A footstep is the sound or mark that is made by someone walking each time their foot touches the ground.
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Road to Character (David Brooks)
Sometimes you don't even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They posses the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don't need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline. They radiate a sort of moral joy. They answer softly when challenged harshly. They are silent when unfairly abused. They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them. But they get things done. They perform acts of sacrificial service with the same modest everyday spirit they would display if they were just getting the groceries. They are not thinking about what impressive work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all. They just seem delighted by the flawed people around them. They just recognize what needs doing and they do it.
If there is a recent collaboration of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio that deserves recognition, it is not the Wolf of Wall Street that thrives on the cliches and celebrates a crooked broker who again sells us something - this time his story. It is Shutter Island that beautifully depicts the story of a character who creates his own imaginary world when he cannot bear the reality.
Thanks to back-breaking sanctions imposed on Iran, the Iranian supreme leader and revolutionary guard commanders were forced to change the course and listen to the voice of Iranian people in the recent Presidential election. Obviously human rights were not the main concern when these sanctions were devises but they yield the desired result nevertheless. The change was very minimal since the people had very few choices and it is also unclear how much Rouhani will be willing to take on the path of reform and how much Khamenei will let him do so. Iran is still and remains deeply in trouble. Until the time that Iran is part of the global economy and we see the signs of the likes of McDonald's and Starbucks or the office of the likes of Mircosoft and CNN in Tehran, it is hard to imagine how Iran can stands on its feet again.
Unfortunately this was a terrible talk and since the subject is close to my heart, I would like to make some comments. I believe this talk clearly demonstrates that when people feel their job security is threatened by a new innovation, they start to discrediting the subject. It also always puzzles me why economists must express their opinion about anything and everything. I haven't seen people in other fields act in this manner but this seems like a common trend in economics.
1. Kling claims there are only two groups of people who benefit from online courses and one group is the type of Stanford students who can interact with each other on the subject on campus. I assume he is not aware of or ignores the fact that there are already plenty of active online and offline forums where people who take courses at Udacity, etc. can gather and discuss the course material. Wasn't this worth mentioning?
2. He also mentions a large drop rate in these courses as a sign that they are not useful. Wrong again! He ignores the fact that there is almost no barrier to entry in these courses so it is natural that a lot of people sign up and many later drop out. But the fact remains that even if a mere 10% finish the course (which by the way added up to 20000 people in the Artificial Intelligence course taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig), we have achieved an unimaginable task: teaching a course by the best professors in the world to a large audience. If we assume each AI class at Stanford has 50 students, how long does it take to train so many people in AI?
3. Kling outrageously claims that in this day and time, we don't need courses on programming languages like Python. That's an amazing claim. I suggest he raises this issue within his own university administrators and tell them to stop offering courses on programming because people can use Google!!! I am curious about the reaction he gets. Roberts, instead of disagreeing, makes another interesting claim and declares that macroeconomics is different and we still need to teach that subject in classrooms. Why macro but not python? Nobody knows. Again this is a clear example where people talk aligned with their interests.
4. I agree on one thing with Kling though and that's his comment about Stat One course taught by Andrew Conway on Coursera. I watched most lectures and did the assignments and I agree that the course was not well planned and the materials were not well explained. However, I have a PhD and throughout my years of education, I have sat on many college courses in which the profs were much more disorganized and unprepared but on any day I prefer to take an online mediocre course at my own pace and place than take those college courses.
Surely online education has its own issues including how to deal with experiments and lab assignments, what a university brand mean in this case, how to train instructors. But I totally welcome it in my world.
The program raises many interesting issues and in many ways these issues could be easily extended to general health care problems. Here are my two comments about some portions of the program:
We hear in the program that many dentists refuse to accept children on Medicaid in Virginia and Maryland due to low reimbursements by Medicaid. However, a company named Cool Smiles run by a private equity firm has been able to strive in those states by just accepting these patients. The program suggests that Cool Smiles might be involved in malpractice. The program mentions the higher rate of stain-less crowns that children receive in Cool Smile offices as potential evidence for malpractice. Apparently, the profit margin for crown work is higher based on what Medicaid pays. Some interviewees in the program also suggests that a private equity firm is not a good choice for running a dental clinic. I have several problems with what I heard. First, why do we believe a private equity firm can be greedy and unethical but an individual who runs his/her own private practice could not be so? Is it not ultimately those who refused to accept children on Medicaid are also unethical? If we agree that the profit margin is higher for crown work, is it not the responsibility of the state health officials to correct the rates? And finally, how can be sure that higher number of crown works in Cool Smiles is an indication of malpractice when most of these children who are likely in dire need of some serious oral treatment? I am not defending a private equity firm but we might have only found a scapegoat.
In another part of the program, we clearly hear from the dental establishment in another state (Alabama) that they are afraid of a non-profitable clinic. This clinic accepts children on Medicaid and has been able to sustain while these dentists refuse to accept such patients. We clearly hear that these dentists are afraid of the success of this clinic. The president of the clinic is not a dentist and the dental establishment uses this point to undermine the value of the clinic. In fact, this is a common theme and we often hear from physicians and dentists that they do not accept anyone but one of their own to run a health care facility. Surely whoever runs a business should know a lot about it but is it really necessary that a dentist runs a dental clinic? In fact, the success of this dental clinic may suggest something else and that is what dentists charge in this country is much higher that what it should be.
The financial crisis was not a long time ago but this FRONTLINE program again highlighted some incredible twists and turns in the story that one can only accept them with a grain of salt. Of notable are:
Hank Paulson first stands with Timothy Geithner to bail out Bearn Stearns but then his free-market and conservative root overcomes him and he decides he needs to teach a lesson to Wall Street about moral hazard so the other banks do not think they can be bailed out too. As Lehman Brothers marches towards its collapse, he summons the heads of big banks and tells them that the government will not raise a finger if Lehman Brothers collapses and it is them who should save the bank. This is all good in theory. The only problem is that Paulson has totally underestimated the depth of the financial crisis and has chosen the worst time for teaching a lesson to Wall Street. The next day, Lehman Brothers goes underwater and the financial crisis goes out of hand. Ironically, a week later, the government ultimately has to inject a lot more money to the financial system with very little time to think through the details.
As words spread about the financial crisis, John McCain, the Republican nominee for president, suddenly announces that he stops his campaign and will go back to Washington to join the forces for dealing with the financial crisis. Again, such a big move is justifiable only if McCain was actually good at what he intended to do. The next day, a well-publicized meeting is held in the White House with McCain, Obama, the leadership of the Congress and the architects of the bail-out package in attendance. One expects McCain to be the most prepared person for this meeting. On the contrary, when Obama asks McCain to outline his ideas for dealing with the financial crisis, McCain so badly fumbles through a list of ideas that, according to one witness, Bush turns to Pelosi and quietly tells her that "Soon you will miss me!"
Occupy Wall Street, at least the way is currently implemented, does not have a large base in the US. Here are some numbers for comparison:
Red Sox championship parade, Boston, October 30, 2004, 3.2 million people (if not the largest, definitely one of the largest gatherings in the US history).
Obama inauguration, DC, January 20, 2009, 1.2 million people.
Pro-immigration rally, LA, March 25 2006, 500 thousand people.
Tea party gatherings, nationwide, April 15 2009, 300 thousand people.
Occupy Wall Street gatherings, nationwide, October 15 2011, 85 thousand people (By comparison, 200 thousand people showed up in Rome).
Americans seem to show up in large numbers for their favorite teams but barely for any social or political cause. I guess in their psyche they may see a glitch here and they but they still believe the system works.
The phone-hacking story of News Corp and Rupert Murdoch was very interesting for me from different fronts:
1. It signifies the link between Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the tabloid style gossip papers of the UK. One may argue a company can have different entities with different operations and goals in mind but on further thinking and despite apparent dissimilarities, we cannot ignore some striking similarities between Fox News and a gossip magazine. I humbly think Fox News and a gossip magazine have very similar business model and Rupert Murdoch as a successful businessman should have been aware of that.
2. It questions the psyche of a society that is willing to be the consumer the products of News Corp because on one hand we can place all blames on Rupert Murdoch but on the other hand we can say his empire is producing what the society wants to consume.
3. Finally, it raises the bigger and more serious question about the role of news media in the Western world. This question is especially critical because while many other aspects of the society such as health care and education are regularly scrutinized in the Western world , media are often overlooked as the entities that always serve a noteworthy purpose. However, on the race to be more profitable, the news media can often be forced to sell excitement at any price with huge consequences for the society by far more than what is at stake in this phone-hacking scandal. I have long held the belief that Bush would have not been able to sell the Iraq war (regardless of its costs and benefits) had the news media were so involved in the business of selling fear to the Americans in the post-9/11 US. There is no doubt that the Western societies have benefited a lot from good journalism but there are definitely cases that raise serious questions about the judgment of what to cover and how. The presidential and congressional elections are good examples. I was completely perplexed about the coverage that Christine O'Donnell received in the mid-term 2010 elections. According to the polls, the Republicans had won the senate seat for Delaware until O'Donnell won the nomination of their party at which time the polls completely changed directions in favor of the Democrats. Yet despite a clear lack of support, O'Donnell had more coverage than any other candidate in the country through that election season. It is difficult to come up with any reason for this phenomenon other than the love of the news media with her controversial character. It is needless to say that such reactions by media give a huge incentive for other marginal candidates to come up with bizarre statements to grab the attention of the national media. The overall effect is to push the discussion about the real issues to the side and instead have a circus at the spotlight.
Motivated by Tony Weiner's recent sex scandal, Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight has an interesting piece on the effects of sex scandals on the re-election results. He primarily studies David Vitter's case, an incumbent senator from Louisiana who was re-elected in 2007 despite admitting to be a long-time client of a prostitute ring in the DC area. By comparing Vitter's results with the Republican incumbents in the House of Reprasentatives in the same districts, Silver concludes that the sex scandal cost Vitter about 8 percent of the vote. This conclusion seems to be also backed up by a paper on the subject of incumbent senators and sex scandals. However, I believe there is a significant difference in the re-election results depending on whether the person involved in the sex scandal is a senator, junior congressman, senior congressman or a governor. There is a higher switching cost to change a senator or a senior congressman as a senator who has spent more time in the senate is more likely to be influential in the decision making and negotiation process and be able to pass bills that can be beneficial to the state. This switching cost is on the other hand minimal if the person involved in the sex scandal happens to be a governor. As we have seen in recent years (New York governor Eliot Sptizer, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and New Jersey governor Jame McGreevey), governors do not even seek a re-election after a sex scandal.
In the modern ear, being a fan of a sports team is a new form of tribalism. I love sports and watching the actions of great athletes but it is funny how some people get so tangled with rooting for one team over another when there is really no rationale for it. I guess we need the security and safety of a bigger network. We need to remind ourselves that we can make superior choices. We once achieved these goals and still do so by relating to a religion, a country or a race but we now also have another venue: sports teams.
I have been listening to the soundtrack of the Departed these days. I watched the Departed in its first theatrical release just the night before a memorable trip. I enjoyed the movie but never considered it as a favorite. A few days ago, however, I started to think about the performance of Leonardo Dicaprio in the movie. I am not sure why I started to think about the movie and Dicaprio's performance. Maybe because I was feeling a bit down, or because the Oscar ceremony was around the corner, or because the story of the movie happens in Boston. Whatever was the reason, I was suddenly impressed with Dicaprio's performance. I felt he genuinely portrayed a character who must carry his pain discreetly with him. I started to search YouTube to see some of the scenes from the movie especially those in which Dicaprio talks to the psychiatrist. As I was doing my search, however, I discovered the soundtrack of the movie (written by Howard Shore) and was struck by its beauty. The soundtrack is mostly played in the background and we barely hear Howard Shore's music which explains why a viewer may not even notice it. This low profile of the music made me appreciate it even more. I especially found "Billy's Theme" and "Cops or Criminals" beautiful. As a result of my admiration for the music, I watched the movie again but found the music to be superior to many other components.
I once went to a kayaking trip off the coasts of British Columbia. There was this guy with us who liked to stand in front of the ocean every morning before we wake up and play his flute. This was one of the pieces he used to play and it was just amazing to listen to it from inside a tent:
Economic growth + Corrupt government => Unification of two forces for a cause: 1) A large mass of poor population who envy the wealthy and can be short-sighted 2) A new generation of the middle class who envision a better society but can be out of touch with reality (catalyst: an OK nod from a super power) => A revolution whose fate is determined by the share of the above forces in the new government.
مردم عزیز ایران، من از خونه گرم و نرمم در بوستون، از همه شما میخواهم که در تظاهراتهای ضدّ رژیم شرکت کنید. من خودم متاسفانه نمیتونم در کنار شما تو این تظاهراتها شرکت کنم. آخه میدونید. اگر من به ایران بیام به خاطر فعالیت هام در فیس بوک قبل شما که در خیابونها هستید، دستگیر میشم. اصلا اگر راستش را بخواهید من دیگه حتی نمیخوام تو ایران زندگی کنم ولی کلی نظر دارم که شما چه جوری باید انقلاب کنید و به شما قول میدم که از همین جا حسابی در برنامههای مجازی و تفریحی برای سرنگونی رژیم شرکت کنم.
As the uprising more or less continues in Egypt, there are wide-ranging speculations about the future of the country. Some see strong parallels between today's Egypt and Iran in 1979 and are worried that Egypt will falls into the hand of Islamists. This scenario is unlikely to happen in my opinion. Instead, I think Egypt will be taking small steps towards a more democratic state but it still be far from a real democratic state any time in the near future .
Nobody can predict the future but I am just expressing my opinion here because it is always good to review it in the future to see how my views were different from the reality. For the record, I also quote a paragraph from a Fareed Zakaria's article which conveys a similar point of view:
"I remain convinced that fears of an Egyptian theocracy are vastly overblown. Shi'ite Iran is a model for no country — certainly not a Sunni Arab society like Egypt. The nation has seen both Mubarak and Iran's mullahs and wants neither. More likely is the prospect of an "illiberal democracy," in which Egypt becomes a country with reasonably free and fair elections, but the elected majority restricts individual rights and freedoms, curtails civil society and uses the state as its instrument of power. The danger, in other words, is less Iran than Russia."
Although Aljazeera is on its way to become a major news outlet, for years in the west (especially after September 11), it was looked upon as an organization funded by the Islamists who have an anti-western agenda. It was not until 2009 that Canada gave Aljazeera permission to broadcast in its territory. Israel still controls Aljazeera's activities depending on how the network portrays the actions of the government. For a long time, I believed somewhat passively that there are some truth in these claims. The last Iranian election, however, changed my mind. I saw an unbiased coverage from Aljazeera that did not take side with those had a more strict interpretation of Islam and those who did not cherish democracy. Now, with the events in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, it seems that Aljazeera again provides an unbiased coverage of the events. At the end, Aljazeera proved to be a better catalyst for changing the landscape in the Middle East than going to war.