Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Kleine Kindle-ech

I’ve been under the weather the last few days and even with the Martin Luther King holiday have missed almost two days of work. A hacking cough has made long stretches of sleep hard to come by and an occasional fever has made life seem like an Edgar Allan Poe story – not quite sure of what is real and what not.

Yesterday I got my Kindle – just in time for the trip to ELI. I’ll have it there if anyone wants to take a look. It needs to be charged before use. So I plugged it in and left it till the morning. I got up around 4 – cough, remember? Took some pills, futzed a little online and then looked at the Kindle. What I was looking at proved to be a screen saver of some sort. It was the picture of a face plate of a book or so it seemed, with the image of a very weird looking person, and for a while I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. Then I started into the instructions on how to use the thing, didn’t get far and was onto something else.

One of the Quotes of the Day on my iGoogle page today was this very weird one.

The only thing that sustains one through life is the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everybody else, and this is a feeling that I have always cultivated.
- Oscar Wilde

I found this disturbing and for some macabre reason went to do a search on Oscar Wilde. I read this Wikipedia entry when all of a sudden I realized from the picture there that is was Wilde in that picture in Kindle. Perhaps all this shows is my remarkable ignorance of what the various literary icons look like. I wouldn’t recognize anyone of them, unless they made it onto TV shows like Dick Cavett. But it seemed at the time like there was a great synch coming from a place yet unknown, another little bit of fascination with this technology.

All of this is to say that I will use the trip to and from ELI to get a sense of the thing and then write a post about it next week or the week after that. There is some discussion about it at the ACRLlog, but I believe much of that is about how Librarians might or might not use it themselves rather than on whether it will catch on among the masses. (Or, for example, what if the faculty used them but students not.)

Monday, January 21, 2008


I've now read two of Bill Kristol's op-ed pieces. This is the second one. I did used to read Safire. Perhaps I'll continue with Kristol.

I grew up in what most would characterize as left-of-center NYC. Invictus was the "song" we sung in the processional at Middle School graduation. I was kind of fond of it till the Oklahoma City Bomber said it at his execution. Perhaps we've had enough now with the military metaphors.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Eli's Coming

The Giants are going to the Super Bowl!!! Yippee!!!

Some Three Dog Night to celebrate:

Not related to the Educause Learning Initiative

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Those Who Can’t

Bobby Fischer has died. With it commonplace nowadays to talk of multiple intelligences, his was a singular genius, wrapped up in a highly idiosyncratic personality. I have two remote connections to Fischer. I believe he attended the same High School as Barbra Streisand, Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn. One of the science teachers there, Morten Roggen, was later the head of the Biology Department at the high school I attended, Benjamin Cardozo in Queens. I knew Roggen when I was a student, though I never took a course from him. The other connection is through a Chess Master mentioned in the obituary, Shelby Lyman. Lyman came to our high school, I believe in my senior year not too long before Fischer’s first match with Spassky. Lyman was the annotator of that match on Public TV in New York. He came to my High School before achieving this notoriety, to give a simultaneous exhibition --- play 20 or 30 games all at once. I was the opponent in one of those. I hung around for a while but as others lost and I needed to make moves more quickly, the pressure mounted. Ultimately, he creamed me.
With loose ties like this, we are perhaps five or six connections from everyone else on the planet, or so it seems. The Internet makes it seem all that much closer. I hadn’t thought about Roggen in quite a long time – there was nothing to occasion the thought. But one quick Google search and there he is, mentioned in a New York Times piece on the Westinghouse Science competition, still at Cardozo, at least at the time this piece was written 10 years ago. Ironically, it was my graduating class that produced the overall winner of the Westinghouse prize, Nina Tabachnik, the first girl to do so. Nina was fourth in my graduating class. I was fifth. (The school had so many students it was run on split session. That graduating class had in excess of 1150 students.) Loose connections are begat from others that are a little tighter.
* * * * *
A different New York Times piece from a few days back set me off for some reason. As it turns out I wasn’t the only one upset by this piece. At core is the issue of whether theorizing gets too far out in front of any potential data to confirm or refute the theoretical arguments. When I was a grad student in the late1970s, theory was definitely King in the Economics profession. (This comical depiction of the Econ clan, written by a serious economist, makes the point forcefully.) At a New Year’s Eve party I attended, with some economists present, I spent some time talking to a rather well known econometrician who argued that economic theory is dead. Real economics deals with data.
I have gone through my own personal metamorphosis in thinking about economic theory. I was trained as a theorist. That training prized rigor in the analysis and generality of the results and the regimen encouraged the student to think very hard about a problem, often for quite a long period of time. But at about the time I became aware of learning technology I started to become disillusioned with economic theory, in part because the results were so disappointing. Theoretical economics has very little predicative power about what we can observe. General equilibrium theory admits almost anything as an excess demand correspondence; the restrictions are extremely weak. Game theory is no better. The Folk Theorem of repeated games says that any individually rational outcome can obtain, so much for economic determinism. And on the normative front, things don’t fare better. Arrow’s theorem, a gigantic result particularly at the time it emerged, tells us there is no foolproof way to make a social choice. The Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem gives the strategic analog – there is no dominant strategy mechanism that can bring about efficient public good allocation. The dismal science is, unfortunately, just that.
* * * * *
Here’s a bit on information literacy trivia before I get into my subject. The full quip from which I stole the title of this post reads as follows.
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

I was pretty sure it was from Eugene O’Neill, but I did some quick Google searches on quotes from O’Neill and found nothing. I then found the line on this page, where it is attributed to H.L Mencken. That didn’t seem right to me. I went to a meeting and came back still disturbed by this seeming incongruity so I went to my hard copy of Bartlett’s, fifteenth edition copyright 1980. I looked up O’Neill and Mencken and didn’t find the line under either of them. So I went back to Google and searched some more. I ultimately found another source, which attributes the line to George Bernard Shaw. The first time I saw that, when I read G.B. Shaw I associated Shaw with O’Neill. Coming back a second time I could see my error – Shaw and O’Neill both were playwrights who lived around the same time and I temporally treated them as one person, but I nonetheless understood Mencken wasn’t the right guy because he wasn’t a playwright. I attribute the mistake to the aging process, which ultimately will victimize us all; surely I’m already partway down that path. Aging masks certain distinctions but keeps others. I went back to my hard copy of Bartlett’s and looked up Shaw. I found the line, but written as follows.
“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches”. The attribution is Man and Superman, 1903.

I trust Bartlett’s in hard copy. That must be the correct cite. Now I’m wondering why I learned the line differently. Many other people seem to have learned it that way too, as I first wrote it, although that’s not the quote. It’s interesting what subjects can keep you fascinated on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend.
The line itself conveys that the doers among us move toward the place of their work, but the rest of us, full of incapacity, move away from our personal defeats; yet if you run from something you must find another haven, and if we’re all in the same boat perhaps we find the same answers as to the haven to choose. Is Higher Ed that shelter for me? And what about for many others like me? Those questions have been lingering in the background all week, while I’ve been going about my work.
In the middle of my sophomore year in college, I transferred from MIT to Cornell. That literally was running away for me, but I note it here not for that but rather because it marked a change of mindset for me in thinking about college. Much of that mindset change was reflected in the music I listened to. My memory, as we’ve already seen, is not perfect. So I may inadvertently omit some key songs from this list. But I do recall at MIT listening repeatedly to Whammer Jammer from the J.Geils Band, Dream On by Aerosmith, Midnight Rider – the Joe Cocker version, and You’re So Vain by Carly Simon. These were all part of the repertoire, the Boston rock music of the time, or so it seemed from our dorm room near the Charles River. Nowadays, you might hear the Carly Simon song on Classic Rock radio, but I don’t think I’ve heard the other tunes for upwards of 25 years.
After a relatively harsh first semester at Cornell, where I hadn’t fully adjusted to the change and lived in an all male dorm, I found my niche as a junior at 509 Wyckoff Road. Though we did a lot of activities as a larger group, I quickly became best friends with a particular housemate who was enrolled in a one year Master program in Engineering and who happened to be a Deadhead. (A year later he was pursuing a doctorate --- at Berkeley, with part of the reason for going there to be close to Jerry Garcia.) Student that I was, I took Grateful Dead 101. There was the music, certainly. The centerpiece was the Skull and Roses album. There were other Grateful Dead albums, and the Allman Brothers, the Moody Blues, and a little bit of Bob Dylan. Yet it wasn’t just music. There were texts too. There was Jack Kerouac. And the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. These called out. (That Neal Cassady was a featured character in both really helped to make the connection.) If you can do, you’re on the road. This was the key challenge I felt in my late teens and early twenties. Can you live in the real world and deal with real people? Are you up to it? Turns out, I really wasn’t.
Consider the alternatives for what would be next after graduation – Peace Corps (in retrospect I should have considered that more seriously, but at the time I didn’t), a job wearing a suit (and for me that probably would be as an actuary in training), Law School (I took the LSAT, in part because my dad was a Lawyer, but I didn’t do well on that test), grad school in Math (but I didn’t think I had the passion for that); unsurprisingly, none of those were attractors for me. Economics won because it had a novel angle – math but not pure math, some social science even if that was done in an abstract manner, and with a free ride (fellowship) so no reason to feel it was a commitment, at least not at first. Grad school was a tweener – not a job, not medical school and a path to a guaranteed high income, but not bumming around either. I kind of knew my own answer to Dylan’s question in Like a Rolling Stone without ever having been out on my own.
Perhaps the grad school choice is different for students who go in the same field that they majored in as an undergrad. Then there is continuity. Perhaps that leads to a greater sense of moving toward a goal. For me, knowing I couldn't hack bumming around and that my parents wouldn’t help me financially if I did that, grad school was the preferred alternative to getting a job. That was the those-who-can’t aspect. At first, it wasn’t an embrace of academia or teaching. It’s hard to embrace something you know so little about. Then, once that choice was behind me, I made what is referred to in economics jargon as a “rolling plan.” I’d do it seriously one quarter and then reconsider my options. It turn out that this approach is the equivalent at a personal level to a non-denial denial. I didn’t ask myself explicitly is this what I really want to do with my life and does it afford me avenues of self-expression and self-realization that answer the meaning of life question. Posing those questions, the key thing I did at Wyckoff Road, didn’t happen once I got to grad school. But in the process of doing the economics seriously, I got hooked/locked-in. I came to like the intellectual rigor of the economics and enjoyed living a life that was mostly in my own head, though there was much else of my program that I disliked and I felt my own cohort was anti-intellectual, especially compared to my time at Cornell.
The University is a cloister. The work there is necessarily divorced in many ways from what goes on in the rest of the world. In college towns like Champaign-Urbana, that is doubly so. Urban campuses may be similar to mine in how they deal with the work, but there the faculty and the students still are residents of the city and must deal with the aspects of life implied by that. So, it turns out I moved to the cloister in stages and ironically some parts of my grad student life brought me closer to Kerouac than I’ve been before or since. I lived four miles from Northwestern, in Rogers Park, in the far northeast of Chicago. My neighborhood had mostly folks who had nothing to do with Northwestern, only a smattering of students and definitely no faculty. Across Sheridan Road (my address was 7707 Sheridan Rd.) there was a sub-community dubbed “The Jungle.” The residents were mostly Black and when you walked the streets there you felt a need to have your wits about you. I did most of my grocery shopping, at least that first year, at the Dominick’s on Howard Street. Odd that I remember this, but it didn’t have one of those auto open doors and I remember developing a habit of holding open the door for the next person, regardless of who they were. These non-university folks were real people and they deserved to be treated decently. I’m not sure why but for the most part I didn’t feel fear for my physical well being (growing up in New York I felt that fairly often) and holding the door for people was my tiny way of saying I’m OK – you’re OK. Sometimes we’d share a sentence or two and then that would be it. I can’t say I led an organic life as a city dweller. But there was a substantial part of me that was not yet ensconced in school.
There is a fine line between running away from failure and opting out of a situation because there are discomforts that anyone with sense would avoid. I chose to come down here because of the university, not because I wanted to live in a small town. But the small town aspect of the place creates its own hooks, the same way that studying economics seriously does. For those of us who grew up in a city but have worked in a college town environment most of our adult lives, perhaps we are less troubled from asking ourselves which side of that line we are on; maybe we’re no longer troubled by it at all. For those who grew up in a small town, found the university as a student and then remained after graduating, the path may have been different but the sense of cloister may be even greater. Further, the creature comforts that we’ve increasingly become accustomed to, comforts that are a consequence of a comparatively high family income, numbs us even more. Let’s face it, because academics are remunerated in accord with their advanced degrees and because income inequality in the society as a whole has risen dramatically since I was in graduate school thirty years ago, we academics who were firmly part of the middle class now find ourselves part of the income elite, if only in the lower tail of that group. That income disparity creates its own sense of cloister. And ultimately it makes the issue of which side of the line one is on a distinction without meaning.
* * * * *
Of course, there is a different kind of those-who-can’t issue inside of academe. It is manifest most clearly in the increasing reliance of adjuncts on campus – as a way to hold down the costs of instruction. And, further, it is manifest in how salary increases and promotions are decided. Many others have written about the issue. So here I want to take a look at it from a different angle, from the culture within academe.
There is a hermitic aspect to being an academic. Writing a manuscript, cleaning a data set, working through a model – all of these have a strong solitary aspect to them, even when done in collaboration with others. But for a regular faculty member there is an offsetting social activity that advances their own learning more generally. It is the workshop or seminar series, a place to see papers presented and learn about interesting ideas that others have generated, and on occasion a place to showcase one’s own work. Any department that has a good and vigorous intellectual life has an active seminar series. It is the perfect counterpoint to the more reclusive work that faculty do otherwise.
Many adjuncts I know do no research at all. Quite a few of those, not inclined to a hermitic existence by their disposition, are nevertheless fairly isolated from peers. They may be extremely busy, spending a lot of time with students, but for many of them there is no counterpart to the workshop where they can learn from their peers on a regular basis. So their isolation is more complete than with regular faculty. And that more than anything else serves to re-emphasize their those-that-can’t status and in that respect is more important than their precarious position contractually, though obviously that matters too. The thought has occurred to me more than once that if I were 25 years younger and relatively new to college teaching, I’d probably be an adjunct. I wonder how I’d survive in that circumstance.
There are community building aspects regarding teaching and learning on campus. I’m part of one of those, a seminar on Undergraduates Engaged in Inquiry. Some adjuncts participate, but not as vigorously as the faculty who are regulars in the group. And many don’t participate at all. There are a handful of adjuncts on campus who have a strong reputation as excellent teachers and who do spend a lot of their time learning about or inventing for themselves new approaches to their teaching. They innovate and get reward from that, both in terms of recognition and occasionally financially too. But these people are the exceptions.
Somehow, there needs to be an intellectual community that attracts adjuncts more broadly, that encourages their professional development as teachers, and in the process makes them feel more a part of the place --- doers rather than stopgaps. I don’t know how that can get done --- perhaps a small grant program for adjuncts that combines an initial faculty development activity with an ongoing workshop, though I’m really not sure how this should look. Learning technologists should be part of it, but probably in a supporting rather than a lead role. Who should take the lead? Again, I’m not sure. It would be best if it were self-sustained by the adjuncts themselves but, clearly, there is a chicken and egg problem with that. I do think it time that the issue receive a broader vetting than I’m giving it here. I would participate in further discussions on the topic if others were interested.
* * * * *
There’s yet one other way where those-who-can’t manifests on campus and to discuss that let me consider another one of those road-not-taken questions. Suppose I had not found learning technology administration and had instead remained as a regular faculty member with a modest research agenda, producing my one or two papers a year and getting them into reasonable journals if not the top-of-the-profession outlets. Would I just keep chugging along or would I have felt a need to change my research portfolio, perhaps working with empirical types rather than straight theory, perhaps working with social scientists who are not economists, to do some interdisciplinary work.
In asking this question I’m making note of the following. Economics as a major is as popular as ever, but the graduate program here and I believe at many other places as well is much smaller than it was when I came here in 1980. So from a teaching load point of view, the average load entails more undergraduate instruction. People who do pure theory research, like I did, find themselves in a position where their research is irrelevant for their teaching. And it is not a stretch to ask whether the research is relevant for anything else. The reinvention of the research agenda would, no doubt, be done in a search for relevance. The alternative of chugging along, at least implicitly, is an argument that indeed the research is relevant for other things.
But that sort of thing can be measured, at least indirectly. The most obvious way of doing this would be by looking at citations. If one can trace out a chain of citations that go from the pure theory research to other work, either widely recognized theory, or more applied work that has clear value in itself, that chain provides a justification for the work. But what if that chain is a closed loop, with the theory papers each citing other theory papers but not going off to something else that has established value? What then? Quite possibly the theorists themselves defend their turf, but the rest of the world comes to view them as a bunch of eccentrics only.
I don’t want to characterize all of economic theory this way, but I believe there is a problem here and the problem goes outside the economics discipline. Further, the rules of faculty governance and the role of tenure exacerbate this problem. What happens when those who can’t are at the top of the food chain? It’s not a pretty picture.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Polls Apart

Blogger has some new sidebar tools. One is for polling. Try mine (not that the question is original but it would still be cute to know where people stand on it) . I don't know how useful polling is for teaching and learning. In many contexts I can think of, I don't want students to be anonymous. Perhaps there is some use nonetheless.

Classes start here next week so tracking presidential politics will drop of my personal radar. But it is interesting to note that in New Hampshire the College Towns favored Obama while the bigger cities favored Clinton. What inferences can one make from that?

If you look for the most hated man on Wall Street these days, it is probably Ben Bernanke. The street wants the Fed to lower interest rates more than he is so inclined. Bernanke is seeking a middle way, one that keeps the economy growing with low inflation, and surprisingly enough, one where the sub prime market works, but not with loans equal to 100% of purchase price nor with adjustable rate mortgages. I watched this presentation from Wednesday. (The link should work for a couple of weeks). I thought it was really excellent. What a well reasoned and data driven response to Wall Street. I wish we could talk this cogently with Learning Technology.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Are Voters Yoyos?

Sticking with the theme about crowds and getting information about them, the press reported yesterday’s results in New Hampshire as a surprise on the Democratic side --- with Hillary Clinton making a comeback over Barack Obama. A poll taken after the Iowa Caucuses had Obama with a 9 point lead. But Clinton actually won. So this is news. Of course, if that poll were wrong, if the Iowa results were not a good predictor of what would happen in New Hampshire because the demographics are different, then there may not be much news here. That’s what I’m trying to think through in this post.

First, let’s look at a prediction that did pan out. The Governor of New Hampshire said there’d be big turnout, upward of a half millions votes. CNN reports the results with 96% of the precincts reporting. My count from that is a little more than 505,000 and if districts were uniform in the number of votes there are about 20,000 yet to be reported. Very good Governor, you got it right.

Next, let’s look at a really dippy prediction made by CNN on TV. During the 9 to 10 PM hour in the Midwest, Clinton had a 2% to 4% lead, a pattern, that had been holding up most of the evening, but CNN refused to make a prediction because two college towns, Durham (University of New Hampshire) and Hanover (Dartmouth) had yet to report and it seemed that Obama was quite popular on College Campuses. (CNN ultimately declared Clinton the winner soon after the AP had done so.) Indeed, those towns went heavily to Obama, but the volume wasn’t high enough to make a big difference overall. Indeed, the Durham volume seems particularly low given that they have 14,000 students. But there is a simple enough explanation for it. They are on break now and don’t resume till after Martin Luther King Day. So most of the students aren’t on campus (and even if they were they very well might be registered in their home district rather than in Durham). Duh. (Dartmouth does have a Winter term so many of the students are there, but they have many out of state students and the total student population is much smaller than at UNH.)

If you compare the Entrance Poll from Iowa results to the Exit Poll from New Hampshire results and focus on the gender items that are on the top, you’ll notice first that the split overall between male and female is near the same across the states, that the Obama numbers are also remarkably the same across the states, that Clinton’s increased success in New Hampshire came somewhat at the consequence of Edwards and Richardson, but she also seems to have picked up the votes that had gone to Biden or Dodd in Iowa.

There is no compelling reason to assume that if Biden and Dodd hadn’t dropped out and if the New Hamshire primary had been on the same date as the Iowa Caucuses that the splits in the results would have been the same across the two states – the results on the Republican side indicate that clearly – but for the sake of argument, let’s assume it as I implicitly did in the previous paragraph. Then, in accounting for the fact the Biden and Dodd did drop out of the race, a pollster to get accuracy in New Hampshire would have to over sample former Biden and Dodd supporters to find out who they’d turn to next. (It makes sense to me that these people were undecided till the last minute.) Similarly they should over sample both Kucinich and Richardson supporters, perhaps not to the same degree but to some extent, because their supporters might come to realize that a vote for their previously preferred candidate would have little to no effect on the ultimate outcome. (That Biden and Dodd did gather some votes in New Hampshire after they had dropped out of the race indicates that the trickle of supporters they kept were responding to some other prerogative than to affect selection of the Democratic candidate.) One can explain almost half of those who reported they were undecided day of based on this sort of candidate switching. This idea got essentially no coverage in any of the news and analysis.

The other type of switching, this was heavily reported, occurred among independents who opted to change the party they’d vote for. I haven’t seen the breakdown of these folks ex post. The wisdom before the fact was that if these folks opted to vote Democratic that favored Obama. And on this point I can’t help but feel that the poll suggesting Obama had a 9% lead in New Hampshire might have driven some of these people to vote Republican – their vote would matter more there and they didn’t want to see Huckabee or Romney win. There is not much to be done about prior polling affecting actual voting behavior. It’s going to happen. But if the prior polling is itself inaccurate for the reasons I’ve suggested above, that is disturbing --- it implies the reporting of the polls creates a regression toward the mean consequence in and of itself.

Now let me turn to the idea that Obama and Edwards supporters – mostly women – switched to Clinton over the last couple of days. This is the “comeback” that is being reported today. The comeback is attributed primarily to how Clinton performed in the debate Saturday night, particularly at the point where her “likeability” was brought up and in her getting teary eyed on Monday. (If we actually knew the second place choices of the Biden et. al. supporters, that those changed to Clinton yesterday would also be part of the comeback.) Another possible source of the comeback was an op-ed piece by Gloria Steinem that makes for a compelling read (whether you agree with her or not) on why it’s harder to be a woman presidential candidate than to be a black presidential candidate and that difference plays out the most in how emotional/controlled the candidate appears – our gender biases run that deep. We voters, who want to have it both ways and seek out the best attributes each gender has to offer in one package, might then change our view of the candidates when one aspect of the persona, previously veiled, becomes more overt. This is the source of the comeback, or so it seems. It’s what I termed the yoyo, viewed from the voters’ perspective rather than the candidate’s.

This morning, Maureen Dowd took on Hillary, on the grounds that both the Saturday night and Monday expressions were completely controlled and planned beforehand in the same manner that Bill used to bite his lip while delivering an address, and Gloria, on the grounds that can’t we just evaluate the candidates on where they stand on the issues, but in the process gave tacit endorsement to the comeback hypothesis. Dowd is a good writer and it’s interesting to see her indictments of Democrats rather than Republicans. But she’s no statistician. (I’m not either, but I’m probably a better social scientist than she is.)

And there is a problem with the comeback hypothesis. It simply might not be true. It might simply be that Clinton actually had more support in New Hampshire ahead of time than she had in Iowa and vice versa for Edwards. That and the rest of what I’ve got above could explain the entire outcome, in which case the comeback is a post hoc rationalization only. (If you haven’t read Stephen Jay Gould on the Streak of Streaks, you should. We humans are into post hoc rationalizations.)

What’s the problem maintaining the comeback hypothesis if it is not true? First, the polling is likely to continue to be misleading, at least until it settles down to a two candidate race. Second, the candidates themselves won’t understand how to wage their campaigns most effectively. My prediction (economists are notorious for believing that future economic phenomena can’t be predicted beyond the trends that are already known at present) is that the Richardson support will ebb and then the Edwards support will likewise wane. To win Clinton and Obama will need to woo the supporters of these other candidates without alienating their current base. How should that be done? Third, it’s also a disservice to the voters. There is no question now that the vast majority of the electorate is dissatisfied with the Bush administration. Voters are entitled to make their judgments on the candidates based on a reasonable guess as to how they’d actually serve if they were elected president. For the election in 2000, one can make a good case that the campaign did not help voters understand much if at all what the Bush presidency would be like. An embrace of the comeback hypothesis, if it is wrong, encourages voters to repeat the same mistake for the election in 2008.

Paul Krugman, whom I’ve taken on from time to time, encourages voters to look at politicians on the issues and to ignore the rest. On this I have to agree with him. It’s the best way to judge. There may not be a huge difference between the leading Democratic candidates when considered this way and this way only. So it might be hard to select the most preferred. And procrastination is another thing that we humans are into. But once a choice has been made in our minds, I for one don’t believe we continue to bounce around among the alternatives. And I certainly don’t want to give the candidates more fodder to take W.C. Fields as their role model. We’ve been down that road too often.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Addendum to the Lack of Wisdom of Crowds

This news item from the CNN site, gives the appearance that I was a ditz in what I wrote yesterday. The story says that about 20% of those voting in New Hampshire today made up their minds about whom to vote for day of (or they were seriously willing to reconsider their choice). I said in my previous post that you could tell what happened in the Iowa Caucus well in advance of that event.

I may very well be a ditz in a host of other matters but on this one, I don't think so. There is a problem in how these pollsters frame their questions and so they throw out a lot of information that would be useful in making predictions. Here's the scoop.

I pretty much know who I'm going to vote for on February 5th (Super Tuesday) but certainly leave open room to learn new things about the the candidates between now and then and depending on what I learn, I could change my mind. The likelihood of that happening is low, in my view, but it is possible. Say I'm 90% confident of choosing my currently preferred candidate, leaving a 10% chance that I might change my mind. Does that make me an undecided? If quite a bit of the population is like that and further if they have the same candidate who they a likely to vote for, then that candidate should be the favorite going in. But the way we measure things, we wouldn't know.

There is a further confirmation of this way of thinking about what is happening. Ask yourself the following, other things equal. Which person is more likely to vote, the one who if he did vote would likely choose one particular candidate or the other who if he were to vote is presently completely undecided - each candidate is equally likely to be selected? The news is talking about record turnouts (some of which, to be sure, is the weather but is probably not all of it). In my view that's because these voter know who they wanted to vote for and they've known that for a while.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The (lack of) wisdom of crowds

Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
- Bertrand Russell

For those of you unfamiliar with the Iowa Electronic Markets, they are worth a look. The idea behind them is that markets aggregate differences in information and opinion in an efficient way and hence provide a better sense of what is likely to happen than typical polling results. The current economist most associated with this idea is Charlie Plott. (In that linked paper, the authors write that the idea goes back at least to Hayek.) But for the markets aimed at predicting which presidential candidates will be selected in the Democratic Convention, either there was some huge news just before the Iowa Caucuses that caused the prices of the various candidates to change dramatically or, my preferred interpretation, the market just got it wrong before the Iowa Caucuses. Apart from the actual returns and the exit survey results of that day, there really wasn’t any big news leading up to the Caucuses. But there was a certain interpretation of the information that was readily available. That interpretation prevailed. But it was quite wrong. Let’s take a look.

The assets that are traded on this market pay off $1 if the particular candidate gets selected by the party to run for president. It pays nothing otherwise. There are four assets, one each for Hilary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama, and one for the rest of the field. Here are the results for December. Focus on the column called LastPrice. Evidently, Clinton was the clear favorite then. Her price never falls below $.55 and for the much of the time it is priced about $.60. Obama’s price never reaches $.40 and for much of the time it is below $.30. These results indicate that Clinton was the clear favorite in December, at least according to the markets.

Consider how this information contrasts with these CNN Poll results reported on January 1, where the conclusion is it’s a dead heat between Clinton and Obama. Now take a look at the IEM results for January. On New Year’s Day, things were just like December. The following day Obama’s price started to rise and Clinton’s started to fall, with a fairly dramatic change on the 3rd and Obama overtaking Clinton on the 5th (the day of the Caucuses). By the 6th, Obama became the clear favorite, according to the markets.

The question is – did many people just make up their mind in Iowa at the last moment, with the great bulk of these voters going for Obama? That would be one possible explanation. Or did they already have their minds made up in December, but the IEM certainly and the polls to a lesser degree, didn’t measure this well at all. That’s my interpretation. The high turnout suggests to me that people are upset with the status quo and want to do something about it. And I believe that’s been going on for quite a while. Sure, people are dismayed about the price of oil and it reached $100/barrel only after New Year’s, as did the news that unemployment spiked last month. But these things seem to me more of a trend, not something fundamentally new.

There is something new going on. But right through December we’ve been told “same old, same old.” So there really wasn’t any way for most of us to know how the bulk of the voters felt. This is a kind of tyranny of the status quo.

In some of his remarks during the Saturday debate, Obama talked about listening to the voters and letting their voice speak. If he does ultimately win the Presidency and his positions become the status quo how, exactly, will he enable the voter’s voice and what will he do to hear it? That’s a question without an easy answer.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


I’m back at work today after an extended holiday. Vacations are for rejuvenation and mine did a good deal of that for me. There was probably less than the usual bit of sports viewing – a trip to St. Louis for the Bragging Rights (not so) Classic where each year the Illini Men’s Basketball team plays Mizzou (both teams played hard but not very well and we eked out a victory), the painful to watch Rose Bowl where USC pummeled us and I didn’t last till the end of the first half, and in between a compelling if meaningless game between the Giants and Patriots where I had predicted the upset that almost was and that did keep me in my seat till the conclusion. Other than that I mostly avoided sports viewing and though I did idle away a fair amount of time I spent a good chunk of each day in more sustaining diversions.

It’s easier for me to make resolutions before a holiday than for the new year; there can be more intention on how to spend leisure time while the nagging demands of work oftentimes present themselves as immediacies and hence at odds with free will. I wanted to spend some substantial time each day reading good fiction. The act of reading is itself restorative, especially insofar as one can become immersed in the story. I noticed that I’m less able to achieve that now, a complete loss of self, than I was in College when each summer I had made a like commitment to read some great work. Habits formed from reading at a computer, where one interrupts quite regularly to do a Google search to follow a tangent thought, check on an email whose alert has plopped onto the screen, or make some notation of an idea that came to mind all mean that reading has become much more of a back and forth thing where the reading competes for attention with other demands. Now, even when sitting away from the computer in a comfortable chair and with a very good book, it takes substantial discipline to stick with the reading and not jump to do something else. Eventually, fascination with the narrative takes over. I’m very glad that is still possible. But it used to be so much easier. I had asked my wife to get me a Kindle for a Christmas present. (It is back ordered.) Now I’m beginning to wonder whether an eBook can produce the same effect.

The novel I chose was the Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my mom had wanted me to read this when I was in my late teens, but I never did, so this was the delayed fulfilling of that request. Sometimes, it is good to live under the imposition of such obligations. Though it was written more than seventy years ago and the subject matter is horrifying (the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915) I thought the book a masterpiece. This William Saroyan quote about the book is particularly apt.

"In number of words and pages this is a long novel, but in swiftness of movement it is all too short. Reading it, one hopes it might never end, and actually it does not end. Its implications cling to the heart and mind of the reader as some long forgotten and suddenly remembered experience in the story of all who once lived on the earth and somehow live yet. The novel is written with the ease which gives writing and life inevitability. Here, at last, is a contemporary novel full of the breath, the flesh and blood and bone and spirit, of life."

And while the book was quite popular at the time of publication, it seems not to have found a place in the readings lists of great fiction that are de rigueur for serious young adults. (I did a Google search on *great books of the 20th century*. While there was substantial variation from one list to another, Werfel’s book didn’t appear on any of them.) Yet there is much to learn from it, and though it is about the Armenians in Turkey in 1915, there are very strong parallels to the current situation in Iraq; how we think of Middle East more broadly; indeed on the issues of tribal, racial, and religious conflict wherever they may manifest. There is also much about the nobility of human character, as captured in the behavior of the protagonist Gabriel Bragadian, as well as on the fanciful and quite possibly very damaging behavior that emerges from normal human reactions when confronted with tensions and pressures, as captured in the behavior of all other characters in the story, Bragadian himself as well. Though the book is a translation and, of course, there must be something lost in the process, it is also an exemplar on how to tell a story well. There is comparatively little dialog. Instead, most of it is narrative qua analysis done in the third person. It is a style I could aspire to in my own writing, giving me some hope that I could do fiction.

The Saroyan quote notwithstanding (and note it was written soon after the book was published, 1934 or 1935, where the sense of timing was different than today, not that there wasn’t quick and snappy dialog such as in the Thin Man, but themes were fleshed out more fully before moving on to the next subject) I would characterize the pace in the Forty Days of Musa Dagh as leisurely. The sense of time flows slowly. The motivation of the character stays consistent based on a long prior pattern of prior circumstance. Themes and characters are revisited creating a cascade of intensity and interest. And while those characters despair, the reader luxuriates in their story, almost certainly because of this engrossing yet slow flow. It is an effect I’d like to strive for in my own writing.

I want to switch gears and talk about my other resolution for over the holiday – to do about an hour of exercise each day, come hell or high water. This time of year, especially because the weather is nasty outside, I’ve become a stationary bike guy. It’s good for me and low impact on the joints. But it is mind numbingly dull. So I give myself *candy* in the form of a TV program I can watch and distract me from the tedium. The West Wing worked wonders in this regard but I became saturated with that so I looked for some other series on that might do the trick. Unfortunately, it appears that LA Law is not available in DVD. I was an addict for that show and it’s been such a long time ago now that watching it again would seem like a fresh experience. I had to try something else. The Sopranos are in rerun now, but for some reason that show didn’t appeal to me. I opted for 24 where each episode within a season represents a different hour in the same day. I really just took a flier based on liking Kiefer Sutherland (the lead) in some of the films I’ve seen him in recently. I’m able to last through two episodes in one sitting and after cheating (one afternoon/evening I watched 4 episodes without being on the bike) I finished up the first season on Sunday.

Information technology plays a very big role in 24. The characters are always on their cell phones and that is the primary way that new is conveyed. There are surveillance cameras seemingly everywhere, controllable by the bad guys in ways that are very frightening (both to the good guy characters and to us viewers in the potential that this implies). How the bad guys get control of the surveillance cameras is explained in some parts because they have a mole on the inside working for them, but in other parts just seems to happen to make the story even more frightening. The mole (or possibly multiple moles) creates another twist to the story; nobody can be trusted. That creates more paranoia. Further there is strong reliance on computers to cross check databases of information and to decode encrypted content. The reliance on information technology is crucial for the next point.

The pace of 24 is frenetic, even manic. For the first few episodes it’s all you can do just to get your bearings. Things happen so fast with no apparent rhyme or reason. That is revealed later. There is horror in this story right from the outset but beyond horror there is a strong feeling of disorientation because it’s just not clear what is going on. Then, as one begins to understand what is going on, something else starts to become clear. None of the characters get any sleep. It’s an all nighter (followed by an all dayer) since the first episode is at 12 AM, which really means these folks should be going to bed when in fact they are just getting started. Much of the fast pace and horror happens while the characters are physically exhausted. This increases their stress. A good deal of the heroism in the Kiefer Sutherland’s character comes from being able to perform at a high level in spite of these circumstances.

About three quarters of the way through watching these episodes (once one starts on the first few they are highly addicting which is why I cheated) it occurred to me that the success of the show comes in part because in some way the characters share the same sort of experience as the viewers – a feeling of being overwhelmed by the circumstance, too much different type of information coming at you too quickly with no way to figure out the big picture, and technology the source of it all. The rest of us aren’t about to be assassinated or have family members kidnapped, true enough. But the other parts of the experience are the same. The always on, being connected, letting the cell phone determine the agenda; that’s a normal experience nowadays. The show captures that very well.

But the narrative itself, once it unfurls, is ordinary, even trite. Today in preparing to write this post I found this book review of some Werfel biographies from 1990. It described Werfel as loving to go to performance, whether play or opera, but despairing about midway through because by that point the only thing to look forward to was the end. I had that sort of feeling watching the last few episodes of the first seasons. They were entirely anticlimax. I will likely buy the next couple of seasons (or get them as a birthday present soon) but that is because of the stationary bike. As mind candy it works for me. As more serious entertainment it doesn’t.

For the more serious entertainment, I believe the pace has to be leisurely. How else can depth of thought be brought in? But how do kids nowadays develop a taste for that? Isn’t the conditioned response to information overload to demand more of the same? We need something to cut the vicious cycle. My suggestion is to have them read the Forty Days of Musa Dagh.