Thursday, December 20, 2012

A year in the Midwest

Picture by Dori
I've been in the Midwest just over a year and it is starting to feel a lot like home. It is a difficult place to describe to outsiders, not least because the Midwest really doesn't exist as any kind of real place. It is more of a story that people like to tell about this part of the world.

I wish it were not so, after all I am the Midwest Correspondent. But increasingly I wonder whether I might as well be the Santa Claus correspondent because the place that is the Midwest does not actually exist--although it probably ought to.

The reality is that the Midwest is a loose collection of states, some of which are very different, which are all trying to compete with each other and steal each others jobs and businesses. It is a shame that they can't work together to get ahead in a world that is changing very quickly. I hope to write about this more in the new year.

Here is a round-up of my activity over the last few months. Most recently I was in Lansing, Michigan recently, for the protests against the new right-to-work laws. About 10,000 union workers and their families and supporters turned up to protest (in vain) against the new laws. I also appeared at the World In..2013 festival. I chaired a few sessions, the briefest of which was particularly memorable with Will Tracy of The Onion. His predictions for 2013 can be seen here.

Your Christmas reading list might include these recent pieces:

Not what it used to be (American higher education) - American universities represent declining value for money to their students. Dec 1st 2012 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

ON THE face of it, American higher education is still in rude health. In worldwide rankings more than half of the top 100 universities, and eight of the top ten, are American. The scientific output of American institutions is unparalleled. They produce most of the world’s Nobel laureates and scientific papers. Moreover college graduates, on average, still earn far more and receive better benefits than those who do not have a degree. [More...]


Homeschooling - Who needs teachers? Dec 22nd 2012 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

"Every morning five-year-old Tristan starts his school day by reading in bed with his mother. He especially likes Enid Blyton. And even though he often doesn’t bother to get out of his pyjamas in time for his first class of the day, at the age of five he has a reading age of between seven and eight." [More...]


MOOCs (contributing author) - Online courses are transforming higher education, creating new opportunities for the best and huge problems for the rest Dec 22nd 2012 | CHICAGO, LONDON AND NEW YORK | from the print edition

TOP-QUALITY teaching, stringent admissions criteria and impressive qualifications allow the world’s best universities to charge mega-fees: over $50,000 for a year of undergraduate study at Harvard. Less exalted providers have boomed too, with a similar model that sells seminars, lectures, exams and a “salad days” social life in a single bundle. Now online provision is transforming higher education, giving the best universities a chance to widen their catch, opening new opportunities for the agile, and threatening doom for the laggard and mediocre. [More...]


Michigan’s right-to-work laws
Anti-union legislation in the home of the car industry, Dec 15th 2012 | LANSING | from the print edition NO SELF-RESPECTING Midwestern capitol has been untouched of late by an angry crew of drum-banging, sign-waving union workers shouting at lawmakers. The cause of all this aggravation is a wave of recent union-curbing legislation that has torn through states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and, this week, Michigan. [More...]


Energy & battery industry in Chicago - Will the city’s new energy industry thrive? Dec 8th 2012 | CHICAGO | from the print edition THESE days any self-respecting city desires a cluster—something that has nothing to do with breakfast cereal, but lots to do with whizzy ideas and bits of silicon. These concentrations of like-minded firms can attract a lot of investment, but are hard to create from scratch. In late November Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, announced that he has assembled the ingredients for a cluster of companies specialising in electric vehicles and batteries. [More..]


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sugru hack of the century?

My iphone gets pretty heavy use as a journalist and had developed a small single crack--just from being dropped so regularly. Then last week the baby turned a minor problem into a total disaster. Without any warning he hurled the entire phone onto the concrete floor of Whole Foods Market. 
Duct tape (gaffa tape) worked well to hold it together for a few days, but then I hit upon the solution!

If you have never heard of the 'hack things better' compound Sugru then you need to know about this absolutely awesome stuff. (Particularly if you have children who break things like headphones and dinosaurs. All of which can be fixed with a blob of sugru.) The purple sugru was mixed with three mini packs (blue, red, white). It happened to be what I had in the house, rather than a desire for this shade of lilac. The textured surface was created with a paper towel and a leather iphone case.

Friday, November 09, 2012

"Clusterfuck" 2012

During the campaign this year I must be honest and say it was often impossible to know where downright denial ends and total BS begins. Clearly if one is to win, it is necessary to be optimistic and talk up one's chances. But there are limits.

A case in point. Despite the Romney campaign boasting about its epic get out the vote (GOTV) efforts, it seems the entire thing was a total disaster (and predictably so). Watch this fascinating clip, just prior to the election on PBS Newshour. The Romney campaign boasts about its historic GOTV technology. Then laugh like a drain. Romney's Orca project fell over spectacularly.....

It was an "unmitigated disaster" says one supporter, The Ace of Spaces. More fascinating still are the 600 comments to his post which explain how 30,000 of the most active Romney volunteers were wandering around confused and frustrated on election day.

One writes "the bitter irony of this entire endevour was that a supposedly small government candidate gutted the local structure of GOTV efforts in favour of a centralised, faceless organisation in a far off place (in this case their Boston headquarters). Wrap your head around that". 
Another writes, "I'd say this was a world class clusterfuck. That's a technical term, btw."

 And another, "In the most GOP precinct in my city. Voted at 6AM. Got phone calls all day reminding me to vote. Got the last call at 6:59PM. The polls closed at 7PM. Clusterfuck."

Presumably all the bragging about superior technology was designed to keep the donors happy. If so, this is not the only area in which Republicans have been fleeced according to a clip from Morning Joe, where the conservative columnist David Frum explains how Republicans have been fleeced and exploited and lied to by a conservative entertainment complex.

That is a pretty big idea by itself. In other words that by insulating itself from the mainstream media and within an ecosystem that is little more than a conservative echo-chamber, that the right was unable to see what was really coming or have any real context. (We saw some of this in attacks on the statistician Nate Silver.)

It is one thing to ask whether, after all the money that has been spent, it was wasted given that a campaign has lost. There will always be a sense of money wasted on the losing side. But it is quite another to have a creeping concern that the right-wing media, political consultants, and contractors have had one priority alone: to milk Obama terror for all it is worth. 

Machine politics

Both political campaigns this year have been heavily involved in data analysis. I wrote about this in January in an article for The Economist. Just prior to the election we published a follow up piece. It rather hedged the question of which side had the R&D advantage, although hesitantly suggested that Mr Obama did. Subsequent to the election, I think it has become fairly clear (through leaks to the press) that Mr Romney was never able to even come close to the level of technical sophistication that Mr Obama could muster and given the timescale available to them were forced to buy solutions in from contractors.

Of course the big question now is what happens next to the organisation Obama for America, and the systems, that were built to do one thing: re-elect President Obama. But in the last few minutes, Jeremy Bird, the national field director, has told Obama's army that they are not retiring but resting up for the next battle. "You helped this country stay the course. Enjoy this victory for now and rest up. There will be more work to come. Stay tuned."

Mr Obama has created what must be the largest political organisation in history. It was able to make 125m personal contacts with voters (phone calls and door knocks) in a few days prior to the election. And this army will be re-tasked. But with the next presidential election not for another four years, what task could this army possibly address?

The next elections in the US are actually on November 4th, 2014. During the mid-term elections all 435 seats in the US House of Representatives will be fought over (as well as a number of Senate seats and governorships). Is it too much to speculate that Mr Bird has just fired the starting gun for 2014?

The cyber war 

Deus ex machina 

Voters are being targeted in new and powerful ways 

Nov 3rd 2012 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

 THE scene could be in Tampa, or Santa Barbara, or Chicago. Mr and Mrs Sixpack are relaxing after dinner with their iPads. Each is looking at the same news website, but each will be shown different political advertising. He sees something about naval bases, from the Romney camp; she sees a post about the president’s environmental record. This is a new trick. Behind this year’s digital campaigns—whether through e-mail, social networks, apps or web advertising—lies an enormous body of data that have been integrated for the first time. [More...]

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Mayor's Halloween dilemma

Last Halloween I toured our local Chicago streets with pint-sized, sugared-up spider-man in an anorak. We came across Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home--which is close to where we live. Alas, Mayor Emanuel's modest candy bowl, set on a stand outside his house, was empty except for a small apologetic sign held in a skeletal hand.

But it was in New York, last year, that the true Halloween horror was unfolding. Mayor Bloomberg had shocked the locals by giving out miniature candy bars (as normal mortals do at Halloween). This was a marked break with his tradition, as he was known for giving out full-sized bars. (The NYT reported this last year).

Presumably in the spirit of his new soda legislation, banning full-sized soda in the city, he felt unable to continue with such obesogenic largess. This year one imagines he must face a dilemma. His citizens have just been traumatized by a hurricane. Eight-hundred thousand are without power. But if he hands out full-sized candy to cheer up the children then he will be a hypocrite. And if he doesn't he'll be a meanie. Ah, the great dilemmas of public office.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tiger, tiger

Kirsten Conrad writes in a recent edition of Tropical Conservation Science that a ban in the trade of elephant, rhino and tiger parts have created a “perfect storm” that are combining to accelerate the demise of these species. These forces include inelasticity of demand (i.e. you don't want less of something as it becomes more expensive), a high profit potential, a long history of trade (both legal and illegal), ambiguous property rights, negative economic incentives for conservation due to human-animal conflict and inadequate enforcement.

Banning the trade in a species can work, but sometimes it does not. Whether it will work will depend on a host of factors, such as whether the species is easy to access, how much it is worth, how corrupt the police are, whether the species occurs on land or on sea, and whether there are equivalent substitutes. Yet we continue to believe that when a species has had its trade banned at CITES then the problem is solved. CITES is 40 next year. We need to do better.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Winning the swing...

I have just returned from a few days in Wisconsin where I had the opportunity to meet some of the Republicans who are hoping to swing the state from blue to red. Its an interesting story. Wisconsin has voted Democrat in presidential elections for years but the margins in some recent elections have led Republicans to think that the state might be winnable.

Indeed Wisconsin was targeted in the 2004 election--as is mentioned in the fascinating book by The Victory Lab: the secret science of winning campaigns, by Sasha Issenberg. The book records how Republicans were faster on the uptake with the new science of microtargetting and this meant they could seek out Republican voters, or persuadable voters, in states that had formerly been assumed to be Democratic strongholds. Republicans still lost in 2004 but only by 0.4%, a tiny margin. Being able to find, and speak to, pockets of potential voters is now standard practice.

Of course in 2008, Mr Obama returned with an enormous majority in Wisconsin. But Republicans would like to think that much of this was down to his "celebrity" factor. And they are hoping that it has since vanished after four years in power. But I was in Madison on October 4th and caught an Obama rally with around 30,000. Clearly Mr Obama can count on huge support in cities like Madison and Milwaukee, particularly among the young. The question is, as ever, in a close race which side can pick off enough voters in the suburbs with their targeting techniques--which are undoubtedly even more advanced than they used to be. 

One of the most humbling things about the content of the Issenberg book is really the extent to which the science of what the campaigns do is actually so crucial and so unknowable. And much of what political journalists are writing about (myself included), the strategies, the targets, the choices politicians make to go to different places, are really just stabs in the dark at what the underlying real story might be. The campaign playbook is increasingly difficult to know with any accuracy because it will be data driven.

What campaigns do these days is increasingly based on evidence--evidence that we will not see during the campaign, and may not even know about for some time afterwards. After the 2004 election, some of those involved in the emerging science of micro targeting lied (or perhaps better to say mislead) about what they had done simply so that the other side would not figure out what they had done.

The other intriguing thing about this Issenberg book is that it shows how the internal campaign gurus of the old days, those that had a good story about what worked but no real evidence, were eventually replaced by hard data and it strikes me that the same revolution has not happened in journalism. We interpret the world, and the narratives we see, based on gut instinct and (for those who have been in the business for a long time) about what happened in previous elections.

For example, we journalists often moan about how campaign advertising has turned so negative. And we editorialise that this turns voters off--based on what we presume must be the more uplifting truth about humanity. Behind the scenes, though, negative campaigning is not some random decision made by some desperate campaign munchkin. There will be evidential support (support that journalists have never seen) which shows how many people are likely to be won, or lost, by a particular type of advertising. For heaven's sake, they've been testing messages since Kennedy had to decide whether to talk about his faith or not.

But we journalists think we know better, and we find a few real people willing to say that campaigns are more negative than they used to be and that it has turned them off politics. As if a couple of self-selected data points actually tells us anything about what is really going on, and when perhaps the story is that psychologists know negative messages work and political scientists can measure within fractions of a percent how many voters are won over. But we journalists do not have the data, so we prefer to write unflattering stories about campaigns... rather than unflattering stories about the flawed human beings that are being targeted.

Another point is that journalists are pretty upset that campaigns will rarely give on-the-record interviews but will is increasingly insisting on after-the-fact quote approval. Journalists assume that this is down to the fact that campaigns being overly cautious about gaffes. I don't wish to approve of the concept of after-the-fact quote approval but I do wonder that the reason campaigns insist on them is because an off-key message can have measurable effects these days.

All of this leads me to the uncomfortable conclusion that despite all our clever words we know far less about campaigns than we used to, than we ought to, and far less about the electorate than those inside the campaign themselves.  (See also this story from earlier this year.) Of course we have to string a story together about why one side is winning or losing, according to this poll or another. And after the fact we have to write about why one side has won or lost. But the more I learn about campaigns, the more I wonder whether journalists know a damn thing about what is really going on.

The swing states: Wisconsin 

Crossing the line 

A traditionally Democratic state is within Republican reach 

Oct 13th 2012 | from the print edition

PITY the confused inhabitants of Wisconsin. In June their Republican governor, Scott Walker, saw off an attempt to “recall” (ie, sack) him with the message that a new economic dawn had arrived. Now that a general election is under way, Republicans have made a hasty correction. Wisconsin’s economy is now struggling, thanks to the Democratic president. That is all politics as usual, of course, and local Democrats have undergone their own mirror-image conversion. But both parties sense they face a real fight for Wisconsin’s ten electoral-college votes. [More...]

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bridges of Wayne county

Everyone loves a good fight, so this story about the battle over a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor is irresistible fun. I spent a few days in Michigan last month, more stories to come when the election season is over. The picture here is taken of the existing Ambassador bridge from the Windsor side.


They aren’t building that 

Michigan is getting a swanky new international bridge. Canada is paying

Sep 29th 2012 | DETROIT | from the print edition

THE governor of Michigan, Republican Rick Snyder, will happily admit to being “one tough nerd”. The former accountant needs to be, as he has been waging a battle to push ahead with a new bridge between the United States and Canada. Called the New International Trade Crossing (NITC), it will connect Detroit and the town of Windsor in Ontario. [More...]

Friday, September 21, 2012

Unions and the election

With friends like these…

Republicans are getting tougher on unions. But so, too, are Democrats

DELORES BOWIE and Audra Traynham, members of the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, work as caretakers in office buildings in Philadelphia, the largest city in Pennsylvania, a pivotal swing state. But on this Tuesday, 50 days before the election, they are knocking on doors in South Philadelphia to register people to vote and to remind them, as they put it, why “we need to keep Obama”. A week before the election, the two women will send postcards to everyone they canvassed reminding them to vote. [More...]

The teachers' strike in Chicago

Fighting irrelevance with fire

Sep 14th 2012, 18:39 by N.L. | CHICAGO--ONLINE ONLY

IMPROVING America’s schools is no easy task, but in recent years the school-reform movement has made great strides and there is growing agreement about what it takes to make a great school. The tired arguments of the past are finally being put to rest. Much as we would like to say that the key is something simple like charters, or smaller classes, or different testing, or fewer mediocre teachers, or more motivated parents, or less poverty, in fact there is no silver bullet. A system this stagnant requires changes on many levels.

The boffins at the Urban Education Institute (UEI) in Chicago have written an exemplary book on school improvement. They looked at 100 elementary schools that showed progress in attendance and test scores over a seven-year period, and 100 others that did not. They argue—with quantitative data—that five essential pillars are needed to build a great school. These are: effective school leadership, collaborative teachers (with committed staff and professional development), parent-community ties, a student-centered (and safe) learning climate with high expectations, and ambitious and demanding instruction.

The teachers in UEI's home city of Chicago are striking, leaving 350,000 children out of class. The unions say they only want the best outcome for the students. But this cannot be true. This is because their demands (to have a role in the hiring and firing of teachers and to weaken or delay plans for improved teacher assessment) essentially kick away at two of the UEI's five essential pillars for great schools. [MORE...]

Zero sum games

Chicago’s schools

Zero sum games

A politically embarrassing strike

THE arguments had been rumbling on for months. But negotiations between the city of Chicago and its teachers’ union finally came to an end on September 9th. Just a week after the city’s children returned from their long summer break, their teachers began their first strike in Chicago for 25 years. About 25,000 teachers have stopped work, keeping 350,000 pupils out of school.

The mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is now in an unenviable position. Improving Chicago’s disastrous school system, where four in ten children fail to graduate, is one of his main priorities. In negotiations over a new contract for teachers, his demands have been reasonable. He wants the school day lengthened to seven hours for elementary children, for teachers to work 38 weeks a year, and to be able to introduce differentiated pay. This is a mix of performance-based pay and extra pay for working in jobs that are hard to fill and for taking leadership roles. In return for all this, teachers have been offered an average salary increase of 16%, costing $320m over the next four years. Which, given the state of city finances and a deficit in the school system of $1 billion, will be a squeeze. [More...]

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Winning women

The campaign 

Battle of the sexes 

The tussle for women’s votes is a defining feature of the election race 

Sep 15th 2012 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

THE signs of battle have been apparent for much of the year. First, a flurry when a candidate’s wife was described as having “never worked a day in her life”; then a storm when a student was called a “slut” for saying her health-care plan should include free contraception; and finally the arrival of new phrases in the political lexicon such as “legitimate rape” and “mandatory transvaginal ultrasound”.

In some ways the bitter battle over women voters should come as no surprise. In 2008 Barack Obama won the female vote by 13 points (56%-43%). His opponent this time round, Mitt Romney, needs to do much better than John McCain if he wants to win. Women outnumber men at the polls (by 10m at the last election), turn out to vote in higher percentages (60% versus 56% in 2008), and tend to vote Democratic. Mr Obama’s comfortable edge with women is still apparent, but looks a bit weaker now (53%-43%, according to our YouGov poll). Moreover, Mr Romney’s edge with men is eroding either all, or most, of this lead, depending on the poll. [More...]

School's out...

Chicago’s schools
Zero sum games 

A politically embarrassing strike

Sep 15th 2012 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

THE arguments had been rumbling on for months. But negotiations between the city of Chicago and its teachers’ union finally came to an end on September 9th. Just a week after the city’s children returned from their long summer break, their teachers began their first strike in Chicago for 25 years. About 25,000 teachers have stopped work, keeping 350,000 pupils out of school.

The mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is now in an unenviable position. Improving Chicago’s disastrous school system, where four in ten children fail to graduate, is one of his main priorities. In negotiations over a new contract for teachers, his demands have been reasonable. He wants the school day lengthened to seven hours for elementary children, for teachers to work 38 weeks a year, and to be able to introduce differentiated pay. This is a mix of performance-based pay and extra pay for working in jobs that are hard to fill and for taking leadership roles. In return for all this, teachers have been offered an average salary increase of 16%, costing $320m over the next four years. Which, given the state of city finances and a deficit in the school system of $1 billion, will be a squeeze.

Over the past eight years Chicago teachers have done well, securing raises averaging 7% a year with no changes to their terms. The main sticking points now are teacher evaluations, compensation and the rehiring of teachers who have been laid off. These last two issues are the most significant hurdles (Mr Emanuel would like schools to be able to hire the best teachers, not the most recently-fired ones). But to keep the strike legal, the unions must insist that it is about nothing more than pay and benefits. [More...]

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Two wheels good...

Transport in cities 

Vive la révolution 

A cycling renaissance is taking place in America

Sep 8th 2012 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

MORE and more Americans are taking to the road on two wheels. Between 1977 and 2009 the total number of annual bike trips more than tripled, while the bike’s share of all trips rose from 0.6% to 1%. Commuting cyclists have also increased in number, with twice as many biking to work in 2009 as in 2000

Cities are increasingly vying to be bike friendly. Among them, Chicago wants to become the most cycle-friendly large city in the country—and has said it will build over 30 miles of protected cycle lanes this year. At the moment it ranks fifth, according to Bicycling magazine. Ahead of it are Washington, DC, Boulder, Colorado, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon. And cycling is growing fast in all these cities, as it is in New York and San Francisco. [More...]

Monday, September 10, 2012

Wikipedia wars and the 2012 election

Short  but interesting: Paul Ryan's Wikipedia page has faced such severe "edit warring" that as of September 8th, it appears it has been necessary to bar edits from everyone but administrators. This level of protection (indicated by a gold lock on the Wikipedia website) is a fairly unusual state of affairs a spokesperson at Wikipedia says, but is unlikely to be permanent.

Surprisingly, pages on Obama, Biden and Romney have a lower level of protection (silver lock on website)--although Mr Ryan is a relatively new arrival on the ticket so one might expect a flurry of attention to his page. The Atlantic has a nice piece about the edit wars on the page.

At any given time on Wikipedia about 1,000 to 1,500 pages have some level of protection. 

A quick look at the history suggests arguments over various things including this paragraph:

"On August 13, 2012, Ryan denied profiting from information gleaned from the meeting on 18 September 2008 when Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, then treasury secretary Hank Paulson and others outlined their fears for the banking sector. His office said he had no control over the trades."

And, briefly, for I am writing this at great speed. It appears there is a disagreement over this paragraph which describes how well Ryan's speech was received. If my reading of the Wikipedia page history is correct, this paragraph has been inserted and removed a number of times.

"The speech was well received by the convention audience and praised for being well-delivered,[181][182] and it was also criticized as being misleading on multiple points by the Washington Post, the New York Times,[183] the Associated Press,[184] and,[185] and by individual opinion writers at many other media outlets.[186][187][188]"

Monday, August 13, 2012

The balance trap

Blog for Democracy in America...

Aug 8th 2012, 21:05 by N.L. | CHICAGO

FOR all the scrutiny journalists heap upon others, it is remarkable how little attention we pay to our own craft. But it is difficult, and downright awkward, to criticise one's colleagues. And the whipper-snapper down the hall who cannot string two sentences together may be your boss one day. So the most forthright criticism of the press is often performed by outsiders.

One of those external critics is Barack Obama. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times reports that the president is frustrated by the fourth estate. But Mr Obama has a point. According to the Times, he has complained about the press's focus on political point-scoring and, more interestingly, of “false balance”, or how reporters give equal weight to both sides of an argument even when one side is factually incorrect.

Many assume that balance is a key element of good journalism. Fresh-faced journalism students often arrive with the dewy-eyed aims of pursuing the truth and preserving balance and objectivity. Objectivity is easy to dismiss. It just doesn’t exist. There, I’ve said it. But balance is a trickier beast. Balance can be a great asset in an article. It can also be ruinous. [More...]

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Economy class

Higher education 

The college-cost calamity 

Many American universities are in financial trouble 

Aug 4th 2012 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

WITH its leafy avenues and Gothic buildings, the University of Chicago seems a sober, solid sort of place. John D. Rockefeller, whose money built it, said it was the “best investment I ever made”. Yet Chicago and other not-for-profit American universities have been piling on the debt as if they were high-tech start-ups.

Long-term debt at not-for-profit universities in America has been growing at 12% a year, estimate Bain & Company, a consultancy, and Sterling Partners, a private-equity firm (see chart 1). A new report looked at the balance-sheets and cashflow statements of 1,692 universities and colleges between 2006 and 2010, and found that one-third were significantly weaker than they had been several years previously.  [More...]

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Its always nice to be proven right

I wrote recently about how the British are a bit grumpy about the Olympics. Am thrilled to discover that the homeland has not lost its deep sense of cynicism about having a major international sporting event in London.