Updates from April, 2011 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Hober Short 11:48 am on 21 April 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    The title page of Paradise Lost

    As you guys probably know, and I’ve discovered over the years (this was never mentioned anywhere in my 17 years of schooling), people used to write the letter “s” really funny. In particular, an “s” that didn’t appear at the beginning or end of a word looked… like an “f”. There were actually a few years of my life where I wondered why it was called the “Congrefs” of the United States and when the name was changed.

    At any rate, obviously, there was a demographic and typographic shift away from this notation and to the much more sane, uniform system where all lower-case “s” characters are written the same regardless of where they come in the sentence. What I didn’t realize was how sudden and fast the transition was.

    Wikipedia doesn’t seem to have any guess as to what caused the fall from favor for the long s1, but it does note a few milestones in the transition, including the United States Congress switching to using the short s in 1804. But what is really interesting about the changeover is how the entirety of the English language pivoted from the old to new style over the course of 15 short years.

    Graph of the use of the long vs short s

    To put a little context on that, Google is 15 years old. In that time, Google went from a startup to ubiquitous in a world where you can send a message across the Atlantic ocean in a two tenths of a second instead of two months. For this kind of change to happen in literature in the 1800s is just amazing.

    I do wonder, though, if for 20 or 30 years afterward, some people paid extra for books printed with the long s because they had a warmer tone.

    1. I have a baseless but gut feeling that the change came due to the printing press and the hassle of having to keep a third type of “s” around.

    • J.L.B. 11:59 am on 21 April 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I have always been told, in the course of doing a degree in English, that it was for this reason:

      They are lowercase f. Because the tiny cross on an F was so fragile, they used to break off when it got smacked down to print/over time they would wear off. It was cheaper to buy a broken f, or use your own broken f, than it was to get a new s made. They figured it was just as good.

    • Pat 4:33 pm on 21 April 2011 Permalink | Reply

      It’s interesting that you managed to write this article without using the phrase “tipping point.”

  • Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. 10:24 am on 12 April 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    I’m intrigued, but ambivalent, about a proposal currently being floated by a North Carolina Republican state senator: he wants the state to pay grade-school students cash rewards (as much as $1000 per year) for good grades.

    It’s a reach beyond rewards like gold stars and pizza parties. But dangling cash rewards could be the cheapest and most effective motivator to raise test scores and lower dropout rates, said Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, who is proposing the idea in legislation awaiting a committee hearing. If the money is paid to parents, that could get them more involved in helping their children succeed, he said.

    Setting aside my libertarian objections for a moment, I see both promise and peril in this idea. On the positive side, it could be a good motivator for kids who lack motivation (though not, probably, for kids younger than middle-school age, who don’t really grasp the value of money). If one is to throw more money at the school system, this strikes me as potentially a more effective way to do so than what we’re doing now. It would also provide at least an approximate simulation of the real world, where hard work and competence result in material rewards.

    On the other hand, though, it would be artificially indiscriminate, rewarding all excellence equally irrespective of the actual value of the skills learned. More worrisome to me are the practical aspects: if the money were paid to parents, what would guarantee that any of it would actually get to the kids? Indeed, even if it were paid directly to the kids, I’m not sure the parents wouldn’t get their hands on it; at any rate, they’d certainly want to limit how their kids can use it. One solution would be to escrow the money, or pay it into an untouchable college fund, but that would be no motivation for a ten-year-old.

    It’s all a moot point, I’m sure; I see zero likelihood that this proposal will actually be enacted, particularly in a time of severe budget shortfalls. But it’s got me thinking: should I, as a parent, be using avarice as a motivator? In the past we’ve tended to reward Laura modestly for good report cards, but not predictably or consistently. Should we instead set a fixed price for As, Bs, and Cs, so she would know from day one what good grades are worth? Love of learning for its own sake is great, but I’m not sure one can rely on it.

    • Pat 11:49 am on 12 April 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Daniel Pink’s research indicates that offering monetary rewards is often ineffective at motivating people, and sometimes has the opposite effect.

    • Hober Short 1:58 pm on 13 April 2011 Permalink | Reply

      The crux of the proposal requires a visceral sense of reward for the kids. No student is going to work for $25 for their college fund.

      Also, one thing we learned from Freakonomics and No Child Left Behind is that incentivizing better measured performance increases measured performance but not necessarily actual performance. I’m not convinced that this wouldn’t just increase the cheating among marginal students.

      This blasting critique aside, I am a huge proponent of the conversation behind had because it involves thinking differently. I’m not sure how to fix public schooling, but I know that we need a thousand different ideas being tried in a thousand different school districts to find the right five or ten that really work.

  • Hober Short 3:23 pm on 5 April 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    This week’s episode of Econtalk was about BitCoin, the online crypto-currency that Security Now covered a few months ago. It took the form of a rambling interview with the project’s principal Gavin Andresen about the high-level function of the system.

    Unfortunately, since it was for general consumption, there was very little technical content. While there was also relatively little in-depth economic analysis of the system, they did hit on a kernel of economic wisdom that also came up during our last dinner: the importance of economic expectations.

    Andresen: It’s hard to imagine [BitCoin replacing the dollar]. I could imagine that happening in maybe a smaller country that has decided to peg their currency to the dollar–maybe they decide to peg to the bitcoin or decide to use bitcoins as their national currency. I could see that happening before dollars gets replaced.

    Roberts: But the biggest problem in those cases is they don’t keep their promises. So, they promise to peg it to the bitcoin but then they break their promise. The reason the promise has so much appeal–besides that it’s cool–it’s very cool. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just run our lives this way?

    If I knew that over the next four years bitcoins were going to be created 50 at a time every ten minutes, and I came to trust that, and then knew down the road it would be 25 and then 12.5 until the stock was basically fixed, I’d rather play in that sand pile rather than the one where I have to trust Ben Bernanke [not to inflate the Dollar]. Ben Bernanke will tell me we can’t have that world because we need monetary policy to do x, y, and z; and I would say, yeah, I’ll take my chances.

    In any economic transaction, there are a implicit economic predictions: the price of the good won’t (or will) go up tomorrow. The real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) value of your dollars won’t go up (or down) tomorrow. When unions negotiate contracts, they predict inflation for the term of the contract, and negotiate for wages that will rise accordingly.

    In short, efficient markets require accurate economic expectations. This is why economists get so nervous about sudden, shocking infusions of cash in to the market: if people know to expect 10% inflation yearly, they can plan accordingly. If inflation becomes 10% and most people don’t even realize it as it’s happening, bad things follow.

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