December 4, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 8:19 AM


Lessons on School Choice from Sweden (Adam Ozimek, 12/03/12, Forbes)

A recent paper by Bohlmark and Lindahl uses high quality administrative data for the entire country of Swedend for students who attended compulsary school (grades 1 through 9) from 1988 to 2009. Importantly this includes data for the period prior to the 1992 voucher reform. This allows them to control for pre-reform trends, which studies in Chile did not have, a fact that Bohlmark and Lindahl argues may have biased the results.

Sweden's voucher policy allowed easy entry of independently run private schools which any student could attend. Prior to this policy less than 1% of Sweden's students attended private schools, but by 2009 it had increased to 11%. The authors find that the higher percent of voucher students there are in a district the better students do on a variety of outcomes. They find a a positive effect on test scores, compulsary school grades, choosing an academic high-school track, high-school grades, probability of attending college, and average education by age 24. The study is impressive in it's scope of data, especially in tracking later outcome variables.

Importantly, they find that the primary way that competition effects outcomes is by improving the performance of the nearby public schools, and not by outperforming the public schools.

Posted by orrinj at 8:07 AM


A tax we could learn to love (David Frum, 12/03/12, CNN)

Take three worrying long-term challenges: climate change, the weak economic recovery, and America's chronic budget deficits. Combine them into one. And suddenly three tough problems become one attractive solution.

Tax carbon. A tax of $20 a ton, rising at a rate of 4% per year, would over the next decade raise $1.5 trillion, according to an important new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That $1.5 trillion is almost twice as much as would be recouped to the Treasury by allowing the expiration of all Bush-era tax cuts for upper-income taxpayers.

The revenues from a carbon tax could be used to reduce the deficit while also extending new forms of payroll tax relief to middle-class families, thus supporting middle-class family incomes.

Meanwhile, the shock of slowly but steadily rising prices for fuel and electricity would drive economic changes that would accelerate U.S. economic growth.

The average age of U.S. cars and trucks has reached nearly 11 years, a record.

Millions of Americans want new cars. They are waiting for market signals as to what car to buy. They want to know that if they choose a fuel-efficient vehicle, they won't feel silly three years from now when their neighbor roars past them in a monster truck because gas has plunged back to $2 a gallon.

Mr. Frum's hilariously obtuse memoir fretted that W was directionless until 9-11, not recognizing that taxes on income and investments were being reduced, vouchers brought to education and housing, market mechanisms to health, and the push was on for personal accounts in public retirement.

Posted by orrinj at 12:54 AM


'I Pretty Much Wanted to Die' : The origins of Lost, as told by the people who made it, in an exclusive first serial excerpt from The Revolution Was Televised (Alan Sepinwall, November 26, 2012, Grantland)

In the summer of 2003, Lloyd Braun was in the middle of a rocky tenure as chairman of ABC Entertainment. A few years earlier, ABC had geared its entire primetime schedule around the hit game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, in the process making it impossible to grow new scripted hits; the Millionaire phenomenon inevitably fizzled, and the network was still recovering.

On vacation with his family in Hawaii, Braun watched his network's broadcast of the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, then went down to the beach to watch the sunset and meet up with his wife and kids. As he waited, he began pondering the idea of doing Cast Away as a TV show, but couldn't figure out how to make it work with only one actor and one volleyball.

"And then the notion of Survivor popped into my head," recalls Braun. "I don't know why. And I put it all together: What if there was a plane that crashed and a dozen people survived, and nobody knew each other. Your past was almost irrelevant. You could reinvent who you were. You had to figure out -- how do you survive? What do you use for shelter, for water? Is it like Lord of the Flies? How do we get off the island, how do you get home? And I start to get very excited about the idea, and I start thinking about the title Lost."

Braun had liked the name ever since he saw it attached to a short-lived NBC reality show, and kept it filed away in his head, waiting for the right idea to pair it with. Now, he had that idea -- and not much more.

He returned to the mainland and headed to an ABC corporate retreat, where executives had been instructed to pitch one series idea. Braun had another one all ready to go, but as he sat there waiting for his turn, "I was thinking of the original idea and thought it was lame. So I said, 'To hell with this, I'll pitch Lost,' knowing it was probably too high-concept for the room. And I did pitch it, and it was dead silent after I pitched it."

The only executive who showed any interest was Braun's head of drama development, Thom Sherman, and the two resolved to make it "our little baby," as Braun puts it, for that development season. Others were aware of it, but no one understood why their bosses were so obsessed with it.

Sherman hired a writer named Jeffrey Lieber, and as Lieber worked, Braun became infamous around the ABC offices for hovering over the idea's progress: "All year long, it's starting to become a running joke: All I'm asking about is this project."

Braun got a pile of pilot scripts from that year's development batch around Christmas, and quickly thumbed through looking for Lieber's. He found the first danger sign on the cover page: Lieber had changed the title to Nowhere. As for the script itself, Braun's gentle in saying that it "did not live up to my expectations, and I felt, in fact, fell prey to many of the concerns that many people had when they first heard the idea. I was very disappointed."

Given how late they were into the development season (which typically takes 8 or 9 months from summer to early spring), Sherman suggested they shelve the idea and try again next year.

"I said, 'Thom, there's no next year for us,'" says Braun, who knew the kind of thin ice he was on thanks to the network's recent performance. "At that point, it was clear to me that I didn't think any of us were going to be surviving. This was the time to take a shot at a show like this."

Lieber was out,1 and Braun turned to the one writer he suspected could do something with this on such short notice: J.J. Abrams.

Posted by orrinj at 12:50 AM


The Coldscape (Nicola Twilley, Fall 2012, Cabinet)
More than three-quarters of the food consumed in the United States today is processed, packaged, shipped, stored, and sold under artificial refrigeration. The shiny, humming stainless steel box in your kitchen is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak--a tiny fragment of the vast global network of temperature-controlled storage and distribution warehouses cumulatively capable of hosting uncounted billions of cubic feet of chilled flesh, fish, or fruit. Add to that an equally vast and immeasurable volume of thermally controlled space in the form of shipping containers, wine cellars, floating fish factories, international seed banks, meat-aging lockers, and livestock semen storage, and it becomes clear that the evolving architecture of coldspace is as ubiquitous as it is varied, as essential as it is overlooked.

J. M. Gorrie, a Florida doctor, was awarded the first US patent for mechanical refrigeration in 1851, with a device intended to cool cities rather than popsicles. Held back by heavy opposition led by the powerful natural-ice trade, not to mention the technical challenges that made early coldspaces risky as well as expensive propositions, artificial refrigeration for food only snowballed in the first half of the twentieth century, alongside the invention of plastic wrap and the introduction of self-serve supermarkets. Its story is central to every aspect of our national postwar narrative: the widespread entry of women into the workforce, the rise of suburban living, and the reshaping of the American landscape by the automobile. Gradually, at first, but now completely, in the United States--the first refrigerated nation--and then beyond, a network of artificially chilled warehouses, cabinets, and reefer fleets have elided place and time, reshaping both markets and cities with the promise of a more rational food supply and an end to decay, waste, and disease. 

Despite the efforts of industry bodies, government agencies, and industrial archaeologists, this vast, distributed artificial winter that has reshaped our entire food system remains, for the most part, unmapped. What's more, the varied forms of these cold spaces remain a mystery to most. This guide provides an introduction to a handful of the strange spatial typologies found within the "cold chain," that linked network of atmospheric regulation on which our entire way of life depends.

These are spaces in which a perpetual winter has distorted or erased seasonality; spaces that are located within an energy-intensive geography of previously unimaginable distance--both mental and physical--between producers and consumers. Artificial refrigeration has reconfigured the contents of our plates and the shape of our cities--it has even contributed to the overthrow of governments, as anyone familiar with the rise and fall of United Fruit can attest. Perhaps most bizarrely, although their variations in form reflect the particular requirements of the perishable product they host, coldspaces have, in turn, redesigned food itself, both in terms of the selective breeding that favors cold-tolerance over taste and the more fundamental transition from food as daily nourishment to food as global commodity.

Welcome to the coldscape: the unobtrusive architecture of man's unending struggle against time, distance, and entropy itself.

Posted by orrinj at 12:29 AM


Happy the Man : Dana Gioia has the courage of his contentment (JAMES GARDNER, 11/19/12, Weekly Standard)

As contemporary poets go, Dana Gioia is a classicist. In his new collection of poems, his voice, well-modulated and never shrill, falls effortlessly into the rhythms of iambic pentameter, and occasionally into rhyme, as he explores emotions that are none the weaker for being held so fastidiously in check. Gioia, who is also a librettist and translator of Seneca's Hercules Furens, is distinguished among his contemporaries for the striking clarity of his diction: Disavowing the morbid self-referentiality of so many of today's poets, he has written poems that can usually be understood at the first approach. And, lest there be any risk of inclarity, he has the decency to provide, where needed, brief explanatory notes at the end of the volume.

To praise his clarity may not sound like much of a recommendation, but it is. Though thoroughly alive to the complexities of life--a subject that occupies his poetry as much as it does that of his contemporaries--Gioia is nevertheless so confident in the force of his message that he rarely resorts to those diversions and obscurities by which many of his contemporaries contrive not so much to conceal what they have to say as to conceal how little they have to say in the first place.

That is not the only respect in which he stands as something of an anomaly among his contemporaries. Although I would not presume to characterize his politics, I observe that he served honorably as head of the National Endowment for the Arts under George W. Bush; that--as mentioned--he writes admirably in iambic pentameter; and that his poems have appeared in the New Criter-ion and the American Arts Quarterly, two publications associated with the cultural right. Furthermore, he has worked unapologetically in corporate America, as a marketing executive at General Foods. It was only at the age of 40, two decades ago, that Gioia took up writing as a fulltime career.

And yet, as everyone knows, poets are supposed to hew to the left. True, Coleridge and Wordsworth started out as ardent defenders of the French Revolution only to end up as Tories, and e. e. cummings was more of a Republican than most of his admirers realize. But that was long ago. For the past few generations, the poetic establishment, like Hollywood, has been largely inhospitable to anyone on the right.

None of the great ones--Frost, Pound, Eliot, Hill, etc.--are of the Left.
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Posted by orrinj at 12:15 AM


As Supersymmetry Fails Tests, Physicists Seek New Ideas (Natalie Wolchover, November 20, 2012, Simons Foundation)

As a young theorist in Moscow in 1982, Mikhail Shifman became enthralled with an elegant new theory called supersymmetry that attempted to incorporate the known elementary particles into a more complete inventory of the universe.

"My papers from that time really radiate enthusiasm," said Shifman, now a 63-year-old professor at the University of Minnesota. Over the decades, he and thousands of other physicists developed the supersymmetry hypothesis, confident that experiments would confirm it. "But nature apparently doesn't want it," he said. "At least not in its original simple form."

With the world's largest supercollider unable to find any of the particles the theory says must exist, Shifman is joining a growing chorus of researchers urging their peers to change course.

In an essay posted last month on the physics website, Shifman called on his colleagues to abandon the path of "developing contrived baroque-like aesthetically unappealing modifications" of supersymmetry to get around the fact that more straightforward versions of the theory have failed experimental tests.