Totally unqualified students were admitted to our most intellectually rigorous universities based on bribes…

… yet none of the unqualified admittees had any difficulty in doing the required coursework or graduating, perhaps with honors.

“College bribery scandal: students sue elite schools in class action” (Guardian) says that second-rate students went to Yale and Stanford, for example, but there is no mention of them encountering any struggles with the academics.


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Admissions fraud layered on top of the existing American college fraud

A professor friend’s Facebook post:

A game: name a worse investment than spending $6.5M to get your kid into college.

“College Admissions Scandal: Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged” (nytimes) has all of my academic friends excited.

(One interesting aspect is that the people involved are charged with “racketeering,” a crime that was defined to apply to mobsters. Presumably these folks are guilty of something, but it doesn’t seem like a Godfather-style situation. We will find out that the people are facing potentially epic-length prison sentences?)

The American undergraduate education system is already mostly a fraud, in the sense that families pay a lot, but students may not learn anything (see my review of Academically Adrift, in which Collegiate Learning Assessment scores, before and after attending college, are discussed; see also Higher Education?).

[Why a “fraud”? If Honda sold cars at $30,000 and half did not function for transportation people would say “Honda is a fraud.” But a liberal arts college may charge $300,000 for four years of tuition and produce quite a few graduates whose thinking and writing abilities are no better than they were when those folks entered as freshmen. So why not hold the college to the same standard that we would hold Honda?]

Could we use this as an opportunity to motivate folks to fix a fundamentally broken system?

Currently, since there is no agreed-upon measure of achievement in college, graduating with a label from a prestige university is critical. Nobody seems to care that, with the exception of a school such as Caltech, it is almost impossible not to graduate once admitted.

The result is huge pressure on the admissions process. When U.S. population was under 100 million, almost anyone with money could go to an Ivy League college. In my youth, when U.S. population was just over 200 million and international students were rare, any American who was reasonably intelligent and worked hard in high school could attend a top school. Now that we’re heading toward 400 million (Atlantic), parents will be ever more tempted to take extreme measures to assure their children’s futures.

Complicating matters is that virtuous Americans agree that the system actually should be rigged. See “Turns Out There’s a Proper Way to Buy Your Kid a College Slot,” from the righteous editorial board of the NY Times:

And colleges have a legitimate interest in emphasizing various forms of diversity. But it seems safe to stipulate that being born to wealthy parents is not by itself meritorious.

In other words, it is legitimate to base admission on criteria other than academic achievement (“various forms of diversity”). But then the authors say that it is illegitimate to favor children from wealthy families. Every reasonable person can agree that the scales should be tilted and, even better, every reasonable person will recognize a set of universal moral principles that can guide the tilting.

Could we take some of the pressure off young Americans who will be entering a crowded-like-Asia adult world? Why not a set of national examinations that people can take in various areas to demonstrate accomplishment? Then the Harvard graduate who can’t do anything won’t be ranked by employers above the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA) graduate who is able to demonstrate achievement. We would truly have multiple paths to success and we would have a meritocratic system in which anyone who works hard can succeed.

One could argue that we already have some of this in place. There is the Graduate Record Exam that some graduate schools use for admissions. It is SAT-like, though, and doesn’t seem to measure real-world capability (it is more of a test of IQ (correlation 0.7-0.85) plus studying for the test). There are some “major field tests,” e.g., in Physics. But these suffer from some of the same issues as other standardized multiple-choice tests.

What about investing in a week-long supervised test in which students have to solve problems, do research, write up results, etc.? It would be a little challenging to accomplish given that you’d have to figure out a way to deny test-takers the use of 10 Ph.D. helpers connected via smartphone.

Since the government runs a substantial portion of the economy, perhaps people could be motivated to take this test by using it as a factor in government hiring, e.g., for schoolteachers (maybe we can catch up to Finland if we start hiring academically strong teachers the way that they do!) or Federal workers.

Readers: What do you think? If there were a recognized test of achievement and capability for 22-year-olds, would that take some of the pressure off?

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Can public school teachers be credible social activists?

Here’s the public Instagram feed of the teacher at a suburban Boston-area school (one of her thankless tasks is molding the 12-year-old mind of a friend’s daughter who previously caused mayhem with a feigned nut allergy). The feed is primarily for communicating with her students and their parents and many of the items are titled “Homework” and contain instructions such as “Just answer the Part 1 Questions! Please DO NOT do the figurative language on the back!”. Some non-homework material has made its way into the feed lately though…

(clumsily redacted in MSFT Paint for some privacy!)

This public servant, whose union has ensured her a total comp of well over $100,000 per year (salary, benefits, and pension), has apparently attended a “Teaching Social Activism Conference”. But with median hourly wage in Massachusetts down around $23 (was $22.81 in May 2017), or $46,000 per year on an annualized basis, can she credibly teach Social Activism? She and her union are directly acting to increase inequality by taking money from people who earn median wages to put it into the pockets of folks who earn above-median wages.

[The other parts of this feed are also interesting. The teacher exhorts her charges to “do something great for your community in honor of Dr. King”. Yet she teaches in a nearly all-white suburb thanks to the miracle of two-acre zoning minimums. African Americans are welcome as long as they can afford $1 million for a vacant lot and $30,000/year in property tax on a completed house.

There is an LGBTQ+ meeting on “Pink Days” in a 7th grade classroom sponsored by the Sexuality and Gender Alliance. Where does that leave 12-year-olds who want to gather around the topics of sexuality and gender but don’t identify as “LGBTQ+”? (maybe the “+” includes cisgender heterosexuals?)

Finally, the Instagram feed reveals that “Google Classroom” is heavily used. Americans will be Google users from cradle to grave? Will Google automatically flag K-12 heresy as a service to the young? An AI on a Google server will read one of the assigned essays on refugees and mark any passages in red that are not appropriately sympathetic and welcoming?]

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Middle school students assigned books about and by People of Color

Received from a teacher by a parent of a local 7th grader:

We will be reading March together as a class for our next unit and additionally students will be working cooperatively in book clubs for books that are about and by People of Color.

I asked “So they can pick any book written by or describing a Virginia Democrat?”

It seems that the answer is “no.” The letter continues with

Today in class the students had the opportunity to preview the book club books and rank their top choices.

So students can’t stray from the approved list and pick the autobiography of Clarence Thomas, for example, or Economic Facts and Fallacies by Thomas Sowell:

Government spending is often said to be beneficial to the economy, as the money disbursed is spent and re-spent, creating jobs, raising incomes, and generating tax revenues in the process. But usually if that same government money had remained in the hands of the taxpayers from whom it came, they too would have spent it, and it would still have been re-spent, creating jobs, raising incomes, and generating tax revenues in the process. This again is usually at best a zero-sum process, in so far as the transfer of money is concerned, and a negative-sum process in so far as high tax rates to finance government spending reduce incentives to do all the things necessary to generate economic activity and the prosperity resulting from it.

Poetry by Kanye West is presumably also excluded, though it might be interesting to hear a class discussion of “Gold Digger”:

Eighteen years, eighteen years
She got one of your kids, got you for eighteen years [23 in Massachusetts]
I know somebody payin’ child support for one of his kids
His baby mama car and crib is bigger than his
You will see him on TV any given Sunday
Win the Super Bowl and drive off in a Hyundai
She was supposed to buy your shorty Tyco with your money
She went to the doctor, got lipo with your money
She walkin’ around lookin’ like Michael with your money
Shoulda got that insured, Geico for your money
If you ain’t no punk
Holla, “We want prenup! We want prenup!” (Yeah!)
It’s somethin’ that you need to have
‘Cause when she leave yo’ ass, she gon’ leave with half [maybe closer to 0% after subtracting litigation costs?]
Eighteen years, eighteen years
And on the 18th birthday he found out it wasn’t his?!

The official list would also keep students from asking whether Chinese Nobelists such as Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan qualify as “of color” (of the wrong color?).

Personally I would love to see a student with the temerity to demand In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, by Rachel Dolezal.

Readers: Does it help Writers of Color to put them in a February ghetto and tell students they can read books on white subjects by white authors the rest of the year?

Exciting Update: I got hold of the list! (Kanye West is not on it!).

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“There’s so much messaging in general about STEM, STEM, STEM”

“As STEM majors soar at UW, interest in humanities shrinks — a potentially costly loss” (Seattle Times) is kind of interesting.

The liberal-arts decline is making the university financially poorer, too.

That’s because it’s cheaper to teach a history class than a computer-science course — but the UW charges the same for both. In effect, the humanities courses have always subsidized engineering, natural sciences and computer-science classes, said Sarah Hall, vice provost of UW planning and budgeting.

Nationally, it costs an $410 per credit hour to teach electrical engineering, one of the most expensive majors. Sociology, one of the cheapest-to-teach subjects, costs less than half of that — about $176 per credit hour.

Should people go to college in order to be happy or in order to earn enough money to pay back student loans and compensate for four years out of the workforce? Humanities professors have the answer!

Humanities professors disagree. They say it’s a myth that humanities majors can’t find jobs, and it’s disappointing that so many people are discouraged from pursuing their passions.

“What’s sad for the younger generation is that so many students here have been literally pushed away from the social sciences and humanities to STEM, and are not happy,” said UW history professor James Gregory.

“There’s so much messaging in general about STEM, STEM, STEM,” he said.

The innumeracy displayed by journalists and editors is interesting. The Seattle Times:

The stereotype that English majors wind up as highly educated baristas isn’t borne out by research, Stacey said. A recent study showed that many English majors are more likely to become teachers, lawyers, CEOs and legislators.

So they’re saying that if “many” out of thousands get good jobs then English is plainly a good vocational choice. The link-to article is even more interesting:

According to the Census Bureau, graduates with an English degree have about a 4.9 percent chance of working in one of these food service occupations for some time between the ages of 22 and 26. By comparison, the average among all degree holders in this age group is about 3.5 percent. So English majors are only about 1.4 percentage points more likely to work in food service than the average for all degree holders.

Wouldn’t it be a 40 percent increase to go from 3.5 to 4.9, not a 1.4 percent increase? And that’s across all degree holders, not measured against STEM graduates. Considering how many degrees are irrelevant to employers, a 40 percent greater likelihood of becoming a burger-flipper is huge!


  • “Two big questions for economists today”: Justine Hastings, of Brown University, presented “Earnings, Incentives and Student Loan Design: The Case of Chile.” It seems that Chile did what the U.S. did, i.e., offered a lot of student loans for higher education. Their program was more intelligently designed, however, in that they didn’t allow universities to raise tuition in response to this new source of funds. Schools ended up with more students, but not more money per student as has been prevalent in the U.S. Nonetheless, the default rate has been high, especially for graduates of non-selective schools and especially for those who majored in humanities and arts. Unlike Americans, Chileans don’t like to keep flushing cash down the toilet, so now they are experimenting with adjusting the maximum loan amount according to the expected return to getting a particular degree (in Chile you don’t apply to “University of Santiago” you apply for a specific major). It turns out that when students see that the government won’t lend them the maximum for a particular degree program they get the message and try to switch into a degree that will result in higher post-graduate earnings. This is especially true for “low SES” students. SES? Due to the rejection of Marx, mainstream economists apparently can’t talk about class so they refer to “Socioeconomic status“. Hastings has a separate paper “The Labor Market Returns to Colleges and Majors: Evidence from Chile” with the discouraging result that attending a lower quality college and majoring in poetry will not set the country’s employers on fire and, in fact, many people would have higher lifetime earnings if they refrained from attending college.
  • “The Hard Part of Computer Science? Getting Into Class” (NYT, Jan 24, 2019)
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Michael Bloomberg exacerbates income inequality with donation to Hopkins for financial aid

“Michael Bloomberg: Why I’m Giving $1.8 Billion for College Financial Aid” (nytimes):

Let’s eliminate money problems from the admissions equation for qualified students.

America is at its best when we reward people based on the quality of their work, not the size of their pocketbook. Denying students entry to a college based on their ability to pay undermines equal opportunity. It perpetuates intergenerational poverty. And it strikes at the heart of the American dream: the idea that every person, from every community, has the chance to rise based on merit.

… I am donating an additional $1.8 billion to Hopkins that will be used for financial aid for qualified low- and middle-income students.

Here’s a simple idea I bet most Americans agree with: No qualified high school student should ever be barred entrance to a college based on his or her family’s bank account. Yet it happens all the time.

Let’s ignore the obvious solution for the Hopkins administrators: raise headline tuition prices by $1.8 billion over the next 10 years, charge families exactly what they were being charged before, but say that “financial aid” has been increased by $1.8 billion. (See “Credit Supply and the Rise in College Tuition: Evidence from the Expansion in Federal Student Aid Programs”, a 2015 paper from the New York Fed; 60 percent of subsidized student loans were captured by increased tuition rates and provided no relief to the purported beneficiaries.)

Suppose that the Bloomberg program works as advertised and therefore that lower income families will actually pay $1.8 billion less over the forthcoming years.

Won’t this exacerbate the inequality that Bloomberg himself was decrying as recently as May 2018 (see “Inaction on inequality could lead to uprising”)? People born fortunate (high academic potential in an economy that rewards cognitive skills) will now go to college for free instead of taking out loans and paying them back from their high earnings. So they will pull yet farther ahead of Americans with low academic ability.

Instead of the rich-in-genetics person with an IQ of 140 paying back student loans that enabled attendance at an elite university, the rich-in-genetics person will now get to use a full 50-60 percent of income (assume 40-50 percent total tax rate in California, New York, and other typical destinations for elite Americans) on consumption and retirement savings. The smart Hopkins grad who came from a lower-income family will essentially get a gift from Michael Bloomberg of luxury clothing and automobiles that will make median-IQ, median-income Americans sick with envy.

In “Protests against Charles Murray inadvertently prove the points he made in The Bell Curve?” I asked “If you like to fret about inequality, the sidelining of less-than-brilliant workers in favor of robots, etc., why wouldn’t you love Charles Murray?”

See also “The Bell Curve revisited,” my 2004 post on the book. Excerpts:

The Bell Curve starts out by talking about how we live in an era where people get sorted by cognitive ability into socioeconomic classes. In 14th century England if you were a peasant with a high IQ or a noble with a low IQ it didn’t affect your life, reproductive potential, or income very much. In our more meritocratic and vastly more sophisticated economy a smart kid from a lower middle class might make it to the top of a big company (cf. Jack Welch, who paid himself $680 million as CEO of GE) or at least into a $300,000/year job as a radiologist. For the authors of the Bell Curve the increasing disparity in income in the U.S. is primarly due to the fact that employees with high IQs are worth a lot more than employees with low IQs. They note that we have an incredibly complex legal system and criminal justice system. So you’d expect people with poor cognitive ability to fail to figure out what is a crime, which crimes are actually likely to be punished, etc., and end up in jail. (A Google search brought up a report on juvenile justice in North Carolina; the average offender had an IQ of 79.) If they stay out of jail through dumb (literally) luck, there is no way that they are ever going to be able to start a small business; the legal and administrative hoops through which one must jump in order to employ even one other person are impenetrable obstacles to those with below-average intelligence.

… For us oldsters, one unexpected piece of cheerful news from this book is that younger Americans are getting genetically dumber every year. Even if you ignore the racial and immigrant angles of the book that created so much controversy back in 1994 it is hard to argue with the authors’ assertion that smart women tend to choose higher education and careers rather than cranking out lots of babies. …  Our population is predicted to reach 450 million or so [by 2050], i.e., the same as India had back when we were kids and our mothers told us about this starving and overpopulated country. An individual person’s labor in India has negligible economic value … It would seem that no enterprise would need an old guy’s skills in a country of 450 million; why bother when there are so many energetic young people around? And how would we be able to afford a house or apartment if there are 450 million smart young people out there earning big bucks and putting pressure on real estate prices? But if the book is right most of those young people will be dumb as bricks.

Whenever anyone talks about “financial aid,” I love to respond with “United Airlines gives more than 95 percent of customers financial aid since the official maximum ticket price is much higher than the typical price paid. Economists call charging each customer according to his or her ability to pay price discrimination, but it sounds better if you say ‘we’re giving these poor souls financial aid.'” (Note that price discrimination is possible
only in markets dominated by monopolies or oligopolies. McDonald’s can’t do this because Burger King is right across the street.)

Readers: Is it logically inconsistent for Michael Bloomberg to say that he wants to reduce income inequality and then give $1.8 billion to reduce college expenses for those Americans who are best set up to earn high incomes after graduation?

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Best programming language for a tweenager to learn (Java vs. JavaScript vs. Python)

A Facebook Messenger exchange that might be useful to others … (edited out some of the shocking language!)

Parent 1: D [14 years old] is in Robotics and has to learn Java. Did they mean Java or Javascript? S [11 years old] wants to learn a language. Should it be Java or Python or Swift or something else?

Me: JavaScript and Node.js; Then he can do front end and server side.

Parent 1: [Professional programmer friend] said robots are not programmed in JavaScript.

Me: That will change.

Parent 2: Ok so no Java please. It is a formally much better language. But the simplest programs take pages and pages of code before one can do anything. The APIs are verbose beyond belief. I hate it. It is a language of an Enterprise software architect who doesn’t really code but costs $250,000 a year. Javascript ist truly a piece of s***. Inconsistent and dirty but the kids do not care – they can learn that quickly. There are a lot of good libraries for JS now. So I would agree with Philip that JS is a better choice. Python is probably close second, but no frontend then.

Parent 1: You said JS was s*** but then you said learn it?

Parent 2: I think Java will put him to sleep. And he needs to be able to tinker and experiment fast. You have to consider his age. My kids completed three programming courses in JS in Khan academy this summer. He should be spending as little time as possible on learning syntax. And as much time as possible on f-ing around with his code to learn design patterns so to speak. Like loops, how to find the largest/smallest number in an array using a loop. Without digging in documentation or using Max/min functions to set bounds on a variable that he is changing. JavaScript has an advantage that is has C-like syntax which is similar to that of Java. If he God forbid wants to learn it later.

Parent 1: So JS is s***and Java is worse?

Parent 2: Our general advice here is to learn one high level scripting language (Python or Perl, but everyone hates Perl now and one low level language like C++ or Java. But I just don’t think a teenager has patience to learn Java. I don’t think anyone who respects himself or herself as a programmer should build a career around JavaScript. But everyone has to know it.

Parent 1: Ok. Sounds like S should do python and D should do whatever his teacher says.

Parent 2: Consider courses available. The content and engagement in the course trumps language.

Parent 1: D has already started Java.

Parent 2: Ok, then Godspeed. Look up a hello world application in java. So, teacher what is a class. What does public mean. What is static void. This is seven chapters of a textbook just to say hello world. Including a f-ing array of strings as an argument. And a dot notation. What is System. What is out?

Parent 2: Teachers who start teaching anyone under 18 in Java are either idiots or are teaching a group of ultra-motivated MIT students Also try setting up an IDE and compiling this baby of a program. You will pull your hair out. Once it outputs hello world to console, your normal child will rightfully look at you in disbelief and think “who the f*** wants to do this every day”? Don’t get me wrong. My crawlers are written in Java. But it would be like watching a pornstar do an hour-long **** video, then trying it with your college girlfriend for the first time and wondering why it didn’t go the same way.

Parent 2: (Actually our crawlers are written in Kotlin, which is a script-like language built on top of java (compatible in both directions). The Russians developed it to make Java more bearable and increase the speed of development.)

me: Haskell if he wants to learn about computation, but JavaScript is the real world power due to libraries and APIs.

Parent 2: Perl IS still #1 in terms of libraries. Python and JS are catching up. Kotlin is like Python with Java power (which also has libraries for almost everything). Plus everyone has to know JavaScript. Python is cleaner and more logical, for sure. Their philosophy is anthetical to Perl: there should be only one way to do it. So they spend time fighting which function to keep. This is good for large socialist enterprises where everyone is a cog in the machine. So that mediocre programmers don’t get confused. I started teaching my kids Python and quickly ran out of energy. I then moved to Khan Academy and their JS based courses, which are about programming, and not JS per se. That was quite successful, but the difficulty accelerated very quickly and I needed to be behind them to give hints and challenge them at key junctions.

Parent 1: [another programmer friend] says Java is the new COBOL.\

Parent 2: Most computer nerds are wrong when it comes to how to teach programming. It has to be now taught just like mathematics: slowly, painfully, step by step to build foundations. Can’t get to cool or useful s*** quickly without several years of work.

Parent 2: in order to make a clone of Tinder you’d need to know: 1. app development for iOS. 2. HTTP server programming, 3. databases, 4. image storage and processing, 5. file I/O, 6. APIs. That’s at least two programming languages. SQL and a bunch of other s***.

Parent 2: One has to keep doing it. My buddy put his 2nd grader in front of Khan Academy and she went all the way to the end of the Javascript track. I asked him to test her after 6 months – she forgot nearly everything. She obviously retained concepts, but that was about it. That’s not surprising because adults are exactly the same way.

Parent 1: The thing is – they remember that they could do it. So it helps them later. I haven’t forgotten C programming because i did it for so many years. But I have forgotten iOS programming.

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Should high school students design and build bicycles?

Factory schools teach science, math, and computers to students with the justification that “this stuff will help you, somehow, someday, maybe by getting you into the right college.”  Some students are happy with this amount of motivation and some students love these subjects for their very purity, their disconnection from the concrete world.  These are the students that we see at MIT and Harvard so in theory this approach is successful.

As evidenced by terrible average scores on standardized tests covering very basic material, the average high school student is not learning science, math, or computer programming to any perceptible degree.  And realistically why would we expect a kid to be motivated to learn these things?  They read newspaper articles about CEOs giving themselves $50 million/year salaries but flunking exams in basic accounting at their Stanford Business School refresher course.  They watch television broadcasts of politicians’ speeches and there is never any reference to principles or ideas taught in their science, math, or computer programming classes.

The combination of a high degree of an abstraction and the apparent ability of people to reach the highest echelons of society in perfect ignorance of these subjects makes it tough for a lot of kids to hit the books.

Why not make it all concrete?  Suppose that starting in 8th grade the kids were told “Each of you is going to design and build your own bicycle over the next 4 years.  To help you do a better job, you’re going to learn some math, some physics, and how to use computers to simulate and model.”

At least 50 percent of what is taught in high school math and science can be motivated by the engineering challenge of making a bike that functions properly and weighs less than 100 kg.  In particular one can dream that this project-based approach would rescue computer instruction from its current abyss.  Instead of teaching the kids how to use Microsoft Office and write lame little graphics programs in VB or Java, we’d show them how computers can become analytical tools.

For the hands-on oriented kids we can let them machine their own parts and maybe do some welding, thus combining math and shop in one period!  To keep the klutzes from killing themselves, though, you’d probably want a design option that included only pre-cut tubes bolted together (you could never make a commercially viable bike this way; it would be too heavy and expensive to manufacture but it would be fine to ride around flat areas and for teaching).

The actual change in the curriculum would be minimal.  It is more a question of spirit and always having a concrete answer if a kid asks “Why do I need to know this?”

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Something new from Edward Tufte

If you visit you’ll see a new publication from the great man:  “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”.  This is first notable for its format:  a 24-page essay on full-size paper with very high quality color printing.  This is not traditionally a commercially viable format.  Normally one must write short enough for a magazine or long enough for a 200-page book in order to get into the mainstream distribution systems.  High-quality printing is, of course, generally not on the menu except at some university presses.

The most topical item in the essay regards the PowerPoint slides used to guide thinking about the Columbia‘s wing while the shuttle was still up in space.  (A sad echo of the poor presentation materials used to decide whether or not to launch Challenger, a theme discussed in Tufte’s earlier book Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative.)

Remember how horrified you were at your first slide-based presentation?  The disaffected civil servants who stood up in front of you in public school at least tried to get you to pay attention to them, rather than darkening the room and insisting that you focus on one disembodied sentence at a time.  By now most of us are used to PowerPoint, however, and we need something like the Tufte essay to bring back the outrage.

Slides are useful when you need to show everyone in a room a graph, a photo, or some other item for discussion.  Somewhere in the 1960s and 1970s things went horribly wrong, however, as bullet points began to make their way onto the slides.

A modest step back from the PowerPoint culture is to limit one’s PowerPoint slides to charts and photos.  If you can’t resist some text, limit yourself to an opening outline slide dense with structure and a closing summary to remind everyone of what they heard.

Why not step back more dramatically, though, to an age before the computer and the overhead projector?  Color printing has never been cheaper and society has never been richer.  Why not print up materials in advance of the talk and hand them out?  If you need to refer to a chart or photo during your talk, ask people to “turn to page 3 of the handout”.  You can leave the room lights on, people will focus their attention on you, the discussion and flow need not be constrained by the tyranny of the bullet points.  The one disadvantage of the handout approach is that you can’t use a laser pointer.

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