Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Top 5 Superstitions that a Progressive Christian Doesn't Have to Believe

Since Easter is coming up and is an occasion where the supernatural traditionally plays a role, I thought I should do a top five list of superstitions that I don't, as a Progressive Christian, have to believe in.

Coming back to church after an absence of 18 years, I wasn't sure how I would handle the Christian beliefs that I considered rather supernatural. It was a bit like asking an adult to believe in Santa Claus.

I had the fortune of happening upon Irvine United Congregational Church, which subscribes to (very) Progressive Christianity. It's a non-dogmatic, non-creedal church that is deeply involved in social justice issues. We are against war, support gay marriage, and are in favor of health care reform. In our area, we have a reputation for being "That Church." Over the last few years I discovered that Progressive Christianity does not require me to give up the rational side of my mind. Here are the top five beliefs that I no longer need from my days attending a conservative Baptist church.

1. The Bible as the inerrant word of God.

The Bible should be read as literature, the same way that we do with Shakespeare. We need to understand the cultural context at the time that it was written to make sense of central, essential message in the text. Human beings wrote the Bible for their own purposes. I find it very hard to believe in a God who manipulates people like puppets and makes spelling mistakes.

2. Virgin birth

The notion that Jesus was born to a woman who had not previously had sexual intercourse is due to a translation error. The Hebrew word used to describe Mary was almah, meaning "young woman." But in the 3rd Century CE, the Bible was translated into Greek and the word became parthenos, which means "virgin." It's good news to me that I don't have to believe in something biologically improbably and likely supernatural, in order to accept that Jesus of Nazareth walked the Earth at some point.

3. Jesus arising from the dead.

The Easter story where the formerly dead Jesus leaves a tomb is a parable. The underlying message is that love and hope go on, even in the darkest hour. Easter is about resurrection, not reanimation. It's about restoring something that that was lost, not making a former corpse walk the Earth again. It was such a relief to me that I didn't have to believe someone came back to life (zombie, anyone?) in order to call myself a Christian.

4. Sin is breaking God's law.

Sin is not violation of some arcane rule in the Bible or some inference from a passage in the Bible. In PXnty, sin is any action that increases emotional and spiritual  distance between a person and loving Creator.  This model is beautiful to me, because it's so personal, subjective, and immediate. It also a definition that works through the ages. I like believing in a God who isn't a rules lawyer, who makes decrees about corner cases, such as whether a white lie is a real lie. A God who doesn't micromanage our lives makes so much more sense to me, as does the emphasis on how I live my life and my relationship with God.

5. Hell is where sinners are sent after we die.

If sin is an action that increases distance between a person and God, then heaven and hell are not where people go in the afterlife, but consequences of how we live in this life. Someone who commits a lot of sins will have a uncomfortable consequences to deal with, such as damaged relationships, guilt, sadness, etc. All these negative emotions are hell in and of themselves. They don't require further condemnation from others. By the same token, heaven on Earth is not just an abstract concept, but a specific state. In the absence of sin, we can be perfectly loving, perfectly compassionate, perfectly courageous, and perfectly just.

A God who would create a place where people are sent to be tortured forever after they die is a monster, in my book. Eternity is a long time. It's an even longer time to be boiling, freezing, whipping, or starving someone who was alive for at most a little over a hundred years. I refuse to believe in a God who uses more advanced interrogation techniques than the CIA.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How little I knew you Geraldine Ferraro

When Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president in 1984, I had no idea what it meant to be a feminist and to be limited as a member of a marginalized group. But I did have the impression that Ferraro must have been a Very Bad Person, based on the people talked about her, both in terms of content and tone. It didn't occur to me that her gender had anything to do with it. Her passing on the weekend provides me with an opportunity to reflect on how little I understood at the time about her and what she did for us.

That year, I was thirteen years old and in grade eight. I was not following politics at all. To me, the most significant event on the world stage was the birth of UK's Prince Harry in September. I knew that there was a presidential election in the US and who candidates were. I knew that Geraldine Ferraro was running. I had no idea what the issues were in the election. But I did have the impression that Ferraro must be a Very Bad Person.

The news was always critical. She had said the wrong thing. She was doing things she shouldn't have. Her past was questionable. More damaging than the facts were the implications, which read like a laundry list of words to marginalize someone: incompetent, immoral, not Christian, too uppity, exceeding her capabilities... The adults around me (both men and women) seemed to feel a sense of outrage; how dare she run for Vice President!

It did not strike me as remarkable that a woman was running for the position.  I had the mistaken idea that the world always was and will be this way. It didn't occur to me that people expressed these sentiments about her, because she was a woman. I had the mistaken idea that men and women had equal opportunity in our society.

To give you an idea of how unenlightened I was, let me tell you about the most memorable scene (to me) from the move Top Gun. Maverick (Tom Cruise) had kept Charlie (Kelly McGillis) waiting, because he stayed to play beach volleyball with his mates. When Maverick arrived at Charlie's place, he made weak excuses and asked her to wait some more while he had a shower. Charlie said no and made him talk to her un-showered. This scene amazed me, because it was an example of a woman not letting a man get away with bad behavior. In my daily life, male relatives often acted badly, and women just put up with it. It never occurred to me that there was something that we could do about it.

But, in a sense, there wasn't anything we could do about it. On one occasion, I did resist and it didn't work out well. My brother, sister, and I were supposed to take turns making lunch to bring to school. My brother, being the youngest and the only son, often shirked his duties with little reprimand from our parents. The job was often left to me and my sister. We probably should have just not made his lunch until he pitched in. But that was too blatant and would have drawn the ire of our parents. My sister and I hatched a plan: we would make his sandwich inside-out with the bread in the middle, the meat on the outside, and the condiments on top. We giggled like fiends as we prepared this messy revenge. When my brother came home, he was furious. (My husband says that it was probably because we embarrassed him in front of his friends.) He raged and yelled at us. And what did we do? We did what we saw our female role models did. We acquiesced and didn't do it again. It's astonishing, now that I look back on it. The me in 2011 would never put up with something like this. I don't think we did our brother any favors either.

Reading Ferraro's obituary gave me a new appreciation for what she did and how far I have come. I know what it's like to be under attack. I know what it's like to have special attacks lobbed at me with astonishing vitriol, because I was a woman and I dared. She held up remarkably against the barrage of attacks. She opened up possibilities for women who followed. Rest in peace, Geraldine Ferraro.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I will gladly pay for the New York Times

I hardly ever post twice in one day, but I felt that the announcement by the New York Times that they would be charging for subscriptions and the ensuing hoopla was worth commenting on.

In brief, I will gladly pay for the New York Times. I have been looking for a way to pay for the great articles that I have been getting from them for quite some time now. But my only option before this was to pay for a physical paper, which I definitely do not want. I want to acknowledge the value that I get from NYT and the customary way to do this in our industrial economy is to pay.

I believe that you get what you pay for. I pay my financial adviser on a fee-for-service model. Most people don't. Instead, they get "free" advice, which they pay for by buying the mutual funds recommended by their advisers. In turn, these funds are not necessarily the best ones, but the ones that give the advisers the best commission. I support a my local NPR affiliate and individual programs, such as This American Life and Story Corps. I like these shows and want them to continue to produce high quality programming.

Kenneth Whyte, editor-in-chief at MacLean's (Canada's equivalent of Time magazine), gave the 2009 Dalton Camp Lecture, which was later broadcast and podcast on CBC Radio. Whyte talked about the collapse of newspapers, magazines, and journalism as we know it, and suggested that what was coming would be better. He compared our current funding model (where advertisers carry the burden of the cost of producing a newspaper), to the funding model used during the heyday of newspapers, that is, when publisher William Randolph Hearst was alive and active. In those days, readers were the primary source of funding for newspapers. There was far more competition and far more local coverage. Whyte argued that the reader-pay model was superior, because they, the public, got to drive the news.

To be sure, we're can't go back and I'm not suggesting that we should. Competition during the Hearst era was local to New York City. In our current era, news is global, competition is in cyberspace, and "local" isn't defined by geography, but by affiliations. But if we readers pay, we will get the news that matters to us.

In summary, I'm going to start paying, so I can have more of what I want in the news.

Reality is better than reality TV, but in a good way: My experience attending a SYTYCD audition

Last Sunday, I attended the audition for So You Think You Can Dance in Los Angeles at the Orpheum Theatre. I shouldn't have been surprised, but we spent a lot of time waiting and being herded around. But once the auditions actually started, it was a fun and eye-opening experience. In short, what actually happens during an audition is cooler than what you see on television. What you miss on TV is how larger much larger than life the dancers are and how much time and sensitivity that the judges give to the contestants. I always wondered why anyone would put themselves through a competition like that only to be turned down and now I know. If you have ever considered going to try out for SYTYCD, do it!

This is the first season that the SYTYCD auditions have been open to the public. By the time I arrived, the dancers had been filtered at least once. The previous day was the first day of auditions and some were asked to come back the next day. I don't know how they were selected and I'm guessing that the show's producers did the work. In the morning of the second day, the contestants got to dance in groups of ten to the same music at the same time. I didn't get a clear answer on how they knew what to dance-- were they given choreography or were they allowed to do their own thing. I would guess that it was their own thing. It was still the producers who made the choices at this point.

By the time we were seated, they were just doing solos and it was judges making the selections. The judges present were Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy, and Tyce Diorio. Nigel was a really nice guy, and funny too! Mary really does laugh like that in real life. When each contestant came on stage, Nigel would give them a short interview. He has a real knack for asking the questions that get right to the heart of someone's story. Then, the person danced, usually for about 90 seconds. Afterward, the judges would the give their feedback for about 7-8 minutes. I was impressed with the thoughtfulness and the sensitivity of their comments. For those unfamiliar with the show, at this point, the contestants could be put straight through to Las Vegas (where candidates from all the auditions would continue their tryouts), sent to a choreography round (to earn a spot in Las Vegas) or sent home with a "no." After all this filtering, most people were put through to choreography, either because the judges wanted to see if they could pick up a routine and inspect their partner work, or because the judges thought it would be a good learning experience for the dancer.

The dancing was way cooler than on TV. Dancers at this level are larger than life. They can do things with their bodies that average humans can't. When I was in high school, we gave people like this funny looks because they were so over the top and just didn't fit conventions about normality. But in the limelight, they make magic.

The feedback from the judges was also more interesting than on TV. Their comments were thorough and thoughtful. Tyce didn't come off as a jerk, like he does on the small screen. They each took their time to give the dancers something they could use as they moved forward with their careers, even beyond the show. (I think this is what was missing in recent seasons of American Idol, and why the new judges are such a big improvement.)

Being in the audience was very cool as well. I remember reading something recently about the human brain having an innate ability to appreciate performance at a high level and find this attractive. I felt this when I was watching, especially the ones who were put through straight to Las Vegas. The really good dancers have presence and charisma. But even among the ones who were sent to choreography, they made me feel something too.

I'm not sure why the producers decided to open up the auditions to the public. Did it help the judges to have audience reaction as part of their decision-making process? Did it help the contestants perform better? Did it help strengthen the fan base? In any case, I hope they continue with it. I had a great time and learn a lot.

Some times are better on TV than in person, such as professional baseball. Others things are better up close and personal than on TV, such as dancing.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Accounting for Taste on International Women's Day

It is International Women's Day today, and I wanted to acknowledge it with a post. It can be difficult to explain to men why women's rights is still an issue. After all, laws and regulations that prohibit women's participation are decreasing and opportunities are increasing. But the point is that there is still lots left to do because women and women's views are marginal, meaning they are not the default assumptions.

Let me try to explain using a story.

Movie star and activist, George Clooney, has a reputation for being a practical joker. One of his more elaborate pranks involved an enormous hideous painting that he had pick up  from the curb on garbage day.  George often played golf with his close friend, Richard Kind. For a year, whenever Richard asked him to go play golf, he would say, "I can't. I've got art class." Finally, Richard's birthday rolled around and George gave him the big, garish painting, with his signature and in a frame. George said, "'My art teacher's really proud of me but this (painting) is the first one we're both really proud of. You've been so supportive, I want you to have it." It hung over Richard's couch for two years and George would send instruct their mutual friends to go and compliment the painting in superlatives. Everyone else was in on the joke.

I want you to imagine what it was like being Richard. For years, he looked at this painting and thought it was awful, but everyone thought it looked amazing. He probably had many feelings of self-doubt, questioned his own taste, and his ability to appreciate art. He was the odd one out and constantly being reinforced by messages from his friends.

Being a woman is a bit like this. I'm constantly bombarded with tiny hints that I'm the odd one out, that I'm not the default. Karen Valby wrote, "When women rally around something in pop culture, it isn't long before the objects of their attraction are loudly trivialized or dismissed." Take the book (and movie) "Eat, Pray, Love" for example, which tells the story of how a woman got over being an unhappy divorcee by traveling the world. In other words, it's a rite of passage story where the main character is a woman and the antagonists are inside of her. Not your typical story, which in part accounts for its success. The novel made it to number one on The New York Times paperback nonfiction list and was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It doesn't get much bigger than this.

Yet the page for this book on Amazon.com is filled with hateful comments, not just by men and not just by people who have read the book. Elizabeth Gilbert has stopped reading and responding to the reviews. She sums up the reaction to the popularity of the book and movie this way: "If women like it, it must be stupid." In high school, there were certain musicians that girls liked, such as Duran Duran and Corey Hart, and boys always made fun of us for liking. I could never understand what was so bad about them. It's like a twisted version of the prank that George Clooney pulled. But the worst part is it's not a joke.

The blog "My Fault I'm Female" features anecdotes sent in by readers when they had to face stereotypes or deal with unequal treatment or plain old incomprehension, just because they were female. I like reading this blog because it reminds me that I'm not crazy and that it's OK for me to be angry at the thousand tiny cuts that I suffer because my existence challenges assumptions.

Living on the margins is an odd thing. On the one hand, things are never easy, because I'm not one of the "cool kids," to borrow a metaphor from high school social interactions. Interactions always have to be negotiated and discovered anew, because things can't be taken for granted. On the other hand, there are advantages to being able to understand and appreciate cool and not cool. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Is making our food supply chain smarter a smart way to spend our money?

I've been watching a lot of TED talks lately and it's not uncommon for there to be a sponsor ad either at the beginning or end of the video. Consequently, I've seen the following ad about making our food supply chain smarter quite a few times.

At first, I was impressed by the coolness of the technology. If we're losing 25% of our food to spoilage in transit, it seems reasonable to use technology to improve the situation. If we could decrease the spoilage, then maybe we could feed more people. I could certainly hear my mother's voice chastising me about letting food go to waste. Besides, working on our food chain would be much more interesting and socially relevant than working on software for a bank, or (shudder) a weapons system.

But then, I had the opportunity to see the ad again... and again... and a few more times. And then it dawned on me... If we're losing 30% of our food in transit, then isn't the problem the transit? Maybe we shouldn't be transporting our food quite so far, then less of it would spoil. Maybe the problem is that we live in cities and are so divorced from our food production systems. Locavores have already recognized this problem and are working on it. Others, including Michelle Obama, are planting on urban vegetable gardens to promote healthy eating.

These ideas crystallized when I saw the following infographic from Good magazine.

According to the USDA, farmers are receiving less than $0.16 out of every dollar that we spend on food. The rest goes to "marketing," which is not advertising, but rather "the entire system that links farms to consumers, including transportation, processing, and distribution." Good's food editor, Nicola Twilley, goes on to write, "In other words, the infographic above means that we spend five times as much on getting our food from farm to table as we do on actually growing it."

So, the ad on making our food supply chain smarter is actually advocating more money in the marketing side of food production. Is this cool? Not so much.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Shikha Dalmia's arguments in "Long Live the American Dream" are just plain wrong

A link to an article came across my Twitter feed yesterday and I was flabbergasted by how wrong it was. Lots of things get me riled up, but it's not often that I feel the need to write a point by point rebuttal. Please pardon the self-indulgent length of this article, but here it is.

The article was "Long Live the American Dream by Shikha Dalmia. The link that received pointed to reason.com, a free-market magazine that I had not heard of before, but the article originally appeared as an opinion piece in The Daily. Throughout the piece, Dalmia uses bait-and-switch reasoning; she raises a point, cites statistics that make America look better than India and China, but don't directly support her point. Although Dalmia's argument rest on five pillars, she also makes a number of off-hand comments that are just plain wrong.

Let's start at the top.
Americans, hit first by outsourcing and then a recession, are becoming deeply pessimistic about their country’s ability to maintain its economic leadership in a globalized world. America’s Aristophanes, Jon Stewart, commented during a recent interview with Anand Giridhardas, author of India Calling: “The American dream is still alive—it’s just alive in India.” Likewise, 20 percent Americans in a December National Journal poll believed that the U.S. economy was no longer the strongest. Nearly half picked China instead.
Concerns about how America is doing economically surfaced recently in response to the news that China's economy is now the second largest in the world (knocking Japan into third place.)  Rhetoric quickly turned to per capita GDP, a metric that still makes the US look good ($42000 vs $6200), and some argue is a better measure of real wealth. The poke at Jon Stewart would be funnier, if his joke didn't strike so close to home. If America is doing so well, why did President Obama go to India last year to sign deals worth $10 billion in trade to create 54000 jobs? Dominant economic models pin prosperity on sustained growth, which isn't happening anymore, so we have to look elsewhere for markets. For better or for worse, companies are looking to India's and China's rising middle classes as potential buyers.
But there are at least five reasons why neither India nor China will knock America off its economic perch any time soon, at least not by the only measure that matters: Offering the best life to the most people.
I can accept that the only measure that matters is offering the best life to the most people. However, this measure is not discussed further in the article. I would have been happy to accept an argument that people in America have more rights and freedoms than others in the world and that we do a better job of ensuring that human beings live with dignity (though this isn't necessarily true, it's true enough for a comparison with India or China). Unfortunately, the rest of the argument doesn't follow through on this assertion (offering the best life to the most people).

America Wastes No Talent
Conventional wisdom holds that America’s global competitiveness is driven by geniuses flocking to its shore and producing breathtaking inventions.
It's not just conventional wisdom, people do flock to the US. In 2009, 37% of the doctorates earned in science and engineering were awarded to temporary visa holders. In other words, 14,724 people who were not US citizens or permanent residents received Ph.D.s that year. This figure is up from 27% in 1989. As a university professor in computer science, I have seen applications from both foreign and domestic students. While there are geniuses in both categories, many of our best students were educated elsewhere.
But America’s real genius lies not in tapping genius—but every scrap of talent up-and-down the scale.
If only this were true. The current unemployment rate is 9.8% and over 4 million of these people have been unemployed for over a year. This is a lot of talent not being tapped into. Furthermore, there are a lot of students finishing high school without even basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The California State Universities routinely offer remedial courses in these areas to make up for what students should have learned in high school, but didn't.

Another way we squander talent is by making health care unreachable. I have an acquaintance who does not have health insurance, so she can't get treatment for her seizures. (Probably epilepsy, but she doesn't know for certain.) Because she isn't treated, she misses a lot of work. Because she doesn't have a solid work history, she can only work part time and can't get health insurance. If she could get affordable treatment and medication, she would be able to make a bigger contribution to society, rather than languishing because her talent wasn't being tapped.

A 2005 World Bank study found that the bulk of a people’s wealth comes not from tangible capital like raw resources and infrastructure. It comes from intangible wealth: effective government, secure property rights, a functioning judiciary. Such intangible factors put the equivalent of $418,000 at the disposal of every American resident. India and China? $3,738 and $4,208 respectively.
To me, this is bait-and-switch reasoning.  While I am persuaded that intangible wealth is a good thing, what does intangible wealth have to do with not wasting genius? It's possible that there is a link between intangible wealth and the possibility of starting a business that succeeds, it's not made here.
America’s vast intangible wealth makes everyone more productive and successful. Personal attributes—talent, looks, smarts—matter only on the margins.
This is complete fiction. Sexism, racism, and other kinds of discrimination are alive and well. (The margins are alive and well too, but that's an argument for another day.) Talent, looks, and smarts matter everywhere. And even with them, one might not succeed.
Having witnessed the life trajectory of many Indian immigrants, what’s striking to me is that, with some exceptions, it doesn’t matter whether they are the best in their profession in India or just mediocre. Within 10 to 15 years of arriving, they land in a very similar space. They get good jobs, buy homes, have children, send them to decent schools and colleges and save for their retirement. The differences in their standard of living would have been far greater had they stayed home.
I have seen this too, but it's not the whole story. Many Americans (non-immigrants) are having trouble achieving the same prosperity. It's possible that these are lackluster citizens who don't like to work hard, but there are too many of them to simply blame the individual. Enough adult children are moving back in with their parents after a few years in the work force that a term has been coined: the Boomerang generation.

My colleague, Prof. Kavita Philip has been studying the growing tech industry in Bangalore. She has found a growing number of Indians who went abroad to earn their doctorates and to work are now returning home. While their total pay packet might be less, it buys them a much higher standard of living. They can afford to hire cooks, housekeepers, or nannies. As well, the work environment is less formal, more collegial, and more family-friendly. Their American dreams are alive and well in India.
America Does Not Have India’s Infrastructure Deficit or China’s Civil Society Deficit
India’s gap with America extends not just to intangible capital but tangible capital as well. Basic facilities in India—roads, water, sewage—remain primitive. For example, a 2010 McKinsey Global Institute report found that India treats 30 percent of raw sewage, whereas the international norm is 100 percent. India provides 105 liters of water per person per day, the minimum standard is 150 liters. It needs to spend twice the slated expenditures over the next 10 years to deliver basic services.
Yup, infrastructure is important and lots of work needs to be done in India. But we must not become complacent about the infrastructure that is needed in the United States. The US Chamber of Commerce has been studying the transportation infrastructure gap and its impact on economic growth. There gaps in water and sewage infrastructure too. We live in an era where big government is unpopular, so the necessary investments into roads, water, and other utilities are not being made. We are currently living off the investments made in the 1960s when people were dreaming about changing the world, and they did. And what about infrastructure that will be important in the coming years? In the US, we have some of the poorest broadband connectivity in the developed work. We pay more for it and receive slower service than elsewhere. The electrical distribution system is in need of an overhaul as well. Electricity is especially important in the information age, because so many of our digital appliances relies on it. The technology exists to build a "smart grid" to replace the existing crumbling system, but project lacks public support.
China, meanwhile, has a major civil society problem. America has made about $100 trillion in Social Security and Medicare promises to seniors that it can’t fund. But American seniors face nothing like the kind of destitution that the Chinese do. China’s one-child policy has decimated the natural safety net that old people rely on in traditional societies. And China offers no public safety net to the vast majority of village-born. Worse, many Chinese have invested their nest eggs is various asset bubbles that will wipe out their only means of subsistence if they burst, making the Great Depression look like a beach party.
China definitely has some shortcomings, but these are not the ones that are affecting economic prosperity. While China's seniors aren't surrounded by children and grandchildren they way they used to be, this shift occurs in any country that moves from an agrarian to an industrial economy. The developed world has social programs, because it is not unusual for people to move away from their families to find work. The industrial revolution led to factories, which led to migrant workers, which led to nuclear families, which led to a lower birth rate. The effect of China's one child policy on birthrate is indistinguishable from the effect of industrialization, though there are plenty of other negative outcomes. We too are facing similar problems with a "top heavy" demographic distribution where there are not enough young people (or incomes) to look after a growing number of elderly.

While Chinese are disciplined savers, they are not high-risk investors. They tend to sock money away diligently in boring old bank accounts. We Americans need to be much more worried about the stock market wiping out our retirement savings, as was the case during the financial crisis in 2008.
America Does Not Have Grinding Poverty
Despite all the recent hoopla about China becoming the world’s second biggest economy and India hoping to follow suit, the reality is that the per capita GDP—even measured by purchasing power parity—in both is pathetic. America’s is about $47,000, China’s $7,500, and India’s $3,290.
Worse, both still harbor medieval levels of poverty with 300 million people in each living on less than $1.25 a day. India’s IT boom gets big press, but it—along with all the tertiary industries it has spawned—employs 2.3 million people, or 0.2 percent of the population.
Neither country is a font of opportunity comparable to America.
I thought this article was about the American dream of prosperity and success, rather avoiding grinding poverty. Living on welfare or below the poverty line is grinding enough. Not living in squalor or eating dirt is a depressingly low bar and Aaron Huey's photojournalism shows that there are pockets in America where we have fallen short of even this low standard.

Dalmia's assertion obscures two facts. It's not China or India's current GDP (per capita or otherwise) that is drawing attention, but the growth rate. Both economies are growing steadily and China's per capita GDP is expected to exceed America's by 2050. In contrast , America's per capita GDP fell between 2008 and 2009.

American Education Is Superior

President Obama claims that America is in an “education arms race” with India and China. Rubbish.
Notwithstanding all the horror stories about American kids underperforming on standardized tests compared to Asian kids raised by Tiger moms, things are worse in India and China. India’s literacy rate is 66 percent. China puts its at 93 percent—but between 2000 and 2005, China’s illiterate population grew by 30 million. The same may happen in India, thanks to last year’s Right to Education Act whose regulations will cripple India’s private school market. The fundamental problem is that both countries put their resources into educating elite kids—and ignoring the rest.
America is also guilty of educating elite kids and ignoring the rest. Much of public education is funded through property taxes, which means districts with more expensive houses have more money to educate their children. One parent who tried to send her kids to a better school outside their catchment area was sent to jail. This disparity is further compounded by the fundraising by PTAs to further goldplate a school. At the same time, there are rural and inner city schools that don't have a library. We have some great teachers who are pouring their hearts into teaching, but they and their unions are under attack. While budget cuts, low wages, and lack of respect drive away talented teachers, the rich are putting their children into private schools. So much for educating the non-elite.
College education in both countries, especially in engineering, is also vastly overrated. Harvard researcher Vivek Wadhwa has shown that, contrary to conventional wisdom, not only does America graduate comparable number of  engineers to India and China—American engineers are vastly superior.
But unless more Indian and Chinese kids get access to a quality education, their countries won’t be able to actualize their human potential, precisely what America does so well.
These points might be true, but Dalmia doesn't substantiate them here. In what way are American engineers superior? I have heard the arguments in both directions, but let me give this factoid: foreign applicants to graduate programs in science and engineering routinely earn a perfect scores on the quantitative section of the Graduate Record Exam, while American students do not. What human potential is being actualized? While education is definitely a good thing, one's literacy level does not determine one's value as a human being. The value of a human life is not counted in terms of economic output, but in the moments of love and laughter.

And the final point...
America Doesn’t Have a Culture of Hype
An important reason why the gloom-and-doom about America is unjustified is precisely that there is so much gloom-and-doom. Indians and Chinese, by contrast, have drunk their own Kool Aid. Their moribund economies have barely kicked into action and they are entertaining dreams of becoming the next global superpower. This bespeaks a profound megalomania—not to mention lopsided priorities. There is not a culture of hope in these countries, as Giridhardas told Jon Stewart. There is a culture of hype.
By contrast, Americans are their own worst critics—always looking for lessons to improve what is working and fix what’s not. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that although Americans were the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest of conditions, “a sort of cloud habitually covered their features.” Why? Because “they were constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to...their wellbeing."
I agree that the current gloom-and-doom about the US economy is overblown, but it's not because America doesn't have a culture of hype. It's because the extremes make better news than the typical, expected, or mediocre. When the economy is booming, it's not as bright as the news reports make it out to be. When the economy is struggling, it's not as bad as the news reports make it out to be. America is not immune to hype. In our popular culture, there is an abundance of celebrities who are famous for being famous. The stereotype of the loud, overbearing, embarrassingly patriotic, and isolationist American is still prevalent abroad, and is still too often reinforced. (For a glimpse of this, see the portrayal of the US president in the movie Love Actually.)
Indeed, Americans have a grab-the-bull-by-its-horns quality so that they simply don’t hang around hoping for things to get better on their own. If the public school monopoly is failing kids, by golly, then they’ll homeschool them themselves. (Public schools are dysfunctional virtually everywhere, but which other country has spawned anything equivalent to America’s homeschooling movement?) The government responds ineffectually to the recession, modest by historic standards, and Americans go into panic mode. Grass-roots movements such as the Tea Party emerge to rein in the government. Pay Pal founder Peter Theil has even given close to a million dollars to the Seasteading Institute to establish new countries on the sea to experiment with new forms of government. This might be wacky but it puts an outside limit on how out-of-whack Americans will let their institutions get before they start fixing them.
This American spirit, ultimately, is the biggest reason to believe that the American dream is and will stay alive—in America.

The American spirit is indeed a great thing, but it's not the same as the American dream.

According to Wikipedia, the American dream is the "promise of the possibility of prosperity and success." If you ask an average American, what would this dream would include, you'd get a variety of answers. Many people think of it as getting ahead, or having enough to live comfortably and save up for some extras. Home ownership might come up. It's also common to expect to be better off than one's parents. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who mentioned intangible capital, infrastructure deficit, lack of grinding poverty, our superior education system, or our lack of culture of hype. While these may be true, they are not normally used as evidence that the American dream is alive.

After these rebuttals, what do we have left?
  • Some points that are true, but not relevant to the American dream claim.
  • Some side comments that are off the mark.
  • Some points that are not supported by evidence or a solid argument.
  • Some statistics.
In other words, an opinion that is just plain wrong.

So what do I think? As usual, I think the truth lies somewhere in between. I think things the American dream is not doing as well as Dalmia claims and that things in India and China are not as terrible as she claims. I think there are lots of people who still have the American dream, but are starting to wonder if they're ever going to achieve it, despite their best efforts. I think the world economy is changing and we need to do our best to understand it. I think economic models that are predicated on annual growth levels of 4% or more are busted and unsustainable. I think that the rich getting richer while the poor are getting poorer is not acceptable. We need to find ways of defining success that don't involve things or money. Living with less, living simply, living in harmony with others and the planet-- this sounds to me like a better dream.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Overcoming the loud-mouthed shnook in Planning Poker by using Crowd Wisdom

A common problem when using Planning Poker is some people who are more opinionated or argumentative can dominate the estimation process. This usually happens because the standard method for using Planning Poker is to make independent estimates and discuss until all the estimates converge. Crowd wisdom may be able to offer us a way out.

The idea behind crowd wisdom is that together we are smarter than any one of us. This is the central idea behind crowdsourcing. Any one person's contribution is checked and improved by other people. Consequently, these reviews are just as important as the initial contribution. Wikipedia, open source software, and remix culture are classic examples of this.

In the book "The Wisdom of Crowds," author James Surowiecki gives a number of examples. At a county fair, a prize was offered to the person who could guess the butchered weight of a cow. The average of all the guesses was closer to most individual guesses, including some cattle experts. When a submarine was lost at sea, an assembled team of experts made a number of best guesses for the location of the vessel. Ultimately, the submarine was found within 220 yards of the aggregation of these guesses. Pretty impressive, considering the size of the North Atlantic.

In a nutshell, Planning Poker is used to generate estimates for software development task items. In agile terminology, it's used to allocate story points to User Stories. Typically, the number of different possible values for the estimates is constrained, e.g. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 12, 20. Each team member, comes up with their own estimate. All of these estimates are revealed simultaneously using Planning Poker cards. More often than not, these are a variety of estimates. The recommended solution is to discuss these differences in estimates to reveal assumptions. Independent estimates followed by simultaneous sharing is repeated until the group reaches consensus. (For software engineering wonks, this is just a twist on the Delphi method.)

Surowiecki identified four elements that are necessary to use crowd wisdom successfully. These are diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, and aggregation. To apply crowd wisdom to planning poker, we would need to do the following.

Diversity of opinion means that each person is allowed to form their own opinion, even if it's based on private information or an eccentric interpretation of established facts. I believe that this is already built in to Planning Poker, by having a group create the effort estimates.

Independence means that people's opinions aren't determined by the opinions of others. Planning Poker already allows for this, because individuals come up with their own estimates separately before sharing them with the group.

Decentralization means that people should be allowed/required to draw on specialized or local knowledge. In Planning Poker, you'd have a cross functional team do the estimating. This is a good practice anyways, so should not be a big change.

Aggregation is the mechanism for turning the individual, private judgements/opinions into a collective decision. In Planning Poker, this should be relatively straightforward, since we are working with numbers. A reasonable mechanism would be to take the average of the numbers.

This last element diverges the most from conventional Planning Poker. The rationale behind coming to a consensus estimate is that an average isn't a good estimate for any one person. Just as the average family has 1.7 children, but no one family has 1.7 children, because children only come in whole units. Nevertheless, this is a supposed to be the strength that underlies crowd wisdom.

My guess is a hybrid would probably be best. The discussion after the estimates are shared are invaluable for improving the team's understanding of the software being developed. But the average of the initial estimates is the best guess of all.

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who has tried using crowd wisdom with Planning Poker. Did it work for you?