Cool Find of the Day — AfterTheDeadline

Sometimes when I write blog posts they are not quite as polished as my regular writing. I tend to view it as a stream of consciousness and I’ll sometimes go back and edit it a day or two later. However I recently discovered a neat tool called After the Deadline that can help provide some extra polish to that first or final draft. Not only does it check spelling but it also provides other hints and grammatical advice for your writing. WordPress provides it as a plug-in and you can also get it as a plug-in for Word or Google Chrome. They even have a website you can paste text from a word document into or an OpenOffice plug-in. It’s worth the installation if you are a writer.

Cool Find of the Day — DuoLingo (and the story behind CAPTCHA)

A friend of mine posted the following TED talk to facebook and I thought it was a great one to share:

At the end the speaker links to a cool new website that is going to launch soon and will help you learn a foreign language while translating content from the web: DuoLingo. It seems to be in private beta at the moment but I look forward to trying it once it comes out.

The Legal Job Market

Earlier today Daniel Schwartz tweeted a link to an article with a quote from the President of the American Bar Association where he fired back at the ABA’s critics:

"It's inconceivable to me that someone with a college education, or a graduate-level education, would not know before deciding to go to law school that the economy has declined over the last several years and that the job market out there is not as opportune as it might have been five, six, seven, eight years ago," [Robinson] said.

via ABA head has little sympathy for jobless lawyers.

After reading the article I could not help but think that the legal profession needs a figure like Jim Cramer to raise the alarm. In his famous rant Cramer criticized Ben Bernake for not having any idea how bad things are in the stock market. I wonder if the ABA President understands how bad things are for graduating law students. Many are having trouble finding jobs, even those from top schools. This post from the Freakonomics blog describes how attending law school is like the NFL draft and notes that big law has shed 15,000 jobs since 2008. Meanwhile the cost of law school continues to rise and graduates that do not get scholarships or attend public school like me become crushed under mountains of debt.

Law students and other critics of the American Bar Association want the ABA to take action to address this problem. Robinson may be placing the blame with the students but much like the housing crises both parties bear some responsibility. Students need to be aware of the state of the market and the choices they make. That is why I chose to attend public school. However the ABA should take steps to mitigate the rising cost of school and work to implement policies and programs that increase high-paying entry-level employment for recent law school graduates.

What policies and programs should the American Bar Association consider implementing? Some ideas that come to mind include a tuition cap as a condition of accreditation. Another is to build some kind of program that encourages legal entrepreneurship and creates mentoring opportunities for students who want to become solo practitioners after law school. Finally the ABA might consider paring down the number of accredited institutions so that the number of entrants into the depressed market is reduced and therefore give those that go to law school better odds of finding a job.

Update: I just saw this article from the ABA Journal and think it’s important reading as well.

On The Use of Technology in the Classroom & State Mandates

The New York Times today has an article about the use of technology in the classroom. It discusses requirements in Idaho for the use of technology in the classrooms:

Last year, the state legislature overwhelmingly passed a law that requires all high school students to take some online classes to graduate, and that the students and their teachers be given laptops or tablets. The idea was to establish Idaho’s schools as a high-tech vanguard. To help pay for these programs, the state may have to shift tens of millions of dollars away from salaries for teachers and administrators. And the plan envisions a fundamental change in the role of teachers, making them less a lecturer at the front of the room and more of a guide helping students through lessons delivered on computers.

via Idaho Teachers Fight a Reliance on Computers - NYTimes.com.

I think that this shows what happens when you pit the policy makers against teachers and administrators. There is no question that to get most jobs or to succeed students must be literate with technology. However, students cannot become literate with the technology if their teachers are not. This means the teachers must be trained. Meanwhile, while the technology changes, people are still trying to figure out the most effective way to use it in a learning environment. By mandating the technology the policy makers seem to be creating problems and confusion instead of advancement.

I think that the worst part of technology in the classroom is the use of it as a glorified whiteboard. Typically a regular whiteboard will do. The money spent on most fancy setups is a waste when a portable projector and iPad or laptop is all a teacher needs to show a YouTube video to their class. The money is better spent on individual workstations for students to use on research or tools for their own independent learning.

Finally the independent learning component of technology is the part that the teacher in the story does not seem to understand. The content on the web can be used to learn and for many people it is effective. Companies like RosettaStone sell software that teaches individuals foreign languages with great success. Chris Anderson at TED gave a great talk about how video on the web is fueling innovation:

Yet students without access to broadband and powerful computers at home cannot harness this innovation. This is why we need schools and libraries to fill the gap. Computers might not make sense in a classroom setting but schools should be making sure that students are able to access them during free periods and after school. Otherwise the students without computers or broadband are at a disadvantage compared to those that have it.

Finally schools should be teaching students how to use these tools as part of their curriculum. It’s not enough to just put someone in front of a computer and have them search YouTube. They need to know how to do things like format their reports in Microsoft Word or calculate formulas in Excel. They need to be shown where they can find open courseware or how to more effectively use Google. If they do not know the answer to something they should know where to go to find it.

It is unfortunate that policy makers have resorted to a mandate to solve their problem. The mandate will not make their students smarter nor will it make teachers happy. Instead they should have worked with these technology companies to start pilot programs in the districts to bring in the technology and train the teachers. They should have worked to identify the needs of the teachers and students and find ways for the companies to fill the gap. After working with a few districts they could have learned from the successes and failures and adopted those to a larger state-wide program. That would have been a win-win for the state, the technology companies, teachers, and especially the students.

About that Warren Buffett E-Mail

I have now received an e-mail that purports to be a proposal from Warren Buffett to reform Congress. I spent some time this morning penning a response so I figured I’d share it here in case anyone else gets it. First the original e-mail:

Winds of Change.... Warren Buffet is asking each addressee to forward this email to a minimum of twenty people on their address list; in turn ask each of those to do likewise. In three days, most people in The United States of America will have the message. This is one idea that really should be passed around. _*Congressional Reform Act of 2011*_ 1. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman/woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they're out of office. 2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose. 3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do. 4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%. 5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people. 6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people. 7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 1/1/12. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen/women. Congressmen/women made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work. If each person contacts a minimum of twenty people then it will only take three days for most people (in the U.S.) to receive the message. Don't you think it's time? THIS IS HOW YOU FIX CONGRESS! If you agree with the above, pass it on. If not, just delete. You are one of my 20+ - Please keep it going, and thanks.

Then my response:

I think that the original author (clearly not Warren Buffet) did not do their homework before writing this. In some cases the points are rather ambiguous and others refer to make changes that already exist. My comments correspond to the bullet points above.
  1. Members of congress do not have any sort of tenure privileges the way a teacher or college professor does. Some are in Congress a long time but that is merely because their constituents re-elect them. In regards to the salary/pension issue, some legislatures operate that way (see New Hampshire). I think its a bad idea because without a source of income from serving the members are then forced to find outside income. This means they must either be retired, independently wealthy, or have an outside source of revenue. This means we’ll have more of the 1% in Congress or greater conflicts of interest due to outside influence.

2 + 3. Members of Congress do presently participate in the social security system. Wikipedia informs us a little more here:

The Social Security Amendments of 1983 required all Members of Congress to participate in Social Security beginning January 1, 1984. As Social Security and CSRS benefits sometimes overlapped, Congress called for the development of a new federal employee retirement program to complement Social Security. This new plan was enacted as the Federal Employees' Retirement Act of 1986. This act created the FERS program, under which new Members of Congress are currently covered.

So the Congressional Pension is merely a supplement to Social Security income. Members of Congress are of course free to decline to participate or to buy any other retirement plan available on the open market. However they do not get a 401k and would have to setup a traditional or Roth IRA.

  1. Congressional pay normally raises by cost of living which has recently been less than 3% and Congress has voted not to give itself raises in current years (see http://thehill.com/homenews/news/97971-obama-signs-law-blocking-congress-pay-raise). Again I’d view this as poor policy because millionaires like Nancy Pelosi do not suffer when the pay raises are eliminated but members of congress without money are impacted since they must absorb the inflation. For a story that does a great job of describing the impact of freezing salaries for public officials you should read this New York Times articles on judges leaving the New York Bench.

  2. Members of Congress participate in the same healthcare system as other federal employees (see http://www.factcheck.org/2009/08/health-care-for-members-of-congress/)

  3. This is already the case.

  4. This is the dumbest thing I have ever read. It’s not really clear what he is saying here but it is terrible policy to break contracts because then people will no longer trust the contracts you make in the future. This was best understood by Alexander Hamilton when, at the founding of the country, he worked to have the United States assume and pay back its Revolutionary War debts (see http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2008/09/18/past-present-alexander-hamilton-and-the-start-of-the-national-debt)

Finally there is the issue of a citizen legislature. I think its important to note that majority of our founders were professional politicians. They were made-up of lawyers, wealthy businesspeople, doctors, and scientists. Many interest groups are concerned that term-limits and other limitations that make legislatures less stable cause a loss of institutional knowledge and prevent legislators from developing expertise both at their jobs generally and in certain issue areas.

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