Teaching Computer Science: Those Who Don’t Like to Read

16 Dec 2014 /

Students with books

I recommended a couple of books that I’ve read recently and liked — Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman — to the class in case anyone was looking for a book to read over winter break or maybe as a holiday gift.

“What if you don’t like to read?” someone asked.

“Well, in that case you can spend your entire life inside your own head and never know or care what life looks like to other people.”

In hindsight, it occurred to me that I could have suggested audio books for people who don’t like to read, but . . . woulda coulda shoulda, you know what I’m saying?


Many Have Long Known …

14 Dec 2014 /

Many in academia have long known about how the practice of student evaluations of professors is inherently biased against female professors. . . .

 
  1. Group A getting better evaluations than Group B is not evidence of bias.
  2. Asserting that something is true doesn’t mean it’s true.
  3. Asserting that many people know something to be true doesn’t mean it’s true.
  4. Most college students (i.e., the people evaluating professors) are female. What, if anything, does this fact suggest?

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

12 Dec 2014 /

The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience but it is true: You know far less about yourself than you feel you do.

 

A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.

 

It is the consistency of information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern.

 

The exaggerated faith in small samples is only one example of a more general illusion — we pay more attention to the content of messages than to information about their reliability, and as a result end up with a view of the world around us that is simpler and more coherent than the data justify.

 

Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen.

 

Hindsight bias has pernicious effects on the evaluations of decision makers. It leads observers to assess the quality of a decision not be whether the process was sound but by whether its outcome was good or bad. . . . This outcome bias makes it almost impossible to evaluate a decision properly – in terms of the beliefs that were reasonable when the decision was made.

 

Stories of how businesses rise and fall strike a chord with readers by offering what the human mind needs: a simple message of triumph and failure that identifies clear causes and ignores the determinative power of luck and the inevitability of regression. These stories induce and maintain an illusion of understanding, imparting lessons of little enduring value to readers who are all too anxious to believe them.

 

For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold those beliefs.

 

Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.

 

We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers.

 

The idea that the future is unpredictable is undermined every day by the ease with which the past is explained. . . Everything makes sense in hindsight . . . And we cannot suppress the powerful intuition that what makes sense in hindsight was predictable yesterday. The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.

 

[Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania] interviewed 284 people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends. . . . In all, Tetlock gathered more than 80,000 predictions. . . . Respondents were asked to rate the probabilities of three alternative outcomes in every case: the persistence of the status quo, more of something such as political freedom or economic growth, or less of that thing.

The results were devastating. The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes. In other words, people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.

 

Rehearse the mantra that will get you significantly closer to economic reality: you win a few, you lose a few.

 

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.

 

During the last 10 years we have learned many new facts about happiness. But we have also learned that the word happiness does not have a simple meaning and should not be used as if it does. Sometimes scientific progress leaves us more puzzled than we were before.


Sugar Substitutes

12 Dec 2014 /

Sugar, Sugar

I’m trying to find some sugar for my coffee in the break room . . . I see three kinds of sugar substitute — the pink kind, the yellow kind and the blue kind — but no actual sugar. The number of sugar substitutes concerns me. Why are there three different kinds? It’s like they’re not only substitutes for sugar, they’re substitutes for the other sugar substitutes.

Sugar is a natural substance that grows from the earth. I don’t know what any of this other shit is and therefore I’m not putting it in my coffee . . .

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Merry Christmas from Irvine

10 Dec 2014 /

Christmas in Irvine


Old Wine

7 Dec 2014 /

If I could lift
    My heart but high enough
    My heart could fill with love:

But ah, my heart
    Too still and heavy stays
    Too brimming with old days.

Margaret Widdemer, “Old Wine”

Why “We” Believed Jackie’s Rape Story

7 Dec 2014 /

That’s the title (minus the quotation marks) of an article on politico.com regarding Rolling Stone‘s retraction of a story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The article is written by a female student at that university.

“We” believed the story for the same reason Rolling Stone didn’t fact check it: because when you know little, it’s easier to fit everything you do know into a simple story about the world, e.g., “white men are rapists.”

Also because people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they’re sustained by a community of like-minded believers.

On the flip side, a different group of people can now use the incident to confirm their simple story about the world, e.g., “women are liars.”

Personally I find labeling and smearing people based on genetic traits ugly and offensive no matter whose agenda is being advanced . . .


The Hedgehog and the Fox

6 Dec 2014 /

Stuffed hedgehogs outside a store in Athens

Hedgehogs “know one big thing” and have a theory about the world: they account for particular events within a coherent framework, bristle with impatience toward those who don’t see things their way, and are confident in their forecasts. They are also especially reluctant to admit error. For hedgehogs, a failed prediction is almost always “off only on timing” or “very nearly right.” They are opinionated and clear, which is exactly what television producers love to see on programs. Two hedgehogs on different sides of an issue, each attacking the idiotic ideas of the adversary, make for a good show.

Foxes, by contrast, are complex thinkers. They don’t believe that one big thing drives the march of history . . . Instead the foxes recognize that reality emerges from the interactions of many different agents and forces, including blind luck, often producing large and unpredictable outcomes. . . . They are less likely than hedgehogs to be invited to participate in television debates.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Good News for the Second Fattest Person Alive

6 Dec 2014 /

A British man whom media had identified as the fattest person alive has died of pneumonia after a devastating battle with an eating disorder that brought him to 980 pounds.

msn.com

Who was the second fattest person alive? Nobody cares, right? The good news is that whoever that person is is now the fattest person alive, with all of the attendant attention and notoriety.

There’s a positive angle to every story if you make the effort to find it . . .

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We Save Things Around Here

5 Dec 2014 /

What do I mean by “save things”? My wife was tidying up the garage and found this checkbook. The date (Dec. 19, 1991, the month after we got married) and the check number (101) tells me that it’s the first check we ever wrote on the first joint checking account we ever had.

First check


The One Thing I Can’t Tolerate is Intolerance

4 Dec 2014 /

It’s a funny thing but the most intolerant people that I personally know are the people who see themselves as champions of tolerance and inclusiveness. They’re the most determined that everyone be labelled and judged based on genetic characteristics. Once you’ve been assigned your label, you can be treated — well or poorly — as being exactly the same as everyone else with the same label.

Why is that?


Attention Deficit

3 Dec 2014 /

Focus for
us was a thing hard to
come by. We would have to make due with
whatever

we had: these
were pills and a pencil,
blue earplugs to block out the voices
inside of

our heads, which
would tell us time passed and
these thoughts that would shine like soft lights on
our brains would

one day fade
into invisible
relief. We would write in our binders,
pass classes,

allow for
a moment of grief. We
were deeply aware we would have to
make up for

lost time, but
when we took our pills, the
world would seem fine, seem as if it had
always been

fine. Once we
had adequate supplies
we’d sell, but until then we decid-
ed to re-

fill. We had
determined that we would
not brood. Instead we charted out our
moods and light-

ened up our
loads. Before the rest of
time unfolds, we would like to hold on-
to this life,

feel like it’s
beating, there, deep inside
of our chests, not out of fear. We are
just children.

— Katy Lederer, “Attention Deficit”

A Short One-Act Play About Time

3 Dec 2014 /

MY KID HOME FROM COLLEGE: That clock says 8:42, that clock says 8:45, your phone says 8:47 and my phone says 8:48. So what time is it?

ME (singing):

Does anybody really know what time it is?
Can anybody really care? (About time)
If so I can’t imagine why (Oh no-oo)
We’ve all got time enough to cry

Did that answer your question?

KID: Not really.

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Closed

2 Dec 2014 /

The crimson dawn breaks through the clouded east,
And waking breezes round the casement pipe;
They blow the globes of dew from opening buds,
And steal the odors of the sleeping flowers.
The swallow calls its young ones from the eaves,
To dart above their shadows on the lake,
Till its long rollers redden in the sun,
And bend the lances of the mirrored pines.
Who knows the miracle that brings the morn?
Still in my house I linger, though the night—
The night that hides me from myself is gone.
Light robes the world, but strips me bare again.
I will not follow on the paths of day.
I know the dregs within its crystal hours;
The bearers of my cups have served me well;
I drained them, and the bearers come no more.
Rise, morning, rise, for those believing souls
Who seek completion in day’s garish light.
My casement I will close, keep shut my door,
Till day and night are only dreams to me.

Elizabeth Drew Stoddard, “Closed”

All the Talk About Tolerance

1 Dec 2014 /

Mark Twain

All the talk about tolerance, in anything or anywhere, is plainly a gentle lie. It does not exist. It is in no man’s heart; but it unconsciously, and by moss-grown inherited habit, drivels and slobbers from all men’s lips.

Mark Twain’s Autobiography

Thanksgiving Day

28 Nov 2014 /

Mark Twain

Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1

Teaching Computer Science: No School Before Thanksgiving

26 Nov 2014 /

There was no school today because a lot of kids don’t like to show up the day before Thanksgiving, so the district decided not to have classes on the day before Thanksgiving. Once they get used to having Wednesday off, they won’t show up on Tuesday and we’ll have to give them Tuesday off. Then of course there’s no sense in having a one-day school week so we’ll give them the whole week off.

And since they’re already off on Veterans Day and the day after Halloween, let’s just give them the whole month of November off.

I’m concerned that American education is getting worse faster than we can lower our standards.


Halle Slams Gabriel!

26 Nov 2014 /

Halle Berry

Halle Berry is at least 50 percent white, the girl’s father is white . . . do the math on how white the girl is supposed to look.


I’m in Semi-Solidarity with the Protestors

26 Nov 2014 /

http://www.dailycal.org/2014/11/19/100-individuals-occupy-wheeler-hall-wednesday-night-protest-tuition-hikes/

I support the UC Berkeley students protesting tuition hikes but maybe with a little less conviction than I used to because my kid is a senior and no matter how high tuition goes I won’t be paying it anymore so I hope the boy was in class yesterday and not out causing a disturbance . . .


See You in Hell

26 Nov 2014 /

Satan

[See You in Hell is a feature by our guest blogger, Satan — PE]

CLAYTON, Mo.— A grand jury declined to indict a white police officer in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager whose death in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson became a national flash point on race, justice and policing.

WSJ.com

Greetings from the underworld!

  1. Why is Michael Brown always described as “an unarmed black teenager” rather than “a violent troublemaker” or “a current resident of Hell,” both of which are at least equally accurate?
  2. Anyone who thinks an unarmed person doesn’t pose a threat has never been punched in the face.
  3. If you have a gun and I don’t and you let me take the gun away from you, all of a sudden I’m not unarmed anymore.

See you in Hell . . .


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