Sunday, October 23, 2016

Brand erosion

I doubt it will come to that but I do think the antics of fringe students and morally bankrupt administrators are forcing parents and students to refocus and clarify exactly what it is we mean by education.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The American Dream

From The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams. The first articulation of "The American Dream", page 404.
If, as I have said, the things already listed were all we had had to contribute, America would have made no distinctive and unique gift to mankind. But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Results showed that men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people, producing a large effect size

From Men and Things, Women and People: A Meta-Analysis of Sex Differences in Interests by Rong Su, James Rounds, and Patrick Ian Armstrong.
The present study makes several important contributions to the literature. First, it is the first comprehensive meta-analysis on sex differences in vocational interests. We synthesized evidence from interest inventories over four decades and found large sex differences in vocational interests, with men preferring working with things and women preferring working with people. These sex differences are remarkably consistent across age and over time, providing an exception to the generalization that only small sex differences exist. Second, this study provides a systematic review of the sex differences in the STEM interests that has not previously appeared in the literature. The pattern of sex differences in the STEM interests revealed by the present study closely resembles the composition of men and women in corresponding occupations and contributes to the understanding of the gender disparity in the STEM fields. The results suggest that the relatively low numbers of women in some fields of science and engineering may result from women’s preference for people-oriented careers over thingsoriented careers.
Buried in the text of the paper there is also this interesting nugget.
The present study provided evidence that intragroup differences were substantially larger than intergroup differences.

Gifts that grow are best

Plant a Tree
by Lucy Larcom

He who plants a tree
Plants a hope.
Rootlets up through fibres blindly grope;
Leaves unfold into horizons free.
So man's life must climb
From the clods of time
Unto heavens sublime.
Canst thou prophesy, thou little tree,
What the glory of thy boughs shall be?

He who plants a tree
Plants a joy;
Plants a comfort that will never cloy;
Every day a fresh reality,
Beautiful and strong,
To whose shelter throng
Creatures blithe with song.
If thou couldst but know, thou happy tree,
Of the bliss that shall inhabit thee!

He who plants a tree,--
He plants peace.
Under its green curtains jargons cease.
Leaf and zephyr murmur soothingly;
Shadows soft with sleep
Down tired eyelids creep,
Balm of slumber deep.
Never hast thou dreamed, thou blessed tree,
Of the benediction thou shalt be.

He who plants a tree,--
He plants youth;
Vigor won for centuries in sooth;
Life of time, that hints eternity!
Boughs their strength uprear;
New shoots, every year,
On old growths appear;
Thou shalt teach the ages, sturdy tree,
Youth of soul is immortality.

He who plants a tree,--
He plants love,
Tents of coolness spreading out above
Wayfarers he may not live to see.
Gifts that grow are best;
Hands that bless are blest;
Plant! life does the rest!
Heaven and earth help him who plants a tree,
And his work its own reward shall be.

Friday, October 21, 2016

If the measure of media success is an informed citizenry, then what does the chart say about the media?

If what we take from the news is so wrong, why we would we trust it at all to convey accurate news effectively?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Problem Definition, root causes, solutions, tradeoffs and differential beneficiaries

An excellent observation.

I used to do a lot of Problem Solving and TQM work in the late 1980s through the 1990s with corporate and operational teams. All teams always wanted to start with their defined solution and go straight to implementation planning. Getting them to back-up was always hard as the facilitator. They knew the answer, they just needed to implement. Almost invariably though, once you got them to identify the problem, it would emerge that they were each defining the problem differently, defining success differently, etc. Getting them to define and measure always led to a different diagnosis of what the real root problems were and therefore what appropriate solutions might be.

I would go even further than Knowledge Problem. It is true that solutions are tradeoffs. But there is more than that.

Different solutions (which might be equally effective), have different tradeoffs. And every tradeoff has differentially advantaged groups. Define the problem and you set parameters on the solutions. Select the solution and you define the tradeoff. The tradeoff defines who is advantaged and who is disadvantaged from the chosen solution.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Communication Signal Loss and class segregation

I was driving from one chore to another the other day listening to NPR. It was a short trip in the middle of the afternoon. I did not get to hear the introduction or even the topic of discussion. From the context, there was a caller, a young woman, wanting to ask a question. The moderator was on, as well as an invited guest. My sense was that the expert was a local professor.

The young woman clearly had a question she wanted to ask but was having difficulty articulating it. The host tried to help out with a couple of prompts. Eventually, with many pauses, false starts, reversions, and self-corrections, the caller produced a string of jumbled words.

My interpretation of her question was "Why should people have to adjust to jobs? Why shouldn't jobs have to adjust to people?" I suspect a better rendition might have been "Why do we put the the economy before people? We should put people before the economy." I think that captures the sentiment but it does not reflect the words she used.

Is my interpretation correct? I am not sure. Too much noise in the signal, but I think I am close.

The talking head began a very ponderous response. And then I arrived at my destination and that was all there was.

It got me thinking, though.

When it became clear(er) what the caller was asking, my first response was a roll of the eyes. What an absurd question. How incredibly naive.

But then I paused. To me it seems like a foolish question, but my background is in business and economics and human systems. And besides, how would I answer? If it was a foolish question, then it should be easy to answer. But it is not. There is a hodgepodge of economic theory, political theory, psychology, philosophy that would all need to be addressed. But its a radio show. You only have two or three minutes. There actually isn't a good response in that time frame. Certainly not one that isn't dismissive or disrespectful.

If the caller and I shared a similar profile of Knowledge, Experience, Skills, Values, Behavior, Capabilities, and Motivation, I would be able to provide an answer within a few minutes because I could allude to concepts and ideas without having to be explicit. Because we don't share that KESVBCM, a respectful response within a three minute window becomes, effectively, impossible.

I considered the sequence and wondered about the barriers to effective communication and the signal to noise ratio in any dialogue. When talking about something with someone, your communication effectiveness is likely very high if you share high levels of capability (IQ), acquired knowledge, experience, skills, values, behaviors, and motivation. Part of the effectiveness derives from the shared bases and part arises from sheer capability.

The caller had a question she wanted to share in order to get an answer. What might that sequence of events look like between her idea and his response? More critically, where are the points of leakage? And just how big are those leaks?

I sketched out what it might look like. At the beginning of the process there is something of a mysterious gap between neural synaptic processes and a formulated idea.

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Accepting that an idea is initiated, I suspect the steps might look something like:

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What about signal degradation? Reflecting the caller's difficulty in articulating her question, I'll start with a high degradation level and assume that only 70% of signal gets through at each stage.

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The caller has an idea. That inchoate idea is framed in her mind to some sort of conceptual representation. There is a 30% loss of signal from idea to frame. Once framed in her mind, she then creates an articulation of the idea, the words describing the framed idea. Again there is a 30% loss of signal. Finally, as she speaks (transmits) the articulated idea, there is all sorts of signal loss. The words don't come out right. The articulated frame in her mind fails to flow in the words she speaks. She pauses, reformulates, starts and stops, etc. Again, there is a 30% loss of signal.

There are three distinct phases in the process of formulating and transmitting an idea with signal degradation at each step. Multiplying the percentages out (70% x 70% x 70%) yields only 34% of the original signal getting through to an expressed idea or transmitted idea.

That's only half the conversation. The counter-party has to hear the expressed idea, interpret what he is hearing and then formulate a response to what he thinks he heard. Another three steps with possible signal degradation.

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With these three additional steps, we are now at only 12% of original signal strength (34% x 70% x 70% x 70%). And that only gets the idea from Person 1 to Person 2. Person 2 now has to respond to Person 1, repeating in reverse order all the steps. At the end of the full round trip, we only have 2% of the original strength.

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No wonder communication is so hard and disagreements and miscommunication so frequent.

I set the signal loss high just because that was what was so striking in the radio call-in segment. Let's assume that the two parties of the conversation are much more alike than was evident in the radio show. [See, for an example, It contained the three words “but if not … ” for an example of efficient communication between congruent participants]. Let's assume that the two participants have a high level of shared Knowledge, Experience, Skills, Values, Behavior, Capabilities, and Motivation. What might signal degradation look like in that scenario? I'll set the signal loss at only 1% at each transition.

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That's much better and feels like a more normal conversation. There is only 12% signal loss between asker and response. Still not perfect but not a howling hurricane as a barrier to communication.

Is this the right number of steps and what are the realistic signal losses in each transition? I have no idea but I think the model is likely a step in the right direction of understanding what undermines efficient and effective communication.

Playing out the implications of the model is interesting in a speculative fashion.

The first example is the plaint I occasionally hear from very old people. Even if they live with family, they complain of a loneliness that is unique to old age. They are the remaining survivors of a cohort with whom they lived a lifetime of experiences and which set them apart from later generational cohorts. It is always nice to talk with people who have a similar worldview but as you get older and the Grim Reaper winnows the ranks, there are fewer and fewer people with whom you can share such easy communication.

A more substantive issue is self-segregation. I have touched on different aspects of this in earlier posts such as European and American political systems, locality and minority political power and Root causes of demographic inversions.

These posts revolve around the findings of Nobel prize winner, Thomas C. Schelling. His work revealed that you do not have to have negative biases in order to end up with homogenous distributions (groups sorting themselves into bounded areas). Seeing Around Corners by Jonathan Rauch is a good summary of Schelling's work. If people have even a small positive affiliation with an attribute and no negative aversion, you will end up with self-segregation.

I wonder if the same thing isn't happening in a fashion around conversational effectiveness. People observably self-segregate themselves on many vectors such as income, religion, profession, education attainment level, political affiliation, class, etc. I wonder if an unexamined dynamic here is whether Communication Signal Loss might be a driver of self-segregation.

The more signal loss there is in a conversation the more you have to work towards establishing a connection. It takes more cognitive processing, more time, more effort. The cost goes up. In addition, with low communication effectiveness, you also have a decline in positive outcomes. With so much signal loss, it is hard to coordinate and cooperate.

The consequence is that, where there is a poor KESVBCM match between conversational partners, there is high cost to conversation and low benefit. From economics, we know that people gravitate away from High Cost/Low Benefit and towards Low Cost/High Benefit. Hence my speculation that Communication Signal Loss might be a major and unacknowledged driver behind class segregation.

Knowledge, discovery and freedom

From Robert Oppenheimer in Science and the Common Understanding (1953)
The open society, the unrestricted access to knowledge, the unplanned and uninhibited association of men for its furtherance — these are what may make a vast, complex, ever growing, ever changing, ever more specialized and expert technological world, nevertheless a world of human community.
From Robert Oppenheimer in Science and the Common Understanding (1954); based on 1953 Reith lectures.
The history of science is rich in the example of the fruitfulness of bringing two sets of techniques, two sets of ideas, developed in separate contexts for the pursuit of new truth, into touch with one another.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

I have voted for every expensive government program and now I can't afford to live here anymore

An interesting example of a complex problem. From Surge in property tax bills spurs push to reform tax appraisal process by Lori Hawkins and Shonda Novak.

The issue is the intersection point between individual freedom, property taxes and fairness. It is far more complex than this single use case but the example I form in my mind to crystalize the issue is as follows.
A person buys a home for $X. They live in that home for the rest of their life. They pay property taxes on that home. Those taxes are a function of two things, the property tax rate and the estimated value of the home. The person has a small influence on the tax rate through their capacity as an engaged citizen to lobby and vote. The person has virtually no influence over the value of the home as that depends on the market desires of other people.
So what happens if a person buys a home in 1965 for $20,000 (constant dollars). By 2005 the neighborhood has become immensely desirable and is now worth $300,000. The value of the home has increased 15 times. Assuming that tax rates have remained the same, the person, now retired, is having to pay fifteen times as much property tax through no action on their part. It is the action (desires) of others that has led to this outcome. If their budget is fixed, it is likely that they have to leave their home for a cheaper location, not because of anything they have done but because of the desires of others.

I recognize that there are two sides of this coin. When the person dies, their estate will benefit from the inflated valuation of the home but that will be whittled down by the government through taxes on the sale of the home as well as estate taxes. Besides, it is the estate that is the beneficiary, not the person.

All this is clearly unfair. The person could do a reverse mortgage in order to extract equity, but again, that doesn't remove the root issue that the desires of others are forcing consequences on the person.

But what is clearly unfair from a single person perspective is also unfair when you take other perspectives such as that of the government which does need to be funded, from neighbors, etc.

The closest I have come to a theoretical solution has its own issues. The solution of unfairness to the individual home owner is to lock in their home valuation at the time of purchase and adjust solely based on general inflation and not on neighborhood home valuation. Everyone can anticipate general inflation (whether accurately or not is a different matter) and should be accountable for organizing their affairs to take into account inflation. People cannot effectively anticipate whether or not their residential home will become dramatically more valuable in the future. Under the Residential Home CPI plan, the taxes on your residence would increase only by the general level of inflation which tends to be about 1-3% a year.

No one would be forced to move simply because others were desiring the person's home.

The problem with that is that you then have inequality among taxpayers in terms of how much property tax they are paying simply because of when they purchased their home. There are actually several other unfairness and practical objections but the Residential Home CPI plan is the closest I have gotten to a policy idea that would address the displacement of older people from their homes because of the desires of home buyers.

Hawkins and Novak are reporting on this issue playing out in Austin, Texas which has enjoyed/suffered high home price escalation in recent years. Older people and those on fixed incomes are getting squeezed out. However, Austin has a double play going on. The local government has been intentionally trying to make Austin more desirable. That was done via the voters. Current residents are being hit by two predictable issues and one unintended consequence but all of it through their own choices.

By electing administrations with the intention of improving civic life, they knew they would be increasing the desirability of living in Austin. They endorsed actions which would improve the value of their homes. The city government spent money to make the city more desirable via transportation, parks, etc. Even if home values had not gone up, residents would be paying more in taxes because the city government was spending more. However, the city succeeded in its plan to make city living more desirable. Now residents face the added bill of having to pay more taxes (for city spending) and more taxes (for home valuation inflation).
On a recent evening, more than 300 homeowners who are worried about their rising property tax bills filled First Unitarian Universalist Church in North Austin for a town hall meeting. If something doesn’t change, many said, they will soon be priced out of their homes.


“I’m at the breaking point,” said Gretchen Gardner, an Austin artist who bought a 1930s bungalow in the Bouldin neighborhood just south of downtown in 1991 and has watched her property tax bill soar to $8,500 this year.

“It’s not because I don’t like paying taxes,” said Gardner, who attended both meetings. “I have voted for every park, every library, all the school improvements, for light rail, for anything that will make this city better. But now I can’t afford to live here anymore. I’ll protest my appraisal notice, but that’s not enough. Someone needs to step in and address the big picture.”
It is easy to accuse Gardner of wanting her cake and eating it too. She endorsed all the city spending that would raise her taxes and she desired all the amenities that would make her life nicer (and the city more desirable to others). Now the piper wants to be paid and she doesn't want (or can't afford) to pay the piper. That has nothing to do with her fellow citizens; nobody is obliged to subsidize her life choices.

But still . . . That underlying problem of having to leave simply because others are desiring your home more than you can afford is simply not right.

I see no clear answer but I have long thought that the issue is one of the most consequential and least discussed in our civic discourse.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Reality check

If you listen only to the media, you would get the impression that the US is, compared to our European or OECD brethren, unusually misogynistic, selfish, intolerant, crony-capitalist, elitist, etc.

I have documented elsewhere that in terms of gender differences, the US stands head and shoulders above the OECD averages. American women are represented at the very top of more industries and sectors than anywhere else and in greater numbers. In any field in the US, you can expect women to be 15-30% of the top performers (by level, station, awards, etc.). Elsewhere in the developed world, women are either unrepresented at the highest levels in large swarths of the economy or fields of endeavor or to a much lesser degree.

Two recent reports shed light on some of the other accusations.

Pew Research has a report, In views of diversity, many Europeans are less positive than Americans by Bruce Drake and Jacob Poushter. Americans are dramatically more tolerant (as measured by positive attitude towards diversity) than any European country.

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Not only are Americans as a whole more tolerant, even the much slandered American right are more tolerant. Specifically American Conservatives are more tolerant than 75% of self-identified Liberal Europeans.

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Well, thank you very much Pew Research for documenting what has been evident for years for anyone willing to depart from the path of ideology and look at reality.

Now what about the claim that Americans have much less social mobility than Europeans and the related claim that the American rich are a cozy club of old-money elite manipulators?

Well, again, the numbers don't seem to back that up. From fascinating research published last year, Investigating the right tail of wealth: Education, cognitive ability, giving, network power, gender, ethnicity, leadership, and other characteristics by Jonathan Wai and David Lincoln. From the abstract:
The extent to which people in the right tail of wealth are highly educated and cognitively able was examined in a sample of 18,245 ultra high net worth (UHNW) individuals with net worth's of USD $30 million plus. How education and ability related to religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, relationship status, country, industry, leadership, gender, net worth, giving, and network power was assessed. And whether gender, religion, ethnicity, or network power differences existed in the right tail of wealth was examined. Overall, these people were highly educated and cognitively able, and smarter (more educated) people were wealthier, gave more, and had more powerful social networks (but when controlling for multiple confounds the association between education/ability and wealth was found to be quite small). Females were underrepresented, and female CEOs needed to be more select to reach the top of a company. Males and billionaires gave the most, but females and UHNW individuals gave more of what they had. U.S. Blacks and self-made females had the highest network power. U.S. Blacks and Caucasians were similarly educated and cognitively able. Democrats had a higher education and cognitive ability level than Republicans. Married people dominated and were the most educated and cognitively able, but least likely to have inherited their money and give. The finance, banking, investment, and internet sectors dominated. Jewish individuals were overrepresented by a factor of about 234. Today, the typical UHNW individual profile includes U.S. married (Christian and Jewish) men who are largely Chairman and CEO, Republican, and earned their money in finance, banking and investments. This study provides evidence for the clustering of brains, wealth and power, and suggests that elite education may matter in the trajectory of developing expertise in wealth and power generation
That's a lot to unpack.

America generates about 25% of the global economic activity with about 4.5% of the global population.

Reading the report, and focusing on Americans, here are the things that leapt out at me.
Among the most successful people in the world (measured by accumulated wealth), Americans are 47% of all UHNW people.

The wealthy in America are far more likely to have created their fortunes themselves (rather than inheriting them) compared to Europeans. 12.6% of American UHNWs inherited their wealth whereas purportedly more "socially mobile" European countries have far higher rates of inheritance such as Austria (49.6%), Germany (30.8%), Norway (20%), Denmark (23.1%), Netherlands (19.5%), France (18.2%), Switzerland (24.7%), Sweden (43.8%).

There's not a lot of information about UHNW giving but for which there is, the US UHNWs are second after the British in terms of generosity.

Despite the impression that all rich people are liberal, the data suggests that the older trope that the rich are more affiliated with Republicans is true. There are two groups for whom this is not true. African American UHNW and South Asian UHNW both affiliate with Democrats to a greater degree than they do Republicans but all others are the reverse (Asian, Caucasian, Chinese, Hispanic and Middle Eastern).

In the US, among the religious groups in UHNW, Jews and Episcopalians are the most generous.

While the connection between UHNW and higher education is very strong, the connection with elite schools is relatively weak. 66% of American UHNW did not attend elite schools.

African Americans make up 42% of all black UHNW worldwide (African Americans are about 3.5% of all blacks worldwide.)
It would seem clear from all the above information that if you are an ethnic minority, a religious minority, a woman, come from a modest financial background, or have not been able to crack the inner sanctum of the elite schools, then the country where you are most likely to achieve UHNW status is the US.

Put differently, American women have higher levels of achievement across a broader spectrum of industries and fields than do their international peers, American religious, ethnic, and racial minorities achieve more, the playing field is flatter, the society is more welcoming and the outcomes more fair in the US than anywhere else.

Nice to know, and good to acknowledge while we continue to seek improvement.