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Wednesday, January 1st, 2025
7:42 am - Thoughts on education
I've been on lj over 12 years now, and I've had lots of thoughts on education [also, I was posting stuff on in longer form from 1996 - 2002; I've also written a lot at the Actuarial Outpost on this subject]

So this post is simply to amass posts as I find them, and categorize them. I am defining "education" very broadly here. I may be linking to some friends-locked posts, and will note that when I link. Some of these posts may need to be moved around for better organization.

12 Days of LearningCollapse )

My thoughts for starting schools, business related to educationCollapse )

Responses to Charles MurrayCollapse )

Gifted education/IQ stuffCollapse )

Math educationCollapse )

Online educationCollapse )

Females and math and scienceCollapse )

Actuarial educationCollapse )

UncategorizedCollapse )

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Saturday, November 15th, 2014
8:17 am - Teaching Your Kids Math (for free)
Having seen a lot of agita over acquaintances' children's math homework, I thought I would come bring help.

No, I am not going to say anything specific about Common Core. The issue of making arithmetic and basic math way too cognitively complicated for students (as well as the elementary school teachers, but that's for another time) goes back decades:

That was from a 1965 recording. When my mother was 13 years old.

Luckily, by the time I was in elementary school, the fad was back at drilling in arithmetic (and we still had plenty of teachers from the time when women had very few career choices). It didn't matter, mom did flashcards with me. Dad bought me math (and computer programming) books that I taught myself from.

So here is my main advice for those dealing with extremely confusing math homework for their kids: the goal is that they learn how to do the math. Not that they jump through the schools' hoops.

I'm sorry that my advice is not necessarily going to end up with good grades, but that's a superficial goal.

Math is very interlocking in its topics, and if you screw up your understanding of some very key concepts, you're going to have trouble with others later on. For example, if you don't get the hang of multiplication, you're going to have a hell of a time with division. If you don't get division, you're screwed with regards to fractions, and so forth.

My advice boils down to this:

1. Find a reasonable framework as to how these topics interlock

2. Find a starting point for your child where they have mastery

3. Have your child practice math every day by doing problems (the younger the child, the less amount of time -- I think about 10 minutes is a good amount of time to start)

4. Check what they did right after they did problems, and make them correct the problems (first, let them try on their own, and then you can help)

5. They can't progress to the next topic til they get to at least 80% mastery of the prior one

Some may recognize this as the approach Kumon takes, and indeed, that's where I get all the above.

But you don't have to go to Kumon to do the above. I like using Kumon for the girls, because they're homeschooled, and it's good to have an external check on their progress. They've both been doing Kumon since they were 5. Mo is now doing some simple algebra (about same age I was doing simple algebra), and Bon is now working on arithmetic of fractions.

So where can you get the framework to follow, and where do you get the problems, for free?

BIG ONE: Khan Academy

Just go to the front page, and they've made it even easier for parents -- just click on the button that says, "Parents Start Here" -- if you don't see that go here for a walkthrough.

Khan Academy has a map of math topics you can get started on. Here is the sequence for arithmetic. Yes, they have Common Core content - but it seems to me unlikely it will have anything to do with whatever specific textbooks and worksheets your kids' schools are imposing on them. Also, I don't recommend going there. Just go to their regular math content.

There are an infinite amount of math practice problems, and there are explanatory videos for every concept. Each student has their own "learning dashboard", so they (and you) can see their progress. One can earn badges, etc., but it's mainly to keep track that one is actually progressing. With Khan Academy, parents don't have to check the problems - the site does that for the student. Khan Academy also indicates proficiency on each topic.

Yes, Khan Academy has other topics as well, but only their math section is extremely well-developed. And some of the non-math stuff... is not exactly accurate. I don't want to get into that. The math stuff is good, and I come here to talk about math. There are also recreational math videos, but that's not really part of the "map". It's more for fun.

Speaking of fun, there is another site we use, sumdog, which has free activities but keeps trying to upsell you to subscriptions. The girls like to play on sumdog, too, but the types of questions are more restricted, there's not as clear of a map of topics.

However, the plus of sumdog is that its activities are structured as actual games, and the prizes you earn from doing well in the games are things like new duds for your avatar (which is more fun for kids than simply earning a meteor badge, as an example.) I wouldn't use sumdog for progression through topics, but I think it's good for fun reinforcement.

The point is this:

Students need to learn proper arithmetic. I don't care about the algorithm so much, as long as it always gives correct answers and the student understands it.

The only way you learn arithmetic, and math at most levels until you get to college-level abstraction (and even then...), is to do problems, get feedback as to whether or not you were wrong... AND THEN FIX WHAT YOU SCREWED UP.

Everybody forgets that last part. The way you learn to fix your errors or catch them is to actually be forced to fix your errors!

I didn't get that lesson from math, by the way, but my adventures in computer programming. I rarely got questions wrong on my elementary school math homework/tests/etc. I did screw up all the time in programming, and you have to have everything correct to get your code to work. If people think math is unforgiving, programming is really unforgiving.

By the way, while sumdog is obviously for kids, Khan Academy is for everybody. I have sent several adults (some older than me) to that site for them to brush up on math they need for professional development purposes. Yes, I've even sent people there who needed a calculus brush-up for the actuarial exams. So parents, you may find yourself wanting to do a bit of a math tune-up yourself.

I will talk in a later post about what math I think adults absolutely need to know (and no, it doesn't include the whole map at Khan Academy.)

Go forth and learn math, y'all!

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Friday, October 24th, 2014
6:12 am - Friday Fun: Orson Welles and Winston Churchill
This video tickles me every time I watch it.

My heart is warmed to see how pleased Welles is with himself and his story at the end of it.

By the way, there are loads of clips from the Dick Cavett Show on YouTube, and I highly recommend them. I might not like Dick Cavett as a person, but he ran an excellent interview show, primarily by booking really interesting people and letting them talk.

(what a concept)

The really fun stuff is when he gets people like Douglas Fairbanks, Janis Joplin, and Raquel Welch together to talk. Check it out.

If your tastes run to more serious stuff, I recommend the series of books on Churchill called The Last Lion, by William Manchester (and finished by Paul Reid when Manchester died). Widgets

I have been going through the series, but perhaps in an unorthodox way. I first listened to the second volume on audiobook (if one commutes ~150 miles per day on "normal" days, and ~250 miles per day on teaching days... one gets through a lot of audiobooks.) I really knew nothing of the period when Churchill was going it alone against pacifists and appeasers. No, not totally alone, of course, but he was extremely marginalized.

I am currently listening through the third volume, and am only up to 1942. Haven't even gotten to the Battle of Midway yet. Thing is, though I do know more about World War II than the time between the wars, there are so many details I did not know.

I find these books very fair -- gives views of Churchill from his friends and his enemies. It shows where Churchill was right and where he was very, very wrong. He was excellent at seeing decades into the future, in understanding grand causal chains, but often had issues with very short-term problems.

Even though one knows how the war will end, and what happened with key events, the books manage to keep interest and suspense going -- I stop myself from looking up people's names, as I don't want to be "spoiled" as to what happened to them in the war and the years to come. I can look that stuff up later. Once a "character" dies, I feel secure in looking them up to see what I missed.

Great stuff.

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, VOLUME ONE: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, VOLUME TWO: Alone, 1932-1940 (Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume II)

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume Three: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965

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Saturday, October 18th, 2014
8:15 am - Tales of a kiddie consultant
So I see this piece on Gene Simmons' memoir:

Back when he was 7 years old and still went by his birth name Chaim Witz, Simmons decided one day that there was an opportunity in the crowds that passed by his neighborhood on their way home from work each day. He told his friend Schlomo that they were going to hike up nearby Mount Carmel and pick cactus fruit to sell to commuters.

He and Schlomo borrowed a vat of ice water from a local grocery and spent a day filling it with fruit they picked.

"We didn't realize that it was a business venture, and we wouldn't have known what the phrase meant. But we did have a sense that if we worked hard, we might make money. And that was an exciting idea: making money," Simmons writes. "It still is."

By sunset, the boys discovered they made the equivalent of two dollars, which Simmons estimates would today be about $20.

On the way home, he grabbed an ice cream cone for two cents, which he says is still the best one he's ever had.

And it took me back to my first experience as a business consultant.

My youngest sister Carey liked doing various household tasks (as a kid... I don't think this holds any more). My middle sister Amy and I hated doing these things. It really didn't make a difference to me, because there wasn't much way to punish me for not cleaning my room (what, were my parents going to tell me I couldn't read?)

But they could get Amy. Amy liked going out and being with her friends.

One day, Amy had to clean her room to go out, so she offered a quarter to Carey to clean it. This kind of exchange had happened before.

I took Carey aside and told her that $0.25 was too little and that she should ask for $2.

Carey listened to her older sister and made her counteroffer to Amy.

Amy huffed: "I will clean it myself!"

Now, this made Carey nervous. Maybe she had just lost herself a customer! There went that quarter! And even worse: the lost opportunity to clean something!

I told her not to worry. Amy really wanted to go out, and she definitely wasn't going to clean the room herself. Before Carey broke, Amy did. Carey got her $2, cleaned the room, and Amy got to go out.

Later, I heard from ma that Carey had increased her piece-rate for ironing. Ma was puzzled. I said nothing.

So that was my first experience in business consulting, but I realize my mistake (which I didn't realize until adulthood): I should've asked for $0.25 from Carey for the consulting fee.

If I was even cannier, I would've asked for a 10% take over the next few months for my advice.

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Wednesday, October 8th, 2014
9:35 am - Negotiating techniques with D
D: May I have juice, please?

Stu: First get your shoes on, then juice

D: First juice, then shoes

Stu: First shoes, then juice

[shoes go on]

D: Then juice

Stu: Somebody get D some juice

D: Then cookies

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Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
3:44 pm -'s been a long time, but....
I AM HE-MAN!!!!!!

just thought you'd like to know

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Sunday, September 14th, 2014
1:51 pm - Reflections of a Thrift Shopper
I am a thrift shopper. My ma was a thrift shopper. My mother's mother was a thrift shopper. And so forth.

There is something about thrift shoppers that are similar to lucky people (as per Richard Wiseman) -- we're usually not looking for something specific. We're just generically browsing, in search of what we term "a great find".

There is a thrift shop next to where the girls go to Kumon lessons every Saturday, and sometimes I go in, and sometimes I don't. I prefer to go in if I can. It's a very small church thrift shop, with not much in the way of selection, and often I'm staring at the same small collection, even if there's a few months gap time in between.

And, let's face it, most of what you see in thrift shops is crap.

Yesterday at the thrift shop, I was running my eyes over the books while a guy was maneuvering in front of me, trying to look at the LPs. He commented that there was nothing worthwhile there. I said he was wrong.

The exchange went something like this:

Him [moving]: Sorry.
Me: That's okay. I'm just looking over all the books. It's usually the same titles.
Him: Yeah, I'm looking at the records. It's always the same albums, like Ed Sullivan hits or something. Nothing worthwhile.
Me: Oh, there's a few good things there. I saw the opera sets - those are really good recordings. I wish I had a working turntable - I would get those.
Him: Yeah, those are probably good. I meant, every thrift shop has the same LPs. Where are the Beatles? Even Led Zeppelin....
Me: [goggling] Uh, people are probably holding onto those [dumbass]

A "great find" is not finding a first run Beatles LP in a thrift shop. It could happen, sure, but it's very unlikely for a lot of reasons.

Most of the books you see in thrift shops had been bestsellers, many of which I'm not particularly interested in reading. Some were obviously gifts given to other people that were never read (or read by more fastidious people than me). You get a lot of mass market LPs in the thrift shops, too, but mainly music that has not aged well. So yes, you get a lot of the east-listening classics that were easy-listening 50 years ago. Nobody much is interested in that.

But excellent opera recordings? Heck yeah. I still may go back and buy them, but I figured I'd let someone else at them first -- I don't have a convenient turntable, after all. If someone else can more immediately enjoy them, why not?

But I did get two excellent finds -- an enameled colander, painted with a bunch of little flowers, etc. and a red cardigan with butt frill that I've decided is this season's office sweater. Both are in excellent condition, and will get put into immediate use. Stu told me that he could use the enameled colander for setting out fruits and vegetables (like tomatoes), as its surface won't interact with the goodies.

If I go to a thrift shop specifically looking for shoes (which I've tried before), or china, or whatever, I will generally be disappointed.

But if I open my eyes, and just consider the items on their own terms, I tend to do very well.


Which is also the point.

I got the enameled colander for $2 and the sweater for $8. That was a little pricey for a church thrift shop sweater, but even the thrift shop managers know that some items really are worth more and mark them according.... like the $20 leather jacket I bought for Stu one Christmas.

(one mark of a thrift shopper: they remember exactly how much they paid for that one piece...$4 for 2 painted wine glasses! What a buy!... but forget how much they paid for their car)

I'm also willing to put back crap that is just cheap crap. I've been trying to teach the girls not to overpay for things. They like to spend their gift money at the thrift shop because it goes farther, but sometimes they pick up stuff that's overpriced for Walmart, much less a thrift shop. I remember Mo picking up a doll marked for $5, and I told her to put it back. It would be worth it for $1, but not $5.

But if something is cheap enough, you might be willing to splurge the $1 without trying it out -- if it turns out I'm too fat for a particular top, then eh. I can just donate it back to the thrift shop. (I often tell them to keep the change, because the point really isn't the money... that's just a way of keeping score)

Anyway, I see it as a fun and cheap hobby.

And you never know what you will find. I was certainly not looking for an enameled colander or a red office sweater with a butt frill when I walked in there yesterday.

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Thursday, August 28th, 2014
9:55 am - ...but it gives a lovely light
Monday morning, I got up at 3am.

I did not go to sleep again on Monday, because I got home at 12:15am Tuesday and fell asleep quickly thereafter.

I got up at 5am on Tuesday, and didn't go to sleep til 12:30am Wednesday.

I got up at 6am on Wednesday, and didn't go to sleep til 2am today. I had a to-do list that was 16 items long, and I had to transfer a couple to today.

I got up at 5am today.

This is all to say, I'm getting off social media, blogs, etc for the next few days to rest. And I plan on going to sleep before midnight tonight.

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Sunday, August 17th, 2014
7:08 pm - Looking for change in the couch cushions
One of my lj friends posted something that reminded me to check my paypal balance. It's never very much, but I forget about it sometimes. (holy crap, there's $27 in there... I've really let it ride -- transferred! Thanks, wombat!)

Thing is, back in the day, there were certain places you'd look for loose change and paper bills. Couches. The floorboards of the car.  In old jacket pockets.

That sort of thing.

But now in the e-account economy, I've got all sorts of random cash hanging out. Recently, I just got about $110 back via the office of unclaimed funds. About $50 of this, I know what it was from: when I had to cancel a Netflix account b/c the USPS kept munging up the DVDs. (THAT WAS BACK IN 1999... 15 YEARS AGO!) The other $60... no clue. Something with Chase, evidently. Look, I was in a bunch of really odd situations ...wait, I still am. Anyway, I wouldn't be terribly shocked to hear I salted away $10K somewhere and had forgotten about it.

There's something interesting going on with the unclaimed funds in NY, btw.  There's two sides: the obvious is that the comptroller of the state might be able to get some good feelings from people like me who get their own money back. (SUCKER) Of all states, I think NY is the one that has the clearest cursus honorum -- if you want to make it to governor, you stop at one of these interim positions like comptroller or head of the department of Financial Services, then you become AG, then governor. If you're Lt. Gov., you're definitely a sucker. That's not a stepping stone to the highest office here.

But there's this other bit called escheatment. It means that unclaimed funds ultimately devolve to the state. There's a sub rosa brou-ha-ha going on in life insurance right now over that sort of thing (no, I'm not going to write about that, because it's my day job and I don't undercut my day job).  That NetFlix refund would have gone to the state of NY for their general revenue if I hadn't claimed it by December. While I cancelled the account in 1999 or 2000, they didn't declare it defunct until, I think, 2009.  After 5 years, the amount is escheated to the state.

Isn't that sweet?

States are desperate for funds right now, and they'd rather have the funds coming from something less obvious than direct taxes. That can have electoral repercussions.

So they, like me, have been shaking out the couch cushions, looking to see if there are sources of revenue they missed.  Some states have gotten really aggressive on escheatment of late, reducing the period before funds are taken over, and by going directly after companies like insurers who might not report unclaimed funds as rapidly as the states would like (they can't start that escheatment clock until the unclaimed funds are reported).

I know most people have this sort of thing under their radar, but this is an area I keep close tabs on. I thought people might find it of interest.

Also, check out your own state's department that covers unclaimed funds. I've actually tried to claimed the Netflix account before, but because it originally required statements I no longer had (ffs, it was 1999, and I don't own that email account any more, much less still own that private mailbox), I had to let it lie. But evidently the comptroller decided it was better PR to make the process go easier for people like me. It makes fraud easier, but it is quite labor-intensive if you intend fraud. And for all that work, you might get only $50.

So see if you have money hanging out there that's yours. Here's a good place to start searching.

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Saturday, August 9th, 2014
7:24 pm - My Numbers Nemesis: I Am Confirmed (and others)
The last time I wrote about Carl Bialik, I noted the "IT'S SO HAAAAARRRRRD" bit might have been something editors forced upon him at the WSJ.

And then noted at his new home, 538, he was confused about something that should not be confusing at all: why a pro-Russian 97% result in Ukraine when Russian soldiers (with guns and stuff) had invaded.

The main issue I've had with the 538 site is it's frickin boring, but I thought to drop in on my nemesis.

The Difficult Work of Measuring Anti-Semitism in Europe


Okay, let's read a little.

The conflict in Gaza has sparked a surge in anti-Semitism in Europe, according to several recent articles. People have targeted Jewish businesses and synagogues, and posted hateful messages on social media.

How do we define and measure anti-Semitism? Among the groups compiling data that demonstrate the rise is Community Security Trust (CST), a nonprofit organization in the U.K. that catalogs incidents of anti-Semitism. Media reports of early CST counts of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.K. in July put the total at more than 100, double the usual level. On Wednesday, CST reported that the number had surpassed 200, the second-highest monthly total in the 30 years CST has been tracking the stats, after the 288 counted in January 2009 (during another period of conflict in Gaza). The July count isn’t yet final and hasn’t been broken down by type of incident.

CST defines an anti-Semitic event as “any malicious act aimed at Jewish people, organisations or property, where there is evidence that the victim or victims were targeted because they are (or are believed to be) Jewish. Incidents can take several forms, including physical attacks on people or property, verbal or written abuse, or antisemitic leaflets and posters.”

Whether anti-Semitic incidents were rising before July depends on the frame of reference. The first six months of the year, before the violence in Gaza, brought a 36 percent increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents counted by CST compared to the first half of last year. The figure, though, was down slightly from the first half of 2012 and less than half the total in the first half of 2009. In both 2009 and 2012, there also were conflicts in Gaza. Violent assaults in the first half of this year were down 32 percent from last year.

Okay... and..... why should I care about the change in anti-semitism levels?  You know, it could be that there's a relatively high level of anti-semitism to begin with.

Related (but thank the lord, not Carl Bialik), we get this dumbass tweet:

Many respondents to Mr. Roth noted that, ya know, actual Hamas combatants tend to be young men.  And that it would be difficult for Israel to just throw bombs at civilian areas and hit a disproportionate number of young men unless THEY'RE TARGETING THE USUAL TARGETS: people trying to kill Israelis with guns and stuff, who tend to be YOUNG MEN.

I mean, look, we can all be Bayesians, but I really really want to know your priors, because they sound pretty fucked up.

ADDITIONAL: Let's do a roundup of recent-ish Carl Bialik post titles, shall we?

When A Flight Vanishes From The Sky, Amateur Trackers Know It Instantly - hmm, okay, interesting

We Still Don’t Know How Deadly the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa Will Be - no shit, Sherlock

Walking the Data-Driven Scenic Route in London - also interesting

The Low-Scoring World Cup Final Might Not Be Here to Stay - SPOILER: soccer is not a high-scoring game even outside of championships

Then a whole bunch of World Cup posts.

Supposedly Carl Bialik is 538's "lead writer for news", but he doesn't seem to do a lot of writing. Maybe it's the summer thing.

I have no idea how 538 is supposed to make money.

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Sunday, August 3rd, 2014
5:50 pm - Further thoughts on pain
As per my last post, I am in a chronic pain situation.  While pain is generally a signal saying: "Hey! Something's fucked up! Fix that!", I can't do a huge amount about completely fixing the pain. (Yes, I am doing stuff, and yes, I am fine in hearing advice on this score. But effective medications take me out of my skull and I HATE THAT, and surgery is a really, really last-ditch option for me. That's a long story for later)

But I did just think of something. This pain may be keeping me from dying early.

Thing is, my dad died of a heart attack when he was 38.  Yes, he had smoked half his life. Yes, he was overweight (but so am I - I'm actually fatter, relatively).  ...but he also had a really toxic work situation.

When this chronic pain situation manifested itself, it was at a prior job -- a job that was promising to kill me. Long hours, high stress, low control, and more than that: I was not being allowed to fix problems I found.

I was not the only person physically affected by that place -- my boss freaked me out and I forced him to go to the ER to have get checked out to make sure he didn't have an incipient heart attack. I made a direct report go lie down in an empty corner office after the CFO attacked her (there is so much more involved here, but it is waaaaay too long of a story right now.)

Before I got my current day job, I was considering just plain leaving without something else to fall back on, because I realized that I would be dead within a year if I persisted.

Now, I am in a much less fraught situation, but I am in a situation that if I type too much, if I get worked up, my pain gets worse.  This makes me take days off from work (and I recently realized I hadn't even taken half my vacation days yet). It makes me to cut back on my blogging. I even have trouble reading books.  I have to sit and let stuff wash over me.

And that might be what I need to do.

I am "on" way too much, perhaps, burning the candle not only at both ends, but also at wicks I decided to stick in the middle. And the pain forces me to just stop.

And if that's not its purpose, I can offer it up. Which I do. 

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Friday, July 25th, 2014
5:18 pm - Update on the pain situation
My last real update regarding my chronic pain was about a year ago.

The pain is basically in a holding pattern.

It's not getting better; it's not getting worse.

I took today off from work because it was getting to be a bit too much. I go to a chiropractor fairly regularly, and no matter how bullshitty it is, it does give me some relief. I feel like it helps me from getting worse. I also go get a good massage about once a month, but that really only helps with my muscular issues.

I'm in a fairly bad condition. Weekends are pretty bad. I will go do short errands, like take the girls to Kumon, but by the afternoon, I'm wrecked.

This entry is not going to be as long as my last one, because it's true -- the more I type, the more I hurt. That was the issue with work this week... I was doing a lot of typing (as opposed to reading & thinking) and the typing takes a lot out of me. I've been amassing a lot of blogging stuff for STUMP, but I know typing is a bad idea.

It's pretty bad right now, so I'm just going to listen to opera and re-read some books I know very well.

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Sunday, July 13th, 2014
1:10 pm - The absurdity of enforcing statistical "equality"
I came across this WSJ article today, about the Canadian McGill University taking over a decade to close the gender gap in pay among its own workers.  It sounded reasonable, until I got to this paragraph:

Another conundrum involved a mostly female team of assistant cooks and a mostly male team of executive cooks. McGill's pay analysis called for paying the assistants more than their bosses were earning. University officials still are trying to sort the issue out with the school's unions.

Now, it is not always the case that the "boss" should always be paid more than the supposed subordinates. In many "creative" and competitive areas, people ostensibly lower down the totem pole are paid a lot more, because the top execs are more easily replaced than, say, a star center on a basketball team.

But when we're talking about a bureaucratic system that has "levels" for workers with each level being associated with a particular salary, it is difficult to argue that one should get a lower salary with a promotion in level.

This should have been an obvious absurdity, but evidently they didn't rethink their approach until the unions pointed out the stupidity.

At least they realize they can't just proclaim women working the same jobs as men get paid 20% more than the men in order to "close the gap".  That's too obviously illegal (well, I'm not sure about that. This  Canada and, more specifically, Quebec we're talking about).

But I wonder how much they've thought this through.  Because they could end up hurting the women who are in male-dominated fields and attract lots more men to what is currently female-dominated.

Let me think about the office I work in. I am the only female researcher in the group. The administrative staff is almost all female (there are a few men, though).  If there was a "rectification of salaries", the admins would be boosted and the researchers deprecated. That would piss me off.

Luckily, I do not work in a bureaucratic hell-hole. My prior company was like that... and it was run by a bunch of French and Germans. This is not a coincidence.

When I was talking with the prior chief actuary of the U.S. branch of that company, I made a comment about the insulting bonuses. He really let loose. The bureaucratic approach of the Europeans was such that competitive pay could not be offered in the U.S. for certain positions. It would not do, you see, for the chief actuary in the U.S. be paid higher than the chief actuary in France. Yes, but actuaries are paid more in the U.S. than in France.  I should have taken a clue about the high turnover in the actuarial staff in the U.S. office....which I didn't know until I got there. And then there was the fact that I was hired for a position well above my experience level, and that the person who was the first choice for the position (and who was of the right experience) passed on the position.

This is what happens when a private company pays much less than the market. They have difficulties staying staffed for particular positions. (What a lot of these sorts of companies do is get people who need visa or green card sponsorship, which makes it difficult for them to leave. But it's not impossible for them to leave, and they do eventually... just not as quickly as those who do not need such sponsorship.)

Similarly, when an employer pays well above market for particular jobs, unless they've got a good handle on the hiring process, they can end up with a lot of stinkers who are difficult to fire. Or they can get people who are skilled well beyond those particular jobs who stick around in them, because getting "promoted" is actually a step down in pay. So those companies have a difficult time getting people to accept promotions. More responsibilities for less money, or not much of a step up in money?  Ha ha. You must be joking.

Now, if this were just Canada, this would be one of those page A1 "Ha ha look at the weirdos" WSJ fluff pieces (nb: I love those fluff pieces). But look what U.S. companies have in store:

Companies who do business with the federal government—which employ some 20% of the U.S. workforce, by government estimates—will soon have to face the issue head-on. President Barack Obama signed an executive action earlier this year requiring federal contractors to report pay data by gender and race.

The proposed rules for doing so are expected to be released later this summer.

Contractors are already required to collect such pay data, but, "I couldn't tell you how many contractors actually do that," said Patricia Shiu, director of the Labor Department's Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

Serves them right for doing business with the government.

What I "love" about all these requirements for doing contract work with the federal government is that it is a huge barrier to entry, and thus smaller contractors have harder and harder time submitting and winning bids. And it also makes it less attractive for potential, competent contractors to bid on work.

cf: the Obamacare exchanges.

Cross-posted to STUMP.

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Thursday, March 20th, 2014
8:33 am - Vindication: IT'S NOT HARD
So all y'all remember my nemesis, the WSJ Numbers Guy?

Here, a quick refresher: GET A NEW SHTICK, PLEASE MAKE IT STOP, JUST STOP IT ALREADY, SOMEBODY STOP THIS GUY BEFORE HE KILLS AGAIN. You can tell I was very calm about the whole thing.

Well, he's not at the WSJ any more, but is at Nate Silver's new place. So I decided to check out if I may have unfairly maligned Mr. Bialik, and that all of the crap was due to WSJ editorial decisions. Here are his recent post titles:

A March Madness Bracket For Stat-Heads

Dayton Does Matter

Buffett’s Billion Won’t Lead to a Perfect Bracket

Another Explanation For Crimea Referendum Landslide

How Statisticians Could Help Find That Missing Plane

You Just Had Sex, So How Many Calories Did You Burn?

Wichita State’s Strength of Schedule Isn’t the Problem

Tracking Health One Step (And Clap, And Wave, And Fist Pump) at a Time

Many Signs Pointed to Crimea Independence Vote — But Polls Didn’t

Reviewing the Peer-Review Process

Okay, the headlines don't go on about how hard things are to figure out. Good, good.

Most of the stuff is fluff, but that's okay. Let's look at the serious stories, though. The one on the missing plane:

Keller said Metron isn’t involved in the Malaysia Airlines hunt. If it were, the same principles would apply: Start with all data, such as radar, visual or acoustic measurements, transmissions from the plane and so on. Then update to account for unsuccessful searches, and keep updating as new information comes in. “Bayesian search theory allows flexibility in this way and even accommodates conflicting information,” Keller said. “Nothing is discounted.”

The extra layers of complexity in the Malaysia Airlines search — the new estimates of the plane’s location, mounting evidence that a deliberate act caused the disappearance — complicate the Bayesian calculations and estimates.

Bradley Efron, a Stanford University statistician, said the complications make Bayes a bad fit for the Malaysia Airlines hunt. “Bayes’ Rule is good for refining reasonable (or at least not unreasonable) prior experience on the basis of new evidence,” Efron, who also expressed skepticism to Al Jazeera America, wrote in an email. “It is not good when new evidence changes the situation drastically.”

But Tony O’Hagan, professor emeritus of probability and statistics at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., said that’s the perfect situation for Bayesian techniques, which should make searchers most effective in adapting to changing information, so long as they properly assume from the get-go that the plane might not be in the initial search area.

There's a lot more there -- I think Bialik would have done better to split that one up into a series of multiple posts, because he covers a lot of different topics and really long articles don't make for easy reading online, even if they work better in a newspaper column.

But still, it seemed like a reasonable take.  Yes, there are difficulties, but in this case he focuses on the techniques that could be used to help, and less on the IT'S SO HAAAAAAAARD whining.

Oh, what's this? A couple posts on Crimea.  Well, that's pretty important, too.  So let's see.

First post on Crimea:

On Sunday, voters in the Crimea region of Ukraine overwhelmingly chose to secede and become a part of Russia. Crimean officials said nearly 97 percent of voters backed the move, casting ballots as the peninsula remained occupied by thousands of Russian troops.


One big advantage for pollsters: working in the country, with a per-capita GDP below Iraq’s, is cheap, costing less than one-fifth as much to add a question to a Ukrainian poll as it does for a U.S. survey with the same number of respondents, according to Steven Kull, director of “There’s a lot of worthwhile polling that could be done right now,” Kull said. “I’m tempted to jump into it.”

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and Ukraine gained independence, pollsters found a country full of people eager to tell anyone, including strangers, their opinions about their country and its governance — an ideal scenario for survey researchers.

The “attitude of the population was very, very positive,” Paniotto recalled. He had to work to build polling infrastructure and train interviewers in a country with little independent polling during the Soviet era, and with two major languages (Ukrainian and Russian). Once his staff went into the field, respondents often invited them in for tea; they had to learn how to leave politely and move on to the next home.

Okay, that's somewhat interesting. Not an angle I knew about, in terms of widespread polling in poorer places. Again, he did a super-long post.  But that really doesn't have to do much with a 97% result.

But looks like he had some followup:

I wrote earlier on Monday about the overwhelming vote by Crimeansto leave Ukraine and join Russia. The latest reputable polls in Crimea showed that just 40 percent of Crimeans wanted Ukraine to integrate with Russia, yet 97 percent of Crimeans on Sunday voted to reunite with Russia. I offered several possible explanations for the discrepancy, including the ballot question wording, the presence of thousands of Russian troops in Crimea and the possibility that some voters wanted only Crimea, and not the rest of Ukraine, to join Russia.

In the comments of my post, several readers offered an additional explanation I didn’t include: The last polls preceded the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russia government and its replacement by a government friendlier to the European Union than to the Kremlin. The Kiev International Institute of Sociology poll – which found about 40 percent of Crimeans backed unification — was conducted from Feb. 8-18. President Viktor Yanukovych, who favored closer ties with Moscow and received 78 percent of the Crimean vote in 2010, fled the country three days after the poll ended and was voted out of office by Ukraine’s parliament on Feb. 22.

I asked Volodymyr Paniotto, general director of KIIS, about this explanation. Paniotto acknowledged the possibility that Yanukovych’s ouster affected the vote, and expanded the explanation to include the Ukrainian parliament’s “foolish steps” — such ascanceling and later reinstating a law granting equal status to minority languages in Ukraine. He still thinks the context of the referendum, including the Russian troops and Russian propaganda present in Crimea, were the dominant factors in the vote.


Is there really any question why there was 97% result in one way?

(and why couldn't they get to 100%? I bet Kim Jong-Un is laughing at Putin.)

To help you, I added emphasis in the above -- as one of Althouse's commenters put it, this post should've stopped after the first paragraph.  Indeed, that particular commenter made the exact point I was thinking:

Numbers are supposed to help you say smart things, not cover up stupid things.

Well, you might think so, but you've obviously not been following public pension accounting.

More to the point: sometimes people try too hard to come up with a unique take on a situation, in order to get attention. If your business is attracting eyeballs, as opposed to being correct about stuff, then sure.  Posit that aliens grabbed the Malaysian flight.

However, you end up with what I call the Malcolm Gladwell effect -- you come up with engaging stories you'd like to be true and seem to be counterintuitive, but what really happened is you missed some really big obvious facts that undermine everything else you have to say.  



Sometimes it doesn't even require math.

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Friday, March 14th, 2014
6:30 pm - Followup on mediocre STEM majors
Well, sounds like I went in the wrong direction in the last post.

No, it wasn't because I quibbled with the article author's interpretation of the stats displayed, but that she misrepresented economics as a STEM major.

Because I just came across this:

Students, who hope to be science and engineering majors, get discouraged by their grades, which are significantly lower than students in other disciplines. Consequently, they flee for easier "A's". Male students are more likely to bail because of grades than would-be women STEM majors.

Well, which is it? Men reacting more strongly to low grades or women?

For all we know, in the prior post, econ was the fall-back major for the males who did poorly in calculus. Sure, they got a B in the intro econ class, but they got a C (or worse) in calculus.  Might as well do econ, it's easier than the math degree. It could be that the women with Bs in econ were planning on majoring in physics, and took the intro econ class to fulfill a social science requirement for their major.

Or maybe it's just a reflection of differences between two different institutions, such as what are seen as the desirable majors and which are the fallbacks.

And instead of telling students to nut up and accept lower grades, this particular author recommends:

It seems to me that the best way to produce more scientists and engineers might be to get the professors in those fields to lighten up on their grades. Do the students, who are brave enough to wrestle with organic chemistry and multivariable calculus, need to be crushed at exam time?

The alternative is to get the professors in departments like education and English to grade harder, but I just don't see that ever happening.

I am in agreement on that last paragraph.

This is my advice to undergrads: major in the most difficult subject you enjoy and can do well in. This may require casting about the first couple years to find what comes close to satisfying those criteria.

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Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
5:28 pm - STEM: Mediocre Chicks, Hang in There!
Oh, is that what you meant with all that MATH NEEDS CHICKS and SCIENCE NEEDS CHICKS crap?

I thought they were wanting the chicks who could do well at STEM stuff to major in it. Not keep the mediocre ones around.

My bad.

I mean, how else am I to interpret this:

A message to the nation’s women: Stop trying to be straight-A students.

No, not because you might intimidate easily emasculated future husbands. Because, by focusing so much on grades, you might be limiting your earning and learning potential.

The college majors that tend to lead to the most profitable professions are also the stingiest about awarding A’s. Science departments grade, on a four-point scale, an average of 0.4 points lower than humanities departments, according to a 2010 analysis of national grading data by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy. And two new research studies suggest that women might be abandoning these lucrative disciplines precisely because they’re terrified of getting B’s.

Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard, has been examining why so few women major in her field . The majority of new college grads are female, yet women receive only 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees in economics each year.

Goldin looked at how grades awarded in an introductory economics class affected the chance that a student would ultimately major in the subject. She found that the likelihood a woman would major in economics dropped steadily as her grade fell: Women who received a B in Econ 101, for example, were about half as likely as women who received A’s to stick with the discipline. The same discouragement gradient didn’t exist for men. Of Econ 101 students, men who received A’s were about equally as likely as men who received B’s to concentrate in the dismal science.

Yes, and all those guys with the crappy grades are unlikely to be all that good in the subject.

Take a look at this graph:

This is showing the percentage of males and females who major in economics after getting the above grades in an intro econ class. They don't say what university this was at.  I don't think that much matters. They don't mention, of those going on to major in econ, whether they actually graduated with a degree.  Maybe that's not much different. I don't know.

So let's see. The women who did best are even more likely than males to stick to Econ. Not bad. And there is definitely a "taking the hint" aspect as one steps from left to right.

The men do not seem rational at all to me.

So let me get this straight: you want the half-assed females to stick around? Because I can tell you, those half-assed men tend not to get better as the years go on.  Maybe econ is different, but in math and physics, you really needed to take the hint if you didn't do very well in freshman/sophomore courses in the major. Because the junior level classes would whup your ass.  And yes, I remember some weaker students taking until that point to realize they weren't going to get past real analysis (oops, switch to math education) or classical mechanics (oh shit, I was in physics because I was booted out of engineering... where do I go now?)

And yes, getting a B is not doing very well. Due to grade inflation, a B in your major subject today indicates you are mediocre, at best.

Oh, and it's difficult to "genuinely love" a topic if you're not doing well at it.  At least beyond a hobby. I'm not all that fabulous at crochet, but I enjoy it as a hobby. If I had to do it as a career, I would be miserable, because I really am not that good.  And I am quite aware of that.  I might get better if I spent more time at it, but I would unlikely beat those who have been very good all along.

To be sure, there is a certain amount of failure built in to becoming really good in a field. However, a lot of the people who do not do very well at the particular thing will never be all that good.  Some people can keep trying at stuff, and still suck.  Having strong, early signals to try elsewhere is very helpful.  If these weed-out classes aren't providing an accurate signal as to whether one will suck, then those classes need to be improved.

It could be that the grading in the early classes aren't indicative of later performance.

But maybe these classes are not harsh enough.

Trying to shame women into not looking after their best interests, which may just be finding an area in which they can excel in a relative sense, is stupid.

And some people may find that they do well by being mediocre in a subject they like or find to be remunerative, even if they are at a lower level compared to other people in the same field. That's okay, too.

As long as they're realistic about their suckitude.

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Friday, March 7th, 2014
6:42 am - FYI: stump is live
Stu and I are blogging on our own site now:

Does not mean I won't be posting stuff here, but the stump stuff I post is more political than what I post here. And more Mozart-y.

Stu has been posting about crockpot cookery so far.

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Wednesday, February 12th, 2014
6:25 am - Twelfth Day of Dickens: Business Fraud
I was waiting for this newsletter to come out (links to a PDF). It's The Stepping Stone, a quarterly newsletter from the Management and Personal Development Section of the Society of Actuaries. For some time, I had been reviewing business books for this newsletter, until I took a swerve and decided to start pushing generic humanities and not specific business books.

My first two articles in that series were "Leadership Books: The Classics" and "Leadership Books: The Classics, Part 2", where I hold up books like Plutarch's Lives and the Iliad as profiles in leadership.

This article is on Dickens and business fraud, and I will quote myself:

If I say “Dickens,” you may think of grand social drama—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—along with some comic characters with silly names. If I say “Dickens and business,” you probably will think of Ebenezer Scrooge, the cold-hearted businessman who changes when he gets visited by four ghosts and learns the True Meaning of Christmas (thus spawning a whole genre of TV specials).

However, Dickens went beyond the psychology of a miser in portraying business and businessmen (and businesswomen, though there are fewer of those in his novels). This is hardly surprising given how much Dickens was a London boy, through and through. The business of the City of London was Business writ large, and as Dickens became a prominent man himself, and even before, when he was a parliamentary recorder, he became more familiar with the lifeblood of the city. One issue Dickens knew well was fraud of all types— while he mainly covered social frauds of various sorts, given the more rigid class-based society of Victorian England, he also covered the matter of business fraud, both large and small.

Scrooge himself was no fraud—just a man who valued the world only in pounds, shillings and pence. Dickens even wrote of beneficent businessmen other than the post-ghost Scrooge, such as the Cheeryble brothers of Nicholas Nickleby. He wrote of smaller, personal frauds, such as Uriah Heep of David Copperfield, who had been embezzling from his master. In this article, I will look at the two largest business frauds portrayed by Dickens in the novels Martin Chuzzlewit and Little Dorrit, frauds that ring true with events that occurred in Victorian times … and frauds that still occur today.

That's my open, and here's my close:

How do we prevent new frauds and asset bubbles? One may take a technical approach, but at the heart is human nature—how people behave, how people have particular goals, and how some will try to get what they want fraudulently. Many of these frauds are successful due to the perpetrator’s own knowledge of human nature. It’s hilarious how often we hear “This time it’s different!”.... and it turns out people’s greed, envy, pride, and pretty much all the mortal sins, come into the mix in the same old way.

Fiction takes us away from particular concrete facts and asks us to look and think more broadly. If you want to catch the next fraud, don’t look at the particular tools necessarily, but how people and societies behave. These two novels of Dickens help give a little piece of that puzzle, and reading more broadly may provide you with more such pieces.

Go to the article for the middle bits where I explain the frauds -- I will tell you the Martin Chuzzlewit fraud is my favorite because it's a life insurance company, and the guy running the fraud is an excellent profile of a con man.

FWIW, I'm working on a more general article in praise of the humanities in general for The Stepping Stone -- I was making explicit links between leadership profiles and business fraud in my prior articles, but now I'm going to make an argument that the proper study of man is mankind (luckily, many have made that argument before, so I just need to modernize the language).

And the lovely thing about the humanities is that the older one gets (as long as there's no senility), the easier it is to get into it -- because now you understand many of the issues you didn't even see as a teen, when you were being forced to read these books.

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Sunday, February 9th, 2014
10:55 am - Happy 9th Birthday, Bon!
How the time flies.

One moment I'm swearing about France and the next:

Bon through the yearsCollapse )


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Tuesday, January 28th, 2014
6:50 am - Eleventh Day of Dickens: The Dignity of Labor
Any labor.

I have written about this before in my No Child's Ass Left Unkicked plan, so I might as well crib from myself:

One needs to appreciate the work done by others. .... There is dignity to work, and people would like to have that dignity recognized. Do not be snarky about the garbagemen or the secretaries. You should be even more deferent if these people are doing jobs for you that you don't want to do.

This puts to mind a scene from Martin Chuzzlewit, where Tom Pinch visits his sister Ruth at the home where she is governess. First, he notes the doorman (or whoever) is snarky about Ruth. Then, he notices his sister in tears, after which the mother and daughter of the house enter with complaints as to the daughter's total disrespect of Ruth. Mind you, Ruth isn't complaining about this, but the mother is. The daughter had called Ruth "a beggarly thing", and the mother thought this low behavior (which it was). Of course, during the mother's speech, her total contempt for the position of governess shines through. Oh sorry, the father is involved in this, too. The father, by the way, is New Money, being in the metal processing industry. Obviously, he has hired himself a full retinue of servants, and treats all with contempt.

Tom, after his break with his old employer Pecksniff bringing him further perspective on life, responds to this in righteous indignation. Here is what Tom has to say (as he takes his sister from the house):

‘I speak without passion, but with extreme indignation and contempt for such a course of treatment, and for all who practice it,’ said Tom. ‘Why, how can you, as an honest gentleman, profess displeasure or surprise at your daughter telling my sister she is something beggarly and humble, when you are for ever telling her the same thing yourself in fifty plain, outspeaking ways, though not in words; and when your very porter and footman make the same delicate announcement to all comers? As to your suspicion and distrust of her; even of her word; if she is not above their reach, you have no right to employ her.’

‘No right!’ cried the brass–and–copper founder.

‘Distinctly not,’ Tom answered. ‘If you imagine that the payment of an annual sum of money gives it to you, you immensely exaggerate its power and value. Your money is the least part of your bargain in such a case. You may be punctual in that to half a second on the clock, and yet be Bankrupt. I have nothing more to say,’ said Tom, much flushed and flustered, now that it was over, ‘except to crave permission to stand in your garden until my sister is ready.’

This is a piece of wisdom the rich and/or intellectual would do well to remember. Just because you may make more money, just because you may pay someone else to tend to your yard or take care of your children, this does not make you the better person.

To be sure, this is not the only time Dickens displays respect and dignity for those who work, no matter how lowly the work. But this is the most explicit statement, where generally he just shows the concept through characters.

He shows both men and women, boys and girls, hard at work at all sorts of jobs. There's Jenny of Our Mutual Friend, the dolls' dressmaker, who takes her crutch as she perambulates London, taking in the fashionable sights to think about her next dollish creation. There's Lizzie from the same book, who does a variety of jobs, and when on the run and is shown charity - in the old sense of caritas - by the saintly Jew Riah, it's that he gets a factory job for her out in the country, far away from her persecutors.  Yes, there are a lot of saintly girls and women hard at work, like Little Dorrit in the novel named for her, but also hard-working men, such as Stephen Blackpool of Hard Times (and he has a very hard time of it).

But even he shows the importance of a clerkish job well done, with Tom Pinch (from above) takes on loads of work for Pecksniff, but then finds his own secret benefactor for whom he puts a library in order, carefully cataloging everything. David Copperfield becomes a hard-working parliamentary reporter then professional writer (just like Dickens... yes, we know).

Whether it's just literary work, or business work, or hard manual labor, Dickens portrays all in equal dignity and reminds all that just because one is paying the worker does not make one higher than that worker.

Note: my last day of Dickens may be some time -- I'm waiting for a specific article I wrote to be officially published, and it may not be available online until March, though I wrote it back in December.  I've got a new project that shall be appearing shortly (opera notes!) -- I will not wait til the Dickens article comes up to start that.

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