Friday, December 28, 2007

Why do Car Rental Companies Charge for a Second Driver?

Some car rental companies--including Thrifty at the Boston Airport, where we picked up a car yesterday--charge a significant amount if you want to have two different people allowed to drive the car. It's hard to see why their cost is any higher if my wife and I take turns driving, instead of her doing all of it. And one might think the risk of accidents that damage their car would be less if we were free to have me drive when she is tired. So why the charge?

One possibility is that it's price discrimination, that they think that if two people are going to use the car, the customer expects to use it more and so will pay a higher price--but given how competitive the market is, that doesn't seem very plausible. Another is that it's an attempt to mislead customers doing price comparisons--put in additional charges that won't show up when you go to a web page to compare prices from alternative sellers. That doesn't strike me as terribly plausible either.

Does anyone have a better idea?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Symbolic Acts

Visiting with my wife's relatives for Christmas, I noticed the label on their "natural" laundry detergent. It informs the customer that he is making a difference—if every household in America replaced one large (50 load) bottle of petroleum based laundry detergent with their vegetable based product, it would save enough oil to heat 19,500 homes.

I have no idea whether it is true; what struck me was how tiny the effect boasted of was. On a wildly unrealistic assumption of how many people switch to their product, it will save enough petroleum to heat about one home in five thousand. Restating the claim in individual terms and assuming that the average family does two loads of laundry a week, using the vegetable based product instead of a petroleum based one, saves an amount of oil equal to less than a tenth of a percent of that family's home heating consumption. Roughly speaking, and depending on where they live, that's equivalent to the savings from turning the thermostat down by a few hundredths of a degree.

There are three possible interpretations of the effectiveness of such a claim, assuming that it does encourage people to buy the product:

1. People really do care about such small effects.

2. Many customers don't intuit mathematics very well. 19,500 is a large number, it doesn't occur to them to compare it to the entire housing stock or to scale down the effect from every household in America using the product to their using the product, so they believe they are actually saving a substantial amount of oil.

3. Customers are making their decision on the basis of symbolism, not consequences. The question is not "how much oil does it save" but "does it save oil." Saving oil is good, so one should do it.

One of the nice things about a price system is that it presents calculations of that sort in a form both more easily understood and more immediately relevant to the consumer. Not using a certain amount of oil reduces the cost of producing the detergent by, say, six cents. Using alternative inputs raises the cost by, say, five cents. So, in a competitive market, the vegetable based product will be a cent cheaper—or more expensive, if the numbers go the other way. The consumer can then decide whether other differences between the two products do or do not outweigh the price difference.

The price system isn't perfect; external costs and benefits get left out of the mechanism that determines price, so the signal isn't entirely accurate. But alternatives to measuring costs and benefits via price require getting people—consumers voluntarily, as in this case, or voters and politicians making decisions for consumers—to substitute some alternative mechanism. As this particular example suggests, that alternative is likely to be enormously less accurate, off not by ten or twenty percent but by orders of magnitude.

A second point that occurs to me is that my third alternative, deciding on a symbolic rather than consequentialist basis, may not be quite as crazy as it at first seems. It is, after all, the way many people, myself among them, often think about moral issues. A small lie is still a lie, a small theft still a theft, and both are to be condemned not only on the basis of their consequences but also because they are, somehow, wrong in themselves.

So perhaps I shouldn't be quite so quick to condemn as irrational people who are interested in whether they are saving oil, not in how much oil they are saving, still less in any estimate of what the value is of saving that amount.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Data Mining the Ed Biz

Universities deciding whether to hire, keep or promote faculty use a mix of criteria, one of which is teaching. Teaching quality, in my experience, is judged mainly by student evaluations, to some extent those are supplemented by the views of faculty members who have sat in on a class to observe it.

Could we do better? In particular, could law schools--I currently teach at one--do better? Law schools have, from this standpoint, one significant advantage: The state bar exam, which most of their graduates will take, provides an external measurement of how successful their teaching has been. A second advantage is that, in the first year, all law students take pretty much the same courses and, where different sections of a large course, such as Contracts or Property, are taught by different professors, allocation of students is pretty nearly random.

This suggests a possible solution to the problem. Analyze bar passage rates to see if students who took Property from Professor X did, on average, better or worse than those who took it from Professor Y. If there is a significant difference, take that as evidence that one of the professors was a better teacher than the other.

There are some important limitations to this approach. Who taught a particular course in the first year is probably only a small factor in whether, three years later, the student did or didn’t pass the bar. Hence the evidence produced, even if real, is going to be very weak. It could be improved if it were possible to get bar results in a more detailed form--not just overall scores but scores on each question. One could then look for the effect of the property professor on questions that depended mostly on understanding property law, of the contracts professor on questions that depended mostly on understanding contract law.

A further limitation is that learning to pass the bar is not the only objective of law school. Professor Y, whose students do a little worse on the bar, might argue that he is spending less time than Professor X on material relevant to that exam, more time on material that will be important in the student’s future law practice. “Teaching to the test” is not, after all, an unambiguously good thing—although it becomes more defensible when the particular test is one the student has to pass if he is ever going to use what he has learned to practice law in the state he lives in.

How can this approach be generalized beyond the special case of the law school and the bar exam? Consider students who have taken the first course in a subject from a variety of different teachers but have taken a more advanced course together. Their final grades in the latter course will provide some evidence of how good their preparation was, which in turn provides some evidence of how good the first course was.

One problem with this approach is that students may not have been assigned to the first course at random. Perhaps there was some reason why, on average, Professor X started with better students than Professor Y. A second and more subtle problem is that how Professor X's students do in the second course depends in part on which of them take it. Perhaps Professor X presents the material as very difficult, scaring out of the field all but the best students--with the result that, by the time we get to the second class, we are comparing X's three best students with Y's thirty best. To try to control for such problems, it would be worth including in our analysis both other information on the students, such as their SAT scores (LSAT in the law school context) and also looking at how many students from each of the initial courses went on to take more advanced courses in the subject.

One problem with all of these approaches is that, if they are known to be in place and to have a substantial effect on hiring and promotion decisions, faculty members can be expected to try to game the system. If bar passage rate is used to measure success--not because it is all that matters but because it is the only relevant external data we have--professors have in incentive to teach to the bar exam, which may or may not be a good thing. If grades in more advanced courses are used, professors have an incentive to focus their teaching on only the better students and to try to encourage their best students into the field and their worst students out of it. Readers interested in an entertaining and intelligent discussion of the problem will find it in the first chapter of George Stigler's The Intellectual and the Marketplace, which describes the efforts of a (fictional) South American university reformer.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What's with the Yellow Blogs?

From time to time, I check the links to my posts on this blog. Quite often, one or more leads to a "blog" with a yellow stripe near the top, no topic, and posts apparently lifted at random from other blogs. I think I've seen other patterns too, some much less coherent.

My suspicion is that it's some kind of scam involving generating hits in order to sell ads, but the particular one I just looked at, although it says "ads by Google," doesn't appear to have any.

Anyone know?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Smartphone search: A Progress Report

In earlier posts I mentioned my disappointment with the Nokia E90. I have again been searching the web for a pda/phone combination that meets my requirements: 3G operation in the U.S., either U.S. tri-band or (better) quad band, a decent QWERTY keyboard, a reasonably large screen,software that makes it usable as a pocket computer, in particular a word processor adequate for reading books and at least making notes for editing books I'm writing. I still haven't found one, but thought other technophiles with similar requirements might be interested in a progress report or have discoveries of their own to contribute.

The closest I think I have so far found to meeting my requirements is probably the i-mate Ultimate 9502. It has a 640x480 screen, Windows Mobile 6 which should include an adequate word processor, a QWERTY keyboard, quad band phone and triband 3G, plus built in GPS. Unfortunately, although it was supposed to be out by now it isn't, and the most recent references seem to imply sometime early next year. And, of course, I would want to actually get my hands on one and see how it feels before buying it.

Its competitor is the HTC X7501 Advantage. It has essentially the same features plus an 8 gigabyte microdrive and is available now. But it's heavy and uses an odd two piece design, held together by magnets. I found a web page of a seller in Chicago, where I will be for a few days in early January, who might have it--I'm not sure if they have a showroom where one can actually look at the thing. One advantage is that the screen is physically larger than any of the others--5" diagonal, as compared to 2.8", I think diagonal, on the i-mate.

The third possibility is the Toshiba Portege G900. Its screen is even bigger in pixels than the other two--800x480. But it's only 3" diagonal. Currently there isn't a U.S. version, just a tri-band European with 3G on 2100 MHz, which isn't supported in the U.S. I expect a U.S. version will eventually appear, at which point it becomes a serious possibility.

Does anyone out there know about another candidate I should be looking at? Also, do any of you have enough experience with a screen that combines large pixel dimensions with small physical dimensions to tell how much sense it makes? As a practical matter, can you read more of a web page than on a screen with the same (say 3" diagonal) physical dimension but fewer pixels (say QVGA: 240x320)?

The 7501 weighs just over 12 ounces, which seems like a lot. Just out of curiosity, I checked on the weight of the Psions that used to be my favorite pda's, back before Psion left the consumer market. The Revo weighed 200 grams, the 5mx weighed 354. The 7501 is 371 grams, so comparable to the latter.

Of course, the Psions were the reason I went to routinely wearing a sport jacket--and the seams around the inside pocket tended to eventually tear out.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rudyard Kipling

My earlier post on Kipling got a fair amount of response, so I thought I would expand on it. Kipling has been my favorite poet since I was about ten, and there are a fair number of his poems I am particularly fond of.

My overall favorite is probably "The Mary Gloster." It's a Browning Monologue, a poem in which a single speaker reveals a great deal about himself in the process of speaking. I prefer it to the ones by Browning I know, such as "My Last Duchess."

The speaker is a dying 19th c. shipping magnate, a self-made wealthy entrepreneur, speaking to his worthless son. One of the things that impresses me about the poem is the degree to which the poet persuades us to the speaker's point of view. The son's interest in "books and pictures" ought to appeal to the modern reader--but doesn't. "Your rooms at college was beastly, more like a whore's than a man's" ought to turn the modern reader off--but doesn't. What remains is the picture of the bitterly unhappy old man whose only remaining wish is to be buried at sea by the wife who died when they were both young, the wife whose memory has been the driving force in his life ever since.

Not that he remained entirely faithful to her memory. "For a man he must go with a woman, as you could not understand/But I never talked them secrets, I paid them out of hand."

Another poem I reread recently is "Cleared." It's a piece of ferocious invective against the Irish independence movement--in particular its terrorist dimension. We almost always see that movement from the favorable side, thanks to folk singers such as the Clancy Brothers and poets such as Yeats. It's interesting to see it from the other side.

"Less black than we were painted? Faith, no word of black was said
The lightest touch is human blood and that, you know, runs red."

Kipling had a very high reputation, especially as a short story writer, early in his career, but fell out of critical favor later, I think mostly for bad reasons. Certainly he had politically unpopular views--but they weren't the views generally attributed to him.

Perhaps the clearest example is the often quoted "For East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet," taken to describe the fundamental gulf between European and Asian cultures. In fact its point is almost the precise opposite, as one can see by reading the rest of the verse, and still more clearly by reading the poem.

"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!"

Similarly on race. Kim, his one really successful novel, is set in India. Most of the attractive characters are non-European. The Llama, after Kim the central figure, is a convincing portrayal of a saint--and Tibetan. While there are a few positively portrayed European characters, on the whole the Europeans, both the English and their European opponents, come across as incompetents dealing with a culture they do not understand very well, sometimes well meaning, sometimes not.

The book obviously regards British rule over India as a good thing--but not because of the superiority of the British. For further evidence, consider the two stories (A Centurion of the Thirtieth and On the Great Wall) set in Roman Britain, where the Roman conquerors, positively portrayed, are the imperialists, and the British the ruled.

I like many of the short stories, especially the historical ones, and have reread Kim many times. But it is the poetry that really sticks. For other examples:

The Palace. "After me cometh a builder/Tell him I too have known."
The Peace of Dives. An allegory of interdependence as a force for peace. If I ever put together a collection of literature to teach economics, it will be included.
A Code of Morals. The risks of inadequate encryption on an open channel.
A General Summary. Nothing much has changed in the past few tens of thousands of years.
Arithmetic on the Frontier. Economics of colonial warfare. "The captives of our bow and spear/Are cheap, alas, as we are dear." A point of perhaps renewed relevance today.
Jobson's Amen and Buddha at Kamakura both show just how far Kipling was from the usual cartoon version of the British imperialist.
Cold Iron and The Fairies Siege are about the limits of physical force--and so, I suppose, of political realism--while Gallio's song is an approving description of how an empire deals with religious conflict.
The Last Suttee has one of my favorite examples of the use of meter in storytelling:
We drove the great gates home apace:
White hands were on the sill:
But ere the rush of the unseen feet
Had reached the turn to the open street,
The bars shot down, the guard-drum beat --
We held the dovecot still.
I'll stop now. For a pretty complete webbed selection, just click.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

World of Warcraft and Wikipedia as Generalizations of the Client/Server Model

You have a computer on the internet providing some useful service--drawing maps for people, letting them play an online game, or whatever. As the number of people using it increases, so does the load on your computer; either you get a bigger and faster one or it slows down.

A familiar solution to this problem is to transfer some of the load to your users' computers. Download to each of them code that will do whatever part of the jobs is specific to that user and keep on the server the part that has to be centralized. One result is that, in World of Warcraft, if you get disconnected but your computer for some reason doesn't realize it you can continue to "play," moving around a world that is complete with geography and structures--all of those are on your hard drive--but absent of other players and wildlife. This is the familiar client/server model.

It recently occurred to me that a different application of the same principle is central to the success of both World of Warcraft and Wikipedia. Part of what makes the former interesting is that you are interacting with lots of other players--and humans do a much better job of imitating humans than machines do. To put it differently, Blizzard has decentralized to its players most of the job of populating for each player the world he plays in. So as the game grows, so does the number of minds devoted to the job of populating it.

Similarly with Wikipedia. The job of writing it is decentralized to the readers. Any time a new topic appears, it brings with it a new set of authors--the readers interested in and knowldgeable about, that topic. A very powerful application of the client/server model, with human beings as the servers.

One might argue, however, that it is an old application--older than computers. Private property and trade create a decentralized coordination system with the computing delegated to the people being coordinated--essentially the same idea. Double the population and you double the resources to be allocated--and the resources to do the allocation.

Monday, December 10, 2007

My Favorite Modern Poet

"Modern poetry" suggests to many people innovations in technique--free verse instead of sonnets, unconventional capitalization, and the like. If I thought such innovations actually resulted in writing better poems, perhaps I would agree—but I don't and don't. To me, the interesting feature of modern poetry is content, not form.

Consider, for an example, Hymn to Breaking Strain, which takes as its central image the table of breaking strains in the back of an engineering handbook, a table which tells "what traffic wrecks macadam, what concrete should endure" but does not provide the equivalent information for human beings who, like materials, are sometimes subject to strains "too merciless to bear." That poem could not have been written very far into the past because no such tables existed then.

Or consider The Secret of the Machines and The Miracles. The central point of each poem is how miraculous the world of modern technology is, a point made by describing it in a poet's language.

You will find the Mauretania at the quay,
Till her captain turns the lever ‘neath his hand,
And the monstrous nine-decked city goes to sea.

I sent a message to my dear --
A thousand leagues and more to Her --
The dumb sea-levels thrilled to hear,
And Lost Atlantis bore to Her.

Behind my message hard I came,
And nigh had found a grave for me;
But that I launched of steel and flame
Did war against the wave for me.

Which may help to explain why my favorite modern poet is Rudyard Kipling.

To be fair, e.e. cummings, more conventionally thought of as modern for his stylistic quirks, has some modern content as well:

"Lenses extend unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish returns on its unself"

or the poem that uses driving a new car as a metaphor for making love to a virgin.

But Kipling is better.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Who Homeschools?

A commenter responding to an earlier post pointed to survey data on homeschooling at the National Center for Educational Statistics site. Table 2 summarizes data on who homeschools.

One interesting thing is how widespread homeschooling is. Classified by household income, the percentage of children home schooled is essentially constant for the first three categories (under $25,000, $25,000-$50,000, $50,000-$75,000), a bit lower for the top ($75,000+) category--presumably because higher income parents have easier access to the private school alternative. By race, the rate is higher for non-hispanic whites than for blacks, but only by about a factor of two; interestingly, hispanics have about half the rate of blacks.

By parental education, home schooling percentages increase with increasing education through a bachelor's degree but are slightly lower for families where the highest parental education is a graduate degree than for those where it is a bachelor's--again, the differences are not enormous.

The one big effect is that families with two parents only one of whom work are much more likely to home school than other families--5.6% of their children are home schooled, compared to an overall average of 2.2%. And families with three or more children are somewhat more likely to home school than smaller families. Neither is surprising.

Another table on the site has data on reasons parents gave for home schooling. The most common "most important" reason was concern with the environment at other schools. The second most common, given by just under a third of parents, was "to provide religious or moral instruction." [In a comment on an earlier post, I reported those as the figures for "one reason" rather than "most important reason," which was a mistake; about 2/3 of parents gave it as one of their reasons].

All of which suggests that the common negative stereotype of home schoolers as poorly educated religious fundamentalists trying to isolate their children from the polluting effect of wicked ideas such as evolution is seriously inaccurate--no doubt such people exist, but the data suggest that they are a minority of all homeschoolers.

None of which I find terribly surprising. I am an atheist with a PhD, my wife is a mainline Christian with a masters degree. The first homeschooling family I knew, some forty years ago, contained two boys. At the time I knew them, one was the under 21 chess champion of the U.S., the other the under 14 champion.

Which is not to suggest that those cases are typical either.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Recognizing a Theory

In looking at colleges for my daughter, one of the things I do is to drop into the economics department and get into a conversation with one of the professors. Part of the reason is that "economist" is in some ways an ethnicity--I have things in common with other economists that I don't have in common with most other people, making it easier to talk with them and get them to talk with me.

A second reason is that I want to know how tolerant the college's culture is of intellectual diversity. Economics as a science is neither right wing nor left wing--there have been good economists who were socialists, good economists who were extreme libertarians. But it is, in a very real sense, its own ideology.

It is almost impossible to be a good economist and accept traditional conservative arguments against free trade--because those arguments depend on not understanding economic ideas worked out nearly two hundred years ago. It is almost impossible to be a good economist and accept common left wing rhetoric about "people not profits" or the equivalent--because a good economist knows that the argument on the other side isn't about profits as an end in themselves but about profits as part of a signaling system that results in benefits for people. A left wing economist might think that system works poorly and can be improved by proper government intervention--but he knows that the standard rhetoric misrepresents the position it argues against.

One consequence is that a good economist is almost certain to find himself in conflict with the left wing orthodoxy that dominates the sort of top liberal arts colleges we have been looking at--just as he would be almost certain to find himself in conflict with the right wing orthodoxy that (I presume) dominates some Christian fundamentalist schools. So talking to economists at a school gives me some feel for how that school's culture treats heretical views.

The point was initially brought home to me in a conversation with an economist at one of the colleges we visited who may, for all I know, be a liberal Democrat. She was commenting on the difficulty of teaching environmental economics to students who viewed pollution as a sin, not a cost. Her view of the subject differed from theirs not because she was right wing or left wing but because she was an economist.

It later occurred to me in a different context that there is a more general point buried here. The context was the book The Moral Animal, an interesting exposition of the implications of evolutionary biology, in particular evolutionary psychology. The author argued, I think correctly, that while evolutionary biology is often thought of as a right wing approach, some of its implications provide arguments for left wing positions.

The general point is that one way of recognizing a real scientific theory--in the broad sense in which neo-classical economics, or evolutionary psychology, can be thought of as a single theory--is by its inconsistency with other theories, similarly defined. If a particular point of view is merely a smokescreen for right wing, or left wing, views, it will conveniently produce arguments all of which support the same side. If it is a real theory, an internally consistent body of ideas for making sense of the world, on the other hand, it is almost certain to clash with other ways of making sense of the world. Both evolutionary psychology and neoclassical economics pass the test.

In principle this would not be true of two theories both of which were entirely true. But that is not likely to be an exception of much real world significance.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Home Unschooling: Practice

One point I should have made at the beginning of the previous post is the distinction between unschooling and homeschooling. Most home schooling is not unschooling--the parents have a curriculum and are following something closer to the conventional model than we are. And one can do unschooling in a school. Our kids were in a very small private school modeled on Sudbury Valley School for some years. Eventually problems arose, we switched from school unschooling to home unschooling, and on the whole found it more satisfactory. Hence the titles of these posts.


When our daughter was five, she was going to a local Montessori school. Her mother thought she was ready to learn to read; they didn't. So Betty taught her to read, using Doctor Seuss books. Our son, three years younger, observed the process and taught himself. We heard about the local Sudbury school, new that year, brought our daughter over to visit. She decided she preferred it to the Montessori school, so we shifted her. A few years later we added her brother, a few years after that shifted to home schooling.

The Sudbury model includes classes if students want them. When our daughter was about ten there was a class, lasting somewhat over a year, in math. It started assuming the students knew nothing, ended with the early stages of algebra. That is pretty much all of the formal instruction either of them had. In addition, we required them to learn the multiplication tables, which are useful to know but boring to learn. That, I think, was the closest thing to compulsory learning in their education.

How did they get educated? They both read a lot, and although some of the books they read were children's books, pretty early they were also reading books intended for adults. When our daughter was about nine we were traveling and ran out of books for her to read, so she read the Elizabeth Peters books her mother had brought along—and liked them. A few years later our son, about eight, went everywhere carrying the big one volume edition of Lord of the Rings.

Betty remembered having liked and learned from How To Lie With Statistics--actually about how not to be fooled by statistical arguments--so we got a copy and both kids liked it. Our son likes D&D and other games with dice rolling, so was interested in learning how to figure out the probability of getting various results. It turned out that the same author and illustrator had produced a book on simple probability theory—How to Take a Chance—so we got it and he read it multiple times. The result was a ten year old (I'm guessing—we didn't keep records) who could calculate the probability of rolling 6 or under with three six-sided dice. For the last few years his hobby has been creating games. At the Los Angeles World Science Fiction Convention he had an interesting and productive conversation with Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson games concerning a game Bill had invented; currently one of his ambitions is to get a board game commercially published by age sixteen.

I am fond of evolutionary biology, so recommended The Selfish Gene to my daughter. She liked it, found the approach intriguing, and read other things. Currently she is waiting for me to finish The Moral Animal so that we can discuss it. She also likes economics. At this point she has audited four of the classes I teach at the law school, following them at the level of the better students. She also has her own footnote in one of my articles, crediting her with a significant point she contributed to it.

Both kids spend a lot of time online. We discovered that Bill had taught himself to type when the family was playing a networked game on the home network—Diablo or Diablo II—and misspelled words started appearing on our screen. He needed to type because he played games online and wanted to be able to communicate. Later he wanted to learn how to spell so that he wouldn't look stupid to the people he was communicating with. His sister spends a good deal of time on World of Warcraft, some of it writing up battle reports and other essays to be posted on suitable web sites. She too wants her writing to look good and so consults, usually with her mother, on how best to say things.

I am fond of poetry and know quite a lot of it. When our daughter was little, I used it to put her to sleep. Sometime thereafter we were driving somewhere at night and heard a small voice from the back seat reciting "Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the nine gods he swore"—the opening lines of "Horatius at the Bridge"—in a a two year old’s lisp. She now knows quite a lot more poetry. When I put my son to bed—my wife and I take turns—we generally talk for a while, then he asks for some poems.

A few years back, I read and recommended to my daughter Duff Cooper's excellent biography of Talleyrand. She noticed the references to Talleyrand's memoirs and decided that, since some of her writing involved politics, it would be interesting to learn about it from a world class practitioner. I found her an English translation; she is now part way through the first volume.

Some years ago our daughter decided she was seriously interested in music. Since then she has participated regularly in two choirs--one at her mother's church, one specializing in early music--and taken harp lessons. She practices because she wants to, not because we make her. She is thinking of majoring in music in college, then trying to get a job as an editor. As some evidence of her qualifications, she has edited some of my manuscripts and done a useful job. Our current plan is for her to do some volunteer proofreading for the firm that published my novel.

But the largest part of their education, after reading, is probably conversation. We talk at meals. We talk when putting one or the other of them to bed. My daughter and I go for long walks at night and spend them discussing the novel I'm writing or the characters she roleplays on World of Warcraft.

Our most recent concern has been getting our daughter, now 17, into college. She doesn't have grades, she doesn't have a list of courses taken. She does have a list of books read—still incomplete, but already in the hundreds.

Without grades she needed another way of convincing colleges of her ability, and standardized tests were the obvious solution. She spent some time studying for the SAT exams, but enormously less than the time she would have put in on those subjects in any conventional school, did extremely well on the verbal, tolerably on the math; her combined score is well within the range for the students at the very selective liberal arts colleges she plans to apply to. Just to play safe she has now taken the SAT exams again, after spending a little more time on math, part of it solving pages of simple equations I produced for her. To keep it interesting, I included a few that no value of X solved, a few that all values of X solved, and a few that reduced to 1/x=0.

Many schools now require two of the SAT II achievement tests—again especially significant for a home schooled student. It turns out that "literature" is not, as I feared, a test of what you have read but of how well you can read, and she reads very well. For a second one she chose American history, read all of Paul Johnson's A History of the American People—well written and opinionated, hence not boring—plus part of a book of primary source material. She spent a good deal of time in the week before the exam using Wikipedia to compile her own time line of Presidents and what happened during their terms. The results of both exams were satisfactory.

What is the result? Our daughter will enter college knowing much more about economics, evolutionary biology, music, renaissance dance, and how to write than most of her fellow students, probably less about physics, biology, world history, except where it intersects historical novels she has read or subjects that interest her. She will know much more than most of them about how to educate herself. And why.

Home Unschooling: Theory

Two people commenting on my previous post expressed curiosity as to how we have educated our children. I've decided to do it in two parts. This post describes the arguments for our approach, the next our experience with it.

Our approach starts with the fact that I went to a good private school, my wife to a good suburban public school, and both of us remember being bored most of the time; while we learned some things in school, large parts of our education occurred elsewhere, from books, parents, friends, projects. It continues with some observations about the standard model of K-12 schooling, public and private:

1. That model implicitly assumes that, out of the enormous body of human knowledge, there is some subset that everyone should study and that is large enough to fill most of thirteen years of schooling. That assumption is clearly false. Being able to read and do arithmetic is important for almost everyone. Beyond that, it is hard to think of any particular subject which there is a good reason for everyone to study, easy to think of many subjects outside the standard curriculum which there are good reasons for some people to study.

2. It implicitly assumes that the main way in which one should learn is by having someone else tell you what you are going to study this week, what you should learn about it, and your then doing so.

As some evidence of the failure of that model, consider my wife's experience teaching a geology lab for non-majors at VPI, probably the second best public university in the state. A large minority of the students did not know that the volume of a rectangular solid--a hypothetical ore body--was the length times the height times the depth. Given that they were at VPI they must have mostly been from the top quarter or so of high school graduates in Virginia; I expect practically all of them had spent at least a year each studying algebra and geometry.

As all students and most teachers know, the usual result of making someone study something of no interest to him is that he memorizes as much as he has to in order to pass the course, then forgets it as rapidly as possible thereafter. The flip side of that, routinely observed by parents, is that children can put enormous energy and attention into learning something that really interests them--the rules of D&D, the details of a TV series, the batting averages of the top players of the past decade.

Quite a long time ago, we got our kids gameboys with Pokemon cartridges; at about the same time I heard a lady on talk radio explaining that kids who got high tech toys played with them for half an hour or so and then put them on the shelf. My estimate is that Bill and Becca logged something like eighty hours a month, perhaps more, on those cartridges for many months thereafter-more work and more attention than I, at a similar age, put into all of my schoolwork combined--and continued to play the game at a reduced rate for years thereafter. The skill they were learning, how to find their way around a world and accomplish goals therein, was in one sense useless, since the world was a fictional one. But being able to find ones way around a new environment and accomplish things within it is a very useful real world skill.

3. A related assumption is that you learn about a subject by having someone else decide what is true and then feed it to you. That is a very dangerous policy in the real world and not entirely safe even in school--many of us remember examples of false information presented to us by teachers or textbooks as true. A better policy is to go out looking for information and assembling it yourself.

Part of what that requires is the skill of judging sources of information on internal evidence. Does this author sound as though he is making an honest attempt to describe the arguments for and against his views, the evidence and its limits, or is he trying to snow the reader? That is a skill that is taught in the process of learning things for yourself, especially online. It is anti-taught by the standard model of K-12 education, in which the students is presented with two authorities, the teacher and the textbook and, unless the teacher is an unusually good one, instructed to believe what they tell him.

We concluded that the proper approach for our children was unschooling, which I like to describe as throwing books at them and seeing which ones stick. Leave them free to learn what they want, while providing suggestions--which they are free to ignore--and support. Put them in an environment--web access, people to talk with, visits to the library--that offers many alternatives. If, at some future point, they discover that they need something that was left out of their education, they can learn it then--a more efficient strategy than trying to learn everything they might ever find useful, most of which they won't.

Footnote Formatting online--Opinions Requested

My next nonfiction book, Future Imperfect, should be coming out sometime next year. In addition to the print version, there will be a webbed version.

Footnote references in the print version use the short form--(Benson 1989). The question is how to do them in the webbed version. Three alternatives have so far occurred to me:

1. Just like the print version. Short form footnote, full reference in the bibliography.

2. Long form, as in the bibliography. On the web, paper is free.

Bruce Benson, “The Spontaneous Evolution of Commercial Law,” Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 55, No. 3, January 1989, pages 644-661.

3. Short form, linked to an anchor at the long form in the bibliography.

My one reservation with regard to the the third option is that a reader may see that there's a link, assume it goes to a webbed version of the article--in some cases I do have links to webbed materials--and be disappointed that it doesn't. One way I could deal with that, I suppose, is to make it a stealth link--shows up on the mouseover but isn't colored blue--and reserve ordinary links for links to webbed material.

Are there better solutions than any of these?


Saturday, December 01, 2007

In Loco Parentis: Mark II

I was a college student in the early sixties, when the doctrine of in loco parentis mostly meant the college trying--with limited success--to restrict student sexual activity on behalf of the (presumed) wishes of the parents. In that form it vanished shortly after I graduated, to be replaced by an unconditional surrender to the sexual revolution: mixed gender dorms, contraceptive services, and the like. On a recent visit to a California campus, I noticed flyers advertising a talk on the subject of the G-spot.

But parents, even in loco ones, abandon one attempt to run their children's lives only to replace it with another. When I went to college there were mixers, but for the most part the matter of finding friends, romantic or otherwise, was left to the students themselves.

No longer. On the same campus I got a description of the elaborate procedures by which the college makes sure that none of their students is at risk of a solitary existence. Dorms are divided up into carefully constructed groups of freshmen--football fans in this one, movie fans in that, each group with a couple of sophomores to provide wise advice. Each group is allocated its chunk of the dorm. The year starts with a several day expedition to some carefully chosen vacation spot--in the case reported to me, sailing off Santa Catalina island, where "sailing" meant not actually controlling a sailboat but being a passenger on a tall ship.

Most of the students who described the system to me seemed happy with it, but I did wonder about what sort of wimps the present system is producing. No practice at all in evading parietal rules--most of them have probably never heard of parietal rules. And being taught that the job of finding their own friends is too hard for them, so must be done by someone older and wiser.

I gather, however, that relationships, romantic or otherwise, outside of the preselected groups are not entirely unknown.