Archive for the 'academentia' Category


Academic Bubbles and Those Damn Austrians

(That is, Austrian-school economists, not people from Austria, unless the latter are also the former.)

Here’s Scott Sumner on a natural experiment in hard-line grade deflation:

OK, so the Austrians are right in this case. But I still think they are wrong about 2006-09.

This in reaction to the unsurprising-at-first-glance result that students often choose their courses to get the best grades, and when a previously-profligate department tightens the GPA purse strings, those students will switch away from that department’s courses.  I say “at first glance” because grade scales are just arbitrarily-relabelled intervals; my undergraduate university awarded grades on a nine-point scale (but not a stanine), and my grad school’s 4-point scale actually went up to eleven 4.33.  Both were heavily weighted towards the top end of the interval in practice, although I suspect a handful of exceptionally deserving students scored 1s in both.

Anyway, do click through and read the whole thing.


All linky, no thinky 2: The Linkening

So I’m joining the rising tide of anti-intellectualism that’s destroying Classical Liberal Arts Institutions, or whatever, and taking a course on reactive programming on Coursera (one of those MOOCs that’s destroying &c.).  Feels good to stretch my brain again; I’ve wanted an excuse properly to learn Scala for a while, and maybe this time around I’ll actually grok monads.  (If you’re wondering what “reactive programming” is, it’s writing Erlang in languages that aren’t Erlang.  So far as I can tell, at any rate.)


Is fairness a process thing or an outcome thing?  I suspect most of us’ll pick one until we come across an instance of the other we don’t like, at which point things go all Black Monolith and we club each other with femurs.

Money shot:

As I see it, many upper middle class parents desire their child to be slightly more successful than they are, and in related but not identical fields and ways.

Duh, you say, which tells me you haven’t read it.  “But why wouldn’t you prefer to hire a better worker?”  Why didn’t you buy a Bentley Mulsanne instead of a used Camry?  “So practical!”  Shut up, you’ve made my point.  Why hire a superstar developer for a gajillion dollars when all you need is someone to poke node.js with a stick?  “But assholes drive Bentleys!”  You think Mark Zuckerberg’s an asshole, don’t you?  “Huh?”  Just scroll down already.

The real insight here is into the minds of so-called “consumer advocates”.

Teetering dangerously close to reaggravating my outrage fatigue.

Oh look, a nice comforting hobby-horse.  Meta-analysis shows that “saturated fat is not the problem”.  No shit, buttercup.  Fat loss is widely correlated with improved cardiovascular health, and a fat loss diet is, de facto, high in saturated fat coming from your own god damn adipocytes.  Here’s the paper’s author giving me an enormous confirmation-bias boner:

Saturated fat has been demonised ever since Ancel Keys’s landmark “seven countries” study in 1970. This concluded that a correlation existed between the incidence of coronary heart disease and total cholesterol concentrations, which then correlated with the proportion of energy provided by saturated fat. But correlation is not causation. Nevertheless, we were advised to cut fat intake to 30% of total energy and saturated fat to 10%.” The aspect of dietary saturated fat that is believed to have the greatest influence on cardiovascular risk is elevated concentrations of low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Yet the reduction in LDL cholesterol from reducing saturated fat intake seems to be specific to large, buoyant (type A) LDL particles, when in fact it is the small, dense (type B) particles (responsive to carbohydrate intake) that are implicated in cardiovascular disease.

We make kids go to school because it’s “good for them”, and everyone agrees that it’s “good for” kids to go to college.  So why not round them up at gunpoint, herd them into cattle cars, and send ’em off to West Bumfuck State?

As odd as it may sound, the majority of time and resources of the FTC is not spent on punishing bad business practices as authorized in the FTC Act. The agency overwhelmingly concentrates on enforcing another act also passed in 1914, the Clayton Act, and specifically section 7, which prohibits mergers and acquisitions where the effect “may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly.”

This is why I don’t blog about politics any more:

Pierce, Rogers and Snyder find that political partisans are more upset about an election loss than a random sample of parents were upset by the Newtown shootings.

An interesting discussion on how humans can add value to computer programs when those programs are really, really good.  The context there is chess, which is a pretty well-understood game of finite complexity.  I claim that humans have been doing this for decades in software development, whose practical complexity is limited only by what you can convince your publisher is actually possible.  Worried about computers taking over your job?  Computers have taken over mine on the regular over the past two decades, and as a result I keep getting better and more interesting jobs.

“Creative destruction” is something that most people who aren’t raging anarchocapitalists like to write off as abstract, idealistic propaganda.  Fortunately, Bryan Caplan is a raging an-cap, and he’s set it all out in time-series graphs so you can actually see it.

I have to admit, I threw this in just for the shock value.  But see previous no-think-link about college being good for kids.

Why do altruists help people?  Because they want to be seen helping people.  This should surprise precisely no-one.

Rob Ford lol.


Tune in next time for part 3, when we’ll discover whether this series is better-on-evens (Star Trek) or better-on-odds (Back to the Future)… or just shit (The Fast and the Furious).


Sig. Na. Ling.

So over at Unqualified Offerings Thoreau has a great blog post up.  You should go read it.

He considers philosophy majors (in the broader context of Whether Brick And Mortar Colleges Can Survive In The Face Of The Internet), and notes that philosophy majors make (relatively speaking) a shit-ton of money… because they’re smart.  I have no reason to doubt that he’s correct; the only philosophy majors I met in undergrad who were dumber than I was — I’ll note, perhaps unpleasantly, that I went on to get a doctorate — were in a bunch of required courses whose names started with “one-” and, maybe, “two-“.  So yeah, the PHIL majors in my sample tended to be pretty clever.

Thoreau, however, wonders whether “[t]here is value in training capable people to attain the level of intellectual sophistication that a good philosophy program instills.”

I submit that this conundrum is a catastrophic conflation of correlation with causation.  (I don’t even have an English Lit degree and I pulled off some pretty awesome polysyllabic alliteration there.  Govern yourselves accordingly.)

I’ve been reading a lot of The Last Psychiatrist lately, partly because he drinks more than I do but also because he’s put a fair bit of effort into unravelling why people send their kids to college at ruinous expense (mostly, but not always, to the kids) for absolutely no good goddamn reason at all.  In the first part of his epic Hipsters on Food Stamps rant — go ahead and click through, I’ll still be here in an hour when you’re done — he wonders:

I am not anti-liberal arts, I am all in on a classical education, I just don’t think there’s any possibility at all, zero, none, that you will get it at college, and anyway every single college course from MIT and Yale are on Youtube.  Is that any worse than paying $15k to cut the equivalent class at State?

Now, let me tell you a story a friend of mine loves to tell, from his perspective.  Text in brackets is mine.

The three of us — William [not his real name], me, and Matt, took Advanced Software Engineering last semester [or whenever].  It was basically User Interfaces In Java, although we saw the Design Patterns book for a few minutes in the second lecture.  William loved that shit, so he went to all the lectures, and he got a seven [out of nine].  I didn’t really care, so I skipped most of the lectures, and somehow I got an eight.  But Matt only attended the first lecture, the midterm, and the final, and he got a nine in that class.

(Yes, I’m the Matt in that story.)

I tell you that not to convince you that I’m amazing — the Ph.D. will have either done that already or convinced you irretrievably otherwise by now — but to convince you that that course was a waste of my fucking money.  Not my time, I spent all of maybe twenty hours on it that semester, and I can’t say it wasn’t a little bit educational.  I learned that I hate Java with the burning fire of a thousand suns, and also that 2000-vintage Swing was, while eminently hateable, better than anything else on the GUI-widget-set market at the time.  Also, in the first lecture one of the other guys in the class found out the hard way that he was colour-blind, so that was a thing.  I dunno what the fuck else I was supposed to have been educated upon in that course.  And they gave me the highest mark they could!

So if you’re an undergraduate programme committee member — and if you really are, I’m sorry — why would you put a course like that on the required list in the syllabus?  There are a lot of excellent cynical reasons, but the only pedagogical reason I can come up with is “so that every student we graduate must demonstrate, at the end of a semester of either skipping or attending class, that s/h/it knows how to make a calculator in Java.”  Actually I did that in high school, but thanks for taking four months to make me prove it to you.

This is not to say that I got no knowledge or skills of value from my undergrad.  If nothing else, the compilers course was worth the price of admission (and if you’re a CS student reading this blog, for fuck’s sake take a compilers course, it will change your life).  But I kind of doubt that I had to go to university to learn any of this stuff… maybe I had to go to university to be persuaded to study LL languages before attempting to write a compiler, but if you’re reading this sentence you don’t.  In any case compilers wasn’t a required course; I selected into it (as did both of my friends from the anecdote above).  And, of course, I got a B.Sc. and a GPA that convinced a grad school to admit me, whence I got a Ph.D. and a bunch of publications, whence I got a useful job.

And that last sentence is my point.


There will ever be more Norman Borlaugs

What’s that I hear?  Is it scientists humiliating the sad crisis-mongering neo-Malthusians?  Must be a weekday, then.

Good show!


Honest contempt, its hour come at last, slouches toward Pennsylvania to be born

By way of Andrew Sullivan we discover that the University of Pennsylvania Health System is gonna stop hiring smokers.  Ostensibly this is intended to reduce health-care costs, but as any fule no smokers tend to cost “the system” less over their lifetimes because their lifetimes tend to be rather short.  (I admit that it might be arrogant to expect a university’s health system making economic decisions to be current on health economics research, but fuck you, that’s how I roll.)

No, this escalation from nudge to shove — as with the attempted high-capacity assault soda ban in New York City — is simply an expression of contempt.  Smoking is a blue-collar working-class habit, and the clerisy in UPenn doesn’t want any of (shudder) them on its staff.  If you dig far enough down the Penn Medicine page, in fact, you’ll find this gem:

Faculty and staff who are employed by the University are not subject to this policy.

Uh huh.  A nurse smoking a Marlboro is filthy and irresponsible.  A prof smoking a Gauloise is culturally diverse.


“When it works, it’s magical!”

That’s great.  How often does it work?

Frances Woolley writes on Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to forbid telecommuting:

I think you can get the point of her post from the title.  But on to specifics — as a supporting anecdote, Dr. Woolley offers this:

Last week I had lunch at Nuffield College, Oxford. It was a wonderful experience. All the members of the college – faculty, graduate students, administrative staff – roll up some where around lunch time and help themselves to a free all-you-can-eat-buffet. They sit together on long wooden tables and talk about everything under the sun – from hitchhiking adventures to the latest research projects to academic politics to philosophy. Intellectual bliss.

Collegial mind-meetings are great when they happen.  How often do they happen?  Perhaps Oxford is an enchanted paradise where learned collegiality is always right around the corner and staff lunches that discuss academic politics never turn into wretched hives of academic politics manifest — we can hope that Oxfordites are not only aware of the use-mention distinction but are also able to apply it — but that argues more for the exceptional nature of Oxford than it does for having lunch with your colleagues.  (Also, how many of us can rely upon a free all-you-can-eat buffet to draw us into that intellectual bliss?)

Dr. Woolley also enumerates some positive externalities of working on site:

When a collegial, creative, sensible or helpful person comes into the office, he or she creates positive externalities – unpriced benefits – for co-workers. When that person stays at home, they produce negative externalities – a closed door, an empty space, a crackling conference call connection.

Well, okay, the positive externalities of on-site work are implicit, while the negative externalities of working from home are enumerated.  This boils down to “great co-workers are great to have around”, which is hard to argue against… except that not all co-workers are great in all ways all the time.  That gregarious extrovert who manages to make meetings fun?  His cellphone buzzes like a giant angry wasp every time he gets a text, which is every five minutes.  The cheerful veteran who knows the codebase inside and out and is happy to take the time to walk you through it?  Talks so loud you can hear him through three office partitions and a concrete structural wall.

Collegiality is great… some of the time.

Alex Tabarrok takes a more skeptical view of the live experience, this time related to teaching:

A common responses to my article, Why Online Education Works, is that there is something special, magical, and “almost sacred” about the live teaching experience. I agree that this is true for teaching at its best but it’s also irrelevant.


In The Trouble With Online Education Mark Edmundson makes the analogy between teaching and music explicit:

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition.

Quite right but every non-memorable class is also a bit like a jazz composition, namely one that was expensive, took an hour to drive to (15 minutes just to find parking) and at the end of the day wasn’t very memorable. The correct conclusion to draw from the analogy between live teaching and live music is that at their best both are great but both are also costly and inefficient ways of delivering most teaching and most musical experiences.

Yes, quite.  I’ve spent a lot of time in classrooms, and I’ve had a lot of memorable experiences.  Problem is, the bad memories outnumber the good memories by about ten to one.  (Remove public school from consideration — focus only on postsecondary — and the ratio drops to about two to one.)  Furthermore, I’m not convinced that there’s any correlation between “memorable classroom experiences” and “subjects I learned well”.


Who ought to pay for college, and how?

Chatting with a friend today about this post from Megan McArdle, I mentioned that figuring out how to pay for college — in general terms, not “You should get a part-time job”-like specifics — is kind of a tough problem.  My friend disagreed rather cryptically.  So you get a blog post.

The default assumption among the crowd I hang out with is “college should be free”, which translates to “college should be paid for by governments”, which again translates to “college should be paid for by taxpayers”.  This is odious on its face.  While I’m sure many of these folks have mental images of Whitey McRichfucker sobbing to his Congresscritter about how he couldn’t afford the Rolls he wanted — he had to settle for a Bentley, like a plebeian — because of the 50% Higher Education Surtax he paid this year, a quick examination of how rich people pay taxes in reality (the parable of Warren Buffett and his secretary will suffice) indicates that this isn’t how governments pay for anything, much less for college.  No, any tax revenue you’re going to direct towards college probably comes in large part from the working and middle classes — a large proportion of which didn’t go to college  — or their employers, and any debt you issue simply belongs to future versions of the same.  Then there’s the opportunity cost complaint you’ll have to deal with in parallel: Money being fungible, any gov-bucks you direct towards paying for college tuitions are gov-bucks that could have bought homeless shelters or immunization programmes.

Coupled with the fact that colleges are still by and large the province of the “pretty well-off” to the “filthy rich”, advocates for publicly-funded college education are (much like sports fans) advocates of hideously regressive transfers.  I’m a heartless libertarian and that makes me cringe.

The one argument I halfway respect in favour of universal public tuition funding is the notion that getting a college education makes for “better” citizens (making the general public freeloaders on educations they didn’t somehow pay for) or, in aggregate, that a population of college-educated people is somehow “better” (making it more of a collective-action problem).  Both forms of the argument assert that my degree makes you better off — and, crucially, that this benefit is not already captured by my salary (or wage, or whatever).  I remain unpersuaded.  It’s possible that a college degree makes people better citizens, or better voters (though from what I’ve seen of campus politics I suspect it makes them worse) but I’ve only heard this asserted, never dignified with actual data.

(I should mention that I rather approve of means-tested tuition-support bursaries.)

So probably tuitions should be paid by the students themselves, or perhaps by their loving parents (or for particularly extreme scholars, by Red Bull).  Problem is, by and large, younger adults are severely lacking in both cash and credit, so no bank’s likely to lend them money straight up.  The pecuniary benefit of a college degree is only likely to manifest after — probably well after — graduation, and as Bryan Caplan recently showed it’s not something that pays off in half measures: If you drop out three years into your degree, you don’t get three-quarters of the wage premium.  There’s a whole bunch of uncertainty involved in picking a school and a programme, in financial terms and otherwise.

Furthermore, tuition rates do an utterly abysmal job of communicating these factors, which is pretty much what prices in any halfway-functioning market are supposed to do.  So even if our intrepid students can scrape up the dosh to go to college, they don’t get much help making any kind of informed tradeoff based on what they want versus what they’re willing to pay versus what they’ll get from any given option.  (That is, unless “what they want” involves the NCAA almost exclusively.)  Instead, back in the real world, they get showered with cheap debt and encouraged to buy whatever strikes their fancy, under the blithe assumption that of course they’ll be able to pay it all back some day.  Sound like anything you recognize from… 2006, maybe?

I don’t have any solutions to offer, but I surely admire the problem.  The usual libertarian-SF answer-trope is, as Ms. McArdle mentions, for private investors to buy shares in students’ future incomes.  Given that the state won’t even let you buy a kidney to save your nephropathic child’s life, the odds of this ever happening on a broad basis are pretty dismal.  If we think of this particular trope as the higher-ed equivalent of venture capitalism, it suggests that we look at other ways in which people start businesses, it suggests that an alternative is the usual “start small, exploit local knowledge of a specific market, and grow sustainably” — the autodidact’s path.  Unfortunately, the education premium seems largely to be built on certification effects (think of colleges much like licensing cartels), so this is unlikely to become a particularly viable alternative any time soon.


Higher-ed bubble watch, north-of-the-border edition

One of these days I’d like to use the very same title for a blog post about postsecondary inflation in Alaska, just to fuck with people.

Anyway, the Globe and Mail is running a pretentiously-titled feature on postsecondary education in Canada called “Our Time To Lead”.  It features this rather exhaustive discussion of our higher-ed bubble:

As per the standard template for these stories, it leads off with a Special Snowflake who shuns the sciences for an Arts degree, claims to find that “it’s more important to be happy than financially secure”, and “always thought of [an undergraduate education] as knowledge for the sake of knowledge.”  Cue juxtaposition with a multicredentialed graduate whose Master’s degrees in History and Education can’t get him a job as a schoolteacher in Toronto, so he’s folding towels at a gym alongside teenagers he’d like to be teaching.  And, of course:

And to think, he says, he once looked down on high-school friends for heading west after Grade 12 to land jobs in the oil industry.

“I thought they didn’t understand the importance of university. Now, I see them beginning a phase of life I wanted to have right now,” he says.

You know what they say, guys: Syncrude’s always hiring.

You will find the list of complaints that follows to be tediously familiar:

  • Students saddened when they don’t feel “challenged” or “engaged” by two hundred-seat first-year lectures taught (variously) by distant, distracted, research-focused professors or harried, harassed, and underpaid adjuncts and TAs;
  • Faculty frustrated with undergraduates who arrive ill-prepared, who can neither construct a sentence nor factor a quadratic, and who “prefer to amble leisurely through a four-year degree like consumers ordering an education to go”; and
  • Employers exasperated with graduates who present themselves without critical communication and problem-solving skills.

We’ll charitably look past the juxtaposition of undergrads who see university as a temple of Higher Learning, rather than a crass skill-factory churning out employees for consumption by the Great Corporate Maw, and those that complain that they’re not being taught relevant job skills.  Perhaps those two sets of students are independent.  (Perhaps, if you were in the second set, you even know what it means for two sets to be independent — although if you’re anything like the comp-sci undergrads alongside whom I suffered you probably don’t consider set algebra to be a relevant job skill.  If that’s the case, then God willing, your DBA will drag you out into the parking lot and beat you with a rubber hose like your Intro Databases prof should have.  Look: Now even I’m complaining about Universities These Days.)

The verbiage that follows contains an eloquent anecdote in support of the signaling theory of education:

The head of a trucking company told Dr. Weingarten that he hired only university grads as truckers. The cab of a truck is complicated, he said, as are the logistics of warehousing. In any case, “if I have two students come to me, both prepared to be a truck driver and work for x amount of money, and one of them has a degree, why shouldn’t I hire the university grad?”

Why indeed?

It also points to a rather compelling story about the inflation of the higher-ed bubble, at least on this side of the 49th (opening caveat obviously excluded), which begins with this delightful piece of omphaloskepsis:

“Whom does the university serve – the students, their families, the faculty?” asks Ken Coates, the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of Campus Confidential, which explores how the system’s failure to manage a growing student population has eroded the quality and value of a degree. “As long as they are publicly funded institutions, shouldn’t we be focused on how we serve society as a whole?”

Are universities — and/or university educations — designed or expected to serve “society as a whole”?  We surely shovel enough public funds at them.  (Sorry, homeless people, Ken Coates needs a Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation!  Maybe we’ll build you a shelter next fiscal year.)  Indeed they are, as Canada’s fourth most-beloved Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, would tell you:

[T]he loftier ambition of liberal education has always been to create citizens who are well-read, critical thinkers, strong communicators and civically engaged – the qualities Mr. Pearson lauded when he told the students that a degree called on them “to serve their country” and not themselves.

(It is perhaps too lofty an ambition of journalism programmes to create writers who can use the Oxford Comma properly.  We’ll let that pass.)

This is a bit of a creepy ambition to rabid individualists like me — it reads like a tepid Canadian mandate to transform malleable, putty-like young adults into a rather diffident set of New Socialist Men.  But have a read at another Pearson sound bite:

“Will the emphasis on wise and unhurried teaching and research be replaced by the demand and the dimensions of a knowledge economy?”

Maybe the best way to serve your country rather than yourself would be to forego that taxpayer-subsidized four-year vacation in the Land of the Liberal Arts and pick up a B.Sc. and a good job in that knowledge economy, eh hippy?  It brings to mind this admonition from P. J. O’Rourke’s commencement address:

Don’t chain yourself to a redwood tree. Instead, be a corporate lawyer and make $500,000 a year. No matter how much you cheat the IRS, you’ll still end up paying $100,000 in property, sales and excise taxes. That’s $100,000 to schools, sewers, roads, firefighters and police. You’ll be doing good for society.

How many people are willing to chain themselves to a seventy-hour work week in order to “do good for society” by bumping themselves into the highest tax bracket?  Some sacrifices, especially the chronic and banal, are too great to make for an abstract ideal.  Fuck civic virtue.  But don’t let’s pretend that you’re serving your country by studying Keats and Kant rather than Kronecker and Kepler.

There’s a less theoretical and more immediate benefit to shovelling people into post-secondary institutions, too: It keeps them out of the unemployment numbers.

As James Côté, co-author of Lowering Higher Education, points out, the government’s postsecondary cheerleading solved the supply problem of youth labour by parking them on campus. But it failed to plan for how graduates would find work related to their field of study. Canada has one of the highest graduate underemployment rates among Western countries, swelling the ranks of Keats-quoting baristas.

The classical education so beloved by fictional terrorist Hans Grüber, and which is the inspiration for if not the fact of many modern Bachelor’s of Arts curricula, is an aristocratic relic.  It’s a nostalgic throwback to a class and age when gainful employment was considered vulgar rather than laudable.  It, along with with the marked diaeresis, should perhaps be reëxamined.

anarchocapitalist agitprop

Be advised

I say fuck a lot



Statistics FTW