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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: 2017-08-18T12:15:57.976-05:00


The Fear of Emasculation


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 the upper arms.  In my class from last fall there was a different student who was in ROTC.  He had done a summer of boot camp of some sort in Northern Virginia.  From the little I know about it, I believe[...]

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


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 surface learning.  (For example, see Ken Bain's What the Best College Students Do.)  Long and Mott want deep learning across the board.  How do we get from here to there?  Maybe we can't.  To sup[...]

Muckracking Journalism Where We Really Need It


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 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 bought a new PC, IE was already on the machine.   You had to download Netscape Navigator, and for people who had only dial up access, this was well before broadband became the standard, that download was an impe[...]

Gilbert and Sullivan Are Rolling Their Eyes


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


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 introduce a colleague to somebody else, a connection the colleague wouldn't have made on her own, then reciprocation is the norm and you can benefit from your colleague bringing in new people into the discussion.  I'[...]

The Derby Smash - Lyrics


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


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 the wage when the labor market is soft, but not otherwise.  The way the argument normally goes, the minimum wage looks like a free lunch.  It raises worker incomes and doesn't cost the taxpayer a dime.  O[...]

Unintentionally Making Others Feel Stupid


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 another?  What would it take to achieve that outcome?My plan for the rest of this piece is to first look at some lines from popular movies that talk about emotional hurt. The movies themselves were popular because they [...]

Misreading Children's Fiction for Its Political Implications


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 things to do.A different form of media also found its way into the daily routine.  The kids got into playing video games, first Super Mario Bros., then a variety of other games.  I became the household champ at Di[...]

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


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, and (c) regurgitate the notes on the exam.  This conception is based on prior experience.  Students have had many classes in this style.  Students develop coping skills that become well honed for classes [...]



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 uniform.  Some people use the first name.  Others the last name.  For example, in the TV show Homeland, Carrie Mathison is always called Carrie but Nicholas Brody is often called Brody, even by his wife a[...]

What if Mr. Conrad taught English instead of Math?


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 Math Department, taught the second term), and the number theory class.  Plus, Mr. Conrad was the coach of the math team.  And he ran an activity called The Problem of the Week, which was for interested studen[...]

Is Technology Ruining Professional Golf?


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 training as part of the preparation of the athletes.  I'm under the impression that Tiger Woods brought this to golf.  His spectacular success demanded a reaction by the other players, so they could keep up.&[...]

Taking Umbrage or Rolling with the Punches


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


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 needs to be faced squarely.  Here are some further thoughts on that.The issue is described quite well in a piece by Richard Reeves, Stop Pretending You're Not Rich.  Upscale voters engage in a variety of undemo[...]

Mattering Bias


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 mentoring is quite valuable to them while the mentors report that the mentoring doesn't seem to matter very much.   So mentors tend not to be satisfied with the mentoring.  They are thus prone to steer the mentori[...]

Buying out the Right


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. 

In Your Dreams and in Mine


A couple of years ago, when I had a weekly discussion group with three of my former students, my ostensible purpose was to see if I could get them to take a more creative approach to their learning.  We had discussions on a variety of topics and read pieces that I thought might be illuminating to push the conversation in a variety of directions.  One week the reading was James Thurber's original story published in the New Yorker, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  The students were Asian, one from South Korea and two from China.  They put a great deal of effort into their studies and were extremely grade conscious. That a professor would actually encourage them to daydream must have seemed more than a little odd to them.  But I wanted them to take the suggestion seriously.  To emphasize the point, I also encouraged them to watch this video with John Sebastian singing the famous song solo, after The Lovin' Spoonful days were over, looking a little tamer then but wearing a pretty wild outfit that seems to fit the situation perfectly.  I doubt that week's discussion had much impact on the students thereafter.  It was too far afield from their ordinary experience to create a change in their behavior, absent a lot of additional reinforcement on the same point.  But it had a salutary impact on me.  I became more conscious of my own need to daydream, so I could push on ideas that I deemed improbable if not totally impossible.  I've been doing that ever since.  Virtually all of these haven't seen the light of day,  for I'm afraid people would think me even more of a nut job than I actually am.  But I've recently had a change of heart.  So here are two of these.I've been writing a lot of blog posts as of late that are about our economy and/or about our national politics.  We're in trouble and we need to find a way out.  A lot of these pieces work through solutions that make sense to me, though truthfully I view them more as a prod for readers to think about, so they too can work through to a solution, even if it isn't the same as mine.  Yet I only have a trickle of readers, so the main purpose these posts end up serving is to provide catharsis for me.  If I didn't write them, I'd just keep stewing on the same idea, over and over again.  Having written the post, I can move onto something else.Suppose for one post it plays out differently.  It piques the interest of the first readers, so they forward it to their friends.  The friends too find it interesting, so they repeat the process and again the new readers find it intriguing.  Then a few more iterations and  the magic of geometric progression begins to take over.  Soon thereafter the post has gone viral.  Many people are talking about it.It finds its way to some rather important people.  One of those is David Remnick, who writes a personal note to me - Lanny, congratulations on the splash you made with your post.  The New Yorker would be pleased to re-publish some of your other posts so our readership can get to know you as a writer.  Can you select a handful of those for me to look at that you think our readers would also enjoy?  Would you mind if our copy editors had a go at these to give them a bit more polish?How many other fledgling writers have this same daydream?In this case it is also meant to feed the next daydream.  The viral post serves as a catalyst for a chain reaction that produces some desirable but at present highly improbable events.This other daydream f[...]

Love of Country in an Era of Social Divide


The title of this post notwithstanding, this is not going to be a rah rah piece.  I'm not the right person to write such a piece and, in the moment we seem to be in, nobody wants to read such a piece.  If we ever do get out of this moment, note that I wrote if and not when, there will be some questions to ask which we might start to think about now.  We should also reflect some on what it is that the current moment is doing to influence our own behavior.  Are we cognizant of that?  Do we care?  Should we care?  I believe there is some connection between the two.  The questions we will want to ask if we get out of this moment might have their answer depend on how we are behaving while we're in it.  So that is worth thinking through.The questions I want to get at are about ordinary voters and how they regard each other.  How voters regard the political class seems too fraught with intrigue and uncertainty now to make any interesting conclusion on that score at present.  But to help make this discussion concrete, I will assume with some broad strokes the outcome when we get past the current moment.  The Trump Administration will be humiliated.  The Republicans in Congress will be embarrassed.  Many voters who supported Trump will have expected something else and, after realizing their disappointment, will feel shame that they made such a choice.  As near as I can tell there isn't evidence of this happening now.   (Or there is some of it happening, but not yet enough to matter.) The supporters are still there, backing their candidate.  Neither Republicans in Congress nor in the Trump Administration will admit to major errors and wrongdoing.  However, in assessing likelihoods, this seems to me what will happen, with the question more when than if.  I will readily admit, this assumption fits my own preferences and my own inclination to think where there's smoke there is fire.  Maybe it really is all just a joke.  But my inclination is to think it's not.  And eventually, though I know not when, my assumption is that the insiders will get seriously burned.Here are some questions I want to think about.  What will then happen to the rest of us?  Will it be possible then for us to come together as a nation, having finally recognized the folly in our divisiveness?  Or have we already reached a point of no return, engaged in a social media repeat of the Civil War, that because it doesn't actually happen on a battlefield will never find terminus?I am not neutral as to which of these scenarios I'd like to see play out.  I would like the harsh division to come to an end or, if that is not possible, then for it to be toned down several notches. In yesterday's NY Times, Roger Cohen's column is about this division, even within a family, with a liberal adult daughter and a conservative father unable to talk with one another about our politics.   Cohen's solution - we must listen to each other.  There is wisdom in that.  It is consistent with current thinking about good management practice.  For example, if you do a search on Bolman and Deal Chapter 8, you will find this PowerPoint, which focuses on the work of Argyris and Schon, both Model 1, which explains how conflict arises, and Model 2, which can prevent it.  Model 2 is based on listening, finding common ground, and being empirical in investigating maintained assumptions that may prove erroneous.  While Model 2 offers the ideal we'd like to achiev[...]

The Next Deal


As I write this the House passed its version of a (lack of) health care bill but the Senate is still taking up its version.  It is unclear whether something will come out of this, though if it does it surely will be bad for the many.Trying to make sense of things, if dollars could vote then the current situation would be readily understandable.  Concentrated dollars don't like paying taxes, especially if the benefits from the government spending don't accrue to the people possessing the concentrated dollars.  This seems to be what's happening with the Republicans in control.But our system is supposed to be one where it is people who vote.  If that system endures, in part or whole, it is hard to reconcile what the Republican controlled government seems to be doing, as so many people will be harmed by these actions.Thus, two questions emerge out of the current debacle.  First, how did we get here?  It wasn't always this way, correct?  Second, what might we do to bring us back from the abyss to a society where the system is functional and where the vast majority of people do okay in that system?  Most of the rest of this post will take on the second question, but I want to get at the first question some as a way to set the groundwork.A few years back I wrote a longish post that I believe describes how we got here.  It is called Gaming The System Versus Designing It.   By gaming the system I mean playing it to one's personal advantage regardless of the consequence to others.  I argued that we've all become good game players, though some of us are better than good; these few have gotten exceptional in this role.  I also argued that most of us can't tell whether the system is functioning well or not.   We often use abstract principle to support a system we advocate for, and rely on that abstraction rather than a cost-benefit social welfare calculation to see whether the system is working well or not.  This is especially problematic, however, if it is those who are exceptional at gaming the system who are the ones that make the loudest so-called principled arguments.  Do those principles merely offer rules of a game that they know how to play all too well?I want to give two specific examples here.  The first is from the world of finance.  The second is from politics.Michael Milken should be a name familiar to all.  He invented the concept of the junk bond, securities that were both high-yield and high-risk (of default).  This happened in the late 1970s, while Jimmy Carter was President.  I want to note here that in the abstract the junk bond might be a good thing.  It is a way for a very risky venture to attain access to capital.  In other words, it is an instrument of venture capitalism.  As a way to finance startups, the junk bond makes sense.However, after Reagan became President the financial regulatory environment became lax and we entered an era of the hostile takeover.  A corporate raider, often financed by junk bonds, would bid to take over companies where the raider claimed management was entrenched.  These companies were typically sitting on a pile of cash, which frequently was in a pension fund.  The corporate raider, if successful in acquiring the company, could gut the pension fund and fire many of the employees, earning much for himself but doing great damage socially in the process.  This form of predatory capitalism was popularized in the movie Wall Street.&nbs[...]

Goodbye Game Theory


As I continue to procrastinate on a post that I want to write but is too high minded for my current temperament, I want to craft something else that is moderately constructive.  I will consider a bit of game theory as I knew it in the 1980s, when I was using it to write papers in economics, but try to explain it so a lay-person can follow the argument.  I'll give a little background first.  Then I will try to apply it to our current morass.John Nash, made famous in the book and movie, A Beautiful Mind, extended a concept first developed by Augustin Cournot in his study of oligopoly, to apply to all non-cooperative games.  Here non-cooperative means the players make their choices without consultation with the other players.  There is no bargaining ahead of time, before the play of the game.  Conveniently, the acronym NE can stand for Nash Equilibrium or for Non-Cooperative Equilibrium.  It is characterized by mutual best response.When I teach this to idea to my students, I say that each player makes a guess as to what the other player will do.  Economists like fancy words, so instead of guess economists call it an expectation.   Based on their expectations, each player then chooses the best possible play.  Sometimes this is referred to as a best response, as if the other player has moved first, so the other player's move has become known.  That interpretation is sometimes misleading, though the jargon persists.  Many games we consider in economics are simultaneous move.  Neither player goes first.  The expectation then serves the role in decision making about the move that observing what the other player did would have served if the game were sequential rather than simultaneous. In a Nash equilibrium, expectations are self-fulfilling.  What the player expects the other player to do is what the other player chooses to do and vice versa.  It is a lovely concept that works well in predicting outcomes in simple non-cooperative games.Some games, however, are more complex.  They have elements of private information.  For example, in the popular poker game hold 'em, each player has a couple of down cards, and then there are some common cards dealt up.  The down cards are private information, known only to that player.  The up cards are public information.  As the up cards are revealed sequentially, and there is betting after each round, the game illustrates an interesting sequential character as well.The Nash Equilibrium concept has been refined in many different ways, because complex games of this sort have many different Nash Equilibria and not all of them are equally plausible.  One refinement, the one I will focus on here, is called Subgame Perfection.  It conveys the notion of "credible threats" versus incredible threats.  An equilibrium based on an incredible threat is not plausible.  A sequential game that is played in two stages, where the second stage is a game in itself, which is why it is called a subgame, should be solved by finding the equilibrium of the subgame first.  That's what players should predict will happen in the subgame.  So that play is credible.  Out of equilibrium play is incredible.  Then, in possession of equilibrium beliefs about play in the subgame, one determines the equilibrium in the first stage. The result is a subgame perfect equilibrium.  It illustrate hyper rationality and strategic insight.With the game the[...]

Comfort Jokes


Today is the first day of the Farmer's Market for this year.  My wife is a regular.  As she gets ready to leave I tell her - buy us a farmer.  She's expecting me to say that. It is a line we use repeatedly, perhaps every Saturday morning when the market is in season.

A different one of this sort is when someone in the family announces - I'm going to get a haircut.  To which another family member will respond - you better get them all cut.  We all use this one.  The kids are in on it too.

The last one in this vein I will offer up is done with less frequency, once a year in early October.  I will announce to my wife - you've got to take the world seriously.  This signifies that major league baseball's fall classic will soon be underway.

There is no originality whatsoever in uttering these lines.  Nonetheless, there is something reassuring in doing so.  I don't want to make any sort of conclusion from this other than to observe that I do this and it is something I enjoy doing.

Jen Dah Revisited


More than a decade ago I wrote a post called Jen Dah, quite different from my usual fare and something that got me well out of my comfort zone in the crafting.  I was prompted to do this from reading Daniel Pink's Book A Whole New Mind and following one of the suggestions offered therein - celebrate your amateurness. I took that to heart and wrote on a subject where I have no expertise whatsoever, though on one topic I briefly considered at the end of that post, the challenges of being a geeky girl, some of the issues may have been more apparent to me than most because I was a geeky boy.For the most part, I've steered clear of writing about gender issues since, except in talking about my mom, which I've done on multiple occasions.  I'm prompted to consider gender issues more broadly now, after reading two pieces on the same subject matter, this one by Rebecca Traister called Will We Abandon Women's Rights in the Name of Progressive Politics, and this one by Bryce Covert called Why Abortion Is a Progressive Economic Issue. But before doing so let me give some other background, which in addition provides my motivation for writing here.I have been slowly reading a book of short essays by Peter Singer called Ethics in the Real World.  The essays are clustered by topic.  There are a bunch on animal rights, particularly the rights of livestock.  Some of these pieces argue that we should be vegans to avoid cruelty to animals.  I would say those pieces are provocative if not immediately persuasive, meaning that my own eating habits are so ingrained that thinking through them to become a vegan would take a lot more deliberation than I've yet given to the book.  But those pieces on animal rights are useful in another way.  They set up the next group of essays, which are about when it is all right to take human life.  The focus there is  on cases where dementia has taken hold or where the person is suffering in extreme pain with no chance for a cure.There seemed to be a common principle that underlies each of this pieces which I will articulate here, though do note that this is my distillation of Singer, not what Singer says himself.The Sentient Being Principle:  Sentient beings deserve humane treatment, freedom from undo pain and suffering, and respect for their own well being.  Other living things that are not sentient do not qualify for such treatment.  Killing a non-sentient being is not an ethical violation.So, for example, swatting a housefly is not an ethical matter.  Nobody would think otherwise.  That one is easy.  Singer argues that livestock on the farm, chickens for example and cows for another, are sentient beings.  He then argues that a person who is in the full throes of dementia, with no moments where lucidity returns, is not a sentient being.  Similarly, an embryo is not a sentient being.When you start to think this way, almost immediately you are drawn into the question - how do you draw the line between sentient and non-sentient?  Singer considers this question at some length.  His conclusion is that the boundary is very difficult to identify.  This itself implies those closest to the situation are in the best position to make that determination.  On a personal note, where my mom had a very severe dementia and was unable to recognize me the last several years of her life, and where she was attended by very dedicated[...]

The Economic Value In Freely Available Online Content


Some actions once done can't be undone.  The costs entailed in taking such an action are referred to as sunk costs, which are costs that can't be recovered.  Economists teach that sunk costs don't matter, in the sense that they don't enter into what is termed "producer surplus" and therefore shouldn't impact decisions that aim to make producer surplus as big as possible.  I know this and I used to teach this in intermediate microeconomics when explaining the theory of the firm in the short run. Yet I'm finding that with my own content creation activities I often seem to care whether potential users access the content and also care when they do access the content how they react to it.  Is this narcissism on my part only?  Or is there some way the sunk cost metaphor is not appropriate here and my concern about user access has productive value?  These are some of the questions I want to get at in this essay. A different set of questions comes from considering how to assess value of a public good when there are no market transactions to observe.  Is it possible to impute value to the public good?  If so, how would one go about doing that?I want to also briefly try to tie this discussion to the issue of whether college should be free for those who attend.  This gets at who should pay for the public good (and why).  It's one of those things that needs discussion at a first principles level.  We tend to consider actual policy without knowing what first principles to appeal to when evaluating the policy.Let me begin with a little personal history, which will explain the technology considered here.  In spring 2011 I taught for the first time since I retired the previous summer.  While I taught a regular section of intermediate microeconomics, there was a possibility I might teach a blended section in the future, so I made a lot of online micro-lecture content with that in mind.  I will get back to that in a bit.I had previously taught intermediate microeconomics ten years earlier.  Many of the lessons I had learned the hard way from teaching it were apparently forgotten.  I made many of the same mistakes I made when teaching intermediate micro back in the early 1980s, making the course much too difficult for students and discouraging them further in the process.  Many of the students in intermediate micro are Business majors.  For them intermediate micro plays a similar role to what organic chemistry plays for pre-med students.  In these courses the students tend to be quite mercenary about their grades and not care much about learning the fundamentals of the subject, because they don't see the relevance.  Further, because the Econ major itself is seen largely as a proxy for Business by those students who didn't have the standardized test scores to get into the College of Business, the attitude about the class by most Econ majors mirrors the views of the Business students.  The course is generally liked by a handful of students, 10% or so, who are either in Engineering or Business students quite proficient in math. These students don't find the course overly challenging on the technical front and then can make some sense of what is being taught.  The rest of the students can't see the forest for the trees. The micro-lectures I made were screen capture movies of Excelets with my voice over.   At the t[...]

Automated Captioning - Is It Good Enough?


Back in 2011 I made quite a few screen capture movies with my voice over to narrate what's going on and I captioned all of them.  This amounted to:

  1. ripping the audio track out of the video,
  2. running the audio track through Dragon Naturally Speaking to produce a transcript,
  3. editing the transcript (this is the labor intensive part) to put in punctuation, correct errors, and take out the ums and ahs, and
  4. uploading the transcript into YouTube, which had automated the part about putting in the timings needed to convert the transcript to a file that can be used for captioning.

Here is an example of content produced this way.  The video will be uninteresting content-wise unless you are a student taking intermediate microeconomics.  So 30 seconds should more than suffice.  You may have to push the cc button to get the captions to appear. 

allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="338" src="" width="600">

A couple of days ago Drew posted to a campus list for learning technologists that the campus video service, which utilizes Kaltura, has now enabled automated captioning by request.  (The content owner must initiate this.)  Drew duly told us that the quality of the automated captioning will vary depending on a variety of factors.  So there is an expectation that the content owner will edit the video, the way I had done.  There are built in tools in Kaltura for this purpose.

I have my doubts about other faculty members doing such editing, so I wanted to know how good the raw captions are.

I do make screen capture videos now, though not in as great a volume.  The recent ones have not been captioned by me.  I went back to one that I made near the end of the semester last fall.  To my surprise, it had captions.  They are delivered in kind of an eerie way, word by word in a scrolling manner.  Though there is no punctuation, I thought the quality amazingly good.

allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="338" src="" width="600">
For the stuff I made back in 2011, I wouldn't have trusted anyone but me to edit the transcript file.  There were some errors that were way off.  In order to correct them you had to know what was right.  But here the errors are really modest, so a student could edit these and I believe do a tolerably good job.

In my class, students who bomb the first exam typically ask if they can do something for extra credit.  I'm not sure of the ethics here, since the extra credit thing should be educative for the student.  But given how scarce instructor time is, if this sort of thing gets the transcript edited, maybe it is the sort of deal with the devil that should happen.

I leave that others.  I will merely note here that that quality of voice to text is getting such that what seemed like an impossible mandate a few years back may be getting do-able now.