Archive for June, 2010

Final thoughts on Disney

I’m back from Disney and here is my verdict: it’s is incredibly ordinary. I’m afraid I have no grand insights to offer, but I’ll take a stab at a few observations.

My last post inspired Jackson Kuhl to riff on how an ideal of cultural authenticity is generally unhelpful, and concluded: “I think perhaps Jerry didn’t want to go to Disney because, as a 30-something dude without kids, riding the Dumbo carousel doesn’t get his heart pumping.” I think that’s absolutely right. Disney is first and foremost for children, and it was for the benefit of my wife’s nephew that we went. It was only through his enjoyment that I could appreciate the place.

Now, two things that struck me. First, vacationing at Disney is like vacationing at a cross of a mall and sports stadium. The entire experience is engineered to get you to buy stuff. At the stores, at the kiosks, at the food court. The vast majority of the stuff is the kind of completely useless garbage that in a previous life I founded Unclutterer to combat. The twist is that there is no competition inside Disney’s walls, so you pay incredibly inflated prices. The company, however, has mastered the art of making folks thankful for the privilege. I am seriously considering purchasing their stock.

The second thing that struck me is that Disney is one of the most massive experiments in privatization we have today. Walt Disney wanted to build more than an amusement part. The immersive experience he had in mind was not just for visitors, but for residents as well. The Magic Kingdom was to be just a small part of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. According to Wikipedia:

Walt Disney’s original vision of EPCOT was for a model community, home to twenty thousand residents, which would be a test bed for city planning and organization. The community was to have been built in the shape of a circle, with businesses and commercial areas at its center, community buildings and schools and recreational complexes around it, and residential neighborhoods along the perimeter. Transportation would have been provided by monorails and PeopleMovers (like the one in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland). Automobile traffic would be kept underground, leaving pedestrians safe above-ground. Walt Disney said, “It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities. In EPCOT, there will be no slum areas because we won’t let them develop. There will be no landowners and therefore no voting control. People will rent houses instead of buying them, and at modest rentals. There will be no retirees; everyone must be employed.”

Here is a film of Disney presenting the concept city. In one sense it’s a libertarian dream. A completely privatized city. In a law review article on the subject, Prof. Chad Emerson explains how it was made possible by the Florida legislature creating what amounts to a giant business improvement district the size of Manhattan. It ceded to the Disney Company traditionally governmental functions such as zoning, streets, drainage and even police and fire service. For example, in the elevators of the Disney hotel at which I stayed last week, the usual inspection certificates were posted. The issuing authority was the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which is wholly controlled by Disney. In essence, the company is certifying its own elevators. In theory, the district (read Disney) also has the power to set up its own municipal court, and it even has explicit authority to develop a nuclear power plant.

In another sense, though, it’s a libertarian nightmare. Planned by experts from top-to-bottom with a benevolent Uncle Walt at the head. As I’ve mentioned, there also doesn’t seem to be much room for competition inside the city walls. If Walt had had his way, alcohol would have been strictly controlled. And what exactly would have happened to the old people who wanted to retire? I guess it’s all OK though if you what you’re signing up for and are free to leave any time.

In the end, Disney died before even the Magic Kingdom opened, and the plan for greater EPCOT was reduced to the EPCOT Center park we know today. The top down and controlled nature of Disney is still very present there, however, and I think that’s what gives me the willies about the place. There’s nothing nefarious about it, it’s simply like Walt’s vision for the dome that would have encapsulated EPCOT: climate-controlled to a perfect 72º at all times with no chance of weather. Even Las Vegas–Disney World for adults–as “synthetic” as it is, has an element of unpredictability to it.

Morning Links

War + Lithium = Democracy. The Aristocrats!

The United States has discovered a trillion-dollar trove of metals in Afghanistan:

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe. An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and Blackberries.

Referring to a country as “the Saudia Arabia of” anything hardly augurs well for its future since Saudi Arabia is, well, a theocratic petrostate whose rulers virtually imprison a group of foreign workers whose numbers total about a third of the kingdom’s population and whose native population is subject to the whims of a fascist religious police that, among other feats, murdered fourteen schoolgirls in 2002, prohibiting them from leaving a burning school building because they were not sufficiently veiled.

Afghanistan is not a country that has always been an anti-modern failed state, but one that was at one time, not so long ago, a relative symbol of progress and liberalism in the Muslim world. So moving to being the Saudia Arabia of central Asia isn’t really a great step forward.

Perhaps Afghanistan can join Nigeria or Venezuela in the list of countries whose natural resources have done so much to initiate prosperity, growth, and opportunity. But “central Asia’s Nigeria” doesn’t really have much of a ring to it.

For the umpteenth time: natural resources are not an unalloyed good that move a country from poverty to prosperity. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the rule of law and favorable institutions have a lot more to do with it than minerals. Given that the Soviets, then the Taliban, and now the US are presiding over an effectively broken institutional climate in Afghanistan, the discovery of mineral deposits is nothing to cheer about. In many ways, it’s a step backwards. At least for the people of Afghanistan.

An extra room in coach hack

I don’t know if the following is common knowledge, but I was proud of myself for thinking it up unassisted, so I’m going to share it with you anyway. Like most happy couples, my wife and I like to sit next to each other on flights, but neither of us cares for the middle seat. I will insist on taking the aisle because I hate having to ask to get up. My wife is accommodating, but because the middle seat is no picnic, we started to choose aisle seats across from each other, which has worked great. They’re close enough to carry on a conversation without bothering anyone, and four years into our relationship, we can bear to be two feet apart for a few hours.

What I started noticing was that when we did this we often had no one sitting in the middle seats next to us, which made flights extra-comfortable. As you’ve probably already guessed, here’s what I figured out: When choosing a seat online, try to find a row in which both window seats have been taken, then choose the two aisle seats. Unless it is a very full flight, chances are low that any single traveler will choose to take a middle seat. Voila, instant extra room all around. If you wan to sit in the same side of a row, try to find an empty row and choose an aisle seat and a window seat and chances are you’ll have no one sit between you in the middle seat. If someone does, you can ask them to switch and they likely will.

Morning Links

Can some dude without a PhD out teach MIT in math and engineering?

Technology can lower the barriers to entry for many industries. Writers without formal journalism training start blogs, break news, and attract readership that rivals major news organizations. Citizens without formal political training organize Tea Party rallies through the internet, run for office, and even beat establishment candidates in some cases, as election returns showed earlier this week.

But could some dude without a PhD teach college math and engineering? And history and biology? And beat MIT?

Well today, the Chronicle profiles Salman Khan, a 33 year-old former financial analyst, who has created 1,400 educational videos and posted them to YouTube, teaching math, engineering, history, biology, and other subjects that he finds interesting. His “Khan Academy” gets more views than MIT, famous for its early “open courseware” experiment, according to YouTube’s educational section. Iconoclast technology guru Jason Fried of 37signals has even invested in Khan Academy, arguing:

The next bubble to burst is higher education. It’s too expensive for people—there’s no reason why parents should have to save up a hundred grand to send their kids to college. I like that there are alternative ways of thinking about teaching.

Of course, breathless pronouncements about the power of technology have certainly been overstated before. And among businesses that are slow to change, certainly academia must rank among the slowest. But just how fast could academic entrepreneurs like Khan shake things up? I’d be eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Morning Links

Wrong method to identify libertarians

George Mason University economist Dan Klein had an op-ed in yesterday’s WSJ arguing that the Left flunks Econ 101. Using data collected by Zogby, Klein argues that liberals perform worse than conservatives or libertarians on a series of eight questions testing basic economic concepts. The longer paper that inspired the op-ed is here.

Nate Silver criticizes the question wording and survey instrument here. I just wanted to add a quibble with the method Zogby continues to use to identify libertarians. Zogby includes the word “libertarian” as an option in the traditional conservative-moderate-liberal ideology question. Using this method, Zobgy finds that about 7% of respondents are libertarian. And while this is certainly an improvement over the traditional method, it still underestimates libertarians by at least half. David Boaz and I have shown that between 14% and 23% of Americans hold libertarian beliefs. But data shows that there is much confusion about the word libertarian and that the word remains unfamiliar to many people who hold libertarian beliefs.

There is a better method to parse out ideology to identify liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. David Boaz and I have suggested using a three question screen to identify ideology, combining the best question wording from Gallup and the University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies. Researchers at TargetPoint and Politico used this method to parse out ideology in survey of Tea Party participants, finding that half were libertarian and half conservative. The questions are:

  1. I am going to ask you to choose which of two statements I read comes closer to your own opinion. You might agree to some extent with both, but we want to know which one is closer to your own views: The less government, the better; or, There are more things that government should be doing. [ANES]
  2. We need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems; or, The free market can handle these problems without government being involved. [ANES]
  3. Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view? [Gallup]

Of course, additional polling questions cost money. And three questions cost more than one. So if I had to choose only two, I’d pick 2 and 3.

Still, ideology matters. And pollsters do their clients a disservice if they overlook important trends in ideology that make a difference in reading the electorate. For instance, I suspect that pollsters would have detected the rise of the Tea Party, or at least better understood it’s causes and roots, if they had been using this method earlier.

Technically, isn’t it the Rikrok defense?

Josh Levin write at Slate on the state of what he’s termed “the Shaggy defense”:

A few weeks ago, Virginia Lawyers Weekly noted that U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser cited the Shaggy defense in denying a defendant’s summary judgment motion. In the case at issue, Preston v. Morton, a man was struck by a tractor trailer while installing traffic lights. The accused driver’s defense: It wasn’t me.

From a footnote to the judge’s denial of summary judgement:

The term refers to a song by the artist Shaggy called “It Wasn’t Me.” In the song, a man’s girlfriend catches him “red-handed” in the arms of another paramour. When asked for his advice, the singer advises the man to tell her “it wasn’t you.” In the present case, I do not mean to suggest that the case against Defendants is as clear cut as the case against the adulterer in the song (as part of the song’s “charm” is the absurdity of such a claim by someone in the narrator’s situation). I use this term merely to illustrate the defense—claiming the offending party was someone else.

As usual, pop culture references in judicial opinions are good for a chuckle, even if they don’t do much to promote the majesty of the law.

And not to quibble: but shouldn’t it be the Rikrok defense? Certainly the advice to issue repeated denial in the song was proffered by Shaggy, but he was acting as counsel to Rikrok, who was instructed (and refused) to employ this stratagem.

Morning Links

June 8 poll closing times

A blogger at Firedoglake posts a helpful chart of closing times for states having primaries today, with links to the states’ elections bureaus or equivalents. I haven’t checked it but none of the commenters suggested it was inaccurate. I’ve pasted it here:

State w/ SOS or Elections resource link Polling place opening and closing times
Maine Opening varies, 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m; all close 8:00 p.m. EDT
New Jersey 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. EDT
South Carolina 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. EDT
Virginia 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. EDT
Arkansas 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. CDT
Iowa 7:00 a.m. To 9:00 p.m. Statewide CDT
Montana Believed to be 7 a.m. to 8 p.m (Missoulian.com) MDT
North Dakota Highly dependent on size of town and location; According to Green Papers: “Polls close asynchronously at 9:00p CDT (0200 UTC) / 9:00p MDT (0300 UTC). Voting places open between 7:00a to 12:00n and remain open until 7:00p to 9:00p depending on the size of the town. The western half of the state is in MDT but that is, of course, the more sparsely populated part of the state, so it is not as problematic to the networks as might be otherwise suggested by simple geography.” See downloadable XLS at state website.
South Dakota Believed to be 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. MDT – confirm with SD-SOS
California 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. PDT
Nevada Believed to be 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. (see NRS 293.273) PDT

To represent it another way, here are states by closing time (all times Eastern):

7 PM: South Carolina, Virginia

7:30 PM: Arkansas

8 PM: Maine, New Jersey

9 PM: South Dakota (?)

10 PM: Iowa, Montana, Nevada (?)

11 PM: California

Times are all over the place in North Dakota; nobody will close a poll until I blow this whistle.

If anyone has any corrections, please post them in the comments.

Democratizing the takedown of BP

The New York Times, always fresh to break a scoop, reports on the BPGlobalPR Twitter feed, which for the last several weeks has been offering up scathingly hilarious takes on what is quickly taking the mantle of America’s largest-ever environmental disaster:

The parody site is updated throughout the day, offering a combination of “everything is going exactly according to plan” P.R. speak, macabre humor and occasional glimpses of genuine outrage. Over the last week, BPGlobalPR boasted of a deal on “blackened shrimp” at BP gas stations, linked to the photographs of oil-soaked pelicans with the out-of-character postscript “warning: truly heartbreaking” and spoke of how “we’ve modestly made modest changes to this modest gulf.” Beyond its followers, BPGlobalPR benefits from retweeting, becoming grist for other Twitter feeds. On Saturday, this cynical packet — “Safety is our primary concern. Well, profits, then safety. Oh, no — profits, image, then safety, but still — it’s right up there” — was bounding its way across the Internet.

But, the Grey Lady warns you, just because something is on The Twitters doesn’t make it legitimate:

Knowing who’s who on Twitter has been a challenge since the beginning: the basketball great Shaquille O’Neal created his own Twitter feed, with the insistent handle The_Real_Shaq, after someone was pretending to be him. The impersonations had become so problematic that Twitter created “verified accounts” last year assuring followers that the person controlling the account was the real deal.

Far be it from me to cast aspersions on people who use Twitter for comedic ends. Having received an order to cease and desist from a foreign government for allegedly impersonating one of their ministers on Twitter, I am no citadel of righteousness when it comes to tweets.

But the Times buried the lede here. It’s well-known that on Twitter, as elsewhere on the internet, satire (in its better forms) and fraud (in its black hat variety) run rampant. Only in the final paragraphs does the article get to the transformative aspects of this:

While satire has always been with us, certainly longer than public relations executives have been, the Internet is democratizing the process, said Miriam Meckel, a professor of communications in Switzerland who is a fellow at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard studying the impact of Twitter and social media services on journalism.

And that is the real story here. Bursting the bubble of a pompous company is nothing new; being able to do it and have 11 times as many followers (that is, market share) as the object of your derision is what’s new. Blogs, social media, Twitter, et cetera provide myriad ways for normal folks to, if not comfort the afflicted, at least afflict the comfortable. And there are few better ways to hold power — whether in the form of political leaders, firms, or self-appointed social saviors — to account. No longer can a powerful, politically connected company like BP attempt to spin and manage its way out of wrecking hundreds of miles of coastline. This is changing brand management in a way we don’t, I think, fully understand.

It’s not that the facts are getting out. It’s that the Zeitgeist is being established independent of any entity with which BP can directly plead, cajole, or threaten. We are crowdsourcing the establishment of the snarky, ironic conventional wisdom. And in many ways, this is a much more powerful thing than the rise of mere fact-reporting bloggers.

It’s not just about reporting, which is how Web 2.0 (for lack of a better term) has largely been discussed. This isn’t the democratization of information. It’s the democratization of the takedown, the skewering, the needling. This is not the news media being disintermediated — it’s the professional satirists in the vein of Mencken and Rogers and Jon Stewart being replaced by amateurs, and lots of them. It makes it harder for any big entity or brand to remain hallowed and righteous for very long.

On a more prosaic level, we saw this as well with Helen Thomas over the last week. After declaring her wish for the Levant to be Judenfrei, she tried to back out and apologize. And in an earlier era, she might have been able to control the news cycle long enough for it to be buried. The facts here were never in dispute; she was caught on a Flip camera, so chalk that up as a victory for Web 2.0 as we understood it five years ago. But over the weekend she was so badly skewered by thousands of satirists (sample Twitter #helenthomasmovies titles: “10 Things I Hate About Jews,” “Goys Don’t Cry”) that today she was forced to resign from, well, whatever it was that she did.

The BP oil spill is the first major national event where the bad guy in question is subject to lampooning not just from a satirical elite but by anyone with the material and the gumption to set up a Twitter account, or hell, create a funny hashtag. Democratizing the news was a step forward. Democratizing our skepticism towards all form of power is an even greater step.

David Frum on the Bilderberg Group

The Bilderberg Conspiracy apparently met this weekend in Sitges, Spain. What? You’ve never heard of Sitges? That’s because the Bilderbergers made it up. It’s not a real city. They even went so far as to make up a Wikipedia page for it; there’s even one in Catalan! They also invented a backstory for it and got a whole bunch of gay people to claim that it’s a great destination for a beach vacation. Now that’s thorough, though it doesn’t fail the descamisados who know the truth.

Once again, I was not invited. However, David Frum spent some time at the Bilderberg Group in the 1990s as a guest of Conrad Black. (Presumably, Lord Black was not in attendance this year, as he’s currently in a federal prison in Colorado, where he seems to be having a fine old time.)

From Frum’s short essay:

I don’t mean that Bilderberg meetings are boring. They aren’t, not especially. They are precisely as interesting as any other conference that focuses on global economic data, the urgency of European integration, and the ever-rising menace of populist conservatism in the United States. I cannot recall ever hearing anything said in off-the-record conversations that the person speaking would not have said on-the-record…. The idea of Bilderberg as a shadow world government is rather funny. Bilderberg itself demurs, on grounds that the group only hosts discussions, never adopts resolutions or anything like that. But that’s not the real rebuttal. Unlike Davos, Bilderberg is a membership organization: Most attendees return every year. Over time, this practice has given Bilderberg a distinct yesteryear quality. You were much more likely to meet an “ex” this or “former” that than anyone in office today. Guests too tended to reflect the interests and enthusiasms of prior decades. You wouldn’t meet Bono at Bilderberg. (Or rather – you wouldn’t have in the 1990s. Maybe you would now!) For this reason, already it was true in the 1990s that Bilderberg felt itself being overtaken by glitzier competitors, especially the World Economic Forum in Davos. Nobody would ever describe Bilderberg as glitzy. Meetings were decidedly low-tech: panel discussions, not powerpoints. The group met in comfortable but hardly sumptuous resort hotels. Meals were served buffet style, with the group’s patron, the Queen of the Netherlands, carrying her own plate and joining the queue. It was precisely the anachronistic quality of Bilderberg that always fascinated me most and that looms largest in my own memory. Scene: I’m in the hotel bar after a Bilderberg session in Belgium. I get into conversation with an elderly fellow-attendee, a wealthy German businessman. Then: “You know, I was a Nazi.” Weren’t a lot of people? “Oh yes. But I was especially ardent. I volunteered for service in Russia.” What happened? “My parents were aghast. They thought the war was madness. They were influential people – and so my father got me an assignment as military attaché in Portugal. That’s the only reason I’m alive now.”

Non-tenure faculty jobs are not all alike

I had written before about how tenure-track faculty positions at colleges and universities are declining relative to contingent faculty positions such as lecturers or instructors. And while the American Federation of Teachers thinks this is uniformly bad news, things may not be so clear cut.

Last week, Ronald Ehrenberg, an economist at Cornell University, presented a paper at AEI’s conference “Reinventing The American University” that reveals some surprising trends. Ehrenberg compiles data that show you can actually make more money as a lecturer at a research university than as an assistant professor. And associate faculty at for-profit institutions actually feel less like second class citizens than adjuncts at traditional universities.

Will Walmart lower college prices?

In September, Washington Monthly profiled online-education company StraighterLine and its radical pricing of $99/month for college credits. Today, the New York Times reports that Walmart will offer online college credit to its employees through American Public University. Are we witnessing the start of an academic arms race of lower prices?

That could be a good thing for consumers. But it recalls the comedy Idiocracy, where Luke Wilson plays a character who reawakens 500 years from now in a world where intelligence has been debased. His public defender earns his law degree from Costco, adding “luckily my dad was an alumnus and pulled some strings.”

HT Katherine Mangu-Ward.

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