Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Does the Firm Hire the Workers, or Do the Workers Hire the Firm?

Here is a brilliant post by Steven Landsburg. Even more brilliant is how he distills his point down into a few short lines in the comments:
When labor and management work together to produce an outcome, you can say that the labor hired the management or you can say that the management hired the labor. The fundamental arrangement remains the same regardless of what words we use to describe it.
I love this. Suppose we started out in a socialist utopia. Independent, self-employed artisans selling their wares to willing customers, who are themselves all self-employed artisans. This wouldn't last long. Some of them would realize they'd be more prosperous if they banded together and realized the efficiencies of division of labor. Before long, they'd realize they could hire some highly skilled managers to organize this division of labor. A highly skilled boss with a grand vision for enhanced productivity, plus a track record of delivering on his promises, would make them all much richer. They'd have to pay him a cut of their sales, but with the added revenue gained through organizational efficiency it would be easy to finance this payment.

It's easy to see the world as it is and take it far too literally. "The pizza place 'sets a price' and the customer buys at that price." Well, the price is very much constrained by competition. The pizza place can't just set any old price. It must be within a narrow range such that they'll actually sell some pizzas (not too high) and still cover their operating costs (not too low). Likewise the relationship between employer and employee looks superficially like a power relationship. "The employer offers the worker a salary, hires him, then tells him what to do." It looks to the casual observer like the employer is calling all the shots, but really the salary and working conditions are the result of a delicate balancing act and a series of negotiations of the terms. (This negotiation is sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit.) Employers are paranoid about losing their best employees, and employees are always leaving for better jobs at other companies. They have the power to unilaterally end the relationship if the employer is too abusive or simply not generous enough. If you can only directly observe your world and literally interpret what you see, you might think that businesses and employers set the terms of exchange and tell the customers and employees to "take it or leave it." But if you could also peer into the alternate universe, with initial conditions set to "independent artisans" and watch it break down, you might end up thinking, "Apparently labor and management come together to produce a product in any conceivable reality. No one's really calling the shots, because a similar equilibrium is reached regardless of who initially 'hires' whom."

Think of a stable of professional mixed martial arts fighters. Is the head coach "hiring" these fighters and bossing them around with grueling training regimens? Or are the fighters "hiring" the head coach, paying him for the use of his gym, access to his expertise, access to other top fighters and other coaching staff, and the "brand" of being with a top-notch stable? You can view the head coach as hiring the fighters or the fighters as hiring the head coach, but the reality is that fighter and coach come together to produce a product. (That being exciting MMA competitions.) You may look at the details of these arrangements and say, "In the real world, the fighter almost always approaches the stable and offers them a percentage of each purse," or "The stable almost always scouts out the talented fighters and extends them a deal to train with the stable for a percentage of each purse." The actual details of the arrangement are irrelevant. People are coming together to jointly produce a product and share the revenue they generate together. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Drug Courts and Drug Treatment

There is much discussion of the recent “opioid epidemic” and the possible policy responses to it. I often hear suggestions that we expand drug courts and treatment programs for addicts. My take on this is: Sure, those things would be better than what we’re doing now, but don’t assume they will help much.

Regarding drug courts, read The War on Drugs: and Old Wives Tale by Christine Shuck.  The author’s husband was forced to endure the infantilizing hell that is drug court. He probably got off lucky, actually. He got caught growing marijuana, and production/trafficking charges aren’t usually eligible for drug court. So the life-disrupting hell he endured was a lucky break compared to what most marijuana growers might have expected. Under drug court you don’t go to prison, but you are regularly urine tested. You have to call a number every morning and if your number comes up (actually I think they assigned him a color) you have to report to a location and drop urine. If you fail a drug test or if you fail to make the appointment, you go to jail for a day or two. This happened to him once early in his “sentence” because he failed to call the number that morning when his color came up. The case workers have enormous, arbitrary power over drug court defendants (prisoners?), and they often have limited or no clinical experience or psychiatric expertise. One case worker decided she didn’t like Christine (the author), so she considered making David (her husband, the drug court defendant) live elsewhere. This didn’t end up happening, but I was scratching my head thinking, “On what basis are you making this decision? From what psychiatric literature are you drawing this insight?” David’s legal rights were severely abridged for the duration of his drug court sentence. I wasn’t enough that he merely abstain from drug use (and recall that drug use was not even the original charge against him). He also couldn’t have any alcohol. In fact there could be no alcohol in the house, thus abridging Christine’s rights in addition to David’s. There were periodic searches of his house for such contraband. Christine explains that even if he were out at a restaurant and someone at the same table as him ordered alcohol, David could be arrested on the spot. Do read the whole thing. It’s an appeal to reason by someone who lived through that hell.

Many drug courts do not allow any kind of maintenance therapy, in which you replace one drug with another. They insist on strict abstinence. This is actually incredibly dangerous because relapse is very common among opioid addicts. Strictly enforced abstinence forces people to lose their tolerance for a drug, and then perhaps in a moment of weakness they indulge. Well, they may not understand that their tolerance isn’t what it used to be. This is actually a very dangerous time and (prior to the recent spate of fentanyl overdoses) was a or even the leading cause of heroin overdose.

So if people are saying, "Yay! drug courts, because it's better than what we have now. We can improve things from there in a few years," I can probably get on board. If people are saying, "Yay! drug courts, because they are the optimal drug policy and they really help the people who go through them," then I am extremely skeptical and I want to push back hard against this as some kind of permanent solution.

I should also recommend Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitz. It’s another part-autobiography, part-policy-analysis kind of book. Szalavitz has a long discussion of the various kinds of drug treatment programs. She discusses with which ones work and which ones don’t. Szalavitz was herself an addict and describes her experience with a 12-step program. She claims that it worked for her, but cautions the reader not to believe her anecdote in isolation. The literature just doesn’t seem to validate 12-step programs as an effective “cure” for addiction. (I always admire this kind of intellectual honesty. She’s obviously favorably disposed to a treatment that worked for her, but her review of the literature made her skeptical enough that she didn’t mislead her readers.) There are also “tough-love” type programs. The “patient” in such programs is usually confined to severely restricted living quarters. They are often subjected to incredibly cruel punishment, taunted, physically abused, emotionally broken down, or neglected. There are countless horror stories and several successful lawsuits against organizations that hosted such programs. For all the horrors, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling evidence that these programs work. Relapse rates for “graduates” of tough love are similar to relapse rates for alternative treatments or no treatment. Examples include Straight Inc. and Synanon

I mention this because often drug offenders will be forced into “treatment,” and two broad categories of treatment programs don’t work. So don’t expect that some big federal grant for “drug treatment” is going to suddenly cure all the hopeless addicts. It might help a few struggling addicts find a bed at a treatment facility, assuming they are ready and willing to get clean. But this isn’t going to scale up, such that spending ten times as much on treatment will cure ten times as many addicts. I see “expansion of drug treatment” as something that’s likely to quickly bump into diminishing returns.

Unbroken Brain discusses two kinds of "treatment" that actually work: maintenance and harm reduction. Under maintenance you basically give the addict a measured dose of whatever drug they are addicted to, or perhaps a similar drug. Methadone maintenance for heroin addiction, for example. Harm reduction means you reduce the risks associated with drug use. Clean needle exchanges, test kits that confirm the drug is what you think it is, "buddy" systems or safe injection facilities in the event of an overdose, overdose-reversing drugs like naloxone, etc. Most people "age out" of their addiction and clean up by their early-to-mid thirties or so. Under harm reduction, the idea is that you keep the addict alive until they mature out of their addiction. Opioids like heroin and prescription painkillers are basically only dangerous if you overdose. They don't do the kind of cumulative organ damage that sustained heavy drinking or cocaine use cause. So as long as you can keep the addict from overdosing or getting a blood-borne disease like HIV or hepatitis, you can basically sanitize their drug habit. The beauty of harm reduction is that you don't really need some government program with lots of federal funding and coercive control over the addict. Full drug legalization gets you most of the way there, even without government guardrails.

I see the calls for expanding drug courts and drug treatments as a kind of unserious "do-something-ism" by people who are squeamish about actually legalizing the drug market. Really, there is no way to mitigate the most serious overdose hazards in a regime of drug prohibition. If expanding drug courts is one step in a gradual migration toward legalization, I'll get on board out of realpolitik considerations. But it is not the best possible drug policy. I might as well say so clearly. 

Is It Possible To Sell Something At Twice the Market Price?

There was someone I used to interact with on Facebook a lot who was constantly harping on human irrationality. I remember him presenting me with the example of someone taking advantage of a hungry person’s moment of weakness by charging that person twice the market price for a sandwich. I remember thinking this was a silly scenario and needing to know how exactly the seller managed to get such a high price.

Is it a sandwich shop selling similar sandwiches to its competitors at double the price? If so, it’s hard to imagine they stay in business long. And besides, the buyer, weakened by hunger or not, can simply anticipate the higher price and shop elsewhere. Or does the owner charging normal sandwich prices, but spotting hungry customers and jacking up the price at the register? I find it implausible that this strategy will work long, unless there is a monopoly on sandwich-production.

Is it a chance encounter? Am I returning to the office, sandwich in hand, and a hungry, desperate coworker who doesn’t have time to walk a couple blocks flashes me a cool $15? In this case, it’s not clear that the buyer is overpaying. In this market of “desperate chance encounters”, perhaps the price of a sandwich really is $15.

Is someone closely monitoring signs of hunger in its potential buyers, preparing to rush-deliver them a sandwich? Perhaps they have an app, or even malware, installed on your phone monitoring your stomach for gurgling noises. Or maybe there’s a less creepy/illegal version of “predicting when someone is going to be hungry and delivering them a sandwich.” In a case like this (again, under a non-creepy version of "predicting the demands of hungry customers"), the seller is providing a service that other sellers aren’t. A hungry customer might be happy to pay for the added convenience. It’s possible they have higher operating costs to cover, justifying the higher price. Again, the "market price" might be twice as high in this particular market for perfectly legitimate reasons. 

I love hypotheticals. But taking them seriously requires thinking about how likely they are to actually happen. Learning from them requires considering how the answer changes when crucial details are changed. There might be ways to profit consistently and repeatedly from someone's irrationality. Overall, though, the "humans are irrational so markets don't work" line of reasoning misses the mark. It's vastly overplayed.  

Monday, November 13, 2017

My Private Gymnastics Lesson

I recently had my first private gymnastics lesson. It’s something I should have done a very long time ago. I’ve been learning a lot of gymnastics on my own and have made quite a bit of progress. But a coach would have helped my progress happen faster. Learning stuff on your own is very rewarding, but you get very little feedback. While learning my front handspring, I knew that I was landing too hard, landing with my feet too far in front of me, bending my arms, etc. It probably took me six months of tweaking one-thing-at-a-time to land a decent front handspring, and over the next six months I refined everything further. What little feedback I got was stuff like “I landed way too hard,” which doesn’t tell me what thing I did wrong. Did I not keep my arms straight? Did I try to “sit up” and spot my landing? Is there some mysterious detail that’s entirely missing from all the tutorials I’ve seen? I also took video of myself on my phone. This was of limited value. I could tell what I was doing wrong, but not necessarily how to fix it. For example, I knew for a very long time that I was bending my arms when I touched the ground, but didn’t know how to make them stay straight (hint: you have to push hard off your front leg, otherwise your arms will pretty much have to bend). I’m guessing three or four hour-long coaching sessions would have vastly shortened those long, frustrating months.

It turns out my front handspring is pretty much okay. That was a relief. The coach tweaked one detail and I was landing a lot more cleanly. It was my first experience doing anything on real gymnastics equipment. The gym had a trampoline-floor, two floors of intermediate degrees of “bouncy”, and a solid floor. I over-rotated and face-planted on some soft mats on my first few front-handsprings off the trampoline floor. I didn’t know how to prepare myself for the extra boost. With the tweaks he suggested, I was landing cleanly, straight up-and-down with no face-planting.

It turns out I’m also pretty close to my aerial, the no-handed cartwheel. I could do them off the trampoline floor, which allows me to jump a little higher. I still am not quite able to do them on a solid floor. I think my initial back-kick needs to be stronger, and my push off the front foot needs to be stronger so I get a little more height. I’ve tried a few at home and I always have to put my hands down at the end. The coach said I was, “Doing the skill, then putting my hands down.” At any rate, I feel like I’m making progress on this skill just in the past few days, as opposed to making no progress whatsoever for the past year. Score 2 for “get a coach.”

I’m trying to learn the back handspring, too. It’s actually a much simpler move than the front handspring with far fewer details to screw up. But I was lost without a coach. The idea of jumping backwards and landing on my hands is terrifying. You can hurt yourself if you do it wrong. Anticipating that you will hurt yourself, your brain does not allow your body to do the technique properly. The coach had some excellent exercises to get me started. He had me use an object called a “boulder”, which is basically a big curved padded shape that tips you back onto your hands if you commit to the technique. It doesn’t move if you don’t properly commit. If I ever nail this skill, I’ll have to do a “physics of the back handspring post” similar to the one I did for the front handspring. There are similar physics principles involved in both skills. Anyway, I now understand the body mechanics of this skill in a way that I would never have understood by simply watching online tutorial videos. 

I figured out that my shoulder flexibility is really holding me back. I can’t do a kippup (that cool martial arts trick where you kick from your back up to your feet), probably because I can’t reach my hands back behind my shoulders and touch the floor. So I can’t get a good push off the floor with my hands. Likewise, I probably won’t have a good back handspring until I fix this. It should improve my jujitsu, too.

There’s a broader lesson here. “Get a coach” applies to everything. Oh, you’re self taught and can do everything well already? Shut up and get a coach. You can self-teach to an impressive degree, but you don’t know where your deficiencies are. Something else that I’m mostly self-taught in is data science. I really upped my game after my company hired a data scientist who I could actually talk with. Learning is feedback, and you don’t get enough feedback or the right kind of feedback when you self-teach. It would have been well worth a few $60-$100 sessions with such a person, who could have provided me useful feedback and suggest relevant readings and practice exercises. Get some kind of coaching. Get the kind of feedback you're not currently getting. 

Anarchocapitalism and Left Anarchy

I'm currently reading James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State. See this excellent review by Scott Alexander here, and this other excellent review here. It was also a topic of Cato Unbound, the monthly forum of dueling (meleeing?) essays. So far it's very good. Like James Scott, I consider myself an anarchist, philosophically speaking. But he is a very different kind of anarchist. It is very clear from his writings that he is a "left anarchist." He sees free markets and monetary transactions as being the same kinds of power structures as traditional government.

I'm a libertarian in the anarchocapitalist tradition. I see market transactions as voluntary interactions between consenting adults. "But," you say, "Party A really needs what Party B has, while Party B can take or leave Party A. Market power!" I reject this framing. I actually think it means Party B is helping Party A, apparently far more so than anyone else is helping A. If B is the only one helping A, to me this sounds like B is doing A a favor. And if A can simply take their business elsewhere, then B certainly has no power over A. It just seems odd that we should identify the party that is doing the most to help someone and then berate them, accuse them of monopoly, compare them to a dictator, and so on.

To get a feel for the different styles, see this discussion. In that excellent video, David Friedman presents the anarchocapitalist view, James C. Scott presents his left-anarchist view, and Robert Ellickson presents a more traditional classical liberal or libertarian view. (Ellickson wrote the excellent book Order Without Law, which I actually consider to be one of my anarchocapitalist influences. So it was interesting to see him take the "not anarchy" side of the debate.) Paraphrasing Friedman here: James C. Scott's book is the kind of book that anarchocapitalists should like, because it presents a lot of evidence of grand government plans doing enormous harm and going sideways. But he takes every opportunity to remind his readers that he's not one of those icky market libertarians.

Having read ~100 pages into Seeing Like a State and hearing Scott's commentary from this and other talks, I concur with Friedman's assessment. The market-bashing catches me off guard. I find myself often going. "yes. Yes. Yes! That's right! Wait...facile, stilted anti-market leftism? How does that even fit in here?"

I hope to avoid straw-manning, but here we go. James Scott's examples of market/monetary transactions being like government coercion really miss the mark. See the talk from ~15 minutes to ~25 minutes, and see David Friedman's responses just after. Scott points out that everyone gets one vote, but people have very different numbers of "dollars." From this premise he attempts to argue that rich people can simply get their way all the time. Friedman demolishes this argument later in the video by pointing out that a voting coalition can perpetually outvote another smaller coalition. The winning coalition can vote to have all of the grain allocated to itself, then all the paper, then all the electricity, and so on. When people are bidding for goods with dollars rather than votes, they can only spend those dollars once. So while it's possible that the rich will buy up all the flour in the world to make bread and then paper mache for their arts and crafts, it's more likely that the poor will outbid the rich for the frivolous uses of the food supply. It's also the case that rich people do better under government institutions. It simply is not the case that government flattens the playing field for everyone. It is precisely those upper classes who get the better schools and better police protection. When goods and services are allocated based political considerations and skills in manipulating the bureaucratic machinery, it is the upper classes who are best off. (Friedman offers the example of lanes on roads in Moscow that only government officials could use.) I can't quite tell if Scott is endorsing democracy. Maybe that will be clearer in his book, but it would be strange for someone in the anarchist tradition to do so. Maybe he's just talking about the "very small d" democracy of town halls and tribal meetings deciding things as a group, as opposed to a democratically elected government ruling over a large nation.

James Scott offers a bizarre example of "rich people winning the bidding process against poor people." He points out that rich American celebrities might be able to adopt an African orphan, while a local family would have zero chance of outbidding them. This example only makes sense if you see the orphan as a commodity and not as a human being. If the rich family is allowed to adopt the orphan, a voluntary transfer of wealth has happened, vastly increasing the resources available to the child. This kind of adoption reduces the kind of inequality that Scott is harping on. (This is just occurring to me just now: Is there open bidding on the orphan market? If not literal auctioneer bidding, is there actually someone saying, "We need to increase the 'fee' for adoption to charge those rich American celebrities more. Naturally, this will make it harder for locals to adopt these children." I don't know much about the international adoption process. I know there are some shady cash-only transactions, because I heard the details of an international adoption by a family I know. But I'd be surprised if there's a kind of outbidding or "pricing-out-of-the-market" that Scott is imagining.) This is probably his most confused example, but I don't think the other ones he offers redeem his worldview.

I see a few left anarchists on my Facebook page, and I think they are just terribly confused. Reading Scott, who is an intelligent defender of that worldview, doesn't make them seem any more respectable. They seem to object to any form of hierarchical power structure, even one which people enter voluntarily. That is literally the position taken by some Portland anarchists. They responded to the Reason piece linked to in the prior sentence on Facebook, reiterating how much they hate capitalists. (I suppose this is another example of left anarchists going out of their way to remind everyone that they aren't icky market libertarians. "Ew, that libertarian rag is praising us? Slap their outreached hand away! Now!") The very few left anarchists on my Facebook feed are reliably vanilla lefty-Democrats when it comes to any culture war issue or policy fight. If there is a Republican initiative to reduce taxes or cut the welfare state, these people line up with the other Democrats to bash the stupid, unenlightened Republicans. I want to say, "Hey, doesn't 'anarchy' have something to do with not wanting government?" (Leela: "Fry, that's the only thing about anarchy!") This is probably an unfair sampling and there are probably more ideologically principled and consistent left-anarchists. But so far James Scott, as one of their representatives, has failed to redeem them.

I sometimes imagine this kind of exchange between anarchocapitalism and anarchosocialism.

AC: Hey, there's a push to repeal most of the welfare state and sharply reduce taxes and government spending. Smash the state, right?
AS: Actually...I kind of think all that stuff should stay right where it is for now. Until the revolution comes, of course. Once the enlightened Socialist Mankind has arrived, we will not need these government institutions.
AC: Um, okay. Well, when the revolution does come, I can have a factory where I'm the boss, right? I mean, I understand that you don't like these kinds of power structures. But if that's a superior way to get things done, you'll let it operate and not physically attack me, right?
AS: Actually...we'll probably rabble-rouse the workers until they march on your factory and occupy it. There will be no police force to stop them. And if you hire private security, we'll probably arm the workers. You can try it, but your stuff will end up being collectively owned by the workers.
AC: Okay, geez. I didn't realize you 'anarchists' were so keen on using organized violence to reshape society. Sounds a lot like "government" to me. How does non-market/non-monetary allocation work in the anarchosocialist economy? Will I get an allocation of paper and ink to start a pro-capitalist newspaper? I presume there'll be a socialist version of such newspapers. You'll give these similar projects equal treatment, right?
AS: ...
AC: Okay, I guess I give up.

If I get a better understanding of left anarchy, I will attempt a longer "steel man" version of this hypothetical exchange (in which admittedly I am literally putting words into people's mouths). I've read quite a lot of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, so I should have come across the sophisticated version of this worldview. I still feel like I haven't. Maybe James Scott fills that role.

I should clarify that none of the above impugns Seeing Like a State. It's a truly original book, which I am still devouring.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Data Camp

I have a data-science type of job. I want to take this opportunity to shamelessly plug Datacamp, an online series of courses designed to teach the student about various data science topics and the very practical aspects of programming languages. You can do a track in the Python language or the R language. (There are also SQL courses. SQL-skills are very important as it’s good to have some data wrangling skills, but you’ll need R or Python to actually fit some of the predictive models that make “data science” a real discipline.) 

I thought I was an intermediate-to-advanced R user, but Datacamp really filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge. Like most R users (I think), I am self-taught. I learned the language doing things ad hoc, one-thing-at-a-time. Datacamp forced me to follow a well structured curriculum. You can actually learn to do some pretty advanced things in R without learning the basics. But "the basics" make it easier to write efficient code, readable by other R users. (See this hilarious example of an advanced R users being foiled by the basics. Basics which, by his own admission, he had learned and apparently forgotten.)

There are various "career tracks", depending on the level of skill you want to develop. There is a "data analyst" track for people who are basically Excel jockeys wanting to up their game a little. Then there is a "data scientist" track for people who want to build sophisticated predictive models using the latest modeling methods. There is a lot of overlap, too. If you finish the data analyst career track (which is 16 courses, each taking ~4 hours to complete), you're really not far from finishing the data scientist track (23 courses, 16 of which are in the data analyst track). Once you subscribe, you have unlimited access to all of their courses. Data Camp adds new courses all the time, some of which are extremely similar to existing courses. This kind of redundancy might seem pointless, but it's very helpful to get a different take on the same topic from a different set of instructors (each course is designed and led by one or two instructors). I would have missed quite a lot if I had said, "Meh. This was already covered in that other course." I've officially finished the Data Scientist career track and the (much shorter, overlapping) Machine Learning skills track, plus several unrelated courses. The material is excellent.

The courses are a series of videos, quizzes, and short programming exercises. When I say "short", I really mean five or six lines of programming. It's often fill-in-the-blank stuff. A video will introduce a statistical concept, then an R function that performs a related task. In the next window, you will be quizzed to see if you understand the concept. In the next window, you will have to enter the arguments of an R function, then examine the output. If this sounds like it's too much hand-holding, it's not. Some of the coding exercises took me a long time to figure out, and I still had to cheat. (If you're struggling with a programming exercise, you can ask for a hint. If you still don't get it, you can ask for the full solution and move on to the next exercise. I'm usually proud, but I was not above skipping some exercises. You get 100 experience points if you complete a programming exercise without help, 70 if you complete it after asking for the hint, and 0 if you ask for the full solution. Get to 100,000 xp, and you can cast fireball.)

At any rate, I don't think you're supposed to blow through the lessons and simply move on to the next thing. I think a practical use of Datacamp is more like the following. Go through all the lessons in some skill track in whatever order you please. At this point you don't know everything, but you have seen everything once. You have a mental index, so you can find stuff when you need it and review. When you need to use something (like that cool graphical trick for making vivid bar plots), you can review the videos, slides, quizzes, and programming exercises. You've already done the programming exercises, so your progress on those is saved. If you return to those lessons later, you will see the finished code. You can simply run the parts of the code you want to see and examine the output. The course that took you 4 hours to complete the first time can be reviewed in maybe 1 or 2 hours. Then you can apply your learnings to a cool work project and impress your boss. Or you can simply do spaced repetition and stay sharp on everything. I've re-done some lessons several times, even redoing entire courses.

A few pointers.

Use ?[function name] or (equivalently) help([function name]), which shows you documentation for the function you're using. Use it frequently. Use it even if you know how to do the programming exercise. There are a lot of arguments to any R function. There might be ten possible arguments, but you normally only enter two or three and the rest are handled by default values that you rarely have to mess with. Still, you should know what this function is doing.

Use the ls() function to see what's in your workspace. (Just ls(). It takes no arguments.) For the programming exercises, data and models are already loaded into your workspace. Sometimes these are the products of previous programming exercises. It's really easy to forget what you're working on, particularly if you leave a lesson and come back to it later. Also, some of the more advanced courses give you fewer details about what you're supposed to do. Instead of saying "Enter 'price ~.' as the first argument,  'binomial' as the second argument, and 'diamonds' as the third argument of the glm() function..." it might say "Build a logistic regression on the data, in which 'price' is a function of all other variables." If you forget the context and don't know what "the data" refers to, ls() will show you what's in your workspace. Once you have that information...

Use the str() function on things in your workspace. (Short for "structure", not "string".) If you call it on data, it will tell you what kind of data you're looking at, how many rows, what are the fields, what are the first few elements of each field, etc. If you call it on a model that you've built in a previous exercise, it will tell you what kind of model it is, what kinds of parameters are present, etc. Like I said, some of the advanced courses don't hold your hand as much, so you have to look at what data and model items exist in your workspace. Call ls() to see what's in there and call str() on those objects to see what you're working with.

There's a "run code" and a "submit answer" button, both of which run all of the code in your window. If you want to run just one or two lines, highlight the code and hit control+enter. See what this does, and use str(), head(), and summary() to take a look at any items you've created. This is a useful exercise. It makes you pause and think about what you're doing. Sometimes a single line of code really has several nested functions, the results of which get passed as arguments to the next function, and so on. It's easy to miss what this is doing. It helps to run the intermediate steps in these chains.

Some exercises are really freaking aggravating. Did you know that a filled circle is different from a solid circle? I didn't. But I do now! Anyway, stick with it. I promise you, you'll get over the these annoyances.

You can look at the slides from the videos while doing the coding exercises. This can be important, because often the video introduces a function, which is poorly explained or not introduced at all in the instructions for the coding exercise.

Don't be too proud to Google or check out Stacked Overflow for help. Some of the exercises don't give you enough information, or perhaps they are drawing on a previous, long-forgotten lesson (possibly from a different course, possibly one that you haven't taken yet!). It's fine. Remember you can always take a hint and even show the full answer. You can always do a "post mortem" on these and see where you went wrong by googling the library or functions you're using.

A note on pricing. I paid $300 for a 1-year subscription. They have special deals all the time, so I have no idea what I'd be paying if I signed up today. (I think I narrowly missed some "half-price" special. Oh, well.)  I'll probably renew at least for the next few years. This might sound like a lot of money, but it's trivial compared to the amount it can add to your salary. Maybe Datacamp isn't the right tool for you at this stage of your career. (There are other options like Coursera and Code Academy, but I know much less about these other services.)  But anyone with aspirations of self-improvement and career advancement should be willing to spend a comparable sum for education, accreditation, technical practice, professional development, or whatever. Buy textbooks, do online classes, or do some form of accreditation. If you have this ethic of self-improvement, with the associated willingness to shell out your own cash to achieve it, you will go far. If you take an "I won't do this unless corporate pays for it" attitude...well, then you have a chip on your shoulder and it's hurting your career. Do some self-improvement on your own time and on your own dime, and you can eventually abandon that stingy corporation for a more enlightened one. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Does Toastmasters Actually Help?

Toastmasters is an organization that claims to help people with public speaking. Thus the name, as in “Master of the Toast.” They have a standard curriculum, regional groups with weekly meetings, periodic public speaking competitions, and standards for critiquing speeches. In a typical meeting, a person might give a prepared speech and then accept commentary/criticism from the other Toastmasters. There are also short, informal speeches that give people an opportunity to ad lib.

I’m curious if Toastmasters actually helps people become better speakers at all. I know several people who are very active in the program who have not necessarily become better speakers.  I was working on a video presentation with one such person recently. Everyone on this project had a speaking part for the video. I nailed mine on the first take, whereas the Toastmaster required several takes.  Maybe he simply held himself to a higher standard, because he was a Toastmaster? No, he repeatedly made obvious slip-ups on each take. Mine didn’t have any obvious slip-ups. Another person on this project nailed his take on the first try, and a fourth person slipped up and required several takes. On this admittedly small sample, I saw no obvious benefit from Toastmasters. If it's supposed to transform you into a perfectly polished speaker, it failed this person. 

Another active Toastmaster has long, awkward pauses in every one of her presentations. She doesn’t know how to restart after being interrupted. Another tries really hard to be humorous, but this always falls flat. I recently saw this person give a somewhat technical hour-long talk in which they lost everybody in the first five minutes without ever getting them back. Another Toastmaster I’ve seen flounder in various “technical review” meetings (reviewing some kind of complicated actuarial methodology). No amount of public speaking polish will smooth over the fact that you’re struggling to understand the material.

I can see how it might help. Practice is bound to make you better at anything. If you’re paralyzed by the fear of public speaking, Toastmasters can provide you with a safe environment to practice in. I knew someone who spoke English as her second language who joined Toastmasters to improve her deficiencies with English. As far as I can tell, it helped. But overall I’m still skeptical, because I’ve seen too many cases of failure. Maybe a thorough randomized trial, with a “real Toastmasters curriculum” and a “placebo Toastmasters curriculum” would prove that Toastmasters is really awesome and my anecdotes are bullshit. Or maybe mere practice makes you better; perhaps the various Toastmasters checklists and rules for good speaking have nothing to do with it.

Here’s what I think: you need to learn your subject matter. Learn it really, really well. Know it forwards and backwards. Find out where people are discussing and debating it (comment forums, debates on Youtube, dueling scholarly articles, etc.) so you can see where you might get push-back. Figure out when and where people have difficulty understanding it, and practice discussing it with a newbie. Anticipate someone learning it “the wrong way,” show them how the wrong way leads to something obviously wrong, and how “the right way” leads them to something obviously right. 

Here’s something that Steven Landsburg has said about writing, but I think it applies equally well to speaking (from The Big Questions):
The bane of a college professor’s existence is the student who has been taught in a writing course that there is such a thing as good writing, independent of having something to say. Students turn in well-organized grammatically correct prose, with the occasional stylistic flourish in lieu of any logical argument, and don’t understand why they’ve earned grades of zero.
In the other direction, if your writing is murky, it’s usually because your thinking is murky, too. The cure for that is not a series of writing exercises; it’s to master your subject matter.
In my decades of writing for magazines and newspapers, I’ve written some pretty strong columns and some pretty weak ones. In nearly every case, the weak ones were weak because I hadn’t nailed down the logical structure of my argument. A good column comes, almost always, from translating a logical argument into mathematics, filling a pad of paper with calculations to ensure that the argument is solid, burning the mathematics, and translating my understanding into prose. The translation to prose is the easy part. Prose flows easily when you understand what you’re saying. If you’re struggling to “craft” your prose, you’re probably confused.
So I generally advise college students to avoid the English department. If you like to read, read. You don’t need to take classes. Grateful as I am that Professor N., the fact remains that if I hadn’t spent so much of my adult life rereading Richard III, I’d have been reading and rereading something else, maybe not quite as good, but who knows? And if you don’t like to read, play tennis or something instead. One hobby is as good as another.
If you want to take a literature course or two, I won’t begrudge you; just don’t let them get in the way of your education. But for God’s sake, avoid the writing courses. If you want to write, spend a couple of years studying, say, cognitive science. Take an idea that fascinates you, spend a lot of time thinking hard about the fine structure of the idea, and then explain it to your friends. You won’t have trouble finding words. Now put those words down on paper.
Know your subject matter really, really well, have a little bit of empathy for the uninitiated and their typical pitfalls, and the speaking (or writing) will almost take care of itself. There may be cases where sheer charisma or crowd-working skills will save you from your ignorance. But you have to stop and ask yourself, Do I really want it that way?