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Category: Culture

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

September 16, 2010 | 19 Comments

Too Many Kids Go To College: A Second Conversation With Myself

Read the first conversation here.

William How goes the teaching?

Matt Do you really want to know? You might not like the answer.

William You’re going to start this conversation with bombast?

Matt Then how about this one. Last week in statistics class, I made a claim and noticed a student’s quizzical look. I asked, “Why that face? Are you dubious or are you certain?” The student’s reply?

William You don’t always explain things well, you know.

Matt Ha! You must have already guessed that the student said, “I don’t know what that word means.”

William This student might have just been taken aback. You can be more than a little intimidating.

Matt Oh, please.

William It’s a rarely used word.

Matt You recall I’m teaching a math class designed for students who don’t want to take math, but that must to satisfy a requirement to graduate.

William I do.

Matt Last week, one of the senior professors who organizes this course—there are multiple sections taught; I only teach one—came into my office and asked if I had noticed whether my students were having more difficulty than might be expected. This professor, I should add, is a brilliant mathematician and a sweetheart.

William I can see where this is going. I’ll bet at good odds that you were pushing those kids too hard.

Matt Actually, I told him that I had come to the realization on my own just two days previously when one of the students complained, to wide acclaim, “You mean you want us to read the whole book?” I thought then to myself, “There is no way that most of these kids are going to pass this course.”

William So you admit it?

Matt Yes. Even though the book’s topics were elementary—were designed to be elementary—the students couldn’t, our couldn’t be bothered to, master them.

William And the senior professor’s advice?

Matt He said that I did not really have to use the entire book, and that I did not have to teach the entire syllabus. He implied that it was best to get these students through the system, and he did so in a manner which suggested he had the students’ best interests at heart. By that I mean, he wanted to see them graduate and not flunk out.

William The proper sentiment. These kids come to college to receive an education, and you should adapt your material to provide it. Not everybody can learn calculus! Just think: they are learning some new math in your class, aren’t they?

Matt They are learning so little as to be trivial. But the real danger is that they—and those that later work with them—will assume they “know math” because they received a passing grade in a “math” course.

William I still say that they’ll have learned some new math.

Matt Most will never remember it. Anyway, the next time in class, I asked the students, “I know you have to take a math course to graduate, and I know you have a choice between this course and [let me call it] High School Algebra Redux. Why did you pick this one?”

William A lot of people are turned off by algebra.

Matt Good Lord! What a stupid thing to say. They’re “turned off” so they shouldn’t be required to learn? Wait, don’t answer. Let me tell you what the kids said. They said—are you ready?—they said, down to a man, that they heard this class was easier.

William They’re just trying to get through school.

Matt To get their “degree”? Well, once I heard that, I don’t mind telling you that I was pretty deflated. I went back to my office and thought hard about the class and about what little I could teach them. I sent out an email—this was a Friday—that said (in essence) “Don’t miss class on Monday. We’ll talk about what is important and what is not for our upcoming exam next Friday.”

William So you do have a heart.

Matt I’m just visiting here. If I set a standard much higher than normal, I’d cause a disruption in the routine. Anyway, during that Monday class I laid out the very few concepts that I thought most important. I said, “These will be on the exam Friday.” And then came class on Wednesday (still before the exam) and do you know what?

William I couldn’t guess.

Matt Two of the students said, “I missed Monday. What’s going to be on the exam?” I asked why they missed. One said, and the other concurred, that “Oh c’mon. I can’t make every Monday class.”

William People have busy schedules…

Matt Yeah, sure they do.

September 15, 2010 | 21 Comments

Lying For A Living: Tiny Airline Seats

Cowboys on airplanes

No doubt channeling Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, the Italian design firm Aviointeriors Group has created a new airline seat dubbed the “saddle.” Ride them skies! What makes this seat interesting is that an airline can fit more of them into a plane than they can ordinary seats.

Even on budget flights, the average legroom is about 30 inches. But the saddle seat allows only 23. I just measured from the backside of my sculpted self to my knee and it’s just under 26 inches. It’s true that I am a taller specimen than most, but I’m also a mathematician and my calculations show that it’s impossible to fit 26 inches into 23. Saddle Seat

But that’s only if you sit so that your back makes a right angle with your legs, and if you face forward. Tilt the seat so that you’re more standing than sitting, and angle the seat toward the aisle, and the math turns into trigonometry, and thus it becomes possible for 26 to divide into 23.

Since the seat has the cattle—I mean passengers—standing as much as sitting, in order to keep kiesters from slipping out onto the floor, an athletic-supporter-like device—a prominent bump—is installed in the seat just forward of where a person’s crotch lands. This “saddle” pins the person into their seat.

Now comes the lying for a living part. Dominique Menoud, the boss of Aviointeriors, told USA Today “For flights anywhere from one to possibly even up to three hours … this would be comfortable seating…The seat … is like a saddle. Cowboys ride eight hours on their horses during the day and still feel comfortable in the saddle.” I wonder if Menoud’s mother knows he says such things in public?

Of course, the saddle seat wouldn’t fly in the USA, and not just because some bureaucrat would find exception. There’s just no way that some passengers can amble (perhaps mosey is a better word) from the food court to the jetway and then squeeze into that small space. Not without causalities, anyway.

The Italian slim-fitting saddle seats aren’t the worst of it. The story also reported that “last year, Spring Airlines, a low-cost carrier in China, tried to get the OK from regulators to redesign its planes to accommodate some standing passengers.”

I would like this. Better to stand than to be folded unnaturally. Even on ordinary airlines, I try to get up as often as possible just to stretch to restore blood flow to forgotten limbs. Standing for an entire flight, especially on long routes, would be a joy. But only if one were allowed to amble (mosey) about the cabin.

This doesn’t seem likely: there are those overly concerned with other people’s safety who would insist on strapping passengers to their places. Since passengers are standing, the only way I can imagine this being done is by penning people in with a rope or harness, kind of like those used by some Enlightened parents—the kind that shop at cooperative groceries—who take their toddlers for walks.

Some Japanese hotels are built on the beehive principle. Tiny tubular rooms are stacked one upon another. Registrants—guests seems too strong a word—climb a ladder and then angle themselves into their cells, where they can only lay prone. I have stayed at one of these in Tokyo and can report that it wasn’t that bad. Mine even had a television and small sink.

Since the Japanese are the cleverest people on earth at making even the tiniest space feel large, I suggest their hotel innovation could be adapted to airplanes. Hexagonal cells with straps across their doorways could be used to replace seats. Now, even the spriest might become fidgety in such circumstance, so it would be best if passengers could be stunned for the duration of the flight, perhaps using some sort of knockout gas. Just think of what the airline would save on beverage service and toilet maintenance costs!

Of course, each flight with these cell-seats would resemble a science fiction movie where the human passengers are being transported to remote alien cooking kettles. A place where the “consumers” become the consumed. But that is the price we must be willing to pay to save money.

The title

All of you who thought the title of today’s post thought it related to statisticians, please raise your hand? For shame!

September 14, 2010 | 32 Comments

How eBooks Will Lead To The Disappearance of Books

Thanks to reader and contributer Ari Schwartz for suggesting this topic.

We have already discussed how eBooks will hasten the end of what we called long-form reading, i.e. book reading, by the majority. We have speculated that eBooks will lead to a vast reduction in traditional publishing, mainly because with eBooks there are no used books to sell, which excludes a major pathway by which readers discover new authors.

And it now appears that, if a certain court ruling holds, eBook publishers will be able to legally forbid the reselling of eBooks. Thus, if you buy a Kindle or iPad from another citizen upon which are titles not in the public domain, the publishers of those titles will soon have the right to erase those titles from the device. If the owner of the device or devices is a library, then if the library changes hands, its collection disappears.

Both The Consumerist and Wired are reporting a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal about the so-called first-sale doctrine as it applies to software, and possibly to any copyrighted works such as eBooks, and even printed books.

As l have long stressed, when you buy an eBook you are not buying a book, but purchasing a license to read certain materials at a company’s pleasure. Once this company ceases finding pleasure in your activity, the company can forbid you to continue reading the material. As has already happened when Amazon whacked copies of 1984 from some Kindles.

The 9th Circuit Court—which, in case you do not recall, is in San Francisco—issuedthis ruling. The case originated when Timothy Vernor decided to sell copies of AutoCad, which he owned, on eBay. AutoDesk complained, and eBay complied with AutoDesk’s request to remove the sale. eBay went further and removed Vernor’s account. And then came the lawsuits. A lower court initially agreed with Vernor’s argument that since he owned the copies, he was free to sell, much the same way that somebody is free to sell a book.

The 9th Circuit Court, on hearing the pleas of AutoDesk, do-no-harm-Google (the same company which began scanning publishers’ books without first securing publishers’ permission), and according to Wired, “Adobe, McAfee, Oracle and dozens of others” agreed that reselling software was a no-no. Think of the lost revenue! The court quoted from the AutoDesk license:

YOU MAY NOT: (1) modify, translate, reverse-engineer, decompile, or disassemble the Software. . . (3) remove any proprietary notices, labels, or marks from the Software or Documentation; (4) use . . . the Software outside of the Western Hemisphere; [… And if the software is upgraded You] must destroy the software previously licensed to you, including any copies resident on your hard disk drive . . . within sixty (60) days of the purchase of the license to use the upgrade or update [wide ellipses in original].

This license is typical, extraordinarily restrictive, and long. It’s their own fault, but most people have no idea what they are agreeing to when they license software. Specifically, most purchasers are unaware that they are agreeing that the software is nontransferable.

Now, the first-sale doctrine is what allows owners of purchased copyrighted works (such as book owners) to resell those works if they wish. The key ruling of the court is that appeal to this doctrine is

unavailable to those who are only licensed to use their copies of copyrighted works [emphasis mine].

Thus, “Our conclusion that those who rightfully possess, but do not own, a copy of copyrighted software are not entitled to claim the [first-sale] defense is also supported by the legislative history.”

How about eBooks? Here is a portion of Amazon’s Kindle license:

Restrictions. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not, and you will not encourage, assist or authorize any other person to, bypass, modify, defeat or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.

Incidentally, it goes on that the Kindle “will provide Amazon with data about your” Kindle, including notes, bookmarks, and so on. So if you’re underlying the juicy parts don’t expect privacy.

As the law now stands, you may not resell a “used” eBook. Absent paper copies, and with libraries the only other option to read a book (but only while sitting at their terminals), the only way readers can discover new authors is to buy works directly, incurring a cost many will find prohibitive. Thus, this latest ploy by publishers to increase income will backfire and lead to the exact opposite consequence.

September 13, 2010 | 19 Comments

University Rankings: Wall Street Journal, ACTA, QS

I, working with Cambria Consulting (see below), was involved heavily creating the WSJ’s Top 25 College rankings which are in today’s papers. All questions on the methods, I defer to them.

College, or university, rankings are not and cannot be all-encompassing. This is because colleges are not singular entities, but serve at least three distinct purposes. The first, and probably foremost in most students’ minds, is job training. This is rational: most employers now want a candidates to have a “degree” (a certificate only weakly correlated with education). To which school should a student go to get the best job?

Second is in fact education, the traditional—now historical?—reason for a college to exist: who teaches what, who is the most rigorous, the least demanding, and so forth. Last is research: from which institutions do the most new thoughts emerge, who pumps out the most papers, where do professors most want to work, etc.

Being a top school in one dimension does not guarantee top rankings in another dimension. This much is obvious.

Jobs: Wall Street Journal

To find the best schools, in the sense of students finding work in their preferred majors, the WSJ asked recruiters, “From which schools do you prefer to recruit Accountants? Aerospace Engineers?” And so on.

(As I mentioned above, I am an interested party in this, so I will keep my discussion brief, and simply point people to the WSJ for clarification.)

Penn State University won first place, followed Texas A&M and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. View the complete list here.

The first-place ranking for Penn State is across all majors, which means Penn State might not be the school of choice for recruiters looking to hire, say, MIS graduates. The number one school for that is Purdue; while the number one school for Business and for Finance (separate majors), was the University of Michigan.

See this excellent article by Teri Evans for more details.

Education: ACTA

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) took the view that education is the most important factor for students choosing a college. They rated schools based on the number of core competencies required.

These were: composition, literature, foreign language, history, economics, mathematics, science. Schools which required six or more of these—and required them in their true senses—received “A”s, with lower grades going to schools requiring less. “True sense” means, for example, a course in “quantitative reasoning” cannot be substituted for mathematics.

Top schools were few; only 16 of the hundreds of American colleges and universities received an “A.” Here are some: St John’s (in Maryland and New Mexico), Baylor, United States Air Force Academy, Thomas Aquinas, University of Dallas.

As an example of the difference in dimensions: Cornell rated 14 on the WSJ‘s “job” list, but it received an “F” from ACTA, because it only requires a foreign language and nothing else. Worse, “quantitative reasoning” can be substituted form math, non-science courses for science, and there is no concreteness to the composition requirement.

An “F” does not, of course, mean that students attending that sad college cannot received a fine education; but it does imply that the probability of finding an uneducated graduate from that college is higher. Similarly, a student attending an “A” school might still graduate ignorant.

The ACTA site is well worth the time spent browsing the colleges.

Research: QS

The QS rankings, appearing yearly, unlike the previous two rankings, are worldwide. The most important criterion was academic reputation, defined in the usual manner of papers published, citations, perceived importance, and so forth. They also considered employer reputation: how many graduate students find jobs, etc.

To emphasize, the QS ratings are more important to professors and to students wishing to become graduate students.

Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, University College London, and MIT are the top five picks. Once more, a high ranking here does not imply a top ratings in the other lists. To continue to follow Cornell: it was 16 in the world on the QS list, 14 on the WSJ list, and again a “F” on the ACTA scale.


The QS rankings here are the top USA schools. The top ACTA rankings were chosen from the list of “A” schools. The WSJ rankings are across all majors.

Jobs: WSJ Education: ACTA Research: QS
1. Penn State 1. St John’s 1. Harvard
2. Texas A&M 2. Thomas Aquinas College 2. Yale
3. U. Illinois 3. U.S. Air Force Academy 3. MIT
4. Purdue 4. U.S. Military Academy 4. U. Chicago
5. Arizona State 5. U. Dallas 5. Cal Tech