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A Rebirth, or a Requiem? July 16, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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Here on the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon mission, I’d like to share this image.  In 1973, at my Eagle Scout dinner in downtown Pittsburgh, I (and the other Eagle Scouts) received Man in the Moon, the official recordings of the Apollo 11 journey, back in 1969 (and yes, I still have a turntable to play it).


I have always been a forceful advocate of space travel.  While in the Air Force, I applied to become a flight engineer on the Space Shuttle program (I’m sure my candidacy was met with a good chuckle by all concerned).

Further, I believe in space travel for very abstract reasons.  “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” wrote poet Robert Browning.  But more so, there seems to be an historical pattern of civilization reaching out for a seemingly impossible goal, then retreating from it.

We are in the stage of retreat from space right now.  Certainly, perhaps a dozen or more countries launch hundreds of low Earth orbit satellites yearly for weather, military, scientific, communications, or other purposes.  But that is largely proven (although not entirely reliable) technology today.  We have not tested technical boundaries since the 1970s.

Many say it is too expensive; we have too many problems here on Earth.  But that is a fallacy perpetuated by the ignorant.  The trailblazing work in electronics, software, communications, safety-critical systems and much more would not exist today without the breakthroughs found in our space program of the past.

But there is so much more inherent in pursuing space travel that cannot be readily quantified.  Smart people reaching for seemingly impossible goals stimulate those around them, and society in general.  If we focus inward, we lose sight of the value of interactions with others.  Yet that is where we are.

I was at Cape Canaveral last year.  I saw large buildings and a lot of activity from the likes of Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX.  Every few years, the US government and NASA make loud noises about reviving some ambitious goal, but ultimately back down in the face of cost, complexity, or simply indifference.  The government won’t get us there, because too few people care.  But we are so close to losing space altogether that we should be afraid that future innovation will consist only of better ways to look down at our phone.

I think I said it well here, should you care to read.  Yes, set controls for the heart of the sun.


There is Less to Free College Than Meets the Eye June 25, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Uncategorized.
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I am an incredibly strong believer in higher education.  Higher education vaulted me from a life of blue-collar servitude into the middle class and likely beyond.  The discipline and long term vision inherent in the work required to get a degree, in any field, enormously helps people no matter where they end up.

(As someone who earned advanced degrees in both natural and social sciences, I have my own opinion on rigor.  Both have rigor.  However, you can bluff your way through a psychology test; you can’t in a math test.)

So as I read about Bernie Sanders’ plan to cancel $1.5 trillion dollars in student debt, I thought about Boris.  Boris, a part time tour guide in Copenhagen, was both an insider and an outsider in his society.  He was a Danish born citizen, but the son of a Russian father and Korean mother.  At 26, he had a degree in sociology, in a country where all education was free.  “I got a degree without knowing what I wanted to do with it, or with my life,” he told us.  “Because it was free, I didn’t stop to think where I wanted to go from there.”  At the time we met him, he was in vocational training to become a carpenter (also free).

I don’t like the phrase “skin in the game,” but if you are paying for something, or borrowing and expected to pay for it in the future, you tend not to spend unwisely.  And while Sanders’ plan might let many (all) students begin their adult lives with a clean slate, I’m suspecting that there might be the tendency to produce professional students.

We don’t have to work in the field where we get a degree (most of my degrees don’t apply here).  But planning and budgeting, and compromising on other aspects of life, play a role in university, degree, and success.  With a free ride, you don’t have to worry about doing that.  While it’s not a prerequisite for getting a degree, such compromises should be a part of an adult life.

It Turns Out That Higher Education is On Trial May 10, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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Thanks to Lori Loughlin pleading not guilty and presumably heading for trial amidst a far-reaching scam that enabled some wealthy and privileged parents to, well yes, cheat, we have to confront the system that has enabled it.

Wealthy and privileged parents claim they have the moral right and responsibility to use their substantial resources in order for their children to land at the top of society in the next generation.  Not doing so is a clear failure of parenting.  And if they break the law (mostly wire fraud, but also conspiracy), well, that’s just being a good parent.

While the universities involved are trying to distance themselves from that message, it is truly they that will be on trial here, because they (and specific employees) are the recipients of this largesse.  It’s easy to draw a line between endowing a building or an academic program and dressing your kids up as sports participants they are most decidedly not.  The latter is fraud, pure and simple.

But it was enabled by the universities.  They and their employees accepted that, usually with a bribe involved.  Universities generally look the other way, unless it is a bad look.  And this is a bad look.

So while Lori Loughlin will be in trial, our finest institutions of higher learning are on trial too.

The Scientific Method Needs to Be Fundamental Education for Everyone January 15, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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We have a problem today.  Actually, we have many problems, but most of them boil down to the fact that we lack disciplined thinking.  As a result, we feel justified in believing any damned thing we like, whether or not it makes logical or evidentiary sense.  A common grounding in the scientific method can address that.

I’ll give an example.  I recently advised a PhD candidate on the use of statistics for his dissertation research.  He was planning on doing about 90 t-tests, plus a collection of ANOVAs.  I warned him that his results were likely to have at least a couple of Type I errors.  He replied, “What is that?”

Where is Martin Gardner when you need him?  (Yes, I know he passed away in 2010).  We lack the understanding of basic analytical statistics and how they influence our beliefs.  This is not rocket surgery, folks.  Anyone, and I mean anyone, who is doing primary research for a doctoral degree should understand the implications of their experimental design.

But we can extend belief well beyond that intellectual exercise.  A very large part of the reason many people feel free to believe things that are quite frankly difficult to believe is that belief is often a subjective thing, rather than based on any sort of scientific discipline.

You may argue that what any person believes is legitimate to that person.  Um, no.  Without a methodology of belief, that represents a lie and a cop-out by that person.  “I believe because I feel like it?”  That doesn’t cut the mustard in serious discussion.

So my point here is that everyone’s belief system has to begin with a disciplined foundation.  We believe something to be true because we have objective evidence, and that evidence allows us to formulate a hypothesis that is testable.  The test may be explicit, or it may be supported or rejected based on additional evidence.  But we cannot believe something because we feel like it.  Life doesn’t work that way.

Few of us think this way in determining our beliefs, and that is unfortunate.

You might also argue that this is an amusing stance for me to be taking.  Decades ago, I learned, and internalized, the scientific method as an undergrad psychology student, which some may consider an odd field of study for that discipline.  But as a social science, psychology is probably the best discipline for employing the scientific method.  It meant a lot for me to begin my adult life with a foundation of the scientific method.  Others can benefit too.

US Higher Education Fails At Every Turn January 6, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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I am an unabashed supporter of higher education.  As a working class youth whose parents never graduated high school, I believed (and still believe) that college made me someone I could not have been otherwise.  To you it may have been inevitable, to me it was a dream that I had to wish for and work hard for.

But at the same time, I have been an unabashed foe of university proclamations, policies, and executions.  Here is an example of how our universities are lying and feeling good about it.

Today, universities are offering tiered dormitory pricing, letting students who pay more for residence have better digs, including kitchens, lounges, and private rooms.  Even maids and a chef.

Here is the problem with that.  Universities have always promoted themselves as egalitarian and non-discriminatory.  They love to yell from the highest ramparts how they bring together youth of different socioeconomic status and race, and treat them as equals.  They believe that they are fighting against a society that classifies people by their socioeconomic standing.

I strongly believe that that is a very important part of higher education.  I went to college with the children of wealthy, yet lived and slept next to them in the same dorm rooms.

Our universities are not fighting for anything but your dollar.  The schools don’t care, because they get more money.  The parents today don’t care, because they are giving their children all of the comforts of home.

I have a friend; I once told him that my applying to a backup school meant that my family probably wouldn’t eat that week.  His response: “Sucked to be you, didn’t it?”  This is what our universities are creating today.  Think about that.

As you continue to pursue a fulfilling life with American education, there is just one thing that I would like to say.  They lie.  They are as bigoted against their poor students as it seems.  All they want is your money.

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.

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.