On Charter Schools and State Ballot Initiatives

There is intense debate in Massachusetts right now around Question 2, a ballot initiative aimed at raising the cap on public charter schools. I am generally of the opinion that legislating through ballot initiatives is a poor idea (with all the normal downsides of direct democracy). This being New England, we experience the flaws of direct democracy perennially at our horrible “town meetings,” which is apparently not enough to discourage proponents of ballot initiatives.

Which leaves us with Question 2, and the requirement for a simple “yes” or “no” vote. I have been a big believer in public charter schools ever since attending Santiago Charter Middle School in Orange County, California. Before that I attended a magnet program that was also excellent. Both were formative experiences that I believe profoundly affected who I would grow up to become.

I have no experience with privately run charters. I was in a very diverse environment, but as a student on an accelerated learning track my classmates often looked like me, and my experience has no relevance when discussing the needs of underserved populations. My school district was run at the county level, with over 20 elementary schools. My middle school of approximately 1000 students is roughly the same size as the entire enrollment of the school district of Hull, where I currently reside.

Santiago has 42 credentialed educators providing a diverse range of programs including wood shop, theater, dance, Chinese, and various other additions to standard, remedial, and honors curriculums. Hull’s Memorial Middle School has a quarter of the students but almost half the teachers, spends vastly more per pupil, and offers far fewer programs. Economies of scale cannot be achieved unless towns are willing to regionalize their school systems, which seems extremely unlikely to occur.

Which is all to say, educational policy and funding is extremely complex. A yes/no ballot question on charter caps is a very coarse instrument for making policy improvements. And based on my education, experience, and research, I cannot offer a concrete conclusion on whether passing Question 2 will improve things in aggregate, or not. From what I have read, the impacts of Question 2 in the first few years will be primarily in Massachusetts’ larger cities, while the majority of the opposition comes from its smaller suburbs. I don’t want to see public school districts anywhere suffer from decreased enrollment to competing charters if it negatively impacts educational outcomes. But I’m also not sure there is a better policy prescription than charters for continuing to experiment with new programs and approaches for education.

On balance, I think the benefits of more charters at least slightly outweighs the potential downsides.

White Trash Triptych

As a student of American civilization, I continue to work to understand what drives supporters of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. The many media narratives to choose from are universally simplistic and self-reinforcing. The more I read, the more muddled my thoughts become.

The people I know who support Trump do not fit the narratives being peddled, and the people I know who should fit those narratives are not Trump supporters. One thing I know for sure is that the simplistic characterization of Trump followers as rural working-class white “trash” is an easy crutch for urban elites, but a false one.

I have been thinking about this and reading about it for months, for years, if you go back to the rise of the Tea Party movement, but even still I cannot form my thoughts into prose. I will delete the many paragraphs I have spent so long writing and instead simply link to a few of the stories I have found most compelling and enlightening. They don’t all agree with each other, but they are all good food for thought.

As I write this the odds are somewhere in the 90% range that Hillary Clinton will be the next president. But even if she wins, and even if the Democrats take back control of one or both houses of Congress, the Trump supporters are not going to disappear, and the problems of rural whites are not going to magically get better.

Two perspectives of the urban vs rural divide and the plight of the white working class, the first more irreverent than the second:

A long read that discusses the social science around white nationalism and traces its roots and effects around the world, going back to World War II:

And finally, two articles discussing recent books on the subject, Strangers In Their Own Land, about the Tea Party movement, and Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of growing up in an Ohio steel town:

Traversing long distances, slowly

A few months after college graduation in 2005 I started contemplating running my first half marathon, but by 2007, I was content to simply complete a 5K. I finished the Couch to 5K program (sort of) but did not actually run a race.

In the intervening time I’ve occasionally fallen into and out of running, completing a few 5Ks and a few runnings of the Manchester Road Race, but never anything more ambitious.

Winter 2014-2015 was intense, with massive snowfalls, frequently impassable roads, and a lot of dreary days stuck indoors. By the time things warmed up in early March, I was stir crazy and ready to hit the road again. I pulled out my running shoes and took a few short runs, which felt really good. A few factors in particular were helping me to push harder and further than I had before:

  • The timing was right, with the days beginning to get longer and lighter
  • My new job had a shorter commute, meaning I could run in the mornings and still get into work on time
  • The weather was cool and mild
  • Our new pup was grown up and bursting with energy

Salty and I hit our stride in April, with 12 runs totaling 38 miles.  By the end of that month I was resolved: this would be the year — ten years after I first contemplated it — that I would run a half marathon. I signed up for an October race, and kept on running.

In May I took fewer runs but upped my distance, with the dog accompanying me on many of my outings.  I kept it up as the weather got warmer in June, starting a 12 week training program in July and peaking at 76 miles in August.  I bought some new running clothes and picked up a goofy “hydration belt”.  I got some expensive “minimalist” running shoes. I started trying out the gelatinous food pellets that runners gobble on long runs (yuck!).  I explored every nook and cranny of Hull, finding ways to fit 8, 9, and 10 mile runs into a narrow 2.8 square mile peninsula.

Along the way a few people offered invaluable support, tips, and encouragement, which helped me keep going.

I made a playlist.  I ran the race.  I beat my 11 minute/mile goal.  I got a medal.  I did it!

But I didn’t write a blog post.  Because I was worried that the story would end there.  Winter came around again, and as expected I barely ran at all in January and February.  In March I picked it back up, but it did not feel as good.  I couldn’t go very far, or very fast, and things hurt — my feet, my legs, my back.  It was hard to make the effort.

Luckily, I had anticipated this, and had wisely (or foolishly) signed up in December for another half marathon in June. Not only that, I had convinced friends and family to sign up as well.  So I was committed. And I kept running, even if I wasn’t feeling it.

The race is tomorrow, and I don’t think I will achieve a new personal record. But I expect I’ll finish.  And looking back through my run stats, I feel a lot better about my progress.  Compared to this time last year, I have run substantially more miles.  It’s June, not October, so I don’t have as many months of build-up, but I’ve done 11 and 12 mile distances successfully.  And the weather this year was much less enjoyable to run in, freezing cold and raining through much of March.  Even still, I made it through my 12 week training, and I’m feeling less achy, and I’m confident I can keep it up.

The story isn’t over after all.  I guess I had better sign up for my next half marathon– and start striving for a new personal record!

I think a great way to be a good person is to get in the habit of consciously thinking about the fact that almost every stranger, co-worker, friend, acquaintance, fling, customer service representative, driver, waiter, customer, client, neighbor, and person on the internet you come across:

  • Has a family who loves them and vice versa
  • Has hopes and dreams and regrets and frustrations
  • Has as many thoughts going through their head at all times as you do
  • Is dealing with random health problems, trying to make ends meet financially, and is probably tired
  • Might be supporting one or more other human beings
  • Might be just a little sad all the time about a tragedy in their past
  • Might be the most important person in someone else’s life
  • Is just trying to figure out how to be happy

i.e. They’re a full human just like you.

Remembering that will make you kinder and more empathetic.

— Tim Urban, Mailbag #1 on Wait But Why

Downtown cityscape from Hong Kong Park's tower

Alone, wandering Hong Kong

Upon exiting immigration control at Hong Kong airport I was briefly seized with the panicked realization that I was alone in a foreign country with no real plan. Oddly enough, Hong Kong’s subway system, the MTR, quickly put my mind at ease. The order, cleanliness, and copious English signage helped me to realize that I can do this. And I immediately started noticing the little Hong Kong-isms that would so delight me throughout my stay.

Hong Kong Airport

Hong Kong Airport

For example, everywhere you go there are a lot of people employed as human directional signals, ushering people one way or another, or blocking their path. It was amazing to me how many people seemed to hold this seemingly trivial job. And how about how they call moving walkways “travelators”? Or how everyone runs to form a long line anywhere a soft-serve truck appears?

In many respects Hong Kong seemed as dirty and smelly as any major city, but there were signs everywhere of a focus on sanitation, disease prevention, and public health.

The SARS epidemic and bird flu left their mark on this region. One of the most interesting and saddest things I stumbled upon was a memorial in a Zen garden honoring doctors and health workers who died combatting SARS in its early days.

The memorial was in Hong Kong park, which also sported a lovely (if slightly ironic) aviary.  It was hard to get birds to pose for me.

The weather was warm and the humidity intense, but all the locals were wearing pants and jackets. I wandered the Kowloon waterfront, but there was not much to see — a lot of it is closed for renovations. I had arrived just after the big Chinese New Year celebrations, so I missed the fireworks display but did get to see a lot of the decorations and art celebrating the Year of the Monkey.

Year of the Monkey decorations

Year of the Monkey decorations

Most of my time in Hong Kong, the city was blanketed in fog. I visited Victoria Peak, high above the city, on a cold and overcast day, to find that there was nothing to see but a shopping mall. So I took an impromptu hike that ended up being a long, haunting, tiring adventure — I made a video that attempts to capture the strangeness and surprising beauty of the whole ordeal.

 

A lot of Hong Kong felt just like New York City. Everyone had their nose in their phones, and the crush of people and buildings was intense. I wandered out to the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden in Kowloon, which offered a nice change.

Nestled serenely between high-rises and highways, the sprawling gardens and temple complex are both quite new — built in just the last two decades — but are designed in the classical Tang Dynasty Chinese style. Some of the buildings were built using classic techniques (no nails!) and other highlights included a pagoda, a restaurant under a waterfall, and a “rockery” where the finest rocks from their collection are shown off.

I’ve never been to a rockery before. The descriptions of the rocks were quite something, on par with descriptions of fine wines or works of art, discussing the delicate grain and subtle textures of each stone. I tried to appreciate the beauty of each rock, but to me they mostly looked the same.

“Colourful, lustrous yet simple, Dahua rock has very visible and tasteful grains.  Stone connoisseurs believe that the discovery of Dahua rock has made a lasting impact to the traditional standards of rock appreciation.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum was the Wong Tai Sin Temple. This historic temple was completely overrun with Chinese tourists waving incense sticks in every direction. The smoke in the air was overpowering, the crush of people overwhelming, and the danger of being burned very real. Still, it was quite a thing to behold.

I found the food scene surprisingly cosmopolitan, and had a lot of trouble finding the East-meets-West dishes I was seeking. There were plenty of places to get a hamburger, a burrito, or most any other cuisine, though. On my last day in Hong Kong I took a food tour and got to sample some of the more local dishes and establishments. If I had had more time, I would have tried to get even further off the beaten path.

One dish I was delighted to rediscover was crispy french fries doused in salty curry powder in the British style. It was paired, oddly enough, with Pho in a trendy fast-casual restaurant hidden behind a clothing stall in a narrow alley.  Why oh why haven’t curry fries made it to America?

Pho and curry fries with three dipping sauces from a small establishment hidden behind a clothing stall in a narrow alley

Pho and curry fries with three dipping sauces from a small establishment hidden behind a clothing stall in a narrow alley

A few other tidbits:

  • Most interesting-looking historic buildings and complexes that I would detour to check out ended up being shopping malls. Or banks.
  • A surprisingly high proportion of the models in advertisement photos were white.
  • It’s interesting being taller than almost everyone.
  • In certain districts, I was constantly mobbed by guys trying to sell me suits and dress shirts. Sometimes they would follow me down the block. By the end I started getting good at avoiding those areas.
  • Having an Octopus card (a stored-value card issued by the MTR) makes a lot of things much easier. It can be used for various attractions as well as the Star Ferry and to pay at many shops. But for a lot of the stalls and smaller shops, cash is the only option.
  • Everyone, everywhere has their noses in their phones.  In that respect, its much like home.  Different is how adeptly they switch between Cantonese and English keyboards when composing their mixed-language text messages.
An urban columbarium, where ashes of deceased are stored -- the neighbors hate it

An urban columbarium, where ashes of deceased are stored — the neighbors hate it

Running the numbers on backup generators

Whenever we have a power outage (which is not an infrequent occurrence in Hull) I ponder the utility of a backup generator.  Since I’m currently sitting in the dark, I decided to run some numbers.

For simplicity, I’ll assume a reasonably-sized whole-house generator kit with a transfer switch that uses natural gas or LP. A decent price on one of these units is about $5,500, and I’ll assume another $1,500 for installation (both electrical and plumbing).  Yearly maintenance contracts, which include an annual inspection and repairs, run around $300/year.  The useful life of the generator is estimated by various sources at around 20 years.

Adding this up, we get a total lifetime cost of $13,000 for the unit, not counting fuel costs (which are a very small component if you’re using natural gas since there is nothing to store).  That comes out to a yearly amortized cost of approximately $650.  On average we have two power lengthy power outages a year.  So essentially, excluding fuel and unanticipated maintenance costs, the price is around $325 per outage.

That’s pretty significant.  Although it no doubt feels worth it on the day when it’s 5 degrees F and the boiler is shut off due to lack of electricity…

Update (29 Feb 2016): Discussion about this post on Facebook revealed a few friends and acquaintances who were able to get a functional generator setup for far less than the estimates here.  This is not surprising, because I was describing a “set it and forget it” approach.  For completeness (and cost practicality), I should mention how they achieved this.  Their setups typically included a smaller, manual start gasoline generator hooked up to a manual transfer switch that protected only a few key circuits.  With no service contract and the willingness to go out in the storm to setup, start, and refuel the generator when needed, backup electrical capacity could be achieved for closer to $2000-3000.

A brief, hopefully useful rant on the inherent evil that is Sears

sears-logo-2There are too many rants about too many companies — everywhere you look online, really. So I won’t belabor the details. In mid-2014 we purchased a new dishwasher from Sears along with an extended warranty. In November 2015, it stopped working in an odd way. Thus began a saga of service appointments — trying to schedule them, staying home for them, the technician not having the right part, the technician taking the part and saying we need a different one, the technician not believing the problem was real.

After three rounds of this, we got stuck on a part that was backordered for over a month. I went and found the part on eBay and installed it myself — sadly, the problem still was not fixed. All the while I was courteous and friendly while navigating a bureaucracy to rival the movie Brazil.

After the final go-around of four or five transfers between individuals, supervisors, and departments, I was ready to declare defeat. That’s when Meghan got on the phone and let loose with laser-eyed rage. Surprisingly (or perhaps not?) this resulted in us getting a dishwasher replacement.

But not until January.

Today the dishwasher finally arrived. The installers took it off the truck, then attempted to extort $160 in additional installation fees. We are about to have our kitchen gutted and rebuilt — the last thing we need is temporary plumbing work. When I refused, they put the machine back on the truck. While installation was included in the replacement, if I wanted delivery instead, it would be an additional $70. Keep in mind they were already at my house, had already taken the dishwasher off the truck, and all I wanted them to do was leave it at the curb and drive away.

After an hour of phone tree hell with Sears I had no solution and they packed up to go. Just as they were driving away I got in contact with a helpful sales rep from the store itself, so I chased them down the street, banged on the truck, and handed the driver the phone. Two minutes later, I have my dishwasher. As well as the old one, which they won’t haul away.

Over the course of this two month ordeal I have spoken to over a dozen customer service representatives and supervisors, multiple service technicians, national technical support, local dispatch, and now two intransigent installers. The only people in the entire ordeal who have been helpful were the salesperson at the store who helped me get the replacement, and the salesperson who helped me get it delivered.

We were without a dishwasher for over two months despite having paid several hundred dollars for service coverage. We only received a replacement when my wife got on the phone and spewed vitriol for half an hour. In the end we are stuck with one broken dishwasher and one that still needs to be hooked up. Sears and their various departments, subcontractors, and divisions are, in short, customer-hostile.

This perhaps explains in part why Sears is being driven into a brick wall, and certainly has taught me a valuable lesson — never, ever buy an appliance from Sears.

Also…anyone want a broken dishwasher?

New tools and productivity enhancements for 2016

Around this time every year I re-evaluate my various tools and workflows and try to devote some time to productivity improvements. Last year, among other things, I spent a lot of time thinking about money management and banking. This year I’m mostly focused on knowledge management — document storage, note taking, task management, and the like.

Document storage

For years I have scanned paper contracts, records, and receipts using a NeatReceipts scanner and the Neat filing software. The app is sub-par but after extensive searching I still haven’t found anything better. I briefly flirted with Evernote, but I am just not comfortable storing more of my sensitive medical and financial records unencrypted in another cloud provider.

The scanner (from 2007) is no longer supported and stopped working with the latest OS X release, so I replaced it with the well-reviewed Doxie. Now instead of scanning and processing right in Neat, I scan, then import into Doxie, then export to Neat, then process in Neat — everything takes four times as long. As much as it pains me, I’m going to return the Doxie and pay Neat for a new scanner that looks just like my old one. I still think that keeping documents offline (and backed up) is worth the trade-off of not having access from my other devices, at least for now.

Note taking

I’ve been using Evernote for this, but inconsistently. I hate how bloated the app is, and it’s constant nagging to try new features and collaboration tools that I don’t need. In desperation I paid Evernote for their premium plan, but it didn’t make the problems go away. Instead I am switching to Ulysses, a Markdown note taking and writing app that is cleaner and simpler than Evernote but has all the features I want. Unfortunately the process for getting notes out of Evernote is not straightforward.

  

Bookmarks and reading

Instapaper is still my favorite app for offline reading. I send any interesting articles I see into Instapaper, where they are saved for later reading on all of my devices. I can also search the full text of articles I have saved in Instapaper, which is great for trying to find an article or fact months or years later.

This year I am adding Pinboard to the mix as well. I’m trying to bookmark and tag any interesting site or reference that I run across in Pinboard instead of relying on Google or my browser history to find it later. I’m also finally using IFTTT for the first time, to automate saving links to Instapapered articles as bookmarks in Pinboard. My goal is to have only one (or at least fewer) place to look when I want to find something, be it a code snippet, tutorial, recipe, or whatever else.

  

Task management

The biggest and so far best change has been abandoning Things, my task management app of several years, for 2Do. I’m finding 2Do more flexible, more pleasing to use, and just all around better than Things. The Things update cycle was very slow and new feature development almost non-existent. 2Do keeps getting better, and it really fits my workflow well. Task management is different for everyone — I use a methodology that is vaguely GTD but really just the system that works for me. 2Do is flexible and customizable but opinionated where it needs to be. It gives me all the features I need while maintaining an elegant and uncluttered user experience.

  

Parting thoughts

When it comes to productivity software — as in all things — I aim to be pragmatic. The tools and workflows I use all have trade-offs. I don’t like being tied too closely to any one cloud service or provider, and I like to maintain access to and backups of my own information. I choose to forego online access to more sensitive documents in favor of additional security and control, but I use Google, iCloud, and Dropbox for various aspects of my life due to their convenience and power. The choices and trade-offs are different for everyone. This is the system I am comfortable with for now, but it is likely to change dramatically as time goes on. 

“To my mind, climate is our great story. No other narrative envelopes all of humanity in quite the same way, forcing answers about the ethics of food, of oil, of technology, of economic security, of democratic republics and command capitalism, of colonialism and indigenous peoples, of who in the world is rich and who in the world is poor.”

— Robinson Meyer, "Is Hope Possible After the Paris Agreement?", The Atlantic

Experiments in Wardrobe

I acquire more “stuff” every year, especially now that I live in a house with a basement, attic, and garage. From time to time I go on a downsizing kick, lured by the appeal of minimalist living, tiny houses, and the search for quality goods. But it always feels like a losing battle against the forces of entropy and clutter.

About a year ago I identified wardrobe as an area ripe for attention and have achieved pleasing results. Step one was to move most of the clothes I rarely wear into boxes and store them in the basement. Step two was to revisit them six months later and either put items back into my rotation or donate them. Pretty much everything got donated. I’ve now gone through this exercise twice, and I have significantly fewer articles of clothing, all stuff I rarely or never wore anyway, including some expensive gifts that I had held on to for years.

Stack of T-ShirtsA few weeks ago I decided to go even farther. I have dozens of “vanity” t-shirts, most of which are showing their age. I pulled out the few that I wear most frequently and discovered that they are all the same model. It turns out you can buy this t-shirt brand online in a wide variety of colors (for screen printing) at incredibly low prices.  So I bought a dozen new t-shirts in several different colors colors, and have been wearing them exclusively for the past two weeks.

I’m really enjoying the change.  I don’t have to spend any time thinking about what to wear in the morning. The shirts are sufficiently decent that they don’t look out-of-place in my workplace or around town.  But I can also wear them for yard work or cooking and not worry, because if I ruin one I can always buy six more for the same price as I used to pay for one of my old tees.

I have also standardized on one type of khakis (I now own four pairs) and gotten rid of almost all my other pants.  And I’m slowly working up the nerve to dump any jacket, pullover, or sweater that I don’t wear at least a few times a month.

Of course I will still keep some formal attire for the (very) rare occasions when I need to actually dress nicely, and I have various seasonal garments like swim trunks, hiking pants, and ski clothes that can’t get quite the same treatment.  But I continue to be on the looking for opportunities to standardize and downsize wardrobe.  It’s probably not the right choice for most people, but I find that I get no joy out of fashion whereas having a “uniform” is quite freeing.  And — so far at least — my wife hasn’t complained. 😛

Danny and Meghan at the Breakers in Newport

Me in my “uniform” of LL Bean Pathfinder Canvas Cargo Pants, Gildan Ultra Cotton G200 polycotton t-shirt, and Adidas Premium Essentials Hoodie with Meghan on a recent trip to The Breakers in Newport, RI.

“I’ve been thinking about my parents, who are in their mid-60s. During my first 18 years, I spent some time with my parents during at least 90% of my days. But since heading off to college and then later moving out of Boston, I’ve probably seen them an average of only five times a year each, for an average of maybe two days each time. 10 days a year. About 3% of the days I spent with them each year of my childhood.

Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.”

— Tim Urban, "The Tail End" on Wait But Why

Our dishwasher has been out of commission for a month now and Sears has visited four times. They won’t have the part that we (presumably) need to fix it for at least another month. Meghan called last night and gave ’em hell, and now we’re getting a new dishwasher gratis. Which is great and all, but I’m feeling pretty bad/conflicted about this otherwise perfectly good machine getting junked just because the service department can’t get their act together.

“Indeed, the Pew report suggests that polarization along religious lines may be increasing in the United States. While the percentage of Americans who say they don’t affiliate with any religious tradition is growing, those people who still identify with a religion are becoming even more devout.”

Tom Gjelten, "Poll Finds Americans, Especially Millennials, Moving Away From Religion", NPR. Disappointing but not surprising that at the same time more people are moving towards logic and enlightenment, those who remain devout are doubling down on ignorance.

None of my stories of misbehaving dogs at 2am impress colleagues. They just smile, shake their heads, and say wait until you have kids.

“A future without human drivers is a long, long way off. But we’ll get there. No matter what you think. No matter what you hope. No matter how you feel about it. Because the efficient, unemotional, necessary logic of cars that operate without human error and instability is unquestionable.”

Mat Honan, "Google’s Cute Cars And The Ugly End Of Driving", BuzzFeed. I agree -- automated cars are inevitable, and they will be more disruptive than anyone can image.