The Black Swan

The Book of the Week is “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published in 2010. In this book, the author explains his theory about rare, unexpected events, “Black Swans”– unexpected by those affected, because human traits and uncertain situations cause people to draw the wrong conclusions, formulate the wrong predictions, and make the wrong decisions. “Black Swan events are largely caused by people using measures way over their heads, instilling false confidence based on bogus results.” The author applies his ideas mostly to “experts” who manipulate the financial markets.

While Taleb makes some good points, this blogger suspects that very few readers of this book will come away fully understanding what a Black Swan is. Taleb tries to provide several examples; his illustrations are unclear as to why one event is a Black Swan and why another is not.

One example consists of five trading managers at a European-owned financial institution who wrote a five-year plan. Having neglected to consider all possible adverse future events, they were done in by “the Black Swan of the Russian financial default of 1998 and the accompanying meltdown of the values of Latin American debt markets.” Yet, Taleb writes that the 2008 financial crisis was not a Black Swan. He says such a cluster screw-up will happen again. A Black Swan is a negative or more rarely, a positive occurrence that in general, has never happened before.

One human trait people have is that they are reluctant to attribute events to randomness. But Taleb thinks randomness plays a part in all sorts of events, including long winning streaks of investors. He even generated a computer simulation showing how it would be impossible not to have money managers who beat the market year after year– he says they did so simply by luck alone. Another reason these investors are overrated is that people hear more often about winners rather than losers.

Taleb writes, “We want to be told stories, and there is nothing wrong with that– except that we should check more thoroughly whether the story provides consequential distortions of reality… Just consider that the newspapers try to get impeccable facts, but weave them into a narrative in such a way as to convey the impression of causality (and knowledge).”

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The Book of the Week is “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey, published in 1990.  The author tells readers how to improve their social skills to achieve their goals. He illustrates his points with anecdotes on parenting in his own large family. One phrase in the book that stuck in this blogger’s mind is, “Use your resources and initiative.”

The Emperor of All Maladies

The Book of the Week is “The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer” by Siddharta Mukherjee, published in 2010. Through this tome, the author, an attending cancer physician, researcher and assistant professor of medicine, discusses the history of cancer– how it came to be named, treated and researched through the centuries, and how it develops on the cellular level. He also talks about how cancer statistics can be manipulated to give people the impression that the illness is more common than it really is (to scare people into getting tested and treated), or– that treatment (including drugs and surgery) is more effective than it really is.

In ancient times, cancer was rare because lifespans were short. Several other diseases (tuberculosis, dropsy, cholera, smallpox, leprosy, plague or pneumonia) killed people before cancer would. More prevalent cancer testing has also made cancer a more common culprit in the cause of death, rather than, say, the labels, “abcess” or “infection.”

In modern times, specific factors, (like smoking and changes in public hygiene and diet) have increased the incidence of some kinds of cancer, and reduced the incidence of others.

The author points out the difficulties in determining whether detecting cancer early, helps save lives. Some cancers are quick-killing and others are slow-growing. If someone is diagnosed with an early stage of quick-killing cancer. whose treatment is rigorous and unsuccessful, is that a better situation than one in which someone has the quick-killing kind without knowing it, but goes about blissfully living his life, and dies quickly once he is diagnosed? Perhaps the former person lived six months longer, but given his lack of enjoyment of life after diagnosis, he might as well have died sooner.

The  author also writes regarding testing, “Using survival as an end point for a screening test is flawed because early detection pushes the clock of diagnosis backward.” Say we have the hypothetical scenario of cancer patients A and B. They both developed the exact same kind of quick-killing cancer at the same time. Say patient A’s illness was diagnosed in 1985 and she died in 1990. Patient B’s illness was diagnosed in 1989 and she died in 1990. But since doctors diagnosed A’s cancer earlier, it seems, falsely, that she lived longer and that the screening test was beneficial.

In 1976, a highly regarded mammography study was done on 42,000 women in Malmo, Sweden. The results showed that a significant number of women 55 years and older benefited from breast cancer screening– the lives of one fifth of them were presumably saved than otherwise. “In younger women, in contrast, screening with mammography showed no detectable benefit.” Many additional studies thereafter reinforced this conclusion by 2002: “In aggregate, over the course of fifteen years, mammography had resulted in 20-30 percent reductions in breast cancer mortality for women aged fifty-five to seventy. But for women below fifty-five, the benefit was barely discernible.”

Mukherjee also describes a moral issue that can arise when it comes to the testing of cancer drugs. A company was reluctant to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to do further testing on what appeared to be a promising new drug for a rare kind of leukemia that might (or might not) benefit only thousands of people. Thousands is considered a small number, compared to millions of individuals whom a drug might help in the long run. The company could spend the same amount of money helping millions. Patients for whom all other treatments had failed, aggressively pushed to be included in the drug trial, arguing it could save their lives. The company did eventually agree to test the drug, but on a small scale. The drug was wildly successful in its first decade for those few who were treated with it. However, a few years later, cancer cells had become resistant to the drug. A next-generation drug had to be developed to continue to keep those patients alive.

The author tries to explain why, even with all the resources currently poured into research for a cancer cure and improving treatment, many cases are still fatal even in industrialized countries. Nevertheless, he points out– there are pitifully few resources being thrown into prevention. I suspect it is just not as lucrative as research and treatment.

Don’t Try This At Home

The Book of the Week is “Don’t Try This At Home” edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman, published in 2005.  This is a compilation of anecdotes from chefs who encountered some difficult situations during their careers. Some told of “making lemons from lemonade” and others gave a general overview of their experiences.

Four chefs whose stories were particularly intriguing, include Daniel Boulud, David Burke, Marcus Samuelsson and Geoffrey Zakarian.

Boulud recounted an episode in which, as culinary chairman of a fundraising event, he and his staff and extra hired help were required to make 1,200 servings of pea soup.  The “400 pounds of a variety of five peas” were to be stored in “25-gallon stainless steel containers set in ice water.”  Certain people failed to stir the soup hourly overnight, as they should have done, so it fermented.  The next morning, “All twelve hundred servings’ worth, was sour, useless garbage.”  The guests would be arriving that evening and were expecting high-end pea soup.

Burke is another chef who also saw a serious problem for which he had to come up with a solution quickly. He was supposed to cater a man’s fiftieth birthday party at which there would be a surprise dessert, envisioned by the wife.  She wanted a greatly enlarged, custom-made French dessert (“floating islands”) that would serve 200 guests. However, all of the meringues to be used in the dish collapsed, producing a very unprofessional look.  It could not be presented at the end of the meal.  What to do?

It was a language barrier that caused the Swedish-speaking Samuelsson excessive grief while he was working at a restaurant in Switzerland.  This was on New Years’ Eve, no less– one of the biggest nights of the year for business. He was asked to make terrine, which required proper setting of gelatine.  He had never used powdered gelatine before, could not understand the German, French and Italian instructions on the package, and did not ask anyone for help. The resulting concoction smelled bad, and resembled bathtub mold. Was it too late to salvage the situation? Samuelsson’s anecdote was the only one in the whole book that exhibited admission of error and true introspection. Kudos to him.

Zakarian tells of how he became a foodie. When he fell in love with France on a college assignment, he scrapped his academic plans to enjoy the fine food there instead.  Even so, as a starving student, he led a frugal existence, until two strokes of great good luck allowed him to partake of more luxury than otherwise.

Leg the Spread

The Book of the Week is “Leg the Spread” by Cari Lynn, published in 2004.  The author interviewed several current and former commodities-futures traders, providing detailed descriptions of their days at the market in Chicago.

Some traders, employees of a broker-dealer, actually stood on the trading floor, yelling and waving paper from the time the market opened at 8am until mid-afternoon.  Others traded online.  They had good days and bad days.

One female who formerly made a large amount of money on the trading floor before becoming burnt out, had many bad days, both because the job itself was stressful, and because the vast majority of people around her– practically all men– were sexist.  In many cases, the way for a female to get ahead besides having super luck, quick math skills and keen intuition about human behavior, was to sleep with one’s (male) boss.

Read the book to get a comprehensive, entertaining picture of the American commodities-futures market in the mid-single-digit 2000’s.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System

The Book of the Week is “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch, published in 2010.

This book appears to argue that the great American school system is moving closer to death.

Ms. Ravitch discusses how testing and accountability have “become the main levers of school reform… In the trade-off, our education system ended up with no curricular goals, low standards and dumbed-down tests.”

With the imposition of more standardized testing than ever before, education has been narrowed to only the subjects on the tests– literacy and mathematics.

The goal of some school districts, in implementing reform, has been to close the racial achievement gap.  For decades, students of certain ethnic groups (such as blacks and Hispanics) have shown lower test scores than their peers (who are whites and Asians).  There may be many causes for this (such as economic and demographic changes, to say nothing of test-question wording), but politicians think they can solve the problem through a formula. Ms. Ravitch provides an anecdotal example of this thinking in San Diego in the late 1990’s.

Teachers were resistant to “get with the program” due to the way in which it was forced upon them.  The outside educational coaches hired to work with the school personnel, were viewed as enforcers, rather than as collaborators.  The teachers were supposed to utter inane phrases, such as “I am a reflective practitioner.”  They were to spend a specific number of minutes on teaching a prescribed subject, and then move to another, even when the changeover was disruptive. Stress-related illnesses among the teachers, skyrocketed.

Ms. Ravitch covers a host of other issues, such as “No Child Left Behind,” controversies over standards, school vouchers, charter schools, use of private monies to fund education, the power of the federal and state governments concerning education, teaching-credentials, and a choice of schools for the students.

Politicians believe they are improving education by providing parents with an array of schools which their children can attend. The thinking is, choice will foster competition in the district.  This is a misguided notion, to say the least.

Ms. Ravitch states, “Julian Betts of U.C. San Diego questioned whether choice was even a successful strategy because his own studies found that choice had little or no effect on student achievement.”

Some charter schools accept students via a lottery system; other schools hand-pick their students. Even when unlucky students or those who require extra help are offered it– through extra school hours or free tutoring– it has been the tutoring companies that have profited handsomely.  There has been no quality-monitoring of the tutoring, so there has been no way to judge for sure whether students have shown any improvement.  One way to see, might be through standardized test scores, but scores’ validity and reliability have been questionable of late, for various reasons.

In many districts, there is grossly unfair funding allocation among schools.  A colossal amount of monies from billionaires (private sources) have been poured into charter schools and education reform initiatives that provide lucky students with special resources, while public schools have had to make do with scant taxpayer dollars and have had to go without, during times of severe budget cuts.

As for accountability, there is none. Ms. Ravitch writes that politicians have collaborated with nonprofit foundations because the latter are contributing megabucks to schools.  Consequently, they have acquired overwhelming power and influence.  “If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office.  The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one… they are bastions of unaccountable power.”

RIP, quality American education.

Who’s Teaching Your Children?

The Book of the Week is “Who’s Teaching Your Children?” by Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles, published in 2003.

This book describes the ominous future of education in the United States.  There is a dire teacher shortage which is slated only to get worse.  A vicious cycle accounts for this trend.  The authors ask, is it not a contradiction that parents demand quality teachers in their children’s schools but discourage their children from becoming teachers?

A large percentage of graduates who enter the teaching profession are not good students.  The ones who are, take more lucrative, rewarding jobs.  The teachers-to-be receive poor training.  For the most part, during their careers, they are underpaid and underappreciated.  No wonder the good students enter fields other than education.

Many teacher-training schools are for-profit institutions that need to fill seats to stay in business.  Therefore, in order to attract customers (graduates) they need to make obtaining teaching certification sufficiently easy.  “Grade inflation” (awarding higher grades than customers truly deserve in order to pass some customers who would otherwise fail) is one way they do so.

The authors present a scenario of their imagination, named, “The Millennium School.”  It is an elementary school that doubles as a teacher-training school, with a structure completely different from the usual American school’s.  It would be a small school with small classes, consisting of chief instructors “who supervise professional teachers, who supervise the teachers and associate teachers, who participate in supervising interns and instructional aides.”

Everyone on the team would be accountable for each child’s success or failure. The personnel would conduct classes and hold meetings as teams.  The school would be linked to a college, which would allow the teacher-trainees to fulfill the student-teaching component of their training, in teams.

I think the authors make exaggerated claims of such a school’s possible success, although it is a nice idea.  I like the team-teaching part.  However, the whole point is that power is distributed among many educators– they are supposed to cooperate, share ideas, and be rewarded with higher pay, more responsibilities and supervisory duties when they display an interest in advancing their careers. However, to me, this smacks of a corporate ladder.  Human nature is such that the ladder would spur competition rather than cooperation.  That would defeat the whole goal.

In addition, a school is a different sort of entity because it is funded by taxpayers. The kinds of operations a private company might fund for itself would not be possible for a school, due to a limited budget. There is an exception to this situation– in certain areas of this country, schools receive private monies from wealthy donors, making distribution of resources hugely uneven among schools.  As for the well-endowed schools, the funders are not educators, so they may have misguided notions of where to spend their money.  The money might go toward additional standardized testing, resources that reward corporate partners and activities relating to public relations, rather than toward real improvement in education quality.

Further, the government supervises the school, so there are politics from above and within.  The authors acknowledge the Millennium School model would necessarily be more expensive, but they argue that this model would eliminate many non-teaching positions, such as “curriculum coordinators, staff developers, teaching coaches,” etc. The resulting reduced payroll expenses would compensate for the raises received by the teachers and supervisors.

I think raises in pay would be extremely controversial– who would receive how much.  Theoretically, employees who acquired additional experience would deserve more pay.  However, the expedient way to measure the increase in education quality due to that increased experience, would probably be through standardized tests– another extremely controversial aspect of teaching.

I would suggest that various criteria be used to determine additional compensation for supervisors and teachers, that could include tests, as well as qualitative evaluations of supervisors, completed by teachers and trainees, and interviews with students.  Although I give them an “A” for effort, the authors present too simplified a model of the ideal school.

This is an informative, yet depressing book.

Saving Schools

The Book of the Week is “Saving Schools” by Paul E. Peterson, published in 2010.  This book tells the history of education in the United States.  It presents some inconvenient facts many politicians and even education “professionals” do not want to acknowledge.

Sociologist James Coleman did extensive longitudinal studies on thousands of students in the early 1960’s.  He found that “within regions and types of communities (urban, suburban and rural), expenditures per pupil were about the same in black and white schools… students did not learn more just because more money was spent on their education.” Students’ reading ability was not affected by the following factors:  class sizes, teachers’ credentials, textbook newness, number of books in the school library, or any other “material resource of a school.” It was affected by the students’ home lives. Another interesting finding was that low-income African-Americans read better when placed in classes with higher-income Caucasians, but the latter did not do worse when placed in classes with the former.

During the era of desegregation of the schools, Caucasian families moved from cities to suburbs at a higher rate than did African-American families.  Suburban schools therefore became more segregated, and thus there occurred less integration than otherwise in all kinds of communities overall.

One of LBJ’s anti-poverty programs gave billions of federal dollars to schools to provide intensive tutoring to disadvantaged African American students.  Unfortunately, this singled the students out, and made them targets for bullying.  Besides, the tutors “often had less training” than regular classroom teachers.  Research has yet to prove that the tutoring was significantly helpful.

Some education reformers have called for hiring of teachers who lack a master’s degree, as extra schooling is no guarantee of better teaching. Teachers earned master’s degrees in droves in the 20th century only because they were paid more for earning one. Teacher-training schools and unions have vehemently opposed removing this teaching credential.

“…relative to other employees who hold college degrees, teachers today are not as well paid as they were in 1960.”

In 2008, federal education officials and a team at UCLA proposed national education standards.  However, the portrayal of the United States in historical accounts, and the selectivity of curricular contents turned out to be too controversial.

The book also exposes the flaws of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law.  It covers the pros and cons of school vouchers, and the system that has been widely implemented as an alternative to vouchers – charter schools.

The author obviously favors the use of technology with regard to education.  For, the table of contents bears the headings for parts 1, 2 and 3:  “The Rise,” “The Decline” and “Signs of Resurrection.”  The third part contains a chapter on technology.

The author speculates that the future of education will involve online learning for all students, even declaring: “Each student, each household, each family will pick and choose among the endless variety of options entrepreneurs can produce.”  The use of the word “entrepreneurs” is disturbing when used in the context of education.  The author makes other assertions with which I do not agree, but he does provide extensive documentation on matters of “fact.”

To Know A Fly

The Book of the Week is “To Know A Fly” by Vincent G. Dethier, published in 1962.  This thin, little paperback book discusses how scientists attempt to understand the behavior of a fly.  Those who pull off the legs or wings of flies either come to a bad end or become biologists.

“The [required] college education not infrequently is as useful for acquiring proficiency in the game of Grantsmanship as it is for understanding biology.  No self-respecting modern biologist can go to work without money for a secretary, a research associate, two laboratory assistants, permanent equipment…” a car, books, animals and their accompanying accessories, etc., and a vast quantity of money (called overhead) “to the university to pay for all the transcribers hired to handle all the papers and money transactions that so big a grant requires.”

There is much to be said for the fly as an experimental animal.  The author describes in detail some clever experiments involving the fly’s eating habits and capacity to learn.  “To know the fly is to share a bit in the sublimity of Knowledge.”

Bad Attitude

The Book of the Week is “Bad Attitude; The Processed World Anthology.”  Edited by Chris Carlsson with Mark Leger, 1990.  This is a compilation of the late 1970’s magazine, “Processed World,” about early office computers.  It has many funny anecdotes, illustrations, comic strips and photos.  The caption of one photo (which really doesn’t require a photo) reads, “Sabotage… It’s as simple as pulling a plug…”