Friday, September 28, 2007

Class Attendance

A recent article on law school attendance policies reminded me of an anecdote from law school.

At our graduation reception, one of my professors approched and congratulated one of my classmates, addressing her by name. She remarked that, as she had taken only one class from him in a very large lecture hall during a prior semester, she was curious about why he remembered her.

"Well," he explained, "For the first few weeks of the class you sat in the front row, and asked questions every day. Then one day you approached me and asked if class attendance would affect your grade. I said 'no', and I never saw you again."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Using a Sledgehammer....

While I fully respect the legal and privacy rights of Chelsea Clinton, perhaps this woudn't be a story if the letter requesting that the picture be taken down had come from somebody other than a lawyer, and had been phrased as a firm request (implying stronger action if the request were denied) as opposed to an ultimatim.

Defective Products "Made In China"

A number of years ago, the Michigan legislature passed an exceptionally pro-industry "reform" of the state's products liability laws. A significant aspect of the new law was that it severely limited the circumstances in which a distributor or seller (other than the manufacturer) could be liable for selling a defective product.
MCL 600.2947(6) In a product liability action, a seller other than a manufacturer is not liable for harm allegedly caused by the product unless either of the following is true:

(a) The seller failed to exercise reasonable care, including breach of any implied warranty, with respect to the product and that failure was a proximate cause of the person's injuries.

(b) The seller made an express warranty as to the product, the product failed to conform to the warranty, and the failure to conform to the warranty was a proximate cause of the person's harm.
The rash of dangerous and defective product imports from China, particularly products intended for use by babies and children, calls into question the wisdom of this approach which favors willful ignorance over more careful selection and testing of products, and all-but-immunizes everybody involved in importing and selling a defective product manufactured overseas (but you can always go to China and try suing the manufacturer, right? Yeah, right.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sears and Customer Service

Oh, the problem's not so much Sears, but Sears exemplifies the problem. Also, given that there was a time when Sears could literally deliver your doorstep to your doorstep, it's amazing that the 21st century successor makes no apparent effort to distinguish itself from its competitors.

Sears also has the problem that they have been around long enough that a large proportion of the population is likely to have had a customer service problem with them, and pretty much everybody else is going to know somebody who has had a customer service problem with them. (Case in point.) Sears made the mistake a few decades back of letting its quality control slip, and by doing so it alienated an enormous base of consumers. I was one of them, so I was a bit surprised at myself for giving Sears another chance with my recent purchase of a washer and dryer.

The delivery crew who brought the appliances was very polite and professional. But unfortunately, somebody at the warehouse had crushed the top of the dryer (a v-shaped impression, probably 1-1/2 to 2 inches deep at the front of the unit and reaching all the way to the back), and had scraped both sides of the washer. I probably could have been convinced to keep the washer (for a discount), assuming I tested it and it worked, but the damage to the dryer was a bit much (and I'm not at all sure that it would have worked).

This is where Sears could have gone the extra mile, to ensure a positive customer experience. They could have apologized and arranged for a very rapid shipment of replacement units. But Sears doesn't choose to distinguish itself in its treatment of customers. Its shipping department punches product information into a computer and if the computer says "two weeks", you get your replacement shipment in two weeks. If you ask for an explanation, you get to talk to a supervisor who will also tell you want the computer says. In fairness, the supervisor I spoke with seemed to make a genuine effort to find out if a faster shipment was possible, but she had no discretion to go outside of channels - so the date the computer spat out is the date of redelivery.

I would also like to tell you that calling customer service was easy, but you probably already know better. The first time I called, using the number on the receipt from the order, after I was told that my phone number isn't in the system for delivery (it is) and punching in my phone number (the same one they automatically detected when I called), I was given an abrupt recorded message that there was a problem with my call, and was disconnected. When I called back, after again punching in my phone number, I was connected to a representative. The first thing she wanted from me, of course, was my phone number. (This is hardly unique to Sears, but is absurd.) After a brief discussion, she transferred me to home delivery. Home delivery told me that I had already spoken to somebody from home delivery when the problem with the shipment was detected. That was true, I responded, but that person told me to call customer service as I could probably get an expedited shipping date. "I don't know why they would have told you that." (Don't you just love that reply?) Then it was suggested that customer service should help me - "Do you want the number before I transfer you?" You guessed it - the same number I called earlier, which resulted in my being transferred to home delivery.

After another attempt to discuss the situation with customer service, I was offered the aforementioned opportunity to speak to a manager. I asked if the manager could do something, or if she would simply repeat what I had previously been told. The response was that I could expect to hear what I had previously been told. "Do you still want to talk to her?" Sure. Why not. I'm now more than twenty minutes into the phone call, and what's a few more minutes.

The person who took over the call identified herself as a supervisor, and I do think she tried to find a way to expedite the delivery, but as I previously noted she seemed locked into channels. She had neither the power nor authority to "find a way to make the customer happy". Toward the end of our discussion, the line dropped. I didn't get a call back; perhaps she thought I hung up on her. Needless to say, two dropped calls in one exchange with customer service is two too many.

The issue here is that Sears does have the power and capacity to obtain and redeliver the washer and dryer in less than two weeks - they simply don't find that level of customer support to be worth the investment. I know that I could as easily be writing this complaint about another appliance vendor, and my thoughts would be the same: Customer service is easy when things go as planned. But if you don't care enough to distinguish yourself when the customer has a problem, particularly when the problem is your fault, you will send the message that you don't care about the customer.

"I Tried Really Hard, But It Turns Out That 'Innocent Pranks' Aren't Against The Law....


"I Tried Really Hard, But It Turns Out That 'Innocent Pranks' Aren't Against The Law....

I have heard residents of Jena complain that theirs is not a racist town, and that the news media is being unfair in its depiction of the town when covering the "Jena Six" story. I'm happy to give the residents of Jena the benefit of the doubt, but until today that me with one of two possibilities: They elected a racist prosecutor, or they elected a prosecutor who believes the town to be largely racist and conforms his policies to that perception. Now he speaks out to defend himself, and....
I cannot overemphasize how abhorrent and stupid I find the placing of the nooses on the schoolyard tree in late August 2006. If those who committed that act considered it a prank, their sense of humor is seriously distorted. It was mean-spirited and deserves the condemnation of all decent people.

But it broke no law. I searched the Louisiana criminal code for a crime that I could prosecute. There is none.
When I find something to be stupid, abhorrent, and worthy of prosecution, I am disinclined to refer to it as an "innocent prank", and if I were a prosecutor I would not be at all inclined to threaten those who object to the abhorrent act, "See this pen? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen." I personally might also question why there was a "white tree" in the first place, and why school administrators found that acceptable. I guess I'm an oddball.

This is a fascinating passage,
Conjure the image of schoolboys fighting: they exchange words, clench fists, throw punches, wrestle in the dirt until classmates or teachers pull them apart. Of course that would not be aggravated second-degree battery, which is what the attackers are now charged with. (Five of the defendants were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder.) But that’s not what happened at Jena High School.

The victim in this crime, who has been all but forgotten amid the focus on the defendants, was a young man named Justin Barker, who was not involved in the nooses incident three months earlier. According to all the credible evidence I am aware of, after lunch, he walked to his next class. As he passed through the gymnasium door to the outside, he was blindsided and knocked unconscious by a vicious blow to the head thrown by Mychal Bell. While lying on the ground unaware of what was happening to him, he was brutally kicked by at least six people.
Okay... I have never been one to argue that, all else being equal, the "Jena 6" weren't deserving of charges from this incident, and let's assume for the sake of argument that of the competing accounts of what occurred, the prosecutor's version is correct. The prosecutor now believes that the current charges of "aggravated second-degree battery" are justified. He doesn't mention that the six were originally charged with aggravated battery before he intervened and raised the charges to "attempted second-degree murder". He makes no attempt to explain or justify his decision to increase those charges to "attempted second-degree murder". If the current charges (and thus the original charges) were justified by the facts, exactly what was it that motivated his decision to increase the charges? And has he truly forgotten that it was not the original charges, but was his intervention, which led to this furor?

Walters also skips over a number of other events, including fights where white students were the aggressors, in which the most severe charge he contemplated was apparently "simple battery". The more perplexing charging decision - that following the incident in which a white student brandished a shotgun at black students and was disarmed by one of the students. Walters didn't charge the white student with any offense, and charged the black student who disarmed him with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. (Even if we were to assume, as Walters was apparently happy to do, that the shotgun was brandished out of some form of "self defense", after the gun-wielding man was disarmed was the black student supposed to say, "Oh, sorry. Here, you can have the gun back now"? (And does Louisiana have a "stand your ground" self defense law? Because if I were able to avoid a (presumed) group of threatening youths and get to my car, I would personally drive away rather than pulling out a loaded shotgun to confront them.) I welcome Walters to write a follow-up piece explaining himself. Until he does, I regard Walters' choice not to speak in his own behalf to be a tacit concession that his various other charging decisions related to this case are indefensible.

As for Justin Barker being forgotten in the midst of all the furor over Walters' charging decision? If they looked for information about Barker, here's what the media would find. I'll give Barker the benefit of the doubt, that he was duped into giving a statement to white supremacists. But perhaps Mr. Walters should consider having a conversation with his star witness about actions which might prejudice (no pun intended) the outcome of the pending criminal cases.
In the final analysis, though, I am bound to enforce the laws of Louisiana as they exist today, not as they might in someone’s vision of a perfect world.
Even with his attempt at an explanation, if that's the measure by which we are to judge, I would deem Walters a failure.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Because Nothing Protects American Values Better Than Prior Restraints On Speech

I wish I were surprised by all of the fuss over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's request to lay a wreath at "Ground Zero" and his appearance at Columbia University. It's all too predictable. (When I heard some of the reaction to the "Ground Zero" proposal, I was reminded of the narrow distance between "things that could never happen here" and things that could.

I also can't say that I am suprised that Anne Appelbaum among those who would have preferred that Ahmadinejad be denied the opportunity to speak.
Ahmadinejad's agenda, though, differs from that of the traditional autocrat.
Wait... Ahmadinejad is an autocrat? He's the (sort of) popularly elected front man for the government, and his position carries real power, but he doesn't call the shots. Perhaps Applebaum hears the word "President" and assumes that nobody could possibly hold a higher office, but actually there's a guy called Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is the "Supreme Leader" of Iran, and who has ultimate control over the armed forces, foreign policy and domestic policy.
His goal is not merely to hold power in Iran through sheer force, or even through a standard 20th-century personality cult: His goal is to undermine the American and Western democracy rhetoric that poses an ideological threat to the Iranian regime.
Well, if that's true, then denying him a platform would do what? Give him the opportunity to state, "They say they believe in free speech. They say they believe in open debate and a 'marketplace of ideas'. They say 'sunlight is the best disinfectant' for bad ideas. Yet when I challenged their ideas, they hid in the shadows." And Anne Applebaum could declare victory.
This week, he declared that his visit to New York would help the American people, who have "suffered in diverse ways and have been deprived of access to accurate information."
That should have telegraphed to Applebaum that he would not see denial of a platform as a loss, but as a basis for the type of criticism I just described. She would be playing into his hands.
Thus the speech at Columbia: Here he is, the allegedly undemocratic Ahmadinejad, taking questions from students! At an American university! Look who's the real democrat now!
Well, darned if you do, darned if you don't. But if you don't, nobody gets to jeer or laugh at him. (Or grandstand and berate him in introductory comments.)

But the most peculiar thing about columns like Applebaum's is her presumption that it is somehow horrible, and somehow undermine's free speech, that we periodically debate the scope and limits of free speech:
Instead of debating freedom of speech in Iran, here we are once again talking about freedom of speech in America, a subject we know a lot more about. Which is exactly what Ahmadinejad wanted.
You will note that it is not the proponents of free speech, or those who say, "I wouldn't personally invite him to speak, but it's Columbia University's right to do so", who are behind this "talk" Applebaum finds so troubling. It's people like Applebaum.

And what an idea....
Perhaps Columbia could even have insisted on an appropriate exchange: Ahmadinejad speaks in New York; Columbia sends a leading Western atheist - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or, better still, Ayaan Hirsi Ali - to Qom, the Shiite holy city, to debate the mullahs on their own ground.
This would accomplish all of... what? Does she fancy that Christopher Hitchens would win over the crowds by insulting the Mullahs, opining that God doesn't exist, blaming most of history's bloodshed on organized religion, and revealing that he understands little of Christian theology (let alone Islamic theology). Surprise - you don't have to have a deep grasp of theology to be an atheist. And guess what - a debate between a devout theologian and an atheist on the subject of religion is a nonstarter, because the two sides are arguing from different premises. Save Hitchens for Ahmadinejad - I'm sure they can both come up with witty ways to insult the other - but send a scholar to debate the Mullahs.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Quote Of The Day

Does anyone care to brainstorm a short list of professionals who might say,
I didn't think three years out I'd be uninsured, thinking it's a great day when a crackhead brings me $500.
Welcome to legal practice.

Friday, September 21, 2007

One Man's Vision Is Another Man's Delusion

Case in point.
This effort, which is nominally nonpartisan, is aimed at developing fresh solutions to the public policy problems that challenge the nation, from health care to immigration to inner-city education.

Gingrich is brimming with ideas on these subjects, but he is realistic enough to suggest that it may be five years before public opinion -- and other politicians -- are ready to embrace some of them.
Are we permitted to note, he's brimming with vapid ideas? (Sample #1; Sample #2; Sample #3). Oh but Broder tells us that he has a new "nominally nonpartisan" venture....
Government in the United States was designed to serve the interests of the people, not the government. This means that government must realize it does not own the money it spends – that money belongs to the people, who have chosen to tax themselves and offer some of their hard earned resources to government to do very specific and enumerated tasks with it.
Wow... how do they come up with such deep thoughts and fine writing... So deep... So... visionary.

Bob Herbert? Boring?

Even before I read it, the recent Washington Monthly article, Why Is Bob Herbert Boring? inspired a reaction - "Because he writes about issues that many people claim to care about, but which they don't really care about. The author exemplifies my point.
This bothers me. Bob Herbert is the only national columnist at a major newspaper who consistently writes about the issues in our country that matter most yet seem to be covered least.... But, honestly, I don't read him either. I'll devour a Maureen Dowd column in which David Geffen trash-talks the Clintons. But I'll skip the next day's Herbert column counseling me to pay less attention to Anna Nicole Smith and more to, for instance, rebuilding New Orleans.
In my opinion he's one of the New York Times' better columnists, presenting steady, well-reasoned, fact-based analysis. For me, Dowd's attempts at gossipy wit often render her columns to dull to wade through.

For the most part, the author shares my immediate reaction - but then shifts responsibilty to Bob Herbert for not writing for his audience. They quote Herbert, in my opinion unfairly, to try to advance this argument:
I asked Herbert why he thinks his columns draw less attention in blogs and other media outlets than those of his colleagues. "The media tends to be drawn like a magnet to power," Herbert said. "Stories about power will generate more chatter." He added: "I think people who are in privileged positions either don't think a lot about people who are not, or don't care about them."

* * *

When I asked Herbert who he envisions his readers to be, he laughed. "I don't picture readers," he said. "I picture issues and the people that I'm covering."
I've never really had the sense that syndicated columnists, on the whole, spend a great deal of time thinking about their readers. George Will doesn't care if his readers want to read about baseball, but he frequently substitutes baseball commentary for his wilted political analysis. Charles Krauthammer doesn't care that is ideas are so trite that you can almost always predict his entire column from the headline. While columnists can target a larger group of readers through their subject matter, readers for the most part seek to seek out columnists who they expect to agree with. Simply put, if you write about subjects people don't care about, no matter how loudly they protest to the contrary, people won't read your column. If Herbert wrote for his audience, he may well develop a larger base of readers, but if the author's thesis is correct he'll have to start writing about the mendacity of one political party or the other, the Iraq war, perhaps throw in some catty name-calling, perhaps follow David Brooks' example of not caring about factual accuracy and then discounting his myriad errors as "jokes". What a joy that would be to read.
But I also think that the Times op-ed page could use more than just one writer on Herbert's beat. The New York Times (or any other major paper that professes to care about America's dispossessed) owes it to readers to find the sort of columnists who can wed the sentiments of Bob Herbert to the influence of William Kristol. And maybe, better still, it will find a conservative columnist who weds the sentiments of William Kristol to the influence of Bob Herbert. It wouldn't be a terrible world if we could read a conservative columnist in the Times and say, for a change, "Man, why is he so boring?"
That's just silly. Here's my counter-challenge to the Washington Monthly - take any popular columnist and have that columnist cover Bob Herbert's beat for a year - the columnist is to announce the change of subject matter up front, and to adhere to the Herber beat with no deviations. By the end of the year, I suspect that the Washington Monthly will be astonished that their (formerly) popular columnist is suddenly "even more boring" than Bob Herbert.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Military of Tomorrow

General Wesley Clark writes,
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.S. military embarked upon another wave of high-tech modernization - and paid for it by cutting ground forces, which were being repeatedly deployed to peacekeeping operations in places such as Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Instead of preparing for more likely, low-intensity conflicts, we were still spoiling for the "big fight," focusing on such large conventional targets as Kim Jong Il's North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq - and now we lack adequate ground forces. Bulking up these forces, perhaps by as many as 100,000 more active troops, and refitting and recovering from Iraq could cost $70 billion to $100 billion.
Clark's assertion begs the question of whether we want to be involved in numerous long-term, low-intensity conflicts. Further, if we expect to do so, should we really be preparing for another Gulf War II scenario where we have minimal international support (despite G.W.'s claims to the contrary), or should we instead only contemplate getting involved where there is broad international support and commitment. If the latter, an easy response is that we don't need an extra 100,000 active troops - we would get troop commitments from our allies, in a manner similar to Gulf War I (or to the World Wars).

If the former, Clark is implicitly calling for a military capable of carrying out a unilateral, interventionist foreign policy, we run into a lot of serious policy concerns. G.W.'s vision of the U.S. is that of a nation which will eschew world opinion or press our allies into nominal troop commitments in order to claim broad international support for overseas adventurism. A larger military not only facilitates that type of foreign policy, if you look at the history of the Bush Administration's Middle East policy it provides no assurance that there will not be similar military overreach. We had plenty of troops to invade and occupy Afghanistan. We still had plenty of troops to invade Iraq, although not enough to occupy the nation. But even at that level, Bush was willing to deprive Afghanistan of troops in order to advance operations in Iraq. With 100,000 more troops, does Clark truly believe that Bush would have been satisfied and would have bolstered occupation forces in both nations to prevent the backsliding in Afghanistan and chaos in Iraq? Or would we presently be occupying another country - Syria, Iran, maybe both?

Perhaps Clark imagines that no G.W. will ever again control the White House, and instead his favored candidate, Hillary Clinton, will be our next President. What does Clark envision that she would do with an expanded military? If she intends to draw down forces in Iraq, functionally ending the occupation, what need does he envision? If he favors an interventionist policy toward the world's low-level conflicts, with long-term U.S. troop commitments at occupation levels, I wish he would say so directly - particularly if he believes that Hillary Clinton would share that approach. And if not, why the call for more troops?

There's Such A Thing As Over-Analyzing....

Describing terrorism, Alan B. Krueger writes,
There's even a cold logic to the time of day that terrorists pick for their attacks, which also suggests a rhythm that's far from random. My analysis of U.S. government data from the National Counterterrorism Center reveals that terrorists are most likely to strike in the morning -- in time to enter the day's news cycle.
Leaving aside for the moment the fact that for years now we have had a 24-hour news cycle, perhaps there is a more obvious answer. When you are engaged in furtive, criminal acts, it is easier to avoid detection at night, and with daylight and daytime activity it becomes harder to either complete a crime or get away with it.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

When Bulk Email Goes Wrong....

I received this today:

I was recently in contact with , who referred me to you. suggested that you would be in charge of evaluating a web conferencing service that helps reduce costs, increase productivity, and drive sales.
How compelling....

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Cornering A Witness

How hard is it for Senators and Members of Congress, some of whom like to brag about their experiences as prosecutors, to corner a witness?
Is it reasonable to expect that we will be able to withdraw our troops from Iraq in less than 1,000 years?
If the answer is still, "I can't promise that they'll be home within that timeframe", you have a concession that no matter how successful the surge we're still potentially looking at endless war.

If you get a more likely, "Of course I expect them to be home within a millennium," you drop down to a century. If the answer is then, "I can't promise that they'll be home in less than 100 years", you have the follow-up question, "So it is your confident prediction that sometime in the next 100 to 1,000 years we can start bringing our troops home?"

If you get a commitment to a century, you drop to fifty years.... If you get a commitment to fifty years, you drop to twenty-five. At some point the person being questioned will have to stop saying, "I expect the troops to be home within that timeframe" and revert to, "I can't commit to that", and you have a range of years (be it "100 to 1,000", "50 to 100", "25 to 50", or something else) that is likely to get a lot of press attention....

McCain On "The Surge"

Today John McCain was arguing that the Democratic Party should be happy with the position of General Petraeus that "the surge" is working and that there will (possibly) be a "reduction" in troop levels to pre-surge levels in about a year. It's not such a bad talking point, but beyond that isn't very coherent.
  • A "surge" has to end, or it is an "escalation". It was thus a foregone conclusion that if we were going to keep calling this a "surge" it would have an ending point.

  • If "the surge" ends with no political progress, there is no reason to believe that further troop withdrawals are possible or even advisable if you wish to even maintain the status quo.

  • The military successes of "the surge" do not automatically translate into political success. If "the surge" brings about none of the political reforms and improvements promised at its inception, the surge can be an unqualified military success yet still be a political failure. (Surely McCain has heard reference to armed conflicts were "we won every battle, yet lost the war".)

If General Petraeus is comfortable predicting an end to "the surge" by next July, why isn't he comfortable describing a timetable for additional troop reductions after that date?

I would venture that it is because he continues to expect that number of troops to remain in the field for at least another five to ten years.

Whatever "points" the Democratic Party can claim for getting tentative dates for the end of the surge, maintaining pre-surge troop levels for the indefinite future does nothing to bring this conflict to an end. McCain knows that, and if he wishes to vindicate himself as a "straight shooter" he should admit as much. (But perhaps "McCain the straight shooter" was always more of a matter of perception than reality.)

McCain On The Benevolence of Generals

I will note up front that this post has nothing to do with any specific general, other than the one presented as a counter-example to McCain's argument.

John McCain, on the Diane Rehm show, made an argument which boils down to "Generals are looking out for the good of the nation", rejecting any argument that they are motivated by politics or would skew their results for political purposes. I suspect that McCain knows better, having seen through his military and political career numerous examples of military officers telling their superiors "what they want to hear", and knowing full well how political the position of a general can be - you aren't likely to become a general, and are even less likely to maintain your position or get further promotions, unless you are skilled at working with politicians.

If we accept McCain's argument that we should defer to generals because they are looking out for the good of the country, can he not think of any examples where the general's (assumed) belief of what was good for the country was at significant odds with the position of the nation's civilian leaders, other generals, or in the view of history? (Even one?)

Did McCain somehow overlook the manner in which Bush has treated generals whose positions happened to differ from his own? Is McCain truly arguing that as President he would defer to the presumed good faith positions of generals, even when those views are diametrically opposed? (As if that's even possible?) Or is he suggesting that if the President endorses the beliefs of a particular general, the public should defer to the "good faith" of that general, no matter what any other generals may be saying.

Monday, September 10, 2007

With Standards This Low....

I know it is hard to get an opinion piece published in the Washington Post, which makes it all the more amazing to me that they so happily publish columns as bad as yesterday's Brookings/AEI piece on how horrible it would be to have a paper trail to track electronic voting. From the start, you know you're not going to get anything which resembles a reasoned analysis:
When early jet aircraft crashed, Congress did not mandate that all planes remain propeller-driven. But this is the kind of reactionary thinking behind two bills that would require that all voting machines used in federal elections produce a voter-verifiable paper record.
Perhaps the high quality research at AEI and Brookings suggests otherwise, but I don't recall that early jet engines were in particularly wide use in passenger aircraft, nor do I recall that the use or nonuse of jet engines posed a threat to the exercise of voters' civil rights. I suspect that if either were the case, Congress may have been much more "reactionary" in regulating early jet aircraft.
Paperless Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines, those where votes are entered into computers and stored only in computer memory banks, have encountered numerous failures and no longer inspire public trust.
Well, that's a compelling way to open an argument for doing absolutely nothing about the problem.
Unfortunately, paper records are no panacea for the shortcomings of machines, and mandating paper removes the incentive for researchers to develop better electronic alternatives.
I might cynically observe that the interests which are bankrolling the propaganda effort against paper trails may be inspired to fund such research. Even accepting that paper trails can be problematic, though, is the solution really to ignore the available option because of a pie-in-the-sky hope that somebody, someday, somehow will develop an electronic alternative? One could almost argue....
When early jet aircraft crashed, Congress did not mandate that all planes remain propeller-driven. But this is the kind of reactionary thinking behind two "think tanks" that would bar electronic voting machines used in federal elections from producing a voter-verifiable paper record due to problems with the first generation of printers.
The reasoning for why we should not have a paper trail is rather absurd:
Paper verification looks good on, well, paper, but it is not the cure-all some of its proponents believe it to be. More than two centuries of U.S. elections have shown us that paper is at least as susceptible to chicanery as electronic records. Paper ballots can be modified, counterfeited or destroyed with relative ease. It is not at all clear that they constitute a more reliable medium than electronic records.
But here, obviously, the paper trail is not the primary mechanism for counting votes - it's a safeguard. It is conceivably possible that somebody could tamper with the electronic vote count, inspiring a recount of the paper votes. But what are the odds that the people responsible for the electronic tampering could also gain sufficient access to the paper ballots to subvert the paper vote count as well? And if they have access, what are the odds that they could tamper with the paper ballots such that the faked paper and faked electronic vote counts would match? With a paper trail, tampering with the vote count becomes exponentially more complicated to achieve, and makes it exponentially more likely that the tampering would be detected.
These are not the only problems with paper records. Mandatory paper verification would be a disappointment for blind voters, who could not confirm that their votes were properly cast in the same way that others' were.
I mean no disrespect to blind voters, or to the goal of making everybody's voting experience as equal as possible, but we have a couple of centuries behind us where blind voters have not been able to cast their ballots or confirm their vote in the same manner as other voters. While we can strive for a verification solution that is equally accessible by both blind and sighted voters, our inability to achieve perfection is not a reasonable basis for eliminating safeguards - and it should be recalled that ATM-style voting machines are far from perfect in their accessibility. This particular "problem" seems far from insurmountable - how about having a station with a scanner that can "read" the paper receipt back to anybody who puts on a pair of headphones and scans their ballot? Further, it is absurd to argue that an appropriate "solution" would be to eliminate safeguards for everybody, any more than it would be reasonable to ban voting in any district in which blind voters cast their votes in exactly the same, unassisted manner as any other voter.
Also, the counting of paper ballots, if required by a close election, could prove an unwieldy task and take tens of thousands of hours of work.
When it comes to recounts, that's the nature of the beast. I don't follow why "it's hard" should stand as a justification for banning recounts, or why this "problem" would be somehow unique to ATM-style voting machines.
Further, the printers that produce paper ballots are especially susceptible to mechanical failure; as many as 20 percent fail on Election Day, according to Senate testimony this summer by election expert Michael Shamos.
Wow... so, they're like early airplane jet engines, and Congress should ban them!

Back when I was a food service manager, we had this devices called "cash registers". They kept a "paper trail" of every transaction which was processed by a cashier. During their years of service, despite a complete absense of any "maintenance" beyond the changing of ribbons and rolls of paper, the registers were remarkably reliable. Given that these voting machines are "ATM-style", I will note that the only time I have ever experienced the failure of an ATM receipt was on an occasion when the machine had run out of paper. If the voting machine printers have a 20% failure rate, it seems reasonable to infer that the root of the problem is poor design and manufacture. Perhaps that shouldn't surprise me, given that the companies producing these machines seem extremely hostile to the call for a paper trail, but the unacceptably high failure rate is not something that justifies abandoning a paper trail. It is something that justifies using better manufacturers to make the printers. In the interim, machines could be designed such that printers can be easily swapped out, and upon the detection of a problem the local voting authorities could switch a working printer for one that proved defective.

The author describes two technologies which could take the place of a paper trail:
A system called Prime III, developed by researchers at Auburn University, would employ a separate electronic "witness" in each voting booth. The witness, which would operate independently of the DRE machine, could more efficiently double-check the DRE's tallying of votes while safeguarding privacy and being more accessible to the disabled.
There is some appeal to such a system, if in fact it can be created and implemented while securing the two sets of data against tampering. If the same people have access to both sets of data, and have equal access to change the data or to destroy the audit trail, the safeguard is illusory. Further, this system is vastly more technically involved and costly as compared to a printer. And unless I'm missing something, the "audit" and "recount" mechanism would be to review screen captures of electronic ballots - that is potentially significantly more burdensome than a review of paper ballots (although it should be possible to design a recount mechanism that will recognize the entries on the screen captures).

And then there's the second alternative:
Another system, Punchscan, designed by a team at the University of Maryland, offers an exciting array of features: After casting their ballots, voters can go to a computer and use a receipt to view their individual ballots online.
The Punchscan system is better than that description makes it sound. In this system, each voter receives a paper ballot which they fold and mark with an ink dauber. One half of the ballot can then be discarded, and the other half of the ballot (not a receipt) scanned to verify your vote. The first problem I see with this are that it is a cumbersome verification process, and I somehow doubt that many people would wait through a second line to scan their ballot and line it up with the verification screen - and I similarly doubt that sufficient scanners would be provided such that all voters could reasonably take advantage of verification. Although the system contemplates your being able to verify your ballot from your home PC, this creates additional issues of vote security (IP accounts can be tracked, and may identify individual voters), and given the prior emphasis on the subject it is not clear how accessible the Internet system would be. The second problem is that, although the data may be carefully encoded and safeguarded, in a close election it seems quite feasible that a subset of the data might "somehow" become corrupted and, once again, no recount or verification of the result would be possible.

The author correctly notes that neither of these systems would provide a paper trail, and thus that neither would satisfy any law requiring a paper trail. However, it's also fair to observe that it is perfectly reasonable to base legislative requirements on systems presently available, as opposed to systems which are still under development.

There's a simple technology which creates ballots where voters can easily see the candidates they voted for, which provides for electronic counting (and recounting) of votes, which allows for a paper trail, which is comparably reliable - optical scanning of paper ballots ("Scantron"). Visual magnification devices and an audio interface can be provided for the visually impaired. While implementing a "bleeding edge" voting system can involve a staggering amount of government money, all of which is wasted if the system fails, optical scanning technology is known to work and is comparatively cheap. Just as passenger airlines were content to let others work the bugs out of jet engines before switching over to jet aircraft, it is not at all unreasonable for votes to be cast using a tried and true technology while the bugs are worked out of the possible successor technologies.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Irate Over The iPhone

It's not quite the column I would have expected from him, but I think Eugene Robinson got it about right:
Jobs was quick to realize that you have to sell image along with the gizmo.

This time, though, he has failed to live up to one clause in his implied contract with iPhone buyers. The sky-high price was supposed to guarantee a decent period of exclusivity. For a time, if you bought an iPhone, you were supposed to be the envy of your friends. The ability to show off all the neat things it could do was your compensation for the fact that the iPhone didn't really change your life.
The price drop wasn't unexpected - as Jobs observed prior to recognizing the scope of the backlash, that's part and parcel of buying new technology. The problem was the magnitude of the price drop. Over at A VC, a millionaire venture capitalist presents what to me seems to be a microcosm of the uproar:I admit that I was surprised by the magnitude of the price drop - I had expected a $100 drop - although if you look at the sales figures, this really shouldn't be a surprise. The iPhone's sales figures were impressive, but it was apparent that sales were well below expectation and there are rumors that AT&T was insisting on price reductions (recall that they're contractually forbidden from discounting the iPhone).

Also, with the launch of the iPod touch, there would have probably been concerns about how many people would choose to carry two gadgets (their current cell phone plus a 'touch') as opposed to switching over to the iPhone. (At the same time, I believe the 'touch' has been overpriced so as not to eat into either the sales of Apple's remaining iPod inventory at the lower end, or the continuing sales of iPhones at the higher end. I expect a $100 price drop, or a $50 price drop with a significant bump up in RAM, after Christmas. And I expect the next generation iPhone to have at least twice the RAM.)

Seth Godin has some interesting suggestions for how Apple could perhaps have better smoothed the ruffled feathers of early adapters.

I believe that there is something to be inferred from the fact that Eugene Robinson, a fifty-something journalist, is paying this much attention to the iPhone - something he doesn't own or even plan to own. Even giving due credit to the effect of hype, and even acknowledging the many limitations of the iPhone, the iPhone's design advances (and advantages) are obvious to pretty much anybody who has ever used a cellular phone. Even the AARP crowd knows the iPhone is "cool".

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Attention Pennypinchers

If you're like me, you are frequently appalled by misplaced priorities and waste associated with a lot of government projects. (Not that the corporate world is necessarily better, but that's a post for another day.)

Over at Crime and Federalism, Mike has an interesting post on how easy it is to spend OPM1, even when those spending it wouldn't contribute a penny of their own funds to the "worthy cause" they claim to support. I take issue with his partisan stance that this is something "liberals" do, as it's a common trait among just about anybody with access to OPM (and seems to worsen as accountability is removed).

1. OPM = "Other People's Money"

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


At the Volokh Conspiracy, David Bernstein lists what appear to be his leading complaints about Congress, including,
General demagoguery, e.g., Democratic members anytime Medicare or Social Security reform comes up, and Republican members on federalizing criminal law, the War on Terror, flagburning, etc.
I have no problem with criticizing demagoguery, but to me I can't think of an issue where you can't find sins on both sides. By way of example, I don't know what Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow has stated about her motivation to vote in favor of a constitional amendment against "desecrating the flag", but her vote is a matter of record.

To present a list like this, where demagoguery on "Medicare and Social Security" is attributed to the Democrats tells you more about the speaker than it does about actual demagoguery. The Republican Party opposed Social Security from its earliest days, describing it as socialism and even communism. The Republican party has attacked Medicare as "socialized medicine". Early fearmongering about Medicare came from none other than Ronald Reagan,
And if you don't do this and if I don't do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free.
Back during Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security, you could hardly turn around without hearing a Republican complain that the failure to "reform" Social Security would result in fiscal ruin.

I suspect that the explanation is that, on a subconscious level, people tend not to recognize demagoguery when they agree with it. To get past that, people have to actually think about the issues... good luck, right?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Slow To Acknowledge Reality

David Brooks describes that it has taken five years for (him and other) "policy makers" and self-described experts to grasp the obvious:
Most American experts and policy makers wasted the past few years assuming that change in Iraq would come from the center and spread outward. They squandered months arguing about the benchmarks that would supposedly induce the Baghdad politicians to make compromises. They quibbled over whether this or that prime minister was up to the job. They unrealistically imagined that peace would come through some grand Sunni-Shiite reconciliation.

Now, at long last, the smartest analysts and policy makers are starting to think like sociologists. They are finally acknowledging that the key Iraqi figures are not in the center but in the provinces and the tribes. Peace will come to the center last, not to the center first. Stability will come not through some grand reconciliation but through the agglomeration of order, tribe by tribe and street by street.
The tribal nature of Iraq is hardly a state secret. I and many others who don't even pretend to be experts have been discussing that appraoch from the outset.

The problem is not that it takes an "expert" or "policy maker" to recognize that it had greater potential to work than Bush's plan. The problem was that Bush pushed anybody who opposed his plan out of the room, and required that everybody else to provide cover for his notion of a quick invasion, reinvention of the nation, and departure, at minimum cost. Starting locally was always far more realistic than creating a national government, but that approach was inconsistent with the Bush Administrations fantasies of candy and flowers, as well as with the "product" it was trying to sell to the American consumer.

David, the actual experts have been out there all along. All you had to do was listen to them.

Monday, September 03, 2007

When Ideology Clashes With Reality

In the mind of a Robert Novak, ideology always trumps reality:
Most of the dwindling contingent of Republican governors have abandoned conservative principles to embrace the Democratic-sponsored extension of SCHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program) to people who are neither children nor poor. Only three -- Indiana's Mitch Daniels, Mississippi's Haley Barbour and South Carolina's Mark Sanford -- resist the lure of federal dollars.
If you embrace a form of "conservatism" where it is automatically "bad" for the government to take steps to ensure the availability of health insurance, primarily to low-income children already eligible for the program, even if there is no net increase in taxes.... You're a peculiar animal. Novak apparently has no beef with the fact that private insurance companies receive subsidies in order to "compete" with Medicare - for somebody like Novak it's apparently better that government money be wasted on subsidies in one public health insurance program, than that they be used to provide greater benefit to a greater number of people through another public health insurance program.

Meanwhile, governors looking at what it may presently mean to be "fully insured" can legitimately question the public cost of having uninsured children treated through emergency rooms, or leaving hospital bills unpaid, as compared to the public benefit of insuring a greater number of children. If they're not locked into ideology, it doesn't seem like that hard of a choice. To a Novak, there is fear that the greater success of public health programs over private could cause people to reconsider our system of private insurance, so it is better to subsidize private inefficiency and deny health care to children.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

D.C. Education Policy - Six Of One and Half A Dozen Of The Other

Today the Washington Post presents two self-interested voices to speak about the problems of the D.C. public school system, the new Superintendent, Michelle Rhee, and the chairman of the board for a charter school, Mark Lerner.

Ms. Rhee speaks positively of the school district's ability to overcome some pretty standard obstacles, such as hiring new teachers, dealing with unexpected staffing shortages, fixing up school buildings, and improved textbook delivery. She describes problems with student registration, and the need for significant improvement in the current system. The editorial closes with the suggestion that although "the first week of school was the best yet ... there is much more work to do, and we have many more changes to come."
Student success is our highest priority, and with the support of parents, guardians, teachers and principals, our schools will be among the best.
If you were to judge this editorial by its omissions, I would note that the crumbling school infrastructure (a significant problem in most large cities) and corruption aren't mentioned. I don't mean to be unfair to D.C. by suggesting that it has problems of corruption in its school administration, but I doubt that there is a major urban school district without significant problems of fraud, corruption and waste. There's also no mention of student safety issues, an unfortunate but necessary issue that must be tackled by any school district which encompasses "inner city" schools.

Mr. Lerner does not expect the D.C. schools to overcome their bureaucratic problems and "dilapidated school buildings". Instead, of course, he lauds charter schools:
Charter schools, fighting for their lives to find facilities in the costly D.C. commercial real estate market, do not operate in buildings where the bathrooms are falling apart and water fountains do not work. You do not find paint peeling from walls and air conditioners that do not cool. And these schools are safe.
Obviously a new charter school is not going to seek out space in a crumbling building. A charter school has the benefit of being able to set its own maximum enrollment, lease as much (or as little) space as it wants, expect its students to travel to its location, and abandon that space or even shut down completely at the end of its lease. Public schools have none of those luxuries.

If you wish to offer neighborhood schools, or something reasonably approximating them, you need to have specialized school buildings throughout the city, and although in theory you can talk about privatizing that process (calling upon third parties to build and own schools while leasing them to the school district) you can expect that to both substantially increase cost and create a risk that an owner will decide at the end of a lease to find a different use for the property - with no realistic options available for a school board that wants to move to different premises. If the tax base is insufficient to pay for upkeep, maintenance, and building obsolescence, you will inevitably see students in crumbling schools.

Even if you abandon the notion of neighborhood schools, you need money for new buildings, increase transportation costs, and create commute time for every school child. Even assuming new school buildings somehow build themselves, I doubt that there would be a cost savings over replacing neighborhood schools, and there may in fact be a cost increase.

Lerner argues that a profit motive leads charter schools to offer a better product,
The power of ownership provides strong incentives to invest time and money into these schools. The power of school choice results in strong incentives to provide a product better than the one down the street.
Which, of course, is why charter school students so consistently outperform public school students, right? Except they don't. (I recognize that Lerner's school is for the performing arts, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that he so capably dances around the facts.)
Instead of trying to fix the D.C. public school bureaucracy, we should turn all of these schools into institutions of choice. With all the money we allocate to educating kids in the city (through DCPS, charters and the Opportunity Scholarship Program), we could provide each student with a $12,000 scholarship to a private school. Or, for a lot less money then we are currently spending, we could convert every school to a charter.
This is doubly duplicitous. First, there isn't room for every D.C. school student in a private school. Second, although average spending per pupil may be $12,000, that does not mean that spending is equal for all students. If Lerner has any students with special needs - academic or physical - I am sure his school already gets additional support, resources, and perhaps even staff provided out of the public school budget. Private schools do not have to accept students with learning disorders or behavioral problems - two classes of student for whom per pupil funding is vastly above the $12,000 average. Public schools have to serve any kid who makes it through the door.
Yes, working day and night, Rhee and the mayor may have some limited success. Then they will move on, and their replacements will take their eye off the ball. And then the children of the nation's capital will be back to square one.
Here, unfortunately, he's probably correct. While I attribite it to self-interest, not naievete, that he pitches privatization and charter schools as the answer to all of D.C.'s problems, it is exceptionally unlikely that Ms. Rhee will be able to achieve the magnitude of reform necessary to truly transform the D.C. schools. I sincerely wish her luck.

Hand Wringing Over "The Surge"

With all due respect to how well "the surge" has been played up in the media, what real difference does it make? If Bush gets another year of his war, and it turns out that "the surge" (like every other Bush White House claim about the war) has been exaggerated, what will the Republicans be claiming a year from now as they again try to save themselves from being held responsible for the lack of progress? "But we thought it was working last year" serves to excuse the Dems for any claimed optimism.

Beyond Bush and his immediate advisors, what's the gain to the Republican party in exaggerating the results of "the surge"? Bush has virtually no credibility and he cannot be reelected, so being again found to be prevaricating has essentially no impact on him - but he gets to carry on his war until he leaves office. But would you want to be a Republican Senator or Member of Congress in a competitive race, with that albatross hanging around your neck?

Saturday, September 01, 2007

"Labels Aren't What Kids Need"

A week ago the Washington Post ran a peculiar editorial about education written by Patrick Welsh, a high school teacher, complaining that gifted kids have it too good. Really. Describing a fifth grader who isn't sufficiently challenged at school, the author writes,
"It's an ongoing comedy trying to get the school to challenge him," she says. "The school keeps saying, 'Don't worry. Your child's needs will be met.' Then his teacher says she can't give him challenging work because 'We were told not to assign above-grade-level work to anyone who isn't labeled TAG.' "

That's TAG as in Talented and Gifted. And who is and who isn't - or at least who's designated such and who isn't - has been one of the most contentious issues in Alexandria since the school system raised the bar for the TAG program two years ago. The new rules have cut out about two-thirds of the students who once qualified: At George Mason, the size of the fourth-grade program went from 17 to six last year.

Which means that a substantial number of students will now be relegated to the "regular" curriculum, where the emphasis is on ensuring that lower-income children who lag far behind in basic skills will pass the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. In Alexandria, the first group is mostly white, the second mostly black and Hispanic. Some white parents at George Mason are now demanding a special class, between regular and gifted, for the "nearly gifted" -- as they call the children who missed the TAG cut.
The problem appears to be that in its zeal to "bring up the bottom" (can you say "No Child Left Behind"?), Alexandria slashed its "Talented and Gifted" program and implemented an absurd, dare I say brain-dead policy that children who aren't "Talented and Gifted" should never work above "grade level". Is the solution to this, as some parents have suggested, offering enriched education for the near-gifted? Welsh answers, certainly not....
But of all the labels that we so-called educators give students, none seems more absurd -- and few more destructive. When we apply this tag to a tiny group of children in third, fourth or fifth grade, we are in effect saying that the rest are ungifted and untalented. We're denigrating hard work and perseverance, telling children that no matter how much effort they put forth, they just can't measure up to their special peers.

Just as bad, we're telling those on whom we deign to bestow the coveted label that they have it made; we're giving them an overblown sense of their intellectual abilities and setting them up to fall short when they face real challenges later.
So the solution is to throw gifted kids back into the same classes and programs as everybody else, where they too can enjoy the privilege of being denied permission to work above grade level?
What schools need to do is not to single out a small group as special, but push all kids to work to their fullest potential.
Which in reality means boring TAG kids out of their skulls so as to minimize the likelihood that they will reach their potential. Nice.

Welsh, though, is happy to substitute his own labels for "talented" or "gifted":
For a fairly bright child, the SOL exams aren't much more than a minimum-competency test. To allay parental anxieties, Superintendent Rebecca Perry has said that the students at the top of the regular classes - i.e., the white kids who didn't get into TAG - will help to "challenge, mentor and coach" the students struggling with the SOL material.
I see. We'll save children from the "stigma" of being told that they aren't "Talented and Gifted" by instead telling them that they aren't very bright, and need to be led by their bright and even their "fairly bright" peers. (To his credit, though, the author does see the Superintendent's cop-out as just that, describing a parent's reaction, "What else could these students be doing instead of reviewing material they already understand as they challenge, coach and mentor their classmates?")
Alexandria's school administrators are caught in a political and moral trap. They have to assure mostly white middle-class parents, who provide most of the tax dollars for the schools, that their children can progress academically without being held back by lower-income kids. At the same time, the school system cannot create exclusive schools-within-schools for upper-income students.
Beyond the question of why "gifted" is an elitist, destructive label and "bright" is not, for an author who doesn't like to label kids, we sure are seeing a lot of socio-economic and racial labeling in this piece. Once you accept that kids can be classified as "bright", "fairly bright" and implicitly "not so bright", you've given up any ground that you once had for attacking the "TAG" label. What you're left with is the objection that "TAG" kids are disproportionately white, a recurrent theme in this editorial.
Research shows that KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter schools are the most successful in the country at closing the gap between low-income black students and middle-class white students. But the philosophy of these schools is geared to the needs of poor children. The schools operate on the belief that to close the learning gap, children from poor homes need an education that's not just equal, but superior, to that of middle-class whites.
No "school within a school" for "upper-income" and "white middle-class" kids, but maybe separate, superior schools for "low-income black students"? But no labeling.

The funny thing is, I don't think Welsh recognizes the contradiction in his editorial. He truly seems to believe that if you don't tell a child, "You're 'Talented and Gifted'", the child won't figure out that he's (to use Welsh's word) bright. It doesn't seem to occur to him that even the "fairly bright" kids who yearn to work above grade level are implicitly able to see that (in some or all subjects) they are academically ahead of their peers. And Welsh believes that if you tell kids that they're "talented and gifted" you will destroy their motivation to learn, citing a single 1998 study to support his thesis.
Dweck conducted an experiment in which she gave two evenly matched groups of elementary school kids the same nonverbal IQ test. When one group of children did well, they were told that they must have worked very hard to get their results. The students in the other group, meanwhile, were told that they must be very smart to have done so well.

Dweck found that as time went on, the kids who were told that they were smart "fell apart when they hit a challenge. They lost confidence in their abilities. Their motivation dwindled and their performance on the next IQ test dropped." By contrast, the children in the group praised for working hard tended to seek out challenges and persist at difficult tasks and ultimately learned more.
The primary lesson to be drawn there would seem to be, "Don't lie to kids about their abilities, and don't mislead them about the work they must do to succeed." There is, of course, no evidence provided that this holds true of the Alexandria "TAG" program, save for one anecdote:
I've seen Dweck's theory proved time and again in my AP English classes. When an Asian student who has spoken English for only four or five years gets an A on a test and an American kid labeled gifted gets a D, the American will often do one of two things: denigrate the Asian's grade because it was achieved through hard work, or bring in his mother to argue that the test was unfair and that I should change his grade because I "know how smart he is."
Funny... I went to high school with a lot of kids who had been labeled "gifted and talented" and, even when they hit a class in which they struggled, didn't once see that happen. (I grant that there have since been some changes in how students and parents approach schoolwork and teachers, but those are hardly unique to smart kids.) Welsh is missing the most obvious explanation - the kid didn't need to be told he was smart, because he was able to coast through school and get A's without ever working. The "D" comes as a surprise because, lo and behold, he thought the AP class was going to be "more of the same". It's the consequence of never challenging a smart student, not a consequence of his being able to figure out that he's smart.

A counter-example? The author of the cited study had a sixth grade teacher who seated her class in order of IQ, highest to lowest, and overtly discriminated in favor of the higher IQ kids. (Really... some things you can't make up.) Yet she somehow managed to survive being told she was smart, and even managed to get a Ph.D. Go figure. The teacher's tactics left the smarter kids "scared of taking another test and not being at the top anymore," which explains why Ms. Dweck is so interested in this subject, but cuts agains the thesis that if you're told you're smart you become a slacker.

Welsh also cites to a student who didn't like being conspicuously pulled out of class to participate in the TAG program, and felt "set apart from other kids". There's a surprise - after all, it's so rewarding in public school to be known as "the smart kid". That's a problem of implementation, but also one that inevitably results from growing up smart in a society that doesn't much value intelligence. If Welsh has his eyes open he will have seen, time and time again, smart kids who intentionally blow tests in at least one class so that they don't suffer the stigma of... having "straight A's". Welsh's other student voice?
Shep Walker, a T.C. graduate about to enter the College of William and Mary, says the problem is that "gifted-and-talented programs get filled with white kids who have pushy parents, leaving a lot of black and Hispanic kids out in the cold and creating de facto segregation in the classes."
It's like Thomas Friedman interviewing a taxi driver - somehow Walsh managed to find a student to quote, whose views miraculously mirror his own.

Welsh has a "solution" to all of this:
But the solution isn't to mark fewer students as gifted and talented. It's to challenge all our kids, all the time.
Right. Except for the smart ones.

At least Welsh makes sense when he attacks the absurdity of Virginia's approach to its SOLs (cute name?), its standardized "Standards of Learning" tests.
When Priscilla Goodwin complained that her third-grader was bored, the principal of George Mason told her that the mandate from the central office was to get all students to pass the SOL exams. "Principals are running scared," Goodwin says. "Their reputations and promotions depend on the SOLs; they think that as long as bright kids pass these simple tests, they're doing fine. They're giving kids worksheets on facts that most children already know because they go at the pace of the slowest kid in the room. TAG or regular classes, kids aren't being challenged."
It seems that everybody in the system is SOL.