Thursday, December 22, 2011

Trip Notes

Yesterday I joined the club of people who have flown halfway across the country and back on a single day, for the purpose of a business meeting*, on someone else's expense account, carrying nothing but a wallet and phone and wearing a suit. Here are some random notes from that trip.

People often get annoyed at crying babies. But think about it from the baby's point of view. They are in a bizarre alien atmosphere, completely separated from their familiar environment. They are constantly assaulted with a barrage of strange sights, smells and sounds. Unfamiliar and alien people are everywhere. In the natural habitat of the human baby, that kind of thing would only happen if they were lost, or being abducted. Human instinct says that babies should always be in a familiar place, surrounded by familiar people. This is one of many ways our instincts are not meant for the modern world.

I wonder if anthropologists have done studies comparing how often babies cry in hunter-gatherer tribes in a natural environment, compared to how often they cry in our odd artificial environment of civilization.

Speaking of artificial, my new dress shoes are horrible. They scraped a hole in my dress socks, and then started chafing my heel. The rotten things actually drew blood. There is dried blood on the inside top heel of my right shoe. And the soles are starting to visibly wear, after just a little bit of walking around.

When I got my Vibram Fivefingers shoes, I loved them. Now I wear them all the time, but I do not love them so much. I have gotten used to the benefits, and the minor annoyances loom larger. But today, after suffering through wearing and walking around in 'normal' shoes, an interesting thing happened. I did not fall in love with the Fivefingers again. Rather, I decided that I loathe and despise anything that is not a Fivefingers. This is a perfect example of hedonic adaptation.

It is easy to forget the wonders of civilization. I wonder if anyone else stopped to think how awesome it was that we were soaring above the clouds inside a giant fire-breathing metal beast. Looking down on clouds in the late afternoon or early morning is amazing. But until I stopped to reflect on this, my main thought were annoyance over a 90-minute delay.

*Technically it was a job interview, in my case.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Online Schools

Online K-12 schools are much more common than I thought they were. A lot of students are leaving public schools and signing up with online charter schools. This article starts with a big list of complaints about these online schools, but then gets to this:

By fall, 1,800 students had enrolled in the Tennessee Virtual Academy.
About 75 of them came from the struggling Memphis city school system, including the children of Denita Alhammadi.
In a neighborhood teetering on the edge of middle class, Ms. Alhammadi has converted her living room into a classroom. Two desks are for her children, Romeo, 13, and Yasmine, 8. Another is for Ms. Alhammadi, a former Army supply officer who is also studying online, through Kaplan University.
Within weeks of attending a K12 information session, Ms. Alhammadi had become parent and teacher, wrapped into one. She spends as much as six hours a day as the official "learning coach" for her children.
Like many parents who move their children to online schools, she had worried about violence. But no single reason leads families to make the switch. The students are a broadly diverse group, ranging from entertainers and athletes in training to children with cancer, seizure disorders, peanut allergies or behavioral problems. Some have been expelled from regular schools. In many cases their parents are simply dissatisfied.
Kathryn Ubiarco, whose son and daughter are also enrolled in Tennessee, said that her daughter's school in Memphis had not been teaching her to read. "There's no way to come up with the B that she got in reading last year," Ms. Ubiarco said. "The child can't read." She believes the virtual school curriculum is more rigorous.

It is probably true that, right now, the average charter school is worse than the average public school. But individuals making decisions about their lives do not care about averages. Charter schools offer them a choice and an option. Even if the charter school is run by a money-grubbing corporate sociopath, being given the option to enroll in it will improve your life, especially if you live in a rotten school district or have difficulties with regular school.

Whenever a new industry develops, quality is very uneven and there are often a lot of frauds trying to make a quick buck. But over time, competition causes the bad ones to fail and the good ones to gain market share. If there is only one online charter school operating in a state, it will probably be pretty bad. If you are the only charter school in the market, then all you have to do is perform a bit better than the worst schools and attract students from those places, and students that really hate normal school. This lack of competition allows you to deliver a low-quality product to captive consumers and make massive profits.

But if there were five options for online charter schools, and parents knew the test scores and college placement rates for each one, things would look a lot different. Each company would have to deliver a better product, and spend resources to do so, driving profits down to zero.

Even the current crop of experimental and low-quality online schools are a better option for some people. That is what a market economy does: deliver options. Our current public school system forces everyone to do the same thing the same way, and the education is often alarmingly low-quality. This cannot last. Giving people more choices is the only way forward.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I just saw a new word get invented.

We are in the public economics workshop going over a rough draft of a paper. The Czech professor was pointing out a mistake, and said, 

"You repeated it twice, so it is not a typo, it is a thinko."

We all liked this new word. It makes sense. A typo is an error in typing, and a thinko is an error in thinking.

Edit: It seems that the word is already used in computer science, and it means the exact same thing.