Friday, September 21, 2007

Obviously Random

There must be some really geeky researchers out there with no social life at all. Nothing else could explain why research was done showing that women put more value in kissing than men and that women are pickier when it comes to selecting a partner.

Seems that the State University of New York needed to find out that women use kissing as a measure of how the relationship is going, while men use it to measure the likelihood that they're going to get laid. The researchers also found that men preferred "wet, tongue kisses". Surely none of this is news the rest of us out here in the real world.

Ask a woman what she thinks makes for a 'great kisser' and, dollars to donuts, she's not going to say "big, sloppy kisses". Most will agree that if they wanted a tongue shoved into their faces, they'd get a puppy.

Perhaps it's engaging in stereotyping to point this out, but women tend unconsciously to see kissing as a intimate ritual that mimics the sharing of food as done by other animals, whereas men consciously see it as mimicking the sexual act itself. Not that either is particularly a good or bad perception, but rather those are the perceptions. It is just hard to understand why anyone thought it was necessary to study what the genders get out of kissing.

Not to be outdone in their lack-of-a-social-life-geekiness, researchers at Indiana University tell us that women seek men who are able to support a family, while men seek women who are sexually attractive. Yet another study for the "Duh!" files. Lead researcher, Peter Todd, is quoted as saying, "While humans may pride themselves on being highly evolved, most still behave like the stereotypical Neanderthals when it comes to choosing a mate." In other words, no matter how 'feminist' a woman is, no matter how 'sensitive' a guy is, we're all just a bunch of cavepeople following the same old routine: He finds an attractive female, clubs her and drags
her back to his cave; she takes a look around at his collection of animal skins -- maybe even check out his kissing ability -- and decides if she's going to stay or hightail it back to her own cave.

The lesson to be learnt here is simple, even for the folks to whom this information is cutting edge: Dating is a ceremony with its dances and poses, you try potential partners out and keep the one that suits your needs; women look for long-term relationships, men for the short-term.

Don't despair, the difference isn't as great as it may seem. As Dr Glenn Wilson points out,
"Men will often find themselves falling into relationships by default after starting off looking for sexual adventure."
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Friday, September 14, 2007

Pardon My Randomness

Students, beware of technology. Just because it is available, it doesn't excuse being boorish.

At the beginning of the summer, I was discussing the semester that had just ended with a fellow professor. He had a particular grievance about the behavior of students these days. One of them had missed the final exam. Completely failed to show up to take the final. So, the student called his office phone and left a voice message: "Hey professor, this is Blithe. I missed the final and need to take a make up exam tomorrow. Please call me with the time. My number is ............"

The professor was complaining that not only was the student so blasé in the assumption that he was automatically going to give a make up exam, but that the student had left the phone number at a speed supersonic jets would envy.

If you're the student in question and wondering why you never got a call back, let me inform you of what everyone else is thinking right now: You're an idiot.

"In my day," said the professor, "a student would never do such a thing." Even when La Professora went to college, which was some time after said professor went, students knew that such impolitic behavior would never be accepted. If you missed an exam, you went to the professor's office and begged for mercy.

Technology has been a blessing and a curse. Students now can use the internet to contact each other from across the globe to get caught up on the lectures they missed. Cellphones have saved lives as professors have had to call 911 for students who fall violently ill in class. Laptop computers have been used to make lectures a little more interesting with slides. Yet that same technology has been used in thoughtless ways.

A recent conversation with another professor in the department was on just that topic. He told of going to a class to observe the instructor and being amazed at what students were doing in class. As he sat in the back of the class, he could see what was on the screens of students' laptops. The wireless access, for which the university had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars supplied by student fees, was being used by three students to play World of Warcraft. During lecture. Why, the professor wanted to know, did the students bother to come to class.

My own recent experience has been with the use of cellphones and blackberries to catch up with one's 'homies' while in class. Tucking the device under the desk does not make it less noticeable; if anything, it makes it more conspicuous as you are forced to arch your neck to odd angles to be able to see what you are doing. At the same time, don't assume that I haven't figured out what is going on with the laptop -- if you're typing while your fellow students are engaging in some group activity, then there's a high probability email is being sent.

Do I care? Not really. You're in class and you're at least not disturbing the flow of lecture. However, when it comes time to pull your own weight in class activities, and your laptop or blackberry or whatever electronic device you have out is in use, you're not only irritating your fellow students, you're infuriating La Professora -- the one who grades your work -- and that's not wise.

I'll let you in on a little secret, if only to help you understand how the use of technology may harm you: If you want something from a professor, do not use email or the cellphone. Case in point: a student was calling around to see what classes she could get into by asking, over the phone, for add codes. I had a student in my office asking the same thing for the same classes. Even though it was the end of the second week of classes, I allowed the student in my office to add -- the student on the phone was told the courses were full. The reason is simple. I will not enroll someone who doesn't have the dedication to get into the office and ask in person. I want to see the person before giving them permission to add. I am not going to add someone who hasn't been to the class, hasn't seen the syllabus, and hasn't the commitment to his or her education to do more than phone a professor.

Then again, perhaps I should let those folks into the class. I'm sure the other students would appreciate having someone occupy the lower end of the grade curve.
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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Loan of Randomness

By now, everyone has read or heard about the subprime mortgage crisis and its effect on the markets. Even those with the meanest of logic skills can figure out that it will affect our -- if not the global -- economy. Reports of doom and gloom abound. Yet one industry is seeing a bright side to the crisis. This industry is hopping right up to serve those debtors who are awash in debt and need to make payments on their mortgages or lose their homes. This magnanimous industry is none other than Credit Card Companies.

Visa, MasterCard, and American Express want you to know that the best way to get out your current debt crisis is to, well, go further into debt.

If you haven't been all that good at making payments on your debts, be they student loans or your phone bill, your credit report shows you to be a subprime customer, meaning that there's a higher risk that you won't be all that good at paying off any new debt you may accrue. Logic then dictates that those companies offering credit cards would avoid offering debtors like you an opportunity to owe them money. Logic doesn't seem to be Visa and MasterCard's strong point, especially given the factoids that nation-wide 1 in 5 mortgages are over 60 days in arrears -- that's 20% -- and 1 in 20 homes are now in foreclosure. Hardly a market for extending more debt; yet, compared to last year, the number of credit card offers mail directly to subprime loan holders rose 41%. At the same time, folks with good credit ratings saw 13% fewer offers.

Business analysts of all stripes agree on at least one thing: We Americans are far too dependent on debt, to the point our personal deficit rivals the government's. A Federal Reserve survey on consumer finances showed that 43% of families are spending more than they are earning each month. For those who like to see hard numbers, that means for every $100 dollars in the paycheck, the average American spends $122.

Wait, that's average and anyone worth their weight in methodology homework grades ought to know that there are three different ways of measuring "average". Here, the average given is the mean, rather than the median or the mode. What this should say is that there is some good news in the world of debt, and there is: A quarter of American households do not have credit cards; 40% of credit card bills are paid off each month and only 3% are past due by 30+ days. Only 8.3% of credit card holders owe more than $9,000. The median debt on credit cards is actually only about $2,200, which in itself is mean figure. Gender seems to play a role as to how much debt one carries: Males have an average of $2,369; females average $2,289. Or perhaps it is one's marital status: Married people have an average of $2,625 of credit card debt while non-married individuals have an average of $1,744. Then again, it could be region: People in the West are further into debt than any other region, at $2,547; people in the Midwest are the most frugal with an average of only $1,972 in credit card debt.

On the other hand, the news isn't all good. The total American consumer debt in 2004 was $1.9773 trillion, which was up 41% from 1998. It's very easy to see how we consumers went so far into debt when one looks at the figures:

The number of cards in the average wallet: 7.6 -- 2.7 bank credit cards, 3.8 retailer cards and 1.1 debit cards.

Those 7.6 cards are used to make 24% of our everyday purchases.

Most of the purchases using credit cards are considered survivor debt, charges to pay the bills. The old joke "Using Visa to pay MasterCard" isn't funny anymore.

Roughly $125 billion of American household expenses are put on credit cards. That number goes up each year.

The minimum monthly payment is now 4% of the balance, and that only went up because the government Office of the Comptroller of the Currency pressured credit card companies to raise it. Even with the new minimum, a debt of $8,000, at 18% interest will take roughly 25 years to pay off and the total bill will be $24,000 -- 300% of the original debt.

Consumer spending amounts to about two-thirds of the U.S. economy, thus the reason why the Bush administration said, after 9/11, it was our patriotic duty to go shopping.

Car loans make up 63% of the consumer debt, and if we don't by cars, Detroit will have to fire folks on the assembly line.

The job growth rate -- the rate at which jobs are added to the economy -- has been the slowest since 2003 and that means fewer people are able to get better jobs with higher wages to pay down their debt.

Wages are going down for folks with a B.A. degree, yet student loan debt is going up: in 2004 -- and we can safely say these figures have gone up since then -- 60% of students graduating from a public university had an average loan debt of $17,600. Last year, the interest rate on a Stafford loan went up 1.5%. PLUS loans are expected to increase 2.4 points to 8.5% by the time most of my students graduate and start paying off their loans. Private loans could rise to at least 12 percent. With tuition/education fees rising faster than inflation, student loans will be an even greater burden on an already cash strapped society.

The average American socks away in a savings account about 1.3% of their disposable income. To save adequately for emergencies and future expenses such as retirement, it is recommended that people save at least 10% of their income.

In 1999, the first year the IRS allowed taxpayers to use credit cards to pay their income tax, 53,300 people put their taxes on plastic. By 2003, that number rose to 313,000 people. Oftentimes, people complain about how much the government "steals" from them; yet, they seem to not care that their credit card companies are financially raping them for the privilege of using plastic to pay the tax bill.

By the way, that near two trillion dollar consumer debt doesn't include mortgages. While consumer debt averages out to be $18,654, the national average mortgage debt is $69,227 -- $102,264 if you live in the West -- thus the average household, factoring in a mortgage, two student loans, and at least one credit card, owes roughly $112,000.

The whole subprime loan crisis has become a political issue in the campaign season. Questions of what to do about it are being raised. Some want the government to step in and save debtors from the evil loan companies who sold them loans that they clearly couldn't afford.

Let's think about this for a moment. You're offered an interest-only loan that clearly will result in larger payments down the line when payments on the principle kick in and you can only afford the interest payments now; that's a sure signal that you should not sign up for the loan, no matter how hot the housing market is. A house is not an investment that can be bought and sold like an NYSE offering; it is a place to live and grow.

My answer to the folks who cry that we must protect them, that they were taken advantaged of by the loan sharks in Brookes Brothers suits, is that they knew what they were getting into and do not deserve my taxmoney to assist them out of debt. When one million homeowners are carrying more than three mortgages and 1.8 million have loans totaling more than 100% of the value of their homes, it's clear that those people aren't willing to learn to live within their financial limitations. If we allow the government to bail them out, the lesson that will be learnt is this: make stupid decisions, go far into debt, ruin the economy, but don't worry, the piper will be paid by those of us who did not.

On the other hand, MasterCard is making you an offer you can't refuse. After all, Keith Leggett, senior economist at the American Bankers Association, tell us "Consumers should be grateful that we have a very competitive market."