Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I Can't Work at Home

I saw this picture on Reddit called "Why I can't work at home"

Probably one of the best pictures of all time, of all time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The right kind of work

I'm a bit late with this recommendation but here is a good blog from Megan McArdle. The best observation:
You can argue about why this is--are the upper middle class transmitting real skills, or pull?  But does it matter? . . . [I]t's actually rather more worrying if what they're giving their children is a strong education and an absolutely ferocious work ethic.
The best teacher I ever had used to talk about "working smarter, not working harder."

I've worked with poor kids tutoring them and I've interacted with what I consider dumbasses who never deserved to get into MIT (or Harvard) but somehow did and my conclusion is that poor people don't move up because they don't work hard AND the upper middle class is transmitting pull in it's direction.

The best example of "pull" is the SAT. I hate the old example they drag out about how the test is biased toward the rich because it asked some analogy question about crew. That's not what makes the test biased. What makes the test biased in that in some schools they teach you how to solve logic problems, do combinatorics and compute probabilities and in some schools they don't. And guess what? They ask questions about that on the math section. When I taught the SAT I always started by covering the material I knew they didn't teach me in high school and probably didn't teach at a lot of high schools.

But poor people are lazy. It's just a fact. When charter schools pull teeth forcing kids to work long hours, do their homework, and focus during class with strict discipline, they learn. The results are miraculous. Most poor kids who aren't learning anything aren't for the obvious reason, they aren't trying.

That said, I think these two points are really flip sides of the same coin. The rich don't exert pull by rigging the system in any classical sense. They play by the rules and the rules seem fair a priori--everyone knows what is on the SAT, it's public information and good prep books cost $10. And poor people don't not work, they just don't work in the right ways to succeed in academics (or to get into that top income quintile). When the steps are obvious they do work hard--the poor are probably over, not under-represented in the upper quintile of athletes.

The issue, in other words, isn't about pull or hard work, it's about working smarter. The rich work smarter. They read the rules of the game and tell their kids what they need to do to win within the rules. The poor don't read the rules and don't know how to achieve the objectives. When researchers paid students to read they did and their test scores improved. When they told them they would pay them for higher scores the scores didn't budge. The kids didn't know how to work smarter.

We've known this in relation to finance for some time. Most people know nothing about compound interest so of course they do stupid things with their credit cards and under-save. (That is just one part of it but it's important.) The rich play smarter in the finance game and the poor don't.

I think a fruitful approach to dealing with poverty would be to focus more on information. If communities knew the rules of the game and got help institutionalizing the way to win it, they'd probably succeed. (Institutions here are important as its not like the rich figure out how to succeed on their own, they studying for the SAT or taking this class and go to these good public schools, etc. because everyone else they know is doing it.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pizza with a ton of sauce is a vegetable

Is it just me or is this discussion of pizza with "just" two tablespoons of tomato paste being a vegetable a little bizarre? That is a lot of tomato paste for one slice of pizza for an elementary school kid. Does Pizza Hut even use that much sauce?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


More good stuff from Jonah Lehrer.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

David Stern sucks

I try not to write about who sucks and why on this blog because I think it's usually better to write about who is doing great things and who really knows their stuff.

But today I'm going to make an exception for David Stern.

He really sucks.

He's canceled a full season and part of another in order to placate the owner's greed. If that wasn't enough he has to go on TV and lie through his teeth about how he tried to give the players a great deal, better than what they had before the talks.

He's turned a sport where you won by chasing down loose balls, contesting shots and having the skill of shooting until a sport where you win by running into other players and praying the refs give you free throws. The "epidemic of shitty officiating" is so bad that many people question whether the games are rigged and I have to admit, Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals was probably rigged.

He turned a competitive league where teams rarely repeated as champions into a league where only a few teams can compete and franchises that win tend to win back to back championships, sucking the drama out of the playoffs to the point where March Madness is far more exciting.

David Stern is far and away the worst commissioner in any major sports league.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy Harvard

I think Harvard sucks in a lot of ways but I'm not occupying Harvard and I'm not in favor in general of what the occupiers want. But I do agree with some of their positions. Here they are according to a press release:

  • A university for the 99% would offer academic opportunities to assess responses to socioeconomic inequality outside the scope of mainstream economics.
  • A university for the 99% would implement debt relief for students who suffer from excessive loan burdens.
  • A university for the 99% would commit to increasing the diversity of Harvard’s graduate school faculty and students.
  • A university for the 99% would end the privilege enjoyed by legacies in the Harvard admissions process.
  • A university for the 99% would implement a policy requiring faculty to declare conflicts of interest.

In addition they want a living wage for all Harvard employees and divestment from certain companies.

I'm in favor of the living wage although I've heard everyone is making in excess of a fair wage ($20+  per hour for janitors). and kind of indifferent on divestment. I'd have to see the evidence against the company.

I'm in favor of eliminating preference for Harvard legacies in admissions. I'm against "increasing the diversity of Harvard's graduate school faculty and students" because, first, the subtext is that this will be done by favoring people solely on the basis of gender and skin color and second, the graduate school is not supposed to be a mechanism of social advancement like the college is.

I'm against debt relief for Harvard students because they have degrees worth millions and loans of, at most, tens of thousands. In other words the idea is to hand out free money to rich people.

I'm in favor of making faculty, esp. in the medical school, declare conflicts of interest.

I'm not in favor of "academic opportunities to assess responses to socioeconomic inequality outside the scope of mainstream economics" because, first, they already exist, and second, they suck. Wasting your time pretending to understand poverty is not going to help people in poverty, esp. when you consider research in development economics that does help understand poverty rarely helps.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Conservative foreign aid?

Sometimes I can't tell whether something is a "conservative" idea or a "liberal" one.

Last night Rick Perry proposed that all countries requesting foreign aid from the United States should have to make plans and explain how they are going to use the money. Others on stage agreed with this "new idea."

But liberal technocrats like Jeff Sachs have been advocating that countries develop poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) for years and, of course, that donor countries read and fund them (if good). That sounds a whole hell of a lot like Rick Perry's idea.

I think the best way to look at it that both sides agree with the concept of cost-benefit analysis and analyzing trade-offs which is what analyzing the requests or PRSPs would amount too. The preference for making good choices and analyzing them scientifically isn't what makes someone liberal or conservative. Differences in values make you liberal or conservative.

The difference between the two sides is that after reading the requests many conservatives would only agree to give a pittance (or nothing) to Africa and billions for Israel's military. Liberals would give billions to Africa treat AIDS and a pittance (or nothing) to Israel.

There's another theory that says liberals and conservatives don't disagree about values but rather that they will disagree about what is likely to happen. Liberals might believe that if the PRSP is funded poverty will  decline while conservatives might believe it empower dictators and post-pone political reform (increase poverty). I think most of the time those difference in opinion about how the world works are driven by differences in values so it basically amounts to talking about different sides of the same coin.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

WSJ on Engineering

 This article is a lot like the one in the NYTimes a little while ago.

It's about why students choose and don't choose (mostly don't) to major in engineering.

I should mention that I started in engineering (computer science) and quit because it was too hard*, so I sympathize with the people interviewed in this article. Feel from to belittle my intelligence.

* - well, kind of.

Friday, November 11, 2011

MIT observation

I don't know if this is an MIT thing or an academia thing, but MIT students are very defensive.

I think it comes from low self-esteem. You have to defend yourself to prove that you're smart and you fit in and other people shouldn't criticize your idea or project or whatever it is.

Most people are probably familiar with the Lake Wobegone effect in surveys of people's aptitude. The vast majority of people claim to be better than average drivers and 87% of Stanford MBAs claimed to be above the median. So you might think the median MIT student would have a pretty good opinion of their academic ability, right?


And that's about all the work I'm willing to put into trying to falsify this hypothesis. Instead I'll speculate that the high rate of depression (this needs no evidence) contributes to weakened self-confidence (depressive realism). The link from earlier has a section on it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

OWS: Harassment Edition

 From Occupy Wall Street:
Harassing comments, groping, flashing and assault are a daily, global reality for women and LGBTQ individuals. Too often, these injustices are met with little or no response, regarded simply as “the price you pay” for being female, trans, or gay in public.
I like how all of these crimes are just lumped together. I believe women get groped but gay man? Oh they get harassed. Surely no one gropes trans people besides Eddie Murphy.

But the real story is that OWS is building or designating safe areas for women and, I guess, harassment free areas for gays. In other words they have designated "no free speech" zones. That's a joke.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cute Story

I bombarded my mother with questions. “No husband? How could that be? She’s a grown-up! Grown-ups have husbands!” My mother explained that not all grown-ups get married. “Then who opens the pickle jar?” (I was 5.)
The rest of the article, about being single and demographic shifts but mostly just a lot of good musings, is here.

Conservatives Don't Know More Economics

The man who claimed conservatives know more about economics because he asked people if they agreed with economic research that confirmed conservative beliefs has now retracted his original conclusion.

It turns out that as many people, including myself, pointed out, the results were driven by confirmation bias.

I'm impressed that the authors published the follow-up. What most people do when they make make a mistake is they dig in their heels, and as the evidence mounts against them they dig in even more. These authors didn't and that takes guts.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Is Greg Mankiw jealous?

He writes
I am comfortably in the top 1 percent.  I believe that Paul [Krugman], with his Princeton professorship, regular Times column, speaking fees, and moderately successful textbook, is there as well.
Note the description "moderately successful" but no mention of the $1,000,000 that Paul got with his Nobel prize. Did the Nobel just slip his mind momentarily?

I'm just poking fun here. Greg is a great economist and I like his blog.

Selection Bias Alert

The New York Times reports on the issue of why we do not have more STEM graduates despite so much effort to increase in science. The article includes this paragraph:
“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”
My guess is that this conclusion comes from a regression where they controlled for SAT and GPA, but there are a lot of unobserved variables that could drive this correlation. I'm not a "selection bias hawk" who thinks that any non-experimental evidence is worthless, but in some cases there is good reason to think that a regression coefficient is biased in a direction that would invalidate the conclusion and I think this is one of those cases.

Quote of the Day: Harvard Bipolar Edition

This is from the comments of a Crimson story about the small number of people taking six classes at Harvard:
Frankly, I am concerned that many of these students--especially the one who only had five hours of sleep in  a 120-hour period--may be experiencing a manic episode. What appears to a Harvard undergraduate as boundless enthusiasm for academia looks to those of us in the mental health profession as a signal that someone *might* need a consult.
The commenter's "name" is StatingTheObvious. I think the commenter is being modest. This is one of the "only obvious once someone points it out" things that takes a sharp cookie to first notice. Thank you "StatingTheObvious" for stating the obvious.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Moral issues

I hate when people try to divide issues into moral issues and non-moral issues and somehow the moral issues are the issues that really... don't have much impact on anyone so how could they be important moral issues.

Here is my bleg: I wish liberals would try to seize back the language of morality so that whether people have enough food to eat became as much of a moral issue as gay marriage.

When did life and death have less moral relevance than who you have consensual sex with?