A brief ask the grumpies novel interlude

Idon’twannaworkanymore wrote:

Dear Grumpies,

I just want to read novels.  That’s all I want to do.

What is wrong with me?



Dear Don’twanna,

Books are better than work; there is nothing wrong with you.  This doesn’t help you work, of course, but you can bask in the warm glow of Being Right.


All Books, All the Time.

c/o The Grumpies

p.s.  This is the last ask the grumpies in our queue– we’ll be putting out a call for more questions next Friday.


Ask the grumpies: How to teach a kid to code?

Sandy L asks:

How to teach a kid to code when you don’t know how? (And I don’t live in a big city and I also don’t want to spend $1000 on coding camp. There has got to be a better way.)

We don’t know the answer to this question.  Here’s what we had tried on this subject back in 2015.  DC2 did really enjoy the Python for Kids book and enjoyed modifying the programs in the book, but hasn’t really come up with any programs of hir own.  We did not try Teach your kids to code.

Last summer DC1 did a week long video game design daycamp.  That used a program called Unity.  Zie fiddled around on it for about a month after the camp and then accidentally deleted or broke hir game in a way that locked it and lost interest.  Next year there’s a middle-school class that *might* teach programming but it also might not.  If it’s taught by the same teacher as the gifted-only version of the class we’re definitely not interested [update:  because DC1 is gifted, zie is only allowed to take the gifted-only version].  But there will be programming classes once zie gets to high school which is pretty exciting.  (We don’t live in a big city either, but having the university here adds a lot.)

DC1 and DC2 have both done Hour of Code in school and have links to practicing outside of school.  There’s also Khan Academy.

I dunno, does your local community college offer an intro programming class?  If so, it will probably be in Java or Python.

Any better suggestions for Sandy L?

Ask the grumpies: Private vs. public colleges

Sandy L. asks

Cost benefit of public vs private college. What is the value of the network, etc.

The question isn’t really about public vs. private.  Berkeley is going to open a lot more doors and have a much more impressive network than the expensive small regional private liberal arts college one of my sisters-in-law went to.  The question is really about the prestige of the school.  There’s a lot of interesting new research on that topic.  And the answer is that, first off, we don’t really know, and second off, it is nuanced.

In general, for your white upper-class/upper-middle-class kid, it doesn’t really matter where they go.  Harvard, top flagship, regional state school– it just doesn’t matter.

For your lower income family, minority, etc. etc. etc. student, it can matter quite a bit.

But even with that mattering, some schools are better than others at elevating kids into higher socioeconomic status.  And some schools (like Harvey Mudd) are phenomenal at elevating low SES kids, but don’t actually admit very many of them (that $72K/year sticker fee and all).

I’m too lazy to source and cite this, but if you’re interested in finding out more, flip through the NBER working papers abstracts for the education group.  If you need to narrow your search window down, Carolyn Hoxby is a good place to start– she’s written extensively on this topic and cites a lot of the other work that has been and is being done.

Ask the grumpies: How do you pick a preschool?

Leah asks:

How do you pick preschool? Our best options are the Catholic school ($6,300 tuition, and that includes lunch and the before/after care, but Catholic school), public school ($6,300 tuition and does NOT include those things, so we’d pay an extra $2k for lunch and care), or staying at our current daycare/preschool that our daughter seems to be aging out of (~$5,500ish, includes full day, breakfast, lunch, all snacks and no random vacation days). The other two preschools have random vacation days. We’d have to send in snack about once a month at the Catholic school, but at least they have snacks.

We are just so torn and are not sure what’s the most important and whether it’s worth it to pay $2k more for public school. That’s a lot of money for us.

Here’s our answer to a more general question 4 years ago on how to pick a daycare .  The fundamentals are still the same– visit the schools and look for teacher/student interactions and student/teacher happiness.  What’s slightly different for older kids is first that your child will be better able to tell you if something is going wrong, and second, intellectual stimulation may be more important.  So ask about differentiation if applicable.  (I also have to say I am in love with the way Montessori gets kids to clean up after themselves– a huge benefit, so keep an eye out for who cleans up after activities when you visit.)

Given that your current daycare is cheaper and less of a hassle (those random vacation days are no joke, also remembering snack once a month is non-trivial for us, though at least it’s just once a month), have you talked to their administration about getting more intellectual stimulation for your kid?  It may cost less than 1-3K to provide materials.  On the other hand, if the school just isn’t set up for that, it isn’t set up for that.

What is most important to us:

  1. Happiness
  2. Hassle
  3. Intellectual and physical exhaustion by the end of the day
  4. Actual learning

But YMMV.  Happiness is non-negotiable for us.  There are tradeoffs with hassle and learning that we’re willing to make, and indeed, getting DC1 to start K early was significantly more hassle than just keeping hir at preschool another year.  DC2’s public school isn’t leaving hir exhausted at the end of the day (zie still misses hir Montessori director’s math classes), but zie is learning Spanish so that’s pretty cool.  Thankfully we have paid care options for the random days off.

Regarding the religious aspect– ask them how they handle the Easter story.  That’s a good test for if they’re creepy religious or story-based religious at these ages.  I want to say that most Catholic preschools are story-religious, but I was a little traumatized by the Easter story in my Catholic kindergarten– how they handle these things really varies, even among preschools with the same denomination (as we found out with two different Missouri Synod Lutheran preschools).

Grumpy Nation:  What advice would you give Leah when making this decision?


Ask the grumpies: Things to help a kid get into the college of hir choice

Sandy L. asks

If a kid has his heart set on a college, what things could help them get in besides academics. For example, MIT has these science camps for kids that are expensive but could they also help with admissions later on?

We truly don’t know.  Take everything we say with a HUGE grain of salt.  I mean, we know people who got into Stanford but not Harvard and vice versa.  It really seems to be a crapshoot at a certain level, even if you’re your state’s math champion and have straight As, etc.  I don’t actually think it’s that hard to get into MIT if your grades and testscores are good and you have a true love of math and science compared to getting into Harvard (at least, I know a lot of people who got into MIT as undergrads who didn’t get into any ivies to which they applied).  It’s more difficult than getting into your state’s flagship, but there’s a lot less competition for those slots.  So I wouldn’t think that the science camps would be necessary.  Whether or not they help, I don’t know.

Back when it was called the Westinghouse science award, it helped to have won the Regeneron Science Talent Search.

It helps to have top scores and grades at a known-name school and to have come from nothing.  If you’re first gen, low income, and have fought your way to the top, that makes it easier for colleges to decide.  Particularly if you’re a scholarship kid at Eaton or at one of the state public boarding schools for GT kids.

One of my colleagues’ kids got in to our (state flagship) school (for engineering/CS) late admissions despite being low on grades and testscores because he did an after school club with a professor in the computer science department and did a very good job at said club, and the professor was able to pull strings.  I don’t know how universal that is– certainly I have never had any contact with undergraduate admissions– but some professors at some schools might have some pull.

If Caltech has the same application it had 15 years ago, you’re more likely to get in if you take it seriously.  Fill out that page that says, “put something interesting here” with something interesting!  I filled the entire thing in very tiny writing with math jokes.  My ex-boyfriend drew a comic showing the path of his life complete with adorable stick figures interacting with the line representing the timeline of his life.  I forget what my sister put in there but I’m sure it was interesting and entertaining.  We all got in.

On the application, if there’s a place for it, have an interesting story to tell that illustrates your interests and your academic path.  One of my college ex-boyfriends got in everywhere (he picked our SLAC over Stanford) partly because his admissions essay was a delightful story about how he built a trebuchet.  My sister got in everywhere she applied (including ivies) probably partly because she talked about how physics informed her dancing.  It probably also helps to be focused and to pretend you know what you’re going to do with your life and why and you have a path mapped out to get there.  Extra points if you are unusual– a young woman in an award winning Poms squad and an all-girls math team who has taken as much math and hard science as she can who really wants to design more energy efficient engines.  (Again, that was my sister.)

Many schools will make their final waitlist/admit decisions for people on that margin based on who has visited the campus/had an alumni interview.  I think this is unfair to low income kids who CAN’T just hop on a plane or spend two weeks in the summer driving up and down the East Coast from the Midwest, but it’s policy at many schools.

Applying early action, particularly the kind where you swear to go if you get in helps, though it decreases your financial aid offer many places.

Playing (and being really good at) the right instrument/sport can help.  But it is hard to predict what the school of your choice will need the year you’re applying.  (And this probably doesn’t matter at MIT, but I don’t actually know.)

Not needing financial aid can help at some schools.  I don’t know if MIT is one of them, but MIT is notoriously stingy when it comes to financial aid.  (Harvard is exceedingly generous!)

Being a member of an Olympic team or the child of a celebrity or owning your own profitable business or app or nonprofit that you started as a teen can make you more attractive.   So can having published a scholarly paper in an academic journal.  Or having a patent.  Or a parent who gives a multi-million dollar donation.

Passing the AMC 10 or 12 and doing well on the AIME can help.  Taking college classes and doing well in them doesn’t hurt (though as this becomes more common, it may no longer be as strong a signal as it once was).

We’re told that leadership experience, state and national awards, and volunteering can help, but I’m skeptical.  I don’t know if these are necessary, but they’re definitely not sufficient.  There’s just too many people each year who have these things.

Some people swear by college coaches.  I don’t know how to find a good one or what kind of value they add to someone who is already doing well.

I don’t know what we’re going to encourage our kids to do.  This is more timely for DC1 who starts high school in a year and a half.  Zie is really into math, but not competitions.  Zie like robotics, but not competitions.  Zie loves computers and games and likes programming but needs more formal training in programming.  Zie loves music but although better than I was at that age, is not at competition level either in piano or violin (the piano teacher is pretty lax and zie just started violin a year ago), and again, is not crazy about competition.  We might be able to get hir an unpaid summer internship with a professor at my school, or zie can do more work for me, possibly even something publishable.  Zie could take summer classes at the community college or the university (I still haven’t figured out how to do summer student-at-large classes, though it’s pretty easy for high school students to take college classes during the school year).  It is hard to say what’s best.  Most likely we’ll just let hir interests guide hir and focus on learning rather than on getting into a specific school.  Because for high income kids of educated parents, the specific school isn’t that important for earnings.

Anybody know more about what undergraduate admissions offices are looking for?

Ask the grumpies: Better political and economic systems?

Solitary Diner asks:

Working in an inner-city clinic, I think a lot about the political and economic systems that contribute to the poverty and marginalization of my patients. What do you think can/should be done to make the world’s systems more fair to everyone?

Yeah, these aren’t hard questions at all.

Most economists favor socialism-lite.  We think government should intervene in cases of market-failure when the benefits of intervention outweigh the costs of intervention.  In practice that usually means something like what Europe has (not entirely though), with a lot of focus on making sure that the social safety net is high for everyone and even more focus on early childhood equality.

Of course, the rational-actor model is blind to structural inequalities stemming from racism, and many of our models seem to think that sexism is a feature, not a bug (they start out with the assumption that women are differently-abled and that’s why they get paid less… even in jobs for which they have comparative advantage).  I don’t know how to get rid of -isms.  I can tell you that Marxism doesn’t do it.  Nor monarchy.  I presume a benevolent dictatorship would even have difficulty, though maybe it would have a shot depending on how long the dictator can stay in power and how good they are at forcing behavior.  If we could somehow manage to get rid of segregation, that might also help since so many of our policies use geography as a way to discriminate.  Though perhaps changing those policies to be less local could help.  There’s no reason, for example, for local property taxes to fund schools.  Of course, we would no doubt still see inequalities from “voluntary” requested donations.  Paradise requested a $500 donation from every parent at the beginning of the year, and got it from many– less wealthy areas are not able to do that.

So… what should be done?  More socialism with a focus on the children.  What can be done?  Beats me.  :(  If I knew the answer to that, I’d tell it to one of the economists who hangs out with Bill Gates and they’d get to work!


Ask the grumpies: Privatizing nation’s air controllers?

Crone asks:

opinion on privatizing our nation’s air controllers. I oppose but was told the whole system should be moved to computer based GPS system and then Highways in the Sky for planes could be free form making flights faster and private industry can do this more rapidly than government. (I was in social situation so could not say I have never known a single computer system that did not ‘go down’ or ‘have ‘undocumented features ‘ so how would that work…) The topic of pipelines that ‘will not fail but ALL LEAK at some time’ had already come up.~~ I had been assured I was wrong on that point and ignorantly female. SO, back to air controllers: If this would be profitable for private companies to do why isn’t it done profitably or better by public government?


Well, it’s only the WORST IDEA if you think that airplane passengers are more important than prisoners. If you think prisoners are people too and should have rights, then privatizing prisons is actually the worst idea and this is only second worst. I guess there’s also privatizing foster care systems… if you think all people are equal then that might be slightly above air traffic control but still below prisons in potential harm done by privatization. (Foster care systems empirically aren’t as bad as prison systems, even though the potential is there to be as bad. This has to do with better state oversight.)

I had a section on privatizing public systems in one of my classes last semester and students brought in stuff– if I’d known it would come up as an ask the grumpies I’d have taken a picture of the whiteboard commonalities of when it works and doesn’t that we came up with. It can be ok, but it depends on a lot of stuff and it really shouldn’t be something where you know, people could die.

Ugh, so no, not you being ignorantly female. There’s a reason there’s a role for government for various systems.

We generally think that there is a potential role for government intervention when there is market failure in the competitive markets.  One form of market failure comes from monopolies.  Something like air-traffic control is what we call a “natural monopoly”– natural monopolies occur when it just doesn’t make sense for more than one company to be in one market.  A lot of utilities are in this kind of situation– where it doesn’t make sense for two companies to lay down pipes or what-have-you.  (You can also have government-private partnerships, where, for example, the government owns the rail-lines but allows different companies to pay to use them.)  Air traffic control is an example of a natural monopoly.  At an airport, it makes sense for only one company to do the air-traffic control.  Any more could lead to planes, for example, hitting each other.

The government in this situation could still allow private contractors to bid on the ability to be that one company doing all the air traffic controlling.  Unfortunately, air traffic control benefits a lot from experience and there are switching costs when an old company leaves and a new one takes its place.  Those switching costs could lead to not just inefficiency but also death.   Finally, oversight is really important with privatization.  Unlike the government, companies can just go out of business when they cut costs so much that people die, so they don’t have as much of an incentive to stay safe when it means cutting into profits.  Government can combat that by making it costly for them to cut corners before someone ends up dead, but that oversight comes at a cost.  Those costs could be large enough (and the possibility of bribes could be high enough) that it makes sense for the government just to do it itself.