Friday, August 31, 2012

Public Syllabi/Microsoft Office for Teaching

I have mixed feelings about the first ten days of the semester, when students are free to add and drop without the instructor's permission.  On the one hand, I wrote this verse last year, which argued that we should get rid of the process entirely.  On the other hand, the likelihood that we'll get rid of this capability is nil, so we should ask how might we make the current practice better.  For students who drop a class and are looking to pick up another it is clear that some want to make that choice by sampling the syllabi of the various alternatives.  Such sampling also could be important for the original registering for class.

As an instructor I know that much of what we do is just in time.  I was re-doing my syllabus the week before the start of the semester.  But for many courses the offering is more mature and teh syllabus doesn't vary that much from one semester to the next.  When this is true, last semester's syllabus has potential value to students who are choosing which course to add this semester.  The issue then is to collect those syllabi and place them in a location where students are apt to find them.  I note that course description information is generally available via the course catalog.  But that information is typically dated and not instructor specific.  Further, it is summary information only.  Recent syllabi would be far more useful to students. 

Not that long ago my department asked instructors to provide syllabi so they could have them on record.  If instructors provided those as links to a public Web document, and if Banner allowed urls in the description field, then there would be a mechanism to achieve the above goal.  Below I will talk more about the expression, "with ifs you can put Paris in a bottle."  So let me say here that I don't know whether Banner has this ability to accept urls.  But assuming it does, the reason that we don't do this is that customary practice hasn't caught up with what the technology can deliver.  Then wouldn't it make sense to try to modify the usual practice? 

Now let me turn to the students who are already enrolled in the class.  At the beginning of the semester it is a good idea that the instructor demonstrate some personal commitment to the student's learning.  One way of doing this is to send personalized messages to the student.  A technology that facilitates such mailings is mail merge.  The Microsoft version is particularly well done and shows a tight integration between Word (where the message is composed), Excel (which keeps the Merge fields and the indiosyncratic information on each student), and Outlook (which sends out the email messages).  It starts in Word, which has a Menu item called Mailings and then there is a particular icon called Start Mail Merge.  It really is simple to do and works quite nicely.  Incidentally, I polled my class about checking email.  They were unanimous on checking at least once a day.  So the claim that email is dead may be over stated. 

Now let me turn to my use of Excel for math  (the math in economics) homework.  Much of what I want to talk about is illustrated in a post about making complex graphs more readable by students.  This were "if statements" come in, big time.  The trick to constructing such graphs is to make each series that is plotted in the graph conditional on the state - the series says one thing if it is to plotted and says a different thing if it is to be hidden.  Since most of my econ graphs plot nonnegative values only, hiding happens by making the entries in the series negative.  In the spreadsheet available at the link, I used the "spin button" as a simple control to change the state.  Upping the state by one would plot one additional series and the student could focus on that particular aspect of the graph.  The student then "builds" the graph by advancing the state. 

In the homework that I've been constructing (the first one is almost done and will be posted later today as long as the storm doesn't knock out the electricity) I've taken this an additional step or two which I find pedagogically pleasing and which is in accord with the vision I articulated in this piece about Dialogic Learning Objects.   There is narrative that gives background.  At some juncture there is a question that asks for the student to evaluate something.  This is a numeric/algebraic evaluation that the student puts into an empty cell situated at the appropriate juncture in the narrative.  (There is a training spreadsheet for how to do these calculations, so students are ready to do the homework.  I plan to go over that training spreadsheet in my next class session.  The file must be download and used with the real Excel.)   Once the students have entered their calculation into the cell, they get immediate feedback - Correct or Incorrect.  If it is correct, then the graph is updated with the information from their calculation and they can proceed further into the narrative.  If it is incorrect, then they must do the calculation over to get a correct answer.

When they've done all the questions correctly, the thing spits out a key, based on their course assigned alias and on their netid.  They enter the key into a Google Form so they can receive credit for doing the homework.  I believe the approach is consistent with FERPA since were little actual identity information is communicated and it is done so in a veiled way.  There is no partial credit.  They only get the key from having completed the entire workbook.  So the incentives are there for them to do that.  The students have also been told that this homework will become the basis for the exams.  So they have incentive to understand the homework, rather than simply to let a friend do it for them.  And the homework is written in a step by step way so as to facilitate that understanding. 

It is laborious to author this way, no doubt.  And I've yet to work on making it simple to take their Google Forms submission and create an entry into the class grade book.  That is next on my to do list.  The real question is whether the product so generated is worth this effort.  So I am much interested in the student reaction to this homework.  In the meantime, however, here's a hats off to Microsoft for providing tools that give this flexibility in use.  Maybe others will want to try similar use on their own. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Though I took the honors Biology course in tenth grade, as an adult my understanding of genetics is borderline ignorant.  My interest does not extend to fruit flies or for that matter to other animal species.  It is restricted to homo sapiens.  And in practice I tend to think of genetics like Neapolitan ice cream.  Each of us is a package of separate flavors.  So you look for a trait in one of your parents and then see if that trait exists in you or in your offspring.  Here's a benign example.  My wife's family is known for having odd shaped calves below the knee - wider than on other persons of their size.  Sure enough, one of my kids has those type of calves.  You can do that sort of thing with other physical characteristics as well - hair color, size and shape of the ears, height, etc.

If you reflect on this view, even for just a little while, you'll come to realize it has severe deficiencies.  One is that the flavors have to be limited in number and sufficiently macroscopic that each can be readily detected when it is realized.  But, for example, consider a painting done in the style of Pointillism.  At a sufficient distance from the painting to recognize the full image it may be impossible to pick out individual dots at all, let alone to determine the color of one.  Might that also be the way it is with traits, the child a very complex amalgam of the parents but with only a few distinctive markings of the parents as individuals?

Another is that it entirely abstracts from nurture.  The idiosyncrasies in the way kids are raised may be as variegated as their genetic composition.  How should one account for that?  As a young man I put in considerable time at the card table along with some additional time studying in my apartment and by doing so was able to get an intuitive feel for determining which way to play a finesse in bridge.  I don't know what analogous experience would provide a similar sort of feel for what happens when the genetics Neapolitan gets combined with the child rearing Rocky Road.  I suspect the possibilities are so numerous as to defy an ability to count them, even approximately.  Contemplating it this way, it seems especially ignorant to try to identify the causality of one parent's genes when looking at the behavior of the child.

The third deficiency regards mutation, which we typically don't detect till we see abnormality in the offspring.  (To me the word abnormal carries a negative connotation, though potentially the mutation could be beneficial rather than deleterious, presumably the driver behind evolution.)  It's hard to know which parent is responsible for the mutation. I'm writing this piece partially as commentary on a NY Times piece, which itself is about a recent article in Nature to the effect that the dad's age matters for whether the child has autism.  (This result is surprising.  It's already well known that the mom's age matters too.)  The critical cutoff seems to be 40 years old.  Dads above 40 face an increasing risk that their child will be autistic.  My dad was 41 when he had me, 43 when he had my younger brother.  I'm the middle child.  My dad was 36 when my sister was born.  I was 37 when my first son was born, so even more of a slowpoke than my dad.  But my wife and I didn't space out the births as much and we were content to stop with two kids.

Let me hold off before discussing my own behavior that is in the autism family and mention the other source that got me thinking about this.  The Charlie Rose show has been doing reruns of their Brain Series and they had a full show devoted to autism.  I had watched it in its entirety when it first aired and watched a good chunk of it again this week.  One thing you get in a second viewing is to focus on some particulars; I noticed that when Asperger's Syndrome came up Eric Kandel made a point of saying it was part of a larger spectrum of ways that autism manifests rather than its own separate syndrome.  That seems to be the current conclusion and I'm fine with that, though when I first learned about Asperger's when my kids were little I was pleased with the diagnosis because a big part of it seemed to be a failure to understand visual/spatial cues the way most people do and the normal response by the person with it is to become very controlling so as to keep the environment stable in a way it can be readily managed.  This diagnosis seemed to fit my mother extremely well.  Most of my life I had thought my mother's domineering behavior a consequence of her having grown up Jewish in Nazi Germany, the need to survive in that environment warping her personality substantially.  So it was something of a revelation that there might be a different explanation, one steeped in family history, one that seemingly connects my children to my parents.

Now let me talk about my own situation in this dimension.  I definitely had the problem of extreme shyness in my teens and early adulthood.  I had a lot of trouble making eye contact, particularly with adults who had some position of authority and whom I otherwise didn't know well.   Without elaborating on the details, as a teen I ended up getting some professional counseling and in those sessions we made a big deal of the eye contact issue.  I was forced to stare at the counselor's eyes as we had our conversation.  Initially this was unnerving.  Eventually I got used to it, which I suppose was the goal of the activity.  However, to this day I don't know whether the discomfort actually went away or if, like Gordon Liddy, the discomfort was still there but I stopped minding.  I do know that while I don't always choose this approach, at an unpleasant committee meeting I can make eye contact with the speaker and lock into that so the speaker soon turns to somebody else who isn't so intently gazing on him.  I also know that I can do this when in the audience of a presentation where in this case the eye contact is meant to be helpful to the speaker to show that I'm paying attention.

For somebody with some aspects of extreme shyness/autism, the eye contact thing really isn't that important.  All it is, in the language we learned from the movie Rounders, is a certain type of tell; it shows the emotional cards the shy person is holding.  The shy person might not even be trying to conceal those cards.  Concealment comes because of shame.  Sometimes the situation warrants that, other times not.  The eye contact thing really matters more to others, who are making some judgment about the person.  It then becomes part of a bigger picture.  Consider this paragraph from a book review about the new biography of Joe Paterno.

What people admired about Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State football coach, was that he communicated a code of behavior that felt as immaculate and timeless as the plain blue and white uniforms his teams wore. He taught his players the kind of Dale Carnegie values that are easy to mock: hustle, discipline, academic achievement, charity, looking people in the eye, showing up on time, making the extra effort. 

What the shy person cares about is that sense of utter dread that arises because the situation seems like it is more than the person can handle.  If the coaching on the eye contact that I received is only a way to mask one of the symptoms, nothing more, shouldn't we consider the root cause?  My question, the one that prompted the title of this post, is what should be done about the dread itself?  Should the person confront his fears, square on, because that's the only way to overcome them?   Or should the person not take on more than he can chew and only very gradually let general maturity help in overcoming the shyness, so as not to become too stressed out and then go over the deep end by taking it on quickly?  Does the shyness disappear entirely when the person has reached a sufficiently mature stage? 

I don't know the answer as to what should be done about the shyness.  Ideally we confront our own fears on our own terms.  Unfortunately, life falls far short of our ideals all too often.  I do know, however, that the shyness doesn't go away entirely.  It may very well be that the dread ceases to be a big problem, but that's because the current situation sufficiently mimics prior experience that there is nothing new to dread.  As we learned in doing hard math proofs, it is sufficient to reduce the situation down to a previously solved problem.  As you get older, more and more of what we do lacks novelty.  Just this week, however, I had one of those new experiences and I was in a complete dread about it.  It regarded my mother's pension in Austria.  I don't speak the language.  Nor do I understand the culture of the people who work for the pension authority or the other people who work for the bank where the pension is on deposit.  A couple of years ago I remember going with my son to the Motor Vehicle Bureau because there was something wrong with his driver's license and he needed to get that adjusted.  He seemed in a panic about having to deal with the people at the DMV, the mindless civil servant who has power over us because we give it to him.  I was exactly the same way with having to deal with the people in Austria.  If I hadn't had my friend Jim with me to make the calls (he speaks German and has spent some time in Austria), I wouldn't have been able to make any progress whatsoever. 

In preparing to write this piece I did a Google search on "shyness introversion autism" (without the quotes).  In common use shyness and introversion are often treated as synonyms, though they are not the same, as this piece from Psychology Today makes abundantly clear.  But the labeling is ultimately not that interesting and for my taste too much of this stuff is written from the vantage of a third party observer.  The real interesting issues are about coping, regardless of the labels.  What works?   We need stories from insiders who have tried things and benefited from their experiments.  Anybody who does social experiments of this sort knows it isn't one success after another.  So we need stories about the failures too.  This is the ought-ism we should have.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On the role of economic rationality in teaching undergradute economics

In graduate school I was trained quite intensively in the "neoclassical model," where individual actors in the economy optimize, their postulated behavior an expression of economic rationality.  It is natural to teach what you yourself were taught.  I have done so for much of my career, even as I changed the courses I taught and even after I had to learn additional economics in order to teach the new course; I nonetheless clung to the tenets of the neoclassical model in my teaching.  Of course, I was aware of alternative approaches.  There were institutionalists to be sure.  The one I knew most about was John Kenneth Galbraith.  I read The New Industrial State as pleasure reading while an undergraduate  (perhaps while in high school, I can't remember).  But as a style of doing economics, the institutionalist approach seemed too touchy-feely.  At Northwestern at the time the program was highly mathematical, at least among the group I became part of.  Then, too, early in the fall of my third year it was announced that Herbert Simon had won the Nobel prize in economics.  This popularized the notions of "bounded rationality" and "satisficing," though at the time I only learned those ideas the way a school child learns, "Columbus sailed the ocean blue..."  Definitions could be recited but there was no attempt to tie those ideas into other economics I thought I understood.

Since then a variety of attacks have been launched on the neoclassical model.  To me, those attacks have mainly been on the mark.   One has been given by Mark Blaug on why static efficiency concepts (Harberger deadweight loss triangles, Pareto Optimality) are essentially useless.  (I discuss some of these issues in my own framing in the beginning of this essay on assessing student learning.)   Instead one wants measures of economic growth, but that issue is hardly discussed in a microeconomics course.  Another critique, on the macroeconomics front, has as its basis the misapplication of the general equilibrium model to the macro-economy (there is no such thing as unemployment in a G.E. model) and the utter lack of forecasting of the recent financial crisis.  The third critique is the one that interests me here.  Let's call it the Kahneman-Tversky critique, named after the authors who have done the most to change the way economists think about decision making under uncertainty.   Kahneman won the Nobel prize in economics in 2002.  (Tversky had passed away by then).  Interestingly, they were psychologists by training.  They had a research interest in how people actually make decisions in the presence of statistical information.  Their work firmly shows that we must reject rationality as an explanation for human behavior in the presence of uncertainty.  Instead, the vast majority of us have something like an optical illusion when it comes to statistical information.  A lot of training (like what I got in graduate school) can encourage more rationality, the popular expression for this now is behaving like an Econ, but even the best trained economists stray from rationality now and then. 

I've recently read Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow which provides an excellent overview of this research as well as providing a reasonable model for our actual behavior.  I wrote several posts that critiqued the early chapters of the book, where I struggled with the approach because I wanted to tie what Kahneman was saying to my views about teaching and learning.  I had no such difficulties with the latter two thirds of the book where the focus is statistical thinking.  There I was in agreement with what Kahneman had to say.  He asserts we have a variety of mental crutches that we use when making choices under uncertainty and in the process of using these crutches we make systematic mistakes.

One of those is to rely on "anchors" and make the choice by considering it relative to a reference point.  Here's a simple and humorous example from Daniel Ariely to illustrate.  If you and your buddies are headed out to a bar with the intent of meeting people of the opposite sex, you will be more successful if your friends are not as good looking as you are - you will benefit from the comparison.  So if you have very good looking friends, interact with them in other settings than dating and mating.  ;-)

I used to argue in my teaching that even if we non-experts weren't rational in our decision making, we could trust that professionals in the field are rational, which is one reason to value their judgment.  Unfortunately, recent research shows that doesn't always seem to be valid.  For example, several empirically minded economists have looked at the decision of coaches in the NFL to punt or go for it on fourth down.  The finding is that that there is systematic bias in favor of punting.  (Along these lines some time ago I did a theoretical analysis about shooting the 3 point shot in college basketball.  The argument I made is that underdogs are risk seeking while favorites are risk averse. So underdogs should go for the 3 pointer in the hope of getting lucky, and the should slow down the game, especially if they get a lead.)

There is an emerging field called Behavioral Economics that stems from the work of Kahneman and Tversky.  The biggest and probably most well known proponent of the field is Richard Thaler, an economist at the University of Chicago Business School.  Thaler along with Cass Sunstein, who has just stepped down as the head regulator in the Obama Administration to return to being a professor at Harvard Law School, are authors of the book, Nudge, which talks about various interventions that one might take to improve people's choices.  For example, it has been shown that in making choices many people accept the default and go with that, whatever it is.   One can increase the individual saving rate with 401Ks rather dramatically simply by making the default that the employee will contribute to the pension plan.  Not contributing then becomes "opt out" and most people don't exercise the option.

Seeing that a behavioral approach can have real economic consequence in areas where the assumption of rational decision making would predict no consequence whatsoever, there is a temptation to want to teach about behavioral economics.  Indeed I offered a course on that in spring 2011.  Unfortunately I stumbled into a couple of issues, one anticipated, the other not.  The anticipated one concerned senioritis.  Attendance dropped below 50% fairly early into the semester.  Many of the students didn't seem very earnest about what they were supposedly learning.  The unanticipated issue resulted from using the Nudge book as the core reading in the second half of the course.  The underlying philosophy to guide the nudges is called Libertarian Paternalism.  It is libertarian in the sense that choice by the individual is retained.  It is paternalistic in that the nudges are defined to achieve some social good defined by other than the individual.  In preparation for the students in encountering this philosophy, I had the students read this piece by Amy Gutmann on paternalism unmodified, with regard to the State's interest in the education of children, and then I had them read the Supreme Court case Wisconsin versus Yoder.  Among those students who were earnestly participating in the class, several reacted quite negatively to these pieces on the merits.  They wanted as little government interference in the ordinary activities of individuals as possible.  From there, they reacted negatively to much that is in Nudge.

So I opted not to teach that course again.  I didn't want to have to do battle with the students on their politics as we were learning the economics.  Instead, last spring I taught a course on the Economics of Organizations.  This semester I'm teaching on the same topic though in a different format.   The environment that organization members operate under is full of uncertainty.  Different members have different information and they may very well also have different agendas for what the organization should be trying to accomplish.   So it is in this setting where I pose the question - what should the role of economic rationality play in teaching such a course?  Below I will list several possible roles, but first I want to offer up this caveat.

I don't know how to teach this course taking a behavioral economics approach.  Therefore I will use behavioral economics only to critique the economic rationality approach, but not to consider good organizational design per se.
  • When I was a campus leader for learning technology, I found that I would frequently build little economic models to provide some explanation for what was really going on with whatever issue I was then working on.  From that experience I conclude that building such economic models is a life skill that students who will be managers one day need to have.  So it is the model building per se and not the particular models we cover that is the real goal. 
  • A good chunk of the course is about how to provide appropriate incentives for employees to put forth their best effort on behalf of the organization as well as to explain why that isn't to be assumed the outcome a priori.  The economic rationality approach to this issue, via the principal-agent model, provides a good first pass at these questions.   
  • We use the economic rationality approach as a baseline from which to talk about reality, which doesn't conform to the theoretical predictions in a variety of ways. We introduce various complexities to make the results more realistic, but we don't model the complexities in a mathematical way, the way we do the basic model.  
  • Students need to learn abstract thinking and model making simply to be able to read stories about economics in the newspaper or in news magazines.  So it is an important life skill for everyone, manager or not.  Economic rationality is at the heart of such economic models. 
  • The ideas of economists have evolved on these issues and not all economists see the world in the same way.  Between the standard principal-agent model and the repeated prisoners' dilemma model, one can capture a good chunk of this varied thinking.  So one uses economic rationality in different frameworks as a way to provide labels/descriptors of the various approaches.  
  • This one goes back to what I started with.  This is how I was trained, so this is how I will teach.  Supposedly I bring some expertise to the endeavor.  Part of that is my experience as an administrator.  Another part is my background as an economic theorist.
I will stick with these reasons for now as they seem sufficient for the time being.  Near the end of the course I want to reconsider them.  I should also add that the above says nothing on how much to emphasize the math.  I will be grappling with that issue too.  My intent now is to be more intensive on the math than I was last spring.  We'll see how that goes.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Stink Tank Mythology

Comparing Congressman Ryan to Patrick Moynihan goes way over the top.  Moynihan was co-author with Nathan Glazer of of Beyond The Melting Pot, an extremely important and influential study about race in New York City.  Moynihan was a full-fledged academic before he launched his political career.

Ryan is a career politician and a Conservative true believer.  Confusing his "wonkish tendencies" for academic disinterest is nothing but hype and hypocrisy.  A disinterested observer of the past decade would have to challenge ideas about less taxation and light or no regulation.  As I've pointed out previously, per capita GDP growth was lower after the Bush Tax Cuts and before the burst of the housing bubble than such growth in the previous three decades.  (See this graph for the details.)   Anybody aware of this fact would have to conclude at a minimum that the relationship between economic growth and income tax rates is more complex than "growth oriented" Republicans would like to have us believe.  Yet they continue with their mantra as if it is the God's truth.  Similarly the massive amount of deception and outright fraud in mortgage lending that fed the housing bubble must at a minimum make one skeptical that such markets are capable of efficient function sans effective government regulation.

People are entitled to believe what they believe.  But when they continue to do so in contradiction to recent experience, let's not call them serious thinkers.  True believer is the correct label.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


On the Sabermetrics versus Mark Twain front, as a fan during the playoffs I'd be on Twain's side.  There were players who were good but not great on a regular basis, but they seemed to have a knack for making an important play in the clutch.  At bat, sometimes it was just hitting a sacrifice fly to get the needed run home.  Other times it was hitting a squibbler through the infield to keep a two-out rally going.  In the field it sometimes meant playing with pain and performing under par, yet giving it 100 percent.  When the Yankees surged in the late 1990s, Paul O'Neill played this role, perhaps along with Scott Brosius.  These players endeared themselves to the fans.

Soon thereafter the Yankees brass decided it needed to go after more "firepower" at the plate.  In short order they acquired Jason Giambi, who was a complete disaster as a Yankee because he couldn't play a lick as a first baseman and his batting average dipped significantly from his Oakland days, this apart from the steroid use, Gary Sheffield, who was reasonably effective with one exception I'll mention next, and A-Rod, the coup de grace.  Sheffield seemed to psych out A-Rod on occasion, because he couldn't replicate Sheffield's ferocity.  Indeed, A-Rod at the time seemed like the anti Paul O'Neill.  In the clutch A-Rod performed anemically, well below his own norms.

A-Rod eventually redeemed himself.  With Sheffield long gone, A-Rod carried the team in the playoffs and World Series during the 2009 season.  He was a horse at the plate hitting long ball after long ball, against very good pitching.  But baseball is a team sport and other players still need to contribute.  On a winning team there is inevitably at least one player in the Paul O'Neill role.  For the 2009 Yankees that player was Melky Cabrera.   The Yankees were generally an older team.  Cabrera brought the force of youth with him.  At the start of the season, Johnny Damon was the regular center fielder.  Sometime in mid season Damon moved to left field and Cabrera took over center on a regular basis.  I remember hearing a Damon quote to the effect that this move made the Yankees a better team.   Certainly it did defensively.  Cabrera wasn't a great hitter.  But in the playoffs he got several clutch hits.

After that season was over you knew the Yankees were going to clean house.  Hideki Matsui was a free agent and so he would need to be replaced, Damon too.  I was okay with that but I really didn't want the Yankees to get rid of Melky Cabrera.  He was just the type of gutsy player the Yankees needed, or so I thought.  The Yankees had other ideas and acquired Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson and they promoted Brett Gardner from within.  Cabrera seemed expendable and went to Atlanta. 

For Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa the consequence of the steroids became obvious on their physiques.  They grew bulkier and stronger.  For a player like Melky Cabrera (or for that matter Curtis Granderson or Alphonso Soriano) with a leaner look, it is virtually impossible for fans to know whether improved performance at the plate is simply a consequence of improved technique from lots of practice with the hitting instructor or if PEDs were involved.  Ultimately major league baseball is a business and the player's principal responsibility is to earn a good enough living that he'll be set for a lifetime.  No doubt that at salary time sabermetrics rules, especially for a younger player.

The real shame here, however, is not that Cabrera fell to temptation.  It is that we seem to have lost the memory of Melky from 2009, when he was the invisible glue that held the Yankees together.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Can Timing Trump Principle?

Joe Nocera argues in his column today that now is the time to have a real debate about the role of the Federal Government and its proper size.  It's hard to disagree with Nocera as a matter of principle.  We certainly do need such a debate.  I've contributed on this front with more than two cents worth, such as this piece on whether it is possible to have thoughtful conversation between Conservatives and Liberals.  But I'm not running for office.  Just because an analysis makes sense to me doesn't mean it would be well received by large chunks of the electorate.

Given the structural issues that do exist in the economy, it is much harder for Democrats to come to a reasonable alternative to the status quo because, invariably, some sacred cows will be gored in the process and parts of the Democratic coalition will then block certain reforms.  This, I believe, is the reason President Obama didn't ultimately support the recommendations of Simpson-Bowles.  Had he done so, he would have generated a lot of heat but not much light.  The Tea Party argument, in contrast, is simpler - gut a good chunk of what government currently does. There is the further issue that the addressing the structural deficit problem too soon will have the consequence of delivering a Keynesian stimulus in reverse.  The current sluggishness of the economy gives political cover to Democrats who don't want to trim Federal spending as a long term proposition. 

For these reasons I think Democrats need to have an internal debate first.  That will take sufficiently long that it won't conclude before the election.  So I would say put off the whole thing till after the election but go all in on trying to beat Romney-Ryan, because the consequences of them winning the White House would be dire.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Rock Music from My Graduate Student Days

The last night we were in DC the family went to dinner with a couple of my graduate school classmates and their spouses.  We had a really good time catching up and reminiscing.  Afterward, on the trip back home and the slow days that followed as I regained my equilibrium, I thought a lot about that time in graduate school, not so much about the academics per se but about the people I met and some of the experiences I had.  For some reason that triggered thoughts about music.

While living in Chicago I was a regular listener to WXRT, which seemed like a big city equivalent of WVBR, the station I listened to as an undergrad in Ithaca.  I mainly listened to the radio while driving to and from NU or to go to dinner at somebody's house.  I remember listening to the radio in the car.  Perhaps I also listened in my apartment, but I've got no memories of doing that.  Below is a short list, of the songs I can remember that were played repeatedly. 

So Into You - Atlanta Rhythm Section
Werewolves of London - Warren Zevon
You're No Good - Linda Rondstadt
Radar Love - Golden Earring
Pigs - Pink Floyd
Midnight at the Oasis - Maria Muldaur
Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen
Do You Feel Like We Do - Peter Frampton

There were, of course, many others.  Thirtyfive years later it's hard to parse in my head what I listened to mainly in Ithaca and what was mainly in Chicago.  Billy Preston, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne are each in that category as is a lot of earlier rock.  There must have been a fair amount of Blues music, especially Muddy Waters and B.B. King, but again I can't remember hearing it on the radio.  And I don't remember whether WXRT played the BeeGees and other disco.  Nevertheless, somehow I became aware of that and I do remember hearing a lot of the Captain and Tennille doing Love Will Keep Us Together, yet it doesn't fit in with the above.  It feels as if that song was from AM radio.

What I do remember hearing on FM then, I still like.  What does that signify?  When I first came to Champaign I listened to WPGU a fair amount.  But either their programming changed or as I aged I lost my taste for (then) current rock.  

You can't turn back the clock.  But sometimes remembering is a good thing.  It's got me wondering of how then connects to now.  I'm sure it does but that path remains murky for me.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Return of the Invisible Handshake

This is a good piece to read but Nocera is wrong about this being a new movement.  It is a return to the Arthur Okun view of capitalism.  It would be very good if the entire economy embraced that.  It's not only about the ownership of publicly traded firms.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Economy Rhyme Time

Here's a little riff
On the fiscal cliff.

The business dread,
Keynes back from the dead.

On tax and spending
A good mixture blending

Calls for total dread
Nothing else instead.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Replacing iGoogle

The family is taking a few days of R&R in DC starting tomorrow.  So today, instead of preparing for my class this fall, which would have been the responsible thing to do as the semester is rapidly approaching, I spent a good chunk of the day looking for an iGoogle substitute.  Apparently it is going away next year.  In my futzing around I was looking into seeing whether I can duplicate all the function I've currently got and in a reasonably easy to do way.  The bottom line is that I couldn't.  In some cases I could make substitutes that were more or less close to what I've got in iGoogle.  I will detail some of my efforts below and give some comments about whether I view those substitutes as adequate.

I tried two different alternatives: (1) Blogger and (2) Google Sites.  I don't know if anything I write here will get read by folks at Google, but if it does one message I'd like to see delivered is that one or both of these other tools should be built up a bit more before iGoogle is is permanently closed. That would help users like me make the transition readily and thereby stay loyal to the company.  

For anyone who'd like to compare what I've done to the original I have in iGoogle you can download my settings file and import it into your own iGoogle.  It won't be identical to what I see, because what some of the gadgets show depends on that person's login.  But it will show enough so you can get an idea.  I want to compare that to this Blogger page, which I created today.

The two biggie items are the Gmail Gadget and the Google Calendar gadget, but let me start with something that should be simpler, rss feeds.  The iGoogle gadget for an rss feed is actually quite slick, at least compared to the alternatives available.  Items in the iGoogle gadget feed are shown with the subject header and a triangle next to the header.  If you click the triangle then the feed expands to include the text and images from that post, along with any hyperlinks.  So you can read the full post right in iGoogle, but if you are done with it you can click the triangle again and the post rolls back up so all you see is the header.  The gadget can accommodate up to 5 items that way. 

Google Sites is a bit better than Blogger for rss feeds at present.  There is no little triangle to click but you can choose either no summary, a partial summary or the full post.  The basic rss gadget for blogger does post titles only, no summary whatsoever.  Then there is a different gadget specifically for feeds from Blogger blogs.  I've got one of those for the Lanny on Learning Technology blog.  (I want that gadget to know when the most recent post has updated and appears.  So that gadget works like the one in Google Sites, but it does so only for Blogger blogs.  Since I do want to see summaries and sometimes the full post, for other rss feeds I used RSS to Javascript and then used the HTML/Javascript gadget.  That works reasonably well, but it is an additional step to generate the Javascript and now there are more possible ways that something can go wrong.   When things go right this solution is an okay substitute for iGoogle, but it does take up more vertical space, which is unfortunate.

Let me observe one more thing about RSS that simply didn't occur to me before trying this.  One of my favorite feeds is the Quote Of The Day.  Perhaps once every couple of weeks there is a quote I'll use in my own writing.  The RSS feed for it, unfortunately from my point of view, has ads.  It turns out the NY Times main feed has ads as well.  The iGoogle gadgets for these are without the ads.  How that is possible, I'm not sure.  I understand the providers of the content need the ads, but as viewer of the content the ads lessen the experience.  For the Quote Of The Day, I decided to simply grin and bear it, but move the feed lower on the page so I have to scroll to read the items. For the New York Times, I discovered that the feed for the Global Edition doesn't have ads.  So I switched to that.  Of course the content is different too.  But when I click through to the paper I then get to see the items I've missed.

Let me switch now to the Weather gadget which I got from  Google Sites does have a recommended weather gadget, but the default is to give the weather for NYC and my experience was that even when I put in my own location for the weather if I reloaded the page it would return to the default.  So instead I created an account at to get a badge for my location.  The code for that needs an HTML/Javascript gadget.  It works fine in Blogger, and is in the right sidebar of my page.  It didn't work in Google Sites.  I'm guessing it had some code that Google Sites doesn't accept.  You'll also notice a Dow Jones Industrial Average gadget in the right sidebar, if you scroll down further.  I didn't even try that one in Google Sites.  That it does work in Blogger has me thinking that's what I'll use when push comes to shove.

Now let me turn to the Google Calendar gadget.  It is very nice.  It shows upcoming events in a list as well as the calendar.  It is quick to scan for what's upcoming today or in the next few days.  Moreover, via the sync with outlook, this is really the same as looking at my outlook calendar.  So I like that gadget a lot.  The alternative is to embed the actual Google Calendar via an iFrame.  I've put that in the middle, in an actual blog post, because that is wider than the sidebar.  It is okay.  By switching views I can see what's coming up.  But it requires a couple of clicks where before it was immediate. 

The Gmail gadget is also very nice.  In this case my gmail account is not connected to my Outlook so this is only mail that is unrelated to University business.  Nevertheless, I'd like to monitor it.  But there is no gadget that let's you do that in either Blogger or Google Sites, as far as I can tell and I did try this for several hours.  Google sites says it has a gadget to let you log into Gmail.  But I couldn't see how to configure it for that purpose.  So I've put Gmail into my bookmarks gadget and will try to remember to right click the link and open Gmail in another tab.

Can I function this way with Blogger as an iGoogle substitute?  Yes, I can.  Will I be happy about switching away from iGoogle?  No I won't.  Perhaps with the economy the way it is everyone is defining progress down, Google included.

Friday, August 03, 2012

The Newsroom - My Take

Jeff Daniels is a month younger than me.  Somewhere (but where?) I know I've written that for people my age I used to believe that what they can do I should be able to do too.  Yet the character he plays in the show, Will McAvoy, does some things as part of his ordinary function that I'm sure I couldn't do.  One is to keep an earpiece in during the broadcast which is a one-way pipe from the show's executive producer, who on occasion articulates aggressive instructions, and yet not respond back but nevertheless formulate original questions for the guests on the show.   Another is to have in the workplace mainly people who are half your age with very few peers age-wise or experience-wise.  The lead-in of the show has first Edward R. Murrow and then Walter Cronkite.   Murrow was before my time but with Cronkite I did watch his show.  So I know there was also Harry Reasoner, Roger Mudd, Dan Rather, many other seasoned reporters and as commentator Eric Severeid.  That's an awful lot of experience in a certain style of reporting.  In The Newsroom that experience seems lacking.   Perhaps that's closer to reality nowadays, especially for a cable network that is "up and coming."  I don't know.  I do think I'd have trouble  in such a setting where there is a need to supply sensibility and journalistic backbone.  I'd want to test my thinking with other senior leaders rather than have the burden squarely on my shoulders.

For actual TV news, my loyalty is to the PBS NewsHour, but the viewing has been less satisfying as of late.  As a rule they do better on international news or on domestic news stories that don't concern domestic politics.   Their stories about domestic politics feel forced and incomplete.  On the international stories the guests are often experts who are external to the situation.  When this is the case the guests usually agree with one another and support the points made by the other.  As a viewer one typically has the feeling that there is a value add in these segments.  This guest opinion frequently gives insight that haven't already been obtained beforehand from elsewhere.  On the domestic politics, however, the experience is quite different.  There are frequently elected representatives on the show, in which case there surely is both a Democrat and a Republican.  They often disagree and mainly seem to speak from a script.  The NewsHour interviewer maintains steadfast neutrality in this disagreement.  As a consequence there seems to be an absence of tough follow up questions.  When one of the guests makes a point attacking the other side, the interviewer simply passes the point as a question (....what about....?) to the other representative.  The response often doesn't actually address the question but does give the speaker time to echo the party line on the issue.   It would be far better to have consecutive but separate interviews, one with the Democrat, the next with the Republican (or vice versa), with the interviewer somewhat skeptical in approach in each interview.  The Fourth Estate is supposed to be a counter force to political power; so the skepticism would be in keeping with that.  I can only guess at to why the consecutive interview approach is not taken - somehow it would be criticized as unfair. 

I wonder how many viewers of The Newsroom also watch the PBS NewsHour.  In any event, I think this HBO series takes as its main premise that many of the viewers are like me dissatisfied with how domestic politics gets reported on the news and would like to see a substantive improvement.  Further, having been a huge fan of The West Wing and not having found something after it ended that fits the same viewing need, particularly in terms of pace of dialog and juxtaposition of the various subplots, I think the main other premise is to give West Wing fans what they want in terms of style of show, though in an entirely different context.  On this the show delivers. 

However, there seem to me to be a variety of important background issues that the show avoids that make it too less than completely satisfying.  Television is probably not a good medium for investigative journalism.  In many cases good sources, insiders who know the truth about something important, want to preserve their anonymity.  They don't want to go on the air for an interview.  They "leak" information, typically information that is damaging to power.   Their motives may be public spirited or sinister or still something else and that impacts their credibility.  A good reporter understands that's a big issue and therefore tries hard to triangulate the information via multiple independent sources, if at all possible.  TV news wants sources who will go on the record.  Therefore TV news has a bias away from investigative journalism and toward news about publicly available events where there are spokespersons or about news analysis where the source are experts who are not insiders. 

A second issue relates to wanting to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on a story rather than provide a more nuanced view with multiple perspectives.  This desire for a summative judgment on a story is exacerbated in The Newsroom by Will McAvoy being a former prosecutor and taking a prosecutorial style in his interviews.  In reality TV news is biased in this direction because of the relatively short segments which in themselves preclude getting a deeper understanding of what is going on and the need to present expert evidence in a way that it is accessible by a layman.  In other words, a social scientist expert on an issue may in her own research refrain from a summative judgment because of the underlying complexity of the situation, but TV news in particular wants to force a quick conclusion.  If The Newsrorom is supposed to be a tonic for the PBS NewsHour as well as for Fox News and MSNBC, it needs to recognize the limitations of the medium that make it similar to the latter two, even when not trying to do so.

A third issue is on the question "what is news?"  The various networks engage in a kind of Hotelling Competition and in that way end up covering essentially the same stories.  There may be a race for which station is first with a particular story or which can present its news analysis in the most appealing way.  But you don't get much variety regarding topics by switching channels.  When the story is an earthquake or a set of tornadoes, this is understandable as the destruction done is compelling news.  Otherwise, it is far less clear.  The Newsroom makes a point about how that station covers the news, in contrast to how the other stations do it.  But it makes no claims about what to cover.  I have to wonder why.

I thought the show was okay on the issue that nowadays, in our increasingly plutocratic society, power is frequently private rather than governmental in its origin, and that as a commercial enterprise the news network might very well find conflict of interest over a story about a person or corporation with which the network has a business interest.  Here okay means the issue was raised, at some length, early on in the series.  No real solution is presented, but it may be that no real solution exists.  I thought there was some irony in casting Jane Fonda in a cameo role as the owner of the network.  In a former life she was known to be quite critical of people in power.  She was reasonably good as the owner, whose business interests seemed equally important or more important than her ethical judgments.  The owner's character seems to be the lynchpin on this issue.  Given the social importance of an independent fourth estate that operates with integrity, it certainly appears to be a fragile mechanism for delivering the public good.

Let me conclude on a mildly frivolous note.  Aaron Sorkin seems to think with economists you can fantasize in ways to give them superhuman powers.  In The West Wing, President Bartlet was a Nobel Prize winning economist in addition to being a politician.  In the Newsroom Sorkin again lets his imagination run away with him by having an economist as commentator, Sloan Sabbith, who is also a very attractive woman.  She is hired for the show because she combines these two elements.  Curious on this point, I did a Google search.  Evidently, it's a thin market (ha ha)!  Taken Sorkin's fantasizing to heart, perhaps next up are economists who double as TV or film critics.  For the time being, I seem to have that market cornered.