Back, great trip, moving slow

It will take me a while to figure out what the question(s) is/(are), much less any answers/pithy opinions. Martha and I had a great 20th Anniversary vacaction in Cancun. I think I got more sleep last week than in the previous two weeks combined. I highly recommend this.

The next bubble, college tuition edition

David Brooks makes several good points while asking the basic question of whether the cost of college is worth it. Money quote:

This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.

Of course, if you are pricing Duke for little Johnny, you recognize $160,000 as a bargain (the cost of attendance for Duke is $59,343 for 2012-13; our expansive financial aid policies are contained in the link).

I think the practical definition of a bubble is people are rushing to desperately spend their money on something up until the moment where almost no one is willing (or able) to do so. You don’t really know it was a bubble until it pops, but you can likely get some hints. This chart from mymoneyblog may be a hint of sorts.

I have an 11th grader and now view college tuition from a slightly less theoretical perspective, and a month ago we went to New York City visiting colleges, and have since visited more, with more to come.  At the first visit, a parent said her kids’ first choice was Duke, so I wasn’t about to identify myself as a professor at Duke, and I have discovered that answering the question, “what do you do?” by saying “I am a teacher” is a good neutral way to engage the other parents on college tours without being asked to write a letter of recommendation for a kid you have never met. Under this guise, it has been fascinating listening to the parents talk about what they expect in terms of student/faculty interaction. (The list of possible schools constructed by my daughter is nearly schizophrenic in terms of how different they are as institutions, but I have mostly been shutting up and trying to listen to her with lots of encouragement along these lines from my wife).

We have visited small liberal arts schools and major research Universities. The oddest thing has been my general take that parents seem to expect the same type of interaction between students at professors at both types of institutions. I can see upsides of both types of schools, but both the amount and type of interaction between students and professors differs; they aren’t offering the same thing. When figuring out if something is “worth it” you need to understand what it is that you are about to purchase.

update: this is cross posted at the Reality Based Community and this comment is a fair and important point.

Science Online Conference, Day 2

Here is my post on Day 1. The conference is focused on themes of communicating science/scientific research.

First session I attended today was “Using altmetrics tools to track the online impact of your research.” This was an interesting session on the development of tools to track the impact of research, whether peer reviewed or otherwise (like working papers, or even blog posts). First off, is a white paper on this movement: altmetrics: a manifesto. I pass this on having only skimmed it, but will circle back…there is a great deal of discussion in the sessions about the tracking of different types of output: peer review, working papers, slides decks from talks, blog posts. It starts with a statement that peer review has served us well but is showing its age (past posts on peer review here and here).

A few sites that are put forth as tracking tools:

These are tools that aim to provide a more subtle measure of impact of research as compared to traditional citation reports. They are each customizable and allow for the tracking of different types of outputs. I have not messed around with these…hearing about them for the first time.

This is Public Library of Science, that describes itself as follows “We are a nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization. Our mission is to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication. Everything that we publish is open-access – freely available online for anyone to use. Sharing research encourages progress, from protecting the biodiversity of our planet to finding more effective treatments for diseases such as cancer.”

A great deal of discussion about the impact of twitter, and a general question/disagreement about whether it reports the dissemination of science or creates it (discussion of research that highly tweeted papers later become highly cited and whether twitter traffic is a proxy for quality or a popularity contest).

There are some very interesting and powerful tools that are emerging to track impact of published (peer review and otherwise for some tools) research.

Update: Austin and I both had difficulties getting these tools to work easily. The authors say they are Alpha, not even Beta and they are seeking money to bring them about in a more user friendly manner. I saw several of these tools set up on the laptops of folks, and when set up, they are incredibly powerful tools, but not so user friendly at first glance.

Update 2: Heather Piwowar (@researchremix) is part of the team developing the tool, total-impact. She produced a quick run of my name on my peer review papers here. There are some papers missing, but name is a nightmare for search engines because it is common and has a Jr. (Donald H. Taylor, Jr.). Also, I am unsure of why there are large citation differences between pubmed citations and tools like google scholar. For example, The first paper on smoking cessation (Taylor, Hasselblad, etc. in that list shows 31 cites by pubmed but google scholar says 231 cites. I think this is a pubmed v. google scholar issue, but not sure. I will keep messing around with this and some of the other tools and report back later. Another tool about which I am just learning is Mendeley, that is a tool with which to manage research papers of interest and share them with others.

More on peer review: what is credible evidence?

Austin sent me this interesting article in the New York Times discussing a variety of interrelated issues: speed of peer review, open access journals, the role of scientists/journalists/bloggers, and who owns research, to name a few. Science and peer review are slow and methodical; the questions, problems and answers are many.

I learned from the NY Times article that the 6th Annual ScienceOnline conference is being held down the road from me at N.C. State University, a gathering that will confront many of these questions. And in the small world department, Anton Zuicker, co-founder of ScienceOnline, works at Duke University in communications for the Department of Medicine. Says Zuicker (aka @mistersugar on twitter):

As ScienceOnline co-founder Anton Zuiker puts it, the conference focuses on “finding creative ways to facilitate connections that lead to conversations, conversations that lead to networks, networks that support communities, all in the name of promoting science and our understanding of the worlds around us.”

I wrote a bit about suggestions for peer review, and got so many thoughtful responses and questions via email and in hallway conversations that I haven’t been able to distill them all to say more, and I realize I have more questions than answers. I am a consumer of and participant in peer review, not an expert in its conduct. However, nothing could be more important to this blog than a discussion about how to determine what constitutes credible evidence on which to base policy decisions?

I am going to attend some of this week’s ScienceOnline conference and report back. I will plan to live-tweet some of it, and if you want to follow along my twitter handle is @donaldhtaylorjr and the conference hashtag is #scio12. My frame for the conversation will remain, what is credible evidence?



Duke course on gridlock

I love being a college professor, in part because of the opportunity to do new and interesting things with students. A year ago, David Schanzer and I asked our Dean for permission to develop a new course at Duke called “Gridlock: can our system address America’s big challenges?” He said yes, freeing us from other courses to develop this new one that begins today.

David is a former Senate staffer who specializes in counter-terrorism and foreign policy and I am a health policy meets the budget guy, and the class is an attempt to both pull back and look at systems and structures while also giving concrete domestic and foreign policy issue examples. We both worry a lot about Gridlock and understand it to be a profound problem, but we are going to try and look as dispassionately at the issues as possible, from all sides. To that end, we will read books such as In Praise of Deadlock: How Partisan Struggle Leads to Better Laws by W. Lee Rawls, former Chief of Staff for Senator Bill Frist and before that Pete Domenici. An assignment for today’s class was to watch Justice Scalia discuss the benefits of gridlock.

Often in policy classes, I tamp down solutions for students and tell them their ideas are interesting but seem impossible. My vow for this class is to do the opposite: to try and encourage the students to imagine what world and country they want to inherit and make, and to not be limited by what I understand to be the limits of what is possible.

David and I are making student blogging a key part of the class assignments. You can follow along at Duke’s Gridlock Blog if you are interested.


The economics of big time college sports

The role of money in big time college sports and what that says about the relationship between academics, amateurism and exploitation has been much discussed since Taylor Branch’s essay in the Atlantic Monthly.

I agree with Harold Pollack that some of the moralistic rhetoric used to discuss this issue is not only over the top, but it diverts attention from understanding the incentives that have produced the current system.  My colleague at Duke, Charlie Clotfelter has a great book, Big Time Sports in American Universities that anyone interested in the economics of sports and/or the modern university should read. Charlie focuses on the incentives that have lead honorable academic leaders to not only accept, but to construct the system that now exists.  In short, there are costs and benefits of big time college sports that he carefully and dispassionately lays out. In doing so, he provides a far more sober account of how hard it will be to change the current system.

I was on Duke’s academic council last year, and the meeting where Charlie presented to this faculty group was easily the most interesting and produced some of the most divergent perspectives.  The example of the University of North Carolina’s $77 million expansion of its football stadium during a budgetary downturn was mentioned, and Charlie turned us away from the simplistic answers (they could have spent the $77 million on hiring new faculty and investing in the library) toward the more complicated truth: the money wouldn’t have been given for the library. And in the long run, such an expenditure could expand general giving to the University as the connection between wealthy alums and their school are deepened.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of his words about sports connecting alums to their school when I took my boys to a football game in Kenan Stadium on UNC’s campus (my alma mater; 3 times!; I would be nothing without what UNC has done for me).  As we walked in, the new stadium expansion was a bit jarring. However, when the Tar Heel players ran out of the tunnel to begin the game led by the captain carrying the American flag, I got goose bumps just like I always do.

Growing up, UNC was my dream school and it was the only place to which I applied. That dream was first born about 35 Falls ago, the first time I saw a football game in a much smaller Kenan Stadium.

update: I had the name of the publication in which the essay appeared wrong; now fixed. Taylor Branch has a new book The Cartel from which the essay was excerpted.


Direct to Kindle Publishing

I have just finished a book Balancing the Budget is a Progressive Priority that is now available on Amazon and published via Kindle Direct Publishing. This book is different from anything I have ever done; I would call it a polemic that is based on evidence. This post is not about the arguments of the book, but about my decision to publish it via Kindle Direct Publishing (I will write about some of the themes of the book in coming days).

I am engaging in this publishing experiment due to the timeliness of the topic. I began writing this book about one year ago, and planned to be seeking a traditional publisher now, a process that I have begun. However, a quick turnaround of the book for an academic publisher would put it out next summer, if the book sailed through the review process. In late July, I decided that if this book was to have a chance of having an impact on the policy process, I had to publish it now given the creation of the super committee. I intend to seek a book contract for a fuller version that also comments on whatever the super committee actually does with an academic press as well, and only time will tell if I am successful in doing so.

I almost certainly would not have done this were I still an Assistant Professor who was still to be reviewed for tenure. However, I got tenure last year, so decided I would rather try and have my ideas have an impact and was therefore willing to risk getting less “academic credit.” Further, I am a professor in a School of Public Policy, and we claim to be interested in “policy engagement” so I decided to move ahead.

What about the practical details of publishing direct to Kindle? Austin asked me last night via twitter:

Let me put it this way: suppose I had a monograph, all text, no figs, in Word. What does it take to get it to Kindle?

The short answer is 72-96 hours, but with some caveats. Here is how it went for me. I decided to publish my book via Kindle Direct on July 25, 2011, and the heart of the text was mostly completed at that time (of course I tinkered with it). After the debt ceiling deal was reached, I wrote a prologue to the book and a concluding chapter that put the long run deficit problems in context with our short run economic problems and the upcoming work of the super committee. I put the text to bed on August 9, 2011 and the book (mistakenly) was published on August 12 (I meant for it to publish on August 15; you can set the date). One person stumbled onto it and purchased it that weekend.

My plan was to have the book live for the week of Aug 15-22 while I addressed some formatting issues; I thought of it like the soft opening for a restaurant. I had to submit three updates to the book during this period of time to fix formatting issues. Persons who buy the book get the updates for free, though there is evidence this works much easier with a Kindle device than it does with the free software that allows you to buy/read a Kindle e book on a PC (they also have it available on Android and iPad/iTouch platform).

I tweeted some about the book during the first week, but began to market the book on August 22, 2011 when I sent emails to approximately 100 persons who I thought would be interested: academics, persons working for think tanks, a few politicians, journalists, my Father, other bloggers, etc.

So, from completed word file to having a book out on Kindle is feasible in 72-96 hours if you have nothing but text. If you follow the pointers below you can likely avoid the formatting problems I had. Still, I would publish it and read over it to make sure the formatting is as you want it before you start pushing the book because the last step of publishing a book via Kindle Direct is totally black box (mobi.pocket Kindle’s proprietary software).

  • To publish a book to Kindle you must go from word file —> html —> Kindle’s proprietary software mobi.pocket, which is available for free download
  • There is a Kindle “previewer” on-line that shows you how the book will look once published; I had spacing problems that looked fine on the “previewer” but were messed up in the published online version; the problems were due to microsoft word spacing/html conversion issues. Especially troublesome were the fact that hard carriage returns for a new paragraph in word were lost in the html to mobi.pocket translation causing there to be no spacing between paragraphs.
  • The spacing between paragraphs issue was fixed by going to the Page Layout/Spacing/tab in word and setting the spacing before and after each paragraph.
  • Do not use the latest version of word. We had other formatting problems that did not resolve until I went from .docx to .doc file. Kindle’s guidance says you may have problems with .docx; first thing to do is save your word file to an older version of word.
  • Note that you have to use very basic formatting in Kindle; no bullets, special symbols and the like. You have to use indentation, capitalization and italics to highlight points so this means you need to pay attention to the Style used in word. We used Style/Simple though I am sure there are better ones. Because the document was written initially in chapter-specific word files that had different styles, this took some time. I would get the book into one word file sooner rather than later.
  • A quick look into the formatting of tables in Kindle made me decide to have none in the book, and instead to have a web page with supplementary materials. Stephen Cohen and Brad Delong did this (no references or tables in book; all on a website) even with a hard cover  book The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money (New York: Basic Books: 9780465018765). This also gives me the flexibility to respond to comments/concerns about the book with more supplementary materials.
  • There are companies that specialize in conversion of books to Kindle that are listed in the Kindle Direct publishing materials and I talked with a few of them via email. I would not personally try to do a direct to Kindle book with tables and figures without hiring someone.
  • Bottom line: use older version of word, put the entire book into one file with consistent formatting, and do not depend upon hard carriage returns to set spacing between paragraphs and you can go from clean word file to Kindle book in less than a week, easily.
  • As of 11:20 am on August 23, 2011, the book is #1 in the Kindle e book store for nonfiction books focused on Social Security and #2 for those focused on Health Policy.  It is #10,499 in the Kindle store overall….so don’t get too excited; it has sold 33 units, which I assume means copies. So, I am encouraged but not quitting my job.
  • My colleague Khuwailah Beyah helped me greatly with this conversion, including usefully telling me to “shut up and go back to your office and stop worrying” a few times.