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Lanny on Learning



Musings from Lanny Arvan on learning - pedagogy, the economics of, technical issues, tie-ins with other stuff, the entire grab bag.



Updated: 2017-10-15T08:40:08.779-05:00

 



That Necessary Evil - Raising Taxes

2017-10-13T03:03:32.166-05:00

Let me start with this paragraph from a review of Hillary Clinton's new book by Lawrence Lessig.This is the core mistake — not just of Clinton, but of too many in the Democratic Party. America is with Reagan—“Government is not the solution. Government is the problem”—not because they believe, like Reagan, that the private market can solve every public problem, but because they believe their government is fundamentally corrupt. They see taxes as a waste — not because the poor don’t deserve help, but because they believe the government is not helping anyone except itself. Most don’t support the idea of supporting government because most believe government doesn’t support them. Government serves the “special interests,” so wonky papers declaring “we’re from the government and we’re here to help” are just the lead balloons of modern American politics.This gets at the essence of the problem.   It is not sufficient for Democratic candidates to articulate policy positions, even as those are the natural currency in which candidates speak.  The candidates must find a way to make their message credible, which requires that they really believe what they are saying, that the voters perceive this, and that they can deliver on what they are saying as well.  This is a very high bar to get over.   One might hazard a guess that the Republicans make it easier for the Democrats, especially they who speak with a forked tongue and in such a blatant way.  But disaffected voters are apt to treat all the lying as an occupational disease - politicians, in general, go for expedience rather than speak hard truths.  In this way the Republicans contaminate the Democrats, at least in the eyes of these voters.  Something needs to be done to counter that.About a month ago I wrote a post about doing that by walking the walk.   In a nutshell, prior to the election of 2018 Democrats should engage in demonstration projects that entailed real income redistribution, with the recipients working people earning modest wages, and with the transfers financed by more up-scale voters who were willing to contribute in this way.  I want to observe here that Lessig's review came out only last week.  So I was thinking these thoughts about making the message credible well before reading that piece. And I certainly still believe that walking the walk is the best way to deliver a credible message.But there is a case to be made for talking the talk as well.  Indeed, as a preliminary activity to generate the subsequent demonstration projects it is probably necessary to do because the idea of income transfer demonstration projects is probably not obvious to many voters now.  Yet in my earlier post I noted that talk is cheap.  As a general matter, that makes talk not credible.  Is there some talk that isn't cheap and that as a result people will tend to believe?  If so, what is the nature of such talk?The first point in this post is that when you tell people something that they don't want to hear and it is common knowledge that they don't want to hear it, then your message will be credible.  The second point, just as important as the first, is that while initially the recipients of the message will deny its truth, its importance, or its application to themselves, if the speaker persists in delivering the same message and does so in an even handed way, then eventually the message will get through and be accepted as the truth.Leadership, in this setting, means delivering the unpleasant message early and then doggedly continuing to deliver it, though it might be unpopular, especially at first.  As people come to see the truth in the message, the credibility of the person delivering the message will be established.  People trust that person because the person speaks the hard truths.Now I want to take a brief aside and consider Democratic electoral strategy.  Evidently, there is a need to get more voters to vote for Democratic candidates.  [...]



The Demagoguery of the Reasonable Conservative Commentator

2017-10-06T11:03:11.128-05:00

Some years back I wrote a piece called Do I have to consume conservative media to consider myself thoughtful?  The problem, detailed in that essay, is that a good chunk of the time when I did this I felt I was getting a hatchet job, rather than a well thought through piece with a different perspective than mine.  After a while, I lost my patience with this.  I wasn't learning but I was getting angry, not a good combination.  I am a regular reader of the NY Times opinions and editorials.  I have returned to reading David Brooks - most of the time, but not always - and Ross Douthat - some of the time.  But I no longer try to read conservative columnists who write elsewhere.  My energy level is not high enough for that.The Times has a comparatively new conservative columnist, Bret Stephens.  He has won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.  He is also 19 years my junior. I am reacting to his most recent column, The Dying Art of Disagreement.  This is the text of an invited speech he gave in Australia.  My reading of it was the same reaction I described in the paragraph above.  I thought it was a hatchet job.I thought it might be useful for me to illustrate why I came to that conclusion.  In a fantasy that almost surely won't happen, somehow Stevens himself gets to read my piece and see the arguments I put forward.  This would be part of the disagreement he seemingly wants.  I have no idea what reaction that would produce, but just maybe the conservative columnists at the Times, as a group, might learn to consider their readers, who are mainly not conservative, in a somewhat different light as a consequence.  As this is pure fantasy, nothing more, perhaps a more useful function my essay can serve is for the few readers I have to adjust how they read Stevens and other reasonable conservative commentators.* * * * *Stevens begins discussing his time before becoming a student at the University of Chicago.  He became enamored with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind.   At UChicago, Stevens found the liberal education that he had clamored for as a teen.As it turns out I had read Bloom's book a while back and more than a decade ago wrote about it in a post called Out of Step.  Here are the relevant paragraphs, that in my humble opinion give some necessary context that Stevens entirely omits.Now let me switch gears. During the Reagan years the TV shows (Larry King, Crossfire, etc.) featured a variety of voices on cultural/educational issues. William Bennett and Nat Hentoff are two of the more prominent names I remember. I was uncomfortable with what both of them had to say. Hentoff argued that free speech, even when it clearly was hate speech, should never be suppressed. (During my time at Northwestern an Engineering professor, Arthur Butz, published his book denying the Holocaust and the Nazis had their march on Skokie. In my own internal cost-benefit calculation on upholding the Bill of Rights versus promoting pernicious nonsense, these outcomes constitute defeats, not victories.) Bennett, was known to champion the reading of certain works (the authors had to be dead white males, who had penned “classics”) and to scorn the reading of other books, notably those that were au courant, emblematically represented through the works of Toni Morrison. (During that time, the great New York Times columnist and humorist, Russell Baker, had a piece on this debate to the effect that Johnny didn’t read, period, so all this culture war stuff was beyond the point. Exactly.)Perhaps 9 or 10 years later, well into the Clinton years and after I had begun to embrace Learning Technology, I read The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. The book had served during the Reagan and Bush senior years to make “une cause juste” for the Bennett position. Severed from those trappings, I didn’t find the argument so unreasonable and indeed that the reading of classic works should be [...]



How much copyright violation goes on inside the LMS?

2017-10-08T22:22:51.566-05:00

This morning members of the campus community received a massmail with subject line - Annual Announcement of Copyright Polices.  I searched my Inbox for previous messages with the same subject line.  Sure enough, this is the fourth year in a row where we received such a message, although this is the first time I can recall noticing it.  While it is not a bad message, in that it did include mention of Fair Use as a possible exception to Copyright, the bulk of the message is about misuse of copyrighted material where the copyright holder is external to the university and hasn't authorized the use.  I'd like to discuss that issue in regard to instruction and, in particular, content that can be found inside the learning management system (LMS).Before I do, let me note that the campus is in the business of creating new knowledge.  Part and parcel of that is the production of copyrighted material.  The campus policy that is given in the massmail doesn't say anything about how campus copyright holders - faculty, staff, and students - are to be protected from the abuse of copyright by an external audience.  This is not really a concern of mine.  I mention it here more to illustrate the asymmetry in the policy document.  Much more of a concern for me is that the campus doesn't vigorously encourage copyright holders to give broad public dissemination of their work, either by releasing it into the public domain or via a Creative Commons license, followed by making the the work available on a publicly accessible Web site.  I have been singing this tune at least for a decade, such as in this post Ly Berry 2.0. This idea could be in the campus policy on copyrights, but it is not.In itself, that makes it seem that the policy is about limiting liability rather than about doing the right thing.  No doubt, limiting liability is something the campus needs to be concerned with.  However, in addition to research mission the campus has a very important education mission and part of that is providing an ethically sound environment in which students can learn to respect the rules that are in place.  In contrast, consider traffic law and how most people respond to speed limits.  They don't view how fast they drive as an ethical matter at all.  Mild transgression of the speed limit is the norm.  The goal is to drive as fast as possible subject to not getting a ticket.   Does the campus care if the same sort of behavior emerges in its response to copyright?  One other point should be made before turning to the LMS.  Twenty years ago, campuses were a hotbed for piracy of digitized music (think Napster).  The reason for this is that bandwidth was much better in the dorms than it was at home, where people were using dial up.  The college students at the time were very much like kids in a candy shop.  So there is that legacy.  However, now broadband is ubiquitous.  Being at college affords no technological advantage that way in illegal file sharing.  So if copyright policy at campuses like mine emerges from push by RIAA, MPAA, and other groups that want to limit illegal file sharing, maybe the campuses need to collectively push back at that.  Universities should not be the unwitting agents of copyright enforcement for such organizations.Let us move away from consideration of sharing commercial music or video files and turn to academic content. As a matter of fact, I will openly admit that I occasionally violate copyright, taking a piece from a subscription journal (for example, The Chronicle of Higher Education) making a pdf copy of it, and placing the copy where others can read it.  If, in addition, I place a link to the pdf in my blog, then it is an open violation of copyright.  In my way of thinking, such an open violation is a more honest way of breaking the law - a mild expression that I believe the content itself should be publicly available.  T[...]



Helping Bernie Sanders to Improve His Argument

2017-09-14T06:02:33.696-05:00

Yesterday Bernie had an Op-Ed in the New York Times about Medicare for all.  While I am sympathetic with the goal, I found the piece weak in many ways.  I assume I'm not the only reader in that category.  So I thought it might be useful to consider the various objections I had with the piece as well as some possible counters to those.Even if hyperbole works with a live audience, to pump up the crowd, there needs to be an adult version of the argument that is based on rational analysis, not emotional appeal.Here is the first paragraph from the piece:This is a pivotal moment in American history. Do we, as a nation, join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee comprehensive health care to every person as a human right? Or do we maintain a system that is enormously expensive, wasteful and bureaucratic, and is designed to maximize profits for big insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, Wall Street and medical equipment suppliers? In fact, it is not a pivotal moment at all, in the sense that no decision on this matter will be made now. And everyone understands this.  The Congress is controlled by the Republicans now, and they clearly won't go for this proposal.  Likewise, President Trump would veto this proposal if it ever reached his desk.There may be good and sensible reasons to introduce the proposal now, rather than to wait until the Democrats have the upper hand.  I would have liked to read some of those reasons in this piece.  Part of this is not just the reasons themselves.  It is to understand that Bernie knows those reasons quite well.  It is hard to understand what the politician actually believes when the rhetoric is so hyperbolic.The piece talked about the benefits of Medicare for All.  There was no mention of how to pay for it.  There was no mention of alternative uses of tax dollars - infrastructure, free college education (both of which Bernie has advocated for elsewhere), or debt relief, hence no sense of how those would be prioritized.  I will have more to say about the tax issue below.  The point to note here is that it is easy to pander to the beneficiaries.  It is much harder to make the adult argument that this is the right thing to do, even if there will be those decent people who, narrowly considered, bear the burden without getting a reciprocal benefit.  If the harder argument isn't made now, will it be possible to make it later when it absolutely has to be made?  Or will the failure of making it now end up blocking the proposal later?The focus in the piece is on the end goal.  There is no discussion at all on the path needed to reach that goal. There needs to be consideration of the path.  One might begin by a look at some recent history.  The last election where young people were really excited by the Democratic candidate was 2008, when many felt that then candidate Obama offered a fresh alternative.  Two years later, that energy was all but gone.  The Tea Party delivered The Great Shellacking.In the interim ACA was passed.  It took about a year to get done.  At the outset, there was enthusiasm for a public option. At the end, there was no public option.  That may have been necessary to get the bill through Congress, but members of the public were not ready for that conclusion.  (Were there a public option, the Hobby Lobby case would never have happened as the public option would have offered a way out.  Indeed it is conceivable that Medicare for all wouldn't be necessary because it already was there in a veiled form in the public option.)What lessons were learned from those experiences?  I'd like to hear about that.  What will be done so as to not have a repeat of the history afterwards?  How might the energy be sustained to elections beyond 2020?The electoral strategy needs an explanation that is game theoried out. It can't merely be aspirational.&nbs[...]



Socialism Reconsidered Part 5 - Wage Subsidies and Confounding Expectations

2017-09-27T08:39:46.330-05:00

This is part 5 in an occasional series.  In this piece we grapple with the economics of income inequality as it applies to our national politics and make a case for doing something real and substantial about it that is highly visible, well before the coming election in November 2018.* * * * * We live in a time where in the public consciousness an emotional appeal can win over a rational argument.  Maybe that has always been true.  I don't know.  It is clearly evident now, particularly on why the base doesn't abandon Trump and instead ignores the matter of Russian involvement in influencing the election and the Trump campaign's role in that, all the while staying loyal to their guy.  Among the two parties, it seems the Republicans in general, and this White House in particular, are far better at making the emotional appeal.  The social science suggests that those who are disposed to an authoritarian view are especially welcoming of such an appeal.  Further, it seems the Democrats have pulled the short straw on which party is to be trusted.  And, of course, the Democrats are the minority party now.  Even if they make an excellent rational argument, for the time being the argument is talk only.  We all know that talk is cheap.  Under these conditions does the message get through?  Does it get a full hearing?  Is it then believed?On the flip side, money talks in a way that people listen.  The core idea in this essay is to use money, preferably quite a lot of it, in a way to deliver the message that the Democrats want to deliver, but not through the normal political channels, such as spending the money on TV ads.  Instead, spend the money on the people whom the Democrats claim they want to benefit, ordinary working people.  This would make the message credible.  It would also make the message quite different, a game changer if you will.  Nobody has done this before in a political campaign.One other point to make here is that while individual candidates need to make themselves known to the voters, this time around there is no reason to run attack ads against the President or against the Republican Party.  The track record speaks for itself.  Rubbing it in won't help.  And we really don't need any more negative messages.  We need something constructive, illumination on a way to move forward.  That's what the campaign should be about.The money that is raised would be generated by donations, mainly from upscale voters.  In appealing to them for donations two distinct points need to be made.  First, their donations signify that they are willing to have their taxes raised, after the election in 2020 if not the election in 2018, for the good of the order.  Conventional politics says that talk of raising taxes is a loser.  So politicians tend to talk about the beneficiaries of government spending, but then mumble about how to pay for it.   This won't work now.  An aggressive case needs to be made to the effect: (1) the current system doesn't work because it screws the little guy, (2) for the system to work there needs to be substantial income redistribution toward the little guy, (3) well off people must bear their fair share of the burden; expecting the uber rich to pay for it all is unrealistic, and (4) the previous point must be cast in ethical terms as a matter of social responsibility; people need to provide service to their country in ways that matter, not just by serving in the military; now the need is for income transfers.  The debacle about repeal of the Affordable Care Act should make all of this abundantly clear.As near as I can tell, there has been a lot of talk about (1) and (2) recently, but hardly any talk at all about (3) and (4).   The second point about appealing for donations has already been made.  Much of these donations would go directly to [...]



Losing Oneself By Teaching

2017-09-06T19:51:29.411-05:00

I need to start of with an explanation of the title.  Over the years I've learned that I'm happiest when I've entirely lost my sense of self because I'm so into whatever the activity is that my attention is fully focused on it.  Depth of focus is a source of joy, but one I'm only aware of after the fact.  Were I back in college, I'd be talking about coming down from a high, which is when self-awareness returns.I only teach the one class.  That probably matters in what I say.  Also, I've been having issues with insomnia the last month or two.  When it's a few nights in a row with inadequate sleep, you feel you're a wreck and not up to doing much at all.  That's the way I was going into class yesterday.  Yet somehow after the session started the feeling of exhaustion disappeared.  Then I really got into it.The first day of class I had the students rearrange the furniture and sit in a horseshoe, with the backs of their tablet armchairs near the perimeter of the room.  We had a few too many students to do this well, and enrollments have increased some since the first day, so I have not returned to that arrangement since, yet I believe there was a derivative benefit from doing it.   Because the course is on The Economics of Organizations, I told them we were doing a re-org of the class.  We then went through a bit of deconstruction on the the benefits and limitations of each seating arrangement.  I made a point of noting that in the horseshoe each student could see the faces of all the other students, although that is literally not true.  The students with their backs to the same wall can't see the faces of each other.  A round table would be better than the horseshoe, for this very reason.  But the horseshoe is better able to accommodate the number of students we had, because it takes advantage of the full perimeter of the room, and to enable all of them to see me. I should add that I've been sitting on top of the desk at the front of the room adjacent to the technology cabinet, because there is no chair behind that desk.  When I tested technology in the room a few weeks ago there was such a chair.  Under the circumstances, you do what you can do, though not what you don't like to do.  I am very uncomfortable sitting in one of those tablet armchairs, so don't opt for that alternative.A sense that discussion was important was further reinforced by surveying the students after class about how the session went.  The students get a few bonus points for completing the survey.  Those who do (about half of those in attendance) should get the message that a good and effective discussion is an ideal that the class as a whole should aspire to.  I had done this sort of thing back in 2009 when I taught a seminar for the Campus Honors Program.  I have never previously tried it for a regular class.  I was driven to try it again not to promote discussion in the class, but rather to encourage attendance.  In last year's class attendance was abysmal and class discussion among those who did show up was also not that strong.  This time around I have been getting students to sign in before each class session, the old fashioned way via putting their initials next to their name on a class roster, rather than with technology.  I've kept up with the sign in and the after class surveys in our subsequent sessions.  I'm taking a wait and see attitude as to whether that practice should continue.   But for now, I think it is more important for the message it delivers than from the information garnered in the survey.  Preparing for class when the goal is to have discussion with a lot of class participation turns out to be a lot like the prewriting one does when crafting a blog post like this one.  But it is unlike how one prepares for doing a straight lectur[...]



Ghostwriting for other than book length work

2017-09-23T05:39:42.106-05:00

One Google search doesn't prove anything, but this one is at least suggestive.  (See the screen shot below.)Now, here is a harder proposition to demonstrate, but it resonates with me as correct.  There is a lot of mediocre to poor writing out there where there really should be good writing to make the transactions that depend on the writing work.  For the sake of argument, let's say it's true.  What might be done to rectify the situation?As an economist, I tend to couch issues in an economic paradigm, quite often in terms of supply and demand.  The above is meant to show that there is potential demand for ghostwriting in business setting.  So, one wonders about supply.  In today's Inside Higher Ed there is yet another piece about something different, the excess supply of PhDs in the Humanities.  Now we make a wave of the hands, heroic assumption, but again it seems reasonable to me.  A good fraction of those PhDs who don't find faculty positions would be willing to work as a ghostwriter at some company, or to work for a ghostwriting agency that serviced multiple companies, as long as the pay was decent.Another core economic hypothesis is that once a double coincidence of wants has been identified, a market will emerge to satisfy those wants.  So, if there is some reader of this post out there with an entrepreneurial spirit, go for it.* * * * *I am going to switch gears here.  In much of the volunteer work that I do now, ghostwriting is the essence of what I contribute.  I'd like to describe that briefly, to give a better sense of what I mean by ghostwriting.First, there is an ongoing dialog with the principals.  Trust is built up gradually over time as the discussion pans out with some deliverables, and some improvement in the strategic thinking of the group.  In this sense, writing is codified conversation and the dialog itself is formative thinking that advances toward firmer positions that can be turned into action items.Second, any writing task can be subject to being ghost written.  It can be an email message, a training document, a grant proposal, really anything.  In some cases what the ghost writer will do is to produce a tolerable second draft after one of the principals has produced a first draft.  In other cases, based on a prior conversation, the ghost writer might be the one to produce the first draft.Third, the principals and the ghost writer together develop a sense of pace for work to get done.  So the process gets easier over time and expectations regarding what will be produced become more realistic.Last,  the better the ghostwriter knows and understands the principals, the better the rest of this works out.  So the ghostwriter becomes part of the team.  There is then the question whether the ghostwriter should ultimately get recognition.  There may be strategic reasons why the ghostwriter is not actually entirely invisible but nevertheless remains in the background.Whether my experience can generalize, I really don't know.  In other words, it may be not just writing skills that matter here but my prior administrative experience might also matter quite a bit.   In the setting where it is an agency that provides ghostwriting services, perhaps people with similar experience to me might mentor humanist ghostwriters who lack those sort of experiences, to see if they can acquire some of that type of thinking through the mentoring.  Alternatively, ghostwriters might be paired up with business decision types in a team that offers a joint service of this sort. * * * * *I'm also aware that many individuals want help with their writing.  Again, I can see a double coincidence of wants.  But here it might only be quite well off people who could afford to hire a ghostwriter.  Someone who is more entrepreneurial t[...]



The End of Subtlety

2017-08-23T18:45:52.731-05:00

A Variant of the Tree Falling in the Forest QuestionIf a long form essay posted online gets no readers, is there an idea?* * * * * The Following Charts My Trajectory as a Reader and as a Writer During AdulthoodA lesson from graduate school I learned at the time is that academic papers by economists needed to be unpacked by the reader.  Their meaning wasn't immediate.  The equations, in particular, needed to be derived.  The reader, by working through these derivations, would then begin to understand the text that accompanied them.  This meant that to read an economics paper you needed a large flat surface, part for the paper itself and part for a notebook or pad of ruled paper to do the derivations.  And you needed a good chunk of time to work through the ideas because those derivations would be far from immediate.Sometime later, as an Assistant Professor with faculty friends in the Econ Department who did empirical work (I did only theory) and who would try to to read through my papers, they struggled with that task and often couldn't do it.  What I came to understand was two things.  First, the lesson I had learned in graduate school really only applied to a small subset of the profession.  If I wanted a broader audience for my work, I as the writer would have to do some of the unpacking that I had assumed until then was the job of the reader.  Second, this applied not just to the equations themselves but to the text that describes what the model is saying.  The implications needed to be drawn out.This need as an author changed the way I behaved as a reader.   In graduate school, particularly in the first and second year, the papers we read were assigned to us by the instructors of the courses we took.  We read papers that were emblematic of a larger literature, but we didn't read the larger literature in addition.  So we achieved some breadth in coverage of topic at the expense of more depth on those topics that we did cover. Readers who are not authors tend to read this way. Academic authors, however, have a different obligation.  The author must understand the literature of papers that precede the author's own contribution and the author must be able to explain where the value add is in the author's paper.  Nevertheless, the writing is done for fellow academics, who are assumed to be familiar with the literature.  That familiarity means the author still can assume quite a bit about what the reader knows.  The author doesn't have to replicate that knowledge much if at all.  So, to a struggling graduate student trying to make sense of the paper, it would be a slug to get through, no doubt.  But for those who worked in the area, the paper shouldn't have been unduly difficult to read.It is worth noting the parallel pleasure reading done at the time.  I joined the Book of the Month Club pretty soon after becoming a faculty member.  If I recall their mechanism, you didn't have to accept their monthly offering, which I usually didn't, but you did have to say no in that case.  Sometimes I was absent minded and forgot so acquired some titles I otherwise wouldn't have bought.  Some of those I read, for example, Ordinary People, which I must have liked because I remember getting some friends to go see the movie with me and we didn't go to the movies too often then.   Of course, the Sunday New York Times was mandatory.  If you would go out to brunch with a friend, which I would often do then, you'd share the paper and the question was which section you'd want to read first.  In grad school, I believe, I'd go for the Sports Section, then The Week in Review.  As an Assistant Professor, my tastes changed.  My preference was to start with the Book Review, then go to the Magazine.Eventually, based on l[...]



The Fear of Emasculation

2017-08-16T19:47:10.302-05:00

For the last several months, I've been reading the newspaper less and less.  It seemed like the same story, over and over again.  And since the story was so depressing I asked myself, why bother?  Sunday was different.  I read quite a few pieces - mainly opinion as is my habit - on what seemed like a variety of topics.  I wondered if it was possible to connect the dots between them in some way.  To make that more concrete, I asked the following question.  Is the news about Google from last week somehow connected to what recently occurred in Charlottesville?As you might guess from reading my title, I believe there is a connection and that is it.  Here's a bit of disclaimer before going further.  I tend to see connection in disparate things.  Sometimes those are really there.  Other times, I'm probably forcing the issue beyond what the evidence suggests.  In those cases where I'm right, making note of the connection provides some insight into the underlying causality.  We really do need to understand the causality before we talk about remedies, both those currently in place and potential alternatives.  In this piece, I won't consider remedies at all and will focus only on the underlying issue.  I will do this by considering a variety of snippets that are neither current nor directly related to these matters.  They are meant to illuminate and bring out the parallels that seem evident to me.Let's begin with this one, a clip from SNL circa 1990, when I still watched the show - Hans and Franz Pumping You Up.   The bit is a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was at the height of his film popularity then.  (Terminator 2 - Hasta la vista, baby - would come out the following year.)  Satirical comedy of this sort gives some insight into popular stereotypes, in this case what it means to be a man.  It is about being strong, but it is more than that.  It is being strong of a certain type.  This is not strong in the sense of speak softly but carry a big stick.  This is totally in your face.  It is talking trash, the way Larry Bird talked trash.  Talking trash includes putdowns of rivals.  The ultimate putdown for Hans and Franz is to call somebody a girly man.  (You can hear that usage around the 1:35 mark of the clip.  Dana Carvey as Hans is talking then.)So there are two take aways from this particular example.  One is the implied phobia in males from being identified with feminine characteristics - somehow this make you less manly and you should be ashamed if that is the case.  The other is that the notion of what it means to be strong may have changed from the time I was a kid to when this SNL skit was aired.  With the earlier notion a strong person was courageous but didn't show bluster.  That would have been unseemly. With the later version, it's part of the package.  It may be that both versions co-exist now, in which case we should ask when one will prevail and not the other as well as why that is the case.This next snip is from my class last fall, a blog post by a student who writes under an alias, the first real post of the course.  The class in on The Economics of Organizations and the prompt for this post asked for students to discuss some of their own experiences with organizations.  He wrote about his fraternity, a very interesting read for the mindset it illustrates.  He writes about how the ritual of initiation transformed him and his fellow pledges from a boy into a man.  Many years earlier I had a student who joined the Marines after taking my course; I believe he enlisted for this purpose of entering manhood.  When I next saw him after his training had concluded, he had gotten noticeably thicker in the chest and [...]



Thoughts from a Has Been: The Next, Next Digital Learning Environment - Team Production in Instruction

2017-08-07T16:04:34.320-05:00

This post offers some reactions to the recent piece by Phillip D. Long and Jon Mott, The N^2GDLE Vision....  In many respects, I am not qualified to offer a meaningful critique, as I retired back in summer 2010 and have not kept up with developments in the field since.  But I haven't been able to get all that came before entirely out of my system, witness a couple of critiques I've done since retiring about earlier pieces written in this vein, such as this rhyme about work by Jim Groom and Brian Lamb and a longish post entitled Feedback Rather than Assessment, about the previous NGDLE paper that appeared in Educause Review by Malcolm Brown, Joanne Dehoney, and Nancy Millichap.  Further, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Not an insignificant bit of Long and Mott's piece is about 'dissing' the learning management system, a cottage industry within educational technology for well over a decade, one that I've participated in even after retirement, for example in this piece, Some regrets about learning management systems.  Indeed, that post and its sequel, Where Are Plato's Children?, make me quite sympathetic to the 'smart online tutor' part of Long and Mott's vision for N^2GDLE.  But there are many other parts of this vision that I found idealistic in the extreme.  So one wonders whether their conclusions are robust to making more realistic assumptions, or if that would produce quite a different result.  As my strength is looking at the learning issues through a political economy lens, that's what I will do in this post.  I hope it produces some value add for readers beyond the value it produces for me by allowing me to purge these thoughts from my system, which is quite frequently my motivation for writing a piece.If there is such value add, much of that will be found in elucidating where I am wrong, so in making credible counter arguments.  I not only admit the possibility that I might be in error on these matters, I recognize that in some places that is especially likely. So I offer up my piece as a challenge, not just to find the errors, but to refute them.  Doing that should make Long and Mott's argument stronger.Let's get to the heart of the matter right off.  Developing this software environment will take incremental resources, while many of our campuses are in flat or shrinking revenue environments.  More importantly, developing the content that will utilize this new software environment will also take incremental resources.  In my reading of the paper, the content development piece will be much more expensive than the software development piece.  Further, while the software part might be expected to be funded within the IT budget on campus,  where IT leaders can manage revenue reallocation, the content part surely won't be.  So the powers that be who control the revenue allocation outside of IT must buy into the vision to make this a go.  Will they?  Why should they?  If they don't, then Long and Mott are merely preaching to the choir.  It might not occur to the choir to think this through from a political economy angle.  So it is conceivable that the Long and Mott piece appeals to learning technologists yet at the same time the ideas therein are doomed at the campus level.For a more realistic approach, it would seem, we need to understand the preferences of the powers that be.  Let me assert here a reactive rather than visionary way to articulate these preferences.  (This is one of those assumptions that can be challenged.)  The powers that be will want what instructors and students want.Do the majority of instructors and students favor the status quo over what is proposed by Long and Mott?  In this status quo there is much su[...]



Muckracking Journalism Where We Really Need It

2017-08-01T07:42:00.789-05:00

While the Trump soap opera and the melodrama about health care absorbs all our emotional bandwidth, we are far less than fully informed about other matters that should be brought to our attention. Remember that the next agenda item for Congress is supposed to be tax reform.  What, then, do we know about the corporate profit tax and the expatriation of corporate profits to avoid taxation?  A proposal has been floated, one I personally find infuriating, to create a tax holiday for corporations so that they will repatriate those monies that are now overseas.  Is there any alternative to this that might still bring those funds back home and, better still, actually get the funds spent on investment, public or private, rather than simply have the money amplify the war chest of the large corporations?  We need far more reporting and commentary on this matter....now.Below are some obvious questions that occur to me.  Before getting at the issue about what should be done, we need a much better picture of what is going on.What is the annual outflow of corporate profit abroad?  What is the time pattern of this outflow?  over the last 5 years?  over the last 10 years? over the last 20 years?  How far back does it go where the volume of outflow was significant?  Can we identify a time when the practice started?How much corporate profit is retained domestically?  Can we likewise do a time pattern of that?  How does that ratio of retained profit to expatriated profit vary over time? Can we break this down on a company by company basis?  Are there some large corporations which don't expatriate profits or do all of them do it?  Are there some that do it to a greater extent than others?Can we estimate that amount of tax avoided by this expatriation of profits?  As above, a time pattern would be useful, as would the aggregate amount of avoidance.This one might be harder to get at.  Does the expatriation of profit matter for the stock price of shares in the company?  (If expatriation produces a capital gain on the order of magnitude of the tax avoided divided by the number of shares, then since there is a capital gains tax on individuals, some of this tax avoidance might be recaptured that way.  Can that amount be estimated?)What do small business owners, who don't have this pipeline to expatriate profits, feel about this practice by large corporations?  Do they think it is just the way the system works or, on the contrary, do they view it as fundamentally unfair creating a bias in the system in favor of the large corporations? And, likewise, what do ordinary taxpayers feel about the practice?  Does the practice contribute to the view that the system is rigged?There are surely other questions that might be asked as well to get a picture of what is going on.  But this seems to me a good enough list to get us started.  I want to make a few other points and then close. The first is about the potential anti-competitive effects from large amounts of retained earnings held by major corporations.  One could write a book on this subject.  Instead, here I will content myself with recounting a bit of history, as my campus played a formative role in it.   Netscape was the startup offering a new product, a graphical Web browser.   Microsoft was the big, and by Internet measures, lumbering corporation with pockets so deep they might as well have been limitless.  In 1995 Netscape Navigator was clearly the best browser on the market.  By 1998 Internet Explorer had the larger market share.  Netscape had one revenue stream.  Microsoft offered its browser for free, plus it bundled the browser with the operating system so when you bo[...]



Gilbert and Sullivan Are Rolling Their Eyes

2017-07-20T06:17:09.019-05:00

My object not sublime
I shall achieve a rhyme
And punish the reader much of the time
The reader much of the time.

And done without consent
Unwittingly I do vent
A rather unbalanced temperament
An unbalanced temperament.



Gentle Conversations

2017-08-01T08:04:01.414-05:00

In my experience, conversations where the participants are relaxed and open with one another are both quite informative and pleasurable to participate in.  Yet such conversations don't just happen.  They require cultivation ahead of time.  The participants must share some common previous experiences.  From those, they must develop a sense that the others in the discussion will listen to them and come to trust that as a normal occurrence.  In turn, they must reciprocate by listening to the others and demonstrating that in a way that communicates they understand what the others are saying.  Listening in this way requires effort, but when the activity is enjoyable the effort may not be noticeable to the participant.  Listening also requires a degree of flexibility in one's own point of view, to modify that when the situation requires doing so.People who are rigid and doctrinaire lack this ability and thus put the others in conversation on guard and make them tense.  Then the discussion becomes a form of intellectual combat.  In the courtroom, this is good and appropriate. The law, by design, is an adversarial process. Similarly, it makes sense in politics, where candidates debate one another.  Voters must choose among the candidates.  The debate informs that choice. But in private conversation, the rigidity of a participant is not helpful.  Indeed, it is hurtful.  If we must engage in discussions with such people on a repeated basis, we learn to dread those conversations in the offing.Often the learning in gentle conversations is about our own prior thinking.  We've experienced something and started to reflect on it, but haven't worked it all the way through.  Or we've gone a bit further and drawn some tentative conclusions, but might change our opinion if somebody else would convince us to do so, perhaps by presenting some other evidence that sheds light on the situation, or by framing the issue in a different way that helps us to make progress in thinking about it.   This is one of the primary ways adults learn.  It differs from classroom learning in that the discussions are voluntary and there is no performance measure given, neither individually nor as a group.  The only external verification that the conversation 'works' is that the participants willingly engage in future such conversations.I base the above primarily on my time as an administrator on campus, where I had many such conversations with colleagues on campus as well as with peers in educational technology at other institutions. Quite a few of these conversations happened at the coffee shop or over lunch.  That location, as distinct from having the discussion at the office of one of the participants, conveys that there is a social aspect to the discussion.  This blending of work related business with the social is something to be desired.  People on campus intuitively understand that.  It is comfortable to be around others who are likewise engaged in their own conversations.  And a bit of food or a beverage add to the relaxed nature of the discussion.There is one point, however, where all of this prior experience fails to illuminate.  This regards the previous common experiences that help to form a bond among the participants.  With my colleagues on campus and within the ed tech profession, much of that experience happened by serendipity.  We capitalized on our good fortune, but we didn't contemplate a methodology to generate such experiences that would bring others into the group in a way where these others felt comfortable and participated fully.  Two points I can make on this are first, that if you int[...]



The Derby Smash - Lyrics

2017-09-28T17:24:21.335-05:00

The Monster Mash - Bobby Pickett Vocals
The Monster Mash - Lyrics


The Derby Smash (Sung to the tune of The Monster Mash)

I was watching the TV on Monday night
An All-Star reverie that was quite a sight
When an Aaron Judge home run began to rise
And suddenly before my eyes

He hit the smash
He hit the derby smash
He hit the smash
It was a baseball bash
He hit the smash
Left the field in a flash
He hit the smash
He hit the derby smash

MLB ballplayers from the West and East
ESPN announcers claimed the ball had yeast
All of them reaching circuit overloads
Watching his bat how the ball explodes

They watched the smash
They watched the derby smash
They watched the smash
It was a baseball bash
They watched the smash
Left the field in a flash
They watched the smash
They watched the derby smash

The fandom were having fun
Cheering another home run
Measure distance in the plan
Speed with the radar gun.

The scene was rocking, all were digging the sounds
Many of the shots would have left the grounds
The glass wall past the outfield blocked each drive
Their staggering length caused giving high fives.

Another smash
Another derby smash
Another smash
It was a baseball bash
Another smash
Left the field in a flash
Another smash
Another derby smash

Out of the booth Buster's voice did sing
Seems he was troubled by just one thing
Asking the slugger he couldn't resist
He said, "You must defend your title cause the fans will insist"

It's now the smash
It's now the derby smash
It's now the smash
It was a baseball bash
It's now the smash
Left the field in a flash
It's now the smash
It's now the derby smash

Now everything's cool, though beyond what was planned
And the derby smash made the All-Star break grand
For you, the fandom, the smash was meant too
When you get to the ballpark, tell them Betances sent you

Then you can smash
Then you can derby smash
Then you can smash
It was a baseball bash
Then you can smash
Left the field in a flash
Then you can smash
Then you can derby smash




High Standards and Low Expectations

2017-08-01T08:33:14.225-05:00

I have some core underlying beliefs that drive much of my thinking and writing.  One of those is on the necessity of producing a coherent narrative that explains both how things currently are and where we'd like to see things go BEFORE recommending potential solutions that might be implemented.  My strength is in doing an analysis so having this particular bias is playing to my strength.  I will note that others looking at the same situation may very well come up with a different analysis, one that contradicts mine in some fundamental ways.  Very good.  Then we can argue about those.  Such an argument should bring out hidden assumptions, which ultimately must be what explains the difference in the analyses, assuming that logical error has been ruled out as an explanation.I want to illustrate with two examples.  One is about our national politics.  The other is about undergraduate education.  These are two of my passions at present.  I will note that my economics training makes me produce a narrative in a certain way.   Others might not frame things in the same manner.  On the one hand, this give some novelty to my perspective and may make it interesting for others to consider.  On the other hand, if that perspective is too alien others won't readily embrace it.  It is far easier to stick with the familiar.* * * * *  Let's consider national politics.  It is said that many voters have lost faith in the system, which doesn't work for them, and which is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.  You read about this over and over again. Taking that as a starting point, one might proceed by making a list of requirements for a system that did work.  Getting that far others might do as well, but usually this is done piecemeal rather than taking all the requirements together as a whole.  The next step would occur to economists but likely not others.  We need to ask, are the requirements as a whole feasible, meaning they can all be satisfied by a functional system, or are they infeasible, meaning taken together it is not possible to satisfy them all?As I said, we often don't ask this question.  If we did and we found that the answer is that the system is infeasible, the next step in the process entails going back to the requirements and looking for candidates that can be deleted from the list, while still maintaining that the remainder are sufficient for making the system work.  With fewer requirements, it is easier to get feasibility.  One can then envision an iterative process that looks for the best possible feasible solution.  Let me illustrate with what I hope is a simple example.Whether Democrat or Republican, people would agree that one important goal is for anyone willing and able to work to be able to find a decent paying job.  The Democrats argue for raising the minimum wage as part of the solution.  A substantial minimum wage ensures that the pay is adequate for the work done.  If the person can find work at the minimum wage, then clearly it will be effective in providing a decent job.  But what if the person can't find work?  One possible retort, one I have never heard anyone argue for but on one level makes sense, is to have the minimum wage indexed to the unemployment rate - a low unemployment rate means a high minimum wage and vice versa.   Another possible retort, and again I have never heard anyone argue for this, is that the minimum wage stays fixed but wage subsidies are available to employers and those subsidies are indexed by the unemployment rate, so the taxpayer pays some of [...]



Unintentionally Making Others Feel Stupid

2017-07-06T18:06:23.121-05:00

This is an odd subject to write about, so I want to begin by taking a couple of steps backward to explain why it has captured my attention.  At a personal level, I've had a few different threads in Facebook recently with some of my friends from high school.  I was a math nerd then and still have some of that in me now.  In order to show my bona fides, I posted a scan of some scribbling I had done a while back to provide a geometric derivation for the formula that gives the sine of the sum of two angles. After that, there were several witty comments by my friends that ensued.  Then one posted - "I have no idea what you are talking about."  This was from a very bright woman, who also is quite direct in what she posts.  I didn't think a mea culpa was the right response from me there, though it might have been, so instead I posted a link to an animated version of Tom Lehrer's New Math.  It has the tag line - "it's so easy, so very simple, that only a child can do it."  I have also been devoting considerable thought to the question, how can we repair things nationally, after we get past the current moment?  Until the last few weeks I thought the answer was for everyone to embrace a sense of social responsibility, as the way to make the system work again.  This had two parts for me.  One was to treat people unlike ourselves with respect and to refrain from the recrimination and vitriol that seems to have invaded our discourse.  The other, particularly directed at upscale voters, was to pay substantially more in taxes, in other words, to embrace the need for government programs directed at working-class people and for the upscale voters to have the willingness to forego the myopic benefit from having higher after-tax incomes in order to enable this broader social justice as outcome. I have written several posts that argue these things.  Yet while I still feel they are necessary, I've come to realize they are insufficient.  We need something else as well.That something else is to repair ourselves emotionally.  People feel hurt, angry, and frustrated.  They act based on these feelings rather than based on a cool and collected rationality.  There have been many pieces written in the last several weeks that explain these things.  In a nutshell, Liberals are smug or perceived of as such.  Trump voters are bothered by the smugness, so much so that they are willing to support Trump, even if that means voting against their narrow economic interest.  Supporting Trump is a way to metaphorically give the finger to the smug Liberals.  The visceral satisfaction from giving the finger trumps (pun intended) a more rational calculus. If we are to repair ourselves nationally, we need to find a way to get past this.In the above paragraph, I deliberately tried to distinguish actuality from a different possibility, this in reference to Liberal smugness.  The other possibility emerges as some of the media repeatedly depict Liberals in this light, regardless of the true situation, so the perception takes hold for this reason.  Having taken hold, it will then be very hard to change the perception.  I want to recognize that here but otherwise not address it in this post.  At the very end I will write a few sentences about my wishful thinking with regard to the media.  If only wishing would make it so.   My mental model in this post is to envision direct conversation between Trump voters and Liberals, conversation that is unmediated.  Could such conversation end where the parties are at peace with one anothe[...]



Misreading Children's Fiction for Its Political Implications

2017-07-01T07:09:53.942-05:00

I don't write often about religion but I did in a post from 7.5 years ago called Theism - "Pan," "Mono," and "A", where judging from some comments I received it was among my better pieces.  It had two disparate sources of stimulation.  One was a column by Ross Douthat about the movie Avatar and the religious implications of the pantheism in the story. I thought he was making much ado about nothing, so I wanted to say something in response to that effect.  The other was from my own classroom teaching.  I was in my 30th year at Illinois and this was the first time that religion had found its way into the classroom.  I hadn't invited that, at least not directly, but it was there nevertheless.  I found it awkward, but I also thought my situation relevant to others, at least those of us who teach or who have taught a class.  So I wanted to write something about those experiences.In this piece I'm reacting to another column by Ross Douthat, The Muggle Problem.  In the Harry Potter stories, which have been celebrating a twentieth anniversary, Muggles are people who can't do magic, ordinary folks if you will.  In Rowling's telling of these stories Muggles are occasionally seen but hardly ever heard.  Douthat then makes the analogy - wizards are to liberal elites as Muggles are to Trump voters.  Armed with that off he goes.  I thought his argument was over baked.  I want to take that on in this piece.I will eventually get to my refutation, but I have a different purpose as well.  I want to give my view of kid fiction, my ideal of what it should accomplish, and how it played out in my family with my kids, quite far from that ideal.  Indeed, I have some issues with the Harry Potter stories, but those issues are unlike anything that Douthat writes about.  In order to understand the role of these stories, it is useful to consider the full trajectory of stories the kids were exposed to when they were young.When the  kids were too young for school they went to daycare during the school day. Then, in elementary school, the pattern when they got home was similar.  There would be play, perhaps outside on the structure in the backyard or inside with Legos.  While inside there surely would be some TV viewing.  Favorite programs included Barney, Thomas The Tank Engine, and Pokemon.  Then at night we would often watch an animated video on VHS tape.  Disney made a variety of these that we viewed repeatedly.  (I still like to watch Balto and Mulan on occasion.)  And there was also the Land Before Time series that the kids liked very much.  The kids developed two intense interests from this viewing.  One was trains.  There are train tracks that go north-south in Champaign (among the trains that ride those tracks is The City of New Orleans) and every time we'd drive near the train tracks and hear the train whistle, we'd have to pull over and watch as the train passed.  The other was dinosaurs.  (On a visit to Chicago we'd go to the museum to see the skeletons.)After the evening movie the kids would get ready for bed and we'd read to them a story.  I can't remember whether I would read to one kid and my wife to the other (they boys had separate bedrooms) or if we got them together and one of us would do all the reading.  For quite a while Goodnight Moon was the book of choice.  In addition, I know I developed fondness for books by Sandra Boynton and some others.  Going to the bookstore to select new titles for the bedtime reading was among my favorite thing[...]



What should we be teaching? What can we be teaching?

2017-07-01T10:51:43.603-05:00

David Brooks had a column on Friday, Mis-Educating the Young, that contributes to a growing collection of pieces by various authors which argue that something is rotten in the state of educating children.  Hanna Rosin's The Overprotected Kid is one of the better pieces in this group, as it helps to define the problem, explains why the problem has come about, and offers some tentative conclusions about how to make things better.  The hypothesis is that kids learn important life lessons from play and adult supervision, aimed at the seemingly justifiable goal of keeping the kids safe, ends up blocking the learning - the cure is worse than the disease.I want to note some other dimensions of the same general issue.  Kids tend to be over programmed, with many of the activity choices outside of school initially set by a parent.  Kids today have much less discretionary time than we had when we were kids.  Kids then "learn" that discretionary time is for vegging out or providing some hedonistic reward.  For most kids, reading is not the form that guilty pleasure takes.  So they don't learn to direct their own interests and to use that direction to drive their own learning.  I wrote about this several years ago in a post called PLAs Please.  Another consideration is that the nature of play changes as kids grow older.  It is possible that kids can engage in intellectual play, which I think is a natural outgrowth of child play expanding after some lessons from inside and outside of school have been learned well.  Indeed, the benefit from college for residential students, research that I was exposed to at the Frye Leadership Institute back in 2003 (I don't have a reference now but I'm sure my friend Lisa could provide it) says that what students learn from other students is far more important that what they get from their classes.  But nowadays there may be much less of this if what students do with other students is purely hedonistic (mainly drinking).Brooks also notes that the nature of work is changing, rather dramatically, and school should be preparation for this brave new world, but hardly seems to be now.   To this one should add two further limitations regarding teachers.  Many, like me, had very little work outside of higher education and even among those of us in higher ed who did have administrative careers, there is the question whether that experience generalizes much, if at all, to the experiences of executives in the business world.  The other regards the age of the professoriate and that an instructor's sense of how and what to teach depends largely on what can be recalled from the instructor's experience as a student.   This seems to paint us into a corner.  One of my goals in this piece is to attempt to reconcile this particular issue.Further, there is the issue of the patterns of school as a self-enforcing equilibrium, where those patterns are sub-optimal but end up blocking movement to something better.  Brooks' experience is from his teaching at Yale.   I don't know how long he's been doing that nor how many students he has taught, but I suspect his experience is different from mine, teaching econ majors at Illinois.  I described the issue as I see it at some length in a post, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study for exams?  Here I will give a brief synopsis of the argument.Many students conceive of the process of school as: (a) take notes during lecture (or get the notes from a classmate), (b) memorize the notes, [...]



Wisecracking

2017-09-28T17:31:01.047-05:00

Zollo and I are sitting behind Lenny and Carl.  It's the first day of tenth grade and this is Chemistry with Mr. Kramer.  Class hasn't started yet.  Each desk accommodates two people.  Zollo and I shared one.  Lenny and Carl shared another.  The classroom is tiered so Zollo and I sit a step above Lenny and Carl. This is the way the science classrooms were laid out.  I knew Zollo from before, though I can't remember how.  The important thing is that because we went to 74, we did our ninth grade at Cardozo.  We were veterans.  Lenny and Carl went to 67.  They started Cardozo in tenth grade.  They were rookies.I am giving a ton of grief to Zollo and Zollo is giving a ton of grief right back to me.  Lenny and Carl are laughing hysterically.  It's as if we were doing some vaudeville act on their behalf.  Then the class actually starts and we settle down, though that part I just assume.  All I can remember is those first few minutes before class.  I believe the pattern repeated for the next several days, perhaps even for the rest of the semester.  Eventually Lenny and Carl joined into the banter.  Soon after that first day, Lenny and I became friends.  One of the reasons is that he so readily laughed at my schtick. (The spell checker doesn't like the first "c" in schtick, but I'm going to leave it in because, after all, it is my schtick.)And now a little aside to demonstrate that this sort of thing is itself learned behavior.  A few years ago I had a discussion group with three former students.   They were international students, two from China, one from South Korea.  They were very good students who always did the assigned work and were eager to learn.  They liked it very much when I would joke with them, which happened mainly at the beginning of our meeting.  They smiled easily and genuinely enjoyed that part of our interaction.  My purpose in starting the group was to see if I could get them to be more creative in their own learning.  So, in accord with my inclination, we read oddball stuff to get at creativity from many different angles.  Our method was for one of them to write a blog post about the topic beforehand and for the others to comment on it.  This was to get everyone ready for our discussion.  One week we covered humor and schtick.  Nicole's post on this showed her usual thoroughness, but it lacked any insight into the topic.  She could have tried to be funny in her post.  But she didn't.  Either it didn't occur to her to do so or she didn't know how.  I had hoped she'd try to imitate me in some way, but that didn't happen.  In my comment on her post I wrote one of my rhymes, trying to be both humorous and descriptive of the dilemma. You can't teach schtick one-two-three-zing, where the people learn to do it in one 90-minute session.  It takes lots of practice.  (Regarding the need for practice, think about the work of Anders Ericsson.)  I hadn't realized it ahead of time.  There are some things I do with essentially no effort.  Making humor in context is one of those things.  But I've been doing it for such a long time that I've forgotten all the learning that went into becoming proficient in this way. Back to that time at Cardozo.  One of those things in school I never quite figured out is why you call some people by their first name but with others you use their last name.  And to make it weirder, this is not u[...]



What if Mr. Conrad taught English instead of Math?

2017-06-21T01:36:39.299-05:00

I have been playing over in my head bits about high school.  For example, I've been wondering how long the school day was.  I'm pretty sure that we had 5 minutes between classes to get to the next class.  But I can't remember whether each class was 40 minutes or 45 minutes.  We started with homeroom, which was perhaps 15 minutes, though again I'm not really sure.  In ninth grade, if the school day started at 8:00 AM, which I seem to recall, then we either got out at 2:15 PM or 2:55 PM.  I don't remember which, though I do recall that a bell would ring at the end of each period and again at the start of the next period.In ninth grade I had 5 academic classes - English, Social Studies, Earth Science, French, and Math.  Math was with Mr. Conrad.  More about him in a bit.  The other three periods were Band, Gym, and Lunch.  It's funny, I have little visualizations of each of these classes in my head except for lunch.  Part of that must be remembering the teachers.  But there is also a sense of the classroom - what floor it was on, what direction the room faced.  With the lunchroom, I have no visualization of it in my head.In tenth and eleventh grades the pattern of classes was different for me.  I took 6 academic classes, two science classes each year, both Biology and Chemistry in tenth grade, Physics and AP Chem in eleventh grade, and then I also took two math classes in eleventh grade, both the required analytic geometry and trigonometry class as well as an elective class called math team workshop.  To accommodate this into the day something else had to be dropped.  I stopped doing band after ninth grade, even though I liked it.  After tenth grade I stopped with French, which was kind of a relief at the time, though perhaps short sighted of me then. I would have preferred to drop gym.  A lot of kids probably felt the same way.  In the fall semester of twelfth grade, I wrote an opinion piece for the student newspaper, The Verdict, (the school was Benjamin N. Cardozo High School, named after the former Supreme Court Justice) that argued gym should be optional.  I remember that my English teacher at the time had read it and found it interesting.   My mother saved a copy of the paper and I found it while cleaning out the house before my parents sold it, roughly 20 years later.  So I read the piece again then.  I thought it mediocre, both the argument and the writing.Twelfth grade was different schedule-wise and unlike how things are done now.  I started with two AP classes, math and biology, but after the fall I dropped the bio course.  I don't think the school had AP physics or AP English at the time, though maybe it had the latter and I simply wasn't interested in it.  For social studies, in the fall I had economics, which until then was the only academic class I took that wasn't an honors class and it wasn't particularly good.  At least it didn't scar me for taking economics later.  I took no science class that spring.  I did take a number theory class, but it only went that one semester.  The upshot is that in the spring I only went to school for 5 periods and was done before noon.  For many students, senior year was kind of a blow off time.* * * * *I had Mr. Conrad for four classes - the ninth grade required algebra class, the eleventh grade analytic geometry and trig class, the first term of the math team workshop (Mr. Rosenthal, the former chair of the [...]



Is Technology Ruining Professional Golf?

2017-06-21T09:26:27.087-05:00

This post is part of a determined effort to write about other than the current news and politics.  I don't know how long I'll keep that up, but I will try for a while to see if that engages me.I watched much of the U.S. Open that concluded yesterday, played on a new course at Erin Hills, a golf course north of Milwaukee, the first time this tournament has been played in the state of Wisconsin.  There was drama in it as the outcome was in doubt till near the end of the final round.  The winner, Brooks Koepka, played very well, tying the record for shots under par (16) in a U.S. Open.  Many of the others near the top also played well.  Hideki Matsuyama, the highest rated player who made the cut, mounted an impressive charge on the final day, only to come up a little short. Yet I found the tournament strangely disconnected from past U.S. Opens and thus less interesting to view than it might otherwise have been.  What I have to say about it echoes comments by Steve Stricker, but this is strictly from the perspective of one fan of golf who watches on TV.  To keep matters simple, I will divide pro players into two types, grinders and boomers.  As long as I've been aware of pro golf, there have been players in each category.  Grinders are known for consistency and accuracy.  Boomers are known for hitting their drives very long and, in particular, taking advantage of par fives.  When I became aware of pro golf, the U.S. Open was a tournament that favored grinders.  It did this by having narrow fairways with very punishing rough adjacent to the fairway.  I have some distinct memories of watching David Graham win in 1981.  His advantage was that he hit his drives in the fairway, while many other players did not.  He often used an iron on the tee, to assure this outcome.  Graham only won the U.S. Open that one time.  Other grinders who won it twice include Hale Irwin (he won it 3 times), Curtis Strange, and Andy North.  Interestingly, among the major championships these players only won U.S. Opens.  That cemented the idea for me that the U.S. Open was a tournament that favored grinders.   (Stricker is also a grinder, but he has not yet won a major championship.)In contrast, The Masters is a tournament that favors boomers.  Players from the earlier vintage in this mold include Craig Stadler, Fred Couples (whose nickname was Boom Boom), and more recently Bubba Watson.   They could out-drive the field and at Augusta National that is a great advantage.One should observe that truly great players can succeed in both settings, which shows that golf is more than just how you hit it off the tee.  Recovering from a mistake matters.  Putting well matters; it matters a lot. Understanding how to take advantage of course layout also matters, as does its converse, knowing what pitfalls to avoid so as to stay away from getting a high score on a hole and thereby playing yourself out of contention.  Yet the last two winners at the U.S. Open were boomers.  Koepka really hammered his drives all day yesterday.  Dustin Johnson did likewise the year before.  Has the U.S. Open become a boomer tournament?  Are there any tournaments left for grinders?  Those are the questions I want to think through - from a fan's perspective.First, consider a trend that has influenced all pro sports over the last 30-40 years.  This is the importance of weight lifting and strength[...]



Taking Umbrage or Rolling with the Punches

2017-06-17T07:40:51.597-05:00

As I write this it is early Saturday morning.  Everyone else in the house is asleep and it is very quiet, a stillness that seems unusual.  Part of that is the weather.  There will be storms later today.  This is the calm before that.  The tranquility is intoxicating.  I wonder if it can be bottled, not for personal profit, but rather to offer as a balm for those in distress.  It seems that so many are.  They could use some peace, with themselves and with the world that envelopes them.

There is injustice in the world, a lot of it.  There is also a lot of mindless behavior that ends up antagonizing others where there literally is no intent to do so.  My prior belief is that we should take umbrage with the former and roll with the punches for the latter.  But because I had the requisite statistics class in grad school, I know there are type 1 and types 2 errors.  What do those do to my prior beliefs?

Part of this is how aware we all are of others and are sensitive to their needs.  A question I have is whether such sensitivity is learned or not and then, if it is not learned early in life, can it be learned later?  The patterns that we get used to and comfort us harden over time.  Getting out of our cocoon gets harder and harder to do.

As I have only questions here, I wonder how others seem sure they have answers.  There do seem to be people with quite different answers, and where one answer precludes the other.   Is there some synthesis possible that demonstrates progress can be made?  Gridlock itself is distressing.

I so like the calm of the early morning.  But now it is time to clean up the kitchen so the day can start.




The Progressive Agenda and the Upscale Voter

2017-06-20T18:17:52.890-05:00

Though behavior-wise I don't fit the mold of an upscale voter, for example most of the clothes I'm wearing now were bought at Walmart, in other words I'm something of a cheapskate, income-wise I match the profile.  As I've written many times before, my household is part of the professional class, by which I mean that our household income lies somewhere between the 80th percentile and the 99th percentile in the distribution.  The expression professional class is also meant to convey many related aspects of the household profile.  In our case both my wife and I have PhDs, quite a common situation in a college town, and there are concomitant behaviors and attitudes about work, family, and friends that are part and parcel of being a member of the professional class.  Indeed, most of my social interactions are with others in higher education, which clearly shapes how I think about things and why I feel so at home expressing myself in writing.  This narrows me somewhat as does living in a college town as opposed to living in a major metropolitan area.  Nonetheless, when I make reference to the upscale voter in this piece, I include myself as one of them.Today, Bernie Sanders has an Op-Ed in the NY Times, How Democrats Can Stop Losing Elections.  I largely agreed with what was said there.  Democrats need to get to potential voters who are currently not participating.  The obvious candidates are working class people and young people.  The policies of the Democrats must clearly favor these people, to give them a reason to vote and then to vote for Democrats.  This seems good and sensible to me.  Yet I was troubled by this piece.The enemy in the Sanders story is the top 1 percent, who claim a much too large share of GDP, leaving not enough left for ordinary people.  I agree that they need to pay more in taxes, as a progressive tax system demands.   I asked myself, however, where am I and voters like me in this story?  It seems we're not part of the narrative at all.  For Sanders narrative to make sense, voters like me would have to continue to participate and fully buy into the progressive agenda.  My guess is that won't happen if the approach is to ignore us.  But, no doubt, including us complicates matters some, perhaps quite a lot.  Here I want to take on some of those complications.  But I want to do it in as straightforward a way as possible.The core issue is that voters have been acculturated to "vote their pocketbook."  There is quite a long tradition of doing just that.   But if all voters do that then upscale Democrats likely wouldn't fully endorse a progressive agenda.  They will then perhaps try to block it or possibly become disillusioned and not participate or maybe vote for anti-tax Republicans.  In none of these scenarios is the path that Sanders sketches easy to follow. Thomas Edsall describes the issue well in a piece called, The Democratic Party Is in Worse Shape Than You Thought.How then might upscale voters come to embrace the progressive agenda and refrain from voting their pocketbook?  My belief is that the Democrats need to embrace a politics of social conscience and social responsibility.  I wrote about this at length in a post called The Next Deal and I have been writing about related themes for some time.  But getting from here to there will be an enormous challenge, one that ne[...]



Mattering Bias

2017-06-27T07:00:25.866-05:00

The campus has a program to support low income students.  It is called Illinois Promise.  The program offers a variety of activities for such students, who are at higher risk of dropping out than the typical student.  One of those activities is a mentoring program.  I-Promise students opt into this program as mentees, meaning mentoring is optional for them.  The mentors are volunteers from the faculty and staff, retirees like me, others  from the community who have an interest in these students, and upper level students in I-Promise who now know the ropes and can pass on their knowledge to the next generation.There is new leadership for the program.  To facilitate matching between mentees and mentors, potential mentors were asked to complete a Web form that gathered pertinent information.  I recently completed one of these and can report that one of the questions was a good and relevant one - Why do you want to be a mentor?  I puzzled about this for a while.  There is a highly idealistic conception of mentoring and then there is a very low to ground alternative, either of which might matter regarding the student's performance.  It's also possible that the mentoring is all surface-level, nothing more, and actually doesn't matter.  Let's describe each of these a bit.For me, college was a wonderful time of life, especially after I transferred to Cornell and got comfortable there.  It was a time to ask the meaning-of-life questions and find some answers that made sense.  In current jargon, the answers that made sense to me were about finding Flow.  What in the college experience can help the student to produce flow with some regularity?  The mentor helping the student with that provides the idealistic conception of mentoring.The vast majority of students, not just those in I-Promise but throughout the undergraduate population, are insufficiently pro-active about their studies, particularly when they are struggling in a class or in some of their classes.  Going to office hours, which is the responsible thing to do, is psychologically painful, because it is tantamount to admitting that the material is too hard and thus requires looking stupid in front of the instructor or the TA.  Nobody wants to look stupid.  Procrastination is often the product.  Mentoring, then, can be a mild form of nagging the student to act responsibly.  In the language of behavioral economics, mentoring serves as a Nudge.  As the be-all and end-all for mentoring, nagging the student doesn't cut it for me.  I hate being nagged; why would I want to nag anyone else?   Indeed, when I teach my class I tell them - I don't want to be your mother.  Nonetheless, some nagging may be necessary as an intermediate step toward the more ideal form of mentoring.  If there are too many obstacles of the mundane kind, flow can't be achieved.  The nagging is meant to get the student to address the obstacles and then get over them so higher level function is possible.The difference between surface-level mentoring and effective mentoring is hard to describe.  Indeed, having attended several different training sessions for mentors over the years, I know that the evaluation results from mentee surveys and mentor surveys demonstrate a substantial asymmetry in perceived effectiveness, with the mentees reporting that the ment[...]



Buying out the Right

2017-06-05T18:34:32.078-05:00


If you read the piece I linked to above, you will probably find it infuriating, just as I did.  For the benefit of profits for oil and coal, and jobs for miners, we are getting a completely wrong headed policy.  Yet it seems pretty evident that Democrats are getting killed at the ballot box, an illustration once again that a concentrated economic interest can defeat a broad political interest.

So, as I did a fantasy island daydream in my last post, here is another one of those.  What if billionaires with a more left leaning orientation - Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet, George Soros, and maybe a few others whose names don't occur to me now, and they put together a package to buy out Koch Industries and the big coal companies, with the intention of winding down their activities after acquisition?

And what if the big infrastructure plan that we definitely need has disproportionate spending in coal mining states so that it offers jobs other than mining jobs for the citizens and, in addition, their are cash payments to these states out of general tax revenues to boost employment in other ways.

Could this work?

Many Democrats might find "bribes" of this sort offensive.  I can understand that, but right now the Democrats are not holding winning cards.  Fighting for a losing cause may make sense in some instances.  But climate change doesn't seem to fit that.  There is an urgency to do something about it - now.  Certainly, the suggestion to buy them out would be more expeditious.