More Great Tits

The bird (again!).  Damn you and your filthy mind.  Well, since my first post on Great Tits remains easily the most popular (via google) I’ve ever done, seemed only right to re-visit the subject (and it’s been almost exactly a year).  Anyway, once again Quirks and Quarks is reporting on some of the more interesting behavior of these European birds.  Apparently, they are all about being good neighbors:

The tiny songbirds known as great tits are common throughout Europe, Asia and parts of North Africa.  It had been observed previously that in this species long-term familiarity with neighbours was a benefit to breeding.  Tits were less likely to abandon a nest if they knew their neighbours from a previous breeding season.  But the reason for this was unclear until recently.  New research byAda Grabowska-Zhang from the Department of Zoology at Oxford University has found that when the tits are familiar with their neighbours, they will join forces to defend their nests.  This includes making alarm calls, flying aggressively and mobbing a predator together.  But the birds need to know their neighbours.   When the neighbours are first time breeders and therefore unfamiliar, they are unlikely to join forces.



5 ways to spot a B.S. political story

Wow, this little essay from Cracked (of all places) is fabulous.  Should be required reading for political journalists.  Really does get at what’s wrong with so much contemporary political reporting.   The #1 way is basically what we political scientists refer to as the personalization bias, or as David Wong put it:

#1. The Headline Includes the Phrase “Blow To”

Basically, It’s …

Neglecting to explain hugely important policy changes in favor of focusing on the drama, and how it affects the personal political careers of the politicians involved.

OK, you know about the huge fight over health care reform in America, right? Whether you think it’s a good or a bad plan, you can’t deny that it’s freaking huge (to the tune of a trillion dollars over 10 years, and 31 million people getting health insurance). It will impact almost every single human being living in the United States, either through their personal ability to get coverage, or their taxes, or changing health care costs, or changing rules to their existing coverage — there are dozens and dozens of new regulations that completely change the landscape of one of the largest sectors of the national economy.

So, when the Supreme Court recently threatened to completely overturn this gargantuan piece of legislation, how did it get reported?

Washington Post

The ruling could deal a blow to the “Obama presidency”? F*** you.

I don’t give two shits about the “Obama presidency” except in terms of what legislation it gets passed and how it changes the country and my life. I’m not following this story because I think it’s a freaking Barack Obama reality show and I’m really eager to see how his life turns out. I don’t see no goddamned crab boat. I’m following it because I want to know what it means for my own goddamned life and for the lives of the people I care about.

Exactly.  The sad truth is that much political press is way more concerned with personality and petty rivalry than the actual nuts and bolts of government and politics that affects peoples lives.  Truth is, it’s easy to write a story about Democrats and Republicans saying nasty things about each other regarding health care policy.  It’s much harder to actually understand the individual mandate (though not that much harder that reporters shouldn’t make the effort!).  Anyway, the whole thing is quite good.  Read it.

Photo of the day

Via Buzzfeed, a cool set of photos that you’d swear were created with photoshop, but are not:

Railroad track damage from the Canterbury Earthquake in 2010.

The yardlines

I’ve always really enjoyed the politics on a football field metaphor for partisan polarization.  I certainly did appreciate that Mann and Ornstein used it in their recent essay I raved about.  As Matt Steinglass points out, though, they actually blew it in their analogy (at least on the Democratic side):

Messrs Ornstein and Mann write: “While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.” It’s not entirely clear what time period the authors are talking about, but their observation doesn’t work for any time period I can think of. The Democrats, as far as I can see, have moved from their 40-yard-line to midfield, or their opponents’ 45. As recently as the Clinton presidency, Democrats actively pushed for gun control, defence budgets under 3% of GDP, banning oil exploration off America’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts, a public option or single-payer solution to universal health insurance, and…well, Clinton-era progressive income-tax rates. Today these positions have all been abandoned. And we’re talking about positions held under Bill Clinton, a “third way” leader who himself moved Democratic ideology dramatically to the right, the guy responsible for “ending welfare as we know it”. Since then, Democrats have moved much further yet to the right, in the fruitless search for a compromise with a Republican Party that sees compromise itself as fundamentally evil. The obvious example is that the Democrats in 2010 literally passed the universal health-insurance reform that had been proposed by the GOP opposition in the Clinton administration, only to find today’s GOP vilifying it as a form of Leninist socialist totalitarianism.

I actually did notice that error while reading it– no way did Democrats move from their 40 to their 25 (think back to the chart), but with Steinglass giving us this litany, it really is pretty clear the Mann and Ornstein were at least a little bit guilty of violating their own admonition against creating false equivalencies.

The tyranny of separate budgets

The NC State Alumni Office asked me to be a guest speaker at a reception for DC area alumni hosted by the Chancellor on an upcoming Thursday evening.  Apparently they were willing to fly me to DC (totally unnecessary in my book), put me up for the night in a nice DC hotel, but they could not give me a dime in honorarium.  Number 1, my time is actually worth something.  More importantly, there was no way I was going to leave Kim to deal with the kids on a weekday without at least hiring a babysitter to take Alex to speech therapy and help out with some of the other routine demands of a Thursday afternoon/evening.    In other words, money out of my pocket.  So, here’s the thing.  I was going to drive to DC and stay with my dad.  Mileage reimbursement, you’re looking at about $160.  Throw in $100 for an honorarium and lets make it a grand total of $260.  Cost for a flight and hotel room?  Easily over $500.  But they “don’t have the budget” to offer me an honorarium.  Thus the NCSU alumni association will almost surely be out more money total paying for the travel of a different speaker, who presumably will at least be spending the evening in a hotel room for more than $100.

Of course, I’ve been teaching about public policy and dealing with university budgets for long enough that I cannot exactly say I’m surprised, but it still is damn annoying.  On a seemingly unrelated note, Kevin Drum had a nice post on how policy-wise, universal pre-K is surely one of the very best things we could do.   On a pragmatic level, though, where does the money come from?

But as near as I can tell, taking, say, $100 billion out of K-12 education and redirecting it to pre-K would almost certainly be a pure win. That might not be the best way to fund it, but if political realities prevent us from raising more money in the near future, shifting spending would be a second-best alternative. Given the almost endless procession of educational reforms that turn out to have no measurable effect once you scale them up or study them for more than a couple of years, I doubt that decreasing funding for K-12 would have anywhere near as big an effect as increasing funding for pre-K. There are too many interest groups dedicated to K-12 funding to make this kind of funding shift easy, but it’s something worth pushing for anyway.

Of course, in reality, the benefits of universal pre-K might largely accrue to the criminal justice system 10-20 years down the future, but good luck getting the money from that budget.  I certainly understand why we need to have all these separate budgets, but a little more flexibility now and then might really be worthwhile.  Then again, the whole problem is that an honest and fair bureaucracy keeps itself that way, in part, by not allowing flexibility.  Damn paradoxes.

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