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Statistics is (are?) For Everyone October 13, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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I taught statistics, to undergrad and graduate business students for a number of years.  I typically started off the courses by explaining how statistics were real life constructs, and were far more important in understanding the world than anything else they studied.  I especially loved word problems, which I thought were the epitome of real life.  They were analytical problems expressed in ambiguous words, with incomplete information, yet required a single correct answer.

Everyone got a good laugh out of that, and for the rest of the course treated me like the crazy uncle that they kept in the attic.

But the point remains valid, and important to anyone who cares about real life data, because there is a dichotomy between how statistics are taught, and how we might use them.

Yesterday I had a meeting with someone who told me of his teenage son, who studied and knew every conceivable football player, their university, and their statistics.  He pointed out to his son that he should really enjoy his AP Statistics course, because of his interest in football statistics.

But here’s the problem.  Most traditional statistics courses don’t teach like that.  Statistics courses are designed to look at uncertainty and how to manage it.  So we discuss mean, standard deviation, t-test, Chi-Square, ANOVA, and so on, confident that students will form a mental model of how uncertainly plays a central role in any data samples that we analyze.

Let me tell you something.  Students don’t care.  I know from years of experience that most students think statistics is the most useless course they are required to take.  They largely don’t want to be there, and I considered it a success if I were actually able to get them interested enough in the topic to do homework and understand what the answers meant in real life.

Today, of course, practically every decision made revolves around analytics.  But many business professionals still have trouble relating their university statistics classes to the decisions they make on a daily basis.  For these folks, statistics as a discipline, with an innate understanding of sampling, confidence, and uncertainty is divorced from the results they are presented in their analytics engines.

What’s the solution?  Make statistics relevant.  Teach Moneyball, fantasy football statistics, weather probabilities, or anything that makes it real to people who struggle with the math and its meaning.

I’m not a gambler, and I kind of shrug at the beginning of the era of legalized sports gambling.  But statistical inference and probabilities are at the heart of sports gambling.  If the field of statistics wants to remain relevant, it should start here.

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Can Amazon Replace Libraries? July 23, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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I was born and raised in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.  It was a company town.  In 1905, the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation bought a tract of several thousand acres along the steep hills of the Ohio River, laid out some streets, built some houses and stores, and constructed a steel mill stretching six miles along the river.

The neighborhoods were called plans, because they were individual neighborhood plans conceived and built by the company.  My older sister grew up in the projects of Plan 11.  Football Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett, two years my elder, grew up just a couple of blocks away.  We shopped in the company store, the largest building in town, until I was 13.  (Bear with me, please)

B.F. Jones, in the style of the robber barons of an earlier era, built a grand library in his name, right along Franklin Avenue, the main street, all marble and columns, called the B.F. (for Burris Frederick) Jones Memorial Library.

It was a massive marble structure that frightened off most youngsters.  The homeless guy slept at a table in one corner.  In that library, I read Don Quixote, The Far Pavilions, just about everything from James Michener, Irving Stone, and much more.  It was a dismal company town, but I escaped through the library far beyond the boundaries of the drab community.

Today, a yanked Forbes magazine op-ed written by LIU Post economist Panos Mourdoukoutas opined that libraries were obsolete, and that they should be replaced by for-profit brick-and-mortar Amazon stores selling physical books.  Libraries are no longer relevant, Mourdoukoutas and Forbes claim, and Amazon can serve the need in a for-profit way that benefits everyone.  Libraries are a waste of taxpayer funds.

Funny, today, 40 years later, my adopted town library is the hangout of middle and high school students.  Rather than the quiet place of reflection (and possibly stagnation) of the past, it is a vibrant, joyful place where parents are happy to see their children study together and socialize.  There are movies, crafts, classes, lectures, and games.  In an era where youngsters can escape to their phones, the Internet, video games, drugs, or worse, escaping to the library is a worthy goal.

There is one Starbucks in town, where Mourdoukoutas tells us that anyone can get wifi, and most people use the drive-through.  I doubt they would let the throngs of youngsters cavort for the evening like the library does.

Today I travel extensively.  I am enthralled by the amazing architectures of European cities, built when society was much poorer.  Yet today we cannot afford libraries?

I am sorry, I call bullshit.  Long and loud.  This type of trash deserves no serious discussion; in fact, no discussion whatsoever.  If we cannot afford libraries, we cannot afford imagination, we cannot afford, well, life.

To reinforce the point, please invest a few minutes to listen to Jimmy Buffett, Love in the Library.  Thank you.

Pay for Performance, Mathematics Edition November 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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I’ve always been suspicious of standardized tests that conclude that US students were average or worse in mathematics than others.  My primary issue is that it is very likely that many more US students took these types of comparison tests than in other countries, and while the mean tended to be average, the standard deviation was larger than average, meaning that many did much more poorly, but many also did much better.  The popular press tends to find fault with anything that reeks of US influence, and neglects to mention such a basic measure for better comparison.

There is a study that offers a different but related conclusion, however.  It claims that US students are competitively capable, but only when sufficiently motivated.  How do you motivate them?  Well, by paying them, of course.  When students are financially rewarded, their math results are significantly elevated.

This means that US students aren’t (necessarily) stupid, or undereducated, just unmotivated.  It’s an intriguing  proposition, one that I think deserves more study.

The Final Frontier July 6, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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Yes, these are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.  Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

To someone of my age, this defined the possibilities of space, perhaps even more so than the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

We failed at this, in my lifetime, to my dying (hopefully not soon) regret.  We failed, not because of a lack of technology, but because of a lack of will.  Since the 1980s, America has been looking inward, rather than reaching for the next brass ring in the universe.

Today, we have no ability to launch astronauts into orbit.  No, we don’t.  Our astronauts go into orbit courtesy of the ESA or the Russians (not sure that ESA is doing all that much any more).  I am sure many of you are pleased at this, but you miss the larger picture.

May I quote Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

Seriously.  Life is bigger, much bigger, than our individual petty concerns.  We may think our concerns are larger than life, but until we reach beyond them, we are petty, we are small.  Until we give ourselves to larger and more grandiose goals, we are achieving nothing as human beings.

Look at the people, throughout history, who have given their lives, willingly, in favor of a larger goal.  Not just the astronauts, but soldiers, sailors, explorers, yes, even a few politicians.

Today, my only hope is with the private companies, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and their ilk.  They are our future.  Not NASA, or the government in any way, shape or form.  I hope with all of my heart and soul they can reach where the collective citizenry has declined to.

Set controls for the heart of the sun.

Learning How to Learn June 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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One of the significant values I got out of my college experiences was a foundation whereby I could build on with lifetime learning.  I’m not quite sure how it happened, but my life outlook seems to have combined a love of learning with the ability to build upon that initial foundation.  A part of it, I’m sure, is that I read a lot and forget little, but something more happened to enable me to readily integrate new knowledge in both the social and natural sciences into a growing world view.

Yes, I know, that is gobblety gook, but I learned that studying social science for my BA.  Gobblety gook was the primary language of communication when I was taking social science.

Nonetheless, it serves to draw a distinction between singing Kumbaya and preparing yourself for a lifetime in the real world.  Kumbaya may help us connect with others in the moment, but does little to prepare us for the future.

It goes beyond how do we learn.  It asks the question “How do we learn to learn?”  I did poorly in college in my freshman year (no, I was not a particular partier).  Rather, I tried valiantly to understand concepts, as my professors insisted.  When I finally realized they really wanted me to memorize facts, I did so voraciously, and averaged superior grades for the rest of my college career.

Somewhere along the way to memorizing facts, I would like to think that I learned how to learn, over the course of a lifetime (38 years after college and counting).  But I can’t apply my own individual circumstances to any proven curriculum.

But I have to think there is a way, perhaps this way.  Old fashioned, perhaps, but really, how often do our intellectual peers think about how to think?  Can we learn how to think by focusing deeply on a relatively few classic volumes?

I don’t know.  But to be fair, almost anything has to be better than what the vast majority of our higher education curricula are doing today.

Has Moneyball Killed Baseball? June 20, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Publishing, Strategy.
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Moneyball was a revelation to me.  It taught me that the experts could not effectively evaluate talent, and opened my own mind to the biases found in software development, testing, and team building.  Some of my best conference presentations and articles have been in this area.

But while Moneyball helped the Oakland Athletics, and eventually some other teams, it seems to be well on its way to killing the sport.  I’ve never been a big sports fan, but there were few other activities that could command the attention of a 12-year old in the late 1960s.

I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, and while I was too young to see the dramatic Bill Mazeroski home run in the 1960 World Series, I did see the heroics of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell in the 1971 World Series (my sister was administrative assistant at the church in Wilmington NC where Stargell had his funeral).  I lived in Baltimore where the Pirates won a Game 7 in dramatic fashion in 1979 (Steve Blass at the helm for his third game of the series, with Dave Guisti in relief).

But baseball has changed, and not in a good way.  Today, Moneyball has produced teams that focus on dramatic encounters like strikeouts, walks, and home runs.  I doubt this was what Billy Beane wanted to happen.  That makes baseball boring.  It is currently lacking in any of the strategy that it was best at.

As we move toward a world where we are increasingly using analytics to evaluate data and make decisions, we may be leaving the interesting parts of our problem domain behind.  I would like to think that machine learning and analytics are generally good for us, but perhaps they provide a crutch that ultimately makes our world less than it could be.  I hope we find a way to have the best of both.

Higher Education Ignores Results It Doesn’t Like June 7, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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I am a strong believer in higher education.  At the same time, I recognize that what passes for higher education in some classes and even entire universities is a farce that suffers from lack of, well, caring.

In particular, some universities claim that they provide a high quality education by fiat alone, and discount or ignore evidence to the contrary.  And no one is willing or able to hold them accountable.  This WSJ article (paywall) notes that those schools whose students don’t show improvement in critical thinking discount the value of the test and stop administering it.  And no one calls them to task.

But the cry from my own experiences in academia still rings in my ears – “We don’t have customers, we have students!”

This kind of close-minded thinking is all too common in our higher education.  We like to think that educated people are by nature intelligent and thoughtful human beings.  Too often, they are just the opposite.

Further, parents lack the information or ability to critically evaluate the education alternatives available to their children, and defer to what those children feel comfortable with.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that parents may be shelling out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a subpar education, or even no education at all.

To be fair, your experience in college is largely what you make of it.  You can go to Harvard, and party your way through with little impact on your ability to receive a degree.  You can go to Plymouth State, apply yourself, and obtain the foundation for a successful lifetime of learning and critical thinking.  In that sense, it doesn’t matter where you go.

But the American family is largely a poor consumer of higher education.  We spend more time and effort buying a car than we do buying an education, yet the implications of a poor choice are far more significant with the latter.  I wish we would find a way to penalize universities that make obviously unsupported claims on their quality, but regrettably, we genuflect to higher education so instinctively that we as consumers just don’t imagine going there.

What is the Liberal Arts? April 26, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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My B.A. degree is in the liberal arts. The diploma says psychology, but I also took substantial coursework in chemistry, biology, and physics.  Conversely, I took no English courses.

(To be fair, I wanted to take an English course, specifically, a writing course. My university required that I take an English placement test prior to doing so.  I did so, and placed out of the course that I wanted to take, and out of the next course, and was awarded six credits for my investment of an hour.  I never looked back.)

Today, liberal arts and humanities are on the proverbial ropes. This article in Wall Street Journal (paywall) describes how liberal arts programs in some schools are being expanded to include courses in mathematics and data analytics, in an effort to bolster the liberal arts with career learning.

Frankly, those courses, and other science topics should always have been there. In the dawn of the liberal arts education, the goal was to deliver a well-rounded individual who could opine and even work in a wide variety of different fields.  It led to a person who could be described as a “natural philosopher” who is educated and cultivated on a wide variety of topics, which relate to both social and science areas.

It’s only in more modern times that liberal arts curricula came to mean that the individual only had to study psychology, sociology, English, and political science. And that is wrong.  The liberal arts education has always been defined by a broad education without the depth of specialization.  Its intent is to drive rigor across traditional academic boundaries to enable its possessor to become a truly educated person.

But we got away from that at some point, with higher education permitted to define liberal arts as a much narrower take on a limited number of softer topics. Today’s so-called liberal arts is actually a bastardization of what it was intended to be.

The WSJ article positions the addition of math and science courses as a nod toward career training over life training. Ah, no.  Chosen well, what the math and science courses really do is round out a liberal arts education.  I understand that people need to get jobs, and such to get jobs, and such courses may help, but science and math are very much a part of life experience, no matter what field you may ultimately pursue.