Mike Kueber's Blog

April 2, 2014

More on PISA

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 10:26 pm
Tags: ,

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a book by Amanda Ripley titled The Smartest Kids in the World. In the book, Ripley described her study of why the kids in certain countries – Poland, South Korea, and Finland – appeared to be much better educated than American kids.

Ripley selected these countries based on their PISA scores.  PISA (Program for International Students Assessment) is a test of critical-thinking skills (not curriculum-centered knowledge) that translates fairly from one country to the next. The PISA results, as do many other test results, show American students to be mediocre in science and math and fairly strong in reading. But the PISA rankings are dominated by Finland, South Korea, and fast rising Poland.

A few days later, I blogged more specifically about the PISA and concluded by warning that, while the test was promising, the prospects for American achievement were not:

  • This 61-question test is so fascinating because it is directed toward the ability to use your education in a practical manner, your ability to engage effectively in the modern world. When people can use their critical thinking, our need for a nanny government is diminished. That is why Ripley and I are both worried for America.

Well, an article earlier this week in the NY Times suggests that maybe I was too pessimistic. According to the article, the PISA was expanded in 2012 to test not only reading, math, and science, but also problem-solving skills. And problem-solving appears to be an American forte:

  • The American students who took the problem-solving tests in 2012, the first time they were administered, did better on these exams than on reading, math and science tests, suggesting that students in the United States are better able to apply knowledge to real-life situations than perform straightforward academic tasks.”

The article went to great lengths to congratulate America on its problem-solving success:

  • The types of tasks that appeared on the problem-solving tests asked students to demonstrate practical thinking. At a basic level, for example, students might be asked to identify the cheapest lines of furniture in a catalog showing different brands. At a more advanced level, students could be asked to develop a process for figuring out why a particular electronic device was not working properly. American students were best at what the test writers described as ‘interactive’ tasks, in which students were asked to discover some of the information needed to solve the problem. ‘This suggests that students in the United States are open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty, and dare to use intuition to initiate a solution,’ the O.E.C.D. said in a statement.”

But the article also noted that, although American kids seemed especially skilled at problem-solving, they were not leading the pack:

  • Fifteen-year-olds in the United States scored above the average of those in the developed world on exams assessing problem-solving skills, but they trailed several countries in Asia and Europe as well as Canada, according to international standardized tests results released on Tuesday…. including Singapore, South Korea, Japan, several provinces of China, Canada, Australia, Finland and Britain all outperformed American students.”

I choose to see the glass as half full and look on this performance as something of a success that we can build on.

April 1, 2014

Aphorism of the Week #19 – If a tree falls in the forest….

Filed under: Aphorism — Mike Kueber @ 11:05 pm
Tags:

If a tree falls in the forest but nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

I always thought this in an interesting question because sound waves don’t have a physical manifestation. Thus, if there is nothing to detect the sound waves, it seemed to me that there was no sound in that vacuum. But during a recent conversation with my literate leprechaun Mike Callen, he pointed out that this riddle was actually philosophical nonsense in support of the broader proposition that nothing (even physical manifestation) is real unless someone perceives it.

For further information, I referred to Wikipedia, which seemed to agree with Callen:

  • The most immediate philosophical topic that the riddle introduces involves the existence of the tree (and the sound it produces) outside of human perception. If no one is around to see, hear, touch or smell the tree, how could it be said to exist? What is it to say that it exists when such an existence is unknown?

But when I read further in Wikipedia, it eventually got to my point:

  • What is the difference between what something is, and how it appears? – e.g., “sound is the variation of pressure that propagates through matter as a wave.” Perhaps the most important topic the riddle offers is the division between perception of an object and how an object really is…. people may also say, if the tree exists outside of perception (as common sense would dictate), then it will produce sound waves. However, these sound waves will not actually sound like anything. Sound as it is mechanically understood will occur, but sound as it is understood by sensation will not occur…. This riddle illustrates John Locke’s famous distinction between primary and secondary qualities. This distinction outlines which qualities are axiomatically imbibed in an object, and which qualities are ascribed to the object. That is, a red thing is not really red (that is, ‘red’ is a secondary quality), a sweet thing is not really sweet, a sound does not actually sound like anything, but a round object is round.

What would I do without Wikipedia? Well, I might refer to the fun and interesting Urban Dictionary, which suggests that the riddle “symbolizes the ineffectiveness of unheard opinions/thoughts.” That meaning seems like a strain of Callen’s thinking, which is not surprising since Callen in an urban sort of guy.

March 30, 2014

Sunday Book Review #130 – Reviving Ophelia

Filed under: Book reviews,Culture — Mike Kueber @ 7:29 am
Tags: ,

A few weeks ago, a hometown friend posted on her Facebook wall a poster about bossy young girls. In the poster, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg admonished people for characterizing young girls as bossy. Instead, she suggested that we praise them for having leadership skills.

My brother Kelly and I got into a protracted exchange with three female friends from Aneta’s class of ’72 about the poster. We argued that bossy is not a sexist term, but rather is one reserved for people, male or female, who are “given to ordering people about; overly authoritative; domineering.” Who would want a daughter (or son) to be like that? Our female friends disagreed and suggested that the term was generally used by men who wanted to keep women subservient and docile. In the end, we agreed to disagree, but one friend suggested that my thinking might be changed if I read Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher. I promised to give it a try.

Reviving Ophelia is a 1994 book subtitled “Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.” The author Mary Pipher is a lifelong clinical psychologist. She is six years older than me (making her 66), and she grew up in a small town America remarkably similar to mine. Her hometown had 400 people (so did mine), and “As Garrison Keillor said, ‘Nobody gets rich in a small town because everybody’s watching.’ Money and conspicuous consumption were downplayed in my community. Some people were wealthier than others, but it was bad taste to flaunt a high income.” Her mom was a doctor and her dad sold corn and raised hogs. She seemed to have the same idyllic childhood that I did.

One of Pipher’s principal points is that growing up in the 50s is a different world than growing up in the 90s, and she spends an entire chapter contrasting that difference. But her larger point is that growing up as a female in the 90s is immeasurably more difficult for girls than for boys. Whereas boys are encouraged to be all they can be, girls are pressured to suppress who they really and naturally are, and are instead channeled to become the broadly accepted model of femininity – i.e., pretty, thin, not too smart, not too assertive.  Girls do all of this for the purpose of receiving the approval of boys and men, which is  paradoxical because, according to Pipher, culture in general and boys and men in particular are often misogynists.

When I read the Wikipedia entry about Reviving Ophelia, I learned that Pipher’s larger point about the girl/boy distinction has been rejected by some:

  • However, studies, such as The Gender Similarities Hypothesis, challenge the assertion that the self-esteem of girls is more significantly reduced at the beginning of adolescence than for boys.”

Even if Pipher’s point were true in 1994, I question whether it remains valid. There has been a plethora of studies and articles in recent years showing that young girls are doing better than young boys. Most of society is rooting for girls to be all they can be (notwithstanding the numerous Neanderthals amongst us), while boys are left to wonder what is left of their masculine role.

Getting back to my three female friends, I believe Reviving Ophelia provides strong support for their thesis, especially as applied to their daughters. But it also tends to suggest that these problems weren’t as severe when they were growing up in small-town America in the 60s. And the author’s views are clearly outdated in 2014 because, I believe, boys have just as much trouble dealing with societal expectations as girls do.

Incidentally, Ophelia was a girl in Hamlet who was a happy and free young girl but in adolescence lost herself while trying to please the love of her life, Hamlet, and her father. “When Hamlet spurns her because she is an obedient daughter, she goes mad with grief. Dressed in elegant clothes that weigh her down, she drowns in a stream filled with flowers.” Pipher feels that adolescent girls of the 90s were similarly afflicted, and she often makes the contrast between the strength of pre-adolescence girls and afflicted adolescent girls.

This was a very enjoyable book, with numerous common-sense, non-academic insights (and generalizations), such as the following taken from a few pages in the first chapter:

  • Most preadolescent girls are marvelous company because they are interested in everything – sports, nature, people, music and books…. They can be androgynous, having the ability to act adaptively in any situation regardless of gender role constraints…. Girls between seven and eleven rarely come to therapy. They don’t need it…. Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as plane and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves…. Girls know they are losing themselves…. Simone de Beauvoir believed adolescence is when girls realize that men have the power and that their only power comes from consenting to become submissive adored objects…. Girls become female impersonators who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces…. This gap between girls’ true selves and cultural prescriptions for what is properly female creates enormous problems. To paraphrase a Steven Smith poem about swimming in the sea, ‘they are not waving, they are drowning.’… Margaret Mead believed that the ideal culture is one in which there is a place for every human gift…. Stendhal wrote, ‘All geniuses born women are lost to the public good.’”

I agree with Mead’s standard, but I disagree with Stendhal. Pipher quoted Stendhal not only in the introductory chapter, but also in the last paragraph in the last chapter in the book:

  • I quoted Stendhal in Chapter One: ‘All geniuses born women are lost to the public good.’ Some ground has been gained since he said that, and some lost. Let’s work toward a culture in which there is a place for every human gift, in which children are safe and protected, women are respected, and men and women can love each other as who human beings.”

What Pipher didn’t say was when Stendhal said that. By referring to Wikipedia, I learned that Stendhal, a/k/a Marie-Henri Beyle, was a French writer who died in 1842. For Pipher to suggest that the role of women in society hasn’t improved significantly since the early 1800s is damaging to her credibility, even more than her characterization of our culture as misogynistic.

 

 

 

 

 

Repair or replace

Filed under: Business,Finances — Mike Kueber @ 7:18 am
Tags:

I grew up in an era (the 50s and 60s) when products were unreliable and cost a lot and our standard of living was relatively low. The confluence of these factors resulted in a thriving repair industry. It made sense to put a lot of time into fixing something.

Those days are gone. Today, products are relatively cheap and amazingly reliable, and the reasonable labor rate for a repairman (around $100 an hour) makes it prohibitively expensive to repair products like phones, refrigerators, TVs, washers & driers, and laptops. About the only repair business that remains thriving is the auto business, and that brings me to my sad story.

In December, my son Jimmy came back from Ohio with his 2001 gas-guzzling F150. The truck had been in Ohio for more than a year and was in sad shape. There was a slow leak in a tire, the check-engine and ABS lights were on, the steering wheel rested at 2 o’clock, the driver’s leather seat was almost like rags, the driver’s step had been broken off, the CD player had been stolen, and the inspection and registration stickers were expired.

After Jimmy left for Austria in January, I considered selling the vehicle, but decided no one would want to buy an uninspected vehicle with check-engine and ABS lights on and a slow tire leak. So my first order of business was to get those problems fixed.

  • First step – get the slow tire leak repaired at Discount Tires. Unfortunately, they couldn’t repair the tire because there was a nail that was too near the sidewall. Therefore, I had to replace the nearly new tire with another that cost more than $200. Although I hadn’t purchased insurance on the tire, Discount Tire gave me some sort of tread allowance that reduced the cost to a mere $170.
  • Step two – inspection. Before taking it in for an inspection, I replaced the windshield wipers because Jimmy had told me that they were bad. (This is easier said than done.) Then I took the vehicle to a repair shop on Bandera Road that one of my best friends swore was competent and honest. Well, the manager/owner honestly told me that the truck was a mess (spark plugs with 180,000 miles on them will do that) – brake problems, engine computer problems ($600 new, $300 used), plus the seal in the differential was leaking and needed to be replaced. $1,300 later I had my inspection sticker. Plus, they threw in a coupon for a free oil-change.
  • Step three – get a new CD player. First, I went to a couple of stores and got quotes for a simple CD player. Jimmy’s expensive touch screen had been stolen three times, and now was the time to stop that insanity. One independent shop wanted $200 for a non-Sony and a franchise shop (Mother’s) wanted $200 for a Sony. I decided to go with Mother’s, but then noticed that there was another Mother’s franchise closer to my place, and when I called them I learned that they would put in a Sony for $170. Obviously, that’s where I went, and this chapter ended nicely.
  • Step four – get the steering aligned. I had asked the first shop to fix the steering wheel, but they didn’t have alignment capabilities and said I would have to take it to an alignment shop. I called Midas and Brake Check on IH-10 and both assured me that a steering wheel could be aligned with a simple front-wheel alignment – cost $60 at one place and $55 at the other. Then I recalled that I had seen a sign near the Bandera shop advertising an alignment for less than $50, and I decided to take it there because I suspected that a shop in a middle-class neighborhood would be less likely to try to find additional work requirements. Boy, was that a mistake. Ten minutes after the Bandera shop started working on my vehicle, the repairman called me back to show me all the damage to the various wheel-support components. He said it would cost me $1100 to enable me to drive home without the wheel falling off and $2,400 to fix everything. After I pressed him to distinguish between the safety issues and defect issues, he was able to eliminate some overlapping labor and reduce the cost to $1980 if all the work were done at once. When I asked for his best price, sensing it was negotiable, he reduced it to $1,900. I paused for a moment (I should have paused for at least one day), and told him that he could have the job for $1,800. He immediately snapped up my offer, and I immediately thought that was too quick. The repairs were supposed to be completed that day, but due to some hidden problems and some severely rusted out parts, the repairs weren’t completed until the end of the next day. As a freebee, the shop threw in fixing the door step by moving a step from a rear door to replace the broken one on the front door. They also gave me a coupon for a free oil-change. In hindsight, I should have taken my truck back to the first shop to get a 2nd bid. Even though they don’t do alignments, they could have done all of the work except for the alignment and their labor rate was only $70 or $80 compared to $90 at the second shop. More importantly, competitive bids bring out the best in every business and are the best way to avoid unnecessary repairs.

As I was driving home with Jimmy’s truck, I started thinking that a poolside friend said he knew someone who would repair the leather seat for $200 a side, and at that point, the truck would be all set. But I started noticing it was warm in the truck, so I turned on the A/C, but the air wasn’t really cold. So I turned on Max A/C, and the air still wasn’t cold.

Uff da, when is it going to end.

March 29, 2014

Saturday Night at the Movies #107

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 12:39 pm
Tags: ,

Revolutionary Road (2008) is a drama set in the 50s that brings together the Titanic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, except this time they are not falling in love with each other, but rather are suburbanites falling out of love. The problem with their marriage is that they both originally wanted something different than a traditional suburbanite lifestyle, but DiCaprio’s posture was more a pretense and he eventually drifts back to suburban values of work and kids. Both stars are credible, and Michael Shannon plays a wonderful mentally-ill character who talks with a jarring frankness that exposes DiCaprio’s/Winslet’s lapses. The Rotten Tomato critics and audience are in general agreement with 68% and 71%, respectively. I liked it even better at three and a half stars out of four.

Adam (2009) is a drama about a young guy with Asperger’s syndrome, which is described in Wikipedia as follows:

  • An autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development. Although not required for diagnosis, physical clumsiness and atypical (peculiar, odd) use of language are frequently reported.”

That description is accurately portrayed by Adam in this movie. Adam is a sweet, young computer guy in Manhattan who meets a sweet, young attractive woman who moves into his building, and they explore the possibility of having a relationship. Critics have accurately suggested that the plot is a bit implausible because such an attractive girl (Rose Byrne), not matter how sweet, would be unlikely to seriously consider a guy like Adam (Hugh Dancy). But they forget There’s Something About Mary, and we guys like to dream. The Rotten Tomato critics scored the movie, which was a box office flop, at 64%, while the audience liked it slightly better at 72%. I agree with the audience because, despite the simple, slightly implausible plot, the characters were likeable and the question of whether to have a relationship with an Asperger’s person is interesting. So I give it three stars out of four.

True Detective (2014) is an eight-part HBO series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. I recently subscribed to HBO and my first order of business was to binge on this highly acclaimed series for a couple of days. The plot revolves around a 17-year murder investigation in Louisiana (the home state of writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto), and it seems like the state is filled with a bunch of Jerry Springer-type people. The story starts in current time (2012), but continually refers back to an early time in the investigation, and the aging/un-aging of McConaughey (actually 45) and Harrelson (actually 52) is amazing. For the scenes set in 1995, these guys actually look like they were in their early 30s.

Although both McConaughey and Harrelson play characters with horrible flaws, they are easily the good guys who you are rooting for. Their acting and Pizzolatto’s writing are superb.  And Harrelson’s wife, well played by Michelle Monaghan, supplies a critical dimension.  The Rotten Tomato critics loved True Detective at 87%, but the audience loved it more at 98%. I agree with the critics and give it four stars out of four.

March 27, 2014

Retirement

Filed under: Retirement — Mike Kueber @ 8:07 pm
Tags:

As I posted on my Facebook wall this morning, “Today marks five years of retirement bliss for me. They say that people rarely regret retiring too soon, and you can add my voice to that chorus.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by NY Times columnist David Brooks a couple of years ago based on his reading a few short autobiographies written by some people for their 50-year college reunion:

  • The most common lament in this collection is from people who worked at the same company all their lives and now realize how boring they must seem. These people passively let their lives happen to them. One man described his long, uneventful career at an insurance company and concluded, ‘Wish my self-profile was more exciting, but it’s a little late now.’”

Fortunately, I was not career obsessed after the age of 40. In fact, I remember discussing with another career lawyer the relative insignificance of getting that more promotion that might result in another $20,000 of income. I argued that the additional money might enable my family to a have little bit bigger house or a little bit nicer car, but in the grand scheme of things that was not important.

His comeback, however, was a good one. He said I could sock the money away and retire earlier. That made sense then, and it makes even more sense now.

English-only ballots

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 10:40 am
Tags: ,

One day I was reading about the naturalization requirements for becoming an American citizen. One of the requirements is, “Be able to read, write, and speak English and have knowledge and an understanding of U.S. history and government (civics).”

Then the following question dawned on me – if naturalized citizens must be English speaking, why is it that some election ballots are required to be multi-lingual?

My guess – the Supreme Court – turned out to be wrong. Instead this new example of government stupidity comes from the Voting Rights Act. According to a Department of Justice website,  Congress amended the Voting Rights Act in 1975 by adding Section 203, to require as follows:

  • “The law covers those localities where there are more than 10,000 or over 5 percent of the total voting age citizens in a single political subdivision who are members of a single minority language group, have depressed literacy rates, and do not speak English very well.”
  • “Determinations are based on data from the most recent Census, and the determinations are made by the Director of the Census.”

The problem with this formulation is that the first dot point refers to “citizens” while the second dot point refers to census data, which scrupulously avoids any citizenship-based data because it doesn’t want to scare off illegal immigrants. That scruple results in notorious redistricting based on number of residents instead of number of citizens. Based on section 203, it also results in Spanish ballots for residents who have no right to vote.

Only in America.

March 26, 2014

Citizens United and Americans for Prosperity

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Law/justice,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 6:53 pm
Tags: ,

When liberals wrung their hands over Citizens United (i.e., the Supreme Court free-speech decision that allows private groups to spend unlimited amounts of money trying to influence American politics), I initially pooh-poohed their concern in my blog, but later came to agree that this is an ominous development.  A recent article in the NY Times this week further reveals the danger of Citizens United.

The article reports on the Koch brothers’ favorite super-PAC, Americans for Prosperity. This PAC is dominating all other PACs in spending and is becoming super-sophisticated in manipulating the thinking of American voters.

On one hand, the manipulation is scary, but on the other hand it reminds me of when I was growing up there was a great concern that American consumers would soon be under the spell of Madison Avenue manipulators. (See Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders.”)

We survived Madison Avenue (I think), and maybe we will find a way to survive the Americans for Prosperity.

Crimea

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 1:54 am
Tags: , ,

I have not closely followed the Russian take-over of Crimea, but I was stuck by a recent news article revealing that 80% of the people in Crimea were Russians. This made me think of the analogous situation in Northern Ireland, where most of the people were Protestants although Ireland as a whole is controlled by the dominant majority, Catholics. Should Protestant Northern Ireland be allowed to align itself with Protestant Great Britain or be forced to stay with Catholic Ireland? Similarly, should Crimea with its dominant Russian majority be allowed to align itself to Russia or be forced to stay with Ukraine where it will be a small minority? The fitting adage is damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Any article in this week’s Time magazine provided further support for the Russian takeover of Crimea.  The article described the circumstances of how Russia originally gave up sovereignty over Crimea:

  • That gift was made in 1954 on the whim of Nikita Khrushchev, who was then the leader of the Soviet Union. He decided to take Crimea away from Russia and transfer it to Ukraine at a time when the placement of their borders didn’t really matter. (Legend has it that Khrushchev was drunk when he signed the papers.) All three were part of the Soviet Union, whose collapse seemed unthinkable. But when it all broke apart in 1991, Crimea and its majority-Russian population found themselves in what felt like a foreign land.”

Based on this background, I think President Obama has reacted appropriately to the Russian take-over – i.e., he mildly objected, but did nothing significant, because this was not an unreasonable action by the Russians.

March 23, 2014

Sunday Book Review #129 – Changing Texas

Filed under: Culture,Economics,Education,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 9:32 pm
Tags: ,

Changing Texas is a demographic analysis of Texas projected out to 2050 conducted by a team led by the state’s former demographer, Steve Murdock.  In the introduction, Murdock claims that his objective is to present the demographic facts and not to prescribe intelligent public policy, but the book is subtitled “Implications of Addressing or Ignoring the Texas Challenge.”  From that subtitle, you should not be surprised that Murdock strongly implies what needs to be done.

Although this book is new (2014), Murdock’s opinions are not.  A few years ago, I heard him speak at a state-bar seminar and blogged about him.   Then about a year ago, there was a lengthy newspaper article that prompted me to do another blogpost, this one titled, “Is government responsible for ensuring that the education gap between Asian/Anglos and Blacks/Hispanics is narrowed?”

Murdock’s spiel, this time spread over 234 pages and more than 100 charts, is essentially the same as described in my previous posts – i.e., (a) Hispanics are ascendant and Anglos are a dying breed in Texas (only 21% of the state will be Anglo by 2050), and (b) Hispanics have not and will not accumulate capital (financial or educational).  The obvious result of this demographic trend is that the Texas economy will decline precipitously.

The public-policy correction, which Murdock promised not to make, is for government to somehow motivate/encourage/incentivize Blacks/Hispanics to accumulate capital.  A solution that he didn’t suggest was to motivate/encourage/incentivize Anglos to have more kids.  (Apparently, Anglo females for more than two decades have been having kids at less than the replacement rate of 2.1.)

As I noted in my previous blog, I don’t think this problem requires a race-based solution.  Not all Blacks/Hispanics are capital-poor and not all Anglos/Asians are resource rich.  Government should motivate/encourage/incentivize all resource-poor people, whether Black, White, or Brown, to accumulate capital – both financial and educational.

« Previous PageNext Page »

The Rubric Theme Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 61 other followers