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University Education Skeptic, 2009

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[Dec 21, 2009] My lazy American students - The Boston Globe

By the time students are in college, habits can be tough to change. If you're used to playing video games like "Modern Warfare'' or "Halo'' all night, how do you fit in four hours of homework? Or rest up for class?

... ... ...

Too many 18-year-old Americans, meanwhile, text one another under their desks (certain they are sly enough to go unnoticed), check e-mail, decline to take notes, and appear tired and disengaged.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that all American students are the same. I've taught many who were hardworking, talented, and deeply impressive. They listened intently, enriched class discussions, and never shied away from rewrites. At their best, American students marry knowledge and innovation, resulting in some astoundingly creative work.

But creativity without knowledge - a common phenomenon - is just not enough.


I'll amplify a point that has already been made: the international students here are typically the best of the best.

I taught English at a Chinese university for three years and encountered plenty of deadbeats. Of course, that is no excuse for our own, homegrown deadbeats. They are the leaders of tomorrow, and personally I weep for the future.


The author is fortunate to have a teaching position at a highly competitive college such as Babson. If the academic effort and performance and time management of her American students are as mediocre as Professor Miller asserts, then she has every right to evaluate them accordingly in her final grades and deny them unreasonable requests for extensions.

However, the cranky tone of the piece suggests that Professor Miller's frustrations also stem from the lack of student engagement by American students with Professor Miller's lectures and other classroom presentations. Professor Miller might consider undertaking different pedagogical, Deweyesque approaches to presenting her curriculum in order to engage her wayward American students who suffer from a short attention span.

Finally, I agree with Professor Miller's frustration with students texting during class. However, that offense is easily remedied by establishing a prohibition against texting in class at the beginning of the semester and immediately tossing any offending students out of class, if they are observed breaking this class rule.


Unfortunately, I have to agree. I used to be a university faculty with a joint appointment in engineering and management schools - the biggest difference I noticed with domestic and international students was the ability to handle criticism.

Domestic students tended to be very defensive when pointing out what can be improved. Of course, I can't generalize with experience from one university alone, but gives at least one data point. Or maybe I am the whiny teacher.

Also, as others have pointed out, the international students are essentially from the top 10-15 percentile - and comparing them to the average American student may be not "fair" to the domestic students. The difference between the two groups almost disappears in graduate school and virtually non-existent at the doctorate level, in my experience.


Xenophonic, for once I agree with you :)

Regarding the article, my husband is from Denmark -- recruited from engineering school, along with some of his classmates, by a company who couldn't find qualified engineers here in the US. (Of course, this was several years ago, things are different now).

He did his master's in engineering in Denmark and got an MBA in the states. After going through the process of hiring and training new engineers and experiencing the US educational system, he now understands why he was so aggressively recruited by his current employer. He worked 24/7 while in engineering school (no time for partying) and was appalled by the leniency of his professors while in business school (grading on a curve, what's that?). New grads hired into his company have no clue how to do actual design in a practical way--they know theory but need to basically be retrained before they can be assigned to projects.

I'm happy that our children's father had the experience he did -- there'll be no video games, etc. in our house unless homework is done and grades are excellent. There's nothing better you can do for your kids in this world than to make sure they are disciplined and receive an stellar education!


I was one of those students the writer describes. I'm 35 now and have done well in the professional world, but I regret my approach to my studies whenever I think back to those years. How much better could I have done had I taken my studies seriously? I was just too young and immature at the time unfortunately...


"Boredom is an affliction suffered only by the mediocre."

So what if your teacher is the one bringing mediocre in the class. I am a 27 year old back at school. Sorry its just Bridgewater State, Not some fancy $35,000 A YEAR SCHOOL.

The teachers themselves are the ones who are lazy. the teachers don't care, they take the minimum, and don't expect more..

And if you ask.. i am using my GI Bill so my school has already been paid for.. College is easy and a joke now. College is to slow now, at least in my eyes


Foreign students here are impressed by their access to professors and small classes. In Asia and Europe, large, oversubscribed lectures and NO access to the professor are the norm.

American students don't know how fortunate they are, but foreign students do, and they will make sure they do not miss the learning opportunities by taking advantage of these features of an American college education.


I graduated from college twenty years ago and this situation was the exact opposite from my experience. The local students road the T to college while the rich kids from overseas and out of state lived on campus.

The local students had to budget their time as they often worked after school. We would hunker down in the library, forming study goups, often I studied on the ride home. We paid for the bulk of our own tuition. The foreign students were mostly entitled students from Europe or the middle east. They would come to class late, cheat during exams and skip labs.

Today the commuter student in Boston is the thing of the past. The majority of the students are from out of state as local students can't afford the tuition anymore. If you fill a classroom with rich entitled students you reap what you sow. The only thing that this article proves is that the U.S. entitled students are lazier than the foriegn entitled students.

[Dec 11, 2009] Matt Taibbi -- Obama's Big Sellout By Edward Harrison

"Ivy League schools have become institutions run by and for the elite of society; not the American ideal of individual accomplishment as much as the European tradition of class privilege"
"... it definitely reinforces the picture of our leadership as living in a closed society where they are disconnected from the general population, and where they look out for their own interests rather than maintaining an open system. ..."
Dec 11, 2009 | naked capitalism

Peripheral Visionary:

Not quite. After you take out the legacies and minorities, what you have left are the children of big donors, and that's about it. A close relative with flawless high school credentials and every academic honor the school could bestow on him, and a host of extracurricular accomplishments to boot, was turned down for entrance to a major Ivy League school; he did not even make it to the interview stage. When impeccable academic credentials are insufficient to gain admission, it's clear that the primary criterion is demography rather than merit.

At this point, the meritocracy of the Ivy League schools is a thing of the past, with academic credentials having been almost completely eclipsed by connections and money (graduate programs less so, although I think there still are tendencies in that direction; see Bush, George W.) That reinforces the point that the Ivy League schools have become institutions run by and for the elite of society; not the American ideal of individual accomplishment as much as the European tradition of class privilege.

That does not preclude the possibility of independent voices coming out of those institutions, and I certainly agree that we should be viewing people on accomplishments rather than background (something the Ivy League does not always do in its admissions process.) But it definitely reinforces the picture of our leadership as living in a closed society where they are disconnected from the general population, and where they look out for their own interests rather than maintaining an open system.

Morgan Stanley Fed to Raise Rates in 2nd Half of 2010


Yes I am sure he would...but you are arguing with a fool who flunked stats 3 times in college because he argued with a very respectable 80yr old prof who finally passed me if I promised not to come back to class and debate him ad nauseam about the very validity of his area of expertise. The very asking of the question, very language that is chosen...influences the results...and then there is the question of why bother determining what the majority of people (whatever the sample size is) matters to the given question at hand. Good for herd management I guess. Polls are a tool used by the elite. As an absent minded philosopher I would rather resort to astrology or augury...they seem the same. I mean no disrespect by the way. To each his own, my prof was very sincere in his belief...I am in mine too. My wife says I don't dwell in 'normal space' anyway, so best just ignore the raving loony in the room. Most people do.


Vonbek777 (profile) wrote (in reply to...) on Tue, 12/8/2009 - 3:41 pm

Yes I am sure he would...but you are arguing with a fool who flunked stats 3 times in college because he argued with

I argued with a lot of my professors... only students there to punch their ticket got irritated by the distraction, most of the profs genuinely enjoyed the debates... I remember reading that university life used to be like that in the earlier days of the academy.


Sadly, I only had a couple of profs that like to debate and were open to honest academic discussion. The majority of mine were there to state the established religion of any given subject. My college transcript is amazing. Honors and As in upper level research based courses....not so great in the intro classes that dealt with methodology.

If the class used multiple choice tests...I was fine...but if it required me to regurgitate via essay what the professor taught, I couldn't do it. My personal ethos required me to write what I believed. You would not believe how many times a prof would pull me into his office and say...that was brilliant but not what I taught, and I have to grade you on what I taught...form before content.

[Nov 23, 2009] What is the average in-state tuition at public universities - Do You Know at

What is the average in-state tuition for a public 4-year institution of higher education?

The average academic year tuition for a public four-year institution of higher education for in-state students was $10,674 in 2004 (latest available), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. State-by-state averages follow:

Average academic year tuition (in $U.S.) for a public four-year institution of higher education for in-state students.

State Tuition
United States (public+private) 10,674
Alabama 4,377
Alaska 3,782
Arizona 4,076
Arkansas 4,297
California 4,323
Colorado 3,518
Connecticut 6,385
Delaware 6,671
District of Columbia 2,070
Florida 2,633
Georgia 3,392
Hawaii 3,347
Idaho 3,589
Illinois 6,497
Indiana 5,666
Iowa 5,407
Kansas 4,181
Kentucky 4,502
Louisiana 3,526
Maine 5,565
Maryland 6,632
Massachusetts 7,010
Michigan 6,189
Minnesota 6,478
Mississippi 3,986
Missouri 5,833
Montana 4,511
Nebraska 4,679
Nevada 2,477
New Hampshire 8,086
New Jersey 7,989
New Mexico 3,395
New York 4,922
North Carolina 3,563
North Dakota 4,549
Ohio 8,041
Oklahoma 3,507
Oregon 5,151
Pennsylvania 8,347
Rhode Island 5,866
South Carolina 6,749
South Dakota 4,720
Tennessee 4,258
Texas 4,423
Utah 3,177
Vermont 8,771
Virginia 5,556
Washington 4,926
West Virginia 3,572
Wisconsin 5,290
Wyoming 2,721

Ten Linux apps that get top marks from schools

1. ATutor
If you are a teacher, you should definitely look at ATutor. It is online software that allows you to manage courses and that gives students a way of keeping track of coursework.

With ATutor, you can post assignments, tests, grades and more. Students can create accounts and keep track of their particular classes and assignments. Students and teachers can also keep in touch with one another via email and messaging.

ATutor lets you create workgroups to group students for projects and classes. Once you deploy the software, you will find your teaching life much more organised, and your students will thank you for it.

2. iTalc
iTalc is a powerful didactical tool that allows you to watch and control computers for educational purposes. You can show demos and even lock computers to get the attention of your students.

iTalc will also allow you to reboot or shut down machines remotely. And unlike other more costly tools, iTalc is free and released under the GPL. iTalc also supports Linux and Windows XP and will soon support Windows Vista.

3. Online Grades
Online Grades allows teachers to post students' grades and attendance online. It takes exports from many popular gradebook apps, such as Easy Grade Pro and Gradekeeper, and displays them online.

Online Grades gives each student or parent, teacher and administrator a unique login, to keep security high. Parents with more than one child in a school will need only one login for all their children.

Online Grades was originally based on Basmati and is released under the GPL. The cost for this system? Zero.

You will find different areas for administrators, faculty, students and parents.

4. Open Admin for Schools
Open Admin for Schools is an outstanding open-source application that allows schools to do full student administration, including enrolment and withdrawal, student reports, attendance, schedules, report cards, fees, medical reports, and discipline.

Open Admin is broken into four sites: administration, teachers, parents and special education. Each site is tailored to meet the needs of that specific group. One powerful aspect of Open Admin is that it allows administrative staff easy access to the demographics of their school. With competition a big issue in schools, knowing your demographics can keep you ahead of the game.

5. FET
FET simplifies complicated school and university schedules. It uses a heuristic algorithm to take the following factors into consideration: days per week, hours, subjects, activities, teachers, years, groups, subgroups, buildings, rooms, and time and space constraints.

After you enter all the necessary data, FET will run the algorithm against it. If a scheduling problem occurs, FET will show you the problem so you can make corrections. FET is available for Linux, Windows and OS X.

[Jul 4, 2009] Information Processing The Wranglers Steve Hsu Professor of physics at the University of Oregon.

Some time ago I came across the essay What became of the Senior Wranglers?, which describes the history of the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos examination. Interesting excerpts follow below, but I recommend the whole thing.

Difficult exams like the Tripos or present-day international Olympiads in math and science are one of the best ways to identify truly exceptional talent. As discussed below, the tests are able to distinguish between talents at the very far tail of the distribution. But even these exams are still only inexact predictors of future success. It's clear that special preparation has an important impact on performance (successful Wranglers typically hired private tutors, see below), and that forcing students to focus on overly technical and narrow exam problems isn't necessarily the best way to measure (or foster) creativity or research ability (see Hardy's criticisms below).

Still, the list of Senior and Second Wranglers is an impressive one!

During the one hundred and fifty seven years (1753-1909) in which the results of the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos were published in order of merit and divided by class of degree into Wranglers (1st Class), Senior Optimes (2nd Class) and Junior Optimes (3rd Class), great prestige attached to those students who had come out in the top two or three places. The securing of the top position as Senior Wrangler was regarded, at the time, as the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain and the Senior Wrangler was feted well beyond Cambridge and accorded pre-eminent status among his peers - indeed years in Cambridge were often remembered in terms of who had been Senior Wrangler in that year. It is curious therefore that no systematic study has ever been made, in so far as the author is aware, of what became of these Senior Wranglers in later years after their triumph. This article may shed a little light on the matter.

Until 1850, Mathematics in Cambridge was dominant over all other University subjects so much so that it was obligatory, astonishing as it now seems, for students who were studying for honours in Classics, first to have taken the Mathematical Tripos.

Because of the prestige attaching to the position of Senior Wrangler and the college from which the Senior Wrangler came, the students, especially the most promising, were subjected, like thoroughbred racehorses, to the most intense training for the Tripos race. The training was in the hands of private 'coaches' and not the University professors as often students attended very few lectures and, for example, Charles Babbage gave no lectures in the eleven years, 1828-39, during which he was Lucasian Professor. The best of the coaches, because of their reputation, were able to select the most able students thus perpetuating their reputation for success.

The most famous private tutor was William Hopkins (1793-1866) who himself had been 7th Wrangler in 1827 and was a person of distinction outside his coaching activities being President of the Geological Society 1851-53 and President of the British Association 1853. In 1849 it was said of Hopkins that in the 22 years since his degree he had taught 17 Senior Wranglers, 27 Second or Third Wranglers and 200 Wranglers in total. As William Hopkins continued to turn out Wranglers well after that date his final tally must have been much higher. Hopkins' Wranglers included Clerk Maxwell, Cayley, Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Stokes and Tait. It can be seen with the benefit of hindsight that the greatest of Hopkins' pupils was Clerk Maxwell, but remarkably Hopkins recognised this even when Maxwell was an undergraduate saying "he is unquestionably the most extraordinary man I have met with, in the whole range of my experience".

Galton, who had a nervous breakdown while preparing for the Tripos, analyzed the exam results in his book Hereditary Genius. (See after p.46 here.) In earlier discussions here and here I advanced the claim that modern selection processes are more effective than in the past, with more participants and better access to training. One can quantify this by looking at the scores on, e.g., the International Mathematical Olympiad, which is pretty much as hard an exam as one can devise. Due to the worldwide reservoir of competitors, one finds fairly tight clumping of individuals near the top -- there are often perfect scores, and many nearly perfect ones. (See 2008 scores.) Contrast this with the Tripos score distribution described below, with its outliers and large range of outcomes.

One would be tempted to classify a Senior Wrangler who far outdistanced his competition as a potential Genius, whereas a competitor who falls within the clump of IMO Gold Medalists tends not to stand out very much from his or her peers.

The actual marks were never published but Sir Francis Galton in his book 'Hereditary Genius' refers to having obtained marks in respect of three years (unspecified, but probably around the 1860's). In one of these years, out of a total possible mark of 17,000, the Senior Wrangler obtained 7634 marks, the second Wrangler obtained 4123 marks, the lowest Wrangler obtained around 1500 marks and the lowest candidate receiving an honours degree (Junior Optime) obtained 237 marks. In the second of these years the Senior Wrangler obtained between 5500 and 6000 marks, the Second obtained between 5000 and 5500 and the lowest Junior Optime received 309 marks. In the third of these years when, according to Galton, the Senior Wrangler was conspicuously eminent, he obtained 9422 marks and the Second 5642 marks. Galton makes considerable play of the large discrepancy between the marks obtained by the Senior Wranglerand by the lowest Wrangler.

It can be seen that the Senior Wrangler would typically obtain less than 50% of the marks, the lowest Wrangler less than 10% and the lowest honours candidate less than 2%! This seems to the author a rather curious result and it is not clear what conclusions are to be drawn from it. It suggests that the candidates covered a very wide ability range, that the level of the lowest Wrangler and the lowest honours man was really rather poor by to-day's standards (perhaps university life was more relaxed and the average student did not apply himself very hard?) and that the papers were too long and hard even for the best students.

Curiously, there seem to have been more great physicists among the Wranglers than pure mathematicians!
Among the Wranglers are to be found those who, along with Michael Faraday (1791-1867), William Rowan Hamilton (1805-65) and James Prescott Joule (1818-89), secured for the UK world leadership in physics and mathematical physics in the second half of the 19th century, namely:

James Clerk Maxwell viii (1831-79), 2W 1854.

William Thomson ix(1824-1907), 2W 1845, later Lord Kelvin.

George Stokes (1819-1903), SW 1841, later Sir George Stokes.

John William Strutt (1842-1919 ), SW 1865, later Baron Rayleigh, Nobel Prizefor Physics1904.

John Couch Adams (1819-92), SW 1843, predicted theoretically the existence of the planet
Neptune(also predicted independently by Le Verrier in France).

George Green x (1793-1841),4W 1837, first introduced the concept of potential in a paper of 1828.

Peter Guthrie Tait xi (1831-1901), SW 1852, author with Lord Kelvin of the epoch-making book
'Treatise on Natural Philosophy'.

J.J. Thomson (1856-1940), 2W 1880, later Sir J.J. Thomson, discoverer of the electron in 1897,
Nobel Prizefor Physics, 1906.

University professorships throughout the UK and the British Empire were commonly held by Wranglers in the top two or three places. ...

Given the great attention and prestige attaching to mathematics over the 157 years (1753-1909) we are considering it is curious that the Tripos produced, in contrast to mathematical physics, only a few world class pure mathematicians-only Cayley, Sylvester, Clifford, Hardy and Littlewood. World leadership in pure mathematics in this period remained firmly in France and Germany with each of these countries producing a plethora of world class mathematicians e.g. Gauss, Bessel, Jacobi, Dirichlet, Kummer, Riemann, Dedekind, Kronecker, Weierstrass, Cantor, Klein, Hilbert, Landau, Weyl in Germany and d'Alembert, Lagrange, Laplace, Legendre, Fourier, Poisson, Cauchy, Louiville, Galois, Hermite, Bertrand, Jordan, Poincaré, Hadamard, Cartan, Borel and Lebesguexiii in France.

It was this relative failure of British pure mathematics after the death of Professor Colin Maclaurin in 1748 that so irked G.H. Hardy and he put a large part of the blame on to the Tripos as is evident from his 1926 Address to the Mathematical Association. Hardy's thesis was that the syllabus for the Tripos was out of date and far behind the times since it did not contain any of the important ideas which were dominating contemporary thought in pure mathematics at the time. It was therefore a poor training for a pure mathematician. Furthermore the questions put too much stress on technique rather than ideas and were questions in which professional mathematicians had lost interest many years previously. While accepting these criticisms, it seems curious that those who became professional pure mathematicians apparently found difficulty in shaking off the legacy of the Tripos. After all, the Professors had spent only three years of their active lives on the Tripos during their undergraduate careers and often took little interest in the Tripos thereafter apart from setting some questions for the Smith's prizes. Given their small lecturing load, they had much free time for research, for familiarising themselves withthe latest mathematical ideas and for trying to publish work matching the originality of the papers coming from continental pens. The Cambridge Mathematical Journal had been founded in 1837 by two Scotsmen, A. Smith, SW 1836, and D. F. Gregory, 5W 1837xv. The relative failure of British pure mathematics during this period in comparison with France and Germany remains something of a paradox. A comparative study of the way mathematics was taught and research organised during this period at the Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and at the Universities of Göttingen and Berlin, the centres of European pure mathematics, would be fascinating.


I would also recommend the delightful article Old Cambridge Days by Leonard Roth.


Is there any evidence about the first rate UK mathematicians and physicists who were _not_ wranglers (or not Cambridge educated)?

It is conceivable that the wranglers monopolized all the professional positions necessary to a successful career, and thereby prevented non-wranglers from achieving their potential.

This might possibly explain why the UK was not very successful in pure mathematics compared with physics - in the sense that if wranglers were being tested on the wrong abilities necessary for pure math, and if they nonetheless monopolized nearly all the pure math jobs, then wranglers stopped/ inhibited the real pure mathematicians from working in the field.<

Steve Hsu

> BGC: I certainly wouldn't recommend giving out the best positions in the scientific/academic system solely on the basis of a rather specialized exam!

The author of the essay I linked to is clearly interested in your questions -- how did the French and German systems of the same period compare?

It's not entirely clear that the exams were responsible for the physics/math distribution of British research. It's also true that the industrial revolution was centered in England, and lots of things that Lord Kelvin or Maxwell or Faraday got interested in were motivated as much by developments in applied technology as pure science. The British zeitgeist could easily have attracted a lot of the top people away from pure math and into physics.

[Jul 4, 2009] Why are modern scientists so dull?

On the subject of personality factors and success in science, here is a provocative essay by UK professor Bruce Charlton. (PDF version.) He claims that the modern system selects for conscientiousness over raw intelligence, with negative consequences.

Question: why are so many leading modern scientists so dull and lacking in scientific ambition?

Answer: because the science selection process ruthlessly weeds-out interesting and imaginative people. At each level in education, training and career progression there is a tendency to exclude smart and creative people by preferring Conscientious and Agreeable people. The progressive lengthening of scientific training and the reduced independence of career scientists have tended to deter vocational 'revolutionary' scientists in favour of industrious and socially adept individuals better suited to incremental 'normal' science. High general intelligence (IQ) is required for revolutionary science. But educational attainment depends on a combination of intelligence and the personality trait of Conscientiousness; and these attributes do not correlate closely.

...At each level in education, training and career progression there is a tendency to exclude smart and creative people by preferring conscientious and sociable people. As science becomes ever-more dominated by 'peer review' mechanisms, pro-social behaviour in scientists has been accorded primacy over the brilliant and inspired – but abrasive and rebellious – type of truth-seekers who used to be common among the best scientists.

A majority of senior professional scientists have been through a rigorous and prolonged process of education, selection and training to become professional researchers. Yet the nature of the rigour and the duration of the process in modern science ensures that those who come out at the end and attain long-term scientific employment are not the kind of people capable of top level, revolutionary science. They will very probably be extremely productive and socially compliant, but of only moderately high intelligence and likely to be lacking in imagination [2].

...Modern science is just too dull an activity to attract, retain or promote many of the most intelligent and creative people. In particular the requirement for around 10, 15, even 20 years of postgraduate 'training' before even having a chance at doing some independent research of one's own choosing, is enough to deter almost anyone with a spark of vitality or self-respect; and utterly exclude anyone with an urgent sense of vocation for creative endeavour. Even after a decade or two of 'training' the most likely scientific prospect is that of researching a topic determined by the availability of funding rather than scientific importance, or else functioning as a cog in someone else's research machine. Either way, the scientist will be working on somebody else's problem – not his own. Why would any serious intellectual wish to aim for such a career? ...

Shorter Charlton: there are too many hoops, and we end up selecting for Agreeableness and Conscientiousness (hoop jumping abilities) rather than raw brainpower.

I partially agree with Charlton's claims, but the specifics vary from field to field. The area he seems most familiar with is medical science, which most physicists (after teaching premeds and biology students) might concur selects for conscientious rather than brilliant types ;-) In physics it seems we are quite tolerant of odd personalities -- hyper aggressive types, those with Asperger's Syndrome, etc., especially if the person in question displays tremendous ability. I would guess the same is largely true in math and engineering. In biology and medicine it may not be that easy to tell the really talented researchers from the rest (at least at early career stages), which would lead to more emphasis on personality traits. It's also true that in many areas of physics (specifically, but not limited to, the theoretical ones) one can work as a single investigator or small group lead investigator quite early. This may be less true in medicine and biology.

I discussed the current incentive system in science here, as well as the job prospects in theoretical physics. Given the situation I can't blame any students who find that alternative careers might be preferable. As I wrote here (in partial agreement with Charlton), this leads to a different kind of selection than in the past:

...Nowadays, success in science seems to be as much a selection for [certain] character or personality traits as it is a selection for talent.
Related posts: frauds , success vs ability .

Regarding Charlton's deeper question: Where have all the geniuses gone? I offer the following from this earlier post. See also Genius, Gleick's biography of Feynman, especially pp.325-328.

... the exact topic discussed in James Gleick's book Genius. In a field where sampling of talents is sparse [like science in its earlier days] ... you might find one giant ... towering above the others, able to do things others cannot. In a well-developed, highly competitive field like modern mathematics, all the top players are "geniuses" in some sense (rare talents, one in a million), even though they don't stand out very much from each other. In Gleick's book, Feynman, discussing how long it might have taken to develop general relativity had Einstein not done it, says "We are not that much smarter than each other"!

To put it simply, if I sample sparsely from a Gaussian distribution, I might find a super-outlier in the resulting set. If I sample densely and have a high minimum cutoff for acceptable points, I will end up with a set entirely composed of outliers, but who do not stand out much from each other. Every guard in the NBA is an athletic freak of nature [and they would destroy their predecessors from the early era of professional basketball], even though they are evenly matched when playing against each other.

Posted by Steve Hsu at 6:52 PM 16 comments Links to this post

[Jul 3, 2009] Teaching Math with the KDE Interactive Geometry Program Linux Journal

June 19th, 2009 | Linux Journal

I've written quite a bit about using Linux to help educate people. In the past, I've discussed using Linux to teach astronomy, programming and computer logic design. So today, I'm writing about using the KDE Interactive Geometry (Kig) program to teach mathematics. Kig allows you to use various tools to diagram and demonstrate different mathematical concepts. With Kig, you can draw points, lines, line segments, half lines, vectors, circles and various other conic sections. When Kig refers to a "half line", it means what I was taught was a ray-essentially a line with one endpoint. Drawing hyperbolic curves on the computer sure beats getting dry-erase marker all over yourself or sneezing because of chalk dust. Even more important though, Kig diagrams are interactive, which means that once you create a diagram, you can move various elements around and see how they behave (more on that later).

Kig's user interface can be a bit deceptive at times. When you first start the program, you are presented with a grid and a group of tools used to create various diagram elements. At this point, you begin to think that the interface is intuitive and that you already "know" how to use it. Then, for a brief moment, you run into trouble. For example, if you try to use a tool to construct a circle given a center point and a line segment as a radius, the program is expecting that the line segment already has been created; you can't create the line segment as part of constructing the circle. After you've used the program for a few minutes, you begin to understand how it "thinks" and things go pretty smoothly.

Thankfully I read the documentation that came with Kig, otherwise, I would have missed out on some of its more powerful features. For example, if you select a curve, say a parabola, from your diagram, you can use the point tool to create a point on that curve. Later, you can drag that point around with the mouse, and it won't leave the curve to which it was constrained. Then, you can use that point to construct other curves, such as a tangent to the curve.

Without reading the documentation, I would have completely overlooked the Add Text Label function that is available by right-clicking on a curve. This function doesn't merely add text to your diagram; there's a text tool for that. The Add Text Label function lets you display information about a curve, such as slope, equation, focus and so on. Once the label has been added to the diagram, you can change various parts of the curve, and the label will reflect those changes.

For example, if you created a parabola through three points, you can add a label that displays the equation of that curve. You also can create a label that displays the coordinates of the points. Then, you can move the points around with your mouse, and see the labels change.

So, what can you do with Kig? Is it just a geometry teaching tool? Kig would be interesting if it were only for teaching geometry, but it can be used for much more. I can easily see how to use Kig to teach algebra, geometry, trigonometry, physics, analysis and calculus.

Let's start with algebra. Figure 1 shows two lines on the Cartesian (X,Y) coordinate plane. Each line is defined by two points, and the coordinates of those points are displayed nearby. The red point in the center is the intersection of the two lines. The equations of the lines also are displayed. By dragging the points around, you can change the lines and explore concepts such as slope, Y-intercept, the solution of an equation and the solution of a system of two equations.

Colleges Flunk Economics Test as Harvard Model Destroys Budgets By Yalman Onaran

Maybe we, as a society, don't need to spend so much sending kids to college. Learning more with less debt after graduation? Priceless.
May 1 |

On a Thursday morning in March, the $32 million School of Management building at Simmons College in Boston is all but deserted. Three students lounge in armchairs facing floor-to-ceiling windows that look over the quad with its winding walkways and greening lawn; another makes photocopies.

"This building is always empty," says Raya Alazzouni, a sophomore from Saudi Arabia who's studying graphic design and taking courses in the management school.

Simmons, home to 4,700 students, opened the 66,500-square- foot (6,200-square-meter) center in January, two months before the U.S. stock market hit its lowest point in 12 years. Even before the ribbon cutting, enrollment in the management school had been dropping.

Now, the vacant halls are reminders of the new math confounding U.S. colleges. Students, pummeled by scarce loans and savings plans that have fallen as much as 40 percent, are heading for less expensive schools. The perks designed to lure them during boom times -- from hot tubs to dorm-suite kitchenettes, to in-room cable TV -- are crushing universities with debt. Even projects like Simmons's "green" management building, with its rain-absorbing roof patio and toilets with two flushing modes, can turn into burdens as schools struggle with rising expenses, plummeting endowments and needier applicants.

'Spending Binge'

"The spending binge by colleges and universities was part of the same trend that created the bubble in the rest of the economy," says Ronald Ehrenberg, an economics professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and author of "Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much" (Harvard University Press, 2000). "Now we're seeing it burst."

From Harvard University to California's 3 million-student community college network, the American system of higher education is in turmoil. The economic crash is upending each step in the equation that families use to determine where students will spend four of their most formative -- and expensive -- years. Today is the deadline that most schools set to receive a decision from accepted applicants.

Independent colleges that lack a national name or must-have majors are hardest hit. Many gorged on debt for construction, technology and creature comforts. Now, as endowments tumble and bills mount, they're struggling to attract cash-strapped families who are navigating their own financial woes.

Shutter Their Doors

Such mid-tier institutions may be forced to change what they do to survive. In the best case, they'll merge with bigger schools, sell themselves to for-profit organizations or offer vocational training that elite colleges eschew, says Sandy Baum, a senior policy analyst at the College Board. In the worst case, they'll shutter their doors for good.

Standard & Poor's predicts bankruptcies will rise from the typical one or two schools that fold each year.

"Small colleges with no reputation could go out of business," Baum says. "They're very tuition-driven, so if they can't get tuition revenues, they'll be in really bad shape."

College of Santa Fe, a private liberal arts institution, is one casualty. On March 24, the 1,900-student school in New Mexico announced it was closing. The reasons: It couldn't pay its $30 million in debt, and talks to join with New Mexico Highlands University, a state school, broke down.

Richard Kneedler, a former president of Franklin & Marshall College, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based college founded in 1787 with financial support from Benjamin Franklin, says many small schools face the same predicament.

Schools in Danger

Kneedler says 207 independent colleges, or almost a third of the 678 he analyzed, don't have enough capital to keep going for the long haul -- a 35 percent surge from a year ago. These schools are at risk of closing during a prolonged crisis. Failures would rise further if the recession persists beyond 2009, says Kneedler, who's now a management consultant at Towson, Maryland-based Yaffe & Co.

"If the markets normalize in a year, most might survive," he says. "If we've got a second year like this, the number of schools in danger will multiply by 10."

Simmons, founded in 1899, educates a mix of 1,900 female undergraduates and 2,800 graduate students. Its women-only undergraduate liberal arts program accepts 56 percent of applicants; top-tier schools accept fewer than 20 percent. Simmons has five graduate schools, from the 200-student School of Management to the 1,100-student College of Arts & Sciences Graduate Studies.

Colleges like Simmons -- mainly undergraduate schools offering some master's degree programs -- are in the worst financial shape, according to Kneedler's analysis. They turned to borrowing for the amenities they used to entice students to small programs. Now, they're drowning in debt, Kneedler says.

Simmons's Accreditation

Simmons President Helen Drinan says she hopes the new building and accreditation in March by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business will make it easier to market the School of Management to prospective students. The school hired Deloitte LLP's higher education advisory unit to suggest ways to navigate its current bind and to find further savings.

If these ideas don't work, the business school may have to go co-ed or abandon its emphasis on MBAs to focus on undergraduate business degrees.

Drinan bets Simmons won't have to go that route. It should be able to keep its undergraduate enrollment steady and increase students in its graduate programs, including the business school, she says.

'Political Anxiety'

"If that school cannot grow, then we have another decision to make," she says. "There's been a lot of political anxiety around campus over the fact that the School of Management is a relatively small program. Now we're in a position to say, 'Let's run with it.'"

Like the housing bubble, Simmons's woes started with easy credit. The school borrowed more than $140 million, tripling its debt in the seven years through 2008. It added classrooms connected via wireless networks. It renovated its library. And it spruced up its student center with a coffee bar and mix-your- own-milkshake cafeteria.

"That was a pretty bold borrowing strategy," Kneedler says.

Simmons followed suit as U.S. colleges jacked up tuition by an average of 3 percent above inflation every year. It counted on a rising endowment, parents' bull-market-fed wealth and burgeoning private loans that more than doubled student debt from 1998 to 2008.

Simmons raised annual tuition and living expenses to $41,500 in 2008, 22 percent above the $34,132 average for private colleges. Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, the costliest U.S. school, charged $53,166 last year.

Credit Markets Collapse

Then credit markets collapsed. Simmons -- and even better- known schools such as nearby Boston University -- felt the aftershocks. Like many now-struggling companies and municipalities, Simmons had sold variable-rate bonds and hedged against rising interest rates through swap agreements, which fixed interest costs for the school.

When rates fell, Simmons owed more than $10 million on the swaps. When it refinanced the bonds, it had to accept more than triple the interest rate it had been paying before the crisis. Drinan expects to settle the swap with bankrupt Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. at a lower cost.

Wall Street provided the tools for schools to take advantage of cheap credit. Bankers introduced college finance executives to the interest-rate swaps and similar innovations that are now costing colleges, says Andrew Evans, vice president for finance at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

Investment Banks

"All these investment banks were offering a wide variety of products," he says. "It's not like the schools and universities thought of these themselves."

Last fall, Moody's Investors Service and S&P downgraded Simmons's debt by one grade to three grades above junk, citing projected budget deficits. Since then, Simmons has trimmed its $100 million budget by $5 million. It wants to cut another $2 million by June. It boosted tuition and living expenses by 5 percent to $43,500 for the 2009-10 school year. The president's residence, a two-story redbrick mansion 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) from campus, is for sale for $2.2 million.

"I don't know why they did the School of Management building," says Katelyn Scalera, 19, a sophomore from Massachusetts's Cape Cod, who's studying nursing. "They didn't have the money for it, so we're further in debt. And then they announce these cuts and increase tuition."

Families Hurting

With families hurting, Drinan says it will be difficult for Simmons and its rivals to entice more students.

"Every college and university in America is worried about that," she says. "Higher education needs to pay attention to its cost structure, but we have to have the facilities that are necessary to house and teach our students."

Simmons's neighbors around Boston, a 4,466-square-mile metropolitan area packed with 53 institutions of higher education, are mired in their own financial messes. Even Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard, whose endowment almost tripled to $36.6 billion in the past decade, is offering buyouts to 1,600 nonfaculty employees.

In mid-April, Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences said it would slash 19 percent, or $220 million, from its $1.15 billion budget over two years because of endowment losses. Harvard's holdings plunged 22 percent in the second half of last year, leaving a $52 million budget gap.

Future Woes?

In December, falling interest rates had already forced Harvard to sell $500 million of bonds to cover swaps it had bought to protect against rising rates.

Harvard will have to sell more assets to meet its obligations to private equity firms in coming years, says Steven Davidoff, a law professor at the University of Connecticut, who has studied the school's endowment. Private equity firms require commitments from investors for more money when buying opportunities pop up.

Across the Charles River, Boston University, with more than 30,000 students, has frozen staff hiring and salaries. It spent more than $500 million in the past five years on a 6,300-seat ice hockey arena, home to the 2009 men's national champions, and dorms with two- to four-bedroom suites. Another centerpiece, the $100 million fitness center, features a 35-foot (11-meter) rock- climbing wall, indoor track, Olympic-size pool and hot tub.

"I'm very athletic, so when I saw the gym during my first campus tour before I came here, it was a very important factor in my college choice," says Katie Burr, 21, a junior from Canton, Massachusetts, who's wearing baggy basketball shorts on her way to exercise there.

Construction Halted

Both Boston University and Harvard have halted construction projects after they and other U.S. colleges spent $93 billion on new buildings and renovations from 2002 to 2008. That's almost double the $48 billion spent in the previous seven years, according to trade magazine "College Planning & Management."

The trauma is worse for small schools like Simmons that lack national cachet. About 20 percent of private colleges reported that fewer students returned this past September compared with the previous year, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

As students leave these private schools, pressure builds on cheaper public universities, which are navigating their own funding shortfalls. Colleges in South Carolina are getting 18 percent less in state aid this year; Florida schools are seeing a 9 percent drop. Meanwhile, their populations are growing: California's community college system has 100,000 more students this year without additional funds.

Hand in Hand

"What's worrisome is states cutting budgets," says Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. "Those schools won't have enough money to educate their growing populations."

The administration of Barack Obama is boosting aid to reeling families. It may not be enough. The president is increasing grants and tax credits and expanding federal loans.

"Economic progress and educational achievement have always gone hand in hand in America," Obama, a Columbia College and Harvard Law School graduate, said in a March speech.

In February, he increased the maximum annual amount for a Pell grant, a government scholarship for needy students, by $619. It's now $5,350 for the 2009-10 school year. He also replaced the so-called Hope tax credit, which was limited to $1,800 per student and covered only the first two years of schooling. Now there's a $2,500 credit for all four years. Families who make less than $180,000 a year -- the income limit was almost doubled -- can deduct that amount annually from their taxes.

Middle Class Needs Help

"Pell serves the neediest students, but our middle-class families need help too right now," says Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, president of Kalamazoo College, a liberal arts school in Michigan.

Battered on all fronts, many families are recalculating whether the return on their college investment is worth the cost. In New Hope, Pennsylvania, a historic town and tourist spot on the Delaware River, Tim and Laura McNamara are weighing whether to send their son, Daniel, to Gettysburg College, with its $48,050 annual tab for tuition and expenses. The 2,600- student liberal arts school next to the Civil War battlefield in Pennsylvania is his top choice.

Daniel applied early decision and was accepted in November, without getting financial aid. A few months later, Philadelphia- area schools, including Arcadia University, Drexel University and La Salle University, sent their acceptance letters. Daniel, 18, got offers that would cut the price of his education in half, Tim McNamara says.

Brand Name

Even though they can afford Gettysburg, Tim and Laura worry one of them could lose his or her job -- Tim's as a software company executive or Laura's as a medical affairs director. They're anxious that their savings may decline further and have asked Gettysburg to reconsider its lack of aid or relieve them of Daniel's commitment to attend. Students accepted under early- decision programs are required to enroll in that school.

"Gettysburg has a little bit better brand name," Tim McNamara says. "But he can get a great education at all these schools, so we're not sure whether the $25,000 difference is worth that small difference in reputation."

For Carl Erickson and Mary O'Neill of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the answer to the "Is it worth it?" question is yes. They'll pay the extra $43,000 a year for their daughter, Caroline, to attend Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, outside Chicago, if she gets in and chooses it over the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a state school.

Caroline, a high school junior who turns 17 in June, wants a big-city experience. She might find the art design program at Northwestern a better fit, her father says. The family would spend $10,848 at Michigan compared with $53,608 at Northwestern.

'We'll Pay for It'

"If she decides Northwestern has something that Michigan doesn't give you, then we'll pay for it," says Carl Erickson, 47, who owns a software company.

One thing that has kept families shelling out for higher education of any ilk is the return their children get on the investment. People between the ages of 25 and 34 with college degrees make on average $50,900 a year, or 62 percent more than those without, the College Board says. With an annual gap of about $20,000 a year, it takes about 10 years to recoup a $200,000 investment in a college degree.

For current students, the new reality as they pursue their degrees is crowded classrooms and fewer courses. Kirstin Gardzina, a sophomore studying nursing at Simmons, says that when she showed up for her first microbiology class in September, there weren't enough chairs because enrollment had shot up to 60 from the more typical 40.

'Bursting at the Seams'

Kalamazoo College, with 1,340 students, has told professors to increase class sizes so it can boost tuition revenue. California community colleges are cramming in more people to fulfill their legal mandate to accept every student who applies.

"We're bursting at the seams," says Jack Scott, chancellor of the community college system. "We're trying to serve as many people as possible, but we can't serve everyone without increased funding."

As colleges scale back, some students are changing what they study. Heather Demali, 20, a sophomore majoring in biology at the College of Wooster in Ohio, says she might have to drop her two minors: geology and environmental studies. Wooster offers some courses once and may not repeat them for several years, making it tough to fulfill her requirements.

"Scheduling has become a nightmare," she says.

'Arms Race'

That's a far cry from the bubble years when schools raced to offer the biggest and best -- from dorm rooms to exercise equipment, to food courts -- because that's what families demanded.

"The student coming out of high school today is a very different student than I was," says Robert Brown, president of Boston University. "We participated in the arms race to create community just like all other high-quality undergraduate institutions."

Deborah Moore, publisher and executive editor of "College Planning & Management" magazine, which tracks campus construction, says families were willing to spend to give their children what they had at home.

"When you live in a 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot home, each kid has their own room," Moore says. "They don't know anything else. So they demand singles, apartment-style quarters. Today's kid is more spoiled because that's what the experience is at home."

Floodlit Pool

At the University of California, Irvine, the Vista del Campo Norte student apartment complex looks like a five-star hotel. At night, the curvy outdoor swimming pool is illuminated by underwater floodlights. At Kalamazoo College, the main cafeteria, which the school renovated as part of $14.5 million in spending on the student center last year, lets students pick among pizza, hamburgers, grilled vegetables, make-your-own salads and a dozen other choices.

On a Wednesday afternoon in March, Ryan Hagerty, a Boston University junior who lives in the so-called student village that sports suites with kitchens and private bathrooms, is typing away on his WiFi-connected laptop at the Buick Street Market & Cafe on the ground floor of his dorm.

"I probably won't be living in such a nice building for a while after graduating," says Hagerty, 20, who's from Easton, Massachusetts. "I don't think this building or the arena are necessary; they're over the top a bit."

Even so, he says he wouldn't choose to live anywhere else while his father pays for full tuition and living expenses of $48,468 this school year.

Budget Shortfall

Boston University, where research funding of about $450 million in 2008-09 accounted for a quarter of its operating budget, is surviving the crash because it relies less than rivals on endowment income, Brown says.

The endowment provides 3 percent of its operating budget compared with 15 percent at Wooster. BU has enough of a reputation to fill its ranks so tuition revenue will remain consistent, he says.

Beloit College in Wisconsin, where tuition accounts for three-quarters of its income, doesn't have as many options. It got trapped in a $1 million budget shortfall when it slid 36 students short of projected enrollment in September.

The liberal arts college, with 1,282 students, had to fire 40 people, including three faculty members. With a 70 percent acceptance rate, Beloit and similar colleges don't have much margin when applications drop.

'Change Our Model'

To keep its numbers up, Beloit accepted the same number of students this year despite a 10 percent decline in applications. Interim President Dick Niemiec is counting on at least 1,250 students next year. Even so, he prepared the 2009-10 budget on an assumption he'd get 1,200, cutting costs further to be safe.

"If the economy doesn't bounce within a year, then, like other businesses, we'll have to change our model," Niemiec says. That could mean reducing faculty over time and shrinking the school to 1,000 students, which was the case in the 1960s, when Niemiec attended.

Kalamazoo College, 240 miles to the east, is scrambling to slash $2.8 million in costs. It needs to compensate for the 28 percent decline in its $157 million endowment and the expected increase in financial aid it will have to dole out next year.

On this sunny March day, Kalamazoo's tree-lined campus is bustling with people walking to class and studying on the lawn. Students, mainly from Michigan, and faculty mostly know each other by first name. Classes range from 1 person in an upper- level Italian course to 40 in some introductory classes. For the small classes and personal attention, students pay $38,166 a year, including room and board.

Saving Money

Saving money is a campus-wide affair. On this day, about 40 students, professors and staff gather in a wood-paneled conference room. The group calls out suggestions, and students write them on easels lined with blank white paper: Dorm hall lights shouldn't be on 24/7; videoconferencing instead of travel; rent classrooms to companies.

While those ideas will help, the only savior for a school like Kalamazoo is more paying students. Last year, it had six fewer than anticipated, which means it will lose about $1 million over four years, says Jeffrey Haus, a professor of religion and history who's on the admissions committee.

"They're asking us to increase the size of attendance," Haus says. "Larger classes work against the mission of a small liberal arts college."

Amanda West, a first-year Kalamazoo student from Los Angeles, says she might transfer to a bigger school that costs less and offers more.

"I'm worried that my experience here won't be as rich as it could be," she says.

Trouble Ahead

Colleges will be stretched further as the private equity firms they've invested with make calls for money promised earlier, says Wellesley's Evans.

"You might be liquidating assets that you might not want to be liquidating," he says. "Your asset allocation will be out of whack."

By 2012, the ratio of illiquid assets such as private equity stakes and real estate in Harvard's portfolio will likely rise to 44 percent from 26 percent, the University of Connecticut's Davidoff estimates.

Schools are also hurting as they pay 10 times more for bank lines of credit. The standby cost, or interest paid on the credit when it's not being used, has surged to 1 percent from less than 10 basis points, says James McGill, senior vice president for finance and administration at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. (A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.)

'Liquidity Freezes Up'

"We're in the process of deciding whether these are worth keeping," McGill says. "If liquidity freezes up again, they're good to have."

One way schools like Beloit and Kalamazoo may prosper is by offering vocational training, unique majors and other programs that the most-competitive colleges don't provide, says Morton Owen Schapiro, president of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which is tied with Amherst College 60 miles southeast as the top U.S. liberal arts college as ranked by "U.S. News & World Report."

Amherst President Tony Marx says most institutions will scale back financial aid commitments.

"Access to higher education in America is going to be squeezed, become less equitable," he says. "America will pay an unbelievable price for this 20 years from now."

'Math Doesn't Work'

Public universities will change too.

"State universities have to think about how many resources they're going to put into being a top-ranked research institution and balance that against their primary educational mission," Boston University's Brown says. "Every state wants its flagship university to be a top-20 research university. Obviously, the math doesn't work."

More students will start undergraduate careers at community colleges. About three-quarters of such colleges say enrollment increased at least 5 percent this year from a year earlier, according to a survey published on March 17 by the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Financial pressures will prompt more students to cram four years of college into three straight years, says Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. He's not sold on the idea.

"You spend 100 years running a college based on a four-year model, with summer breaks for mental assessment," Ekman says. "Then you suddenly announce you can do it in three years. You do have to ask whether it'll still have as good an effect."

Three-Year Plan

Boston University student Burr, en route to the fitness center, says the three-year trend is gaining momentum: Two of her best friends are overloading courses to graduate early.

On the positive side, cost cutting might make universities more efficient. That hasn't been their strong suit, says Callan at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Colleges, unlike businesses, could keep increasing prices without losing market share. Schools hired presidents to raise money and spend it to make their universities more prestigious, he says. Now boards might look for leaders whose strengths run to fiscal restraint.

At Simmons, Drinan says she was working to reduce costs even before the crisis hit. She says financial prudence is the way forward for higher education nationwide. If her cuts and efforts to expand the business program fail, the School of Management -- and Simmons's $140 million of debt -- may wind up as a case study in what can happen when a bubble pops.

To contact the reporters on this story: Yalman Onaran in New York at [email protected].

[Jun 4, 2009] Rationality vs Intelligence by Stephen Hsu

I can believe that intelligence is somewhat uncorrelated with rational behavior (see below for definition; to some extent it is merely the requirement of self-consistency). But do smarter people become more rational once their foibles are revealed to them?

Rationality vs Intelligence: In 2002, the cognitive scientist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University won the Nobel Prize in Economics for work done with his longtime collaborator Amos Tversky (who died in 1996).

Their work had to do with judgment and decision-making ― what makes our thoughts and actions rational or irrational. They explored how people make choices and assess probabilities, and uncovered basic errors that are typical in decision-making.

The thinking errors they uncovered are not trivial mistakes in a parlor game. To be rational means to adopt appropriate goals, take the appropriate action given one's goals and beliefs, and hold beliefs that are commensurate with available evidence. It means achieving one's life goals using the best means possible.

To violate the thinking rules examined by Kahneman and Tversky thus has the practical consequence that we are less satisfied with our lives than we might be.

Research conducted in my own laboratory has indicated that there are systematic individual differences in the judgment and decision-making skills that Kahneman and Tversky studied.

Ironically, the Nobel Prize was awarded for studies of cognitive characteristics that are entirely missing from the most well-known mental assessment device in the behavioral sciences: intelligence tests.

Scientists and laypeople alike tend to agree that "good thinking" encompasses sound judgment and decision-making ― the type of thinking that helps us achieve our goals. Yet assessments of such good (rational) thinking are nowhere to be found on IQ tests.

Intelligence tests measure important things, but they do not assess the extent of rational thought. This might not be such a grave omission if intelligence were a strong predictor of rational thinking.

But my research group found just the opposite: it is a mild predictor at best, and some rational thinking skills are totally dissociated from intelligence.

To an important degree, intelligence tests determine the academic and professional careers of millions of people in many countries.

Children are given intelligence tests to determine eligibility for admission to school programs for the gifted. Corporations and the military depend on assessment and sorting devices that are little more than disguised intelligence tests.

Perhaps some of this attention to intelligence is necessary, but what is not warranted is the tendency to ignore cognitive capacities that are at least equally important: the capacities that sustain rational thought and action.

Critics of intelligence tests have long pointed out that the tests ignore important parts of mental life, mainly non-cognitive domains such as socio-emotional abilities, empathy, and interpersonal skills.

But intelligence tests are also radically incomplete as measures of cognitive functioning, which is evident from the simple fact that many people display a systematic inability to think or behave rationally despite having a more than adequate IQ.

For a variety of reasons, we have come to overvalue the kinds of thinking skills that intelligence tests measure and undervalue other important cognitive skills, such as the ability to think rationally.

Psychologists have studied the major classes of thinking errors that make people less than rational.

They have studied people's tendencies to show incoherent probability assessments; to be overconfident in knowledge judgments; to ignore the alternative hypothesis; to evaluate evidence with a "my side" bias; to show inconsistent preferences because of framing effects; to over-weigh short-term rewards at the expense of long-term well-being; to allow decisions to be affected by irrelevant context; and many others.

All of these categories of failure of rational judgment and decision-making are very imperfectly correlated with intelligence ― meaning that IQ tests tend not to capture individual differences in rational thought.

Intelligence tests measure mental skills that have been studied for a long time, whereas psychologists have only recently had the tools to measure the tendencies toward rational and irrational thinking. ...

[Apr 25, 2009] Why Pay Tuition?

with 14 comments

One of our goals here at The Baseline Scenario is to explain basic economics, finance, and business concepts and how they apply to the things you read about in the newspaper. I think I'm pretty good at this. But if you prefer video and diagrams, I may have found something much better (thanks to a reader suggestion).

Salman Khan has created dozens of YouTube videos covering the basics of banking, finance, and the credit crisis. (There is also a series on the Geithner Plan that doesn't seem to be on the main index page yet.) I've only watched a few, but they are very clear and from what I can see everything looks accurate.

But what's really exciting is that he also has many, many more videos on math - from pre-algebra through linear algebra and differential equations - and physics. My wife and I watched the one on the chain rule and implicit differentiation and she gave it two thumbs up. (My wife is an economics and statistics professor.) So the next time you - or your child - needs to derive the quadratic formula, just head on over to his web site. Hours and hours of fun.

Deseret News Universities will be 'irrelevant' by 2020, Y. professor says

What a retarded "professor of psychology and instructional technology at Brigham Young University." One of the most important features of the "real" university is the ability to communicate daily with students (those days much less with faculty). To a certain extent it is students around you who represent the value of university education...

PROVO - Last fall, David Wiley stood in front of a room full of professors and university administrators and delivered a prediction that made them squirm: "Your institutions will be irrelevant by 2020."

Wiley is one part Nostradamus and nine parts revolutionary, an educational evangelist who preaches about a world where students listen to lectures on iPods, and those lectures are also available online to everyone anywhere for free. Course materials are shared between universities, science labs are virtual, and digital textbooks are free.

Institutions that don't adapt, he says, risk losing students to institutions that do. The warning applies to community colleges and ivy-covered universities, says Wiley, who is a professor of psychology and instructional technology at Brigham Young University.

America's colleges and universities, says Wiley, have been acting as if what they offer - access to educational materials, a venue for socializing, the awarding of a credential - can't be obtained anywhere else. By and large, campus-based universities haven't been innovative, he says, because they've been a monopoly.

But Google, Facebook, free online access to university lectures, after-hours institutions such as the University of Phoenix, and virtual institutions such as Western Governors University have changed that. Many of today's students, he says, aren't satisfied with the old model that expects them to go to a lecture hall at a prescribed time and sit still while a professor talks for an hour.

Higher education doesn't reflect the life that students are living, he says. In that life, information is available on demand, files are shared, and the world is mobile and connected. Today's colleges, on the other hand, are typically "tethered, isolated, generic, and closed," he says.

To those who would argue that today's students are spoiled - the "by gum, I wrote my dissertation on a manual typewriter" argument - Wiley points to a YouTube video called "What if." The video quotes educators from years gone by who were alarmed that chalk, pencils, ballpoint pens and calculators would make students lazy and stupid.

Wiley is an amiable firebrand who helped launch the nation's "open content" movement a decade ago while he was getting his Ph.D. at BYU. Like the "open source" software movement that preceded it, open content makes it easy for authors, teachers and others to sign licensing agreements to freely share their copyrighted materials.

At its core, the open education movement and the larger open content, copyleft movement has "a fundamental belief that knowledge is a public good and should be fully shared," explains Catherine Casserly, senior partner with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Wiley, she says, is viewed in the open education realm as an imaginative innovator who is always thinking of new applications for disseminating knowledge to the many instead of keeping it "locked up" for the benefit of the few.

In the world according to Wiley, universities would still make money, though, because they have a marketable commodity: to get college credits and a diploma, you'd have to be a paying customer.

But Wiley sees a future where textbooks could always be downloaded for free, easily edited to meet the needs of the teacher and students. The average college textbook today costs between $100 and $150, he notes, so there's a kind of "arms race" constantly going on in which students figure out how to share textbooks or buy used ones, and publishers try to make the books obsolete every 18 months.

Wiley helped start Flat World Knowledge, which creates peer-reviewed textbooks that can be downloaded for free, or bought as paperbacks for $30. He also is the founder of the Utah Open High School, which debuts next fall. It, too, will use open content materials, and will provide an online education for 125 students.

When he taught at Utah State University, Wiley became famous in higher-ed circles for letting anyone sign up for his class. Unlike typical online classes, this one required no tuition and no password, and Wiley interacted with all his students, even the ones in Italy. A similar class this semester at BYU has attracted non-paying students from Brazil to Indonesia. In this class, students do their homework on blogs that anyone in the world can read (and in fact some of the blogs were picked up by an international educational newsletter.) When education is digital and open, the circle keeps getting wider.

[Jan 28, 2009] Take A Free Finance Course From Robert Shiller


Academic Earth provides thousands of free video lectures from the world's top scholars at Harvard, Yale, MIT, Berkeley, Princeton, Stanford and Yale on a wide variety of subjects(sciences, law, math, philosophy, religion, history, computer science, economics, etc.). From its website:

Academic Earth is an organization founded with the goal of giving everyone on earth access to a world-class education. As more and more high quality educational content becomes available online for free, we ask ourselves, what are the real barriers to achieving a world class education? At Academic Earth, we are working to identify these barriers and find innovative ways to use technology to increase the ease of learning.

We are building a user-friendly educational ecosystem that will give Internet users around the world the ability to easily find, interact with, and learn from full video courses and lectures from the world's leading scholars. Our goal is to bring the best content together in one place and create an environment that in which that content is remarkably easy to use and in which user contributions make existing content increasingly valuable.

Example: A 25-lecture course (about 1.25 hours each) in Financial Markets, taught by Yale economist Robert Shiller, supplemented with guest lectures by Larry Summers, Carl Icahn, Stephen Schwarzman (co-founder of The Blackstone Group), Andrew Redleaf (hedge fund manager, Whitebox Advisors) and David Swensen (Yale's Chief Investment Officer).

There's also a 24-lecture course on Game Theory, taught by Yale economics professor Benjamin Polak.

Thanks to Ben Cunningham.

Randy Pausch, whose 'last lecture' became sensation dies --

Randy Pausch, a terminally ill professor whose earnest farewell lecture at Carnegie Mellon University became an Internet phenomenon and bestselling book that turned him into a symbol for living and dying well, died Friday. He was 47.

Pausch, a computer science professor and virtual-reality pioneer, died at his home in Chesapeake, Va., of complications from pancreatic cancer, the Pittsburgh university announced.

When Pausch agreed to give the talk, he was participating in a long-standing academic tradition that calls on professors to share their wisdom in a theoretical "last lecture." A month before the speech, the 46-year-old Pausch was told he had only months to live, a prognosis that heightened the poignancy of his address.

Originally delivered last September to about 400 students and colleagues, his message about how to make the most of life has been viewed by millions on the Internet. Pausch gave an abbreviated version of it on "Oprah" and expanded it into a best-selling book, "The Last Lecture," released in April.

Related links

Randy Pausch | 1960-2008 Photos

Video: Pausch's 'Last Lecture'

Randy Pausch's daily journal

Yet Pausch insisted that both the spoken and written words were designed for an audience of three: his children, then 5, 2 and 1.

"I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children," Pausch wrote in his book.

Unwilling to take time from his family to pen the book, Pausch hired a coauthor, Jeffrey Zaslow, a Wall Street Journal writer who had covered the lecture. During more than 50 bicycle rides crucial to his health, Pausch spoke to Zaslow on a cellphone headset.

"The speech made him famous all over the world," Zaslow told The Times. "It was almost a shared secret, a peek into him telling his colleagues and students to go on and do great things. It touched so many people because it was authentic."

Thousands of strangers e-mailed Pausch to say they found his upbeat lecture, laced with humor, to be inspiring and life-changing. They drank up the sentiments of a seemingly vibrant terminally ill man, a showman with Jerry Seinfeld-esque jokes and an earnest Jimmy Stewart delivery.

If I don't seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you.

He used that line after projecting CT scans, complete with helpful arrows pointing to the tumors on his liver as he addressed "the elephant in the room" that made every word carry more weight.

Some people believe that those who are dying may be especially insightful because they must make every moment count. Some are drawn to valedictories like the one Pausch gave because they offer a spiritual way to grapple with mortality that isn't based in religion.

Sandra Yarlott, director of spiritual care at UCLA Medical Center, said researchers, including Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, have observed that work done by dying patients "resonates with people in that timeless place deep within."

As Pausch essentially said goodbye at Carnegie Mellon, he touched on just about everything but religion as he raucously relived how he achieved most of his childhood dreams. His ambitions included experiencing the weightlessness of zero gravity; writing an article in the World Book Encyclopedia ("You can tell the nerds early on," he joked); wanting to be both a Disney Imagineer and Captain Kirk from "Star Trek"; and playing professional football.

Onstage, Pausch was a frenetic verbal billboard, delivering as many one-liners as he did phrases to live by.

Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted.

When his virtual-reality students at Carnegie Mellon won a flight in a NASA training plane that briefly simulates weightlessness, Pausch was told faculty members were not allowed to fly. Finding a loophole, he applied to cover it as his team's hometown Web journalist -- and got his 25 seconds of floating.

Since 1997, Pausch had been a professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon. With a drama professor, he founded the university's Entertainment Technology Center, which teams students from the arts with those in technology to develop projects.

The popular professor had an "enormous and lasting impact" on Carnegie Mellon, said Jared L. Cohon, the university's president, in a statement. He pointed out that Pausch's "love of teaching, his sense of fun and his brilliance" came together in his innovative software program, Alice, which uses animated characters and storytelling to make it easier to learn to write computer code.

During the lecture, Pausch joked that he had become just enough of an expert to fulfill one childhood ambition. World Book sought him out to write its virtual-reality entry.

This stimulating New Yorker essay

(right now gated, but worth buying the issue for) focuses on where creative moments come from. Excerpt:

Many stimulants, like caffeine, Adderall, and Ritalin, are taken to increase focus -- one recent poll found that nearly twenty percent of scientists and researchers regularly took prescription drugs to "enhance concentration" -- but, accordingly to Jung-Beeman and Kounios, drugs may actually make insights less likely, by sharpening the spotlight of attention and discouraging mental rambles. Concentration, it seems, comes with the hidden cost of diminished creativity. "There's a good reason Google puts Ping-Pong tables in their headquarters," Kounios said. "If you want to encourage insights, then you've got to also encourage people to relax." Jung-Beeman's latest paper investigates why people who are in a good mood are so much better at solving insight puzzles. (On average, they solve nearly twenty percent more C.R.A. problems.)

Group Theory in the Bedroom

Tyler Cowen

I had never thought of this:

In a sense, base 3 is the best of the integer bases because 3 is the integer closest to e...Suppose you are creating one of those dreaded telephone menu systems -- press 1 to be inconvenienced, press 2 to be condescended to, and so forth.

If there are many choices, what is the best way to organize them? Should you build a deep hierarchy with lots of little menus that each offer just a few options?

Or is it better to flatten the structure into a few long menus? In this situation a reasonable goal is to minimize the number of options that the wretched caller must listen to before finally reaching his or her destination.

The problem is analogous to that of representing an integer in positional notation: the number of items per menu corresponds to the radix r, and the number of menus is analogous to the width w. The average number of choices to be endured is minimized when there are three items per menu.

I have no idea if it is correct. It is from the often quite interesting Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions, by Brian Hayes.

What economics would you teach kids? by jsalvati

What economics would you teach kids?

Rdan points to a 'National Budget Simulation' program that is apparently part of Massachusetts economics education for grades 4-12. I was surprised when I clicked on the link because the federal budget seems like a really strange place to start economics education.

It seems important to start economics education with the economics concepts that kids can actually use in their lives. If I had control over what economics some kids learned in school, I think this would be my list:

Opportunity cost
Gains from trade
Importance of trade offs
Emphasis on the idea that everything has value (time, money, lack of garbage, etc.)
At a more advanced level

Marginal thinking
Efficiency of markets
Interest rates, Net Present Value
Consumption smoothing
I also think it would be useful to teach Utility and Expected Utility, but I don't think it is possible to get to those topics.

Arnold Kling had post on a similar topic a while back.

As a side note, I think I would like to replace most of pre-calculus with basic probability theory from a Bayesian perspective with some heuristics and biases thrown in. Probability theory is a useful abrstraction for all sorts of problems, and it would also make that optional statistics class a lot less difficult if you could teach it from a bayesian perspective.

I was a little surprised myself to see the link, and pleased. I was planning to write a post on kids and must have left the link on 'scheduled' and jsalvati delightfully picked it up. He and a friend are undergraduates who started Good Morning Economics.

As jsalvati noted, Arnold Kling at EconLog wrote that after eliminating things from the high school curriculum:

With all that said, here is what I wish every high school student would learn about economics:

--the concept of opportunity cost
--how economic incentives affect behavior
--the gains from trade
--how prices allocate resources
--how entrepreneurs introduce innovation

If every citizen understood those things, the level of debate over economic policy could be much higher.

The link is to a section of Thinkfinity MA series sponsored by Verizon. I will be a part of of a state based team that provides an opportunity to develop curriculum materials for kids elementary to high school.

I am on a "validation of resources team" scheduled for this Aug. 7 to find out what is expected and to meet both state educators (curriculum and technology sectors) and those doing the validating.

As I gather information I will update and link to other sites that are interesting.

Another voice

Leonard Pitts Jr., the Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald, admits that he, too, has "forgotten how to read":

I do not mean that I have lost the ability to decode letters into words. I mean, rather, that I am finding it increasingly difficult to read deeply, to muster the focus and concentration necessary to wrestle any text longer than a paragraph or more intellectually demanding than a TV listing.

You're talking to a fellow whose idea of fun has always been to retire to a quiet corner with a thick newspaper or a thicker book and disappear inside. But that has become progressively harder. More and more, I have to do my reading in short bursts; anything longer and I start drowsing over the page even though I'm not sleepy, or fidgeting about checking e-mail, visiting that favorite Web site, even though I did both just minutes ago.

He wonders:

In an era in which everyone has a truth and the means to fling it around the world, an era in which knowledge is increasingly broad but seldom deep, maybe that's the ultimate act of sedition: to pick up a single book and read it.

I'm not sure it's the ultimate act of sedition (it's hard to compete with standing in front of a tank), but it does at this point seem a good deal more seditious than, say, writing a blog or dishing a tweet. Web 2.0, we may come to discover, is just the latest opiate of the masses. If Abbie Hoffman were alive and writing his book today, he'd probably title it, simply, Read This Book.

UPDATE: On the other side of the fence, Scott Rosenberg says that, despite years of web surfing, he hasn't noticed any erosion in his ability to submerge himself in long-form writing. "When I do get the chance to sit back with a good book," he writes, "I don't feel any less absorbed than when I was a teenager plowing my way through a shelf of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky." Which goes to show (at the least) that we can expect the same kind of variations in brain function among individuals that we'd find with any other part of our anatomy. It also convinces me that, when the Singularity arrives, I want Scott's brain uploaded into my noggin.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, Michael Agger offers a tutorial on how to write for the web (drawing on Jakob Nielsen's research into the habits of the "selfish, lazy, and ruthless" online reader).

Posted by nick at 09:35 AM | Permalink | Digg | Comments (7)

June 13, 2008 The multi-tasking virus

In an essay written for Tim Ferriss's blog, Josh Waitzkin, the former chess champion who was the subject of the book and subsequent film Waiting for Bobby Fisher, writes of his recent experience in returning to his alma mater, Columbia, and sitting in on a class taught by Dennis Dalton, "the most important college professor of my life." Dalton, writes Waitzkin,

was describing the satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi, building the discussion around the Amritsar massacre in 1919, when British colonial soldiers opened fire on 10,000 unarmed Indian men, women and children trapped in Jallianwala Bagh Garden. For 39 years, Professor Dalton has been inspiring Columbia and Barnard students with his two semester political theory series that introduces undergrads to the ideas of Gandhi, Thoreau, Mill, Malcolm X, King, Plato, Lao Tzu. His lectures are about themes, connections between disparate minds, the powerful role of the individual in shaping our world. Dalton is a life changer, and this was one of his last lectures before retirement.

But it was the audience's reaction that left an even greater impression on Waitzkin:

Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief). From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban She had finally found her shoes!

When the class was over I rode the train home heartbroken, composing a letter to the students, which Dalton distributed the next day. Then I started investigating. Unfortunately, what I observed was not an isolated incident. Classrooms across America have been overrun by the multi-tasking virus. Teachers are bereft. This is the year that Facebook has taken residence in the national classroom. Students defend this trend by citing their generation's enhanced ability to multi-task. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot, in fact, multi-task without drastically reducing the quality of our processing.

That minds wander is not news - "wandering" may well be the default setting for our brains - but the scale and intensity of it today do seem to be something new and remarkable.

Ivy League Slaves of New York The New York Observer by Tom Acitelli

New York's college grads now hustle for jobs paying 1970s wages. Meet their coping mechanism-massive debt!

June 24, 2008 | The New York Observer

| This article was published in the June 30, 2008, edition of The New York Observer. Nigel Holmes: Source: Gotham Gazette, June 19, 2007 <

A younger New Yorker could be forgiven for running up debt: Real wages for 20-something professionals in New York haven't changed since the early 1970s. At the same time, the number of college grads competing for white-collar jobs has increased-as has the cost of everything from real estate to beer to MetroCards.

In 1970, the median annual wage for New Yorkers in their 20s was $35,385, according to a census sample analysis by Queens College sociologist Andrew Beveridge published in the Gotham Gazette. In 2005, that median wage, adjusted for inflation, had decreased to $32,597.

In 1970, 19.5 percent of New Yorkers in their 20s had college degrees, according to the analysis. By 2005, that percentage had more than doubled. By 2006, roughly one in three New Yorkers 25 and older had at least a college degree, according to N.Y.U.'s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

For younger college grads, the job market has become ever more competitive and the monetary rewards stagnant.

And yet they come.

Roughly 1.8 million New Yorkers-more than 20 percent of the population-were between the ages of 20 and 35 in 2006, according to census estimates. In Manhattan alone, that age range included about 29 percent of the population. They fill apartments to the brim and they hustle through midtown, downtown, our town, trying to chomp a slice of an ever-dwindling pie.

Indeed, the vacancy rate for larger apartment buildings in Manhattan will likely end 2008 at below 3 percent, according to a May forecast by brokerage Marcus & Millichap. And, as this column has noted, more and more renters are younger-and more of them are getting help from their parents, whether as lease co-signers or as, quite simply, the monthly rent-check writers.

And as for buying instead of renting? For many of these eager-beaver 20-somethings with B.A.'s and B.S.'s, much of the city's housing market remains prohibitively expensive. The average Manhattan apartment cost $1.72 million by April 2008, according to appraisal firm Miller Samuel. (It was just under $507,000 a decade earlier.) In the boroughs, it isn't much cheaper: The average Queens home cost $535,308 by April.

Even after a 20-something meets the housing challenge, however creatively, he or she must then contend with the rising costs of the slightly-less-than-essentials, from transportation to health care to leisure to student-loan repayments to … everything! All against a hard backdrop of stagnant wages and increased white-collar job competition.

Which probably helps explain the rising levels of debt, here and elsewhere.

In 2003, the amount of outstanding debt nationwide due to revolving credit, which springs mostly from credit cards, was $771 billion. Five years later, that amount had ballooned to $957 billion.

The Federal Reserve, which tracks the debt, doesn't have numbers specific to New York City. But in a city where a square foot in an average apartment can command over $1,200, and $2,000 a month gets you a one-bedroom walk-up with water bugs (if you're lucky), it's safe to assume that debt runs rather high for the younger New Yorkers among us.

[email protected]

Ivy League Slaves of New York by Doree Shafrir

June 24, 2008 | The New York Observer

America's best and brightest are unpacking their gilded diplomas and getting to work as assistants in New York's media dens, pinching themselves at their good fortune. Suckers!

This article was published in the June 30, 2008, edition of The New York Observer.

The end of June is upon us, and thus the annual migration of bright-eyed graduates of the country's more prestigious finishing schools to the doorman-converted one-bedrooms of Murray Hill and the Upper East Side, the walk-ups of Boerum Hill, and the lofts of Bushwick-pardon us, East Williamsburg-is also in full swing.

Most of these liberal-arts-minded young people have spent the spring worrying, their former dorm-mates from Princeton or Penn taking it easy while looking forward to their analyst positions at McKinsey or Goldman, Sachs (pity those poor Bear Stearns hirees!), sending out résumés in response to every editorial job posting on MediaBistro and, usually, hearing nothing back. The résumé has been perfectly formatted; the graduate is careful to list both his cumulative and within-major GPA, since, really, what bearing does that C+ in Physics for Poets have on his ability to read slush? (This, of course, is where the grades-optional Brown graduate has yet another advantage!)

Years ago, I too embarked on this rite of passage, taking an apartment in a Lower East Side tenement building where, every morning outside my window, at exactly 6 a.m., a delivery truck unloaded boxes of Domino's Pizza by throwing them-thwack, thwack!-onto the sidewalk. I had no job, and made my way to an employment agency, which sent me out on interviews to magazines and advertising agencies and publishing companies, and within a week I had what I thought was a plum position as an assistant in the advertising department of a Condé Nast magazine. My Marlo Thomas days would soon be upon me!

It didn't take long for the disillusionment to set in. I believe it occurred on my second or third day, when a co-worker informed me that the previous assistant had walked off the job in tears, and that the company required waiting nine months before applying to transfer, which seemed like an eternity. That was, like, two whole semesters! Oh, the injustice of it all. My bosses were mean, not surprisingly; I lasted three and a half months.

But, I thought, things were surely different today. I assumed that since The Devil Wears Prada and the subsequent spate of so-called "assistant lit" (see also: Bridie Clark's Because She Can, her thinly veiled account of working for Judith Regan; or Rachel Pine's The Twins of Tribeca, her thinly veiled account of working for Bob and Harvey Weinstein; or former Tatler assistant Clare Naylor's thinly veiled novels about young, attractive women working as assistants at "glamorous" jobs), not to mention the rise of Web sites like Gawker (where I used to work), where any disgruntled assistant can regale millions with her tales of mistreatment-that things had, perhaps, changed for these downtrodden masses. Just look at how buddy-buddy Carrie Bradshaw was with her new assistant Louise in the Sex and the City movie -- they were practically sisters! In a manner of speaking, of course.

Turns out, not really.

"When I was an assistant, they made us all fill out time sheets every week. If we worked fewer than 40 hours, including a doctor's appointment, they would dock our pay. If we worked over 40 hours, we wouldn't get more money," said Lilit Marcus, 25. Ms. Marcus is the co-founder and editor in chief of Save the Assistants, a blog that collects anecdotes about bad bosses and offers empathy and survival tips for the 20-something set. Her first job out of college was as an assistant at a major media company she declined to name. "They went through 22- and 23-year-old girls like some people go through glasses of water. They didn't care that they were hiring a new assistant every six weeks.

"They count on you being young and not knowing any better," she continued. "They count on you being scared to say anything. I think, if anything, the books like Devil Wears Prada and Because She Can have made things worse for assistants, because now bosses are less willing to let you work on important things, at least in New York. They're paranoid. They think, 'What could my assistant rat out about me?'"

Ms. Marcus explained that her former place of employment had a policy about not hiring anyone who had gone to an Ivy League school, because "they didn't want people whom they could perceive as a threat." (The evidence bears this out somewhat: Ivy League grads do seem partial to cashing in via book deals; Lauren Weisberger, the author of The Devil Wears Prada, graduated from Cornell, and Ms. Clark is a Harvard alumna, though Ms. Pine is a graduate of SUNY-Stony Brook.)

But the assistant-boss relationship is often more complicated than it first appears, and those assistants who perform personal tasks for their bosses (hello, Louise from St. Louis!) soon find themselves relied upon in a way that necessarily blurs the line between professional and personal lives. (Even in The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly eventually finds herself confiding in, and heavily reliant upon, her assistant Andrea Sachs.) It's a double-edged sword, though, as one former assistant to a literary agent told me: "My first boss told me she loved me, which was incongruous with the way she treated me-I was both her best friend and slave."

A 20-something former magazine editor said that it can be just as uncomfortable for the boss. "The assistants were so close to my age that it seemed very natural to be friendly with them. One night I'm getting drinks with them, the next day I'm asking them to book me a car. It was awkward as all hell."

Another young former fashion magazine editor admitted being horrified at her behavior with her assistants, who were, after all, only a few years younger than she was. "I think back on things that I did when I was first a boss and I'm sort of appalled at how mean I could be," she said. "That was the culture. You've got 21-year-old girls being hazed by their 25-year-old bosses, and the assistants have college students that they're totally hazing. It's just like a learned behavior."

There's no longer any debate, it seems, as to why anyone would tolerate being treated this way. Even in an age when there are in some ways more job options than ever, thanks to the Internet, young women, especially, seem to view an assistantship as the only means to a life of glamour and distinction in this city. (Or they become Julia Allison.) And so to receive hundreds of applications for an opening at a magazine or book publisher for a job that pays perhaps $30,000 a year (at the high end) is not unusual.

Indeed, one of the biggest misconceptions about assistantships is that they're easy jobs to get, said Lauren Le Vine, 23, an online editorial assistant at "In reality, you need lots of internships and relevant experience, and you have to be smart," said Ms. Le Vine. "I think magazines and Web sites are unique in that not only do you have to be a good writer and have an attractive résumé-you also need to 'look the part.' If you want to work at Vogue, clearly you need to dress like you work at a top fashion magazine."

(It also doesn't hurt to be connected, and "people with connections who were very junior assistants would be way fancier than the senior people who'd gotten in on their own," said the former fashion magazine editor.)

Magazines, advertising and PR agencies, publishing companies, and literary agencies all still operate on an apprenticeship system-the person answering her boss's phone is, theoretically, learning how to do her boss's job one day. And because the industries are so hierarchical, there's almost no chance of breaking in if you haven't followed the prescribed path. "I'd already been working in the magazine world for about a year and a half as a research editor at a fashion magazine and freelance writing, but I was looking to move from research into editorial," said a 25-year-old assistant at a national magazine. "I decided to take an editorial assistant position because I thought that was more likely to put me on the path to becoming a senior-level editor. It was a very difficult decision because I took a substantial pay cut, as well as an intellectual one, but I'm hoping that it will eventually pay off."

A 24-year-old assistant at a major publishing house pointed out that graduates who take assistant jobs hoping to parlay them into writing jobs are often sorely disappointed: "If your goal is to stick it out and work your way to becoming an editor, then I would say that it probably is one of the best ways to go about it. If you want to become a published writer, I'd say it could be helpful in that you can make connections, but it also could work against you, because all your time is sucked up reading and editing other people's writing."

This seems so patently obvious to those of us over the age of, say, 26 that it hardly bears repeating, but when I think back to, say, April of my senior year in college, it did not seem obvious at all, much less patently. Perhaps because those of us who attempted to follow these prescribed paths tried to find some comfort in the idea that there seemed to be a path, one that would offer not just entree into our chosen industry, but also a sense that someone would be watching out for us and making sure we traveled safely up the ladder. How young we were, once!

So talking to freelance writer Jonathan Liu, who is 23, is somewhat disconcerting, because he seems to have figured it all out, and so young! (Then again, he did go to Harvard. He also regularly contributes book reviews to The Observer.) "It seems like part of the tacit deal in the job is not actual apprenticeship so much as 'networking'-in exchange for being underpaid and menially treated, you'll get to marinate in the kind of culture that your liberal-arts education tells you is somehow more ethical than, you know, capitalism qua capitalism."

Mr. Liu continued: "Many of the smart people I know who have disappeared into assistantships are people who should be, you know, writing. But they're willing to subsume actual creative endeavor to the drudgery of 'paying your dues' in a way they never would for, say, Citigroup. And it does sound like something of a scam, right? You work for fabulously wealthy people in divisions of multinational corporations, but are told you've somehow opted out of the consulting/I-banking rat race, because your filing and faxing and phone-answering is somehow edifying."

[email protected]

[Feb 21, 2008] Mathematica demonstrations, by William Polley

...I'm starting to contribute to the library of demonstrations. My first contribution is a simple Keynesian IS-LM model. I chose this for my first attempt as it was easy to code and could be widely used in classroom presentations. Granted, I don't make the IS-LM the centerpiece of my class, but it does have some value and students should know what it is.

If you teach macroeconomics, you might want to try it out. It requires the Mathematica version 6 player (free download). Here's a link to the demonstration. Here's a link to all the economics demonstrations. And this is what the interface of my IS-LM demonstration looks like...

Please let me know if you find it useful. I hope to do some more of these in the near future.

[Feb 8, 2008] Roster-in-a-Box 1.2 by tavis

About: Roster-in-a-Box is a course management system. It includes modules for auto-graded course problems (currently for introductory statistics, introductory microeconomics, and intermediate microeconomics), as well as a mechanism for students to submit answers to text questions and have the instructor grade them online. Summaries of student performance (such as student problem areas or class averages by subject) are available to both the instructor and the student in real time, and the system can send reminders to students of late homework assignments.

Changes: Modules for introductory and intermediate microeconomics have been added. The course administration module has been made prettier, easier to use, and more idiot-proof. Security has been enhanced. Homework assignment lists can now be backed up to disk and restored for use in a future semester.

[Jan 8, 2008] MIT's OpenCourseWare Model is Proliferating Online

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology OpenCourseWare effort has been offering free lecture notes, exams, and other resources from more than 1800 courses per its website. Some of their courses offer a substantial amount of video and audio content. I remember stumbling across this resource via my employer's intranet about a year ago. Frankly speaking, I didn't think the concept would go very far because you couldn't earn credit…

Well, I was wrong. It's catching fire and over 100 universities worldwide have setup similar models and some are top tier schools such as Johns Hopkins and Tufts.

I was searching for a good UNIX course but I haven't found one yet. Surprisingly, it appears MIT's Linear Algebra course is quite popular with the OpenCourseWare community.

By the way, I don't have any affiliation with OCW or any of the higher learning institutions mentioned.

Added later:

UC Irvine OCW
Notre Dame OCW
Utah State OCW
Osaka OCW
Japan OCW Consortium

[May 17, 2006] NewsForge The Online Newspaper for Linux and Open Source Open source package passes personal learning test Tina Gasperson

In the world of education, technology plays an ever-increasing role in student management and other administrative tasks. Teachers all over the world are using an open source GPL-licensed course management system called LON-CAPA, and the result are "revitalizing," "unique," and "creative," according to some of its users.

LON-CAPA is a Web-based course management system that was developed at Michigan State University (MSU). In addition to providing a way for educators to manage students and homework assignments, LON-CAPA gives students personalized problem sets, quizzes, and exams in a format that allows them to complete tasks wherever they have access to the Internet.

MSU professors piloted the Computer-Assisted Personalized Approach (CAPA) in 1992 with a small physics class. In 1999, CAPA got together with the Lecture Online Network, a physics-specific project that served course material over the Web, and it became LON-CAPA, the Learning Online Network/Computer-Assisted Personalized Approach. The program provides each student with a unique assignment and helps students learn material by providing unlimited opportunities to re-work problems until they get them right, and providing tips and hints. The system records participation and performance, sending results directly to the instructor and the student. LON-CAPA accommodates any kind of course or class. Today, LON-CAPA serves some 40,000 "course enrollments" worldwide, from middle school to graduate courses. The number of actual students using LON-CAPA is somewhat less than 40,000, since each student can work through more than one course at a time.

Two educators using LON-CAPA, Paul Ciske of Mio AuSable High School in Mio, Michigan, and Brad Moffat of Selwyn House School in Westmount, Quebec, Canada, shared some of their experiences.

Ciske has been teaching science and math classes at Mio AuSable for 14 years. Before the school installed LON-CAPA, teachers assigned homework the old-fashioned way –- directly from textbooks. "If a similar system [to LON-CAPA] was available, we didn't know about it," Ciske says. The school set up a Windows-based network with "many workstations sprinkled across the school" for student access, and a mobile computer lab that moves from classroom to classroom for group assignments.

Moffat teaches physics and calculus to boys at Selwyn's pre-university program. He says that LON-CAPA is the first automated system the school has ever used. Selwyn is running a Novell network with Windows XP and a laptop program that has 300 to 400 laptops connecting to the network. "We weren't really looking" for a course management system, Moffat says. "A friend described the system and it sounded good. I was attracted by the prospect of a virtually unlimited source of high-quality practice work that allowed the students to re-correct as many times as I allow, without additional correction workload for me."

Ciske was familiar with LON-CAPA because he was at MSU working on a master's degree when it was first developed. "I was invited to join, it seemed to have many potential benefits, so we signed on." Mio AuSable received a grant to get the system set up, including hardware, and to train Ciske. MSU sent a team out to install and configure it. "It took them a good part of a day to get it set up," he says. "Initially we had problems with our firewall conflicting with LON-CAPA, but those problems have long been resolved."

Moffat had an easier time of it. "It was installed and configured in about 45 minutes," he says. "The first assignment was in front of the students four months later."

Both men are pleased with the way LON-CAPA makes students more responsible for their own work. Ciske says his students get more feedback. "I teach four different classes," he says. "Often, hand-graded homework is simply checked for completion, not for correctness. This isn't good, but is the reality of not enough time. [With LON-CAPA], students get feedback immediately on being right or wrong, and for me it is now less effort than when I used to grade for completion."

Moffat concurs. "The immediate feedback from instant correction makes them see the homework almost as a video game," he says. "The last correct answer motivates them to try the next."

Because each student receives a unique assignment, copying is virtually eliminated. "Students are more likely to do their own work," Ciske says. "Many students get through school by copying. That is less likely [with LON-CAPA]. They could get someone to do it for them, but there is no grey line between 'helping' and copying."

"The individualized questions force a different quality of collaboration among work groups," Moffat says. "Instead of blind copying, they must copy the process or the equation techniques. At this level, that's exactly what we want."

Ciske is fairly happy with LON-CAPA just the way it is, but Moffat suggests some additions for what he terms pressing needs. "A review button. At the end of each sequence, I'd like to see 'would you like to try again?'" Moffat also requests an organized archival system. "Let's get Google involved. I'm sure they'd love to fund [LON-CAPA], especially if you use their search engines."

Both teachers have glowing praise for the student and staff response to LON-CAPA. "During the first year I was using it with my physics class, I had given a set of problems to the class on thermal equilibrium," Ciske says. "They were expected to work on them on their own and submit their answers during the week on their own time. One day, a student walked into class, looked me in the eye and said, 'You know, last night I got every one of those problems right on the first try.' He was proud and letting me know it. He was confident that he knew the material and was ready to go. I have never seen that response to a book work assignment. It was that day I knew i was working with something special."

For Moffat, the biggest "bottom-line" benefit has been the creative focus. "Our science staff has been revitalized around this effort," he says. "The energy and feelings of accomplishment in the staff room are exciting. Sure, the students are benefiting, but we also have teachers and department heads thinking in creative new directions. Game on."


  1. "LON-CAPA" -
  2. "Mio AuSable High School" -
  3. "Selwyn House School" -

[Apr 28, 2006] Why Americans are technology, political, and educational laggards and how it will doom them Between the Lines Posted by David Berlind @ 9:55 am Digg This!

The other day, via CNET Networks' internal email system, fellow ZDNet blogger and TechRepublic technical director George Ou sounded an alarm about an urgent online banking issue he came across on the Web site for the SANS Institute. It probably didn't get the attention it should have. Ou blogged the item with a headline that for many may require That culture of convenience, laziness, and ignorance is going to doom the US in the long run. no further reading: Many banks failing to use SSL authentication. Ouch. The risk to you if your bank isn't using SSL authentication is that you could end up logging into a Web site that looks like your bank's Web site but isn't (some banks like BofA are using interesting technologies to avoid this). By logging into the impostor Web site, you'd be turning over your banking credentials (user ID, password) to the bad guys and what happens next may not be pretty. Wrote Ou:

This looks really ugly for the American Banking system as a whole and it's time that they cleaned up their act and learn to use some basic cryptography. If you have a bank on this hall of shame list where "SSL Login Form" is listed as "optional", be sure to complain to them that this is unacceptable.

What's really scary about this is that for something as sensitive as online banking, even the best banks in the US are still using little more than single factor security to grant you access to your bank account. Two years ago, a friend from The Netherlands who was visiting asked if he could use one of our PCs to do some online banking. As he began to login to his bank's Web site, he pulled a credit-card sized authenticator out of his wallet. Hardware-based authenticators like RSA's keyfob-esque SecurID 700 generate a random sequence of numbers at regular time intervals (eg: every 60 seconds). The way this works is, at any point in time when yo login to your banking system, you have to use your authenticator to randomly generate a key. I watched my friend as he pressed a button on his authenticator and then, from authenticator's LCD display, he read-off and keyed-in (on the keyboard) a long string of randomly generated digits.

If you had something similar and you were using one of RSA's authenticators, then, the bank would have an RSA-built appliance on its internal network that's generating matching keys for your account. The only way someone can log into your account is if they have your UserID, your password, and your authenticator. Randomly generated keys are only good for a minute or so. So, even if someone gets a hold of your UserID, password, and one of the randomly generated keys (eg: if they watched you key it on your keyboard), by the time they got to a computer to pretend to be you, the randomly generated key would have expired.

This to me is secure. I asked my friend how much it costs to have the added level of security. "Nothing" he said. While I'm sure the cost gets absorbed somewhere and is passed along to customers, it comes with the account (much the same way you get a free ATM card in the US). I'm not sure if every European bank does this. But apparently, a bunch do. After observing my friend in action, I started asking knowledgeable people why US banks don't do the same thing. The consensus answer, I'm afraid, is a sad commentary about our culture rather than some technological roadblock. There are, of course, plenty of Americans who would gladly exchange this bit of friction in the system for the security it offers. I'm one of them. But America is a culture of convenience and additional friction - especially friction that requires you to carry more gear with you - apparently doesn't fly with most Americans.

Other examples of this are how most businesses don't even check your ID anymore when you use your credit card (I wrote "C PHOTO ID" on the back of mine but half the clerks don't even turn the card over) . Some merchants - for example the Dunkin Donuts in my neighborhood - don't even require a signature anymore. It gets me through the drive-in faster. Everywhere you look, friction is being squeezed out of the system and customers love it. Just try adding friction to the system and customers will take their business elsewhere. Even worse, the more secure system involving authenticators is apparently too sophisticated for most Americans. As much as I don't want to believe this, I've encountered enough of my compatriots in person or have seen them on Jerry Springer to know this is true.

Compared to other parts of the world, we're a relatively unsophisticated bunch, us Americans. And that culture of convenience, laziness, and ignorance is going to doom the US in the long run because of how it will deprive America of its edge in other areas where it was once a beacon to the world. Democracy is one of those. Education the other.

On the political front, we are no longer a nation of people that goes deep on the issues and seeks out the truth. I'd like to believe there was a time when the majority of Americans were passionate about democracy and politics. But perhaps I'm fooling myself. The People, helped along by a failing media complex, have established a preference for fast food politics. Forget any real exploration. Just give us the sound bites please, thank you very much.

Just yesterday, our culture of political convenience was probed and picked apart on National Public Radio when Tom Ashbrook interviewed Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein whose book Politics Lost: How American Democracy was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid was published this month. American democracy is being trivialized because we Americans are letting it happen. During the show, one caller remarked on how John Kerry as a communicator was very different in his town meetings leading up to the 2004 Presidential Election than he was on TV in front of the news cameras. Al Gore was the same way.

Before interviewing Gore on stage at one of Research In Motion's annual Wireless Symposiums (this year's event is coming up next month), I spent some time with him backstage. I felt like I was talking to someone I'd never met or seen before. I've heard the same about President Bush too. I'm not sure it's their fault. The law of political information supply and demand practically says there's no demand for the person with the biggest supply of information. Cure the sound-bites please (and kill democracy while you're at it).

And if you want real evidence of how our culture of convenience is going to doom the US (long term), just check out what's going on in our education system. The rest of the world's kids are hungry for worldliness and knowledge. OK, maybe not all of them. But enough of them to make most American kids look like laggards that are too lazy to embrace benefits of two-factor security (like the aforementioned authenticators) or, worse, real democracy.

What motivates a child to weather sandstorms and bullet crossfire to get into a classroom? Is it them? Their parents? Their governments? Or, is what's taking place in a technology-deprived classroom in the foothills of an Afghan mountain that much more titillating than what's happening in American schools. Perhaps one day when we as a people wake up to the reality that China, India, Pakistan, and Singapore have billions of engineers working in the R&D labs that American companies had to relocate to Asia just to stay competitive, things will change. But right now, as evidenced by Time Magazine's recent cover story - Dropout Nation - as far as I can tell, most American children are being left behind and so too is this country. Unfortunately, we have no one else to blame but ourselves. Think I'm wrong? In response to a recent blog of mine that quoted Mark Cuban on the education issue, ZDNet reader Chris W pointed me to a treatise by former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto who wrote:

Boredom is the common condition of schoolteachers, and anyone who has spent time in a teachers' lounge can vouch for the low energy, the whining, the dispirited attitudes, to be found there. When asked why they feel bored, the teachers tend to blame the kids, as you might expect. Who wouldn't get bored teaching students who are rude and interested only in grades? If even that. Of course, teachers are themselves products of the same twelve-year compulsory school programs that so thoroughly bore their students, and as school personnel they are trapped inside structures even more rigid than those imposed upon the children. Who, then, is to blame?….We all are.

Whether its online banking fraud, anarchy, or academic underachievement, as long as we continue take the convenient path of least resistance, the bed that we'll all have to sleep in today, tomorrow, or in 10, 20, or 30 years will be the one that most of us asked for.

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