Friday Cat Blogging - 20 August 2010

I had my camera set to macro, the cats showed up, so I started clicking. And here's what we get: closeups of cats. It was around dinnertime when I took these pictures, and Domino is obviously looking longingly toward the kitchen while Inkblot is hoping that the evil eye will prompt me to quit fooling around and open a can of cat food now now now. So I did. Have a good weekend, all.

The News Fire Hose

Ezra Klein bemoans the life of the modern infovore today. But since all the rest of us are frenzied infovores too, here's the telegraphic version:

Like a lot of people I know, I spend a fair amount of time on Twitter....It's like an instant-pleasure button....I'm reliant on RSS feeds. Full RSS feeds, to be more specific. My information consumption is overwhelmingly biased toward outlets I can read fully in Google Reader....[This] biases me in favor of blogs and against newspaper articles, magazines and so forth.....You lose a lot in this trade-off: Blogs make for quick reading, but — with some exceptions — less deep understanding. But they're easier to read, and updated constantly, and so it's almost always easier to scroll through some blogs then pick up a book. That's particularly true during the workday, when I need to find grist for my next post now....And let's not even get into how often I uselessly click over to Gmail while doing other things. My mental commentary is almost goldfishlike: "Hey look: an e-mail! Hey look: an e-mail! Hey look: an e-mail..."

You get the idea. In fact, this kind of lament has practically become a genre in its own right these days. But I keep thinking: are things really that different? Especially for someone in Ezra's profession?

I don't want to make a maximal case here, but think for a minute about what life was like for reporters in, say, the 60s and 70s. There was no Twitter, no email, and no blogs, obviously. But there were televisions in every newsroom. There was obsessive checking of the two or three or four wire service machines clattering away in the corner. There was the phone ringing off the hook. There was reading all your competitors — newspapers and magazines — which might have been a little less frantic back then but actually sucked up more time. There were endless newsletters and tout sheets to keep up with. There was the same round of face-to-face interviews on Capitol Hill or Wall Street or wherever your beat was that we have today. There was mail — you know, the kind written on paper — to read and possibly respond to. Deadlines were still deadlines, and the technology of the time made meeting them every bit as stress-inducing as it is today.

Things are more frenetic today. But I have a feeling we all overplay just how much more frenetic they are for people in the news business. A couple of weeks ago I read My Paper Chase, a memoir by former London Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, and his blow-by-blow description of working on a breaking news story at an ordinary small town daily outside Manchester in 1952 (it's on pages 153-59 if you're interested) is, if anything, more harrowing than the information firehose we put up with today. I don't think journalism was any better for your blood pressure then than it is today.

Again: I'm not trying to make a maximal case here. We surely have a bigger, faster flood of information at our fingertips than we did 40 years ago. On the other hand, we also have pretty awesome tools for classifying it, skimming it, and verifying it. I can use Google to check a fact in 30 seconds that would have taken minutes or hours just a couple of decades ago.1 And that RSS feed that shovels so much stuff at me also allows me to ingest it and search it and outline it and save it with just a few keystrokes.

And books? Yeah, it's hard to find the time. But seriously, does anyone think the ink-stained wretches of fifty years ago spent luxurious hours perusing the latest policy tomes from the UC Press and then thinking deep thoughts about them? Nah. They glanced at them between phone calls and tried to pick out interesting tidbits here and there, just like we do. The species of stress we endure may have changed over the years, and it's probably increased, but I don't think the change is quite as dramatic as we sometimes make it out to be. News is news, and it's always had a fire hose quality to it.

1In fact, I just did. That breaking news story from Evans' book? The Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash, October 8, 1952. It took ten seconds to find. That kind of capability is an underappreciated stress reducer.

Obama's Record

There's a land office business these days explaining why Barack Obama sucks. Aaron David Miller takes to the pages of the LA Times today and, after a long bit of throat clearing about the greatness of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, he proposes this explanation for Obama's lack thereof:

First, he was convinced that the country was so badly served by his Republican predecessor that most Americans understood the need for sweeping change and were prepared to support it. Second, he misread his crisis: the recession....Finally, unlike some of his predecessors who grounded change in values that many Americans found familiar and functional, Obama hasn't found a unifying message situated in an American experience that is universally shared.

....Obama may have had no choice but to introduce a large stimulus bill to stop the economic bleeding, but healthcare reform (and the way it was done) represented an overreach and stressed a political system that was already dysfunctional. It also convinced many, however unfairly, that he was a man of the left and a big-spending liberal to boot.

....Americans aren't so much looking for great presidents, big ideas or historic transformations. They want satisfaction on mundane matters such as prosperity, keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks and an end to the roller-coaster ride of partisanship, name-calling and celebrity politics that is Washington today.

Is this such a sophisticated argument that I don't get it? Or just plain dumb? In order to attain greatness, Obama needed to understand that the country wasn't in the mood for greatness and just wanted him to focus on mundane matters? WTF?

Look: Obama passed a huge stimulus package, a historic healthcare bill, a pretty serviceable financial reform bill, has withdrawn 100,000 troops from Iraq, negotiated the New START treaty with Russia, made some decent progress on education reform and Pentagon procurement, and appears to be on track to repeal DADT. A terrible economy has hurt his fortunes, but let's face facts: Republicans and centrist Democrats wouldn't have allowed him to do anything more about this even if he'd wanted to. And in any case, as plenty of people have pointed out, Obama's popularity is actually nearly identical to that of most other modern presidents at this point in their presidencies:

I don't really understand where this general strain of writing comes from. Obviously Obama came into office with high expectations, but were there really a lot of people who expected him to be the second coming of FDR? If there were, I sure wasn't reading them. The plain, boring fact is that Obama, like all presidents, is constrained by circumstances and by Congress, and he just hasn't had the Congress to do much more than he's done. FDR and LBJ won landslide victories and enjoyed enormous congressional majorities. By contrast, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton won solid victories and had sizeable congressional majorities (though only in the Senate for Reagan). That's who Obama should be compared to, and on that score he shapes up pretty well: clearly better than Carter and Clinton and quite possibly the equal of Reagan. (We'll know for sure in another six years.)

There are plenty of things I wish Obama had done differently. I wish he'd pushed harder for transformative financial reform. I wish he hadn't escalated the war in Afghanistan. I wish he hadn't reappointed Ben Bernanke. I wish his record on civil liberties were better. I wish he'd use his undeniable rhetorical gifts to really sell a liberal vision to the American public, the way Reagan sold a conservative one.1 But this is real life, and no president does everything his supporters want him to do. By any measure aside from having your face sculpted on Mount Rushmore, Obama's had a pretty good run so far. It's crazy to pretend otherwise.

1I wish he'd pushed harder for a climate change bill too, but honestly, I don't blame him much for this. Congressional support just flatly wasn't there for anything even remotely ambitious, and there's not much point in banging your head against a brick wall. For now, I'll judge him by what the EPA ends up doing.

Revenge of the Show Runner

The Wall Street Journal reports on the tendency of TV writers to get revenge on their real-life enemies by eviscerating them on their shows:

After several seasons of disappointing reviews, writers on the USA network's mystery series "Psych" decided to get revenge. They crafted an episode involving a psychotic killer doctor. The deranged murderer's name? Ken Tucker, who in real life is the mild-mannered, 57-year-old TV critic for Entertainment Weekly magazine.

"It was never 'Dr. Tucker' or just 'Ken.' It was always 'Did Ken Tucker eviscerate the body?'" says USA original programming chief Jeff Wachtel.

....When the lead detective wants to discuss a serious matter with his partner in the drama "Detroit 1-8-7," which premieres on ABC Sept. 21, he will only talk via cellphone, even when the two men are in the same car or sitting together at a coffee shop. "That's a reference to a passive-aggressive Hollywood producer who will go unnamed," says executive producer Jason Richman, referring to a power player who goes to great lengths to avoid face-to-face confrontations.

Some gestures are more casual. Before he created "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner worked as a writer on "The Sopranos," where he put the name of a former employer who had wronged him on a gravestone in the background of a cemetery scene.

This is pretty disappointing. I think it would be kind of cool to be eviscerated on a TV show, and I figured my only real problem is that no one dislikes me quite enough to bother. I could always work on that, though. But why bother, if "evisceration" just means having one of my quirks silently mocked or my name showing up on a gravestone in the background of a single scene? Hell, without Tivo I might miss that it even happened. Is this really the best that TV writers can do?

Iran and the Bomb

When I read this headline in the New York Times — "U.S. Assures Israel That Iran Threat Is Not Imminent" — I was relieved. Then I read the story itself:

The Obama administration, citing evidence of continued troubles inside Iran’s nuclear program, has persuaded Israel that it would take roughly a year — and perhaps longer — for Iran to complete what one senior official called a “dash” for a nuclear weapon, according to American officials.

....The current draft of the intelligence report also describes considerable division in Iran about whether the goal of the nuclear program should be to walk right up to the threshold of building an actual bomb — which would mean having highly enriched uranium on hand, along with a workable weapons design — or simply to keep enough low-enriched uranium on hand to preserve Tehran’s options for building a weapon later.

Two things. First, a year isn't really a very long time. Second, the tone of this article suggests that the Obama administration takes for granted that Iran is, in fact, working on building a bomb. They might or might not do it, but that would be strictly a tactical decision, not an operational one. This doesn't surprise me, but a lot of people still seem to be skeptical about Iran's intentions, and this story suggests that this skepticism isn't shared by anyone in the Obama administration.

In any case, the point of the piece is that inspectors "would detect an Iranian move toward breakout within weeks," which leaves plenty of time to react. That doesn't actually sound like much time to me, though, and if this is an effort to get critics to calm down it seems unlikely to work. The Bill Kristol brigade is going to milk this for everything it's worth.

How Kids Really Learn

Several years ago I was visiting with some friends and happened to get into a conversation with their four-year-old daughter. I don't remember why, but we got to talking about numbers, and as adults will do, I started quizzing her. Do you know what two plus two is? She did. How about four plus three. No problem. Six plus five? Nine plus four? Eight plus seven? Yes, yes, and yes. That was about as far as she could go, but I was pretty impressed. That's not bad for a four-year-old, is it?

A year later she was in kindergarten and I was visiting again. And I was curious about how her mathematical prowess had progressed. Answer: it hadn't. She couldn't even answer the questions she had gotten correct the year before.

Now, this happened over two decades ago (the daughter in question graduated from college a couple of years ago) and I've long wondered if it even actually happened. I clearly remember it, and yet it all seems so unlikely. Did I just imagine the whole thing?

Maybe not. A few days ago I wrote about a Los Angeles Times project to post an online database that measures the performance of LAUSD teachers based on how their kids do on standardized tests. I approved: "Either you believe that the press should disseminate public data or you don't," I said, but there were some unspoken words in that sentence. What I really meant was, "Either you believe that the press should disseminate meaningful public data or you don't" — since, needless to say, nobody believes the press should randomly disseminate useless and misleading data, public or otherwise.

So do standardized tests provide meaningful data? Millions of barrels of ink have been spilled on this question, but here's an interesting take on the question from a study done a few years ago. Paul Camp, a physics professor at Spelman College, in the course of investigating how students learn Newtonian concepts, came across an interesting result: they don't learn in a straight line. They learn things, then they get confused, and then they learn them again for good. Learning, in other words, follows a U-shaped pattern, and not just for university level physics:

U-shaped developmental patterns appear to be a general feature of human cognition....Competencies, once learned, do not disappear but they are unusually fragile while understanding reorganizes into a more mature form, and this fragility is reflected by variability in performance.... In short, achieving a new state of organization requires passage through a state of apparent disorganization.

....The existence of U-shaped development [] has important implications for student evaluation. It directly implies that single point assessments are unfair and inaccurate.

There's evidence that this U-shaped pattern is common (this paper, for example, compares 7-year-olds and 9-year-olds on certain kinds of math problems and finds that 7-year-olds do better). So is this what happened with my four-year-old friend? Did she learn simple arithmetic, then get confused about it during kindergarten, and then learn it for good in first grade? Maybe. Maybe I didn't imagine the whole episode after all.

If this is true, it obviously has disturbing implications for the use of standardized tests in primary schools to evaluate teacher performance. If students routinely go through U-shaped learning curves, it means that a terrific third grade teacher might produce mediocre test scores if her kids tend to be in the trough of the U at year-end, while the fourth grade teacher who gets the kids the following year reaps the benefits.

I don't have anywhere near the chops to evaluate this evidence, and it's certainly not the end of the story. What's more, I remain in favor of the Times project: standardized tests clearly aren't the be-all-end-all of teacher evaluation, but if we're going to use them at all we need to take them seriously. And for now, we're using them. So let's shine some sunlight on them.

Besides, if the tests really are poor indicators of short-term student performance, perhaps this project will make that clear. Parents, principals, and fellow teachers probably have a pretty good sense already of who the good and bad teachers are, and if the value-added testing metric used by the Times turns out to be wildly at variance with this sense, it should provoke a serious rethink. Either way, then, it's likely to have a net positive effect. It's worth a try.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Box Office

John Scalzi tries to figure out why Scott Pilgrim vs. the World didn't do very well on its opening weekend:

What is the core audience of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? Well, when I saw it this weekend, the members of the audience were mostly under 30 and (visually) equally distributed between stereotypical nerds and stereotypical hipsters. There were enough snarky T-shirts and chunky black-frame glasses to fill a coffee shop next to an Apple store.

But only enough of them to fill that one coffee shop — and this is the problem, commercially speaking. Nerds and hipsters love what they love, and, while they love it, they love it with the white-hot intensity of a thousand obsessive-compulsive suns (and when they stop loving it, they hate you for still loving it — but that's another column entirely). But hipsters and nerds — and the occasional hipster nerds — aren't in themselves a big enough audience to move the box-office needle any appreciable distance.

This is a fine observation, but I'd like to propose an alternative. Or a complement, perhaps: it just wasn't a very good movie. Not terrible. Just not very good.

Now, I know what you're thinking. I'm not the target audience for a "postmodern hipster-nerd fantasy." I'm a bit of a nerd, and I like fantasy fine, but I'm middle-aged, aggressively un-postmodern, and even more aggressively un-hipster. So maybe I just didn't get it.

Well, sure. It was probably never likely to make my all-time top ten list. But my reaction was actually a lot simpler than that. The plot of the film, such as it is, concerns Scott Pilgrim's series of fights against his would-be girlfriend's seven evil exes. Fine. So half an hour into the movie we have the first of these stylized videogame fights. Wam bam slam tinkle tinkle. Scott Pilgrim wins. Hooray! And immediately — immediately — I thought, "Six more of these? I wonder how they're going to create seven fight scenes that are different enough to stay interesting?"

I don't think I'm giving anything away to say, they don't. The fights aren't identical, and all of them have a quirk or two that might make you smile ironically, but basically they're all the same thing. And there's only so much of that you can take. There's some sweet stuff in between the fights, the dialog isn't bad, and the characters are goofy and sort of endearing. But after the first half hour, two-thirds of the movie is just a series of nearly identical stylized combat scenes. I don't know if it was ever likely to break out beyond its core audience, but I think it needed a lot more narrative and lot less fight to have even a chance.

The Deal

Bob Somerby is following the latest Social Security chatter and hopes that Paul Krugman can explain how the trust fund works in an understandable way:

The trust fund is just an accounting fiction — a pile of worthless IOUs! Generations of voters have been misled by such skillfully-wrought presentations.

....Krugman is our most valuable player by far — our only player at the top of the press corps. Can he disentangle the trust fund scam in a way average people will understand? We don’t know, and it isn’t his job; no player should be expected to carry the ball on every play from scrimmage. Tomorrow, we’ll offer our own ideas at how the “there-is-no-trust-fund nonsense” might best be approached, in a way average people can follow.

Well, hell, I'll take a crack at it. Here's the simple version.

In 1983, when we last reformed Social Security, we made an implicit deal between two groups of American taxpayers. Call them Groups A and B. For about 30 years, Group A would pay higher taxes than necessary, thus allowing Group B to reduce their tax rates. Then, for about 30 years after that, Group A would pay lower taxes than necessary and Group B would make up for this with higher tax rates.

This might have been a squirrelly deal to make. But it doesn't matter. It's the deal we made. And it's obviously unfair to change it halfway through.

So who is Group A? It's people who pay Social Security payroll taxes, which mostly means working and middle class taxpayers. And who is Group B? It's people who pay federal income taxes, which mostly means the well-off and the rich. For nearly 30 years, Group A has been overpaying payroll taxes, and that's allowed the government to lower income tax rates. The implicit promise of the 1983 deal is that sometime in the next few years, this is going to flip. Group A will begin underpaying payroll taxes, and the rich, who have reaped the benefits of their overpayment for 30 years, will make good on their half of the deal by paying higher income tax rates to make up the difference.

The physical embodiment of this deal is the Social Security trust fund. Group A overpaid and built up a pile of bonds in the trust fund. Those bonds are a promise by Group B to repay the money. That promise is going to start coming due in a few years, and it's hardly surprising that Group B isn't as excited about the deal now as it was in 1983. It's never as much fun paying off a loan as it is to spend the money in the first place.

But pay it off they must. The rich have been getting a loan from the middle class for decades, and the loan papers are the Social Security trust fund bonds that George W. Bush is admiring in the photograph above. Anybody who claims the trust fund is a myth is basically saying it's OK for the rich to renege on that loan.

But surely no one would ever say such a thing. Right?

POSTSCRIPT: Still not simple enough? Help out in comments! How can we make this explanation even easier to follow without losing the basic accuracy of the story? Suggestions welcome.

No Right to Build a Mosque

OK, fine. There's nothing much going on today, so let's talk about the Park51 mosque project. We already know that a large majority of Americans are opposed to building it, but here are the results of an Economist poll on a slightly different question:

Whether or not you think the Islamic cultural centre and mosque should be built near the World Trade Center site, do you think that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque there?

Technically, I think the wording of this question should have been turned around: not whether Muslims have the right to build a mosque on Park Place, but whether the government has the constitutional right to stop them from building a mosque on Park Place.

Still, I think everyone probably understands what this means, and it's just depressing as hell. It's one thing to oppose the mosque just because you don't like the idea, but to deny that Muslims even have a constitutional right to build it? That should be a no-brainer. Of course they do. You can picket the site, you can boycott their sponsors, you can vote against politicians who speak in favor of it, and you can scream all you like on blogs and Fox News. But how can anyone not accept, at a bare minimum, that the constitution protects their basic right to build a house of worship the same way it protects their opponents' right to protest it?

The News Today, Oh Boy

So I guess the biggest news today is that unemployment claims are up and the number of people who think Obama is a Muslim is also up — which is, perhaps, not entirely a coincidence. Oh, and Dr. Laura is quitting her radio show.

Well, I guess I can always post another ad from my collection of old comic books. Which would you like, a Daisy air rifle ad or a Charles Atlas ad?