August 2007, Part 2

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Suppose We Really Wanted To Improve American Schools:  What should we do?  Michael Barber, a former adviser to Tony Blair, has an answer.
"What have all the great school systems of the world got in common?" he said, ticking off four systems that he said deserved to be called great, in Finland, Singapore, South Korea and Alberta, Canada.   "Four systems, three continents — what do they have in common?

"They all select their teachers from the top third of their college graduates, whereas the U.S. selects its teachers from the bottom third of graduates.  This is one of the big challenges for the U.S. education system: What are you going to do over the next 15 to 20 years to recruit ever better people into teaching?"
His prescription would not surprise long-time readers of this site.  In 2004, I discussed James Coleman's finding — which dates back to the 1960s — that students learn more from teachers with with higher verbal SAT scores.   The finding has been replicated in a number of studies — and ignored by the educational establishment for decades.

Kids learn more from smarter teachers.  That's not a complicated idea, but it is a politically difficult idea, especially for Democrats, who get so much support from the teachers unions.

Incidentally, hiring from the top third need not cost more.  South Korea pays its teachers relatively more than we pay ours — but has much larger classes than we do.

(I would guess that hiring from the top third is most important for high school classes, especially science and math classes, but I don't know of any studies on that question.)
- 12:52 PM, 16 August 2007   [link]

Magic Bullets:  Ever fired a gun?  Then you will know that the pristine bullets shown in this picture were never fired from a gun.  But the French news agency, AFP, did not know that.

But they did think that the picture made good anti-coalition propaganda, which is why they published it.

"Mainstream" journalists expect us to believe their stories on the Iraq war, even while they commit blunders this large, again and again, even while they publish enemy propaganda, again and again.

(It is possible, but unlikely, that the woman in the photograph actually thought those bullets hit her house.  More likely she was asked to pose for the picture and given those bullets by the photographer.)
- 6:10 AM, 16 August 2007   [link]

Do You Know The Difference Between The Mean And The Median?  The New York Times doesn't.

(If you work for the New York Times, here's an explanation of the difference between the two.)
- 2:34 PM, 15 August 2007   [link]

A Failure Rate Of 33 Percent:  But the customers are still loyal to the product.
Imagine your blender breaking down twice.  The vacuum cleaner giving up the ghost three times.   The espresso maker repeatedly going kaput.  Then imagine replacing the item with the same model over and over while keeping your brand loyalty and sanity.

Stephano Nevarez can.  Since he first bought his $400 Microsoft Xbox 360 in 2006, it has failed three times.  Each time, he sent the game machine back to the company and waited weeks for a repair or a replacement.
. . .
Microsoft, which has 57 percent of the market, has declined to say what is causing some of its Xbox 360 to stop working, or how many machines have been affected.  It has set aside $1.1 billion for repairs, a figure that suggests to industry analysts that the problem could affect a third of the 11.6 million 360s already in the hands of consumers.
Remarkably, Nevarez, and most other Xbox 360 owners, have not given up on the system.  Instead, they are waiting for the latest version of Microsoft's Halo, Halo 3, to come out.

These failures are puzzling.  Companies have been building game consoles for decades.  One would expect that, by now, designers would know how to design reliable systems.  Microsoft hasn't said what is causing the failures.  An outside expert speculates that heat may be causing chips to pop out, but that's an old, old problem that designers should know how to handle by now.

(These failures don't inspire confidence that Microsoft will be able to handle problems in other fields, where waiting a few weeks for replacement is not always a good solution, such as medical care.)
- 1:28 PM, 15 August 2007   [link]

Home Again:  Washington state welcomed me with fine views of my favorite Cascade volcano, Mt. Rainier — and a traffic jam for the last twenty miles of my trip.  It's good to be home.
- 3:45 PM, 14 August 2007   [link]

Trip Report 3:  Klamath Falls, OR — There is a town here mostly because of Upper Klamath Lake.   And the lake is here because this is a rift zone.
Nearly 30 miles long and up to eight miles wide, and covering 133 square miles, the lake is largest body of freshwater west of the Rockies, filling a basin created when the earth's crust dropped along fault lines on both sides.
In other words, Upper Klamath Lake was formed in the same way the great rift valley lakes in eastern Africa were formed.
- 7:32 AM, 13 August 2007   [link]

They Get Letters:  But only from one side.  Yesterday's Portland Oregonian had brief statistical summary of the letters they had received in the week beginning August 3rd.  (Not available on line.)  During that week, the most popular topic was the Bush administration, with 94 letters.  Of those 94, 92 opposed, and just 2 supported the administration.

That large an imbalance, in state that Bush almost carried in 2000, requires explanation.  I can't say that I have any, but I do have some speculations, which I'll discuss in a few days.
- 7:14 AM, 13 August 2007   [link]

Trip Report 2:  Crescent City, CA — Yesterday, I noticed a small sign on a local KFC outlet, about four feet high, marking the tsunami that had hit Crescent City, specifically the 1964 tsunami.
The Great Alaskan Earthquake of 28 March 1964 (UTC date - 27 March local date)) generated a great tsunami which was extremely damaging, not only in Alaska, but along Vancouver Island and Northern California.  The tsunami waves affected the entire California coastline but were particularly high from Crescent City to Monterey with heights ranging from 2.1 - 6.3 meters (7-21 feet).   Eleven persons lost their lives in Crescent City and tsunami damage was estimated at $7,414,000(1964 dollars).  The estimated losses elsewhere along California were between $1,500,000 and $2,375,000 (1964 dollars).  Extensive damage occurred also in the Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbors.
Crescent City has rebuilt since; in fact, there are many apartments along the shore, intended, I suppose, as tsunami bait.

(The redwoods I saw yesterday were impressive.)
- 9:11 AM, 12 August 2007   [link]

Worried About The Financial Markets?  Concerned about the big swings?   Then you may take some reassurance from the fact that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is worried, too.  In Friday's $column, he said this:
What's been happening in financial markets over the past few days is something that truly scares monetary economists: liquidity has dried up.  That is, markets in stuff that is normally traded all the time — in particular financial instruments backed by home mortages — have shut down because there are no buyers.
. . .
Let's hope, then, that this crisis blows over as quickly as that of 1998.  But I wouldn't count on it.
This is reassuring because Krugman has a spectacular record of being wrong in his predictions about the economy during the last six years.  When he said, for example, (in 2002?) that the economy might be stuck in a permanent quagmire, that was a signal that the economy was about to start growing vigorously.  So, whenever he says he is worried, we should relax, a little.

(Strangely, though the economists in the Bush adminstration keep being proved right (and Krugman wrong), he thinks the Bush administration is incompetent.)
- 8:37 AM, 11 August 2007
On The Other Hand, Irving Steltzer, who is far more sensible than Krugman, is also worried, though he believes that the Federal Reserve can handle the problem with the right policies.
[A recession] can be avoided if the Fed does what it is designed to do: act as the buyer of last resort for the assets that are now illiquid.  That does not mean it should arrange a bailout, for it is important that imprudent lenders feel pain, lest they repeat their errors sooner than they otherwise inevitably will.  [Walter] Bagehot urged central banks faced with a credit crunch to "lend freely at a penalty rate"--prevent insolvencies that would cause future pain, but make the lenders suffer for past sins.
Sounds plausible, on general grounds, though I should add that I am not an economist.
- 9:25 AM, 12 August 2007   [link]

Trip Report 1:  Chico, CA — On Wednesday, we circled Lassen Peak, stopping to look at the Sulphur Works, to hike to Bumpass Hell, to view Chaos Crags, and to enjoy Manzanita Lake.   Yesterday, we drove up to Shasta, more for the galleries in the town of Mount Shasta than for the mountain.

Today, I am driving to Burney Falls in the McArthur-Burney state park.  If I have time, I will stop to take a look at Castle Crags on my way back to Redding.
- 9:28 AM, 10 August 2007
More:  In case you were wondering, I wrote "we" because my brother and sister-in-law had driven up from San Diego to join me in exploring Lassen.

The Burney Falls were well worth the drive.  It is one of three best waterfalls I have seen, after Niagra (Of course!), but tied with Snoqualmie Falls.  I'll have more to say about this waterfall after I get back.
- 8:10 AM, 11 August 2007   [link]

Robert Dallek Wants To Get Rid Of President Bush:  And doesn't much care how it is done.

Sometimes an idea comes along that is so silly that a sensible person not only rejects the idea, but begins to wonder about the person who came up with the idea, and even the person's employer.  Sensible people will have that reaction to Robert Dallek's recent op-ed.
Polls showing President Bush's approval ratings in the 20s and 30s and a New York Times survey last month reporting that people across the country are eager for an end to the current administration suggest that this nation has a problem it's going to have to live with for the next 17 months -- a failed presidency that won't reestablish its credibility with a national majority.

The political argument against Bush's continuing tenure is not frivolous.  There are good reasons to see him as a failed president whose remaining time in office will be unproductive at best and destructive to the country's well-being at worst.  But given the constitutional rules by which the presidency operates, there is no serious prospect of removing him from office.
And so Dallek wants to devise a constitutional way to remove presidents with low rating in the Gallup poll.

Or at least presidents that Professor Dallek doesn't like.  If you look through his discussion of presidents that might have been affected by his proposal, you will see that he believes it would affect presidents he doesn't like (e. g. Grant), but not those he does (e. g. Truman).  In fact, as anyone who understands constitutional principles would know, such rule changes will affect good leaders (by whatever standard) and bad leaders alike.

And often for the worse.  If we make presidents even more dependent on public opinion than they are now, they will hesitate to take actions that hurt them in the short term with the public, however much good those actions may do the nation in the long run.

Nor does Dallek's proposal take into consideration some obvious practical problems.   President Bush's approval rating in the Gallup poll just jumped up five points.  Suppose we had Dallek's change in the constitution and Bush's enemies began trying to remove him.  Suppose further that Bush's approval ratings continued to rise.  Would Dallek then favor just calling the whole thing off? Or suppose that the speaker of the House was even less popular than the president they would replace?  Would putting the speaker in the president's place make sense then?

But even to say that much gives Dallek's idea more credit than it deserves.  Instead, a sensible person will just laugh at it, will treat Dallek's books with considerable suspicion, and willl hope that the president of UCLA will call Dallek in and gently suggest that now might be a good time for the professor to retire.
- 6:12 AM, 9 August 2007   [link]