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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Life in a startup

If there is one good word to describe the mental status of any startup CEO it has to be "bipolar." One day your team makes exciting advances, develops an awesome new feature, or solves a challenging problem that was halting development. Then, the next you may suffer big setbacks, miss deadlines, or read a tech blog only to learn someone has brought to market a concept your team was already exploring. 

A garage startup CEO jerks from excited to worried week after week. I feel bipolar, but my mentor tells me that is normal.  Maybe every CEO feels like that... maybe it even helps keep you on your toes.

Caring cannot be imposed

 YOU WILL CARE!!!!  or pay a fine...

Dahlia Lithwick over at Slate has a bizarre concept of freedom, morality, caring and responsibility

She first writes,

But after the aggressive battery of questions from the court’s conservatives this morning, it’s clear that we can only be truly free when the young are released from the obligation to subsidize the old and the ailing

We can debate the meaning of "obligation" (whether we have an obligation to be forced to pay for someone else's welfare, especially having the younger poorer group of citizens pay for the welfare of those who are, on average, much wealthier) another time. 

This point she makes is NOT what the ObamaCare Supreme Court Case is about. Progressives could have made this all about this "obligation" if they pushed for Universal Healthcare. They didn't. That blows up her main point. Progressives pushed to force people to buy health insurance or face penalties. Thus we are arguing about whether we can force people to buy health insurance against their will or face penalties (some cases leaving people worse off than before... ie no health insurance and now $1,000 less in their bank account).

Next she states,

Freedom also seems to mean freedom from the obligation to treat those who show up at hospitals without health insurance, even if it means letting them bleed out on the curb.

This doesn't make any sense. Hospitals are required by law to treat  patients regardless of their ability to pay. Thus supporting ObamaCare (forcing people to buy health insurance so you don't have to pay a few extra pennies to subsidize the emergency care of the poor) means you don't care about the poor (or at least haven't logically thought through your own position).

She goes on a wild illogical rant about telephones, gym memberships and broccoli next. PS, the price of telephones and service dropped considerably once the government stopped mandating rates and deregulated the industry...but that is another story.

Finally she states,
But we seem to want to be free from that obligation as well. This morning in America’s highest court, freedom seems to be less about the absence of constraint than about the absence of shared responsibility, community, or real concern for those who don’t want anything so much as healthy children, or to be cared for when they are old.

And there we have it. To Lithwick, freedom is about compulsory compassion. To her people are only responsible and caring when government compels them, by force, to pay for the health care or welfare of others (ObamCare mandate doesn't do this by the way, remember it requires people to buy something they may not want). 

 Your lack of faith in government force disturbs me!

Lithwick is completely illogical; sadly she is not alone as many Americans think like this (including conservative culture warriors - remember, someone is not moral or virtuous because you use the force of government to ban something they like or require a specific approved behavior). You cannot be forced to care and you cannot be forced into being socially responsible. Voting for politicians, signing petitions or protesting does NOT mean you care about others. 

Caring, compassion and responsibility are defined by personal action and sacrifice. Sacrificing your own time and money. If Lithwick TRULY cared she would be volunteering her time and money to help those in need.  I don't know if she's done either; it isn't any of my business. I'm only concerned about her totalitarian understanding of freedom and caring.

What will Kennedy do?

According to all sorts of different pundits the fate of Obamacare hangs by the opinion of Justice Kennedy. Kennedy, though conservative, is considered a swing vote because of his strong convictions toward judicial modesty....which unfortunately tends towards deference to Congressional power.

If ObamaCare is upheld because of Kennedy's preference toward "judicial modesty" Conservatives can blame the logic they used to fight the culture war. By defending "family values" (whatever that means) and "morals" (which, ironically, cannot be imposed by force) conservatives followed old school progressive thought that the Court should not overturn popularly created congressional laws.

That is wrongheaded. The court should vigorously overturn any Congressional law that violates the constitution... I just wish there wasn't so much bad precedent like Wickard v. Filburn for our government to justify more and more intrusive laws.

I'm also interested in what the progressive justices are asking in the court. Everyone assumes they will march lockstep in support of Obamacare but is this because they have carefully weighed the constitutional merits of the case? This is a big concern because it seems modern American progressives guffaw at constitutional questions - they don't take it seriously. Flaunting the foundational law of the U.S. is dangerous because the very principal was to limit the power of the government to protect the liberty of the people (government has a long, very long, history of oppression). I'm particularly concerned because it seems progressives have abandoned constitutionalism in favor of "the end justifies the means" approach.

Wanting to help the poor is great. Wanting to help the poor by blatantly violating/ignoring the constitutional law protecting the rights of others is morally wrong.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Will Zappos ruin their culture with "Smart Growth" in downtown Vegas?

*Zappos built a brand around being fun, down to earth, and customer service oriented. 
But have they bought into urban planning concepts that are the direct opposite
 - elitist, manipulative and self-serving?

Zappos is leading the charge with redeveloping downtown Las Vegas. That is a good thing. But  have they have been lead astray by some wishful thinking and some flawed urban planning ideas...ideas so bad, that they may threaten to tarnish the Zappos culture?

Take a look at the Downtown Project's webpage on urban development. There are three things that worry me from this site alone: the reference to A) Triumph of the Urban City B) Richard Florida and their goal of 100 residents per acre.

First, Triumph of the Urban City, by Edward Glaeser, isn't bad. The book does not promote "Smart Growth" (note: calling something "smart" doesn't make it so) and the author tends to not support Smart Growth's more oppressive forms of property regulation/restrictions and subsidies. However, he does agree that getting people out of cars and into public transport is good and the way to do this is by dramatically increasing population density.* This puts him in the same camp as the "Smart Growth" crowd in the urban planning debate.

Randal O'Toole, who thinks Glaeser is an excellent economist, does a great job explaining how Glaeser sees high density living through rose colored glasses. O'Toole uncovers several errors made by Glaeser including a very important point --- urban density is not correlated with public transit use:

Glaeser misses a key insight: it is job density, not population density, that leads to high transit usage. San Jose’s jobs are distributed throughout the urban area, while transit regions like New York have high concentrations of jobs at their core. Yet Glaeser seems to think that increasing population densities alone will reduce auto driving.
In other words, packing people into dense cores doesn't make them ride public transit. If people live in the core and work in the burbs they will drive. Cars have freedom to go anywhere, public transit, especially the overpriced and underutilized rail systems, cannot. According to O'Toole, Glaeser has the theory backwards.

The Zappos move downtown will go a long way in creating a strong urban job core, but downtown will need more opportunities like this, not more residents (or hipster pubs). Remember, jobs, not residents, should be the focus. Pushing the city council to be more open to other non-gaming business opportunities will go along way in achieving this better goal.

*The two red circles represent a 10 mile radius from the southern
 and northernmost portions of The Strip.

Glaeser's theory simply won't work in Las Vegas because the core is a 3 mile long strip, from which 95% of the city lives within 10 miles of this strip. People are already very close to a long thin strip we call...the, um The Strip... which IS the core of Vegas.

Next, Zappos is convinced Richard Florida's theory on attracting high skilled people to the core is the way to develop a strong urban center. Florida wants the wealthiest people, with the highest skills.

Randal O'Toole and Joel Koetkin, however, consider this theory to be somewhat elitist and misguided. It is not the elite that create the opportunity for a vibrant urban core, but a strong core of "middle skill" individuals - many of whom have about 2 years of higher education (and many moderately skilled in technical fields). They call this "Opportunity Urbanism" and find Houston, rather than Manhattan, to be a model city.

Personally, I favor not using government to influence the recruitment of elite or middle skilled people. The government's job is not to favor one class over another. So if Tony Hsieh wants to recruit high skilled people, that is his own money and he should be free to spend it as he pleases. However, if O'Toole and Koetkin are correct, Tony won't achieve the critical mass of "creative people" needed to achieve his goal of a revitalized downtown.

*Relatively few people want to live in Manhattan and fewer
 can actually afford to live there. But this is the goal for the Downtown Project.

Third, the Downtown Project aims for a population density of 100 people per acre. A square mile has 640 acres so that comes to 64,000 people per square mile. That is a population density on par with Manhattan and more than twice the density of New York City (Manhattan is the densest part of NYC). This really depends on how big their "urban core" will be (if your urban core is one mid-rise condo it is achievable, but all of downtown Vegas?), but this goal is most likely unrealistic.

Finally, and what worries me most, are the policies embraced by modern urban planners to achieve their ends. These are people who will (or have already) claw for Tony Hsieh's attention and money in order to put their ideas into practice. But watch out Zappos!

Rather than designing the built environment to meet the needs of the residents, modern urban planners attempt to manipulate the people for the built environment.  This is the antithesis of the Zappos customer service centered philosophy.

Modern urban planners, especially Smart Growthers, would be the equivalent of Zappos employees  forcing every customer to buy a pair of crocodile cowboy boots...


Liking the theories of Glaeser or Florida doesn't make the Zappos Downtown Project "Smart Growth" oriented but the Smart Growthers already have their little wheels turning and may already have the hearts and minds of the Zappos Downtown Project.

Patrick Coolican interviewed several urban planners in a recent edition of the Las Vegas Weekly. In what appears to be a consensus among the planners he writes,

To make walking more popular, we need narrower streets and wider sidewalks for comfort and safety. We need more benches for resting, plus interesting stuff to look at.
Sounds great, but read it again. Think about it for a second.

They think we need narrower streets? This has nothing to do with helping residents or promoting walking and everything to do with making driving inconvenient. Remember, modern urban planning is about manipulating people, not meeting their needs. Narrowing streets means reducing lanes in order to increase traffic.

Other totalitarian-ish strategies include eliminating right and left turning lanes with concrete bump stops. In other words, people who want to make a turn hold up traffic for everyone wanting to go straight. These planners try to create more traffic in order to aggravate and inconvenience drivers out of their cars and into public transit. It doesn't work - people like their cars and the unintended consequence is only more traffic congestion and pollution.

*Curb extensions - reduce lanes and prevent people from making turns 
without stopping all traffic behind them.

*Boulevarding - reduces 4 lanes down to 2, with a part-time middle lane for turns only.

*There is no reason for this...unless you want to increase congestion

*Now the planners are just insulting you...

By the way, these planners have the most Orwellian name for this policy. It is called "Traffic Calming." Yes, increasing traffic congestion is supposed to calm drivers. Give me a break.

This post could go on forever ripping into the the land use policies (restricting property owners from developing their properties how they want) favored by the Smart Growth urban planners. Some policies are so bad they prevent landowners from improving their own home property unless the improvement is a high density apartment in the backyard. I won't go into more detail now; there are other good articles on "Smart Growth" you can read for that: here, here, and here to start.

Don't get me wrong, I love Zappos and the Zappos culture. I also love other things about the Downtown Project like "/usr/lib/" (a co-working library downtown - I am a paying member). I even had a big shopping spree at Zappos for Christmas.  I just think Zappos has bought into some misguided ideas and I hope they change their mind.

*Updated Note: There is nothing wrong with wanting people to ride bikes, walk, or ride public transit. The problem stems from the manipulation of human behavior to achieve those ends, i.e. forcing or otherwise inconveniencing people from taking their preferred method of transportation (auto) in order for them to take YOUR preferred method of transportation. Good urban planning should be organic - that is, serving the needs of the people, not the planners.

(PS, Vegas needs a bypass and more highway capacity, not urban light rail or moderate-speed rail to Victorville, CA).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Disrupting education means replacing teachers

Yes, it does. The fact is, we have too many teachers and too many employees working in education. Teacher training and certification have no correlation with student achievement (at best) and (at worst) can be used to keep effective professionals out of the classroom.

Only in a backward and ineffective economic sector would you see more resources being used (money and labor) to produce the same results. Education is one of those ineffective (and expensive) sectors of the economy.

Disruptive technology will not only help identify good teachers and make great teachers even better, disruptive education technology will also replace bad teachers with robots and web applications.

And yes, the teacher unions are fighting any technology that can be used to replace human employees (ie replace expensive, ineffective and bad employees).

Monday, March 5, 2012

Education reform updates

A girl in Rochester New York is pushed out of two public schools for writing an essay that blamed bad teaching on white teachers wanting to keep black students on the plantation. To be fair, its not being white that results in bad education for minority students, it is the edublob that doesn't want competition or innovation and spends every waking moment trying to make it impossible to fire bad teachers and hire good ones.

Yet another empirical study shows school choice works and improves student achievement. My count maybe off but it is something like 11 out of 12 random assignment studies on school choice show students benefit (higher test scores / higher graduation rates / lower incarceration rates / increased likelihood of attending college).  The science is clear...very clear... yet politics, led by the teacher union, and followed by the Democrat party, continues to stand in the way of meaningful reform (note: a vocal and growing minority within the Democrat party now advocates for school choice!)

My friend and mentor, Dr. Mathew Ladner, published his Report Card on American Education. Read it and be a little worried.

The Friedman Foundation published their 2012 ABC's of School Choice book, showing that 2011 was an amazing year for the growth in school choice programs. Yours truly provided some of the background researcher for the report.