Growler Shops

I’m visiting my good friend Aaron in Atlanta, Georgia, this week, with my youngest son. So far we’ve gone swimming twice in an incredibly large pool (100 meter lanes), had ridiculously delicious barbeque (Daddy D’z), and checked out the local “growler shop” to prepare for last night’s NBA finals game.

Don’t know what a growler shop is? Neither did I, but if you like beer, you’re going to want to learn. It’s basically a take-away bar, with an enormous number of beers that you can sample and of course purchase, at great prices. The growler shop we went to is called My Friend’s Growler Shop, and two very adorable and friendly sommeliers named Camric and John:


Can you see all those beers in the background? Yum. Camric is wearing the light blue shirt.

We ended up tasting a bunch of beers but taking home Eventide Kölsh, which comes from a local brewery and is a variation of Grolsh, and Left Hand Milk Stout, which is as close to a meal in a drink as you can get if you’ve been weaned.

Why doesn’t New York have growler shops? As Camric and John explained to me, each state has different interpretations of a federal law that prohibits reselling of beers in anything other than their original containers. Law is weird, but what it means is that New York State laws would only allow a shop to sell beer from a single brewery, which is super disappointing.

Also, if you don’t love beer, there are also such things as growler wine shops, but also in Georgia and not New York.

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The market for your personal data is maturing

As everyone knows, nobody reads their user agreements when they sign up for apps or services. Even if they did, it wouldn’t matter, because most of them stipulate that they can change at any moment. That moment has come.

You might not be concerned, but I’d like to point out that there’s a reason you’re not. Namely, you haven’t actually seen what this enormous loss of privacy translates into yet.

You see, there’s also a built in lag where we’ve given up our data, and are happily using the corresponding services, but we haven’t yet seen evidence that our data was actually worth something. The lag represents the time it takes for the market in personal data to mature. It also represents the patience that Silicon Valley venture capitalists have or do not have between the time of user acquisition and profit. The less patience they have, the sooner they want to exploit the user data.

The latest news (hat tip Gary Marcus) gives us reason to think that V.C. patience is running dry, and the corresponding market in personal data is maturing. Turns out that EBay and PayPal recently changed their user agreements so that, if you’re a user of either of those services, you will receive marketing calls using any phone number you’ve provided them or that they have “have otherwise obtained.” There is no possibility to opt out, except perhaps to abandon the services. Oh, and they might also call you for surveys or debt collections. Oh, and they claim their intention is to “benefit our relationship.”

Presumably this means they might have bought your phone number from a data warehouse giant like Acxiom, if you didn’t feel like sharing it. Presumably this also means that they will use your shopping history to target the phone calls to be maximally “tailored” for you.

I’m mentally tacking this new fact on the same board as I already have the Verizon/AOL merger, which is all about AOL targeting people with ads based on Verizon’s GPS data, and the recent broohaha over RadioShack’s attempt to sell its user data at auction in order to pay off creditors. That didn’t go through, but it’s still a sign that the personal data market is ripening, and in particular that such datasets are becoming assets as important as land or warehouses.

Given how much venture capitalists like to brag about their return, I think we have reason to worry about the coming wave of “innovative” uses of our personal data. Telemarketing is the tip of the iceberg.

Guest Post: What Is Happening With Tenure In Madison?

J Doe is a [something ranked] Professor in STEM. S/he chooses to write this post anonymously, in part to make a point about the value of tenure and the protection it affords faculty from becoming political targets.  

Many of us in Madison are getting questions about what is happening with tenure, and the national media hasn’t adequately captured the reasons why there is a controversy. Cathy asked me if I could provide some insight, which I will do sort of “politifact” style. I choose to do so anonymously, in part to make a point about the value of tenure and the protection it affords faculty from becoming political targets.


CLAIM: What is happening in Wisconsin is the end of tenure as we know it.


FACT: The authority to define the terms of tenure is being moved from state law to the Board of Regents. Depending on how this authority is applied, tenure could change dramatically or not at all.  The worst case scenario (see below) would indeed end tenure as we know it on campus.


CLAIM: The tenure protections given to the Board of Regents are the same as what is in state law. The change merely moves tenure from state law to the Regents.

RATING: Mostly false

FACT: The terms of tenure as they relate to dismissal for cause remain exactly the same. However, some care was taken to define the difference between dismissal, termination and indefinite layoff. Other than dismissal for cause, most schools only allow for termination of tenured faculty for reasons of financial exigency. The proposed new tenure guidelines for Wisconsin include language such as “program redirection” and other vague terminology, and this is what has people up in arms.


CLAIM: This is a dangerous situation


FACT: The addition of language related to program redirection is not the only change happening. Other language weakening shared governance makes faculty “subordinate to” the Chancellor on matters of programs and curricula.  The faculty will also now have weakened influence in selecting new Chancellors. The Regents are appointed by the Governor, with the most recent appointee being the son of a Bradley Foundation member.  In most states, the Regents set the terms of tenure, but they are not effectively political appointees.

Add these things up, and the Regents could appoint a Chancellor with the authority to unilaterally make program changes and terminate tenured faculty.  That is a worst-case scenario.


CLAIM: This is a great time to raid the UW for faculty

RATING: True, if you are an asshole

FACT: Some faculty will be looking to move on as the result of this situation. If you have previously talked about hiring a UW faculty member or are approached by UW faculty interested to make a change, by all means continue the discussion.

On the other hand, if you are suddenly strategizing on how to poach UW faculty, this makes you an opportunistic asshole. Rubbing your hands together with glee as we fight to ensure our ability to maintain a world class university is a nasty way to be. If someone’s house was on fire, would you grab a bucket of water, or would you think about stealing their TV?  Make no mistake that your university could be next, so do onto others as you would have them do onto you.

Categories: Uncategorized

Student loans and moral outrage

This week I’m fascinated by the issue of where student loans live on the spectrum of moral outrage versus sympathy, which I’ve been discussing with my friend Martha Poon recently. It’s also a very timely issue.

Let’s start on the sympathy side of things. The Corinthian 100 students, who were largely sympathetic figures organized by the group Strike Debt, decided to refuse to pay back student debt they accrued from going to Corinthian College, which was charged with all kinds of false advertising and fraud by, among others, the California Attorney General. I wrote about these protesters back when the group was only 15 large.

Just yesterday Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that their debt would be forgiven, with certain caveats, that the organizers complained about. Indeed the forgiveness is not automatic, and the paperwork looks to be onerous, or even undoable, for the ex-Corinthian students. Even so, what’s interesting to me is Arne Duncan’s comments to the New York Times:

“You’d have to be made of stone not to feel for these students,” he said. “Some of these schools have brought the ethics of payday lending into higher education.”

On the other side of the spectrum, we have Lee Siegel’s recent New York Times opinion piece, where he explains his decision to default on his student debts. My Slate Money co-host Jordan Weissmann called him an “unrepentant leech” on his Slate response piece, noting that Siegel got a B.A., an M.A., and a masters of philosophy from Columbia University before deciding that his goal of being a writer didn’t jibe with his student debt, so why not just default.

This is a general trend when you talk to most people about student debt: the moral obligation is generally there, you need to pay it back or be considered a bad person, unless the circumstances are extreme, which means you can give evidence that the debt itself is fraudulent.

But there’s a third way of thinking about these things, which I picked up from finance (where, I like to say, you “learn to think like an asshole”). Namely, that there’s no morality attached to debt at all. I saw bankers and hedge funders defaulting and “renegotiating” debt contracts – especially things like long-term rental agreements – when things changed. It wouldn’t even be fair to say that they did it when they “couldn’t” pay the money they owed, because the accounting is so slippery in large companies. It was more like, they knew their lawyers were good, and they knew the other side knew that, and therefore they simply wouldn’t pay more than a certain amount that the other side would get in a dirty lawsuit that everyone wanted to avoid.

In other words, debt contracts, in the context of high finance, have been entirely removed from their moral roots. By contrast, the moral weight that individual consumers attach to what are tiny little contracts in comparison seem kind of random and quaint. Or are they?

It makes me want to conduct a thought experiment. Namely, what would it look like if we consumers thought of our debt in non-moralistic terms, like they do in finance? Would we even be able to do that? A test case is this guy, a failed condo developer profiled by the New York Times. Here are a couple of critical details:

The lender, Bank of America, had tried to foreclose after Mr. Rath stopped paying, but amid the craziness of the mortgage meltdown, it could not prove it was entitled to the property. Despite the bank’s pleas that Mr. Rath was seeking a “windfall,” a judge nullified the debt last year.

Mr. Rath has been renting out the condo for $10,000 a month since moving his family in 2010 to Connecticut, where they have taken up sailing full time. After spending this past winter in the Caribbean, the family is planning to sail to Europe this summer on a 55-foot Hanse 545 racing cruiser, before circumnavigating the globe.

Yeah, so, in other words, I’m not sure we can do it.

Even so, I’m interested in pushing ourselves to take a few steps towards it. I think it would be interesting to consider the effects of a widespread student debt strike, even if a bunch of those who would be involved are less than perfectly sympathetic. As Lee suggested, such a movement could result in more affordable college tuitions, a much more skeptical Department of Education, and a less commodified concept of social mobility.

Moreover, I think burdening young people with extreme debt is bad for the country, and especially bad for their ability to make good decisions about what to do with their lives. I’m all for a national discussion on this with the debt morality taken out.

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Michelle Rhee’s legacy

Lately, as background research for my book, I’ve been looking into the 2008 cheating scandal associated with Michelle Rhee’s high stakes Value-Added Model regime in the D.C. area,

Specifically, I’m talking about the high erasure rates associated to certain standardized tests that had cash bonuses attached to large improvements, and the consequential investigation that was smothered.

Let me break it down. Certain high poverty schools weren’t doing so well. Michelle Rhee came in as chancellor and suggested that the teachers and principals simply needed some more incentives to achieve better student learning. Her theories got boosted by various academics. Teachers would get $8,000 for really great scores, and principals $10,000.

In addition to Rhee giving certain teachers bonuses, she fired hundreds of others, sometimes for bad scores, sometimes without explaining why.

Against this backdrop, you might not be surprised to hear, there was widespread cheating, or at least suspiciously high scores and suspiciously high erasure marks on student tests (12.7 erasures on average, compared to the average of less than 1).

An investigation followed but came up pretty empty. Compare that to the Atlanta cheating scandal, where a bunch of teachers were sent to jail for cheating. They were also working under a high-stakes testing regime of bonuses and firings.

I’m not suggesting we want more jailings, by the way. I’m suggesting that the original high-stakes regime was fundamentally flawed and naturally gave rise to the cheating in the first place.

Moreover, I’m suggesting that Michelle Rhee’s legacy was one were she was very happy to fire people but very reluctant to admit that her educational reform successes were based on lies.

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Aunt Pythia’s advice


Due to a long bike ride complete with a flat tire, a surprise rain shower, and a pit stop at a diner, things have been rather slow this morning. But Aunt Pythia has been called to duty, finally! She’s so very glad to be here.

Let’s get started! And before you leave,

ask Aunt Pythia any question at all at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Hi Aunt Pythia,

I’ve got this hopeless problem. I’ve developed an on-line crush.

Here’s the thing. I’m a well-to-do, middle-aged quant. I’m of the generation where people thought math & mathy things were totally uncool. But I love em. And I love those who love em. Stuff that norms love (e.g., sports, TV) I care nothing about. But talk about QE, I’m in rapture. “Kleptocracy” is part of my vocabulary. NC is a must-read morning website. But. I’ve been widowed for several years (yes, yes, insert appropriate maunderings here). And I miss … wimmen. I miss the pairing of stochastic systems and, well, … boobies. I miss intellectual debate combined with olive oil, al dente pasta, and a cold glass of Fresca.

Anyway, I’ve developed this crush on an on-line persona. She seems to like math. She shares my socioeconomic outlook and, inferentially, status. IDGAF about looks, etc. (fwiw, I’m an exemplar of “successfully-middle-aged-prosperous”). And I’d like to learn more.

How do I do this? Any suggestions? Any help? Any clue?

Hopeless Or Randomly Nascent Yob


First of all, I love Fresca, and I am so glad you mentioned it. An entirely underappreciated soft drink. Second, I’d never heard of the word “maunderings” before but it’s a great word. And also, great sign-off.

I prefer the classic look.

I prefer the classic look.

So, what’s the problem here? You’re saying she’s awesome and (inferred to be) single? Have you also inferred that’s she’s horny? Are you asking me how to ask out a woman?

Here’s what you do, assuming you are in consistent and direct contact with her. You tell her you’ve developed a wonderful and delightful crush on her and you think she’s smart, funny, and wonderful in many ways. You say you don’t want to be at all pushy, but you’re wondering if she’s free for a light-hearted meal, at a location of her choice. It doesn’t have to be a date if she doesn’t wish it to be, but it could be if she wants.

There’s really nothing objectionable about flattery combined with a unimposing dinner invitation. You’ve got nothing to lose. Even if she says no she will be charmed.

If you’re still worried, write back with the proposed email invitation and I’ll take a look.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m going back to school to improve on my quantitative skills. Since learning advanced Maths requires a solid foundation in the basics, I am finding it very difficult to appreciate the long-term process, when in the short-term I have tests to pass. I’m afraid that I am just passing the tests, without gaining deeper knowledge. Perhaps this feeling of existential dread will pass and everything will become more clear down the road, but what advice do you have for remaining more “present” and not too outcome oriented?

As a side note, I had a similar conversation with a professor of chemistry during my undergraduate education and he had this shocking advice for minorities (I am hispanic, btw): “don’t go into science.” His argument was that a career in math/science is lonely and costly in the short-term, compared to careers in law/business. As John Maynard Keynes says: “In the long run we are all dead.”

Impatiently Waiting

Dear IW,

Wow, what terrible advice. Did he really say that was his advice “for minorities”? Crazy racist.

Here’s my advice. When you get your problem sets, read them right away. Think about why the professor asked them. Ask yourself what you’re learning from them. Start working on them right away. In a word, stay a few steps away from panic in the local sense.

In a more global sense, have a plan for which classes you’re taking, what you’ll need to know them, and how you’re going to feel comfortable with the prerequisites. Be flexible if things don’t work out longer term, but take on challenges and be a bulldog in the short term. Keep your options open and grow them at every turn.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

Do you hear the lyrics to “Uptown Funk” as “straight masturbate” like I do, or “straight masterpiece” as written?

I’m using you in a test: if you hear it correctly, then I have to conclude that I’m sex-obsessed. If you hear it like I do, can’t draw a conclusion.

What are your favorite lyrics to mishear or intentionally mis-sing, especially with a sexy twist?


Like I Might Sometimes Understand Poorly


OK here’s the song, so other readers can weigh in:

Yeah, I get you. I mean, I hear “masterpiece,” so yes you’re sex-obsessed, but I see why you get that wrong. They totally emphasize the “MAStur” part of the word, so it gets one kind of excited.

Also, speaking of excited, your sign-off made me excited, because it totally seemed planned, but I don’t get why it means anything. To be clear, limsup is a mathematical concept, but I’m not sure how it fits in with your question. But then again it’s not a criticism because sometimes I seem planned but I don’t end up meaning anything.

Aunt Pythia

p.s. I had to pause my Star Trek viewing with my teenagers in order to do this important investigative work. My 13-year-old says he hears “masterbeast.” Just wanted to thank you for that special moment with them.


Aunt Pythia,

Is there a term for sex that is intended to lead to pregnancy? I was talking with one of my friends and she just called it unprotected sex. That jarred, maybe because too many public health warnings make me equate unprotected sex with unsafe sex. Even putting that aside, unprotected sex misses the sense of work and obligation that seems to accompany intentionally trying to get pregnant.

Baby Making Welcome

Dear BMW,

What?! Work and obligation?! I always thought it should be called “the most excellent sex”. Because it was so excellent. It was so real, stakes were high. Loved that sex. A personal opinion.

But enough about Aunt Pythia, what do other people call it?

I’ve heard “raw sex,” “raw dog,” and of course “bareback.” I prefer raw dog, obviously. I’m a dog person.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a gay man in my mid-thirties. Recently I entered a relationship with a man, “Tim”. To my delight, things are going well with Tim. I’m writing you because there is some potential friction between us: my past.

Tim and I have both been what you would call promiscuous, with many dozens of sexual partners for each of us. But Pythia, did you know there are different kinds of promiscuity? Outside of his past relationships, which were monogamous, Tim has only had brief affairs and one-night stands with strangers. My past relationships were also monogamous, but while single, I tend to sleep with my friends (some of whom are themselves coupled). In fact I’ve been single for some years now, and during that time I’ve built up a loving network of friends that borders on polyamory.

Tim doesn’t pass moral judgments on my behavior, nor would he ever forbid me from seeing my friends. And we agree that we will be a monogamous couple. The only problem is, Tim really doesn’t want to meet my “close” friends. He is not interested in being reassured that I won’t sleep with them anymore — in his view they are my exes. But you see, Pythia, those friends are really important to me, whether or not sex is involved. To me, friendship is one of life’s principal blessings, and I have been extraordinarily blessed. Sex seems so petty in comparison!

So we agree to disagree, right? No double dates with the couple I used to three-way with. This might be fine in the short term, but I find it hard to imagine integrating Tim into my life without disintegrating my friend network in equal measure. Besides, in our little gay universe, we will inevitably run into people in social events that I have a history with. I’m not going to want to give them the cold shoulder.

Does Tim need to open his mind and be more sex-positive? Or do I need to set some boundaries with my friends in order to build a serious relationship of my own?


Ready to Settle

Dear Ready,

I don’t think it’s OK for Tim to separate you from your community because of a bizarre principle of “no seeing any exes.” That it too bullying, especially since you are ready to be trustworthy about not sleeping with them.

If I were you I’d talk to Tim about this abstractly, when there are no exes in the vicinity making him feel jealous. Tell him how important your community is to you, and how much you care for him, but how it’s not fair to have to choose between the two.

Having reread your question, though, it seems like maybe Tim is comfortable with you hanging out with your friends but doesn’t want to join in on the social stuff. If that’s the case, I’d say that’s possibly workable, as long as he doesn’t give you guilt trips when you do regularly go out with them. After all, nobody can be everything to someone. Plenty of happy couples I know don’t socialize in the same circles.

Aunt Pythia


People, people! Aunt Pythia loves you so much. And she knows that you love her. She feels the love. She really really does.

Well, here’s your chance to spread your Aunt Pythia love to the world! Please ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Uncategorized

Update on insurance issues at Uber

A couple of weeks ago I suggested that the sharing economy is actually sharing something, namely insurance costs. In particular, I was concerned about the gaps in insurance coverage represented by Uber drivers and AirBnB hosts at certain times. Here’s a cheat sheet:

  1. Personal insurance covers Uber drivers when their Uber app is off, so they are simply driving around.
  2. Uber covers them when they have passengers, although their deductibles are sometimes high.
  3. But what about when they have their app on, so are looking for customers, but those customers are not in the car? There’s apparently no coverage for this.
  4. This actually matters; a child got killed by an Uber driver in exactly this situation. Actually more than one child.
  5. Also, there are chat boards of Uber drivers suggesting how to hide the fact that their app was on in case of an accident; clearly this only applies to minor accidents, not major ones, but it supports my original theory that all of our car insurance policies will be going up because of Uber drivers.

Well the news this week is that Allstate has created a new insurance policy for Uber drivers which will cover them when their app is on, so they’re “commercial,” but before a customer has been picked up. This leaves me with a few questions.

  1. They said it will cost $15 to $20 on average, per year, which seems very very small. Does that include the asston of registered Uber drivers that don’t drive very much at all? Will it cost an arm and a leg to cover a heavy user of Uber?
  2. Who pays for this, Uber or the drivers? According to reports, Uber was working very very hard to avoid this insurance from existing, or rather they were pushing very very hard against regulations in California that would insist on separate insurance coverage to fill the gap.
  3. That makes me think this is a big deal for Uber, and it’s way more expensive than it sounds, and that Uber doesn’t want to pay for it.
  4. If the drivers are expected to pay for it, and if it’s more expensive like I suspect it is, then their hourly wages are going down, maybe to shitty levels.
  5. That’s kind of what happens when you create a business models that make money in part by bypassing regulations, and then the regulations catch up with you: your profit margins fall.
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