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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Baucus Nomination Part II

Juliet Eilperin and Sean Sullivan in today's Washington Post explains all the political reasons that Baucus got that job -- 1) to help out  Democratic politicians in Montana, 2) because he has experience on China trade issues, and 3) because it "remov[es] a credible critic of the Affordable Care Act from the scene."

I guess he's "credible" because he drafted it, although the writers seem to be unaware of that fact.  Of course, he's not actually criticizing the Act itself, just the implementation.  From the article:

"Baucus had expressed frustration with how the Administration was implementing its landmark health care law for months, suggesting in February it could be “a huge train wreck” if the government did not have enough money to spend on outreach to consumers. A month after the launch of the senator compared the federal health care marketplace to Humpty Dumpty, questioning whether the White House could repair the complicated online enrollment system."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Congratulations Max Baucus -- Well Played

I guess I missed this when it came out.  I was just reminded of Max Baucus when I heard about his appointment as Ambassador to China today.  I knew there was something about him and Pharma that bothered me.  The below link -- to a December 2012 piece by Glenn Greenwald -- pretty much tells the story.  Baucus's aide -- insurance industry tool Liz Fowler -- essentially drafted the no-public-option Obama care, with obvious benefits to insurance companies, as well as for Pharma.  And sure enough, both Fowler and Baucus cashed out and took presumably lucrative jobs in those industries.

Not only did Obama basically accept the industry-drafted giveaway that became Obamacare, but he watched as its architects went back to being lobbyists for the industries that they served oh-so-well while supposedly representing the people.  And, as if to endorse that kind of behavior, he rewards one of them with an ambassadorship.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Insurance Companies Cutting Back on Prescription Drugs

Well, of course.  That's what makes the whole Obamacare-Compromise so awful.  We need the private corporations to basically run it, because they need to stay alive, and because obviously the government is not competent to run it.  But the result is that the whole healthcare system is turned over to for-profit enterprises -- enterprises that seek ALWAYS to increase profits while reducing expenses, by whatever means are legal.  If they can find a way to minimize the losses that they would otherwise incur when accepting an otherwise uninsured person with an expensive pre-existing condition, they will do that.  Why wouldn't they?  They are not charitable organizations.  The extent of their charity is whatever the initial bargain was.  And that, apparently, was guaranteed billions of dollars of patient and taxpayer money in exchange for a promise that they would insure some people with preexisting conditions.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Non-Profit Scams

I couldn't even read the whole thing; just too painful.  The Washington Post today has the result of a investigation into "diversion" of funds by non-profits.  As I understand it, non-profits are supposed to report if more than $250,000 of funds (or 5% of assets/receipts) meant for their causes has been "diverted" -- i.e. stolen, usually by a trusted employee.  About 1000 non-profits have made such reports since the reporting requirement began in 2008, for a total of hundreds of millions of dollars.

It's really sad that there are so many people out there -- specifically, people who have been entrusted with paid jobs in these non-profits -- who are routinely engaging in this kind of theft.   

Monday, October 21, 2013

The usual "suspects"

I'm sure this is a pet peeve for a lot of other people but I'm too lazy to google it right now.  Just chalk me up as one more.  I can't stand it when I read a newspaper article that refers to the lead character in a crime story as "the suspect," especially when it's clear that the "suspect's" name is not known.

This was triggered by an NYT story that quoted the Sparks, Nevada Police as follows:

"After the shooting, the Sparks Police Department posted a message on its Web site that read: 'Stay away from Sparks Middle School 2275 18th St. We believe the suspect has been neutralized.'"

Why can't they simply say "the shooter" has been neutralized?  In this case it is particularly egregious, because you really shouldn't go around "neutralizing" people on mere suspicion.

I heard/read the same mistake during the Navy Yard shootings.  There, the person killing all the people was "the suspect" and for a while there were even two or three "suspects," but nobody knew who they were.

Yes, people are innocent until proven guilty, but if you don't have a name, there is NOTHING to suspect.  You might as well call the person who is doing the shooting the shooter, the killer, the murderer.  That's what he is.

It gets more confusing if there actually is an identified suspect -- i.e. someone who the police think might have committed the crime.  In that case, it's even worse to talk about the "suspect" doing this or that crime, since then you're essentially assuming what you're supposed to be proving.

UPDATE June 13, 2015

Here we go again, from CNN today:

CNN)[Breaking news update, posted at 5:05 a.m. ET]
Authorities found explosives in one of four suspicious bags found near Dallas' police headquarters, Police Chief David Brown said. Police believe there were multiple shooters who may have fired from different locations. "There might be up to four suspects," Brown said.
[Previous story, posted at 4:53 a.m. ET]
(CNN) -- Shots were fired at Dallas police headquarters early Saturday, the Dallas Police Department said.
A witness told police that the suspects, who opened fire about 12:30 a.m., were in an armored vehicle. Police responded to the incident, the Dallas Police Department tweeted.
"There is currently a standoff with what appears to be an armored vehicle in the Dallas suburb of Hutchins, Texas, around I-20 and I-45," Major Max Geron said. No one has been injured so far.
    Security has been beefed up at Dallas police stations and at Dallas City Hall, he said.

    Monday, October 14, 2013

    Creativity and the Billionaire

    I don't usually discuss article that I like, but here's one: by Thomas Frank, previously published in Harpers.  It picks up on a theme that I had just hit upon myself while listening to William Poundstone's "Are You Smart Enough To Work at Google?"

    I think it's the same basic theme, anyway.

    Frank's point is that all of the books we see on creativity nowadays are not the least bit creative.  They simply repeat the same old stories about post-its, jazz, Bob Dylan, Picasso, Einstein, and the Swiffer.  They don't really teach us anything, but they insist -- and have done so for a long time -- that the creative class will eventually rule the world.  Another book I happen to be listening to -- Daniel Pink's 2005 "A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future" is in the same vein.

    The thought I had recently (in reaction to Poundstone) was that a lot of the people who are deemed "creative" nowadays don't really seem to have been all that creative.  He points to gmail as a great success of Google's "spend twenty percent of your time working on your own projects" policy.  Successful, yes, but creative??   It's just email, which had been around for a long time.  I think he also points to Facebook as some kind of triumph of creativity.  Really?  Just another example of a person being at the right place at the right time, and doing something that a lot of other people were already doing.

    And Frank's final point is just that these books help reaffirm the sense of "creativity" among the people who have made it big in this economy.   Which I think is where I was going, but I hadn't gotten around to articulating that yet.  Here's how Frank says it in the end: "Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world."

    Frank's latest book is "Pity the Poor Billionaire:  The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right" which sounds like a painful read.  But he's a pretty good writer, so I might give it a try.

    Saturday, October 12, 2013

    Malala tells Obama that drone attacks fuel terrorism

    That was reported in the Washington Post this morning, and there's a lively debate in the comments on whether she's right or not.  Some say that the only way to stop terrorism is by killing its leaders, and it's easier to do that by drone than by a full scale invasion, and if there's some collateral damage, well, that's the price we (and the victims, and the victims' loved ones) pay for the result.  And of course, Obama knows there's a tradeoff, and he's used his judgment to continue -- well, exponentiate [if that's a word] -- the drone attacks.

    Others support Malala, and wonder why Obama has to learn this from a 16-year-old.

    True, I don't have the all the information that Obama does.  But I do have some experience with organizations generally.  And in my experience, for every person that is currently a "leader" in an organization, there are at least five or more equally-qualified people who would love to be the "leader" too.  And also, in my experience, the people who get the "leadership" positions are not always the greatest leaders; often the ones just below would be much better.   I'd be surprised if the Taliban or Al Qaeda or any of the other other terrorist organizations that we are targeting were any different.

    So the whole idea of "cutting off the head" by killing the leaders of these movements seems cockeyed to me.  That might work if you've got a single charismatic leader on whom the whole organization depends.  But that's clearly not the case here -- we're going after dozens if not hundreds of "leaders" that nobody's ever heard of.  You kill a leader, and then there's a brief power vacuum, but then the next guy steps up and takes that leader's place.  The organization doesn't just go home -- it continues to exist based on its principles and ideas, and the very drone attack that killed the leader is just one more affirmation of the "correctness" of those principles and ideas.  The people in the organization continue to believe in them, and will simply follow the next leader, and many of them are doubtless hoping to advance to leadership positions within the organization themselves.  The very possibility of drone-created vacancies might seem like not such a bad thing for their ambitions.

    In the case of terrorist organizations, we've got the additional fact that they are often very well funded, e.g. with Saudi oil money.  The death of one leader isn't going to affect the benefits that they can offer to new recruits, and the killing of innocents by drones will simply increase recruiting.  If I'm a young man and my little sister or brother is killed by a drone, and I don't have much else going on in my life, I'm signing up.  What am I missing?

    Maybe this is what I'm missing:  Maybe, just maybe, there is only a limited supply of educated Muslim clerics with access to Saudi (or other) money who are willing to step up and into these "leadership" positions.  I suppose if there really is only a finite supply of those people, if we can kill them off by drone, that might have a real effect.  That doesn't answer the moral question of whether these executions -- and the inevitable collateral damage -- is something a supposedly-civilized country should be doing, but perhaps if it's all a "cost-benefit" game, and the goal is to stop terrorism at all costs, perhaps the drone killing is "justifiable" on some level, if not morally so.  I still think the whole campaign most likely does more harm than good -- it really hurts our standing in the world, and undermines any effort to try to lead by example, which for me, has always been the only way out of this downward spiral.  But as always, I try to present both sides of an issue.

    Saturday, October 5, 2013

    The No Pain Government

    For a while I was feeling a little bit sorry for Federal workers who were unexpectedly furloughed last week.  But now I see that the House has passed a bill guaranteeing that they will be paid.

    So let me see if I can get this straight.  We ran out of money, so we need to shut down the government.  But the one savings we might realize from that -- the cost of paying a bunch of Federal employees -- well, to actually impose that savings would just cause too much pain, and make too many voters mad at us.  So as soon as the government is back up and running, we'll just print some more money and pay them.  That sounds like soft-hearted liberal nonsense.  Lousy Democrats.  Oh wait -- it's the Republicans, trying to salvage something out of this disaster, by using taxpayer money to buy back the votes that they would have lost from the rightfully enraged Federal workers.

    Onlyl in America -- and the American government -- does "furlough" essentially equate to "paid vacation."

    It's ironic, but this is almost exactly like what the Democrats did by ramming through Obamacare without any concern for cost savings, and what the Republicans are in some (but not all) ways calling irresponsible.  Yes, it feels wonderful that people with pre-exising conditions can now get insurance, and formerly-uninsured people will no longer be bankrupted by unexpected medical bills.  But to get the votes we need, we need to make that the businesses that are responsible for soaring health costs will continue to make healthy profits.

    So who bears the costs in these two parallel situations?  

    In Obamacare, it's basically the people who pay more for insurance than they get out of it who end up paying for it.  I.e. most of us.

    With the Federal worker paid vacation program, it's all of us. 

    Woot is Owned By Amazon

    Yes, everyone should know this by now -- it happened in 2010 -- but not everybody does. Obviously, the Woot site isn't going to broadcast it, because that site needs to appear edgy and cool.

    I've bought stuff from Woot both before and after the Amazon purchase, and to be honest, I didn't notice any difference.  The monkey jokes seemed to be about the same.  Not really funny, but oddly addictive.

    But now it's all a marketing game; one more profit center for Amazon (and one less competitor also).  Pre-Amazon, when you saw something on Woot, you could go to Amazon and look at the reviews and the price there and decide if you are getting a good deal.  Sometimes, it seemed, Amazon would even lower its price to bring it into Woot's range.

    But that's all over now.  Amazon owns Woot, and so they know you are going to go to Amazon to try to figure out what a "fair" price for the item is.  And knowing THAT, they make sure that the price on Amazon is a good deal higher than the one on Woot, which makes the Woot price look like all the better a deal.

    I'm writing this today because both Woot and Yugster are offering a one-day sale on a handheld 3M M220 projector.  Woot is at $129 and Yugster is at $169.  It seems like a pretty good product, but apparently it's not easy to figure out how to actually make it work with your files (internal software limitations), and moreover, the VGA cables that you might use to connect it to your computer are apparently not available anywhere (at least according to the one star reviews). Also, apparently it's important to have a remote with it, but that's sold separately and might also not be available.

    And what is Amazon selling this discontinued product for?  $200.  So looks like a pretty good deal on Woot, right?

    I think I'm going to pass this up today, based on the cable and software issues.  Would be nice to have a little battery operated projector of course, and that price seems pretty good, but I don't want to spend a lot of time tracking down cables and dealing with other limitations.  The nice thing about Amazon's review system is that although many if not most five-star reviews for any given product are fake, the one-star through three-star reviews are generally heart-felt.

    Saturday, September 28, 2013

    Where's My Nobel Prize??

    I enjoyed Daniel Kahneman's TED Talk about the experiencing self and the remembering self.  Definitely food for thought -- i.e. when deciding what to do next, consider whether you are doing it for your "experiencing self" -- which only exists for a window of about 3 seconds at a time -- or your "remembering self" which will remember the whole event or vacation or whatever.

    But I'd never been very impressed with Kahneman and Tversky's Nobel Prize winning work. Here's a summary of what I think is their most famous experiment, followed by a summary of a somewhat-related experiment by Richard Thaler.  I lifted them both from Thayer Watkins' San Jose State Economics Department web page, although I had to fix some typos.   So the quotes are there because this is Watkins' explanation.

    "One very important result of Kahneman and Tversky's work is demonstrating that people's attitudes toward risks concerning gains may be quite different from their attitudes toward risks concerning losses. For example, when given a choice between getting $1000 with certainty or having a 50% chance of getting $2500 they may well choose the certain $1000 in preference to the uncertain chance of getting $2500 even though the mathematical expectation of the uncertain option is $1250. This is a perfectly reasonable attitude that is described as risk-aversion. But Kahneman and Tversky found that the same people when confronted with a certain loss of $1000 versus a 50% chance of no loss or a $2500 loss do often choose the risky alternative. This is called risk-seeking behavior. This is not necessarily irrational but it is important for analysts to recognize the asymmetry of human choices.

    "Peter Bernstein cites an experiment by Richard Thaler in which students were told to assume they had just won $30 and were offered a coin-flip upon which they would win or lose $9. Seventy percent of the students opted for the coin-flip. When other students were offered $30 for certain versus a coin-flip in which they got either $21 or $39 a much smaller proportion, 43%, opted for the coin-flip."

    I'll start by saying I'm glad Thaler didn't win a Nobel prize for his work.  Yes, people think he's in line for one, but we can hope if he wins it, it won't be for that study, since that study tells us nothing at all about human nature, just about how humans can be tricked with math.  In other words, the choice in both cases is exactly the same -- you get $30 to keep, with the opportunity to bet $9 on a coin flip.  The two results -- the two choices offered the subjects -- are truly identical.  The only thing the study shows is that Thaler was able to trick his subjects into thinking there was a difference, so that they preferred one option that sounded better.  That's probably useful information for marketing professionals, and other people who like to use numbers to influence the masses -- and it's useful for those of use trying to avoid being manipulated by presentation -- but it tells us nothing about human nature.  It's just another example of illogical thinking by test subjects.

    The Kahneman-Tversky study is better than the Thaler study, because unlike in Thaler's study, the subjects are being presented with a real choice, not a false choice. But neither result is surprising, and contrary to what Watkins says -- and what I presume Kahneman and Tversky said -- they are NOT asymmetrical.  In fact, if you consider these examples just after listening to Kahneman's TED talk on happiness, you'll understand why.

    Note:  I haven't gone back and looked at Kahneman's study.  Relying on Watkins for that.

    Also, I should probably doublecheck to see if my conclusion below in fact matches Kahneman's.  But no time right now.

    So the first test is:  you get $1000 in the bag or a fifty-fifty chance of winning $2500.  Here's why they chose the thousand.  When you think about it, an unexpected gift of $1000 gives you a whole lot of happy, as does an unexpected gift of $2500.  But it's not necessarily mathematically twice the happiness.  You're just unexpectedly happy.  Think back to a time when you unexpectedly got some money.  Were you twenty times happier the time you got $500 vs. the time you got $25?  No, either way, you were just happy.  But now think of the problem with the 50-50 chance.  There's a real chance -- 50% -- that you'll get nothing.  Worse, you'll get that nothing KNOWING that you could have had $1000.  That's almost like losing $1000 (which admittedly you didn't have).  But it really hurts.  So if you think about the happiness equation, the unhappiness that comes from essentially LOSING $1000 dominates your thinking and you pick the lesser value, especially since you know you'll be very happy if you get either $1000 or $2500.  Yes, if the person tells you he'll let you play 100 times, then the logical thing to do would be to pick the $2500 bet 100 times in a row.  But when it's a one shot deal, the happiness equation is very different.  So they are right to call this risk-averse behavior, and it's extremely rational behavior, if the pursuit of happiness is the subject's guiding principle, which it almost certainly is.  So no surprise here.

    Then the second test:  you get the choice between a thousand-dollar certain loss, and a 50% chance of losing $2500.  In this case, the subjects - who are not actually at risk for losing any real money - say they choose the 50% chance, which means they lose an expected value of $1250.  Watkins -- and presumably Kahneman and Tversky -- call this "risk seeking behavior" and consider it an asymmetrical result.

    But in fact, it's perfectly symmetrical.  Looking  at it again from a happiness-maximizing perspective, the subjects here are behaving very rationally (at least for test subjects, see below), just like they did the first time around.  A loss of $1000 and a loss of $2500 both inflict a whole lot of hurt.  The difference in the amount is not quantifiable.  It's really just figures on an account statement somewhere.  Or if you're poor, it's one more debt you won't be able to pay.  Either way, it hurts.  But there's one way to avoid the hurt.  And that's to take the 50-50 chance that you won't lose anything at all.  In fact, if you pick that chance, and win nothing, it will FEEL like you won a thousand dollars, since otherwise you would have suffered that thousand dollar loss.  So from a sheer happiness-maximizing perspective, the same thinking governs both kinds of behavior.

    But this does call into to question the value of studies like this -- where people are basically making decisions with play money.  In real life, I think someone would think a lot more carefully about the second choice.  A purely logical person (like me) would choose to take the thousand dollar loss, really because of the odds -- logically speaking I save $250, and I'll always be able to tell myself I did the logical thing.  For some people, the $1000 choice will be even more obvious -- a person living close to the edge might be able to handle a $1000 loss, but if it were $2500, then they'd be bankrupt -- e.g. they;d miss their car payments, the car would be repossessed, and they wouldn't have transportation to work.  For them, the $1000 choice would be all the more logical.

    Put another way, taking the $1000 hit on the second choice is the responsible and logical thing to do, and if it turns out that e.g. only 40% of people would do that in real life, that just means that 60% of the people are not acting logically.  It doesn't say anything about human nature as a whole.  And when the money is considered only in the abstract, then logic takes a holiday and, apparently, people will take the bigger risk, thinking they are maximizing their (abstract) happiness, as above.

    So where's my Nobel Prize?

    Neil Pasricha -- Making New Money Off an Old Fad

    Just watched a TED talk by Neil Pasricha, author of "The Book of Awesome," and now apparently a franchise of other related books (the book of business/holiday/etc awesome).  WTF?  how can that have worked?  To hear him tell it, he started with feeling sorry for himself -- his wife left him and a friend committed suicide -- and then he cheered himself up by writing a blog that noted little things that were awesome -- like a new line opening up at the supermarket.  At first nobody read it, then 10s, then 1000s, then millions.  Suddenly, he got an award for "Best Blog Ever" or something like that, and then he started getting offers for book contracts, and before you knew it, he had a NYT best-seller (which, incidentally, I had never heard of until now, and I see it's about 12,000 on Amazon's list).

    But all the things he was talking about sounded like the same kind of things that were in "14,000 Things to Be Happy About," which (I just checked) was first published in 1990.  It is all so old, and of course the idea of appreciating the little things in life goes back much further than that.  The author of 14,000 doesn't seem to mind -- in fact, Amazon indicates that she (Barbara Ann Kipfer) reviewed the "Awesome" book and said "The Book of Awesome gives me 14,001 things to be happy about. Bravo for taking note of the sunny side of life!"

    I have a feeling that's the way book marketing and reviewing works nowadays -- be sure to give a positive review, and make sure you're identified as "author" of a related book.  That is probably the best way to sell YOUR book, especially if it's been forgotten for many years.  Check it out: so many reviews -- especially quick one-line reviews -- are written by other authors with intriguing book titles.  It's all just more advertising.  None of it is real.  Except for the fact that the advertising works, and the result is that books on tired old themes get sold.

    The usual disclaimer:  I haven't read the book.  It gets a lot of positive reviews on Amazon, and surprisingly few negatives.  So even accounting for the fact that many if not most Amazon reviews are fake, there may well be people out there who like the book.  Maybe the difference between it and 14,000 things is that he goes into cutesy/annoying detail about some of the awesome things -- that seems to be the way to blog works.

    I have absolutely nothing against the theme of the book -- I am a great practitioner of appreciating life's little pleasures myself.  It's really the only way to live, and if you don't realize that, maybe you should buy the book.  But it's such an old concept -- I'm just expressing my astonishment that somebody can still make money off of it these days, and go on to the internet -- and onto TED -- and be treated as some kind of pioneer in the art of positive thinking.

    I suggest you go to the website ( first, and if you like it, then you can think about buying the book.

    This reminds me of my "review" of Tony Robbins's TED Talk.  If it works for you, great, buy all his stuff.  But permit me to still be a little bit annoyed.

    Thursday, September 19, 2013

    Hannah Crafts Mystery -- Two Candidates for Authorship

    Interesting piece in the New York Times today about the possible discovery of the identity of the author of "The Bondwoman's Narrative" by Hannah Crafts -- an 1850s manuscript, bought at auction in 2002 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., that seems to be a semi-autobiographical novel written by a slave who lived on and escaped from a North Carolina plantation.  Because of the novel's initial reference to the plantation owner as "Wh__r" and a later reference to him as "Wheeler," people have connected the novel to plantation owned by John Wheeler, a North Carolina politician and sometime diarist (who wrote about seeing John Wilkes Booth playing Shylock, and described Booth as "promising.").

    The original work has been confirmed to have been written on paper manufactured in the 1850s, with a goose-quill pen.  The person who exposed the Jack the Ripper diaries as a fraud has confirmed its authenticity.

    Professor Gregg Hecimovich of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has now discovered some biographical details about a slavewoman named Hannah Bond (get it?  The title of the work is "The Bondwoman's Narrative"), who lived and worked on the plantation, escaped from it disguised as a man, and at one point sheltered with a family named Crafts.

    The novel itself contains passages lifted from Dickens (Bleak House), Sir Walter Scott (Rob Roy), and other English authors.  The Wheeler plantation housed a good collection of English literature, but it's not clear that it had Bleak House.  For that, Professor H has discovered that girls from a nearby school who boarded at the plantation were required to memorize portions of Bleak House, and that this may be where Hannah got it.

    The hope now is to find something that Hannah Bond wrote and to match the handwriting.

    It's the sort of story that everybody -- including me -- wants to be true.  Hilary Mantel (author of some great books that for some reason I haven't been able to struggle through) wrote a great review of it here, and some of the above comes from her review.

    In a temporary complete shift of subject (we bloggers can do that), I'll note a great quote from Mantel's review (in discussing the way Hannah's mistress mistreats Hannah, even though they have both been victimized by the same man):  "the weak are cruel to those weaker than themselves."  I love that quote because it's something one observes again and again in daily life, and it's also a scientific fact.  I know this because Robert Sapolsky told me so in a Teaching Company lecture, in which he described giving extra testosterone to some kind of monkey or ape, in a group in which there was a defined dominance hierarchy.  When you do that, that won't cause e.g. number 2 to rebel against no. 1.  Instead, it just causes number 2 to become an even bigger jerk to number 3.

    So why am I writing about this?  I guess it's because it reminds me so much of the whole Shakespeare Cobbe Portrait thing from a few years back.  Although the only known contemporaneous portrait of Shakespeare has him looking somewhat toad-like, there is a persistent movement among certain Shakespeare scholars (including Stephen Greenblatt, of Will in the World fame, for one) to make him good-looking.  After all, he was an actor, and doubtless therefore presented himself with a certain amount of grace.

    I don't know if the "Cobbe portrait controversy" has been resolved, but the fact is, the notion that the portrait on the right is Shakespeare is not something any reasonable person should say he is "convinced" of (as famous Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells is on record as saying).  It's now been established that the painting was painted around 1610 (based on the collar).  By then, Shakespeare was 46 years old, weather-beaten, bald, and possibly suffering from syphilis.  I seriously doubt he looked like the one on the right.  But I don't know, and that's the point -- there is no way to establish the truth one way or another, so the responsible way to deal with it is to remain skeptical, but open to either possibility.

    So what does this have to do with Hannah Bond?  Only this -- there is one other possibility that nobody has mentioned, and which nobody wants to be true.  The fact that Hannah Bond sheltered with a family named Crafts is certainly one more piece of evidence that the novel came from Hannah Bond the fugitive slave.  But it can equally support another theory that fits the other known facts just as well  -- that the novel itself was written by someone from the Crafts family.   I have a feeling that nobody is going to try to track that down anytime soon, but if it turns out, e.g., that the Craft family included an educated woman with time on her hands, then perhaps we have another, somewhat less interesting, candidate for authorship of "The Bondwoman's Narrative."  And the use of the name Hannah Crafts would make perfect sense -- the work itself was a combined effort between Hannah Bond and the unknown Crafts.

    As usual (the prerogative of the busy blogger) I have not done a whole lot of research into this.  From the NYT piece:

    "The novel, Professor Hecimovich believes, had its beginnings in the Wheeler home, where Bond could have had access to the family’s library and its writing materials, including a distinctive paper that was used to connect the novel to the Wheelers."

    The NYT piece doesn't follow up on this.  I just tried to google "paper wheeler hannah crafts" and the only relevant hit that comes up is the NYT article (and the above quote); perhaps Gates says something about the paper in his published version of the book.  

    And of course, some of the paper had to come from somewhere else, if our assumption is going to be that she named herself Hannah Crafts after the Crafts family, whom she only met after leaving the Wheeler plantation.  The story apparently also recounts events that occurred after her escape from the Wheeler plantation, so it seems all the more odd to try to connect the paper itself to the Wheelers -- did she escape with a few hundred blank sheets of Wheeler paper?

    So under my alternative theory, the notion is simply that Hannah Bond escaped, and told her story to someone from the Crafts family, who essentially made a novel out of it.   The only thing in the news stories that arguably works against my theory is the "coincidence'" that there's a lot of material in the work that appears to have been "lifted" from famous works of literature that happened to be in the Wheeler library.  Of course, they were famous pieces of literature, so they could have been known to an educated person in the Crafts household as well.  And I still don't completely understand the theory of how Hannah would have written the book -- did she write some of it while on the plantation, and then take it (plus a lot of extra paper) with her when she escaped, and then finished it as the rest of her life unfolded?  Are the passages that are lifted from famous authors limited to events that occurred before she left the plantation, or do some of them appear after that?  And is there material lifted from famous works that were not in the Wheeler collection?  (it sounds like Bleak House is one example, which is why the gap had to be filled in by the boarding girls theory).

    One of the the points that is cited in favor of slave authorship is that people are described as humans before they are described as black or white.  That apparently never happened in the fake slave novels written by white abolitionists of the day.  But it's perfectly consistent with the idea that the Crafts woman got her information first-hand from a slave.

    Where does this leave us?  Only here:  If anyone cares, they should make an effort to disprove the possibility that someone in the Crafts family, with whom Hanna Bond took shelter, wrote the novel.  See if one can find handwriting samples from that Crafts family, and if none of them match, then that helps Hannah Bond's case.   But if one of them does, well, that would be interesting too.

    Update 092013 -- a little more googling and I found that there were skeptics back when the book was first introduced to the public in 2002.  At the time, John Bloom made a decent case in the National Review that the narrative could well have been written by a white woman, and that the odds that a domestic servant on the Wheeler plantation would have been able to educate themselves to an 11th-grade level made the white-woman theory more plausible than the black-slave theory.  Bloom made the additional point that it seems possible that the novel was only completed as the Civil War broke out, and that if that were the case, the reason for a white person pretending to be a black person to want to publish it would have vanished.  As always, I hasten to add that I'd be happier than most if it turns out that the novel was written by a slave woman; I'm just here to make sure that all possible theories are considered and tested.

    Sunday, September 15, 2013

    Tony Robbins's Bad TED Talk

    Apparently, I'm the only one on the Internet that thinks Tony Robbins's Jan. 2006 TED Talk was bad.  It's in the Top 20 of all time, and even if you try to google "Tony Robbins TED talk [bad/awful/painful/profanity-laced/garbage]" you just get the talk itself, or people talking about how good it was.  There are some skeptical comments on the TED site itself -- other people, like me, who he just rubs the wrong way -- but for the most part, everyone seems to love him.  As mentioned before, this was one of the things I didn't get about that book "Quiet" -- about introverts -- author Susan Cain's praise for Tony Robbins.

    If it works for some people -- and for some, it does -- that's fine.  People like me can just ignore him.

    Having written this post, I now see that it goes on and on.  If you got here by random googling and don't have much time to spare, I encourage you to scroll down to the end.  That's where the most interesting stuff is.  The stuff before is my attempt -- largely unsuccessful -- to try to even figure out what Tony's speech was about.

    It's interesting that he used to advise Bill Clinton -- I see the two of them as very much alike.  They are both people that come across to me as complete phonies, and yet they both have something of a cult following, and what's more (sad to say), despite their phoniness and self-absorption, both of them seem to be doing a lot more good for the world than I'll ever be able to do.  Sad but true.

    I listened to a set of Robbins's tapes a long time ago.  He always seemed a little sadistic to me -- just a little too happy to rub the fact that he is rich, famous, and successful in the faces of his listeners.  E.g., there was one about forcing yourself to do things you don't like to do.  Like the time he got home and was tired and there were a bunch of phone calls (presumably from people like Bill Clinton) that he had to return.  He made lemons out of lemonade by returning the calls from his hot tub.

    And when he gets bored or depressed, he just gets in his helicopter with his wife (well, his first wife, see below) and flies the helicopter on the beach at night.  Or something like that, the way I remember it.

    And he seems to grab at any passing fad. In the late 1990s, just as the stock market was ramping up to the soon-to-burst tech bubble, Robbins started teaching seminars about how to make money in the stock market.  And also, on one of his tapes, he talks about a woman who was able to win the lottery a couple of times through positive thinking.  He doesn't guarantee it will work for you, but suggests that it's really worth a try.  In other words, he was preaching "The Secret" before all those other wackos started making money off of it a few years later.  I note in this regard that Wayne Dyer did that too -- the self-help industry is always following the money.

    In the TED talk, he does make good points about the importance of passion, perseverance, and the good that comes from helping others.  And he's a great speaker -- he definitely holds your attention.

    But he is soooooooo egotistical.  When you think about it, everything is about him.  He starts off by wondering why HE is even here, doing this for free, when HIS TIME is so valuable.  HE's giving back, he says.  He then talks about what HE does -- the 50 hour immersion seminars.  He goes on to say that the sports star calls HIM when he's fallen off his game, is burning down on national TV, and needs to get back on ASAP.  People also call HIM when they have a child who is threatening suicide, and thank God, HE hasn't lost one yet.

    In the talk he draws a strange distinction -- he is not there to motivate people, he's the "why guy" -- he figures out why you do what you do.  He believes "emotion is the force of life."  Not (just) self-interest, but emotion.

    He sees two major issues in his work -- the science of achievement, and the art of contribution, and the art of fulfillment.  Ok, that sounds like three, I know.  But maybe the last two are the same.

    He rambles on a bit at first -- we live in a therapy culture where people think biography is destiny, and that they can blame the way they are brought up for everything that's wrong.  I don't know if it was an intentional paradox, but he also talks about those who were given all the love, money, support etc. as they were growing up but still ended up in rehab.  [Note:  Steven Pinker's TED talk makes the more scientific point that studies of identical twins show that our genes contain our destiny -- it really doesn't matter what you do with the kid for the first 18 years or however long you have them -- they turn out pretty much the same.  Not a particularly optimistic message, and probably not completely true either -- there's no question in my mind that the educational advantages received by the very rich -- as opposed to the disadvantages of those growing up in drug-ridden single parent homes, for instance -- make a very real difference in how a person will turn out]

    [Total aside -- I was just on Tony Robbins's website looking to see whether Al Gore was a client of his, which might suggest that Al Gore's "Supreme Court" gag during the TED Talk was staged.  I had gotten that idea by listening to Al Gore's TED Talks, in which he seems to be practically channeling Tony Robbins. And given Gore's congenital wooden-ness, it was hard to believe that he would have the presence of mind to interrupt a TED Talk like that.  I couldn't find any confirmation of the Gore-as-client theory, but I found the thing where Robbins promotes himself as a devoted family man -- father of four children.  That sounded a bit odd to me, since I remember from listening to his tapes back in the 1990s that he talked a lot about his wife and how she already had children when she married him, and how that created an "instant family."  And I see from wikipedia that he also had an illegitimate child with someone else, before his first marriage.  So really, he is the father of eight children, by/with three women, claiming fatherhood only when convenient.  I can't personally verify any of this, and I really don't care, but it sure sounds like he started up with his 2001 wife while he was still married to his 1980s and 1990s wife.  Anyway, I guess one would want to question his first wife and his first set of kids -- plus the illegitimate one -- on whether or not he's a good family man before simply accepting the statement. Google a bit and you can find a letter from him to one of his fans explaining the divorce -- he stuck with the marriage until the children had all reached maturity, and at that point, they split up, because there was no shared vision anymore.  OK, back to the speech]

    Here are some snippets:  "If you're creative enough, playful enough, fun enough, can you get through to anybody."

    Actually, I'm trying to read this transcript and I just can't follow it.  It seems to be a bunch of platitudes and partial lists strung together.  He says that "decisions shape destiny," and then he promises to tell us the three decisions that shape your destiny.  The first is clearly "what are you going to focus on?"  I can't tell  what the other two are.  Maybe "is this the end or the beginning," and maybe "Is God punishing me or rewarding me, or is this the roll of the dice?"  We are asked if we've made a decision that has resulted in something life-changing happening.  Of course we have.  As he points out, you might take a certain job, and meet a certain person there, and marry that person.  Duh.

    In the talk, he includes at least two plugs for Google.  First, he calls the founders geniuses, and asks how the world might have been different if they had decided to follow a different business model.  And later he trashes MapQuest (calling using it a "fatal mistake" and suggesting that it never gets you where you want to go), wishing that Google Maps were available on his Mac [I've never had a problem with MapQuest by the way -- in fact, for the record, I find it more user-friendly than Google Maps, although Google has some features I like].  So now his point seems to be that some people make decisions that change the world -- like the Google guys.  And Rosa Parks.  Or the student in front of the Tiananmen Square tank.

    And then he moves on to Lance Armstrong.  That's why I like watching old TED Talks.  The speakers have no idea what the future will hold.  Often they make predictions for the year I'm living in.  And sadly, the predictions aren't anywhere near accurate.  This is a bit different.  Here's what he said:

    "Or being in a position like Lance Armstrong, and someone says to you, "You've got testicular cancer." That's pretty tough for any male, especially if you ride a bike. (Laughter) You've got it in your brain; you've got it in your lungs. But what was his decision of what to focus on? Different than most people. What did it mean? It wasn't the end; it was the beginning. What am I going to do? He goes off and wins seven championships he never once won before the cancer, because he got emotional fitness, psychological strength. That's the difference in human beings that I've seen of the three million that I've been around."

    Reading it just now I don't know what he means by "different" exactly.  It sounds like he is saying that because Lance asked himself at least two of Tony's questions [is the third "what am I going to do?"], he won a bunch of championships he had never won before.  And that's what makes Lance different from others.

    I don't want to diminish Lance's accomplishments any more than he himself has done.  If all of the bikers during that time period were dopers, then it's still a pretty impressive accomplishment, as his defenders are quick to tell you.  On the other hand, if he started the doping, figured out how to do it better than anyone else, and the rest were just trying to catch up . . .  that's not so good.  And profiteering off his drug-gotten successes, and essentially becoming a source of inspiration and then disappointment for millions, was perhaps not the best example to set for our children.  Anyway, I doubt Tony uses that particular example anymore.

    And then back to Tony -- HE has worked with "three million people from 80 different countries."

    And it turns out that what shapes people is their "state" (a minute ago, I thought it was their decisions, and before that, I thought it was their emotions).

    In the lecture itself in passing he mentions that HE can teach you how to change your state.  Interestingly, that doesn't show up on the transcript. But it was another ad for HIM.

    Then he says that we are shaped by "two invisible forces."  One seems to be your "state."  Not sure what the other one is.  Possibly it's your model of the world, which shapes you long term.

    And now it's the model, not the state, that causes people to make decisions.  What influences people's world view?  Three things -- first, what's your target?  Not your desires, but your target.  You can get your desires and goals.  Target is apparently something different, and he won't tell us what.  And now we're waiting for the other two things on this list, and they don't come -- we get a new list, and it's going to be of six things -- the six human needs.  Maybe those are your target.  Or maybe they have to do with the other two things that influence people.

    Now he mentions a "second" -- once you know your target -- or needs -- you know those needs.  I think that's what he said.  But now he's on to the six needs.  The needs are certainty (you rent a video you've seen before), variety (you avoid renting a video you've seen before), significance (by earning it e.g. by making more money or changing the world, or by holding a gun to someone's head, which he points out also implicates certainty and uncertainty), connection and love (we're scared of love; get a dog), growth (get bigger and better; a spiritual need), and contribution (also a spiritual need).

    And now back to HIM.  HE was poor, someone gave HIS family a turkey on Thanksgiving, and then HE went out and did it a few years later, and then HE went out and grew companies -- HE "got 11 companies" HE "built the foundation."now HE gives out millions of turkeys.

    [update 092013 -- I keep thinking of things that annoy me about him.  He's been bragging about all the companies he started since he was about 20 years old.  I think it comes up in "Unlimited Power."  But I'm pretty sure in those days (and today) you could go to Delaware (and probably most other states) and incorporate 20 or 30 "companies" in an afternoon, if you are so inclined.  I also seem to remember him having some setbacks after incorporating those companies -- something about a business partner cheating him out of a lot of money.  I have no doubt that today he has a company with a lot of employees and good revenues etc., but he was boasting about starting companies long before he really made a go of one, and that continues to bug me]

    And then although we thought "contribution" was the "last thing" (we counted six), it turns out "emotion" is the last thing after all, even though at the outset, it seemed to be the first thing.

    Anyway, I can't say it better than he does:

    "The last thing is emotion. Now, here's what I'll tell you about emotion. There are 6,000 emotions that we all have words for in the English language, which is just a linguistic representation, right, that changes by language. But if your dominant emotions -- if I had more time, I have 20,000 people or 1,000, and I have them write down all the emotions that they experience in an average week, and I gave them as long as they needed, and on one side they write empowering emotions, the other's disempowering -- guess how many emotions people experience? Less than 12. And half of those make them feel like shit. So they got five or six good frickin' feelings, right? It's like they feel "happy, happy, excited, oh shit, frustrated, frustrated, overwhelmed, depressed." How many of you know somebody who no matter what happens finds a way to get pissed off? How many know somebody like this? (Laughter) Or, no matter what happens, they find a way to be happy or excited. How may know somebody like this? Come on."

    Ok, I don't really get the point of this, either.

    And now he mentions seven different beliefs, but admits that he's not going to tell them to us.


    He ends it with 9/11.  And here I don't want to be cynical, but this whole thing seemed fishy to me.  And sure enough, it's used as a selling point for Tony all over the Internet.

    In short, he was doing one of his workshops in Hawaii when the 9/11 attacks happened.  It was 3 am in Hawaii. There was a woman there whose previous boyfriend had been murdered, and who had just the night before decided she wanted to be with her current boyfriend after all, and she'd left him a message at his job at the World Trade Center to the effect that she loved him and would marry him.  And then while she was asleep, and the planes had hit, and he knew he was going to die, he left her a message back, which she (according to Tony) played for the crowd.  I suppose this can all be checked, because Tony said she was on Larry King later.

    [UPDATE and ASIDE 032814:  I think it's worth looking at the exact quote from Tony on this:

    "And then I went through this whole thing about, if you weren't going to get off this island, if nine days from now you were going to die, who would you call, what would you say, what would you do? One woman -- well, that night is when 9/11 happened -- one woman had come to the seminar and when she came there, her previous boyfriend had been kidnapped and murdered. Her friend, her new boyfriend, wanted to marry her, and she said no.  He said, "If you leave and go to that Hawaii thing, it's over with us." She said, "It's over.""

    [get it?  Here's this woman, in this relationship with this rich guy who wants to marry her, and she wants to go to a Tony Robbins seminar and he says you do that and it's over.  And so she goes -- choosing Tony over the boyfriend/marriage proposal.  And THEN, at the moment of truth, as smoke is filling the room and the guy knows he's going to die, he repents and decides that it was ok for her to see Tony after all. Tony's stories all seem to come back to Tony.  And the message is, even if your boyfriend girlfriend tells you you're an idiot for going to a Tony Robbins seminar, they'll still love you -- maybe even more -- in the end]

    END of UPDATE and ASIDE]]

    And there was a Muslim there -- a Pakistani guy -- who said that he was sorry but that this was "retribution."  Tony got him on stage along with others who had lost loved ones in the World Trade Center that day, and apparently talked him out of becoming a terrorist (I think that's what he is saying).  And then the guy went on to work with a Jewish guy for four years to make the world a better place, and even wrote a book, called "My Jihad, My Way of Peace."

    All very impressive.  If true, I guess I can't blame him for telling it.

    I tried to find a reference to the Pakistani guy's book online, and it mostly only shows up on Tony Robbins-related websites.  Not available at all through Amazon, not even a used copy.  The author's name is Asad Ressvi, or possibly Asad Rezzvi, and he apparently gave a TED/Karachi talk in 2010, which I have yet to watch.  Will do that soon.  [ok, now I've done it.  It's mostly another ad for Tony Robbins.  But it does seem to confirm that Asad is a real person.  Apparently he now works in the Pakistani telecom industry]

    I have no idea what this means.  It's quite possible he wrote a book, but it doesn't seem to be for sale anywhere on the internet, new or used.  If anyone has any information about this story, I'd love to hear it!  [the notes to Asad's 2010 video say that it will be published by a major New York publishing house very soon.  So he's probably just a bit of a procrastinator -- he's been telling people he's written it since before 2006, he still hasn't published it in 2010 or 2013 -- sounds like he could use a Tony Robbins seminar!  Oh, right -- Tony is just the "why guy" -- he can't provide motivation to us procrastinators]

    Oh man.  Of course people have been here before me.  According to the internet ( the woman who supposedly got the call from the man on the top of the Trade Center didn't really exist.  Although she claimed to be CEO of some kind of charity, she -- Ann de Sollar -- only had a total of six google entries in 2009, all of which pointed to the Larry King show.  I.e. she got on the Larry King show (apparently called in from NY, maybe no one saw her face), and told her story (, and then disappeared off the face of the earth.  The blogger (Steve Warran, I guess, although the capitalization of the name makes me think its not real), is pretty sure that the boyfriend -- Gary Lutnick -- didn't exist either.  But I can't quite figure out why.  It sounds like Howard Lutnick -- CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, and a major philanthropist, with connections to Denise Rich -- claims Gary for a brother, but the blogger seems to be persuaded that Gary never existed either.  I don't really understand why and don't have time to unravel it all just now [update:  it looks like the blogger might be part of the 911 "truth" movement; the title of one of his posts refers to possible controlled demolition of the WTC buildings].

    It seems pretty clear to me that Gary Lutnick did exist -- why would Howard make him up?  Here's a 2001 article in which Gary is said to have called his sister, saying he was about to die.

    Did I say Denise Rich?  Yes, the whole thing has come full-circle back to Bill Clinton (Denise of course is the ex-wife of Marc [the fugitive crook, now deceased, RIP], who got the pardon from Bill).

    And actually, Ann de Sollar probably exists too -- the blogger's problem may have been that he insisted on putting a space between "de" and "sollar."  There's an Ann Desollar-Hale living in NYC and apparently sometimes practicing as a "neuropsychologist," which to me sounds like the title someone who believes in Tony Robbins would take.  And she's written a self-published book called "Toddlers on Technology" (7 out of 7 five-star reviews, all voted "helpful," yet 2 millionth on Amazon's top seller list).  If that's the same person, she could clear this up, although the whole thing might still be traumatic for her.

    Ok, I'm stopping here.  If anyone reading this was at Tony Robbins' 9/11/01 Hawaii seminar and can shed light on all this, please leave a comment.  Did "Ann de Sollar" really play back the tape of "Gary Lutnick" about to die?  Did Pakistani Asad Rezzvi or Ressvi really get up and say it was "retribution."?  Yes, I know Tony has it all on video NOW.  The question is, did it happen THEN?

    In Asad's 2010 performance, he plays a preview of a Tony Robbins movie about the event. There is a clip of Tony announcing the attack -- which by then everybody had heard about -- and then there are clips of (apparently) Ann getting up and saying what she said (but not playing the recording), and Asad making his point about retribution.  And then clips of Tony bringing everyone together.  I guess I'll need to watch the whole movie before really judging here.

    Oh, last thing.

    Here's the quote of the message from Gary to "Ann" from the Larry King Transcript:

    GARY LUTNICK, VICTIM OF WTC: Hey, baby. It's me. I'm in the World Trade Center and -- a plane hit this building and I'm on the 104th floor and it's filling up with smoke. I love you very much, and I'm sorry that we had to go through what it is that we went through. Oh, my God. My life is probably going to end very, very shortly. I love you, baby. Bye-bye.

    And here's the way Tony gave the quote:

    "Honey, I can't tell you what this means." He said, "I don't know how to tell you this, but you gave me the greatest gift because I'm going to die." And she played the recording for us in the room. She was on Larry King later, and he said, "You're probably wondering how on Earth this could happen to you twice." And he said, "All I can say to you is, this must be God's message to you, honey. From now on, every day give your all, love your all. Don't let anything ever stop you."

    So these sound like very different quotes.  The Robbins version is a bit ambiguous -- you can't tell if it's Larry King or the boyfriend talking the way he tells it, but King doesn't say anything like that on the transcript.

    So that's that.  I'm confused.  I have a visceral distrust of Tony Robbins that only a minority on the Internet seem to share. And again, if his preachings have helped people make money, and have helped them become better people, then perhaps Tony Robbins is, on balance, a good thing.  But my suspicious nature makes me wonder how much of this 9-11 thing was made up.  He certainly botched the quote above.  And it's a bit odd that when Ann called Larry King, she didn't even mention that Gary was Howard Lutnick's brother; that would surely have been of interest to Larry.  But it would take a lot more research to really get to the bottom of this.

    Actually, just to give you a sense of how lazy I am, I haven't yet tried to watch Tony Robbins's movie, which I believe is available on-line for free (I've seen links).  Presumably Ann's playback of Gary's message was caught on video.  If so, then either (1) it matches the audio played back on Larry King, and Tony is just being wildly inaccurate when he recounts it at TED, or (2) it doesn't, and something fishier is going on.  If anyone cares enough to check this out, let me know what you find.

    UPDATE 091314:  I recently wrote a post on Tony Robbins's "fire walk" scam -- where he gets seminar attendees to walk across hot coals.  Although this may be a useful metaphor for the notion of "conquering one's fears," his followers seem to believe that they have participated in a mind-over-matter demonstration.  They haven't.

    UPDATE 120414:  I recently posted on Karen Heller's Washington Post puff piece on Tony Robbins.  It turns out most of the commenters there (reproduced in my post) have the same visceral dislike of the guy that I do.  As I thought about it, I concluded that really it's a male-female thing.  He's the ultimate alpha male (especially when he's leading his seminars) and as a result, the rest of us men resent him (or want to be like him), while the women swoon over him.  My recent post is here.

    If you've gotten this far, maybe you would be interested in my views on other matters, like free speech and Charlie Hebdo and Charlie Hebdo and Boko Haram, Sony's "The Interview, as well as my question "Why Should I be Charlie?" (featuring a hilarious clip from The Daily Show).

    Saturday, September 14, 2013

    Charitable Giving and Overhead

    Just watched Dan Pallotta's TED talk on the subject:

    He's unhappy because his AIDS ride charity got cut by its sponsors, because they had an overhead rate of 40%.  His point seems to be which would you prefer -- a bake sale that makes $71 with 5% overhead, or an organization that pulls in $71 million with 40% overhead.  And of course, after they cut him (and apparently 350 employees) and reduced overhead, the rides started pulling in a lot less.  He pointed out that someone with an MBA from Stanford is typically making about $400,000 a year after 10 years, and that's more than the CEOs of charities make.  So how are we going to "attract" all these Stanford smarties to bring their brilliance and creativity to the running of charities if we don't compete with what they would make in the private sector?

    After a while I got very tired of his sanctimonious attitude and illogical examples.  The basic problem is that I only have a certain amount of money I can spend on charity every year.  For a charity where the idea is to funnel money to a certain cause, I don't like the idea that if donate $10, only $6 goes to that cause.  If there is another cause that I value just as much, which only has 20% overhead, I'll donate to that, because then I know that more of my money goes where I want it to go.  Yes, I understand that the $4 lost to overhead in the first place goes to valuable stuff -- funding brilliant CEOs, paying for advertising, and paying the salaries of those 350 employees -- all of which will help them raise more funds from more and more people.  So in one sense, my $4 is leveraging itself by financing more fundraising -- quite possibly for every $4 I spend on overhead, they manage to reel in another $10.  If that's the case, I can pat myself on the back and say that I was actually able to effectively donate $12 by donating only $10.

    I think that's the way Pallotta is looking at it. But I don't think that's the right way to look at it, unless, of course, there's only one charity you have an interest in.  Charities don't produce anything that people buy (i.e. they don't produce products that can then be sold for a profit).  In that sense, they are only a cost, nothing more.  If everyone has only X dollars to spend on charity, then the more money that goes to overhead is just lost.  He gave statistics that suggested that charitable giving was currently 2% of GDP and that's what it has been for a long time.  Assuming that's just a constant - that's what people are willing to give, then the charities that have higher overhead are simply taking potential contributions away from the ones that don't.  In other words, in a world where the average charity overhead is 40 percent, then only 1.2% of GDP actually goes to the people who need it (i.e. the hungry people or the cancer researchers).  If the average is 10%, then 1.8% of GDP does. That's why I pick lower overhead, and why I think you should too.  If charitable spending is constant, which Pallotta's statistics seem to say that it is, the only thing we do by having the Stanford smarties take over charities is that they will lure charitable dollars from other, lower-overhead causes, essentially to pay their market-rate salaries.

    As I've said before, people who make over $400,000 a year or so are skimmers.  They are not truly creating that kind of value by their hourly work -- they are simply near a torrent of cash and are able to skim some of it off, or even employ tricks to increase or preserve the flow.  And they have to live with themselves and their consciences when making that kind of income causes them to place the interest of their company over more universal interests, like the environment or their customers.  There's no justification for paying charitable CEOs the market rate for CEOs, just as there's no justification for paying government employees (e.g. agency and department heads, or federal judges) the market rate for private sector employees.  In both cases, it's like comparing apples to oranges.

    The people who ought to be CEOs of charities are the former CEOs of big companies, who don't need to make the big bucks anymore, but want to compensate for all the damage that they might have done to the environment, or all the ways they might have cheated their customers, back when they were in the private sector.

    Anyway, Pallotta was impassioned and he got a standing ovation from the TED crown.  Maybe I missed something.

    As a taxpayer, I resent the 40% overhead crowd even more.  If someone in the 30% bracket donates $100, they can realize a $30 tax deduction.  Again, assuming that total charitable contributions are fixed, I'm sure taxpayers would rather give the deduction in a case where $80 or $90 of the $100 contribution went to charity, as opposed to merely $60.  At $60 (i.e. the 40% overhead rate), it's almost a matching system -- the government is contributing just as much to the charity as the individual. 

    Thursday, September 12, 2013

    Ann-Marie Slaughter's Accidental Insight

    Ann-Marie Slaughter has an interesting op-ed in the Washington Post today about her new position as President and Chief Executive at the "New America Foundation."  Her main point seems to be that our democracy is based on community, and that we need to do more for caregivers, teachers, etc., and give everybody a decent wage.  In other words, she's a democrat.  I don't really disagree with any of that (except to the extent it is an argument for raising the minimum wage -- as logical as that sounds, I've never heard an economist defend it), but it's hard to imagine how it will be done through government programs.  The basic problem is that our government is so corrupt and inefficient, there's not much it can do to implement policies like these.  Like ObamaCare.  Try to help people, and the result is that the taxpayers and consumers are simply giving more money to corporations.  But then, almost as an afterthought, she says:

    "Elevating care alongside competition would have implications for our foreign policy as well. It would underpin a new era of U.S. leadership, affecting where and how we work with other nations on issues of water, food, climate, poverty and the violence that rips apart everyday lives. When we looked at Syria, Egypt or any country menaced by government violence and government failure, we would see not only that government’s political allegiances and its place on the global chessboard. We would also see human beings who want the same things we do: jobs, education, a better life for their children. An uncaring foreign policy will haunt us — through the global ties of our own citizens and through the channels that transmit crime, disease, recession and other ills across borders."

    Although her primary agenda is domestic and essentially un-implementable, this paragraph makes perfect sense.  On a domestic level, the kind of "compassion" she preaches costs money and nobody has figured out a way to implement it without distorting everything else (see, e.g., welfare, ObamaCare).  But on the international plane, everything is different.  There, we really should be guided by compassion.  Instead, we tend to be guided by corporate greed.   

    I'm not talking about simply giving money to other countries to help them solve their problems -- that's never worked in the past; the money never gets to the people who need it and the problems just get worse.   I'm talking about stuff that won't cost the U.S. taxpayer any money at all.  Just become a better world citizen.  Stop letting corporations decide when we go to war and for how long.  Stop letting corporations impose our idea of protectionist capitalism (e.g., our intellectual property policies) on countries that absolutely don't need it.  

    Right now, nobody views us as a good world citizen.  We are a rich, arrogant, bumbling nation, that doesn't care one whit if tens of thousands of innocent people are killed as we level a country (Iraq) that we are going to pay our corporations (Halliburton, Bechtel -- not the corporations of the "host" country) to rebuild.   Our drones and other airstrikes routinely kill innocents.  All of this will continue to create generation after generation of terrorists, and we will never be safe, domestically or internationally.

    This is not a short-term approach.  I don't know the answer to the Syria question.  Maybe that's a question we should ask the Syrian people -- yes, they've been gassed, but how do they feel about getting bombed by the U.S. as well?  If we were to become a better world citizen -- e.g. share our technology, free from state-created intellectual property restrictions, with countries that need it most -- maybe people would come to see a new American-style compassionate capitalism as the best way to run a country, and would stop allowing dictators and other strong-men to run their countries to the ground.  Maybe the dictators themselves would start treating their citizens better; there's nothing wrong with a dictatorship if the right person is in charge.  And again, maybe it would help prevent so many places on this earth from becoming breeding grounds for anti-American terrorists.

    Warning:  Slaughter's piece is hard to get through, even though it's been condensed from an even longer article published in the Weekly Wonk.  The first page is all self-congratulatory; she clearly thinks that she and other professors are smarter than the rest of us, and could solve all of our problems if only given the chance.  The second page is merely a vague recitation of a democratic-progressive agenda.  It's only on the third page that the international point appears, and she only seems to view it as a byproduct of the rest of her vision, as opposed to an end in itself. It's unfortunate that she spent her time in the State Department before having this idea, and it's also unfortunate that she doesn't recognize her own idea for what it's worth.

    Update 09/16/13:  Recently, the DC City Council voted to require large retailers like WalMart to pay $12.50 an hour to employees, $4.25 more than the minimum wage.  And even more recently, DC Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed the bill, since it became pretty clear that WalMart would not open any DC stores under those conditions.  I'm not taking sides in this; I'm just trying to make the point that it's much more complex than Slaughter seems to think.  Yes, we can all agree that everyone SHOULD have a wage that's enough to live on.  But simply trying to legislate it will have consequences -- in this case, the really poor people of DC won't get the benefit of the lower prices that WalMart offers, and nobody will get the opportunity to work for Walmart (which many currently unemployed people would otherwise have done, even at the minimum wage).

    Monday, September 9, 2013

    Aaron Hirsh on On-Line vs. In-Person Education: A Compromise

    Aaron Hirsh's op-ed piece in today's NYT is worth reading - he makes the point that on-line education -- for all its advantages -- offers merely a binary relationship between student and teacher, whereas traditional education is triangular -- the student, the professor, and the subject matter.  He points out that underprivileged kids working only on on-line courses are more likely to drop out than such kids who actually attend classes.  His solution:  allow the on-line component to go forward, but also include sessions with the professor where the students interact directly with the professor, perhaps in a museum or on a field trip, where students can apply and further explore what they learned on-line, with the professor.

    I like that idea.  One of the "disadvantages" of the "triangular" relationship is that students often have to suffer through all of the tangents and blind alleys that other students tend to lead the professor down.  While I am for class participation -- and I think it can be an essential part of the learning process for the participant -- it often slows things down for everyone else.  On-line, the student can get his or her questions answered (by google if nothing else), and not disrupt the experience for everyone else.  And theoretically at least, watching a professor on-line can be a much more interactive experience than sitting in your seat watching the professor speak.  I.e. you have the ability to rewind for the parts where you were day-dreaming, you have the ability to pause and google around and get your questions answered in real time without disturbing everyone else.

    On-line also helps with the perennial dilemma that students face in deciding how to prepare for a class.  Yes, reading and understanding and absorbing 100 pages of material is often rewarding and certainly comes in handy in a class where the professor might cold call on you.  But in some cases, seeing the lecture first will help give you the background to attack the reading material more productively and efficiently.

    Similarly, Hirsh's idea addresses the "unprepared student" problem, i.e. the problem that students who haven't really absorbed (or done) the reading just don't get as much out of the class.  If the meetings with teachers are only relatively few and far between, and occur AFTER the student has had many on-line experiences (and presumably has read the corresponding material), then the student is much better able to make the most out of the occasional interactive experience with the professor.

    Sunday, September 8, 2013

    The Success Fallacy

    One of the most annoying kind of self-help books is the kind where the author has sought out "successful" people and asks them what made them successful.

    Often, the advice is harmless enough, because the "successful people" relate back stories that show how their success was related to hard work, persistence, integrity, creativity, willingness to take on new responsibilities, etc. etc.  There are problems with that -- if you know any truly successful people (and I consider all elected politicians to be successful people), you know that many of them got there as a result of nepotism, connections, conniving and backstabbing -- or at least benefited from those techniques along the way.  Certainly not all of them -- there are many great and successful entrepreneurs who did not need to do any of that, since they had the right product at the right time. But even in that case, there is often a pretty sizeable "luck" element along with everything else.  As I said though, it's harmless, because there's nothing wrong with telling people to work hard, treat people right, etc. etc., and certainly sometimes that does lead to a measure of success.

    But in some cases, they also say they just found and followed their passion, and now look -- they're successful.  That's what I want to focus on here, because that may well be harmful.

    I haven't read one word of Sir Ken Robinson's book "The Element -- How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything" (Amazon reviews here) but based on the reviews, it looks like it fits the latter mold -- a bunch of successful creative people, spouting anecdotes about how they became successful by doing what they liked to do.  As many of the reviewers note, the problem with this is that there are tons of creative, artistic people who simply can't make much of a living (much less contribute significantly to supporting a family) doing what they love to do.  The market is just not right for it, at least not quite yet.  The market for creative people is essentially that there are a relatively small number of people who manage to do one or two things that are quite impressive, and that these things come to the attention of the right people at the right time, and the people are from then on deemed "creative geniuses."  These people then can sell whatever they produce next, no matter how mediocre it is in fact.  And then there are a lot of other creative people who for whatever reason never come to the attention of the right people at the right time.

    So there's a huge selection bias that goes with finding successful creative people and trying to learn life lessons from them, and using THAT to encourage others to (e.g.) drop out of school and dance.  Or play baseball or basketball.  Any major league baseball or NBA basketball player will be happy to tell you about all the work that he put in as a kid to become that good.  But that sure doesn't mean that every kid could do it.  Just look around a playground -- any number of the kids there would probably love to play basketball for a living, and many of them are pretty darn good.   But hoping to follow that dream just because it's what you like to do isn't going to put food on the table, except for the lucky (and usually extremely talented) few.

    In a TED Talk a few years back -- the most popular TED talk ever, by the way -- Robinson gave a bit of a preview of his book (which came out in 2009), and explained that the problem with education today is that the whole thing is geared into churning out people who will be university professors, who, he implied, are generally useless.  But that's simply not true.  Yes, the people with the best grades often do go on to become professors, and that's because their high grades reflect the fact that their passion happens to be some particular body of knowledge, or maybe just learning generally.  They enjoy school so they do well in it.  The next tier are the more impressive ones -- the ones who don't particularly enjoy school (at least not with the same passion as the professors-to-be), but do well at it nonetheless.  These are the people that employers will want to hire -- people who are willing to do work that they don't always enjoy doing.

    The people who don't like school and as a result don't study and don't do well very rarely make good employees -- unless, at some point in their life, they learn the lessons that the people in the second tier have already learned -- that sometimes, to get ahead, you need to do things you don't enjoy doing.  Yes, some of these people are in the best position to risk everything (since they have so little to lose) to pursue a creative career (or even an entrepreneurial career), but given how many of them there are -- and how many of those end up in unsatisfying lives -- it's simply unreasonable to point to the successes, and suggest this (neglect of school) as a legitimate way to approach life.  Interestingly, people in general understand this when they think of pro basketball -- i.e. that pro basketball is a very longshot option for most kids and therefore shouldn't be one's only plan -- but some of them (e.g. Robinson) seem to think a different rule might apply to dancers.

    You can read this and simply decide that you're never going to be anyone's employee.  Good for you.  That's a decision shared by a lot of great artists and entrepreneurs, and a lot of successful people generally.  But it's also shared by a lot of losers.

    Tuesday, September 3, 2013

    Petula Dvorak Non-Sequiturs Rape, Sex, and Alcoholic Blackouts

    Yes, I am using "non-sequitur" as a verb.  I think some situations call for it.

    I'm as much against rape (in all of its ugly forms) as anybody, and I am disturbed to hear that the military court hearing the Naval Academy Rape Case allows lines of questioning of the alleged victim that would not be permitted in a civilian rape case.  That's one of Petula Dvorak's points in her column in today's Washington Post. But her main point comes through in her concluding words:

    "It's about America still not understanding the difference between consensual sex and rape.
    "The woman at the Naval Academy is not pretending to be a prude. She described for attorneys times in the past when she did want to have sex and consented to it. But the stuff those football players bragged about online — she didn’t even remember it. At that point, it’s rape.
    "Consensual sex happens between two adults who both want it.
    "Rape is about violence, domination and power.
    "It shouldn’t be that hard."

    Must be nice to get paid for writing those one-sentence paragraphs.  And must also be nice to get paid for spouting that kind of stupidity.  I bolded the problem, and put the rest there for context.  Just because she "didn't even remember it," it's rape????

    That's the whole problem with alcoholic blackouts.  The person will seem perfectly normal and will be able to hold conversations, etc.  They will presumably also be able to say "yes" or "no" to sex.  But because of the alcohol, something is happening within the brain that is preventing long-term memories from forming.  The person wakes up the next morning and (e.g.) doesn't remember how they got home the previous evening.  A large percentage of people who drink have experienced that kind of blackout, usually back when they were in college.

    Yes, a woman who is "in a blackout" (I hate that terminology, because one can only say there was a blackout the next day, when the person doesn't remember anything), may well seem drunk, since blackouts are linked to excessive drinking (although interestingly, the correlation is not perfect, according to a rather boring article on wikipedia about blackouts).  But Dvorak's conclusion -- essentially, because she was in a blackout, it's rape -- is just so wrong that it hurts.

    Her view seems to be based on the notion that when someone is drunk, they can never have consensual sex, and no matter how willing they seem to be, sex with them is rape.  But that rule is completely unworkable, since (for one thing), it requires the man to make the judgment that the woman's "yes" is not really a "yes." And more importantly, it's not the law now, and probably never will be.

    So not only has Dvorak misunderstood the science of alcoholic blackouts, but she's also misunderstood the law of rape.  Yes, rape is a horrible crime, but a false accusation of rape can have devastating consequences.  According to wikipedia, the average sentence for a rape conviction is over 11 years, and convicted rapists spend over 5 years in prison on average.  That's the reason it's not as "simple" as Dvorak seems to think it is -- society needs to be pretty darn sure ("beyond a reasonable doubt") it was rape before convicting someone.  The mere fact that the victim was in a blackout cannot be the basis for a conviction.

    Update 080915:  Just saw the following piece on CNN about a book that may be worth reading if you're interested in alcoholic blackouts:  Sarah Hepola's "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."  The CNN piece contains the following line, which (if true, which I'm sure it is) refutes Petula Dvorak's faulty reasoning:
    "The man Hepola was having sex with most likely had no idea she was in a blackout . . . ."
    The article and presumably the book confirm what I've said above -- that people in blackouts can function perfectly well, and that people encountering them have no idea that they are not forming permanent memories (how could they tell, anyway?).  To suggest that anyone who has sex with someone who is later found to have been in a blackout is a rapist (as Dvorak does) is both stupid and dangerous.