Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Anticlimactic Application Process

After a series of minor adventures (and some grumbling disagreement with Robert over aspects of a need-based aid form, in which I capitulated from realizing my boredom with the whole thing was probably making me dumb), this evening I submitted 3 of the 7 online applications. 3 of the others I am either waiting on emails to be answered by university staff members or need an online recommendation finished. The 7th one I am not going to submit for a couple of months, since it's my back-up school.

I started getting the various supplemental documentation that has to be mailed in to the schools together, but kept running into stupid problems (screwy jump drives, pens running out of ink, printer cartridges running out of ink, photocopies I need to make) and gave up on it for the weekend just now. Tomorrow I have already dedicated to other projects (my weekly major tread, differential equations, housework), so I will get back on this stuff Monday or Tuesday. I still have a lot of time, objectively speaking, but just want to be done.

Have I mentioned that I am on Day 6 of a tension headache that has me walking around feeling like I've been hit on the back of the head with a club? Fortunately, the intensity is varying from minor to nausea-inducing with an average around painful enough to feel pouty and grumpy and generally pissed that I can't take any headache medication that would do any good but still mostly functional.

This entire grad school application process is feeling ultimately unsatisfying. I had thought that finishing things up would make me feel relieved and happy, but mostly, it's like "I have been working on it for an eon and all I have to show for it is this?" Every little aspect of the process has been ungodly time-consuming and the final product seems unimpressive. I am hoping that this is because I am, by this point, so utterly familiar with my CV, statements of purpose, assistantship essays, GRE scores, coursework record, publications, selection of programs that have an excellent research match, etc., that I can no longer see that I have assembled an awesome package of credentials that will make the adcoms say "Daaaaamn."

Hmmm....working on a long, tedious academic project with a thousand little bureaucratic requirements that in the end, you have difficulty bringing yourself to care about anymore, even to celebrate its completion - this does sound like good preparation for graduate school. Doesn't every grad student feel this way about their thesis / dissertation?

Perhaps I will start feeling more excited about this whole thing after: (1) my headache recedes, (2) there is no longer part of my brain sending out excitement-dampening waves due to the need to retain exceedingly boring information about mass-spring systems and series circuits, (3) I have all these applications truly, totally completed, and (4) Ed McMahon's minion shows up at the door with the (Relatively) Big Check.

At least I am not like some people posting on the LiveJournal grad application forum who are freaking out over the fact that they have Dec 1 deadlines but don't have their statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, writing sample, etc., ready to go yet. I definitely prefer dull and bored to vibrating-into-other-dimensions from anxiety and fear.

I will wait for the anxiety to kick in as I wait to hear from the programs.

Science Meets Dance

Tam sends this link featuring videos put together by scientists attempting to interpret their PhD research in dance form.

I have to admit, the dances were much more accessible than anything else with a title like "Resolving Pathways of Functional Coupling in Human Hemoglobin Using Quantitative Low Temperature Isoelectric Focusing of Asymmetric Mutant Hybrids" could possibly be.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sock Puppet Bailout

It's one thing to bail out the organizations that our entire economic system depends on to function. But GM? This company has been failing for a long time. They've been talking about the potential for bankruptcy for years. GM's not just caught up in the liquidity crisis. It's an "our products suck, we are not responsive to consumer demand, and we have been overpaying labor for way too long" sort of problem.

I liked this video on a bailout that has received somewhat less media attention:

Of course, if he were a bunny puppet, I simply couldn't deny him the $25 billion.

(via Megan McArdle)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Looking Ahead

UPDATE: I have all of my recommendation letters now. I am really relieved to have that part done with! (Actually, one prof still needs to complete an online one, but I feel confident she'll get it done this week.)

Yesterday I picked up the recommendation letters from Professor #2, and I will pick up the last batch from Professor #3 this afternoon. She should also have comments on my statement of purpose (SOP). Somehow, I have almost reached the end of this grad school application process. The hard part is over. I hope this weekend to finish the online applications, finalize the SOPs for the various programs, get my other supporting materials (C.V., etc.) together, and mail off my packets to 6 programs. (I have one additional program with a late application deadline that I will put together later if I haven't heard from one of the more-preferred programs already.)

Last "weekend" (Thurs - Sun), because I was at a standstill with these masters program applications, I turned my attention again to PhD programs and a little bit beyond. I have a list of 40-odd marketing programs I am working with. I had already put together information on research fit with professors in these programs.

Another piece of the puzzle is program quality. Unlike MBA programs (or psychology PhD programs) there is no standard ranking list of marketing PhD programs. However, there are several sources of rankings based on faculty publications, with programs having a greater number of publications, and publications in more prestigious journals, given a higher rank. These rankings cover different time periods (e.g. based on consumer psychology publications from the 1990s, based on general marketing publications from 2001) and give a sort of mixed result. For instance, UT-Austin is a top 10 program by some of these lists, but comes in at #66 using another one. So it's not entirely clear to me how to weight these rankings, though I suspect I will be able to generally place them in tiers such as Top 10, Top 30, Top 50, etc. Other programs have strengths in niche areas. For instance, I know (from reading it in a thousand places) that the University of Florida is a very top program in consumer behavior, though their overall marketing or business school rank is lower.

A very important aspect of a program's quality is its placement record: where do graduates of the program get their first academic job? Depending on whether you are interested in getting a position with the highest-ranked program you can, a job at a research-oriented university, a teaching college, or heaven-forfend industry, you need to be more or less selective about the PhD program you attend. Programs often mention placement on their web sites, but this is usually a selective list, in which they cherry-pick the best placements and say things like "In recent years, our graduates have found positions in excellent universities such as X College, Y University" etc., with the emphasis on "such as."

I happened across a thread on the Business Week forums from 2004-2007 that included over 6500 posts (!) from various business PhD applicants, students, and a handful of professors, that took forever to read but did have some interesting information and perspectives that got me thinking about several things:

1. The Great Age Debate

Most of the applicants on the forum were trying to get into top tier (top 10 or perhaps top 20) business PhD programs. There was a lot of furious debate over to what extent top programs prefer younger over older students. There was a consensus that for top programs, being as ancient as 30 is a serious disadvantage and being over 35 will hugely reduce your chances at getting in (and your chances are pretty bad to begin with, given the strong competition for a very few slots). While this was felt to be more significant the more math-oriented the field (e.g. finance being very mathy and strategy being less so), it's a concern for all fields.

Of course, I am already very familiar with the age discrimination of other academic (vs. professional) programs, but had thought that this was less of a factor in business schools. But it would make sense that the top business programs would function a lot like their counterparts in economics, psychology, etc., since they tend to prefer students with undergrad credentials in one of the foundational academic subjects from the elite universities.

It's a bit hard, though, to say whether fewer older applicants are admitted to these programs due to age discrimination (or a preference for younger students among faculty) or at least in part because older applicants tend to be less competitive on dimensions that matter.

Since my age is the aspect of my application that I have the least control over, there is a limit to how useful this information is, but I do think it's helpful in targetting programs to realize that I may have an even tougher time getting admitted to certain places, especially the Stanford, Cornell, Northwestern type programs. Whether ultimately this will influence me to avoid certain programs, or only impact my expectations of success, I don't know. It does suggest that looking at the ages of current students might help identify programs that indicate a willingness to admit (exceptionally qualified) older applicants vs. a tendency to prefer fresh 22-year-old Ivy League undergrads. It also means that I should probably be especially careful to apply to a wide range of schools, since the age issue is less problematic the farther down the rankings you go.

2. The MBA Question

This brings up another controversial question they discussed - whether applicants with MBAs are seen as less desirable. I had noted before that students with MBAs were a lot more common among the mid-tier and lower programs than the very top ones. The commenters mostly felt that masters degrees in academic disciplines (math, stat, econ, psych, engineering, etc.) were more valuable than an MBA, which is a professional degree and not a "rigorous" program. This is in line with what I had already decided for myself.

3. The Placement Issue

As I've discussed before, the outlook for academic jobs amongst business PhDs is very good compared to most other disciplines. But this doesn't mean that graduating from a top 20 program guarantees you a job at another top 20 institution. There is the same "downward movement" in placement that you see elsewhere, only not as severe. Plenty of graduates of Wharton (the very best business school in the world) end up at less-than-elite universities. And apparently, some top schools are utterly notorious for making tenure nearly impossible to get. One school (Harvard?) was mentioned as granting tenure to only 1 of 7 people, so a lot of people work their asses off on research for the first 6 years and still end up moving down to a much lower school. Current professors talked about people they knew who were placed in a less highly-ranked program to begin with getting tenure easier and with less stress. People talked about how surprised they were to find that the status game, as played out by comparing who is at a better school than someone else, who is at what rank in the program, etc., is so much more important in academia than in industry. (This makes sense, though; in industry, people can feel superior through really high earning power, but the difference between the top paid and lowest paid professors is not very large, leaving prestige as the main way to differentiate yourself from others.)

The comments on this subject really got me thinking about what level of placement I would consider "good enough" or even preferable to getting a job at a top 20 program. I am fortunate that I actually just want to be a college professor, unlike some of the applicants who are only interested in doing it if they can get an elite academic job. I am not thinking about giving up the possibility of becoming a powerful, insanely-well-paid businessman or whatever by taking the academic route because I have no interest in the kind of career that getting a Harvard MBA instead of a PhD could make possible for me. I am not motivated by the desire to be a professor at Wharton so I can feel like a major hot-shot and be well-connected for lucrative consulting opportunities that arise. I just like the idea of getting paid to do something I really like doing.

Although I am sort of an academic snob, I basically view getting a PhD and then an academic job at any kind of decent university as pretty elite. And I'm not at all motivated to do something so that my grandmother can impress her friends at church by saying that I'm at Harvard or whatever.

And it does sound like life at the top of this academic food chain is really hard. You may not be teaching a lot of classes at Northwestern, but the expectations in terms of publication productivity is kind of insane. I might be happier at a more middle-of-the-road institution that puts a little bit less overwhelming publication pressure. (The publication pressure at any research-oriented university is going to be hard enough.)

While this doesn't necessarily mean I'd turn down the chance to attend a top program or get a job at a great university, it is sort of reassuring to realize that there is a pretty good range of outcomes that I would find satisfying - especially given that the probabilities are a lot higher for getting a job at the University of Georgia than the University of Chicago.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Solid Foundation, Revisited

As an example of what is implied when people get nostalgic over the way math "used" to be taught, before all this crazy New Math and so forth, when kids learned the "basics" and didn't futz around with silly theory that nobody understands, etc., and got a "solid foundation" in facts, and walked up hill to school both ways in the snow with no shoes -- both of my parents learned to multiply using the multiplication table without being told that multiplication represented a short cut for repeated addition. I have no idea how common this was, but I thought it interesting that it was true for both of them, who attended school in different states.

You know, I agree that it's a useful skill to quickly and accurately come up with the fact that 8 x 9 = 72. Less useful than it was in the pre-calculator/pre-Excel/pre-etc. era, but still useful. Of course, it seems to me awfully useful to know why 8 x 9 = 72 also. I mean, isn't memorizing the multiplication table a lot easier when you realize that 8 x 9 = 2 x 4 x 9 and that 8 x 9 = 8 x 8 plus another 8? When I was learning my table, there were times I couldn't quite remember this particular number (I knew it was something in the range of 71 - 74) but I was able to figure it out again on the fly because I did know that 4 x 9 = 36 and I knew how to double that number. I also knew that 8 x 8 = 64 and could add 8 to that if I forgot 4 x 9 during the same brain freeze. I had a lot of different ways to approach the problem.

I don't see how it's to any kid's advantage to learn that 8 x 9 = 72 in the same way that they learn that "in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." It gives the impression that all these numbers are what they are through some mysterious process or accident of history while in reality, there's a lot of sense to it. And in my opinion, it is (I hesitate to use this word, but I think it fits) empowering to realize that you are dealing with a sensible system in which things can be figured out using rational thinking. Once you learn why 8 x 9 = 72, you can figure out what is 16 x 9 pretty easily, and 16 x 27, and well, a whole lot of numbers, without ever having to be told by someone else or memorizing a bunch of things.

I don't mean to imply that every person who talks about "solid foundation" really wants to return to an era when children did not know what multiplication means. But I wonder how many people (and here I mean normal people in the general population who are reactant against all stripes of innovative "New Math"-esque curriculum, not math educators who are arguing about these issues at a much higher level and with a lot more knowledge than the rest of us have and who would rightly view my comments as knocking down a strawman in terms of where the informed debate is occuring) who yearn for that supposedly wonderful pre-New Math time realize/remember quite how fact (and not theory) focused the instruction really was. Perhaps some of them would not even recognize the idea of multiplication as repeated addition to even be "theory" now that it's so commonly taught.

I was lucky to learn this stuff during the post-New Math era and to have a dad who thought it was fun to teach me algebra when I was quite young. (He also bought me and worked with me on geology sets, chemistry sets, and electricity sets. The fact that I did not grow up to be a scientist or engineer is not through any lack of exposure, sexist or otherwise. I joke to my younger sister the applied math and computer science major that where math, science, and computers are concerned, I peaked early.)

Modern Technology

RB and I were going to a restaurant tonight that I thought I knew where was, but wasn't quite sure (always a dangerous situation with his and my poor sense of direction).

I said, "Oh, do I have my cell phone? ... No."

RB said, "Do you have a web browser on your phone?" (This would be genuinely surprising, given my ancient, frills-free cell phone ways.)

I said, "Of course not. I was going to call Robert and have him look it up."

So I used RB's phone, though the first time, it didn't work because I could not remember my own telephone number. Neither could he, but at least he had it in memory. Robert told us where the restaurant was (and I had two pancakes roughly the size of the tabletop. At least they were full of blueberries, high in antioxidants. Ahem. They also had good regular iced tea and the great decaf herbal "crocodile" tea.)

Robert is my web browser sort of the way that back before the machines existed/were common, "calculators" referred to people who performed mathematical calculations. It's nice the way he responds to semi-incoherent questions in plain English and so forth. I don't know that the artificial intelligence exists that could come even close to matching his performance.

In only semi-related news, I have determined that RB is my "magical technology friend." He has many other content areas in which he is a magical friend, but he is especially strong in all things tech-related. He is the magical computer geek friend for a lot of people, it seems.

Quote of the Day: Game Theory Edition

"One of the most difficult challenges of all is rooted in the very origins of game theory: it was developed by men of nearly superhuman intellect like Nash and von Neumann. That is both its great strength and its great weakness, because for game theory to be successful, it must provide insight into what mere mortals will do. Game theory expresses the way people would act as the solution to a mathematical equation. It presumes hyperrational players who are instantly able to solve very tough problems, and this description starts to look unrealistic if game theory is to be a practical tool for explaining how real people actually behave. Nash and von Neumann really could solve such problems instantly. The rest of us cannot."
-Tim Hartford, The Undercover Economist, 2006

You'll remember John Nash from the movie "A Beautiful Mind."

Hartford points out that a great many people thought John von Neumann the most brilliant person alive, and since he worked at Princeton with Albert Einstein, that's saying something.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why are People Resistant to Math Ed Changes

Reading this article about the exploration-oriented math program I worked on this summer made me think again about how many people have a negative, knee-jerk reaction to the idea of changes in middle school math education. It's sort of weird because at the same time, a lot of people (often the same people) believe that the current system is a failure and that kids are not learning math.

The following observations on the topic are informed simply by my own experiences and opinions. I am going to be thinking of an exploration-based approach as discussed in the article as the alternative to the current approach that privileges memorization and repeated drills.

(1) Miscategorization

I think when people hear about any kind of innovative math teaching approach, they immediately think of "New Math" and assume that since it was a failure, this other approach will also be a failure, even though the correspondence between the two programs may be limited. In my experience, they often don't even wait to hear any details about what the innovative approach entails before shuddering with horror at "New Math" memories.

(2) Face Validity

In a lot of contexts, I've noticed that people put more emphasis on face validity (does it look on the surface as though it will work) than they should when deciding whether something is likely to be effective. For example, people untrained in survey research may look at a questionnaire and say "But we want to find out X; why are you asking Q, Y, and Z?" not realizing that asking X directly may not be the best way to get the information. There are all kinds of things that look like they shouldn't work, but do when you actually test them, and vice versa. For instance, many people would say that the DARE anti-drug program has high face validity because it addresses the major aspects of keeping kids off drugs, but in reality, it doesn't work.

I believe that most people, if asked whether it would be possible to teach children how to speak a language fluently without explicit instruction in grammar, vocabulary, usage, etc., but rather through exposure to repeated examples of (or complete immersion in) the language with no attempt at explanation of what was going on, would say it doesn't seem plausible. Yet basically every child does this when they learn their mother tongue, and immersion programs are considered very effective for teaching children additional languages.

People's mental models of how the brain works are generally not informed by any actual knowledge of cognitive science, so "obvious" or "commonsensical" ideas about learning are not grounded in theory and don't necessarily mean squat.

Just today, watching an episode of Sherlock Holmes, I watched a horse trotting down the street, with a view from the back. A horse's legs are unbelievably skinny! It is not plausible that a horse should be able to walk any distance on such scrawny-looking little legs, let alone be an excellent runner that can carry human weight at great speed and/or for long distances. And yet...

This doesn't mean that we should all accept that anything can be true and draw no distinctions. It's reasonable to attempt to judge the plausibility of assertions that we hear. But it seems important to recognize whether we actually have any basis for those judgments and what those underlying assumptions or facts consist of. And it's always a good idea to ask whether there is actual evidence on the issue. Sometimes there's not, and we have to decide whether to tentatively favor one take on the situation or withhold judgment.

(3) The "Solid Foundation" Myth

Many people maintain that novel math approaches that downplay the priority of e.g. memorization of the multiplication tables do not allow children to get a "solid foundation" in the basics of arithmetic before moving on to other material, and without this foundation, it is impossible to ever learn higher math. I don't know whether this is true or not. But I don't think that it's necessarily true, despite the possible face validity of it.

One driver of the exploration-based approach discussed in the article is kids often have trouble with math starting in Algebra I. They have difficulty moving from the arithmetic of the earlier years to understanding math with all these variables. This approach introduces the fundamentals of algebra during 6th and 7th grade (without ever calling attention to that), with the idea that kids will not have to go through such a stark transition phase if they've been already doing it as they go on.

Robert put this pretty well: If you imagine that higher math is at the top of the mountain, and teachers are helping kids build a rock solid foundation from which to make their way up the mountain, it doesn't help much if the platform is only a few feet tall and the mountain itself is hundreds of feet tall. How do they get the rest of the way up? (This is assuming that the foundation really is solid and that all kids start from this point, some big ifs.)

I think of it like this: The traditional arithmetic approach really gives kids the idea that math is all about numbers and manipulating them in various specified ways. Ideally, kids develop fluency and speed in performing these manipulations which are, when you come down to it, pretty easy and straightforward. About the time they feel comfortable with that (or, in reality, often before), we pull out the algebra book and basically tell them that everything they think they know about math is wrong. They know that 6 * 9 = 54 because of the multiplication table, but not what's underlying it, so how do they make sense of 6 * X = 54?

(4) The Self-Confidence Paradox

I think many people also find it crazy that an exploration-based approach attempts to both challenge students to do harder problems starting at a younger age and simultaneously improve kids' self-confidence toward math. I mean, it's obvious that mathematical self-esteem comes from feeling like you have complete mastery of the material and can answer all the problems, so isn't this attempt to ensure that even the smartest kids will encounter problems that are at the edge of or even beyond their abilities going to cripple them?

And I can attest that some of the problems are quite difficult.

However, there is, to my mind, a certain logic in the idea of having kids encounter hard problems from early days because everyone reaches a point where math gets hard for them. (If this is not the case for you, it's because you quit too early. There's tons of math that nobody has figured out yet, I am sure.) If you have found math pretty easy up to this point, being unable to immediately grasp some concept or get the right answer to some problem in algebra, geometry, calculus, differential equations, topology, whatever is going to be kind of disconcerting. You may start to question whether you are "good" at math or not. You may start to lose your confidence in your ability to do math. (As I believe I've mentioned, Taylor series did this to me in Calculus 2 the first time, though I did encounter a question on my high school calculus final exam that prompted me to write "Only God knows the answer," a fact my teacher remembers to this day.)

You may not understand that working at a problem is just part of the normal process of doing math and that being unable to answer a given problem does not mean that you are stupid. Math ability is not a Superpower. It's something you can develop through effort. And getting comfortable with the idea that some problems are harder than others, and sometimes you'll encounter problems that you can't get the answers to, but that often after working on a problem, you can actually solve things that looked impossibly crazy hard at first glance...that's how you develop the confidence in your own ability to tackle hard problems. And how you learn to not get totally freaked out when something is beyond you.

(5) And What's the Ultimate Goal Anyway?

It is my opinion that, with the increasing amount of technology available for gathering and crunching numbers, knowing how to do math is more important than ever. But we need people who can figure out that given the data S, T, U, V, X, Y, and Z that X = S * T * U/(Y - Z) more than we need people who can calculate 0.283 * 73146 * 9.4 / (2.4 - 0.005) without using a calculator. Oh, and V? That variable wasn't relevant in answering the question at hand.

In summary:

- People may automatically think any new math is going to be "New Math" all over again.

- "Looking right" isn't much of a criterion for validity. Horses can run even with those wimpy-looking legs.

- It may be ultimately more effective to teach kids to climb the mathematical mountain than help them build a "solid foundation" that doesn't get them very close to the top. Mountain climbing isn't easy, but has its rewards, including "the ... exertion it requires, the satisfaction of overcoming difficulties by working with others, the thrill of reaching a summit, and the unobstructed view from a mountaintop."

- I am no longer afraid of Taylor series.

- A great many adults probably still believe that math is about numbers.

As for the exploration-based program in the article - does it work? This is, to coin a phrase, an empirical question. I would say there are reasons to be hopeful that it could work better than the current system (needs a thorough evaluation), but whether it would work better in practice...that would be an implementation challenge, no question, even with substantial evidence in its favor.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Incorrect Assumptions: College Major Edition

Tam mentioned that she and her boyfriend were talking about their perceptions of various college majors. (She also said she might blog on this, but she hasn't yet, so I am anticipating her by talking about my experience first.)

People tend to have incorrect assumptions about both of my college majors:

"Economics...that's about money."

"Psychology...why people are depressed or crazy or whatever."

In both cases, WRONG. Not that there aren't people who do study those particular topics, but they are not the central, or even most important, aspects of the fields. Both subjects would exist without money or insanity. All you need is scarcity and want for economics; psychology just requires people (or arguably, just some kind of animal that does things).

I have almost zero interest in money (mine, yours, the federal government's, anybody's; I'm a totally lazy investor who gets by through a combination of mooching, cheapness, and various good habits) and only a passing interest in craziness per se (though I did enjoy my job in psychiatric research, that was mostly about the research - I got to look at construct validity of DSM categories and evaluate programs and that sort of thing). Yet I enjoyed majoring in psychology and economics. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that I did not take a single class on money or abnormal psychology in the process.

What do people assume the field(s) you studied was about? Were they right? Were you right or did you find out later that the subject was something other than what you expected?

Organic Food Paper - Check

My professor and I sent in the organic paper this morning to the conference organizers - yay! I now get to basically not think about it for another two months until we find out whether it has been accepted or not. Given its limitations, I think it turned out quite well. It is not any kind of ground-breaking research, but it seems interesting enough (even to me having been working on it all this time) and does fit a kind of niche for qualitative research on the topic.

One of my interviewees had mentioned that Jason's Deli is highlighting their use of organic products, and last week when Robert and I ate there, I took especial notice of the prominent signage regarding "natural" and "organic" products, as well as a new sign saying they don't use high fructose corn syrup (except in soft drinks). (I ate the blue corn chips with my turkey wrap; they must be healthy because they are organic, right? I also like how the color makes them both pretty and obviously different from regular tortilla chips in a way that can be suggestive of superiority along various axes.) Still unknown is how they managed to make the gingerbread muffin have more combined grams of fat, carb, and protein than is possible given the muffin's mass. I think they must have figured out a way to make them unhealthily delicious into another dimension. Probably links up to the dark matter problem in some fashion, although I will leave the details to some poor doctoral student looking for a dissertation topic in their interdisciplinary nutrition science/physics program.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Geeky Halloween Costume

Remember how on the TV show "Laverne & Shirley" Laverne always wore sweaters and shirts with a big script L on the front?

Why shouldn't I hit you with this bowling ball, you bitch

I was thinking that if you added a small, raised "-1" to the script L, you could be an inverse Laplace transform.

Everything to the right of the = sign goes without saying

And if you had a friend who wanted to wear the original shirt, you could go to a party together as "Laverne & The Inverse Laplace Transform." This was, of course, the original premise of the TV show, but it did not go over as well with test audiences as originally expected. The shifts from the t domain to the s domain and back again were just too hard to follow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

An Observation

It would take a really long time to complete a dissertation on judgment and decision-making in Ents. The experimentation phase alone would last an eon.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Diff E Update

After Exam #2, I now have a 98.5 going into the last few quizzes and final exam. Sitting pretty, I think; it's quite a relief.

Quote of the Day: Dismal Science Edition

"We can appreciate [Thomas] Carlyle's idealization of hierarchy best when we find his industrious disciple Charles Dickens offering plans to 'reform' American racial slavery. In contrast, those who idealized exchange had no plan to reform slavery. Five letters, appropriately arranged around a space, would exhaust their insight as to how to bring existing slavery into correspondence with the ideal. These letters are END IT."

- How the Dismal Science Got Its Name, David M. Levy, Professor of Economics, George Mason University, 2001

Many people believe that the "dismal science" referred to Thomas Malthus's prediction that population growth would outstrip agricultural growth, leading to widespread famine. Rather, Thomas Carlyle opposed the view of the (now called "classical") economists, such as John Stuart Mill, who strongly argued for the end of slavery on the basis that under the skin, all people are equal and share the same human nature:

"Truly, my philanthropic friends, Exeter Hall Philanthropy is wonderful; and the Social Science—not a 'gay science,' but a rueful—which finds the secret of this universe in 'supply-and-demand,' and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone, is also wonderful. Not a 'gay science,' I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science. These two, Exeter Hall Philanthropy and the Dismal Science, led by any sacred cause of Black Emancipation, or the like, to fall in love and make a wedding of it,—will give birth to progenies and prodigies; dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto!"

- An Occasional discourse on the Negro Question, Thomas Carlyle, 1849

What's Exeter Hall Philanthropy? British evangelicalism. Christian evangelicals also opposed slavery because they believed that all men and women were brothers and sisters under God.

It's interesting that market egalitarianism is now viewed as "right wing" or "conservative," given its radical history. As Levy points out in his book, this fact speaks to the huge success of those who pushed for emancipation. We now see the spectrum as those who do not believe in property in things (far left) to those who do believe in property of things (right), with the previous far right end point of those who believe in property in people having fallen completely off the scale.

For more information, see this interesting and informative web site. It includes some pretty crazy political cartoons, like this one, showing one of Carlyle's compatriots killing a black man/classical economist hybrid figure (who to me looks like a grotesquely racial Nosferatu in the clothing of a business man) as though he is St. George slaying the dragon.

Where does he keep his sword when he's not stabbing black economist people?
The slain man is holding a bag of money with the words "The Wealth of Nations" (the title of Adam Smith's seminal text on the superiority of the free market economy) written on it. It also says "L.S.D." - apparently an abbreviation for "pounds, shillings, and pence," among other things.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Overestimating Ants

Robert points out this inadvertently hilarious article on the topic of what drivers can learn from ants.

Now collective intelligence expert Dr Dirk Helbing says understanding more about ants could help solve one of the banes of modern life - road congestion.

His team set up an "ant motorway" with two routes of different widths from the nest to some sugar syrup. Soon the narrower route soon became congested.

But when an ant returning along the congested route to the nest collided with another ant just starting out, the returning ant pushed the newcomer onto the other path.

However, if the returning ant had enjoyed a trouble-free journey it did not redirect the newcomer.

The result was that just before the shortest route became clogged the ants were diverted to another route and traffic jams never formed.

He notes: "The reason the ants were able to inform each other about congestion, and use that information to reroute traffic, is not because the oncoming ants ‘told’ the others about it, it is because, in their experiment, the network already had enough spare capacity to handle the traffic. Humans are perfectly capable of reaching this same equilibrium. In fact, we have – that is what “Loop” highways and bypasses are for. The problem humans have is that spare road capacity is rather expensive, and is an explicit, and socialized, cost, while traffic jams have an only the implicit cost which falls on the private commuter, and so our roads have insufficient capacity. “Knowing” the traffic is bad going into downtown Austin on I-35 doesn’t provide me with a useful alternative route."

I would like to point out that human beings do not have any problem avoiding obstacles and finding alternative routes either... on foot. We simply go around. This is not something that can do in cars, traveling at high speed, on dedicated lanes where there is noplace else to go. If another road is not there, knowing that the route is backed up, once you are already on it, isn't very helpful. Another major source of traffic problems, aside from general congestion caused by overall insufficient road capacity, are accidents, and those are sudden events that screw up everyone who is already committed to driving on that road. I do not know of any way of "bumping" somebody who is between two exits on I-35 all the way over to MoPac.

I mean, shit, why screw around? I advise that we learn from the crows. When the road is backed up, just fly, okay? Actually, "as the crow flies" is basically always the shorter driving route anyway. Just shows how stupid we are. And ants, when you come down to it.

You know, this research about ants was pretty interesting; why the need to make it "relevant" to humanity's problems?

One Reason That My Goal is Not Totally Crazy

I've been reading up on the humanities PhD market recently, primarily motivated by the endless discussions on the getting into grad school forum on LiveJournal, which appears to attract a rather large number of people who want to get a PhD in medieval literature or French poetry or women's studies or whatever sort of a thing. Also, my psychology professor told me that I could get into a psychology PhD program right now and advised me to consider applying to a couple to see if I could get in, and this had me rethinking the job market for psychology PhDs.

A couple of stats from a 1999 article:

- After 10 years, the majority of humanities PhD students have not finished their degrees.

- While 80 percent of the English PhDs [who graduated between 1982 and 1985] surveyed wanted to become professors at the end of their doctoral education, only 53 percent were tenured by 1995 [10-12 years after graduation], the study found.

Elsewhere, average salaries for those fortunate enough to secure new assistant professor positions (i.e. first tenure-track job out of the PhD program) in 2006 - and remember that those in the humanities typically take twice as long to hit the job market as other PhDs, having spent 10 years or more languishing as a very poorly paid teaching assistant, and have limited job prospects outside academia, so there is not a significant portion of the PhDs in those fields that have been attracted to super-lucrative jobs in industry:
- English $47,000
- History $47,000
- Performing arts $47,000
- Foreign languges $48,000
- Philosophy and religion $48,000
- And for comparison: Psychology $50,000; Math $52,000; Engineering $70,000; Law $81,000; Business $82,000

I found some information on the American Marketing Association's website from a survey of 2008 marketing PhD graduates. Some stats on these new assistant professors:

- The average 9 month salary was $115,000; median $118,000; range $65,000 - $151,000

- The average for a consumer behavior hire was $126,500

- Only 3% had already defended their dissertation before they were hired; there were more who had not even defended their dissertation proposal

- Most students had been in their PhD program for 3 or 4 years before they were on the job market; <3% had been in the program for 5 or more years (compare to the poor humanities students still trying to eke it out after 10)

- The median graduate put out 70 applications, did 19 interviews and got 2 assistant professor job offers; the average number of job offers was 2.7

- A 3 course academic year teaching load was the most common - yes, that means teaching 3 classes over 3 semesters (including the summer)

- The typical person had 4 conference presentations and zero peer-reviewed publications at the time of hire (but it takes a long time, often a couple of years, to get a submitted paper into print)

Frankly, based on the strength of placement for marketing PhDs - they seem to basically all get jobs that pay a lot of money and do not have stringent teaching requirements, though there are obviously high expectations for publishing before you can get tenure - compared to psychology PhDs, I would be poorly served by getting a psychology PhD instead. Even if it takes me an extra 2 years, because I do a masters degree first, it quickly pays for itself when you look at the difference in salary. And while it is not impossible to get a marketing placement from a psychology department, it is much less common and often requires doing a 2-year post doc in a marketing department to make that transition.

Basically, this examination re-iterates the conclusions I have already drawn, and has convinced me to keep the marketing PhD -> marketing department job as my number one play.

Further, I have decided that both theory and my own gut imagining of my future self's decision-making process would suggest that were I to actually be accepted to a psychology PhD program, I would find it overwhelmingly attractive to take it, even if it's not in my long run interests. When thinking about a decision in the more distant future, I can consider it from a "big picture" viewpoint and recognize the value of making a decision that most helps me toward my long-term goals; when thinking about a decision close in time, I will place too much weight on concrete details like "never having to apply to graduate school again" and "being able to get started on a PhD right away" and "only having to move once before my first job."

Basically, sitting with a psychology PhD acceptance in hand will resemble too closely standing next to the doughnut box in a meeting at work.

Clearly, the outcome of going to a psychology PhD program will not be self-defeating in the same fashion as eating a high-fat, high-sugar treat -- because getting your PhD is forever. I can eat a doughnut today and then eat salads for the rest of the month and be fine. But you usually only get one shot at a PhD. Going into a psych PhD program will result in either failing or dropping out (which is bad) or getting a psych PhD, which means not getting a marketing PhD (okay, but not optimal).

It's like right now, I'm standing in the train station, and there's a slow train to Marketingland, with a long stop in Mastersville, and an express train to Psychworld, both leaving the station at the same time but reaching their destinations years apart. And there's a ferry from Psychworld to Marketingland, but that takes quite a while too and is not that reliable. I have to resist that desire to get to an okay place sooner rather than a better place later, even though I know that the journey itself will be uncomfortable, even hellish, at times.

I recently read an interesting piece of advice that I had not seen before and that I do not necessarily privilege as being desirable but that brings up something I hadn't thought about before, though I should have. My plan has been to do a masters thesis, both as a "proof of concept" to PhD programs that I can do the kind of research that a PhD student is expected to do and to myself get in a practice run. But this person pointed out that doing a masters thesis can be a time-consuming and emotionally-draining experience that frequently delays one's graduation and leaves the student less interest in doing a PhD from thesis fatigue. From this perspective, you would be better served by getting through your masters degree more quickly and not 'wasting' your fortitude to do a big research project on a thesis when you will have to do more research later.

I really do see the logic of not extending your masters program for an extra semester or year to finish a thesis, but sort of feel that if I don't have it in me to finish a thesis, then turn around and do a solid first-year research project in my PhD program, and possibly another masters thesis (depending on whether the program will accept my previous one in lieu), then perhaps I'm really not cut out to be a professor at a research institution. And I don't want to be an instructor at a teaching-oriented college enough to put this much of my life into it - I would rather go back to the private or government sector than do a full teaching courseload. I mean, almost everybody hates finishing their PhD dissertation, even those who go on to very successful research careers and enjoy it a lot, but having a masters thesis tax a person that much seems like a bad sign. Of course, this person's advice may be much more justified for the future doctoral student who wants primarily to teach rather than do research.

In summary:
- People in the humanities spend forever in school and have trouble getting tenure-track jobs afterwards and may be completely nuts.
- Preferring the superior job placement prospects and salary of a marketing job over that of a psychology job is not crazy. The extra time invested now more than pays for itself very soon.
- I will not be applying this year to any psychology PhD programs that may be too attractive, a la a doughnut, to resist. The psych PhD will remain a backup to marketing PhD programs two years from now.
- I don't want to get a job teaching 4 classes per semester to undergraduates at Directional State University and finding it difficult to find time to do research.
- I am still hoping that Ed McMahon will show up this spring on my doorstep with a giant check from Wake Forest University that says "$8,500 per year plus full tuition waiver" on it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Death by Chocolate

I just discovered that the chocolate cake I had at Macaroni Grill tonight has 1180 calories and 68 g of fat. Holy. Shit.

I knew it was huge, but ... man, I wouldn't have guessed that it was possible to make something so saturated with useless calories. I'm not having that again. I ate most of it, too - my chocolate allotment for the next 6 months or so.

Obviously, I did not think chocolate cake would be healthy or diet food, but this is yet another example of how everything in a restaurant turns out to be even more scary and evil nutrition-wise than it seems.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Pursuit and Assessment of Happiness Can Be Self-Defeating

One of the great ironies to come out of happiness research is the finding that attempting to be happy, and thinking about whether one is happy, actually undermines one's success in being happy.

Some notes on a chapter by Jonathon Schooler (a psychologist at UC-Santa Barbara), Dan Ariely (behavioral economist from Duke), and George Loewenstein (a decision scientist at Carnegie Mellon):

There are three main problems that interfere with people's ability to optimize their own levels of utility (happiness):

1. "People may have limited explicit access to the utility they get from experience." In other words, people have trouble figuring out how happy something they are doing or have done makes them. (This is separate from the issue of predicting how happy something will make them, at which people also suck, as we will see.)

There is a distinction between the happiness that you experience and how you will evaluate that experience later. Research on flow states has shown that people who are busy on engaging, challenging tasks may be very happy while not noticing it at the time.

Determining whether something makes you happy is an inferential process. People will look to "self-observation, situational context, and theories about how they 'should' be order to translate visceral states into an explicit hedonic appraisal." Two prominent social psychological theories are relevant here: Bem's Self Perception Theory says that people make inferences about their own attitudes the same way they infer those of others. Festinger's Cognitive Dissonance Theory posits that people alter their attitudes to reduce the inner conflict that comes from having discrepancies between their attitudes and behavior. "Both processes can come into play depending on circumstances": large discrepancies are likely influenced by cognitive dissonance while smaller discrepancies may be more tied to self perception theory.

People are also sensitive to "anchoring effects" in determining how much something is worth to them: the value that they place on something is affected by the initial reference value (e.g. would you pay $X? Would you pay $Y?). For example, in an experiment, they had students who were offered to listen to part of a recording of The Leaves of Grass; initially, some students were asked "Would you pay $10?" to listen to the recording, while others were asked "Would you do it if you were paid $10?" Later, they were asked how much they would pay/be paid to listen to an even longer recording, and both groups increased the amount. So those who were initially asked a question that implied that listening should have a value to them that they would be willing to pay were willing to pay more to listen to more, while those who were set up with the idea that they should be paid to listen wanted even more money to listen to a longer recording. This is despite the fact that both groups were reacting to the same offer (and presumably did not differ systematically in how much they like Walt Whitman poetry).

2. "Efforts to assess one's utility level can adversely affect the utility" (sort of like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle). This is similar to findings in decision-making research, in which people who are asked to verbally reflect upon their decision processes increase the weight they attach to things that could be verbalized relative to their gut feelings. For example, in a jam-tasting experiment, participants who were asked to verbalize their evaluations achieved a correlation with Consumer Reports experts of a lowly 0.16, while those who just tasted them and rated them achieved a correlation of 0.56 with expert opinion.

"Hedonic introspection may increase the focus on the self, so attention devoted to the experience is reduced, causing the individual to overlook subtle aspects of the experience or think about what could or should have been rather than what was," leading to disappointment. They note that chronically unhappy people show higher levels of self-consciousness, self-focused attention, and ruminative thinking (though they are also more realistic about their situations). However, it's not clear to me that research has been done to demonstrate whether self-focused attention leads to unhappiness or unhappiness leads to self-focused attention or what.

3. Despite being enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right (though there is a very interesting backstory on how the right to property became the right to the pursuit of happiness that is not within the purview of this post), the conscious pursuit of happiness - "treating activities as a means toward something else, rather than as ends in themselves" - can backfire. Activities undertaken for "extrinsic rewards lose their intrinsic appeal" and pursuing happiness can lead to increased introspection, which we've already seen can undermine one's happiness.

People have faulty theories about what will make them happy. They "tend to underestimate the tendency to adapt hedonically to positive and negative continuing experiences...and over-select goals that produce lasting material changes, such as an increase in income or status." In an experiment, participants played the Dictator Game - the person was given an amount of money and told to decide how much to keep for himself and how much to give to the other player. Those who gave a higher amount away to the other player reported overall higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction. But again, it's not clear to me how the causality there works; I could just as easily see a happy person being willing to give away more money than an unhappy person. (Note: the fact that people do not just keep the entire amount for themselves poses difficulties for the economic rational-man hypothesis.)

The authors did try to get a more clear sense of the causality in a pair of experiments; they had people monitor their experience (or not) while listening to music or celebrating New Year's Eve. (They also had some manipulation of the "pursuit" variable that I did not take note of, but that I recall had to do with making a special effort to enjoy their New Year's Eve celebrations.) They found that those who pursued happiness and monitored the experience reported lower levels of happiness with the experience; they theorize that this is because high expectations lead to disappointment.

Implications for Economics:
- Economic models that emphasize the deliberate pursuit of self-interest may not be the optimal approach once the costs of the "effortful focus of utility maximization is entered into the equation." Decreasing the emphasis on self-interest may increase net utilities even if the overall material output is reduced. (Or, my take: we could be happier with less stuff if we weren't losing utility in pursuing all that stuff that we think will make us happy, but probably won't. Or, maybe someone else's take: maybe those Europeans with less money and less of a frenzy to obtain it aren't so wrong after all.)

Implications for Psychology:
- These studies "add to the growing body of evidence that thinking and reflection are not always productive activities."
- "Unhappiness may be more likely to induce an explicit meta-awareness of one's hedonic state." I would say that this is true to my own experience; I generally can tell these days when things have been going well because I find that I haven't been thinking about it much at all.

They recommend that the optimal approach is to periodically engage in monitoring of your hedonic state (happiness level) and pursuit of happiness.

Reference: The psychology of economic decisions / edited by Isabelle Brocas and Juan D. Carrillo. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Creepy Dictator Posters

Tam and I have talked about how the posters of Obama look like government propaganda for a dictator - they make me think of North Korea's "Great Leader" Kim Jong Il.

This blog entry points out that the artist based the poster on the famous image of Che Guevara, the Communist guerrilla, revolutionary, and sex symbol for deluded (and ignorant) left-wing college students. Niiiice.

But come on, let's face it, there's only one kind of Marxism worth believing in.

The only real Marxism

Rufus T. Firefly for President!

"These are the laws of my administration:

No one's allowed to smoke
Or tell a dirty joke
And whistling is forbidden...[whistles]
If chewing gum is chewed
The chewer is pursued
And in the hoosegow hidden...

If any form of pleasure is exhibited
Report to me and it will be prohibited.
I'll put my foot down, so shall it be.
This is the land of the free.

The last man nearly ruined this place
He didn't know what to do with it.
If you think this country's bad off now
Just wait 'til I get through with it.
The country's taxes must be fixed
And I know what to do with it
If you think you're paying too much now
Just wait 'til I get through with it...

I will not stand for anything that's crooked or unfair
I'm strictly on the up and up
So everyone beware
If anyone's caught taking graft
And I don't get my share
We stand 'em up against the wall
And pop goes the weasel.

If any man should come between her husband and his bride
We find out which one she prefers
By letting her decide
If she prefers the other man
The husband steps outside
We stand 'em up against the wall
And pop goes the weasel.

Quick Reviews

Chex Mix Chocolate Chunk Bars - About as delicious a candy bar as I've ever had, with only 140 calories and whole wheat flour as a first ingredient (followed by a bunch of forms of sugar and unhealthy stuff, of course). They combine the salty crunch of pretzel and chex with gooey chocolate. Eating one of these was how I celebrated Halloween, candy-wise. (Note: they are not nearly as impossible to stop eating as All Bran cinnamony bars, but that may only be because I am not crazy for chocolate.)

Eragon - In the opening scenes, I was like, heh, look, it's the poor man's John Malkovich...wait! That's the real John Malkovich. Apparently he could not resist the opportunity to play Harkonnen from David Lynch's Dune, complete (Robert assures me) with the exact same dialogue spoken in the exact same way in at least one place. I thought that poor farm boy had way too nice a leather vest, which made Robert and me both think at the same moment of two different 1970's actors. Other scenes were lifted from Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings; we'll call this an homage to the classics. I liked one visually novel scene, but Robert said it looked like a village in one of his computer games. But, you know, dragons, ok? The fully-grown dragon in armor looked so bad-ass as to make the whole thing worth it. Best Halloween costume I saw yesterday. (Only Halloween costume I saw yesterday.)

Before Sunset - I didn't realize I'd seen the movie before until the scene with the rabbit hopping in the grass, which I rewound and watched like 3 times because I am bunny-crazy. Robert pointed out that it had to be a feral rabbit, not a wild rabbit, due to its coloring. Whatever. It was cute. It was interesting to watch the movie with two young people who did not at any point pull out a cell phone. They had to talk to each other. Also bizarre is actress Julie Delpy, who was very pretty and thin but had arms that were neither stick-like nor had any visible muscle tone. Ah, 1995.

Yes, Prime Minister - This is must-see TV for fans of droll British comedy who also are healthily cynical about politics.