Monday, August 31, 2009


James Webb now a US Senator from Virginia gave a 1990 speech at a Confederate memorial. Without endorsing the entire speech I do agree with this portion:

There are at least two lessons for us to take away from such a day of remembrance. The first is one our leaders should carry next to their breasts, and contemplate every time they face a crisis, however small, which puts our military at risk. it should echo in their consciences, from the power of a million graves . It is simply this: You hold our soldiers' lives in sacred trust. When a citizen has sworn to obey you, and follow your judgment, and walk onto a battlefield to defend the interests you define as worthy of his blood, do not abuse that awesome power through careless policy, unclear objectives, or inflexible leadership.

There is currently talk of sending more troops to Afghanistan. Given that our objectives there are unclear to me I would hope President Obama will consider carefully whether committing more troops is wise.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


I recently blogged about Steven Brill's rubber room article in the New Yorker. Brill mentions in passing a study that purportedly showed that there are important differences in teacher effectiveness.

... A study of the Los Angeles public schools published in 2006 by the Brookings Institution concluded that “having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.” ...

The study in question appears to be Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job (pdf file) by Gordon, Kane and Staiger.

Briefly the authors construct a model for predicting student performance on standardized assessment tests at the end of the school year based on their performance on similar tests the previous year and some other factors such as sex, race, English language ability etc. The models implicitly assume the students will be taught by an average teacher. They then compare the actual results with the predicted results and assert the difference averaged over the students in a class reflects in substantial part differences in teacher effectiveness (relative to an average teacher). In particular teachers ranked high based on the first two years of their teaching career will perform noticeably better (compared to teachers ranked low) in their third year of teaching (based on how well their classes test at the end of the year relative to the results predicted for an average teacher).

The authors go on to make some policy recommendations. They note that although teachers are generally subject to a probationary period of 2-3 years at the beginning of their career with a school district before they are given tenure (and become almost impossible to fire) it is rare for a teacher to be denied tenure. They recommend ranking probationary teachers based in part on their methods and presumptively denying tenure to candidates in the bottom quartile. They make some rather extravagant predictions of social benefits from adopting this policy nationally based on some rather heroic assumptions.

An obvious question about these results is how long the improved student performance lasts. It is fairly common for short term gains to disappear in the long run. Unfortunately according to a later paper, Estimating Teacher Impacts on Student Achievement: An Experimental Evaluation (pdf file) by Kane and Steiger the effects quickly dissipate.

... In both the experimental and non-experimental data, we found that teacher effects faded out by roughly 50 percent per year in the two years following teacher assignment.

So I guess I may need to modify my earlier claim that "teachers don't matter much" to "teachers don't matter much in the long run".

I have some other criticisms of the earlier paper but if the gains don't persist they aren't very important even if they are real.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Wishful thinking

Kevin Drum asks .

Let's recap: the United States spends about twice as much on healthcare as any other developed nation in the world and in return receives just about the worst care. Can someone remind me again why there's even a debate about whether we should put up with this?

This encapsulates liberal wishful thinking on health care reform.

I will grant there is a problem (although I think Drum is exaggerating just how poorly the US does in international comparisons). However polls show most people are satisfied with their own care. This means there is no crisis atmosphere and people feel free to argue about how to improve things. Democrats don't even agree among themselves about what to do so it should be no surprise they are having trouble selling their inchoate proposals to the country as a whole.

The contemporary Republican party is justly criticized for its apparent conviction that tax cuts are the solution to every problem. However the Democratic party has its own blind spots. The current health care reform proposals appear to be inspired by various forms of Democratic magical thinking that are as unmoored from reality as their Republican counterparts.

Perhaps Drum will explain exactly how the Democrats propose to improve care while reducing costs. I see little reason to believe their proposals will do either and hence little reasons to support them.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Cash for Clunkers

A few days ago Kevin Drum linked to this defense of the cash for clunkers program.

I have a copy of comments. First this:

I don't think the CEA factored in the economic benefit of lowering people's gasoline bill, which puts more money in their pocket to save or spend in their community.

makes no sense. Suppose you drive 12000 miles a year and turn in a clunker getting 15 mpg for a new car getting 25 mpg. This will reduce your yearly gasoline consumption from 800 gallons to 480 gallons. So you are saving 320 gallons a year. At 3$/gallon this is $960 per year. But you have had to pay for the new car. Even after a $5000 rebate this is probably $15000+ out of your pocket. So you will not have more money in your pocket anytime soon.

Second the goal of reducing oil consumption and CO2 emissions and the goal of stimulating the economy are fundamentally in conflict. To the extent this program revives economic activity it will increase oil consumption and CO2 emissions. This is not acknowledged.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rubber rooms

Steven Brill has an article about that New York City institution, the rubber room, which has attracted some attention among bloggers. Rubber rooms arose because firing teachers is an extremely lengthy and difficult process (because of arbitration provisions in their union contract). But they can assigned to rooms where they sit and do nothing (with full pay and benefits) while their arbitration hearings drag on year after year. This is done when the school administration thinks it is necessary to remove a teacher from contact with children. These assignment rooms became known as "rubber rooms" . This process provides a ready supply of horror stories about teachers collecting for pay for years after instances of extreme misconduct. Steven Brill is the latest writer to mine this supply.

On the narrow point I agree with the critics, this process is indefensible and should be changed. I would suggest a no-fault termination system in which the administration could fire anyone with payment of say 2 years salary as severance. However it is not really that important in the whole scheme of things. 600 rubber roomer teachers out of 89000 is less than 1%. So just budgeting for this like you would for sick days is going to increase your costs by less than 1%. Not good, but eliminating it is not going to drastically improve school performance.

Brill suggests the real problem is that the firing process is so onerous that it is generally only used for misconduct and merely incompetent teachers stick around forever. My view is that teachers don't matter much so it is not all that important to get rid of incompetent ones.


Previously the settings on this blog required you to register to comment. I was worried about spam and didn't think registration was a big deal. However it appears requiring registration may be discouraging some people from commenting. Since a lack of comments is a bigger problem than spam at the moment I have changed the settings so that registration is no longer required to comment.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Annuity math

As I noted earlier I plan to start receiving a pension from my former employer in November after I turn 55. For obscure reasons I have options to take portions as a lump sum instead of a single life annuity. In one case the lump sum is about 90 times the monthly annuity and in the other case it is about 133. The information packet I received suggested these options are bad deals and that a fair conversion ratio would be about 188.5. This is roughly consistent with annuity quotes I found on the web which had ratios which varied from 164 to 206.

According to the information packet a life expectancy (for males) at 55 of 26 years and a discount rate of 4.3% was used to compare the value of the annuity and lump sum options. And indeed assuming I will live exactly 26 additional years (receiving 312 monthly payments) and applying a discount rate of 4.3% does produce a similar ratio, 189.3. The discount rate needed to produce a ratio of 133 seems to be over 8%. Since I don't think my expected investment returns are over 8% and I don't have any reason to believe my life expectancy is significantly less than average it looks like I will decline the lump sum options.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Governor Paterson

My New York State Governor, David Paterson , was in the news recently complaining that the media is biased against him because he is black. This is not really the way you want to make news as Governor.

Paterson was elected Lieutenant Governor in 2006 as Eliot Spitzer's running mate. He became Governor when Spitzer resigned after it was revealed that Spitzer had been patronizing high priced prostitutes. Apparently Paterson objects to being called an "accidental governor". However this seems fair to me. There appears little reason to believe Paterson could ever have been elected Governor on his own. Most New Yorkers (like me) knew very little about him.

Being Governor of New York is a tough job. Spitzer, who came in with an impressive reputation and who some saw as a possible future President, had not performed well even before the prostitution scandal. So there were reasons to doubt Paterson would be up to the job. Nevertheless I believe most New Yorkers were hoping he could rise to the occasion. Unfortunately he has been unable to so. He has come across as weak, indecisive and lacking good political instincts.

An example of Paterson's poor political instincts was his intervention in the recent deadlock in the New York State Senate. This was the sort of thing the Governor would have been better advised to stay away from as he didn't have a positive contribution to make. His public criticism of the Senators briefly united them in denouncing the Governor but otherwise achieved nothing. And his attempt to appoint a new Lieutenant Governor to fill the vacancy and provide a tie-breaking vote in the Senate was ineffective because the Governor does not have the power to do this (or so the courts have ruled so far).

Charging bias also shows poor political instincts as it just reminds people that for whatever reason he has not been successful. Paterson needs to keep a low profile, work at being a better Governor and hope his opponents self destruct. Or he needs to get the Democrats to come up with some sinecure to convince him not to run again.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Health care reform and illegals

Liberal bloggers like Yglesias , Klein and Noon are upset that the public holds what they claim are false beliefs about health care reform. For example Klein:

The poll tested a variety of assertions that were simply wrong -- Was health-care reform likely to include illegal immigrants? ...

Since I believe that health care reform is likely to include illegal immigrants I naturally don't agree that the assertion is simply wrong.

It is clear that this is something liberals would like to include if they thought they could get away with it. Yglesias states as much. So any language purporting to exclude illegals will probably be written by people who don't actually want to exclude illegals. Making it reasonable to doubt how effective it will prove to be.

Additionally even if the language excluding illegals was written by people who actually sincerely wanted to exclude illegals there is a substantial chance it would be overturned by the courts. In the case Phyler v. Doe the US Supreme Court ruled that the state of Texas could not refuse to educate illegal immigrants. It is easy to imagine a similar ruling with respect to health care for illegals.

Finally this assertion is not the sort of unambiguous factual statement that can be fairly characterized as simply right or simply wrong. There is too much room for debate.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lighthouse View motel

As I mentioned before I have vacationed several times in the North Carolina Outer Banks . In November 1992 I spent a night in the Lighthouse View motel in Buxton . The motel lies between route 12 and the ocean. The picture was taken looking back towards route 12 from a beach access. My car is the white Toyota Tercel at the upper right. This car was the third of five I have owned.

Most of the buildings shown were destroyed the following year by Hurricane Emily which hit Buxton hard. The motel was rebuilt but I don't think I have been back.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Dog days

One thing about being out of work is you notice things you were oblivious to before. For example working in an air-conditioned office all day I didn't fully comprehend how miserable the weather around here can be in the summer. Hot and humid every day or so it seems. Currently it is pouring rain from a front coming through so perhaps things will improve a bit.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Health care reform

Much of what is being currently written about health care reform is partisan propaganda. Below I link to a couple of columns which aren't and with which I largely agree.

From the left, here is Ezra Klein on why insurers aren't the main problem. He writes in part:

... And in a broader sense, this isn't a war between reformers and insurers. It's a war between reformers and the economic forces that have prices millions out of health insurance. In general, insurers, like everyone else, are the slaves to those forces rather than the drivers. And the unhappy truth is that the drivers are some of the most sympathetic actors in the health-care system. ...

From the right, here is Ross Douthat on why we sometimes have to say no to grandma. He writes in part:

Medicare’s price tag, if trends continue, will make a mockery of the idea of limited government. For conservatives, no fiscal cause is more important than curbing this exponential growth. And by fighting health care reform with tactics ripped from Democratic playbooks, and enlisting anxious seniors as foot soldiers, conservatives are setting themselves up to win the battle and lose the longer war.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Rooftop windmills

What is it with environmentalists and rooftops? Not content with promoting silly rooftop solar projects I see they are now pushing rooftop windmills which have many of the same drawbacks. The linked article actually points out a lot of the problems with this idea but fails to draw the obvious conclusion.

It appears to me that rooftop windmills are effectively ornamental, like spoilers on ordinary cars. In which case you might as well save money by not actually including any power generation equipment.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

War casualty

The Falling Soldier is a famous photograph taken by Robert Capa . It purportedly showed a Republican soldier falling backward after he was shot dead in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. With the recent discovery that the photograph was taken near Espejo, 30 miles from Cerro Muriano the claimed location, it now seems likely that the photograph was staged. The defense case seems to be that although the photograph was one of a series, in most of which Republican soldiers are clearly acting for the camera, taken at a location away from the fighting an infiltrating nationalist sniper had just happened to shoot one of the soldiers at the exact moment he was posing for Capa. While not absolutely impossible this is obviously not the simplest explanation.

So should it matter? After all Republican soldiers did die near Cerro Muriano some perhaps shot much as depicted in the photograph. But whether or not it should matter, it clearly does matter because the photograph became a symbol of the Republican cause. People don't like to give up the symbols of their causes. Hence the unlikely defenses of the photograph offered by supporters of the Republican cause. And why it is said that truth is the first casualty of war.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bottom of the ninth

In August 1997 I attended a San Diego Padres baseball game at Qualcomm Stadium . Although the stadium seemed fine to me the Padres moved to Petco Park a few years later. In the later innings of the game I took a few pictures in which the scoreboard is visible. Thanks to the magic of the internet this allowed me to figure out the exact date and game situation. The game was the Chicago Cubs at the San Diego Padres played on August 17, 1997. The Cubs won 6-5. The picture shows the first pitch to Carlos Hernandez batting with two out and the bases empty in the bottom of the ninth. This pitch will be a strike but Carlos will later single. Unfortunately the next batter will strike out and the Padres will lose having been unable to come back after going down 4-0. Since the game started at 1:07 and lasted 2:58 the picture was taken around 4 pm.

I generated the picture by scanning a 5.25 by 3.5 color print at 600 dpi. Although some sources claim that scanning color prints at more than 300 dpi is usually pointless, scanning at 600 dpi definitely gave sharper results in this case.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Kissing Bridge

The Kissing Bridge is one of the many New York covered bridges . It is located in Bicentennial Park in Ticonderoga. I took the picture in June 1994. Although I don't think I realized it at the time, the bridge had been covered earlier that year meaning it's not really very historic.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


I signed up for New York E-ZPass , an electronic toll collection system, in 2001. I used it on the infrequent occasions when I drove over one of the local toll bridges. When I recently drove to Baltimore and Denver I was impressed with how widely E-ZPass has spread. It was accepted south to Maryland and west to Illinois. The Ohio Turnpike was an exception but it is planning to adopt E-ZPass soon .

This got me to thinking about the future. It seems to me it would make a lot of sense to require every vehicle on public roads in the United States to have an E-ZPass like electronic tag. This would have obvious advantages for toll collection and law enforcement.

There might be objections from privacy advocates. However every vehicle is already required to display identification in the form of license plates. An E-ZPass like transponder is basically just an electronic license plate. And advances in automatic license plate recognition ( ALPR ) technology will increasingly allow vehicles to be tracked. Electronic tags will just make this simpler and more efficient.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Taughannock Falls

In May 1992 while driving through New York state on the way to Niagara Falls I stopped briefly at Taughannock Falls . There are several ways of viewing the falls. There is a free parking area on the rim of the canyon below the falls adjacent to an overlook. Further downstream there is pay parking for the gorge trail which leads upstream about a mile to the base of the falls. As I was in a bit of a rush I just took some pictures from the overlook opposite the falls. They came out rather well considering I was using my old Kodak 110 camera and they were into the sun a bit.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Senator Kennedy should resign

Senator Edward Kennedy is dying of brain cancer. On a personal level this is a tragedy with which I can empathize as my father also died of brain cancer. However Kennedy is not just a private citizen he is also a public servant with important duties which he is increasingly unable to discharge. If Kennedy does not resign then under Massachusetts law his seat will remain vacant for at least 145 days after his death while a special election is held to replace him. This could deny the Democrats a critical vote on important legislation. On the other hand Kennedy could resign now effective at a future date. This would start the special election process and minimize the length of time his seat is vacant. In my view it is his duty to his country and his party to do this.

Somewhat ironically the Democrats changed the vacancy procedure in Massachusetts in 2004 so that then Governor Romney could not appoint a interim replacement should Senator Kerry have been elected President. This change may come back to haunt them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bank job

I have been critical of a couple of Felix Salmon's recent posts but he makes a good point in this post about how banks mistreat their customers by pushing inappropriate products on them.

When I moved to New York I chose a bank which was convenient to my new work location. Over the years I have been satisfied with the basic banking services it has provided. However it has also attempted to sell me a lot of dubious financial products like overdraft protection, credit protection, high fee mutual funds etc. It is unfortunate that banks find it more profitable to peddle this stuff than to provide reasonable financial advice.

Of course this is a general problem in the finance industry. Financial institutions expend too much time and effort on thinking up new ways to trick their customers into overpaying and not enough on how to provide good value.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Free riders

Felix Salmon supports Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to eliminate fares on some New York city bus routes. This has some advantages as collecting fares is expensive but there is a downside in that fares serve to screen out undesirable riders. This paper (pdf file) concluded:

Based upon the findings of this synthesis, it is concluded that a fare-free policy might be appropriate for smaller transit systems in certain communities, but is ill-advised for larger transit systems in major urban areas because experience shows that in larger systems, a tremendous amount of criminal activity, as well as a sharp increase in ridership, caused higher maintenance costs, labor costs, and operational costs and drove away existing riders.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mother Jones

Last October Kevin Drum announced a contest to predict the results of the November elections. I entered and was fortunate enough to be one of two winners. My prize was a subscription to Mother Jones magazine. When I returned from Denver I enquired as to why I had yet to receive any issues. Apparently whatever the problem was has now been straightened out as I received my first issue (dated September + October 2009) today.

Mother Jones magazine is named for Mary Harris "Mother" Jones an early American radical and labor leader. As might be expected it is on the left. I had not read an issue for many years. It doesn't appear I have missed much, the issue I just received wasn't very interesting. The cover story was about a trendy bottled water, Fiji, which I had never heard of. Apparently it is not as good for the environment as it likes to claim. Not too surprising as importing bottled water from Fiji seems pretty absurd from an environmental standpoint.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Netflix shipping on Saturday

I mailed a DVD back to Netflix on Friday and was surprised to get emails reporting it had been received and a new DVD mailed on Saturday. Previously Netflix in my area had worked on a 5 day week basis. Apparently Netflix started experimenting with Saturday processing back in January.

It is not immediately clear to me why they are doing this, it seems to increase their labor costs substantially for a somewhat modest service benefit. Perhaps as speculated in the comments in the link above they were having trouble handing the workload on Mondays and are trying to spread out the load a bit.

Of course this will become moot if the post office ever eliminates Saturday delivery.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


A zero-sum game is one where gains and losses balance. You can only win if someone else loses. Stock trading is basically a zero-sum gain. If you have an edge (such as inside information) that allows you to make profitable trades your gains are someone else's losses. Your trades may also make stock prices more accurate but this does not on balance benefit the other participants as is sometimes claimed.

For example Felix Salmon claims here that:

What happens when companies engage in fraudulent activity? Short-sellers get wind of it, and, by selling the stock of the company in question, depress the share price and save uninformed investors some of the loss they would otherwise have suffered had they bought in at an undepressed level. ...

But this is wrong. By depressing the price short-sellers attract additional naive buyers (and holders) since the stock appears to be a bargain to investors unaware of the fraud. So each holder of the stock when the fraud is revealed will lose less but there will be more of them. Additionally uninformed sellers will not get as good a price. The net effect is that the other investors will lose the same amount that the short-sellers gain. So short-sellers (like inside traders) are not doing less informed investors any favors.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Oreo again

Continuing Friday cat blogging here is another picture of Oreo . Like most cats Oreo spends a lot of time resting which he likes to do in an elevated location. This is one of his favorite spots.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Dakota Badlands

In September 1991 while driving on I90 in South Dakota I took a brief detour through the Badlands National Park along the Badlands Loop Road . This was a while ago and the main thing I remember is that it was hot. Not too surprising as the air conditioner in my car was broken and I was too cheap to get it fixed.

I believe the photo was taken from an overlook along the loop road. It was taken with my old Kodak 110 camera. Not a very good camera but it was at its best in bright sun.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


When I got a physical a couple of months ago my doctor recommended getting a colonoscopy . This is a standard recommendation for patients over 50. I had previously been wary but what with a relative recently dying of colon cancer and my medical insurance under Cobra running out it seemed like a good thing to do.

I had the exam on Tuesday. The prep on Monday involved not eating, taking a couple of pills, preparing about 2 liters of a solution and then drinking it a few hours later (spaced as a glass every 10 minutes or so). Then on Tuesday morning I had the exam. I was given anesthesia which put me completely out. When I woke up it seemed to wear off quickly although you aren't supposed to drive for 12 hours.

The exam detected a polyp which was removed. The doctor said it looked benign but would be tested (which takes a couple of weeks).

All in all a bit less obnoxious than I expected.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The road not taken

Returning home from Denver on Sunday July 26 I originally intended to follow I80 through Pennsylvania and then swing north on I287 to the Tappen Zee bridge. However as I neared the intersection with I81 I encountered signs warning of a major delay ahead on I80. Since I had already sat through one construction delay and had bad memories of delays on I80 crossing into New Jersey on Sunday night I decided on the spur of the moment to take an alternative route. This involves taking I81 north to Scranton, crossing into New York on I84, cutting south on 17 and eventually taking the Bear Mountain Bridge across the Hudson. I have taken this alternative before (according to mapquest it is .16 miles shorter but 1 minute longer in driving time) but generally take I80 as it is more familiar. On Sunday traffic on the alternative was heavy in places but without major delays.

I later learned by diverting I had not only avoided the delay on I80 but the aftermath of this horrific head on wrong way accident on the Taconic which I would have driven directly past if I had followed by original plan.

I was surprised to learn today that the wrong way driver was drunk and stoned. Perhaps I shouldn't have been as an awful lot of wrong way drivers are drunk. Still you just don't expect a woman driving in the middle of the day with 5 children in the car to be so impaired.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Health insurance

Health insurance companies have never been overly popular but they are currently being abused even more than usual as liberals try to rally support for their reform plans by scapegoating them. Here is Kevin Drum:

Health insurance is a weird industry. Healthcare itself is provided by doctors, nurses, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, hospices, and device makers. Insurance companies do none of this. They don't do research, they don't perform surgeries, they don't change bedpans, and they don't make diagnoses. They're just middlemen. All they do is pay the bills after marking them up 30%. They don't do anything at all to make healthcare better or more efficient.

However the claim that insurance companies just mark the bills up 30% is false. They first negotiate the best price they can get from the doctor or other provider. This is generally better than an individual could get. For example a couple of years ago I had hernia repair surgery. The surgeon's list price was $12916.00 but the insurance company price was $363.38 which is a 97% discount. I don't mind paying a 30% markup to get a 97% discount. Of course this is an extreme example but insurance companies routinely get prices which are unavailable to individuals. In fact this is a big part of the reason it is risky to be uninsured, if you need medical care you will be gouged.

This sort of dubious argument from the left does not increase my confidence in their health reform plans. Perhaps it is fortunate that they may not pass.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Meteor Crater

In 1994 while driving on I40 in Arizona I stopped on the spur of the moment to see Meteor Crater (which is few miles south of exit 233). I thought it was interesting although admission was a little pricey (it is privately owned).

The photo was taken in August 1994 and shows me with the crater in the background.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Pension initiation

I am entitled to a pension from my former employer. I could start it at any time but it is greatly to my advantage to wait until I am 55. This means starting it in November. On Monday I called to start the process. I will be sent some forms detailing my options. It is my understanding that taking it in the form of a single life annuity is clearly best but I will double check before committing myself. I can't procrastinate too long however as there are some time constraints and apparently missing them is bad as retroactive payments aren't made.