Thomas Babington Macaulay on copyright extensions (circa 1841)

Thomas Babington Macaulay:

The question of copyright. Sir, like most questions of civil prudence, is neither black nor white, but gray. The system of copyright has great advantages and great disadvantages; and it is our business to ascertain what these are, and then to make an arrangement under which the advantages may be as far as possible secured, and the disadvantages as far as possible excluded…

The advantages arising from a system of copyright are obvious. It is desirable that we should have a supply of good books; we cannot have such a supply unless men of letters are liberally remunerated: and the least objectionable way of remunerating them is by means of copyright…

Copyright is monopoly, and produces all the effects which the general voice of mankind attributes to monopoly…

monopoly is an evil. For the sake of the good we must submit to the evil; but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good…

the evil effects of the monopoly are proportioned to the length of its duration. But the good effects for the sake of which we bear with the evil effects are by no means proportioned to the length of its duration. A monopoly of sixty years produces twice as much evil as a monopoly of thirty years, and thrice as much evil as a monopoly of twenty years. But it is by no means the fact that a posthumous monopoly of sixty years gives to an author thrice as much pleasure and thrice as strong a motive as a posthumous monopoly of twenty years. On the contrary, the difference is so small as to be hardly perceptible…

The principle of copyright is this. It is a tax on readers for the purpose of giving a bounty to writers… I admit, however, the necessity of giving a bounty to genius and learning. In order to give such a bounty, I willingly submit even to this severe and burdensome tax…My complaint is, that my honorable and learned friend doubles, triples, quadruples, the tax, and makes scarcely any perceptible addition to the bounty…

an evil, which is perhaps more to be apprehended when an author’s copyright remains in the hands of his family, than when it is transferred to booksellers. I seriously fear that, if such a measure as this should be adopted, many valuable works will be either totally suppressed or grievously mutilated…

Just as the absurd Acts which prohibited the sale of game were virtually repealed by the poacher, just as many absurd revenue Acts have been virtually repealed by the smuggler, so will this law be virtually repealed by piratical booksellers…

At present the holder of copyright has the public feeling on his side. Those who invade copyright are regarded as knaves who take the bread out of the mouths of deserving men… Pass this law: and that feeling is at an end… once it ceases to be considered as wrong and discreditable to invade literary property, no person can say where the invasion will stop. The public seldom makes nice distinctions. The wholesome copyright which now exists will share in the disgrace and danger of the new copyright which you are about to create. And you will find that, in attempting to impose unreasonable restraints on the reprinting of the works of the dead, you have, to a great extent, annulled those restraints which now prevent men from pillaging and defrauding the living.

The College Transparency Act would be the best thing to happen to higher education in years

Melissa Korn of the WSJ reports that

legislation that would overturn a decade-old ban on collecting individual student data that track enrollment, completion and graduate success…

The bill, the College Transparency Act…

The legislation is backed by a number of higher-education industry groups, including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the American Association of Community Colleges and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators…

This would be a huge improvement for higher education. As I wrote in Minding the Campus a few years ago:

The fact that we spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on higher education and can’t determine something as basic as a national graduation rate is a dereliction of duty. The solution to this problem is deceptively simple: turn to Student Unit Records. SURs are straightforward – they are databases that assign each student an individual number so that their educational history can be tracked. With a SUR, the pace of part-time students could be accounted for, and transfer students would no longer vanish, making it possible to calculate an accurate and meaningful graduation rate.

There’s a second advantage from having a SUR: it would allow a better understanding of each college’s and even each program’s performance. For example, while post-college earnings are certainly not the only thing that matters, they are an important consideration for many students. Matching educational records from a SUR with earnings data from the IRS would allow for accurate employment outcomes to be published for each college and program. Such information would help students make better decisions which would in turn help discipline and focus colleges. This can’t be done without a SUR.

There are two main groups opposed to SUR. The first are colleges. In an unusual alliance, both the best and the worst colleges fear SURs. The bad colleges like being able to say things like “Our 9% official graduation rate ignores transfer students and is therefore not an accurate depiction of the quality of our college.” The fact that they oppose a SUR system which would allow for accurate graduation rates to be calculated tells us that they are more interested in maintaining plausible excuses than in actually finding an accurate number. Meanwhile, the best colleges are terrified of being compared to other schools on something like value added earnings. At best, such a comparison would confirm that they are indeed the best. But a comparison might show that they do not deserve to be on top, and they are terrified that some no name college will be shown to be just as good or better. Thus, for top colleges, there is nothing to gain, and potentially everything to lose from such comparisons. While colleges’ opposition to SURs are understandable, there is absolutely no reason for policymakers to indulge them.

The second group opposed to SURs are Republicans concerned about privacy violations. To an extent these were legitimate concerns as any database has potential privacy issues. But recently, convincing methods of safeguarding privacy while implementing a SUR have been developed. Republican Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell has done great work in this area, as has Democratic U.S. Senator Ron Wyden and Republican U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter. The Republicans that have opposed SURs to date deserve credit for ensuring that privacy was taken into account, but it is now time to acknowledge that their concerns have been addressed.

America has some great colleges that are the envy of the world. But we also have some terrible colleges that waste student and taxpayer money. A SUR would help us separate the wheat from the chaff.

William A. McEachern on effective teaching

William A. McEachern:

Finding # 1: Students are much more likely to recall information that relates somehow to what they already know or have experienced…

Finding # 2: The key to long-term learning is practicing retrieval. Many experiments have found that learning improves when students actively retrieve information from memory rather than passively reread class notes or textbooks…

Finding # 3: Raise key ideas again and again over time. Retrieval and testing sessions that are spaced out over time are effective for long-term retention and transfer… Teachers should align their presentations, assignments, and tests so that key ideas are recalled frequently throughout the term. And students should space their retrieval sessions over time.

Finding # 4: “Desirable difficulties” foster engagement, which helps students learnDesirable difficulties are challenges introduced during instruction that seem to benefit long-term learning, challenges such as presenting material in different contexts and in different formats. Desirable difficulties may seem to slow the apparent rate of learning in the short run, but they boost long-term retention and transfer…

Myths# 1: The mind works like a memory machine… Instead, new information enters long-term memory only if linked to what’s already known, then retrieved repeatedly over time.

Myth# 2: Testing is not learning but is a mere yardstick to measure how much has been learned… Tests, however, are forced retrieval, and this helps students learn and remember… Frequent, low-stakes, classroom quizzes may be one of the best ways you can help students learn new material.

Myth# 3: Learning depends on a student’s learning stylethere is no evidence that customizing instruction to match a student’s preferred learning style leads to better achievement…

Myth # 4: Your classroom presentation determines how much students learn. What you do in class matters less than what you ask and expect students to do in your course… Remember, it’s less what you teach and more what students do for themselves to learn.

Alex Usher on lessons from Soviet higher education

Alex Usher

2)  The middle-class will pull whatever strings necessary to maintain their kids’ class position.

Khrushchev was not especially happy about the development of a hereditary intelligentsia, which made itself out to morally superior because of its extra years of education. Basically, he felt students were putting on airs and needed to be reminded that all that training they were receiving was in order to serve the working class, not to stand above it. And so, in 1958, he tried to shake things up by slapping a requirement on university admissions that reserved 80 per cent of places to individuals who has spent two years in gainful employment. This, he felt, would transform the student body and make it more at one with the toiling masses.

This has some predictably disastrous effects on admissions, as making people spend two years out of school before taking entrance exams tends to have fairly calamitous effects on exam results. But while the measure did give a big leg up to the children of workers and peasants (their numbers at universities doubled after the change, though many dropped out soon afterwards due to inadequate preparation), what was interesting was how far the Moscow/Leningrad elites would go to try to rig the system in their children’s favour. Some would try to get their children into two year “mental labor” jobs such as working as a lab assistant; others would find ways to falsify their children’s “production records”. Eventually the policy was reversed because the hard science disciplines argued the new system was undermining their ability to recruit the best and brightest. But in the meantime, the intelligentsia managed to keep their share of enrolments above 50%, which was definitely not what Khrushchev wanted.

3) Institutional prestige is not a function of neo-liberalism.

We sometimes hear about how rankings and institutional prestige are all a product of induced competition, neo-liberalism, yadda yadda. Take one look at the accounts of Soviet students and you’ll know that’s nonsense. Prestige hierarchies exist everywhere…

Marguerite Roza on K12 school finance coming out of the dark ages

Marguerite Roza:

Want to know what’s spent per student at a public school near you? Or whether it’s more or less than what’s spent at another school up the road? While it may seem crazy, in most communities you’d need to be a forensic accountant to get answers to such seemingly straightforward questions. That’s because what typically gets tracked and reported in this country is district-level spending. (And even that can take several years to be released to the public.)

But that’s all about to change.

A sleeper provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act—come December 2018—will serve up a motherlode of never-before-available school-level financial data…

Backed with bipartisan support, ESSA’s financial transparency clause calls on states to publicly report spending by school starting in the 2017-18 school year—and do so just six months after the school year ends…The intent was to make spending data public and accessible to communities and school systems, unmasking systemic fiscal inequities among schools in the same district and making it much easier to investigate (and understand) the relationship between school outcomes and school spending…

Ralph Linton puts cultural appropriation in perspective

Jonathan Zimmerman unearths a classic piece by Ralph Linton that nicely illustrates the absurdity of obsessing over cultural appropriation:

Our solid American citizen… slips into his moccasins, invented by the Indians of the Eastern woodlands… He takes off his pajamas, a garment invented in India, and washes with soap invented by the ancient Gauls…

puts on shoes made from skins tanned by a process invented in ancient Egypt and cut to a pattern derived from the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean…

His plate is made of a form of pottery invented in China. His knife is of steel, an alloy first made in southern India, his fork a medieval Italian invention, and his spoon a derivative of a Roman original…

waffles, cakes made by a Scandinavian technique from wheat domesticated in Asia Minor. Over these he pours maple syrup, invented by the Indians of Eastern woodlands…

he settles back to smoke, an American Indian habit, consuming a plant domesticated in Brazil in either a pipe, derived from the Indians of Virginia, or a cigarette, derived from Mexico

he reads the news of the day, imprinted in characters invented by the Semites upon a material invented in China by a process invented in Germany. As he absorbs the account of foreign troubles he will, if he is a good conservative citizen, thank a Hebrew deity in a Indo-European language that he is 100 percent American.

Lisa Servon on predatory check cashing services

Lisa Servon via Alex Morrell:

The prevailing wisdom from bankers and policy makers went like this: People who used alternative financial services — like check cashers and payday lenders — were making expensive and unwise decisions…

But Servon, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania and a former dean at the New School, spent 20 years studying low-income communities, and to her, that picture didn’t add up…

“The implication of that… was these people were making poor decisions,” Servon recently told Business Insider. “I knew that the people I had worked with closely who don’t have very much money know where every penny goes. They budget things. They know where to get the best deals on things. And so it struck me that if they were using check cashers, there must be a good reason for that.”…

Servon recounts her journey in her new book, “The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives,”…

Over and over, Servon heard and observed that check cashers often met customers’ needs better than banks did.

She discovered there were three main reasons people used these services instead of banks: cost, transparency, and service.

This is a great example of the value of how familiarity with target population can yield better research. Prior to this, I had always thought these types of services were overpriced relative to a traditional bank, but I was not a good judge of that because I never really need the services they provide, so I naturally discounted their value to those that do need them.

Andrés Miguel Rondón on how to resist a populist

Andrés Miguel Rondón

The recipe for populism is universal. Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior. Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

That’s how it becomes a movement…

In Venezuela, the urban middle class I come from was cast as the enemy in the political struggle that followed Chávez’s arrival in 1998. For years, I watched in frustration as the opposition failed to do anything about the catastrophe overtaking our nation. Only later did I realize that this failure was self-inflicted. So now, to my American friends, here is some advice on how to avoid Venezuela’s mistakes.

Don’t forget who the enemy is.

Populism can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely…

The problem is not the message but the messenger, and if you don’t realize this, you will be wasting your time.

Show no contempt.

Don’t feed polarization, disarm it. This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind…

Shaming has never been an effective method of persuasion…

The worst you can do is bundle moderates and extremists together and think that America is divided between racists and liberals. That’s the textbook definition of polarization. We thought our country was split between treacherous oligarchs and Chávez’s uneducated, gullible base. The only one who benefited was Chávez.

Don’t try to force him out.

Our opposition tried every single trick in the book. Coup d’etat? Check. Ruinous oil strike? Check. Boycotting elections in hopes that international observers would intervene? You guessed it…

You will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy. And all the while you’re giving the populist and his followers enough rhetorical fuel to rightly call you a saboteur, an unpatriotic schemer, for years to come.

To a big chunk of the population, the Venezuelan opposition is still that spoiled, unpatriotic schemer. It sapped the opposition’s effectiveness for the years when we’d need it most…

Find a counterargument. (No, not the one you think.)

Don’t waste your time trying to prove that this grand idea is better than that one. Ditch all the big words. The problem, remember, is not the message but the messenger…

In Venezuela, we fell into this trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about principles, about separation of powers, civil liberties, the role of the military in politics, corruption and economic policy. But it took opposition leaders 10 years to figure out that they needed to actually go to the slums and the countryside. Not for a speech or a rally, but for a game of dominoes or to dance salsa — to show they were Venezuelans, too… It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization.

Joel Spolsky on the importance of talent and the implications for scalability

Joel Spolsky:

the scalability problem. When you try to clone a restaurant, you have to decide between hiring another great chef of your caliber (in which case, that chef will probably want and expect to keep most of the extra profits that he created, so why bother), or else you’ll hire a cheaper, younger chef who’s not quite as good, but pretty soon your patrons will figure that out and they won’t go to the clone restaurant…

How many times have you heard this story?

Mike was unhappy. He had hired a huge company of IT consultants to build The System. The IT consultants he hired were incompetents who kept talking about “The Methodology” and who spent millions of dollars and had failed to produce a single thing.

Luckily, Mike found a youthful programmer who was really smart and talented. The youthful programmer built his whole system in one day for $20 and pizza. Mike was overjoyed. He recommended the youthful programmer to all his friends.

Youthful Programmer starts raking in the money. Soon, he has more work than he can handle, so he hires a bunch of people to help him. The good people want too many stock options, so he decides to hire even younger programmers right out of college and “train them” with a 6 week course.

The trouble is that the “training” doesn’t really produce consistent results, so Youthful Programmer starts creating rules and procedures that are meant to make more consistent results. Over the years, the rule book grows and grows. Soon it’s a six-volume manual called The Methodology.

After a few dozen years, Youthful Programmer is now a Huge Incompetent IT Consultant with a capital-M-methodology and a lot of people who blindly obey the Methodology, even when it doesn’t seem to be working, because they have no bloody idea whatsoever what else to do, and they’re not really talented programmers — they’re just well-meaning Poli Sci majors who attended the six-week course.

And Newly Huge Incompetent IT Consultant starts messing up. Their customers are unhappy. And another upstart talented programmer comes and takes away all their business, and the cycle begins anew…

What’s the moral of the story? Beware of Methodologies. They are a great way to bring everyone up to a dismal, but passable, level of performance, but at the same time, they are aggravating to more talented people who chafe at the restrictions that are placed on them.

Some interesting post-election commentary

Brendan O’Neill

“You are a white man. Your whiteness defines you. Everything you think is because you’re white, everything you say is because you’re white. Don’t try to be post-white. Don’t try to be colourblind. Don’t say you are ‘over race’. You’re white, own it and deal with it.”

“Really? Oh. Okay. I identify as white.”

“FASCIST!”

Scott Alexander

The only thing the media has been able to do for the last five years is shout “IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS!” at everything, and then when the right wing finally says “Um, i…den-tity….poli-tics?” you freak out and figure that the only way they could have possibly learned that phrase is from the KKK.

Mark Lilla

[Interviewer] You’re white. You’re male. You’re heterosexual. Are you the best person to make this argument?

[Mark Lilla] Arguments are arguments. Period.