Bursting Bubbles

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the economic news in the tech field isn’t exactly great. Recently, Microsoft announced plans to lay off 10,000 workers, and Alphabet, the parent of Google, disclosed that it would be handing the pink slip to 12,000 of its employees. Amazon also has announced sweeping job cuts. By some accounts, almost 50,000 people have been laid off from their jobs in the tech industry already in 2023–and we aren’t even through the first month of the year. That follows a 2022 in which about 100,000 employees of private and public tech-related companies are estimated to have lost their jobs.

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone with some seasoning. The tech industry grew exponentially during the early days of the pandemic, as the world shifted more to on-line commerce, and it was predictable that, as conditions changed and economic cycles occurred, there would be some retrenchment. What’s interesting, though, is that some of the tech leaders apparently didn’t see this entirely predictable result coming: they were confidently predicting that there had been a permanent paradigm change and the growth would continue, as one recent article notes.

And the company bigwigs weren’t alone in this view. Some young tech workers reportedly are shocked that their cutting-edge companies could–and would–lay them off; they thought they were set for years to come. Interestingly, however, their older and more experienced colleagues aren’t surprised, because many of them have been laid off before in prior tech boom-and-bust cycles.

It’s a valuable tutorial for everyone, although people seem to quickly forget the teaching: economic cycles are inevitable, retrenchment typically follows rapid growth, it’s wise to build some bad news into your business and personal planning, and confident predictions of impending future success frequently turn to ashes in the mouths of the know-it-alls who voiced them. A dose of humility and rationality isn’t a bad thing for tech company leaders–and those shocked young workers have just received a valuable life lesson that they probably will never forget.

A Very Big Place

Yesterday we went for a ramble around Austin and ended up at a favorite place–a stone map of Texas inlaid into a plaza atop a small hill just across the river from the downtown area. The map gives distances between different Texas cities and Austin, which is indicated on the map by the star in the east-central part of the state. The distances show just how enormous Texas actually is.

For example, the map indicates that El Paso, at the far western edge of the Lone Star State, is 580 miles from Austin. The journey from Austin to Texarkana, at the northeastern corner of the state, is another 375 miles. Add them together and you’ve got a trip of close to 1,000 miles. That’s a lot of Texas! A further sense of the scale of this place is that the distance from Cincinnati to Cleveland, south to north, is about 250 miles. You therefore could flip all of Ohio sideways and wedge it into the 250 miles between Austin and Beaumont, just in the eastern half of Texas. Ohio ranks 35th among the states with 40,953 square miles; Texas, coming in at number 2, is six times larger, encompassing 261,914 square miles.

That’s a huge amount of territory for one state–but of course Alaska dwarfs everyone else, covering a total of 570,641 square miles. That’s bigger than Texas, California, and Montana, which rank 2, 3, and 4, combined, and 14 times the size of Ohio.

They grow states big west of the Mississippi!

Taking A Class With Dr. King

Dr.. Martin Luther King is known to us as a teacher whose relentless advocacy and aspirational vision of a better, fairer America helped to power the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. What many do not know is that he was a teacher in fact–for one class. In 1962, Dr. King returned to his alma mater, Morehouse College, and taught a class called Seminar in Social Philosophy. The records of that class, and the recollections of the students who were fortunate to take it, provide a glimpse at another facet of this iconic historical figure and the ideas that motivated him and his work.

You can see Dr. King’s handwritten syllabus of readings for the course, and an exam that was given in the course, here. From looking at the reading list, it’s obvious that this was one of those college courses that would challenge a student to the limit: the readings encompassed a broad range of philosophical writings, from Plato and Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, from Hobbes and Locke to Kant, from Rousseau and Hegel to John Stuart Mill–with a little Machiavelli thrown in for good measure. In the exam, students had to answer five of seven questions that required them to actually think about how the philosophical constructs they learned could be compared and applied. One of the seven questions, for example, asked students to “Appraise the Student Movement in its practice of law-breaking in light of Aquinas’ Doctrine of Law.”

Ten years ago CNN published a story about the eight men and women who took this class with Dr. King–one of whom was Julian Bond. You can read about them, and their interesting recollections about the course that met once weekly for that semester in 1962, here. Not surprisingly, the students were influenced and motivated by that class, One student, Barbara Adams, shared this recollection:

“It was a hard class in the sense that there was a lot of reading and understanding great thinkers. It was relaxed in that it was more like a conversation rather than a lecture. It was hard in that we had to come to grips with nonviolence as more than just a political tactic. He wanted us to understand it was a way of living and bringing about change.”

She added this point about how the students viewed Dr. King at that time:

“We didn’t really know we were in the midst of a man who in the future would be considered great. We knew he was a man with a vision, sure, but he seemed so ordinary and so down to earth and he was so easy to talk to, even more than some of my other professors. I mean we respected and admired him, but we never dreamed that he would become a Nobel Prize winner or that he would become a martyr. He was not a puffed-up man.”

Imagine having the opportunity to discuss philosophy with Dr. Martin Luther King and a few other highly motivated students who had done the heavy reading, had thought about the tough issues, and were passionate about the subject and its relevance to an ongoing social movement that would change America forever. Imagine being spurred to learn and think about how the developing philosophy of the Civil Rights movement fit into the grand sweep of different philosophies that had been articulated in the past. This must have been a college course for the ages.

The story of the Morehouse College Seminar in Social Philosophy also shows that Dr. King didn’t shy away from challenging others, whether it was in the pulpit, in the classroom, or on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And it also shows why college students shouldn’t always try to take the easy route. Sometimes, the toughest classes have the greatest reward. It’s something worth thinking about as we commemorate Martin Luther King Day.

Spanking The Rankings (Cont.)

I wrote a few weeks ago about the revolt of certain law schools–including my alma mater, the Georgetown University Law Center–against the U.S. News and World Report rankings. The revolt got some results. Earlier this month, U.S. News and World Report announced that it would be modifying its approach to rankings, and wrote an open letter to law school deans announcing the changes. You can see the letter here.

U.S. News says the changes are in response to the issues raised by the law schools, but it is also standing its ground in its position that its rankings are appropriate and a helpful data point for students deciding on where to go for their legal education. The letter to the law school deans says that the ranking algorithm will be modified, stating that “there will be some changes in how we weight certain data points, including a reduced emphasis on the peer assessment surveys of academics, lawyers and judges, and an increased weight on outcome measures.” At the same time, U.S. News let the law schools know that it is going to rank them, whether they participate or not, and offered an incentive of sorts: “We will rank law schools in the upcoming rankings using publicly available data that law schools annually make available as required by the American Bar Association whether or not schools respond to our annual survey. For schools that do respond, we will publish more detailed profiles, enabling students to create a more comprehensive picture of their various choices.”

Law schools don’t seem to be blown away by the U.S. News announcement. Yale’s dean was quoted as saying: “having a window into the operations and decision-making process at U.S. News in recent weeks has only cemented our decision to stop participating in the rankings.” Michigan says its decision to not participate in the rankings won’t change, either.

I’m not surprised that U.S. News is trying to put out the fire; its ranking publications are no doubt a big money-maker in an era where fewer and fewer people are buying magazines. But the tweaks to its approach also shows that rankings are really kind of silly, and the metrics in its formula, and their weighting, aren’t some immutable, undeniable way of objectively evaluating law schools. If the metrics and the weighting can change in the blink of an eye because law schools have said enough is enough, why should anyone trust that the new formula is the right mix?

I think law students would be better served by ignoring rankings and thinking about what they want out of law school, using their personal interests and concerns to narrow the field of law school candidates by looking at rational considerations like cost, and then talking to recent graduates. Law school is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and the revolt against the U.S. News rankings illustrates that fact. That’s a useful lesson.

Return Of The Western?

We’ve watched every episode of Yellowstone, we enjoyed 1883, the first of the Yellowstone prequels (which apparently is returning for a second season), and we are caught up on 1923, the newest Yellowstone prequel. We figure 1903 can’t be far behind, and there are many more tales to be told of the rambunctious Dutton clan and their constant battles to hold on to their beautiful spread in the wilds of Montana. (Don’t be surprised, for example, if there is a 2063, about future generations of Duttons.) With the success of the Dutton shows, you have to wonder: will westerns finally be making their TV and movie comeback?

It’s hard to believe now, but in the early days of television, westerns dominated the network programming. Shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Have Gun, Will Travel, and The Rifleman dominated the nightly programming and the ratings. Westerns were so popular for so long on television that variations on traditional westerns, like Branded, about an unjustly accused soldier, and The Wild, Wild West, with its newfangled gadgetry, were introduced. During those same decades John Wayne and other stars were churning out westerns at the cinema, producing classics like The Searchers, High Noon, Shane, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And the movie industry also made its share of non-traditional westerns, like The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

It’s not hard to see why westerns dominated popular entertainment during those years. The western genre was very elastic, and accommodated simple good guy versus bad guy tales and much more nuanced and complicated stories that left you wondering about who really was the hero. Westerns were cheap to make, with the sets for most TV westerns found on a Hollywood studios back lot, and even “on location” shoots occurring within only a few hundred miles of studio headquarters. And, in America, there always has been a certain romance about the west, and a fascination with the gunslingers, sheriffs, and train robbers, the wars with native Americans, and the many hazards and rough justice of frontier days.

At some point in the late ’60s, though, westerns suddenly vanished from the TV screen, and movie westerns largely disappeared only a few years later. Perhaps Americans had just had their fill, or perhaps westerns just didn’t fit with the then-prevailing notions about the world, or perhaps science fiction films and TV shows co-opted the standard western plots and threw in some cool special effects, besides. Since the demise of the western genre, there have been predictions about its renaissance–in the wake of TV shows like Lonesome Dove and movies like Young Guns and Silverado–but those forecasts have proven inaccurate.

Could now be the time when American viewers are ready to return to the western, and an era when problems seemed less complicated and a simple showdown on a dusty street was seen as a way to actually solve a problem, once and for all? With Beth Dutton’s two-fisted approach leading the way, who knows? We may see a lot more horse operas in the future.

A Temporary Stay Of Execution

I’ve written before–see here, and here–about the deep concerns the people of Stonington, Maine have had about impending federal regulations that would drastically affect the lobster fishing that is a crucial pillar of the local economy. Those working in the lobster trade were convinced that regulations designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale would make lobster fishing practically and economically impossible.

Those concerns have been deferred by recent actions by Congress and President Biden. As is often the case with Congress these days, the $1.7 trillion spending bill that was passed and then signed into law on December 29 included an array of additional provisions–including one that delays the implementation of the right whale regulations for six years. The bill also allocated $55 million to try to accomplish two tasks related to the regulations. First, some of the money will be spent to develop workable ropeless lobster fishing gear and techniques, since the right whale regulations will require an end to the traditional rope-and-buoy system that have been a foundation of Maine lobster fishing for decades. Second, the money will fund research to determine if the North Atlantic right whale is in fact found in the Gulf of Maine, and if so where and when.

An article in the Island Ad-Vantages, the local newspaper for Deer Isle, Maine, reports on the legislation and the reaction to it here. Basically, those in the lobster trade are relieved at the delay in the regulations–which they no doubt view as a kind of stay of execution of their industry–but, as the article’s apt headline states: “And now the work begins.” There are a lot of details to work out, as those involved in the lobster fishing industry need to create a process for making and responding to right whale sightings and figure out how to spend millions, including money to be allocated in future years, to create the ropeless fishing technology. That last task is a crucial one, because the concern underlying the delayed regulations is that the the endangered right whales become ensnared in the ropes that link the lobster traps on the ocean floor to the buoys on the surface. If workable ropeless technology can’t be developed, the reprieve won’t provide long-term relief.

It’s frustrating that our government can’t seem to function at a deliberate, thoughtful pace and address issues through single-focus legislation, and instead can only act through colossal, last-minute spending bills that become Christmas trees for all kinds of unrelated provisions. In this case, however, that process helped out–temporarily, at least–a beleaguered industry and local communities that are dependent on it.

Backing Into Crankiness

When you drive into a parking lot, do you pull forward into an available spot, or do you pull past the open spot and then back into it? Have you given much conscious thought to the issue of which approach you take, or has your parking practice become an ingrained habit, like the order in which brush your teeth and wash your face in the morning?

Who cares whether you park head-in or back-in, you might ask? Well, the guy who wrote this article cares, and cares very deeply indeed. He thinks people who back into parking spaces are stupid, selfish, and perfectly content to waste the time of other drivers who have to sit there, tapping their steering wheels in frustration, while the back-into-the-space drivers complete their parking maneuvers at an elephantine pace. Never mind that you can find articles, like this one and this one, that argue that backing into parking spaces is the safer course. The writer rejects all of that, believes you are as likely to have a fender-bender when you are backing into a spot as when you are backing out of one, and states (with probably only slight exaggeration) that he considers people who back into parking spots to be–and I am quoting here–“history’s greatest monsters.”

The point of this post isn’t to further fan the flames of debate about whether you should back in to parking spots or not. I happen to be a head-in parker, but I recognize that this is one of those areas where there is legitimate room for different approaches, and American drivers should be free to choose between them. No, my point is simply to note that when you reach the point of writing passionately worded pieces about parking techniques, and urging people to take stopwatches to parking lots to time ingress and egress, you’ve arrived at crank status. A tipping point has been reached, and what would normally be a quickly forgotten irritation instead dominates your thoughts, you become convinced that your perspective is the right one, and the urge to vent becomes so overwhelming that you just can’t resist it.

At that point, you can be officially welcomed to the Curmudgeon Club, whose membership numbers in the millions. Now, if only the crankiness impulse were limited to writing screeds about parking . . . .

Leaving The U.S. of A.

Every election seems to feature some group of people–often celebrities–who swear that they will leave the country if one candidate or another is elected. It’s become a kind of American election tradition. But how many people actually follow through on their promises to hit the road and live abroad due to election results?

The Washington Post recently published an interesting article that tried to reach conclusions about American expatriates by crunching through some actual data. It found that, to be sure, there have been big spikes in Google searches about moving to Canada in connection with elections and, more recently, the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe v. Wade. There was an especially big spike in such searches in 2016, when Donald Trump was elected, that constitutes the all-time peak in such search requests.

The Post article also notes, however, that only a tiny fraction of Americans actually leave the U.S.A., and an even smaller number do it for political reasons. In fact, the United States is the number one destination for immigrants, by a considerable margin, but only 26th in the number of emigrants. Americans are far less likely to emigrate than citizens of some other countries–but because of our size, that still means millions of Americans have moved overseas. Data from the United Nations and the World Bank indicates that about 2.8 million Americans now live abroad, although there is some dispute about exactly who to count in that category. The data analysis also shows that Americans who do emigrate go to a lot of different countries, with the top ten list being Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Israel, South Korea, Japan, France, and Italy.

The data also suggest that very few Americans leave because of election results. Instead, there are a range of reasons for the departures. For example, Mexico is number one on the list of relocations because many of the Americans who relocate to Mexico are children who were born in America and then returned to Mexico with their parents. For other emigrants, ending up in another country often is just the result of a series of circumstances that the article describes as emigration by accident, with a typical scenario being an American who goes abroad to study or work, meets and marries a native of the country of their destination, and ends up staying there. For those Americans who are making conscious decisions to move abroad, the other big reasons include retirement and a simple desire to explore.

In short, there really aren’t many “political emigrants” from the U.S., despite the fervent promises that we hear during election season–probably because promises made during the heat of the moment end up going by the wayside when passions cool, careful analysis of possible destinations occurs, and Americans realize that staying here beats the alternative for a lot of reasons. But if you do go abroad and become one of those accidental emigrants, you’ll probably find a community of other accidental American emigrants wherever you go.

What Makes A Great Year?

I ran across one of those traditional “end of a calendar year” stories, recounting how people felt about the past year. This one noted that “just” one in three people surveyed felt that 2022 was a “great” year.

I was struck by the use of “just” in the description of the survey results. Given all of the really bad things that happened in 2022–war in the Ukraine and the resulting increase in the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons, an American economy on the brink of recession, a horrible year in the stock market, a fresh outbreak of COVID in China, and so forth–how could even one-third of people surveyed possibly think that 2022 was “great”? Who in the world are these people, and how do they define “great,” anyway?

And that’s just it, isn’t it? When people are deciding whether a particular year was “great,” do they consider national or geopolitical developments, or do they focus only on a smaller circle of their families and friends? Did the members of their family stay happy and healthy for the year–or not? Was a marriage joyfully celebrated, or the arrival of a new child, or a special achievement by a high school or college student? Did everyone in the family have a successful year on the job, or were some laid off in some cost-cutting exercise? Can they heat their homes and put food on the table? For some people, at least, troubling national and international news might be storm clouds on the horizon, but it doesn’t really have an impact until it directly intrudes upon that group of family and friends.

The greatness–or crappiness–of a year depends a lot on your perspective. It’s nice to think that one-third of the people surveyed experienced enough happiness and healthiness and satisfaction in 2022 to call the year a “great” one. However you define a “great” year, I hope that 2023 meets that definition.

You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch

We’re at the point in the holiday season where many of us have begun to experience Christmas music soundtrack overload, and we feel like we might go into a saccharine sentiment coma if we hear It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year even one more time. That’s why You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch has become such an essential part of the holiday season. You can be sitting in a restaurant, hearing a standard mix of songs like Up On The Housetop and Frosty the Snowman, and then suddenly detect the strains of You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch cutting directly through the sugar content, and you find yourself using your best super-deep voice to sing about bad bananas with greasy black peels.

Written as a key part of the TV broadcast of How The Grinch Stole Christmas that was first broadcast in 1966, the music for You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch was composed by Albert Hague, and the song was memorably sung for the TV show by Thurl Ravenscroft, the same actor who voiced Tony the Tiger and his “they’re great!” catchphrase. But it is the lyrics to the song–penned by Dr. Seuss himself–that are a hilarious revelation and a wonderful antidote to the unrelenting spun sugar sweetness of most holiday soundtracks. Here they are, in all their glory:

You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch
You really are a heel
You’re as cuddly as a cactus, you’re as charming as an eel, Mr. Grinch
You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peel!

You’re a monster, Mr. Grinch
Your heart’s an empty hole
Your brain is full of spiders, you’ve got garlic in your soul, Mr. Grinch
I wouldn’t touch you with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole!

You’re a vile one, Mr. Grinch
You have termites in your smile
You have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile, Mr. Grinch
Given a choice between the two of you I’d take the seasick crocodile!

You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch
You’re a nasty-wasty skunk
Your heart is full of unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk, Mr. Grinch
The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote
“Stink, stank, stunk!”

You’re a rotter, Mr. Grinch
You’re the king of sinful sots
Your heart’s a dead tomato splotched with moldy purple spots, Mr. Grinch
Your soul is an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful
Assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled up in tangled up knots!

You nauseate me, Mr. Grinch
With a nauseous super “naus”!
You’re a crooked dirty jockey and you drive a crooked hoss, Mr. Grinch
You’re a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce!

You have to give Dr. Seuss credit for coming up with lyrics like “your heart’s a dead tomato splotched with moldy purple spots.” He understood that the Christmas spirit is best demonstrated with some negative contrast, before the central character is redeemed. It’s the same approach that makes Dickens’ A Christmas Carol such a classic.

And maybe I’m wrong–but doesn’t it seem that You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch becomes more popular every year?

In The Teeth Of The “Bomb Cyclone”

It always produces a good, warm feeling when the holidays approach, you know lots of people will be traveling and anxiety will be high, and the inevitable dire warnings get issued about “travel hell” and disastrous weather. During this time of year, it’s great to see news stories like this one–about a huge winter storm bearing down on the Midwest that is expected to “evolve” into a “bomb cyclone,” just in time for Christmas.

I recognize that it’s got to challenging to write about the weather–how many different ways can there be to describe an approaching snowstorm?–but I have to give special credit to the writer of that piece, with the use of “evolve” suggesting that the storm is some living, malignant creature, ready to transmogrify into something even more fearsome and terrible. And, of course, “bomb cyclone” is the latest scary phrase for a bad snow storm with high winds. We didn’t used to call them “bomb cyclones” when we were hit with severe snow storms in past years; the weather people pretty much stuck with “storm of the century.” “Bomb cyclone” sounds a lot cooler and more hazardous, though.

Good luck to everyone who will be on the road over the holidays. Keep your chin up, try not to let the predictions of disaster and travel delays quash your holiday spirit, and be ready to move fast to lay in ample supplies of toilet paper and bottled water if that dreaded “bomb cyclone” goes off.

The Insider Versus The Average Joe

Something weird happened in the markets earlier this week. About 60 seconds before the November Consumer Price Index data was released, there was a sudden surge in trading of stock futures and Treasury futures–both of which inevitably would be affected by the report that the CPI for November was a bit lower than what economists had forecast. You can see the spike in trading in the chart above, published by Bloomberg in its story about the trading that occurred only moments before the release of the report.

It’s good news, of course, that the November CPI report indicates that inflation appears to be cooling, and we should all hope that trend continues. But the jump in trading activity in the minute before the CPI report was released is obviously suspicious, and suggests that someone who received the report prior to the release tried to profit from the good news. (In fact, the activity sounds vaguely like the plot of the movie Trading Places, where the Duke brothers tried to make a killing from getting an early copy of a government report, only to be foiled by the Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy characters. In this case, however, Dan and Eddie weren’t around, and neither was the guy in the gorilla suit.)

The Biden Administration denied that the White House leaked the report, and downplayed the trading data as “minor market movements”–when, as the Bloomberg article linked above points out, it clearly was nothing of the sort. The Bloomberg article notes: “over a 60-second span before the data went out, over 13,000 March 10-year futures traded hands (during a period when activity is usually nonexistent) as the contract was bid up.” And even if we accept that the White House didn’t leak the report, it’s obvious that something happened that requires an investigation, to see who was making those trades, and why.

Under these circumstances, in fact, I would argue that an investigation is mandatory. Trust in the markets is a delicate thing, and an insider trading scandal coming on top of the stories about the inner workings of now-collapsed FTX doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the integrity of the markets. If there is no investigation or prosecution, it will go down as just another example of the fundamental difference between insiders who get to profit from a sure thing and the average Joes who must accept the ups and downs in the accounts that hold their hard-earned retirement savings.

The Beltway And The Twitterverse

If, like me, you don’t tweet or retweet anything, and you don’t pay much attention to the tweets or retweets of others, Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter for tens of billions of dollars has not had much of an impact on your world. For some people who are serious Twitter users, however, Musk’s takeover has been an earth-shattering event–and they can’t quite figure out how to deal with it.

NBC has an interesting story about how “liberal Washington” hates Elon Musk, and doesn’t like what he’s doing with Twitter, but just can’t cut the cord and stop tweeting. They give lots of reasons for their inability to achieve separation: Twitter is a great information resource; it’s how they get a lot of their news; it’s easy to use and smartphone-based; it’s how they communicate their thoughts to their thousands of devoted “followers,” and it’s how they think many of the people outside Washington, D.C. get their news, and they don’t want to deprive their constituents of that news source.

And, lurking in the background of those rationalizations is another reality: there really is no viable alternative. If you’ve gotten used to tweeting your “hot takes” about Donald Trump at all hours–or even become a kind of “Twitter addict,” as some Beltway insiders put it–there is nowhere else to go. So you can harrumph about Elon Musk acting like a jerk, but you just can’t bring yourself to quit him. He’s like the toxic high school boyfriend or girlfriend who never quite gets dumped because you don’t want to sit around at home on Friday nights.

One of the people interviewed for the story is a Congressman whose staff has convinced him that he can’t quit Twitter because “social media is where many of his constituents get their news, so leaving could cut them off from critical information.” I find it hard to believe that many people outside of Washington, D.C. or New York City actually get their news from Twitter. Other than one person who tweets as part of their job, I don’t know anyone who pays much attention to Twitter. There are reasons for that: as much as Twitter tries to get ordinary people to engage with it, there are some seriously off-putting aspects about the service that make many of us cringe: it’s often snotty and mean, with its tantalizing one-word retweets (like the overused “Wow!”) it’s consciously designed to make you click and click, and it just doesn’t bear much resemblance to the real world–fortunately!

As I read the NBC article, which identifies the number of followers of the people quoted and even designates some people as Twitter “pseudo-celebrities” and “power couples” based on such data, I felt like the real reason people inside the Beltway don’t quit Twitter is that they like the idea of having thousands of “followers” hanging on their every tweet. Never mind how many of those “followers” are bots, and how many are like-minded insiders who are creating their own little echo chamber. Having thousands of “followers” is a tangible sign of relevance and self-worth. If you crave the very idea of being someone who influences policy and is a “player,” giving up those followers would be a very hard call.

Robot Cops

There’s an interesting debate underway in San Francisco about the use of robots to assist the police. The police want to use seven remote-controlled robots in certain situations, such as to check out and if necessary defuse apparent bombs, or to provide video surveillance of a standoff situation. The issue that has raised concern is whether, and if so under what circumstances, the police could use the robots to apply deadly force.

The police have said that they don’t have plans to create “killer robots” carrying guns, but they don’t want to rule out the possibility of using the robots to carry explosives in extreme situations, where there is imminent risk of loss of life to police officers or the public that outweighs any other options. Critics say that those standards are too vague, and that allowing the use of robots in deadly force situations further militarizes the police and creates unacceptable risks for poor and minority communities, where there is already significant distrust of police activities.

Last night the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which had voted last week to allow the police to use the robots in limited deadly force situations, reversed course and banned such use of the robots for now. The Supervisors referred the issue to a committee for further study, and some Supervisors said that they wanted to give the public additional time to understand and react to the robot issue. The robot issue surfaced in the first place because of a recently enacted California law that requires police departments to inventory and seek approval for the use of military-grade equipment in law enforcement activities–a process that obviously contemplates public engagement with policing issues.

American police departments clearly have grown increasingly militarized over the past few decades, and the use of technology in police activities–whether it is helicopters, or drones, or armored vehicles, or advanced SWAT team equipment–is common. Most Americans, presumably, would have no objection to using robots to neutralize bombs, so that human lives are not put at risk. But using robots to apply lethal force raises different issues. Would using robotic delivery systems, thereby removing human beings from direct and immediate involvement, make the police more likely to use deadly force in the first place? Will police departments be tempted to increase their use of what they may consider to be cool new toys? And, more fundamentally, is it a good idea for police to use robots as a kind of technological interface with the public at large, increasing the perception that the police are divorced from the communities they serve and taking us farther and farther away from the cop on the beat of days gone by, who was part of the neighborhood?

These are tough issues that deserve some careful thought. I think the San Francisco supervisors are wise to take their time and let the public weigh in before deploying a force of “killer robots.”

Capable Kids

When I first started going to elementary school in Akron, Ohio in the early 1960s, I walked to school with my brother. The next year, when my sister was old enough to go to school, she walked with us, too. It was a journey of about 10 blocks, and we knew the route by heart. When we got to the area around the school, we would encounter groups of kids who had walked to school from other parts of the neighborhood, and an older kid wearing a Safety Patrol belt would let us know when to cross the street to get to the school itself.

This sounds like one of those “I walked three miles to school in the snow” codgerdom tales, but it’s not. Having grade school age kids walk unaccompanied to school in those days was an entirely normal activity, and no one gave it a second thought. We had been taught the route, we knew the street names and the turns we had to take, we had memorized our phone number, and we knew to talk to a policeman or to an adult if there were some kind of problem. But there never was a problem, and our walks to and from school were entirely uneventful. Everyone did it, and it was no big deal.

At some point between then and now, things changed. An interesting article in Psychology Today looks at those changing views. The shift in parenting concepts were captured in a book written several years ago called Adult Supervision Required by Markella Rutherford, who analyzed 565 articles and advice columns about parenting that appeared in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Parents. A 1966 article in Good Housekeeping, for example, captured the view that prevailed among the parents in my neighborhood in Akron: ““A six- to eight-year-old can be expected to follow simple routes to school, be able to find a telephone or report to a policeman if he is lost, and to know he must call home if he is going to be late. A nine- to eleven-year-old should be able to travel on public buses and streetcars, apply some simple first aid, and exercise reasonable judgment in many unfamiliar situations.”

Rutherford’s book shows that, by the 1980s, the notion of child capability and the presumed value of child independence that were generally accepted in the 1960s had been replaced by the view that children need to be monitored and protected, pretty much at all times. Rutherford describes the significant change in approach as follows: “For example, children walked unaccompanied to school, roamed around and played in neighborhoods alone and in groups, rode their bikes all over town, hitch-hiked around town, and ran errands for their parents, such as going to the corner store or post office. These descriptions of freedoms to roam have disappeared from contemporary advice. Instead, parents today are admonished to make sure that their children are adequately supervised by an adult at all times, whether at home or away from home.”

The “helicopter parent” concept of constant monitoring when a kid is outside hasn’t been the only change. Rutherford found that parents are now advised to be much more permissive about kid choice in the home, about things like what to eat and when to go to bed, and that the messaging to parents also changed about the value and expectations of children helping out around the house and doing chores.

The key question in this analysis is: has the change in messaging about approaches to parenting been good for children, or not? Does increased adult supervision affect development of children’s sense of their own capabilities, ability to think and act independently, and personal responsibility? The author of the Psychology Today article linked above thinks the trend is a negative one, and has helped to produce increased mental health problems for kids and declines in creative thinking.

Determining causal connections is always difficult, and debatable–but it is interesting to see how core concepts of parenting have changed dramatically over only a few decades. And you do wonder: if you treat children as capable at an earlier age, and let them exercise some personal responsibility, does that help to build a core sense of capability that will serve children well as they age and assume increasing control over their own lives?