Monday, December 30, 2013

An Unplanned Restbit

Whether tendon or burs I am fighting,
An itis keeps me from writing.
Trend of thought a wreck,
With one hand I peck.
Even word play is less inviting.


This is in my supposed good arm, the left.  I wish voice to text technology were a little further along. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

The dinner that wasn't

There was a fine hostess named Nancy
Whose dinner parties were very fancy.
A friend brought her a moose.
She had asked for a goose.
Serving it she thought rather chancy. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Present Tense

The children have not stirred and now it is after 12:30 PM.  My wife, who got up before 6 AM, is now getting antsy about that fact.  Today was to be the day where they'd go shopping together so each of them could have something in their stockings on Christmas. 

I really don't understand the purpose of presents within the family, especially now that we have Amazon prime and when anyone needs something it is obtained withing a couple of days of the request. 

I did love it when the kids were young and drew those cards that all kids draw for birthday or other special occasion.  What sort of acts as adults deliver the same type of feeling? 

I stumbled onto one of those.  JibJab had been promoting its seasonal videos.  When they first started and gave their videos out for free, I made several of them.  But now it is for pay and it is not so much the money, but once you give a company like this your credit card information it is all over but the crying.  So what I did is take a photo of my siblings and I when we were young kids (it's in black and white) and put cutouts of the heads into a JibJab movie.  But instead of making the movie I simply took a screen shot of the result and emailed that picture to my brother and sister, along with a bit of word play by means of introduction.

They loved it! 

I don't know what other little acts of creativity might induce the same sort of reaction, but I'm pretty convinced that is much better than material gifts. 

My wife just woke up the kids.  Time for me to sign off. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013


Q: How come in France they eat only one egg for breakfast?
A: Because in France one egg is un oeuf. 

Taking delight in bad puns (the above found here) is one of life's simple pleasures, a joy to be reaped and then to be recycled for friends and family alike, their moans and grimaces music to the ears of the teller, for it means the message has found its target. 

This particular one has more meaning for me, since my mom was a French teacher and I have a tin ear when it comes to foreign languages, particularly in regard to correct pronunciation.  As tomorrow marks one year since her passing, this story behind the story seems an apt way to commemorate the occasion.

In Junior High School while my classmates and I took instruction in French from M. Bauer in 7th grade (he well known for each week giving us a quiz-i-poo, fortunately not orally) and from Mme. Glassman in 8th grade (she sat us in the second half of the school year by our grade in the first half to pair the best student with the worst student, the next best with the next worst, etc.) I also got tutoring from my mom in French, where on the positive side I did learn to conjugate verbs. Speaking the language was an entirely different matter. 

Somehow I got it in my head to pronounce the plural form, les oeufs, by taking the "oy" from oy vey, and the "oaf" from loaf and finding a non-word that I mistakenly thought was the true pronunciation, located somewhere in between.  This amused my mother to no end, much to my chagrin.  She would repeat my faux pas on many occasions, after having tried to get me to say it correctly, but to know avail.  You see, I was egged on by my parents from an early age.

Now, looking not at just the puns, but at the mediocre rhymes and word play too, it's as if I'm at a never closing breakfast bar, and the omelets just keep on coming.  Parents of adult children speak to them from beyond the grave.  Where as a teen I found listening painful so often didn't, now I am.  It is a major source of my self-expression.  One I find sustaining.

My title refers to a different spigot, one that I did want to shut off if I could --- the desire to watch TV shows written by Aaron Sorkin.  I've found a way.  But before I get to that approach, here is a little aside from economic theory.  It is meant to deter my less earnest readers.  I'm taking their welfare to heart.  Let me assure them; it's all downhill from here, so get out while you still can.  And it's meant to challenge the more earnest readers in the group as well.  Can they find the connection between the economics and the rest of the post?

* * * * *

Every first year doctoral student in economics learns the two fundamental welfare theorems.  The first, in abbreviated form, reads:

A C.E. is P.O. if LNS.

Let's unpack this a bit.  C.E. stands for competitive equilibrium, which is both a system of prices, and an allocation for each consumer and each firm such that for each firm the allocation maximizes profits given the price system, for each consumer the allocation maximizes the consumer's preferences given their budget constraint (determined by the their share of the profits in each firm and the value of their endowment at the given prices), and supply equals demand in every market.  P.O. stand for Pareto Optimal.  It is a concept of social efficiency. At a Pareto Optimal allocation no consumer can be made better off without making some other consumer worse off.  LNS is a technical assumption about preferences and stands for local nonsatiation.  It means that whatever allocation a consumer currently has, there is another allocation nearby that the consumer prefers.  The assumption rules out something called a "bliss point," which if it existed would mean the consumer is fully satisfied and then doesn't want more (or less) of any good. 

Outside of economics we are taught, on occasion that there can be too much of a thing.  So we have the expression, ignorance is bliss.  And there is the well known Dylan song, Too Much Of Nothing.  Economics does not concern itself with such practical wisdom.  The fundamental economics issue is scarcity.  In a land of plenty there is no economics.  The LNS assumption is there to rule that out.  Economists know which side of the bread is buttered.

Mostly there is no problem with thinking of LNS as a description of practical reality.  An issue arises, however, in thinking of potentially addictive behavior, where done in moderation the same behavior is perfectly fine.  One can only know the line has been crossed in retrospect.  Most of us lack the willpower at that point to go cold turkey.  A different approach is needed to restore balance.

* * * * *

Sometime after The Newsroom concluded I was feeling withdrawal symptoms, this in spite of the fact that there was much negativity in that show.  It often made you feel angry and only rarely was it uplifting.  These clues notwithstanding, I still wanted more Sorkin-written TV shows.  I liked the pacing and the smartness of the dialog.  For a while I fed the beast with my old standby.  Even though our West Wing DVDs had become non-functional from over use, I could watch individual episodes streamed online.  Some years ago there was a NY Times Magazine piece, Watching TV Makes You Smarter.  At the time I bought into that argument.  Eventually, I came to realize there are diminishing returns.  It occurred to me that I needed something else to get my fix.

Necessity being the mother of invention, I became aware not just that there were other Sorkin TV shows out there, but that one of them, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, is available at zero marginal cost to Amazon Prime customers (non-economists would say it is free to Amazon Price customers).  Sports Night is also available this way.  If at sometime in the indefinite future I have a relapse, that's a good card to keep in my pocket.  At the moment, it provides no temptation. 

Studio 60 proved to be my Sorkin-phile cure.  I've got one and half episodes left to finish in the first (and only) season.  It's been a slog much of this semester getting through the earlier episodes.  Sometimes I'd only watch part of a show and that was enough for me that evening.  Watching this show has been a cure in the spirit of the aversion therapy seen in A Clockwork Orange.  I will watch that last bit to earn the merit badge, but then I'm done.

The first episode, which features Judd Hirsch, draws you in and is unlike the rest of the series.   Hirsch leaves the show after that.  His character is in some ways like the Howard Beale character in Network, mainly in being madder than hell.  But unlike the Howard Beale character, the person Judd Hirsch plays is perfectly sane.  He is quite aware that he will be fired as soon as he gets off the air.  This leaves the show without a producer and sets the stage for what comes next.  There is drama in that first episode.  But for the most part it is not sustained during the remaining episodes.

Studio 60 depicts a TV show a la Saturday Night Live, but filmed in LA rather than NYC.  It is from the perspective of the writers and producer, first and foremost, but also includes several of the actors as co-stars.  So while theme-wise it isn't all that different from the old Dick Van Dyke show, it has more characters to enable the show to have many parallel threads running concurrently, as it the manner in all Sorkin stories.

Many of the faces are familiar from The West Wing.  Bradley Whitford plays the co-producer Danny Tripp and is one of the co-leads of the show.  Timothy Busfield, sans whiskers, plays Cal Shanley, the main tech guy in the control room. Allison Janney makes a guest appearance, playing herself, as that week's host of the show.  There are many people one would recognize from the West Wing.  That is not a knock, but it's also not a plus.

What gets to you is to see plot ploys or story lines recycled from the West Wing and forced into this other container.  Sorkin starts to seem far less creative as a writer but rather is somebody with a bunch of tricks up his sleeve that he re-uses from time to time.  In the West Wing, for example, Josh Lyman, really the protagonist of the show, is Jewish, but it is a faux Judaism, especially when compared to the Toby Ziegler character.  In Studio 60, the protagonist is Matt Albie, played by Matthew Perry.  Matt Albie is also Jewish, again in a low-keyed kind of way.  Why is that a part of the story at all?  There is another character, Harriet Hayes, one of the lead actors on the show, who is fundamentalist Christian.  Religion is important for her character as the question comes up for the presumably liberal audience who will view the show whether such a person can also show flexibility and have a sense of humor.  But hers is the only character where religion matters.  You get the impression that the Josh Lyman and Matt Albie characters are Sorkin's way of inserting an avatar of himself into the story and that he does it not because it makes sense for the storyline but rather because he's gotten away with it in the past.  (At least in the Newsroom, the Jeff Daniels character was not Jewish, but he was Republican.  Sorkin seems to need these labels as a way to set his stage.)

You also start to see the tension in Studio 60 episodes as trying to raise social consciousness (particularly in animosity to a predatory press but also with regard to lampooning the behavior of the corporate types who run the show and the take-the-money-and-run attitude of many of the other characters) where it would seem an awkward setting for putting forth political satire.  Colbert and the Daily Show didn't yet exist when Studio 60 was aired.  There had been the David Frost vehicle, That Was The Week That Was.    If Studio 60 was more like that, that political satire part might have worked better.  As it is, however, much of the political satire seems out of place.

And there is too little of what one would expect in this setting - writers improving sketches that are too risque to put on the air and having writer's block for making stuff that is socially bland but nonetheless comical.  The Sorkin characters tend to one of two types - white knights or Darth Vaders.  If you think of Mel Brooks or Neil Simon, neither of those images come to mind.  With Brooks, silliness is what comes to mind.  But on Studio 60, all these comedy writers who should be silly look absolutely solemn.  What gives?

So I'm just about done.  The Illini game is later this afternoon.  I need to get pumped for that.  (One, two, screw Mizzou.)  I expect to watch the last episode of Studio 60 tomorrow.  Then it's goodbye Sorkin. 

Maybe it should be goodbye TV shows for a while and onto other things.  I've yet to read a full book on the Kindle app for my ultrabook.  It's time to give that a try. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I miss the people, but not the profession

In my title I'm talking about Learning Technology.  I really would like to see former colleagues.  Schmoozing with them would be wonderful.  I have a deep fondness for many of them.

But I find myself moving further and further away from the profession by what seems to be the now mainstream topics.  For example, I really don't care about mobile computing.  Many of my students have their laptops out in class.  They are note taking vigorously, or so I assume.  Yesterday I had a student come to office hours and as we talked she was note taking vigorously, on paper.  Indeed, once in a while I'd ask her to give me her pen and notebook so I could draw a diagram to illustrate for her.  Laptop versus paper notebook is a difference that doesn't matter to me.

Should either of them be note taking to such a degree, or should they be doing something different to process what is going on in our discussion?  That's a more interesting question, one where I don't know the answer but where I can say I was never a very good note taker.  So on the theory of encouraging the students to be like me, I'd say they should take notes at best sparingly.  That's a cutesy answer.  It would be better to have a real answer, one which I don't have.  I will say it seems that the international students, overwhelmingly Asian, are more prone to take notes with their laptops.  Learning technology and international students seems again like an interesting issue - one that appears to be getting little traction so far.

By the time the next ELI national conference rolls around, it will have been seven years since I published these twin posts on the conference: Thoughts from ELI and Learning Technology and "The Vision Thing".  While the software I use now is quite different from what I was involved with then, I consider that a surface change only.  My real thinking on interesting use of learning technology has not altered much at all in the interim.  I can't say in any objective way whether the profession has changed substantively since.  But my distinct impression is that it wrong headed then and the fundamental error persists to this day.

So that first post was somewhat critical of the profession, though the conference, held in Atlanta, was clearly better than the one the year before, held in San Diego.  At the time of the San Diego conference I was the chair of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  We discussed the conference at some length at our next LTG meeting, and I was tasked by the group to contact Diana Oblinger, then running ELI, to express the group's concerns and see if we could get some changes that would improve matters.  To Diana's credit, she took my call seriously and willingly participated in a conference call with the entire group thereafter.  Substantive change in the form of the conference did happen as a result.

Those twin posts linked above documented the improvements seen in the Atlanta conference and offered up my critique of where the profession seemed to be.  By that time I was no longer chair of LTG, but in its governance structure the group had the past chair, current chair, and chair-elect have calls on occasion to provide some continuity for group function.  So I still had a finger or two in running the LTG and felt some responsibility to the profession in writing those twin posts.  Especially in considering the second post, my criticism of the profession is no different now than it was then.  ELI seems to have technology in the lead role vis-à-vis learning.  I thought that technology should, at most, be in a supporting role, or even just a bit part.  In the lead I cast something I called Humanism across the Curriculum and the second post was meant to give HAC some flesh.  My current teaching attempts to be in that spirit.   I wish that other instructors would do likewise.

Now I will switch modes as a means to shine some light on the above.  In his column today, Joe Nocera asks, What is Good Teaching?  The piece is about K-12 education as it occurs at inner city schools.  It relies heavily on the documentary The New Public.   It makes the argument that effective teaching needs to be situated in where the students are.  The various students themselves might very well be at quite different places.  The piece makes that point that good teaching embraces this diversity and manages it well.  But it also points out that such management is not part and parcel of the training students get at most Colleges of Education around the country.  So newly minted grads of such colleges are not good teachers out of the box.  If they ultimately become good teachers it is because, via reflective practice a la Donald Schon, they discover how to be good teachers over time. 

My class on Economics of Organizations at the University of Illinois is undoubtedly quite different from the classes depicted in The New Public documentary.  But it does share with those classes that the students are diverse in their backgrounds and where they are in their learning.  Some are from well to do families where the parents are working professionals.  Others are from families where the students are the first to go to college and the parents are working class or poor.  Some are transfers, mainly from community colleges, and may be alienated by size of the place and how impersonal it can be for the students.  Though they are mainly Econ majors, some are Business student wannabes, with no intrinsic interest in the economics.  And, as mentioned above, some are international students.   How should I manage that diversity?  In asking this, I'm casting the Learning Technology Profession in the same way that Nocera casts the Colleges of Education around the country.  There is a disconnect between the precepts of the profession and the issues on the ground.

Now a different sort of criticism, one that is more cynical.  In higher education we've had various exposés and documentaries on the learning issues over the last decade or so.   Examples include: What We're Learning About Student Engagement From NSSE, Declining by Degrees, and Academically Adrift.  These make some splash soon after they appear, but otherwise do not seem to alter the agenda for Learning Technology.  That agenda is defined more by developments in the technology arena than by anything else.

Many of the folks I know in the profession, like me, attended the Frye Leadership Institute.  This institute has a new name and is now called the Leading Change Institute.  There is an unintended irony with this name choice, particularly if I'm not far off the mark with my diagnosis above.  The profession appears unable to change its ways in a manner to address the disconnect. 

I have just started to read What the Best College Students Do.   The operating hypothesis there is that these students embrace their own creativity, feed it in their experiences, and enable personal growth through its expression.  But at the outset the book argues only a sliver of the total student population will ever do so.  This parallels the preaching of Maslow, who argued that only a small fraction of the population will become self-actualizers, though do note that the at the end of the linked piece a distinction is drawn between the creativity of artists, such as Van Gogh, and self-actualization.  In my own thinking I often merge the two, perhaps making an error in doing so.

Nevertheless, in considering both creativity and self-actualization there is then an obvious question about how to motivate them.  Is the ultimate purpose of education, particularly education that is not itself vocational, to encourage students to be part of this vanguard of creative people and self-actualizers?  or, at the least, to move the students in that direction?  The operating hypothesis that drives my own teaching is to answer each these questions with a very loud "yes."  In my view, that defines the mission.  Learning technology should act in service of this mission.

The profession appears to think otherwise.  It embraces the view that the technology itself should define the mission.  That is a view I can't subscribe to and it is why I feel myself drifting away from a profession that I was once an integral part of.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lacking a place to stand, the world remains unlifted.

My last class was this past Tuesday.  My final is next Wednesday.  That is a long time in between.  I have one clerical task to do before the exam.  I will complete that today.  There is too much snow outside now to go anywhere and the basketball game isn't till this evening.  Might as well do something marginally productive for some part of the day.

But there has also been a lot of time to think about various what ifs and here I will record some of those that occurred to me.

As in past offerings of the course, for their final blog post I asked my students to do a self-critique of their performance and a critique of the class.  This time around I also asked specifically about how much time they spend - on the blogging (the story telling part of the class) and on the Excel homework (the math part of the class).  One of the findings that surprised me was that several of the better students reported they liked that part the best because it didn't take them much time to do it.  This cuts so against my grain of what it means to like to do something that I generated several what ifs based on just this reaction.

A factoid is required first.  Essentially all undergraduate economics classes are three credit hours.  Why?  I'll tell you.  I don't know.  As in Fiddler on the Roof, it is a tradition.  My first what if is this. What if we looked at such traditions and asked whether they serve what we're really after?   In the meantime, I ask the reader to do the simple math.  A full load for a student is somewhere between fifteen and eighteen credit hours.  Figure out how many courses the student takes at one time.  Then ask whether the courses compete with one another for the student's time.  Then, assuming it is agreed that the courses do compete with one another, ask whether that is good or bad.

The other factoid, for which there were so many little observations to confirm it during the semester that I didn't need to ask about it in that final blog post, is that the students are entirely wrapped up in a game of paper chase, with a high GPA the elusive goal.  In this universe only surface learning, but enough of that to produce a good grade in a course, is perfectly satisfactory to the student.  My second what if is this.  What if we leveraged this game that students play, instead of having it block the path to deeper learning?

Now a little bit about me.  Somewhere during my time as an economist, particularly in writing referee reports, and my time as a learning technologist, participating in group writing of a white paper of some sort, I learned how to give reasonably good and interesting comments on the writing initiated by others.  These comments were not about the grammar.  Rather, they were about the ideas.  If I liked something the author said I could give a substantive reason why.  If I didn't like something, I could likewise explain why not and then offer up something I'd prefer.  Further,  I could do this relatively quickly, which in some sense is a parallel with what my students said above.  Ironic, isn't it?  The difference is on the depth of understanding gleaned from the activity.  The students I mentioned were only skimming the surface.  As the old joke goes, the students were aiming for beauty.  I was after ugly.  What if this skill for providing ugly feedback were widely held by instructors?

Armed with these three what ifs, I started to construct my ideal of what undergraduate education for Econ majors (and really for students majoring in other social sciences) should look like.  Then I could fancy my course as a way to illuminate the path to that ideal.

What if I didn't know that damn New England joke?  You can't get there from here.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Mnemonic Devices

Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November.......

My dad taught me a different one for the months, which entailed counting your knuckles and the space in between, starting with the knuckle or your index finger.  The knuckles were for months with 31 days.  The spaces for February and the months with thirty days.  When you finished with one hand you started with the other.   In doing this you end with a knuckle for July and then begin with another knuckle for August.  It works!

My mother had one for all the French verbs that are conjugated with être.

Mrs RV Vandertramp.

Even knowing that, however, I'm afraid I can only come up with a few of those verbs.  Maybe somebody with better French than I have can get them all. 

As I understand it there are several different ones for remembering the planets, ordered by their distance from the sun.  The one we were taught was for when Pluto counted.

My very educated mother just served us nine pickles.

And for students who take trig, of course, there is the famous Indian Chief


(sine is opposite over hypotenuse, cosine is adjacent over hypotenuse, and tangent is opposite over adjacent). 

The one I liked the best relied on the shape of your mouth when saying the words.  Abscissa has to be for the x (horizontal) axis because your mouth is horizontal saying the word.  Ordinate has to be for the y (vertical) axis because your mouth is vertical saying it.  Though I must confess that as much as I like the memory device, the knowledge is pretty useless.  Apart from that course on analytic geometry, I don't recall ever using these words.

I am usually down on rote, but I was able to recall each of these without looking them up.  (The spell checker got me on abscissa, where when I initially tried it I omitted the first "s".)  One reason to be down on rote is that "the knowledge vanishes through the students' fingers as they write the final exam."  This is a line from a former colleague in the Accounting Department, Dave Ziebart, specifically in reference to students (not) understanding discounted present value.   Business students are exposed to the concept in several different courses, yet most don't really get it.  Contrast that with the mnemonic devices I was taught. Once learned they stay learned.  That's the part I'm scratching my head about.  Is there something special about the mnemonic devices?

One thing I did have to look up in writing this piece was the spelling of mnemonic.  I began with a word that looked something like pneumonia.  Thankfully, some Google searches have a phonetic basis.  Just because you start out wrong, it doesn't mean you have to stay that way.