Are the nation's children getting smarter or stupider?

The NY Times has written more about the state of modern education in the US than any other paper that I know of. I thought I'd take a moment to look at some of the prevailing themes that I've observed. The first is that the US is facing an educational crisis. As reported here and here, an uncomfortable proportion of today's high school students simply are not ready for college. In fact, the latest article states that only a quarter of high school students that took a college preparatory course are actually ready for college work.

What does that mean exactly? The apparent bar is a prediction of whether or not "the students had a good chance of scoring C or better in introductory college courses, based on their test scores and the success rates of past test takers." As with all of these studies, I'd say there's probably a fair amount of subjective fudge room in there, but let's just assume for now that they did their homework and got it right.

The broader case is that there are even more students that did not take college prep classes that are going to be even less prepared. The number of the "less prepared" is fairly significant, with only 54% of the test's participants (ACT exam takers - who takes the ACT anyway?) having taken at least a core curriculum class.

The second theme that's been emerging is the increasing competitiveness of the Ivy Leagues. Anecdotally-driven articles (here and here) describe the lives and accomplishments of students dealing with increasing pressure to be perfectly rounded students. One Harvard interviewer made the following comparative comment:

"What kind of kid doesn’t get into Harvard? Well, there was the charming boy I interviewed with 1560 SATs. He did cancer research in the summer; played two instruments in three orchestras; and composed his own music. He redid the computer system for his student paper, loved to cook and was writing his own cookbook. One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake.

At his age, when I got hungry, I made myself peanut butter and jam on white bread and got into Harvard.

Some take 10 AP courses and get top scores of 5 on all of them.

I took one AP course and scored 3."

The take-away from these anecdotes seem to be corroborated by the admissions data reported in yet another Times article, which shows acceptance rates at top schools moving down year over year. In fact, the spillover of qualified students is so large that admissions rates at second-tier colleges are now approaching those of the Ivy Leagues from a few years back.

Taken together, what does this say about the American educational system? We have an increasing proportions of high school students that are not ready to college at the same time as we have an increasing number of students that seem to be overqualified by yesterday's standards.

The decreasing proportion of college-ready students can be attributed to either a faltering educational system that has relaxed its standards or a more-inclusive system that is taking in larger numbers of socioeconomically disadvantaged students with less access to educational resources outside of school.

Increased admissions competition can be explained by factors that increase the number of applications, i.e. larger high school populations, higher percentages of students applying to college, and more applications per student (thanks technology!). But this doesn't completely explain why today's rejected applicants outshine the easily accepted from the 1970s. It's not as if there were golden children doing cancer research over the summer that just didn't think to apply to Harvard. Is it a cultural shift? Is it because of an increased number of educational resources outside of school (e.g. Internet, Princeton test prep, etc.)? Or is it a general barbelling of the American educational system, with the spoils increasingly going to those affluent enough to afford private school/residential neighborhoods with good public schools?

[Addendum: Freakonomics posted a cute link on this subject]

Google Maps - Awesome

Yet another feature from Google, Google Maps now has a "Street View" function that allows you to see what a spot on the map looks like at street level. As a New Yorker, I've got to say that this is one of the most awesome features ever. No more having to go to a random street corner and then searching for a few minutes to find a place - now you can just look at it from the street level and see where it is ahead of time.

The number of photographs that they must have taken in order to construct this feature blows my mind. Some locations are more fully fleshed out than others (my hometown of Atherton only has photos on El Camino vs. the ENTIRE NYC GRID), so if you're in the middle of Podunk, this may not be such a big deal for you. But anyone who lives in a city and has ever spent time searching a street corner will immediately see the value here.


Ok, so really, this isn't that big of a deal. It's still really cool though.

The future of e-mail

Fred Wilson recently posted this about the future of e-mail. His comment is a very VC-like pronouncement about the end of some era or other. His pronouncement is about the death of e-mail, or at least, its reduced usage in the coming era. The essence of his post is captured in this statement:

"Eventually every technology is trumped by something new and better. And I feel that email is ready to be trumped. But by what?"

Seeing as how I'm a big fan boy of his, I decided to post my first response ever. In the midst of posting that response, I figured that I should probably put the response down on my own blog and kill two birds with one stone. Here it is:

I think you're partially right. In the future, we will probably communicate via a collection of technologies. But I'm pretty sure that e-mail will be one of them, along with traditional phone calls, text messaging, and all that jazz.

I think that what's going to happen is a continuation of a current trend - different services will increasingly be used for highly specialized forms of communication that fit different needs. To clarify, these services have been dividing themselves up along a few axes - voice vs. text, one-way (sort of) vs. two-way, message length, assumed timeliness of response, number of recipients, etc. As user adoption increases, we'll start using the different services as tools that can be used interchangeably, depending on our current communicative needs.

This is already happening now. For example, text messages are a two-way channel with limited message length and assume a high level of responsiveness (although not quite as high as an actual phone call). Twitter is similar, but it's a one-way channel, assumes virtually no response at all, and can be blasted to a huge number of recipients. They each serve very different needs - you wouldn't try to remind your wife to pick up the kids via Twitter anymore than you would want to use text messaging to tell *all* of your friends that you're hanging out at Central Park.

The "axes" could certainly be refined, and will almost certainly change with technological development (e.g. blackberries have changed everyone's assumptions about a person's accessibility via e-mail). There's probably an unspoken social etiquette component out there that needs to be addressed. All the same, I think this is a valuable way of thinking about the evolving landscape of communications.

That being said, I think that e-mail is going to evolve - it's not going to go away. It is a perfect fit for a set of communicative needs and will thus have to stay in the game. The current problem that it's facing is a volume problem, and all of the other two-way communication mediums will eventually run into that same problem as they gain acceptance. This is a surface problem, and is not a fundamental defect of e-mail as a form. If anything, it just calls for more advanced filtering services (much like Caller ID or a good receptionist).

My guess is that social networks will serve as one of multiple filtration layers that go on top of e-mail and other services, rather than functioning as an entirely separate channel in and of itself. I'd also be surprised if someone didn't start gathering data on the types of messages that the user reads most frequently (a la Google Reader's trends) and then put together a predictive "flagging" feature that would tell the user that they should probably read certain messages first.
But I certainly don't see e-mail going away, anymore than I think that phone calls will go away. It serves too great of a purpose.


Craigslist is great and all, but in some ways, it's just a real pain in the ass. Here's my story and the lessons I've learned. I'm trying to sell a bunch of furniture, so I posted it on craigslist last Sunday. Since then, I've had somewhere on the order of 15 people write me e-mails saying that they're interested and would like to schedule a time to come and see the merchandise. As of yet, I have not sold anything.

Here's what I've learned:

First, a lot of people just suck at writing. Any of you who've keyed into the lol-kitteh (or my personal favorite, the lolrus) speak would instantly recognize the constructions that these people are using. Except, the lol-kitteh people are being ironic. The people that have been sending me inquiries are just incoherent.

Second and more importantly, people treat sellers like crap. For a little over half of these people, I responded within half an hour of receiving the e-mail; the rest got something within a few hours. The follow-up rate has actually been ridiculously low. About 80% of these people never bother to respond, even if I follow-up again by calling them or sending them another message. Of the 20% that do respond, 0% have ever set up a real time to actually come by or just buy the damn thing.

I get that everyone wants to have the freedom to pick and choose the things that they want to buy. I've been on craigslist, I know the deal. But really - you can't take 30 seconds to respond to an e-mail and just say, "Sorry, not interested anymore?"

Truth be told, this isn't all that vexing. I'd really like to get rid of my furniture for more than $0, but if worst comes to worst, I'll figure something out. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot going on in my life. So there you guys go. Next up might be a post on financial markets or something.

[Thanks to phonelesscord for lolcats]

Quick point

I'm busy doing a bunch of work, but I wanted to drop something in for anyone who's actually checking this place. I've been working on another post, but it's getting long and I don't have the time to accurately finish it.

For those of you who haven't heard, Jerry Falwell died. Those of you that are "big" enough to rise above your personal differences with his opinions will bow your heads at his passing. Those of you that aren't and thought that he was a small-minded racist/bigot/spreader of hate will really enjoy this article from Christopher Hitchens, which tars and feathers his memory, and this article which lists out some of Falwell's more quotable sayings. Here are a few:

On Sept. 11: "The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.' "

On AIDS: "AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals."

On public education: "I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again, and Christians will be running them."

On feminists: "I listen to feminists and all these radical gals. ... These women just need a man in the house. That's all they need. Most of the feminists need a man to tell them what time of day it is and to lead them home. And they blew it and they're mad at all men. Feminists hate men. They're sexist. They hate men; that's their problem."

On global warming: "I can tell you, our grandchildren will laugh at those who predicted global warming. We'll be in global cooling by then, if the Lord hasn't returned. I don't believe a moment of it. The whole thing is created to destroy America's free enterprise system and our economic stability."

A Snake and a baby

This may be one of the most terrifying things I've ever seen. The soundtrack makes it even worse.

The limits of human rationality

One of the canonical utilitarian cases against a deontological system of rights involves a ticking time bomb that can potentially wipe out an entire city and what you would be willing to do to the prisoner that (potentially) knows the bomb's location. The argument, which is still fairly contested, is that torturing that one prisoner is justified - the rights of one cannot be held against the lives of the many.

An editorial from Nick Kristof in the Times suggests that even though that's what some people may think, that's not how they act. More often than not, a single person is actually more important than a group of people, judging by people's willingness to give. The evidence for this hypothesis is as follows:

"In one experiment, psychologists asked ordinary citizens to contribute $5 to alleviate hunger abroad. In one version, the money would go to a particular girl, Rokia, a 7-year-old in Mali; in another, to 21 million hungry Africans; in a third, to Rokia — but she was presented as a victim of a larger tapestry of global hunger.

Not surprisingly, people were less likely to give to anonymous millions than to Rokia. But they were also less willing to give in the third scenario, in which Rokia’s suffering was presented as part of a broader pattern."

This seems at once crazy and yet, hardly surprising. In an age where the global warming movement has to be galvanized by photos of penguins and baby polar bears, and where Terry Schiavo can rouse Congress in a way that the soldiers in Iraq never really could, it seems like this study is really just pointing out the freaking obvious.

One has to wonder what would happen if all the people across the world took the principles of the Enlightenment to heart and started acting in a way that would actually be maximally beneficial for the whole, rather than in a way that just... OH MY GOD LOOK AT THAT PUPPY!

A question about gender

A four-day old article in TechCrunch talks about the digital divide in America in light of a recent survey of Internet behavior from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The results of the survey look like this (as usual the formatting of this blog is too narrow, so you'll probably have to click through to actually see what's going on here. I'll get around to widening the format sometime.)
Arrington wonders:

"Is the switch off factor strictly a question of Age? The study found that the Top 8% are young, ethnically diverse, and mostly male (70%). The median age of the Top 8% is 28 with more than half of them under the age of 30. The bottom 15% was not surprisingly older, with a median age of 64 – and as a group reported the lowest levels of household income. And yet this group isn’t entirely switched off: 82% watch TV everyday and 76% have cable or satellite service, and collectively had the highest levels of watching TV or listening to radio of any group in the study; it’s just that there not using Web 2.0."

I think Arrington is partially right - age certainly has something to do with it, but this is most likely a generational issue. The younger generations that grew up with technology are just more comfortable with it and certainly won't start becoming more crotchety about it as they grow older.

I think the surprising statistic is that 70% of the top users are male. You would imagine that in an age where women are outperforming men in higher education, they would be doing equally well in their utilization of technology, or at least their ability to understand how to use it. If that's true, then why are the top users predominantly male?

It's possible that there's a Larry Summer's like answer here - that men are naturally more gifted with technology, etc. But I think that the answer is probably a bit more subtle. My guess is that it's simply another generational issue. Given that the median top user age is about 28, that means that most of these people grew up when computer usage was still equated with pocket protectors, command line prompts, thick-rimmed glasses (before Rivers Cuomo made them into a hipster fashion statement), and a heavy dose of asocial behavior. Computer usage was not equated with self-expression, finding friends, music/movies, and all of this other jazz that Web 2.0 entrepeneurs and Apple are trying to push. At the time, there was probably a social stigma against girls/women using computers and I'm guessing this has had a pretty heavy impact on the number of technologically inclined women. Of the ones that are out there now, I'm guessing that they just happen to be smart enough to have gotten it anyway, without needing to be brought up with it.

Now, in a time when you can't be New York hipster cool if you don't have your own MacBook, website, and MySpace/facebook profile, I'm guessing this gender bias will fade away. It will be interesting to see how the technological profiles of the next generation shape up and its affect on the next wave of technology.


An article in the Times today talks about "Lonesome George," the last of a species of tortoises. I am personally quite fond of turtles and tortoises. In college, I had a pet turtle. My aunt had two tortoises that grew to the point where a 3-year old could have comfortably ridden on them (maybe). However, for all this, I don't think I ever grew this fond of tortoises. Read on:

"A few years later, in 1993, there was briefly a companion known as “Lonesome George’s girlfriend,” but she was not a tortoise. She was a 26-year-old graduate student in zoology from Switzerland named Sveva Grigioni.

By coating her hands in the genital secretions of female tortoises and gently stroking him, she managed to demonstrate a couple of times (in the course of several months’ work) that George was capable of an erection. But whereas her touch could induce other male tortoises to reach orgasm within a few minutes, with George she never managed to collect any sperm."

Did you even know that female tortoises had secretions?

One more thing

One more thing: Every so often, I check feedburner to see where people are coming from. Check out these phrases that actually got people here:

1. "dog pain"
2. "in how many days does a chicken have their eggs"
3. "how tall am i going to be in the future"
4. "do not eat pig and chicken"

Now, I sort of get the associations, but these are still really weird. If I Google any of these phrases, a link to my blog is nowhere near the top of the list. So how are these people getting here?


Hello all. I am currently supposed to be working, but have decided to take a quick break. What do I do with my free time? I write to a faceless audience that may/may not be populated with complete strangers.

This Sunday, I saw Spiderman 3. I sort of knew that it wasn't going to be up to expectations - the movie's reviews so far have been pretty ambivalent. Sure enough, the movie was kind of a let-down. There are a lot of things to gripe about - an odd amount of camp was added to the movie (why is Peter Parker dancing like a fool?), the storytelling was more ham-fisted, there were too many thinly laid-out stories, and a lot of the acting felt forced (there's a moment when Peter cries and part of the audience started laughing)

But still, nothing is going to stop this movie from making an insane amount of money, and nothing is going to make the studios believe that simply having Tobey Maguire, Sam Raimi, and Kirsten Dunst in a Spiderman movie is not enough to make the movie great. Still, I'd be surprised if Spiderman 4 does anywhere nearly as well as this one. People are going to remember being let down by this movie and it's going to make them think twice about waiting in line, next time around.

Citysearch update

I sent a version of my post to the New York editor at Citysearch. Here's the response I got:

Thanks so much for your thoughtful and helpful feedback. We love hearing from the site's users. You're right, this first phase of changes was largely cosmetic (however, we happen to think that's important to). And we're going to be implementing more changes over the coming months, many of which address your concerns about usability and community.

One thing that may help you in regards to searching around a location. If you know of a business near where you are, you can go to that business' page on our site and then scroll down to the bottom left of the screen, where you'll see something that says "what's nearby"--click on one of the business types (restaurant, bar, etc), and you'll see a map of businesses around that initial location. Not perfect, but hopefully it helps.

-Erin Behan
Senior Editor, New York

It's nice receiving personalized responses. It's also good to hear that they're not sitting around idly. Maybe they'll do something interesting soon.

Citysearch revision

Citysearch is up today with a brand new look. This may not sound particularly exciting, but it's a big deal for me. Citysearch is how I find new places to eat, which is pretty much my favorite activity in the city.

The listed updates include "brand-new profile pages, better search returns," and videos of local businesses. These changes are, for the most part, purely cosmetic. The profile pages have been reformatted with wider sidebars and larger fonts, meaning that at the end of the day, you have to scroll down farther in order to see the same amount of information. The only real addition seems to be user-specific recommendations on the side bar. It's pretty hard to see what's better about their search returns. And I really have no interest in watching videos of restaurants, which are probably just poorly-produced paid advertisements.

The only revision worth noting is that they did away with their 10-point system, in favor of a 5-star system. I'd say this is another cosmetic change, but it's not. You can no longer see the decimal rating for a place - the smallest increment is now a half of a star. In a world where most people are too nice to give a restaurant a truly bad review, the majority of reviews are going to be pretty tightly clustered in the upper half/quarter of the ratings band. This makes it all the more important for users to be able to see the decimal-level difference. And they took that away.

Citysearch is a property that I both love and hate, and these revisions don't really do much to change that. I find that it is the best repository on the web for finding places within the city. On the other hand, it is also one of the most freakishly stone-aged web site that's around. While every other information-based web site is moving full-blast into Web 2.0, Citysearch and the rest of the IAC-properties staunchly refuse to do anything remotely interesting.

For example, take a look at their "My Citysearch" feature. It's a total joke! It lets you make a bunch of lists, via an incredibly slow process of saving places and then moving them to a list. Why don't they let you search within your lists? Why don't they let you connect with lists made by your friends? For ****'s sake, couldn't they let you tag your saved locations, or at least let you use Citysearch's predefined tags?

As far as I'm concerned, IACI is missing out on a major opportunity here. With half of the web trying to cash in on social networking (I mean, they've got a NASCAR fan social network), it blows my mind that IACI isn't trying to build a massive network based on the actual habits of users. Sure, a lot of the social networking sites out there are fluff and add zero-value. But this could actually be big. One of the major channels for finding new restaurants/bars/places to see in a city is via referral from friends. If IACI could a) help customers easily and accurately record their visiting habits (buy Opentable, you fools!) and b) facilitate linkages between the different profiles, this would be a major benefit to all of their users.

Let's also take a look at their mapping functions. One of the things that I would love to be able to do would be to put in my current position, define what I'm looking for (restaurant, italian, cheap), and then see on a map what comes up within a 5-10 block radius. This is something that, to some extent, I can already do with Google maps. I cannot do this with Citysearch, even though IAC's focused on making major improvements to their Ask maps functionality.


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