Friday, May 25, 2012

Going Stag

We tend to prefer excess demand,
Under it economies expand.

Of course things can get over heated,
Then creditors find they've been cheated.

Inflation erodes buying power,
Too much of it and things go sour. 

Its anticipation can cause drag.
Then the economy tends to lag.

Mainly the cause is belt tightening.
During the trough that is frightening. 

Now the front runner is in trouble.
The Chinese burst a housing bubble.

With a weakened Sino demand pull
Harder to get employment to full.

We need a global priming the pump
To give production a massive jump.

The focus remains on a different threat,
The long term prospect of massive debt.

Lack of nerve for the obvious cure
Getting on the growth path far from sure

The other thing that occurs to me
Not too far off we'll start World War Three.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Diane Ravitch on Charlie Rose

There was an interesting interview yesterday of Diane Ravitch - well worth watching.  She talked about the conclusions she wrote about in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  That part wasn't surprising.  The curious thing is when this segment aired.  That book has been out for quite a while.  I wrote my blog post on it almost two years ago.  I wonder if she can single-handedly change America's views on how to change the school system.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Online Homework, In Class Quizzes, and Google Forms

There are some Web tools I just like.  I'm not sure why.  The Google Form tool attached to a Google Spreadsheet is one of those. It is drop dead easy to make a form.  The data come back that way I want.  (For example, I just tested that if you ask people to put in a url in a text box that when you get the data in the spreadsheet it is linked to that address.)   And it is fairly simple to embed the form in another Web page.  (I've found that first, the place where you want to embed the form has to be wide enough and second, that you have to muck around with the height parameter (make it bigger) to get rid of the scroll bar.)  This makes it quite usable in a variety of contexts, some of which I'll talk about below. 

Before I do, here's a slight diversion that got me thinking this way.  I suppose it is the contrarian in me, but my main reaction to all the flurry there's been of late about Udacity and Coursera (on several lists I participate in this David Brooks column got a lot of attention) is that this is not the new market to focus on.  This is really process innovation (doing what we've always done but doing it cheaper).  We need product innovation (doing something new).  What I have in mind isn't really all that new.  We did it in the 1990s - online office hours staffed in the evening.  The really new part is to make this a cross campus offering - available to anyone on the globe - and hence not tied to a particular course. Then have it focus on a disciplinary area, but otherwise not restrict what the questions are about. 

Why do this?  First is to show there is substantial demand for it and hence demonstrate the student needs which should drive further innovation.  Most students don't need additional courses from which to choose, at least not during the regular school year.  Many of them, however, need help with the courses they are taking.  They get stuck.  Then they fret about it.  But they don't now how to get help.  Some look online for help, which I know because I've produced videos for microeconomics that are in YouTube and the hits those videos get are driven by students trying to fill this need.  This is fine, but it is not sufficient.  With pre-produced online content students may still not see the light.  They need to ask their own questions and get somebody in the know to respond to them in a serious way.  Second is to make a scale economy argument that I attribute to Burks Oakley, a point he made way back when.  Lurkers can benefit from a posed question that has generated a serious response.  Thus the archive of such questions and responses can have substantial value to the students.  From the lurkers point of view the archive looks a lot like pre-produced content.  But the difference is that it is framed from the student's perspective. This is the need that is not being satisfied at present, in my view. 

Third, there is an issue of how to generate credible response.  In the late 1990s, I used undergraduate TAs (they had taken my class previously) to provide the response.  But the set of question where about homework problems from the textbook and I had prepared solutions for those problems that the TAs had.  I also coached them in the type of response I was hoping for.  In that limited domain my TAs could function quite well, for the most part. Now, however, the domain of possible questions will be much larger, so whoever has the responsibility to provide responses must have much more expertise - an ability to work through the question on the fly or with a minimal amount of down time to research the solution.  So the question of who will do this remains open. 

Not having a general answer to that question, I want to try it myself to see how it goes and learn from the experience.  Yesterday, I set up a site for undergraduate Microeconomics called Ask The Prof.  At your convenience take a look.  Then if it interests you, submit a question to help get the site started.  The embedded Google form for that purpose is on the third Tab.  I've promoted the site on my YouTube channel and in specific videos.  But students might be reluctant to post their own questions if there isn't already some history of prior questions and responses on the site that they can view.  So I'd like to provide that history and do so without making canned questions I generate myself.

Now let me turn to using Google Forms as a homework submission tool.  I've not yet done this but this is what I'm thinking.  I make assignments (in Excel of course, that's the tool I know) that illustrate the math models for my class.  While the underlying model is the same for each student, parameter values will be student specific so each student will have a unique homework set.  Each student will be assigned an alias (the name of a famous economist concatenated with the course name).  The will copy the solutions they get from Excel and paste those into the Google Form.  They will also select their alias from the list and that is what will be used as identifier of the student.  I believe that should handle all the FERPA issues.  I can then auto grade these submissions using Excel via a straightforward comparison of their submission to the correct answer.  I can also include a paragraph question or two to have them explain their thinking in doing the math.   Obviously that can't be auto graded, but it means the amount of discretionary grading can be kept down.

How does this compare to using the LMS for the same purpose?   For the LMS that I know about, using the LMS quiz engine one can't make a rather extensive problem which has many subsidiary questions, with the parameter values unique to the particular student, but invariant from one subsidiary question to the next.  So the LMS quiz function simply isn't good enough for what I'm after.  Last year, I tried something similar with the LMS drop box.  I had an "answer sheet" in Excel and indeed Excel had graded the homework before the students submitted it.  The drop box was used simply to verify that they had done the homework correctly.  The students were instructed to save the answer sheet as a csv file  (which saves only the answer sheet and not the rest of the workbook), naming the answer sheet in a certain way that would include their identity in the name, and then submit that.  This mechanism was far from foolproof.  Some students didn't see csv among the formats available when saving the file.  Others screwed up the file name.  Further, I'd have to manually given them credit for the submission.  The approach with Google Forms would substantially reduced the workload for me. 

The downside I see as possible with this approach is that, since their is no authentication by the students required in the process, one student could submit as another to sandbag that person.  In a small class I don't see that as an issue.  In a larger class, perhaps there needs to be an additional step of assigning a unique identifier for the particular homework and the particular alias and sending that to the students in advance.  Managing that would be an additional headache but maybe it wouldn't be too hard if done in conjunction with mail merge in Word.

If this can work for homework, then I'd want to use it in class as well.  It could be done as a more sophisticated version of how instructors now use clickers.  And perhaps you could actually administer quizzes this way.  The issues with this are twofold as I see them.  Each student would need a device of some sorts.  I did verify that the form works on my iPad and iPhone, but on the phone version especially, that can be clunky (at least for me) to enter responses.   Second, to the extent that the devices uses the campus wireless network, there could be slowdown/congestion effects that you don't want to see, especially in a high stakes testing setting.  So far, I don't have that many students registered for my class in the fall.  If the numbers remain modest, I may experiment with this a bit to see how it works in that setting. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Pluck* or Luck

*pluck -  definition 12. noun. courage or resolution in the face of difficulties.

College is a good time for students to confront the meaning of life questions.  Those questions take on different forms, depending on the personality and experience of the person posing them.  For shy people those questions may translate into asking whether by searching inward one can find a source of confidence.  To address this question the person is likely to reconsider past successes.  Were they attributable to luck or to force of will?  If the latter, then confidence can emerge from this realization.

Alas, this question is remarkably difficult to answer.  Conceptually what you'd like to do is go back in time to before the event unfolded and then replay it again, but this time as an alter ego as well as participant.  Does the success repeat?  Or is there failure this time around?  Observing failure would connote that luck caused the original success.  Repeated play of this Gedankenexperiment that leads to success each time makes for the inference that force of will determined the outcome.

I believe the issue is quite different for physical performance, playing tennis for example, than for pure thinking, such as solving a hard math problem. With physical performance there is some internal monitoring and control during the activity- get the racket back early,  lean into the swing, follow through.  Too much of that can limit function, the play becomes mechanical as a consequence, but some is necessary to stay in the point.  With thinking however, a big key in arriving at a solution is to become entirely absorbed into the world of the math problem and, consequently, to become totally oblivious to other things that are going on.  That oblivion includes your own thinking.  So there is no monitoring then.  There is only the problem itself and finding a path toward the solution.  This remains true as long as there is another possibility to try.  Having such possibilities encourages motion in thought.  If, however, you get stuck and have no more possibilities, then self-awareness and monitoring return. 

Getting unstuck clearly entails force of will, especially when giving up is a viable alternative.  But fierce determination in solving a hard problem in itself doesn't rule out that serendipity too lent a hand in finding another viable path. What does rule out luck?  Or, on the contrary, what says that luck played a significant role?  I'm neither a probabilist nor a philosopher, so I'm going to try to answer that question as pragmatically as I can.  I'll start with math problems, provide an answer for that case, and iterate from there. 

For math problems there is little or no luck involved if the person working the problem finds it easy.  At this juncture the reader will be apt to challenge that conclusion.  A couple of paragraphs earlier I said the problem was hard.  How can a problem be both hard and easy at the same time?  The SAT offers an answer to that question.  Some practice problems are available online from the College Board.  If you try one, you'll see that they rate it by difficulty.  In other words, the difficulty is measured by aspects of the problem itself, independent of the person who is doing it.  Are there people who find problems easy even when "authorities" like the College Board say they are hard?  Of course there are.  In this case, that the problem is hard means there are comparatively very few of these people in the entire test taking population.  The vast majority of the potential test takers would find it difficult. 

Are there problems that only a few people on the globe can do and even they would say the problems are not easy?  In that case what is it about the problems that make them hard?  A different sort of test, the Putnam Exam, targeted at college students with an interest in math, is a better place to look to consider this question.  I took it twice, I believe in December 1972, when I was at MIT, and in December 1973, after I had transferred to Cornell, though that second time might have been 1974, my memory is not that sharp on some of the details.  That second time I scored in the high 20s out of a possible 120, and that got me ranked around 300 out of the 2000 or so students who took the exam.  Since past exams are available as far back as 1975 and mock exam questions are available as well, one can get a sense of what the exam is like.  In my view, there are two different things that make these questions  hard.  Some require a fair amount of math background, just to gain an understanding of what the question is asking.  If you don't have the background, the question isn't just hard, it's impossible.  More importantly, generating a solution to a Putnam question requires a fair amount of invention.  Since they want proofs, as well as answers, you have to come up with an argument that proves the conclusion.  In contrast, for the SAT the path to the answer is typically immediate, especially when considered from the perspective of somebody who will sit for the Putnam.

I want to illustrate with a particular problem that I remember from taking it the second time.  Anybody should be able to understand what the question is asking.  It is not hard that way.  I'm offering it up so you can ask yourself whether you could find the answer and the proof. The explication will also help provide a sense of what I mean by "a fair amount of invention."

Problem:  A circle with center at C resides in a vertical plane.  The circle touches the ground at point B.  There is a point A, above the ground and outside the circle.  (See Figure 1 for this setup.)  A line segment is constructed from point A to the circle in such a way that an object slides without friction along the segment under the force of gravity till it reaches the circle.  Characterize the particular line segment  that gets the object to the circle in the least time.

Conjectured Solution:  Draw the line from A to B.  Call the point where it first crosses the circle T.  The segment AT is the optimal path. 

Sketch of Proof:  There is a bit of grind work that needs to be done that I will not provide here to reach the following preliminary result.  If you consider an iso-time curve, the locus of all points reached in a fixed amount of time as the path varies, this is a circle whose circumference goes through A and A is the highest point on that circle.  Armed with this result, the rest of the problem requires only high school geometry.

In Figure 2, a possible though not optimal path, AX, is implicitly given. The circle that has both A and X on its circumference is drawn.  The reason AX is not optimal is that one can find a circle through A with smaller radius (less time) that still intersects the circle with center at C.  However, this non-optimal path is useful for constructing some other segments that aid in the proof.

A line segment is drawn from B to X and then extended to the vertical line through A.  It touches that vertical line at B'.  Another line segment is drawn from C to X and extended to touch the vertical line through A.  It touches that vertical line at C'.  Since both BC and CX are radii of the original circle, triangle BCX is an isosceles triangle.  Triangle B'C'X is similar to triangle BCX, so it too is an isosceles triangle.

The optimal path, AT, is such that the iso-time curve through A is tangent to the original circle at T.  This is depicted in Figure 3.  Then it must be the case that C' is the center of the circle through A and T.   And since B'C'T is isosceles, it must be that B'C' is a radius of that circle.  In other words, B' must coincide with A.  That completes the argument.


Let's now return to the role luck plays in working such a hard problem or set of problems.  At first, you might guess at the conjectured solution and guess at a means of proof.  If both prove correct, you are lucky indeed.  You solve the problem and do so quickly.   In writing up the proof yesterday, I was not so lucky.  I stumbled before coming up with a good argument.  What I've written above represents the third thing I tried.  (I also tried using the highest point in the original circle instead of using point C.  But I couldn't get the argument to work with that construction.  Then I focused on point C, but only considered the optimal point T, not an arbitrary point X.)  And I was stuck for a while between these.  As I'm stuck I start to lose confidence that I'll find a solution and go into semi-panic mode.   But I had a need to make this work, as I hope to show later in the post.  That need contributed to the pluck.

In an actual test taking setting, even for somebody who has the ability to do a problem like this, the time to when the solution is complete has to be random.  The problem offers sufficient complexity that it is not possible to forecast the time to completion with any precision because what needs to be done is not well understood at the outset.   The Putnam exam gives two blocks of 3 hours with six questions in each block.  If you're lucky and on the first problem or two that you work on you find the solution quickly, you've now increased the chances that you'll get another problem in that block as well.  Conversely, and I believe more often the case, you fritter away a good chunk of time on a problem without making much headway on that one.   With little to show for that effort you have to decide whether to cut your losses and move to something else or keep on working on that same problem.  Early failure can then make it less likely you'll  succeed later on.

There is another source of randomness in the actual testing situation.  At the beginning you glance through all six questions and make a quick ranking of their difficulty.  The easiest among these is what you will work on first.  However, this ranking depends on first impressions only.  It therefore may be wrong.  The first question you choose to work on may not in fact be the problem you'd have found easiest.  Another problem may seem off putting, but after only a few minutes of thinking about it you might penetrate it.  Then it's your hard luck for not having chosen that one at first.

In the non test taking scenario the issue becomes the opportunity cost of your time and whether you should abandon the problem outright after having worked on it for a while or perhaps not to try it altogether to protect your ego from getting a bruising. Absent getting keyed up to work the problem, a positive effect from doing it in the test environment, tossing it in may appear a good choice.  But it is a choice made in ignorance since it is impossible to know what the consequence from taking the other path would be without having taken it.

The above discussion focuses on internal (to the person) randomness - uncertainty in outcomes leads to uncertainty in how to proceed.  I've argued elsewhere that it is not correct to characterize the process as trial and error.  There is more intelligence to it than that.  The intuitive sparks matter in a good way in the process.  But those sparks can also compound the uncertainty.  Of course there is also environmental uncertainty, the type we usually consider.  As any student who prepares for an exam knows, while the preparation is obviously helpful for the ultimate outcome it still matters which questions appear on the test.  With the Putnam exam, the range of possible questions is huge.  So the environmental uncertainty is large.  Nevertheless, it is a mistake to consider only that uncertainty as the source of possible variation in outcomes.  The internal uncertainty matters a great deal.  Perhaps there are a handful of college students throughout the U.S. and Canada who can get very high scores on the Putnam every time out.  The test is easy for them.  For the rest of us, if we got a good score part of the explanation is that we had a good day. 

* * * * *

I'd now like to extend the discussion by moving away from closed ended math problem solving to more open ended creative endeavors where there is no "right answer" but rather only pleasing outcomes or less satisfactory ones.  But before I do let me briefly take on the shyness issue once again.  I have to laugh at myself now for some of the meaning of life thinking I did in college and why I thought an examination of the math problem solving would help create a sense of confidence for me in other domains, where I had less proficiency. I must have had an impulse that the creative intelligence cuts across domains.  But I also must have believed it can substitute for some of the lack of proficiency.  I no longer believe that.  If you're ignorant about something you need to learn quite a bit about it first before a real creative process can begin.  And if you don't have talent in some area, you can't fake it that you do, at least not for very long.  Yet while this particular investigation went for naught, there are a couple of other things that I've glommed onto over time that have helped.  One is to take satisfaction in personal idiosyncrasies.  This is in the spirit of the who-cares-what-others-think approach, but it it a bit more in that it separates work related things for which the opinions of others should matter from the rest.  The other is to recognize that the nervousness will come in certain situations but not to dread those situations quite so much ahead of time.  Neither offers a perfect solution, by any means.  But together they've allowed me an outgoing style of performance when that is required by the situation.

For my example of open ended creations I will focus on "slow blogging" posts such as this one, since I've got a fairly good grasp of what goes into the writing.  The situation is substantially more complex than with the Putnam exam math problems.  I will delineate some of the additional sources of complexity.

First is the choice of topic.  This comes from issues I've been thinking about or one particular piece I've read recently.  But it is my own spin on the matter.  On the topic of this post, for example, many other people have written on the subject and I will try to get to some of them later in the post.  But this is not a simple regurgitation of their views.  It's my integration and synthesis plus perhaps some novel contribution to the discussion.  Part of that novelty comes from prior thinking on my own about how even very intelligent people are remarkably ignorant when confronted with important decisions and in situations where they hold responsibility they often act based on that ignorance rather than seek additional information.  Topic choice for a blog post is a very open ended matter, even when trying to go with the crowd and write on something that is being batted around, which I used to do with the blog when I held my administrative position in learning technology and would write about issues that were relevant to the field.

Then there is some mental scaffolding done about what you want to say in the piece.  I've written elsewhere that I don't like to make outlines because they tend to block flexibility later and they require that you know more than you do early on.  The mental scaffolding comes from an activity called pre-writing - thinking about the piece before getting to the keyboard.  I learned that term from Donald Murray.  Murray was an early proponent if not the inventor of the concept called, "writing to learn."  This means there is much discovery along the way.  It's tautological to note that if you are about to discover something, then you don't know about it ahead of time.  This means the discovery approach to writing is full of uncertainty.  I believe that all real learning is.  I should also add here, because recently I've tried to use writing as a big component in the course I teach, that pre-writing is not understood as a necessary component to writing.  Most students have the expectation that you just sit down and write.  Where is their thinking in that?

Sometimes I go well beyond scaffolding and try out full arguments and lines I might use in the post.  For me, pre-writing is having a debate with yourself.  Often, however, my conclusion is that I don't know enough to resolve the issue then and there.  I need to do more research/reading to come to a conclusion.  At this point discovery refers to what pieces to read I might find from my searches as well as my take away from having read them.  There is as a consequence an interaction between the environmental uncertainty and the internal uncertainty that doesn't exist in the math problem case. Surely this increases the complexity.

It may very well be that after doing some research in this way that I see the early mental scaffolding is flawed or, even if not, that a different structure to the piece would make the argument more convincingly.  So the scaffolding must be modified based on what has been learned since.  Those modifications are subject to the understandings recently arrived upon.  Even if we can envision environmental uncertainty here, the uncertainty in understanding is due to a mixture of that and my sense of taste.  As disclaimers are wont to say, your mileage may vary.  In other words, this too can contribute uncertainty to what will be seen in the final product.

Let me turn to the goal, or the set of goals I've got with the writing.  I believe strongly that in all open ended creations the creator's first and foremost responsibility is to please himself or herself.  Taking that as a given, doing so requires a sense of taste regarding what might be so pleasing.  That sense of taste is necessarily idiosyncratic, typically learned from several prior masters through previous reading and finding those pieces that were adored.  It is learned too from other writers, where their work is appreciated though not loved.  And it probably is learned in the negative too, from pieces that weren't liked at all and maybe weren't completely read as a result.  The sense of taste is also modified through my own prior efforts in constructing posts and reflecting on the better ones and the attributes they had that put them in that category.  

The audience matters too, of course.  Does what pleases me also please my readers? How does one get to know the answer to that question?  Once in a while I get a comment with a positive reaction from a reader.  (I re-post these blog essays in Facebook.  They are publicly viewable there, but only Facebook friends get an indicator that a new post is available.  Nowadays, more comments come in from that venue than through the blog itself.  Still, the entire stream is only a trickle.)  The post meant something to that particular reader.  In turn, this typically means it helped the reader think through an issue that either wasn't previously considered at all or which had been thought about but not to a fully satisfactory conclusion.  What does the comment say about the reactions of other readers?  And what, if anything, can be inferred when I get no comments? 

Then there is the issue of whether potential readers actually end up reading the post.  Most of them lead very busy lives.  I have a reputation for writing longish meandering posts that might require some effort to read through.  (See here and here, for example.)   The potential reader might see the post title and the first sentence or two and based on that make a judgment whether to read the rest.  I do exactly the same thing for my own reading, for example in choosing pieces in the New York Review of Books to read.   It is a hit and miss proposition by its very nature.  I might write a wonderful piece yet it remains totally obscure.  Once in a while the opposite occurs.  An uber blog may post about it.  Or the Google search engine ranks the piece highly for certain keywords.  Then the readership can expand much beyond the usual.

At a minimum there are two distinct vantages to consider the success of a post.  One is the about the journey I've taken in writing it.  What have I learned?  Where did I compromise in order to produce something palatable?  Have my inner demons on that issue been expunged so I can move onto something else?  The other is about the produced object itself.  Hit counters and related metrics give some indicators of success this way.  But I want deep more than I want wide.  How does the object do on that score?  Alas, that remains a vast unknown.

* * * * *

Ever since having finished reading Mary Parker Follett's Creative Experience and trying to apply the lessons in it to our present times, I've felt an obligation to engage Conservative thinkers in their policy views and do so on their own terms.  I tried to do this in my previous post.  But it is difficult if not impossible to refrain from being mocking or abrasive, since the world views are so far apart.  Arguing in a mocking or abrasive tone, however, produces gridlock, not a better understanding.  Two distinct positions remain without any convergence between them.

In the process of playing out one such policy debate in my head, making an argument that I took as obviously true but that a conservative thinker might disagree with, it occurred to me to take on something more basic first, the pluck or luck question.  So I did a Google search on "the role of luck in new business success" but without the quotes.  From that I found this essay in the New York Times by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen.  I had seen Collins on the Charlie Rose show, so I paid attention to this piece.  The essay argues for pluck, but of a certain kind - when good fortune comes your way you need to know to "go all in," while when bad fortune occurs you need to make dramatic reforms in what you're doing.  The people who do that are wildly successful.  The rest of us are more wishy-washy in the face of uncertainty and hedge our bets.  There seemed to me something to this.  Michael Lewis in The New New Thing made essentially the same point about Jim Clarke.

Collins and Hansen tell the story of a young Bill Gates.  Was Gates unduly lucky or did he have the je ne sais quoi that allowed him to outgun all his contemporaries?  Collins and Hansen say that Gates's advantages were also there for many others at that time.  So while Gates was positioned to succeed that wasn't sufficient to determine his subsequent success.  I wasn't completely convinced by their story.  Flipping coins, it is possible to get 10 heads in a row right off the bat.  It's not likely, to be sure, but it's possible.  One should not attribute a special skill to the coin flipper when that happens. If the population Collins and Hansen are referring to is on the order of magnitude of a few thousand people, how do they rule out in their work that Gates was the one who kept on getting heads?  Switching to their actually story, I was kind of amazed that IBM didn't appear in it.  Had IBM decided to develop in house the operating system for the early PCs, we'd have never known who Bill Gates is.  So I had my doubts that the Collins and Hansen story was very convincing.

A little later that same day I experienced a bit of true serendipity.  There was an awards ceremony at the high school.  My younger son is a graduating senior so I went to the school to see the ceremony.  Since my older son had been through this before, I knew the drill.  We'd be sitting in the wooden bleachers in the gym (not my favorite seating) and the entire senior class would be sitting in folding chairs on the gym floor.  A lot of names and awards would be read off.  In some cases the recipient would walk to the front shake hands with the person giving the awards and receive some certificate.  Mostly the recipients were kids I didn't know.  While I did pay attention when my son's name was called, I brought my iPad so during the rest of the time I could think about what I was reading rather than focus on the hard benches we were sitting on.  I've got Kindle for the iPad and I've been reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow on it, a few chapters each week. 

I was up to Chapter 19, The Illusion of Understanding.  It is about rationalizing things ex post, after an experience has unfolded, without being able to recall the prior ignorance of what would happen, before the experience has occurred.  Kahneman calls this hindsight bias.   In this chapter Jim Collins appears, the serendipity I mentioned, and not in a favorable light.

The halo effect and outcome bias combine to explain the extraordinary appeal of books that seek to draw operational morals from systematic examination of successful businesses. One of the best-known examples of this genre is Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras’s Built to Last. The book contains a thorough analysis of eighteen pairs of competing companies, in which one was more successful than the other. The data for these comparisons are ratings of various aspects of corporate culture, strategy, and management practices. “We believe every CEO, manager, and entrepreneur in the world should read this book,” the authors proclaim. “You can build a visionary company.” 

The basic message of Built to Last and other similar books is that good practices can be identified and that good practices will be rewarded by good results. Both messages are overstated. The comparison of firms that have been more or less successful is to a significant extent a comparison between firms that have been more or less lucky. Knowing the importance of luck, you should be particularly suspicious when highly consistent patterns emerge from the comparison of successful and less successful firms. In the presence of randomness, regular patterns can only be mirages.

Immediately after reading this I started to ask myself the following question.  If Kahneman and Collins could get together for several days and talk it through, could they resolve their differences on the role that luck plays?  If so, would it be Collins who ends up seeing the errors in his (former) ways?  Then I started to ask whether Collins, having done that, could be turned into an important proselytizer on the role of luck.  He is somebody who likes to aggressively promote his ideas.  It's probably too much to hope for.  But it's that sort of change in belief that is necessary to get some new synthesis between Conservatives and Liberals, in my view.  

The next day I stumbled onto a Web site that articulates The Just World Theory, and makes reference to a book from 1980 called The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion.  That the book is from more than 30 years ago suggests the issue has been with us for quite some time.  The Just World Theory leaves out any role for luck whatsoever.  People get what they deserve.  It is an extreme form of hindsight bias.

Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of UCLA have conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to "feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims."

Since these beliefs are so ingrained, it seems to me the role of luck needs to be confronted first in entirely non-threatening environments.  This is why I led off the post by talking about solving hard math problems.  They are as apolitical as you can get.  They are salient only because they have inherent complexity.  The initial discussion should be about complexity in the world that emerges in our ordinary lives.  That initial discussion should not only talk about prediction in that setting, it should ask for some predictions to be made.  There then needs to be follow up conversations with more on complexity, a review of the prior predictions and the actual outcomes, and the making of more predictions.  The process would deliberately be slow.  The goal would be an evolution in views, not an epiphany obtained in short order.

A healthy respect for the role of luck does not preclude an important role for skill to play.  The word "or" in my title means one-but-not-the-other or both.   The evolution in views is only to get away from one-but-not-the-other beliefs.  Is there a way to steer our society in that direction?   I don't know, but if not then I hope we can luck into it.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Structural Issues In The Economy - A Personal View

One thing I believe the vast majority of parents have in common, irrespective of their politics, is to care about the welfare of their children.  This is surely true when the kids are very young, continues to be true when they are young adults, and persists even after that.  In my way of thinking the parental responsibility extends to getting the kids through college, perhaps assisting with post-baccalaureate education as well, and then into the first real job. If that job appears to be solid perhaps the responsibility ebbs at that point, though not completely.  The parents' obligation persists thereafter as possible insurance for the children against life's vicissitudes.  And if there are grandchildren then helping to assure for their education is, if not an obligation, certainly remains a strongly felt desire. 

With one child in college and the other preparing to start in the fall, both in Engineering at Illinois, the prospects of my wife and I being able to satisfy those responsibilities seem reasonably good.  Nevertheless, there remains a concern that as adults living on their own the kids may backslide income-wise relative to the expectation we have for them, which is to have a decent job and be able to live comfortably as a consequence.  It is from the perspective of the possible backslide for the adult children that I'd like to consider the structural issues in the economy.

In order to do this I'm going to use some Census data on income distribution to provide a benchmark.  For the year 2010, I've modified a table that gives household income distribution in $5,000 increments, up to $250,000.  My modification, has two additional columns, Cumulative and Percentile.  So you can readily see where your household lies in the distribution.  This was the year I retired from Illinois so I received a large one time payment.  That plus the rest of our earnings put us in the highest income row.  Our 2011 numbers are more representative of our current income and our likely income for the next few years.  Then we don't make the highest income row, but we're still doing quite well, making it to the row next to it. I'll explain how that came about in a bit.

I also want to look at historical data.  What I've found, table H3 for all Races from this page of Historical Income Tables, is not as granular as the first table.  The income distribution is divided into quintiles only.  But it does that annually going back to 1967.  In my modified table (click on the worksheet H03) I've added the columns that include the ratio of income between the top fifth and the middle fifth and again for the ratio of the top 5% and the middle fifth.  Those data appear twice.  The top rows provide the information in current income.  If you scroll down to row 50, beyond that all dollars have been converted to 2010 dollars.  This way you can make comparisons over time, with inflation being controlled for.

Here's my own pattern of income historically.  In 1980 at age 25 I started at Illinois with income in the range of the 50th - 60th percentile.  I was ABD then, but I was on the tenure track.  I would get the PhD the next spring.  That milestone did nothing for salary since it was built into the expectation when I got the job.  But other things did.  Getting promoted, simply sticking around, and switching to learning technology and administration in the mid 1990s.  By 2010, I was in the 94th percentile based on just my salary alone.  There's also the fact that I got married in 1990 and my wife is a PhD as well.  She's also employed by the University.  Our household income is therefore the sum of our two salaries (plus a bit of capital income).  Even being retired now and getting a pension rather than a salary, we're still in the high 90s regarding the percentile in the income distribution.

If you go down the columns of the H03 table (do this for the inflation adjusted data starting in row 51) you will see very modest income growth in the the lowest fifth, the next lowest fifth, and the middle fifth, with a bit of back sliding in the last few years due to the recent downturn.  There has been bigger growth in the next highest fifth, and still more growth in the highest fifth.  The consequence is that the upper fifth is distancing itself more from the middle fifth. Prior to 1980 the ratio of the top 5% to the middle fifth did not grow at all.

It's not right to extrapolate for the next 40 years based on the patterns from the previous 40, but if the future is similar in these respects then the backsliding I've referred to will happen not just because of where the kid starts with the first job (perhaps in the second fifth  rather than in the middle fifth), but also because as the kid gets older he never makes it to the top two quintiles and so doesn't get to experience real income growth in mid life. 

All of this is meant as prelude to ask the following question.  Suppose there is a tradeoff between income growth for the economy overall and the flatness of the income distribution.  Rapid growth is associated with a skewed distribution, with the higher end of the distribution receiving a disproportionate amount of the gains.  Flattening the distribution is possible, but that will slow overall growth.  What type of solution do you then want?

As I said earlier, my concern is about my children backsliding income-wise, which might occur sometime in the indefinite future.  So I care more about how the lowest fifth, the second fifth, and middle fifth in the income distribution than I care about the rest of the table.  For that reason, I'd rather see a flatter income distribution in the future, even if that means slower growth.  And I want to note that this is a conclusion arrived at based on purely selfish reasons, simply a concern for my progeny.   Coming to this conclusion doesn't require altruism at all.  It has been noted that Liberals tend to over estimate their own empathy for their fellow citizens.  While I do have some empathy, I want to make the point that the argument can be made absent those concerns entirely.  Or put a bit differently, many of us want to see the system work for others because it's the only way we can be assured that it will work for the people we do care about.

Yesterday, David Brooks in his column took on Paul Krugman, arguing that the current economic malaise is mainly structural rather than a business cycle slump and therefore the cure should not be the typical Keynesian one, but rather needs to address the underlying problems.  For the record, I think Brooks is wrong and Krugman is right.   More stimulus would help a lot to lower the high unemployment rate.  (The one piece of seemingly damning evidence to the contrary is that there appear to be good jobs that are vacant because the employer can't find somebody to hire with the right skills.  But this also might be that such job vacancies are still too rare for unemployed workers to acquire those specific skills, or it might be that the employer is just low balling the wages for the job, or that the employer is too risk averse to take on a employee who needs to be trained on the job before being productive.)   There clearly are issues related to the aging of society and the cost of the entitlement programs, particularly Medicare, so I don't want to argue that there aren't any structural problems.   But the issues about jobs being automated out of existence and increased competition due to globalization making it harder to achieve full employment are overblown.  Anyone remember the Allan Sherman song Automation?  That was 1963.  How about The Reckoning by David Halberstam, where the Japanese company Nissan looks far superior to the American company Ford?  That was 1986.  That movie has had many remakes.  What's so different now?

But there is an issue in being all high and mighty as Krugman has done in that those arguing for structural reform are not engaged on their own terms.  One of those making these sorts of arguments is Raghuram Rajan, a Finance Professor at the University of Chicago.  Brooks links to a Rajan piece in Foreign Affairs, to make his case about the structural issues.  (Yesterday following that link I could access the full article.  Today there's only a snippet and then a request to buy.  I did find that the University subscribes to Foreign Affairs via Ebsco Host and I was able to locate the full text of the article that way.)   I found the analysis lacking.  The claim is that deregulation was a mixed bag because trickle down didn't work; the gains in increased economic growth went largely to the 1%.  (One purpose of the early part of the essay is to show that they really went to the top 5%.  Professional types like me benefited quite a bit, because we were in fields in demand.  Though a lot was captured by the 1%, much of the rest of the 5% did well too. )  That much I agree with.  But then, what should be done about it?   Doesn't Rajan recognize that the answer to the question might depend on where you sit?  If your lot in life is the middle quintile of the income distribution, would you agree with Rajan's recommendations?

At the same time, since new business ventures are what will create the innovation that is necessary for growth, the United States has to preserve its entrepreneurial environment. Although the political right is probably alarmist about the downsides of somewhat higher income taxes, significantly higher taxes can reduce the returns for entrepreneurship and skill acquisition considerably -- for the rich and the poor alike. Far better to reform the tax system, eliminating the loopholes and tax subsidies that accountants are so fond of finding in order to keep marginal income tax rates from rising too much.

Culture also matters. Although it is important to shine the spotlight on egregious unearned salaries, clubbing all high earners into an undifferentiated mass -- as the "one percent" label does -- could denigrate the wealth creation that has served the country so well. The debate on inequality should focus on how the United States can level up rather than on how it should level down.

Finally, even though the country should never forget that financial excess tipped the world over into crisis, politicians must not lobotomize banking through regulation to make it boring again. Finance needs to be vibrant to make possible the entrepreneurship and innovation that the world sorely needs. At the same time, legislation such as the Dodd-Frank act, which overhauled financial regulation, although much derided for the burdens it imposes, needs to be given the chance to do its job of channeling the private sector's energies away from excess risk taking. As the experience with these new regulations builds, they can be altered if they are too onerous. Americans should remain alert to the reality that regulations are shaped by incumbents to benefit themselves. They should also remember the role political mandates and Federal Reserve policies played in the crisis and watch out for a repeat.

I sure don't.  I think this is hokum.  (For example, in the middle paragraph he talks about the wealth creation that has served the country so well, though earlier in the piece he argues that the trickle down didn't work.)  The structural argument is being advanced, in my view, to allow this hokum to pass as solid recommendations deriving from sensible analysis.   Instead, somebody concerned with structural issues could more credibly argue for these recommendations:

(1) Return to the tax rates when Bill Clinton was President AND close the loopholes.  Then you can tackle entitlements with a reasonable amount of revenue to address the issues. 
(2) Maybe not lobotomize banking but rein it in substantially so there aren't all these financial assets out there that nobody knows how to value.  And restrict the predatory lending to the poor.
(3)  Invest in basic research and infrastructure with a long term - 50 years - view.  We don't know what the next big growth innovation will be.  But we should diligently be planting the seeds so that it is likely to happen.  

It's clear that Conservatives won't like these recommendations.   That's too bad.  If they're going to insist on playing the structural card, that's what they'll get in return. 

Thursday, May 03, 2012


Falls asleep
On the couch.

Rabid press?
Facebook blues?

Get true facts.
Spread the creed.

Rights ideal?
Or ennui?

It's girls rule
And boys drool.

Safety net
Turns to trash.

Better health
Power wills.

The real key,
Knowing when.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012


I've now finished the third in a trilogy of what some might find an unusual set of books to read.  None were planned. The second and third were found by the prior book making interesting reference to it, then trusting the views of the author about the prior book and hence taking the reference as a recommendation to read it.  Done in this way, one reads the works in a reverse chronology.  If I kept to the process for an extended period surely I'd end up with Homer and the Bible.  But for now I will stop with this approach and perhaps return to it after an extended sojourn with other sorts of books.  This summer I plan to have a go at some serious fiction, restricting attention to the twentieth century.  Indeed I've just download Ulysses for the Kindle.  (The price is right - $0.00)

The first book in the trilogy is Eric Hoffer's Between the Devil and the Dragon, a collection of his writings published in 1982.  I wrote about how I came to discover it a couple of years ago.  The trigger was The Quote of the Day:

The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not.
Eric Hoffer
(1902 - 1983)

I don't know that at the time I explicitly made a connection between myself and that gentle cynic, but thinking about it the connection seems straightforward, even if on the gentle front that appears more an aspect of an earlier time.  Now anger seems to fill a greater fraction of my day and with that I've developed an impatience that leads to making a botch of things.  The anger is a caving in to the Devil, as Hoffer describes.  The impatience nonetheless, I had been primed to make the discovery of Hoffer's work.  A few months earlier I was thinking about how religion indirectly enters into the classroom and then what to do about it when it has. Any insight on that issue would appeal to me.  As if by magic, Hoffer's work appeared to satisfy my need.

Each of these works offers up a theory of creativity, though each takes a different perspective.  Hoffer makes repeated mention of the expression, "Man was made in God's image."  He operationalizes the expression to mean that, unlike any other animal, man can create in ways to overcome nature.  Indeed, man must do this in order to survive (food, clothing, and shelter).   But then, possessing this capability, man can more than survive.  Man can advance. Hoffer has a novel approach to why advancement happens.  The strong prefer the status quo, as they do well by it.  It is the weak who want to change things, to improve their own lot.  Among the weak one will have the creative impulse to try something different, something new.  That very well may fail.  Another will have a like impulse and try something different. That too may fail.  Eventually, something is found that works.  When that happens the weak overturn the strong and a new status quo emerges.  It is creativity then that resolves political/economic struggle.

* * * * * 

The next book is Marion Milner's On Not Being Able to Paint, which has recently been re-released, so it is now available in paperback and electronic formats.  I read the earlier hard cover version, which I got from the Campus Library.  The book takes on creativity as self-expression, which is more in accord to how I think of it.  One engages in such creativity perhaps in pursuit of a hobby or sometimes in aspects of work.  Milner is the first person I've read who talks at length about impediments to creativity, specifically fear and anger.  But she doesn't begin with that.  She first takes on the objective/subjective distinction.  She observes that intellectually she wants to be commonsensical and take objective reality for what it is.  But when she does that her painting is dull.  By discovering that perspective matters in viewing objects and then attempting to sketch the perspective she views, she begins to find a way to insert the subjective without entirely betraying her prior intellectual disposition.  Gradually her personality finds its way more and more into what she paints.

Milner has what seemed to me an odd expression - letting her hand do what it wants - in reference to the act of drawing or painting.  This is her way of letting the subconscious find itself in expression.  The objective/subjective tension parallels an internal competition for attention between the subconscious and conscious self.  Milner learns that creativity can be found by unlocking the subconscious.  As rational commonsensical people we tend to keep the subconscious bottled up.  We need to let it out if we are to be creative.

Milner is a cheerleader for intuition as the spark in creativity.  In this she contrasts sharply with Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.  Kahneman depicts intuition in that book as the evil twin.  His focus is on how people process statistical information.   Most of us are not very good at doing that.  We make incorrect inferences quite frequently.  There is no room for the subjective in considering statistical information.  It needs to get out of the way or it will muck things up.  With creativity, however, intuition can shine.  That's where subjectivity belongs.  Milner shows us how. 

Thinking at first that the book was about painting, I struggled to read it, because I don't know much about painting and haven't tried to paint anything as a means of expression since I was a kid.  So I put it down for quite a while, lacking a proper entry into what Milner was writing about and fearful I wouldn't find one as I went along.  Yet I felt some obligation to give it a more serious try.  Eventually, I had another go at it.  Soon after I picked it up again I imposed my own subjectivity and decided she was really talking about any endeavor that involves self-expression.  With that single assumption my experience writing blog posts became relevant and I started to find in her writing many thoughts she expresses that had previously occurred to me.  Among the more apparent are how issues from the rest of her life found their way into her painting, even if only indirectly.  Not until she interprets her pictures for the reader does one see in them what she is getting at, but then the connections become quite clear.  I can't do the analogous thing retrospectively with my blog posts, because I have never kept a journal of issues at work, and when things would get really "interesting" email wasn't a trusted means of communication for me, so though I have kept an archive of  my email it doesn't serve the journaling function for the really emotional stuff.  Nevertheless, on many occasions when something at work was bothering me, I know I'd be aware of it as I constructed the blog post.  I couldn't put it entirely out of my mind.  Further I had to ask myself whether to touch on it or explicitly ignore it, even while subliminally it's impact on my felt tone at the time of writing couldn't be ignored.

Armed with this connection to Milner, I even began to appreciate some of her ideas on painting technique.  On occasion I do consider writing technique issues and then attempt to reconsider my own crafted prose, so it was interesting to read about her attempts at technical improvement of the painting.  I could not read a whole book written on this subject, since it is not a passion.  My focus is on getting the argument/story to be sensible and not worry too much about word choice, sentence structure, and the rest for fear that focusing on it will block more than it will help.  But every once in a while it is worth considering. That is how Milner takes it up in her book, though there is a bit more of it early on.

* * * * *

Creative Experience by Mary Parker Follett is a tour de force of Progressivist thought as well as the third book in the trilogy.  (Page images of the book are freely available online.  It's a bit strange to read them this way especially if you prefer, like me, to have your tablet (or computer) in landscape mode, for then to look at the large size images you have to scroll.   But it certainly can work. The book is also freely available from Hathi Trust, but the previous link is more user friendly, in my opinion, because the rest of the stuff on the screen takes up less space.  I did get a hard copy of the book from the Library; the copyright said 1924, the original publishing date, and the pages felt brittle like they might tear if I wasn't careful with them.)  Creative Experience focuses on the essentials of the Progressivist view, first an epistemology and then a theory of social interaction.  Following that, in the second part of the book, Follett takes up politics and the law as to their purpose.  There is no mention of busting the Trusts nor is there mention of the Income Tax.  There is scant mention of unions and where they do appear they are used as illustrative examples only, not as a cause célèbre.  Follett presents Progressivist thought as an approach that naturally emerges from the then new developments in social science, principally but not exclusively psychology, and she stays true to that throughout the book.  While nowadays we often think of somebody as a Progressive by their stand on a host of issues, using the stance to define the political political philosophy confuses cause and effect.  In this work Follett is not concerned with the effect.  In that way she gets to the core of what Progressivism is about. 

It's somewhat ironic that Milner relies on Follett as her model of good practice.  Milner was a psychoanalyst so was looking for internal explanations to understand what was going on with her painting.  Follett, in contrast, was a social reformer.  In her concluding chapter she makes clear that the main purpose of the book is to offer an upbeat view about how conflict can lead to new understandings and fundamentally new solutions.  The epistemology that comes earlier is given to set a foundation for her views about conflict.  It is not presented as a thing in itself.  Nevertheless, Milner finds Follet's approach entirely sympathetic to her own views.  Milner makes repeated reference to Creative Experience in the second half of On Not Being Able to Paint and often quotes extended passages from Creative Experience in the footnotes.

Follett's conception of experience is essentially dynamic and non-linear.  She regards both subject and object in dual roles - sender and receiver.  Flux is ever present.   There is always motion towards something new.  She refers to the entire system as circular response.  This conjures up admonitions from Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline to take a Systems approach.   That's a management book and Follett has a reputation in some circles as a pioneer of modern management thinking.  So it may very well be that's where she is coming from.    But I think there is another way to effectively regard this approach.  It is an urging to be childlike, with each experience a novelty, wonderful in its fullness.  Between ten and fifteen years ago I had some extended interactions with some faculty in the School of Art and Design.  I recall they used the expression "linear thinking" derisively.  At the time I wasn't completely sure why.  Reading Follett, it makes more sense to me now.  Linear thinking is typically the product of taking an analytic approach, looking at parts of the situation only and abstracting from the rest.  (I'm prone to do this because of my training in economic theory.)  One can miss the forest for the trees as a consequence of taking an analytic approach.  Instead,  it is better to consider the whole of experience.

Follett's two favorite words are integration and interweaving.  By creative experience she means something new emerging from what has been happening.  That something new is a synthesis, but it is not merely a sum of what's come before.  It's novel.  Integration and interweaving are the necessary actions to make this synthesis.  The various separate strands of experience come together in this way.   The process takes time.  Follett imagines a gradual evolution; progress is ongoing.  Further, the process does not terminate.  All of this culminates in the chapter entitled Experience as Creating.  The impatient reader might go to that chapter straight away.  All that comes before it sets the stage, building in a slow crescendo to what's written there.  Reading the preceding chapters in full has the benefit of getting familiar with her approach and coming to accept the wisdom in the way she frames things.  It may be uncomfortable at first, because many of the ideas are likely unfamiliar.  The reader needs time to get accustomed to this way of thinking.

Follett uses this approach to consider conflict anew.  Conflict is not something to be avoided but something that should be cherished in that it's evidence of the diversity in us.  We are not all of one mind.  Let's appreciate that.  Her chapter on Power is worth the read for itself.  She distinguishes between "Power over," which is how most of us think about conflict and how we expect the conflict to resolve, and "Power with," where both sides views are accounted for in the resolution of the the conflict.  This is somewhat like the economic notion of Pareto Improvement, but with one big difference.  Follett emphasizes that the resolution must be found during the process.  It is not available at the start.  Follett's concept has elements of learning in it that are absent in the economic formulation, where the environment is either entirely well known in advance or, if there is some uncertainty, that can be reduced to a vector of parameter values over which there is a prior probability distribution.  In that setting, Bayesian learning is consistent with the economic approach.  But throwing out the model entirely in favor of something else more appropriate is not.  The learning is a critical piece in what Follett is after.  In this sense what Follett is talking about is very similar to Argyris and Schon's Model 2, which features double loop learning - core assumptions are examined and possibly modified or entirely discarded when they are shown to contradict experience. 

I also want to especially recommend one chapter from Part 2 of the book.  It is called The Dynamics of Representation: A Non-Intellectualistic View.  It poses the question: what does representative democracy mean?  In what way do our elected officials represent us?  If the officials engage in creative experience, as Follett suggests they should, the outcome will be power with the opposition, not the triumph of prior held views unbridled.  That would be power over the opposition, which Follett deems as slavery for both the vanquished and the conquerors alike.  It is a false sense of power, in her view.  I found this chapter extraordinarily relevant for today.  We have strayed quite far from the ideal that she develops for us.  Members of Congress would benefit from reading this chapter, as would the entire electorate.

* * * * *

I want to conclude this piece with a brief look at why these readings appeal to me.   One reason is that there needs to be multiple perspectives on what creativity means.  Right now there is a lot of discussion in the popular press about creativity as a certain type of entrepreneurial behavior - the type of creativity that generates new products or services, which in turn will help to make our economy grow.  While admitting there is a need for economic growth, on creativity it is too narrow a conception.  Indeed it doesn't recognize the personal dynamic involved - the role of deprivation and the role of the other emotions, in particular.  And it focuses on the creativity of like minds.  We are a pluralistic society, but we don't seem to know how to be creative in a social setting where that pluralism is a functioning reality.  It is uplifting to read that's what we should be trying to do.

In much of my formal economic training and much of the economics I teach to undergraduates, the approach is essentially static.  (The math, it relies on the implicit function theorem to get the results, is called comparative statics.)  Therefore, it is good to be critiqued by social scientists who are not economists, that the entire formulation is limited (and perhaps suspicious as a result).  I'm not about to abandon my belief in supply and demand or that opportunity cost is an extremely useful concept for considering decision making.  But more and more I question whether the economic frame that I was trained in is sufficient to consider social issues.  This skepticism about economics has been especially pronounced since the financial meltdown, where it seemed economics failed us in understanding prospectively what was happening.  I'm now of the mind that it is better to have multiple frames with which to consider issues, especially issues not so readily packaged within a market perspective.  So I'm self-educating now on the social science that once interested me as an undergraduate.

There is also a recent penchant to try to connect current ideas of mine to experiences in childhood.  I struggled to do this for quite a while with Follett's book.  Then it occurred to me that Follett avers much experience of ordinary people stems from "motor activity."  She finds intellectualism that is divorced from this true experience to be without validity.  When the two are connected it is the motor activity that is primary, in her eyes.  Do recall that she was writing in the early 1920s where most work entailed substantial physical labor.  But perhaps the point make sense even now and that many of us are less creative than we'd like to believe we are because we're sitting on our duffs much of the day with very little in the way of motor activity to generate the real experience.  That's certainly true for me now and has been true for a number of years.

It wasn't so true when I was a young kid.  The first school I went to was called Flushing Progressive.  (Scroll to the bottom of the page and see the ad in the box in middle.)  I went there for nursery school in 1959-60.  I was 4 when I started and 5 when I finished that school year.  We had already moved to Bayside by then so I'm not sure why I went to school in Flushing.  Maybe it's because the school's hours were longer than the kindergarten at the local public school, which I did attend the next year for first grade.  Maybe it's because I was too young to qualify for the regular kindergarten.  And maybe is because the word Progressive in the school's name appealed to my parents sense of what good education was about.  I don't know.

What I do recall is that I met my first real friend there, Wendy.  Our favorite TV show at the time was Fury - The story of a boy and the love for his horse.  (Fury was the horse.  The boy's name was Joey.)  During group play I would be Fury and get on my hands and knees. Wendy would be Joey and get on my back to go for a ride.  This was role playing, to be sure, but in essence it was motor activity.  We enjoyed the play and that way we enjoyed each other.  I have some other memory fragments of that time.  I know Wendy came to our house at least once and I recall us getting some Pez from the candy store on the corner of Bell Boulevard and 48th Avenue.  But this is where my memory goes astray.  Would my parents let two 5-year old kids walk the six blocks to the candy store and buy the candy on their own?  That's what I seem to recall. 

I do have my report cards from that time - obviously meant for my parents, not for me.  My mom had saved them and I took them when my parents moved from Bayside to Florida.  On each report card there are three categories - physical development, intellectual development, and social development, given in that order.  Under each are a few sentences about how I've been doing.  The first one makes it seem that there was also some face to face conversation about me ahead of time, since it refers to "my problem."  (I was a klutz, more so than the other children.  At first, I couldn't carry the tray with lunch up the staircase to where we ate lunch.)  More interesting to me now is whether the style of report reflects some particular educational philosophy.  Can we infer from it that the word Progressive in the school's name is associated with the same Progressivism that we associate with Follett?  Readers of this post who have or had children in pre-school or kindergarten may be better able to assess this than I can.

Much of this is not clear to me.  But the reports do make clear that I progressed.  I have to believe that having done so in those formative years it has made me long for progress during the rest of my life.