Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Me and my manatee

Happy Holidays from Florida! What better way to celebrate than by communing with nature. While others rushed to find the blue light special, we drove up to Blue Springs State Park to search for manatees. This endangered species is Florida's official state marine mammal. There are about 2800 manatees left in the wild... and we were excited to see about 10 of them on Saturday! When the weather gets chilly, the manatees swim inland to the springs, where the water is a constant 72 degrees. After several unsuccessful visits to this park in years past, I was thrilled to see manatees that weren't behind glass at Sea World or Epcot. While a mommy and her baby floated slowly along together, another group of manatees wrestled in the water, twirling and flipping and splashing their enormous paddle-like tails. Mesmerizing!

Canoeing along the St. Johns River, we also glimpsed many birds and many gators. Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Let GM burn

General Motors has been in the news a lot, so I was surprised to find them mentioned in the book I'm reading (A Green History of the World).

In 1936 three corporations connected with the car industry (General Motors, Standard Oil of California and the tyre company Firestone) formed a new company called National City Lines whose purpose was to buy up alternative transport systems and close them down. By 1956 over a hundred electric surface rail systems in forty-five cities had been purchased and then closed.

Later on General Motors purchased half of the company that made tetraethyl lead for "leaded" gasolines. GM then increased the octane needs of its vehicles to create a demand for this lead. Between 1946 and 1968, the amount of lead used per vehicle mile rose by 80%. Lead was a known poison and eventually the government stepped in and required that all fuels be unleaded.

Finally, in 1981 General Motors asked the city of Detroit to use eminent domain to displace over 1000 homes and 600 businesses and churches so it could build a new car plant. In return, it said the plant would provide at least 6000 new jobs. The city agreed. Once the plant had been built, GM decided to use automated labor in its plant instead of the 6000 people it had promised.

Thanks for making it through the history lesson. The point is:

For a century GM has ruined businesses, neighborhoods, and the environment in its attempt to make profits. GM has never striven to give consumers what they want. Instead it creates false demand. And now its failing at that. Boo hoo. Lets kick it to the side and focus on reemploying its workers in companies that actually benefit consumers - that is what capitalism is supposed to be about after all.

Monday, December 15, 2008

One down

I'm done with exams! First semester is officially over - and I don't feel like I've failed anything too miserably.

Next semester is terrifying to even think about - my classes will increase in both number and workload. But in the meantime, it feels good to be on vacation. I can't believe I'm only an eighth of the way through my program (at the most). Its been awhile since I've ever been in one place for as long as I'm signed up to be in Houston (and I don't even like Houston).

So, I discovered that I enjoy the computer programming involved with statistics much more than the formal math - proofs anyone? I actually just finished writing a computer simulation to model blackjack and used it to compare the payout rates of various card counting strategies over a million hands.

Unfortunately, I've been too busy to draw or even hit the gym on a regular basis (which isn't a problem because I'm developing a "starvation - chic" look). I've come up with some great story ideas for a graphic novel. But fear I'll never have a chance to finish it.

But for today at least, I can do whatever I want.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It's snowing in Texas!

When I left school this afternoon, it was 37 degrees and snowing!

I actually gasped aloud. A couple people on the custodial staff were taking photos outside.

At first it was more of an icy rain, but by 6pm there were fat snowflakes! I saw a few cars that had a nice dusting of snow on them.

The snow's not going to collect on the ground, but it will collect in my heart.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Co-ed Christmas

It's the perfect holiday gift: a perfume or cologne that evokes college memories (for better or worse). The fragrance company Masik has already created scents for UNC and Penn State, leaving us wondering, "What Cambridge scents would a Harvard fragrance capture?"
  • Eau d' Old Money
  • Unlaundered DHAs (sweat pants)
  • Lampoon Lobster Bisque
  • Widener Library Musty Musk
  • Urine and Sweat On Bronze, by John Harvard
  • Winds of the Subway Caressing My Face
  • Spare Change Guy
  • Whiteness
  • Burdick's Hot Chocolate Mist
  • Natalie Portman's Been Here

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Matthew Effect

So I just started reading Malcolm Gladwell's new book, "Outliers," at the airport yesterday. I love this guy. If you haven't read "The Tipping Point" or "Blink," I suggest you put them on your Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa list. Anyways, his new book is about success: What makes a person successful? or, more specifically, what makes a person wildly successful? Yes, one must possess a certain degree of innate intelligence or creativity, but what about one's background or circumstances gives one the extra edge? This is something we like to ponder (in a masochistic kind of way) in the Kitchen/Grolemund household: Why are some of our former Harvard classmates getting their books published or making their first million while we are not? Because that's just not fair.

The first chapter of the book is about, of all things, Canadian hockey. Canadian hockey players are the best of the best. The teenagers who play in the Major Junior A League are those who go onto the NHL. So what makes them the best? Turns out a Canadian statistician (and his observant wife) happened upon the answer: their birthdays. Nearly all of the players who make it to the Major Junior A have birthdays between the months of January and April. The hockey cut-off date in Canada is January 1st. So, when they are just starting out as hockey munchkins, these kids with early birthdates miss the cut-off and end up playing on teams alongside kids who are many months younger. And this makes a big difference. By the time coaches start picking which players get to enter elite leagues (at the ripe age of 9 or 10), they inevitably end up choosing the bigger, faster, and stronger kids -- that is, the older children -- on each team. From there, these selected few get to play with other top-notch players, practicing many more hours and playing in many more games per season than their "typical" peers. The "best" get even "better." This pattern holds true across many fields (from soccer to education), and across many countries (from the US to the Czech Republic). Relative age leads to relative success!

As I read/devoured this chapter, my mind went to my planner, where I have listed the birthdates of my friends from Harvard. I quickly scribbled down on a piece of scrap paper what I could recall of who had a birthday in which months. Check out this data (and feel free to add to it):

January: 8 (KL, SR, SS, KS, EH, AM, GG, LB)

February: 1 (KD)

March: 0

April: 6 (KI, SR, SB, BL, PS, HC)

May: 1 (BS)

June: 1 (TM)

July: 1 (KK)

August: 1 (MM)

September: 1 (KC)

October: 2 (LR, DT)

November: 0

December: 1 (JK)

Crazy! The pattern holds true for Harvard! Out of 23 people, 15 have birthdays in the first third of the year. That's 65%! Makes me want to look at the data for a larger set of Harvard students.

So being a few months older than your peers when you enter kindergarten gives you a big advantage... an advantage that can take you all the way to Harvard. As an early childhood teacher, I can say with some degree of authority that when you're 4 or 5, a few months translates to a big gap in maturity. Gladwell touches on this a little in this chapter: Teachers of young children often confuse ability and maturity. The children who are a bit older, and therefore a bit more mature, end up in the "higher group" (in reading, math, etc.) and are pushed more than the average/lower students. This advantage doesn't disappear as the years go on and people are given a chance to "catch up" -- it persists!

I'd have to do more research, but I propose that some of my fall-birthday friends were ALSO older than their classmates. These kids probably just missed the September 1 (or thereabouts) cut-off date in kindergarten, so they probably did 2 years of preschool -- then entered kindergarten at 5 -- and then quickly turned 6 right after the school year began. An even greater advantage than those with a January birthday? Hm.

I also know that one of my January friends skipped a year of school when she was little, and therefore became one of the youngest kids in her new class. But I think that the foundation was laid when she was in her early childhood years, as one of the oldest and brightest in her class.

Gladwell suggests that schools could arrange classrooms according to birth month: January-April in Room 1, May-August in Room 2, September-December in Room 3. That way, children are able to learn alongside children who are (most likely) developing at the same rate. There's also the Danish way of doing it (gotta love those Scandinavians!): Allow no ability grouping in school until the age of 10.

Sociologist Robert Merton labeled this phenomenon the Matthew Effect, after a verse in the Bible: "For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." A somber insight, but apparently a true one.