Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tone Deaf

When does a movie start? Does it happen during the opening credits, with a musical overture playing in the sound system and background scenes flashing by on the screen? Or does it only begin when the characters utter their first lines?

Friday night my son and I went to see The Social Network. My wife and a friend of hers had gone to the Jon Stewart thing. So I had to play the role of substitute activities director. And there was also the job of house manager, the scope of which is dictated primarily by the needs of our dog. Ginger demands a lot of attention. We don't have a doggie door. So she has to communicate that she wants to go outside. I was more sleep deprived than usual because she had been pacing around in the middle of the night and her paws clicking on the hardwood floor had woken me up. After letting her do her business outside, I couldn't get back to sleep. I was dragging the rest of the day.

My son drove to the theater. He still has a learner's permit and this was to help him get some of the evening hours he needs prior to taking his road test. We went by a circuitous route to give him a little more practice. I was on edge to begin with. Sometimes he doesn't control his speed the way I would. For me, caution is the rule, especially with him driving. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether his mind is on the driving or elsewhere. We leave early, just in case there is a long line, but there wasn't. And we decide to skip the popcorn. So we get into the theater with about 15 or 20 minutes left before showtime. They are showing what appears to be TV promos from TBS. Conan seems to be everywhere, though maybe that's because TBS had the American League Championship Series. (I wish they had the World Series too, not for the Conan ads, but because they had a good approach to the baseball broadcasts.) The theater eventually starts to fill up. I recognize a senior faculty member or two from the U of I, which surprises me a little but maybe not too much. I'm not the only one who is curious about this movie. Perhaps they too had seen this segment on Charlie Rose.

The lights dim and the audio gets noticeably louder as first we get the mandatory turn off your cellphone messages and then the previews begin. It's really amazing the junk they seem to be making nowadays. It's not obvious to me that escapism must push the quality of films downwards. But I suppose what's happening to the rest of the economy has impregnated the movie industry as well. The previews appear to be endless. There is nothing really to demarcate their conclusion other than the name of the studio appears on the screen and a pulse begins on the audio. It's a rapid beat the feels like a headache is coming on. I want it to stop. Combined with my own sleeplessness, it is very unpleasant. I know that movies nowadays want the audience to immerse into the total experience of the characters immediately. I'd prefer a gradual transition. This particular film has to confront an additional issue with the audience. All of us (or it at least the vast majority) use Facebook and are familiar with how it works. The film has to focus on things we don't know, to keep our interest. For me, that was the origins story and the personality of Mark Zuckerberg. That's the story the film has to be about.

Now I'll take a little aside to demonstrate some of my bias. I've got a friend whom I consider to be pretty savvy about IT who has described to me at one of our coffees that Facebook is trivial from a technology point of view, at least the functionality that is apparent to the end user. The cleverness that is Facebook is not the fancy programming itself, but rather the matching of the software to the user need and the understanding of how that matching feeds the network effects that fueled the phenomenal growth in usage. At two different periods, once in the 1990s, then again perhaps 7 or 8 years later, I was involved with software development projects where this matching of user wants to software functionality was overt. The 1990s experience was akin to Facebook in that there was essentially a single developer at the outset - the brains behind the software. And there was a tendency for the users to treat those developers as geniuses since software development seemed such an out of this world activity and since the functionality they came up with seemed fantastic, given the limited other possibilities at the time. (We had both CyberProf and Mallard on Campus so I witnessed this experience in parallel.) The later experience was when I sat on the WebCT Vista Advisory Board and periodically we interacted with their development team to express how we wanted to see the product grow. This was more sensible and business-like. Nobody involved was a genius. But there still was a narcotic effect in having a fairly tight group that could influence product development. In each case I was able to look backwards at the experience and view it as above all else circumstantial, nothing more.

Back to the movie beginning where the spoken words are coming very fast. Mostly this is Zuckerberg. Do very smart people speak very fast? Or is that only when smart people want to impress you that they are very smart? Somehow Zuckerberg, who likes the girl he's on a date with for reasons that are not explained in the movie, thinks that if the date is impressed she'll fall for him. But actually, he's making a botch of the situation. She's offended by his manipulation. So she dumps him.

I won't go through a blow by blow of the film, but instead want to capture a few key themes. There is the question of how somebody who is obviously so intelligent can yet be so dense about human interaction. Harvard, where Zuckerberg is a student, has some elite clubs. Members are insiders. They are that way by lineage. Zuckerberg is an outsider. All his "friends" are outsiders too, due to their ethnicity. A handful of outsiders can be knighted and thereby become insiders. This seems to be their main aspiration. Over achievers all, doing well in the classroom is not nearly enough. They need to go for the brass ring that is still out of grasp.

There is a Duddy Kravitz aspect to Zuckerberg, though it's not just hustle and intensity with him. He's got talent and perception too. Until the very end of the film, he acts mostly like a righteous spoiled brat, by seemingly embracing meritocracy and the rightness of any given argument. He is judgmental, almost always, never taking anybody else's word for it. This is how he combats the insiders. It's also how he can screw people he previously showed some fondness for. When you're hot, you're hot. When you're not, you're out. The rest of us are trusting. We're not used to playing by these sort of rules. It's uncomfortable to watch somebody who does, even if we're not the ones he has screwed.

The pace of the movie what it is, it's hard to psychoanalyze the character then and there, but having watched that Charlie Rose bit, one wonders whether this is all an elaborate cover up of personal weakness. Zuckerberg can't expose that when he is on the date at the beginning of the movie. He ultimately does in the closing scenes. On the other hand, I've got to wonder whether the personality is developed by a particular culture, the world of the computer programmer - apparent objectivity, totally judgmental, very impatient, and always in your face. Do we lose ourselves entirely when immersed in the culture we live in? It's a frightening thought.

The other thing that's disturbing about the film is the role of the libido and the bacchanal partying that fueled the software development. Even the elite Harvard students live their lives in search of nookie and let alcohol serve to grease the skids. The software is conceived to facilitate these transactions. It is a hedonism enabler, and everyone wants to be on The Facebook. There is an indictment of all us in that.

* * * * *

Reading Maureen Dowd's latest, a piece that takes President Obama to task, I thought she was spot on in the analysis of the problem, but much of that we've heard before. She doesn't offer up anything to explain the President's intellectual insularity. Thus, while she makes the case that he must change in his behavior, she doesn't give us much of a sense of how this might happen.

I thought there might be value in comparing the President to Mark Zuckerberg. Both went to elite schools as intelligent outsiders. Both keep their own counsel. Both have shown lack of sensitivity to people they presumably care about.

Politics and software development are not the same thing. Zuckerberg had the Facebook going viral experience to fuel his own sense of worth (and make him a billionaire many times over). Obama didn't have quite that smooth sailing even as a Presidential candidate. Hilary Clinton was a tough adversary and there where clear lulls, e.g., Pennsylvania, where it appeared he might not get the nod. Since becoming President, particularly after Ted Kennedy died and Scott Brown filled his seat, Obama had the scapegoat of the Republican blockage in the Senate to mask the divisions within the Democrats themselves.

Nevertheless, there might be some benefit of seeing President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg as of the same kind - in the path to their great creations there is a lot of debris made as collateral damage and ultimately that might pull them down entirely. Further, there is a blockage of the human warmth side of the personality, because in that is weakness. Paradoxically, then, the path to becoming personally stronger is by becoming demonstrably weaker and opening up to ideas of others where it is the people who are voicing the ideas that matter, more so than the ideas themselves.

Dowd chides Obama for turning his back on the Democratic candidate in Rhode Island, out of respect for Lincoln Chafee. But that is only one state. Look at this comment about teacher unions, one of the bulwarks of the Democratic Party across the nation.

On unions:

Lauer mentioned that the upcoming film, "Waiting for 'Superman'", is tough on unions, but Obama sees a purpose for them. "Often times, teachers unions are designed to make sure that their membership are protected against arbitrary firings" and given fair pay. But he added, "What is also true is that sometimes that means they are resistant to change when things aren't working." But he said that some unions are working with states on issues such as charters, performance pay, and higher standards and accountability for teachers.

He said that the administration wants to work with unions but cautions them, "You can't defend a status quo where a third of kids are dropping out."

It may be that we have ourselves to blame for much of the fix we find ourselves in, but that almost surely means the solutions are in us as well. Yet this comment looks like it is coming from someone above the fray, which is not the way to enlist troops on the ground to enter into a new negotiation.

Dowd likens the Obama Presidency to episodes in The West Wing and indeed, there are some strong similarities between the real-life Barack Obama and the fictionalized Matt Santos in their approach to the issues. Ironically, Aaron Sorkin was the force behind The West Wing and the screenwriter on the Social Network as well. His worldview provides the connection between the two. Perhaps Dowd could do an interview with Sorkin, get him to expand on this connection, and then tie it to the Obama Presidency.

Zuckerberg learns his lesson not from his adversaries but from a lower level observer in the room who can see how it is all playing out. He can let down his guard with her. President Obama needs to let down his guard too. It's the only way he'll be able to listen. But how do we get this done?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Embed Audio In Blog - Updated

Some verbal instructions for recording audio with Audacity, uploading the resulting mp3 file to, and then embedding the recording in a blog post, such as below. The page with the recording can also be linked, which is especially valuable for longer recordings or an entire collection of recording (that are listed from the same page at so they can be downloaded.

If an instructor develops the skill to do this, the instructor need not rely on a support provider for help with the content. That sort of self-reliance is very important.

embed code for audio player

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Making Time Stand Still

Some not yet habits we try to resist in their forming. One of those for me is reading obituaries. It’s not fear of the grim reaper that makes me put it off. It’s just that the batting average with folks I have encountered earlier is still too low.* Perhaps it’s surprising, but I’m finding a liking for eulogy from the past, particularly about giants who can still serve as heroes. I don’t recall how I stumbled upon these on Arthur Okun, but I plan to use them when I teach next spring. The Atlantic is running its Brave Thinkers issue and on the Web site they have some of those from the archive. This piece about Albert Einstein is worth the read. Also from The Atlantic, though not eulogy, is this really splendid piece by W.E.B. Du Bois, on the struggles of the American Negro. Du Bois paints a picture of dual existence, a desire for normalcy and acceptance while living the life of the other. There are lessons here for everyone, non-Negroes too.

The writings in the newspapers and the discussions on tv news shows now are all on the same theme – the Democrats are going down in the midyear elections. It’s very discouraging, providing no balm whatsoever. Especially disillusioning was this piece from The News Hour last Friday, about the elections in Ohio, which ties traditional Democratic voter apathy to the bleak reality of their job market. The conclusion of these voters is it doesn’t matter who is in office for their core pocketbook issues. They may very well be right. I did find a curious piece in the local paper here Sunday, a review of a new book by Barbara Ann Ross. I knew Barb when she was part of the senior management team at WebCT. It is an odd feeling to encounter someone in a different context. I wish her well as an author. Perhaps this is not quite another example of Du Bois’ duality, but it points to the notion some sort of duality is in all of us.

I am definitely feeling it, as a learning technologist and an instructor. The former wants to focus on method and pedagogical approach. The latter thinks of teaching by the topic coverage. Sometimes the two talk, though mainly it’s more tolerance and less communication. In a serious conversation, it would be necessary to pose the fundamental question: does the topic coverage withstand the pedagogy? This almost never gets asked. Particularly in “required” courses, the instructor becomes a partial slave to the expectations of other instructors with regard to topic coverage. These others know what they want the students to have learned from the course. Satisfying those expectations creates a certain form of lock in, of the type I described in my Tragic Tories EQ column.

Making this more concrete by looking at courses I teach, one could sensibly ask whether we should change what we teach in intermediate microeconomics in light of the financial crisis and the ensuing meltdown of the economy. In the traditional version of the course, while there may be a little time devoted to discussing moral hazard, it is almost always done in the context of idiosyncratic risk. Systematic risk, where a chain reaction of defaults can occur and the earlier ones in the chain making the latter ones more likely, is viewed out of scope. Might there not be a reasonable way to discuss the issue in the intermediate course? Partly for that reason, I wrote this essay on the economics of time. I believe that these ideas belong in an intermediate course, though these sort of issues are traditionally not covered in the context that is given in my essay. One does discuss in the oligopoly section a bit on repeated prisoner’s dilemma. The question there is whether it is possible to induce a cartel agreement. But that context is almost certain alien from the typical student experience. Why not instead focus on trust relationships that the students themselves have participated in? Then, having done so, wouldn’t it be natural to ask about what happens when trust breaks down? So one need not talk too much about the financial crisis directly, though one might give a few readings on that as well, such as this opinion piece by Paul Volker, and see whether the students perk up to this content because they have an interest in understanding the recent past and its connection to the present.

However, my motivation for moving away from the traditional approach really stems from other sources. Though I try to be publicly spirited at an intellectual level in relating ideas of the course to recent happenings in “the real world,” often I lack insight into how to do that effectively. So that isn’t my source of motivation. Rather, it is personal experience that I try to reconcile with the economics, experience that calls into question the traditional approach.

Next spring I will be teaching intermediate micro after a 10-year hiatus. In the interim, mainly I was a full time administrator and in that capacity was involved in some significant decision making, the most obvious and biggest expenditure-wise was the procurement and deployment of the Campus learning management system, what is now called Illinois Compass. During that process I know I felt my prior economics knowledge not particularly helpful, because there where many dimensions to the choice and much that was unknown about the consequences. A little later I wrote a blog post, Is Economics Worthless?, where I expressed the issue this way:

There is another sense, however, that may be more important where economics is worthless. Rather than look at macroeconomic issues, let's focus on the individual and how decisions are made. Consider the business executive who has an MBA. How does that person make decisions? According to Warren Bennis and James O'Toole in an article in the Harvard Business Review, the B-schools have lost their way because they teach what their faculty research (aka economics) and this has no practical relevance to the real world realm of decision making. The economic model is based on decision making under uncertainty where the model is well defined and a good Bayesian decision maker (somebody well versed in the theory of statistics and decision making) has a subjective probability distribution on which to base the choice calculation. But in reality the situation itself is ambiguous and ill formed. It is not clear what model to apply. And there is little or no data to base the decision on. There is only anecdote.

That post was 5 years ago. There is frustration evident in what I said, but I was talking from the vantage of decision maker. As a teacher I want to be more helpful in tone. I think that means being honest with students. In turn, that means even the most basic of economic concepts – opportunity cost – is fraught with imprecision in its application in the real world because of the inherent uncertainty. So I wrote an essay, What If Analysis, to discuss the issues as framed as an economist would. In particular, this second chunk of the essay discusses procurement via an RFP. Again, it is not the sort of thing that is typical of an intermediate microeconomics course, but to me it seems an essential part of the discussion, to make it real.

Then, too, in the teaching I have done at the undergraduate level over the last 10 years, making it real has been very well received by the students. So I’ve also got my own experimentation with teaching in other classes to buttress my views. Over time, I’ve learned to trust my instincts in these matters. And if I were doing this just for myself, that’s exactly what I’d do. But I’m supposed to be developing a general model for blended and totally online Econ courses, a model that would be readily adopted by other instructors here. Those other instructors don’t feel the imperatives that the course content should change. Going online is therefore conceptualized as a change in mode with invariant topic coverage. Should I accommodate that conception or combat it? I associate the title of this post with the accommodation point of view.

There are other forces in place that reinforce the static nature of core course topic coverage. The textbook is one of those, a very important factor especially when instructors teach to the book. Recently I wrote a post that argued we should get rid of the textbook, but there the argument was mainly about pedagogy; topic coverage was only a minor factor in the piece, though it did mention the tying of the subject to the real world as a critical piece of the course, something that a textbook approach can block.

The technology, too, can serve as a conserving force, even if we’re used to thinking about the technology changing rapidly and struggling to keep up with it. This is particularly true because there is substantial effort in producing content, both presentation and assessment, and having produced it once, there is a sensible tendency to leverage that prior effort. That doesn’t logically preclude ongoing revision and tweaking, but as a matter of practice such ongoing revision rarely if ever happens. Teaching then is mainly a painting by the numbers exercise. Once that has happened, it’s all over but the crying.

Further, the content that was produced tends to be flat. PowerPoint is seen as a villain but it is not just presentation content that is flat (and it isn’t that newer presentation technologies such as Prezi solve the problem, which is that reinvention isn’t built into the process). Assessments too can be quite flat and that is very disappointing. In the 1990s we talked about simulation content as important. But people don’t talk about that much anymore. Simulations are difficult to build and costly to maintain, but potentially are much more educative than the content we are mainly getting now. K-12 potentially could lead in this area and math is the obvious subject for that to happen. But there would have to be some vision and agreement on what makes for a good simulation (I like this one for its simplicity) and then some way to produce them at scale. There is so much lock in to textbooks in K-12 (where perhaps they still should be kept) that it is hard to see this happening. In the remedial market maybe, not the regular first pass through the stuff approach.

I’m quite frightened about current efforts in moving courses online, particularly the Next Generation Learning Challenges of the Gates Foundation, because there is a big chunk of non-recurrent funding being doled out and reinvention of the content on an ongoing basis doesn’t seem to be part of the design criteria for potential grantees. So it is possible for this to produce a frenzy of activity followed by substantial lock in and stasis.

We’ve been to that movie before and it is painful to watch. It doesn’t get better in the reruns.

*Jerry Uhl passed away over the weekend. I learned about it from a friend in Facebook. I’m glad I wrote my homage to him more than a year ago.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Myth Machine That Is Baseball

It's the postseason and I've been watching a fair amount of baseball, mainly the Yankees, but some of the other games too. I watch the games differently when I'm a total fan, as with Yankees, where I cling to the belief that when I root harder, sitting on my couch, 800 + miles from Yankee Stadium, the guys perform better. The imperative to be loyal to your team seemingly demands that sort of connection. So I didn't have a beer till after the game yesterday, as if my cave in on the alcohol would presage the Yankees cave in to the Rangers. In the two previous games I had a beer with the opening pitch. See, it works. No more beer during the ballgames till after this series concludes, and in the World Series too if the Yankees happen to be lucky enough to get that far.

It's different watching other teams play. I watched some of the series between Tampa Bay and Texas. I had a mild interest in seeing Texas win, in spite of the Cliff Lee thing. I thought Tampa Bay had the Yankees number. But I watched those games mainly to get familiar with the players and how they perform. I didn't try at all to personally will the outcome, just take it in, that's all. And I watched a bit of the Halliday-Lincecum match up, because there was so much hoopla around that. It's pretty odd to me that Fox has the National League games for the pennant while TBS has the American League games. TBS had all the games in the previous round. I suppose Major League Baseball has figured out it can make more money this way. But it still seems strange to me.

I've been pretty impressed with the TBS broadcasts . They've got the right mix of folks doing the pre-game with 3 former players of recent vintage: Dennis Eckersley, Cal Ripken, and David Wells, which makes the commentary a little bit pitcher centric, but that's ok. Eckersley and Ripken are both Hall of Famers, Wells threw a Perfect Game while he was playing for the Yankees, and each has participated in the Playoffs on more than one occasion. So they have a players enthusiasm for the venture and give their perspective based on that experience. Really, it's better than having former managers give commentary, because their prior job required them to be overtly dispassionate. (Watching Sabbathia sitting on the bench between innings yesterday, he was pumping his legs up and down just as any nervous person would do. But managers are never supposed to physically show their nervousness. They are supposed to be stoic.) You don't want dispassion in the color commentary. Of the three, Ripken is the closest to that. He's also more reserved in his comments and tries to be thoughtful when he makes those. Wells is a complete flake. He opens his mouth sometimes before he knows what he is going to say, so he gets himself into a little bit of trouble. But he's having fun and if he gets into trouble he fully expects one of the others to bail him out. Eckersley is somewhere in between. All convey it's a lot of fun, even if performing in front of so many people can be kind of scary. (They were in Yankee Stadium doing their show and there seemed to be a mob scene right around them. Also, they talk a lot about the pressure the playoffs put on the players, being on the big stage. So a similar thought must occur to them about their own performance.)

The announcing team during the game is also excellent. I didn't like Ron Darling as an announcer when I first heard him. Something about his voice rubbed me the wrong way. But I've gotten more used to him over time and I think John Smoltz brings outs a lot of Darling's good experience as a player. Smoltz himself is a tremendous all around athlete and a Cy Young award winner. So he too understands competition at a very high level from the player's point of view. But in his demeanor he is a goofball who is looking to make mischief. Ernie Johnson, the play by play guy, is really sharp and knows how to let his color guys be irreverent but then to pull them back in and talk about what is going on.

Smoltz and Darling both have talked a lot about "setting up a hitter" and what pitch to throw in a certain situation. Smoltz is completely of the mind that if a pitcher got a strike on the previous pitch with a fastball, particularly if it was a swinging strike, then the next pitch should be a breaking ball that starts out "on the same plane", because that will "fool" the batter. He's been adamant about this. Rationally, it can't make sense because batters should learn to anticipate that this is what is coming. But perhaps much of the batter behavior is autonomous and instinctive rather than rational. Maybe the batters can't help themselves even if they "know" what's coming on the next pitch, especially since they must swing (or not) in a split second.

Anyway, they call the game from a player's point of view. And here's the thing. When we were kids, we wall wanted to play in the major leagues. We didn't necessarily want to manage there. Having the player's point of view feeds our fantasy. So it is really good that way. Also, I think it matters that they were players until recently. The game has changed over time, so their experience is more relevant. I like Joe Morgan as a commentator and can take or leave Tim McCarver. But Morgan can be a bit reserved at times so there is less of a playful sense listening to him and McCarver has a pedantic aspect that can be grating to listen to.

It also helps that Darling and Smoltz have a mutual admiration society for all the players in the game. They have a fan's awe of the talent and commitment on display. The general sense of optimism in their commentary is very refreshing to hear. It springs from a heartfelt belief that the game, though only a game, is more important than any of the individual participants, certainly more so than the announcers. It is meant to be enjoyed and they do a great job of making the viewing a festive occasion.

So, just as the various baseball rituals such as throwing out the first pitch, the seventh inning stretch, and the Champagne (or ginger ale) celebration after a team wins a playoff series helps to facilitate the fans view of baseball as myth, the TBS announcers do likewise.

But I'd argue that the myth machine is far more widespread than that. It enters into how the game is played, and in fundamental ways. We, who are not Bill James aficionados first learned about this in MoneyBall, but the discussion in that book limited the scope where myth beat out rationality - mainly the focus was on which players to draft and what talent should be assembled to put together a winning team. There wasn't much if anything on the decision making within games.

Consider the lineup, the order in which the players bat. I'd argue that the Yankees lineup has been determined by myth and that, ironically, the Teixeira injury that has taken him out of lineup has moved the Yankees closer to rationality (and thus has improved their likelihood of winning). Here's the argument.

Ask anyone who is the Yankees best hitter this year and in the post season and they will almost certainly say Robinson Cano. His performance has been phenomenal. Where should the best hitter bat in the lineup? Earlier is better to ensure more at bats and perhaps a little bit down in the order to help drive in more runs. A rule of thumb is that the best hitter bats third, though other considerations, like alternating right handed and left handed hitters and ensuring the best hitter has a good hitter hitting behind him so he doesn't get "pitched around" can possibly affect the designation. (Mantle may have been a better hitter than Maris but Maris batted third and Mantle batted fourth because the psychology between them worked better that way.) Where has Cano batted most of this season? Fifth.

The reason is illuminating. A-Rod has been the Yankees cleanup hitter for several years. Gary Sheffield had been the third place hitter and when he went to the Tigers and Bobby Abreu came over from Philadelphia, Abreu became the third place hitter. Hideki Matsui batted behind A-Rod. In 2009, when the Yankees got Teixiera, he became the third place hitter, and just like Abreu before him he was declared an ideal hitter for that slot, though he is quite unlike Abreu (more home runs, lower batting average). The Yankees lost Matsui to free agency so had to fill his slot, the 5 hole. That's where they put Cano. In other words, the Yankees have treated the slots in the lineup as if an everyday player owns his slot. For the most part they have not changed where the players hit based on their recent performance. (They do change the slots a bit depending on whether the starting pitcher is right handed or left handed.)

Even before Teixiera went down with his hamstring pull, it was known that he was playing with a broken toe and a painful wrist. He did lead the team in home runs and has played admirable defense. But do you want your most important spot in the lineup occupied by a player who is physically impaired by injury? I suppose if the historical practice is that players own their slots, then deviations from the practice could be taken as an insult. (When Joe Torre move A-Rod down in the lineup because he wasn't hitting well, that's exactly how A-Rod took the move.)

But what Darling and Smoltz have made abundantly clear in their commentary is that putting pressure on players tends to worsen their performance. So a hitter who has been struggling might actually benefit from moving down in the lineup, the insult part notwithstanding, because expectations have been lowered and the pressure is a bit less. One could ask whether putting more pressure on Cano by batting him third would be a good thing. My response is that his at bats have been so excellent, that it would seem he can handle it. And yesterday he did hit a home run batting third. My prediction is that Cano will bat third next year. This little unplanned experiment in the post season should encourage that outcome. That's where your MVP should hit.

The other guy in the lineup who is batting in the wrong place is Curtis Granderson, an electric player when he is on, which he has been in the playoffs. He's been alternating between batting second, against right handers, and batting eighth, against lefties. But Granderson has been handling the pitching either way, after being woeful in mid season. It is clear that those problems are behind him. Rightfully he should lead off, since he is the best stolen base threat and he is on a tear. But Derek Jeter now owns the lead off slot and doing so will help him with maximizing his career hits. Jeter used to bat second, and I believe mainly batted in that slot until Johnny Damon slowed down enough where Jeter took over leading off. A good second place hitter often has to take pitches or hit so as to advance the runner, helping the team but not necessarily padding his own stats. I wouldn't predict Granderson as the leadoff hitter next year, but that would seem to me to be part of the best lineup the Yankees can put out there.

Let me make one more comment about the myth of allocating player personnel, this time from the defensive perspective. Then Rangers have run wild on the Yankees. Kerry Wood has two pick offs, but I don't believe then Yankees catcher has thrown out a single base runner. In spite of the pick off, I've been very impressed with Elvis Andrus. Like Granderson, maybe even more so than Granderson, he is an electric player. He is getting on base all the time, has many stolen bases, and has made some exceptional plays at short. He has the wrong guy batting behind him, Michael Young, who doesn't like to take pitches. (I don't know who else on the Rangers should bat second. I'm just echoing what the announcers have said about Young.) It seems to me that Andrus could be in the Rickey Henderson/Lou Brock mold as a base stealer, if he got the right support from his team.

Anyway, knowing the Rangers plan to be aggressive on the base paths, and knowing that throwing runners out is a liability for Jorge Posada at this point in his career, I have to wonder whether the other catcher, Cervelli, should be seeing some more playing time. At the moment, there is the peculiar arrangement where when AJ Burnett pitches Cervelli is the starting catcher, but otherwise it is Posada. That Posada remains the regular catcher seems a tribute to all that Posada has done for the team over the years. Maybe he is still the best catcher, but if not, it seems strange to use past glory as a way to pretend otherwise. I recall the Dodgers in the mid 1980s with a reputation of unloading their more mature players, Steve Garvey comes to mind, well before their playing days have concluded, so they wouldn't have to reckon with the nostalgia issue surrounding older players who had past glories that the fans could relish in. With the key four players - Jeter, Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera - the Yankees are being managed as if being respectful to them is at least as important as putting out the best team on the field.

Let me close with one other observation on this score. It occurred to me only yesterday, after reading that Joe Girardi had caught Kerry Wood when both were on the Cubs, is that the reason Girardi is the manager now is because he caught Pettitte and Rivera, shared the catching responsibility with Posada (and probably mentored Posada when he was breaking in) and was a teammate with Jeter. So these guys could have respect for Joe based on those experiences that probably few others could generate. (Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams also were respected teammates then, but none of them are managing now. Scott Brosius, who came to the Yankees in 1998, coaches in college, at his Alma Mater.) During the first season I saw baseball on TV, 1964, Yogi Berra managed the Yankees. And it seemed that being a former player was a disservice to him as manager, especially in succeeding Ralph Houk, who had more distance from the players (as did Casey Stengel who preceded Houk). But Yogi was always a Yankee. Girardi left the Yankees as a player and established his managerial credentials with the Marlins. So he had the good part of the player connection with the esteemed 4 but the distance to be judged a decent manager based on his record that way elsewhere.

Joe Torre, I believe, was a player's manager (perhaps except if that player was A-Rod). But he didn't overlap as a player with any of the Yankees he managed. When there is such overlap and at least a couple of those players will be in the Hall of Fame, maybe the deference is owed. (Smoltz jokingly said that Rivera has been so good they should waive the mandatory 5 years and let him into the Hall immediately after he retires.) But it enforces the myths that drive much of the managerial decision making.

Girardi is the youngest of the managers of those teams that made the playoffs, the only one to have been born after 1960. Perhaps we need myth more when we're younger to buttress the decisions we do make.

Or maybe that's only true when you work for somebody named Steinbrenner. I know that George thought the best baseball movie ever was Pride of Yankees. He was right on that one.

Evidence Based Guidelines?

Orszag's sloppy use of language in this paragraph caught my attention. He doesn't want doctors to adopt evidence, but rather to embrace practice that is steeped in the medical research literature, where clinical trials are a mandated way to "prove" results. He may also be sloppy in his argument. For some (much) research must be about formative approaches that ultimately don't pan out but that might seem promising initially. So who is it to determine that? He's right that having juries decide on this ex post doesn't seem like a good mechanism, but he doesn't really give us an alternative on this one.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Some Non-Prose On Governing

Of commentary in rhyme,
I have been pining.
Though perhaps the best to be said,
It’s surely better than whining.

Here the aim is for alacrity,
The hope is for charm.
This in order to counteract,
Sounding off of the alarm.

Of Obama’s two-year review,
We’ve recently been confronted.
And sad as it is to say,
His growth’s been severely stunted.

It’s hard to be the smartest in the room.
Of that he should very well know.
Especially when unsure of low keying it,
Or instead putting on a show.

He’s got an important lesson to learn,
From that guy on the roof with a fiddle.
It’s tough to keep one’s balance,
Governing from the sensible middle.

For each outcome will be half a loaf,
Which though better than none,
For the idealist insiders and outsiders both,
Can hardly be any fun.

But even the pragmatists who voted for him,
Now feel in a very deep stew,
For it seems as if the President’s end goal
Is with the Congress to get legislation through.

For piddling with the real issues now,
He should ask the voters for absolution,
Then turn his attention to the economy in full,
Which demands a more radical solution.

It’s ok to acknowledge voter impatience.
It’s good that cat’s out of the bag.
But the important point to illustrate,
Often causality happens with a long lag.

Under Reagan we had the S&L crisis,
And we had Black Monday too.
That however wasn’t the primal cause.
It was only an early preview.

Under Clinton there was financial deregulation,
As well as the Internet stock market bubble.
Because the Federal budgets were in surplus,
Ignored was the fundamental trouble.

Expectations had gotten out of whack,
People thought they no longer needed to save.
On the surface it appeared wealth would keep rising.
Beneath that, we were digging our own graves.

Bush II poured fuel on the fire,
Instead of putting it out.
He inherited an economy in recession.
Then Osama gave the weak President clout.

So he got passed his infamous tax cuts,
With an expiry that was a total sham.
The economy didn’t need them at the time,
That really was the scam.

Greenspan’s Fed should shoulder some blame,
They kept interest rates low for far too long.
That and unscrupulous lenders,
Made The Housing Bubble the national song.

The consequence on the ethos was palpable.
We feel like a country that can’t do.
The focus increasingly, “what’s in it for me?”
Regarding social conscience, “well screw you.”

Fear itself is on the rise,
Due to vanishing of the middle class.
That nothing is being done to reverse the trend,
Makes the government seem especially crass.

Instead it seems the special interests,
Are front and center in the show,
Giving the feeling it’s a big sell out,
With them getting all of the dough.

We know it’s hard to be President,
Especially in these very tough days,
When most of the electorate’s in a torpor,
And the rest seemingly in a craze.

But now is the time to concentrate,
And enlist the entire Presidential team.
A new vision must be created,
For how to restore the American Dream.

If We The People had a sense of purpose,
And unity of cause,
That could focus the Presidential attention,
And he could forget about receiving applause.

That isn’t what we have right now.
His policy seems like a laundry list.
Which makes those who voted for him in ’08,
Unlikely to reenlist.

Instead we’re still being pandered to,
Extending the Bush cut to those under $250K.
That limit should be $100K or lower.
That’s what the President should say.

Those who are saving don’t need the tax cut.
If we are ever to get out of this mess,
We need to stop welfare for the well off.
On that the President should confess.

In the campaign the President talked to us as adults,
On the painful issue of race.
We now need a mature conversation on the economy,
In order that for our core issues we face.

It’s an excuse to talk about what can get through Congress,
Instead talk about what the economy needs,
That’s the only way to create a groundswell,
To counteract all of the greed.

Republicans want individuals and businesses to decide,
Totally ignoring their past indiscretions.
Painting an imaginary picture of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand,
That looks like a sugary confection.

Don’t fall into that trap.
Don’t to the voters fawn.
But do recall the truth in the saying,
The darkest hour is just before dawn.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Educational Content To Be Read On the Screen - Some Experiments

I spend a fair amount of time reading stuff on the screen, and now I'm not talking about my iPad, which I view as a dedicated reader. I mean on a desktop computer. There are reading issues based on the quality of writing. I remain sensitive to those and react strongly if the writing is opaque or ideas are poorly expressed. There are also reading issues based on how the writing is displayed. In the main I've become insensitive to those issues, in part because I've made it a habit to readjust the view so it is appealing to me, usually fairly large font so there is no eye strain. But others may stay with the default and then find the writing display difficult. I've been made more acutely aware of this issue recently, as a colleague of mine on another campus complained about how some of my content on my site, The Economics Metaphor renders, such as this essay entitled What If Analysis. In particular, he reported that in online reading of dense stuff content-wise, not only should there be large font but in addition the content should be rendered in narrow columns.

I took the criticism to heart and have been playing with alternative ways of addressing the critique. On thing I tried (and then I've repeated the experiment several times) is to record an aloud reading of the writing so that one can listen online in addition to or in lieu of reading the content. I can't say that I'm very good at reading aloud or that my writing is designed to be read that way. Some of my sentences are fairly intricate and on occasion I have parenthetic comments that read ok but stray from the original thought so are a bit hard to follow on listening. Also, the pace varies in a way that pleased me as a writer but might not work very well for a listener. This is the first of such readings, for my essay on Retail Markets. Since I chunked that essay into 8 separate bits, I recorded a clip for each bit. It is interesting how the site where the audio is housed renders that content. (Follow the link at the post to the site.)

I would give myself a "B-" for that reading. There are stumbles at various points. And, particularly when reading questions, the voice intonation doesn't sound real to me. But it certainly is audible and perhaps of some value. Interestingly for me, I wasn't discouraged by that experience. I've done more readings since.

Part of that is simply having a lot of time on my hands at present, so there is freedom to try things. Another part is thinking about the usefulness of such read content. For international students, in particular, but for other students as well, the reading aloud may help the students penetrate the writing. And it occurred to me that the podcasts could be listened to away from the computer, which might encourage the students to access the content more. This latter thought started me on thinking about doing this for other than my econ content.

So I began to fiddle with making a Best of Lanny On Learning Technology archive, starting with early posts that were shorter. I did an aloud reading for a few of those and I posted a cleaned up (typos removed, some other edits) pdf version of the original posts as well. Not having posted pdfs before to, I was interest to see how many different ways it rendered the content. Also, it matters which sort of file is posted first if multiple files are ultimately posted under the same heading. When an mp3 is posted first, it assumes the content is primarily audio and puts a player into the page. When it is a pdf, it assumes the content is primarily a book. It then gives several different forms for the content to be read. For book length stuff (my own book, Guessing Games is in temporary hibernation but wheels are spinning in my brain now about how I might promote it online when I get back to it) this is very attractive indeed. What did occur to me immediately in seeing how the content renders online, is that one needn't narrow the column. There is nothing else on the screen to make for a visual distraction. However, I'd really like to query others on this point. As I said at the outset of this post, I'm not really sensitive to the display issues.

Since I've also been posting a fair amount of content to Google Docs as of late, I tried that as an alternative for the pdfs. It has one distinct advantage over the hosting, but then is less general in other respect. The advantage is that the default rendering of the document is in pretty large font. At the site, the default rendering is to put a full page on the screen, but that makes font small enough to be unreadable (at least for me). It also occurred to me that one could link to this online document via capture of an enticing paragraph using Kwout. I've done this for an essay I just finished called the Economics of Time. I'm kind of pleased with this approach, but it is for others to determine whether it is effective. The aloud reading of this essay is in a separate post, though it would not e hard to have the Kwout cutout and the embed of the aloud reading in the same post. What is a harder is to have an embed of the pdf document and the aloud reading in the same post. One can use an iframe for this purpose, but that would limit how much the pdf font can be enlarged in the viewing, so I've not opted for this approach. If someone wants to listen and read along at the same time, then two tabs of the browser must be open at the same time to achieve this result or the document needs to be printed out. I don't believe that having two tabs open is a big deal, but again, users need to determine that.

Before closing, let me pose a different question. Would having students do such readings of their own writing be a valuable exercise for them? Technology-wise this is not that hard, so the question is about the learning benefits. I may try that when I teach next. We'll see.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Governing in prose or sausage turning out stillborn

Sometime in the 1960s, probably when I was in junior high school, I read a series of books - political novels - where the political system seemed to be in jeopardy or worse. These included Seven Days In May, Fail Safe, and It Can't Happen Here. I don't believe that last one was ever made into a movie, but we know the other two now from the film versions, though I'm quite sure that for these I read the books before seeing the movies.

So too it was with Advise and Consent, which must have made a strong impression on me. When our family made the drive trip to Washington D.C. sometime later, we stayed at the Sheraton Park Hotel, the first time the family stayed at a hotel outside the Catskills. The book opens with Senator Robert Munson beginning his day at the Sheraton Park Hotel. I have distinct memory fragments of that trip. We stopped for lunch somewhere outside DC at a Howard Johnson's and I recall having what we now know as a Big Mac, before McDonalds had branded the idea. The parking garage was adjacent to the hotel and designed so you could park on the same floor your room was located on. That was the coolest. And I recall visits the U.S. Mint and the FBI building.

The movie, with Walter Pidgeon as Robert Munson, the personification of the dignified statesman as U.S. Senator, was on a few weeks ago. I recorded it and watched it a bit later. It is still an intriguing film, with multiple layers of story, great characters such as Charles Laughton as Seeb Cooley and Henry Fonda as Robert Leffingwell, and a mixture of dignity in external behavior coupled with an extreme viciousness in the politics. It is helpful to watch such a film nowadays, where things appear so dysfunctional, to understand that maybe they never were quite as rosy as we sometimes seem to imagine.

Switching to modern day politics, yesterday after reading Tom Friedman's column, where the dysfunction is given its due, I read a piece in the New Yorker by Ryan Lizza, As the World Burns. It is a disheartening read, where the Obama White House is severely criticized by not more strongly championing energy/climate change legislation. Quite possibly this indictment is deserved. But I want to focus on something else that became apparent in the piece.

Harry Reid is no Robert Munson. Reid is brought into Lizza's piece as a saboteur, blocking the legislation because it would have hurt him in his own election prospects in Nevada. He is characterized as being entirely self-serving, without principle, and seemingly otherwise unconnected to the legislation. One has to wonder why he is Majority Leader and the consequence of his being in that position. I don't have any inside poop on that but I can speculate.

When Tom Daschle lost his election rebid back in 2004, the Democrats were reeling. Being the Democrat leader in the Senate during the Bush White House at that time must not have been a coveted job. So Reid too the job for the good of the party. Obama became a Senator during that same election. The story is that Obama was frustrated in that role, because nothing seemed to get done. Robert Munson had a strong relationship with the President in Advise and Consent. They were junior Congressmen together. There was no such parallel relationship between Reid and Obama.

There has been much written about the Senate has over and over again blocked Presidential initiatives, with the Filibuster implied or utilized. But I've not seen any pieces on the relationship between the Senate leadership and the President. Dick Durbin, the current Majority Whip, would be far better as the Leader than Reid, in my view. Chuck Schumer would also be better. There was much greater alignment between the Presidency and the Congress when the Republicans were in the Majority. Obama rode into office under a post partisan mantel. Knowing how much he is actually into real politics, perhaps much of that was because he didn't think a partisan approach could work, in spite of the majority. Blue Dogs get mentioned here, but leadership does not. I wonder why.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

An alternative gradebook without using an LMS

I'm linking to a screen movie I made rather than embedding it, because it probably should be seen full screen to get the effect. (Also, the movie is at which doesn't compress the mpeg4 video. YouTube made the image quality of the video very ugly.) It shows how to keep a course gradebook in Excel, but then have an individual online gradebook for each student using Google Spreadsheets and entering those grades via the Google Forms tool, set up in a way to make grade entry easy. There is manual labor involved in the setup up. But it seems pretty functional to me. And since I've tried this sort of thing before (each student had their own spreadsheet). It is something I would do in a smaller class. I wonder if the idea will catch on with others.

Monday, October 04, 2010

When will Orszag get around to talking about Doctor pay?

When I was at Cornell we had classes on Saturdays. I wonder if people will take Orszag's point and translate to Higher Ed? But, of course, we have Football on Saturday and for home games, that makes parking a problem.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Translations and "Twins"

I thought this was quite a good read. It helps in thinking about the writer's task. I'm guessing that it goes beyond writing.

Op-Ed Contributor - Found in Translation - via kwout

Before reading this piece I had been thinking about people whose faces seem similar to me, the twins in my title. One of the thins I'd like to know, as I give a couple of examples below is whether the similarity only appears in my own mind or if others see it too, though it shouldn't just be the physical similarity but also our visceral reaction to the images.

The first pair are from current events. Tony Curtis passed away last week. A dramatic actor known for his good looks and moxie, he was more famous for his comedy roles, particularly Some Like It Hot.

Tony Curtis

And for his look alike I've selected Rahm Emanuel, the now former Chief of Staff, a politico who craves the limelight. Indeed, on the News Hour last Friday, Mark Shields gave a sort of indictment about Emanuel that he cast too much attention on himself on issues where he disagreed with President Obama.

Rahm Emanuel

Here's a completely different pair. Last night I watched Bonnie and Clyde. Arthur Penn had also recently passed away. It was his tour de force, not only a great picture in its own right, but a trailblazer for many other films that followed it. Of course when you think of Bonnie and Clyde you think of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. But there are some other compelling faces in the film. One is Michael J. Pollard. It's the impish smile that is so memorable.

Michael J. Pollard

I'm also a Yankee fan, as regular readers know. The past two years the Yankees regular right fielder has been Nick Swisher. He has a reputation for keeping the clubhouse loose, not taking anything too seriously.

Nick Swisher

The question is, when making a translation of this sort, can we be sure we're emphasizing a relationship that is real? Or might it just be a figment of our own imagination? One of my favorite pieces of all time is The Streak of Streaks by Stephen Jay Gould, which debunks the "getting hot" myth. Does the same sort of thing hold for translation too, finding associations that just aren't there?

I hope not, for I seem to do it all the time.