright was not to fly ever again [until his death from typhoid in May 1912], so taken up was he with business matters and acrimonious lawsuits. The Wright Company, from the start, demanded a great deal of time and attention. But it was the interminable patent infringement suits that put the most strain on both brothers. “When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments,” Wilbur wrote to a friend in France, “we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.

The world took their invention to war numerous times:

It had not gone unnoticed that the secretary of war was another of those who had come to see the demonstrations, and future weapons of war were very much on the minds of the officers at Fort Myer and figured prominently in their conversations. Buoyant with his successes, Orville would write to Wilbur, “Everyone here is very enthusiastic and they all think the machine is going to be of great importance in warfare.” A new book by the popular British novelist H. G. Wells featured a terrifying illustration of New York City in flames after an aerial bombing. “No place is safe—no place is at peace,” wrote Wells. “The war comes through the air, bombs drop in the night. Quiet people go out in the morning, and see the air fleets passing overhead—dripping death, dripping death!”

Orville lived to see, too, the horrific death and destruction wrought by the giant bombers of World War II and in several interviews tried as best he could to speak both for himself and for Wilbur. We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth. But we were wrong. . . . No, I don’t have any regrets about my part in the invention of the airplane, though no one could deplore more than I do the destruction it has caused. I feel about the airplane much the same as I do in regard to fire. That is I regret all the terrible damage caused by fire, but I think it is good for the human race that someone discovered how to start fires and that we have learned how to put fire to thousands of important uses.


More: Read  The Wright Brothers


  • previous posting on comparing prices and lifestyle then and now using the book as a source

Happy Mother’s Day from the New York Times: Fathers are useless


“Mom: The Designated Worrier” is a Mother’s Day gift from the New York Times, an example of “tall poppy syndrome” in which the best way to build up mothers is to point out how useless fathers are.

Here’s a representative quote:

Half of the men surveyed in a Families and Work Institute study from 2008 said they were either the responsible parent or shared the role equally with their spouse, while two-thirds of the women said they were the one in charge. This suggests that either men overestimate their contribution or women define the work differently.

Apparently neither the writer nor the editors of the New York Times thought that it was possible for a woman to overestimate her contributions as a parent.

The writer says “One reason women like me get stuck with the micromanagement…,” i.e., the writer and editors are comfortable assuming that children need to be micromanaged.

We can be sure that at least one man in New York is having a great Mother’s Day:

I’ve definitely been guilty of “maternal gatekeeping” — rolling my eyes or making sardonic asides when my husband has been in charge but hasn’t pushed hard enough to get teeth brushed or bar mitzvah practice done. This drives my husband insane, because he’s a really good father and he knows that I know it. But I can’t help myself. I have my standards, helicopter-ish though they may be.

I submitted a comment to the piece:

The author suggests that fathers are essentially useless, except for paying the bills. Her conclusion is that this leads to unacceptable unfairness when mothers and fathers live together. But a woman who desires domestic fairness above all already has an option: avoid a live-together partnership with the father(s) and collect child support. Then nobody needs to change, nobody needs to argue about who did what percentage of the chores or the worrying that the author feels is essential to children, and it all fits under existing laws. In New York, for example, the mother is entitled to roughly 1/3 of after-tax income for a single child. With three children from three different fathers of equal income the mother would end up with 100% of the after-tax income of one father. Then, without the hassle of wedding planning or divorce lawsuits, she’s got the kids and the cash and can stay home to hover if desired.

Other readers’ comments are kind of fun. Here’s a selection:

I really feel sorry for this woman. She and her peers have constructed lives that are replete with drudgery without respite, at least until the kids move out for college, and she can’t understand why husbands are goldbricking … what are her kids doing to help out?

The author has a complete lack of self-awareness. Basically her “list” exists largely in her head, where all tasks are equally urgent. The husband has to buy into all of it, at exactly the same degree of urgency, and perform each task exactly the way she would do it, or risk having it redone the “right” way and failing to “share” the completely artificial sense of urgency.

I think the author conflates productive worrying with non-productive obsessing that is more comforting for the obsessed mom than it is for the dad or more importantly – for the kids.

If we can all agree that becoming a parent is, in most cases, a voluntary act, can we please stop this endless pity party that many mothers seem to revel in? If the job is that hard and thankless, and if the male part of the equation is clueless, why bother doing it at all?

(from a male physician) Female parents such as the author shouldn’t confuse “worry” with caring for children. Obsessing, double checking, and undermining other peoples choices creates dependent and anxious children. Questioning and feeling that you can critique male parental effort causes fathers to step back from care since the “worrying” female parent is going to repeat their effort or criticize until it is done “the right way” (based on a female standard)

I’m a big girl, those are small tasks and part of life. You just run with things. Articles like this make women seem weak and harebrained.

As a pediatrician, I talk with a lot of families. … is it possible that (some of) the difference you are describing is part of a tacit negotiation between the stereotypical mom and stereotypical dad about what is necessary to perform good parenting? If some of a mom’s need to be organized and in control is due to “worry” AKA “anxiety” is it really the dad’s job to take on part of that? Or is she (partly) treating her own anxiety and calming her own worry, rather than doing “more than half” of the NECESSARY parenting?. There is not necessarily one right way to parent.

What would obsessive/compulsive martyrs complain about if there were true Gender Equality?

When men and women operate like interchangeable workers in a factory, not only does the child lose, but the parents also lose out on their chance to shine to their fullest potential,

The author should have married a woman.

Mom: The Designated Victim

As a mother, I saw myself primarily as my children’s teacher, not their maid, that Mommy Marty trap so many women fall into, which allows them to feel important while nursing endless grievances. … Teaching children to do things for themselves takes a lot more time and is much messier than doing it yourself, but raising an independent child who does not need you to survive is the primary role of a parent.

Here finally is a woman bold enough to speak out and complain that her husband is lazy.

As an only-child whose father passed away during childhood, I often wished that my father were around to balance out the stifling (and wholly unnecessary) worries imposed on me day-in and day-out by my own mother.

(from a young-looking woman): So divorce the jerk. You’re doing all the work anyway. I don’t understand why women stay with men like that. What are you getting out of the relationship, other than aggravation?


Is New York state government expensive because New York is corrupt or is New York corrupt because government is expensive?


According to the New York Post, New York’s top political officials could end up in the same prison (“Club Fed”) if both are convicted on their respective corruption charges.

The Tax Foundation says that New York collects the highest percentage of residents’ income of any state. Is that because corruption makes the state expensive to run? Or do the lavish tax revenues flowing into Albany attract corrupt people? (the good news is that they can continue to collect pensions even after felony convictions)

[Separately, what percentage of New York’s politicians would need to be imprisoned for corruption before the New York Times would stop lecturing other Americans on how they should run their states?]

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