Remarks at the Learning Ally National Achievement Awards

Below are the introductory remarks I made at the Learning Ally National Achievement Awards last Saturday. First I introduced a video about the awards, then I spoke about Learning Ally’s progress in technology and community building.


Thank you Dee and Scott.
Unfortunately, I never met the women who endowed these awards, Mary Oenslager and Marion Huber. But I wish they could stand with me, look out over this audience, and reflect on how these awards have grown and blossomed,and how Learning Ally has grown and blossomed with them.

They are both amazing stories of transformative philanthropy that I want to share with you tonight. Mary Oenslager and Marion Huber saw the outstanding accomplishments of students who overcame immense challenges to succeed academically and personally and saw their potential to be role models for other students on a similar path.

Their story, the story of these Awards, I will delegate to a video.But while you are learning about the awards, pay attention to a quick montage of audiobook technologies, including those in use in the 1950s through 1990s. There will be a quiz on that later.

So, in the spirit of 20th century audio technology, please “roll the tape”.

[5 minute video on Huber and Oenslager and the history of RFB&D/Learning Ally]

You are in for a real treat – when I’m done with you.

I find it such a privilege to meet and hear from our award winners.  They will give you vivid and moving first person accounts of their journeys.  So for my part I’d like to address the remainder of my remarks to the other people in this room – our outstanding management team and this community they have built called Learning Ally.

I would really like to give you a sense of degree of difficulty of what they’ve done, and the impact they’ve had. Forgive me if I bring the perspective and mindset of my day job as an investor. I get excited about good investments, like this one you are making in Learning Ally.

Did you see the reel-to-reel tape deck and the cassettes in the video?  Those first two audiobook formate changes took 40 years. Since then Learning Ally’s product cycle has gotten shorter and shorter.

When I joined the board ten years ago we were just moving to CDs and digital files. Now, among other things, we have rolled out:

  • cloud-based libraries synced across apple and android applications,
  • that connect teachers to their students’ progress,
  • and sync text and refreshable Braille to human voice.
  • And instead of a few months to complete a book in a studio, we can do it in two weeks with a virtual community of readers working at home.

Making large investments in a time of such rapid change is not a picnic.

For example, consider that those books and cloud-based services are all traveling on 40 million miles of fiber optic cable laid, rather optimistically, by dozens of telecommunications companies in the 1990s. Before they built the infrastructure that made all this data movement possible, coast-to-coast phone calls cost as much as a dollar a minute. Remember that? Today there’s limitless global skyping, and the Learning Ally bookshelf. In fact,my breakfast companion this morning was texting to her husband at Base Camp 2 on Mt. Everest.

Did you know that 23 of those telecom companies went bust or otherwise disappeared from 2002-2004?

This has been the kind of environment where it’s good to be a consumer, but dangerous to be a provider.  Learning Ally has invested in that kind of environment. And technology was just the beginning. In 2007, our funding environment also turned completely topsy-turvy.

Talk about degree of difficulty.

And that’s why I am so incredibly proud of our CEO of five years Andrew Friedman, Connie Murphy, our amazing Development Officer and now Cynthia Hamburger, Learning Ally’s terrific new Chief Information Officer, for negotiating these treacherous waters. We also have our own presidential appointee, George Kersher, to thank for keeping us in the middle of the evolving world of technological standards.

All those updates in our audiobook product alone would be a major accomplishment….

but wait, they didn’t stop there, there’s more!

All these changes have also brought a plethora of new options for our members. I hope you’ve had a chance to visit with the YES group, who’ve been demonstrating many of these technologies, such as screen readers, commercial audiobooks, synthetic voice and even image-based text recognition. This morning my new young friend from YES, John McCoy demonstrated his Voicestream text-to-speech app for me. He uses it to LISTEN to assignments and handouts from his teachers. Like John, I’m pumped that our members have more cost-effective options for learning-through-listening than ever before. But only those who know they need it, know how to get it and know how to use it are getting pumped like me and John.

For young students, availability is only half the battle.

So Learning Ally’s management team is innovating to solve that problem as well.  It all started with a presentation our EVP Jim Halliday gave to the board a few years ago called “The Parent Journey”, in which we learned how parents get from recognition to adaptation.

This inspired similar research for Teachers and Volunteers

Using both new technologies and old-fashioned advocacy we engaged in some of the most robust community-building Learning Ally has ever done

We hired people like Deb Linum, our new head of community engagement, and invested to build up that all-important support network around our current and potential members. What my board colleague and LA member SK Shin likes to call “God’s Special People”.

I’d like to read for you some feedback from God’s Special People, to give you a sense of the impact these efforts have had.

One of our volunteer readers said

“…the new Virtual Community Model has been a real “game-changer” for me as a volunteer ……the whole experience gave me a lot of satisfaction, knowing that, in just one volunteering session, I can now do an entire chapter or more of work that our members will use and appreciate.”

We reach out to educators through

  • professional development workshops
  • helping with
  • recognizing students that read differently,
  • How to use all these new tools, and integrate members into the mainstream classroom.
  • and We’ve built Companion technologies to our Audiobooks such as Teacher Ally

An assistive technology specialist wrote to us to say:

“The changes that have gone on within Learning Ally this year have revolutionized my practice …”

And a teacher in the Denver Public School System:

“Learning Ally gives students the courage to access parts of the curriculum that otherwise would be difficult for them. I have students who would never have been able to consider an honors or AP class, who are now doing so with great success.”

Our progress in the parent community is almost ‘viral’, thanks to Deb and Diane and their colleagues. We run

  • online webinars from experts
  • peer support programs such as Ask-A-Parent
  • They’ve successfully lobbied state legislatures to recognize, for the first time, dyslexia as a condition requiring accomodations.
  • They run a virtual community for parents to seek advice, comfort and guidance as they help their kids and navigate their own school systems.

In fact, Thursday night, a Mom coping with her struggling third grader checked in on Learning Ally’s’ Facebook page. One of our winners, Eddie Maza, chimed in to offer help, advice and comfort.

I want to close with four quotes from parents:

“I am new to the world of dyslexia and this has given me a real jumping off point. Thank you for helping me help my daughter.”

“I LOVE the webinars. I’ll definitely attend all I can and watch the rest. Dyslexia is a very isolating issue for parents – it’s great to have a support network out there! …. It’s invaluable to us.”

“I just wanted to say that for the first time for as long as I can remember my son is enjoying a book. It nearly brings tears to my eyes.”

“The Specialist was so knowledgeable and having been where I am, was able to share the experience. She made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”

No. She is not alone anymore. There are 300 of us right here.

Look around you at the Learning Ally community. All of you here, our donors, volunteers, readers, educators and our outstanding management team and staff at Learning Ally. You all are here, just like Marion Huber and Mary Oenslager, engaged in transformational philanthropy.
This is a bittersweet night for me, as this is my sixth and final year as Chair of the National Board for Learning Ally. What a fantastic board member journey you’ve given me.

Thank you for your dedication, your support, and most of all your fellowship. I am honored to have worked with you for the last decade

03. May 2014 by Andrew Hofer
Categories: Reading and Accessibility, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Multi-stat visual summary of inequality

These are pretty cool:
US summary

Among the key takeaways from this figure: U.S. inequality follows a U-shaped pattern, with a number of measures of inequality falling in the 1930s and 1940s, and then rising since the 1970s. For example,
“the top decile of earnings has risen from 150 per cent of median in 1950 to 244 per cent in 2012.” The table also suggests some puzzles. For example, the share of total wealth held by the top 1%, based on estate data, doesn’t seem to have risen in the last few decades along with inequality of incomes. The dispersion of earnings as measured by the top decile starts rising in the 1950s, but the overall inequality of earnings doesn’t seem to start rising until the 1970s–presumably because during the 1950s and 1960s, there was declining inequality at the bottom of the income distribution, as seen in the falling poverty rate, to offset rising dispersion of incomes at the top.

They don’t take into account well-known discontinuities, and wealth data is notoriously inaccurate, but interesting stuff. One welcome side-effect of the progressive fetish with this issue is that lots of cool data is getting collected and visualized.

I’d also add that global poverty and inequality are shrinking. Looking at single countries doesn’t tell the story.

see also: Sweden.

Originals here.

29. March 2014 by Andrew Hofer
Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Another reason to be skeptical of government guidance

Because we don’t know what we think we know:

The food pyramid from my childhood:
the old food pyramid

From Aaron Carroll, who usually defends government guidance against philistines like myself.

29. March 2014 by Andrew Hofer
Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sunday Links – hours worked, austerity & wealth, groupishness, high school fiction, backscratching by survey

I don’t think minimum wage hikes are going to help here.  A tale of two work-weeks:

Austerity …. NOT.

In sum, federal fiscal policy decisions in recent years added enormously to deficits and have produced the highest levels of spending, deficits, and debt relative to GDP since the aftermath of World War II. I leave it to others to determine whether this can reasonably be termed “austerity.”

 Why the rich live paycheck-to-paycheck

In reality, living within your means (and living well, within your means), should feel a lot more successful than it does, but unfortunately we’re creatures of comparisons.

As we wrote about in a recent blog post, happiness is not related to a set level of spending, but rather positive changes upward every year.

This is long, but really interesting. A scientific approach to finding consensus about climate.  The “trouble” is the policymakers and advocates haven’t been allowed as much influence.  Consensus is difficult enough.

On groupish behavior

Human beings evolved in small bands.  Group identity – and group identity’s tendency to corrupt our sense of justice -  is in our DNA.  Once you learn this harsh truth, though, you can, should, and must compensate for your immoral urges.  Review your judgments of out-group members for draconian harshness.  Review your judgments of in-group members – yourself included – for maudlin absolution.  You won’t make a lot of friends, but you will be a better person.

Should we stop teaching novels to high school students?

To hell with Gatsby’s green light! Maybe the classroom is not the best setting for children to have profound literary experiences. Give the kids something they can relate to, immerse themselves in, and even copy!

Poll of smart people suggests they confidently think their own preferences are correct about the stimulus.

Hold up. Economists answering this question are supposed to ‘take into account’ ALL of the economic consequences? including ‘any’ ‘likely future effects’? Over the timescale of [now to infinity)?

What discount rate are they meant to use? What utility metric? It doesn’t say so I guess they just substitute Their Favorite. But hey, here’s a possible utility-metric that probably coincides at least some with the metric economists (or anyone else for that matter) is implicitly going to use when answering Hopelessly Vague Questions:

“Policies that I like get scored a utility of One Zillion. Policies I don’t like get scored a Zero Zillion.”

23. February 2014 by Andrew Hofer
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CBO Inequality Data via Brookings

Gary Burtless brings us changes in real after-tax income for various quantiles, since 1979 and 2000.  Unsurprisingly, the incomes of the wealthy have a much higher beta to the economy than the poor.  Yet people keep presenting that as a surprise.  But Burtless is also working with a slightly different, and more relevant definition of income – real, after-tax.


These are after-tax figures.  Burtless also points out that after-transfer figures reveal the degree to which tax relief and government programs insulated lower quantiles from the recession:



The things that have become terribly expensive in the last 5 decades are the things we’ve been subsidizing: healthcare, education and real estate.  Healthcare is directly subsidized through government programs, and the degree to which that makes a difference is clear here.  Education transfers are outside this analysis, but all colleges are running a progressive pricing system.  Redistribution mechanisms have grown dramatically in the US, but they have become far more opaque than direct government transfers.

23. February 2014 by Andrew Hofer
Categories: Inequality | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Saturday Links: global poverty, inequality, happiness, identities, unemployment benefits, assortative mating

Poverty and global inequality are falling. (and perhaps faster than traditional studies indicate) I’ve made this point a few times. The best summary was on Vox EU. In an article called Parametric estimations of the world distribution of income.

World poverty is falling. Between 1970 and 2006, the global poverty rate has been cut by nearly three quarters. The percentage of the world population living on less than $1 a day (in PPP-adjusted 2000 dollars) went from 26.8% in 1970 to 5.4% in 2006 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. World poverty rates

Although world population has increased by about 80% over this time (World Bank 2009), the number of people below the $1 a day poverty line has shrunk by nearly 64%, from 967 million in 1970 to 350 million in 2006. In the past 36 years, there has never been a moment with more than 1 billion people in poverty, and barring a catastrophe, there will never be such a moment in the future history of the world.

Figure 2. World distribution of income: 1970 and 2006

  • What is North Carolina telling us about unemployment benefits?  These suggest a higher level of work discouragement than I would have expected.
  • Mobility, 1996-2005.

    Bottom Line: The dynamism of the US economy is generally under-appreciated, and the significant income mobility documented above receives almost no attention from those complaining about income inequality and stagnant household incomes. Contrary to prevailing public opinion that Americans get stuck at a given low-income level for decades or generations, the empirical evidence summarized above tells us that there is significant movement up and down the economic ladder over even very short periods of time, like one decade.

  • Reject Telescopic Morality

The people who devote themselves to these causes are not heroes. I’m sorry, but they are not. The crusader on behalf of the greater good who fights their hardest on behalf of policies whose outcomes they cannot hope to actually measure is nothing compared to the everyday citizen who does not hesitate to help pick up the pieces after a disaster. Hell, the activist-crusader is nothing compared to the neighbor who helps clear up the snow after a blizzard.
The modern moralist wants to look down upon mankind from above to determine what moral codes are valid for shaping our choices. Yet the true moralist is not above their community, but of it.

  • End Harvard and end inequality!

    The “typical” married couples today consist of highly educated people marrying highly educated people and lowly educated people (at lower rates) marry people from their same educational and income class. This perpetuates and deepens inequality. Of course, where does most of the high-talent, high-income, high-class sorting happen? At the elite colleges. Ban them and then you fix that “problem.” Ah. Easy peasy lemon squeasy.

    Other reasons to ban Harvard on inequality grounds should be obvious. If you take the view that education is a way to enhance productivity, and you understand that those folks who are already more productive and more privileged are more likely and more prepared for Harvard, then by banning Harvard you would reduce the already large advantage the already productive people have.

  • The demise of the Great Gatsby Curve
  • We think inequality is worse than it is.
  • Inequality and assortative mating.  First in the Atlantic, then the FT:

The sociologist Christine Schwartz showed in 2010 that the incomes of husbands and wives in the US are far more closely correlated than they were in the 1960s, and that this explained about one-third of the increase in income inequality between married couples. John Ermisch and colleagues have shown other consequences: in both the UK and Germany, assortative mating substantially explains low social mobility because the children of prosperous parents marry each other.

We should not place too much emphasis on all this. Assortative mating explains only part of the rise of inequality, and perhaps very little at the top of the income scale. The usual remedies for inequality – unionisation, redistributive taxes, minimum wages – still have the same advantages and limitations as ever, even if they need to reflect the reality of the two-income household. It’s a reminder that the most welcome social trends can have unwelcome side-effects.

Speaking of assortative mating: Yuck, just yuck.

08. February 2014 by Andrew Hofer
Categories: Economics, Inequality, Lifestyles | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 comment

Friday Links – outrage and outsiders, work, inequality and ‘how rival is your marriage’



07. February 2014 by Andrew Hofer
Categories: Inequality, Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

More on tax progressivity

Adding on to my own analysis about time series trends in income tax progressivity, Professor Munger offers this analysis from the Tax Policy Center.

  • In 2012, the top quintile of the income distribution received 52.5 percent of income and paid 68.3 percent of federal taxes.
    Source: Tax Policy Center Table T12-0200.
Share of cash income by income quintile 2012

Share of Federal Taxes by Income Quintile 2012

This series includes payroll and other taxes that weren’t included in my analysis. It would be nice to get a time series on this as well.

05. February 2014 by Andrew Hofer
Categories: Inequality, Taxes and Spending | Tags: | Leave a comment

Random Observations About Bonaire

I’ve been spending a wonderful week diving and relaxing at Harbour Village, in Bonaire. I have just a few unorganized observations:

  • This is a day destination for Royal Caribbean. The Horreure of the Seas was in here yesterday. The whole town of kralendijk transformed from sleepy nowheresville to enormous trinket shop for the day. We hid in the resort.
  • I did not expect to see a reference to a Shofar here in the Caribbean. But there is an island accounting firm called Shofar accounting.
  • The wind here is strong and constant. The bay between the main island and Klein Bonaire is one of the best kitesurfing spots I’ve seen.
  • If you don’t dive, sail or kitesurf, there isn’t too much for you here (Except the climate). Harbour Village has the best beach apart from the uninhabited Klein Bonaire
  • Harbour Village is luxurious, but dive-oriented. The hotel staff are a little diffident in general. The dive staff, on the other hand, are really friendly and helpful.
  • As I type this there is a gorgeous orange and black bird on our balcony with a descending minor-third whistle call (like a doorbell). A Troupial (icterus icterus)
  •  My eighteen year-ols son is enjoying drinking legally

28. March 2013 by Andrew Hofer
Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Torture and Morality

This isn’t my usual fare, but I get confused by the posturing condemnation of Zero Dark Thiry: Which is the harder-won morality, eschewing torture because it’s useless, or despite its usefulness?

The real issue is the human rights of the people who fall under the suspicion of Bigelow’s CIA interrogators, who include Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her mentor, Dan…..

I believe she supports all protests, but she undermines the protestors by showing the CIA heroes of her film using torture, getting results, and never, ever, being held to account for their gross violations of human rights and common decency.  In “The Greatest Manhunt in History (ZD30),” anything goes; the end justifies the means, where the means include cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

17. February 2013 by Andrew Hofer
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