29.7.09

THE BEST WORST CASE. Book Review No. 24 is Jay Winik's April 1865: The Month that Saved America. The subtitle says it all: at the end of the month there is one United States of America, not several smaller confederations, despite a threadbare conspiracy that came close to decapitating the United States government, despite Jefferson Davis's efforts to encourage his troops to take to the woods and wage an insurgency, despite the Johnson administration rejecting the initial truce between the Army of the Tennessee and remaining rebel forces in North Carolina. That's not to say the underlying problems went away: radical reconstruction, de jure segregation, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the 25th Amendment were yet to come. Read the book to work out the importance of many of these things. In common with many other Civil War histories, there is enough background to give a new student of the era context for the events, and there is a what-happened-after chapter with instructive stories about the principal actors.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
INSTILLING THE HABITS OF EFFECTIVE PEOPLE. The New York Times reports on a University of Cincinnati themed house for first-generation collegians.
The Gen-1 Theme House began its first year with 15 students, mostly minorities and all eligible for low-income Pell grants. Eight ultimately accepted the house’s academic focus and strict rules (no alcohol or overnight visitors, midnight curfew on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends). The other seven either found the rules too constricting and moved out, or were evicted for breaking them. This fall, 20 or so new freshmen are expected to enter the house, which is overseen by Dr. [Stephanie] Cappel’s [outreach] center.
If memory serves, Cincinnati got rid of its high-rise dormitories some years ago, recognizing that packing a lot of people in close proximity induces projects-like behavior even in people who grew up a long way from the projects. (There are some stories I can tell about tear-gassings and swimming pools in the communal shower at Wisconsin's vertical zoo.)

As with any home, some Gen-1 residents felt they got too much attention. “The staff mean well, but they’re on our backs too much, increasing the stress we already feel,” Ms. Abrefa says. “They expect us to be perfect in a way. But we’re going to make mistakes, and learn from them.”

Adds Amber Lofton, her roommate, “Sometimes it’s suffocating.”

Indeed, the students give up some freedom — including their right to make potentially poor decisions — in exchange for a better shot at academic success. (Students sign a contract, committing to all the house’s rules.) “We are very paternalistic,” says Bob Suess, the project director. “We are intentionally in their faces.”

First-generation students struggle for many reasons. They aren’t prepared, they don’t get help choosing a college that’s the right fit, their families often discourage them. Because they don’t understand college culture, they draw back rather than immerse themselves.

“The problems of the first year fall disproportionately on first generation and economically disadvantaged students,” says John N. Gardner, executive director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College. “You’re an immigrant. You have to become assimilated. But there’s no Ellis Island for these students.”

I commend the effort, and recommend that readers read the full story. That last sentence, however, is telling, reflecting either a corollary to my "rendered unemployable by inclusive education" theme or to my "abandoned to the Romulans" theme. Or perhaps Mr Suess is a kinder, gentler senior noncom.
PUBLISH (SOMETHING USEFUL) OR PERISH. Emory's Mark Bauerlein suggests there are Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research. I'll behave myself ...

Substantively, his focus is on the absence of a market test for scholarship.

Instead, the question of supersaturation applies to the institutions that demand and reward humanities research: departments, deans, and fund providers. Tendering jobs and money, they force individuals to overproduce scholarly goods, creating an army of researchers meeting nonexistent audience needs. In 2006 the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion noted, "Over 62 percent of all departments report that publication has increased in importance in tenure decisions over the last 10 years." Furthermore, the percentage of departments' valuing research above teaching had more than doubled since 1968 (35.4 percent to 75.7 percent).

That trend makes no sense. The MLA report, which every dean and chairman should read, underscores the shrinking audience, particularly cuts in library purchases of humanities books.

The trend does make sense, under both of the received models of investment in higher education. Under the signaling model, a degree from a more highly-regarded university is a stronger signal of ability (never mind that some combination of test scores, the essay reader, and the rising earned run average of the Milwaukee Brewers is what got the signal-bearer admitted). Under the human capital model, a degree from a more highly-regarded university implies a better bag of intellectual tricks (never mind that it might be interaction with other motivated students, not anything that goes on in classroom, lab, or library, that fills the bag). But in either model, there is a strong correlation between highly-regarded and research-intensive. There's nothing wrong with that, as today's core principles of any discipline were frontier research once upon a time. On the other hand, the competition for greater regard is a positional arms race, and Professor Bauerlein is looking for an arms reduction treaty.
The task force, however, holds off from recommending that the research mandate be scaled downward, instead advising departments to respect essays and "new media" publications, and to end the "dominance of the monograph." But it is hard not to judge a flat reduction in research requirements as the direct solution to the difficulties that junior faculty members face.
The trick is to scale back the research mandate in a way that does not encourage shirking.

Two policy changes would go a long way to remedying the problem.

One, departments should limit the materials they examine at promotion time. If aspirants may submit only 100 pages to reviewers, they will publish less and ensure that those 100 pages are superb.

I don't buy that. Sometimes, departments do such things on an informal basis, asking a candidate to provide only the ten or fifteen best articles for external review, and sometimes those ten or fifteen articles are in high-grade journals and they've stimulated additional research. On the other hand, tenure candidates having been good students and knowledgeable about student games, there are likely to be tenure dossiers in which accumulating the 100 pages, irrespective of outlet, irrespective of conciseness, trumps polishing one or two of the projects to land something meaningful if less bulky in an outlet where it's likely to be read, and there are likely to be departments that will go along with the game, never mind that the effect is still the same.
Two, subsidizers should shift their support away from saturated areas and toward unsaturated areas, in particular toward research into teaching and even more toward classroom and curricular initiatives.
I don't buy that either. Professor Bauerlein's elaboration suggests he's skeptical.
Recent findings from several national surveys of undergraduates give that redistribution some urgency. For instance, in the 2007 Your First College Year survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute, only 29 percent of students reported studying more than 10 hours per week. Seventy-nine percent of them "frequently" or "occasionally" turned in material that did not "reflect their best work," 70 percent skipped class, 62 percent "came late," and 44 percent fell asleep. Their engagement with instructors outside of class is similarly tenuous. On the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement, 38 percent of first-year students "never" discussed ideas from readings or classes, and 39 percent did so only "sometimes."
Perhaps a little research into the deleterious effects of access-assessment-remediation-retention, grade inflation, beer-and-circus, and the latest fads from K-12 would be helpful. You say that already exists?
We should add to that finding another response, which on the surface appears altogether positive. Asked about quality of relationships with faculty members, 78 percent of first-year students on the student-engagement survey graded their instructors 5 or higher on a scale of 1 to 7 (65 percent of respondents in the first-year survey answered "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the amount of faculty-student contact). In other words, they liked their professors, they felt comfortable with them, but they didn't much care to spend time discussing books and ideas with them. They didn't realize that an essential part of higher education takes place in conversation, in face time with professors, in the give-and-take of one-on-one discussion. We need support for research into the problem and more-concrete incentives for professors to integrate out-of-class interaction into the syllabus.
Unpackage this. Professors can provide office hours (some of that 20-30 percent that studies and talks about readings outside class will show up, and they're a delight) or agree to meet by appointment (the responsible students won't stand you up) or pay for a coffee house session before an exam (some universities set money aside for such things). The students who disengage ... we used to speak of a gentleman's C. Perhaps a re-examination of student-credit-hour per faculty member as a measure of productivity, or a more careful look at technology-as-panacea are more fruitful areas of research.
I KNOW THE COLD WAR IS OVER. I get enjoyment nonetheless from National Team Routs Russia 75-56. The medal round begins Friday.

There's also an Outliers moment.
The 2009 FIBA U19 World Championship features 16 national teams comprised of athletes 19-years-old or younger (born on or after Jan. 1, 1990) that qualified through their FIBA zone tournaments.
Perhaps close to half of those players have birth dates between January 1 and March 15, 1990? There's time this weekend to do some digging ...

28.7.09

A GOOD TIME TO PACK IT IN. Winston Groom's Vicksburg: 1863 argues that Independence Day, 1863, would have been a good time for the Confederacy to request terms, its raid into Pennsylvania having been turned back, and its control of the Mississippi River gone. Book Review No. 23 commends the work to Civil War aficionados of long standing and to new students of the era, perhaps intrigued by the upcoming sesquicentennial. The former might discover new tidbits: for instance Mississippian Jefferson Davis, who could be thought of as the Robert S. McNamara of his day, imported camels for the Southwestern Territories, the last descendant of which was sighted in 1929. The latter will get enough background on Genl Grant's entire river campaign, commencing with Belmont and culminating at Chattanooga, to understand how the rebellion was quashed in the west, no matter how badly the eastern commanders performed.

Mr Groom is an Alabaman, with ancestors who took up arms in rebellion. His writing reflects the realities on the ground, without the apologia that sometimes comes from works by southerners. There is one potential wistful note, at page 437, in the useful where-all-the-principal-actors-went chapter, where a descendant of one of the southern commanders suggests that Genl Grant faced a series of grits-eatin' surrender monkeys. "If Jackson, or Lee, or even Longstreet -- any of the killers -- had been sent out there Grant wouldn't have been free to starve out fortresses." Petersburg.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
SEEKING A POPULIST VOICE. Peggy Noonan, July 24.

We are living in a time in which educated people who are at the top of American life feel they have the right to make very public criticisms of . . . let’s call it the private, pleasurable but health-related choices of others. They shame smokers and the overweight. Drinking will be next. Mr. Obama’s own choice for surgeon general has come under criticism as too heavy.

Only a generation ago such criticisms would have been considered rude and unacceptable. But they are part of the ugly, chafing price of having the government in something: Suddenly it can make big and very personal demands on you. Those who live in a way that isn’t sufficiently healthy “cost us money” and “drive up premiums.” Mr. Obama himself said something like it in his press conference, when he spoke of a person who might not buy health insurance. If he gets hit by a bus, “the rest of us have to pay for it.”

Under a national health-care plan we might be hearing that a lot. You don’t exercise, you smoke, you drink, you eat too much, and “the rest of us have to pay for it.”

But the rebuttal calls for ... educated people at the top? Peggy Noonan, July 10.

The world is a dangerous place. It has never been more so, or more complicated, more straining of the reasoning powers of those with actual genius and true judgment. This is a time for conservative leaders who know how to think.

Here are a few examples of what we may face in the next 10 years: a profound and prolonged American crash, with the admission of bankruptcy and the spread of deep social unrest; one or more American cities getting hit with weapons of mass destruction from an unknown source; faint glimmers of actual secessionist movements as Americans for various reasons and in various areas decide the burdens and assumptions of the federal government are no longer attractive or legitimate.

The era we face, that is soon upon us, will require a great deal from our leaders. They had better be sturdy. They will have to be gifted. There will be many who cannot, and should not, make the cut. Now is the time to look for those who can. And so the Republican Party should get serious, as serious as the age, because that is what a grown-up, responsible party—a party that deserves to lead—would do.

It's not a time to be frivolous, or to feel the temptation of resentment, or the temptation of thinking next year will be more or less like last year, and the assumptions of our childhoods will more or less reign in our future. It won't be that way.

We are going to need the best.

Stuart Schwartz at American Thinker isn't so sure.
They don't get it: Sarah Palin is not a real player, just as we're not real players. Like us, she's a real person. And real persons don't do staged. We simply live life, doing what we can to "pursue happiness" and help others.
Perhaps so, but it will take someone to make a coherent case for government facilitating the pursuit of happiness by maintaining simple and consistent rules. I don't see much evidence for that.
NOT A WELFARE IMPROVEMENT. Martin Feldstein identifies the fundamental failing of health policy.
For the 85 percent of Americans who already have health insurance, the Obama health plan is bad news. It means higher taxes, less health care and no protection if they lose their current insurance because of unemployment or early retirement.
It's difficult to conceive of any public policy that would be a Pareto improvement, leaving nobody worse off. If Professor Feldstein is correct, the policy change does not pass any of the compensation tests of welfare economics, in which the gainers (in principle, anyway) would be able to compensate the losers and come out ahead. It also doesn't pass the less well-defined test for a Marshallian improvement, in which the net effect of a change and its concomitant disruption (consider mechanical spinning or automobiles or desktop computers) is still positive.
MAKING THE TRANSFER. The Los Angeles Times has advice for cost-conscious collegians.

At a time when parental pocketbooks are strained, does it make sense to point high schoolers toward community colleges instead of four-year schools?

President Obama's plan to invigorate community colleges with a fresh dose of federal spending is winning accolades from pundits who have long maintained that the institutions are the unsung heroes of an affordable education.

Tuition at community colleges is about a tenth of the $25,000 charged by the average private university, according to a survey by CollegeBoard.

And kids who do a so-called two-plus-two -- two years at a community college and two years at a four-year university -- can often transfer into prestigious institutions they might not have gotten into when they were high school seniors.

But there are downsides to community college education as well. Community college students are less likely to complete their degrees than those who attend four-year institutions. And navigating the system of credits needed to transfer -- and graduate -- can be difficult.

In Illinois, the articulation agreements community colleges and the four-year publics reach make that transfer simpler. Such transfers to the pricey privates might be more difficult, depending on the policy. (Chicago's DePaul has articulation agreements, for example. Northwestern does not.)

That observation about pricing reinforces two points. One, a familiar one to regular readers, is that, recession or no, there is still a flight to perceived prestige degrees. A second, which is a new line of thinking for me (although it must have already occurred to someone), is that community colleges bear the same relationship to the research universities that the Canadian health service does to the drug companies. Community colleges place orders for large numbers of textbooks (whether the students buy and read them, something that bears on those attrition rates, is tangential) but their faculty are probably too busy (or perhaps not attached primarily to the academy or perhaps wrote pedestrian dissertations) to do the work that ultimately gets into textbooks. Perhaps Harvard gets Greg Mankiw more cheaply because he recovers some of his development costs from other purchasers of his book. That puts the rest of us at research institutions in an interesting position: the onus ought to be on researchers to produce work that might merit mention in a textbook eventually, and if the institution's or the department's reward structure don't encourage that kind of work, there's something wrong with the structure.

There's one other parallel: textbooks, like prescription drugs, trade in a market with substantial third-party participation (insurers private or public in the former, lenders public or private or rich relatives in the latter) which attenuates the pressure to discover the lowest cost consistent with some level of durability and content quality. Contrast a paperback macro or micro split edition with Burlington's Zephyrs from Motor Books, 128 pages, 50 with color, $36.95 plus tax, and most of the salient facts about the trains that were once world's fastest in one place.
HIGHER EDUCATION OUGHT TO BE HIGHER. A student newspaper columnist doesn't like remedial math.
Yet, the real racket is math. Yes, I failed the placement exam and am in Math 70 this summer. I realize that math is important, but looking in my book at the chapters ahead I realized that Math 70 is sufficient for college students and anything beyond this is just nonsense and a waste of money for students not majoring in the sciences, economics or engineering.
It gets better.
Math 70 is enough for most college graduates to know when entering the professional world. What good would imaginary numbers do for an English major searching out teaching positions?
I dare you to include science fiction in your lesson plans without grasping the implications of

[1 - (v/c)2]1/2.

King Banaian spells out what matters.
To be considered a college-educated student, college algebra is as basic to your education as English, philosophy or physical education. (And we could have a discussion about PE, if you like, but I'd defend it.) Math 70 is our remedial class called Basic Mathematical Skills. The placement exam this student failed was the one that makes it possible for you to take a finite math course that is our university's math requirement. That's right, we don't require the algebra here at SCSU. (It is now required of our majors, after many years of debate, even though a plurality of undergrad economics programs require some level of calculus.)
In my ideal world, calculus would be a requirement of all majors, starting with area studies and elementary education.
APPLIED SOCIAL SCIENCE. Illini or Huskie considers job market signaling strategies.
Has the business world changed so much in the past 20 years (in support of working women) that these kinds of shenanigans are no longer necessary? Is it so common now to have children out of wedlock, or be a young divorcee that wedding rings are no longer signals of potential bambinos? With the ‘bread-winner’ mentality still so prevalent for men, do you think it would be better for a man to portray himself as married? Or single?
Should there be a followup report, I'll let readers know.
THE JOYS OF SHODDY SERVICE. Late in May I placed an order with a company called Midnight Pass. The company promptly billed my credit card. They neither promptly provided me with a tracking order for my purchase, nor did they advise me of backorder or other conditions precluding delivery within thirty days. I followed up late in June, at which time the company promised to ship by the beginning of July. I'm posting a consumer advisory today as the company first left telephone calls un-returned for the better part of a week and has not yet shipped my purchase.

There are substitutes for its products, and other charities that care for animals. Consider them in your purchasing and charitable giving.

27.7.09

HOW OTHERS SEE US. I don't know who paid for it. I like it.


Chicago River, along the walkway between Union and North Western Stations.
COSTS, BENEFITS, AND SHARED INPUTS. Betsy's Page recommends a Real Clear Politics essay titled "Health Care Mythology." It may be a polemic, and a commenter recommends a counter-polemic. I want to direct readers to two observations that stand up. First, consider whether something that was previously not available at any price should be treated as an element of rising costs, when it's available.
You cannot judge the "cost" of something by simply what you spend. You must also judge what you get. I'm reasonably certain the cost of 1950's level health care has dropped in real terms over the last 60 years (and you can probably have a barber from the year 1500 bleed you for almost nothing nowadays). Of course, with 1950's health care, lots of things will kill you that 2009 health care would prevent. Also, your quality of life, in many instances, would be far worse, but you will have a little bit more change in your pocket as the price will be lower.
I remember seeing this point on a discussion list somewhere, it would make a great macabre short story. Make a time machine. Take yourself back to the days of the great steam trains, or the Traver roller coasters, or the first attempt to fly an outside loop. Get there, scrape yourself (or if you're really imaginative, have a fling with an attractive lady) and contract a fatal infection.

Next up: health ministries in Canada and elsewhere free-riding on research and development.
We have a partially free market in the US where drug companies spend a ton to develop new wonder drugs, much of which is spent to satisfy regulatory requirements. The cost of this development is called a "fixed cost." Once it's developed it does not cost that much to make each pill. That's called a"variable cost." If people only paid the variable cost (or even a bit more) for each pill, the whole thing would not work. The drug company would never get back the massive fixed cost of creating the drug in the first place, and so no company would try to develop one. Thus, manufacturers have to, and do, charge more than the variable cost of making each pill.
It's a bit more complex than that, as the health ministries can make a payment that covers more than the incremental costs of the drugs, meaning Canada is picking up some of the research and development costs. U.S. taxpayers, however, might be bearing some of those research and development costs through sponsored research at universities. University Diaries has multiple posts under the heading "conflict of interest" suggesting there is something other than a for-profit market with rates of return equalized for risk by competition to develop new drugs.
DEPRESSING TIDBIT OF THE DAY. From a non-linked source in a Green Faucet post, by way of Winds of Change.
Americans saved $57.4 billion in 2007, and spent $92.3 billion on legalized gambling.
I'll check this out. There is, however, one revelation of preference that might be instructive. In my experience, most local news programs broadcast the lottery numbers before the evening sports report, and the stock results, if any, just before the end of the show.
RENDERED UNEMPLOYABLE BY THEIR INCLUSIVE EDUCATION. That's my evaluation of the performance of too many of the common schools. Now comes Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews with the same assessment.

I am convinced that the problem is not colleges putting up too many financial obstacles in the way of bright kids, but public school systems failing to give our many potentially successful high schoolers -- and their elementary and middle school siblings -- the academic skills and working habits they need to be ready for college.

Average reading and math achievement for 17-year-olds is like my patience with traffic jams: It has not noticeably improved in the past 30 years. Low-income students with good brains continue to perform poorly in large part, I think, because they attend high schools run by people who don't believe such kids can learn very much and who don't try very hard to teach them. Educators who do believe in their potential find it difficult to get the resources they need because too many policymakers, politicians, voters and taxpayers do not share that optimism.

His post, dated today, invites readers to provide evidence to the contrary. I'll stay alert for his follow-up column.
MAYBE AVIS STILL TRIES HARDER. Lynne at Knowledge Problem reports that Budget's customer service manager has straightened out her billing problems. The post does not explicitly cancel her customer alert.
SECURING THE PEACE. An F-15 flies formation with a P-51 at the Milwaukee Air Show.


July 25, 2009

The Mustang secured air supremacy as part of the victory in World War II. I'm persuaded of the Falcon's usefulness in preventing a subsequent world war.

There were a number of other acts, military, civilian, and converted military.



The Milwaukee beaches are pleasant. The water is still cool enough that relatively few people are swimming.


The self-unloader is probably returning to a cement works someplace. It's a laker, thus not a vector for new invasive species.

Getting there meant some train rides, an idea that occurred to lots of people on the weekend.

Every seat was full on the 3.15 Hiawatha to Milwaukee on Friday. It (like many of the Metra trains) fell behind its schedule thanks to heavy passenger loadings. My return trip on the 7.45 from the airport was less heavily loaded. (I was the only boarding passenger, which might be unusual although I've seen light boardings for that run before.) The train stopped at Union Station at 8.55, against a timetabled 9.14 to provide for track work. As far as I know, the cabbage car didn't grow 84 inch drivers somewhere near A-68.

A weekend pass means an option to do more train riding if the weather is good. The Metra crew on the 10.25 Elburn announced, somewhere near Oak Park, that they had sold out of weekend passes and advised passengers to purchase one at the station rather than pay a penalty fare on the train. Nine cars, all loaded, and weekend crews now use the weekday practice of stopping with the head end nearer the platform end in order to fill the rear cars at closer-in stations.

The South Shore was also running full trains, with a goodly amount of luggage (people heading home from O'Hare, or transferring to South Bend, or just ending a weekend in Chicago?) Dune Park is a good place to turn back as the weekend trains still make the traditional meet at Sheridan, just off the end of the street running in Michigan City. The bilevel interurbans had the weekend off.


July 26, 2009.

Disney and Amtrak have been touring their "A Christmas Carol" promotional train, which called at Chicago on the weekend. The theater set is selling tickets to tour the trains. The carrier and the station managed to keep passenger traffic through the station fluid.


The increased passenger loadings on Amtrak and Metra demonstrate the limitations of even the improved passenger layout at Union Station. The Amtrak waiting area at the south end can still handle good-sized crowds (although the practice of keeping passengers out of the seats closest to the gates means more crowding) although with a special event in the waiting room, it's not available as a waiting area for some of the more popular trains. The queue to board the Milwaukee trains now extends through the much smaller north waiting area and back into the south waiting area.

The real crowding, however, is in the commuter concourses. During the weekdays, Metra sets the train into the station, generally on the same track each day, opens the doors, and the regulars go down the escalators and onto the trains. At weekends, the trains operate on a two-hour frequency, with the consist made available for boarding maybe 20 minutes before departure. Put more than a few Cub fans and a few bicycles (the weekend trains carry a lot of bicyclists who brave Loop traffic to get to the lake shore) in a very small waiting area and it gets congested.

23.7.09

INDIVIDUAL SUBOPTIMIZATION, COLLECTIVE PROGRESS. Michael Shermer's The Mind of the Market: How Biology and Psychology Shape our Economic Lives attempts to combine insights from behavioral economics, complexity theory, and game theory to suggest that people can learn from their interactions in such a way as to improve collective outcomes. He's open about suggesting that behavioral economics and complexity theory need not have as their sole normative implications some sort of paternalism or some sort of philosopher-kings to address coordination failures. Book Review No. 22 suggests that while attempts to square a libertarian approach to public policy with a model of human behavior that is not the calculating machine of vulgar homo economicus is worth doing, the work is more useful (perhaps fittingly for the current affairs columnist of Scientific American) as a sociable rebuttal to the popular works on behavioral economics that draw a more collectivist normative implication than it is as a basis for economic research.

That research remains to be done, but it requires a lot more by way of formal development. Surveys that suggest people react differently to perceived gains than they do to perceived (despite being equivalent) losses require something better than a Friedman-Savage squiggly utility function before the work can begin. That complexity theory has a lot in common with Austrian market models also requires additional work. The reader of The Mind of the Market will find more by way of puzzles than solutions, although that might be a good place to start for a research project in the history of economic thought, or perhaps an extension of game theory or of decision making with uncertainty.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
THE CONTEMPORARY HAVERSACK. A New York Times column offers advice for parents shopping for their childrens' backpacks.
In its latest rating of the most durable school backpacks, Consumer Reports has conducted its own survey to determine how much weight kids are carrying as a result of overloaded packs. The researchers visited three New York City schools and weighed more than 50 children’s backpacks. They found that kids in the 2nd and 4th grades are carrying about 5 pounds worth of homework and books. But once kids reach the 6th grade, the homework load gets heavier. On average, 6th graders in the study were carrying backpacks weighting 18.4 pounds, although some backpacks weighed as much as 30 pounds.
Glenn Reynolds (yes, him), weighs his daughter's pack, and finds the school's priorities wanting.

The backpack is full, and weighs 19 pounds. I haven't weighed the stack of books, but it's likely that she's carrying one-third her bodyweight
there.

She also has back problems from carrying all this, and the physical therapist said that no kid should be carrying that many books. The folks at the school, however, don't seem to care; I've raised it with them but they've been utterly dismissive.

A few days ago, a Lands' End catalog that would have left a quartermaster of the Army of the Tennessee nonplussed hit my mailbox. There's even a website. Backpacks. Lunch packs designed to attach to the packs. Computer totes. Throw in a cartridge case and a bedroll and your youngster is ready for Genl Sherman's inspection.
OBSERVATION OF THE DAY. Tom (The Right Stuff) Wolfe.

NASA’s annual budget sank like a stone from $5 billion in the mid-1960s to $3 billion in the mid-1970s. It was at this point that NASA’s lack of a philosopher corps became a real problem. The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about.

It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.

Writers intuit this, even if the politicians and accountants don't. Consider Star Trek: First Contact, in which the inventor of a warp drive has to demonstrate it when the Vulcans are in the neighborhood. Or consider Arthur C. Clarke's "The Sentinel," perhaps the first serious speculation about life in other solar systems. The Sentinel is left on the Moon, where it can be dug up only by a civilization advanced enough to leave a Class M planet and committed enough to space exploration to bring something more than an entrenching tool to gather Moon rocks. (If that sounds like something from 2001: A Space Odyssey, there's good reason.)
THE JOYS OF SHODDY SERVICE. Budget is no bargain.
I have written to Budget twice, to no avail, so now I am invoking the power of reputation networks to encourage you not to give Budget your business. It’s a competitive industry, one that should be grounded in customer service, so you have many market options. I have never been treated as shabbily in any customer experience as I have been by Budget. I don’t want them to profit from their poor behavior, and I don’t want any of you to be treated as poorly in a market transaction as Budget has treated me in this one. Take your business elsewhere.
Recessions are periods of liquidation, for companies that don't measure up.
BY THIS RECKONING, WE'RE ESTABLISHING THE FRONTIER. Vanity Vair reports on Harvard's cash crunch.
Ignoring the agitators as best he could, Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard’s biggest division, called the meeting to order. Sitting casually on a desk, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved polo shirt, Smith, a professor of engineering and applied sciences, and a former competitive swimmer, looked more like an athlete than an administrator. He got straight to the point: his division—which includes Harvard College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences—was facing a budget deficit of $220 million.
I approve of agitators who make a banner with

AV AR
ICE

inside the shield with the three books.

It is, however, that $220m I wish to address. The organization chart is different at Northern Illinois University, but the operating budget of our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, inclusive of external funding, is on the order of $100m, if memory serves. Their deficit could cover our expenses, and we may have more students on probation than they admit, to boot.
REVEALED PREFERENCES. To accommodate Our President's Wednesday infomercial, ABC moved Wipeout, in which contestants run an exotic obstacle course with cash prizes, rather than a place in the Special Forces, for the winners, to the time slot of I Survived a Japanese Game Show, which displaced Over A Barrel, some potentially serious reporting on the oil business. The network helpfully advises viewers that Over A Barrel will become the content of Friday evening's 20/20, immediately before the local news in most time zones.

The winner of all rounds of Wipeout will gross $50,000.

Whatever the winner of Japanese Game Show gets will probably be in the no-longer-vaunted yen.

Just keep those programming decisions in mind the next time somebody whinges about rising income inequality.
0-27. Congratulations, Mark Buehrle

22.7.09

DOING MORE? My position on the state of education in the United States is that primary and secondary schools render too many people unemployable by way of an inclusive (read insufficiently challenging) preparation while higher education enables those failures by offering a no-penalty redo of high school, often for credit, and sugar-coating it as a mix of access and retention. Now comes Our President, proposing to augment enrollment, particularly in the community colleges, as a way of building human capital. In the Boston Globe, Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun sees an opportunity to expand that model.

Much of the concern has focused on whether high schools are adequately preparing students for college. (A survey of professors by the Chronicle of Higher Education showed that 84 percent believe their students are “unprepared’’ or only “somewhat prepared’’ to pursue a college degree.)

There has been little discussion about the inverse challenge: Is higher education ready to accommodate - and graduate - millions of additional students?

He sees in the proposal an opportunity to expand all the current management fads: for-profits, no-frills, flexible degree programs, online courses. Perhaps there aren't enough column inches available to make the case that any of these fads will be of any benefit to people who can't manage basic spelling and arithmetic or whose life management skills are weak. (Implicitly, I'm arguing that anyone who can manage these things is already in some kind of college. Correct me if I'm wrong.)

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne has a more realistic view.

It was good to hear a president say that community colleges are "an undervalued asset in our country . . . treated like the stepchild of the higher education system." He was also correct to emphasize how much upward mobility still depends on education, since "jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience."

But his proposal should be seen only as a first step. It's a $1.2 billion annual down payment to solve an enormous problem. The community colleges are in crisis because they are being flooded with students who cannot afford four-year schools, as well as unemployed workers seeking training for new jobs.

Moreover, many Americans will find secure and well-paying employment not by way of a college degree but by receiving training after high school for what economists Harry Holzer and Robert Lerman call "middle-skill jobs."

The high schools used to equip people with at least those middling skills. As long as the community colleges become the default backstop option for policy makers, there will be no reason to fix K-12.

The dean at Anonymous Community (somewhere in the northeast) elaborates on that community college crisis.

The major funding crunch at cc's is in the operating budgets, which covers salaries and ongoing expenses. Amazingly, none of the $12 billion headline number is aimed at shoring up the very operating budgets that are being gutted by the states. None. Not one dollar. This, while announcing the aim of nearly doubling the number of graduates produced. How we're supposed to double the number of students who make it all the way through without any additional operating funding isn't addressed. Basic math suggests three possibilities. One, it won't happen. Two, we'll find efficiencies of such staggering magnitude that we'll be able to double outputs with no new inputs. (I call this the Purple Unicorn theory.) Three, we'll get it from the students. My money is on three.

Expect to see much larger percentages of cc budgets to be covered by tuition than is currently the case. For full-time students getting the increased financial aid, that may not matter much. But for part-time students, or for students whose income is over the aid thresholds, this will bring real costs.

There's more, but I want to focus on allocating the resources. First up, via Phi Beta Cons, David Brooks in the New York Times, with a backhanded endorsement of Mr Aoun's position.

Real reform takes advantage of community colleges’ most elemental feature. These colleges educate students with wildly divergent interests, goals and abilities. They host students with radically different learning styles, many of whom have floundered in traditional classrooms.

Therefore, successful reform has to blow up the standard model. You can’t measure progress by how many hours a student spends with her butt in a classroom chair. You have to incorporate online tutoring, as the military does. You have to experiment with programs like Digital Bridge Academy that are tailored to individual learning styles. You have to track student outcomes, as the Lumina Foundation is doing. You have to build in accountability measures for teachers and administrators.

It's backhanded, because Mr Brooks notes the failure upstream.
I’ve had this discussion with my liberal friends a thousand times, and I have come to accept that they will never wrap their minds around the truth: lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home.
That prompts Phi Beta Cons' George Leef to note,
As for the academic and emotional problems that keep students from succeeding, they're rooted in our abominable K-12 system that excuses dismal results and inculcates false beliefs among students that they're doing very well. Trying to deal with those educational and attitudinal problems after high school is awfully late in the game — like trying to make up a four-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter. There's nothing the federal government can do to fix the problems of K-12, but Obama could give a speech pointing out that parents concerned about their children's education should look for ways of escaping the public school trap.
We had that housing bubble in part because parents who sought to escape have done so, by buying the house that comes bundled with the better school. The children of the ones who didn't escape have been rendered unemployable by the inclusive education they receive, but I repeat myself.

Also left unaddressed: will additional financial assistance do anything about completion rates, or will it be dissipated by rent-seekers? At Anonymous Community, larger Pell grants don't matter.
I was puzzled to see an increase in Pell grants in a discussion of increased aid to cc's. Most cc's tuition and fees come nowhere close to the maximum existing Pell grant. Raising the ceiling even higher won't help cc's one bit, unless we raise our tuition and fees pretty dramatically to capture some of the increase.
No rent-seekers there, unless that college adds four-year programs and improves the rec center. Mr Dionne sees reason to increase Pell grants, but perhaps there aren't column inches to address the rent seeking.
In 1976, the year Sotomayor graduated from Princeton, federal Pell Grants for low-income students covered 72 percent of the average cost of a four-year state institution. An excellent education (if not necessarily at Princeton) was, in principle, within reach of most Americans. But by 2003, Pell Grants covered only 38 percent of the cost of attending a state university. Her mother's quest to better her own and her family's lot through more schooling was also classic, and we're falling behind when it comes to opportunities of that sort, too.
The Pope Center is all over the rent seeking.

Americans have been complaining about the fact that college expenses go up faster than the rate of inflation for decades. All that complaining has had precisely zero effect.

Zero effect on controlling costs, that is. Politicians have tried to placate voters by increasing government student aid so the rising cost is more affordable, but that seems just to cause further increases.

They have a companion piece with more of the same.

A Christian Science Monitor column by Patrick Fleenor of the Tax Foundation addresses the regressive transfer implicit in Mr Dionne's column. Yes, it's great that a Pell grant covers 72 percent of a low-income student's costs at a state university in 1976. A few years previously, a not-necessarily-low-income student could swing 100 percent with a school year commissary job and a summer factory job. The effect, though, is to create future rich people.

Most American college students attend public institutions where tuition and fees typically cover less than half of the operating costs. Moreover, students at both public and private schools frequently receive generous government grants. As for those much-maligned student loans, the interest payments on them are often heavily subsidized.

Higher education subsidies are paid for with tax dollars collected in part from people who didn't go to college. This has created a scandalous situation where low- and moderate-income individuals with no college are forced to subsidize the process that helps others have high incomes.

That deprives them of resources they could use to make similar investments in themselves. Imagine the frustration of a mechanic who can't buy the latest tool that will boost his productivity and raise his wage because he is forced to subsidize someone else's pursuit of an MBA.

These unfair policies are sold as helping people move up but they unwittingly exacerbate income inequality, an issue that President Obama professes to be greatly concerned about. Yet the centerpieces of his higher education plan are boosting the American Opportunity Tax Credit and increasing college grants. These policies will only shift more college costs to those who did not attend college.

The Monitor ends up endorsing greater reliance on student loans. Tradeoffs everywhere. Loans get dissipated by rent-seekers.

Left for future research: any effort to make K-12 do its job so higher education, including the community colleges, don't have to redo it.
ANSWERING THE CHALLENGE. You're looking at a sixth-grade science project from the spring of 1965.


The Milwaukee Public Schools offered some of us a chance to take algebra in the eighth grade and physics as juniors in order to be able to take calculus (what we now know as Advanced Placement calculus) and organic chemistry and astronomy as seniors. I'm not sure how much of that is offered today, or if the students who would have been eligible are now in the wealthier suburbs, and if that means Milwaukee doesn't bother any more.

Jim Hu picks up a Pew Center report on public perceptions of science that suggests some deficiencies in knowledge (although a comparison with such a survey in 1965, when the accelerated program was by invitation only, isn't at hand) and some disagreements between practitioners and the public on matters of public policy. And yet another Pope Center report on the college bubble repeats the familiar gripes about what the collegians don't know.

One survey shows that college graduates are not as proficient in literacy as they used to be. Another finds that students only study about half as much as their professors think they should. Other reports show that good grades are easier to get than ever, with a B average or better now typical at most schools. If all students at a school always get good grades, a diploma from that school is no longer an indication of the student’s quality.

Thus, the value of a college education—as measured by students’ preparedness for the workplace—may be falling below what students are paying for it. Once this becomes known, colleges may be hard-pressed to fill classrooms. That could burst the bubble.

There's an opportunity for higher education to deflate the bubble itself: simply refuse to do the high schools job for them.
COUNTERVAILING MONOPOLY? Jim Hightower suggests a government health insurance service as a way to put pressure on the private insurers.

[President] Obama's proposed reform is not so bold as to offer you and me the same sweet deal that our congress-critters get, but it does include one provision to help us escape the untender mercies of insurance profiteers. Called the "public option," it creates a publicly run insurance plan as an alternative to the costly, mingy, inscrutable policies shoved at us by the big, monopolistic insurers.

The beauty of this option is that it gives everyone a real choice. Since the public insurance plan doesn't rake off a profit, doesn't need a massive marketing budget, won't pay multimillion-dollar executive salaries and won't have an army of backroom agents working to deny payment for treatments our doctors prescribe, it will offer better coverage at a cheaper price than the pampered private corporations presently offer.

This public policy would provide a competitive balance on the price and quality of coverage available to us consumers.

The choice is up to us, for the public option is — after all — optional. If you're happy to have an insurance corporation be your health-care broker, go with that. If not, you can consider purchasing the public policy.

Elsewhere in the column, he notes that the existing private insurers (perhaps with a little help from state insurance commissioners?) have sliced and diced the country in such a way that most health insurance markets are currently concentrated. Even the brightest among you will benefit from a modicum of repetition. "Introduce the government, create a triopoly. With differentiated products, there's no equilibrium ... it's not only physics that has three-body problems." It's not as simple as finding competent people to work for smaller salaries than the private insurance companies pay, and risk management and disallowed coverage don't go away because it's a state firm. (Mr Hightower got his start in national affairs from the Texas Railroad Commission. I've always respected his stance against the cartels he was charged with managing regulating.)

There are state-run health insurance programs, presumably the foundation for this deconcentration of the health insurance markets. I don't know the details of all the programs. In Illinois, there is such a program for state employees. It depends in part on tax revenues, which means insurance payments to providers become part of the state's cash-flow games. That doesn't please my dentist or the eye clinic.
WORK IS WHAT WE DO BETWEEN MEETINGS. Where there are ten layers of management, there will probably be a lot of meetings.
[North Carolina] is 10 layers deep in some areas, meaning that a worker has nine people above him on the organizational ladder. And more than half of campus supervisors oversee three or fewer workers. [The University] should eliminate some supervisors and give more control to those who continue in those roles, the report said. Fewer management layers would lead to fewer meetings and less duplication, and could save up to $12 million annually, it said.
(Via Betsy's Page.)

I believe it was Robert Townsend who noted that the Roman Catholic Church's organization chart had only four layers between parishioner and Pope. Arguably, there are relatively few layers between student and college dean, or student and provost. The article doesn't specify where those higher layers are, which prevents me from inferring there's excess capacity in work unrelated to the core mission of the university.
HALF MEASURES. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism asks difficult questions about the extension of the Hiawatha service from Milwaukee to the Madison airport.


Their report prompts Charlie Sykes to label the project a boondoggle. The problem the project faces is one created by the economic stimulus legislation: to put workers to work quickly, only projects that have passed environmental review are eligible. One such project is the Midwest High Speed Rail project to speed up the Chicago - Twin Cities service and turn it into a corridor. The flaw: "To route the Chicago - Twin Cities service in such a way as to pick up all the major online communities is to satisfy nobody." But there's neither the funds nor the political will nor perhaps the economic justification for the full Illinois - Wisconsin - Minnesota network I suggested as a way of fixing the flaw. On the other hand, political wrangles to change the current west end to central Madison rather than the airport have the potential to stop the entire project, in much the same way that the wrangling over a Genoa (for DeKalb??) or Belvidere routing will have for the Chicago - Rockford - Dubuque service.
HIGH HOPES? Joel Kotkin diagnoses the malaise to come.
Ultimately, waiting for Obama will not revive the blue states. Instead the best prospect lies in blue states healing themselves. Fortunately, there are some tentative signs of unrest. The same regime failure that stuck to Republicans in the wake of the Bush presidency soon may be felt by Democrats burdened with the failed legacy of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, or New York Governor David Paterson. Even Illinois, the president’s home state, could go Republican, suggests [University of Illinois] political scientist [Dick] Simpson, if the Republicans put up a viable, middle-of-the-road candidate.
That's asking a lot for a party that went from Jim Thompson to Jim Edgar to George Ryan and imported Alan Keyes to stand against some newcomer named Barack Obama.
OBSERVATION OF THE DAY. Economists get it. Everybody else can benefit from a refresher.
It's not only markets that ration. All scarce goods are rationed somehow. And every rationing system creates a distribution of those goods. What I think the Democrats do is look at the distribution ex post and decides it doesn't like it, so it wants to change it. It's the common schism in politics between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, or ex ante vs ex post equity. But the decision to change rationing systems doesn't just influence distribution. It can also change the production of health care.
Perhaps the inefficiencies of monopsony deserve more time in the course outline ...

21.7.09

A TRIBUTE TO BILLY MAYS. But Wait ... THERE'S MORE: Tighten Your Abs, Make Millions, and Learn How the $100 Billion Infomercial Industry Sold Us Everything but the Kitchen Sink. provides the material for Book Review No. 21. A reader of the book will discover you might have bought the kitchen sink at the county fair, where the barker who sold you a complete kitchen rehab might have gone on to shilling exercise machines or investment schemes on late night television. The There's More part of the title is accurate: there are chapters on the evolution of the infomercial from the fairground hustle to the late night paid program (might as well get a return on that investment, rather than display a test pattern) to a cable channel devoted entirely to selling stuff (the absence of a secure ordering protocol for television posing an impediment to going completely interactive the way the Internet sellers have). There's also material on the pitchmen, such as the late Mr Mays, who don't necessarily become fixtures on infomercials, and an instructive chapter on how the promoters make their money. That chapter ought be required reading for anyone tempted to go to a make-money seminar or the infomercial convention (yes, there is such a thing) or to participate in multi-level marketing.

The pricing practices of the infomercial operators are of academic interest. One of my pet Imponderables for beginning students is the pitch that includes "a $100 value for $19.95," (or, as the book points out, more frequently, five easy payments of $9.95). Principles-level answer: prices are signals and the good is probably not a $100 value, or even the equivalent of $19.95. There could be material for the behavioral economists: the infomercial is commonly a bewildering bundle (There's More!) of a gadget and some accessories and a useful manual and on and on, and the profit is in the on and on. Fun reading, although the author's perception of Wal-Mart as a good substitute for most of Target's offerings could provoke a rant. But comparing the world's biggest salvage and surplus operation with a mid-range department store is a story for another day.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
HOW THE MOON RACE WAS WON. We received a plastic mosaic tile playset for Christmas in 1965, which we used to make this illustration of the Gemini Project.


The launchpad



Staging

We didn't realize it at the time, but the Gemini missions of late 1965 and early 1966 demonstrated a capability the Soviets wouldn't have until much later.


Rendezvous

The Soviets did fly their Vostok and Salyut craft in close formation, but mating 'em up in space was another matter.



Docking

Docking capability means a moon-shot can carry along a lighter landing craft to perform the descent to and ascent from the Moon, and much less dead weight to tote along in the form of fuel for trans-earth injection.

I'm not sure if this frame is a stylized moon landing or anticipation of the dockings with the Agena target vehicles that took place beginning in the spring of 1966.


Deorbit



Splashdown

This frame is also stylized: one rendezvous craft would typically work on endurance while the other one returned.
THINK IT THROUGH. Professor Mankiw responds briefly to a criticism from Ezra Klein that provokes a logic lesson from The Glittering Eye. Lost amid the banter: economic substance.

There are at least four ideas in the health-care reform debate that have the potential to deliver on long-term savings. Mankiw does not make mention, or even reference an awareness, of any of them.

There's the theory that comparative effectiveness review -- particularly when combined with a new IT infrastructure that could eventually help guide physician decisions -- will cut down on unnecessary treatments and allow us to bring high-spending regions of the country into sync with their low-spending brethren.

Market tests also perform such comparisons, and investors can ask whether higher spending reflects greater demand for services, from, say, older people with additional aches, or from a high local birth rate. Perhaps a review panel can capture the essential elements of a market test. In a short column, there may not be space to make that case.
There's the idea that the Independent Medicare Advisory Council will be the locus for a continual process of Medicare reform that will begin to bring down costs in the Medicare program, and also create a sort of "best practices" laboratory where experiments can be attempted and the best efforts can be further developed.
Yardstick competition. Has that ever worked, or is it still a talking point?
There's the argument for the public plan, and in particular the public plan with Medicare powers, that implies that a large purchaser in the center of the system could bargain better discounts with providers.
I believe that's a monopsony.
There's the argument that the health insurance exchange will grow to become the primary insurance market and that as insurers begin competing on grounds of cost and quality -- as opposed to risk selection -- that efficiencies will emerge and spending will drift downward, and over time, the employer-based market, which is responsible for many of the costly problems in the system, will begin to migrate toward the exchange.
Isn't risk selection a dimension of quality that affects cost?
All of these are speculative.
Indeed.
WHY IT MATTERS. Minding the Campus recommends an Economix post asking "Do Elite Colleges Produce the Best-Paid Graduates?" Sometimes, not always, but the return on the investment in human capital does not track one-for-one with the initial outlay. In the full survey, Urbana (ranked among Engineering, Party Schools, and State Schools, but not among Clout Schools) reports the highest median midlife salaries among the Big Ten universities, and Northern Illinois comes in just above much more expensive, and much more famous, Reed College. The survey omits salaries to holders of advanced degrees, which leaves the effectiveness of the land-grants and mid-majors at preparing people for the professions for future research.
GOING AROUND IN CIRCLES. It's been Instalanched. Read Tom Vanderbilt's column about modern rotaries.
Why are Americans so suspicious of roundabouts? The simplest answer is that we have grown used to (and feel comfortable with) binary, on-off traffic control. We suspect such signals are more efficient than the "fuzzy logic" that seems to govern roundabouts. Roundabouts require drivers to make their own decisions and assess others' actions, rather than relying on third-party signals.
Relying on third-party signals? There's debate in Illinois about whether red-light cameras should be used to enforce Right. Turn. On. Red. After. Stop. Many flatlanders treat a red light as an opportunity to roll into the turn, and they can often get away with it because of slow driver response to a red turning green, or because often there is no right arrow at a crossing with a dedicated left. You're halfway to a roundabout ...
You are in a modern roundabout if it is the entering driver who must yield to traffic already circling. You are not in a modern roundabout if you are expected to yield to entering drivers or if you encounter traffic lights or stop signs. Size is another easy distinguishing mark. The old traffic circles were huge, and actually required drivers to make fairly significant detours around a vast central area—typically just an expanse of desultorily tended grass. Roundabouts are typically half the size; some, like one in Kingston, N.Y., were built inside the infields of existing traffic circles. Rather than simple lawns, their centers may contain statues, beds of flowers, or any number of visual elements. Velocity is another telltale identification mark. The older traffic circles are often marked by high "entry speeds"—drivers come blazing in on long arcing curves and must then merge, highway-style. In the tighter spaces of the modern roundabout, the entrances and exits are "flared" with "splitter islands" that "deflect" incoming traffic.
In plain language, it's called moving the curbs back and perhaps planting a statue or something in the middle of the intersection to designate that it's a rotary.
Roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections for a simple reason: By dint of geometry and traffic rules, they reduce the number of places where one vehicle can strike another by a factor of four. They also eliminate the left turn against oncoming traffic—itself one of the main reasons for intersection danger—as well as the prospect of vehicles running a red light or speeding up as they approach an intersection to "beat the light." The fact that roundabouts may "feel" more dangerous to the average driver is a good thing: It increases vigilance. It's unlikely the average driver killed or severely injured in a high-speed "T-bone" crash as they drove through a green light felt much risk. In addition, drivers must slow to enter a roundabout: Placing an obstacle in the center makes this not only a physical necessity but visually disrupts the speed-encouraging continuity of the street.
That speed-encouraging is a consequence of ill-timed dashes to get to the next light, dashes often encouraged by all the slow-thinking shopping-cart drivers that will block your way at the next signal.
People may see vehicles winding slowly through a roundabout and think the intersection must be 1) adding to congestion and 2) slowing down people's travel times. But travel speed at any given moment should not be confused with overall travel time. Drivers may breeze through one intersection's green lights only to sit through a 90-second cycle at the next. What's more, the "protected turning movements"—i.e., the green arrows—required at many intersections steal time from the larger numbers of people wanting to proceed in every other direction. Roundabouts slow but rarely stop traffic. A noteworthy example here is Golden, Colo., which in 1999 converted a series of four formerly signalized intersections to roundabouts on a wide section of arterial highway that was becoming a major corridor for "big box" retail. While speeds between the intersections fell to an average of 37 mph from 47 mph, the time to travel the entire stretch of road dropped.
Might be cheaper than synchronizing the traffic lights, the Cold Spring Shops recommended practice. (The absence of synchronization is most annoying precisely at those commercial strips. First there's a light where the mile roads cross. Next the two-way stop where the mile road crosses the half-mile road becomes a four-way stop becomes a signal. Next come the retail developments, where the municipality may require the promoter to install additional signals, but not to time them.)

20.7.09

SCREENSHOT. According to Remembering Chicago: The Boomer Years, a lot of people made these.



Black and white television, black and white picture. This one is filed as "July 1969 moon landing." It has a February 1971 processing date, which suggests it might be a picture of a later landing, although I did label pictures quickly in those days.

I have a few more space program retrospectives to offer in the next few days.

DERAILING THE TRAINS. Amtrak to Dubuque, Metra to Rockford, one route or two?

Rockford area officials pushing to bring commuter train service Metra to Winnebago County are using Amtrak to help deliver the service – and their efforts threaten to derail DeKalb County's bid for passenger rail service.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is seeking to restore Amtrak service from Chicago to Dubuque, Iowa, by way of Rockford. Two routes are being considered: One would follow the Canadian National rail line and make a stop in Genoa, while the other would utilize a northern route along the Union Pacific rail line and stop in Belvidere.

A 2007 Amtrak study looked at four routes and found that using the Canadian National rail line through Genoa would be the fastest and had the greatest potential ridership. At $32.3 million to get it in shape, it's estimated to be $11.5 million less than going through Belvidere, with an annual operating expense $300,000 less than the northern route.

Stephen Ernst, executive director of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning, argues that the Amtrak study is skewed to some extent because the cost estimates for the Belvidere route includes $8.7 million in contingencies, while the Genoa route includes none. He said IDOT officials told him that's because they already negotiated the cost with Canadian National.

DeKalb County officials were caught off guard in April when an IDOT official reportedly said the Belvidere route had been chosen.

While the politicians haggle over these details, the infrastructure subsidies will be allocated elsewhere. We may see no trains at all.
ALLOCATING SCARCE RESOURCES. It's obvious to economists, but sometimes it takes a controversial philosopher to get people thinking.
Health care is a scarce resource, and all scarce resources are rationed in one way or another. In the United States, most health care is privately financed, and so most rationing is by price: you get what you, or your employer, can afford to insure you for. But our current system of employer-financed health insurance exists only because the federal government encouraged it by making the premiums tax deductible. That is, in effect, a more than $200 billion government subsidy for health care. In the public sector, primarily Medicare, Medicaid and hospital emergency rooms, health care is rationed by long waits, high patient copayment requirements, low payments to doctors that discourage some from serving public patients and limits on payments to hospitals.
That puts Armed Liberal at Winds of Change into what he concedes is an unexpected position.

And there's the rub; we have a system which largely removes cost as a factor either because you're in a protected class like my father, where there are no costs - or because the costs are so great that they don't matter and they are an insurmountable barrier. There is no "this much and no more" in healthcare as it's structured today.

Should there be? Thinking about my dad, I honestly don't know. But we need to talk about it, and so I have to - grudgingly, holding my nose - tip my hat to Professor Singer.

There is a this much and no more in the allocation of resources to health care. It's not easy to see, and there are probably Pareto improvements. But third-party payments lead to undetermined costs on one hand and unrealized benefits on the other, and it's hard to see how a new insurance service operating out of some distant capital will change those things. Doug Bandow elaborates.
What people need is a medical system that allows them to make the basic rationing decisions: what kind of insurance to buy, what kind of coverage to choose, what kind of trade-offs to make between spending on medicine and spending on other goods and services.
There still, however, will be a rationing problem. We now know how to transplant hearts, but if there are five cardiac cases and four traumatic brain injuries ...
NO CRIME. Three years ago, I reported a police blotter item involving twin brothers who played football at Northern Illinois and Wisconsin. Both brothers have been cleared.

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu, a former University of Wisconsin standout, has been acquitted of burglary charges in Illinois.

A DeKalb County judge acquitted Ikegwuonu on Friday of residential burglary and criminal trespassing.

Ikegwuonu and his twin brother, Bill, were arrested in November 2006. They were accused of trying to steal a video game system from an apartment in the city of DeKalb.

No theft, and the young men were looking for somebody who was not home at the time.

17.7.09

EL HIAWATHA? Wisconsin Governor Doyle would like a passenger train factory.

Wisconsin will purchase two trains from a Spanish manufacturer that plans to establish assembly and maintenance facilities in the state, Gov. Jim Doyle announced Friday morning.

Talgo is expected to create about 80 manufacturing and maintenance jobs in Wisconsin. The company could add more jobs if other states buy its trains, Doyle said.Locations of the assembly and maintenance facilities haven't been chosen yet, but a statement from Doyle said they're likely to be located in south-central or southeastern Wisconsin. Antonio Perez, chief executive officer and president of Talgo Inc., the company's U.S. subsidiary, said it has scouted locations in Milwaukee and Janesville. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said he would push hard to win the plant.

The two 14-car Talgo train sets, which will cost the state $47 million, will replace cars now used on Amtrak's Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha Service. They will boost the capacity of each Hiawatha train from 350 to 420 passengers. Hiawatha ridership jumped 24% last year, to 766,167.

There are Talgo trains in operation between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia. They're configured for faster operation than conventional trains on curving tracks (not an issue on a line that once posted a 100 mph speed limit for steam trains at the State Line curves) and there is the potential for additional sales to other states, a development that can reduce the cost of the trains. Presumably, they're improvements on the design that failed (IN SOME WAYS AHEAD OF HIS TIME, April 2005) on the New Haven and Boston and Maine in the 1950s.

On the other hand, they're fixed formation trains. That's nothing new on the Milwaukee run, where two Electroliners protected five round trips on the North Shore Line until 1963, and two French RTG Turbotrains protected five round trips for Amtrak from the middle 1970s to the middle 1980s (there were more than two trains, and sometimes there were run-throughs to St. Louis and Detroit.) There are currently two Rohr Industries knock-offs up for sale in New York, but they, like the French version, aren't well suited to cold weather. The disadvantage of a fixed formation is that it's hauling empty seats around on some runs and leaving passengers standing on others. The North Shore Line solved the problem by scheduling 'Liner Followers at known peak times. Amtrak never bothered with the Turbotrains, although some formations were revised to offer six or four cars. The Milwaukee Road conceived of its Hiawathas as full-sized trains, and up to the end, strengthened its formations with older coaches.

The coaches were built at Milwaukee Shops. The land is now a Miller Park parking lot. Diesels for the 1950s Talgo trains were built by Fairbanks-Morse in Beloit and tested on the C&M. It probably didn't help the Talgo trains any that the diesels were oddities on the owning railroads.