100% of the people reading this post are reading this post (and other lies about statistics)

A friend recently shared an article about the Ice Bucket Challenge that claimed only 27% of the money raised is going towards research. Here’s the article. 

Here’s the headline: 


$95 Million Later: Only 27% Of Donations Actually Help ‘Research The Cure’

I was pretty angry. The tone of the article is really awful too, slamming the ALS foundation for these heinous crimes. Yet, there’s some additional facts tucked away in a pie chart that give the lie to the headline. 19% of the funds raised go to patient and community outreach; a viable use of funding, don’t you think? 32%, the largest chunk of the funding, goes to public education. How dare they spend the money trying to make people aware of the disease and its effects! That’s what Wikipedia and webMD are for! Oh, and the $95 million figure they quote isn’t what they actually break down in the chart either — it’s only the expenses for the year ending January 31, 2014.

Given that pie chart, in fact, 79% of the donations go directly to aiding sufferers of the disease or increasing awareness; that’s pretty good. The foundation is rated very highly by Charity Navigator too. 

The salary for the CEO is pretty insane — $300k+ is nuts for a non-profit. However, it’s only a tiny slice of the total pie, and not nearly as bad as scaremongers would have you believe. If we, in the United States, don’t want to use tax dollars to contribute to health care, funding of organizations like this one is a great way to contribute. 

Prontra Kevin: more on tuition costs

Yes, prontra is a portmanteau of pro and contra, as I am both in favor of and against some of Kevin’s propositions.

The subsidies I described are going to the universities, not to the students, in exchange for a reduction in tuition. More like agricultural subsidies in this sense. I think his cause #3 is responding to the system, not to me, but I wanted to emphasize that part of my solution.

For Kevin’s causes, 1 and 1a I obviously agree with. Item 2 I agree to with reservations. Item 3 makes sense, but again, reservations.

I like the free market as much as anyone else. Probably a bit less than Kevin, but much more than the average guy. I do not like the idea of kicking accreditation out of the process entirely because not all degrees are created equally. If you can get a medical degree anywhere, you get hordes of Dr. Nicks flooding the streets. Yes, hospitals wouldn’t hire them (but what if they were really, really cheap?), but clinics? Maybe they would. The process could use fine tuning, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater. A private institution for accreditation could work, but I’d have to see more evidence before I’d agree to it.

The argument with subsidies I would buy entirely if the student was making the buying decision. In some cases, he is (this applies to Kevin and I), but in many cases, he is not. This feeds into your other points — parents think college = more $ (which is true, on the average), college = more educated people (which is… sort of true — throw enough knowledge at somebody and some of it is bound to stick), and that college = better people (complete bullshit). I don’t think the problem is that students are overvaluing certain degrees, but that parents are.

I like Kevin’s solutions, but I see them as long term decisions. The culture needs to change. This will not happen overnight. However, among Kevin’s continued references to elementary education majors (I’ll take a liberty here and say he is railing not against the institution, but the absurdly low requirements and ease of graduations) lies a problem. How many people, gainfully employed in this profession, who may have done so out of a desire to be blacked out for the better part of four years, are going to tell our next generation that they made a mistake? If we are employing teachers who do not want to teach but just need a paycheck (the Miss Hoovers), all we do is see the cycle repeat.

Fewer high school graduates means fewer college entrants. Agreed, and it’s a direct solution to the problem, and we all know people who graduated high school who had no business doing so. Yet, if they’re bombarded by media that tells them blue collar work is worthless, regardless of pay, parents will scream and holler that their child’s future is being destroyed when those evil teachers flunk the little moron. So, before we make high school harder, the culture needs to change first.

So, set changing the culture aside as a long term ideal solution, but one we can’t fix right now. I’ve already talked about accreditation and subsidies. My solutions, as presented earlier, were focused on reducing debt burdens to students, but Kevin’s right that we absolutely need to address the roots of the cost. As Kevin correctly pointed out, the problem is one of demand. I’ll give you a concrete example. The largest university in the Russian Federation, Moscow State University, has about 40,000 students — and about 22,000 are undergraduates. (Note: the English version of the site incorrectly claims there are 7000 undergraduates; this is a typo.) The rest are graduate students or students pursuing “refresher courses,” or short term learning. The number of graduate students in Russia is slightly inflated because they have two doctorates, as in the British system: the second doctorate is roughly the equivalent of tenure in the United States. There are a couple of other universities with about that level of enrollment — St. Petersburg State is close, with around 35,000 students — but most tend to be quite small.

Compare this with the US. Kevin and I went to a university of around 10,000 students. About 80% are undergraduates, but again, consider the inflation rate of Russian graduate students. We also have to consider that the US has roughly double the population of Russia. Still, contrast this to the largest universities in the US. There are multiple universities with more undergraduates — just undergraduates — than Moscow State has students.

So, the best way to cut costs, as Kevin suggested, is to cut demand. As we can see, there is a lot of demand. How can we do this effectively and realistically?

1) Make it harder to get into college. The United States is the only country I know of that does not have entrance exams to pass to get into a university. Even a private university like the University of Dayton only required an application, an application fee, my scores from high school, and an essay. The ACT and SAT are not entrance exams and have their own problems: I’m talking about mandated exams to get into a university, determined by that university and the department they’re applying for. This should replace the entire entry system as it exists now. You pass the exam, you’re in. You don’t, try again next year. No other criteria for entry, apart from a high school diploma.

2) Force students to choose a major. The longer you go without a major in a university, the worse off you are. I can buy using year one to figure out what you want to do — I’d even argue for a relatively standardized sample of courses freshman year — but after that, you need to decide. No open option bullshit that lasts until the junior or even senior year. Changing the major is fine — go nuts — but pick one and stick with it.

3) Eliminate generic majors. This includes “General Studies” and “Liberal Arts.” Interdisciplinary is fine, but generic is not.

4) Promote associate’s degrees. This is a good compromise for making getting into college harder. An associate’s degree for a specific skill is a much better solution than a bachelor’s degree in “general studies.”

All of these, I think, would reduce demand in the short term, and if we work to change the culture too, we end up with a better education system at more affordable rates, which leads to a better America. Fuck yeah.


Extreme Tolkien nerdism ahead (also, Happy Valentine’s Day)

I read this article on io9 and immediately leapt here (figuratively; I do not wish to break my laptop or the desk on which it sits). Now, I’m not 100% certain Kevin read Tolkien; I’ve always been more of a fantasy guy than he has. However, even if he hasn’t, the books are about sixty years old.

The Arwen-Aragorn romance is not, shockingly, central to the trilogy’s plot. It’s more important in the films, because Liv Tyler, I guess, but even there it isn’t central. According to this article, W.H. Auden was all “dude, drop the whole thing.” Tolkien was all “nuh-UH.” End scene.

Now, from a purely executionary standpoint, the films and books do a fine job. They tell the basic framework (essentially, Arwen surrenders immortality to be with Aragorn) and then put it in the background. We aren’t talking “Anakin and Padme” levels of unnecessary drivel. This is a legitimately brilliant writer who didn’t want one of his main characters getting lonely, I guess. Maybe Tolkien was so brilliant he anticipated slash fiction and knew elf-human pairings would pop up anyway. I don’t know.

Where am I going with this? I want to make three points, and then I’ll let you get on with your life.

1) Arwen-Aragorn is not central to the plot, and could probably be removed entirely, as it is a somewhat generic love story (for Tolkien). A generation of nerds would be denied one of the few attractive females in the trilogy, and Liv Tyler would probably have faded entirely into the background, but other than that? No big deal.

2) Eowyn-Faramir is a much more interesting pairing (as Auden recognized). Why? You have the whole potential love triangle with Aragorn, Eowyn, and Faramir. Granted, Aragorn shoots her down and Eowyn reads way too much into his attentions, but it’s still there, potentially. More importantly, it is a genuinely reciprocal relationship, in which both parties have something to offer, and both characters are damaged. (Both have daddy issues, although Eowyn is not strictly speaking Theoden’s daughter. Faramir’s dad just tries to set him on fire. No big deal.) It draws two tertiary characters (if that isn’t being generous) together, gives them a story arc that would otherwise be absent from the film, and is the second best love story that Tolkien ever wrote. And the best? This is point #3!

3) (See, I told you.) The reason I really dislike the Aragorn-Arwen romance (from a literary standpoint) is that it’s an extremely watered down version of Beren and Luthien. Beren and Luthien have the whole star-crossed lovers angle, but it’s magnified because Beren goes on an insane quest to win Luthien’s love. He loses most of his hand. Luthien, meanwhile, has the same choice Arwen does (eternity without love, or love without eternity), but it’s even worse. See, Luthien’s dad is a dick about the whole thing, and insists that Beren bring back a Silmarillion in exchange for Luthien. For which he has to fight lots and lots of nasty creatures, one of whom happens to be Morgoth, otherwise known as Sauron’s boss. Let me spell that out for you: In order to win the approval of one of the world’s biggest assholes, he fights an evil god. All for love!

Of course, a giant wolf eats the Silmarillion, but the asshole, possibly out of a need to be an even bigger asshole later on, relents and says “sure, marry her now. I guess you’re cool.” Of course, Beren, being a super badass, says “look, damn it, you want your shiny gem, you will get your shiny gem!” (This is after a while — his hand got eaten after all, and he needed time to recover.) So he goes, faces the giant wolf, and dies, but only after killing the wolf and giving the Silmarillion to the asshole. The asshole is all, “Awesome!” Meanwhile, Luthien grieves over her husband, and later dies herself. Mandos, another god, is bummed out (because he isn’t an asshole) and brings them both back to life, and they live happily ever after. In my opinion, Beren and Luthien may be the single greatest love story of all time, because it emphasizes the true essence of love: sacrifice.

Now, let’s compare that to Aragorn and Arwen. Arwen, noble lass, makes the same deal Luthien did. The trouble is that Aragorn does not have to go on a quest like Beren’s. He’s already got Arwen. Sure, there’s the part where he’s all “oh noes, you won’t be immortal any more.” The problem is that, neither in the book nor in the films, is it ever established that this is a genuine sacrifice. He’s even being kind of a chauvinistic dick about it: it’s her choice to love whom she chooses.

Let’s fast forward: Aragorn relents, they get married, have a bunch of kids and live for hundreds of years together. Eventually Aragorn dies, but Arwen has to keep living out her absurdly long life alone. The end. Aragorn gets everything, and Arwen gets most of what she wanted, but in the end, she pays a horrible price and he does not.

He didn’t even get horribly mutilated. What a poseur!

Required reading for every college student or instructor

If you haven’t read this article from Atlantic Monthly yet, you owe it to yourself if you’ve been a college student, a student-athlete, or instructor.

Consider this: the average NFL career is about three years. Less than 1% of collegiate athletes will make it to the NFL and earn appropriate compensation for the hard work they put it into collegiate athletics. Worse, many teams don’t care if the student-athletes graduate or not. Even if they do, many choose majors that are specifically designed to be extremely easy to pass. Every athletic director that says, with a straight face, that the “compensation” comes in the form of a scholarship, is lying. The school makes profits in disgusting amounts that far exceed the cost of student tuitions.

Coaches should encourage the kids to look carefully at a variety of majors. Football practices are way too intensive and way too long. I can’t tell you how many times I saw students sleeping in class, more often than not student-athletes, because they’re exhausted. The long hours of practice also prevent them from getting part-time jobs, which could give them a way to pay their bills. I can’t speak for basketball because I don’t follow it that closely, but I know football is extremely tough on the students.

I see two reasonable solutions. One, give players a stipend to compensate them for their time. Two, cut way back on practices and accept less exciting play. Until one of these two measures is adopted, it will be exactly as one quote from the article has it.

“Why,” asked Bryce Jordan, the president emeritus of Penn State, “should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?”

Vaccaro did not blink. “They shouldn’t, sir,” he replied. “You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir,” Vaccaro added with irrepressible good cheer, “but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.”

Agorics: The Allocation of Scarce Computing Resources

I had to write a paper on a topic germane to artificial intelligence.  Instead of falling back on genetic algorithms or genetic programming, I thought I’d take the time to research an older project that is of quite a bit of interest to me:  agorics.  Below the fold is the paper I wrote.  It’s nothing special—just a few pages to introduce the topic—but it will serve to give me an idea of what exists in the field, at least.  Enjoy.

Continue reading

My Next Research Project

I’m looking into how computer scientists drew on Hayek’s work in The Sensory Order.  I’m still in the process of gathering articles to read, but I have found two articles:  one by Don Lavoie and one a bit later than the initial research.  I have to see if this is still a viable research angle, and if so, what kind of affect I might have, but if both of those come up positive, I may just have an interesting PhD topic…