Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Housing, Hans and Humor

  • Why buying a home could be easier for those of us who are younger.
  • Hans Bader, whom I'd never heard of before, on ABC News' reporting on one couple with a subprime mortgage. A little math could have saved both ABC and this couple some embarrassment.
  • P.J. O'Rourke, hilarious as always, sends a letter to our European friends explaining the Presidential campaign.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Extended Childhood

I was sitting in the department head's office this morning waiting for water to boil for my tea. No one else was in there, so I answered the phones for a couple of minutes.

This woman calls lamenting her daughter's struggles in college algebra with the usual variety of reasons: the lab manual won't work for the course, the instructor is foreign and she can't understand him, she works 30 hours a week, she's falling behind in the course, etc. etc. All I could think of, besides welcome to the real world sweetheart, was why in the hell is this girl's mother calling us to complain.

Have today's teens become soo infantilized that they can't take care of their own college course problems? God forbid the mother tells the daughter to go talk to people herself and see what she can do. Maybe the daughter would grow up a little if mom stopped doing her dirty work for her.

This woman, and everyone else, should really read Robert Epstein's The Case Against Adolescence which argues that adolescence is a destructive concept and that many teens are much more capable that given credit for if they are just given the opportunity.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Opportunity Cost: Teachers Edition

The following sentence is from a letter to the editor of The Waco Tribune Herald. A lady is commenting that TAKS drove her out of teaching after 47 years in the profession. The last sentence is what interests me:

"No teacher worth his or her salt wants to leave a child behind."
Every teacher has a limited amount of time, ability, resources to work with, student abilities and attitudes, etc. with which to work. Given these constraints, is her attitude ignoring reality? You may not want to leave a child behind, but if it's a choice between getting one student up to speed while 29 other students in the class languish in boredom, maybe leaving one child behind is the best alternative. The opportunity cost of helping one student is hindering the progress of 29 others.
I think the problem all goes back to the fact that we operate within a one size fits all educational system. Create more variety in terms of class options, vocational programs, eliminate most restrictions on child labor and wages so students can learn by doing and eliminate compulsory attendance laws and education improves by being better able to better serve the variety of individuals who seek education or training.
I'm not holding my breath.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Random Noise: Super Bowl Edition

If I'm going to be sticking to my guns on not consuming information that is nothing more than random noise, then I guess I won't be watching ESPN and Fox Sports Net until the Super Bowl is over.

Tom Brady is seen Tuesday walking around with a boot on his ankle. Every sports talk show was going nuts for about half the day until Brady was seen hours later without the boot.

This nonsense will just continue until Super Sunday. By next Wednesday, the primary topics floating around the sports shows will be probably be: "The Patriots or the Giants: Who has the better practice squad." Or "Eli Manning and Jessica Simpson are currently in the same state. Will this curse the Giants?"

Friday, January 18, 2008

Why I Don't Watch the News

Or at least I try not to. Here is why.

The stories reported are predominantly events that happened that day or the day or two before. So much that happens on a daily basis ultimately amounts to nothing. In statistical terms, the vast majority of news is nothing more than random noise. Many stories that have tremendous fanfare attached (a Hillary Clinton campaign stop in Iowa) or that have some supposed psychological impact (crude oil rising to $100 per barrel) are in the great scheme of things pure random noise. If so much news is just random noise, why clutter my brain with it?

It is also obvious that newscasters have no background in statistics, probability, or maybe even rationality. On January 3, a local weatherman in Waco showed a table listing average rainfall year to date (that is for 2008) and current rainfall year to date. According to this table, we were already 0.14 inches behind for the year. One problem though. You can't make statistical arguments based on a sample size of three days! Showing such a figure was nothing short of pointless and lent itself to misinterpretation. Some basic statistics and probability training would do wonders for news coverage. I'm not holding my breath that it happens.

I believe George Will was the first to say this, but I'm not sure: It is not news when planes land safely. The only time planes are in the news is when they skid off the runway, have engine trouble mid flight, the pilot is drunk or they crash. Over long travel distances you are much safer travelling by air than my automobile, but you would never guess it my watching the news. Once again, a statistics and probability lesson would do wonders.

I mean this in the best possible way: reporters are ignorant. Their sphere of knowledge, just like mine or yours, is severely limited. However, they report on a wide variety of topics in which they can't have more than a cursory understanding. An example: a reporter did a story on the troubles facing a municipal water company. She reported that the water pump was buried so many feet in the ground. Buried implies that the pump is covered by several yards of dirt. But water pumps are not buried, they're covered and fairly easily removed by a mechanical lift with no movement of dirt required. And this is just an example of a silly mistake that I happened to catch. I shudder to think about how many mistakes I miss due to my ignorance of the topic. How many fallacies and erroneous facts abound because reporters don't realize their ignorance?

Since I've more or less stopped watching the news, I am not one bit less informed and my mind is not cluttered with meaningless garbage (Britney Spears). I get a great deal of news off the Internet which allows me to filter out the random noise and instantly check facts if something sounds fishy or if I just want more information. Plus there are non journalists (economists, lawyers, political scientists, mathematicians, you name it) all over the Net who share their specialized knowledge via blogs. I've gotten to the point where I trust a Tyler Cowen or a Michael Barone more than a Brian Williams or Charles Gibson because Cowen and Barone have well known specialities (economics and politics, respectively) and stick to them while Williams and Gibson report on everything from the environment to consumer trends to a UFO in Stephenville. (By the way, what would aliens be doing in Stephenville? I could make a bad joke along the lines of "They can't be looking for intelligent life" but I will refrain from doing so.) I've found that Cowen and Barone will admit their ignorance on any given topic. I'm not sure Williams, Gibson or their type would.

So from what I've discovered, one of the best things you can do for your health, your sanity, and the world (aside from only using one piece of toilet paper per trip) is to stop watching the news.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Maybe they teach French Economics at Marlin High School

After reading this I feel a little better about the state of economics teaching in U.S. high schools, however flawed it may be.

I'm not sure the following paragraph hasn't been absorbed in Marlin, Texas particularly the last sentence:
When French students are not getting this kind of wildly biased commentary on the destruction wreaked by capitalism, they are learning that economic progress is also the root cause of social ills. For example, a one-year high school course on the inner workings of an economy developed by the French Education Ministry called Sciences Economiques et Sociales, spends two thirds of its time discussing the sociopolitical fallout of economic activity. Chapter and section headings include “Social Cleavages and Inequality,” “Social Mobilization and Conflict,” “Poverty and Exclusion,” and “Globalization and Regulation.” The ministry mandates that students learn “worldwide regulation as a response” to globalization. Only one third of the course is about companies and markets, and even those bits include extensive sections on unions, government economic policy, the limits of markets, and the dangers of growth. The overall message is that economic activity has countless undesirable effects from which citizens must be protected.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

New Year's Wishes

Here are my wishes for the new year.
  1. That as long as Bobby Petrino is the coach of Arkansas, they never win a football game.
  2. Despite news to the contrary, that Marlin doesn't get the RTLC plant. After everything that has happened, Marlin isn't worthy of such a blessing.
  3. That people who don't understand the very basics of statistics and probability stop watching the news and reading the paper. More on this later.
  4. That a majority of my students this semester can spell worth a crap.
  5. That the resignations of Falls County and Marlin City officials keeps on coming.
  6. That I start blogging more regularly.
  7. That Jerry Jones does not pull off some Herschel Walker type trade in order to draft Darren McFadden. However, I do hope he gets rid of Roy Williams. In case someone hasn't noticed, Roy can't cover!
  8. That more people read The Misanthropic Economist!

Happy New Year!