Friday, January 31, 2014

Maybe February will be better

The forecast today is for snow.
I'd like to tell it where to go.

Later tonight it's a wintry mix,
Another prediction I'd like to nix.

Why can't the wind blow from east to west?
Send the moisture where it'd do best.

Either too much precip or a draught
It's such extremes global warming is about.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Light at the end of the tunnel

Here's to granite countertops
Once installed construction stops

Yet with still much time to think
How much I miss the kitchen sink.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Do the kids have rulers?

Arne Duncan has an Op-Ed in the WP this morning about our mediocre educational achievement, as measured by the NAEP. While reading this piece it occurred to me that most people my age don't have a sense of the NAEP because we didn't take it when we were in grade school.  So to satisfy my curiosity I went to the NAEP Web Site.  To have a look see, in the sidebar on the left with the pale blue background I found a link to Sample Questions, Analyze Data, and More.  Then on the next screen I clicked Questions Tool in the main section.  Then again Questions Tool and then Mathematics.  There are questions for the fourth grade.  Below is a screen shot of question 10 - draw a line segment of a given length.  (The screen shot shows only the top part of the box where the line segment is to appear but otherwise contains all the information that the question provides.) 
I've also provided a link to a larger view of the screen shot because the font is small below.

Full sized screen shot

The question is from last year's test and is rated hard, meaning most students didn't get it.  Here's my little analysis of it.

Q:  At what age do students first learn to use a straight edge to draw a line segment?  (People who were in fourth grade or thereabouts in 1963-64, do you have any recollection of doing this at school?)
A:  My memory of this is poor but it seems to me we would have done this in art using crayons.

Q:  Another and perhaps more subtle part of the question is that the length to draw is not an integer value.  So the student needs to know fractions and to read tick marks on the ruler to get the right length.  When did we learn fractions and to read the tick marks on the ruler?
A:  I'm pretty sure I did multiplication and division in 3rd grade with Mrs. Minsley.  So it makes sense to me that I learned fractions in 4th grade.  But I've got no clue about when my cohort learned to read a ruler's tick marks.  Again, that seems like something we'd do in art rather than in math.

The question wants the students to plop one corner of the ruler at point A, the corner coinciding with 0 inches.  Then the corner should be aligned so that increasing the number of inches keeps the line segment in the box - either moving down and to the right or straight down.  This seems quite straightforward now, but would it seem that way to a fourth grader?

Some reasons for getting the question wrong when the students conceptually understands what is at issue.

An answer is marked correct if the drawn line segment is within 1/4" of correct.  It's possible for the student to understand what's going on but make an error in construction that leads to a greater than 1/4" deviation.  Some of these errors I believe I might have made.
  • Parallax 1 - The ruler starts out near A but not at A
  • Parallax 2 - The segment ends either longer or shorter than required because of the angle the pencil is held.
  • The ruler slips during the construction
  • A mistake is made on the tick marks.  Here I want to note that fourth grade is when I first got glasses.  So it is possible that I could have made a visual error, rather than a conceptual one.
  • The student read the question wrong and draws an integer-valued length instead.
I have some report cards of my performance from these years.  They don't speak much at all to math, but on reading there are emphatic statements about needing to be more careful and not jump to conclusions.  One of my kids had similar issues when he was in grade school. 

Do we have a sense why most students are missing this question?

I made a point of emphasis above that for me the requisite skills were probably learned doing art rather than doing math.  But are kids doing as much art these days?  One gets the impression that they aren't.  Is anybody making the argument that art and math are tied in this way?

One more thing

Teachers who have enough job security that they can talk openly about these issues might want to opine whether they feel the NAEP offers an accurate assessment of their students' capabilities.  I would like to see some discussion about the standardized tests we took then (I believe in the NYC public schools that I attended those were called Iowa Exams) in comparison to what we have now.  And I'd like to see this done both on the fairness of the test issue and on how performance has changed longitudinally.  The sense one has is that things have gotten worse, but how things look depends on where you sit. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Healthcare and learning technology, i.e., HIPAA crit

     With all the new technology everywhere you look, why is it that intelligence in using it is so rare?
                                        --- me

I visited Carle's Convenient Care a week ago Tuesday.  The visit itself went reasonably well.  Some of the details will be included below, but just to explicate the learning technology issues.  Yesterday, I received an email with a link to a survey about the visit.  I suppose that receiving the survey is an adjunct of my using the MyCarle portal for communication about my health information.  I wanted to be cooperative so I started to complete the thing.  But I found it so poorly constructed that after it rubbed me the wrong way initially I got more and more dismayed until I became completely disgusted, at which time I closed the browser without submitting it.  This post considers what purpose a reasonable alternative survey might address and how that purpose might be designed into the survey.

There are some visits to the doctor that really are one and done.  One evening when the kids were young, my wife was doing something away from home so I brought the boys over to Burwash Park to play.  There is a wooden structure and one of the boys got a splinter by dragging his hand over it.  My wife not being around and she being the splinter remover in the family, I needed an alternative solution to the problem.  So I took the kids to Convenient Care.  I was hoping a nurse would help us.  But it wasn't very crowded and we actually saw a doctor.  She had the hand soak for ten minutes and then removed the splinter without causing additional pain for my son.  Wunderbar!  I don't even think they charged a co-pay for that.  I'd give a big thumbs up all around.

There are other visits to the doctor where a return visit is unlikely, but where a treatment is required to provide a remedy.  For example, the patient goes to the dermatologist because of a rash on his wrist that itches and annoys him.  The doctor prescribes a cream to be applied topically twice a day for three weeks.  After two weeks or so the patient should have a reasonably good idea whether the treatment is effective.  This is a good time to survey the patient, who can then reconsider the office visit in light of the treatment.

Most of the adult medicine I've experienced has been for chronic conditions, such as my arthritis.  The most recent visit happened because the arthritis became activated in a new site - my neck and left arm.  And just like the first time arthritis was identified in December 2009, when what I had thought was sciatica proved to be arthritis and bone spurs in both hips and the lower back too, this time around I thought it simply was a bad stiff neck that resulted from having my head at an awkward angle while sleeping.  I might have been less clueless when it didn't go away after a few days, as stiff necks usually do, but instead I was confused and anxious.  Chronic conditions require diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, and coping strategies.  Further there must be periodic reassessment because the situation is not static.  Part and parcel with all of this is learning - for the patient and the healthcare provider.  That learning is facilitated by dialog between the two.

Do's on the survey

1.  Ask questions about what the patient cares about - his medical situation.
2.  Situate questions about the care received in light of the patient's medical situation.
3.  As a practical matter, (1) and (2) above imply few if any Likert-style questions and at least one and perhaps a few short paragraph questions.
4.  Conceive of the survey as part of the dialog, with the aim of improving care for this patient and other patients as well who are in similar situations.
5.  Share findings with patients, both participants and non.

Don'ts on the survey

a.  Ask questions about the consultation and care the patient received in a manner disembodied from the patient's medical situation.  The patient has no reason to provide this information.
b.  In an undifferentiated way ask about what  the nurse did and what the doctor did.  Their roles are different.  The questions need to be written in a way that reflects this.
c.  Use the the survey responses as thumbs up or thumbs down indicators on the providers' performance.  Take a clue from Higher Ed where Course Evaluation Questionnaires are used for this purpose, but are ineffective.  The students don't want to complete them and they lead to grade inflation.
d.  Collect information that nobody will look at.
e.  Collect information that is already available by other means.

Let me review my recent visit and follow up in light of the above.  The only part of the visit itself that could have been done better happened between when I first saw the doctor and when they took me to do x-rays.  Apparently there was a queue for that.  I stayed in the examination room for about a half hour and then decided to find out what was going on for myself.  By coincidence, they were coming to take me to x-ray just then.  It was annoying not knowing about the queue, but it didn't have any impact on the diagnosis whatsoever.  In other words, it was small potatoes.  If the information is collected with no reference to the patient's medical situation, and some of this information is patient attitude about the visit, then it may not be possible to distinguish small potato causes of patient attitude from more serious concerns.  That's just bad social science.

The doctor told me at the time that while she would do a cursory read of the x-rays then and there, to come up with an immediate treatment for the pain, their standard process was for an orthopedist to do a more in depth review, write a report, and then they'd contact me with the results.  Those results were more detailed but essentially confirmed what the doctor first told me.  They also were written in a way that I couldn't decipher them, which speaks to the next issue.

Because I had gone through the ringer after my rotator cuff repair last year (for the other arm) I was and remain extremely reluctant to find a surgical solution to the current issue.  So when the doctor suggested to schedule a follow up visit on my behalf, this time with my primary care physician, I rejected that offer as I feared it would accelerate matters toward surgery.  In retrospect, my decision was a mistake.  The doctor prescribed an anti-inflammatory drug - helpful for dealing with the pain but not useful for addressing the underlying cause.  That does need to be addressed and having realized that I've since scheduled an appointment with my primary care doctor.  But what if I hadn't changed my mind?  Should the process be neutral on that score?  Or should it prod me to be more pro-active?  That's the sort of question which is important to consider when looking at the survey as a piece of the overall information flow.

Finally, let me turn to the HIPAA crit part of my post title and tie that to part (e) of the don'ts list.   At the beginning of the form, they asked for a variety of pieces of information that together amounted to pinpointing when my appointment occurred.  One of those was the date.  They asked me to type that in even though it was already included elsewhere on the form!

It's harder for me to tell whether they could readily get the rest of the information they asked for some other way.  All the information is collected when you sign in for Convenient Care and make your co-pay.  Is any of that information actually HIPAA protected?  I really don't know.  The survey itself was not administrated by Carle but rather by a third party and even if that information flow is not HIPAA protected it may be sensible to not share it.  (Credit card information is often collected as part of making the co-pay.  If sharing appointment date information would put the credit card info more at risk, then not sharing the appointment date info makes sense.)

But it's also true that Carle itself tends to blithely ignore the impact on the patient from asking for the same bits of information again and again.  Immediately after checking in at Convenient Care, the patient is given a form on a clipboard to write up what the problem is for the nurse.  There is much duplication here with what is provided in check in.  In my head I've rationalized this because the second tome around all the information provided is hand written and there is no ready way to combine the novel bits with the stuff previously provided that is in digital form at this point, though I'm not sure I believe my own rationale here.

After my vitals were checked, I was surprised that the nurse asked me for my preferred pharmacy for picking up prescriptions.  Carle has had that information on me for years.  For whatever reason, that information wasn't shared with Convenient Care.  I have no idea why that's true, though it is evident that on a transaction by transaction basis it is far less costly to ask the patient for the same information over and over again.

But overall doing so conveys the impression that the data flows within the organization haven't been well managed.  Likewise, returning to the design of the survey, asking the patient for what appears to be redundant information creates the appearance that survey design wasn't well considered.  So if the data actually can't be had in other ways and if it really is necessary to collect, then the patient is owed a brief explanation as to why and that explanation should be included in the survey right before those questions are asked.

Treat the survey participants as adults and show respect for their time and effort in completing the survey.   It's the critical aspect of survey design.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Comfortably Numb

Today marks the start of week two on the prednisone regime.  I started with three pills a day for five days.  This is now the third day of two pills a day.  After that there are five more days for weaning off the drug with one pill a day.  No cure will be had.  But perhaps the inflammation will have subsided enough to return closer to normalcy (typing with both hands, for example).  In the meantime, it has forced its own accommodations.  And coupled with the dislocation imposed by our house renovation, it has encouraged me to think through some of my habits and whether they support what I want to be doing with my time or if instead those habits remain as vestiges of a different time when perhaps they served a needed purpose but are hurting me now.

The main adjustments have come from hanging out on campus during the day rather than staying at home.  This impacted the rhythm of eating - no snacks between meals and no fridge raids for breakfast or lunch.  Where eating is concerned, a sensible approach will only follow for me if a lead-us-not-into-temptation philosophy is implemented first.  When I was single, I might have done that in my condo simply by not keeping junk food in the place and not having a bunch of leftovers hanging around.  Now, getting away from home during the day looks to be the safety play.  It is not clear to me yet whether I'll maintain the resolve to do that once I can return to my home office, with the annoying construction noise no longer present.  But it is a question I've been asking myself the last few days.  Is this a wake up call for the rest of my life?

The other big change regards alcohol consumption.  With the prednisone I stopped drinking - almost.  I don't know if this is generally true or not, but for me there is a negative feedback loop between  drinking and eating during the evening, with more of one encouraging more of the other.  This past week I've been a good boy for the most part and lost 7 pounds, I believe totally a consequence of reduced volume in consumption and not at all about a different mixture of foods consumed.  Do that for four or five more weeks and I will reattain my weight in high school, for nine or ten weeks the weight when I was married.  While achieving both of those milestones would be rewarding, what I'd really like to know is how much weight loss is needed so that the bulk of the pain in my hips and lower back is no longer present.  I'm hoping that's of the same order of magnitude.

The pain is the result of arthritis and bone spurs, and on occasion radiates down further in the legs.  Yesterday it was comparatively mild outside, almost 40 degrees, so I opted to go for a walk.  My route started out of BIF, then south on Sixth Street to Pennsylvania, and then east to Lincoln, the point that should be about halfway for the round trip, not quite a mile from where I started.  I felt a bit of pain during this but it is not too bad and I was able to keep a steady pace, with my hopes rising that if I just keep at it the pain would not interfere further.  While turning north on Lincoln headed to Nevada, I began to tire and the pain gradually increased as a result, both in the lower back and in my neck/left shoulder.  The walking became more labored.  By the time I was headed west on Nevada I knew I was not going to make it all the way back to BIF without taking a break, so I planned for a place where I could crash for a few minutes and recuperate.  I opted for the first floor lounge of the Foreign Language Building.  If memory serves, it has comfortable padded chairs.  Alas, FLB was locked, it being a school holiday, Martin Luther King Day.  By the time I discovered that I had hardly any reserve left so opted for a quick and dirty solution.  I sat on the low flat stone benches outside of FLB for about ten minutes before making it back to BIF.  In the summer this would have been no big deal at all.  In January it felt a little weird.

Partly for this reason I've opted to do most of my walking as of late on the treadmill.  (The other reasons are to avoid the inclement weather, to go a little faster where I hope to get some aerobic benefit as a consequence, and once in a while because I'm into a program for which we have the DVDs and want to watch an episode.)  My habit when doing the treadmill is to have both hands on the handrails.  This helps with keeping balance.  It also lets my arms bear some of my body weight that my back would have to bear otherwise.  Until recently, it has worked reasonably well.

The first several days of prednisone had been quite effective.  By Saturday I was feeling almost no pain at all.  So I opted to do the treadmill in the manner I described in the previous paragraph.  This was a horrible mistake.  Since making it I've concluded that the prednisone is very good in clearing up an inflammation already created.  But it does nothing to address the source of the inflammation itself, so that whenever the arthritis gets itself riled up, and doing the treadmill as I did was more than sufficient to accomplish that, then the cycle repeats itself.  A couple of hours after finishing the treadmill my left shoulder started to hurt.  As that intensified my willpower started to break down.  That evening I had a few martinis, whether as consolation prize or distraction.  But I've been back on the straight and narrow since.

There is one more component to offer up for a full description of the abyss, before I can discuss the return from it and how that might be possible.  This regards sleep, really lack thereof.  Pain blocks it from happening and also can cause me to awaken in the middle of the night, when what had been a comfortable position no longer is.  With this recent episode, the pain migrates, making staying asleep more of a challenge.  The drink may help with getting to sleep initially, but it has to be making the sleep less restorative, thereby perpetuating the rest of the negative feedback loop.  I can't say that I've solved the sleep-through-the-night issue but I do feel more clear headed now and far less fatigued during the day.  It's not been long enough to know if those feelings will sustain provided I adhere to the more healthful regime.  But if that's possible and post prednisone the pain remains manageable, then the preconditions will exist for a viable alternative path for me.

Not all acts of providing comfort, whether vegging out in front of the TV, having a good meal with family, or relaxing over a drink with friends need be part of a descending spiral.  At this juncture most people will talk about finding balance - moderation in all things.  That matters, of course.  But the reason for seeking comfort matters too.  Having belabored consideration of physical pain as a reason, let's briefly consider a couple of others.  One is to recharge batteries - mentally and physically.  We can't always be on and after putting in an intensive effort over a sustained period it's time for some rest and relaxtion.  It would be nice for that to include some vigorous exercise as a component.  But really, it should run the full gamut because the variety aids in the re-invigoration.  The other possibility is to use comfort to offset an apparent stress.  If the source of stress is temporary and the obstacle is then overcome, why not celebrate that a little?  But if there is ongoing frustration with no sign it will relent, then it may take more and more of the food and drink to feel properly compensated for having to endure the stress.  What may start out innocently enough can then descend into a vicious cycle.

My experience as an academic is that the two sources are temporally separated.  In teaching or in giving a talk at a seminar, I as presenter would get keyed up and would stay that way for perhaps a few hours after.  In that interval of coming down, going for a walk, having a treat with a friend to talk about whatever the friend wants to discuss, or doing some interaction other than one's own research is perfectly okay.  Research for me demanded entire weekends or if not that then a full day with nothing else on the agenda.  And since the paper I'd be writing would take months in coming up with the full model, in order to not reinvent the wheel each time I resumed working on the paper I'd have to find a good place to leave it rest, with the interim results well in hand.  All of that took considerable effort and relaxing after made a lot of sense.  The real stress, especially for an assistant professor, is about whether tenure will be granted.  Writing early papers that stress is pretty much out of mind.  And if you are lucky enough to get some good placements with those first papers, it may remain out of mind when crafting subsequent papers.  During the year when your case is considered, the stress is unavoidable and becoming neurotic is a natural byproduct.  This is a time for excessive pampering.  But it is also likely to be temporary, especially if tenure is granted.

It is different being an administrator.  There are many more balls being juggled.  One does not have the option of returning to a cocoon-like existence (though see Frank Bruni's column today for how even the President of the United States wants to do just that).  If a ball drops the blame will soon follow.  Progress can still be a source of great satisfaction.  But gridlock coupled with animosity among the participants can rip you up inside.  This is when hardly any source of comfort is sufficient. 

Though I made plenty of mistakes in juggling balls at work, the greatest error by far was not attending well to my physical health.  I had been something of a jogger since starting at Illinois and it helped maintain my well being into the late 1990s, though I did begin to put on weight when the kids were young, perhaps beginning in 1995.  Jogging was a great equilibrator and the whole experience - getting to the gym, doing the run, having a shower and sauna after, and then getting back to the office - would take less than two hours, so could be managed at one end of the day or the other.  But eventually my knees started to hurt and jogging stopped being the solution.  Several people suggested swimming, fine in theory though I'm not much of a swimmer.  Better for me would have been to take up a mixed regime - power walking, stationary bike, rowing machine, some light weights, etc.  That would have helped to keep the weight off.  Instead, as I threw myself into the administrative work, I went cold turkey on this sort of exercise, other than shooting a few hoops on the driveway at our old house.  That was hardly enough.  Requiring increasing comfort (my friend Deanna will tell stories that while going to have coffee with me to discuss our campus business I would invariably shred a couple of paper napkins in the process as a way to keep my hands busy and let out some of the emotion that was bottled inside) and not getting sufficient exercise is a recipe for disaster.  I'm still paying the price. 

Over the last several weeks, as the health challenges have seemed to mount (could the arthritis spread to yet other parts of the body and cause more pain?) I simultaneously have gained a larger sense of purpose as to what I should be doing with my time.  This has followed my experiences with teaching the last couple of years, a recent reading of What the Best College Students Do, which I critiqued in a prior post, and my current reading of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Invention, which I'm enjoying more.  This purpose is to advance the cause for ordinary students, particularly those studying social science, such as the Econ majors I teach, to embrace creativity in their own lives, in and out of their classroom, as a way to give them a sense of purpose and something they want to be doing.  Classes themselves don't go far enough in this direction and there is so much pressure within the system that pushes students the other way, toward becoming automatons.  So I don't yet have a blueprint for how achieve this goal.  But given my disposition, my prior experiences, and that this agenda doesn't seem to be driving other folks who care about learning, this gives me a sense of what I should be about. 

And the operative question I'm asking myself here is whether I can get healthy enough to pursue this goal fully.  Let the un-numbing begin. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

On Making Mistakes

It is said we learn more from failure than success.  I agree.  Yet the environment we find ourselves in may be unwelcoming to such failure and then castigates us when we do fail.   Then we self-protect in anticipation of this outcome and refrain from taking risks necessary for learning to avoid looking stupid in public.  Those of us who help shape the environment, supposedly to facilitate the learning of others, need to keep this in mind.  Below are a handful of examples to illustrate related issues.  Then a couple of distinct possible approaches are provided to address the issues.

In her column this morning, Maureen Dowd took on a recent faux pas made by Mayor de Blasio - in public view he ate New York City pizza the way they do in Italy, with a knife and fork, instead of how they do it in NYC, with your hands.  Jon Stewart duly made made fun of the Mayor, as is Stewart's wont.  He is in the business of making mirth.  In response, the Mayor should smile, warmly if wryly.  When you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you.  And that should be that.  Instead, Dowd takes up Stewart's mantle and uses it as a way to pose the question - are de Blasio's creds as an ordinary kind of guy legit or is he really a limo riding liberal?   The error light is lit.....on Dowd.  While the issue may be legitimate to raise, if there is other evidence of above-the-fray behavior, using an ephemeral and entirely unplanned act to illustrate is wrong.  Politicians are human beings.  They will make innocent mistakes.  Who won't?   To expect otherwise is to deny reality.  Dowd may very well be under pressure to write about a politician other than Chris Christie, and preferably a Democrat.  Serious media has an obligation to strive for evenhandedness in its coverage.  But this is not the way to go about it.

Some years ago after a Sloan-C conference at UIC on blended learning, I had an extended email thread with Gary Brown, one of the presenters, where in my initial post I was somewhat critical of his talk, but through several iterations of back and forth we converged to some agreement.  (If you've ever done the drive on I-57 from Chi-town to Champaign you'll agree it is boring, so you need to have something to occupy your mind in the process.  Unfortunately for Gary, I used his talk on that trip.)  If memory serves, one of the things we later agreed on is that students don't like to argue with their peers.  This is a real shame as having such arguments so differing views expressed, learning there is more than one way to see a situation, acknowledging the validity in an alternative opinion that is expressed by a fellow student, having to defend one's own position so it likewise is delivered in a valid way, are all ways a student grows as a thinker.

The self-protection emerges for several different reasons in this case.  First, the perception may be, often with justification, that the person on the other side is not there for the enjoyment of the give and take, but rather to sell something.  When I was a freshman, only 17 at the start, I had multiple instances where I was proselytized in the Union at MIT by others whom I assumed were students (perhaps at some other college in the Boston area) as well.  Out of politeness I didn't walk away at the outset, which is what I would do now.  I hate having the feeling of being sold something.  Listening to someone give a spiel is not at all the same as engaging in a two-sided argument.  Getting propaganda is not learning.  It is being bamboozled.  Resistance, however it is carried out, is an appropriate response.  After a few such encounters one learns to abandon politeness, and in so doing to avoid all such arguments. 

Another possibility that is related to the first one, but I think different enough to warrant its own separate consideration, is for the participants to get heated in the discussion, because one side must win, or so it seems.  They can't agree to disagree.  People who are otherwise friends, but where one is liberal while the other is conservative, may place political arguments out of bounds, just for this reason.  If there is a risk at getting very angry with somebody you like, why exacerbate that?  But in the world in which we live, many things can be viewed from a political angle, at least tangentially.  So this can block discussion altogether or to limit it only to very safe topics - the weather, for example. 

A third limiting factor can be differences in the skill level to make effective argument.  Even if the competition is friendly, the participants will want to win and so be unlikely to pull their punches.  If there are clear differences in skills, this can reduce interest in having the argument on both sides.  The more effective student will feel there is not much to learn from the discussion.  The weaker student may feel the ego being bruised in the process.  Perhaps this can be overcome if they are good friends and both can see how the weaker one will learn from the discussion and as the weaker one improves the stronger will gain for herself. But this also requires a patient outlook.

I'd like to give one more example, this time from Tom Friedman's column today about Ariel Sharon.  Sharon is largely viewed as a hero, inside of Israel and out, a fierce hawk who nonetheless understood that the imperialism implied in a Greater Israel is a path to disaster, not victory.  Nonetheless, Sharon made a catastrophic error along the way.  Friedman writes:

But, in the 1980s, Sharon also embodied a fantasy that gripped Israel — that with enough power the Israelis could rid themselves of the Palestinian threat, that they could have it all: resettling Jews in their biblical heartland in the West Bank, plus settlements in Gaza, docile Palestinians, peace with the neighbors, and good relations with the world. That fantasy drove Sharon to team up in 1982 with the Christian Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel on a strategic overreach to both oust Yasir Arafat and the P.L.O. from Lebanon and install Gemayel as a pro-Israeli prime minister in Beirut. Ronald Reagan was in power in America; Sadat had just made peace with Israel and taken Egypt off the battlefield. The little Jewish state, Sharon thought, could rearrange the neighborhood.

That Israeli overreach, which I covered from Beirut, ended badly for everyone. Sharon was deemed by a 1983 Israeli commission of inquiry as “indirectly responsible” for the horrible massacre of Palestinian civilians by Phalangists in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The fiasco in Lebanon (which also gave birth to Hezbollah), followed by two Palestinian intifadas, seemed to impress on Sharon the limits of Israeli power.

Sharon took a big gamble and failed.  The gamble was based on a false world view.  Sometimes we delude ourselves.   The consequence can be quite painful.  One can readily imagine Sharon asking himself afterward, "how could I have been so naive?"  Yet subsequent to this horrible episode he took real and substantial risks, including pulling Israel out of Gaza.  So Sharon provides an example of getting back on the horse after having fallen off.

* * * * *

There seem to be two possible approaches to address self-protection blocking  learning.  One is to toughen up the individual - learn to move on and not create a mountain out of a molehill, following in the example of Sharon.  The other is to create a safe haven within which the individual understands that making mistakes, particularly of the benign sort that de Blasio made, are of no consequence whatsoever.

I can see risks with each approach.  On the toughening approach, there likely will be washouts, who find the regime of training too difficult or too off putting.  I tried to find a non-military example, and came up with this one.  A substantial number of highly recruited  college basketball players end up transferring, or declaring for the draft early, or simply leave school with eligibility remaining.  Washing out may not be the explanation in all cases and sometimes the player might do quite well in the new destination.  But other times the outcomes are tragic and one wonders whether a more nurturing approach initially might have prevented the worst from happening.

The other issue with the toughening is that it might overwrite sensitivity to the needs of others.  One doesn't learn just from arguing with peers.  And sometimes it is more important to lend a hand to a friend and simply be a decent fellow.  I have this issue with my teaching.  There are a handful of students who will take the yard and then some when you offer the proverbial inch.  So you can't go the extra distance with the more reasonable students in need, for having the overall construed as capricious grading or some other violation of campus rules.  Here the inhibition is imposed by external policy.  But it is not hard to envision it resulting from a regime of training.  That is unfortunate.

The development of a safe haven  is my preferred approach as it is what I experienced while living at 509 Wyckoff while an undergraduate at Cornell  (after I transferred from MIT) and I know that was an important part of my own maturation.  The risk here is that people come to like the safe haven so much that they are unwilling to leave and take on the risks entailed in living in less protected environments.  For example, I wrote quite recently that I'm much more comfortable in a university setting than outside it.  A different example, if you watch students on campus, there is a strong tendency for them to cluster with people they already know, or to form new friendships based on religious affiliation, ethnicity, national origin, or some other affinity.  All of this can be interpreted as a desire for being open with others, with the self-protection provided from knowing that the others are like oneself in some important ways.

It would be interesting to do a study on students' views of the classroom and whether they perceive it to be a safe haven.  My guess is that a handful would.  Most would not.  Further, a strong correlation would be shown between that handful and those students who are found to be deep learners.  See my post On the Necessity of Surface Learning, which takes on some of the presentation in Ken Bain's book, What the Best College Students Do.  If this conjecture is even approximately right and if an important part of the mission is to encourage students to become deep learners, then one might reasonably conclude the classroom is not the right place to do this.

Food for thought.  I would like to see experiments with both approaches.  Throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see if anything sticks.  Ultimately we're after something that can be replicated and scaled.  But we're not close to that now.  So let's start small and try things.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Returning to Grad Student Days

My first year in grad school, I did not have an office.  I can't remember whether I eventually got a carrel in the Library or not, but even if I did I probably was only there when reading journal articles and in the first quarter, in particular, that happened mainly in the evening and then in the reserve room.  I was on campus pretty much all day.  When I was not in class or playing tennis I needed a place to hang out.  My two prime places were the cafeteria in the Norris Center and the Library lounge.  At breakfast time I'd be by myself.  Some of the rest of the day I'd be with classmates or other friends.

I was remarkably productive that first year.  I went from knowing very little about economics to be pretty much hooked on economic theory.  Some of this obviously was me.  Might my environs have mattered too?  I would do non-school reading most mornings, mainly the New York Times, which they sold  at the information desk in the Norris Center, also the Chicago Reader which was freely available.  There is something comforting about periodically glancing around the room, looking at the other people, then back to the sports section.  If I had a textbook out instead of the paper, I'd probably spend more time looking at the people.

Now, all these years later, I'm doing a repeat performance.  With the kitchen and family room at home being renovated, I spent this morning at the College of Business Instructional Facility.  The students aren't back on campus for another week, so its pretty quiet and the folks I saw were all in a relaxed mood.  I had one scheduled meeting at 10, but several other conversations with friends happened as well.

The big surprise between now (laptop, earbuds) and then (the intensity of the doctoral program at NU, backpack with notebook and textbooks) seems to me that the feeling is similar.  And, at least so far, I kind of like it.  Maybe that will change when the students return, as it will be harder to get a table and perhaps the wireless will congest.  But for now, it is welcoming.

Tomorrow I will try the Library as an alternative hangout space and do some work that requires more concentration on my part.  Is the solitude better for such work or not?  I also need to find a place where I have access to an electric outlet and that won't be too crowded when the students return.  In this way I can use the experience to do my own personal investigation on informal learning spaces.

Now off for a walk.  It's sunny and in the mid 40s here.  Let's hope it stays that way.

Friday, January 10, 2014

On the necessity of surface learning

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading What the Best College Students Do.  It has some useful ideas and might be a good entry point for someone who is new to thinking about student learning at the college level.  But I was fighting it much of the time.  One criticism, which I made in my post yesterday, is that for the bulk of the examples are cherry picked from among people who have had remarkably successful careers.  Underrepresented (really not represented at all) in this telling are students who were deep learners in college but who had mediocre success thereafter, or worse.  Near the end of the book there begin to appear admonitions that deep learning in college does not imply career success.  But these read kind of like the warnings of side effects in a TV commercials for a new drug on the market.  They are a necessary disclaimer, but those making the ad don't have their hearts in delivering that message.  This post will take on a different criticism of the book. 

The book begins with a dichotomy of learners.  Deep learners are the ideal.  They are creative in their efforts and creativity is what Ken Bain, the author, champions.  Deep learning is intrinsically motivating so it encourages both diligence, in seeing the path generated from an initial question to its logical conclusion, and persistence, when the path seems blocked because of emotional distress or other challenges that present themselves, to eventually right the ship and get back on course.  Only a small fraction of students are deep learners.  At the other extreme are surface learners.  They approach their studies via memorization.  They get very little value add that way and are largely unchanged by the courses they take.  After a while Bain introduces a third category - strategic learners.  These students are aware of the limitations with memorization.  But they are primarily motivated by a concern for grades rather than for the learning itself.  Ultimately, that is self-defeating.

I am no fan of memorization, have railed about it on occasion, and have written this very long post about a year ago on what an institutional attack on memorization might look like.  Thus one might think I'd be sympathetic to Bain's book.  But I find his schema too simple.  I'd like to explain why, give some examples, and then discuss what the added complexity means regarding what we should want our student learners to do.  Knowing that I can sometimes be heavy handed in making arguments like this, I will try to inject some humor where possible while making the case.

Other Dimensions Than Creativity

Some people are selfless and will devote their life in service to others.  For them, college is about developing (or beginning to develop) a competence that puts value to the service they will provide.  Whether teaching in the inner city, becoming a nurse, working in our National Parks, or providing other forms of service, what these people do is commendable.  Do we really want to refer to these folks as less than the best?  Why not reserve that moniker for the students who are hitting the bars most nights?  They've earned the distinction.

I don't know how much about leadership can actually be learned as an undergraduate, but I do know that Illinois has a Leadership Center and a Leadership Studies Minor.  Many of the students I taught last fall held or currently hold executive office either in a Fraternity or Sorority or in a Registered Student Organization.  In my Economics of Organization class, we discuss conflict and leadership.  In that context the focus is on the importance of listening, being open to alternative views, and taking an inquiry based approach when discord emerges.  On this we cover chapter 8 of Bolman and Deal.  Some of my students reported in their blog posts being challenged by members of their groups, who didn't see why their wants couldn't be accommodated by leadership.  The initial reaction of students when so challenged is likely to be defensive (not what B&D recommend).  As Bain points out, failure is part of the path to success.  So these students, while not yet being good listeners themselves, may have at least learned that they need to develop the capacity. 

Still a different dimension is developing social capital - people networks.  Expertise is distributed.  Nobody can be a complete do-it-yourself-er in this day and age.  You need to know enough to be able to identify the right person to ask and you need to be on good enough terms with that person that you'll get a timely response.  This, in turn, might come out of a sense of collegiality for people.  Alternatively, as this profile on Adam Grant suggests, the key perhaps is to be in the business of doing favors for others.  This must be done without expecting reciprocity, but in anticipation that a sense of goodwill will develop. And in the process maybe one learns enough about the person who is getting help to understand what sort of contributions he or she has to offer in the future.

We create in a limited number of domains.  We cope in many more.

Though I consider myself a learning technologist, there are technologies that frighten me.  One of those is our universal remote control for TV and assorted input devices.  My younger son, who is now a full fledged geek studying computer science, likes to turn on captions on the TV in the basement where we have our treadmill.  He has no problem doing so.  I find the captions a distraction.  Once upon a time I put in the effort and figured out how to turn them off.  Do I remember how now?  Of course not.  Do I feel confident that I could recreate how I did it if the need arose again?  Not really.  It is far easier to ask my son to disable captions when he is through using the TV.  Not that he remembers all that well on this sort of thing - it's not his own need to satisfy - but this certainly looks to be the easy way out.  So why not make it the first line of defense?

Similarly, I'm painfully ignorant of what happens under the hood in an automobile.  I know how to give a jump for a low battery, but that pretty much exhausts matters in the self-help department.  I am always uncomfortable when bringing the car in for service, fearing that they will find something that costs a pretty penny to fix.  As an economist, I believe much choice is in making tradeoffs and here I opt for ignorance and the occasional discomfort that comes with it.  The costs of enlightenment are just too great.

Now let's get more serious and put this issue of coping into a work context.  If you work in a large organization, you must come to trust what those with the right expertise recommend.  But sometimes you must push back at them, because there are competing requirements that they may very well ignore when making their recommendations.  You may be the only one who sees the big picture.  However, you can't push back out of ignorance.  That lacks credibility.  So you must educate yourself well enough that you can have an intelligent conversation with the experts and have them take your concerns seriously.  When I worked in the campus IT organization as the Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies, I found myself on a regular basis learning more about IT issues than I otherwise cared about.  The bulk of this was related to implementing an enterprise learning management system.  I really just wanted it to work.  Initially, it didn't.  Getting that addressed challenged much of the organization.   And I learned much more about the IT side of things than I wanted to as a necessary part of the process.

Information Overload and Filtering

Survival skills nowadays require frequent blocking by a receiver of a potential message that a sender initiates.  Caller ID exists for a reason and ditto for preview panes for email.  Facebook may have some of its popularity because "friends" aren't trying to sell you something, at least most of the time.  The issue, then is whether we filter in a mindful way or not.  Most of us have learned not to respond or even read those messages promising winnings of $30,000,000, if only we make a prompt response.  What if students view emails from their instructors in the same manner?  I suspect that many do.

Putting this all together and wrapping up

My sense is that for most of us all these issues come into play.  We'd like to know where our personal boundaries lie and college might be a time to give us some inkling on that.  For example, I learned pretty early on that I'm much more comfortable in academia than I am out in the real world.  So I've contented myself on the service-to-others dimension to do that for students and colleagues, but not to work in a soup kitchen and feed the homeless.  Others would make the opposite choice, as that would be appropriate for them.  On the creativity dimension, I've found that in writing and in making online learning objects.  Others will have different passions.  It seems to me that each student must learn to match these needs to appropriate domains where the need can be satisfied reasonably effectively.

But we make tons of mistakes, some of which stems from a lack of self-knowledge, another part comes because our habits of mind are poor.  I would have liked Bain's book more had he put additional emphasis on reading outside of what courses require, in a way to make the student aware of many different issues and happenings.  I fear that many students do not do this, including the bulk of those he would consider surface learners.  This then becomes self-limiting.

There is also the matter that many students are shy, particularly in communicating with the instructor.  These students do a variety of things to self-protect.  Bain does talk about procrastination in doing assigned work, but he omits discussing office hours and that the traditional variety are poorly attended.  He also doesn't discuss the falling-off-the-horse-and-not-getting-right-back-on issue, particularly as it applies to the first semester of college.  Students have greater personal freedom at college but the academics may be much harder and less nurturing than what they had in high school.  They may get slammed by the first set of midterms they face, for both reasons.  That may trigger a loss of confidence and confusion about sense of purpose.  Surface learning may then emerge as a way to save face. 

A student who read this book conscientiously but who identified himself as a surface learner might get very depressed thereafter.  The mountain to climb is too high, the odds of never reaching the top too great.  I prefer the title of Atul Gawande's book, Better.  Best is too off putting.

LIX (on 1/11)

My object all sublime
I shall achieve this time -
To have a birthday that's a prime,
A birthday that is prime;
And have my friends consent
A verse to reinvent
A source of innocent merriment
Of innocent merriment!

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Linguistically challenged by the expression "believe in"

The issue is confounding two distinct domains - one where a held view is a matter of faith, the other where empiricism rules and theory is evaluated by its consistency with the evidence.  Concern about this confounding was expressed yesterday in a post called Distinguishing Science From Nonsense, which appeared in The Chronicle's blog series, The Conversation.  Similarly, over the last week or so I've seen much dismay expressed over this recent Pew survey regarding the American Public's View on Human Evolution, where it was found that about one third of the populace are of the mind that human beings have existed in their present form since the earth began.

I will return to human evolution later in this post.  I want to begin by taking a look at the first domain and why people who consider themselves scientifically literate nonetheless indulge in matters of faith, particularly of a non-religious nature.  So, for example, parents of young children will encourage their kids to believe that Santa Claus will come down the chimney on Christmas eve to stuff their stockings and that the tooth fairy will put money under their pillow in exchange for the lost tooth.  When I was ten, the Lovin' Spoonful came out with a hit, Do You Believe In Magic.  A couple of years later on the Sgt. Peppers album, the Beatles at their best in my view, there is this wonderful song, With A Little Help From My Friends.   Within it are the lines:

Do you believe in love at first sight?
Yes I'm certain that it happens all the time.

And to round out this set of examples, consider that many sports fans, myself included, subscribe to The Jinx and the particular manifestation known as the announcer's curse.

I deliberately chose this set of examples because most people would find them benign, if not delightful.  They conjure up a romantic view of the world.  Most people want to cordon off parts of their lives to hold romantic views within that universe.  On the language issue, my preference would be to restrict the expression "believe in" to romantic or religious uses and to use something else entirely for empirical matters.

The problem is that on empirical matters one can hold an incorrect theory to be true, e.g, the ancients held that the earth was the center of the universe.  Though Keynes may not have actually said this line, he is frequently attributed with having said:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

This brings us to the heart of the matter.  When a person confronts evidence that brings a held view into question, must the person reconsider that view in light of the evidence?  Or is the person entitled to disregard the evidence because the person "believes in" the espoused theory?

At this point in the argument it is useful to segue either to a discussion of information literacy, most of us (and I count myself here) don't follow best practice, or to a discussion of Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Let me do the latter, very briefly.  Human beings are inherently lousy statisticians.  The fight or flight instinct can be triggered by a false positive.  More generally, the species is subject to a variety of biases that enable quick conclusions from scanning data.  Often these inferences are incorrect, but mainly we are unaware of our errors. 

One particular bias, relevant to the discussion of evolution, is that we have a need to impute causality after the fact, when before the fact we couldn't have predicted the outcome at all and hence randomness provides a better explanation.  It is not just unsophisticated people who do this.  In his book Kahneman takes Jim Collins to task for just this sort of cherry picking after the fact.  Collins is the author of Good to Great, a very highly regarded book about business success.  I am now reading What the Best College Students Do by Ken Bain.  In my view, Bain also engages in this sort of after the fact cherry picking.  It is a professional hazard.

Let's keep that in mind and turn to the typical citizen's view of evolution and with that let's focus on the two thirds of the population who ascribe to an evolutionary view of human beings in some way.  Abstracting entirely from the issue of God's role or not, my guess is that those who say they believe in evolution nonetheless have an incorrect view of matters.  To illustrate why, consider the picture below.  Something of this sort is often used to depict the evolution of human beings, who have "descended from the apes." 

man descending from the apes

When read from right to left the picture may be an acceptable graphical shorthand for the historical record - the evidence that points to an evolutionary view of human beings.  But read in the opposite direction, the same direction that we read text and hence the more likely way to read the picture, the image points to a linear causal view of evolution.  That view is wrong, though it is what most people probably have come to understand evolution to mean.

A quite readable book on the topic is Stephen Jay Gould's Bully for Brontosaurus, a collection of essays by Gould and by other authors writing on related issues.  Gould takes issue with how evolution is depicted in most high school textbooks - as a tree trunk.  Gould would prefer a different metaphor - a bush with many branches.  The idea is that some branch becomes favored, by chance rather than because it is inherently better a priori.  The less favored branches begin to die out.  The favored one grows and then has more branches, after which the process repeats.  This is how natural selection works.

A related mistake that people make is to equate natural selection, a neutral term, with the expression, survival of the fittest, that conveys the sense of getting stronger over time.  It is a misnomer, at best.  One of the essays included in Bully for Brontosaurus is Paul David on Qwerty.  It is included in the collection because the economics of increasing returns has quite similar dynamics to that of evolutionary biology.  The qwerty keyboard was designed to slow typists down so the manual keys would not get stuck.  A survival of the fittest view would suggest that when manual typewriters improved enough in their mechanisms, or when electric typewriters came into existence, or word processors, or personal computers, that the keyboard would change to allow more rapid input.  But it didn't.  We are locked into qwerty.  Likewise we are locked into an academic calendar that was originally set so students could go home for the spring planting and return to campus after the fall harvest.  This in spite of the fact that students don't do these things any more.  These type of outcomes can't be produced from a linear causal model. 

How can citizens have scientific literacy when they are such poor interpreters of data?  I don't know.  I fear that scientific literacy has come to mean neither familiarity with the data that scientists confront nor with the theory scientists espouse, but rather only with the conclusions scientists report, and then only in highly abbreviated form.  Given the increased specialization in the world in which we live, some of this may be necessary.  But in that regard I fear the continued use of the expression "believe in" contributes to illiteracy, by turning people into fans (as in sports fans) when they could instead achieve some basic understanding.  It's the latter we should be after.  Measurements such as the Pew survey don't do enough to distinguish between the two. 

Monday, January 06, 2014

Capital Flow Needs To Slow

This essay is a response to two Op-Ed pieces from this morning, one by Larry Kotlikoff  in the New York Times called Abolish the Corporate Income Tax, the other by Larry Summers in the Washington Post called Strategies for sustainable growth.  While I agree with both of them regarding goals, I disagree on the proper cure, as both seem to treat capital liquidity as an immutable constraint.

Kotlikoff, for example, talks about Boeing's negotiations with its machinists and the credible threat for Boeing to locate future plants away from the Seattle area (in the southeast instead) as a way to get concessions from labor.  Since capital flows much faster than labor migrates, this type of threat grants bargaining power to capital, and can lead to inefficiency when the threat is carried out (see below).  It would be be better if costs were imposed externally, via regulation or taxation, to lessen this sort of threat.

Summers mentions a different problem - asset bubbles.  He argues, and I agree with him on this, that given the low (negative real) interest rate policy being pursued by the Fed, bubbles are apt to be an unintended consequence.   There is no denying that bulls will rush in on occasion.  But that they do so seeking short term gain only, which is present because of speculation and untoward lending practices, quite possibly leaving long term devastation in the aftermath, means the bulls should be discouraged from making their charge.  As in the Kotlikoff example, taxation or regulation to lessen the likelihood of the behavior should be welcome.

Here's the microeconomic analysis of the siting decision for a large-scale economic activity, when the economic actor making the decision has some market power.  The decision will be made by considerations of profitability.  But, in theory, the decision should be made on the basis of net social benefit.  The two are not the same.  Here is a simple and clear-cut example to illustrate. 

The NBA basketball franchise that used to be in Seattle is now in Oklahoma City.  This move was profitable for management to make, as I'll explain in a moment.  But it clearly was inefficient, as can be seen from this table of Metropolitan Statistical Areas.  Seattle is 15th on the list while Oklahoma City is 42nd, and with less than 40% of the population of Seattle.  Why did the team move?  The team needed a new arena (or a major upgrade to the old arena) and the issue was who would pay for it, the team or the municipality?  Note, however, that given the arena (or major upgrade) will be built, who pays for it has no impact whatsoever on net social benefit.  But it has a huge impact on the team's bottom line.  In this particular case the municipality of Oklahoma City agreed to upgrade Chesapeake Energy Arena.  That's all she wrote.

Indeed one might argue more generally that there are too few franchises in the major professional sports and owners deliberately do this as a way to encourage that the costs of facilities replacement be put on taxpayers in the municipality rather than on the teams (thereby making the teams more profitable).  If the municipality tries to push back on this and asks the team to foot the facilities upgrade bill, the team will threaten relocation and if the subsequent negotiation goes poorly the team will actually move.

The same economics is at root when a company the size of Boeing threatens to relocate its production facilities from a union state (high wage) to a right to work state (low wage).  On the net social surplus calculation, these moves are probably bad.  The calculations entirely discount the specific human capital of the current work force, the relationships with local input suppliers, the complementary businesses that have emerged as a consequence of the Boeing presence, and that Seattle has become a place where people want to locate in no small part because Boeing is there. All the calculations focus on is the company's bottom line.  Even if Boeing stays, as Kotlikoff points out, labor must give concessions to ensure that outcome so this represent a transfer of income from labor to shareholders (or to upper level management).  If, contrary to fact, it cost the company a substantial amount to make such a move, because of regulation or taxation, labor would not have to concede so much.

During the Republican Primaries in 2012, Governor Perry made an issue of the growth rate of jobs in Texas versus that of Massachusetts, which highlights that politicians don't understand the economics of siting production.  Perry made a specious argument to the effect that low tax states grow jobs, not distinguishing at all between fundamentally new economic activity and economic activity that would occur in any event but that would be sited in places where it is taxed less.  To the extent that Texas has had the latter, accompanied by inadequate public infrastructure, precisely because tax revenues are too low, that is a problem, not a model to emulate.

Similarly, on the international front, before the housing bubble burst Ireland was cited as a model for the new Europe - a low tax, low regulation haven for business.  The Irish economy grew very rapidly  in that period.  But when the housing bubble burst, the Irish economy was hit hard, because many in the private sector were highly leveraged and the growth had stopped.  Business pulled out.   Looking at the full experience, the low tax approach appears far less attractive.

It's amazing to me that we haven't learned from these experiences.  What we should want is not a quick fix to short term growth, but rather that regional and national differences in tax and regulation policy be minimal so they become non-factors in the siting of economic activity.  And we should want further frictions to encourage inertia of capital.  If market fundamentals otherwise indicate that capital should flow to where it is more productive, that will happen in due course.  Our mistake is wanting to speed the flow along.  All that has done is to create havoc.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Visual Pun


The weather outside is frightful

At its best
Cheers for the Midwest

But not today.
Instead I say

Do not pout
And don't go out.

Household chores pitch in
Work in the kitchen,

Or write a rhyme
To wile away the time.

Whatever you do
Something to eschew

Don't let the cold
Make you feel old.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Why the distant look?

Jimmy Fallon with robot girlfriend

From a Wired piece called Better Than Humans.   I did not find it very reassuring on the proposition that an embrace of robots would help us to restore the economy to full employment.  But the picture suggests one profession where unemployment might be a good thing.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Cinderella Man Revisited

Growing up, the family sport was tennis.  We all played.  My mother was the fanatic.  My dad had played when he was younger.  He took it up again when my siblings and I were kids.  Family doubles was one way we played together.  Other sports I learned from my friends.  There certainly was no neglect in that area.  But I didn't have the traditional American relationship between father as coach and son as learner, especially with baseball, but really with every other ball sport as well.  My dad did play street football with my friends and me.  None of my friends' dads did that.  But as a coach, he didn't play that role. 

I mention that as I segue from participation in sports to being a fan for the professional variety.  I did become quite a fan of many sports.  It came, perhaps, from a surprising source.  I read many books about sports.  Some of this was a consequence of reading fiction in fifth or sixth grade, particularly  the Duane Walter Decker series of books about major league baseball.  The first one about Chip Fiske reeled me in.  The rest was from an earlier passion about biography, which ultimately found its way to books about sports stars.  One of my favorites was It Takes Heart, where I first learned about Jim Braddock.  Each chapter is a separate vignette about a famous athlete, who faced tremendous adversity yet was able to overcome it in some manner.  Braddock was one of those.  Lou Gehrig was another.  "....I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

I can't recall whether my interest in watching boxing on TV stemmed from reading that book or from something else.  A few years later I often watched Wide World of Sports.  They featured a lot of the sports from the Olympics, amateur boxing included.  And the 1976 Olympics, in particular, may have generated an interest in pro boxing thereafter, especially for bouts in other than the heavyweight division, an interest which lasted for another decade or so.

Indeed as a graduate student I watched by myself in my apartment, on my crummy black and white portable TV, the fight that to me seems closest to the Baer-Braddock heavyweight title fight, depicted so well in the movie.  This was a light heavyweight championship bout between Victor Galindez and Mike Rossman.  Galindez was the slugger and strong favorite to keep his title.  Rossman had a peekaboo style, in the manner of Ernie Terrell, who couldn't make it work when he fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title, more than a decade earlier.  Beyond the style, Rossman had a game plan for the Galindez fight, one that he executed to perfection.  That's what caused the upset.

Fast forward a dozen years.  The Buster Douglas - Mike Tyson fight signified the end of my watching boxing altogether.  I did see some fights with Riddick Bowe and maybe a couple with Lennox Lewis, but then it was cold turkey.  There was no particular reason why.  Perhaps the Rocky movies were part of it.  The early ones were compelling.  Mr. T. was quite a character, as was Hulk Hogan.  But eventually they became formulaic and harder and harder to believe.  Then there was my family life.  We had young kids then and were mainly watching cartoon movies - Land Before Time, Balto, that sort of thing.  Boxing didn't fit with that.  And the heavyweights had become so big - height and weight - that it was kind of freakish and not that much fun to watch.  Boxing, when it's lyrical, draws you in.  Boxing, when it's just two guys beating on each other with no apparent art in the process, is repulsive.

Several years later I had one more dose of the lyrical kind of boxing via a book of short stories, Rope Burns.  I got it as a Father's Day present a few years before the movie Million Dollar Baby came to one of the movie channels on Dish that we subscribe to.  Million Dollar Baby is one of the short stories in Rope Burns.  I only realized that midway through watching the movie.  My memory doesn't retain much of the fiction I've read.  (I've got The Testament by John Grisham via the Kindle app and only realized after reading it there that I had purchased a paperback version years earlier and read it then.)  What does survive on occasion is the kind of glow I felt while reading the book.  Based on that feeling, Rope Burns, which gives an insider's view of the sport, is a good read for a long weekend. 

* * * * *

Every writer knows that readers are silent contributors to the work being read.  The reader's prior experience blends with the printed words on the page to produce a unique interpretation.  I suppose something similar happens with film directors and the audience that watches their movies.   The above is meant to show some of what I brought to the viewing of Cinderella Man.  Thinking this way, I wondered what Ron Howard, the film's director, brought with him into the making of the movie.  Of course, we all know his TV bio, but I was ignorant of his personal history.  I found his Wikipedia entry and learned that he and I are pretty close in age.  He is ten months my senior.

I wondered if he too had read It Takes Heart as a kid and whether that served as a gateway for him into the making of Cinderella Man.  In trying to answer that question I found this interview on NPR, which makes for a good read.  It seems that Ron's dad, Rance Howard, had been a fight fan, so Ron got the father-son entry into boxing that I mentioned above vis-à-vis baseball.  He had no need to read It Takes Heart to appreciate the Jim Braddock story.

The first time I watched Cinderella Man the housing bubble had yet to burst.  At the time it seemed like a boxing movie with the Great Depression as a backdrop, adding a crescendo to the story, and perhaps lingering too long on Braddock's family situation.  Boxing fans want to watch that part of the movie.  It's okay to tie the poverty to the motive for being a fighter.  But once that motive is clear enough, the rest just seems like piling on.

I watched it again a few nights ago.   I was merely looking for some diversion, nothing more.  What I found was an entirely different picture than what I had seen the first time through.  This time it seemed more a portrait of the Great Depression than anything else.  Given the times in which we live, having a feel for the Great Depression should be an indispensable part of our common heritage.  That makes Cinderella Man an important movie to consider.

In the film, Braddock takes a fight knowing he has a broken hand - he desperately needs the prize money.  But this proves to be a mistake.  He breaks his hand further during the fight.  And the fight is ruled a No Contest.  The prize money is withheld and Braddock loses his boxing license as a consequence.  Desperate for work he seeks a job as a day laborer.  There are many other guys who do likewise.  They too can't find a regular job.  Each of them are in the same grim boat as Braddock.  Only a handful get selected by the foreman.  The first time around, Braddock isn't one of them.

On the Waterfront has similar grim scenes where longshoremen swarm at the gate hoping to be selected for a day's work.  Of course, the two films are set at different times.  But the real difference for me as a viewer is that the Marlon Brando character, apart from raising pigeons, had no dependents.  Braddock, in contrast, has a wife and a bunch of young kids at home.  He is responsible for their welfare but is unable to provide for them.  Looking at these scenes as a parent, I wondered what I would do were I in his shoes.

There is a poignant scene where the oldest son has stolen a salami from the local delicatessen. The family didn't have enough to eat and in some sense the son was providing for the family because the father couldn't.  But they are a proud family and tried to be honest and do things the right way.  Stealing wasn't right.  So father and son go back to the deli to return the salami.  Afterward the father asks the son why he did it.  The son tells the story of a friend who got sent away because his family didn't have enough food.  The son is afraid of likewise being sent away.  He wants to stay with the family.  You can see this story tearing up the father on the inside.  The father promises the son that he will never be sent away.

* * * * *

My parents came of age during the Great Depression.  My dad graduated from NYU in 1933, then from Columbia Law School in 1936.  I believe he lived with his parents, then and after.  I don't know his entire work history.  He probably didn't face quite the income uncertainty that Braddock faced, because of his education.  College men were comparatively scarce at the time.  But I believe he would have considered himself poor during the 1930s and perhaps during the 1940s as well.  There were many behaviors learned at the time to economize on spending.  Some of those behaviors survived till his passing.  I've written elsewhere that when he did the shopping he would always buy the knockoff brand, never the name brand.  He was also far from generous in leaving a tip, when we'd go out to dinner as a family.  Even in buying toys for the grandkids, he would get cheapie stuff, though I found plenty of those toys when I cleaned out their condo last March.

My mom may have been more extreme in her poverty, growing up in Nazi Germany and her dad an actor who couldn't find work.  She probably knew hunger and may have experienced it often.  Unlike Braddock, she was not above petty theft in search of food.  When I was a teenager and later as an adult she did some things that embarrassed me when we'd go out to eat.  She would take the uneaten rolls and pats of butter, wrap them in a paper napkin, and put the package into  her purse.  She would rationalize this by my father being a brittle diabetic and that we needed starchy food at home in case he had an insulin reaction.  But this was sheer nonsense as we were perfectly capable of buying the starchy food.  The real reason was that my mother couldn't stand seeing those rolls go to waste.  After all, we were paying for the dinner and the rolls were a part of that.

Ashamed of my parents though I might have been at the time, I now respect their values.  Sometimes I obsess about the excessive spending of my own family, not in comparison with peers nor in relationship to the income we generate, where we seem to live within our means, but might it be that a rainy day comes along before we expect and couldn't we get by with less now just to be more prepared for that eventuality?  It's a thought that's hard to let go of.  How does one get one's children to think likewise when all they've experienced is a very comfortable existence?

Your parents serve as role model even when they aren't trying to do so.  Like my dad, I never coached my boys in sports and never felt a need to do otherwise.  But I insisted they read The Grapes of Wrath, the only book for which I issued such an injunction.  It's a step in the right direction, though it's far from sufficient.  What more might be done?  Perhaps Hollywood could lend a hand here.

I am not suggesting a remake of Cinderella Man.  It is such a fine movie in its own right.  I get why they produce remakes as a business proposition.  The paying audience seems to be pretty habituated.  Doing something fundamentally new is a far riskier proposition, regarding the box office.  But on an artistic level you'd think that directors like Ron Howard, who've had many commercial successes, would want to follow a fresh direction for the story alone.

Not that long ago I watched on the ESPN Classics Network a SportsCentury about Sam Huff, which originally aired in 2004.  Huff was born in the middle of The Great Depression in a coal mining town in West Virginia.  His dad was a miner and the family was dirt poor.  To my untutored eyes, Huff's biography seems eerily similar to that of Mickey Mantle, who was born a few years earlier and whose dad was a lead miner.  My thought is this.  Why not make a movie not from the perspective of the star athlete, as all sports movies I'm aware of do, but rather from the perspective if the parent who raised the budding athlete and then do so for famous athletes born during the 1930s?  This would produce a convincing origins story, something that Hollywood seems to like, and it would open windows into the Great Depression, something we desperately need more of.  Further, such stories would not have the fairy tale aspect that Cinderella Man has, since the fantastic accomplishments of the star athlete only happened decades later, so couldn't possibly alleviate the family's plight during the 1930s.  These stories would be grittier and might be double-edged as a consequence, the parent having a hard side in addition to the love and affection held for the child.  What else would you expect from living in such trying conditions?

For such a film to have some chance in making money, the star athlete must still be prominent in the public consciousness.  For Huff that may no longer be true.  For Mantle it surely is.  And Jane Leavy's biography, The Last Boy, surely has enough information to make a movie no just about Mutt Mantle (Mickey's dad) but also about the various women who raised Mickey.  Isn't it time for a more grounded and less romantic film?

* * * * *

Jim Braddock will always be tied to Joe Louis, as Louis became champ by taking the title from Braddock.  But there is more to it than that.

Prior to the Louis fight, Jim's manager Joe Gould struck up a deal that would give Braddock 10% of the gross with Louis for the next ten years. From 1937 to 1939, Braddock received over $150,000, a lot of money in those days (nearly two million today).
Found here

I've puzzled over this and wondered how it was possible for Gould to get such a contract written.  I'm guessing that Gould had leverage only because Louis was black, but how racial discrimination entered into the fight game in the 1930s I don't understand.  That would be another flavorful story to tell, though perhaps not in movie form.  I, for one, would be interested in learning the history.