Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Law School Curriculum

Some law schools are rearranging their curricula to be more relevant:
Harvard Law School announced last year that it would modify its venerable curriculum, and its cross-country rival, Stanford Law School, has begun making changes, too.
. . .
“When you haven’t changed your curriculum in 150 years, at some point you look around,” said Elena Kagan, the dean of Harvard Law.

The impetus for the changes is the sense that what has been taught and how it has been taught may be “embarrassingly disconnected from what anybody does,” Ms. Kagan said.

. . .

For years, law students have focused on judicial opinions, explaining why a case was decided in a particular way. But many lawyers today must read laws and regulations that have not been explained by a judge and advise clients on how to comply with them.

So both Harvard Law and Vanderbilt University Law School have modified their traditional first-year requirements, like contracts, civil procedures and torts, to include a class that teaches students how to interpret statutes and regulations.
I'd suggest that if Harvard and other law schools want to provide students with a more practical education -- i.e., one that is not "disconnected from what anybody does" -- one of the top priorities should be to get rid of any professors who have the attitude described here:
On Tuesday, October 16, Harvard Law professor Daryl Levinson gave a lunchtime presentation to students interested in entering legal academia. . . . Even practical legal experience is not a good predictor of scholarly ability, and, Levinson noted, "is pretty nearly disqualifying." Levinson pointed out that today's younger professors have no significant practical experience, and that if they tried to become involved in the world, "the world would probably recoil in horror."
As I commented in this thread a while back:
I saw someone (can't remember who) make this comment somewhere, and I'll put it forth as a provocative thought: If law professors really want to move into a world of purer academic qualifications and skills, then they should lobby the University to create a "Department of Legal Studies," where they could (1) think and write all sorts of interesting, abstract, and/or rarefied thoughts about legal theory or empirical effects of legal developments or whatnot; (2) teach any students who happen to be interested in such subjects; (3) be paid more on the scale of the rest of academia; and (4) leave the real law students -- i.e., the 98% of students who want to learn how to practice law -- to be taught by law professors who know a lot about law practice (whether or not they can write a dissertation).

How's about that?

[Later comment:]

Just to play devil's advocate a bit more: The presumption here (and elsewhere) seems to be that a law professor's chief duty is the production of scholarship; and that a (mere) practitioner therefore has to overcome a steep and perhaps unsurmountable hurdle, i.e., to show that he or she is capable of "scholarship" as opposed to (mere) practice.

Why shouldn't the presumption be precisely reversed? . . . [T]he overwhelming majority of law students are paying large tuitions (and taking out daunting student loans) to learn how to practice law. Why shouldn't the presumption be that someone who has tried 20 jury trials to verdict (or put together corporate deals, or advised tax clients, etc.) is more likely to be well-suited to the job of a law professor than someone who has merely studied law on an academic level, one-step (or more) removed from anything that law students will ever do for themselves?

Indeed, the analogy to other disciplines may be more revealing than is suspected. In any discipline, someone who has actually practiced the subject is presumptively better-suited to teach about it. Thus, in economics, someone who has actually analyzed a dataset and run regression equations -- who has practiced economics -- probably knows more about the practical and theoretical issues that arise than someone who has merely written about regressions. But in fields like law or medicine, someone who has been a lawyer or a doctor probably knows more about what students ought to know than someone who has analyzed those subjects on a merely theoretical level. In other words, practicing economics can mean doing PhD-type research; but practicing law means practicing law.

Of course, as Mr. Bagenstos points out, this is not to say that PhDs are completely useless in law schools. Many PhDs will have very useful observations, and can enlighten students in many ways. But that merely shows that they could overcome the presumption that I'm talking about.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Economics Articles

Just got the latest edition of American Economic Review in the mail, and a few things caught my eye:

1. Michael Conlin, Ted O'Donoghue, and Timothy J. Vogelsang, Projection Bias in Catalog Orders. These guys are trying to measure projection bias -- i.e., the fact that people don't accurately predict what they will want in the future. Why not? Because they are too influenced by present conditions. The specific method of demonstrating projection bias here is to look at 12 million or so catalog orders from an unnamed company that sells "weather-related items"; the date of orders; the zip code of the buyer; and whether the item was returned. They found that when the date of the order was colder by 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the amount of returns rose by 3.95 percent -- indicating that when today happens to be cold, people overestimate how much they will want that huge furry coat in the future. (Still, it seems a small effect size, no?)

2. Electricity deregulation has had a bad name since the Enron/California crises of the early 2000s. One paper shows that during the transition from cost-of-service regulation to wholesale markets in electricity has led electricity plants to become more efficient -- but mostly for "investor-owned plants" rather than for "publicly owned plants." Specifically: "The results of our work indicate that the plant operators most affected by restructuring reduced labor and nonfuel expenses, holding output constant, by 3 to 5 percent relative to other investor-owned utility plants, and by 6 to 12 percent relative to government- and cooperatively owned plants that were largely insulated from restructuring incentives." Kira R. Fabrizio, Nancy L. Rose, and Catherine D. Wolfram, Do Markets Reduct Costs? Assessing the Impact of Regulatory Restructuring on US Electric Generation Efficiency.

3. Charles R. Plott and Kathryn Zeiler, Exchange Asymmetries Incorrectly Interpreted as Evidence of Endowment Effect Theory and Prospect Theory. The endowment effect is a fancy psychological term for "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," I think. It basically means that you tend to value the things you have more than things that you don't have -- even if they are otherwise pretty similar. One typical experiment is to give some people a mug and then ask if they want to trade for a candy bar; and give other people the candy bar and ask if they want to trade for a mug. Most people stick with what they have, whether that's the mug or the candy bar. But in this paper, the researchers were able to make the endowment effect go away by changing the procedures around. For a fuller explanation, see here.

The only question I have is, the researchers seem to have experimented a great deal with "Georgetown law students." But had these law students just learned about the endowment effect in one of their classes? (I learned of it in a first-year torts class myself.) Seems like that might affect the results of the experiments.

4. Winner's curse is the term for what happens when someone gets caught up in the frenzy of an auction, bids too high, and ends up paying more than the item is worth (thus regretting the bid). In Marco Casari, John C. Ham, and John H. Kagel, Selection Bias, Demographic Effects, and Ability Effects in Common Value Auction Experiments, the researchers did some repeated auctions (of what, they don't seem to say, unless I'm missing something) in an experimental setting. By repeating the auctions, they can see whether the subjects learn from past auctions not to bid too high.


(A) Students with low SAT or ACT scores are more susceptible to the winner's curse, even during the repeated auctions when they've had some experience already.

(B) "women are much more susceptible to the winner's curse as inexperienced bidders than men, although this difference disappears for experienced bidders," and "this finding of a gender effect is the more remarkable because it is obtained while controlling for obvious confounding factors such as ability and college major." (The authors squirm a bit trying to come up with an explanation. They finally end up speculating that women are initially less experienced at competitive situations, and therefore they start out being too aggressive in bidding, but then soon learn from the experience.)

(C) "Economics and business majors are much more susceptible to the winner's curse than other majors, and continue to do worse even as experienced bidders." (They conclude that this is because aggressive people tend to major in economics and business. Sounds plausible to me.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Seth Godin on Wikipedia

Via Evangelical Outpost, I see these remarks from Seth Godin:
I heard from two people this week (one is 11, the other twice that) who were forbidden to use Wikipedia to do homework.

When I was in b-school, I admit that I discovered a shortcut. I had to write a long paper on Castro. I went to the magnificent Stanford library, found a great book on Castro, opened to the bibliography and found ten sources. Which I then laboriously paged through, spending hours and hours in order to find the facts I needed.

Then, facts in hand, I was able to do the actually useful part... I synthesized some new ideas and wrote a paper.

Apparently, going through the act of finding the books, sorting through them, reading a lot of chaff and eventually finding the facts is an essential skill for an 11-year-old kid. And for a college sophomore. Essential enough to be responsible for 80% of the time they spend on the work itself?

Selecting the facts is an important part of the process. Finding them shouldn't be.

I don't know about you, but when I hire someone, or go to the doctor or the architect or an engineer, I could care less about how good they are at memorizing or looking up facts. I want them to be great at synthesizing ideas, the faster and more insightfully, the better.
That's a false dichotomy. In fact, it's impossible to "synthesize ideas" until you've looked up and memorized a lot of facts. And that is one of the main objectives of formal education -- to give you a solid grounding in the facts about a particular subject. You also have to know how -- and when -- to investigate the facts more closely to see if there's something you've missed. There's no way to learn such skills if you're used to looking everything up in Wikipedia (whose coverage of pop culture can be amazingly comprehensive but whose articles on various academic topics can be remarkably amateur), or even anywhere online (many sources of information aren't readily available online yet).

A doctor, for example, is able to come up a useful "idea" (i.e., diagnosis or treatment plan) only because he spent many years memorizing lots of facts, looking at lots of case studies, and learning how to gather information from all sorts of sources (not just Wikipedia). Someone who just comes up with "ideas" without having had such a fact-intensive education -- which is what Godin seems to envision -- is a quack or a witch doctor, not a real doctor.
Until just recently, law students had to learn a painstaking process to look up cases by hand. No longer. The academy realized that teaching students to be great at Lexis was a smart idea.
Another bad example. Whether you read on paper or online, in both instances you're still reading caselaw. But you do have to be able to read caselaw and come up with your own synthesis of the information there. As to many legal problems, you can't just look up an equivalent of Wikipedia that will (supposedly) give you all of the pre-packaged "information" that you need to formulate your own grand "ideas." Instead, you have to be able to research all kinds of sources (federal cases, statutes, regulatory decisions, journal articles, etc.). Only once you've gathered and synthesized all the information does it make any sense to start coming up with "ideas" about alternative theories, policy rationales, and so forth. Just as with doctoring, uninformed legal "ideas" are a waste of time.


Overcoming Bias

One of the most thought-provoking blogs out there is Overcoming Bias. When it started up, I was a bit skeptical -- a blog limited to the subject of biases in human thought? I figured it would run out of material in a few weeks. Little did I know. The bloggers there keep coming up with fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) observations. Among recent posts, I liked this one:
A few years ago, an eminent scientist once told me how he'd written an explanation of his field aimed at a much lower technical level than usual. He had thought it would be useful to academics outside the field, or even reporters. This ended up being one of his most popular papers within his field, cited more often than anything else he'd written.

The lesson was not that his fellow scientists were stupid, but that we tend to enormously underestimate the effort required to properly explain things.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bobby Jindal

Almost three years ago, I wrote this post:
Who will run in the 2016 presidential race? I'll go out on a limb here and predict that it will be Barack Obama vs. Bobby Jindal. They are both rising stars that each party will be eager to promote. And it will be a great day in America when such a race could happen.
Still a good prediction, I think.

"I Just Couldn't Sacrifice My Son"

From the Washington Post:
When a high school friend told me several years ago that he and his wife were leaving Washington's Mount Pleasant neighborhood for Montgomery County, I snickered and murmured something about white flight. Progressives who traveled regularly to Cuba and Brazil, they wanted better schools for their children. I saw their decision as one more example of liberal hypocrisy.

I was childless then, but I have a 6-year-old now. And I know better. So to all the friends -- most but not all of them white -- whom I've chastised over the years for abandoning the District once their children reached school age:

I'm sorry. You were right. I was wrong.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Morse Code

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about a Morse Code aficionado:
RESCOTT, Ariz. -- Nostalgic for simpler days, retired astrophysicist Chuck Adams is translating classics of boys' lit into a language he fears is going the way of kit radios and marbles: Morse code.

Holed up in his high-desert home crammed with computers, radio receivers and a very patient wife, Mr. Adams uses homemade software to download online books with expired copyrights, convert the typed words into Morse code tones and record them on compact discs he sells on the Internet.

So far, Mr. Adams says he has sold or donated thousands of Morse versions of such novels as Edgar Rice Burroughs's "At the Earth's Core," Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe," and H.G. Wells's "The Time Machine." In about an hour his software can take any book in the public domain and turn it into a string of digital dits and dahs; last weekend, he turned out a version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's - .... . / -... . .- ..- - .. ..-. ..- .-.. / .- -. -.. / -.. .- -- -. . -.. (a.k.a., "The Beautiful and Damned").

For the 65-year-old Mr. Adams, it's a labor of love, mixed with equal parts hope and despair. "Morse code is going to die off unless you can talk someone into coming into the hobby," he says.

* * *
I was a bit skeptical of one part, though:
Many of those who still know Morse code test their skills with a German computer game called Rufz, the standard for determining world transcription-speed rankings. Players listen to coded, five-character call signs, combinations of letters, symbols and numbers that identify individual license holders. The faster and more correctly they type them, the more points they score. (Transcribing regular text is much slower.)

Last month in Belgrade, Goran Hajosevic broke 200 words per minute -- an extraordinary pace. Mr. Adams is tied for eighth in the world, at more than 140 words per minute.
200 words per minute? Back in my early teens, when I spent a lot of time on the ham radio, I qualified for the Very High Speed Club, which requires you to be able to copy and send Morse Code at 40 words per minute, which sounds like this. From the Rufz website, here's what 200 words per minute sounds like. I find it mind-boggling that anyone could comprehend that for any length of time.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Nature of Order

Via 2 Blowhards, I see Jim Kalb's analysis of a set of books called "The Pattern of Order." The books are a bit expensive, but here's what Jim Kalb says:
I’ve just finished reading The Phenomenon of Life, the first volume of Christopher Alexander’s four-volume work The Nature of Order.

It’s really extraordinary. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Alexander’s an architect and theoretician who’s horrified by the inhumanity of contemporary architecture and has spent his life trying to define principles that show how to do better.

* * *
The Nature of Order, which was published just recently, is far more ambitious and quickly gets metaphysical and even cosmological. The purpose of the book is to lay out the most basic principles that govern whether a built environment is a place anyone would want to live. That requires a conception of good design that is integrated with what makes for a good human life.

* * *

There’s a lot to be said about all this, and I will have further comments in further postings. For now, though, I’d just urge everyone to read the book. I don’t think everything he says is perfect, but the book is an enormous step forward, and I can’t think of another book on any topic published since the Second World War that strikes me as equally valuable.


I ran a 10K race for the first time on Saturday. It was also the first time that I had ever run anything cross-country (which seems to be harder than running on pavement), as well as the first time that I'd run that far in my Vibram Five-Fingers shoes (lots of curious looks from all of the shoe-clad runners). I was hoping to come in at 7:30 a mile, but was about 15 seconds slower than that pace. What I found interesting was that I finished 190th overall, very much middle of the pack (lots of runners there were hitting 5-minute, 6-minute or 7-minute miles); but I was actually 10th among the runners who were over 190 pounds. That tells me something about how much harder it is to run when you're 210 pounds as opposed to these little guys who look like they're about 150. (Or else it tells me that there weren't many fast 190+-pound runners who happened to have showed up for that race.)

Friday, October 05, 2007

How to Revive Your Marriage

I was intrigued to read about this study a while back:
Treating Longtime Partner Like a First Date Can Boost Morale and Well-being

The quickest way for longtime couples to rekindle romance may be to pretend they’re strangers, according to a University of British Columbia psychology study.

By acting as if they’re on a first date, they’ll likely put their best face forward and end up having a better time, says investigator Elizabeth Dunn, an assistant professor at the UBC Dept. of Psychology.

“We make an extra effort when meeting strangers because we want them to like us,” says Dunn. “And by trying to be more pleasant, we end up actually feeling better – but we tend to overlook this benefit.”

Dunn’s co-investigators are UBC Psychology Asst. Prof. Jeremy Biesanz and former University of Virginia students Stephanie Finn and Lauren Human. Human is now a graduate student at UBC. . . .

The study, Misunderstanding the Affective Consequences of Everyday Social Interactions: The Hidden Benefits of Putting One’s Best Face Forward, will be published in the June 4, 2007 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers asked 31 couples to interact with either their romantic partner or a stranger of the opposite sex and asked them how they felt about this. They found that the volunteers significantly underestimated how good they would feel after meeting a stranger, compared to interacting with their romantic partner.

In a subsequent study, the researchers asked long-term couples to interact with their partners as though they had never met, and found that the participants’ sense of well-being rose significantly.

Dunn says when people interact with close friends, family or romantic partners, they know they can get away with acting unpleasant, blasé or bored. But by making an effort to seem pleasant -- as people typically do when interacting with strangers or acquaintances -- their mood will naturally elevate.
So intrigued, in fact, that I was inspired to write this not-entirely-serious (or perhaps entirely-not-serious) email to the authors:
Dear Researchers,

I read with great interest your recent paper showing that if you pretend that your spouse is a stranger, as if it were your first date, a romance can be rekindled. Excited by this prospect, I showed the article to my wife, and we agreed to try this tactic.

I can report that it seems to work very well. We flirt with each other like we used to, and everything seems more positive. Except for one thing: My wife will no longer engage in . . . well, you know what. "I'm not that kind of girl," she says. I'm not sure that this is going to work in the long run.

Stuart Buck
It's been a few months, but for some reason, there's been no response.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Justice Clarence Thomas's Autobiography

I got Clarence Thomas's new autobiography, My Grandfather's Son, in the mail yesterday afternoon, and read it before I went to bed. Much of the book is a powerfully moving description of growing up in dire poverty in the segregated South. I've read a lot of memoirs or autobiographies of people who grew up under segregation, and this is probably the best one I've ever come across.

Thomas writes of the haunting loneliness of being an outcast in the white world when he was the only black student in a white high school -- and of the realization that he was now an outcast back in the black neighborhoods as well (people assumed that he thought he was better than everyone else when he went off to a white school). Thomas also writes with nearly unbearable poignancy of his love for his grandfather (who raised him), the clashes between them that began when the grandfather was disappointed that Thomas dropped out of seminary, and of Thomas's painful regret when his grandfather suddenly died.

It's well, well worth reading.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Dr. Boli Blog

Via Touchstone, I found Dr. Boli's Celebrated Magazine. It's a comic blog devoted to fake advertisements (see below), ridiculously misinformative dictionary entries, advice columns with very bad advice, and so forth. You have to see it to understand what I mean.

Here's a sample advertisement that reminds me of many of the snacks available at one's local grocery store:

The supposed biography of Dr. Boli gives a pretty good flavor of what the blog is like:
Henricus Albertus Boli was born in 1783 in York, Penna., the son of a local physician and typefounder. He showed an early aptitude for literary studies, and at the age of eight astonished his Latin master by successfully declining three nouns previous­ly regarded as indeclinable. About a year later, he published his first volume of verse, an epic poem in twenty-four books de­scribing a journey from York to Hanover, Penna.

Having established his reputation, Dr. Boli continued his literary pursuits. Shortly after graduating from the Central Penn­sylvania School for Unusual Boys, he invented the letter M, the income from which was enough to relieve him from the necessity of remunerative labor. He therefore turned his at­ten­tion to works of charity. Saddened by the plight of Portuguese refugees, he organized and supervised the construction of Portu­gal, where at last they might have a home of their own. Meanwhile he diverted himself by writing a number of popular novels under the pen name “Anthony Trollope.” At about the same time he founded his celebrated Magazine, whose flattering success continues to the present.

Today, at the age of 223, Dr. Boli still edits the maga­zine personally, at a time of life when other men might be con­sidering an honorable retirement. As a concession, however, to his advancing years, he no longer writes every word of the magazine himself. At present he writes every other word, the intervening words being supplied by a well-known agency.
This too:

Supplement No. 2.

Dime. A dime is actually worth $0.09974, but must businesses round the value up to $0.10 for the sake of convenience.

Flight. Humans can actually fly for considerable distances without any special appliances or training, but not horizontally.

Goldfinches. In spite of their brilliant coloring, goldfinches are not truly made of gold, but rather of pinchbeck, a cheap alloy.

Houseplants. Horticulturalists have not yet determined whether talking to houseplants improves their growth or simply makes them psychotic.

Mathematics. Mathematicians have spread the false rumor that it is impossible to divide by zero in order to keep to themselves the dangerous knowledge that 0=1.

Mushrooms. Every mushroom that grows in one hemisphere of the earth is counterbalanced by an equal and opposite mushroom in the opposite hemisphere.

Rorschach test. It is a little-known fact of psychological history that Rorschach consistently failed his own test.

Good article on book reviews

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Steve Wasserman has a good article on the decline of book reviewing in America. I liked the ending paragraph:
[W]ithout books, indeed, without the news of such books—without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs. I shall never forget overhearing some years ago, on the morning of the first day of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a woman asking a UCLA police officer if he expected trouble. He looked at her with surprise and said, “Ma’am, books are like Kryptonite to gangs.” There was more wisdom in that cop’s remark than in a thousand academic monographs on reforming the criminal justice system. What he knew, of course, is what all societies since time immemorial have known: If you want to reduce crime, teach your children to read. Civilization is built on a foundation of books.