Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lucky Hair

Just got back from getting a haircut preparatory to the conference in Washington, D.C. this week. I had grown my hair out over this past semester but:

(1) it was getting really wild,
(2) my usual ponytail style is probably not what I'm looking for at a business conference (a sleek ponytail can look fine, but my hair doesn't do sleek),
(3) it takes too long to wash and to dry (basically, I put it in a ponytail when I get out of the shower and it still isn't dry by evening),
(4) it's summer and time for something cooler (even the ponytail drapes down too far and feels hot).

I walked in with my hair mostly air-dried (and hence huge and sort of wavy). My hairdresser went through the usual comments:

HD: "You really have a lot of hair."
Me: "Yeah. It's pretty crazy."

HD: "Is this your natural color?"
Me: "Yes...well, it gets a little lighter like this when I've spent time in the sun."
HD: "It has great highlights. Women spend a lot of money, and they still don't get hair like this."
Me: "I guess I'm lucky in that way."

I'm now back to my traditional chin-length hair. My head feels significantly lighter now.

In other "lucky"-ish news, I found a Kohls gift card I had semi-forgotten about, so I might be able to get a new pair of pants and/or skirt to match the black suit jacket and two nice sleeveless shirts I found in my closet and not have to pay much of anything out of pocket.

And now, back to scripting my presentation. Blah!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

It's the Ridiculously Small Admit Numbers, Stupid

Articles about business PhDs like this one make me crazy (selected paragraphs with my emphasis in italics):

"The upsurge in applications from people like Ferguson is good news for those worried about the projected business faculty shortage, which had been expected to worsen in the next four to five years. In recent years the overall production of business PhDs has fallen just as enrollment in undergraduate and master-level business programs has risen. Of even more concern, the shortage of business faculty is projected to increase to 2,400 openings by 2012, according to projections from the American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) made before the recent upsurge in applications."

"However, an increase in applications is no guarantee of a bumper crop of new business faculty. One problem is that not all business PhDs go on to become faculty -- about a third go to work for private industry, frequently consulting companies. Another problem is that PhD students, who typically receive a tuition waiver and stipend, are an expensive proposition for B-schools, and many of them are already strapped for cash. "Doctoral programs in business are cost centers for universities," says the PhD Project's Milano. "And in dead economic times, when universities are struggling, one of the things they have to look at [is] reducing is the number of doctoral students, because they cost money.""

"Still, with the upsurge in business PhD applications, all signs are now pointing to an increase in the supply of new PhDs in the future...."

I have not heard anything from any person affiliated with a business school say that the predicted shortage in PhD-holding business professors is due to a lack of applicants or even qualified applicants. (However, some programs would like to draw away highly-qualified students with elite backgrounds from traditional economics PhD programs, for example. But the desire to get students who are even more betterer is not the same as believing that their current applicants aren't good.)

The fundamental problem, which this writer acknowledges briefly by quoting somebody who knows the score, but then moves away from as though it's not all that important, is that business schools limit the number of PhD students to such a small number that they already cannot graduate the number of business PhDs needed to match their own hiring needs. The problem is going to get worse in the future, but it's already here. What is needed is an increase in the number of admits, not the number of applicants.

More applicants simply means more competition amongst applicants for a very few slots. For instance, the article mentions that in this past cycle, UPenn's Wharton School (which is, to be fair, the top business program) received 1,182 applications for their PhD programs, up 34% from last year. However, they only matriculate about 30-40 people. That's in the range of 3% of applicants actually attending Wharton. (And it is not the case that they admit 200 people or something and only 30 decide to attend. Their acceptance rate is probably still under 5%.)

It is frequently observed that having a "god" profile (bachelors and masters degrees from highly-regarded programs with high GPAs, near perfect test scores, strong recommendations from professors known to and respected by adcom members, excellent statement of purpose, good research match to faculty, etc.) is not enough to guarantee you a slot at a top 10 or even top 20 program. (I have to assume this is true to a great extent in other very competitive PhD fields as well.)

And business PhD programs do not suffer the same attrition as many other programs - where people can't pass their exams and are given a masters degree as a parting gift, realize there is no reliable career path from finishing the PhD in their field, can't continue living on their stipend, put so much energy into teaching additional courses at their school or a local community college to make ends meet that they don't ever finish the dissertation, etc. - so it's not even the case that there is a volume of drop-outs that schools can more successfully encourage to complete the PhD, thereby magically increasing the supply.

I recognize that the writer of this article has not spent the insane number of hours scourging around for information about the business PhD appliation process that I have. Still, I would expect a reporter for Business Week to be able to recognize the rather perverse supply and demand issue at work here, especially when someone so helpfully points it out.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Food Research Update

I'm really happy to report that the fast food / childhood obesity paper was submitted to the journal this afternoon. At our last meeting, one of the professors realized that by the time the article is ready to print (assuming it gets accepted for the special issue of the journal in, I believe, October), I will be affiliated with My Masters University instead of the current one, and she told me to remind them to have that changed for the actual publication. It was kind of exciting to imagine being only a month or two into my masters program and having a genuine publication. (I do already have two others, but they are in a field that is less relevant to my future work, though these professors have noted that pubs in known medical journals tend to look impressive because it can be so hard to get published in them.)

I am finally working on my presentation on organic food consumers that I am giving a week from tomorrow at the Washington, DC conference. It's going to be hard to figure out what very few things I will report. Things are going to be crazy between now and Thursday, when my flight leaves, but with the obesity paper done for now, I will be able to concentrate on getting ready for this conference and the adjacent week we'll be in NC, trying among other things to find me an apartment.

In addition to all the other stresses is that I don't have a thing to wear; seriously, I do not currently have a wardrobe that is well-stocked with appropriate attire for an academic conference for business professors, who tend to dress up daily.

Also, have I mentioned that the conference hotel is...I can't say nickeling and diming us, since it's more like $10 and $50-ing us...on every little thing? Breakfast is ghastly expensive ($9 for 2 eggs? I don't think that's just my Cheap-Assness saying that's a lot of money) and I do not believe they even serve something as basic as free coffee (not that I drink it personally, but it would be nice to have a coffee maker in my room to make tea). There are additional expenses for using the internet access (!!) and the exercise room. But I'm sure it's very luxurious for those who are on an expense account. My own funding is rather limited and doesn't cover any niceties like transportation to the hotel, meals, etc., and I might actually have to cover some of the travel expenses myself. I see a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread to make breakfast sandwiches instead of ponying up for the obscene $14 waffle or whatnot.

I am now entering the expected stage (as the annoying details and requirements loom large, as well as the realization that I actually have to get up there and talk about a research project that even I view as rather trivial) at which I no longer want to go to this conference, but know that later I will have wanted to have gone. If I want to get my paper published in the proceedings journal (and I do; the work is small but not embarrassingly poorly done, and is something I would have loved to have seen myself when putting together my own study, so I can hope it has some slight value for other researchers), I have to go and present it. To paraphrase one of the New Years Resolutions for Bunnies that is posted on my fridge: "It won't last forever and it's my own fault for being such a good writer."

And it'll be exciting to see North Carolina finally. (I think I was there, briefly, once before on a business trip that involved going from the airport, to the hotel after dark, and to the client's campus, and then immediately back on a plane, so that hardly counts. It's akin to seeing the shadow of an unknown bird rather than the actual bird itself.)

When Beasts Attack

The other morning I discovered that my back was covered in scratches - some surface scrapes, some gouges, and a set of long, impressive scratches that had drawn blood and beaded up. After a mental check that I had not likely woken up in a fantasy universe in which I had a dream about being attacked by a cat only to find that my injuries were real (I had not dreamed about any kind of animal or assailant), I was pretty confused about where they came from. Robert suggested I had done it to myself overnight. OK, that did seem plausible in a sense, but (1) am I really capable of doing this sort of damage to myself without noticing (esp. since I am a very light sleeper and did not sleep well at all the previous night), (2) I wasn't really able to reach some of those scratches easily or at all, and (3) since I have fairly blunt fingernails and not claws, how did I mimic an angry beast strike? It was also kind of odd that there weren't visible scratch marks anywhere else.

So I did what anyone would do. I scraped at my back and waited to see what would happen.

Although I did not draw blood, I did replicate some of the medium-damage scratches. It seemed in retrospect like it should have hurt more than it did, given the amount of injury I had done. I mean, wow, I wouldn't normally scratch myself like that. Oh...duh. When a person is taking moderately serious pain killers, they don't feel the amount of pain they otherwise might. And I remembered that one of the side effects of these pain killers is my skin feeling really itchy and that I had not applied lotion the previous night, which would have made me itchy anyway. Over the next couple of hours, I kept finding myself starting to scratch various parts of my body, only noticing it, I believe, because I was sort of on the look-out for this kind of behavior.

Sometimes the beast that attacks is the beast within. Etc.

I wonder if this will leave scars.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Name Game

A friend of mine (and his wife) just named their baby boy "Freeman." I have nothing against the name, but I do wonder about the wisdom of naming your child so that he sounds like the protagonist of a libertarian science fiction novel. This hits me so strongly that I almost feel that I could sit down and write this novel this very afternoon. Maybe this is the effect they are going for.

Neither of them is Mormon (at least he's not), where unusual names are common, nor African-American, where it might be a function of using a family last name as a first name. I really do believe the name choice is politically motivated. Isn't one of the big benefits of having a dog that you can give it any kind of crazy-sounding name and (1) he won't mind and (2) it won't have any negative impact on his life? (Actually, a dog might take exception to the name Freeman; you'd have to go with Freedog, which also sounds like the name of a band that the musician from Lost might have joined post-Driveshaft if he hadn't done that whole shipwreck on an island thing. Then there's always "Freebird"...)

I hope the kid grows up to have the kind of self-confidence and charisma to pull off a great Number 6 From The Prisoner costume party persona -- "I am not a number, I am Freeman!"

Friday, May 15, 2009

The End of My Stat Course

I had my statistics final on Monday afternoon. Overall, I felt pretty confident about my performance, though I stumbled momentarily over a problem about unbiased estimators (but figured out eventually that the expectancy I needed to calculate was actually very easy) and choked on defining some distributions (e.g. I know that the ratio of two Chi-square variables is distributed F, but how does the degrees of freedom work in this case? How is T defined?). I think I did a better job with finding the maximum likelihood estimator from a given pdf than I usually do. The problems that involved testing hypotheses and calculating test statistics were very straightforward (though it's easy to screw up the arithmetic involved). All of our grades in the course have been posted and I am getting an A (or what would be an A+).

Although I had been ready for the past week or so for the class to be over, that was mostly due to a desire to get something checked off my to-do list rather than being done with the material (as I was with differential equations). This is a good thing since I will be continuing to take stat courses seemingly forever.

I've appreciated the opportunity to take a fairly rigorous two-semester sequence in probability and statistics that was pretty serious about the mathematical basis of what we are doing. A lot of courses, even those that are calculus-based, do not get into enough of this mathematical background, and the formulas can appear to arise almost magically from nowhere. I can see, though, why many professors choose to skip over so much of this mathematical detail. One thing that is a bit surprising (I think) is how much math is necessary even to do the simplest things in stat. (For example, my first homework assignment in this class looked like a calculus assignment with the amount of integration involved.)

And the development of the rationale / motivation is time-consuming, so there is a trade-off between depth and breadth that leads many people to elect for coverage of a greater number of topics. Given that perhaps the majority of people taking undergraduate statistics (hell, even graduate statistics in many fields) will never need to derive anything themselves, but only recognize what statistical test to apply to a given situation, it's tempting to skimp on this development. My professor clearly skimped on some things, but it seems like he did so less than many. The marketing professors I am working for have told me that I will be really happy to have this preparation when I take the stat sequence in my PhD course.

It's my working belief / feeling that a lot of people who like math think statistics is "boring" because they have never seen enough of the mathematical basis to actually understand anything (and I include those who have taken a stat course in college), but that if they could see where all the formulas are coming from, they would think it's more interesting. I recognize that this belief is probably a great example of naive realism (the idea that others would share my views if only they were exposed to the same things I am and were "rational" and "objective" in their evaluation). Robert, who has taken more statistics courses in his life than just about anyone short of having a PhD in statistics has, does not ascribe to this view. Certainly my fellow classmates did not seem to engage in the excitement of discovery...or they were extraordinarily masterful at hiding their enthusiasm. However, I have found that the more I actually understand the subject, the more I like it. (At this point, of course, I understand very little.)

For instance, anyone who has taken a statistics course knows about the Central Limit Theorem and has taken advantage of it in doing statistical testing. I certainly have been exposed to it several times and came into this two-class stat sequence having a rough idea of what it's getting at. I knew it was a useful result. I had seen simulations demonstrating with sample data that it appears to work. But it didn't really impress me until we did a proof that I was able to follow on a step-by-step basis how completely amazing it is that as the sample size increases, the mean of a set of independent variables from any distribution (with finite mean and variance) will itself be distributed approximately normal. (It helped that we had worked with so many different distributions with such different properties; this made the convergence of data from so many disparate distributions to a single distribution very surprising.)

I like this quote from Francis Galton about how awesome this is (1889):

"I know of scarcely anything so apt to impress the imagination as the wonderful form of cosmic order expressed by the 'Law of Frequency of Error' [i.e. the Central Limit Theorem]. The law would have been personified by the Greeks and deified, if they had known of it. It reigns with serenity and in complete self-effacement amidst the wildest confusion. The huger the mob and the greater the apparent anarchy, the more perfect is its sway. It is the supreme law of unreason."

While my appreciation for the Central Limit Theorem definitely falls well short of religious devotion, and we could argue that it would be an even nicer result if the normal distribution weren't such a pain in the ass to deal with, I do have to agree that this result "impresses my imagination."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Quote of the Day: "Lost" Edition

From the Season 4 finale:

John Locke: "Was he talking about what I think he was talking about?"
Ben: "If you mean time-traveling bunnies, then yes."

Robert paused the video, with Ben's placid, bug-eyed face and his quote on the sub-titles, and said, "If you had shown this screen to someone several years ago, would anybody have believed this would be an extremely popular television show?"

I didn't answer because my mind was too focused on BUNNIES. The show is almost too compelling for me under normal circumstances, but add in the rabbit factor and I'm a goner.

The time-traveling bunny in question, with his little ears sticking up:

Take that, Laika, and you other Dogs in Space

A Semi-Defense of Psychology

My response to Debbie’s interesting comments about school and psychology took on such length that it was easier to make a new post out of it.

Either the field of psychology (or the undergraduate curriculum of the field, since there's always a lag) moved drastically in 10 years, Debbie’s professors had a weird idea about what to teach, or ... I don't know, something. Her experience of psychology courses is very different from mine.

Of course, other than intro (which is a class that perhaps doesn't necessarily have to suck, but I suspect usually does, due to being disorganized and dissatisfyingly general) and my industrial-organizational psychology course (another lower-level course), my classes did not tend to use multiple choice exams. It's easy to have a superficial understanding (as Debbie points out, from being a human among humans) that certain phenomena exist, but it's harder to cogently explain what's actually going on with them, contrast the various theories / hypotheses about them and the evidence for them, critique the methodological approaches used to support specific research findings, or whatever.

That’s one reason I dislike multiple-choice exams – they do not reward more full or nuanced understanding of the material but frequently come down to (as Debbie and her friend experienced) an ability to see through a trick, identification of a more plausible answer, or employment of other content-irrelevant multiple-choice-test-taking skills. In some cases, I suspect that these multiple-choice exams for low-level courses (perhaps in many disciplines) are used as much as a measure of whether the student read the book as anything else; even when it’s something “everybody knows” about, you probably did have to read the book to consistently recognize what specific theories / phenomena are called in the literature. For instance, you may “know” that people who have one positive trait (e.g. are good-looking) are often assumed to have other, unrelated positive traits, but if you didn’t read the book, you may not be able to identify this as being called the “halo effect.”

A particular multiple-choice question type that I hate, which is perhaps more common on exams developed from the textbook publisher test bank, is the one that tests your memory for some very specific example in the book. Something like "The story about Eldritch the Dog that opened Chapter 7 illustrated which of the following phenomena..." you might have at least a chance at, since that's a part you probably did read and are more likely to retain due to its nature as a narrative. But something like "The experiment by Rudy and Jones [completely obscure researchers who may or may not be personal friends with the textbook author or on the author's tenure committee] described in the 'Contemporary Research' box found which of the following to be true..." is tough.

I agree that the GRE subject test does appear to be oriented toward "name the theory / name the researcher" type questions, but at this point, very few programs require or even care about this exam from people with a degree in pyschology. My understanding is that it's mostly recommended for people wanting to enter a psych grad program without the undergrad degree to demonstrate some base level of knowledge of the terminology / major theories / important researchers that is needed to make sense of the literature.

For instance, I have read that one of the reasons that economists and psychologists have difficulty making sense of each other is that economists define their theories using math and psychologists define their theories with reference to other theories, using terminology that has specific meaning within the field. This justifies to a certain extent a preoccupation in psychology with this kind of “factual” knowledge about the history of the discipline, its jargon, and its well-known researchers. I mean, we have to keep those economists at bay somehow.

Maybe some people find the theories in experimental psychology more “obvious” than I do. However, I think that people in general often rely on an understanding of psychological processes that is very shallow, woefully insufficient, or downright wrong. I wouldn’t even know where to begin listing all the things people misunderstand – how memory works, what prejudice is and how it functions, how attitudes are formed and beliefs validated, the way they themselves make decisions, the extent to which perception does not capture “reality,” how to motivate others, etc. I only know a little bit about these things myself. Even top researchers in the various specialty areas do not understand these things very well.

I know that since this is my field, I am apt to be protective of it. I need to believe it to be intellectually rigorous. I need it to have something to add to human understanding beyond what your grandmother “knows” after a lifetime of observing people's behavior and watching Oprah and its ilk. No one wants to believe their own field of endeavor is nothing more than writing up obvious truths in fancy language and diagrams. But I do think that a lot of the subtlety of academic psychology is easily lost on people. Experimental psychologists can't just see some phenomenon in the world, then turn to each other and say either "Birds of a feather flock together" or "Opposites attract"; such post hoc pseudo-explanations don't get you anywhere scientifically, though most people seem happy to settle upon any neat explanation whatsoever and smugly move on.

But it’s one of the crosses social scientists have to bear: everybody thinks they already know, from their own experience in the world, 80% of the important things the discipline has to say, and they think the other 20% is wrong (or at least, may be accurate when talking about other people, but not themselves).

Thursday, May 7, 2009

In Lieu of Resume, Please Accept...

Just now I was planning to email my resume to someone and when I went to attach the file, the folder that opened was full of Leo photos. After recovering from an unexpected mega-dose of Cute, I considered how amusing it would be to revise the email to say:

In lieu of my resume, please accept the attached as an indication of my interest and aptitude for the job.

Sally Porter

I am containing my enthusiasm for this job

In case this scares you - wait, I thought she was going to graduate school! I thought she already had a job! - be assured that nothing has changed. This is probably going to come to nothing, but a friend of a friend has her own research organization and she's looking for some freelance workers. She asked for my resume and I thought, Sure, why not.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Other People's Grades

I was really struck by this post on the LiveJournal applying to grad school forum. In a nutshell, an English/history major questions whether having taken 6-7 courses outside her majors Pass/Fail in the last 2 years will look bad on her transcript. (Oh, sorry, it's now called Pass/"No Pass" - insert curmudgeonly rant on the ridiculousness of the self-esteem movement in perverting language here if desired, or ignore.) The original poster (OP) admits to having taken this P/NP so that she could preserve a 3.92 cumulative GPA and focus extra effort on classes in her major.

I didn't comment on the post because I have nothing much to say to this particular person, and even though I have critical remarks about it, they aren't directed at this individual. This is what one's own blog is for.

First, taking 6-7 classes as P/NP in 2 years seems like a lot of P/NP. While I do not agree with the commenter who interpreted this as "slacking," it does seem to be a sort of questionable way to artificially limit one's workload. If I personally had a 3.92 GPA with 6-7 no-grade courses, I would feel very much like I have this on my transcript:

Cumulative GPA = 3.92*

*Note: 6-7 courses taken Pass/No Pass not accounted for in GPA. Recalculate cum GPA substituting C- (the lowest Pass grade) for these credits to yield real GPA of 3.53 - 3.58. Take off additional points because of how lame it is to pretend** to have a 3.92 when one doesn't really have one.
** Student may bring this transcript to Big Joe's Tattoo Shop to receive a 50% discount on "I Am An Actual Imposter" tattoo. (Students who took all math and/or econ courses P/NP may ask one of their quantitatively better prepared friends to explain the concepts of percentages and discounts.)

Second, the OP doesn't say what the courses were that she took P/NP, and I think that makes a difference in my personal interpretation of her GPA. If she took some demanding classes that people in English/History don't usually take, then the P/NP doesn't bother me much. If she took classes that other applicants to her grad programs also took, but took for a grade, then I look more disfavorably on the P/NP since it looks like she didn't think she could take those classes and do well or couldn't handle a normal workload.

Third, WTF is with a situation that could lead one commentor to note that she took a language class P/NP because her earlier "B in German...KILLED [her] GPA"? How can a single B do that even if you have been a 4.0 up to that point? If we assume she was halfway through her college career (60 hours) and had all A's plus one B, that results in a cum GPA of 3.95, hardly "KILLED." (One assumes one of the courses she got an A in was not statistics or that she has a very different idea about what it means to hurt one's GPA from mine.)

Fourth, what is with the high GPA's all these humanities majors report on this web site? I recognize that this is by no means a representative sample, but the social science and physical science majors seem to me to self-report lower GPA's than the English etc. majors. And in talking to classmates at school over the last couple years (mostly science, engineering, math, and CS majors), these people are not regularly getting a mix of A's and some B's in their classes either.

Posing this question to Robert, he found a report that Texas A&M puts out every semester with the grade distribution for every single class at the university. (He was familiar with it from when he was teaching.) And we looked up some numbers from the Spring 2008 semester. While this won't tell us precisely what GPA's look like for e.g. English majors versus Math majors, at least it will show what kinds of grades people get in the classes in these departments.

Department Total GPA

Perform. Art 3.490
Liberal Arts 3.272 (includes e.g. women's studies)
Computer Science 3.249
English 3.075
Hispanic Studies 3.072
Languages 3.070
Sociology 2.914
Philosophy 2.892
Psychology 2.885
Anthropology 2.884
Communications 2.879
Statistics 2.833
History 2.795
Poli Sci 2.783
Chemistry 2.714
Physics 2.684
Economics 2.669
Biology 2.551
Mathematics 2.320

School Total GPA

Education 3.509
Agriculture 3.167
Engineering 3.141
Business 3.118 (remember, usually must have/maintain a 3.0 to stay in the bus. school)
Liberal Arts 2.936 (includes humanities & social sciences)
Geosciences 2.903
Sciences 2.575

So these data are consistent with the claim that people tend to get higher grades in humanities courses than math/science courses. The social sciences are inbetween, which is about what I would have expected. (And yes, it also lends support to the notion that education courses are a joke. A 3.5 average?)

I also liked seeing the differences in average grades for the more advanced courses (taken primarily by majors) in math and English.

Serious-ish Math Courses (not everyone takes)

Calculus 1 2.071 n=2694
Calculus 2 2.036 n=1427
Calculus 3 2.295 n=696
Discrete 2.103 n=109
Linear Algebra 3.153 n=163
Diff Equations 2.666 n=891
Adv. Calculus 2.297 n=54
Fourier Series 2.920 n=56
Applied 2.743 n=179

Serious-ish English Courses (not everyone takes)

Am. Lit 3.025 n=459
Eng. Lit 1 2.753 n=335
Eng. Lit 2 3.033 n=190
Creative Writing 3.326 n=234
Adv. Comp. 3.176 n=135
Tech. Writing 2.861 n=556
Shakespeare 2.864 n=136
Am. Ethnic Lit 3.529 n=71
Child Lit 2.898 n=257
Adolescent Lit 3.045 n=96
Chaucer 2.564 n=57 (A tough one)
Women's Lit 3.226 n=34
Senior Seminar 3.367 n=101

So it doesn't appear to me that the relatively higher grades in English classes is due only to freshmen doing better in, say, their required Rhetoric & Composition class than their required College Algebra class. There is a tendency for higher-level classes to have higher grades in English than in Math also.

I can think of a couple of things that could contribute to The Great Humanities/Science GPA Divide:

1. It would be easier to make the course content of e.g. an English class simple (and hence easy to get a good grade in) than it would to make the course content of a math class simple. It's more obvious how to dumb down the content of an English class. After all, we all take English classes that require reading and writing essays starting in 7th grade and we don't all get F's, and I have seen literary criticism by actual professors on the same works that I read and wrote about in junior high (e.g. Great Expectations), albeit obviously at a very different level. However, there's only so easy you can make a math class and have it actually cover the relevant material. Differential equations is differential equations and 7th grade algebra is 7th grade algebra - they are not revved up or dumbed down versions of each other.

2. It is easier to resist grade inflation teaching courses like math and chemistry than it is English and history because the quantitative nature of the work makes grading more objective. (I am not saying hugely objective, simply more objective than with grading essays.) Social sciences would fall inbetween the humanities and sciences in grade inflation.

Hey, it occurred to me that the Texas A&M data might be able to provide evidence for this hypothesis. Here's what I found comparing GPA from spring 1986 (1st year in data set) versus spring 2008:

Math: 1986 = 2.286; 2008 = 2.320; change = +.034
Psych: 1986 = 2.685; 2008 = 2.885; change = +.200
English: 1986 = 2.673; 2008 = 3.075; change = +.402

Sciences: 1986 = 2.536; 2008 = 2.575; change = +.039
Lib Arts: 1986 = 2.644; 2008 = 2.936; change = +.292

This is the pattern I would have expected. Low grade inflation for math (and the sciences), high grade inflation for English, and moderate grade inflation for psychology. While the data could be interpreted as beng somewhat incomparable due to different types of students in 1986 versus 2008, I would have expected a secular downward trend in grades with time (given no grade inflation) because more marginal students are entering college in 2008 than in 1986.

Here are the average grades for the university as a whole over time (spring semester reported). Cue the Grade Inflation Alarm! Toooot toot tooooooot!

University overall
2008 = 3.051
2001 = 3.053
1996 = 2.989
1993 = 2.951
1991 = 2.874
1986 = 2.819

It seems likely to me that if, with a very little time spent looking at data on the Internet, I can find support for a grade inflation problem in the humanities (yes, from one college, but it seems like a relatively "normal" and representative one for this purpose, being a large state university), grad school adcoms in the humanities must be very well aware of what's going on with grades. No wonder I see prospective English or Women's Studies PhD applicants fretting publically about their "miserable" 3.7 GPA's and such. No wonder the original poster from the LJ forum was worried about protecting her 3.92 GPA from grades in other classes (particularly if they were from the physical sciences, where getting high C's is typical).


I found the title of the blog post on Wardrobe Refashion "Resigning - For Life" sad and confusing until I realized she meant "signing up for WR again, this time for life" (the options for signing up appear to be 2, 4, or 6 months, or for life) and not, you know, resigning. I thought, Man, she must really not like making her own clothes, buying from thrift shops, and recycling clothes if she is announcing that she is out of this game forever. What would prompt such a complete repudiation of the WR ideals?

This is not quite up there with one of my favorite bits of ambiguity, though. A gazillions years ago on one of those crime TV shows, the episode opened with a view of some letters on a glass door, seen from the backwards view. It had a person's name and then the letters THERAPIST, which I parsed at first as "The Rapist." OK, the guy is a rapist - there are often rapists on crime TV shows - but he has an office for it?!

(I just checked to see whether therapist.com is a valid web site, and sadly, yes. Ah, I assumed it would be about psychotherapy, but instead it's physical therapy. At least this means they probably do not offer advice for rape victims.)

And yes, I am one of those people who see the letters NOWHERE as indicating "nowhere" and not "now here" so it's not that I am just quick to add breaks in the letters to create multiple words. Apparently that occurs when it results in the most depressing or pessimistic of my choices.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Jobs and Health Insurance - Two Great Things That Don't Work So Great Strictly Tied Together

Even in a good economy, a lot of people really fear losing their job. A loss of your job is typically accompanied by other losses such as:

* Income
* Self-esteem / self-confidence
* Self-identity
* A sense of belonging
* A venue for productive achievement
* Health insurance

Health insurance? This is basically crazy. In most cases, a person would probably not willingly bundle their income and their health insurance coverage in this way – it’s too risky. Of course, I would also expect that in most cases, a person would not choose to invest any meaningful amount of money into shares of the company they work for, but people do that a fair bit (I’m not referring to stock options here but people actually purchasing company stock outright using their own money). So maybe what I really mean is that it a bad idea and clearly not optimal for most people to have their income and insurance both dependent on their specific current job.

The development of COBRA, which allows a terminated worker to keep their health insurance coverage for 18-36 months, helps somewhat with the last of these problems because it allows you to purchase insurance at a reduced group rate rather than paying for new insurance at the individual rate. However, insurance through COBRA is still amazingly expensive because you pay the full cost of your insurance (which your employer probably has been subsizing previously) and a 2% administrative fee.

For example, the “free to me” health insurance coverage I had at my previous job would cost $365 per month under COBRA. Family coverage would cost $1067 per month instead of $344. (Note: as you can see from this fee schedule, the “state pays” subsidy for individuals is $361 per month, while the figure for families is $705 per month.) So at the same time that your income has gone down drastically with the loss of your job (in Texas, the maximum weekly unemployment benefit is $392, or about $20,000 per year, no matter what your prior income was), you undergo a new major expense.

And while it’s possible to argue that what is often called “health insurance” is really as much “access to health care, including medication and treatment for ongoing medical problems, at lower rates negotiated by the insurance company” as it is insurance against unknown future risks, people derive a lot of benefit from the negotiated rates that is lost if they don’t have insurance. But many people do worry in the absence of insurance about the economic consequences of a medical catastrophe hitting someone in their family. (Of course, the financial disaster attendant to major medical problems is bad even with insurance coverage.)

For instance, it is common knowledge that a large proportion of bankruptcies are caused by medical expenses. Even though this “fact” is disputable (how many people would have been able to pay for their medical care if they weren’t already living at the edge of or beyond their means such that any unexpected, unavoidable expense led to financial ruin? As this article points out, “all debts are fungible”), this belief contributes to the sense of fear that makes people feel hugely dependent on their current job to protect them from economic ruin.

It’s not good for people to feel so dependent on their job for a lot of obvious reasons, including sticking with a job they should leave, being too afraid to ask for changes to their job (a raise, educational opportunities, etc.) or rock the boat in any way, becoming depressed and/or resentful about being trapped, and overgeneralizing unhappiness in a single job such that they believe they hate all possible jobs or all possible lines of work.

But it also can easily lead to increased populist demands for job “stability” or “protection” that may sound really beneficial and practical but ultimately could undermine the flexibility of the market. People are not very thoughtful about this even in good times, but when you’re afraid of losing your job and unemployment has gone up, it’s hard to see that change is a good and necessary part of a functioning market. Creative destruction just looks threatening. So much more appealing is something like the Dave idea that the president can just guarantee a job for every American who wants one (perhaps especially when espoused by the charming Kevin Kline).

I think the American labor market is already too inflexible. While it is naïve to assume that everything you learned in your undergraduate microeconomics course about how people elect to work the number of hours where the continuous supply and demand curves meet, it does strike me as unnecessarily screwed-up the way that there is this categorical divide between full-time (frequently defined as 40 hours+ per week) and part-time work.

Particularly when you look at the market for professionals / white collar / office workers (I don't have enough familiarity with what things are like for people in manufacturing, retail, etc.), people have a limited choice in the number of hours they work. Robert makes a good point that to a certain extent, people can choose their work hours within the range of 40 and up. Different careers, industries, and employers have different cultures/requirements about work hours. (Of course, this provides only very broad flexibility and assumes that your interests in work hours and type of work line up well.)

However, if you are interested in a workweek that falls below the 40 hour mark, you probably will need to content yourself with lower-level, lower-pay jobs (generally without insurance benefits). And even if you were willing to take the economic hit (which a lot of people aren’t), if you are a knowledge worker, it can be difficult to find part-time work that makes use of your abilities. So there seems to be a bit of a double-whammy in that a skilled person may easily find herself in a part-time job that both pays relatively poorly compared to the comparable full-time job and that is below her skill level. For instance, a market researcher might not be able to find a job doing survey design and analysis but instead may get hired as a part-time interviewer. Nobody benefits from this.

Obviously, there are other forms of fixed costs / overhead associated with having two people working 30 hour weeks versus one person working 60 hour weeks and efficiencies that can potentially be gained from having a smaller number of workers to coordinate (though at what point does an individual’s inability to continue working at high productivity with the physical exhaustion of working more hours and mental exhaustion of keeping so many different projects afloat kick in?). But it seems to me that the current system, with a large amount of compensation going into benefits such as health insurance, provides further incentives for employers to get as much work out of as few people as possible and shuts people who do not want or cannot commit to working 40+ hours per week out of jobs that meet their skill level and they could excel in.

Is this all to say that I support nationalized health care? Not exactly. But I do think that there are serious potential gains from decoupling people’s jobs and health insurance coverage.

Friday, May 1, 2009

New Packaging

Kraft shredded cheese now comes in a new package and a new size, 7 oz instead of 8 oz. While I'm sure 99% of people who notice this are going to be annoyed by the downsizing (evil marketers! reducing the quantity and trying to fool me! why don't they just increase the price...wait, I don't want them to do that either! raising prices in unAmerican! why isn't Barack Obama stopping this price gouging! doesn't he know there's a war on! wait, I don't want to sacrifice anything! doesn't he know there's a recession on!), I'm not.

My first thought was, All those recipes that call for 8 oz of shredded cheese will now get 7 oz; if I save 1 oz of (2% milkfat) cheese over a dish that makes 4 - 6 servings, that's saving me 13-20 calories per serving, and I probably won't be able to tell the difference at all.

20 calories may not seem like a lot, but "it is estimated that 80% of the population gains weight because of a calorie excess of less than 50 calories a day" (Wansink and Huckabee, 2005).

Since this downsizing is occurring against a backdrop of increasing serving sizes in recipes, restaurants, and "giant" candy bars, boxes of cereal, trail mix, potato chips, etc., in stores - which are culprits in the obesifying of America - well, we need all the help we can get. I choose to view Kraft's decision to decrease the amount of cheese in the package as an inadvertent aid to me in my goal of reducing my calorie intake as painlessly as possible.

I mean, slightly decreasing my cheese consumption beats all hell out of eating compressed timothy hay pellets for breakfast, as dictated by the Rabbit Diet.

Wansink, Brian and Mike Huckabee, 2005, De-Marketing Obesity, California Management Review, 47(4): 7-18.

Dance For a Lifetime

This morning, I enjoyed reading this article in The Economist about 90-year-old Merce Cunningham, renowned American dancer and choreographer, whose new piece "Nearly Ninety" opens today in Madrid.

More background on Cunningham here. I thought this was interesting: his first solo concert was performed with musician John Cage in 1944, and like Cage, he incorporated the element of chance (flipping coins, etc.) in creating his pieces.

Even though he's old and in a wheelchair, he's continuing to work (although the article suggests with a greater level of input from his collaborators than previously). To me, that's pretty inspirational.

It was also an appropriate thing to see today as my sister celebrates her last day at her tech job and takes on dance as a full-time pursuit.

Break a leg, Jen!