Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under I Attended SUNY and All I Got Was This Blog

David Leonhardt writing in the New York Times about America’s Great Working-Class Colleges.

At City College, in Manhattan, 76 percent of students who enrolled in the late 1990s and came from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have ended up in the top three-fifths of the distribution. These students entered college poor. They left on their way to the middle class and often the upper middle class.

Lower-income students who attend elite colleges fare even better on average than low-income students elsewhere — almost as well, in fact, as affluent students who attend elite colleges. But there aren’t very many students from modest backgrounds on elite campuses, noted John Friedman of Brown, one of the study’s authors. On several dozen of campuses, remarkably, fewer students hail from the entire bottom half of the income distribution than from the top 1 percent.

(Emphasis mine.) This seems like a problem. I’m not the first to note this, but it’s absurd to credit elite schools with turning high school valedictorians into high-earning professionals. Kids who already do well on tests get into colleges that want them to do well on tests, where they later do well on tests and proceed to careers where they succeed. It would seem to me that a college could better prove its worth by showing how much improvement its students make.

For example, take William Deresiewicz’s incendiary 2014 piece in The New Republic Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League. Once you get past the fairly unimaginative ‘kids today are weak and spoiled and soft and in my day, we walked uphill to school in the snow’ schtick, he hits more or less the same line of reporting as Leonhardt’s “more students from the top 1% than the bottom 50%” bit. Deresiewicz points out this kind of income inequality has drastically increased over the last couple decades:

The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.

And Leonhardt again, on elite colleges admitting more affluent kids than working-class ones:

Because the elite colleges aren’t fulfilling that responsibility, working-class colleges have become vastly larger engines of social mobility. The new data shows, for example, that the City University of New York system propelled almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford and Chicago, combined.

Six times! Now, you might know that CUNY is actually a university system of twenty-four colleges, and it’s larger than all but two state university systems: New York’s and California’s. CUNY has 274,000 students, while the twelve “Ivy Plus” schools have a combined 118,000 students. So on a per-student basis, that “almost six times as many” number is really more like “about two and a half times as many.” This is nothing to sneeze at, but I’m doing my part to combat innumeracy in 2017.

Well, okay. We all agree that income inequality is bad, and that America’s great working-class colleges do way more to fight income inequality than our Ivy-est schools, so problem solved, right? I’ll just read to the end of that Leonhardt piece to make sure the story has a happy ending, and-

State funding for higher education has plummeted. It’s down 19 percent per student, adjusted for inflation, since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The financial crisis pinched state budgets, and facing a pinch, some states decided education wasn’t a top priority.

Oh, come on. ​

Published on under Driverless Blog Posts

Friend of the blog Matt Stempeck has a post in The Civicist about Uber’s latest foray into civic activism. Uber has emailed its users in New York City, asking them to register their displeasure with a new rule proposed by the local Taxi & Limousine Commission; the rule would require Uber to share more of its data with the city, like traditional taxi companies already do. The subject line of Uber’s email is “The government wants to know where you’re headed …on every ride.”

Stempeck’s piece is titled Uber Only Wants to Share Data On Their Terms, and if you think the ubiquitous black (market) car service is the good guy here, reconsider. He writes:

[Uber’s] email itself is an unfair and misleading interpretation of the city’s proposal. It’s true that the city’s aggregated taxi data was successfully made public through a Freedom of Information Law request by Chris Whong, and that people were able to de-anonymize certain trips based on then-unforeseen additional data sources like paparazzi photos. But Uber’s campaign misconstrues how government data is collected and used, and implies a level of real-time government tracking of individuals without a shred of evidence that this can or does occur. The level of surveillance suggested by the email would be difficult given that the geographic information that will be collected will be aggregated.

Uber’s own employees, on the other hand, have repeatedly bragged of exactly the type of real-time, fine resolution tracking about which this email warns. An Uber executive boasted of tracking a journalist who was critical of the company with a real-time “God mode” of their system.

Got that? Other taxi companies have to provide this data to the city already, but Uber doesn’t want to. Put that aside for a minute, and bear with me on this privacy bit.

Published on under Orange is the New Black

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s newest piece in The Atlantic is My President Was Black, and it’s stunning. While hundreds of writers have recounted or will retell the story of the Obama years, Coates is one of the smartest and most talented writers alive, and it’s hard to imagine who can put the last decade in context better than him.

As a political junkie, not many of the Obama details were new to me; as a white guy, however, it was extremely educational. Here, Coates explains why Obama’s literary voice is unique among African-American writers.

Historically, in black autobiography, to be remanded into the black race has meant exposure to a myriad of traumas, often commencing in childhood. Frederick Douglass is separated from his grandmother. The enslaved Harriet Ann Jacobs must constantly cope with the threat of rape before she escapes. After telling his teacher he wants to be a lawyer, Malcolm X is told that the job isn’t for “niggers.” Black culture often serves as the balm for such traumas, or even the means to resist them. Douglass finds the courage to face the “slave-breaker” Edward Covey after being given an allegedly enchanted root by “a genuine African” possessing powers from “the eastern nations.” Malcolm X’s dancing connects him to his “long-suppressed African instincts.”

If black racial identity speaks to all the things done to people of recent African ancestry, black cultural identity was created in response to them. The division is not neat; the two are linked, and it is incredibly hard to be a full participant in the world of cultural identity without experiencing the trauma of racial identity.

Obama is somewhat different. He writes of bloodying the nose of a white kid who called him a “coon,” and of chafing at racist remarks from a tennis coach, and of feeling offended after a white woman in his apartment building told the manager that he was following her. But the kinds of traumas that marked African Americans of his generation—beatings at the hands of racist police, being herded into poor schools, grinding out a life in a tenement building—were mostly abstract for him. Moreover, the kind of spatial restriction that most black people feel at an early age—having rocks thrown at you for being on the wrong side of the tracks, for instance—was largely absent from his life. In its place, Obama was gifted with a well-stamped passport and admittance to elite private schools—all of which spoke of other identities, other lives and other worlds where the color line was neither determinative nor especially relevant. Obama could have grown into a raceless cosmopolitan. Surely he would have lived in a world of problems, but problems not embodied by him.

Given this background, Coates explains that Obama nonetheless voluntarily embraced “blackness,” capturing a feeling of authenticity among the African-American communities. The process by which Obama signaled this is obviously foreign to me, but was extremely educational and interesting. Likewise, the fact that he could signal “blackness” to one community while maintaining his unprecedented appeal to white voters is fascinating.

Coates’s essay is wonderful start to finish; he even gets an interview with President Obama after Trump is elected president. I can’t recommend it enough.

Published on under Getting it All Out There

In the immediate aftermath of the (remarkably close) presidential election, you can ask twenty different people what made the difference and you’ll probably get twenty-one different answers. “Facebook failed to prevent the spread of hoaxes at best and propaganda at worst” is a popular answer, and whether or not it determined the outcome of the election, the story behind it has been fascinating to watch. Let’s start in 2012.

Alex Kantrowitz, writing for Buzzfeed News, notes that a photo shared on election night 2012 by the Obama campaign was shared over 500,000 times on Twitter, and less than 100,000 times on Facebook. Twitter has a fraction of the number of users that Facebook does, so this disparity is even worse in the proportional “shares per user” metric that I’m sure Facebook uses to measure this stuff.

Here’s where we pick up Kantrowitz’s story of How The 2016 Election Blew Up In Facebook’s Face:

Published on under Computers Talking to Computers

Leigh Beadon at Techdirt: web sites’ Traffic Is Fake, Audience Numbers Are Garbage, And Nobody Knows How Many People See Anything.

Where should we start? How about this: internet traffic is half-fake and everyone’s known it for years, but there’s no incentive to actually acknowledge it. The situation is technically improving: 2015 was hailed (quietly, among people who aren’t in charge of selling advertising) as a banner year because humans took back the majority with a stunning 51.5% share of online traffic, so hurray for that I guess. All the analytics suites, the ad networks and the tracking pixels can try as they might to filter the rest out, and there’s plenty of advice on the endless Sisyphean task of helping them do so, but considering at least half of all that bot traffic comes from bots that fall into the “malicious” or at least “unauthorized” category, and thus have every incentive to subvert the mostly-voluntary systems that are our first line of defence against bots… Well, good luck. We already know that Alexa rankings are garbage, but what does this say about even the internal numbers that sites use to sell ad space? Could they even be off by a factor of 10? I don’t know, and neither do you. Hell, we don’t even know how accurate the 51.5% figure is — it could be way off… in either direction.

There’s a sci-fi story waiting to be written about a world where the humans have all killed one another off, but the machines keep the internet running because their purpose in life is to index and spam everything.

Published on under Naturally Abhorrent Things

Om Malik, in the New Yorker: Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum.

Silicon Valley’s biggest failing is not poor marketing of its products, or follow-through on promises, but, rather, the distinct lack of empathy for those whose lives are disturbed by its technological wizardry. […] If you are Amazon, you have to acknowledge that you are slowly corroding the retail sector, which employs many people in this country. If you are Airbnb, no matter how well-meaning your focus on delighting travellers, you are also going to affect hotel-industry employment.

Otto, a Bay Area startup that was recently acquired by Uber, wants to automate trucking—and recently wrapped up a 120 mile driverless delivery of 50,000 cans of beer between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. From a technological standpoint it was a jaw-dropping achievement, accompanied by predictions of improved highway safety. From the point of view of a truck driver with a mortgage and a kid in college, it was a devastating “oh, shit” moment. That one technical breakthrough puts nearly two million long-haul trucking jobs at risk. Truck driving is one of the few decent-paying jobs that doesn’t require a college diploma. Eliminating the need for truck drivers doesn’t just affect those millions of drivers; it has a ripple effect on ancillary services like gas stations, motels, and retail outlets; an entire economic ecosystem could break down.

Malik’s argument is more nuanced and richer than “it’s the economy, stupid” and I encourage you to read it, but let’s stick to the economic bit for a second. When those two million truck drivers are all out of work, that money doesn’t just disappear. It goes into the pockets of Otto’s founders and investors, of which there are significantly less than two million. Even if the driverless trucking industry turns out to be Otto and their two hundred biggest competitors, that’s a staggering concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few.

Save Your Fork

And that doesn’t even cover the worst offenders. In 2014, Kevin Roose described a category of startups called Profitless on Purpose. His personal highlight was a startup named SpoonRocket, which delivered a sirloin and roasted cauliflower lunch to his front door in 11 minutes for $8.

But SpoonRocket doesn’t have to make money, because it’s just raised $10 million in venture capital expressly so it can keep its prices low. The metric its investors care about right now is user growth, not profits. And if, indeed, the company is selling meals for less than they cost to make, those investors are willing to fill the gap. […] They’re simply taking millions of dollars in venture capital with the hope of keeping prices low, pushing rivals out of the market, and eventually finding a way to turn a profit.

There are several worrying things about this new, profitless-on-purpose way of doing business. First is that the while some of the money used to fund money-losing start-ups comes from rich Silicon Valley investors, some large amount of it comes from public pensions, college endowments, and other, more modest sources. Lyft backer Andreessen Horowitz, for example, has gotten investments from the Imperial County, California, Employee Retirement System and the University of Michigan; the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System invests money with SpoonRocket backer General Catalyst.

If you asked them, I’m sure that firefighters in Memphis and public schoolteachers in El Centro would have no idea that their retirement funds are being used to lower the price of my delivery lunches and rides across town. But that’s exactly what’s happening. And when these venture-backed price wars happen in dozens of high-end service sectors all at once, you have a strange cultural phenomenon in which Main Street dollars are being used to finance the lifestyles of cosmopolitan yuppies.

SpoonRocket ended up raising $13.5m in total before shutting down in March 2016. It was acquired for an undisclosed sum by another startup, iFood, which has $92m of other people’s money. Got that? The one startup that spent investors’ money to (unsuccessfully) stay afloat is now owned by the other startup with even more money.

But Wait, There’s More

Now, I like to pick on technology, and Silicon Valley and startups everywhere are a convenient punching bag; but Wal-Mart has spent decades hollowing out businesses in Middle America (and then leaving). And Barnes & Noble killed your local bookstore while Starbucks killed your local coffee shop. People who lived in your town used to own these businesses; now many of them just work in someone else’s. You don’t have to be a card-carrying Marxist to see how this could be upsetting.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the populist support for Donald Trump, and understanding that cool apps, record stock market highs, and annual GDP growth hasn’t trickled down to Middle America seems like one important element.