Obama Doesn't LIke People

Politics — Zac Townsend @ November 1, 2012 9:13 am

I keep coming back to something that was said about Obama [in this article about the Clintons]:

“People say the reason Obama wouldn’t call Clinton is because he doesn’t like him,” observes Tanden. “The truth is, Obama doesn’t call anyone, and he’s not close to almost anyone. It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people. My analogy is that it’s like becoming Bill Gates without liking computers.”

Working the Room

Politics,Reading — Zac Townsend @ October 31, 2012 9:09 am

An essay in Lapham's Quarterly about politicians being or not being funny.

The paradox of democracy is that we elect someone on the basis of being just like us and then criticize them for not being better than us. To be elected as a political leader in a democracy is to occupy three positions relative to the other citizens: they must be better than us, for they must lead us; they must be less than us because they err greatly and publicly; and they must be one of us, a citizen among their peers. Comedy can be a way of coping with such conflicting roles; rhetorical humor is a tool to help master them.

Microtargeting in the Election

Data,Politics — Zac Townsend @ October 29, 2012 7:05 pm

I try to avoid sending out political stories that may appear overly partisan in nature, but having read Sahsha Issenberg's book, The Victory Lab, I know that he reports carefully on data use by both democrats and republicans (I mailed the book to our resident former Republican congressional candidate Ethan Wingfield). This is a great story on the use of random experiments in voter contact, persuasion and turnout and seeming advantage that Democrats have on this front:

In fact, when it comes to the use of voter data and analytics, the two sides appear to be as unmatched as they have ever been on a specific electioneering tactic in the modern campaign era. No party ever has ever had such a durable structural advantage over the other on polling, making television ads, or fundraising, for example. And the reason may be that the most important developments in how to analyze voter behavior has not emerged from within the political profession.

General Failure

Politics,Reading — Zac Townsend @ October 29, 2012 9:58 am

On the history of firing generals, and why we should do it more, or, more specifcially, that the Army doesn't punish or reward it's general officers well. From the article:

But the Army continues to do too little to sort the average performers from the outstanding ones. That has long-term consequences for the caliber of military leaders. A recent survey by students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found that good young officers have left the military in large part because of frustration with military bureaucracy and the sense that the armed forces do not have a performance-oriented system for managing personnel.

Today's Idea: Bloomberg-Soros Political Fellowship

Ideas,Politics — Zac Townsend @ October 29, 2012 9:46 am

It's like a MacArthur. You get a call one day. You've been selected. You'd make a great public servant, even if you don't know it. You'd get some training, like DCCC and NRCC and when you run you get two million spent by the super-pac run by the best. They've done the analysis. They'll provide funding. They've lined up endorsers. You've never thought about politics, but they've got your back. Say what you want to say, make a difference in the world: run the campaign you don't mind losing. And if you win, make it real. For 100--150 million, Bloomberg and Soros could not just give some politicians a leg up, they could change the discourse to a more centrist, pragmatic, and socially progressive one.

Plutarch on Politcs

Politics — Zac Townsend @ October 27, 2012 10:22 pm

They are wrong who think that politics is like an ocean voyage or a military campaign, something to be done with some particular end in view, something which leaves off as soon as that end is reached. It is not a public chore, to be got over with. It is a way of life. It is the life of a domesticated political and social creature who is born with a love for public life, with a desire for honor, with a feeling for his fellows; and it lasts as long as need be.

Today’s Idea: A Social Enterprise YCombinator in New York City

Economics,New York City,Politics — Zac Townsend @ January 26, 2011 11:48 pm

My idea is to use the best elements of YCombinator as a model for funding social enterprises in New York City. I want to create a non-profit which uses a cohort or batch model to fund social enterprises. This NFP would give the fellows start up capital, weekly dinners with relevant experts, and the social support and pressure of other fellows.

Ultimately, the goal is to create many more long-lasting social enterprises addressing the City's problems. In some ways, like YCombinator or Techstars we would serve as a screening mechanism, by which philanthropists and Foundations might feel more comfortable investing if someone went through the program. But, more importantly, we would support founders in their journey toward doing both good and well. By creating an environment where experts and support can be provided to a group at once, where social entrepreneurs in the City know and reenforce each other, we can make the City a more just, equitable and fair place.

To steal Ashoka’s definition of a social entrepreneur, I mean people that “individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.” There are a ton of places to support the next big web applications, but not enough places supporting the next crop of social enterprises, more importantly, by using YC's model of funding in batches, with everyone in New York City, we get economies of scale and support that Echoing Green or Ashoka don't see.

Exemplars to look to in the City might include Geffeory Canada from Harlem Children’s Zone and Elisabeth Mason at SingleStop USA. Although the latter is now a national organization, it began with a New York focus, something we would demand of our companies. This way we can create an experience and support network which is topical, focused and relevant.

So, let’s say twenty start-ups a year. They get 100k over two years, health insurance and a great deal of technical assistance in everything from financial analysis to local politics. The twenty of them are pulled together once a week for dinner where some expert on social entrepreneurship or the City speaks for the first six month. Like others, we invest in passionate people with good ideas. We can provide the access to funders, the critical eye to improve ideas, and a lot of expertise, but we cannot replace the single-minded, driven, crazed founder who wants to make a difference. If you are not incorporated, we will pay your legal fees (or someone will do it pro bono), and for 501(c)3, we would serve as a tax-free pass through. The only requirements are that you have to be in New York City, you have to have a social purpose, and you have to be less than two years old. For companies that are non-profit we expect to be paid back within 10 years (that is, its more a loan than anything else), if they are for-profit we expect 3-5% equity like a seed-stage fund. The ultimate goal is that after some infusion of cash into the social incubator (as an NFP/Foundation), that it would be self-sustaining in the long-term.

We also want to support the people selected for the fellowship in making connections among themselves (ultimately making a alumni base that will support one another), as well as the people and institutions in New York. We want to create a central hub by which institutional and individual relationships are built and maintained on behalf of the Fellowship and its future members, so that fellows have a network of experts in the social entrepreneurship, not-for-profit, political, academic, and economics development communities to draw on.

There is one organization in the City that does work similar to this, the Blue Ridge Foundation, who give cash grants and a high level of direct engagement from Foundation staff. Fundamentally the difference is that they have ten NFPs in their current portfolio and six alumni, where this NFP or Foundation, ideally a public/private partnership, will support twice that many social enterprises each year.

To sum up: I think the most impactful thing we can do is 1) Give the entrepreneurs breathing room to work on their idea 2) Provide them technical assistance and our experts 3) Help them with fundraising, in a sense we are their board until they get one, although we wouldn't necessarily want a spot on their board and we make connections to donors and last 4) We could provide institutional access, that is, ideally we would have relationships in the City, so if they wanted to work on schools we could help them with DOE, they wanted to work with children, we could help them with ACS, etc. That is, social enterprise is more inherently political than other companies.

The Interesting Math Behind Congressional Reapportionment

Data,Politics — Zac Townsend @ December 22, 2010 12:31 pm

Computational Complexity has a short blog post on the algorithm used to find the new House of Representative's apportionment. The method currently in use is called Huntington–Hill method. To give you a snippet of this problems illustrious past: past solutions that were put in practice include those created by Daniel Webster, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Why is it called Huntington-Hill? This column I found from the AMS outlines the history of the method. The introduction also puts the problem quite well:

We can formulate the [apportionment problem] mathematically as follows:

Given states s1, ..., sn with populations P1, ..., Pn and a positive integer h (think of h as the number of seats in the legislature), determine non-negative integers a1, ..., an where a1 + ... + an = h. (It is customary to think of the value h as given in advance and fixed, since currently the size of the House of Representatives is fixed; however, for some applications one might have the freedom to vary h as part of solving the problem.)

The CAP problem differs from the one above in requiring that each ai be greater than or equal to 1, or more generally (mathematicians like to generalize!) greater than or equal to bi where bi is some positive integer. The Constitution does not specify the h which started at 65 in 1790 and has grown to the now permanent value of 435, though when Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union the value of h rose temporarily to 437.

At first glance the AP problem does not seem hard. If a state has 10 percent of the population and there are 37 items (seats in the parliament, computer systems, libraries, etc.) to apportion, then .10 (37) equals 3.7. In a parliament interpretation, the problem is we can not send 3.7 people to the legislature (though some feel they do not get full representation from whole bodies); 3.7 is not an integer! What should be done with those nuisance fractions? The quota principle (fairness rule) would say, in this example, that 3 or 4 representatives be assigned. With 3 representatives a state would be underrepresented, with 4 it would be over represented, but the method we currently use to apportion the House of Representatives could assign fewer than 3 or more than 4 representatives!

The algorithm ultimately devised by Huntington (improving on the work of Hill) works as follows:

  1. Calculate something called the standard divisor, which is the average number of people in each district over the population of the US. That is roughly 309 million divided by 435.
  2. Calculate each state’s standard quota, which is the state's population divided by the standard divisor. This is how you get a number like 3.7 above.
  3. For each state, you take the lower rounding bound (3) and the upper round bound (4) and you take the geometric average of them, \sqrt{U\cdot L}. Then  you compare the old quota (3.7) and round down if its below this mean and up if its above it. So in this case, the geometric mean is 3.46, and you would round 3.7 up.
  4. Then you add up all of these quotas, and if they equal 435, you're done. If they don't you repeat step 3 with a smaller or larger divisor than the standard one depending on whether you're summed quotas are above or below your goal.

A not particularly efficient algorithm for this process is given by Computational Complexity:

Input: Pop, a population array for the 50 states.
Output: Rep, a representatives array for the 50 states.

Let Rep[i] = 1 for each state i.
For j = 51 to 435
Let i = arg max Pop[i]/sqrt(Rep[i]*(Rep[i]+1))
Rep[i] = Rep[i]+1

This algorithm isn't working as I described above, but is using the same method to add individual representatives to the state "most deserving." Its the same method, and actually shows how Huntington-Hill works efficient to change the number of representatives. The Census has a pretty well made video on this whole thing:

Jon Stewart Interviews 9/11 First Responders

New York City,Politics — Zac Townsend @ December 17, 2010 1:00 pm

As my friend Jon said to me in an email "Watch this episode. I've never seen anything like it."

In the middle section, Stewart interviews four of the 9/11 first responders:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
9/11 First Responders React to the Senate Filibuster

Earlier in the show he called Senate Republican's blockage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act “an outrageous abdication of our responsibility to those who were most heroic on 9/11.”

The Bank Job: How Goldman Navigated The Collapse Of September 2008

Economics,Politics — Zac Townsend @ December 16, 2010 3:30 pm

Interesting article from Vanity Fair on Goldman Sachs, the firm's history, the crisis, and their minting of money.

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