Friday, April 11, 2014

The Moral Power of Curiosity.

I point out columns by David Brooks here from time to time, mostly because his column regularly
David Brooks
Photo by Allie Krause
Image available at
features in my weekly reading list, and his segment on the NewsHour with Mark Shields on PBS is a Friday night favorite at our house. According to Wikipedia, he's "the sort of conservative pundit that liberals like, someone who is 'sophisticated' and 'engages with' the liberal agenda[.]"

Today is one of the better examples of him doing so. His column is entitled "The Moral Power of Curiosity," which is particularly apt. The illustration in the column is about the discovery of flash trading in stock markets, which is a form of front-running. The specifics of the example are interesting, because Brooks' notes the limitations of the business metaphor for understanding human behavior:
"One lesson of this tale is that capitalism doesn’t really work when it relies on the profit motive alone. If everybody is just chasing material self-interest, the invisible hand won’t lead to well-functioning markets. It will just lead to arrangements in which market insiders take advantage of everybody else. Capitalism requires the full range of motivation, including the intrinsic drive for knowledge and fairness."
I could literally not agree more, and this phenomenon is especially crucial in education.  You can't just rely on individuals pursuing equilibrium strategies -- the effectiveness of democracy turns on motivated individuals driven by a desire for knowledge and fairness -- our government, and our civil society, is a product of the essence of education.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Continuation. Persistence. Grit.

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I'm kind of a fan of Apple's ads.  Heck, I'm just a fan of Apple. While Apple's practically omnipresent in 2014, it was a far different world fifteen years ago, with me carrying my blue clamshell iBook to class in law school.  Back in the 20th century, in the corporate world, Apple was a non-entity; there might be one Mac, sure -- it'd be in the corporate suite, in marketing, where it was the purview of the "graphic designer," the safe, corporate-oriented name for the company's artist.

The realm of the Mac through the 1990s was education -- perhaps an old IIGS, running a library's card catalog software, with a copy of "Encarta" perpetually stuck in its CD-ROM drive. Apple had long since stopped seeming cool.  The company was barely hanging on, the last gasp of hippies, diehards and art nerds.  Destined to be "upgraded" as soon as the school got a bit more budget.

Apple didn't become the most valuable company in the world because their computers were better than everyone else's. Their hardware was often both worse and more expensive. But Apple's long been special in education and the arts. Apple just hung in there, for years. What made  their products different was and is what you can do with a Mac -- with an iPhone -- not processor speed or display resolution.

But Apple itself is special because it survived through pure grit.


So, I tend to keep an eye out for when Apple's creative team goes in a new direction. There's careful thought put into what they say, even when they say very little.  And I noticed a distinct change in the middle of 2013. 

The Apple advertisement at the right is called "Music Every Day."  It's an odd one for Apple, strangely somber, almost a memento mori, or perhaps sounding the theme "et in Arcadia ego." There is happiness, yes, and youthful energy; athletics, dancing, mass transit, a trace of the international, but there's something else, not fully captured artistically.  There's a sense of individuals striving towards achievement, who haven't yet made it.

Towards the end of 2013, watching college football, I noticed that UCLA was running a spot that was as dissimilar from the standard "Everything is Awesome!" college promos as an Apple advertisement is from one for Radio Shack.
"It's not always easy being the exception, the square peg. They'll tell you, you don't belong. That it's not your place. That it'll never fly." 
"But here, you learn you have a choice. You can listen to those voices." 
"Or you can leave them all speechless." 
The UCLA spot lacks the winsome ambiguity of Apple's; it is unselfconscious in its evocation of "carpe diem." But it was the speaker's directness with the student -- you have a choice, and it's not going to be easy -- that caught my attention.

And then, this week, I saw "Your Verse." Maybe Apple decided that because it's been twenty-five years since "Dead Poets Society" was released, that it was as good a time for an homage as any. But one way or another, Apple got ahold of the rights to Robin Williams' monologue as John Keating. I think they thus completed the circle they started with "Music Every Day" -- that they captured the educational ethos so lacking in the business metaphors that permeate the software and computer industry, and most if not all of late modern/contemporary American life:
"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer -- That you are here -- that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse." 
"What will your verse be?"
Robbin Williams as John Keating
Dead Poets Society (1989)

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Apple uses of the voice of education -- Robin Williams as Keating --  to tell us education is about art, and that art's about grit. About persistence in the face of defeat. It's about commitment, about being driven by passion, even when daunted, fearful, and afraid. Apple turned to Dead Poets Society for words intuitively understood by a generation less inclined towards the commercial metaphors so readily employed by those who perhaps still cling fondly to old copies of Windows 95. For "Your Verse" is the speech of a teacher ultimately fired by his private school for unveiling the subversive nature of poetry -- of education -- of art -- to his students.


I've been working with UC and CSU performance data for about the past six months, thinking about measuring grit.  I've been comparing the grade point averages earned by students in college who attended different high schools, and I know from the data that the students in Sonoma Valley have done very well indeed. Whether compared to similar schools or private schools, at CSU or UC, the students from Sonoma Valley earn better grades.  Further, more and more students from Sonoma Valley are admitted to CSU and UC with each passing class -- UC admissions increased by 70% in the past decade, and CSU admissions have increased by 180% since 1996.  In addition, the admission rate for students from Sonoma Valley to UC continues to rise, from 74% of the students who applied in 2000 to 96% of the students who applied in 2007.

As I've been looking at the data, I've had a particular model, a particular equation in mind.  The idea, more or less, has been to take the high school grade point averages of initially enrolled students, and then comparing that to the first-year grade point averages of those who remained in college after the first year. Of course, when I put it that way, the issue leaps off the page for most readers. But it took a while of looking at a screen of numbers and strings of SQL to see the important point being missed. CSU calls it continuation, UC calls it persistence, but it's really just grit. For the correct denominator in calculating averages should be the number of students that initially enrolled, not the number continuing.

PDF available at
And that's when the data (PDF here) got very interesting indeed.

I wasn't surprised at all to see the Pumas at the top of the table; most any way you cut it, Maria Carrillo's the best high school north of San Francisco.

El Molino and Analy, on the one hand, and Piner and Vintage, on the other, are the schools where CSU and UC data diverges the most.  That kind of makes sense; the West Sonoma County schools have strong reputations, and UC's probably reaching deeper into their classes than they would otherwise, which is why their kids appear to do so much worse in relative terms at UC than CSU.  The reverse is likely true for Piner and Vintage. A student attending El Molino and Analy that's on the bubble for UC probably heads for CSU if she earns the same numbers at Piner or Vintage.

Marin Academy and Branson are a real study in contrasts; no one appears to have lower High School grade inflation than Marin Academy (a very significant achievement). But MA's students look brittle.  Their drop out rate in college's the highest for both UC and CSU. This clearly isn't simply correlated with their being an expensive private school; the Branson students don't mirror the trend.

But the surprise was that, despite months of looking at the data, I just hadn't realized how well Sonoma's students would do. Because Sonoma's students refuse to break. The impact of drops at UC for Sonoma's kids is the lowest in the table.   Apparently, when you throw silver and green in the wash, those colors just don't run.


Instilling grit is no easy thing, and measuring it's even harder. Yet Sonoma's teachers and administrators are making it happen, which reminds me that if talent's defined as the ability to hit a target no one else can reach, genius is hitting a target no one else can see.  And the students are responding -- because the more I've talked with parents, the more they've told me that students want to go to school in Sonoma Valley -- that it is the parents that are interested in other schools.  

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Understanding the dynamic has taken time; parsing the cognitive metaphors has been tough. Parents talk, for instance, of the quality of private schools as they do of cars; hearing about them sounds like nothing so much as a newly minted Yuppie gushing over a leased 325i.  "You should see the acceleration! And the class size!" But the conversations seldom include the phrase "my student's so excited to be there ..."  Instead, the business metaphors start flying by fast and furious.

Private school administrators have often wholly adopted the business metaphor for education, emphasizing features that most attract the interest of the implicit customer, the parents. More disconcerting is that there appears to be a certain amount of grade inflation being allowed at the less expensive private schools, perhaps to aid in convincing parents that their "investment" really is paying off. Yet alarm should be focused on the seeming failure of private schools to prepare students to handle failure and adversity, to coach grittiness.

I have tremendous sympathy for parents approaching high school for the first time, and the concerns they feel. To help me understand those fears, I turn to Mark Rothko and the Seagram murals. Of one piece in the Tate Modern, Simon Schama tells us:
"Red on Maroon" (1959)
Mark Rothko (1903‑1970), Tate Modern
available at
"... a hanging veil, suspended between two columns, an opening, that beckons, or denies entrance.  A blind window? A gateway -- if some of those portals are blocked, others open into the unknown space that Rothko talked about, the place that only art can take us, far away from the buzzing static of the moment ... to feel the poignancy of our comings and our goings, our entrances and our exits, our births and our deaths, womb, tomb, and everything between. Can art ever be more complete, more powerful? I don't think so."
For when I think of the concerned parent, shopping schools with every iota of their energy, I think of them gazing upon a high school much as Schama views Red on Maroon.  A school, particularly a high school, is a gateway through which their family may struggle to pass, to a destination unknown. A blocked portal, through which they're not even sure they want to go, knowing only that they feel little choice, on a path they sense will be fraught with danger, danger that they fear.

Rothko understood that fear.  Rothko had become used to poverty and failure.  He had gone through 30 years of financial hardship and mental struggle to find his style, to become perhaps the premier artist of the late 1950s, if not the 20th century. For Rothko had learned the meaning of grit, and what it takes to get it:
"When I was a younger man art was a lonely thing ... no galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose and a vision to gain.  Today it is not quite the same.  It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large, I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many of those who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence, where we can root and grow."

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Rothko's use of the metaphor of the forest brings me to James Scott's concept of legibility. For it can be hard to appreciate all the subtleties of the social dynamics of a diverse high school like Sonoma Valley. The understandable inclination may be to come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what the school ought to be.  But our public schools are producing students that are gritty and resilient --  that have the vitality of a natural forest.  It may be that there are benefits to be had from the walled gardens of "elite" private high schools. But the "scientific forests" James Scott studied eventually underwent ecological collapse, while the complex, confusing, "illegible" natural forests thrived.


So to the parents, swallowing perhaps more than a bit fearfully as they gaze at Red on Maroon, I say that the data shows that students in Sonoma are authentically, personally engaged in pursuing their own education. They speak the language of Robin William's John Keating. That the results are strong, and getting even stronger.

To the students, by contrast,  I say take your common core skills, and make an argument for Sonoma from evidence. The PDF is here. Should your parents suggest they're not sure whether you're right, try to not be too hard on them. They may be just a bit of a PC. You're probably becoming a Mac. And that's not so bad. Especially if it reminds you of the most important point of all.

That Apple survived through pure grit. 

And so will you.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Rough And Honest, The State As A Work of Art.

Hallway, 201 W Napa St, Sonoma, CA 95476
Photo taken Feb. 16, 2014.
This week, as I walked through Sonoma’s Black Bear restaurant, I noticed the photograph on the right, of the dedication of the Bear Flag monument in the Sonoma Plaza. It's dated June 14, 1914.

It’s not often that just about the only statue on the Sonoma Plaza turns 100, I thought. And even rarer that the anniversary would seem to approach without notice. But then I reminded myself that the Bear Flag Revolt, a mere historical footnote, has little relevance today.

And then I remembered the story of, of Sonoma Interconnect.   And I realized my dismissiveness was totally,  completely, and utterly wrong. 


Late in his life, bankrupt, and, to fashionable society, a has-been, the 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn won (due to the untimely death of Govert Flinck) the commission for a history painting for Amsterdam's Royal Palace (think U.S. Capitol).  The subject was to be Claudius Civilis, the leader of the Batavian (~Dutch) rebellion against the Romans two thousand years ago.  His patrons expected that Rembrandt would produce the detailed realism of the Dutch Golden Age.  All Rembrandt had to do (per Simon Schama) was paint it "straight," to show the wealthy Dutch what they wanted to see,  and a comeback (and large fee) would have been his.  

"The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis"
Rembrandt van Rijn, 1662 Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden
image available at
And Rembrandt did anything but. Rembrandt refused to paint by the rule book - he created an unfinished, aggressively raw canvas, a visual roar.  Rembrandt painted the roughest, toughest history painting ever, a barbarian king in his lair, his tribesmen swearing oaths, Claudius Civilis, not in profile as a Baroque artist would have done, but with his empty eye socket glaring. For Rembrandt, as Schama says, had been stripped not just of his fortune but of his illusions, and now what the wealthy of Amsterdam wanted to see was beside the point, for this was what they needed to see.  

Schama calls this the thing that drives the very greatest of art -- contempt for ingratiation.  Paraphrasing Schama now (but I don't really care, because Schama's ripping off Rembrandt in the first place), he calls this Rembrandt's group portrait of Amsterdam, a portrait of who the Dutch are and always have been, a city and a country that is a work in progress: 
"Let the high and mighty celebrate their greatness with their fastidious etiquette ... smother yourself in fashion at your peril ... but these are your flesh-and-blood, rough and honest ... they made you, so banish your embarrassment, embrace them, and honor them, for everything you think matters doesn't ... as long as you have your rough freedom, you have all you need."
And Amsterdam refused to look.  The painting hung for less than two weeks; taken down, Rembrandt put his own knife to the canvas, cutting it, perhaps hopeful he could sell a fragment to a patron, his commission never paid.  The mutilated stump of the picture, looking nothing like an old master, was found in Rembrandt's home at his death seven years later. 


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I think of The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis when I consider Jacob Burckhardt, the 19th century Swiss historian, and his brilliant organizing metaphor -- that in understanding the State, our source domain of knowledge should be art.  In telling the history of the city-states of Machiavelli's The Prince, Burckhardt writes:
“A multitude of political units - republics and despots — in part of long standing, in part of recent origin, whose existence was founded simply on their power to maintain it. In them for the first time we detect the modern political spirit of Europe, surrendered freely to its own instincts, often displaying the worst features of an unbridled egotism, outraging every right, and killing every germ of a healthier culture. But, wherever this vicious tendency is overcome or in any way compensated, a new fact appears in history—the State as the outcome of reflection and calculation, the State as a work of art.
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Holding the metaphor in my mind, and taking Schama's point about Rembrandt seriously, that the thing that drives the very greatest of art is contempt for ingratiation, I turn to the work of Cass Sunstein, the 21st century legal scholar. Should one of my readers meet me in Peet's Coffee with an hour to talk, I'd probably mention at some point that the assumed voting behavior in a Condorcet jury is not always a Nash equilibrium, a point that usually takes a couple of pages of equations to get across. Yet Cass explains it succinctly:
"... deliberative bodies are subject to serious problems. Much of the time, informational influences and social pressures lead members not to say what they know. As a result, groups tend to propagate and even to amplify cognitive errors ... [producing] forms of self-silencing that are highly damaging to good deliberation ... well functioning groups take steps to ensure ... people feel free to disclose what they believe to be true." 
Self-silencing is highly damaging to good deliberation. Democracy depends on people feeling free to disclose what they believe to be true. 

Rembrandt's visual roar.


On December 13, 2010, Google announced the selection of to operate an experimental, prototype high-speed fiber optic network under construction at Stanford University. That turned heads on the Peninsula.  Google, perhaps the titan of the Internet, had tapped a near-unknown for network engineering expertise. 

On October 10, 2011, the world got a hint of why.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States government had obtained a court order to force Google and to turn over information about Jacob Appelbaum. When you read "Jacob Appelbaum," the next four words that should pop into your head are AssangeWikileaksNSA, and Snowden. Google wouldn't say a word, but Dane Jasper confirmed had fought the order, and lost. Company photo.
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Since 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has ranked firms on the degree to which they protect their users when facing government requests for information.  In 2012, in EFF's ranking of Internet firms, entitled "Who Has Your Back?" the #1 ranked firm, in the world, is

Who in the hell is


In 1992, if you were a high school student in Santa Rosa, and you were interested in "computers," you probably had heard you could get on the "Internet" with a network account at the Santa Rosa Junior College. Someone might have even offered to sell you one (I'm not saying I was a buyer ...). That gave Dane Jasper, a student lab technician, and Scott Doty, a student employee in the Computing Services department, an idea. When asked, Jasper said that "[w]e found that high school students were buying [SRJC] IDs on the black market for $25 to get this product. That' s what drove me to start a company and do this privately."

Scott Doty and Dane Jasper
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Jasper and Doty own the company together to this day. They have no significant education beyond their time at the Santa Rosa Junior College. They started with $9,000 in cash and equipment, working from a room in Dane's mom's house. Today, the firm has no debt, hundreds of employees, and most importantly, a reputation for candor. “Basically," says Jasper, "we only grew as fast as we could afford to grow. At one point, we closed the door to new clients while we waited on new capacity.” The company's corporate history attributes their success to " ... customer service, careful design philosophy, extensive network monitoring, and 'straight-shooter' philosophy in informing customers about problems."

When asked about Appelbaum, CEO Dane Jasper characterized the fight as "rather expensive, but the right thing to do." Paying out of their own pockets, with their own money -- earned, not inherited -- on the line, the principals of convinced a court to lift its seal, to tell Appelbaum the order existed. 

Dane Jasper and Scott Doty come from the Internet as I knew it as a teenager and a young man.  Not the gleaming promise of the wealth of Bubble 2.0, but instead seemingly marginal and scrappy. A work in progress. Tie-dyed, perhaps, but somehow also cautious.  Hardly fastidious, maybe unfashionable, but oftentimes speaking the language of freedom, particularly freedom of expression.  Always intensely aware that values are at stake. And above all else, not of Sonoma's world of wine and tourism. 

For Dane and Scott are exemplars of Sonoma County's flesh-and-blood, rough and honest. It is no accident they are the products of the Junior College. 


"Bear Flag Monument"
image available at
It may be mere chance that Dane and Scott chose the name ""  Dane himself characterizes "Sonoma Interconnect" as a backronym, to somehow explain his choice of their domain name.  But that is the explanation he chose; he took upon himself the mantle, the power of the name, and has shown us all its 21st century relevance. 

And thus we find the cause with which to celebrate the enduring importance of the nearly 100-year-old statue at the northeast corner of the Sonoma Plaza.  The bear flaggers show us, as does Claudius Civilis, what it takes to start a State;, like Rembrandt, how to keep it.  The beginnings are rough -- the bear flaggers as ne'er-do-wells has long been a latent theme in the literature. Yet we should banish our embarrassment. Let the high and mighty celebrate their greatness with fastidious etiquette, for we smother ourselves in mere fashion at our peril. This June, when we come together around that piece of art that stands at the starting point of our State, it would serve us well to remember that the State itself is a work of art -- a work in progress, rough in conception, honest in practice.  For as the bear flaggers knew, and as Dane and Scott have reminded us, as long as we have our rough freedom, we have all we need.

#Classy, @dane.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

#SOTU - "When Women Succeed, Sonoma Succeeds."

"It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode. This year, let's all come together – Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street – to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds."
-Barack Obama, #SOTU, 1/28/2014  
The City of Sonoma has an eight member Planning Commission, entirely composed of middle-aged men. The six voting members from the City all live in expensive homes on the "East Side" (the average value exceeds a million dollars).  The Commission has become a class-and-gender monoculture that's failing in its basic role of providing predictable evaluations of the viability of any given project with the voters, because its members no longer represent the community -- the essence of representative democracy.  

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Change won't come easily. There are many in Precincts 1801 and 1805 that, like me, if asked, are inclined to turn down the opportunity to serve.  It's no accident that they would -- the system's built-in hostility to those perceived as "outsiders" shunts away potential representatives with a different view -- diverting them to places like the City's Cultural and Fine Arts Commission, which has ended up being composed of eight women. The selection process -- appointment -- encourages those motivated to participate to curry favor with elected politicians -- a craven process at best -- rather than to get to know their neighborhood, the essence of the metis our governmental system depends upon.

The problem's getting out of hand. The City faces expensive litigation that might have been avoided if the Planning Commissioners had been able to give voice to the concerns that led to the Council blocking AT&T's cell tower. Developers like SunLever can't count on the Planning Commission's approval to mean much of anything when the City Council's overruling unanimous decisions. And Measure B was a not-veiled-at-all effort to hamstring the ability of the Planning Commission to approve any hotels, a clear-cut vote of no-confidence from half of the electorate.

This post is devoted to explaining why allowing the situation to continue is outrageous. If this post makes you upset, that's a feature, not a bug. A body of unelected individuals, serving lengthy terms, that rarely (if ever) are subject to supervision or direction from the council (let alone frequent replacement) isn't democracy in action, and it isn't serving the best interests of the community.  When we establish a system that depends on a process of currying favor, we shouldn't be surprised when it gets dominated by wealthy, middle-aged men.  But Sonoma County's a different kind of a place -  it's a place where women win elections. The appointment process has produced a dramatically unbalanced group, and it should be changed. Promptly.

Because when women succeed, Sonoma succeeds.  


It's been an interesting ten weeks since Measure B went down to defeat, as illustrated by two sets of events.  The first is the City of Sonoma's turning down AT&T’s request to install a cell tower, and the second's a "meeting" called by Owen Smith of the SunLever Companies, regarding the old Sonoma Truck and Auto site on Broadway.  The loss by AT&T was surprising -- the proposal had won 7-0 at the Planning Commission level, and AT&T went so far as to seek reconsideration of the decision, which was denied (expensive litigation is now expected.) The meeting by the SunLever Companies was perhaps even more unusual -- the potential developer told participants he was "open to any reasonable idea" for the parcel -- the opposite of the choreographed presentation usually made to the public for what are preconceived projects.  

And in the midst of these two issues, a third point, a quote from the Mayor, came to mind.  Tom Rouse (the only member of the City Council to vote to allow AT&T's cell tower) argued that the City should trust the unanimous decision of the Planning Commission. "We have a commission we put our trust in," he said, and "I must believe they did their homework."

Watching an elected leader deferring on the weighing of private rights versus public goods, trusting in an unelected commission to make decisions about the balance and character of the community, caused me to raise an eyebrow.  In general, that sort of decision making is at the core of why people run for a City Council seat -- they're personally engaged with the facts, motivated by a sense of duty to serve their constituents even where their individual interests are not at issue -- and that such leaders aren't therefore prone to defer to the decisions of unelected appointees whose relationship with the voters can be tenuous at best. 

Yet in a certain sense, I feel like Tom's not entirely wrong -- he should be able to rely on the Planning Commission. But he can't.  And then I realized why SunLever feels the need to go directly to the public rather than develop a proposal first ... and why AT&T (and indeed the Mayor) were surprised the cell tower went down to defeat. And it turns on the makeup of Sonoma's Planning Commission. 


Who planning commissioners are, as most every voter agrees regardless of what the voter knows about embodied cognition, is directly relevant to the execution of their duties. Their names are posted on the City's web site, and unless one of them is concealing a very significant secret, they're all men. Further, where the different commissioners live is anything but hidden -- their addresses are freely available on the web.

I've run the map on the right before; it is the map of the precinct returns for Measure B.  Those precincts in favor of hotel construction are in silver (gray).  I've gone and highlighted the lots where each of the six Sonoma residents who are voting members of the planning commission live, and have added flags so that the locations are clearer.  I also mapped the location of the residence of Tom Rouse (his flag is the yellow one).

As can be seen, every one of the six voting planning commissioners from the City lives in the portion of the town that voted to allow hotel construction; none live in the west, or “green” side of town.

"The Magnificent Seven,"
Image available at
I also grabbed the Zillow valuations for each of the properties.  The average value of a planning commissioner’s home in the City of Sonoma is $1.277 million (and one is over $2.5 million). I note that the Mayor's $1.462 million home is on 5th St E, and that he and the City's voting planning commission members are thus effectively the "Magnificent Seven" -- middle aged men living in expensive homes on the East Side of Sonoma.

But it wasn't until after hearing the President's State of the Union speech last night that I decided that I really should publish something about this.  Because criticizing the Planning Commission solely on the basis of the neighborhoods its members are drawn from is an instance of me pulling my punch.

Because the really atrocious part of this situation is that not a single member of the Planning Commission is female.

It's not hard to see why Tom Rouse felt he could trust the Planning Commission -- they pretty much all look and live exactly like he does.  But elections in Sonoma aren't solely decided by the policy preferences of the East Side of Sonoma, and the City Council doesn't measure decisions solely based on their acceptability in Precincts 1802, 1804, and 1813. The Planning Commission is an excellent vehicle for assessing projects to the degree it represents the community -- the essence of representative democracy --  and the unpredictability of the AT&T outcome and the uncertainty surrounding SunLever's project are evidence of the fact that the Planning Commission is failing in its basic role of providing predictable evaluations of the viability with the voters of any given project, due to the fact that it has become a class-and-gender monoculture. 


This situation has been a long time in the making.  Planning commissioners can serve three terms -- a two year term, followed by a four year, and then another two year term. Commissioners are rarely removed once appointed, and the ability of the City Council to take action to make the Planning Commission reflect the community is limited by the current status of the City's code.

But municipal codes can change.  And millionaire middle-aged men aren't the only occupants of the City of Sonoma.  Reform could include adding commissioners, changing the composition, or moving to a system where council members each appoint a commissioner (or two) to serve coterminously (as Sonoma County does).  But none of these would address the core problem that reform should be designed to address. 

There is no substitute in democracy for personal engagement with the facts.  Developing that kind of local knowledge means abandoning the influence-oriented appointment process we have in favor of the kind of institution that encourages metis -- democracy.  There is every reason to shift to direct election of planning commissioners on a per-precinct basis.
Precinct elections encourage Commissioners to get to know their neighborhoods. Such elections recognize the importance of the two-way relationship between our representatives and our government's professional staff -- that oftentimes it is our representatives who will explain our government's policies to us, rather than merely supervising the conduct of those decisions by the experts we hire in specific policy areas -- a function of elected officials that will only gain in importance with the burgeoning of smaller-scale "social" media. Frequent precinct elections (these should be two year terms) are a natural stepping stone for Commissioners to move to higher office, because it causes them to learn how to conduct smaller elections and develop campaign teams-- and developing qualified candidates by providing them a zone of proximal development is an important characteristic of any political system -- for we must recognize that we are constantly engaged in the process of developing our own leaders. 

For the development of those leaders, the nurturing our leaders, is why elections are really the solution to the problem we face.  As David McCuan, the Sonoma State political scientist, has noted before,  female candidates in Sonoma County typically do 5 to 8 percentage points better in elections than men. This is not a point that should surprise anyone -- there's a reason that Nicole Mann came from Rohnert Park ... or the New York Times national education reporter is from Petaluma ... or that the Maria Carrillo High women's soccer team is often the best in America.  Because when it's not about influence or favor, when it's on the merits, our voters reward the self-evident ability and achievement on display.


I can see how this argument would lead one to conclude that the City should change the Council itself to precinct elections.  This has come up in other cities in Sonoma County before.  The charter process is a burdensome, overwrought solution that's looking for a problem; a Council elected by the City proper encourages a broader view of problems, that allows an important second pass in any process of decision making, and one of the key reasons that direct elections work best at a lower level.  We want the Council to consider the common good, and Commission decisions are always subject to the retained power of the Council to overrule the Commission.

Pragmatically, electing commissioners is a process that could be done at the General Election on November 4. The Council should act, to ensure that the planning commission proceedings are a fair prediction of what will occur at the Council.  The appointment process has produced a dramatically unbalanced group of middle-aged men living in expensive homes nearly next door to each other. Cronyism has resulted in the exclusion of women from the decision-making process, to the detriment of our community. This situation should be brought to an end. Now.

"Nothing in life that's worth anything is easy."
-SFC Cory Remsburg.  
I quoted Obama to start this post, and I end with a link to the video of the key part of the speech.  Because the quote was the applause line of the night. When Nancy Pelosi stands to clap, and John McCain smiles in agreement ... when Dianne Feinstein rises and leads the standing ovation, it's clear that on a federal level, the unique characteristics of California, where Malala Yousafzai becomes Janet Yellen, should and very well could have the same power nationally as they can in our little town.  

Reforming Sonoma won't come easily.  Nothing worthwhile is, which was the second applause point of the evening, for Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg.  But it is high time we take the action necessary to reform our small, broken, but important political system here in Sonoma.  All it takes is the same commitment to achievement, merit, and democracy that, increasingly, is defining the Golden State's model.  And the audience that is watching stretches far beyond the bounds of our own familiar shores ...

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Overton Window.

Glenn Beck (first and last time he'll be mentioned here, I figure) wrote a novel in 2010 called "The Overton Window." I haven't read it, and don't intend to -- it's #30,293 on Amazon, and this review should discourage anyone tempted to pick it up.

But Beck's choice of title broadened knowledge of the eponymous concept. It's named after Joe Overton, the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. Overton thought that policy debates are usually limited by a "window" of public acceptance, and that ideas outside the window are rejected without examination. Overton argued that advocating "unthinkable" ideas could "move" the window, thus making slightly less radical ideas seem more acceptable.

Which is where I turn in trying to understand why the Sonoma Index-Tribune published this piece by Roger Hartley.

The paper's decision seems forgivable at first. Roger looks like a Sonoma kind of a guy -- his LinkedIn profile suggests he's a silver-haired outdoorsy engineer. His appearance and background would make most people give him a +1 on  credibility.  But I offer that more as an excuse for the paper than as a reason --  because publishing his piece is the equivalent of the Index-Tribune forwarding the "5¢ surcharge on every e-mail" urban legend to thousands of inboxes.


Hartley alleges that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District is "[a]n uncontrolled bureaucracy [that] has criminalized our quiet enjoyment of life and in true Orwellian fashion has turned neighbor against neighbor with an anonymous tip hotline to report any suspected criminal activity. From a Constitutional point of view, the real criminals are BAAQMD and the 22 politicians that sit on its board."

"Q40a. There needs to be stricter laws and
regulations to protect the environment?"
Time series, 1987-2012, The Pew Research Center
available online at
That's a pretty remarkable charge. I mean, clean air's kind of a big deal -- since 1987, essentially every Democrat in America, and even half of all Republicans, have agreed that we need stricter laws to protect the environment.  The San Francisco Bay Area is something of a Democratic stronghold, so finding strong environmental protection here should be akin to discovering that water is wet, or there's coal in Newcastle.  Claiming that local politicians and government officials acting to protect the environment are breaking the law means there'd have to be some pretty remarkable evidence of malfeasance to prove that, let alone credibly charge it.

And Mr. Hartley duly provides a certain amount of innuendo to support his allegation -- specifically, that the location of the BAAQMD air quality monitoring station in Napa, California was deliberately chosen to create, in effect, "false positives" concerning air pollution, in an effort by government officials to justify the existence of their jobs.  However, Mr. Hartley doesn't actually include the evidence -- instead, he suggests his readers do the research themselves:
"a former employee of BAAQM has alleged that the system for monitoring air quality is intentionally rigged to produce more alerts. For example, the air sensor in Napa is on top of a Mexican bakery a few feet downwind from a BBQ restaurant ... (Google 'whistleblower BAAQMD')."
So, the readers of this blog will be familiar with my taking such claims and running down the evidence to support them.  Sure enough, I followed Mr. Hartley's advice, and ran the Google search.  The first result that popped up was from a site -- the one in San Bruno, California.  The article was helpful for a lot of reasons, but the key one is that the article gave the address of the monitoring station.  

It's at 2552 Jefferson.

Now, that address doesn't mean much to most people, but it rang a bell for me.  Following the hunch, I opened up Google Maps and took a look. And I immediately discovered that there are 2,158 reasons why that's exactly the place the BAAQMD should locate its air quality monitoring station -- because the site is across the street from Napa High.

I have a hard time imagining a better place to monitor air quality in Napa County than across from the flagship high school of the largest city.  I mean, there are a lot of kids there, pretty much all the time, and protecting the air that kids breathe seems like it's probably priority number one.  Hell, I'm just going to toss the mediated speech at this point.  It's so obviously priority number one I can't believe the point would be seriously challenged by anyone.

But, of course, I wanted to make sure that I really did have this issue pinned down, and so I went and checked the site's citation to the evidence in support of the "malfeasance" argument.  As seems to be the case from time to time, the link didn't work (I have no idea why newspapers have so many problems with getting hyperlinks right, but it comes up frequently).  After some sleuthing, I managed to track down the "evidence" the anonymous Napa source cites -- it's this PDF, starting at page 265.

Don't worry, I'm not going to make anyone download a 13.64 MB file just to see a page buried in the middle -- I pulled out the relevant documents.  There are two letters, the first of which is a 21-page request from Eric Stevenson (B.S., Chemical Engineering, UC Davis, 1986), the Director of Technical Services at BAAQMD, which was sent to the EPA.  The second is a 3-page response from Matt Lakin (Ph.D., Atmospheric Chemistry, thesis from UC Irvine, 2000), granting the request.

Even casual perusal of the correspondence (I'm talking about page 2 of the request) makes clear that the Napa monitoring station has been in the same location since 1972. Further, the point of the request from BAAQMD to EPA was that the station, as sited, would understate pollution due to scrubbing effects from ozone reacting with nitrogen monoxide emitted from vehicles on Jefferson Street.

OK.  For anyone that really wants to knock themselves out with the science behind this, and impress themselves with the extraordinarily careful work our government officials undertake when protecting the environment, reading these documents should substantially bolster your trust in your government. These are guys with top-notch educations in hard sciences doing the work necessary to justify their procedures to, well, everyone.  And along comes this editorial writer, Roger Hartley, and he accuses them of being criminals.  

Now, I can see that work being criticized by another chemical engineer, or another Ph.D. in chemistry, sure. Such a criticism would probably thoroughly engage the technical analysis of Mr. Stevenson, and point out some issue or another missed by Dr. Lakin.  But Hartley's neither a chemical engineer nor a Ph.D. in chemistry -- he's a civil engineer.  And Hartley doesn't engage the evidence at all.

It doesn't stop there. Hartley takes the crazy and puts it on stilts, and accuses Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin of being criminals.  Presumably this is because they sit on the board of the BAAQMD, and they therefore supervised (!) Mr. Stevenson's request to the EPA ... that the BAAQMD be allowed to continue operating a station that's existed for forty years in the same location? Across from a high school.  Where children study. Because the air kids breathe is, like, not relevant to Napa's air quality or something.


Trust in government is the ball game.  I blogged about that last summer, fairly extensively.  If you decide to go after the public's trust, you better be right.  And we count on our newspaper to require a basic level of evidentiary support before allowing anyone to use its pages to start calling elected officials and dedicated scientists criminals.
"Confidence in Institutions"
Gallup, June 1-4, 2013,
available at

To me, this piece looks like nothing more than an attempt to move the Overton window, to suggest that, well, hey, of course, the claim that Susan Gorin is a criminal is wrong, but perhaps we just shouldn't vote for her because of her misconduct as a member of BAAQMD. Or because she's anti-growth, or some other specious, trumped up charge.  And pieces written for that reason, to game the public's trust, without any evidence, have no place in a newspaper of record.

It may very well be that the response to this piece is nothing at all (or, perhaps a half-hearted nod to editorial "balance"). But our newspaper is an institution we all should be able to trust, even if, in practice, as the graph to the right shows, most people do not. But where, as here, a piece is published that is fairly characterized as a hit piece on a sitting supervisor, to justify calling her a "criminal" without any, any basis whatsoever, well, that just doesn't help the political process at all.

I really think the Index-Tribune should be ashamed. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Do UC What I See?

Infogram available at
A brief post today, mostly because end-of-the-year tasks are taking up a great deal of time.  I'd like to give a big "thank-you" to Ryan Chen of the University of California's Office of the President for retrieving the data for this graph, which is set up as closely as possible to the CSU graph posted last month (for instance, the same schools are included).

Marin Academy again does well; while Sonoma Valley comes in at a 3.11, Marin Academy comes in at a 3.182.  But for perspective, Montgomery High in Santa Rosa comes in at a 3.186 on the same measure.

As you might suspect, I will have more to say about this data ...