Sunday, November 30, 2014

Why Travel Matters.

Back in November of 2012, I ran across this article in the Economist, arguing that the United States was on pace to become the world's largest producer of oil by 2020, and would be able to produce enough energy to be self sufficient by 2035. I recall thinking how dramatic a change that would be -- and I saved the PDF, meaning to blog about it.

"Alberta Energy Firms Face Harsh New Reality"
Jeffrey Jones, Jeff Lewis, Carrie Tait
The Globe and Mail, November 28, 2014.
I wasn't quite sure what to say, though. But spending a little bit of time in Calgary really focused the issue for me. The Alberta business section of the Globe and Mail is on the right (the oil price was also front page news).  I've linked to the main article here.

The recent oil price slide will probably completely eliminate the Canadian federal budget surplus. That creates serious problems for a government that has fixed expenses (salaries, pensions, debt service) but falling revenues. Most of the world at this point has, or soon looks to have, the same problem as Canada.

A nice way to understand this situation is to read a brief blog post of Paul Krugman's from October 15, entitled "1937." He noted that markets are signaling that "once again the big risk is deflation or at least very sub-par inflation."  He measured deflation in that post by looking at the market for Treasurys, specifically the 10-year, showing the yield had fallen below 2%, potentially a sign of recession, deflation, or both.

When I tucked the Economist article away for future reference in 2012, I never would have thought that a falling nominal oil price could be a bad thing.  Today, though, I'm not so sure.

And I'm not the only one.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Do Bubbles Look Like?

Sentinel Media Services
"Midcentury Modern in Sonoma"
 The San Francisco Chronicle, Nov 19, 2014
screenshot taken Nov. 19, 2014
The San Francisco Chronicle gets my attention today.  On a fairly regular basis, the paper features a particular piece of real estate for sale somewhere around the San Francisco Bay Area.

Today, they're publishing about a property on Austin Avenue, in the Prestwood neighborhood of Sonoma.  The asking price is $2,295,000. The house is a little under 1,900 square feet.

You can see the location here. One nice thing about Zillow is that it will show you the recent sale history of the property.  I took a screenshot of that, and that's on the right, too.  

The Zillow history shows that William Grecian tried to sell this property back in November of 2010 for $445,000; he couldn't find any takers.  He dropped the price to $420,000 in April of 2011, but still didn't find a buyer.  He dropped the price another $12,500 -- and that's when Laura and Richard Tackett made their offer, for $407,500 on July 15, 2011.  

Zillow.com
"826 Austin Ave, Sonoma"
 screenshot taken Nov. 19, 2014
available at http://tinyurl.com/krxbtzh
Laura and Richard held the property for 872 days.  On December 3, 2013, they listed it for sale at $648,000, a 59% price increase.  Laura and Richard figured the change in the real estate market meant that they'd just made an investment with approximately a 20% annual rate of return.  Of course, Richard and Laura were wrong; the property didn't sell for $648,000. 

Instead, it sold 17 days after listing for $730,000. 

More like a 26% annual return.  

The property was purchased by an LLC, which is more or less the general practice in California with real estate projects that are expected to appreciate significantly.  The registered agent for the LLC is Patrick Doyle of Petaluma, who's a general contractor and is the manager of the LLC. The Deed of Trust on the property (which I checked) reveals the equitable owners. The Deed of Trust is a public record and if anyone's particularly excited to find out who put up the money for this deal, feel free to head to the County of Sonoma's Recorder's office -- they're open 8-5 Monday through Friday.  

The LLC listed the property for sale on November 5, 2014.  The LLC held the property for 320 days.  I can't calculate the annual rate of return, because the calculator I use presumes that the values change monthly; here, the ∆ in the price is so substantial that the number of days included can change the implied rate of return.  But it looks like about a 215% presumed annual rate of return.

Comments, "Midcentury Modern in Sonoma"
Sentinel Media Services
The San Francisco Chronicle
screenshot taken Nov. 19, 2014
There are a great many things I could say about this situation. I'm going to hold those observations, and I think I'll revisit this blog post in a couple of years (months?), perhaps updating it with the transaction history of the address.  

At this point, though, I do want to draw attention to the comments about the house on the Chronicle's web site.  

One poster thought the property looked like a good "flip."  

Another wrote that "I can't believe anyone would pay over 2 million for this toy house."

Interesting.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Kintsugi and Courts.

"Kintsugi," Wikipedia. 
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places." Ernest HemingwayA Farewell to Arms

A "thank-you" to Pat Brown first, for linking to an image of a piece of Japanese ceramic ware. The picture illustrates Kintsugi, the Japanese technique for repairing broken pottery, using a lacquer or resin sprinkled with powdered gold.

The æsthetic value of Kintsugi comes from the marks of wear, an inevitability for the handiwork of humans in a land of earthquakes (like Japan or California). Kintsugi highlights the cracks and repairs as simply an event in life, rather than allowing service to end at the time of the damage. Kintsugi does not attempt to hide the injury, but instead "the repair is illuminated," illustrating the vicissitudes of existence.

"Napa County Courthouse Plaza," Wikipedia.
image available at http://tinyurl.com/lg26yxc
Given the beauty of the bowl pictured, it made me think of the recent damage to the Napa County courthouse in the 2014 South Napa Earthquake.  I have an emotional attachment to the structure, having been sworn in as an attorney there before my first trial. How fitting would it be, I thought, to embrace Kintsugi in the context of the High Victorian Italianate architecture of the historic 1878 structure?

Such a reminder seems somehow particularly appropriate for a building dedicated to law. To quote Holmes, law is a series of painful steps and world-shaking contests "by which mankind has worked and fought from savage isolation to organic social life." Law does not flow from some mysterious omnipresence in the sky, but is instead the consequence of the work of minds and hands. It is subject to crisis, disillusionment, and despair, much like pottery inevitably suffers breaks, knocks, and shattering in daily life.  Yet the æsthetic value shared by precious pottery, and even-more-precious justice, when joined by illumination, can make each more beautiful, and perhaps both even stronger for the history -- not less.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Trust Levels of News Sources.

I caught this on Twitter yesterday, and found it revealing. The Pew Research Center (previously came up here and here) conducted a survey across the United States to determine which media sources are the most trusted.  However, the researchers introduced nuance into their model, by investigating the ideological identification of the respondents.

One irony of the survey is that the sources that Americans trust the most are the Economist (a British newspaper masquerading as a magazine) and the BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation).   The most trusted American sources are NPR and PBS, followed by the Wall Street Journal (which happens to be the only publication more trusted than not across the spectrum).

One interesting feature is the "hard shift" in this table, where the spectrum doesn't gradually adjust from one side to the other through the "equally trusted and distrusted" data point, and instead goes right to "distrusted" -- and where the "mixed" group also distrusts the source.  There are only three -- The Daily Show, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck.

I also note (without comment) that even those who identify as "mostly conservative" express skepticism towards Rush Limbaugh, who is the least trusted generally known figure in the table ...

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dual Immersion Enhances Attention.

The benefit of dual immersion in education has come up here before; the Prospero blog on Economist.com is the reason that I again return to the subject.  Earlier studies pointed to the benefit of bilingual education by noting enhanced executive function and delayed mental decline; but new research has special relevance for the screen-time enhanced, short attention span generation we all seem to be raising.

Roberto Filippi led a team that investigated the ability of bilinguals -- not those with a modest ability in a foreign language that is rarely employed, but in those who are required to use the language frequently in daily life -- to avoid distraction when concentrating on speech.  The study assessed listening comprehension while interfering conversations, first in English (understood by all subjects), and then in Greek (understood by none), were played at the same time.  The bilinguals exceeded the controls in both measures, supporting the hypothesis of the researchers that switching languages constantly exercises the mind; Prospero compares it to Crossfit for the brain.

This topic came up for David Brooks in the New York Times about four months ago, in his column "The Art of Focus."  Brooks suggested we're all losing the attention "war," living distracted lives, unable to focus on what we want to or should focus on.  Brooks cited research showing that two-thirds of the subjects in a comprehensive study of white collar professionals reported they do not have the ability to focus on one thing at a time at work. For the concerned parent, this is a strong argument that the impact of a dual immersion education, as our students move through their academic and professional careers, may stretch far beyond the obvious power it grants to communicate in more than one language ...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

@sonomanews, a well reasoned and valuable pool editorial -- http://tinyurl.com/mjhxw2e

"How To Save A River," 
David M. Bolling (1993)
So, I give the Sonoma Index-Tribune a fair (sometimes, they think, unfair) share of criticism when they take chances on publishing third party pieces on their editorial page. But the editorials they draft themselves are different.  Today, they comment on the plans for Sonoma's pool, and the editorial is well-taken.

There's a specific reason that I want to single out this editorial, and it's because it debunks an idea that's been advanced against the pool that's obviously wrong, but that the community needed someone to do the math on, and to publish widely:
"[W]e have begun hearing timid voices of dissent, arguing that in the midst of the worst drought in modern California history we can ill-afford to waste water on a non-essential facility like a public pool." 
Intuitively, most people sense that there's no way a Valley of 42,296 people has its water use significantly impacted by an aquatic complex, but the argument creates a certain degree of uncertainty. Earlier this year, that kind of uncertainty (in reverse) was used by Roger Hartley to go after the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which I blogged about here. So the Index-Tribune broke out their reference materials, fired up Excel, and ran the numbers:
"[T]he average, daily per capita water consumption in Sonoma County is 160 gallons ... [t]he figure for Sonoma is closer to 180 gallons. We are also being asked – almost but not quite mandated – to reduce that consumption by 20 percent, a per capita reduction of 32 gallons a day. For the estimated 40,000 residents of the Sonoma Valley, that daily reduction in water use would equal about 1,280,000 gallons. [emphasis added.
"The volume of a standard Olympic swimming pool is about 660,000 gallons."
And there it is; a half-day's reduction by the Valley, along the lines requested by the Sonoma County Water Agency, and we've filled the pool.  Water's an important issue, but when you have a newspaper edited by the former executive director of Friends of the River, you should expect water policy's use as a red herring to get shut down, rather hard, quite quickly.

This isn't to say that the City Council meeting on July 21 necessarily epitomized Sonoma's ideal of procedural due process and organizational rationality.  Indeed, the hurried, rushed, and probably not-yet-fully-thought-through planning for the City of Sonoma's contribution to the pool demonstrates all the problems local government has in marshaling initiative. But the great and the good are not enemies, and the efforts (thus far) should be applauded, while knowing that the hard questions on ownership, the funding of construction, operations, and long-term maintenance remain unanswered.

Friday, July 11, 2014

@nytdavidbrooks, today is your best column ever.

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times today, wrote just about the best column I think he's ever come up with.  He starts with a distinction between baseball and soccer as cognitive metaphors for understanding modern life, and comes down decidedly on the side of soccer.
"Baseball is a team sport, but it is basically an accumulation of individual activities ... soccer is not like that ... [soccer] is defined by the context created by all the other players ... [m]ost of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize."
Welcome to the party, sir.
image available at http://tinyurl.com/qh8ww2f
"Once we acknowledge that, in life, we are playing soccer, not baseball, a few things become clear. First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning."
This is legibility via the back-door.  Brooks is arguing that value lies in awareness of the contours of the forest, rather than reshaping it to be "computable" (or presuming that it is legible in the first instance). This is a clarion call for evidence-based evaluation of reality, rather than the computation frame of thinking.  That concept's come up here before (and again here).
"... [s]occer is like a 90-minute anxiety dream — one of those frustrating dreams when you’re trying to get somewhere but something is always in the way. This is yet another way soccer is like life."
"Red on Maroon" (1959)
Mark Rothko (1903‑1970), Tate Modern
available at http://tinyurl.com/ohsovbl
This is Rothko's Red on Maroon -- a gateway through which one may struggle to pass, to a
destination unknown. A blocked portal, through which you're not even sure you want to go, knowing only that you feel little choice, on a path you sense will be fraught with danger, danger that we fear (which came up here).

Sometimes you want to just acknowledge the quality of another's writing, and while Brooks' often doesn't resonate with me like it once did, I think his time spent leading a writing seminar at Yale University may be paying off ...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

#rebeccapurple.

Rebecca Alison Meyer
Ahuva Raya bat Kayla
7 June 2008 – 7 June 2014
image available at http://tinyurl.com/mrkb3vw 
On June 7, 2014, Rebecca Alison Meyer, age 6, of Beachwood, Ohio, passed away from complications associated with an anapestic astrocytoma ("brain cancer").  She and her parents, Kathryn and Eric Meyer, endured a multiyear struggle to save her life; Eric, a web technology expert concerning Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) blogged poignantly about the treatment.  The final memorial Eric wrote for Rebecca can be read here; the Economist's Babbage (technology) columnist drew attention to it today here:
"The death of a child is always a tragedy, and people of good will try to make sense of it through whatever means they have."
Eric's friends had one tool at their disposal to memorialize his daughter -- in CSS.  Style sheets control the appearance of certain items on a web page, and they allow colors to be expressed hexadecimally; #000000 is black, #FFFFFF is white. Other colors are combinations in between.  However, there are a certain select group of colors that may be expressed by name. For example, #ADFF2F can also be described as #GreenYellow.

Rebecca was particularly fond of purple -- her parents asked that family and friends at her funeral wear purple in memory of her.  Many who were touched by Eric's relating of Becca's story couldn't attend, for they were all over the world.  But a group of technologists, led by Jeffrey Zeldman, suggested that #663399 in CSS be designated #beccapurple.  As of the nightly Firefox build on June 23, the color has indeed been designated by name, but as #rebeccapurple.  Eric requested the change, saying:
"A couple of weeks before she died, Rebecca informed us that she was about to be a big girl of six years old, and Becca was a baby name. Once she turned six, she wanted everyone (not just me) to call her Rebecca, not Becca." 
"She made it to six. For almost twelve hours, she was six. So Rebecca it is and must be."
One particular passage from Eric's writings especially moved me, because it expressed and captured something so clearly important. In her last days, Eric and Kat made sure that, as long as she was able, Rebecca could go each day to kindergarten.  His explanation of why is one of the most saddening and yet eloquent statements of the nature of education and parenting I've ever read.  And so, as my tribute to Eric and Kat, as well as Rebecca Meyer, I include that passage, from May 1 of this year, from a post Eric entitled "Heroic Measures."
"This morning, I walked Rebecca and her best friend to kindergarten, all of us enjoying the crisp spring sunshine after the long, cold winter. The girls ran ahead of me to see if the playground had been re-flooded by last night’s rains (it hadn’t) and then balance-walked a low retaining wall. Once inside the school doors, I hugged and kissed Rebecca and told her to have a good day, collecting a hug and kiss and a 'Love you, Daddy' in return. I watched as she tromped down the hallway in her sparkly new Bella Ballerina shoes and pajamas (today is a special Pajama Day at school) and rounded the corner out of sight. And then I handed her principal a Do Not Resuscitate order." 
"... [w]e carry DNR cards with us, and have given the school a DNR form sealed into a manila envelope with our names and phone numbers written on the outside, because if she suddenly seizes, our overriding goal is to make her as comfortable as possible while she dies. The EMTs or hospice or we ourselves will give her medication to take away the pain and, if at all possible, the fear. As much as she needs." 
"... [w]e send her to school because she loves it there, however much she may complain about having to get up in the morning and get dressed and put on a coat to walk to school. Try as she may to hide it, she loves to learn. She loves her teacher, her classmates, and her friends, and they love her in return. It would be selfish of us to take that away, despite the risks, despite the hours of separation. It would shift some of our burden onto her shoulders, force her to pay the cost of our sorrow and fear ... we can give her her life, as whole and unbroken as we can manage, and an unspoken promise to fiercely guard it from even ourselves."
"We can give her this."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Who Turns Out?

About six weeks ago, I ran across this story, sort of a typical California pre-election analysis piece. The title of the article (as reprinted in the Petaluma Argus-Courier) made me squint to make sure I was reading it right -- "Bay Area tops state's voter turnout." I started reading, and one paragraph in particular caught my eye, because it mentioned Sonoma. "Poor people from Sonoma are far more likely to cast a ballot than someone living in poverty in Echo Park [Los Angeles]." The article attributed the quote to Paul Mitchell, the vice-president of Political Data Inc.
Paul Mitchell
image available at http://tinyurl.com/mk5hs2k

High voter turnout, expressed as a percentage, is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of a political system, while low turnout can lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. Low turnout tends to be concentrated amongst the young and the poor, leading to significant under-representation in elections, with the potential to lead to improperly skewed policy. If Paul's right, that's pretty good news for Sonoma County.

So I went and took a look at the election results last night and this morning, to see what the data looks like.  California does a very efficient job of reporting election returns from different counties as they come in; the page is here. The Secretary of State conveniently makes the data downloadable as a CSV (thank-you!).  I pulled it this morning and graphed turnout, expressed as a percentage.  The results are on the right; a PDF of them is here (you'll probably need the resolution of the PDF to see the individual county names labeling the data points). 

I plotted the data on the log of the number of voters in each county, because the massive variance in the number of registered voters (Alpine with 766, Los Angeles with 4,857,424) makes a lin-lin comparison nearly impossible.  I did a power law regression on the data, which fits pretty well; as county size scales, voter turnout appears to decline fairly regularly.  
PDF available at http://tinyurl.com/obe7hjm

So, the Bay Area doesn't lead the state in turnout.  That award goes to the northern counties, and those of the Sierra foothills.  Tiny Sierra County turns out more than 60% (Alpine, so small I couldn't even get it on this graph, turns out nearly 70%).  There's a cluster of nine (admittedly, sparsely populated) counties clustered near 40%, all with 50,000 voters or less. Voting's a big deal in a small, perhaps remote community, and it shows.  

A second cluster drew my eye -- on the lower right, seven counties, all with more than 1.4 million citizens.  They are Santa Clara, Alameda, Sacramento, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, and San Diego Counties. Between them, they have 6,993,135 registered voters -- two million more voters than Los Angeles County, and a million more voters than the remaining 50 counties combined.  Their turnout is exceptionally low; only two of them managed to clear 20%, Santa Clara and San Diego, and even then, it was by a whisker.  Their location's also interesting; these counties are generally the southern (and to some extent, the eastern) neighbors of the California metropolises that garner an outsized degree of attention, San Francisco and Los Angeles.  

It was the third cluster that really got my attention, though. It's a cluster that's significantly above the trend line.  This group of counties, despite their size, still turn out a relatively high percentage of their voters. From north to south, they are Sonoma, Marin, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties.  The number of voters inside these counties is modest. But the number of votes they cast is significant. The four counties were responsible for 219,674 votes on June 3; only Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego Counties cast more votes than the four put together. The 1,453,951 residents of the quartet cast just 20,000 votes less than the 3.09 million residents of Orange County. 
PDF available at http://tinyurl.com/lb5jsff

The parallel between Santa Barbara and SLO, and Marin and SoCo, strikes me as interesting. While it is Paul's point concerning poverty that got my attention, it is the similarities between the "1-2" northern territories of the great coastal cities, and the fact that they are both amongst the most substantial positive outliers (to the extent we consider higher turnout beneficial) on the graph, that holds my attention.  The unusual motivation of their citizens to participate in their governments makes me wonder what other trends in the data patterns for the two sets of counties may coincide.

But that's a question for another day ...

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Chef For All Seasons.

Michael Ghilarducci, 1989
My father-in-law, Michael Joseph Ghilarducci, 66, of Sonoma, California, passed away at home in his sleep on the morning of Monday, May 5, 2014. The following is his obituary, that will run in the Sonoma Index-Tribune, The Press Democrat, and the Marin Independent Journal on Friday, May 9.

--

Michael was born on October 31, 1947 in San Francisco, California to Francesco Ghilarducci and Mara Jean Ghilarducci (née Baker).  Michael graduated from Woodside High School in 1965, and San Francisco City College’s Hotel and Restaurant Administration program in 1967.  He married Virginia (“Gia”) Ghilarducci (née Wade) on April 12, 1969. 

Michael’s career in the restaurant business spanned fifty-five years, beginning with his work in L’Auberge in Redwood City and his father’s restaurant Villa d’Este in Los Altos.  Michael opened his first restaurant, “Chez Joseph” on Jack London Square in Oakland in 1970, followed by “Columbus Street” in Los Altos, and “Liaison” in Palo Alto. 

On December 9, 1985, Michael and Gia purchased Sonoma’s historic Giacomo Mazza House, taking over a business long known locally as the “Depot Hotel Restaurant.” Michael and Gia converted the upstairs floor of the Mazza House into their family home, where they proceeded to raise their two children, Gianna Ghilarducci Kelly and Antonio Francesco Ghilarducci.

Michael and Gia Ghilarducci
Cooking Class, Depot Hotel Restaurant Kitchen, 2013
In 1987, Michael and Gia began teaching cooking classes in the Depot Hotel Restaurant’s kitchen. The courses proved popular and successful; in 2001, Michael and Gia began leading groups of their students through Europe, teaching classes linked to the locations visited.  The curriculum included stays in Provence, Tuscany, Argentina, and Umbria, and along the coast of the Mediterranean on board Crystal Cruise Lines. In the summer of 2002, one particularly memorable set of classes were taught jointly by Michael and Jacques Pépin in a weeklong series at Château de Villette, in Condécourt north of Paris. 

In December of 2000, Michael and Gia purchased a vineyard property, located north of Kelseyville, California.  The Ghilarduccis began producing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot under the Wildhurst label in 2003, and after development of an additional portion of the property, in 2007, their own Fumé Blanc.  Production from the vineyards continues today, now under the family’s own label. 

In 2008, after similar training to Michael’s at San Francisco City College, and work at La Folie, the French Laundry, and Sonoma’s El Dorado Kitchen, Michael’s son Antonio joined the family’s restaurant as head chef. Michael thereupon became chef-proprietor, working alongside his son in the kitchen.

Wedding, Gianna Ghilarducci Kelly and John Kelly
Depot Hotel Restaurant
March 24, 2002.
In total, Michael operated the Depot Hotel Restaurant with his family for 1,482 weeks, during which time he typically supervised ordering, menu preparation, and house operations.  A week seldom went by without Michael pounding veal in the kitchen on a Wednesday morning, negotiating with wine salesmen at the bar at midday, or visiting tables and greeting guests at the door.

Michael was welcoming, gentle and affable; possessed of a deep, genuine laugh and a marvelous sense of mirth, yet also a seriousness and gravity as occasions called for. The survivor of the early and unfortunate passings of his own parents, Michael’s response was to develop an irreverent sense of humor, an abiding sympathy for any and all underdogs, and a near comical repartee with his wife Gia that brought tears of laughter to friends, staff, and family alike.  He was an avid amateur sailor and boater, and a lifelong fan of Formula One and the San Francisco 49ers.  He thought most wine should be talked over, not about, that the best deterrent to bad driving would be a sharp metal spike in the center of every steering wheel, and that the speed limit should be waived for those, such as himself, capable of demonstrating superior skill in operating an automobile.  He was a decent shot but a better boxer; a lead blocker for O.J. Simpson on the City College football team; a good bocce player but hopeless with computers. He was fond of caffè lattes in the morning and spumoni at night; could impersonate a rabbit for his grandchildren with nothing more than a napkin; and would, when pressed, demonstrate a remarkable ability to impersonate Donald Duck.
Michael Ghilarducci with first grandchild, Siena Kelly
Depot Hotel Restaurant, January 31, 2008.

Michael is survived by his wife of 45 years, Virginia Wade Ghilarducci; his daughter Gianna Ghilarducci Kelly (John Alexander Kelly), his son Antonio Francesco Ghilarducci (Sarah Duran Ghilarducci), and his four grandchildren, Siena Grace Kelly, Allegra Elizabeth Kelly, Lucca Emerson Ghilarducci, and Zoey Emiliana Ghilarducci;  He is also survived by his four younger brothers, Vincent, Robert, Nicholas and Gregorio, and his two younger sisters, Antoinette Emerick and Victoria Dockstaeder.

The family thanks Duggan’s Mission Chapel in Sonoma for all their assistance. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that a donation instead be made in Michael’s honor to the Wounded Warrior Project, P.O. Box 758517, Topeka, Kansas 66675 (http://tinyurl.com/mikeghilarducci).

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 http://tinyurl.com/loydwna
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.

image available at http://tinyurl.com/ov99kla
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)

image available at http://tinyurl.com/ov99kla
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 http://tinyurl.com/pdzkqnv
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.  

image available at http://tinyurl.com/lny7b8l
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 http://tinyurl.com/ohsovbl
"... 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."

image available at http://tinyurl.com/qh8ww2f
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 Sonic.net, 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 http://tinyurl.com/kujhp4p
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. 

--

image available at http://tinyurl.com/km34ku9
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.
image available at http://tinyurl.com/lc4p563
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 Sonic.net 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 Sonic.net 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 Sonic.net had fought the order, and lost.  

Sonic.net Company photo.
Image available at http://tinyurl.com/k7pce5p
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 Sonic.net.

Who in the hell is Sonic.net?

---

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
image available at http://tinyurl.com/khsnjr6
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 Sonic.net 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 Sonic.net 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"
geo:38.293233,-122.4568
image available at http://tinyurl.com/kzj2wvz
It may be mere chance that Dane and Scott chose the name "Sonic.net."  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; Sonic.net, 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.