23 October 2011

Honey I love you, but… - Part II Working restrictions

The countries from the “old guard” in the EU imposed restrictions on their national labor markets for the citizens of some of the newly entered countries (including mine) as a temporary measure to protect their work force, despite the fact that one of the main guiding principles of the EU is the free movement of labor. One exception from this was Spain, which now facing a record unemployment rate of 20% has imposed restrictions for the Romanians and Bulgarians. In spring The Netherlands government wanted to impose even more restrictions for the season laborers from Eastern Europe. Again, it’s a case of “honey I love you but….” Let’s see why.
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First, the argument that these restrictions actually protect the local population’s jobs is false because for any reasonable human being to fight unemployment by keeping away the people that want to work makes no sense. As long as the jobs that the non-natives get are legal, it means that they get at least the minimum salary according to the local legislation, meaning that no-one stopped a local from taking that job for the same salary as the non-local.
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Moreover, the fact that one is a foreigner in a country does not necessarily give an advantage. I don’t really imagine a job that has as requirements to not speak the local language (or speak it badly), to be at least 1500 km away from home, to be separated from your family and to live in poor conditions (as most migrant workers do).
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On the other hand the legal migrant workers bring a lot of advantages to the host country. For example they consume in that country, they pay taxes to the host country’s budget and, why not, they bring some cultural richness. Also because in many cases they get the jobs that the locals don’t want for some salaries that the locals consider to be offending, the migrant workers are a source for lower costs for companies in the host country which can translate in smaller prices for the local consumers or / and higher profits for the companies that employed them.
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But, of course, it’s easier to say “the foreigners are bad and they are the source of our problems… there is nothing wrong with us”. Well, when you get 20% unemployment rate and moreover there is a long history of high unemployment, then for sure there is something wrong with you.
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The truth is that no politician will say: “get off your asses, you’re out of the social welfare or unemployment aid” because they will lose votes, whereas the migrants that actually want to work don’t have the right to vote.

12 October 2011

Honey I love you, but… or some of the EU Hypocrisy – Part One: The National Debts Issue

In recent months I’ve noticed many examples of hypocrisy in our beloved EU concerning many issues, but mainly on the financial problems of some EU member states, Greece having the un-honor of being the one that got most of the publicity and on the non-acceptance of Romania and Bulgaria in the Schengen agreement (our friends the Finish and Dutch governments said no). Also today I’ve heard on the news that Slovakia rejected the Euro-zone agreement on increasing the funds available as aid for the member countries..
Well, let’s imagine the EU as a big family in which there are bilateral relationships that are better or worse, but the family stays together because it is in everyone’s best interest to do so, even if they don’t admit it publicly. Of course in this family the members are not equal, although everybody pretends that they are, at least when in public. There are the two seniors, the smaller brothers and of course the cousins and some distant cousins from the country-side who are weaker, but extremely useful. And in such a family from time to time one member says to another: “you’re family and I love you, but…”.
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et’s talk more to the concrete side: Portugal, Ireland and Greece have some serious problems in financing their national debts. Since they use the Euro if one of them (or any other Euro-zone member state) will be unable to pay their debts the whole Euro zone will suffer… so the bigger and richer family members came to their aid… or at least pretended to do so. I will not enter into to many details on how those debts came to be, but let’s just say that the countries in question are not the only one responsible.
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hy all the big fuss about these debts and especially about the big favor that the richer countries promised? Well, yes, the countries in question need the help, but the helpers will not just give money away and they don’t. In fact there is a power game concerning many hundreds of billions of euros in which the ones that have the money want to earn the most. How is that?.
First, one huge hypocrisy is the impression that the helpers actually give money to the countries with problems. NO! In fact the richer ones give loans to the needy ones and every Euro that is lended comes with an interest rate… so eventually the helped ones will actually pay a price to the helpers.
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Second, the governments that lend money impose certain conditions to the beneficiaries. Some might say that it’s normal because the creditors want to make sure they get their money back. On the other side these conditions have other favorable effects for the creditors. The first one is that overall they actually decrease even more the competitively of the “helped” economies in comparison with the helpers. This might be argued, but in a world with fewer resources the competitive advantage counts even more than in an expanding world. The second one are the privatizations of state owned companies, institutions and selling some of the state owned properties such as real estate. What should be considered here is that in order for something to be sold, someone must buy, and the big question is who is going to buy and at what price. Regarding the price we can be sure that it’s not going to be a huge one since when in need anyone will sell cheaper. Regarding the buyers, I’m not very confident that the investment fund from Burkina Faso will come to acquire Greek or Portuguese companies, rather the big corporations from the richer countries in the EU will do so.
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In the long run, who actually wins?
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But if it’s in the favor of the “big brothers”, why don’t they just help the “poor cousins” and get it on with? Again… it’s a power game. The deeper the needy get in need, the more providential and profitable the salvation is. Another very important reason is that in many ways the uncertain and apparently unfavorable situation is in fact in favor of the big ones. Let’s just consider that due to these issues the Euro gets weaker comparing to the USD and to the Asian main currencies. Isn’t this an advantage for the big exporters of Europe (Germany, The Netherlands and France)?. A slightly weaker currency is an advantage for the exporters and a disadvantage of the importers… so Again… who wins?
.After almost endless debates there is finally a project to actually do something to improve the situation. The 18 Euro-zone member states (22 if we count Vatican, Monaco, Andora, San-Marino) decided to increase the funds available for the governments in need. In order to do so the agreement should be ratified by all countries involved..
Now, today, one country says NO. It is Slovakia, one of the latest adopters of the Euro and a country that has a population half of that of Paris. Why the parliament of Slovakia said NO? Because of some fights in the government coalition and the opposition parties didn’t miss the opportunity. I don’t mean to undermine Slovakia as a legitimate state member of the EU, but due to some petty interests in a small country some really big issues that concern the entire continent are at risk. The opposition parties in Slovakia might get their fair share of seats in the parliament after the elections, but they might come in power when it is already much worse than it is now.
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Another issue about Slovakia and many other states that form time to time say that they don’t want to participate in a commune effort is that due to the “bigness” of the issue, if one says NO, they get immediate attention. Let’s be honest… many people don’t even know where Slovakia is on the map (nor do they know where are Jordan or Macedonia) and what is the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia (similar with Paraguay and Uruguay).
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Unfortunately we are about 500 million citizens of the EU trapped in a political structure that seems to have been built with the best intentions, but it’s as easy to manage as a horde of wild cats while crossing a river.
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Pointing fingers and making stands is very easy. Of course the Geeks and the Portuguese have their faults, of course the government of Ireland sacrificed the state budget to save a bank and now they are in trouble, but these are not the issues. The main issue is if we are together or not.
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So… Honey, I love you, but… If you say that to your significant other, to your brother or sister, there is only one outcome… and the worst thing in difficult times is to be alone…
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I’ll be back soon with the Schengen issue – the second part of this post.

28 July 2011

Our first picture from the Wedding


This is the first wedding picture that we got our "mouse" on.
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5 May 2011

How to get smarter … and costly signaling theory.

About two years ago I wrote a post on this blog on “How to get smarter” (in Romanian) and every few days I get visits from people who searched “How to get smarter” in Romanian. I even got visits from Iceland, Japan, Switzerland, Australia and many other countries apart from Romania. In the last two months the number of visits that the blog got through googling these words increased (the blog is in the top 3 google results depending on exact combination of words).
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Initially I thought that more and more people are looking for ways in which to increase their intelligence or cognitive capacity or whatever you want to call “being smart”. This is not a bad thing, wright? It’s good if more and more people want to be smarter and look for ways of achieving this… or at least it’s a good thing if more and more people realize that they are not smart (enough).
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A few days ago I discovered what could be a much more plausible reason for the increased number of visits to this blog in search of ways to enhance one’s IQ. On the Romanian Radio station that I listen there is a commercial for Vodafone with a famous singer that says that if you buy a smartphone you’ll get smarter “automatically”. I guess that many of the people who ended up on this blog were searching for ways to get smarter without buying a smartphone which is expensive or maybe to get confirmation that owning one would lead to an increase in intelligence.
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Intelligence is a very important personal trait in social life and everyone (sane) wants to have it at a high level and display it even more. The reason for displaying intelligence is quite simple: everyone wants to have smart friends, smart spouses and IQ is a very good predictor in many things that we generally want to have such as job performance – good salary and successful mating (healthy kids that actually survive and don’t become junkies or end up in jail).
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Now there are various ways in which to display intelligence. Some people chose to buy complicated to use products like smartphones, or by getting MBA’s, PhD’s, Master degrees etc. Of course that smartphones and MBAs don’t display just IQ and these aren’t the only ways to show one’s intelligence, but this is not what I want to talk about. Some signals are more or less fake – they signal a trait that it not actually that high. For example one can buy a smartphone and not be very intelligent at all (he or she just stole some money and went directly to the store). Flashing out a brand new High-tech gadget will signal to his or her acquaintances that that person is smart enough to get the money needed and to know how to use the 10.000 features of the gizmo.
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Unfortunately for those who use false signals, there are much more natural and simpler ways to signal a trait such as intelligence. One of these is conversation. Let’s suppose that our dude that just bought a flashy last generation smartphone with 11.001 features and applications goes on a date with a young lady that was unconsciously attracted to him by the gadget. They go for some drinks, a nice walk etc. He can’t just stand next to her playing with his alleged IQ extension and not say a word. He has to talk to her or at least mimic a decent conversation. Now, talking and communication have been around far longer than electronics and we know how to unconsciously decode these more natural signals.
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So our guy that has spent at least 500 Euros on an intelligence showing piece of electronics has to prove in a very ancient way (conversation) that he’s actually smart. If the conversation is at a very low level of intellectual engagement, then he’ll not get a second date. Of course there might be some exceptions such as: the girl is less intelligent than him and she’ll perceive him as better fitted for mating; or the girl just wants a short (rather embarrassing) adventure.

21 March 2011

Plastic Money

Here’s something that you most likely you didn’t know about Romania:
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Romania is the only country in the Northern Hemisphere that has plastic money and I don’t mean bank cards. The Romanian banknotes (bills) are made out of polymer (aka plastic). The first polymer banknote was introduced in Romania in 1999 with the occasion of the total Sun eclipse. Starting from the early 2000ds the National Bank of Romania gradually replaced the paper (which actually is cotton) bills with plastic ones.
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Another thing that you might not know about the Romanian money is that there is no currency unit coin. The national currency of Romania is the Leu (which means lion) and there is no coin with the value of 1 Leu. Instead there is a banknote with that value.

The Professor Bias

Psychology and its derivatives in various sciences which usually include the term “Behavioral” give a lot of attention to decision making biases… in normal language: why we don’t make the optimal decisions.
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In the very many years of going to school I realized that there is what I call the “Professor Bias”. This means that a professor has the WRONG impression that his or her course is the most important one that students have at a particular time or even in all of their education. Most severe cases of “professor bias” imply that the teacher strongly believes that the students take only his or her course and no other.
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This bias leads to an overload for students and that it’s not necessary a problem in itself, but in most cases it leads to an overload with less important, less interesting and even less useful study work. From both my learning experience and teaching experience I know that studying something one doesn’t enjoy or finds it useful leads to only one result: failure. Failure can come in many forms. Some fail by dropping out of school, other by becoming “brain dead” and losing all innate human qualities like creativity and empathy.
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The “professor bias”, as most of the other decision making biases, is in most cases unconscious. The people who have it don’t know they do and they see nothing wrong in emphasizing on their course. When students don’t respond in acknowledging that the course is the holy grail of their life, the teachers often get upset and try to force the students to do what he or she thinks it’s right for them. It makes perfect sense, but it’s still wrong. What can be done is not to convince teachers that their course is totally useless or that it might be interesting for only 5% of the students. Educational programs come in packages (more courses together) and there is the key – in managing these packages.
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Now there may appear the “manager bias” which in my view means that the program manager only looks at the name of the courses and maybe at some of the broad topics covered by a course. This is the beginning of the problem. If one looks at the curriculum presented for an education program everything makes perfect sense. For example if you want to become a researcher (scientist) in business administration of course it makes perfect sense to learn about philosophy of science and research methodology, statistics, management foundations and many others. The problem is when during those courses you find at least half of the content to be uninteresting and un-useful.
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Another side of the professor bias is that a lot of teachers assume that the students are 101% rational and they are there to learn what he or she has to say. Again, it’s nice, but totally wrong. If you give a lecture at 4PM students might have something else on their mind especially if it’s on a Friday. Another example is when one has a heterogeneous audience and teaches something rather specific. When the teacher goes into the “technical” details, for example matrix algebra, the people who don’t understand will just switch off.
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This is one aspect of the big conflict between “should” and “do”. What a teacher should J do is to know that every time he or she goes into a classroom he or she has to gain the attention of that audience, even if it’s the 10th lecture of the same course. But, as we all know: should is not equal to “actually do”.

27 February 2011

Music in Kill Bill and Once upon a time in America (Things you don’t know about Romania)

In the movies Once Upon a Time in America (with Robert de Niro) and Kill Bill (by Quentin Tarantino) part of the musical theme is played by the Romanian pan flute grand master Gheorghe Zamfir. His master skills in playing the pan flute are appreciated worldwide. Something that is very little known is that Gheorghe Zamfir was a member of the Romanian Parliament (without any remarkable activity). Another thing…. He lives very close to where I lived in Bucharest.
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Enjoy his wonderful music (thanks to youtube anyone can enjoy his music).
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This is the music from the movies:
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This is a Romanian traditional song played by Gheorghe Zamfir and Trust me that's not easy to play on the pan flute...
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22 February 2011

Romania’s Crown of Steel (Things you don't know about Romania)

Since I realized that there are many things about my home-country - Romania - that are not known, I decided to initiate a series of blog posts to promote some Romania's particularities. Here's the first story:
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After the Independence War in 1877 – 1878 against the Ottoman Empire, in 1881 Romania became a kingdom and Carol I was crowned King Of Romania.
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The Story says that the leaders of the political parties and other Romanian leaders of the time came to Carol I (who was of German origin) with a golden crown with precious stones. They offered him the crown saying that he should have this great symbol (the crown) of his power as the king of an independent country.
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At that moment Carol I got really mad and said that the country needs money to recover from the war and continue its development as a modern European country. He didn’t accept the golden crown, told the political leaders to melt it, sell the gold and use the money for the country’s development.
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Carol I told the political leaders that if they want to offer him a crown they should take one of the cannons captured during the war, melt it and make a crown out of it.
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And so they did. Carol I, the first King of Romania as an independent country was crowned with a steel crown. And all of Romania’s kings that followed Carol I were crowned with the same steel crown.
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This Steel Crown is exhibited at the Romanian National History Museum in Bucharest.
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I believe that all political people, business people and social and religious leaders should learn from King Carol I.

21 February 2011

Sculpture and Education

The novice, rather unskilled and not very talented sculptor takes a block of stone and tries to transform it in what he or she wants to sculpt. Michelangelo said that he reveals what the piece of stone really is by removing the unnecessary parts.
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Why is it in education that most teachers and overall educational programs try to transform the student in something that they want? Nobody really knows if the student wants to be transformed because education doesn’t come with a comprehensive product description so that it would be possible to say that the student made an informed conscious choice.
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On the other hand in almost 20 years of school I haven’t seen a program which focuses on what a student really is and teachers and educators to focus on revealing the true potential of the student.
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Dear educators please go and see Michelangelo’s works and hopefully you’ll get the point.

8 February 2011

What would you do with a million dollars (euros) ?

In Romania from time to time the National Lottery prize exceeds 1 million euros (or 2 or 3 million, I just take the psychological value into account) and when it does, in most of the times, there is a lot of media coverage especially in the news programs. It’s like all of a sudden everybody in the country is aware that there is a National Lottery (not that the lottery is every week or even twice a week).
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In this media coverage, in certain times, there are street polls where a reporter goes on a street (usually in Bucharest – the capital city) and asks random people (as if people who are on the street at noon are totally random selected) what would they do if they won the lottery? What would they do if they had a million euros (or two or three etc.). What’s really interesting is that all the people that are interviewed (or at least the ones that are shown on TV) somehow manage to give a pretty reasonable answer. Most of them say that they would buy a nice house (and trust me housing is not cheap in Romania’s big cities), they would buy a nice car (oh we have a thing for expensive “show off” cars) or, the older respondents, that they would help their children.
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Taking into account most of the social and economic factors of the Romanian reality all of these are reasonable answers. After all, who would not help their children if they had a lot of money on their hands? Or who would not like to have a nice house and an “image” car to drive on a crappy road?
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What’s really puzzling is that I’ve never seen a street interview session on the topic “What would you do to earn one million euros?”. I guess that’s not a very appealing topic for most of the TV audience, but also I think that the huge majority of respondents would have a big problem in answering the question.
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Let’s take into account that (hypothetically) having one million euros is more valuable than gaining one million euros (that you don’t have) due to lose aversion. Let’s suppose that we have to take into account a discount factor of 50%. But even so, I haven’t seen a street interview on the topic “What would you do to earn 500.000 euros?”.
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The answer is quite simple and is related to cognitive effort. Rank on a scale from 1 to 5 how easy is for you to think (1 really easy and 5 very difficult) about how to spend one million euros. Now rank how easy is to think of how to earn the same sum (or half of it). If you are a normal person you would need a lot less (or significantly less at a p-value < .001 – researchers know why) cognitive effort (aka. Thinking) to conceive how to spend one million euros than how to earn it. .
Thinking (imagining) how to earn half a million euros simply requires too much (intellectual) effort. Many people can’t even come up with one reasonable idea that doesn’t imply robbing a bank or something similar and soon give up with the legendary “I can’t”. On the other hand thinking how to spend one (half a) million euros is much easier. I have a saying that “when you have money to spend, for sure someone will volunteer to help you”. It’s infinitely easier to dream on spending a million euros than it is to conceive a plan to earn that sum of money.
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Now… what can be done? The lottery in any country wants the media attention because if the prize is large so is the number of players which can only mean larger profits for the lottery. What we can do is to try and imagine (think about) how to earn 100.000 euros (1/10 million euros) in the next 3 years. Of course it’s not as glamorous as dreaming of spending 1 million in 1 month and hallucinate that money will last forever. On the other hand it’s much more realistic. What we can do even further is to imagine how to spend 11.000 euros next year in staid of 12.000 and in the same time put 3000 in our savings account. If you do so, for sure you’ll not be on TV the next time the lottery hits the 1 million value, but it’s much more likely that you’ll get more peace.

5 February 2011

Expert on Stupidity

When Cornelia and I moved to Rotterdam we rented an apartment that was unfurnished. We brought from Romania an inflatable mattress which we used as a bed for a couple of weeks. We bought some furniture in the first days of our staying here, but we didn’t find a bed. Finally we found one at a second hand furniture store and we bought it, but it had no mattress, so we had to find one that was comfortable enough (I have some problems with my back so I need a good mattress) and at a price that we could afford.
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In the spring of 2010 I bought a mattress in Bucharest and I knew what to look for. Also, by having this experience I knew that it was not easy to find something good at a reasonable price. Some mattresses cost around 1000 euros. Anyhow, I had some experience in buying furniture and especially mattresses and I comforted Cornelia who was a little scared of the process of finding something that is ok and we have to use for the next 2 years (at least) and is very important for one’s overall well-being. She could rely on me. Now I confess that I was pretty much in her situation, but I just didn’t show it, not to scare her more.
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We found a mattress store really close to where we live in Rotterdam. We went there and looked around. The salesman asked us if we were interested in something particular and we said that we are looking for a mattress with the dimensions of … and a maximum price. The gentleman showed us one and invited Cornelia to try it. She said that I should try it because “I’m the expert” (I told you that I had some experience, but for sure I’m not an expert).
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The salesman replied: “Miss, we are all experts in sleep. We all do it every day for eight hours all our lives.”
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The truth is that he’s right. We all have a tremendous amount of experience and practice with sleeping.
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Then I wandered if there aren’t other things in which we are all experts in. A quick and easy answer is related to other things that we do on a daily basis and are linked to our primary biological needs. But this is not interesting. Of course we take for granted that we do some things every day and we get better at doing them, but using the toilet or showering (I hope that most of my readers shower on a daily basis) aren’t interesting fields.
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A less easy, but nonetheless true, answer is stupidity. We all do stupid things. Even the smartest people do things that are less rational, sub-optimal or plainly stupid. Doing stupid things doesn’t necessarily imply that the person who does them is stupid. The other way around we can say that not everything that a stupid person does is necessarily stupid.
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There is a lot of literature on irrational or less-rational behavior that is extremely interesting (at least for me), but to understand the fact that people generally do stupid things one only has to look around and start using the frontal-left part of his or her brain (the area responsible for reasoning). Of course, other people do stupid things on a regular basis. You and I are not doing such dumb things. Most people say: “I’m too smart to do that. It’s the others who do them.”
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Even this very line of reasoning is not that rational. Everyone thinks of his or her self being above average, being a smart person, a good driver, a good lover etc. And in most of the times it’s really good that we think like that. Who would want to think bad about him(her) self and be depressed all the time?
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But in the same time, we have to realize that it is not always so. We are not “above average” lovers, drivers, cooks etc. We have to realize that each of us does, more or less often, stupid things.
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We have to admit that we are all experts on stupidity, even if we aren’t always aware of that.
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Shout it out loud! “I’m an expert on stupidity!!!”

1 February 2011

Chinese Clustering – Follow-up

I usually don’t write follow-ups, but this is too good not to be written. Yesterday late at night I published the post on how clustering occurs in groups with the example of the Chinese clustering in the courses that I take at ERIM.
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Today one Chinese colleague, let’s call him G, changed his usual behavior (I believe reading the post had something to do with it) and in the amphitheater changed his usual place. He was first to come into the class room and I was the third so I was able to observe. As I love experiments, well I just sat back and watched how the colleagues take their places in the room. I had about 15 minutes of observation.
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The first thing I noticed is that the first Chinese colleague that came into the classroom went directly to G and talked a little, afterword taking a sit in the row in front of him. Next the PhD students came and they all kept their usual places forming the PhD sector on the right side of the amphitheater (G was on the left side and I was in the middle). Next another Chinese colleague came in and was a little disorientated that her usual entourage wasn’t where they used to be. She decided to sit on the left side of the room two rows in front of G and one row in front of the other Asian colleague that came before her. Next one Dutch colleague that usually sits on the left side (I told you that people are coherent with their previous behavior) is confused for a second to see the Chinese there, but he takes a sit next to one of our Chinese colleagues. The Chinese PhD student was also coherent with his previous behavior and sat on the right side in the PhD sector. One Chinese student was absent.
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Up to now all of our Asian friends were coherent with their previous behavior – the PhD student was in his previous group and the master students from China kept clustering even if they changed the sector of clustering. Then the professor came into the classroom and next another Chinese colleague came in. Now let’s see what happened: she looked at the center side (where the Chinese sat before this week), then looked after them and saw them on the left side, but… she broke the cluster and sat in the center. Two minutes after the course started another Chinese colleague came. Being late she took the first seat next to the door (ironically the person next to her was the Chinese PhD student).
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Most interesting is that none of the two colleagues that were late didn’t change her place during the brake to join the cluster. Another interesting thing is that other European colleagues that sat on the left side of the room were also coherent with the previous behavior and, thus, they mixed with the Chinese cluster.

31 January 2011

Chinese clustering

Why do people hang out together? Why do they sit next to each-other?
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The Chinese might give us the answer. In the master program that I am in we are quite few students and about a quarter are Chinese. In most courses there are only the six Chinese colleagues from the master program and in one course there is another Chinese student which is a PhD student I guess.
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I realized that the Chinese always manage to cluster and sit next to each-other in class or, in really bad scenarios they form two groups. In the brakes the same thing occurs. The Chinese stay together in one group and the other students… well mingle around, usually without entering the Chinese circle.
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This might sound like a racist conspiracy or some really impolite remarks from someone that is not very sociable. Well, it’s neither of the two. What’s happening is a normal psychological phenomenon.
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One well known fact is that we tend to prefer things that we’ve already know, that are familiar to us. Another fact is that we tend to like the people that are similar to us. Obviously we tend to do things that we like, like sitting next to a person that we like rather than one that we don’t like. We prefer to talk to people that are similar to us because the hallow effect gives us the impression that we share more than just looks. We think that we share common interests and values. It is not always so, but at least till we realize that it is not so. Another criterion that relationships form is common interests or habits. Have you ever realized that smokers tend to hang out together?
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It’s obvious that race is a very salient characteristic, so it’s no wonder why the Chinese tend to hang around together. But as I said before, in one course there is another Chinese colleague that is a PhD student. He is not hanging around with the other Chinese and doesn’t sit with the Chinese group. Why? A first answer is that the group from the master was already formed when the course started. But this raises another question: why doesn’t he join the group now if it is a Chinese group and he is also Chinese? Well, because it’s not necessarily a Chinese group (although it is formed only of Chinese).
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Now let’s talk about something else called random coherence. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it means that we are coherent in our behavior to some thing that was at first more or less random. Let’s say that on the introduction day there were two separate groups – the research master group and the PhD students group and in each group the people get somehow acquainted. The two groups collide in a course that takes place one week after the introduction day. What do you think it’s going to happened? What has happened is that in the classroom PhD students stood on one side and master students stood on the other side. The next week the same arrangement is in place. Same goes on for the next week. What happens in these weeks is that ties are formed between the members of each of the two groups. Friendships begin inside the groups, but very little contact is made between the groups. All of this is mostly due to a random thing – on which introduction day each was on. People believe that their behavior is coherent to something important, but in fact it’s coherent with something random.
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Coming back to the seventh Chinese (the PhD student) we can say that he’s totally coherent. He sticks with the phd students group and keeps the relationships with the people who he already knows even if they are not Chinese and there are other Chinese in the room that he doesn’t know priory.
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This is a brief explanation of the clustering process with a case study on Chinese.
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Now who gains and who loses? The answer for both questions is everybody. The Chinese (in our case) gain because they get the psychological comfort of being part of a group that is homogenous in many aspects. The other students gain because they get a similar comfort in other clusters. Now everybody loses because one of the main advantages of being in an international environment is the opportunity of interacting with people from other cultures. In our case the Chinese lose the most because the other students get to interact with each other and they are heterogeneous, while the Chinese interact most among themselves.

14 January 2011

What do grades measure

The whole school system around the world is dominated by grades. The pupils and students strive to get grades as high as possible (because they need them to get into another school, to make an impression on a potential employee, please the parents etc.). On the other hand educators try to make the grading system as strict and accurate as possible. Corporations or corporation-like NGOs developed world wide accepted standardized tests that are considered to measure all sort of things.
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Grades are, in theory, meant to measure the degree to which a student knows the things related to a subject and has the competences required by the subject. Now we can discuss if a grading system captures all the important dimensions of knowledge and skills in a particular field. In my opinion most of them don’t, but that’s not what I want to discuss now.
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Let’s talk a little about knowledge and skills. Possessing Knowledge in a certain subject means to store in your memory information on that subject. To the day there are debates if we actually forget (ie. Information is deleted or lost from the brain) or can’t remember (ie. The information is still in the brain, but we can’t retrieve it any more). This doesn’t really matter now because the main idea is that with time we can’t access information that was acquired a long time ago.
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There is a solution for (better) remembering: the information must be retrieved frequently making the link to the information in the brain stronger. With skills things are not exactly the same, but there is some similarity: one can lose some skills over time or lose some of the accuracy of performing a certain task if they are not practiced.
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Coming back to grades and school. In my opinion schooling should have the goal of teaching - giving knowledge and skills - young people that will be useful in adult life. Now going back to the earlier paragraph about memory, how much of the knowledge acquired from school do we actually remember when we finished school? Not much would be my answer. How much do we remember 10 years after finishing school? Very little. On the other hand, we carry our grades (from kindergarten to master degree) all our lives and in many cases they receive a rather high importance. Imagine the situation that you have finished high-school or university (college) studies a few years ago (5-10 years) and you decide to make a change in your life and continue your studies and go to college or get a master degree. That makes perfect sense for many people that didn’t have many opportunities in their early years. Even in this situation the institution that you’ll apply at will use grades as a measure for your capabilities. Does it make any sense?
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The answer is yes and no. If we want to measure any kind of possessing knowledge using grades it makes absolutely no sense. Most of the knowledge acquired during school is lost (or we can’t retrieve it). Remember how students study for exams and read hundreds of pages, take the exam, get a high grade and 3 weeks later can’t remember even half of what they read; 3 months later they might remember some general ideas. So it really makes no sense to measure knowledge using grades.
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So what is the reason we use grades? What do grades tell us? Well, they tell us how hard working is (was) that person. We can all agree that there is a direct relationship between the amount of hard work (study) and the level of grades (that is if cheating is eliminated). Another thing that I believe that grades measure is the level of conformity to social norms. If someone has high grades means that s/he wants to be well seen in society. This is only a speculation.
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School should teach young people to work hard and that this is the “solid” way to a good life (although no guarantees are given). Teaching this is very important for any society. But, to be honest why should anyone spend 10-16 years in various education institutions (schools) only to learn hard work. This can be learned working on a farm or on a ship or somewhere else? I’m not saying that people shouldn’t go to school. On the contrary! But why the only metric thing we have when we leave school is a sheet of paper with some figures on it that should tell (at least to a certain degree) how “good” we are?
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I’m not against grades per se. Grades and scores have the big advantage of being metric (1 is smaller than 2 and we know what the difference between 1 and 2 is). What I say is that schools are using a wrong measure, if their goal is to teach. Also there is too much focus on getting high grades and scores for standardized tests and very little focus on actually learning and teaching useful things in a way that will ensure a higher retention rate in later years.
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Many schools and universities are very proud on what they teach that professors are top researchers, on their strict and exclusive admision criteria etc. At least from my experience most of them should not be proud on how they teach.