Tuesday, August 31, 2010

(Not) rewarding exceptional teachers

Rewarding Zenaida Tan: [...] as part of its big data dump on teacher quality in the LA Unified School District, the LA Times took the time to write a profile of one of the city’s most effective teachers, third grade English teacher Zenaida Tan. Her students show much bigger gains in both reading and math competency over the course of the year than do the average teacher’s students. [...] The LAT notes that the current system doesn’t allow Tan to be recognized as the brilliant teacher she is:
By the LAUSD’s measure, Tam simply “meets standard performance,” as virtually all district teachers do — evaluators’ only other option is “below standard performance.” On a recent evaluation, her principal, Oliver Ramirez, checked off all the appropriate boxes, Tan said — then noted that she had been late to pick up her students from recess three times. [...]
[...] Excellent teachers deserve to be paid enough money to keep them teaching, and they deserve acknowledgment for the crucial role they play in shaping the nation’s future for the better. But it’s impossible for them to get the acknowledgment they deserve if we assess them only on crude measures like “does she have a master’s degree?” and “did she show up on time for recess?” The main point of school is to teach kids stuff, so we need to measure what kids are learning.

Unions are typically criticized for this immoral state of affairs, but we should really look at administrators, school boards, and local politicians, who much prefer avoiding the complexities and conflict of true merit pay. It is very hard to take a limited raise budget and allocate according to performance. To reward exceptional performers, average performers will take a hit, and generate trouble for administrators in proportion to their relatively large numbers. Lake Woebegone-style, every teacher feels they are above average, and every parent feels that their child's teacher is above average. So, administrators stiff the exceptional performers to keep the peace. And they don't really pay the price, because exceptional teachers are more likely to love teaching beyond what it pays them, and stay even though they aren't earning more than their mediocre colleagues. Not a recipe to encourage extra effort from those who could be better teachers, but don't see the point. By stiffing the exceptional, the system sends the wrong signals to those who could become good.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Rosenberg on Carr on links

In Defense of Links, Part One: Nick Carr, hypertext and delinkification: [...] Links have become an essential part of how I write, and also part of how I read. Given a choice between reading something on paper and reading it online, I much prefer reading online: I can follow up on an article’s links to explore source material, gain a deeper understanding of a complex point, or just look up some term of art with which I’m unfamiliar. [...] So I was flummoxed earlier this year when Nicholas Carr started a campaign against the humble link.

Scott Rosenberg is too polite to suggest a more cynical reason for Carr's anti-link obfuscation: it's the latest episode in Carr's profitable series as Web-critic-on-call. Nevertheless, Rosenberg's piece is very worth reading especially for how it takes apart Carr's misleading "studies show" appeal to scientific authority. I'm dreaming of a new blog called Studies Do Not Show with Rosenberg, Mark Liberman, Andrew Gelman, and Cosma Shalizi as founding contributors...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Trail running

I had never understood what was so great about running until I started running trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I used to run a bit when I lived in Palo Alto in the 80s and in NJ in the 90s, but I never really took to it, and knee injuries (from skiing) made me wary of the impact. I hate running on a treadmill, the constant stride really bothers me. But now, I can't wait for my next trail exploration. I don't run as fast as on pavement, but it's still a much more engaging experience. Like backcountry skiing compared with lift-skiing groomers. Today I ran (and walked a couple of steep pitches on the way back) from the Monte Bello parking lot to the preserve gate to Stevens Creek, and back, just under 9 miles. It was slow (just under 12 minute miles) and demanding (almost 2000 vertical ft of climbing according to my phone GPS, but I suspect it's quite a bit less than that, GPS is bad for elevation changes, I should have used my altimeter watch but forgot -- next time). I'm a bit sore, but I can't wait for the next run.

A whiff of the season to come

Special Weather Statement - Sierra Nevada from Yosemite to Kings Canyon (California):

This is the hardest wait, the long months from the first dusting to something you can actually ski on.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A slow-motion academic train wreck

Altmann: Hauser apparently fabricated data: There's new information emerging from the slow-motion Marc Hauser train wreck [...] Gerry Altmann posted a statement on his weblog with a more detailed account: harvard misconduct: setting the record straight', 8/27/2010) [...] the facts and interpretations that Altmann provides go beyond, to a shocking degree, previously described issues of lost data or disagreement about subjective coding of animal behavior.

I have no special knowledge or insight into this disaster. The Language Log posts on the subject are very much worth reading for anyone who cares about scientific integrity, experimental method, academic governance, and the dangers of neat theory in the social and biological science.

As a researcher and former academic administrator, this is very scary stuff. It puts in doubt the work of a whole network of researchers, it makes us worry about what else we have missed, it puts academic self-governance in doubt, it adds to the distrust of science.

Trail running in the Bay Area

I really enjoyed running on the dirt trail along the river in Uppsala in the early morning when I was there for ACL in July, so I decided to explore the Peninsula trails when I got back, which with their slopes would help my conditioning for uphill skinning in the coming backcountry skiing season. I started with the popular trails of the Arastradero preserve, but I wanted more. First, I needed proper trail running shoes. I got some poor advice at REI for my first choice, but the staff of ZombieRunner hit the sweet spot with a pair of Brooks Cascadia 5. I loved these shoes on their first outing, 6.25 miles this cool morning at Arastradero. I also got Trail Runner's Guide: San Francisco Bay Area by Jessica Jage, ordered at Kepler's. It's a well-written, detailed guide. I did the Long Ridge loop (mostly, I missed one of the side trips) last Sunday, and I'm now studying options for tomorrow. I can't believe I've lived in the Bay Area a total of over eight years (in two widely separated chunks) and that only now I've started to taste the delights of running on these cool golden hills. Since I've started, I am looking forward to my Saturday and Sunday morning runs almost as much as look forward to a ski tour in the Sierra. It's addictive, I just hope my worn-out knees don't have other ideas.

I <heart> Etymotic

I distractedly left my Etymotic 6i headphones in the pocket of my gym shorts after a workout, and they went with them through the washer and dryer this afternoon. I feared they would be dead, but they are working as well as before, at least to my not-so-perfect hearing.

A good Apicomplexan

Malaria, Sea Grapes, and Kidney Stones: A Tale of Parasites Lost: If you’re looking for a gang of vicious killers, look no further than the Apicomplexans. These single-celled protozoans cause death and destruction across the animal kingdom. They infect everything from butterflies to people. Their diseases include Texas Cattle Fever, toxoplasmosis, and the scourge that makes Plasmodium the baddest Apicomplexan of them all, malaria. [...] Yet in the midst of this brutal dynasty, scientists have now discovered a peacemaker. For the first time, they’ve found an apicomplexan that bestows a biochemical gift to its host essential for survival.

I heard so much about the genomic, structural, and lifecycle subtleties of Apicomplexans from my friend David Roos and members of his lab that I shouldn't be surprised, but this discovery shows that these wily parasites are even more adaptable than the horror stories of malaria and toxoplasmosis mutation and drug resistance suggest. Very cool.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Backcountry skiing was different in 1962

Thank God It’s NOT 1962: It’s pretty wild to think that this is how they skied the backcountry and uncontrolled slopes back in 1962.

On the other hand, our fancy gear makes it much easier to get into dangerous situations without even noticing.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Male and female ability differences down to socialisation, not genetics

Male and female ability differences down to socialisation, not genetics. (Via Brad DeLong)

Finally, a general press science writer wakes up to the flood of nonsense over sex differences, one of the main instances of the pseudo-scientific woo that our friends at Language Log have been fighting a lonely battle over. One question that the writer does not ask, though, is the following that seems to me obvious to ask. Males and females share genes except those in the Y chromosome, and genes from both parents get shuffled into a single genome during fertilization. Therefore, unless there is a strong selective pressure to make certain traits specifically male or female, the tendency would be for advantageous traits to be shared by both sexes. So, the sex differences advocates need to explain what specific selective pressures are operating to impart sex bias to traits that are obviously advantageous to both sexes like spatial reasoning or verbal competence.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Feeding the Snake

Tenure/Snake Dilemma: [...] A particular person, who is professor of a non-biological science, is extremely phobic about snakes. [...] This same person is very fond of cats. This snake-o-phobe, felinophile has a senior colleague who is also a neighbor. That is, these two people work in the same department at the same university and also live near each other. They occasionally trade cat-care when one of them is away. The snake-o-phobe adores the colleague's cat and is happy to take care of this very affectionate and charismatic beast. [...] Imagine that at a particular time in the summer, the colleague planned to go away on vacation and needed some cat care. The felinophile agreed to take care of the cat. [...] Then, almost as an aside, the colleague sends an e-mail that says: 'Oh by the way, we also now have a snake. You will need to change his/her water and you may also need to go to the pet store and get a freshly killed mouse to feed the snake.' [...] Question for discussion [...] Do you take care of the snake despite your horror of it? Does your agreeing vs. declining to take care of the snake have anything to do with your tenure status and your wish to be agreeable to your senior colleague?

Read the whole post, which is hilarious and also has some good comments, in particular:

From here on out, every inappropriate or crazy thing that assistant professors get asked to do simply because they are assistant professors should be known as "feeding the snake."

Friday, August 20, 2010

How do you consume media?

How do you consume media?: Reading Chris Hayes talk about his media diet is a good excuse to spend some time talking about my own. I'm dissatisfied with it. [...] But if I'm attracted to Twitter, I'm reliant on RSS feeds. Full RSS feeds, to be more specific. My information consumption is overwhelmingly biased toward outlets I can read fully in Google Reader. That cuts out a few blogs I'd like to read more of, but not that many. What it does do is bias me in favor of blogs and against newspaper articles, magazines and so forth.

I too am biased in toward sources that I can read fully in Reader, like Klein's blog. It gives me a very efficient way of scanning a lot of new material quickly, diving into the most interesting ones, following links if they look promising. I'd rather see RSS and Reader extended and improved than have all the current thrashing about media formats, channels, and monetization. Not surprisingly, many prefer to hype a new way of doing things over improving something that already works, but is for that reason unsexy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The High Cost of Copyright

The High Cost of Copyright: [...] The National Jazz Museum (who knew there was such a thing?) has apparently acquired a true treasure trove of early jazz recordings. The collection — nearly 1,000 discs! — was recorded in the 30s and 40s by William Savory from on-the-air radio broadcasts, and includes performances by Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, and many others of the great names of jazz [...] So needless to say I can’t wait to hear the reissues. But alas, that may never happen. [...] [T]he potential copyright liability that could attach to redistribution of these recordings is so large — and, more importantly, so uncertain — that there may never be a public distribution of the recordings. Tracking down all the parties who may have a copyright interest in these performances, and therefore an entitlement to royalty payments (or to enjoining their distribution), is a monumental, and quite possibly an impossible, task, and it may well be that nobody steps forward with the resources to (a) undertake the efforts required and (b) take on the risk of liability (Via Ezra Klein).

The increasing gap between what our technologies make possible and what our institutions permit is a huge missed opportunity: less learning, less enjoyment, less creation, less culture than could be. When politicians talk about the importance of education, new skills, new industries, they seem to ignore how our legal regime stands in the way of achieving those goals. Will we ever outgrow the laws of print, sheet music, and weaving machines?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Toumani Diabaté at Yoshi's Oakland

Diabaté came to Yoshi's with a small version of the Symmetric Orchestra, three sidemen (electric guitar and bass, drums) who were joined by three guests for some of the program (trumpet, electric guitar, and a string instrument from Mali whose name I can't remember). Unfortunately, I didn't manage to record the names of the other players except for Fanta Mady Kouyaté on the electric guitar, who was amazing. This ensemble sat somewhere between Diabaté's solos and duos in Mandé Variations and New Ancient Strings, and the full-bore Symmetric Orchestra of Boulevard de l'Independence: a bit less ethereal than the former, a bit less funky than the latter. The first set on Saturday, at 8pm, was intense fireworks. As is standard for Yoshi's, if the 10pm room is not full, they allow 8pm guests to stay on the back seats. We stayed, of course. The second set was a bit more subdued, even when playing the same theme, but displayed even richer improvisations. I loved the combination of kora and electric guitar, the way that clusters of notes flew like sparks from the undulating rhythms underneath. I liked this show better than the full Symmetric Orchestra I heard in Philly a few years ago, although for emotional punch, Diabaté's solo show in San Francisco in late 2008 is still unbeaten.

For such a professional place and players, it was just a bit distracting that some amplification glitch put out a steady 60hz hum for most of the two sets.

Cowen on Parking

Cowen on Parking: Tyler Cowen’s latest NYT column takes on the hidden scourge of free parking.

I haven't checked since the real-estate decline, but the extra cost of private parking for a townhouse was estimated at $50K in Philly's Society Hill neighborhood, where we own a townhouse. We just parked on the street, with a essentially free residents' permit. Most of the time, we could find a parking stop close to our home, and very rarely did we have to leave our car overnight in a pay lot. More generally, on-street parking pay parking in Philly is significantly cheaper than private pay-lot parking.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fifty-five Hundred Vertical Feet a Day (Self-powered)

I climbed and skied 5500 vertical or more in a day under my own power just few times. It was serious work. Doing it every day for a year? My only consolation is that I got to the summit of Villarrica before Greg did. And the conditions when I did were way better than what Greg had to deal with.

(Hat tip to Russ)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

buying happiness

buying happiness: notes on consumption in the NY Times

I wonder how much of stuff consumption comes from the fact that experiences require a lot of free time as well as some disposable income (for food, travel, services, gear needed for the experience). The "stars" of the article do not have kids and they are in exceptionally flexible occupations. It's much more common to be time-poor, so a big dollop of stuff consumption may be more viable than a time-consuming experience. Like swallowing sugar instead of chewing through complex carbs and fiber.

Rebooting the NYT Book Review

Rebooting the NYT Book Review: [...] It seems some of the answers are locked up in the New York Times Book Review, but so far I've been too lazy and too cheap to buy a copy of it. This is the one product where the Times change the way it pays, and give it away like the ubiquitous AOL disks a couple of decades ago, and get a cut of the revenue from every book they sell. Book reviews should be free, because the books they sell make lots of money. Probably the same with the collection of NYT movie reviews. [...] I've always felt that news organizations have certain very valid conflicts of interest, conflicts we want them to have. Lke the difference between good cholesterol and bad. Think of it this way. What would be wrong for the San Jose Mercury News thinking that San Jose is a great place, and doing things to promote it? In the same way, we know the NYT thinks books are great because they publish a book review. They're not saying you should buy just any book -- you should buy the books they like, and not buy the ones they don't. The reviews have that bias already, so there's absolutely no problem basing a business model on it. (But in this model they'd get a cut off any book you buy through the review, even if they panned it.)
Not just the NYT Book Review, but also Fresh Air, Radio Open Source, Science Friday, Planet Money, NPR Music, and other podcasts I listen to but that do not make a cent from my many purchases of books and music they feature.I want to compensate them for telling me about good stuff, but there's no mechanism in place to make that easy.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Cognitive Avalanche

One of my skiing friends forwarded this good summary on how our built-in decision-making heuristics can create risk-assessment traps. If you care about risk assessment, the paper it cites is very much worth reading. Another skiing friend, who has a PhD in the psychology of decision making and does a lot of backcountry skiing and mountaineering notes that such retrospective studies are interesting but have to be read with some caution as they may have limited predictive value. Nevertheless, until more controlled studies happen — unfortunately not likely, funding is hard to get — that's all we have to go on. Incidentally, much related territory has been covered with respect to economic and financial decision making in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Apple and the War for the Mobile Market

Apple and the War for the Mobile Market: The short history of the computer industry is dominated by two well-known stories: How mainframe makers failed to take the personal computer seriously until it was too late, and how Apple refused to license its innovative new operating system and ended up ceding the market to Microsoft. Unless Apple learns from its mistakes it’s going to end up with a Macintosh-like minority market share again -- in mobile.
John Siracusa, in his signature style, demonstrates more knowledge, thought, and insight than the whole rest of the tech punditry put together. Read the whole thing.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

New Avalanche Danger Scale for 2010/11

New Avalanche Danger Scale for 2010/11: "There is a new unified avalanche danger scale rolling out for the 2010/11 season that will create a common vocabulary between US and Canadian avalanche centers, according to Powder Magazine [...] It’s not immediately clear to me what the major differences are here. It retains the Low/Moderate/Considerable/High/Extreme methodology with similar explanations for each danger rating.
I prefer the new wording. In my opinion, the old United States scale did not sufficiently distinguish "Moderate" from "Considerable," and its description of "Extreme" was not extreme enough. The Utah Avalanche Center, excellent as usual, introduces the new scale, summarizes the discussions that led to it, and supplements it with important statistics and visual aids.

Incentives and the Environment

The Bellows » Innovation, and the Gas Tax: I’m not sure why anyone would argue that the imposition of a carbon price, even a relatively modest one, wouldn’t spur innovation. Price increases — the market’s signal for scarcity — lead to a range of human responses, among the most important of which is invention. The opinion that a price increase will likely lead to innovation is little more than a ratification of the idea that markets generally work. But Jim Manzi seems skeptical of this connection. And he cites variations in the gas tax rate as evidence:

Consider as an important example that most major Western European countries have had very high gas taxes – typically several dollars per gallon – for decades. But despite the efforts of lots of very smart engineers, the automobile has been a pretty stable technology for these same decades. [...]

If you look closely, you’ll find that Manzi has gone and made the case for a carbon price in as compelling a fashion as you’re likely to find. Manzi thinks about automobiles and gas taxes and pictures a certain kind of innovation — new cars with new engines that don’t run on gas. And when he looks at Europe he doesn’t see it. But does that mean that there has been no innovation in response to the higher gas tax rates? Clearly that’s not the case. In general, Europeans do drive different automobiles, which tend to be smaller and more efficient. Some of these have been innovative enough in their design to generate raised eyebrows from American tourists (see: the Smart car). In Europe, the scooter is far more popular and differentiated (the scooter with roof is a common sight). Bicycles are also more common and differentiated, and the institutional supports for cyclists are more highly developed (cycle superhighways are old news in Europe). (Via Brad DeLong)

And even cars that don't run on gas. When I was in Lisbon recently, I noticed an electric car plug-in station on Praça de Londres, a busy square in a mixed residential-commercial area. It turns out that Portugal, which has little domestic carbon-based energy, has been rapidly growing its electricity from renewables, and giving tax incentives for electric cars. Later in the visit, I noticed several electric cars driving around the city, which has also become much less congested in the last decade with improved public transportation, special bus and taxi lanes, and traffic-calming road redesign. Portugal does have a lot of potential for renewable power, but the big market signal from stiff gas and car purchase taxes is playing a major role in these changes.