Recommendation Dump, April 2017

It’s been a while since I did one of these, huh? Well, I’ve got some stuff to recommend, so I’m doing another one—here we go!

Democrats — Democrats is a documentary detailing the creation a new Zimbabwean constitution from 2009-2013, and especially the negotiations between the chief negotiators for the incumbent and the opposition party—Paul Mangwana and Douglas Mwonzora respectively. The film is phenomenal.

The documentary is presented with little editorializing, no retrospective interviews, and only occasional clips from news broadcasts to provide summary. The meat of it is incredibly candid interactions between party members and footage of the actual negotiation process. When I say incredibly candid, I mean that at one point Mangwana and another party official are openly talking about the fact that ZANU-PF—their party, the party of President Mugabe—has been bussing in party supporters to local meetings that they shouldn’t be a part of. The two are laughing, the official saying, “We can’t control that,” and Mangwana saying, “No, that’s ZANU-PF at work.”Read More »

Thoughts on A Series of Unfortunate Events, Season One

I’ve watched Netflix’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events in its entirety now, and there’s a lot to talk about. This post will be part review, part analysis, and part comparison between the books and the show. The first third of the post contains no spoilers, but the next two thirds do, for the books and the show, and I’ve put a disclaimer in at that point.

For reference, and so I don’t have to explain it later, this is the basic plot: Three children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are orphaned when their parents die in a fire which destroys their home. The parents leave behind an enormous fortune, which cannot be accessed until the eldest Baudelaire comes of age. The children are moved from guardian to guardian, always pursued by the villainous Count Olaf, who schemes to steal their inheritance, and is ruthless in his pursuit of this goal. Violet Klaus and Sunny survive by their inventive thinking, extensive knowledge, and ability bite things (respectively.)

So, here we go:

If You Haven’t Read the Books …

If you’ve never read the books, I highly recommend the show. I don’t know if it’s better or worse to have read the books, but I’m confident that it stands by itself as a terrific work of art. There is nothing like it on TV, and for good reason.

asoueolaf
Photo courtesy of Joe Lederer/Netflix

Imagine if a showrunner spent seven years writing hundreds of pages of stories and characters and settings, and wrote all of them in the voice of the show’s narrator. Imagine they worked with a designer who drew hundreds of pieces of concept art detailing the looks of characters, props, and sets. Imagine if the showrunner also composed and performed thirteen songs to go along with different parts of the show (though not to be actually used in the show.) And imagine they had a decade after that time in which they continued thinking about the show, and expanded on the background of the narrator by writing a few hundred more pages about his childhood in this same world.

That, of course, would be absurd, but because of the way this all developed, it’s essentially what happened. And while this could be said of many shows and movies adapted from books, the difference here is that the original creator usually isn’t the one writing the screenplays. Daniel Handler, author of the book series, is also the screenwriter for every episode of the Netflix series (and although he’s not the showrunner, he is an EP.) The result is an uncompromising vision of a world and the characters who inhabit it. The music, set design, and writing are all of a cohesive style—one which is confidently gothic, bizarre, and witty. The show is highly engaging, full of wonderful(ly wry) commentary from the narrator, beautiful(ly ugly) sets, and charming(ly villainous) performances. At times I had doubts about the direction the show was going, the portrayal of a character, or the handling of a particular scene, but never, throughout watching the entire show, did I feel I could look away. I expect that kids will devour it.

If you have read the books, you will also probably love it, unless you love the books for some particular reason which the show has altered. In that case, I’d advise you to pretend that the series has nothing to do with the books, and enjoy it for what it is.Read More »

Recommendation Dump, September 2016

Jurymore –  Another podcast from the great Justin Robert Young, though unlike my previous recommendation of Politics Politics Politics (which I’m recommending again right now because it is continually terrific and it’s now going up three times a week) this one is not a one man podcast. It’s also not ongoing—it ended awhile ago, at about 30 episodes long. It ended because Justin got married—that’s the premise of the podcast. Justin Robert Young and his then fiancée Ashley Paramore recorded a regular podcast for the better part of a year leading up to their wedding, and document the process of planning the ceremony.

Terrific. The two have great rapport, and most episodes focus on an interesting topic—often something to do with the wedding planning, sometimes just something to do with relationships. Their honesty and ability to speak (and sometimes argue) freely while streaming the podcast live is refreshing, and some of the greatest moments of the podcast are when they get into fights. Because the two really are a terrific couple, and their fights aren’t abusive nonsense, they’re genuine arguments. And the whole show has an energetic, comedic tone, because it’s JuRY after all.

Also, they had the wedding ceremony at DragonCon, so once you’ve finished the podcast you can watch it, like a finale.Read More »

Political Analysis: Median Voter Theorem and Voting Systems

In this final, though not very conclusive, post on political analysis, we’re talking voting, voting systems, and ice cream.

The Median voter theorem helps explain the importance of the swing voter. For the MVT there are four elements:

  1. A set of n voters where n is odd (apparently an even number can work too, but we didn’t really talk about it, and, as in Minecraft, odd numbers just work better.)
  2. Unidimensional policy space (i.e. right vs. left, socialist vs. capitalist, more funding vs. less funding)
  3. Voters have quadratic or “single-peaked” preferences that can be represented by the equation U[x] = [x1 – x’]2. So they have one ideal point (x’) and whichever option falls closer to their ideal point is what they’ll vote for.
  4. The group makes decisions by majority rule (and we’ll talk about alternatives to this in a  bit.)

The theorem states that, if every voter in the group has an ideal point, the voter with the median ideal point is an indicator of how the group will vote.

To apply this, here’s an example:

The International Space Committee is voting between two bills to send colonists to Mars. There are seven seats on the committee. Three of them are hardliners who think colonization is a waster of resources, and their ideal point is 0 colonists. On the other end of the spectrum is a sci-fi fan who wants to send a hundred colonists. Then in the middle we have someone who wants to send three colonists, someone who wants to send five, and someone who wants to send twelve. Read More »

Political Analysis: Coalitions

In this penultimate post taken from my Intro to Political Analysis class notes, we’re talking about coalitions—and how to predict which coalitions will form. 

The fundamental building block of politics is the mass political party. The first mass political party was formed in the US. After the “corrupt bargain” of the election of 1824, Jackson’s supporters formed a mass political party, fully recognized as the Democrats by 1840.

But we won’t be really talking about the US, because we don’t have coalitions, because of our party system. Party systems (as with any systems, according to systemic theory) can be categorized as the one, the few, and the many.

The one would be places like China and Cuba, with only one party.

The US’s two-party system would be considered “the few.”

And the many is what you see in parliamentary countries (like most of Europe.) This is the kind of system we’ll focus on.Read More »

Political Analysis: The Decentralized Solution

Last week I wrote about the prisoner’s dilemma, and a centralized, Hobbesian solution to that—essentially, to get people to cooperate you have to bring in an outside authority, like a monarch. This is the decentralized solution.

The decentralized solution to the prisoner’s dilemma has three elements:

  1. The game is repeated an unknown number of times
  2. The strategy is reciprocity—if A cooperates, B does too. If A defects, B does too.
  3. The shadow of the future is sufficiently long.

That “unknown” bit is important. If people know the game’s gonna end, and they know when, there’s no reason to develop trust with the other person. “Unknown” can mean infinite iterations, or just a percentage chance each time that the game will be replayed.

So if you’re going to play forever (or potentially forever), two basics strategies are always defecting (“All-D”), or always cooperating (“All-C.”) These strategies are useful for reference points, but they aren’t actually practical, because they aren’t reciprocal strategy—they’re not based on what the other person is doing. And in a normal-form game, what the other person does, combined with what you do, determines your payoff.

One reciprocal strategy is “Tit-for-Tat”—whatever the player did last turn, do that this turn.

We’re going to focus on the “Grim Trigger” strategy. God, that sounds badass. With Grim Trigger, you start out by always cooperating, but if the other player ever defects, you switch to All-D.Read More »

Political Analysis: The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Now for a classic of political analysis—the prisoner’s dilemma.

“Rational individuals select actions to achieve their most preferred outcomes. If two rational individuals can do better by acting collectively, then they will do so, because they are rational.”

Annnnh! Wrong! That is the rock pile method, and it’s false, and we can see this with the prisoner’s dilemma.

A lot of people teach the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and a lot of them get it wrong. “If you’ve heard of it or had a class that covered it, get a lobotomy to eliminate that part of the brain,” says Professor Dion.

I’ll get to some misconceptions in a moment, but first, here’s the story of the prisoner’s dilemma: two accomplices in a crime are taken in for questioning. The police have enough to convict the two on a small charge, but they want to get them on this bigger crime. The two criminals are separated, and each is offered a deal—rat on the other guy (“defect”) and you’ll get to walk free, and the other guy will get a really harsh sentence. They’re also told that this deal is being presented to both of them. What ends up happening? They both defect, of course. If they expect the other person to say nothing (to “cooperate”), it’s best to defect, because then they’ll walk free. And if they expect the other person to rat on them, it’s also best to defect, because while they’ll still get a harsh sentence, it won’t be as harsh, because it’s split between them.

So, here’s the Canonical prisoner’s dilemma, shown as a normal-form game.

PD-canonicalRead More »

Political Analysis: Condorcet Jury Theorem

Last post I introduced the concept of aggregation in political analysis, and how you can’t always make inferences about members of a group based on the character of the group as a whole—or visa versa. This post will go further into that, and also why democracy works.

In college, it’s easy to forget how much smarter you are than everyone, because you’re surrounded by people as smart or smarter than you—but really, a lot of people are highly ignorant. [NOTE FROM THE NOTE-TAKER: This is how Professor Dion introduced the topic, not me just throwing in my own color. But it is kind of true.]

For example, only 74% of Americans believe that the Earth orbits around the sun. As for politics, in 2010 only 54% knew the controlling party of the House of Representatives.

So, is democracy doomed? The idea with democracy is that an individual is the best judge of their own interests, and will elect a good representative for themself. But if people are ignorant, will they really?Read More »

Political Analysis: Aggregation and the Ecological Fallacy

Well, with little planned in the way of textual posts (although I have plenty planned for other types of posts), now is as good a time as any to start posting the second half of my political analysis notes. I already posted the notes from the first half of the semester, which you can find grouped together here. Those posts are all about power. These coming posts will be from the second half of the semester, and will focus on aggregation. So, let’s begin.

The Latin word “grex” means “flock,” and “ad” (which becomes “agg” in aggregation) means “to,” so “aggregation” is assembling a flock. It’s clear how power pertains to politics—but how does aggregation relate to it?

Well, let’s start with another question: Why war?

Maybe it’s a spiritual problem, as the Dalai Lama would assert—a problem of misunderstanding and hatred.

Other people believe it is a diversionary tactic—leaders need support of the selectorate (the critical sectors of the voting society.) So when there are domestic problems, the leader will create a foreign policy crisis to distract the electorate and unify them against the common enemy.

Then there’s the strategic theory. The strategic theory says you need two states for a war, so it can be modeled as a game. And as we’ve seen, if people don’t trust each other, they’ll end up with suboptimal results—war. Another strategic theory is that war comes about when there is incomplete information—both sides are unsure if they can win an armed conflict, so they have to duke it out to find out, rather than relying on the validity of each other’s threats.

Finally, there’s systemic theory. Systemic theories don’t look at individual states or dyads (pairings), they look at the system. There are three types of systems—the one, the few, and the many.

The one, or unipolar, is a system with a single strong state, like the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica, or the US since 1989. Also Childhood’s End.

The few, or bipolar, is a system with two powerful states, like Athens vs. Sparta, or the Cold War.

The many, or multipolar, is a system with more than two powerful states, usually a lot more than two. Examples are the concert of Europe, the Warring States Period of China, or A Song of Ice and Fire.

And if you want to determine if a war will happen, or why a war will happen, you have to determine what kind of system is present.

Hobbes said unipolar systems are best, because everyone will be subject to one power which will ensure that there’s no infighting. We’ll talk more about this later.

Neorealism disagrees with this, arguing that bipolar systems are better, because the two powers will be in competition, and both will work harder to ensure that what they control is peaceful.

And Wilsonian idealism champions multipolar systems, and a peaceful league of nations.

So, why all these theories? Which one is right?

That’s tough, because they’re all explaining war at different levels. The spiritual explanation looks at individuals, where diversionary theory looks at a single nation, strategic theory focuses on dyads, and systemic theory looks at the whole big mess.

So how do you link these levels together? How do you aggregate them? This, to some extent, is our question.

The Ecological Fallacy

The most basic form of aggregation is just to put everything together. Put together a bunch of individuals, you get a nation. Put together a couple nations, you get a dyad. Put together a bunch of dyads, you have a system. That’s what Professor Dion calls the “rock pile” method. If you put together a bunch of rocks, you get a rock pile. So if you have put together a bunch of dumb people, you’ll get a dumb group. If a majority of republicans are elected into congress, you’ll get a congress that votes republican.

But this isn’t actually the case. When you put a bunch of individuals together, things get weird.

To explore this, we’ll look at another question, similar to “why war?”: Who voted for the Nazis?

The problem is, they used secret ballots, and this information isn’t readily available. We could look at precincts and see how they voted, and what their demographics were. From that we can find a rough correlation between certain groups and voting patterns. This is perfect, right—or as close to it?

Not necessarily, because it’s an ecological fallacy. That name is a bit misleading, so I’ll explain. It comes from sociologists applying biological sciences to individuals—moving from individuals to whole groups, just like biologists moved from species to ecological systems to better understand the individuals. So sociologists applied this ecological approach, using the same sort of precinct analysis above, but this method was proven ineffective and inaccurate.

To summarize, the ecological fallacy involves using information from one level of analysis to make inferences about another level of analysis.

An example:

A Berkley graduate admission study in the 70s found that 46% of men were admitted, while only 36% of women were admitted. An ecologically fallacious argument would be that the school is biased against women. But by looking at each department, they found that some departments actually heavily favored women, while others just slightly favored men. So what happened?

Men applied to departments with high acceptance rates for everyone, while women applied more often to departments with lower acceptance rates. So it wasn’t that UC Berkley was discriminating against women—it was a problem of analysis on one level versus another.

Next post will look at a more accurate use of aggregation—the Condorcet Jury Theorem.

Do Hot Teachers Teach Better?

As the final project of my Intro to Political Analysis class, we had to write a short paper proposing a solution to some puzzle, and then determining if our solution was correct. This is what I did:

Do Hot Teachers Teach Better?

Introduction.

Ratemyprofessors.com is a site where students can post ratings of professors they have had, evaluating them on “helpfulness,” “clarity,” and “easiness.” “Helpfulness” describes how available and approachable the professor is. “Clarity” describes how well the professor teaches the material. A teacher’s overall rating is the average of their clarity and helpfulness scores from everyone who has rated them. “Easiness” is not factored in, though students can still use this measure to rate “how easy or difficult a class is”. Students can also post the grade they received in the class, and they can note whether their teacher is “hot” or not. Hotness is not measured numerically, but teachers who are hot are marked by a red chili pepper on their page. If there are more students who say a teacher is hot than students who say a teacher is not hot, the chili pepper will appear, though the number itself is not displayed.

The puzzle here is that teachers who are “hot” seem to receive a higher overall rating—a 2006 paper from Medaille College found that teachers labeled “hot,” on average, scored 0.8 points higher on their overall rating, suggesting either that hot teachers are more helpful, and teach their material more clearly, or that students are biased toward giving hot professors better ratings, regardless of their quality as a teacher.Read More »

Recommendation Dump, May 2016

Here are things I like.

Skeleton Gardens – Just a simple Ludum Dare game, but one with a really unique look and feel. You play as some sort of reaper, planting trees which grow skeletons warriors, as well as seeds to plant more trees. To ensure that the trees grow to maturity, you have to protect them from waves of knights attacking you. All of the trees appear to be randomly generated, as do the walls you can build and the special, massively destructive attack, all of them forming gnarly fractal patterns. Another fun thing about the game is that it always ends overwhelmingly—either you become overwhelmingly powerful, with hundreds of trees begetting hundreds more (and you get bored and close the game or let yourself die), or you’re crushed under an enormous onslaught of knights. I guess there’s something cathartic in that. There’s no cheap or meaningless death. The music is real fun too.

Politics Politics Politics – Of all the podcasts I listen to, this is the only one that’s pretty much a one-man show. Justin Robert Young, the host of Politicsx3, occasionally has on guests, but for the most part it’s just him—and he does a fantastic job. The content of the show is evident in the title. Politics, man. Specifically the 2016 US presidential elections. But it’s not a podcast about ideology, or policy, or anything like that. In Justin’s own words, from Episode 0 of the podcast,

“I was the only motherfucker in South Plantation High School who rolled in with the Kenneth Star report … this story perfectly encapsulates why I’m doing this show, why I love politics … I was not reading it because I thought Bill Clinton should be exonerated. I was not reading it because I thought Bill Clinton should be thrown out of the White House. I was reading it because they printed a bunch of shit about a dude getting his dick sucked, in the newspaper! … It is only politics … that has that carte blanche.”

And that’s what makes the show fantastic. Justin is incredibly energetic, and his love of the political game is always on full display. He’s also quite knowledgable about politics, and does a great job of analyzing the strategies of each candidate. The most recent episode came out yesterday, covering the recent dropouts from the election, and the campaign to come. With the primaries (pretty much) over, now’s a great time to start listening. The show is fantastic, and I’m sure it’s only going to get better as we move into the general election.

“How a fluke video game called the Eternal War became a cultural phenomenon—and changed its creator” – I’d heard about The Eternal War awhile ago in a Kotaku article, and I went and looked it up again recently. That’s how I came across this article, which does a really good job describing the whole story of the game. If you’re a normal person and you don’t know what I mean when I say The Eternal War, it’s a Civilization II game that someone played on and off for ten years—well past the time when the game is supposed to end.

Normally, the Civilization games simulate the rise of civilizations, from 4000 BC to the current time—and one of the civilizations will reach a victory condition, and win by the year 2020. But the player can continue playing after this, and one player, James Moore, did—for ten years. In his game, the world became locked in an endless, bloody stalemate between three superpowers, thus giving it it’s name, The Eternal War. That should be enough to intrigue you to read the article, which has plenty more interesting details, about the life of James Moore, and about the community that grew around the game when he posted about it on Reddit. It’s a really cool story about the convergence of history, culture, and technology. Check it out.

Lonely and Horny – If you’ve never watched Jake and Amir, or listened to If I Were You, you should probably go do those things. If you have, it should come as no surprise that Lonely and Horny, the first creative work (that’s been released) from Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenfeld since their webseries, Jake and Amir, ended a year or so ago, is hilarious.

The show, consisting of ten eight-to-ten-minute episodes, follows Ruby Jade, played by Amir Blumenfeld, who is enrolled in a hooking up class taught by Josh Rice, played by Jake Hurwitz. The episodes focus on this class and Ruby’s various attempts (and failures) to “close” with a girl. The show doesn’t have much of a story arc, though each episode does add more to the whole. The series feels like a thesis on being lonely and horny and pathetically desperate, and each episode fleshes out more of that, and more of Ruby Jade’s life and personality.

Amir’s performance is captivating. He walks a line between a crazy, exaggerated caricature and a real person with recognizable ticks and behaviors. That’s what makes the character, and the show, so funny. Underneath the over-the-top pick-up lines and sexism is a current of real insecurity—which makes the absurdity of the scenes even funnier. And of course, the scenes between Jake and Amir are dynamite.

The show is now available in its entirety on Vimeo, for $15—and you can watch the first episode free here.

Those were things I like, and hopefully you’ll like them too.

Political Analysis: Expectations

Now we come to the final topic from my notes on political analysis—at least from the first half of the class. I’ll probably do another series of posts at the end of this semester, but for now, this is the final word on power.

“How many divisions does the Pope have?”

Thus spake Joseph Stalin in response to Churchill’s concerns about the Vatican’s views.

So far in this discussion of power, we’ve focused on hard power—threats, bargains, consequences—the kind of stuff that Stalin could respect. But what about the Pope? Does he not have power just because his only divisions are brightly dressed swiss pikemen?

It turns out (sorry Stalin) that there is such a thing as soft power, and to talk about soft power we have to talk about expectations, and to talk about expectations, we’re going to talk about John Maynard Keynes and beauty contests.Read More »

Political Analysis: Games

This post we’ll be talking about games—contrary to what people often say in dramas, this is a game.

An extensive-form game is a tree of decisions branching out, with actors forming the nodes in the branches, and the branches representing choices that the actors can make. The assumption is always that each actor is making rational choices, trying to get their best outcome, at every point.

To determine the outcome of an extensive-form game, you work from the ends backward to the beginning, using backwards induction. To demonstrate, here’s this game:

EFG-volunteerRead More »

Political Analysis: Choice

Now we’re talking about choice—why do people choose to do things? Why do they take bribes?

If we suppose an individual faced with a set of actions to choose from, and all of the actions are linked to clear outcomes, there are two principles of rational choice.

Principle One: The individual has a consistent set of preferences for outcomes. There are two types of preference ordering: strict and weak. Strict ordering is like a total dominance hierarchy. No matter what, between two outcomes the individual will always have a preference. Weak ordering is like a partial dominance hierarchy, and an individual can have outcomes that are tied in preference. Unlike a partial dominance hierarchy however, the ordering will never be ambiguous—choices will always be tied or ranked, never unknown (as they were in the black male/white female scenario.)

Principle Two: The individual chooses an action to achieve the most preferred outcomes. Sometimes the choice is easy. Sometimes the link between action and outcome isn’t clear. Sometimes the outcome depends on chance, or someone else’s choice.

Well this seems pretty obvious, so what use is it? It’s useful because by understanding what a person’s preferences are, it’s possible to predict more complex decisions involving the interaction of multiple preferences.Read More »

Political Analysis: Networks

In this continuing series of posts taken from the notes for my Intro to Political Analysis class, we’ll look now at networks and what they tell us about power.

Networks are composed of nodes and ties. Nodes are like points. Each represents an actor. An actor can be any individual, institution, nation-state, or social group with a distinct personality. It can even be a chemical.

Ties are like lines connecting nodes. They can represent any relationship—economic, romantic, religious, chemical. These ties have characteristics, like strength, direction, and elements. Strength can be dichotomous (binary) or cardinal (being represented by a number on a scale.) A tie can be undirected (two-way) or directed (one-way, and assymetric.) The elements of a tie can be univalent (just one relationship), or multivalent (with multiple strands of relationships.)

This is what a total (left) and partial (right) dominance hierarchy look like drawn as networks. The arrows point to the dominators (so A has the most dominance in both networks.)

networks-dominance

Read More »

Political Analysis: Dominance

I just had my midterm for my Intro to Political Analysis class, taught by the eccentric, chalk-wielding, duck-loving Professor Douglas Dion, and in preparation for it I typed up all of my notes. Over the years I’ve found that the best way for me to remember notes, and be able to easily study them afterward, is by writing them down in full sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes they even end up being readable and well organized, and I think this is one of those cases. So, here is the first post in a probably four-part series of my notes on political analysis from the first quarter of the Spring semester, and specifically, power. This post in particular is taken from lectures on dominance theory.

The word “politics” comes from a treatise by Aristotle, deriving from the word “polis.” A practical definition is: the theory or practice of government. It can also mean a person’s ideology (i.e., “what are your politics?”) It could be a term for the acquisition of power or status. From all these definitions, politics might seem a mess, which is why we need analysis—another Greek derivation, from a term that means “to unravel.”

Read More »

Gradecraft

Gradecraft is something I’ve always known about, and done as well, but I didn’t ever have a name for it. And about a week ago, the name popped into my head (maybe inspired by the word statecraft), and I suddenly felt like I could write a post about it.

So what is gradecraft? No, it’s not a Minecraft mod, and while it is “a learning management system dedicated to supporting the gameful classroom,” that’s not what I’m talking about.

When I say gradecraft, I mean the skill or act a student employs in managing or manipulating their grades. I’m guessing it’s increased since schools started posting grades online continuously, rather than only sending them out as report cards a few times a year.

Although cheating would fall under that definition, that’s not really what I’m getting at, and it’s rather a crude form of gradecraft. The form that I’m more interested in, and that I’m really referring to when I say gradecraft (have I said “gradecraft” enough yet?) is the skill a student employs when they consider that they have a 68 in Algebra and a 72 in English, and they can either study for an English test which will count for fifty points of a hundred points (those hundred points weighed at thirty percent of their grade) or finish the algebra homework which will count for sixty points of a thousand (weighed at fifty percent of the grade.) Also taking into consideration the future opportunities to raise grades in each classes, as well as odd quirks of each teacher’s grading system (dropping the lowest scored test, allowing two re-dos per semester, extra credit, whatever.)

This act of gradecraft—deciding when bombing a test or not doing homework is the right choice—has funny results on the other end. Teachers seem to take a student not turning in an assignment as a personal slight, which is a somewhat egocentric view—as if the student does not exist outside that teacher’s own class. The teacher sees it as a lack of caring, whereas  the student sees it as a calculated loss. It’s not personal, it’s economics.

This is clearly not an ideal form of Paideia. Students shouldn’t be worried about grades, they should be worried about mastering a concept, or improving a skill. But grades are the most important factor in education, especially high school. GPA determines the ability to apply for certain scholarships, and to get into certain colleges. And grades are made more relevant because parents are able to see them, and it’s the only glimpse that parents get into how their kid is doing in school. So there’s social pressure to hit these arbitrary marks as well, and less pressure to do things parents can’t see (like participate in class or get tutoring help during lunch.) It’s also a lot easier for a teenager to grasp a specific number on a finite scale than an abstract concept like “fluency” or “mastery.”

The reason this emphasis on grades is bad is because it allows scenarios like the following to happen: A student will place more importance on doing busywork for a subject in which they’re already proficient than on actually learning a subject they know nothing about, if that unknown subject’s teacher is an easy grader.

This is a problem inherent in education. Of course there needs to be some standard that colleges and employers can reference to understand the level of skill of a student, but this places undue importance on grades. Rather than being an indicator of progress toward a goal, grades become the goal itself.

This is why I always got bad grades in English classes (by bad I mean ‘B’s, but that seems bad when you consider that I’m a writer.) I always was comfortable in my mastery of the course, and I didn’t care about pursuing arbitrary grades to prove it. I never engaged in much gradecraft, except in cases where I was pressed for time, and had to choose which assignment would give me the biggest bang for my buck.

I should say, I’ve mostly been talking about high school this whole time, because I find that gradecraft is much less prominent in college. The reason is, you can’t engage in gradecraft if your professor doesn’t put up grades. And, at least at the University of Iowa, professors aren’t required to post grades. Maybe this is completely different at other places, but this is the way it is here. And I think that’s a good thing. Teachers should keep track of grades so they can talk to anyone who’s failing, or so that any student willing to make the effort (not many of them) of visiting a teacher and asking for their grades can see them, but otherwise leave students in the dark. Students can get some idea of how they’re doing based on the assignments that are handed back, and their own intuition. That’s how things are in the real world anyway—no official body is going to tell someone they’re a C- barber, or that they’re an A+ farmer. People just have to figure out their strength and ability on their own, and make decisions from there.

While I have some pride in myself and my cohort for being able to engage in gradecraft, and manipulate a complicated, often broken, sometimes antagonistic system, it’s really a reductive activity. It may be useful for classes that a student has absolutely no interest in ever learning or mastering, but when it’s practiced in every class in a student’s schedule, that’s a problem. Because at that point schools aren’t training students to be scientists, historians, business owners, or doctors, they’re training them to be students—with a masters in gradecraft (and a concentration in test-taking.)