San Francisco Sunset

April 24, 2004

I am lucky to live a few miles from what must be the best sunset in
the world. Today, when I drove my motorcycle up to Grizzly Peak in the
hills above Berkeley, I could not help feel blessed as I saw the sun
slowly come down over the Marin hills caressing everything into the
gentle night.


I ride up to Grizzly Peak as often as I can – it is now an integral
part of my psyche. From up there you can see all five bridges that
cross various points of San Francisco Bay, and you get this incredible
view of the Golden Gate bridge standing calmly next to the city
spires. Later in the year the sun will move so as to set right over
the Golden Gate, and from my vantage point, with Alcatraz right in
front of the bridge, it is a triple delight. And some days, the fog
mixes with the sun and bathes the bay with a golden halo – it is very
impressive, not just for its powerful expanse, but also for its
infinite variety. No matter how many times I go up there, it is always
different.


Today there must have been at least 40 sports motorcycles up there –
gorgeous feline machines, and their crude and rough riders, the
drug-filled air and foul-mouthed tones casting a pall of dissonance
over the mountain. This is the “wall” – one of the most famous meeting
places for bikers, who begin to gather two hours or more before
sunset, usually dispersing rapidly right after, especially when the
fog rolls in and it becomes bitterly cold.


But never mind – the sunset smothers all with calmness, despite the
rubber burnouts, and loud speed drives past the wall. The soothing
rays bring enervating relaxation to me, and I wander towards it,
oblivious to the testosterone and tatoos around me. Its that sunset,
the pied piper that draws me up the mountain, always there and such a
bonus, as it comes as a perfect end to any sort of day.


And it will always be there, my friend, and I hope I will be there for
it too, as long as I live.


Quiz Show

April 23, 2004

Administering quizzes is like doling out medicine, no one is happy
with the experience. Unless the medicine works. Even then, it does not
make students happy at the time (although I must say I have come
across some who have loved quizzes – kept them awake in class they
said – forever grateful!).


So, its bad during the quiz. You stand around praying that they do
well enough to know that they learnt something after all. Or at the
very least, learnt what they did not know. Mostly, they hate you for
it – no way around that, its the cross every teacher bears.


The only way to generate happiness is to make the quiz really easy,
which I do, shamelessly and for a good reason. Its better to make the
class hard and the quiz easy, rather than the other way around. My
way, students are scared into learning a lot, and then they hate the
quiz experience less. The other way, they don’t really learn. The
beauty of it all is that if you make the class really hard, and keep
saying how easy the quiz is and that they should not study for it, the
less they believe you – which is fine – whatever gets everyone to
engage, whatever works, whatever causes learning, go for it.


So during and after, there is pain yet light at the end of the
tunnel. Before the quiz? Thats the worst. Students organize into
different categories, some of which are –


(a) Worriers – there are students who get up every morning in a cold
sweat, because the course is hard. They fret that they will finally
fail a class. They wonder how they are going to deal with the quiz. It
usually ends up in an email which begins with the words “I am lost
…”. When I get too many such emails, then I will turn into a worrier
too, but it has not happened yet, so I guess things are not that bad,
and this is not Atlantis. Most “lost” students are sincere and
hard-working, and are really not lost, they just need to stop
worrying.


(b) Testphobes – are students that spend an inordinate amount of time
trying to get you to tell them what is on the test. There are many
ways in which they go about this. The one that usually works is to
simply ask – “What’s on the test?” – some sort of frank answer usually
suffices, and then its time to prepare. But there are many other good
questions like – Do I need a laptop? Do I need a calculator and a
laptop? How many questions are there? Are there multiple choice type
or essay type? Do we really need to know about the CAPM? (answer =
yes) Will everyone finish the quiz? If I don’t do well, what can I do
to make it up? I know you explained it really well in class, but do I
really need to know what a portfolio is? Can I learn topic X later? Is
the last week of class included in detail? Is any of the extra reading
important? And so on – the only antidote is avoid learning about the
quiz and start learning the material…


(c) Coolios – are risk takers, and have a long history of taking tests
on the fly, from which they have learnt that it only takes
attentiveness in class to do reasonably well. They see the forest but
not all the trees and thats okay for them. Every answer they turn in
is not gold-plated, but seems to evidence a lot of learning. They are
great students, they ask good questions and they balance time and
payoff better than any others.


(d) Steadies – are the diligentsia, and do very well. They take the
time to prepare and don’t worry that they got it all (who does?). Good
test takers, they are centered and not lost. Quizzes come and go,
being small ripples on their equanimous bearing.


It takes all types to make up a class, and everyone has their role in
keeping us teachers honest. Quizzes will remain, simply because they
make us all learn, students and teachers alike.


When suboptimal is superoptimal

April 18, 2004

Academics usually do not fly first class unless there is a strange
reason. In my case today there was – the airline messed up and I
found myself in seat 1A coming back across the country from
Massachusetts to California, a route I have flown more than 50 times
in my life before, but never in first class; but I digress.


Sitting up in the front usually comprises a return to infancy. You
sleep, go to the toilet, and generally get fed (which mimics closely
my first 12 months of life). So here is the strange thing – when the
purser began asking me which of the various meals I would like for
dinner, I just took the first one, even before he completed telling me
what they all were. The first option was something I liked, and I just
took it, passing up the chance at something better. When he asked me –
“Don’t you want to know what else there is?” – I simply said “no.”
I was happy, content. I enjoyed this meal more than any other on a
flight, I had gotten exactly what I wanted, no choice costs and no
opportunity costs. Why don’t we always make decisions this way?


(a) By stopping at the first acceptable choice, we have low choice
costs, for we do not have to choose between many alternatives, just
one at a time. Thats easy.


(b) By not knowing the other options, there are no opportunity costs,
no regrets. Just satisfaction.


You know, this works for me. I just realized that I am not an
optimizer. Nor am I a satisficer. Maybe I am just easy to please. Are
all people that are easy to please likely to make decisions in this
way? Who knows? Its not bad being a simpleton. We like making choices
by Dutch auction.


Now what if that first option was clearly below a threshold? Then just
move on to the next one. Take it one at a time. If the chance of the
option being acceptable (not optimal) is 50 percent, then there is a
very small chance that you need to look beyond 4 choices. You may not
reach the optimal, but you will surely be happy. Which is often not
what we are when we have made the best choice.


In a word, just make a good choice, and stop worrying about making the
best one.