Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Financial Crisis Commission Report

Causality is a funny thing, especially in the social sciences. A may cause B, but what about the factors that cause A? Shouldn't they be included in the causes of B as well? I believe the answer is found by an appeal to art and to taste, not to science. The length of the majority report means not too many people will read it, I for one. I did look at the minority report, which is readable. I saw Douglas Holtz-Eakin on TV talking about the report, which intrigued me enough to have a look.

It is not bad, but in my opinion misses some things that really are important in the telling. There is a fundamental question that goes unanswered. If we are caught up in a bubble, do we know that while the bubble is happening? If we don't know, why not? With the stock market bubble of the late 1990s, there was something real happening in the economy - the move to much activity on the Internet and the adjustment in business processes as a consequence. This real change had a substantial impact on productivity growth. Knowing what is real and what is simply speculation feeding on itself is a hard thing to determine. When it is only speculation it should be easier.

There was also something real behind the housing bubble - the aging of the population and the southern migration of the population as seniors looked to warmer climate for their retirement. And there is also that most of the target states for this migration - Florida, Arizona, and Texas, are no income tax states. This fueled the rapid growth in housing and the concomitant rise in housing prices. I believe these factors should have been in the Minority report, but alas they weren't.

There is one further point, that I hope becomes more of a focus in future discussions about the economy - the decline in the personal savings rate. Individuals being highly leveraged became socially acceptable. There is a strong ethical issue with this. In the keeping up with Joneses world we live in it is that much harder to be responsible about your own personal finances when everyone else seems on a spending spree. But in reports like this there is a tendency to blame others, not ourselves. Unfortunately, it means we won't learn as much from the reflection on the experience.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Spending Private Ryan

I would give President Obama about a C on the State of the Union address. That seems to be the general reaction if this tongue in cheek dialog between Gail Collins and David Brooks typifies the response. The President still presents issues in a laundry list, as I whined about in rhyme a few months ago. While I agreed with most of the items, what was missing was a narrative of how people of modest means can lift themselves up through their own efforts, as my parents' generation did, and what changes in the economic environment the government can foster to help make this happen. The brief discussion he had about competitiveness doesn't translate well into a personal narrative. His mention that parents should turn off the TV so kids do their homework was fine on personal responsibility, but it only focused on the educational issue, not on personal responsibility in other areas, especially in how each of us manages our own debt. There was a lot that might have been said but wasn't.

The Republicans seem to have fallen into a trap that Mencken identified a long time ago:

“Complex problems have simple, easy to understand, wrong answers.”

They have a single issue - substantially reducing the Federal deficit and doing so through spending cuts rather than tax increases. They ignore in this how much private saving is happening as well as the state of the economy - still very weak. They fear the deficit only, not the Paradox of Thrift. Their mental model has the Crowding Out Hypothesis relevant, although interest rates remain abnormally low. Before the State of the Union I watched the News Hour which had a segment with the Senators from Illinois,who were to sit together while listening with the speech. Mark Kirk, the new Republican Senator, was pleasant enough in demeanor but he towed the Party line completely.

I thought it my obligation to watch the Republican response given by Paul Ryan, but I shut it off pretty soon after he uttered these lines:

Unfortunately, instead of restoring the fundamentals of economic growth, he engaged in a stimulus spending spree that not only failed to deliver on its promise to create jobs, but also plunged us even deeper into debt.

The facts are clear: Since taking office, President Obama has signed into law spending increases of nearly 25 percent for domestic government agencies — an 84 percent increase when you include the failed stimulus.

I just couldn't take it. Nobody knows whether the the stimulus worked or not, because we can't run the experiment without the stimulus to see what would have happened. That there was a realistic chance of having another Great Depression seems to be ignored by the Republicans. Ryan is hailed as the economic brains in the Republican party. But to me he is just another mouthpiece. In doing some background checking before writing this post, I found testimony Peter Orzag gave before the House Budget Committee in September 2008, four months before Obama was inaugurated as President, where he argued that the recession would lag behind the freezing up of the credit markets. It is true that the new administration low balled the forecast of the severity of the recession. But that doesn't mean the stimulus failed.

The economy needs spending now. Where will it come from?


The first ten days blues

Of adds and drops I'm not entitled to rant
For under the rules and regulations it's not that students can't.

Though for the campus as a whole I'd like of the practice cessation
Generalizing from my own experience where there's lots of frustration.

As an instructor I do try to tow the line
While wondering what's the real goal behind this design.

Is it simply a holdover from when we did registration with paper
When getting into an oversubscribed class was like pulling off a caper?

But now that's not hard, instead what we have is excessive churn
Causing an instructor trying to enthuse students to do a slow burn.

I'd rather see all students start at the same time.
When a common bond takes hold in the classroom that is sublime.

Campus and instructors both need to vigorously interact
And then agree the main goal is to end the Disengagement Pact.

The way the technology is used now it's actually making matters worse.
It lowers instructor and student commitment and in that sense is a curse.

What if instead each class had a before semester open house?
Students would get an idea of the course and later not grouse.

Students would learn that taking a course is different from getting a Christmas present
Where it is okay to do an exchange or get a refund with that process rather pleasant

It's an important lesson to learn to live with your choices,
When people have done that it turns out we respect their voices.

So with University technology it's not convenience we should be selling.
Especially when that undermines core principles - that's the message I'm telling.

What I'd like to see is a permanent fix
That got rid of all these student registration tricks.

And returned to the idea that on semester day one
That's was the day that learning had begun.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Moans from the bones

Only January yet tired of the snow
Praying there's no return of five below
Looking forward to the spring
Of trees budding and birds that sing
Winter gets harder as old we grow.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Quick Follow Up To Previous Post

In the Econ 490 class, which is intended for Econ majors, where my expectation going in was that there would be little churn, there have been 13 drops and 8 adds since the first day of class. Some of this, I suppose, is what is happening for these students in their other classes. But this is an amazing amount of turnover, especially in a class meant for majors.

Electronic Rosters And The First 10 Days Of The Semester

The trouble with being an old timer is that you remember when. Before we had Banner, we would get hard copy rosters around the first day of class put into our departmental mailboxes. Thereafter, for the next 10 days of the semester, we would get manila cards, on which were printed the adds and drops.

One likes to think of technological progress as in the forward direction, but in reality it is more two steps forward and one step back, and sometimes it's the two steps that are in the wrong direction. I know something about electronic rosters from an administrative perspective. As Assistant CIO for Educational Technology, I was the one who informed faculty that we were canceling the Campus Gradebook service. I got a lot of grief for that. The users were quite wedded to it. As a grade book, it did several things quite well that current electronic grade books that I know about don't do. It categorized grades - homework, term papers, exams - and with that it provided a disaggregated or an aggregated view of the data. It handled TA access to the data the way you would want - TAs could only access grades in the section they had responsibility for. And because it kept data in a file rather than in a database, instructors would download the file to do all their data entry fairly rapidly on the downloaded file, and then when they were done upload it back again. That was much faster than after each entry having to do a screen refresh so they could enter other data.

But the truth is that Campus Gradebook was so valued because it provided an electronic roster service. Though not the intended function, it was the capability most valued by instructors. At the time, there weren't good alternatives. (For the course management systems we were then doing weekly updates of rosters, which is just not timely enough to be useful.) It was the correct decision to end the Campus Gradebook service. There was only one person who understood the code; it didn't work with Macs; integrating it with Banner would have been a bear; and we were consolidating services onto an enterprise LMS. These are all sensible reasons, but what the users found in the sequel was worse than what they had before. So I got a piece of their mind from quite a few of them, feeling like I was walking around with a kick me sign on my back.

This gets me to where we are now. As an instructor, I now have access to three electronic roster services. One is Banner, which I believe gives real time access to the data, but which doesn't provide download of the roster into a spreadsheet, in my view a fatal flaw. Banner offers two views of the roster, one in summary where there are a maximum of 50 entries per page (another pain), the other in detail that included student rank and major. Partly to alleviate these issues with Banner the campus developed its own roster service run by the the Division of Management Information. The third service is provided by the LMS. This semester I'm using Moodle run by ATLAS, but the same would be true if I were using Illinois Compass. Both DMI and the LMS get daily updates of the rosters with data from the data warehouse, not directly from Banner.

None of the three alternatives provides an electronic equivalent to the manila cards we used to get. I wonder why. For an instructor to track adds and drops, one must compare a roster downloaded at one time to a roster downloaded earlier. This morning (a Sunday). I downloaded a roster from Moodle and again from DMI. They were not the same. (After comparing the DMI roster to Banner and seeing they were identical, I concluded that ATLAS doesn't update rosters over the weekend. I'm not saying it should. I'm just trying to indicate the instructor issues with the current arrangement.)

I actually am using all three services because each offers a function the others don't. When a student emails me that they've just added, I need to verify that before I respond. For that Banner with the real time data is best. I use the Moodle roster to find out if the student can access the class site or not. My response will depend on that. And the DMI roster has the full demographic information in a way I can categorize it, making it useful to me. But the situation is much more complex than it should be and a conscientious instructor who is trying to keep up with the adds and drops has to put in an inordinate amount of effort to do so.

My own preferred solution to this - we have a reading day so why not an add/drop day - and then we can get on with it. Recognizing that is unlikely to happen I wonder if we could develop an electronic manila card function. It would be valued by instructors.

Let me conclude with this, because there is a lot of discussion of consolidation and centralization of IT services, wasteful duplication, and the like. There is the further issue of changing business practices to accommodate what the technology actually does. With instruction, however, that would be a disaster. As was explained to me some time ago by Denny Kane, Banner takes as its base unit the section. We on campus, however, think of the base unit as the course, which is defined by the instructor teaching it and the meeting time, not by rubric and number. I am teaching two courses this semester, Econ 302 and Econ 490. In the timetable there are nine sections of Econ 302, each an independent course (with some instructors teaching more than one section). In Econ 490, I have two sections (a separate grad section from the undergrad section). There is another 490 course on a different topic taught by a different instructor, who also has two sections.

An electronic roster system must accommodate the actual practice. Now we're only getting a first order approximation.

The picture says it all

This was for all intents and purposes the last play of the game. Aspects of Tisdale's game make you think he is a 7'1" shooting guard. A bit before this play he hit a step back 3 pointer, to keep the game close. After this play - the announcers blamed McCamey for throwing a bounce pass to a seven footer, a no-no - where we failed to score there were were only a few seconds left and that was it.

The announcers made a big thing that Ohio State only plays 7 players. Three of their starters played the full 40 minutes. We played eight and looked like the more tired team near the end. Three of our four seniors, each who starts, had more than 30 minutes. I wonder if we should play some others to reduce the minutes of the stars and help us keep up the intensity in crunch time. Tisdale and Meyers Leonard foul too much for us to press or trap aggressively when they are in. So I also wonder if we might go without a center and have 3 forwards at a time or have 3 guards and two forwards. We could play a different style that way, one that might wear down teams with a shorter bench.

Bruce Weber gets paid the big bucks and I'm just a Monday morning quarterback. There is always second guessing when the team loses. You can chalk up this brief analysis to that. But I can't help wondering, what if?

Friday, January 21, 2011

States Declaring Bankruptcy? Illinois is a candidate

The Campus, since it started with Furlough Days and the Voluntary Separation Program has had some trouble retaining faculty, as these necessary evils to trim costs frighten professors that the overall environment here will deteriorate. The same sort of thing might happen in the University of California system, where there are several highly rated public universities. The article excerpted below talks about whether bankruptcy is consistent with the U.S. Constitution (it is if the states declare it themselves and it is not imposed at the insistence of creditors) but does not talk about State Law. In Illinois, my understanding is that State Law would need to be rewritten in order for bankruptcy to be declared. I doubt there is the political will to do that, which is part of the reason we're in this mess to begin with.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Is Wright Right?

An interesting analysis that I'm quoting here because the public economics aspect is relevant to what we are studying. But the use of U.N peacekeepers often doesn't seem to work. And while the coalition that was put together for the first Gulf War was effective, the U.S. declined to go that route the next time around and had many fewer allies in Iraq. Allies tend to not want to escalate to war and stick with sanctions. Maybe that's a good thing, but it's not in Wright's analysis.

Adrenalin Rush

We're having a wet snow today. Driving is quite bad. I like my Civic hybrid a lot, but it is not intended for this kind of weather. I hydroplaned several times in driving my son to school. I remember way back when we used to rotate tires, snow tires for the the winter, the regular tires the rest of the year. Since radial tires have become the vogue we don't do that anymore. I wonder if we should go back to the old way.

I'm actually somewhat frightened when driving in this. I don't trust myself at the wheel so I drive very slowly. I also don't trust the other drivers, who to me seem to possess excessive confidence that their breaks will work fine. Getting close to home on the return I noticed I was gripping the steering wheel very tightly. The last several weeks I've had multiple experiences where my hands cramp up. There is some pain but the real issue is that I can't straighten out my fingers. I don't know if this is an inevitable consequence of aging and arthritis or if I'm keyboarding too much for my own well being. In any event it started to happen as I turned into our neighborhood. It further contributed to my anxiety. But I made it home without incident.

* * * * *

Yesterday I was back teaching largish classes, about 65 students in each class. I hadn't done that for 10 years. My teaching since had been in seminar format. The students and I would sit where we could all face one another. We had good conversations but the feeling was not nearly as intense as I felt yesterday. I taught in David Kinley Hall in two classrooms on the first floor, with auditorium seating where the students sat in rows making me feel a bit like I was on stage. There is something about being on stage that can't be imitated. I told the the story above about driving in the snow because while there was fright, it was a different kind of feeling. Fear of an accident is different than the fear of looking stupid in front of an audience. And the response is different; with the driving I became overly cautious while with the teaching I delivered a manic, not quite stream of consciousness monologue. I want to have a lot of Q&A in the classroom but that first day I had to cover the syllabus, so it was just me for a good chunk of the time. I got very keyed up. It took me quite a while to come down afterward.

I used to teach much larger classes quite regularly so I had the sense of how I should be prepared. There is a razor's edge between over preparation the kills any sense of spontaneity and under preparation where things appear out of control. I used to teach entirely without notes relying on my memory to get the balance right. Yesterday I did that too, but based on what happened I've had far too many senior moments since my last large class teaching. In the first class yesterday I forgot to do a brief technology demonstration to show students how to set up their blogs. Today I have to make a brief demo movie to make up for that. I will produce outlines for myself for the next class sessions to make sure I stay more or less on track.

You worry about things beforehand, not knowing whether they are mountains or molehills. For me this was the shape of the room with the auditorium seating and whether I could get any Q&A going. Each classroom must be two and a half to three times as long as it is wide. I actually commented in class that in current design you want to situate the presenter about midway near one of the long walls, because that way the distance between the presenter and the student who is farthest away is minimized. The sense of closeness should help promote discussion. Each of these classrooms were set up the opposite way. The seats faced one of the short walls. Further, the technology cabinets were near to these short walls and if you wanted to used the computer to navigate to a Web page and display some of what was on the paged, you had to stand behind the cabinet, further increasing the distance from the students. So I worried I'd lose them while I was covering the syllabus. As it turned out, I did get some good back and forth in each class with students way in the pack participating. We'll see if we can keep that up.

The big concern during that came up during the session, one I was aware of having done a walk through earlier as I got training on the technology cabinets, was the excessive heat in the classrooms. The building was supposed to have had an HVAC upgrade last summer, part of the ongoing catchup with deferred maintenance that the Campus is going through. They are not finished however. And I learned yesterday that the heating system is the old one. They've upgraded the ventilation and put in central air, but none of that is operational yet. In the second class some students asked whether I'd open a window. The one at the front was open a crack when I entered the room. I left it that way. The university is in budget deficit and desperately wants to be frugal on its energy consumption. So I was loath to open a window. But it was hotter than blazes in the classroom and in the second class I could see students nodding off after a while. There was a substantial temperature gradient between the hallway, which was cool, and the classrooms. Perhaps when the new system is fully operational, it will all work better. In the meantime, I will open the windows if necessary because of excessive heat. After all, if students are unable to pay attention because of the environmentals, what's the point of holding class?

I've had high hopes for these classes coming in, but also trepidation that my optimism could be unfounded. One session is not enough to determine which way it will play out. So I expect to become pumped up again for the next class. I wonder if that feeling will persist through the entire semester or if I'll calm down a bit. I also wonder which feeling is better for the students, hyper or collected? The species seems disposed toward stage fright, even among very accomplished performers. So I assume it is a trait that natural selection encouraged. But if it is too strong you can get an aversion to the activity that cuts the other way, like the driving in the snow. We'll see.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Getting Closure

Over the long weekend I finished Jane Leavy's The Last Boy, her personal tribute to The Mick qua investigative journalism into the stories about his athletic prowess - he was a prodigy on the field without any doubt, but the book is a full account so it also about his debilitating injuries and his horrible alcoholism. This was my "pleasure reading" during the vacation period and certainly reading about his power and speed were a pleasure. Since I was born in the mid 1950s, I missed the bulk of the Mick's performance the first time through. I got some of it in Baseball Cards. I know I had one about his mammoth homer at Griffith Stadium in 1953. But my memory beyond that must be faulty because what I recall, contrary to what Leavy wrote, is that the ballpark was small and that he hit it five blocks beyond the park. If only I had those baseball cards today to check it out. That discord between my recollection and Leavy's account does point to one of her themes - there was an awful lot of myth making in the recording of his performance.

There is the question of whether Mickey was all he could be on the field. The simple story, one he himself reinforced after his career was over by repeatedly saying he should have taken better care of himself, is that he had boundless potential which did produce some wonderful accomplishments, but so much more might have been achieved had he not let it go to seed. Mantle came up to the majors in 1951, the same year as Mays did. Bernard Malamud's The Natural came out in 1952. There must be some relationship between fiction and real life given that timing. A deeper look into the life and background of the Mick, however, makes for a reasonable case that he was an over achiever. After about 300 pages Leavy drops a bombshell that I didn't anticipate. I won't offer it up here, so as not to spoil the book. It is a good read. I will say this. We all have internal demons. Star performers may have more than their fair share, needing to deny part of their persona to achieve their stardom. Janis Joplin died when she was 27, Jimi Hendrix when he was 28, James Dean, closer in vintage to Mantle, died when he was 24. We fans, who don't know the inner workings of these people, confuse the instrument of death with the cause. Mantle blotted out pain with his drinking and that pain was very real. He ultimately did himself in, but by comparison with some of these others he stuck around for quite a long time.

It is not so much pleasure to read about a person's self-destruction, especially when it happens over and over again. So, as I commented about reading Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I felt bludgeoned after a while with Leavy's book. I wonder if thorough reporting of an essentially unpleasant message necessitates that. Yet the book is curiously uplifting as well, because Mantle remains a hero, really the hero, for so many of our generation. The question is why and getting at that is the real mystery.

I have this habit/arrogance about me that in order to let go of an idea and move onto something else I must comment about it in a way that provides some insight. Once I get my two cents in I can refocus on what is ahead of me. Until then, however, I can't let go. I wanted to say something about why we love Mickey so much, but I wasn't sure what I should say. So I let the thought simmer. Yesterday, I did a Google search on Mickey Mantle versus Bo Jackson, thinking perhaps that would help. I found several links to fascinating content - this piece on tape measure home runs, who actually hit them, and the misreporting of how long the home runs actually were; a different piece from Baseball Digest about Bo's amazing feats on the diamond; and a YouTube video clip of Mickey with a rather young David Letterman, compelling to view.

Bo had less longevity than Mickey but otherwise he is the other athlete I can think of who combined speed and power in a package that amazed even very accomplished professional players. And I got to witness some of those performances on TV, so I have a better memory of what Bo did than of what Mickey did. Yet while I'm aware of this, I don't regard Bo as a hero, an amazing athlete, yes, a hero, no. So I puzzled over this and came up with the following.

My kids don't really care much about sports on TV. It's not a big part of their focus. For them, Harry Potter was much more important as was Lord of the Rings, and perhaps other science fiction/fantasy. They invested themselves in that. Kids probably need a theme to invest themselves. Sports mattered much more to me as a result. Also, when I left the East Coast to head to grad school at Northwestern, I got to hold onto a touch of the past as the Yankees made the World Series in 1976 and I watched it at the Norris Center Union, along with a bunch of other displaced New Yorkers. I think that cemented the the feeling for me forever, although that was the era of Thurman Munson, not Mickey.

So it may be that sports reporting in 1980s was more revealing that it was in the 1950s, with player indiscretions off the field no longer taboo to report. And it may be "Bo Knows" commercials were more overtly slick marketing than the Yoohoo and Wheaties commercials we watched as kids. But I believe the real deal is that kids can have total awe and then retain that as adults. Adults learning something for the first time can be very impressed with what they discover but won't have this purity in their perception.

And the real tragedy may not be the life Mickey led after baseball, but rather that we as adults keep hoping another hero will come.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Microfinance - the latest victim of commercial financing

One wonders if alternatives to commercial finance are viable outside the world of microfinance and, if so, whether we'll see them emerge. As powerful as Yunus' voice is, it would be good for there to be others.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tidal Waves Do Stop Propagating

I am not a friend in Facebook with my car dealer, nor am I with my financial advisor. I got snail mail birthday cards from both of them. I wish they had saved on the postage and with their other customers too. I'd rather get a little better deal the next time around. I wonder if others feel the same way.

It's not quite the same in Facebook where you "choose" your friends, though the choice is likely reflexive rather carefully considered. Viral growth doesn't go hand in hand with careful consideration. I was glad to hear from most of the people who gave me well wishes on my birthday. Connecting with them adds some flavor to my life. Even then, some are juggling so many other things that the message they send to me is mundane. Others who are more time abundant nonetheless send messages that hardly communicate, the equivalent to "have a nice day" which seems to punctuate many of the emails I get these days. Can this sort of communication be what is serving as the basis for the Facebook craze?

Last spring and early summer, where there was so much excitement about the consequences of the election in Iran and where Twitter seemed a very powerful way to get real news out of that country, I was very upbeat about the empowering effects of the technology to enable direct democracy. There remains a latent potential that the technology will be used this way in the future. The more common use, however, based on what I see on my Facebook News page is for people to give voice to the most ordinary aspects of their lives, presumably operating under the premise that if they do this and their friends do likewise then they "stay in touch."

Indeed, Facebook may be more about a virtual form of touching than it is about verbal communication. The growth of my own emotional intelligence leaning more to the stunted side, perhaps I'm more likely to give short shrift to the value of this sort of use. With that, however, I will now echo what the guys who care about network security always say about Facebook (and about Google too). Users are not the customers. Users (mainly their eyeballs) are what Facebook provides to the the customers. Informed users then need to ask whether this is in accord with their interests, orthogonal to their interests, or against their interests.

If the information that is being provided is mainly blather, I'd conclude that this is orthogonal to their interests. When there is more substance to the communication, there's a better chance that the practice is pernicious, pretty much for the same reason that others object to the data mining Google does with Gmail. Facebook is now asking users to utilize their new profile tool and include additional information (some of which looks to me like they want to take on LinkedIn in the same way that many years ago Internet Explorer took on Netscape). I know they say the new profile is there so users can exercise better control via their privacy settings. And to the extent that Facebook wants to limit liability in this area, I'm sure that's true. However, I don't believe that's the real game being played but rather is camouflage for creating greater value for the customers.

Most users are probably oblivious to these concerns, so perhaps Facebook will continue to grow. Everyone wants to party and that's where the party seems to be. I really don't know. But I do know diffusion curves are S-shaped and you can't use growth before reaching the inflection point to predict growth thereafter. I'm guessing we're already past the inflection point but that the public, including Wall Street, hasn't realized it yet so if Facebook were publicly traded and if I did this sort of thing I'd sell them short. Neither of those being the case, I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.

We are so into this notion of explosive growth and the next new thing that we lionize entertainment that embraces the new thing. That many are consider The Social Network as one of the best films of the year is emblematic. I didn't like it at all. I want my entertainment to have more human textures, such as the American Masters video about Jeff Bridges, The Dude Abides, which aired last night.

That's what I want from Facebook too. Is it too much to ask?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The pitfalls of auto-renewal of subscription services

Over the past several weeks I've had several services I've subscribed to in the past auto-renew. One is for Jing Pro, which I certainly would have renewed anyway. One is for Scientific American online, which I wouldn't have renewed - nothing against that periodical but I don't read it enough to justify the subscription. There are several others.

When you get a friend request in Facebook or LinkedIn, you get a click through in the email to approve the request. Why doesn't that happen with renewals? Given that the nation has had a recent history of excessive credit card debt, the practice as it's done is invidious and really should change. Too much of the burden is put on the buyer to cancel. The renewal is the presumed default. In none of these cases do I recall signing up for auto-renewal.

A couple of years ago my account to ESPN Insider got canceled because we switched our family credit card. Perhaps that needs to become a regular practice....as a defensive measure.

I also have to say that I hate calling customer service and invariably being put on hold. This current practice actually gives the sellers incentive to reduce their customer service. That makes no sense to me.

The kick with the new Congress is less regulation, not more. So I'm not sanguine about anything being done on the following recommendation, but I will offer it up nonetheless. There should be a minimal requirement to make renewal explicitly voluntary on the part of the customer. It seems to me that should be the law.

Fifty-six

As of today I'm fifty-six
Mature but still up to the same old tricks
Spewing rhymes that some say I should nix
Pleasing myself - it's what gives me kicks.

Look at some images for fifty-six
And regard others including some of my own pix.
With gray in the beard that I should fix
Though I'm told vanity can bring on ticks.

Time to get in my last licks
One more metaphor to add to the mix
To encase structure rather than use bricks
Causing perhaps a frown but no internal conflicts.

Celebrating the occasion I might watch some flicks
Or with the Giants and Yankees done should I root for the Knicks?
Some games might be nice but for sure not pick-up-sticks
It's arthritis in the knuckles, not that we'd be called hicks.

Monday, January 10, 2011

To have captioned is better

Manger est bon
Mais avoir manger est meilleur.

My dad would say the above on occasion. My mom, a French teacher, would wince. It is not very good usage. The literal translation is: "To eat is good, to have eaten is better."

I've taken that idea and applied it to captioning of video rendered in YouTube. I've done a bunch of that quite recently. Here are some observations about the captioning activity and the videos themselves based on that effort.

Captioning is tedious but you do get better at it over time. The expression "captioning is good" does not refer to the tedium but to the social desirability of the activity. The prime reason to do so comes from a need to make the videos accessible. But I wonder whether students who are not hard of hearing will also benefit and, indeed, if making the transcripts available will have a fundamental effect on their note taking activity.

The expression "to have captioned is better" refers to the sense of accomplishment after this is done and the tedium is in the past. That sense of accomplishment extends to the following:
  • The videos are not slickly produced. There are mistakes in them. The are "ums" (which are not captioned). This is the way I go about explaining the economics when speaking. So there is a sense of reality to the videos in that.
  • I didn't produce a script first. This is most notable in the way sentences start. Many begin with "And" or "So"which is a terrible way to write. But aloud this helps put a flow to the ideas.
  • The pace at which I talk is uneven, sometimes very fast, other times with a substantial pause. I believe that quick speech indirectly conveys enthusiasm for the subject.
  • There is mumbling on occasion. This happens after I detect an error being made. I shouldn't have made the error, but I did. Here the captioning might help the student who otherwise wouldn't get what is in the mumble.
  • There are some standard phrases across the videos. I usually start with "Alright" or "Okay" for reasons I'm not quite sure. This is quite ingrained as is my concluding sentence, "And there you have it."
One other reason for doing is this because I'd like to see students do likewise and make their own videos with captions, so the content they produce has re-use value. I wonder if that will ever become the norm.

Google Analytics and Google Docs Difficulties

I'm using a blog for one of the classes I will teach in the spring and it occurred to me I should movie away from the old (Sitemeter) which brands me for the dinosaur that I am and instead use the new (Google Analytics) with the main benefit as far as I can tell being that the free version of sitemeter that I use doesn't retain the historical data. They work in a similar way. You get code snippet and paste somewhere on your blog (sidebar or footer). It took a day for the Google Analytics to give me assurance it was actually tracking. Since then it has done a reasonable job.

Armed with that little success, for a different class I thought I'd use Google Analytics to track file downloads. I'm keeping the class files in Google Docs, so I have a publicly available repository for my class content. And because a while back I got a request/complaint from some MBA students who wanted a file folder for downloading stuff rather than by just having individual files linked from the source, with the links distributed around the class site. I don't really know how many students want that, but why not? It turns out that downloading may be an old concept. The pdfs I've placed there can all be read online. The Excel spreadsheets, have to be downloaded and they use functionality which isn't in Google Spreadsheets. So the notion of distributing a file for download still remains, at least for some of my content. Fine and dandy.

I really don't understand Google's approach across its product offerings. YouTube does it's own tracking of hits on a clip by clip basis, just the sort of thing I'd want for my Google Docs content. But rather than bringing that YouTube functionality into Google Docs there instead is supposed to be a way to get Google Analytics to work with Google Docs. So far, however, I haven't been able to get that to work. Google Analytics is not finding the site. I read somewhere, in addition, that Google Analytics only tracks documents that are "published" which, if true, makes it much less useful to me. For files that you upload and don't convert to Google format, you can't publish those. That's the case for me for both the pdfs and the Excel files. I am publishing transcripts for each of my micro-lecture videos. Those are text files and render fine in the Google format. But otherwise not.

If anyone has a suggestion for how to do this effectively, please let me know. Thanks.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Quite an interesting piece which makes the argument that we're getting the wrong mix of debt and equity (too much of the former) in relatively new ventures such as Facebook, because the bank bailout created a bias in the financing. The bailout was necessary in 2008. Whether much of it should be undone now, it seems to me, needs asking.

Porfolio Grading And the LMS

Do a Google search on portfolio grading and you'll get a lot links to Centers for Writing. I suppose that is the teaching area where this sort of assessment is most prominent. One wonders why. Part of this must be a lingering belief elsewhere that one can measure "learning" via static measurements, i.e., exams, as long as one does a pre-test and a post-test implementation. (For example, that's the basis of one of the studies mentioned here, where this measure of learning is correlated with student course evaluations.) There is, however, a lot of trouble with implementing this sort of thing, namely that students typically don't have reason to take the pre-tests seriously. Further, the methods are rarely if ever used to inform the students of their own learning. When the post-test grade is returned to the student, it typically isn't accompanied with the pre-test grade, let alone a breakdown by topic so students can see where they improved and where they didn't.

(My first semester of grad school in the first or second day of class Robert Eisner, who taught the core macroecon course where we read the General Theory and started on Money, Interest, and Prices and did a bunch of other interesting and challenging stuff as well, administered an old final exam he gave for his undergraduate introduction to macro course. Not having been an econ major as an undergrad, I thought I was at a distinct disadvantage compared to my classmates. I scored in the mid 20's on that exam and was kind of humiliated by the experience. That put me in the lower half of the class or so I gathered by comparing notes with my classmates, but I was not an outlier. Whether the purpose of that exam was to deflate our egos or to establish a baseline, I don't know. I, for one, worked extremely hard that quarter to make up for my deficiencies. So maybe it was appropriate for some students. But it set up an adversarial tone between the faculty and the students that I believe can be quite discouraging, making the learning feel like a cutthroat competition when that does not seem to be necessary to me. I thought my class extremely non-intellectual and I attributed a good chunk of that to the tone that was set.)

It may also be that many instructors simply want to to measure, for lack of a better word, mastery and are less interested in measuring growth in understanding. Most likely, however, many instructors haven't thought this through. They simply embrace the practice that they themselves were exposed to, without questioning whether the practice is consistent with other goals they have for the teaching. If one did think it through, however, I believe there are several conclusions that would be reached by a broad array of those teaching, not just the writing instructors.

First, students becoming aware of their own learning is helpful, both to engage the students and to make them cognizant of their own deficiencies that require improvement, pointing them where to focus their efforts (or acknowledging those deficiency areas that will remain unlearned). Second, novices aren't as proficient as those with more experience. If you grade the novice as if he or she is proficient, that can be discouraging. Feedback that facilitates improvement but is otherwise evaluation-free is preferable. The evaluation can happen later after a body of work has been accumulated giving evidence that the student has "moved down the learning curve." Third, if a system of assessment is put into place that essentially ignores the student learning needs, that can breed cynicism or worse. (See the compelling essay by Peter Gray on this point.) This, in a nutshell, is the argument for portfolio assessment, a better if still imperfect approach.

Now let me bring in the LMS, since I've not yet mentioned it. It would be a delightful thing if instructors got new ideas about their teaching via their own reflection or from ongoing conversations with their peers, where professional practice dictates a somewhat experimental approach to the instruction, in the spirit of Donald Schon, where the instructors viewed themselves as learners about the art of teaching. However, it is my experience that often such communities of practice are lacking. An instructor operating more or less on his own stops innovating, so the teaching ends up being very traditional, sometimes very stale. Therefore it would be very good if alternative approaches were embedded in other channels the instructor might confront, the LMS gives one prominent such example.

This becomes a vexing question for the learning technologist - to be out ahead of the instructors who are supported or to be right there with them. And we've experienced some of both, so that ePortfolio systems developed separately from the LMS, although most campuses can't afford to run separate systems and the grade book would ultimately remain an LMS function. (The vendors seemingly figured this out and ePortfolio became much more focused as a resume tool.) One wonders then if portfolio grading for within-course learning can survive and do so in an LMS-only environment.

I'm not sure of the answer to that, but I am pretty sure of where we are at present. An instructor can do portfolio grading using the LMS grade book in a somewhat passive way, to display those grades that are given to the students writing. But the work flow part - whether the students turned in the writing pieces on time, whether the instructor has given back comments, how those comments are communicated, etc., is not tracked through the grade book and must be invented by other means. This means the technology will not serve to diffuse the method. It will instead reinforce the traditional way.

Part of the argument for going outside of the LMS and indeed to make student work publicly available is to introduce some performance incentive rather than grade incentive into encouraging students to put in their best effort. But there is another part, to encourage instructor invention. We need that other part now.

A fantasy I have that probably will never happen is to make the Writing Center folks in charge of teaching and learning for the Campus as whole, backed up by real budget authority to make changes. The problem is, these folks scare the bejesus out of many others in the administration, because they wouldn't just make changes around the edges. So it won't happen. But it is an intriguing thought. And I believe portfolio grading would be a big part of what they'd recommend.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The earnest first days of the new Governor

Andrew Cuomo
The new majordomo
Of the once great state of New York,

Must with the dysfunctional legislature work
To reduce their own sizable perqs
And a cessation of doling out the pork.

Yet wasteful spending to unearth
Is far from enough to give birth
To a balanced budget brought by the stork.

The states belt tighten while the Feds tax cuts do extend
Creating an imbalance that looks like it might never end
Surely no cause for celebration with Champagne to uncork.

Close but no cigar

Justice was served after all, with the Giants out and the Packers in. But I needed a consolation prize as a fan so last night I watched the best sports movie ever. Though the movie is a glossing over of the harder edges to Gehrig's life, there is some irony in that a scene of Gehrig in his very first game as a Yankee show him getting plunked in the head by a throw as he's running to second base. It may have been a series of those plunks and other concussions that really did him in. If true, it's clear he had a disregard for his own well being, but he did have a simple grace about him in interacting with others. The movie got that part right.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Public Unions and Pensions

Some mortgages require the recipient to escrow receipts to pay property taxes, so that the recipient can't go into arrears. I wonder why there isn't a similar such law for the pensions of public employees. This is an example where the system, unwilling to make tough choices (by pretending the pension obligations are there, though unfunded, and nonetheless paying competitive wages) has created a huge mess. Even if there were a way out of this very deep hole, would we find our way back in soon thereafter?