Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Some follow up to a previous post and readings from David Brooks Sidney Awards, Part 1 and Part 2.

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We had a white day-after Christmas. The family partook in Nathan's present and went to see Avatar in 3D. My take on the technology is first, it has definitely improved. The glasses now look more like normal sunglasses. I could imagine wanting to see other movies done this way, though my wife did complain of a headache afterward. Second, the technology has its biggest impact up front. The mind hasn't adjusted to it yet so it is most noticeable. Some way into the movie, the story takes over and the technology doesn't seem to matter nearly as much thereafter. Third, there was one part of the movie where the technology really helped in telling the story. This is when the protagonist, Jake Sully, first tries on his avatar of the Na'vi. He is awkward and uncoordinated and the 3D helps to convey that sense. There are flying scenes later in the film where it is more spectacular because of the 3D. But it didn't seem consistently important throughout.

My take on my previous post about pantheism, etc., is that Douthat gave us something of a misdirection. The film is overtly anti-imperialist, particularly of the American kind (send in the Marines) which are depicted as instrumental about their own needs and unthinking about everything else, particularly the well being of the natives. So the military solution becomes the first best option rather than the last resort. Patience as a virtue apparently isn't. Given the historical moment in which this film appears and America's extended presence in Middle Asia, one might not be too happy with this not very subtle bashing. So rather than take that one on straight away, with most of the the Times readers (me included) still feeling that WMD and Saddam shows the idiocy of this approach, a more conservative view needs to undermine the message of the film but in a more subtle way, one that might make the audience reflect. I did and wrote my earlier post as a consequence, but I hadn't seen Avatar when I wrote it. Douthat's piece probably wouldn't have resonated with me as much, had I seen the movie earlier.

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I liked How American Health Care Killed My Father. It's a thoughtful analysis. I especially liked Goldhill's desire to separate out health insurance for catastropohic incidents from the rest of health care. I've long thought that should be the case and that there are huge distortions in the system from bundling the two of these. Thereafter, he argues for the rest of health care to be financed by the individual, so that "ordinary" health care is procured as a consumable. This, his argument goes, would be the best first step toward containing health care costs and making the system responsive to the patients. It is an interesting argument.

I like to take arguments like these and attack them on their merits. Goldhill, himself a businessman and obviously quite literate financially, may not see the weakness in his own position. In this case the main weakness is that most consumers are not so literate about their finances (one big explanation for the Housing Bubble we experienced). In Goldhill's terms, health care would then have a substantial asset management component and one would wonder whether on their own consumers would get it right. Comparatively healthy people might then under consume health care in the form of precaution/prevention. Comparatively sickly people might over consume treatment. As an investment decision, who will help the consumer with these choices? Would that be the family doctor? If so, does his solution look so different from what is being proposed?

As a result of reading this piece I did some quick Google searches to find out about physician income. Most doctors whom a patient sees only when they have a condition that warrants the visit, face a certain sort of moral hazard that Goldhill describes in the piece. But physicians who have a long term relationship with the patient may still have a moral hazard, akin to the one that financial advisers have with their clients. Goldhill's analysis needs to work that consideration through. It isn't there in this piece.

More generally I got to think who among the entire industry of health care provision might lose if recommendations like Goldhill's were to be taken seriously. It would be good to see the analysis from the point of view of the drug companies. Based on some work by Larry Kotlikoff from a while back, my sense is that if you do a cost-benefit analysis on most new treatments, the conclusion would be that the treatments were inefficient. You get the reverse only by making the an ethical argument about extending life or improving quality of life via the treatment. Goldhill is silent on this issue too, though I believe if his solution were implemented it would move things closer to the efficient outcome without the ethical argument. Hmmm.

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I did not like The Rubber Room, a designation for a place where tenured New York City teachers who have been deemed unfit to teach must go in order to receive the remuneration to which they are contractually entitled. Steven Brill, the author, does not appear to be a neutral observer in the piece, but rather a witness for the prosecution. A piece like this can get written because now so much thinking about schools rests on the research finding that good teachers matter, a lot. So it must be that bad teachers matter too, in a way that is not good for the children. The view from management, then, is to attract and retain the good teachers and weed out the bad ones. I'm afraid this is the state of the art with current management thinking in K-12 education. It makes little or no allowance for a feedback effect where "the system" influences the goodness or badness of the teaching. And it makes the relationship between principals and teachers seem necessarily adversarial.

This is a simple categorization of how a tenured teacher might be found to be bad:
(1) The teacher was bad all along, even before tenure was granted, but the system made an error and judged otherwise when tenure was granted.
(2) The teacher was never bad, but was judged bad after tenure was granted via some sort of Type 1 error.
(3) The teacher was good at the time tenure was given but deteriorated thereafter for reasons due to the system.
(4) The teacher was good at the time tenure was given but subsequently had some problem essentially unrelated to work that made the teacher bad.

Let me dispense with these in inverse order. We can all agree that (4) is possible. Getting rid of tenure is not necessary to address (4). The efficient solution would be some form of buyout where the teacher then seeks other work or chooses to retire. This, in essence, is the same issue with faculty tenure at universities without mandatory retirement. Tenure gives bargaining power to faculty. It doesn't ensure attachment in perpetuity. It means the terms of separation have to be mutually agreeable.

Brill's piece is essentially unconcerned with (3), but I think it is the heart of the matter. Does the system wear teachers down? What can be done to refresh teachers in the form of professional development, new assignments, and reorganization of the schools? Will the young teachers of today, the ones the system is trying to attract, be the burnouts of tomorrow?

Brill does discuss (2) in the piece - a teacher at Brooklyn Tech was (falsely?) accused of making sexual advances with a student. What Brill doesn't discuss, but what does require elaboration, is if students in general recognize they have power via this route the tone it can set in the classroom.

As for (1) Brill suggests that there was a regime change when the Bloomberg-Klein leadership took over - acceptable teacher performance under Giuliani, Dinkins, or Koch, might no longer be acceptable. Fine. But the feeling one has reading the piece is that Brill embraces a hostile takeover mentality and decisions teachers made to become teachers in the prior regimes hold sway now as to the current allocation. So we begrudge the current payment or the possibility of buyout, though the analysis should be like (4).

In the current labor market, being a teacher may be an attractive option - any job may be an attractive option. Long term, however, getting good people to want to be teachers as a career, not just as an interlude before the real career starts, is a serious problem. Designing a system that does this and also does a reasonable job with the bad apples is what is needed. Brill's piece, by ignoring the long term incentive issues, can go for the jugular and place the blame squarely on the teachers. Does that really make sense?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Can Bridge Make a Comeback?

As an Assistant Prof, I played a fair amount of bridge, mostly at lunchtime, a diversion from work. But it was learning too because while I knew the basic rules before and a few of the conventions, I didn't know a full bidding system nor did I know how to count - which means in this context what to keep track of. Also, I didn't understand the play of the cards as a method of communication with partner, and that good defense can be as fun or more fun than playing the hand. I know my own kids don't know bridge. I wonder what it would take to create an interest among college students. It is not the sort of thing that would help on the resume, but it would definitely help with their general thinking skills as adults. The piece below is from several years ago. But it is a worth a look.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Theism - "Pan", "Mono", and "A"

I still have an original Kindle. It has a word look up function that I use only occasionally, partly because I don't remember to use it, partly because it is slow and clunky, and partly because I read my Kindle while away from my computer and when in "reading mode" I don't feel like being in "keyboard mode," which is also why though I can read the NY Times on my Blackberry, doing so is not quite a satisfying experience. The best look up function I've found is with the Web version of the NY Times, where if you highlight an individual word a question mark appears. Click on that and you get the definition of the word (along with some ads triggered by the word,which I presume is what pays for the service). This is pretty functional. So I'm asking myself why Dictionary. com or or some other online lexicon doesn't offer something similar for the entire World Wide Web, where if you have their plugin (I'm making it up that it would be a plugin to the browser, but that makes sense to me) then any time you highlight a single word on a Web page it triggers a search in their dictionary, preferably rendered in a new browser window. This can't be that hard to do programming-wise, given the functionality that already exists. Having it would really be great.

These thoughts were triggered this morning by a Ross Douthat column, Heaven and Nature, which I found thoughtful, though I believe it was errant in is conclusion. The piece begins with a critique of the new film Avatar, in large part because its not so subliminal message is a pantheism found in other juggernaut films like Dances with Wolves and Star Wars. Douthat's piece is interesting in large part because of its main thesis, that in spite of our professed religions (or lack thereof) pantheism has an appeal, particularly to Americans, where it appears to be a way to views about nature, religion, and democracy. May the Force be with you.

Apart from films with "Passion of the..." in the title or Dan Brown novels brought to the big screen, I normally don't think about religion when watching movies or commenting on them. Douthat's piece was something of an eye opener for me. It suggests that as much as we might want to cordon off religion from public life, with the First Amendment serving as our guide in that pursuit, the two are inextricably tied and can't really be decoupled. What then should we make of it?

After 29 years of teaching, this past semester I had my first taste of religion in the classroom (really mostly in the online writing that students did and only a tiny bit in my office hours or our ensemble class discussion). My instinct was to ignore it, though I couldn't completely do that. I wanted students to use experience from their own living situations to reflect on class themes. Little did I know that many resided in faith-based living environments. That was a surprise for me. Until writing this post I hadn't considered why such a living arrangement might have appeal. One reason might simply be for comfort. Our campus is very large and it is quite easy to feel lost in the crowd. Another reason, however, is that faith may be a large way that these students define themselves and what I was seeing was a Beyond the Melting Pot argument applied to the U of I, with faith replacing national identity as the main group identifier.

That in itself was fine but two issues did crop up that I really didn't know how to deal with and I managed poorly as a result. For both of these, think of sports stars who after having big success in some contest and being interviewed on TV thank the Lord for their success. On why the athletes do this, I can envision at least two distinct reasons. One is as ritual or habit, developed in large part to block out pernicious influences in the players' lives - gambling, drugs, violence. In this way it has become almost a non-thinking act, akin to putting on a warm coat when going outside in cold weather. The habit provides warmth and comfort.

In my class however, I wanted the students to struggle with some concepts related to the writing so the students could take these ideas for their own. I particularly wanted them to come to grips with whom they were trying to please in the pieces they created. Many of the students, high academic achievers all, had completely bought into the idea that they were to please the teacher. I wanted them to develop their own sense of taste. First and foremost, they had to please themselves. This was difficult for them. Many took a very long time to get there. I didn't want them to have an easy answer - God is my audience would be a cop out in this case. A bit of the students writing was in this category. I didn't know how to respond to it.

Then there is the other point, closer in line with the article I linked to, whether the public utterances about points specific to a particular religion impinges on the space of students who are of other faiths. The related question, more to the point in my class, is whether the student of faith is sensitive to the point that he might so impinge through his own action. If he is evidently sensitive but has chosen to make his faith-based point, he must feel he hasn't crossed the line. Others might disagree. Who then becomes the arbiter? What rules need to be in place in the class beforehand to make such questions lead to a good conclusion. My own "mental model," jargon from Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, is that all discussion of religious matter should be cordoned off. There's nothing like the teacher painting himself into a corner.

Of course there was the other possibility, that the student might not be aware at all that such comments could impinge on other students' space or impinge on mine. We had Islamic students in the class and I, somewhere in the agnostic-doubter-finding God through the memory of my father, was brought up Jewish though it was a very Reform form of Judaism. Here my mental model going into the course is that nobody could be unaware in that way. But it turned out that in other dimensions, really having nothing to do with religion but which did have to do with the sort of experience people had, the students didn't seem as clued in as I had expected them to be. Why should the faith-based students be sensitive to the space needs of their classmates if nobody had ever educated them on the point? I didn't see it as my role to show them the light. I wanted them to figure it out on their own.

This brings me back to Douthat and a confession that I need to make. There are probably many more movies I have watched that have religion, at least as a subtext, than I care to admit. Among my favorites is Inherit the Wind. In the last scene of the movie, Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) is quoting Scripture to the chagrin of Gene Kelly as E.K. Hornbeck (H.L. Mencken). Drummond does this as eulogy to his old friend, Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) played by Frederick March. Drummond says there was much greatness in Brady. His failing was that he looked for God too high. I have taken that line for my own. Can we find God in the elements of our own humble existence?

Douthat writes:

Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death?

My personal answer to this is to view the good and evil struggle as internal. Both are inside each of us and this is where to look. Sometimes good wins, other times good loses, and there is always a next game to be played where the outcome is in doubt. Douthat, however, looks for evil to be external. If we are for good then evil is to be fought, a battle between peoples, not a battle within. Pantheism is a threat to Douthat because it challenges the commitment to the struggle, even such a benign pantheism as expressed in the movies.

This may be the basic point on which liberals and conservatives disagree. It may also be the reason I can watch movies like The Matrix or TV series like 24 , enjoy them for the fantasy that they are and not let them affect my moral compass, except with the guilt feelings that maybe I should have read a book instead.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Deadlines: The student as writer, the instructor as editor

Ask yourself a simple question. Suppose an instructor desperately wants to communicate with her students that she cares more about the quality of their writing than about the volume they produce. How does she communicate that preference to the students in a meaningful way?

Let's add a complicating but pretty obvious factor. If an instructor gives a deadline for the project that is say a month away, human nature suggests that most students will do little to nothing on the assignment till the deadline appears in the offing. This is human nature. Students also may not realize that to get a good quality product, they have to go through multiple drafts. One and done often doesn't cut it.

Once students do kick into high gear and get cranking writing their piece they can then form a sense of their own about how high quality a product they are producing. Students (at least the ones I know) don't maintain that intensity for the entire semester, and when they are in less intense mode, they are much less sensitive to suggestions about how to improve their work. So most efficient for their own learning is some rapid iteration between student and instructor during the interval of intensity. This is why I don't believe having deadlines for drafts that precede the ultimate delivery is the right way to go.

I think it is actually better for learning to set up faux deadlines that are communicated to the student as hard limits. They are still intense at or soon after that deadline. As instructor, you now have their complete attention, so you can push for making their work better with suggestions and further iterations past the deadline.

Then there is something else as instructor you can do to enhance quality of the final product - give the ultimate decision power to the student regarding any recommendations you make as editor, author's prerogative if you will. If you have a little email thread with the student about the suggested changes and explain the why behind making them, then the student is in a position to think through the suggestions and give a why back on not accepting them or make the changes accordingly. The students will then have some ownership of the work and if capable should produce good stuff in this setting.

It is time intensive for the instructor to be reading and commenting this way, but it certainly is a good way to have dialog with students on a one-on-one basis, conversations that the students probably wouldn't initiate otherwise. And the deliverable can then be something all are proud of.