Thursday, March 29, 2007


Most interesting line I've read in a while:

"As a practical matter, sleep cannot be reclassified as an ethnic activity."

Timur Kuran, "Ethnic Norms and Their Transformation Through Reputational Cascades," 27 Journal of Legal Studies 623, 639 (1998).

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Pete Maravich

Here's a very cool highlight video of Pete Maravich's college basketball career.

There's an impressive sequence of passes starting at 1:52. Notice that at 2:10, he passes the ball to someone who was several feet behind him on a fast break. At 2:17-2:19, he does his patented pass where his arms fling out to the left but, because he flicks his wrists, the ball actually goes to the right. I also liked the pass at 2:30 to 2:31. At 2:33, he tosses the ball 15 feet backwards over his head, and past several defenders. Another very cool pass at 2:40 -- he throws it backwards while his body was spinning in the opposite direction.

One of the most amazing passes is at around 4:24 to 4:28. The video isn't very high quality here, and you'll have to play it a few times just to see what happens. There was a full-court pass to Maravich, who was running at top speed down the court on a fast break. He looks up and backwards to catch the ball about 15 feet out on the right baseline. But only for a split second -- almost too quick to see, he whips the ball backwards over his shoulder to a teammate who was running down the lane. He had just a preternatural sense of where his teammates were on the court.

There are also some seemingly impossible shots that remind me of Michael Jordan -- check out the shot at 3:00-3:02, for example, or at 3:19-3:22.

And to think he averaged 44 points a game without a 3-point line. He could drain shots from way out there -- check out the shot at 3:14.

Some additional videos of Maravich are here, here, and here.

Friday, March 16, 2007

How to Learn

The following observation applies to all forms of learning, not just learning to read, but it obviously has implications for the belief that kids should never be drilled in letters, phonemes, etc. From Jere Brophy, "Teacher Influences on Student Achievement," American Psychologist (Oct. 1986): 1069-1077:
Attainment of higher level learning objectives will not be achieved with relative ease through discovery learning; instead, it will require considerable instruction by a skilled teacher, following thorough mastery of basic knowledge and skills that must be integrated and applied in the process of 'higher level' performance. Psychologists have learned a great deal in recent years about how automatization of skills frees information-processing capacity for attention to the more difficult and higher level aspects of tasks. Development of basic knowledge and skills to the necessary levels of automatic and errorless performance requires a great deal of drill and practice, however. Thus, drill and practice activities should not be slighted as 'low level.' Carried out properly, they appear to be just as essential to complex and creative intellectual performance as they are to the performance of a virtuoso violinist.

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More on Teaching Reading

What's amazing to me about the whole enterprise of teaching reading is that there are still some stalwarts of the "whole language" method out there, holding the faith in their discredited belief that de-emphasizing or eliminating phonics instruction is the best way to teach reading.

A recent study: Patricia F. Vadasy, Elizabeth A. Sanders, and Julia A. Peyton, "Code-Oriented Instruction for Kindergarten Students At Risk for Reading Difficulties: A Randomized Field Trial With Paraeducator Implementers," Journal of Educational Psychology Vol. 98, No. 3 (2006): 508-28.

Randomized field trials, to my knowledge, are relatively rare in the educational literature. But they are useful, because in other types of studies (i.e., where two different schools just happen to use different curricula), it can be more easily alleged that any difference in the results is really due to unobserved differences between the two schools, selection effects, etc.

What the researchers found was that the groups that received "18 weeks of explicit instruction in phonemic skills and the alphabetic code" then "significantly outperformed controls on measures of reading accuracy, reading efficiency, oral reading fluency, and developmental spelling." Significant group differences remained at a one-year follow-up, so much so that the researchers pointed out that "refraining from providing intervention to students in the follow-up stage of this study would have had negative social consequences." In other words, it was akin to a drug trial where the researchers find that a heart attack drug is so helpful that it's no longer ethical to let the control group go untreated.

The researchers also included this helpful summary of the literature:
Interventions have been studied extensively to show that classroom teachers, when provided literacy curricula that include explicit and well-designed phonemic awareness and alphabetic acativities along with training and professional development, enable at-risk kindergarten students to attain a positive trajectory of development in critical early reading skills (Coyne, Kame'enui, Simmons, & Harn, 2004; Elbro & Petersen, 2004; Foorman et al., 2003; Fuchs et al., 2001; Torgesen, Wagner, Rashotte, et al., 1999). Effect sizes for these teacher-implemented interventions have been robust. Typical effect sizes in decoding have been 0.55 (Elbro & Petersen, 2004), 0.79 (Fuchs et al., 2001), 0.92 (Simmons, Kame'enui, Stoolmiller, Coyne, & Harn, 2003), and 0.57 (Torgesen, Wagner, Rashotte, et al., 1999). . . . For example, a meta-analysis of 36 training studies on phonological and letter-sound skills (Bus & van Ijzendoorn, 1999) reported average phonological and reading effect sizes in kindergarten of d = 1.26 and d = 0.32, respectively.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

An Averted Lynching

Came across this jaw-dropping story in the 1922 autobiography of Laurence Jones, the early twentieth-century black educator who founded the Piney Woods School in Mississippi:
In the South, as may be imagined, I had various experiences, and some are written upon my mind in letters of flame. Of them all I feel that I must tell the story of one, not only because it was the most fearful of all, but also because it reveals the gleam of hope that sometimes lurks beneath the surface even with those whom we consider hostile.

Just before we entered the World War a friend of mine who was a minister in a state west of the Mississippi asked me to come and help him in a revival, saying that while I was not a preacher he thought that I might still be able to help him. On the third night I happened to use various words and phrases drawn from military life and operations, telling the people that life itself was a battle, that we must stay on the firing line, and battle against ignorance, superstition, poverty, and all the evil elements of earth and air. Some white boys who happened to be riding near the church stopped and listened a few minutes and then hastened away to their settlements spreading the news that I was urging the Negroes to "rise up and fight the white people."

The next day about noon half a hundred men rode up to the church door and called for me. The people in the church with blanched faces looked toward me, and fear such as I never before saw on human faces looked pitieously out of their eyes. I went to the door and said to the men, "I guess I'm the one you're looking for." The leader in a harsh voice ordered me to get in the center. The others closed around me; one threw a rope over my head and drew the noose, and down the road we went.

The rest is a nightmare through which somehow sing strains of old Negro melodies. We went to a place rather free from trees, save one with a stout, jagged branch reaching out from it. Under this branch had been piled wood, branches, and fagots, and around the pile was a sea of stern faces, while riders on horses and mules kept coming in an unending stream. A horrible yell rent the air and two or three young boys climbed the tree ready to catch the rope. I was picked up bodily and thrown on the top of the pile of wood, while another roar of noise went up from every throat. Meanwhile I could hear the cocking and priming of guns and revolvers, and from various parts of the crowd random shots had begun to be fired.

Then a strange thing happened. One man jumped to the side of the log heap and, waving his hat for silence, demanded that I make a speech. With a prayer for help I did speak; I spoke as I had never spoken before about the life in our Southland and of what we should all do to make it better. I told stories that made the crowd laugh, I explained what I had really said the night before, I referred to different white men in the South with whom I had had helpful dealing, naming such men as Hon. R. F. Everett, [several other names], and I finally said that I knew there was no man standing there who wanted to go to God with the blood of an innocent man on his hands.

Then an aged man wearing a Confederate button pushed his way through the crowd and waving his hand for silence, said, "I know those men, they're all right folks; this must be a good darky." Turning, he grasped my hand -- "Come on down, boy," he said, as he pulled me to him and took the rope from around my neck, then others reached out and shook hands with me. God had delivered. Some on the edge of the crowd were muttering, for they felt they had been cheated out of their fun, but the majority seemed to be with me. Then someone shouted, "Let's take up a collection for the Parson;" and several began passing hats. Some actually threw money at me. Some asked, "When are you going to preach again, Parson? We want to be there." The collection finally amounted to fifty dollars. Then one man let me have the use of his horse, he took another, and together we rode back to the church.

As we drew near the church it seemed deserted, but as we approached the door we could hear a mellow voice in prayer. We learned that in their fright the people had scattered to their homes, all save half a dozen of the older men, who had been down on their knees all the time I had been gone asking God to perform a miracle as He did with Daniel in the lions' den and with the three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace.

But although they had been praying for my return they could hardly believe it, and as they looked at me were frightened enough to run. Then my companion said, 'This ain't no ghost; it's the same teacher we took away. It's all a mistake and he's all right; I mean to come out and hear him myself. He's done us more good today than he's done you all ever since he's been here. Next time you have a meeting I'll be out and tell you about it."

Then he departed, leaving me with my own; and those dear old men, bent with years of toil and struggle, always longing and hoping for the better day that never came, hugged me and cried and sang and prayed, and as we came out of the church the west was aglow with a wonderful sunset, the most wonderful I had ever seen. The stillness was enchanting, and far across the pine trees the fading light brought a feeling of relief and contentment.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Teaching Reading

Worth reading: D-Ed Reckoning’s series on the incompetent teaching going on in Madison, Wisconsin. (See also Language Log’s post.)

The series arises from a NY Times article, which begins like this:
Surrounded by five first graders learning to read at Hawthorne Elementary here, Stacey Hodiewicz listened as one boy struggled over a word.

Skip to next paragraph “Pumpkin,” ventured the boy, Parker Kuehni.

“Look at the word,” the teacher suggested. Using a method known as whole language, she prompted him to consider the word’s size. “Is it long enough to be pumpkin?”

Parker looked again. “Pea,” he said, correctly.
We aren’t told what comes before or after this scene, or whether the teacher at other times does teach the children how to sound out words. But if the teacher makes a habit of getting kids to guess at words just by the length of the words, and nothing else -– well, it’s hard to imagine a more inefficient and cumbersome way of teaching reading (other than outright lying, i.e., telling the kids that “p” makes a “ch” sound). If children aren't trained to sound out unfamiliar words, how are they to have any idea that the three-letter word in question is “pea” rather than “pie” or “pet” or “peg”? Indeed, if they don’t know how to break down words into syllables, letters, sounds, etc., how are they even supposed to distinguish words based on length? The three letters in “pea” might as well sound like “pumpkin,” for all they know. After all, some three-letter words have two syllables ("ova" or "ego," for example).

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Homeschooling and Socialization

"What about the socialization?" One occasionally hears this question with regard to homeschooling.

Here's a quote from psychology professor Richard G. Medlin's article, "Home Schooling and the Question of Socialization," Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 75 (2000): 107-23.
Shyers (1992a, 1992b), in the most thorough study of home-schooled children's social behavior to date, tested 70 children who had been entirely home-schooled and 70 children who had always attended traditional schools. The two groups were matched in age (all were 8-10 years old), race, gender, family size, socioeconomic status, and number and frequency of extracurricular activities. Shyers measured self-concept and assertiveness and found no significant differences between the two groups.

The most intriguing part of the study, however, involved observing the children as they played and worked together. Small groups of children who all had the same school background were videotaped while playing in a large room equipped with toys such as puzzles, puppets, and dolls. The children were then videotaped again in a structured activity: working in teams putting puzzles together for prizes.

Each child's behavior was rated by two observers who did not know whether the children they were rating were home-schooled or traditionally schooled. The observers used the Direct Observation Form of the Child Behavior Checklist . . . , a checklist of 97 problem behaviors such as argues, brags or boasts, doesn't pay attention long, cries, disturbs other children, isolates self from others, shy or timimd, and shows off. The results were striking -- the mean problem behavior score for children attending conventional schools was more than eight times higher than that of the home-schooled group. Shyers (1992a) described the traditionally schooled children as "aggressive, loud, and competitive" (p. 6). In contrast, the home-schooled children acted in friendly, positive ways.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Book Reviews

In response to the argument that America needs a new magazine of book reviews, Ross Douthat says:
[I]s a nation where an educated person is exposed to "only" 700 book reviews a year (i.e., two reviews a day) really facing "a hole in [its] cultural life?" If a hypothetical educated American bought and read one book for every seven reviews he encountered, he'd be reading a hundred books a year, or two a week. That's a rate to envied, and one that I haven't managed since high school. Would my life be enriched if I could up my intake of books? Of course. But would I be more likely up my intake of books if I read, say, an extra thousand book reviews a year? I think not; if anything, I'd probably read even fewer books than I do now.
I think this misses the point. The purpose of a book review can be to alert you to new books that you might wish to buy and read in their entirety. But another major function of book reviews is to give you a snapshot view of new books that you'd never have time to read in full. Obviously, this requires that book reviewers actually review a book, rather than use a new book as a mere foil for an excuse to write an essay about their own preferred view of a given topic (along with a few paragraphs tacked on at the end discussing why the book either confirms or fails to refute the reviewer's pre-existing opinion).

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Recent Legal Decisions

Baseball Crank has an interesting rundown of several recent legal decisions.

Hillary Clinton's Accent

I notice that Hillary Clinton has come in for some criticism for slipping into a Southern accent when talking at a black church. It sounds horribly fake, to be sure.

Still, I have a bit of sympathy. I've done the same sort of thing myself, as have friends of mine. One of my best friends from college ("M") is from a small town in rural Georgia. My wife always makes fun of me because whenever I talk to M on the phone, or hang out with him, I start talking in a deeper Southern accent. She says it sounds fake, but I don't even notice that I'm doing it -- it just slips right out.

And I've seen M do the same thing himself. Last year, when the family visited Georgia, I hung out with M one night. We looked up another old friend -- "T." T is black, and he grew up with M in that same rural Georgia town (they were later roommates in college, which is how I got to know T -- in fact, I wrote about T before, in this post).
Anyway, the phone rings; M answers; and soon as M says, "Hey, man!," with about three syllables in each word, I knew that it was T on the other end. Whenever M is around T, he starts talking black.

Black people do it too, all the time -- that is, switch between standard English and black vernacular English, depending on the audience. Linguists call it "code-switching," which seems to be a fancy term for, "talking like the people you're hanging out with."

It's a natural urge: When in Rome, talk as the Romans do. Some people expressly promote the use of verbal "mirroring", so as to build rapport. Indeed, the failure to talk like your audience can sometimes be dangerous.

All of which is to say that I can't blame Hillary Clinton -- she may well not have even intended to talk that way at all; it just might have come out that way under the circumstances.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Cell Phone Pricing

I was recently surprised when our cell phone bill -- usually around $55 -- hit over $400. What had happened? Turns out that, like most cell phone plans, we had a certain number of "free" minutes (actually, closer to 7 cents per minute when divided into the fee for the plan), but if you go over the limit, it jumps up to 45 cents per minute. We had gone over the limit that month. A lot.

Why are cell phones priced this way?

I think the answer stretches back to the polymath Frank Ramsey and to a lesser-known article by Ronald Coase ("The Marginal Cost Controversy").

The problem with cell phone service (as with other network industries and intellectual property) is that it has high fixed costs and low marginal costs. Thus, if prices are set at marginal costs, the firm will never recover the fixed costs, and will be unable to survive.

One solution to this problem is a two-part system of pricing -- one set of prices for access to the system, and another set of prices for usage (or usage above a certain level).1 This is described by Kenneth Train, in his 1991 book from MIT Press, Optimal Regulation: The Economic Theory of Natural Monopoly2:
When access demand is fixed, the optimal access/usage tariff consists of a usage charge equal to the marginal cost of usage and an access fee that is sufficiently high to allow the firm to break even. First-best optimality is achieved. This is called the 'Coase result.'
This isn't quite it, of course. The access fee for cell phone usage is comparatively low, while the usage charge for going over the limit is 45 cents per minute -- far above marginal cost.

But wait:
When access demand is price sensitive, the optimal access/usage fees are determined by the Ramsey rule. Usage is priced above its marginal cost . . . and the access fee is lower than it would be if access demand were fixed. Second-best optimality is attained.
That's it. That's what is going on with cell phone pricing.

Ramsey's theory was that industries with high fixed costs can recover those costs by charging relatively more to those users with relatively higher inelasticities of demand. Put that together with the Coase theory, and you get cell phone pricing: Low access fees to draw in users with lower demand, and higher usage fees to recover more from the users who are less concerned with price.3

1See also pages 83-84 of Mitchell and Vogelsang's Telecommunications Pricing: Theory and Practice (recommending "discriminatory two-part tariffs").

2Quotes are from Chapter 7. The entire book is actually online here.

3Not that this is me or my family: The pricing system in use now has our full attention, and over-usage won't happen again.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Justice Thomas Interview

Business Week (of all publications) has a lengthy and interesting interview with Justice Thomas, who discusses his college years in depth. Justice Thomas doesn't often give interviews to the press, and this is worth checking out.