Consummate dilettantism!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

In Defense of the U.S. News & World Rankings

It is now received wisdom that the U.S. News & World Report college rankings are at best meaningless and at worst deliberately manipulative. No more accurate than astrological predictions, these rankings can never hope to compete with the learned judgments of counselors or friends. This may be so, but can't anything be said in their defense? Is the standard narrative really true? I doubt it.

You see, to better examine the question, you've got to look at what the magazine actually uses to rank schools. (You didn't think it threw darts, did you?) According to its website, the factors used are peer assessment (25%), retention (20%), faculty resources (20%), student selectivity (15%), financial resources (10%), graduation rate performance (5%), and alumni giving rate (5%). These certainly give the lie to the claim that the rankings are "arbitrary" -- each is, at the very least, somewhat tangential to the difficult-to-define "academic quality." And, although the weights are slightly subjective, they seem reasonable -- any other weighting would be just as subjective. Indeed, the magazine does not claim that the weights are not (i.e., objective) -- it itself states that each "reflects [its] judgment about how much a measure matters." Tweaking may produce a different ranking, but the factors as assembled do not create entirely meaningless results.

It is also often claimed that because the relative positions of the schools change from year to year, the system has no reliability. How can the University of Chicago be worse than Duke and then, quite suddenly, not? But, in fact, their changing implies precisely the opposite: The system is working. If a list of schools in order of quality were to remain constant for years, there would be grounds for suspicion. As matters stand, however, that the academic quality of schools is constantly in flux is no cause for alarm. That the University of Chicago was placed below Duke in one year and matched with it the next is no caprice: It merely reflects how U.S. News & World perceives academic quality. The change is admittedly barely perceptible, but it is there.

But what of the charge that there are certain factors that are immeasurable? What of Chicago's reputed intellectualism? How can anyone possibly pin that down? I think the answer is that in many cases these "immeasurable" factors are exaggerated. No offense to the school, but I don't think that Chicago's students are significantly more inquisitive, intelligent, and intellectual than, say, Columbia's or Harvard's. Perhaps in some ways, but not in others. Chicago's pool of students may be a little more unique, but I would guess that most Chicago students would not be unwilling to attend Columbia or Harvard. The importance of individual tastes is not to be discounted, but you must remember that students, the men and women who give a school its character, who share the same brackets are similar.

Are there legitimate criticisms to be made? Of course. There are serious concerns that "peer assessment" has devolved into a prestige-fest and is far too subjective. Some colleges (notably Sarah Lawrence and Reed) have even refused to play ball. But I think that the methodology remains valid on a macro-level -- i.e., colleges within a certain bracket (5, 10 slots in size) can together be fairly judged against other brackets but not against each other.

Can U.S. News & World ever replace visiting colleges, speaking with current and former students, and feel? It patently cannot: Choosing one's college is an immensely personal experience. Nor, however, does U.S. News & World claim that it can:
Of course, many factors other than those we measure will figure in your decision, including the feel of campus life, activities, sports, academic offerings, location, cost, and availability of financial aid. But if you combine the information in this book with college visits, interviews, and your own intuition, our rankings can be a powerful tool in your quest for college.
The purpose of the U.S. News & World rankings is to give rationally ignorant parents (hopefully not students!) who do not have the time to study colleges a reasonable list of high-quality schools to investigate. They should be used as a starting point, like Wikipedia -- not as a research paper.

Consider: If your local community college (whose academics, according to U.S. News & World Report, were lousy) happened to feel inherently great, would you prefer it to the University of Chicago? Would you attend? Before you dismiss the rankings as meaningless, ask yourself how many colleges not on the list you applied to (that you would seriously consider attending for the next four years). Did you investigate the academic prowess of every single college in the United States? How comes it that included on the list are almost all the schools to which a Chicago student would likely apply? I suspect that there is a real correlation between presence and placement on the list and academic quality, however indiscernible.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Confessions of an American Marmite-Eater

From the horse's mouth:
oh heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished, was now a trifle in my eyes; this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me, in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea, a φαρμακον νεπενφες, for all human woes; here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered; happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail-coach.
(Well, no, marmite isn't quite that good.) For those of you who don't know, marmite is a sticky, black/dark brown paste with the consistency of tar popular in England, New Zealand, and Australia (in the latter countries, differently flavored versions are produced). I was browsing Wikipedia and for some reason happened upon the marmite article; my curiosity piqued, I went to the kitchen to see whether we had any in stock. (I had already known of marmite, but had never bothered to seek it out.) I wasn't expecting much; marmite is neither common nor well-known in the United States, and that our cabinet should somehow have a jar seemed slightly implausible. But, to my great surprise, there was a jar sitting on the shelf, front and center, of plain British marmite! It must have been there for months, as though waiting for me.

I grabbed it immediately. I opened it and took a whiff: It smelled like soy sauce. Remembering its reputed potency, I spread a little on a bagel and took my first bite of marmite. (Make no mistake: The bottle does not lie. This stuff is strong and highly concentrated. Too much will ruin your sandwich.) I neither loved nor hated it at first (contrarily to the advertising) - but it grew on me. I had some this morning and quite enjoyed it. It's not absurdly delicious, but it's not emetic either (yet it did seem to have that effect on my brothers). It's healthier than butter, too, and certainly doesn't require salt.

So how does it taste? Kinda like soy sauce, but a little more savory and bitter. It's supposedly galvanic, especially if you slop it on (which I don't really recommend). Its flavor is very distinctive and pungent. I imagine it's very versatile - it'd probably work well with meat.

UPDATE: Good God! Marmite is addictive! It's all I can think about! I want more! I want to experiment with it! I want to bathe in it! I want to marry it!
The most common use is as a spread on toast or in sandwiches. Note: it is generally spread very thinly because of its strong flavor—don't use it like jam. It has drug-like qualities; the more you eat, the thicker you need to spread it to get the same mouth-burning effect. Some people have even called it addictive.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Chinese Authoritarianism is Inexcusable

In response to Ron Kean's comment here I wrote:

Whenever people say that the Chinese are so irredeemably barbaric as to abhor freedom and liberty, my mind turns - first - to Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, countries whose democracies are essentially as free as ours, and whose cultures have *ostensibly* never been “enlightened.” Then I think of Su Shi, an immensely renowned 11th century (!) Chinese poet of whom Lin Yutang (The Gay Genius) writes:
Were the word not so much abused today, we would say he was a great democrat, for he associated with all manner of men…[a]lways he was the champion of people against the government…[t]oday it may be said that he was truly a modern man.
Pearl Buck on the man:
Reading of experiments in state socialism and government controls, one cannot believe that all this happened in China a thousand years ago. Against the lively background Su Tungpo lives, so gay, so intrepid, so resourceful, that as we read he becomes for us a presence powerful and good, whose victories and defeats have meaning for modern men and women facing the same problems that he faced and fought. Su Tungpo is a man of the ages and he serves us today as he served his own people ten centuries ago and as he still serves them.
Excusing China’s authoritarianism by blaming its culture and mocking the diet of its people will only ensure its continued existence
They’ve used violence to control their own.
I should also ask, Ron, are Europeans somehow immune? WWII Germany is the obvious example, but America's internment of Japanese in concentration camps and the rise to power of such dictators as Mussolini and Franco are post-enlightenment instances of Westerners' using violence to control their own. (And don't suggest that these regimes, dictators, and measures were not popularly supported.) "For the good of the state!" was and remains the rallying cry of autocrats everywhere, and you cannot suggest that it has not been repeated ad infinitum around the world (and even [perhaps especially] in the West).

Friday, August 8, 2008

Windows Media Player Pwns

I just discovered that a right click on WMP's main play button will bring up a menu by which you can change the speed at which songs play. It's changed my life. Once you hear System of a Down's Chop Suey! on "Fast Playback," you simply can no longer listen to it at regular speed anymore. It's mind-blowing.