Friday, December 06, 2013

Is God more popular than Jesus on Google?

God certainly has a great deal more all-year round appeal, while interest in Jesus is naturally more seasonal. But do these figures show an uptick in interest in God versus Jesus in Google searches? Possibly. Why might that be? And is the uptick in interest in God in March 2010 something to do with the Catholic church child abuse scandals?

Official: Christmas is not getting earlier.

Look at this time line of searches for "Christmas" on Google trends. I can see no evidence that Christmas is getting earlier but it does look like people have been getting less interested in Christmas since 2005. Shopping fatigue?

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

No surprises

Detroit's bankruptcy 

Given the green light 

Dec 3rd 2013, 21:31 by N.L. | CHICAGO 

 FOR A city as indebted as Detroit it may seem surprising that a judge would have to decide whether it is eligible for bankruptcy. Nonetheless this is what Judge Stephen Rhodes has been obliged to consider since the city filed for Chapter 9 protection in July. On December 3rd he decided that Detroit was insolvent and could move ahead with its bankruptcy filing. That is good news for the city, but bad news for its over 100,000 creditors, among whom are pensioners, bondholders and even those awaiting payouts in lawsuits against the city.

In his ruling, Mr Rhodes turned away arguments that the bankruptcy violated the federal constitution. The use of federal mechanisms for resolving municipal debts does not violate the tenth amendment, he said, citing the Supreme Court case of US v Bekins. Then he turned to the state constitution, which protects the pensions of public workers, except in the case of bankruptcy. Mr Rhodes ruled that the constitutional protections "do not apply to the federal bankruptcy court" and that pensions ought to be treated like the city's other debts.

Creditors also tried to argue that the city did not negotiate in good faith, which it must do in order to be approved for bankruptcy. On this point the judge's ruling was particularly interesting. He deemed that the city did not satisfy the good-faith requirements with its proposal to creditors in June. Moreover, he said that creditors could not be faulted for failing to counter the city's restructuring deal, as it was vague and creditors were given little time to consider the offer. But these concerns were trumped by his ruling that it was impracticable for the city to negotiate with so many creditors. [More...]

Detroit or bust

Tomorrow judge Stephen Rhodes will decide whether Detroit is eligible for Chapter 9 protection in the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Two-hundred prospective jurors have already been summoned to appear. It is difficult to imagine that the judge will simply announce that the city is ineligible and tell them all to go home.

More telling than the decision to approve the bankruptcy will be how he tackles retiree pensions and what he says about the question of negotiating in good faith. It is possible that he may leave the fate of retiree pensions undecided. That would be unfortunate for everyone (except the pensioners) because Detroit needs a comprehensive deal. Retirees will do better outside of Chapter 9 though, as the constitution offers protection to their pensions. Inside a bankruptcy case they are likely to receive a fraction on the dollar (of the unfunded portion of their pensions). But if the case does go ahead and include retiree pensions there is likely to be a fight over the extent to which Michigan's constitutional protection is trumped by federal bankruptcy law.

Tellingly the judge asked at one point during the hearings so far,

“Is there any other constitutional right, state or federal that is that absolute?” asked the judge. “Even freedom of the press isn’t that absolute, is it?”  

It will be interesting to see what he says about the issue of whether the city negotiated in 'good faith'--a prerequisite for bankruptcy to be approved. Although this question was hard fought over, I wonder if it is a little bit of a red herring? Perhaps it is the true that the emergency manager of Detroit overstated the chances of doing a deal. Or perhaps they always knew that bankruptcy was a very likely outcome and pretended it was not. Maybe they even decided long ahead of time that bankruptcy was really the only option, and decided to 'go through the motions'.

The problem with even the worst-case scenario is that you have to argue that Chapter 9 protection must be denied because the situation was so bad that the city had no other real option. Of course the creditors will say a deal would have been possible with more time. What seems more likely is that more time would have allowed for a blizzard of lawsuits. So even if the judge decides that there was not as much good faith as he would have liked to have seen, it is hard to see him deciding to deny eligibility.

A recent online piece about the Detroit case:


Bankruptcy or bust

Nov 15th 2013, 14:22 by N.L. | CHICAGO

OVER the next few days it will up to one man, Steven Rhodes, a federal bankruptcy judge, to decide the fate of Detroit. In July the city filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. This was challenged by unions, retirees and creditors. Last week the trial wrapped up on whether the city was eligible to declare Chapter 9. Now it is up to Mr Rhodes to decide.

 Failure to win such protection would be a disaster for Detroit, which has some $18 billion worth of debt and liabilities. Creditors would undoubtedly sue. City services would continue to decline. Of course, bankruptcy, too, has its drawbacks. It is likely to result in cuts to pensions and health-care benefits, and the sale of city assets (possibly even its fine art). Cuts to retiree benefits have the public-employees unions up in arms.

 The unions and retirees claim the bankruptcy is an attempt to get around a ban on pension cuts in the state constitution. During the trial their representatives argued that the state did not negotiate in good faith prior to declaring bankruptcy, as is required by law.

The city disagrees. It says it tried to negotiate, but met with a lack of cooperation from debtholders. Rick Snyder, Michigan's governor who approved the bankruptcy filing, described the move as a "very last resort" when he took the stand last month. But he avoided questions about the impact bankruptcy might have on pensioners.

 How might the judge be leaning? It helps to look at his questions. Mr Rhodes has pressed lawyers opposing the bankruptcy to explain why municipal pensions in Michigan are sacrosanct, and whether this means the state must guarantee payment. “Is there any other constitutional right, state or federal that is that absolute?” asked the judge. “Even freedom of the press isn’t that absolute, is it?” [More...]

My other stories about Detroit:

Skid row, A state takeover of Detroit, once America’s third-largest city, looks likely, Feb 23rd 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition

Can Motown be mended? America’s biggest-ever city bankruptcy starts to roll, Jul 27th 2013 | DETROIT | From the print edition

Manna for Motown,  Uncle Sam offers a little help. Oct 5th 2013 | From the print edition

Buy to the sound of gunfire,  Some parts of Detroit are doing well Jul 27th 2013 | GILBERTVILLE, DETROIT | From the print edition

Iron Orr The city’s default spells pain for creditors, employees and residents Jun 22nd 2013 | CHICAGO | From the print edition

Nowhere to run,  The motor city flirts with fiscal disaster Dec 8th 2011, 16:17 | From the print edition

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Technology can help close the achievement gap


Minding the gap 

Education technology helps minorities do better at university 

Nov 16th 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition

 Only 40% of black college students graduate within six years; 62% of whites do. No one knows why. One academic has suggested teaching “grit” and “determination” in the face of obstacles. But what minority students often need is good advice. Higher education is a maze of different courses and programmes, which students who are the first in their family to attend college struggle to navigate. Some choose their courses simply because they begin late in the morning, or because their friends are doing them. As a result, they often fail. Some institutions, such as Georgia State University, have improved results by getting faculty, advisers and older students to work more closely with minority students. But this takes time and money. Technology can help. [More...]

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Testing teachers in America


On your marks

States are starting to test teachers 

Nov 9th 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition

IN THE film “Bad Teacher”, Cameron Diaz’s character says she entered the profession “for all the right reasons: shorter hours, summers off, no accountability”. No one is threatening to take away the first two agreeable perks, but several states are eyeing the third.

 In the past, teachers were judged solely on their level of education and the number of years they had spent in the classroom—neither of which tells you whether their pupils are learning anything. But this is changing. A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a research group, finds that most states now demand that student achievement should be a significant factor in teacher evaluations (see chart). Only Alabama, California, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Texas and Vermont have no formal policy.

The expansion of teacher evaluation is broadly good news. Work published in 2011, from Columbia and Harvard, showed that pupils assigned to better teachers are more likely to go to college and earn decent salaries, and less likely to be teenage mothers. If teachers in grades 4 to 8 are ranked according to their ability to add value (ie, teach) and those in the bottom 5% are replaced with ones of average quality, a class’s cumulative lifetime income is raised by $250,000. Bill Gates once said that if every child had mathematics teachers as good as those in the top quartile, the achievement gap between America and Asia would vanish in two years. (His lecture has been watched 1.5m times online.) [More...]

Monday, October 28, 2013

Essential decisions...

The story so far is that the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is refusing to release a University of Chicago survey of school performance around the state.

My FOIA request to them earlier this month was declined on the grounds that the reports I requested were "preliminary" under section 7(1) of FOIA. I wrote to the Attorney General requesting a Request for Review of this decision. The point I raised was that one cannot on the one hand argue that completed analyses, produced by leading education researchers at one of the nation's top universities are "preliminary", while at the same time argue that the disaggregated raw data (that ISBE has said it will release) is a "final" report. Something that is preliminary is an action or event that precedes something full or more important.

I'm looking forward to hearing how the ISBE justifies its decision to withhold the 5 Essentials report from public release. It has seven days to do this, according to the letter I have just received from the office of the Attorney General today which rules that "further inquiry is warranted".

Excepts from the letter:

"We have determined that further inquiry is warranted in this matter. Please provide this office with a detailed explanation of the ISBE's legal and factual basis for asserting the section 7(1) exemption to deny Ms Loder's October 9, 2013 FOIA request, together with an un-redacted copy of the withheld records. In your response, please confirm whether ISBE has provided parts of the requested records to Ms Loder as indicated in Ms Loder's Request for Review. If so, the ISBE's response should also include a detailed legal and factual explanation of its basis for withholding the analysis and/or interpretation portions of the requested survey reports. 

As required under FOIA, please provide this information to our office within seven (7) business days after receipt of this letter (5 ILCS 140/9.5(c) (West 2012). In the context of a Request for Review, the issue is whether the public body has proved by clear and convincing evidence [their emphasis] that its reasons for denying information or records were proper".

Friday, October 18, 2013

Class dismissed

So there is a big fuss here in Illinois about a report the state commissioned from the University of Chicago at a cost of $600,000. The fuss is not about the results of the survey, but the fact that the Department of Education has simply decided not to release them.

A survey was conducted of more than one million parents, teachers and students. Most teachers completed them. The goal was to record metrics that are indicators for which schools are working, and which are not. For example, everyone is asked how well their schools and leaders perform. The researchers at the University of Chicago have proof that the metrics they are using an indicate which schools are doing well and which are at risk of failure.

Two reports were produced by the University, one benchmarked the results against data from Chicago Public Schools, the other against state data. Neither have been released. It has been reported by the Chicago Tribune that because some of the results were downright awful the State Department of Education (DOE) decided not to release them at all.  The Chicago Tribune has also written eloquently about why the reports must be released in: "You can't be trusted".

Instead, I understand the DOE is going to release the raw data: the survey questions and answers. This is wiithout the benefit of any analysis or interpretation. Removing the context for the data will thus render it impossible for one school to be judged against any other—the purpose of the original survey. This means that it is no longer possible to uncover in the data any sense of whether one school is doing any better or worse than any other which is important public information.

I wrote to the DOE on October 9th, asking it to release the 5essentials survey under FOIA rules. They declined yesterday stating they were preliminary reports and are being: withheld pursuant to 5 ILCS 140/7 (1) (f) as “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated.”.

The point I have made to the Attorney General in my request for a review of this decision is that one cannot on the one hand argue that completed analyses produced by leading education researchers at one of the nation’s top universities are “preliminary”, while at the same time argue that a disaggregated list of their raw data is a “final” report. Something that is “preliminary” is an action or event that precedes something full or more important.

It is fairly clear that what is happening here that the information content of the original report is being degraded because DOE are uncomfortable with the findings of The 5 Essentials Survey. To claim that disaggregated data from the research is somehow a “final” report is a grave attempt to flout the intent and meaning of FOIA law. Open and honest government remains the cornerstone of American democracy through the free exchange of information. In a letter to the Chicago Tribune, Mimi Rodman, executive director of Stand for Children, says the state is holding important data they will not share with students and parents.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Recently published...

Across the divide

Purple heart 

Lessons from Iowa’s Terry Branstad on how to run a divided state Oct 19th 2013 | DES MOINES | From the print edition 

BACK in 2009, when Terry Branstad was president of Des Moines University in Iowa, he found himself increasingly unhappy with the way his state was being run. He knew a thing or two about it: as governor between 1983 and 1999, he had steered Iowa through the farm crisis and on to a prosperous economy with a 2.6% unemployment rate. But with a comfortable university perch and a solid legacy as a public servant, politics did not beckon. That was until two law students started a Facebook campaign to draft him to run for governor again. When about 10,000 young people had joined, Mr Branstad knew he had to do something. He resigned as president that October, and in little more than a year was being sworn in for his fifth term. 

What makes Mr Branstad more remarkable is that he governs one of the most politically divided states. He is, argues Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, the most successful and pragmatic politician in the United States. Hyperbole, perhaps; but Mr Branstad is already America’s second-longest-serving governor, and he is likely to be re-elected next year. [More...]

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Recently published...

Higher education 

Learned Luddites 

Many professors are hostile to online education Oct 12th 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition 

SOME people hope that the internet will revolutionise higher education, making it cheaper and more accessible to the masses. Others fear the prospect. Some academics worry that they will be sacked and replaced by videos of their more photogenic colleagues. Others argue that MOOCs (massive open online courses) are nowhere near as good as a class taught face-to-face.

 Earlier this year academics at Amherst, a liberal-arts college, decided not to offer MOOCs. Professors in the philosophy department at San José State University wrote a letter of complaint because they were encouraged to use a popular online Harvard course, “JusticeX”, as part of their own curriculum. Even at Harvard, which has invested $30m in MOOCs, much of the faculty is prickly. In May 58 professors wrote to the dean of arts and sciences to demand greater oversight of MOOCs. [More...]

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Your reading list, schools briefings revisited and Brazil

Many years ago The Economist did a series of schools briefings which aimed to explain banking and finance in everyday terms. When I started my job at the Economist in 2000 my father photocopied the set and gave it to me to read. (I was a science writer and knew little about economics.) Over the years I'd nagged at various people internally "why can't we do a schools briefing again?". Finally, they have.

In a special section explaining the new briefing (when on earth did we start explaining things to our readers?), an author helpfully writes:

"This series of schools briefs revives The Economist’s occasional primers on topical subjects. The first series (published in 1975, on "Managing the British Economy") was intended to help British economics students prepare for school leaving exams, though we hoped it would also be of wider use. Subsequent subjects ranged widely, from American government to science. We last published a schools brief in 1999. It was on finance, and concluded: "Some of the new financial technologies are, in effect, efforts to bottle up considerable uncertainties. If they work, the world economy will be more stable. If not, an economic disaster might ensue."

These briefings, as well as a new briefing on Brazil written by my colleague Helen Joyce, are well worth downloading for a quiet read at the end of the day. I recommend Pocket for this. 

The origins of the financial crisis, The Economist.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

New french fries took ten years to develop...

You have got to love this story on The Daily Beast which describes how Burger King took a decade (a decade!) to develop new, healthier fries called "satisfries". Thicker, crinkle cut, they have 40% less fat and 30% fewer calories. Mr Gross goes on to wax lyrical about how Burger King has used "engineering to deliver the French fry experience without all the baggage" and ends "maybe America isn't out of ideas just yet". Wow, what an innovation! Thank you America!

The author, Daniel Gross, continues that "any new product introduction carries the threat of cannibilization". That  is quite interesting in the circumstances.... which are that the British have been eating this product for so long that you can buy them in the frozen food section and make them at home. (We call our french fries "chips"*, though.)

Read it and weep McCain.

* And what you call "chips" we call "crisps". 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

iPad apps for kids

A few people have asked me about the educational iPad apps I recommend for children. I've downloaded a lot of apps in my time, I'm on my second iPad-enabled child and I have also seen quite a few children play with these apps. I'm not an expert, though, so these are just some informal recommendations from one parent to another. I've tried to whittle down my list to the stand-out apps below.

I've found that as soon as you put any proper game onto the iPad (like Angry Birds), a child's interest in educational apps essentially evaporates. So my advice is that if you are going to treat the iPad as an educational tool and spend lots of money on these apps, that you don't add any arcade-style games at all, or videos or cartoons. Even if you have only one clip of Sesame Street on your phone, watching this a dozen times is likely going to be more attractive than figuring out how to count apples into a basket for a cartoon hippo.

There are some apps that try to balance educational content with gamification. Sometimes this works, sometimes it does. A toddler app added an arcade-style game to MoreTrucks and it is for this reason that I would not recommend it. But as children get older, the apps do tend to use gamification more and I think this is going to be natural if you expect a child to pick up an app on their own and play with it. What this also means is that if you want to really use the iPad as an educational tool with older children, then you may need to unwrap the content for them a bit and work with them on it, and reward them for completing it.  I'm thinking about Tiny fractions here as an example but there are others. Tiny fractions is a nicely-designed way of teaching a child about fractions but it is unlikely that my son would pick it up and tinker with it unless I'd worked through some of it first with him.

Over the past few years I have also noticed that the educational software available online has definitely improved and there is a lot of free content that we will probably explore such as the Khan Academy. Thus far I've concluded that iPad apps are a great way of supplementing learning in particular areas.

Toddlers/Pre-schoolers (up to roughly age 4)

Endless alphabet - I cannot praise this app enough. When Alexander was learning his letters we didn't have anything like this. None of the early learning apps did phonics, and the first phonics apps were really hard to use. This app encourages children to match letters in a word and as you drag the letter with your finger it wriggles around like an animal and makes its sound. Leo will happily sing along with the letters, and has picked up very quickly on the idea that letters have sounds. Great app.

Pre-school adventure - I've had pre-school adventure on devices for about six years, and it has added new features during this time. It started out as only four mini-games within an app, and was great as it was. You match parts of a body, hear animal sounds, play with shapes. They were all beautifully crafted and good to look at and play with. I'm not as fond of all the new additions, but the app is still fun and educational and popular with youngsters.

Pre-school lunchbox - This is so much silly learning fun. A monkey needs fruit in his lunchbox, you have to count it in, put together pieces of broken fruit, give him all the fruit of a particular colour. You are rewarded with a grin and a headflip and stickers. Irresistible.

Park math - This app comes from Duck Duck Moose which makes a number of very good little educational apps. I rate Park math very highly, a series of mini-games which can be set at various levels of difficulty that encourage counting and subtraction and sorting.

Shape builder - Although this app does not do very much, it does absolutely enough: encourages your child to match shapes to build an image. This is the sort of app that will immediately appeal to a child, is a learning experience and from experience will occupy children of a variety of ages for at least ten minutes. Great way of distracting hungry offspring if you are waiting for a meal at a restaurant.

Cute math - This app is ancient (it was one of the very first educational apps to appear), has heavily Asian accented English, but still somehow manages to appeal because of the cute animations. The counting penguins is particularly useful for learning 1-10, and the basket -filling minigame is good as well. If I had to choose between Park math and Cute math I'd definitely go for the former. But for a bit of variety this is fun.

First words - I get a bit confused over the different First words apps that are out there. When I first bought this there was only one app, then they added another with a set of different words, and another. Then they offered a combined app with all the first three apps. And now there seem to be more new apps. I would recommend you buy one of these apps as a way of encouraging your child to understand word spellings--you'll need to tinker with the settings to make sure that the app is working in an age-appropriate way. This app would useful be in addition to Endless alphabet because First words is more focused on the construction of the word. I would try not to get suckered into buying all their different app options.  Once your child has picked up the basics of reading they are not going to need to be learning each word individually.

Wheels on the Bus - Great. Duck Duck Moose. Now an i-classic. Make sure to try Record mode. Or listen in French or German. Brilliant.

Musical me - Lovely. 100% buy. Another winner from Duck Duck Moose.

Young App Honorable Mentions: Teachme toddler - Worth looking at as an all round app looking to test numbers, shapes, colours etc.;  DeepDeep Sea - ancient app, a bit odd and with heavily accented English. But just weird fun for advanced shape matching. Three and above. Needs a bit of parental guidance at first.

Learning to read

I've described learning to read apps in their own section because the age at which children start to learn to read really does vary from country to country, home to home and from child to child. Although there is no substitute to reading with your child, I would say that these apps were very helpful in encouraging early reading. Besides those below First Words was also useful as the settings can be changed to make it appropriately difficult.

Bobs Books - I didn't realise that these apps were based on American series of reading books when I first bought them. I found the apps beautifully designed and fun to play with, and my son seemed to enjoy them. It has been a while since I've played with them so I cannot recall much more than this. We bought two and they were used.

Lola's Alphabet Train - lot to like about this app. Designed to appeal to 3-7 year olds, and although my 6-year-old now does not use it any more, this will definitely appeal to the "starting to read" crowd--of whatever age. If your child is starting to read English as a second language this would be good too and it also offers foreign language options. I like it because it has a variety of little games you can play, and you collect coins which you can then spend in the game.

Montessori Crossword - again another lovely little app to encourage reading and spelling. Nice rewards for success. Beautiful to look at.

iWrite Words - This is moderately useful as a way of teaching children the shapes that make letters. The problem is that they cannot lean on the screen with their hand and write, so the letter and number work has to be done with a finger.

Older Children (up to 7ish)

Chicktionary - Sound effects start out funny but rapidly become irritating. The reason this app makes it onto my list is that my son likes it and it encourages him to build words. You get a collection of letters and must build as many words as you can. The way the app is designed encourages experimentation with letters, thus it gets a thumbs up from me.

Spell Tower - This can be quite hard and is not for children just starting to read. But the great thing about this app is that adults and children can play it together, particularly on an iPad. You get a tower of letters and the aim is to reduce the size of the tower as much as possible by spelling words. It is actually a lot cooler than it sounds. My oldest didn't really enjoy this until his reading skills had reached a certain level. I think I picked this app up free at Starbucks but I'd definitely pay money for this. I'll sometimes open it myself if I have a few minutes to kill on the train.

Sushi monster - There are things to like and dislike about this game. What I like about it is that my son was really keen to collect all the sushi monsters by working on his adding and subtraction. What I dislike about it was that as multiplication and division is learned a lot later your child will get stuck halfway through the game and not be able to finish it until they have moved quite a lot further into mathematics.

Stack the states - I bought stack the states for myself originally. When we arrived in the US I felt the need to know all my 50 states, the capitals, flags, and monuments. I thought this would be the ideal way to learn. But then my son became glued to it. Before I'd had the chance to get going he had collected all 50 states, could name and locate them all, and nibble an oatmeal bar into the shape of Wisconsin. We then bought him Stack the Countries and although this was a bit more challenging he now seems to know far more about world geography than I do. The premise of both games is simple: answer the questions, win a state or country, make a stack of countries or states to reach a finish line. Its actually quite addictive.

Maths Zombies - a bit game-like, but you have to solve the maths problems to kill the zombies so it has great boy appeal.

Move the Turtle - early introduction to programming. Definitely for a school-aged child, probably from about six or seven depending on child. Learn to write instructions to make a turtle move about on the screen. More fun than it sounds.

Honorable Mentions: Wings, this little maths app introduces children to different ways of looking at numbers, as does Zoom. Also Tiny fractions.


I really like Felt Board, although we do not use it that often. Its a great way of using the iPad to play with the children. Its a digital felt board, with lots of pre-cut shapes that can be coloured and sized. Its fun to create characters and tell stories about them. Another neat way of filling an odd ten minutes. If you want an proper game that can be played with two to four players I'd recommend Marble Mixer. Definitely a good way of having group games on the go.


Rosetta Stone has just launched Kids Lingo Letter Sounds, to practice early reading skills and speak Spanish. Free at the moment. Worth a look. Rosetta Stone has also started a new Kids Division, so I would imagine there will be more of this sort of thing on tablets from a trusted linguistic brand.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Economist explains itself...

I'm most frequently asked about The Economist: Why are your writers anonymous? Why does the Economist call itself a newspaper and not a magazine? Is the Economist right or left wing? As we are celebrating our 170th birthday, a number of our writers have decided to answer some of these questions in our popular explainer blog. Other explainers include: how do we decide what to cover? And: why do we choose unusual names for our columnists?

It may be that we have good reasons for calling ourselves a newspaper but almost always, when I ring up people for the first time, I will say I am from the Economist magazine. It makes no sense to announce yourself as writing for the 'Economist newspaper' and initiate a bizarre conversation along the lines of:

"Oh, I read the magazine but I didn't know there was a newspaper as well".

"Well actually it is the same publication but we call it a newspaper..."

"Oh, why is that....?"

Cue long explanation which generally I find makes me sound like a prig for pointing out to loyal readers that they have been assuming they've had a magazine subscription for the last 20 years. No thanks. So I'm probably breaching some internal protocol, except I know a former deputy editor who had exactly the same problem and had solved it the same way, but I always say I'm from the Economist magazine. Even though its a newspaper.

Great. Glad we've cleared that up then.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Tourist Union no 63

During my recent trip to Iowa it was my great pleasure to attend the Hobo Festival in Britt, Iowa, where I was able to meet some of the delightful and colourful characters that come every year to celebrate the hobo culture. I wrote about this in the Economist a few weeks ago, where I explain how I came to acquire my hobo name Mad Scrip.

Tourist Union no 63, the title of this post, was the name of the original hobo union. Great name. I think I need to get a t-shirt made or something.

Hobo culture

Riding the rails 

 A report from the National Hobo Convention 

Aug 17th 2013 | BRITT, IOWA |From the print edition

THEY found the Hardrock Kid under a tree in Ogden, Iowa back in 1977. He was on his way to the National Hobo Convention in Britt when he stopped for lunch and quietly passed away. In hobo vernacular: he caught the Westbound. His body is buried in the hobo cemetery in Britt; his humble possessions are displayed in its museum, which celebrates wanderers. On a glass shelf are toothpaste, a toothpick, some cutlery, a razor, a reel of cotton, a needle, cigarettes and a pair of pliers.

 Hobos have long been misunderstood. People call them bums, often prefaced with the word “lazy”. Yet life on the road is arduous. Hobos travel to find work for food and lodging, an old tradition. In the late 1800s, 63 of them started a union with a small subscription fee and a set of laws. These, among other things, told members not to abuse handouts, to respect nature, and wherever possible to find work and stay clean. Linda Hughes, who works at the National Hobo Museum in Britt, says that hobos were the first migrant workers and that they helped to build America.

 During the Depression there were probably hundreds of thousands of them, including many teenagers. Few were paid-up union members. But some of the better-known were poets, artists and dreamers. “Tramp art” has become collectable: hobos engraved cameos on nickels, made models with matchsticks and carved intricate designs on cigar boxes. 

Minnesota Jim, who attended the 113th convention this year, has a weather-beaten face like a map of the world. He says he rode the rails in the 1940s out of a sense of “curiosity and adventure” before settling down. He washed dishes, picked cotton and potatoes, and worked in a lumber mill.

 Another hobo, a young woman with blond dreadlocks and bare feet, says she is on her way to Oregon to work on the marijuana harvest. She says she loves small towns; she ran away from a pimp in St Louis, a city she describes as both “dangerous and boring”. In some ways, things are tougher on hobos these days, says Minnesota Jim. It used to be easy to hitch a lift (traffic was slower) or hop on a goods train. “We didn’t have any trouble with the police,” he sighs.  [More...]


OK, so this is news. Whole Foods moves into Chicago's Englewood. A big win for the Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, when he is under pressure from local journalist Fran Spielman for promising more than he has delivered.

Food stores

Whole hoods 

 Sep 4th 2013, 0:27 by N.L. | CHICAGO

CHICAGO's Englewood neigbourhood is perhaps best known for its poverty and violence. It has one of the highest murder rates in America, twice that of New York. In this part of town, 40% are unemployed, the average income is $11,993 (Chicago's is $27,149) and 30% do not even have a high school diploma. It is also overwhelmingly black.

One local says that it is easier to buy a gun or drugs here than food. Many shop at the bargain basement Save A Lot, a shop that prides itself on recipes that allow a family of four to be fed for under $5. But come 2016, residents will also be able to shop at a Whole Foods market, the company announced on September 4th. This is an up-market, posh, food retailer that sells a small box of crackers for $9 and which even the well-off describe as "whole paycheck" market. [More...]

Every goddamn day

My prolific colleague over at the Chicago Sun-Times, Neil Steinberg, has a new blog "Every goddamn day". He has a pretty funny posting for his new Chinese readers here. He promises to ease the strain of life by posting something entertaining and meaningful every single day. A threat or a promise? You decide, read Neil here

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

David Dickson

I was rifling through some old photographs just earlier and I found this of David Dickson the founder of, the science and development website, who very sadly passed away quite recently.

David gave me my first job at Nature magazine around 1998. He was my news editor and I was his UK science reporter. I sat opposite him for a few years, with this very view.

Many conversations were had over this blue dividing wall. My overriding memory of David is what a kind and thoughtful soul he was. I will miss his lovely conversations, words of wisdom and sweet smile.

I went to Budapest for the World Conference of Science in 1999 with him and Ehsan Masood--and we created a daily conference newsletter. This led him to create I remember afterwards when he told me he was thinking of a new venture, he asked me what a science and development website should be called and I said, er, "Scidev?" He said "hmmmm" in that appreciative but totally non-committal way he had. I've no idea to this day whether he had already had the idea or was merely thinking it was terrible.

Anyway we have David to thank for the brilliance of today. And thankfully it is nothing like our conference newsletter which always seemed to be cobbled together every day on a bit of a wing and a prayer. I remember him quite vividly at the meeting in Budapest. He came alive in a way I'd not seen when he was behind his desk at Nature. He was almost child-like with excitement. He loved running around, testing his ideas with those he met at the meeting, and then rushing back to bash it all out into copy. I recall we all crammed into his hotel room, eating bad hotel food and assembling it. He was in his element.

So it is no surprise that he found his niche at He found an outlet for doing good for the world with science, which was what he was all about. He worked hard to train young science journalists from all over the world in writing about science, (I had a couple of his journalists in for work experience at The Economist).

I realise now that we talked far too infrequently. But I'm glad I found the photograph because I wanted to write about David and I thought the moment had passed. I've tried to remember what, exactly, David taught me about news writing but have struggled to recall much by way of specifics. I know it must have been a great deal because to this day my strength remains in news writing. I know he threw me in at the deep end and put an enormous amount of trust in me. Which is a fundamental part of developing as a journalist, to become independent and make the correct decisions. We worked together on some difficult stories and he made sure I had the time and space to get the job done properly and was very supportive.

One silly thing does stick out in my memory, I'll never forget his advice when I was asked to write my first editorial--for the journal Nature. I was feeling more than a little nervous and told him so. David recommended that I sit on my own at home in the evening, in front of the computer, with a small glass of whisky to give me just enough courage to get the creative juices flowing. It worked. Although not frequently used, this still remains an option to this day!

There are so many things I'd like to talk to him about right now.

Many of his friends have been moved to write about him online.

  • There is a piece about him on the website he founded, here. There are some wonderful words in the comments from journalists from all over the world who worked with him
  • The Association of British Science Writers has put up a page here, with further tributes.
  • On the ABSW's newslist, science Writer Jon Turney recommended this piece about David that was published in the Westminster School magazine. 
  • And twitter feed comments here
  • Updated: is setting up an award for young science journalists in developing countries in memory of David. David's family are keen to have any tributes go towards starting this award and you can do so here.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

The costly criminalisation of the mentally ill


Locked in 

The costly criminalisation of the mentally ill 

Aug 3rd 2013 | COOK COUNTY, ILLINOIS | From the print edition

SINCE 1994 Tracey Aldridge has been arrested 100 times, jailed 27 times for more than 1,000 days and spent a total of eight years in prison. Most of her arrests have been for trivia: trespassing, prostitution, drugs, disorderly conduct, petty theft or drinking in public, all typical of the mentally ill. Ms Aldridge is so impaired that one jail needed special arm coverings for her, like full-length oven gloves, to prevent her from ripping her veins out with her teeth. More recently, in prison, Ms Aldridge ate her protective gauntlets.

Thomas Dart, the sheriff of Cook County jail, knows Ms Aldridge will end up back in his cells soon because there is nowhere else for her to go. She is sentenced, like so many seriously mentally ill people in America, to rotate in and out of correctional facilities until she dies. Prisons and jails are the main mental-health facilities in the country, something Sheriff Dart describes as an “abomination”. He is also angry about how fiscally reckless it is. At only 42, Ms Aldridge has already cost taxpayers $719,436 for her arrests and incarcerations. [More...]

Friday, June 21, 2013

Brains: the real vanishing assets in Detroit

In the past week, the emergency manager of Detroit announced a deal that many paves the way to the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. If you offer ten cents on the dollar, one contact said to me, then creditors might as well take their chances in court. If Mr Orr is trying to engineer a way for the city to relieve itself of debts that will continue to cripple the city and drive away people and jobs.

I had an email conversation with Don Grimes, an economist with the University of Michigan. I unfortunately did not have the space to include his interesting thoughts on Detroit's problems within my piece in the print edition this week. Mr Grimes explained that the city was "upside down in terms of the number of employees and the number of retirees who have been promised a defined benefit pension and employer paid health insurance".

He adds: "This is exactly the same problem the domestic auto industry faced. Also, in both cases their market, vehicle sales and the city's population were shrinking (and is forecast to continue to shrink in the case of the city). The biggest difference and maybe the crucial one is that the federal government gave the auto companies a very significant amount of money. The companies paid a lot of that back, but they would not have been able to avoid liquidation without the government money. Will somebody backstop the city? If not then the haircuts to the pension and health care benefits will have to be much larger than the UAW retirees"

With regards to the future of Detroit, he makes a crucial point. "The main difference between the city of Detroit and economically successful cities including Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, New York, Seattle, Denver and so forth is that the educational attainment of the residents of the city of Detroit is much much lower. In Detroit about 12% of the population aged 25 and older has a bachelor's or more education. In these successful central cities the proportion of the population with a bachelor's degree or more is much higher, 30%, 40%, and in some cases over 50% of the population."

Mr Grimes sent me a spreadsheet  with data from the American Community Survey, showing the percentage with a bachelor's degree of people between 25 and 64 in US cities. This age range reflects the prime working age population. (He says the data is even worse for young adults between 25 and 34.) If you chart it out it looks like this. The results are pretty grim news for Detroit. Each vertical line from left to right is 10%, so on this chart Detroit is 12.5%, Las Vegas is over 20%, and Sacramento City, California sits on the 30% line (close to the US average).

Here is the chart for cities at the other end of the spectrum, with Seattle and San Francisco sitting at the top of the graduate league. Chicago, at 35.9%, and New York, at 36.3%, just got cropped out of the screenshots of the data. (I couldn't figure out how to import an Excel chart into the blog.) So the problem is not simply that the population in the city has declined in recent times, it is that all the people with degrees seem to have left.

I'll finish with a link to this week's piece in The Economist.

Saving Detroit 

Iron Orr 

The city’s default spells pain for creditors, employees and residents 

Jun 22nd 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition
IT IS, says the man who has to deal with it, “the Olympics of restructuring”. After decades of population decline (see chart), political bungling and corruption, Detroit, once America’s third-largest city, now needs an emergency manager to save it. In March the state of Michigan appointed Kevyn Orr, a bankruptcy lawyer (pictured), to the unenviable job. In May, to no one’s surprise, he declared the city insolvent. Its ability to borrow was exhausted after years of issuing long-term debt to pay its bills. The city has liabilities of more than $17 billion, or $25,000 for everyone who lives there. Residents can escape these debts simply by moving away; many have done just that.

On June 14th Mr Orr announced a moratorium on the repayment of all unsecured debt, starting with a $40m payment due that day. To many, this sounded like a default. He offered to pay some creditors a paltry ten cents on the dollar. At the same time, a report to creditors set out the scale of the problem. Property-tax revenues have fallen by almost 20% over the past five years as homes in Detroit have lost value. Unemployment has led to a 30% decline in income-tax revenues since 2002. High tax rates are already speeding the exodus of taxpayers, so there is little scope to raise them further. In any case, many of the taxes to which the city is entitled are not being collected properly. [More...]

Updated: Corrected title of Don Grimes, June 24th.


According to a press release titled "Russian President Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Abe honour 2013 Global Energy Prize Winners", issued by the Brussels Press Office of Fleishman, I was awarded the Energy of Words journalism prize today for my work on "education technology and its potential to innovate in schools". This should have read "lithium-ion batteries".

Friday, May 31, 2013

Return of the farm bill

I have a confession to make. I'm dreadfully behind in posting my work here. I must have flamed out after all that venting over the Rachel Shteir article. This week's piece in The Economist is about American farming legislation. This bill is a wonderful array of creative handouts for farmers in various industries. I must take no credit for the wonderful picture caption on this piece or the snippet of the Springstein song title, which comes thanks to our new US editor, Robert Guest. (My previous boss, Christopher Lockwood, having rather suddenly vanished after accepting a job to work for his old friend David Cameron.)


At the trough 

An awful farm bill faces opposition
Jun 1st 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN once sang about “going on the town now looking for easy money”. As easy money goes, it is hard to beat farm subsidies. Handouts for American farmers were a tasty $256 billion between 1995 and 2012. The fattest subsidies went to the richest farmers. According to a study by Tom Coburn, a fiscally conservative senator, these have included Mr Springsteen himself, who leases land to an organic farmer. And Jon Bon Jovi, another rocker, paid property taxes of only $100 on an estate where he raises bees. Taxpayers will be glad to know he is no longer “livin’ on a prayer”.[More...]

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Love letter to Chicago...a reply to Rachel Shteir

A recent book review in the New York Times looked at Thomas Dyja’s “The Third Coast”, and a number of other books about Chicago including Neil Steinberg's book "You Were never in Chicago". In doing so the reviewer let forth a torrent of criticism about my (and her) current home city. Reviewer Shteir concludes that: "the city is trapped by its location, its past, and what philosophers would have called its facticity — its limitations, given the circumstances. Boosterism has been perfected here because the reality is too painful to look at. Poor Chicago, indeed." 

Like Shteir, I'm not native to Chicago. But her description of this city is unrecognisable. Easy to live in, cheap to get around, plenty to do, world class museums and culture. And, of course, there is always the beach. It is also hard to emphasise enough, without sounding like the tourist board, just how family friendly the city is and how welcoming people are. Spend a few days in New York, then come here. You'll know.

Shteir's litany of complaints includes that parking meters charge "up to $6.50 an hour". Rather like my broadband speed of "up to 100MB", this weaselly phrase tells us nothing truly relevant. Such as how much meter parking costs, nor whether having a top rate of $6.50 in some places is such a bad idea because it means that spaces are always available. Having lived in London for many years (and reported from Paris and New York), I can say with certainty that getting around Chicago is trivial. Public transportation and taxis are easy and cheap. Driving right into the city is relatively easy.

Another complaint is that "of the largest American cities" in 2012 Chicago had the "second-highest murder rate". OK, so there has been a recent uptick in homicides in some gang-riddled parts of the city. Does that mean the rest of the city is doomed because of flare ups in two wards? Not at all.

The complaints go on: the "ninth-highest metro foreclosure rate in the country". Seriously? And apparently the bankruptcy of The Chicago Tribune (one of the two daily papers here) is another mark of our failure. As regional newspapers around the country topple like pins hit by the internet bowling ball, does this event really add a meaningful data point to the Shteir's Chicago Tragedy?

Like any big city there are problems. Some of which Shteir nails: a legacy of racial segregation (which is why the homicide uptick so heavily weighs on just a few communities), underfunded infrastructure but most seriously its crappy schools. But the idea that Chicago is heading the way of Detroit is preposterous for the reason that if, as a big company, you have to be in the middle of America it is more often than not the best place to be.

Whatever else Shteir thinks of it, the young technology hipsters, the wives of the men of money in the financial centres, and the expensively educated Midwestern graduates all gravitate to Chicago to find culture, like-minded smart people and jobs. In all directions Chicago stands out of the Great Plains like Dorothy's Emerald city--glowing on the horizon with promise. Whether you live in Des Moines, Omaha, Milwaukee, Columbus, Indianapolis or Springfield, it is and always will be the Big City. To the logistics companies, Big Ag, the higher education sector, finance, the architectural firms, and retailers, Chicago remains a centre of gravity either in the region or nationally. That isn't boosterism or pity, just fact.

What is truly fascinating about Chicago is that given the public pension deficit, and high taxation, that companies seem increasingly happy to set up here. Why did United Airlines, BP and Willis Group Holdings decide to move downtown in 2011, when they should have been rushing for the door given Shteir's thesis? Why is the city, rather than the metropolitan area, showing a resurgence in appeal to companies of all kinds? Why is there a revival here?

Sure there are tensions with the old Chicago, every now and then signs of the machine and the corruption resurface. And Illinois, with its dysfunction, continues to act as a drag on the city. But if one looks beyond a worn-out view of the city one would find data that do not fit the hypothesis. A city on the forefront of transparency and public information, or in innovative ways of financing public infrastructure, or having increased its graduation rate from its community colleges by 60% in a few  years. To dismiss all of this, as well as the bike lanes, the riverside walk, the teachers in libraries, and even the hard won longer school day is to miss the real story. Chicago is, and always will be, a compelling place to live and work and that is because of both its real assets but most importantly because of the people who live here, and their positive attitudes about the city.

Call it boosterism if you wish, but to revel in urban misery is to miss a trick. I know this, having lived for most of my life in London. Here the citizens are as rude as any you will find in New York or Paris, but Londoners also wear their authentic despondency like some kind of banner. We gripe and moan and bitch about London and its transport, its weather, its high prices and the impossibility of finding a decent home. But secretly we know that it truly remains one of the best cities in the world even if we never choose to celebrate that fact. It was for that reason we spent most of the run-up to the Olympics dreading the event.

Lastly, and this is the giant flaw in Shteir's thesis, a city is fundamentally about much more than its infrastructure and politicians. It is about its people and their attitudes and this is where Chicago overflows with abundance.

What I love about Chicago is the way that people engage you in conversation, or are happy to sit on their front porch or have their children play on the sidewalk. The way they are open to chatting to passers by. And when I bump into someone in the supermarket they say "excuse me" as an apology if they were so rude to be in my way. There is a Midwestern openness and expansiveness that inspires great affection. So different from the more uptight, doomy, Londoners who peek behind their twitching net curtains and think that anyone sitting in their front garden is slightly odd. Chicagoans join in on things. They throw block parties, and street festivals, and fun runs at the drop of a hat. They are relentless do-ers and joiners. And that is what makes Shteir an ill fit for this city because loving it is part of what makes it great.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Why doing a PhD might still be a waste of time.

I was fascinated to read this first-person account of a PhD trainwreck by the brave Rebecca Schuman--a story that has gone viral on Slate and deservedly so. She argues that her humanities PhD was a waste of her time, something that seems to have disturbed many of those who have commented on her piece. She has hit a nerve. Something that struck me greatly about her piece was that she argues that academia remakes people in its own image. In other words it mints people who are designed to work well within the system. But then of course offers few opportunities for working within it. Worse, PhD graduates feel that their own brilliance depends on whether they are absorbed into this system as tenured professors and can therefore leave feeling dispirited.

Some of Dr Schuman's critics would like to take comfort from the fact that her failure to obtain a position means that she must be academically inferior in some kind of way. It is, of course, far harder to accept the alternative hypothesis. This is that the system is broken and that Dr Schuman is just one of the many students who wasted too much time in a system designed to train and hire academics. I covered a great deal of this territory in a piece called: The Disposable Academic for The Economist a few years ago. Today it is the top-most commented piece on our web page. The debate continues.

Updates to this piece:

More resources for those wondering whether to do a PhD:
1. This article last year from NPR about PhD students on food stamps, and its primary source from the excellent Chronicle of Higher Education.

2. Another piece on April 11th, 2013: Academia's indentured servants.

3. In the UK, the Guardian considers the financial worth of a PhD and explains that the thrill of having "Dr' in front of one's name soon wanes, Is a PhD the right option for you?

4. A piece about PhD's in international relations from Foreign Policy magazine, Should you get a PhD? Makes the interesting point (again) that many doing PhDs end up feeling that if they do not get a job within academia they are failures in some way.

5. Good roundup from Lifehacker, "Should I go to Grad School?". Also worth reading how to figure out which degrees are worthwhile and how much you should borrow.

An excellent article about why one SHOULD do PhD:
Shimi Rii, writing on the Nature blog, explains his (?) decision to take a PhD.

New reports about the job market in academia:
1.Gap Widens for Faculty at Colleges, Report Finds. NYT, Published: April 8, 2013

Other articles by me on the emerging problems in US higher education:
1. Not what it used to be, The Economist.
2. The college-cost calamity, The Economist.

Last updated: September 12th, 2013