Monthly Archives: February 2013

Comforting the afflicted

I’m rather gratified to see a backlash aimed at Seth MacFarlane, as I find his brand of humor odious from the get-go.I’ve been through this nonsense before with Andrew Dice Clay, who was a good deal cruder than MacFarlane–I guess we should be grateful for the refinement.

Here is some of the better writing on why women are getting rather tired of the MacFarlanes of this world.

From Vulture: Why Seth MacFarlane’s Misogyny Matters. The best line:

Jeez, the song was a joke! Can’t you take a joke? Yes, I can take a joke. I can take a bunch! A thousand, 10,000, maybe even more! But after 30 or so years, this stuff doesn’t feel like joking. It’s dehumanizing and humiliating, and as if every single one of those jokes is an ostensibly gentler way of saying, “I don’t think you belong here.” All those little instances add up, grain of sand by grain of sand until I’m stranded in a desert of every “tits or GTFO” joke I’ve ever tried to ignore.

That’s the sum of it. One does get tired of the constant barrage of gendered humor that boils down to booby jokes.

Unlike this writer, I’m not a fan of Family Guy, either. I tried two episodes and gave up on both.

I’m told there were also jokes about Jews and gays. Yeah, those are never not funny.

I guess I have to wonder: seriously, people, this is all we got? The Oscars are a premier entertainment trade union. And the best they can offer up is the boob song?

Yeah, *I’m* the humorless one here.

I’ve always held that the first rule of humor should be that it afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. Not the other way around.

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WTH: USC’s vanishing, no-longer-shouty bike lanes

Ok, WTH? My colleague Marlon and I went out to lunch Friday and the bike lanes were gone. Ditto this week. No signs. No be-helmeted panjandrums on scooters shouting at people to walk there not here. Once again, bicyclists whizzing through campus at speeds far, far too fast.

Sigh.

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Social diffusion and where social change comes from

Over the past few months, we’ve have multiple speakers in to discuss the idea of social innovation: where do the world-changing ideas come from, and how do they become world changing? Yesterday, we had MIT’s Xavier de Souza Briggs in to give a very nice talk. One idea that stuck in my mind concerned his notion of “creative coping”, which I shall return to in a a minute, and local maxima–the best you can do locally–versus a global maxima. The local versus global maxima strike me as very interesting mathematical metaphors. I believe he means the local maxima as the best one can do in particular situations of injustice or human need, whereas the global maxima means the sort of wholescale social transformation of culture and society.

My question, and I am not sure I got a satisfactory answer, concerns whether one can ever really distinguish the local maxima from things that are going to lead to a global maxima. He began his talk by mentioning rights, which struck me as an excellent example, indeed, of an idea that changes the world and human practice in significant ways. It’s another situation, though, where I think the idea of social change came about very slowly, and I referred to William of Ockham and the role he played in expanding the idea that people can make claim-rights against institutions–in particular, agains the Catholic church. He wasn’t saying to himself that he was starting a rights revolution in the history of western jurisprudence/ethical thought. He was, as I put it yesterday, sassing the Pope. But it was more than that: he was a philosopher. He was arguing a set of principles that seemed right to him, both intuitively and logically. He got lucky and wound up sheltered in a court in Bavaria where he could write and think and stand by his principles.

It’s interesting to me that so far, none of our scholarly speakers really seem interested in the notion of advocating principles.

After William’s willingness to stick by his principles, it seems to me, that good ideas can and do catch on, though not all of them, and they become morphed and extended through time. It would be nice to understand that diffusion the way my friends in sociology, like the brilliant Gabriel Rossman. Surely good ideas die simply because of timing.

Of course, William of Ockham himself was stepping into a stream of human thought and culture that was rapidly changing in its conception of the worth of individuals, precisely because of the Christian tradition he was working in. Natural law theorists, with the behavioral experiments on animals, are starting to look more and more correct after years of scholarly neglect: we have an innate sense of justice, and we apply that our mores and institutions in an incremental and highly imperfect way.

So that’s what I am thinking about this morning. What are you thinking about?

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Quelle surprise: Dean blames proffie for wanting better standards in online teaching

One of my students sent me this story from the LA TImes about UCI Professor Emeritus Richard McKenzie’s refusal to continue working on a MOOC.  I think the reporter is unconsciously hilarious in making this a story about “uncertainties” when it seems pretty clearly to be a story about certainties. There is no uncertainty. Here’s what McKenszie expects:

In his statements posted to the class website over the weekend, McKenzie appeared to be frustrated over his attempts to get the students to obtain and read as much of the textbook as possible.

“I will not cave on my standards. If I did, any statement of accomplishment will not be worth the digits they are printed on,” he wrote.

READ THE BOOK?  Have standards? That doesn’t sound like uncertainty to me.  It sounds like a guy who isn’t comfortable just recording content and shoving it at people and then giving them a certificate.

The part I truly, truly love is this part:

Gary Matkin, UC Irvine’s dean of Continuing Education, Distance Learning and Summer Session, said in a statement that McKenzie is “not accustomed [as few are] in teaching university-level material to an open, large and quite diverse audience, including those who were not seriously committed to achieving the learning objectives of the course or who decided not to or could not gain access to supplemental learning materials.”

Yes, indeed.  You can see why this guy is a dean: it’s the individual faculty member’s fault. Not my office for not helping him understand what he’s getting into, not the corporate entity you are writing checks to for your “completion certificate.” Nope. Just that guy who is “not accustomed” to students who “are not seriously committed to achieving the learning objectives.”

Proffies are so unreasonable.

Look people, if proffies wanted to record YouTube lectures to shove out there for people to listen to, they could do that without Coursera.  Shouldn’t there be some commitment to engaging past just content delivery?

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USC’s SHOUT-Y BIKE LANES: Bikers “win”, our community loses

Attention notice: Sustainability advocates can be as bad as developers who want to plant megaprojects all over. Strong-arming control over urban space sucks no matter who does it.

My beloved USC has a pretty gnarly bike design problem on its two major thoroughfares. I was rather unsympathetic when my bicycle advocate students went into a fury about USC’s supposed bike ban, which actually consisted of restricting bikes from the major thoroughfares only about 7 hours a day. That left plenty of other walkways for students to use if they wanted to stay on bikes without dismounting.

Now, there are problems with that, too. The rest of the walkways on campus have smaller pavement widths. These major thoroughfares are also dead flat. They are easier to bike on, and the flatness lends longer sight distances that can help pedestrians and cyclists see each other.

Of course, this bike ban was intolerable to bike advocates, who see bike lanes as crucial to their mobility. Frankly, though, there is much of the USC bike advocacy that isn’t about mobility at all. It’s about bicycling advocates feeling like they have visual symbols of their social importance that are stamped on campus and roadways.

So I guess–I guess–there are now bike-only lanes on these major thoroughfares. I found this out today not because there were helpful bike advocate volunteers out working to help explain the new set-up and how people on campus can navigate the new facilities, but by getting screamed at.

I was pottering along dreamily, walking along, when one of USC’s ubiquitous rent-a-cops on a segue started barking at me to move to the side, complete with pompous-looking gestures. I simply thought he wanted through. So I moved to the grass–where, by the way, people sit and walk all the time–and Barney Fife yells at me to get off the grass.

“PEDESTRIANS ON THE OUTSIDE LANE.” He screamed at me as he whizzed by in all his wanktastic glory. I shot back that he should blow it out his ass.

Now, would it have killed him to alight his little scooter to chat with me about the changes and the plans? I get that security people like to project authority, but dude–you are wearing little postal worker shorts and driving a scooter. There’s only so impressed anybody is going to be by you to begin with.

I walk on, my mood destroyed by being verbally attacked at my workplace, and I see another rent-a-cop yelling at a young woman who was *walking her bike* in the ENTIRELY UNMARKED area in front of Tommy Trojan. Yes, these genius new bike lanes just disappear when you get to the campus’s biggest intersection. What was the girl supposed to do? Levitate? When she reached the end of the VERY VERY SPECIAL SEPARATE BIKE WAY, was she supposed to wink into a parallel universe or maybe a wormhole that takes her to the other side of the intersection via Bajor? WTH? She was doing exactly what she should have been doing to be polite, safe, and considerate of others. AND YET CAMPUS POLICE SHOUTS AT HER?

What are we DOING?

Ah, the restful civility that bike planning and campus sustainability brings to a beautiful, sustainable world.

And that’s my point. Hey, the bike advocates “got theirs.” Nothing else in planning matters, right? Culture doesn’t matter, community doesn’t matter, helping people with the transition doesn’t matter. All that matters is your win for the bike lanes. You got your pet project approved and/or built. Good job.

After all, bikers are savingtheplanetandfightingobesityandcleaningtheairandcombattingclimatechangeblahblahblahblahblah and…well, when you are on an important mission like that, making people welcome to use the space now that you’ve got yours doesn’t matter.

No, we aren’t going to train rent-a-cops to stop, get off their little scooters, and actually talk to people like me like we matter in this place. We aren’t going to have rent-a-cops on foot walking around and helping people understand the new, unbelievably crappy signage. No. We are going to shout at people on our campus like they are shoplifters trying to sneak out of the bookstore with Trojan gear shoved under their blouses.

Finally, the design and placement of the new ‘bike only’ lanes makes no sense in an American context, and their placement increases bike-pedestrian conflicts. The bike lanes are on the inside lane, so that NO MATTER WHICH way a bicyclist turns, he’s moving across the “pedestrian way.” By all means, let’s have the heaviest and fastest-moving vehicle have to demonstrate the most care.

Whatever.

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What I learned from Robert Caro

Robert Caro came to give the Dennis and Brooks Holt Distinguished Lecture last night. That sponsored lecture allows USC to attract distinguished thinkers on politics and the media.

Caro was so charming in every way–an amazing story-teller, with a lovely New York boy accent–and I loved so much of what he said it’s hard to distill.

For one thing, I love how Caro manages to humanize Lyndon Johnson without romanticizing him. Caro has been able to demonstrate why LBJ is so important to the left–and how effective a political genius he was in accomplishing things for people–like rural Texans–that are normally not the beneficiaries of public policy. And just how ruthless he was in doing so.

The second thing I took away was his incredible patience. It doesn’t seem to bother him that, in his 80s now, he may or may not get to the end of his LBJ project before it’s time for him to exit. And he does seem to have another project in mind–but he refused to answer that question when asked because he’s superstitious. I love this–I really don’t like to discuss nascent work, either, which many people rather treat like a weakness. Well, if Robert Caro can do it, I can, too. I don’t like to talk away ideas before I write them.

In addition to his interest in new projects, he admitted last night that he reads Trollope, which made me squeal with delight. I love Trollope, but whenever I am reading these old, long meandering 19th century novels, there is a nagging person inside my head telling me that I am wasting my time, that nothing these novelists have to say matters to the world, and that, at middle-age, I only have so much reading time left. If a guy in his 80s can spend his free time reading Trollope, and his working time working for 8 years on a biography of roughly 3 months of a man’s life, then I can let time go lightly, too.

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“Unlinked” versus “Unliked” transit trips

I was writing this morning (a textbook chapter, as a favor for a friend) about the difference between unlinked and linked passenger trip measures. This distinction is important:  unlinked trips measure a trip as every time a person boards and alights a vehicle.   Linked trips capture the entire journey as one trip, even if there is a transfer in the middle.  For unlinked trips, a person making a single journey with a transfer in the middle counts as two unlinked trips.

You can see how much uncertainty unlinked trips add to measuring service use, particularly in large regions where transfers are frequent: counting one trip as two is a fairly big measurement error; if transfers are timed well, the problem can actually get worse as more patrons are likely to be more willing to undertake trips with multiple transfers.  And, of course, because we live in a world where nothing is easy, it’s far easier for transit agencies to count unlinked trips than linked trips.

Imagine how difficult it is to do performance evaluation on service changes using unlinked trips.  If you reconfigure routes, alter schedules, or open a new line, you are hard pressed to figure out how much increase in service use might be due to lower trip times (ie service improvement) and how much might be due to simply introducing transfers on the one hand, or  increasing demand amongst journeys that require transfer on top of basic demand.

For some reason this morning I am typing “unliked” transit trips instead of “unlinked” trips. It’s feeling very Freudian.

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House of Cards and a Machiavelli renaissance?

Unless you have been in a media blackout, you’ve no doubt seen the adverts for Netflix-produced House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey. I’m holding off on seeing it until I’ve subjected Andy to watching all of the original BBC series from the early 1990s. I shall, of course, watch it as a junkie of politics and television, and in part because I have been in love with Kevin Spacey since Glengarry Glen Ross. I also have high hopes that the series might help people actually understand what a “whip” is and does. Do you understand how sad it makes me to hold out hope that Americans will learn about their government from a remake of an English series?

Anyway, it does promise to be good. The original, with the incomparable Ian Richardson, is really wonderful, as is the novel upon which the original is based. Has anybody dipped into the US version yet?

The tagline for the US series is “Bad, for a greater good.” Perhaps the US version attempts to make the main character somewhat more sympathetic.The reviews keep referring to Spacey’s Underwood (Urquhart in the Beeb’s original) as “Machiavellian”, which get us to the point of today’s ramblings about Machiavelli and his largely misunderstood attempts at political philosophy.

My favorite book on Machiavelli is from the late Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, called Machiavelli’s Virtue. I say my “favorite” in that I still don’t understand large portions of Mansfield’s thought here, nor Machiavelli’s. Mansfield’s is not an easy book, but Machiavelli is not an easy subject–certainly not along the lines of what people get from their “intro to political science” courses. Machiavelli wrote a good deal more than the Prince. Jeremy Wadron’s excellent review of Mansfield’s book in the London Review of Books (unfortunate paywall) gives us a great deal of food for thought, in particular highlighting how Mansfield’s read of Machiavelli as a modern political liberal.

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HBR on how deal with stupidity directed at women who lead

I’ve got to throw this up and then run, as I am getting on a plane (and, one reason I’ve been quiet lately is the paper that I am going to give when I get off said plane). But Harvard Business Review has a short feature up on How Female Leaders Should Handle Double Standards. It’s a disappointing article in a couple ways, though it is probably correct: you must act like you are rubber and they are glue. If anything should disappoint you wildly about the state of journalism, it’s this last comment from one of Hilary Clinton staffers:


For instance, in a recent interview with members of Hillary Clinton’s press corps, a veteran reporter said: “The story is never what she says, as much as we want it to be. The story is always how she looked when she said it.”

Clinton says she doesn’t fight it anymore; she focuses on getting the job done.

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Performance measurement: impossible or essential? Alnoor Ebrahim gets me thinking

Harvard’s Alnoor Ebrahim gave a very nice talk during our our Philanthropy and Nonprofit seminar yesterday; I feel rather bucked in that I lured a number of my planning colleagues to attend and a bunch of my PhD students. Alnoor was one of my favorite colleagues when I was at VT, and his talk was really quite informative. He focused in depth on the extent to which foundations and nonprofits attempt to formulate performance indicators for social phenemena in order to nail down both controls and causality. Many organizations can’t go that deep: they just count clients served or outputs in some way. Still, others do try to measure such abstruse things as child poverty reduction or economic development, and he is attempting to derive theory about what leads organizations to do that, and what organizations–funders or the nonprofits themselves–are really in a position to examine outcomes.

He started us off with a question that I found myself rather fascinated with: is performance measurement impossible or essential? He referred us to some lectures worth listening to by Onora O’Neil for the BBC called “A Matter of Trust.” Alnoor raised her points about the problems with performance measurement, but he never really returned to them as, from there, he focusses in on the state of the practice in the field. The two big concerns about the measurement focus that I gleaned from O’Neil were:

1. It’s possible that our focus on measurement causes us to disregard what is difficult to measure about progress in the social sphere, and thus, the missions and strategies of helping institutions become rather small and constrained. That is, the bean-counting causes us to focus on beans that can be counted, rather than seeking to deal with social issues in all their difficult-to-measure complexity; and

2. There are transactions costs and compliance costs associated with all these performance measures, and the more of our resources we expend on measuring how well we’ve done at delivering service means fewer resources with which to actually deliver service. Making funding contingent on the ability to demonstrate that service is delivered in a particular way may favor those institutions who are good at #1 (cherry picking easy things) and #2.

Neither of which strike me as particularly good for social policy, though you can measure the last one.

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