Tuesday, September 30, 2008

More on the obscured ceiling

I've fielded some questions, on and off the blog, about my post last week on obscuring the ceiling--that is, on the ways we sabotage our own performance to avoid the pain that might come from discovering our limitations. Off the blog, an alumna asked what we do with this knowledge. In the blog comments, Katherine wrote that the post "reminded me of what people invariably say when you talk about applying for something: 'What's the worst that could happen?' This obviously implies that rejection is the worst that could happen, and that rejection isn't that bad. In fact, as you point out (without being flippant) rejection really IS the worst thing that could happen." Hilary wrote in response, "I would say then, Katherine, that the worst thing is not rejection, but a paralyzing fear of that rejection that keeps us from trying, learning and growing." And then Hilary added two questions for me: "who defines the ceiling (and, relatedly, success)? and is the ceiling ever actually a ceiling?"

Hilary has already hit upon the primary thing I would say in response to the alumna who asked for actions to take to avoid self-destructive obscuring of ceilings. I'm working all of this out for myself, but my sense is that the key lies in redefining the "worst that could happen," as in the question Katherine quotes.

Rejection is not the worst that can happen. Failing to know the best you can do, wasting your time, missing an opportunity to get valuable responses to your best ideas: these are worse. To paraphrase Yeats--Adrienne Rich reminded me of this notion in a reading last week--the worst case is failing to have the courage of your own thought.

Hilary's questions establish the ways in which having the courage to reveal your ceiling becomes a complex and fluid process. Who defines your ceiling? You do, you must, but you will do well to incorporate the honest criticism of trusted others. And is the ever ceiling actually a ceiling? Yes, in some ways--even Bolt isn't running the hundred in eight seconds--but in most circumstances, most of us have plenty of space to grow. Perhaps the best thing about refusing to obscure your own ceiling is the discovery that it's harder to hit than you imagined.

Rejection is not the worst that can happen.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Obscuring the ceiling: how good students strategically sabotage themselves

How is a procrastinator like Usain Bolt--in a bad way?

After I wrote this post about Usain Bolt on my sports blog last week, Grinnell alum Hung Pham initiated a conversation about the post in which Pham used the idea of obscuring the ceiling to describe what I was commenting on in Bolt's pre-finish line celebration in the 100-meter dash.

Obscuring the ceiling is what I think Bolt successfully did in his race: I argued that by celebrating before the finish line, Bolt let everyone imagine how much faster he might have run--and those imaginings have, in fact, credited him with being even faster than he is. If obscuring the ceiling can make perhaps the fastest human who has ever lived seem faster, it is a powerful tool indeed.

Pham's phrasing helped me articulate something that had nagged at me since I praised the power of Bolt's maneuver: I've seen this before. And after a few days, I got it. Obscuring the ceiling is what a lot of my students do--and a number of people I know in other ways, but I think of this phenomenon primarily through my teaching.

To the best of my memory, when I started teaching about 15 years ago, I thought of student motivation like this: every student is more or less self-motivated, and every student has positive and negative external forces that affect performance. That is, I imagined intrinsic factors to be neutral or positive--at worst, the absence of positive motivation. What surprised me, therefore (and I've seen it surprise other new teachers), is the extent to which students will actively sabotage themselves in all manner of small and large ways: doing work well but handing it in late, making flamboyantly bad choices about time management, and so forth. I slowly came to realize that many of my students were choosing to incur penalties consistently so that I never got a chance to judge their best work in a straightforward way. That was the point. If you never try your hardest, nobody can ever find your limits. Like Usain Bolt, you have obscured your ceiling.

When I started articulating this idea, Molly Backes, an alumna of Grinnell's education program, pointed out the similarity of my thinking to Martin Covington's failure quadrant, which, as she put it, goes something like this:

* if you try really hard and still fail, you feel the worst
* if you try really hard and fail -- but you have an excuse, like
your grandmother just died -- you feel less bad
* if you don't try at all and fail, you feel better
* if you don't try at all and you have an excuse, you feel best


Another alumna pointed me to Homer Simpson's more concise formulation: "trying is the first step toward failure."

I had brought up this subject through the words of Malcolm Gladwell, who put the point yet another way in an interview with Bill Simmons, discussing sports:

Why don't people work hard when it's in their best interest to do so? Why does Eddy Curry come to camp every year overweight?

The (short) answer is that it's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection. I swear that's why Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I'll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don't study for tests -- which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you're stupid -- and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder.


I return to the subject now because the exaggerated glorification of Bolt's run has reminded me of the profound effectiveness of obscuring the ceiling. If the fastest runner in history can make most people think he is even faster by obscuring his ceiling, how tempting must it be for the rest of us to use the same method when we can protect our self-image?

We are starting to understand how to avoid the temptations of obscuring the ceiling: valuing the produce of work rather than the aura of talent, seeking the lessons of failure instead of making excuses, trying to improve even upon apparent successes.

I have only begun to recognize and struggle with the means of obscuring ceilings within myself, and I feel I have even farther to go in understanding how to help my students find, reveal, and shatter their own ceilings

Comments are most welcome. Especially critical ones!

(This post is crossposted at Sports Guy Talkin' Crazy Again.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Obama's chances: an update

After I posted about the divergence between Intrade's and FiveThirtyEight's estimates of Barack Obama's chances of winning in November, I wrote to the FiveThirtyEight gang to see whether they had any thoughts about the matter. They didn't reply directly, but they responded to the issue with this very interesting post about the Intrade betting.

The other markets, while favoring Obama more than Intrade, still consistently rate Obama's chances as being lower than FiveThirtyEight's estimates, so my point is largely unaffected by this new information, but this new context is essential for interpreting my first post.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What are the current odds of an Obama victory?

Reader, I know not what to think!

Like a lot of other people, I have for a while had the sense that Nate Silver and friends at FiveThirtyEight.com and the gloriously impersonal markets at Intrade gave me my best reading of the winds of political opinion.

The two sites use radically different methods, but they attempt to answer the same kinds of questions, and for present purposes, the question is precisely the same: what are the chances that Barack Obama will win the election in November? (Naturally, I could use McCain's name throughout this post, but I find it easier to use the numbers for the current favorite.)

FiveThirtyEight is driven by Nate Silver's attempt to aggregate poll numbers and to interpret them based on the history of polling and election results. The site combines state and national polling, tweaking the model along the way and running simulations to estimate the most likely results given current conditions.

Intrade, however, uses the emergent collective wisdom of a market to answer the same question. In theory, the simplicity of the market might do as well or better than Silver at taking all information into account. For example, Silver has been trying to model the distortions of cellphone usage in this year's polls. Because the possibility of cellphone distortions is well known, a real-money market has the potential, at least, to account for their effects without relying on a controlling modeler to estimate them: in many cases, the aggregated crowd can be sharper than the market. (See the work of Robin Hanson for more on the power of markets in politics.)

In spite of these differences, the two ways of answering the questions have produced similar predictions, with small variations due in part to Silver's model deliberately reacting slowly to new developments. Until now.

As I write, FiveThirtyEight's "win percentage" for Obama has rocketed up to 74.4%, although Obama was a slight underdog shortly after the Republican convention. Intrade's bettors also made Obama a slight underdog at that point, and they too think that Obama has regained his status as the frontrunner, but only barely: there, Obama leads 51.5%-47.4%. (For reasons not worth explaining here, FiveThirtyEight's win percentages add up to 100, whereas Intrade's probabilities will be slightly lower.)

I do not see an easy explanation for such a huge divergence. Both sites attempt to look beyond a current snapshot to project the November result, and both attempt to use all the relevant public information (Silver explicitly, Intrade by means of the market).

I welcome correction on this, but I think the plain-language way to sum up the difference is this: the market is making a big bet that McCain will perform better than candidates who had similar poll results at this point in past campaigns.

The difference must rest on a claim about the present or a claim about the future. A claim about the present would involve something like the Bradley effect--the notion that polls will artificially favor Obama because voters don't want to admit they are voting against the Black candidate. Silver has written a series of posts discounting the Bradley effect in this election, however, and even a strong belief in the effect would not explain a divergence as sudden as what we've seen.

If the implicit claim is about the future, the logic might run something like this: we're seeing a close race, and the spectacle of the current Wall Street meltdown has directed the race in a direction favorable to Obama, but this is a bubble. That is, the polls we're seeing today are like post-convention polls, which involve a predictable but fleeting bump. Today's polls are a parenthetical remark, not the story itself.

Whatever explanation you favor, this is certain: the wisdom of the betting crowd sees something behind the numbers that favors McCain--not enough to make McCain the favorite, but enough to keep the race close to a coin flip. The divergence between FiveThirtyEight and Intrade has given us a window into the differences between analytical modeling and market mechanisms.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Why you might root for yourself to lose money

The current economic problems are very serious and will continue to cause a lot of suffering. I say that to clarify that I'm not forgetting it when I point out that I'm always mildly amused to see news stories assuming that rising stock prices are good news and falling stock prices bad.

Here's the famous (in some circles) Warren Buffett passage on this issue:

A short quiz: If you plan to eat hamburgers throughout your life and are not a cattle producer, should you wish for higher or lower prices for beef? Likewise, if you are going to buy a car from time to time but are not an auto manufacturer, should you prefer higher or lower car prices? These questions, of course, answer themselves.

But now for the final exam: If you expect to be a net saver during the next five years, should you hope for a higher or lower stock market during that period? Many investors get this one wrong. Even though they are going to be net buyers of stocks for many years to come, they are elated when stock prices rise and depressed when they fall. In effect, they rejoice because prices have risen for the “hamburgers” they will soon be buying. This reaction makes no sense. Only those who will be sellers of equities in the near future should be happy at seeing stocks rise. Prospective purchasers should much prefer sinking prices.


I don't think this is knowledge people want to recognize. It means that you need to root for your own assets to fall in value, and it means that you may have rooting interests that conflict with those of your parents or children. I have no idea what the stock market will do, but I would definitely bet on a prosperous future for the good news-bad news convention of reporting on its progress.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and the race of folk wisdom

I'm going to spend a few sentences explaining why I think Sarah Palin's place in politics is oddly and vexingly like Barack Obama's, so let me foreshadow the end of the argument by illustrating the profound difference between them. Imagine Obama saying at the Democratic National Convention,

Before I became a senator of the great state of Illinois, I was a community organizer. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a community organizer is sort of like a small-town mayor, except that you have actual responsibilities.

As I'm sure you know, this is a reversal of Palin's famous zinger from the RNC, with a similar level of sneering inaccuracy. While Palin's line about community organizers immediately stood out as unusually inflammatory and mean, this Obama version would, I think you'll agree, have ended the campaign in an instant: hello, President McCain. I'll return to this.

Lots of Democrats, including me, are feeling their heads explode anew every time Palin reveals her ignorance of the fundamentals of federal policy: she doesn't know what the "Bush Doctrine" is (OK, it's complicated, and an informed request for clarification would have been fine--but not a look of uncomprehending fear), she doesn't know how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac work, she doesn't know how countries get admitted to NATO--this last in a way that brought her alarmingly close to arguing for a war with Russia that even McCain wouldn't seek. And pointing out these problems seems only to prod Palin's supporters to new levels of defensive loyalty.

Obama's supporters have a similarly defensive loyalty. The defensiveness does not arise from policy-related gaffes, which Obama avoids with wonderful deftness: as M. J. Rosenberg has said (supported by details that are worth reading), Obama "knows his sh*t." But when his rivals challenge Obama's experience, the defense lies not in his knowledge, exactly, but in his "judgment," which partly means judgment but is also politically acceptable code for curiosity and, yes, utterly extraordinary intelligence--not only the possession of such intelligence but the unapologetic willingness to display it.

In other words, Obama supporters want someone with that kind of mind running the country: dispassionate, probing, academic. Big issues require elite capabilities, the kind of extraordinary talents that may be visible in a young candidate. This fact explains part of Obama's longstanding education gap among Democrats, which is more widely known than when I first noted it but remains underanalyzed. This valuing of the extraordinary young candidate works directly against the logic of blue-collar unions, which tend instead to value experience and credentials.

The logic of the Palin candidacy holds that big issues require the expansion of common sense: a connection with regular people and a certain set of values trump policy and elite rhetoric. As David Brooks points out today, this conflict between Obama and Palin has deep roots in American political rhetoric--or, I would say, in a longer, more European line of thinking about the potential sovereignty of the people. The arguments about Obama and Palin reflect centuries of debates about the relative powers of individual intelligence, personal experience, and collective (or folk) experience.

This last factor deserves more attention. Every major candidate must make a populist claim to the wisdom of the folk. Among the four major candidates now, Biden makes the most conventional claim: he has experienced a working-class childhood in Scranton and a terrible tragedy within his family. The other three candidates' claims are more interesting. McCain has used his military experience to express his solidarity with others' experience of battle, a routine political idea in itself but remarkable in its ability to cover for McCain's otherwise entirely unfolksly and occasionally sordid personal life.

As ever, though, the truly fascinating cases are those of Obama and Palin. Obama does speak convincingly of his family's financial difficulties, but his signature piece of folk experience has always been his move from editing the Harvard Law Review to doing community organizing on the South Side of Chicago: this is the folk connection of an elite man. And his rhetorical populism was until recently characterized by the call-and-response tradition of American Black churches. His DNC speech was essentially an artful reworking of old material with the call-and-response sequences removed.

Palin, however, identifies strongly with a "small-town" background. Other parts of her RNC speech have attracted more attention, but this theme was dominant: she claimed to represent a small-town culture that Washington and media elites could not appreciate, but the folk can.

The oddity of these identifications is that, taken narrowly, they are losing electoral identifications. A Democrat doesn't win an election by winning the Black church vote; a Republican doesn't win by winning the small-town vote. In the politics of folk identification, therefore, Obama and Palin are targeting the popularly marketed fantasies of these identifications, the fantasies that have made hip hop and country music into "popular" genres.

The difference is race.

Palin can mobilize the small-town identification explicitly, even relentlessly. The notion that rural people can represent the purer form of everybody is authorized by centuries of cultural products. While the identification with urban culture may be as powerful as that with rural folk, it must be hinted at and hedged against. In the conventions, Palin emphasized her rurality while Obama dropped the most racially-inflected elements of his rhetoric.

Palin played up her rural roots most memorably in the sequence I referenced at the beginning of this post:

Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities.

This statement was, from the beginning, obviously extreme. As Nate Silver put it based on the advance text before Palin spoke, "it seems awfully petty for a party campaigning on the theme of service .... If you want a punchline that underscores liberal 'elitism', why not go after Obama's time as the President of the Harvard Law Review instead?"

My answer: this line was always about the reaction it would inevitably produce, which is the retelling of the well-known story that includes the Harvard Law Review and the South Side of Chicago. Palin's sneering portrayal seeks to reframe Obama's story of selfless service in a way that emphasizes simultaneously his elite education and his blackness. Thanks to the obvious demographic differences between small-town Alaska and South-Side Chicago, Palin's speech carefully mapped the common-elite opposition onto a white-black opposition.

Now consider my reversal of Palin's statement at the top of this post, its unspeakable mirror image. Unlike Palin's, it privileges mobility over rootedness and urban experience over rural experience. In the reversal, you can see what kinds of elitism are (and have long been) acceptable and unacceptable in American politics.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

James Fallows gets precisely the importance of Sarah Palin's blank look in response to the Bush Doctrine--and also usefully corrects Charlie Gibson's definition of the Doctrine. (See also Palin's total misunderstanding of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and of NATO.)

This is another Palin thing, but that's not why I post Thomas Merton (via Timothy Morton) on the theology of the devil.

Via Lifehacker, an academic calendar template for Excel

I'm looking forward to the next act of Errol Morris.

Sarah Vowell on presidential uncertainty

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Galvanize me: Reanimation and the logic of piano recreation

How much is recording fidelity worth to you? And how much the fantasy of a musician performing just for you? Technology is now letting those values battle each other for your music budget.

In this TEDTalk, John Q. Walker (so close to being John Q. Public!) describes the astonishing technical achievement involved in his method of recreating and then re-recording great piano performances. As you can see, the talk culminates with a piano, guided by a computer, "performing" for the live audience. And Sony is selling the recordings of these performances.

I'm guessing that the conventional highbrow response to these recordings is to find them amazing but unattractive: given the choice between a recording of Art Tatum and a recording of the reconstructed keystrokes of Art Tatum, who wouldn't prefer the latter? I'll admit, however, that poor sound quality detracts significantly from my enjoyment of recorded music. I suspect that I would strongly prefer listening to Walker's recreations as long as I didn't know what I was hearing. What does that mean for the relationship between technology and beauty?

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! -- Great God!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

A twofer, because the Daily Show is on fire. (Let's face it: Republicans aren't used to the gender politics game, and the Daily Show folks are just the ones to say how.) Bristol Palin's Choice and, even better, Republican hypocrisy.

Jason Kottke's Olympic moments on YouTube

How to wrap meat

10 words that will help you win at Scrabble

The real meaning of college access

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Intentional or unintentional humor?

Alberto Gonzalez has driven the Washington Post headline writers to despair of direct objects:

Report Describes Careless Handling of U.S. Secrets
Gonzales Says He Does Not Recall

Emphasis mine.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The way to huge, lifelong productivity

A reader of Marginal Revolution has provided Tyler Cowen (and now Jason Kottke) Walter Benjamin's rules for writing. I am most struck by this sequence:

VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

IX. Nulla dies sine linea -- but there may well be weeks.


All of these are variations on the simple theme that dominates all useful advice about accomplishing long-term tasks: don't stop.

Every long-term project will see cycles of productivity as inspiration, competing demands, and incoming resources vary. In other words, everybody slows down. And as Benjamin's ninth rule jokingly hints, pretty much everybody stops, too. But when somebody keeps the low points in the productive cycle just barely above zero, then takes the high points as they come, stuff gets done. When just barely above zero falls to zero, and zero starts to feel maybe a little OK, it's over. I've experienced both sides.

Moral: control your low points for long-term results.

Following up on Sarah Palin

Since I've already written about the underappreciated upside of Sarah Palin's nomination, I now offer the contrary view of why the relatively minor problems that have surfaced in the last few days seem to have unusual traction.

Reporters have information about candidates that they want to share but feel constrained not to. The constraint may come from ethical concerns, from editors, or from peer pressure, and it may be controversial: if you read any left-leaning citizen journalism, for example, you probably know that John McCain has said appalling things to his wife in front of reporters, but mainstream journalists have shown no inclination to recall that fact in the context of McCain's policy positions that relate to women's rights and issues. Many Republicans feel that Barack Obama has similarly been let off the hook for statements he and his proxies have made.

Now may observers are noting that the press seems unusually tenacious in examining Sarah Palin. I've seen some potential explanations and can imagine others, from sexism to religious bias to media resentment.

I suspect something a little different: my guess is that reporters have been struggling for a while with how to convey the fact that John McCain has been screwing up major points of foreign policy, making impetuous decisions, and generally exhibiting a lack of managerial control. This information dribbles out here and there, but no story has brought it all together in the way that the Palin appointment has.

On the heels of a Democratic Convention that, among other things, displayed the Obama team's formidable managerial and logistical skills, the Palin appointment highlighted McCain's impulsive hotheadedness in a way that had nothing directly to do with foreign policy. Suddenly, reporters who felt they could not ethically say, for instance, that McCain's reaction to the Georgian crisis was ludicrously belligerent and ill-considered, could say instead that it seems awfully strange to choose a Vice President at the very last minute with very little information in hand.

Hence the McCain campaign's furious efforts to defend the vetting process--a process that, after the announcement of the result, seems much less important than McCain's alarmingly shaky grasp of the geography and ideologies of the Middle East. Everybody involved understands that the argument over the vetting process is the publicly acceptable proxy for the argument over McCain's stability.

I could be wrong about this case, but I am more confident in the general assertion that many times the press seems hung up on a relatively minor political story, we are seeing journalists attempt to convey something they've been uncomfortable about keeping quiet.