Job Interview

–Thank you for applying to fill our open position as chief of cardiac surgery, Dr. Hahnemann.

–Well, Dr. Carson, I hope I can bring cardiac surgery here to the high level you’ve achieved in neurosurgery.

–So, Dr. Hahnemann, why do you think you’re qualified for this job?

–It’s Mr. Hahnemann, Dr. Carson.  I’m not a surgeon, or even a doctor. I’m probably never going to be professionally correct because I’m not a surgeon.  I don’t want to be a surgeon. Because surgeons do what is medically expedient — I want to do what’s right.

–Mr. Hahnemann, you’re a man after my own heart. I’m going to give you my strongest endorsement to the hiring committee.


Lead is a cruel joke of the creator.  It’s an extraordinarily useful metal: weatherproof, malleable, easy to solder and cast.  It’s soft enough not to mess up rifle barrels, and dense enough to make good fishing sinkers, bullets, and shot.  It’s abundant and easy to refine from ore. Lead oxide is extremely white and easy to mill into the powder that used to give the best paint its opacity (the premier brand, Dutch Boy, was produced by the National Lead Company until 1980).  Wrapped in four ethyl groups, it raises gasoline octane so engines can be more powerful.  It makes cheap and useful pottery glaze. There’s more, but you get the idea.

It’s also extremely poisonous, and cumulative in the body. It messes with brain function. Generations of birds are yet to die from eating the thousands of tons of shot we sprayed across marshes and fields.  It probably had something to do with the decline of Rome (storing wine in lead vessels), and we are only now coming out of five decades of mass poisoning from leaded gasoline.  We’re not putting leaded paint on any more, but it was so durable and useful that tons are still where it was put in the first place, which is why repainting your local bridge involves elaborate and expensive dust collection.

Freddie Gray was neurologically poisoned, irreversibly, as a child by paint in his house.  That happens to poor kids in old houses, and it’s still happening. He could have also been poisoned by lead sprayed all over his neighborhood in automobile exhaust, but we got the lead out of gasoline in the 80s by a national administrative action, and the effect on crime rates (for example) has been spectacular (I find Kevin Drum’s analysis persuasive). My kids also grew up up in an old house with lots of lead paint, but they’re fine because they were surrounded by a network of protection that included public health education, lead testing in schools, and parents who had time, money and education enough to (for example) replace the garden soil where we grew vegetables, full of lead from weathered exterior paint, and strip paint and replace hundreds of feet of woodwork inside the house.

Lead out of gas: easy, once we figured it out. Replace lead water pipes: harder, but tractable. Lead paint: an expensive, extensive program of retail enforcement and regulation, imposed on millions of low-information, low-income landlords and tenants for whom it is a daunting and expensive project.

The lead angle in Gray’s story should be more featured in the ongoing news coverage, along with the unemployment, social service denial, educational malpractice, and police abuses raining down on his neighborhood.  Let me say it again: irreversibly neurologically poisoned.

Another feather in the cap of big-time college sports

When the next college sports scandal breaks…shouldn’t be too long now…remember that the corruption of the higher education enterprise by the money sports, MBB and FB, is redeemed because those athletic scholarships are a path for poor kids, especially poor kids of color, to get a college education.

Three Duke basketball players (so far) are off to the NBA as freshmen.  Most of a single academic year, physically present on the actual Duke campus, shuttling from practice to training to practice, is pretty much the same thing as a Duke degree, right?

Abe Lincoln

Wednesday was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death.  It’s hard to spend too much time reflecting on Lincoln; I use the first thing he ever published, comparing two infrastructure projects in a local election campaign, as an example of policy analysis avant la lettre, and he just gets better and better from there. Even David Brooks says he becomes a better man spending quiet time in the Lincoln Memorial.  The second inaugural is one of great works of public discourse; terse, just, humane.  I think French’s portrait nails it: brilliant, menschlich, determined; open hand, closed fist.  Lincoln makes everyone reach a little higher.

I listened the grooves off this wonderful cantata when I was a kid, and I’m pleased to find that someone has posted it here , here, and hereIt was performed live, after fifty years on the shelf, in 2009.

There’s no video; remember how to make your own pictures in your own head? Take a half-hour, just to be sure we don’t forget what a real American is.


Free-range kids

My late colleague Bob Leone used to teach that good managers don’t try to avoid risk, because it’s impossible: they try to choose the right risks.  Parents are violating this rule left and right, and clueless, nitwit, busybody bureaucrats in Montgomery County (not to mention other parents who call the cops instead of just asking a loose kid if he’s OK)  are acting out really anti-kid behavior, choosing the wrong risk trying to have none.

I grew up in New York City, 30th and 3rd in Manhattan; at the time, not a snotzy address.  I went to grade school a mile and a half away alone, from the age of 7, on the 3rd Avenue El and the 2nd Avenue bus, unless I decided to walk home afterward along one of those busy, commercial streets full of strangers and grownups doing all sorts of interesting things.  That walk could take a hour; there’s a lot for a kid to see in a real city. On the three blocks of 3rd N and S of my street were about 50 retail establishments, most of the proprietors of which knew me by sight if not by name.  I was completely safe in front of Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street”. When I was a baby, my mother would shop at the A&P on 3rd above 31st. She would park me in a pram on the sidewalk outside the store, usually with two or three others, tell her Irish Setter to lie down under the pram, and shop.  If anyone leaned over the pram to ogle me, a serious growl came up from underneath, but the kids without canine undersight weren’t at any risk either.

As I got older, I was allowed to cross one-way streets alone, which at that time limited me to about a square mile; I was instructed to always have a dime for pay phone call (never needed it).  When I figured out how to climb up to the El station and back down on the other side of 34th Street, my parents gave up and I was loose, at about eight.  From then on I was all over the city, which meant (for example) that I could go to the Museum of Natural History and hang out on my own, for hours and hours. One afternoon my friends and I had the idea to go to Coney Island on the subway; when I called home realizing I was about three hours late getting home and said where I was, I admit my mother’s cool  was a little rumpled.  Once some big kids punched me in Central Park and took my wallet. I walked home three miles from my girlfriend’s house in Greenwich Village at all hours and never wanted to cross the street or hurry.

Of course, that was a different world; the murder rate (for example) in NY was only, um, wait a minute, the same as it is now!   Yes, there were a bad few years in between (though not especially bad regarding risks to kids), but it’s over.  Now middle-class parents are denying kids all they can learn making up games, learning to mediate their own disputes, watching real life, and deciding how to spend their time, which is a big risk to the kids: my students are much less confident trying new stuff than we were at their age. I believe it is because their lives have been locked down in parent-chauffered travel to parent-organized activities in order to avoid the truly trivial set of dangers that actually confront kids out on their own.  This web page has the relevant facts: parents, let your kids have a life, especially if you live in the city where there are places to actually walk to. No, they are not going to be abducted or injured by strangers, and you get your own life back!

The most important book of 2015

I have wrung my hands in the past, in this space and elsewhere, about the collapse of a workable market for digital goods.  I find it hard to get people as excited about this as I am–if I still had enough hair for anyone to notice it would be on fire–but I have some help from Scott Timberg now  so I am going to try again.  Short version: buy this book, Culture Crash, and read it. Now. I believe it is the Piketty of 2015, and the first book I’ve stayed up to read straight through at one sitting–sometimes literally in tears, both of pain and of rage– in years.  It is not just about culture, but about whatever really big issue you lie awake worrying about.

Long post (no, not a substitute for the book; read it), get a cup of coffee  .

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Housing policy success

As is well-known, housing prices in the Bay Area of California have become unsustainable; the median home price is $ 3/4 million in San Francisco/Oakland, more in the South Bay.  You need a household income of almost $150K to buy that house (which is no kind of mansion), and we are experiencing yuppification/gentrification conflicts and an exodus of the middle class (don’t even ask about blue-collar and service workers) to hour-long commutes away.

One thing that would help a lot is relaxing the traditional hostility of our local planning bodies to owner-occupied rental housing. Last night, the Berkeley City Council started to put our zoning law on a new course, approving (not enacting, yet, but the train is on the tracks) new rules that greatly ease the parking, minimum and maximum unit size, and lot size requirements for these accessory dwelling units (details to be posted at Annotated Agenda for the March 24 meeting here).

Why is this such a good idea? I discuss these “in-law” units in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle (below the jump, if you have trouble with the paywall).  It may have been useful, but my wife, Debra Sanderson, who used to be Berkeley’s land use planning manager, was the heroine of this success, doing the real politicking. As we met in MIT’s city planning department, it was especially fun to partner on a project like this again.

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Traits and management

K-12 education has been convulsed for years by the idea that good teaching is a trait, a tacit justification for all the versions of the loony idea that we can increase learning by just finding the ‘bad teachers’  and firing them. The latter scheme looks even better if “finding” employs a bureaucratic, mechanistic process of testing students (on things that can be measured “objectively”–bye-bye art, music, creativity, and courage). The alternative idea is that people with widely varying intrinsic qualities, or starting points, can all learn to be better teachers.  Both are obviously correct to some degree; at the time they get control of the chalk, some people have better “teacher traits” than others, and it must also be the case that practice, training,  and coaching can improve anyone’s performance at this job, like all others.  But the relative weight placed on trait and learning theories of effectiveness matters a lot.

Administrators and politicians love what I call immaculate corrections, schemes like student testing for teacher promotion, that excuse managers from all the heavy lifting of retail attention to what subordinates and customers are actually doing and why they do it.  If you can couple  impersonal performance assessment with a theory of motivation that puts greed (for a money raise) and fear (of dismissal) in play, and delegate the implementation labor to people who aren’t on your payroll and can’t defend themselves against having their time wasted (the students), it’s a hat trick.  The only defect of a scheme like this is that it doesn’t deliver much value in the classroom (or wherever), but that’s a feeble weapon with which to confront an internally consistent and theoretically beautiful construct that lets managers out of doing a lot of real work.

Alison Gopnik’s WSJ column has more on the costs of using the trait model, retailing this recent paper [paywall]: people in academics who believe traits count for a lot seem to (i) gather in particular disciplines (ii) have a lot of trouble engaging women and African-Americans as peers, presumably because they also wrap up familiar stereotypes about what kind of people are (intrinsically) smart. Gopnik:

Professors of philosophy, music, economics and math thought that “innate talent” was more important than did their peers in molecular biology, neuroscience and psychology. And they found this relationship: The more that people in a field believed success was due to intrinsic ability, the fewer women and African-Americans made it in that field.

This should be sort of a bombshell, but it’s been  a busy few weeks. We’ve known for a while that the student evaluations of teaching we use at Cal–to the near-exclusion of anything else–for promotion and tenure decisions don’t have much to do with student learning. Indeed, our administrative higher-ups are reflecting deeply on the fell implication that maybe we should (i) do more observation and coaching with an eye to actually improving teaching before review time, when it could actually be useful, and (ii) evaluate teaching for promotion in some way that actually indicates whether students are learning.  Of course, both of these involve actual work, while SETs produce numbers (which must be Data, right?) and don’t cost us (faculty) anything to obtain, so it’s a tough call.

This call has got a lot tougher with the appearance of the first study known to me [HT: Philip Stark] in which students could register their evaluations without knowing the actual sex of the instructor, using an on-line course in which the same teacher presented as a male and as a female, and hooboy:

Students in the two groups that perceived their assistant instructor to be male rated their instructor significantly higher than did the students in the two groups that perceived their assistant instructor to be female, regardless of the actual gender of the assistant instructor….For example, when the actual male and female instructors posted grades after two days as a male, this was considered by students to be a 4.35 out of 5 level of promptness, but when the same two instructors posted grades at the same time as a female, it was considered to be a 3.55 out of 5 level of promptness.

Hard to imagine anything more traity than sex, mmm. There’s more (a colleague reminded me of this about a minute after this post went up; click on the link at the top of the story) and stuff like this anyway needs to be considered against the background of the crap women put up with every day, at work, at school, and on the street.

So the same teaching practices will get a woman significantly lower student evaluation scores than a man.  Could this be true for minorities…how could it not?  I think this study–assuming of course that contrary findings don’t emerge from similar experiments–is a beacon to personal injury lawyers and every woman prof (at least; stay tuned for the experiment in which Phyleesha and Felice are the same person) henceforth denied a raise or tenure through a process in which student evaluations counted. Not to mention an ambitious federal prosecutor with a copy of Title IX in his pocket. Now we’re not just talking about leaving student learning on the table, but consent agreements and actual money: I wonder if this will be enough to make us stop delegating teaching assessment to unpaid, inexpert conscripts.  There’s lots of useful stuff to learn from student evaluations, but not for pay and hiring.