Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cinderellas and the Little Ten

The belle of the ball in the NCAA tournament has to be VCU, who have made it to the Elite Eight after needing to participate in a play-in game. By any measure, expanding the field to 68 teams has to be counted as a success. But what of other "lessons" people seem to be garnering from seeing the outcomes?

Illinois is part of the Big Ten and we did our part in the tournament by winning our first round game as a 9 seed by beating UNLV. We even gave Kansas a run for their money in the next game. But there are no Big Ten teams in the Elite Eight this year, the only "power conference" not to secure a slot in that esteemed grouping. The SEC leads the way with 2 teams (Florida and Kentucky). The ACC has North Carolina, the Big Twelve Kansas, the Big East Connecticut, and the Pac Ten Arizona. Along with VCU the other Cinderella team is Butler. (How can you be a Cinderella if you made it to the championship game the year before?) . Perhaps not having the school name be a state is sufficient for putting on the glass slipper.

What I want to ask here is whether we can infer from this that the Big Ten was overrated or that the best conference in fact was the SEC, using the number of teams in the Elite Eight as the criterion for the ranking. And on that, here are a few points. First, teams that are younger (mainly freshmen and sophomores as the starters) are apt to get better over the season as the players learn their roles and adjust to each other. However, all inter-league play happens early. So the results there, with a few exceptions, tend to be biased against the younger teams and favor the more experienced clubs. If a young but talented team comes on late that shouldn't be a surprise. But it often is because this learning over time isn't in the rating systems. North Carolina seems to be in this situation.

Second, teams that get to be number 1 in the country in the polls start to play defensively, to protect a title that they really haven't earned but to which they've been anointed. To the extent that such a team also has young players, the rating can block the learning. I'd put Ohio State in this category. It didn't seem to me they improved that much from mid season on. And if Diebler is missing from the outside they are not that amazing a club.

Third, if you just look at wins and losses, that would seem to leave a lot to chance, allowing a better team to be upset by a lesser team. But if you look at a basketball game as a series of possessions, with the winning team the one that wins the most possessions, you come to a different sort of conclusion. In my back of the envelope calculation, a possession is 20 seconds on average so a game without overtime has 120 possessions. When there is a decisive margin, it is pretty good evidence that the better team one. On that VCU was simply better than Georgetown and Purdue, but about even with Florida State. Since that game went to overtime, one can certainly imagine the final score going the other way and likewise for Kentucky against Ohio State. On the other hand, if you look at the graph of the game flow on Butler versus Wisconsin, you see that Butler had a commanding lead in the middle of the second half, and then Wisconsin "made the score more respectable" at the end. In this case the point spread at the 30 minute mark is probably a better indicator, meaning Butler was clearly the better team. On that metric, Illinois did better against Kansas. That game was close until about 5 minutes left.

Four of the Big Ten's losses in the tournament were to Elite Eight teams and only one of those was close (Kentucky over Ohio State). Transitivity has a way of failing in this sort of analysis (if A is better than B and B is better than C then A is better than C). But it is impossible to make inferences about quality of teams without assuming it. Given the evidence, it is hard not to conclude that the Big Ten was overrated, certainly at the top of league.

There is then the question not of inferring quality at the top, but rather quality at the middle, measuring conference quality by the number of teams it gets into the tournament or perhaps the number of teams normalized by size of conference. On that one maybe 10 years ago I'd have said that there are two many automatic qualifiers from mediocre conferences. Now my conclusion is the big name schools are displacing some decent and talented lesser name schools. The Big Ten got 7 this year. That was probably 2 too many. I'll let Charles Barkley be the one who whines about the Big East.

For the rest of this tournament, I will root for Cinderella. It would be great for College Basketball if Butler won it all. And it would be wonderful to see VCU upset Kansas. If you are not a fan of one of the other Elite Eight teams, why else watch?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lake gulls?

The family is in Chi-town for a little bit of R&R. Yesterday the boys were to meet some of their friends at Navy Pier. Kids that age like to hang out and do things in packs, a good thing in my view. We're over protective as parents. So after breakfast, we walk over from the hotel, five or six blocks. The arthritis in my hip has beef acting up; my pace is slow; there is a far amount of pain. There is mental effort in persisting for what should be an automatic process. Though it is pleasantly cool, I start to perspire.

After we hook up with the kids' buddies my wife and I make a tentative plan. We will find a Starbucks, hotel coffee doesn't cut it, and drink that while staring at the Lake. I tell her I spent many hours in graduate school doing that and it was one of the things I looked forward to, something we miss in Champaign. After searching a bit to find a bench that is not too wet, we drink our coffees looking out over the inlet. Across the way on a shorter pier the space is monopolized by whitish birds, hundreds of them, maybe thousands of them. We see one on our pier. The feathers are white or a light gray. But the claws are yellow, as are the eyes.

Vacation is there to get away from work pressures, but there is no total escape. The iPad delivers email, one of which is the daily update from Inside Higher Ed, with an item that in Ohio the Governor wants faculty to teach more courses. Why not want them to teach more intensively? We seem to be racing to the bottom and accelerating at it.

Sent from my iPad

Friday, March 18, 2011

On Sheepskins, Passports, and What College Is Good For

William D. Cohan had an interesting though disturbing "Opinionator" column on Wednesday.

Apart from arguing that if you have something on the ball then a college degree may be irrelevant to your future career, a point I'll return to in a bit, he also argues that the college educated may have destroyed investment banking, by moving it from privately held partnerships to publicly traded companies that no longer had financial stakes in the loans they were making and then by coming up with all these fancy derivatives that masked what is going on but encouraged a rush of cash to come into the business.

I've been puzzling on this second one for a while. First, while it is fairly easy to see the harm that was created from all of the financial houses going public, I'm not sure Cohan or most pundits on this matter have seen the good that was created. It may very well be that much of the good has been captured internationally rather than domestically or if domestically then only by high level executives in the large multinationals. But still, there has been phenomenal economic growth in many Asian countries and in Latin America too. Were the capital flows that Wall Street generated a significant force behind that growth? If so, it is a story that hasn't gotten a lot of press.

The other thing I don't get is why there isn't, in essence, a co-pay model in finance. In my way of thinking, when a local bank initiates a mortgage, it should sell a big piece of it but keep some fraction of the loan, say 20%, not out of its own good will but as a way to assure the market that the loan is reasonable. And if the loan is not reasonable, then the bank should have incentive to block it, which I believe is what you want for the system as a whole. The same thing should be true for the big Financial Houses. There needs to be a handful of big shareholders who put up some of their own cash on the loans. The exact same principle applies. The size of the loan is not the important thing here. The issue is whether the lender really believes the loan is a good loan and if he so believes, let him put his money where his mouth is. What I don't understand is why the market hasn't come up with this as part of the solution on its own, totally without government regulation pushing the matter. After all, with our health insurance we have to make a co-pay when seeing the doc or picking up a prescription. Surely the principle is understood. What keeps it from being realized? I don't know.

Let me get back to the value of College. Since I have had my students blog this semester I have inadvertently learned their views on a variety of life issues. One of those is the nature of the work they will be expecting to do once they graduate. Many of the students are remarkably instrumental in their views, with a good job a means only, seeing as their end goal to satisfy their recreational pursuits and hedonistic pleasures. In my Behavioral Econ class we read an essay by Joseph Persky about John Stuart Mill and his approach to homo economicus. That Mill put accumulation of wealth along with the pursuit of luxury and leisure front and center resonated with many of these students. What I've yet to hear from most of them is that either instead of in addition they want to do good work so that what they produce can benefit others or they want to work where they get direct enjoyment because it is a means of self-expression. Either they are too immature to yet have those views or because across both classes it is mainly Econ majors and Business students, perhaps this is a selection of students who are prone toward these attitudes. Given their view, however, it is not hard to work through the backward induction on the students' attitudes about their college education.

It is one thing to read Cohan reflect about the value of a college degree on the New York Times Web site. It is quite another to read current students blogging about the issue, much more brazenly than Cohan. In my behavioral class, the first topic I had students blog about was procrastination, based on a New Yorker piece by James Surowiecki. Much of the blogging and commenting on this topic was confessional in tone and substance. In trying to draw one team out in its thinking, where my sense is that we procrastinate about different things for different reasons and the term procrastination is a catchall that refers to multiple different behaviors, I wrote:
I share some of the issues with bill paying. I do the finances for my mom, who is 90 and with dementia. Though she owns her condo outright, there are two different monthly fees for different associations that care for the place, and other bills for her care. I haven't automated the bill payment because I want to "know" what is being spent, but I hate to write the checks even though once I do it is not that big a deal.
The studying thing seems different to me because with students that's the main reason they are in college. It is not a trifling. I wonder if there isn't some deeper explanation going on with that. Perhaps we will peel some layers of the onion on that issue when we discuss in class.
One of the teammates replied:
Studying is such an arduous task that is many cases useless in the long run. This is due to the fact that business don’t really care that you did well in your Psychology or Economics class; they care more if you are able to help them in solving their problems . In response to Profarvan statement “”The studying thing seems different to me because with students that's the main reason they are in college.” Personally I don’t think the reason for being in college is to study but it is to receive a diploma with a fairly decent GPA no matter how it’s done. Hence, procrastination is an effective tool to put off studying until the day before the exam since cramming is effective to get a B/C letter grade most of the time.

In an article from Yahoo business it states that grades are not a predictor of success because if you can’t adapt or solve a company’s problems what good does a 4.0 GPA do. For example when I worked as a computer technician intern for a large corporation there were many full-time employees without a college degree or even a high-school degree. Not only were they better technicians than the college graduates they were smarter and more in tune what was going on in the emerging technologies. So I will keep procrastinating, I know the odds are stacked against me statistically but I will take the risk of procrastinating before an exam. I rather spend an extra 11 hours discovering and learning about new technologies than memorizing formulas and definitions that in the real world will be useless since a computer will do it for you the majority of the time. Hence I also agree with the statement of “ the present is more important to us than the future.”
To sum up, I think procrastination is highly useful in college due to the fact that “true learning comes with practical experience since there is greater depth.” So why waste time memorizing theory when you can procrastinate on Facebook talking to people and building connections that will probably give you a better chance at getting a job.
We are trapped in a nightmare made popular by Michael Spence. My visceral reaction to the type of behavior that stems from the above comment is to play tit for tat with such students. It's funny how they can get the better of you. Coming into the semester my goal was to inspire the students by having the class read about and discuss interesting stuff. Now I simply want to get even. And I wonder if it's just me or if this is how every instructor feels after a while from these sort of interactions.

The student who made that comment doesn't come to class. I don't track attendance officially but I do become familiar with the faces that do show up. (And I learned what he looked like when his team made an in-class presentation.) It is their call. Interestingly for me, there are more absences in the behavioral class, which has mainly Econ majors, than in the intermediate micro class, which has mainly Business students. Those Business students have it in their heads to come to class and for many of them also have it drilled in to sit up front. Their diligence is perceptible and reliable even as their penetration into the economics is sometimes wanting. Witnessing that I wonder do they represent the norm in students we should be striving for?

I wish I knew.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Quickie update on captioning

My problem with Firefox was caused because my Flash player was not up to date. I don't understand why it would play the movie but not render the captions. However, updating the player fixed the problem.

Tres Beau Adieu

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Captioning as Therapy

Let's start with a bit of irony. As I write this Firefox seems to be choking on my captions. I'm not sure why. They do work in Chrome. I want to talk about how relaxing it is to make the captions. But surely it is not that relaxing to troubleshoot the technology when you don't know what's wrong with it, especially in a live setting with students who have become dependent on the technology working. I've been doing some of that lately, a part of the cause of the stress I'm feeling.

So far, most of that technology troubleshooting has proven to be my own error. I don't know Moodle well enough and thinking I've got something configured the way I want, in particular what students see after they've submitted a quiz for evaluation, I learn from their comments that they are not seeing what I want them to see. Then it's not immediately obvious that I flubbed it. So it takes a while and I make an accommodation for the students in the meantime that I really don't want to make, only to eventually learn that it was all unnecessary. If only I had known that when the problem first came to my attention.

I will talk about other, more important stresses in a bit, but let me get back to the captioning. For whatever reasons - either I'm better understanding what has to be done with it, or Dragon Naturally Speaking is producing a better quality transcript of my audio file, or when other things take a long time to do the time spent captioning just seems more manageable, I now have the feeling that captioning is a welcoming activity, one of the tasks I look forward to in the week. It kind of reminds me about my mother's knitting, only she could do that and something else that was cognitive as well, like playing a hand of bridge. With the captioning, you have to pay attention to that. But then it goes pretty well.

My process is this. I first record the video with Jing and I wear a headset so the microphone is pretty close to my mouth when I'm talking. The resulting audio quality is quite clear. I need two ancillary programs to make the captions. One is Dragon, which I already mentioned. The other is AOA audio extractor, which takes the Jing video and separates out an audio file in MP3 format. I have no idea why the following works, but it is a discovery that is useful to know. If you first run the AOA software and then launch Dragon, it will say the file is not in a format that it can transcribe. But if you launch Dragon first and then run AOA, Dragon transcribes the file fine.

By the time I'm ready to make a clean transcript I'd have uploaded the Jing video to YouTube already. When I'm actually doing the transcription, I have two Windows open, one above the other. The upper window has enough of the YouTube video that the playbar is visible. You need to start and pause the video and rewind a bit repeatedly as you make the transcript. In the lower window I've got Notepad open with Dragon's transcription of the video.

The Dragon file produces a text stream that has no punctuation in it. A significant aspect of producing a clean transcript is putting in punctuation, finding the start of new sentences and capitalizing there, putting in line spaces for a new paragraph to begin. Fortunately, I am captioning my own talking, so I have implicit knowledge of what I'm likely to say, especially when I'm doing intermediate micro topics like income and substitution effects, which I've taught a zillion times before. And I've learned that though sometimes my word choice is suspect, there is still sentence structure and a quite logical approach in the subject development. Over time, I've also become more familiar with the type of mistakes Dragon is likely to make regularly. For example, when I speak often instead of saying "is" I will append 's to the previous word. Dragon will frequently treat that as making a plural of the previous word, though sometimes it gets it right. When you know what to look for in making the corrections, it is not that hard. So you can read a few sentences ahead and punctuate that as best as you can. Sometimes that nails it with the audio and you can make rapid progress. Other times you do have to slow down to make corrections, but the frequency of doing that is not too great. So progress overall is made and that in itself feels quite rewarding.

When you've produced a clean transcript you can then upload to YouTube, which puts in the timings for you. That functionality is now quite good and YouTube processes the transcript fairly quickly. So you get to see your captioned video in short order. That too feels rewarding.

* * * * *

I want to turn now to my main teaching dilemma and to describe what is really stressing me out. I always go into something new I'm trying with high expectations. Those expectations are not founded on prior experience but rather on aspirations I have for the approach. When experience begins to confound the expectations, rather than modify the expectations and keep my mood on an even keel (probably a mature thing to do) I go through both disillusionment - how could I have been so wrong? - and stress as I put pressure on myself to try to preserve the original conception as best as possible by looking for new ways to salvage the approach.

In both of my classes I'm having students blog in a team structure. The idea was to connect the narrative that they are reading about to their own personal narrative in a way that should produce a novel synthesis. But this idea that a synthesis should emerge puts a lofty expectation on people who don't have a lot of experience doing this sort of thing. I try to do it regularly in this blog, but I've been doing it for some time and had a lot of writing experience even before the blogging. So maybe it is unfair to expect this but I've tricked myself into believing otherwise.

In the intermediate course I've written a bunch of essays for the students that are meant to explain the economics on terms students can relate to. This proved a success as many of the students were able to produce pieces tying their experiences to what was in an essay. But over several weeks this has turned into Frankenstein's monster. My intent for the class was that we'd read other things too, Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers and a bunch of journal articles that I believed were accessible to students at this level, the first of which was Paul David's famous paper on QWERTY. Most of the students haven't yet written about Heilbroner and among those who did write about QWERTY, they clearly didn't understand what they were reading. Rather than insert their experiences into Paul David's narrative, something I'm sure they hadn't seen before, they recast his paper to coincide with the narrative they were already familiar with. There is no learning in that. And it is rather frightening as an informed and interested party to witness.

Not all students did this. There are one or two groups who seem pretty much on top of things. But the entire reason for trying this approach was to produce more democratic outcomes. I was getting the handful of good students 16 years ago when I started to turn to technology to address the issue that most weren't getting it. If that's still going to be the outcome, it sure is a lot easier to just teach the theory as an applied math course and be done with it, which is what most everyone else who teaches this course does. I don't want to call it a day yet, but I'm unclear on how to get these students to a higher level in their reading and their writing. And it is evident as we approach mid semester that many of the students are no longer enamored with the approach - the novelty has worn off - and they are just trying to get through the course as it is required in their major.

In the other course on behavioral economics the challenge is a bit different, but the issue of producing a synthesis that goes beyond what they are reading remains. The students seem extraordinarily locked into their own view of the world and from my perspective are very repeated in talking about experiences to support their views. This creates the impression that they are very resistant to new ideas, some of which includes the style in which the course is given.

Part of the issue seems to be what we are reading. After about five weeks of reading individual pieces on a variety of topics, we are reading the book Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler. And I confess that on my first reading of the book I had trouble with it, because of the underlying philosophy - libertarian paternalism - which I don't believe they justified sufficiently. On the other hand, because I had this prior experience thinking about what software might promote learning and what software struggles to do so, a lot of their ideas simply carry over. So even if the underlying philosophy is a struggle, the suggestions are often quite reasonable. But this may be the wrong time to be teaching this stuff, given the politics we're experiencing now. Many of the students are anti big government. And I have the feeling that their view about politics is blocking them from getting positive things from this book that they might otherwise get.

Again the question is what do I do as a teacher to unblock their thinking, a question that's been stressing me out quite a bit lately. I really don't want to change their politics, and they are probably reasonable in being suspicious on that score. Yet they are also being very heads down about nudges in their own lives that actually are effective. I go back to the Orwell line that I find so true.
" To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle. "
So I'd like to see the students struggle more. As it is, a good number of them have stopped coming to class. I suppose most undergraduates don't see it as their lot to struggle, particularly to struggle intellectually.

* * * * *

The blogging it seems has opened up Pandora's box. I've thought a bit about closing it again, returning to a more traditional approach which surely would be more manageable. The captioning is therapeutic on that score too because the transcripts I'm making are only for the math/technical material. There is no having the students weave their own narrative in there. That's the old I shovel it out and they dish it up approach. Implicitly the students are expressing that's what they want because because that's what they are used to. I can't say I blame them for that. Not knowing what to make of that, therapeutic comfort is welcoming.