An Open Letter to Mr. Stanley Gold, USC Board of Trustees

Dear Mr. Gold:

The LA Times attributed this statement to you:

That prompted a trustee, Stanley Gold, who managed the late Roy Disney’s investment holdings, to issue his own letter Tuesday afternoon, deriding the professors as “know-nothing vigilantes.”

from the LA Times https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-usc-trustees-meeting-20190123-story.html:

You said that in a letter? When you had time to edit and rethink? Any chance they misquoted you? Because I truly hope it was a misquote. Out of context, maybe?

We who formed the concerned faculty group know this university intimately. We are here, teaching, day in and day out. Whose writing, publishing, and teaching got us those coveted higher rankings? I don’t think it was yours, and as effective as our administrators have been at boosting our signal, we, the faculty and our students, delivered the goods.

Speaking about us as though we are mere uppity employees diminishes both us and the institution.

Do we know Board politics? No. But we shouldn’t. Your comments and the behavior reported in the Times about a small number of men on the Board of Trustees reflect self-involved, rich men’s egos rather than the leadership we need. We need people on our board who understand two things:

  • the point of the university is not to annoint elites but to advance the human endeavor for enlightenment; and
  • a truly great university faculty is marked not by its deference to CEO-style leaders like Nikias, but by its intellectual and moral fearlessness in pursuing what is true and what is good.

Perhaps I am a fool in the world of the 21st century to believe these things, but I do.

This university has real problems. In addition to the decades-long powderkeg of sexual misconduct, our students, staff, and faculty suffer from crushing housing costs in Los Angeles. Some are homeless. Our contract employees have few benefits and little connection to our community. Just about every year, a student on campus takes their own life.

When you look at these problems, whether Jim Ellis’ feelings got hurt on his way to collect three more years of his lavish salary falls, deservedly, into the “cry me a river” problem category. I am sorry if he feels he was badly treated. That’s unfortunate, but worthy of two months’ squabbling, let alone airing the Board’s dirty laundry to the Times, it is not.

Less important than our real problems, certainly, is the fact that I want you to know that far from being a wild-eyed mob looking to exact vengeance Nikias or any other men, the concerned faculty agonized over how to approach the BoT about our concerns. The day I signed the original letter was one of the worst days of my professional life, and it wasn’t because I was worried about my job.

Mr. Gold, signing that letter broke my heart. It broke my heart.

But it was the right thing to do. I am sorry you do not see that.

Martin Luther King wrote a really important piece of political philosophy

Letter from a Birmingham Jail is an extended argument about the relationship between law and justice, the difference between those two terms and the duties to resist and change unjust laws. It is a call to action: he takes to tasks his fellow pastors and white moderates who are wringing their hands instead of joining him and his peers in the fight to change unjust laws and practices.

He helps moderns understand Plato’s Crito about when, perhaps, one should choose solidarity over individual right, and when you should choose the latter, and why time and patience can be oppression’s most powerful allies.

Much gets emphasized about MLK on his birthday: he gets quoted out of context, then we have lots of fights about how people have tried to defang him when he was really a revolutionary who stood not just for justice in civil rights, but also against poverty. I’m sure those worried about his cooptation are right.

One thing that gets lost sometimes, however, in that back and forth, is his sheer brilliance. “Letter from” is a masterpiece of composition and political thought that deserves a place in any class on justice theory.

You can find it here.

I don’t know what else to say about Dr. King other than, like lots of Black people destroyed by white violence, he should have had the rest of his time.

Trump’s WonderWall is teaching us about what happens when we dump cost-benefit analysis–and it’s not good

We all know the critiques of cost-benefit and EIR analyses. They are pseudo-science; they are political, agencies and politicos manipulate them, etc. As somebody who has done these things for a long time, though, I really still believe in them for their rhetorical value. No, they aren’t science. They don’t have to be. But they are a means of both a) engaging in and b) disciplining the imaginaries we construct around new projects. I’m not saying they provide all the info we need, or that they are the only decision criteria we should use. I am saying that they are a useful means for generating discussion.

We don’t have this with The WonderfulWall. And it’s bad.

I have found lots of conservative media references to ‘an internal report from the Department of Homeland Security’, but I can’t find the report itself. Just reporting on it from Reuters.

I also found a report from a stat prof Liberty Vittert writing for FoxNews where s/he puts the cost at about $25 B using a quick and dirty method. Ok. Vittert want us to know that it’s impossible to understand the consequences of the wall, but then mentions the goodies before concluding “Meh”:

Now, I’ve estimated the cost of the wall to be about $25 billion, but many of the estimates given by other sources include many other factors: how many more or fewer border agents are needed; reduction of “virtual” walls; on-going maintenance; economic costs to border towns; reductions in human trafficking and illegal immigration; reduction in drug trafficking; etc.

There are so many factors that “might increase” or “might decrease” that as a statistician, I can tell you it is empirically impossible to calculate all of the unintended consequences – good or bad – that the wall might cause. Anyone saying otherwise is flat out wrong.

Let’s give a litany of benefits, including the really, really dodgy claim about controlling smuggling, and then throw up our hands and say “who knows?”.

If it’s really the case you are lying if you think you know the future consequences, then why build anything? Why risk anything? We wind up looking towards the future through a glass darkly–the same we are doomed to look at our past–but throwing up your hands like this is frankly irresponsible.

And then they later then gives us an anecdote about going to Ellis Island with her dad and finding her grandma there! How sweet! Who cares? I have no idea what that story is meant to communicate about immigration policy other than the usual conservative assumption that things were so much better back in the day.

Cato estimates the cost more along the lines of about $60B. My quick and dirty calculation with risk factors put it lower, about $40B to $29B. I found a HuffPo report on an MIT study that puts the cost around $40B, but I can’t find the MIT study. AND IT’S DRIVING ME CRAZY. But anyway, a good rule is that when you have experts landing around the some number, it’s ok for going on with it. Cato writes:

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently sent a letter to Congress where it argued that $5.7 billion would pay for approximately 234 miles of a new physical steel barrier along the border.  That new estimate comes to about $24.4 million per mile.  This new OMB estimate is 41 percent more costly than the approximately $17.3 million per mile construction costs that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated just a few years ago, 2.7 times as expensive as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan estimated, and 5 times as expensive as Trump’s lowest estimate

So that’s the $5B number, and it’s per-mile breakdown from OMB, but why the 234 miles? Is that all they want to build?

This is all by way of saying, nobody in the United States would get away with asking for $1 million funding for a rail project without a way, way better cost-benefit analysis for the project. We have some cost analysis–some–but all we have for benefit analysis is a lot of blah blah. Am I missing that report?

And that’s kind of my point. As flawed as EIRs and C-B analyses are, they at least provide a framework for having a deliberation about what future consequences we want and how to deal with the ones we don’t want. Right now, it’s all just unabated conservative fantasyland.

Oh Lookie! The wall (fence) between Egypt and Israel works works works! (What do we mean works? Can we establish that Walls work! That’s why we put walls around prisoners, ya know! Walls make your house stand up! Of course they work! What would your cells be without walls, Huh? Huh? WATER THAT’S WHAT.

THINK OF HOW MUCH MONEY WE’LL SAVE ON BORDER PATROL! Come on. What are the actual costs of operating and maintaining the wall? Israel’s WonderWall I suspect *expanded* labor requirements. Do we know? Nope.

BUT THAT STOPPED ALL THE PEOPLE CROSSING. Um, maybe it stopped them crossing *there at that location* or smuggling *at that location*. But did it decrease human trafficking and smuggling overall? Can we show that terrorism is lower?

But WE’LL MAKE JOBS AT THE SAME TIME. (while controlling Border Patrol costs). And $5 billion is NOTHING, NOTHING compared to what we waste elsewhere. (Amazing. We have to cut Social Security because there is absolutely no money, but there’s just a lot of extra money lying all over for a wall.)

I have yet to see a real analysis of the security benefits here. For people who are claiming there are oodles of precedents, that’s inexcusable.

I am the worst teacher known to humankind, yesterday proves

Ok, so well yesterday was the first day of teaching and to say I am off my game is a bit of an understatement.

Something is going on with me, and I don’t know what it is. Part of it is a depression that seems to be coming and going, related to my chronic illness. It is hard to work through depression, but it’s not like I haven’t done so before.

Part of it is becoming a full professor, and not really knowing what that job is or what I am working for at this point, even though I should by now know what the job is and what I am working for, granted that I am a full professor and the dealio on that is that you get it once you establish that lots of people think you know how to do the job well, I guess, even if you yourself don’t think that.

Part of it is being jerked around on classes, and not being jerked around on classes. If I teach the same class in the same way for too long, it can get boring for me, but constant updating takes time. Then there are new course preps, forced on me by bad decisions that other people have made. New course preps are often awful, and I’m feeling super duper out of my league teaching Urban Informatics this semester on the one hand, and a class I’ve taught for nearly 10 years on the other. The new course prep sucks up the time I should use to giving the established a spruce-up make it interesting. If I give time to that class, it takes time from getting myself together for the new prep.

Then, of course, there is the fact that USC feels like a powder keg, where some leaders are trying to get us to get our act together but meet a solid brick of wall of old men who want their status and prestige maintained, no matter what, and who run off to their pet billionaire if they don’t get their way. The thing about abusive places and people…you begin to understand them and what you can and can’t do. It’s solid ground to stand on, even if it’s mean, and even if it is wrecking you, fast or slow. But right now it feels like we are trying to stealthily move out of the apartment on an abusive boyfriend/father who could reappear at any minute and destroy the tiny dreams of selfhood we’ve been bold enough to nurture.

Yesterday, the first day of teaching, then, was a terrible mess, in both classes, but in my Urban Informatics class in particular. I have struggled and struggled with the syllabus, and finally, I decided that I was overthinking it. I decided I needed to run the class like a workshop. Just give them data, show them how to do things with the data, reflect on what we are learning with the activities, and on the way they learn how to do stuff in R and Python and–what matters most to me–they begin to understand how to learn from and communicate with data.

I tried to explain that yesterday. I showed them visualizations I’ve had my other classes do, told them you can work with visualizing data using everything from R to magic markers, showed them some of my R work and some of my hand-drawn, learning graphics. I asked them if they’d like to do that in the class, and I got blank looks.

And a group of international students came up to me at the end of class and one very politely asked–and I quote: “What are you going to teach us in this class?”

Ouch. I went back through the spiel: I want you to learn to how to think about data and measurement, its validity, and how to use data to learn about cities and communicate about cities, yada yada.

Student blinks, and asks, still very polite. “But what are you going to teach us in this class?”

I sighed. “I will teach you R and Python.”

General jubilance.

Jesus wept. Or if he didn’t, I did because I really, really am not communicating while I tell other people I would like to help teach them to communicate. In my defense, I was talking about *data*, which I am generally pretty good at, and not human being speech which I am not so great at.

What am I doing?

Mass Transit Student Visualizations Fall 2018

My students took on various projects this fall, and I am very proud of what they worked on, so I asked their permission to share. Because they had a LOT of projects to do and to choose from, we spent less time perfecting graphics than we did telling stories with data. As a result, be gentle.

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