“All About That Bass” Has a Shitty Message

August 24, 2014 at 6:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The latest developments in pop music are as intimately familiar to me as are the latest developments in string theory to a chocolate orange, so I might never have discovered Meghan Trainor and which clef she is all about (hint: it’s not baritone) were it not for a friend of mine who shared this link on Facebook:

Meghan Trainor – All About That Bass (music video)

The song is catchy and the video is fun, but the message of the song sucks. Which is a problem, because the song is hailed all over as a glorious counter to the awful notions our culture instills in women about their bodies. Well, the song is a counter of sorts, but where it isn’t hypocritical, it replaces long-standing, horrible ideals about body image with fresh, but just as horrible (and possibly even more insidious) ones.

I’ll start by giving the music video some credit. I hope we all agree that super skinny, Victoria’s Secret model-esque women are grossly overrepresented in visual media, and I hope we agree further that this contributes (if not outright causes) a shit ton of problems for women. Not all women are that skinny — in fact, most aren’t, and many CAN’T be due to genetics and bone structure — and a woman should not have to BE that skinny in order to be a valuable person who is happy with herself. So it is a great credit to this music video that all of its main women are normal-looking.

But my credit has to stop there. Because let’s be motherfucking real, people, every woman in that video is not fat, every woman in that video is very attractive, and every woman in that video is heavily made up. (Just look at the close-up of the lead singer’s face at the end.) So, no, this song doesn’t do jack shit for fat women. It does not demonstrate to fat women that “every inch of you is perfect / From the bottom to the top,” as it claims. According to the video, if you are a woman, every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top as long as you are skinny (not Victoria’s Secret skinny, normal-person skinny will do, but skinny all the same), possess above average attractiveness, and wear enough makeup to drown a horse.

There is only one truly fat person in the video, and that person is fucking amazing (the dance moves!!), and that person is a man. Some have called All About That Bass a “fat girls’ anthem,” which boggles my mind, because there’s not a fat woman in sight. Not even close. The fat man in the video is easily twice the size of any of the women. So according to the video, you can be fat and awesome, the only minor catch is you need a dick and testicles. GREAT.

My criticisms so far concern the video, but this isn’t just a matter of a music video ruining a perfect song. The lyrics are no less problematic. At a few points, the song is derisive both toward skinny women and toward the men who are attracted to them. In other words, a song that rails against condemning people just because they have a certain type of body condemns people just because they have a certain type of body. Jesus flaming piñata ballsack christ, do I really need to exert my fingers to type out why that’s hypocrisy? This shit is tiring.

Some women can’t help but be skinny just like some women can’t help but be large. In our efforts to validate the latter, let’s not denigrate the former. All women (and men) have a right to feel good about whatever body the fitful zipper of genetics bestowed them. Obvious, obvious, obvious.

Lastly and worstly, we have this, which has some weight in the song because it’s repeated twice:

my mama she told me don’t worry about your size
She says, “Boys like a little more booty to hold at night.”

In other words, “It’s okay to be fat, because guys will still want to sleep with you.” So the primary determinant of a woman’s value is whether or not men want to fuck her. GREAT. I don’t think any woman (or man, for that matter) should judge her self-worth by the proportion of the population that would prize her as a sexual partner. Your value as a person does not stem from your value to others, but from the goodness (or badness) that is inherent to yourself.

So in sum:

– The song claims to be a celebration of fat women, and the music video contains no fat women

– The song claims that everyone is beautiful, and the women in the music video are exclusively skinny, heavily made-up, and of notably above-average conventional attractiveness

– The song says you shouldn’t feel bad about your body, unless you are skinny, in which case you should feel bad about your body

– You are wonderful no matter who you are or what you look like, just as long as men consider you fuckable, otherwise you’re a worthless piece of shit

There are two probable critiques to this post that I can foresee. One is “Lighten up, it’s just a song.” That’s bullshit. I enjoyed the song and the video on a visceral level. I appreciate the song as a song. That’s not the issue. The issue is that this song now has a seat of honor in serious discussions about women, their bodies, and their self-image, and that seat of honor is criminally undeserved, as the song blatantly propagates some of the very problems it purports to solve.

The other likely critique is, “Sure it ain’t perfect, but at least someone’s trying to do something.” That’s a harder critique to answer because yes, it is good to see someone take a stand against the toxic effects of visual media, and yes, I admire that the human specimens in this video appear to have been obtained from someplace other than a Playboy audition waiting room. Our society could use more of both those things. But there’s a lot wrong in this song, a lot a lot wrong, and the wrongness needs to be pointed out so that future warriors in the battle against our culture will correct the song’s insidious message instead of upraising it. If we’re going to have a revolution of cultural attitudes that replaces one set of pernicious ideals with another, differently pernicious set of ideals, then we’ve gone nowhere.

An Open Letter to Jamba Juice

March 10, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Dear Jamba Juice,

Your Chunky Strawberry Topper comes in two sizes. One of which is larger than the other. Upon these grounds, I humbly submit for your esteemed consideration that when I order a “large” Chunky Strawberry Topper, none of the extremely high ethical, moral, or legal standards to which your distinguished organization holds itself accountable would be violated if you were to charge me for, and subsequently serve me, whichever size of drink is the biggest one you have.

I humbly submit further that when your cashiers, who by the way are all paragons of the utmost integrity and personal excellence, ask me, “Would you like the Original or the Sixteen?” in what I surmise can only be a quest for spiritual clarity, the possibility of my obtaining the largest allowable volume of your transcendent fluids becomes less, not more, certain. I submit that “sixteen” is a number, whereas “original” is an adjective devoid of numeric information.

Far be it from me to suggest that the dichotomy presented by your cashiers is wholly without value. It is an excellent decision tree for people who feel strongly about drinking a number of ounces that is a perfect square, for example, or for people who are preternaturally fond of consuming the number of ounces that came first. However, to those of us who are just really hungry, the lexicographical factors underlying the proposed options make them incomparable.

Thank you for your time.

Teacher Pay

February 23, 2011 at 12:46 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Facebook friend of mine posted a link to one of those ridiculous editorials that’s been circulating the internet for years. The relevant bit went like this:

“I’m fed up with teachers and their hefty salaries for only 9 months work,” said the man. “What we need here is a little perspective. If I had my way, I would pay teachers baby-sitting wages! That’s right…instead of paying these outrageous taxes! I’d give them $3 an hour. And I’m only paying for five hours; NOT for those planning times, after hours meetings, or duty times either! That’s $15 a day!”

“Fine,” said the teacher. “I’ll take it.” The man looked surprised!

“Each parent will pay $15 a day for me to babysit their children. Even if they have more than one child it will be cheaper than private daycare. And as a bonus, I will continue to TEACH these childern. Lets see, I teach on average 25 children per hour – that’s $15 x 25 = $375 a day. But remember, we work – as you said , 180 days, so that’s $375 x 180 = $67,500 a year.”

“Now wait a minute,” said the man…

In sum: if we paid teachers “only” babysitting wages, they’d still make substantially more money than they make now. Clearly, teachers are underpaid!

As someone who is both vastly more qualified than the average high school teacher and makes vastly less money than one, I’ll be the first to say that teachers should be paid more. But the above argument is ferociously dumb. It hinges on the ludicrous assumption that a babysitter’s wage increases linearly with each child he babysits. In reality, a babysitter who makes $9 an hour for one child won’t make $18 an hour babysitting two children or $27 an hour babysitting three.

A less sensational, but more rational approach to analyzing the state of teacher salaries is to figure out the average teacher’s hourly rate. Assuming an 8-hour school day and 180 school days per year, teachers work 8 * 180 = 1440 hours. The average high school teacher salary is right around $45,000 a year. So, the average high school teacher’s putative hourly wage is:

$45,000 / 1440 hours = $31.25 / hour

Keep in mind that this is the average — that is, middle of the road — high school teacher’s salary. It’s almost twice my hourly rate, and unlike most high school teachers, I scored close to the 99th percentile on three different standardized tests and was rated “Excellent” by literally every single one of my GRE, GMAT, and LSAT students for an entire year. On the surface of it, high school teachers are compensated more than generously.

Putting aside my bitterness, the catch is that I get paid for all of my out of class prep time whereas high school teachers don’t. The $31.25 / hour rate assumes that the 1440 yearly school hours are the only hours teachers work, which isn’t an accurate assumption. 180 days is about 25 weeks, and here’s what the actual rate becomes after factoring in different additional hours per week:

5 extra hours per week –> 125 extra hours per year –> $45,000 / 1565 hours = $28.75 / hour

10 extra hours per week –> 250 extra hours per year –> $45,000 / 1690 hours = $26.62 / hour

20 extra hours per week –> 500 extra hours per year –> $45,000 / 1940 hours = $23.19 / hour

40 extra hours per week –> 1000 extra hours per year –> $45,000 / 2440 hours = $18.44 / hour

If 40 extra hours per week seems a little extreme, consider that many teachers spend a lot of time in the summer creating lesson plans for the coming year. Unfortunately, I have only anecdotal evidence for the actual number of additional out-of-class hours that the average high school teacher works. What the above calculations show, however, is that a teacher’s wage starts to look less and less reasonable the more hours he puts in outside of class. $30 an hour to educate our nation’s children? Fair. $18? Not so much.

Kibitzing

December 11, 2010 at 4:21 pm | Posted in Board Games, People | 2 Comments
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I recently discovered a guy on YouTube who makes very good annotations of famous chess games. After watching Kasparov’s demolition of Michael Adams in the 2005 Linares tournament, I looked up the game on chessgames.com to examine some of the positions more closely. I was shocked to discover that the game had a whopping 38 pages of kibitzing. Most games in the database have less than a page of chatter; extremely famous games or games chosen for the “Game of the Day” puzzle might get into the mid teens. But 38 pages? I had to see what this was about.

It turned out that the game had been broadcast live when it was played, so the conversation in the kibitzing section was a rarity for chessgames.com: it was true “kibitzing,” i.e., live spectator commentary. My skim of the conversation was deeply depressing. I don’t know how or why I’d come to assume that the insight of chess players might differ from the blunderbuss of idiocy for which the internet is so famous, but those 38 pages were like a time-lapse photograph of douchebaggery covering every band of the douchebag spectrum.

The cannonade of brilliance began before the game even started, with dozens of infallible seers chiming in to remark that the game was obviously going to end in an unremarkable draw.

The opening was a dynamic Sicilian, which for those of you who don’t know chess means that the opening was dynamic. White castled queenside on the 11th move, putting Adams and Kasparov’s kings on opposite sides of the board. This occurs relatively infrequently in grandmaster chess and usually signals an exciting attacking game when it does. Adams, playing white, had the makings of an impressive pawn storm against Kasparov’s king. For his part, Kasparov lacked queenside pawns with which to aggrieve the white monarch, but this meant that the files were open for Kasparov’s rooks and queen to lay pressure on white’s defenses.

An unexciting draw was out of the question — draw or win, the game was already very exciting. Without missing a beat, the peerless sages of the internet pronounced that Adams would momentarily crush Kasparov — arguably the best player in the history of chess and still the reigning World #1 at the time — into a paste. Never mind that it was move 11 in a game between two world-class grandmasters; Class C players keeping an eye on things between sips of Mountain Dew at work could already tell how things were going to go down.

In the next few moves, Adams aggressively marched his kingside pawns towards Kasparov’s end of the board. Meanwhile, Kasparov repositioned one of his knights to a better attacking square and traded away a pawn to open up another file against the white king. Kasparov’s pieces were more active, but Adams’s pawns definitely gave him the scarier-looking attack.

On the 17th move, Kasparov shockingly castled right into white’s raging attack. In chess, castling is supposed to make your king safer, but Kasparov’s castle put his king right into the path of Adams’s goring pawns and rooks. Several venerated oracles deigned to enlighten the world with their penetrating wisdom: Kasparov had obviously fallen asleep at the table. Other experts demonstrated their ingenuity and vast intellect by copy and pasting move analysis from their chess programs.

Adams’s g-pawn crashed into the dangerous sixth rank. To this, Kasparov made a calm bishop move, orienting his dark attacker in a diagonal to the white king. Adams intensified the pressure by sliding his second rook into line with black’s seemingly beleaguered king. In the face of this terrifying onslaught from Adams — who, by the way, is and was one of the top 20 players in the world — Kasparov made a stunning move. In the pages and pages of kibitzing to that point, the move had been mentioned by nobody, not even any of the chess programs.

All the way on the other side of the board, ignoring white’s attack completely, Kasparov simply moved his light bishop from b7 to a8, tucking it into a corner.

Briefly, the kibitz pages exploded with wonderment. “What is Kasparov doing?” some asked. “Sleeping,” the oracles reminded them. “He’ll be losing shortly.” But the geniuses with the chess computers, the paragons who surpassed ordinary mortals with their ability to press ctrl and c at the same time, told a different story. All of their computer lines suddenly indicated that black was doing just fine.

Seven moves later, Adams resigned.

Either through extensive home preparation or exceptionally gifted over-the-board analysis, Kasparov realized that Adams’s attack, terrifying as his advanced pawns made it look, was about to fizzle. Essentially, all of Adams’s pawn and rook moves on the king-side were a complete waste of time. Meanwhile, Kasparov’s innocuous-looking moves — including that one-square bishop tuck into the corner, unveiling access to the critical b-file for the rook on b8 — paved the way for a truly lethal attack. In just seven moves, Kasparov blasted white’s defenses with several spectacular sacrifices, then bore down on the white king with such force that Adams would have had to sacrifice his queen to keep playing.

(Quick note for non-chess-players: among grandmaster players, draws are more common than wins, and wins under 30 moves are extremely rare. White wins much more often than black, and beating a top-20 player in less than 30 moves with the black pieces is almost unheard of. Kasparov’s 26 move victory against Adams was equivalent to pitching a no-hitter in the World Series or beating a top-20 tennis player 6-0, 6-0).

As critical as I’ve been of the kibitzers, I was, despite myself, still willing to forgive them. They could have redeemed themselves at the end of Kasparov’s amazing victory by simply acknowledging that he’d played a good game. Even shutting up might have earned my grace. But no. The retarded maw of the internet, ever hungry to exceed its own imbecility, found a way to anger me further. Remember that clever bishop move, ignoring white’s seemingly deadly attack, merely tucking the bishop into a corner on the other side of the board?

Douchebag after douchebag phoned in to remark how obvious, logical, and “overrated” the move was. The patzers who fancied themselves budding Nobel laureates because they could operate commercial chess software posted blocks of computer analysis terminating in Kasparov’s move, showing that the engines had found it after all. Interestingly, none of the computers recommended the bishop tuck until after Kasparov had made it.

Chess has a reputation for breeding cold, rational geniuses. I was saddened to discover that this shirt applies to chess players just as much as to 14 year old twits insulting your mother on X-Box Live.

Best Interests

October 30, 2010 at 12:00 am | Posted in Relationships | 4 Comments
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“They only want what’s best for you.” This is how we pardon parents who give their children terrible advice. No matter how misguided, unsolicited, or — frankly — self-interested the advice may be, we dare not impugn the adviser if he or she is a parent and the advisee is a child. Because parents want the best for their children, of course.

In terms of blistering irrationality, “They want what’s best for you” ranks right up there with, “You always think you’re right.” Of course I always think I’m right. If I thought I was wrong, I’d stop thinking it.

When Person A gives advice to Person B, Person A always has Person B’s best interests at heart. This is the meaning of giving advice. If Person A believed there existed a better suggestion than the one he was offering, he’d offer that instead. Parents aren’t special. When parents give their children advice, they’re doing the same god damn thing all well-intentioned advice-givers do.

One might argue that parents are uniquely qualified to illumine the ideal life path for their children, for knowing someone since birth affords certain insights other advisors could never hope to match. In fact, I would argue the opposite: their closeness to their children makes parents uniquely vulnerable to giving bad advice. Parents are so invested in their children that the critical detachment necessary for good advice is impossible to adopt. A simple example illustrates the point:

Suppose an acquaintance asks you if she should break up with her boyfriend. Assuming you want to advise her honestly, you’d mine her for information, weigh the facts, make an assessment of both options, and provide your reasoning for the better option. Now suppose that acquaintance is a girl you’re secretly in love with. Could you still make that honest appraisal? If you’re very principled, maybe; but even then, if your conclusion is “Yes, break up,” could you really trust yourself?

It seems common to wrestle with such considerations when giving relationship advice to people we secretly like, yet I never see much sweat on the brow of parents who advise their children. That advice flows naturally, massively, and shockingly sweat-free.

My friend Aelisha used to live with a girl, Carrie, who was struck by youthful wanderlust and went to Asia. After things didn’t work out with her male traveling companion, she continued on her own, seeing much of the great Eastern continent before ending up in Italy. There she worked odd jobs, living by the seat of her pants, making just enough money to support her travels. Recently she came back to the States, and now faces a decision: keep traveling, or settle down and get a “real” job?

Carrie wants to go to Australia. Her mom isn’t a fan of this idea. I don’t know the details, but one can easily imagine the arguments. You need to start saving money. You need to start preparing for your future. You need to grow up. And so on.

Where I’m sitting, Carrie’s choice isn’t a choice. She has a passion for traveling. So she should travel — not because life is so short, but because passions are so rare. As a kid, I thought the worst thing that could happen to you was not getting what you want. I now realize the real terror is far more insidious: not knowing what you want in the first place. I’ve encountered so many people whose souls have disappeared beneath the bog of the “quarterlife crisis” that I’ve come to believe a true yearning for something, anything, is one of the greatest gifts in this universe.

But I’d probably think differently if I were Carrie’s dad. Right now, with children such a distant (and even improbable) eventuality that they may as well be a million years away, I like to believe I’d be a “cool dad” who let his kids do whatever the hell they wanted. My conversations with numerous parents suggest that things don’t exactly work this way, however.

If I had a daughter like Carrie, I could maybe tolerate her traipsing around the globe, sowing her oats across multiple continents. I could less easily bear never seeing her. I’d want her to start saving money to reassure me that she’d be secure after I passed on. And I’d want her to set foot on the alphabet road beginning with “Adult” and ending with “Grandchildren.” If I had such a daughter, I’d try to convince her to settle down. Knowing me, my argument would be eloquent, well-reasoned, and masterfully crafted to articulate my points from the perspective of her best interests.

And knowing me further, it would be bullshit. I wouldn’t be arguing for my daughter’s best interests. I’d be arguing for mine. This is the real tragedy behind parental advice: despite the noblest of intentions, the loudest proclamations of the purest devotion to the child’s best interests, many children sacrifice those interests and do nothing but fulfill their parents’.

Taking a Break

October 3, 2010 at 10:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hello everyone!

Sadly, I need to take a break from writing this blog. I’ll come back, but in October I’m going to be working every single Saturday, which rather throws off my writing schedule and makes it difficult for me to find the time to create good posts. Tentatively, I’d like to post again on November 6. See you then!

–Boris

Autobiographical Miniatures

September 24, 2010 at 10:08 pm | Posted in Me | 10 Comments

When I casually mentioned that I needed to get new pants at some point, I was surprised when both my female coworkers perked up and said, “We’ll go with you!” I could never imagine volunteering to help anybody buy clothing. That’s like getting excited about helping somebody clean their toilet. But maybe for women, buying clothes is like if I heard one of them say, “You know, I’ve been thinking I need to get some new board games…”

There are a lot of things I plan to do “at some point,” for example see the dentist, get new glasses, unpack my moving boxes, start working out, write a novel, become a millionaire, and, most recently, buy new pants. I expect all of these things, including the pants, to occur about a quarter of the way through the next geological era. After accepting Aelisha and Kim’s befuddling offer of pants-related assistance, I forgot about the whole thing.

Aelisha called me this morning. “So what time do you want to meet tomorrow?” she said.

“What?” I said.

Apparently, during some conversation that had regressed into an ostracized segment of my memory because the conversation was about clothes, we had decided that the pantaloon expedition would take place tomorrow. Hazily, the conversation came back to me.

“We’re also going to need to buy you some shoes,” I remembered Kim saying.

“What’s wrong with my shoes?”

“They’re a little worn out.”

“But these aren’t my dress shoes,” I protested.

“You don’t have dress shoes,” Kim said acidly. “Your other shoes are hiking boots trying to parade as dress shoes.” I could tell this very thought had been seething inside her for a long time.

“Maybe we could get you some shirts, too,” said Aelisha, the more diplomatic of my two female accompanists. “You know, to go with the pants,” she hastily added, but I could already tell that every article of clothing I owned was evidently a grievous psychological assault upon all women in my line of sight.

Tomorrow should be a valuable day for my personal development.

===

So there I was, enjoying my freshly purchased scoop of French Silk ice cream, when I passed a homeless guy in a wheelchair. He began to cough, and there must have been something wrong with him, because it was one of those gurgling coughs that originates deep in the bowels and rises up, bubbling. He made a plaintive choking sound, then bent over and spat a wad of phlegm onto the sidewalk.

I enjoyed my ice cream just a little bit less.

Standardized Tests: the Test Prep Teacher’s Perspective

September 18, 2010 at 1:17 am | Posted in Logic, Test prep | 6 Comments
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I teach standardized tests for a living. Close to 300 students have passed through my classroom, representing over $360,000 of faith in me and the company I work for — faith that our class will give them a higher test score, acceptance into grad school, and, by extension, money, emotional and intellectual fulfillment, and life happiness. Over 300 unique individuals crossed paths with me; 300 different breathing, walking bundles of feelings, opinions, and dreams. Nearly all of them had one thing in common.

They thought whatever test they were taking was stupid.

Meaningless. Torturous. A pointless, heinous, arbitrary obstacle squatting in the middle of their resplendent walkway to lifelong bliss. My students’ opinion isn’t surprising: even outside test prep, the idea that standardized tests are a gargantuan mass of idiocy holds a lot of currency. I’ve encountered many people who passionately argue that standardized tests shouldn’t be used in the admissions process, yet these people don’t even know what the LSAT is or what kind of questions it has. How can you believe something is dumb if you literally don’t know what it is? Yet, the opinion exists in large supply.

As a test prep teacher, I’m sure I can’t be entirely convincing to the contrary. My opinion must be seen as biased. Nevertheless, I’d like to present five perspectives on tests that I hope will interest or intrigue you.

Point #1: If standardized tests are stupid, then that makes for a lot of stupid people

No school, anywhere, is forced to use any standardized test in its application process. Colleges don’t have to use the ACT or SAT. Grad schools don’t have to use the GRE — in fact, many of them don’t. Law schools don’t have to use the LSAT. And so on — every school can do whatever it wants. For example, some grad schools actually take the GMAT in place of the GRE, and some business schools do the reverse. At any rate, hundreds of schools have decided to use standardized tests as an important factor in evaluating applicants.

Now, if standardized tests really are idiotic — which is to say, if performance on them indicates nothing whatsoever about the quality of an applicant — then the admissions committees who use them to judge applicants must, by extension, be idiots. This is many thousands of people. It is these people’s job to research the factors by which to judge students; their livelihood depends on their ability to accept and reject the right people. And thousands of admissions officers every year decide that using standardized tests is a good idea.

If you still want to say that “tests are dumb,” you may. Just be aware that in doing so, you impugn the intelligence of several thousand people who understand tests and the admissions process a lot better than you do.

Point #2: Nobody is trying to test “general intelligence” anymore

After “tests are dumb,” the second most common criticism I encounter is, “they don’t actually measure how smart you are.” This is a funny criticism because it assumes that the test makers seek to test intelligence. They don’t.

When the SAT first came out, its makers claimed that the test measured a student’s “natural aptitude” — that is, some innate, unalterable quality of intelligence. This was a very appealing claim: unlike other tests, which merely measured a student’s knowledge at a discrete instant, the SAT could supposedly demonstrate a student’s capacity to acquire knowledge in general. An interesting side effect of this claim was that the SAT should have been uncoachable. It shouldn’t have mattered if a student rolled out of bed and took the SAT or studied for six months and then took it; “natural aptitude,” if such a thing existed, couldn’t be altered by preparation any more than could height or eye color.

Though the SAT always had critics, it was the advent and success of the test preparation industry that finally refuted the natural aptitude nonsense. Students who prepared for the SAT and took it multiple times raised their scores, often dramatically. The SAT was definitely measuring something, but it wasn’t intelligence.

Nowadays, test-makers tacitly acknowledge that their tests aren’t intelligence tests. Go to any test-maker’s website, and what do you see? Prepare for our test. Spend significant time studying. Here are some materials to get you started. If the test-makers believed that their tests measured your intelligence, they wouldn’t be telling you to study for them.

So what do standardized tests, ahem, test? Though the content of each test is different, in one way or another they all test the ability to interpret, manipulate, and evaluate information. This skill of information processing is called critical thinking.  Critical thinking and intelligence are closely, but not completely, related. Intelligence is a quality, whereas critical thinking is a skill. The distinction isn’t academic, as a simple example illustrates:

One of my LSAT students scored in the 40th percentile on his first LSAT.  Nowadays, he pulls in 99th percentile scores with regularity. It’s taken him a year and over a thousand hours of deliberate study to reach this level. By contrast, I got a 98th percentile score with almost no effort whatsoever. Though I don’t want to open any worm-filled cans by claiming that I’m more intelligent than my student, the disparity of effort to reach similar results illustrates some difference in personal qualities — one of which might be, for example, intelligence. However, when law schools see our scores side by side, they won’t know about this difference in personal quality — nor will they pretend to. All they’ll know is what the LSAT is telling them: namely, that my student and I are approximately equally good critical thinkers.

Standardized tests don’t care how you got to be good or bad at the skill they’re testing. All they care is that you’re good or bad at it.

Point #3: Nobody’s trying to “trick” you

The rampant hostility towards standardized tests evinces itself in the casual phrases test-takers use. Problems aren’t subtle or challenging — they’re confusing and tricky. I routinely encounter the sentiment that test makers are out to dupe students. Frankly, this popular idea is nuts.

Let’s consider very carefully what the test makers are trying to do. Their goal is to distinguish someone who has critical thinking skills from someone who doesn’t. How do they do this? By writing questions that a good critical thinker will get right and a bad one will get wrong. It follows that a question that everybody gets right is a poor question, because it distinguishes nobody from nobody. By the same token, a question that everybody gets wrong is equally useless.

Suppose test makers were really trying to trick us on a given question. Suppose further that they succeeded. What would happen? Good critical thinkers would be tricked into picking a wrong choice. Bad critical thinkers might be tricked as well, or they might even get the correct answer blindly. If every question on the test produced such results, the test would be hilariously useless. Test makers have in mind to “trick” no one, not because they’re nice people, but because doing so would defeat the entire purpose of everything they’re trying to accomplish.

What the test makers do want to do is write answer choices that are subtly but definitely wrong. There must be something about each wrong choice that enables a good critical thinker to eliminate it; otherwise, a test taker’s getting that problem right or wrong has no meaning, and there goes the entire foundation of the test.

This isn’t to say that poor, ambiguous problems have never appeared on standardized tests. What amazes me, though, is that people consider these problems intentional. Such problems are not designs — they are mistakes. Test makers work ruthlessly to create better problems with every administration.

Point #4: Test makers have an obligation to make a good test

We take standardized tests for granted as casually as we despite them, but it takes skill and effort to create a good test. The PCAT — the test for pharmacy school — illustrates the point nicely. For years, the PCAT was a notoriously terrible test. It lacked consistency in both content and format; for example, it had calculus sometimes, and sometimes not. The best advice for students who did poorly on the PCAT was just “Take it again,” because scores varied so wildly from administration to administration.

It’s standard practice in the test prep industry to offer a higher score guarantee, and my company’s guarantee specifically excluded the PCAT. Despite our best efforts, we simply couldn’t guarantee that our students’ scores would go up. That’s how bad the test was.

Correspondingly, the PCAT enjoyed little success. Many pharmacy programs neither considered nor even required a PCAT score, not because pharmacy programs look down on tests, but because they knew that a PCAT score was in all probability meaningless. Eventually the PCAT changed ownership, and efforts were made to improve the test. Consequently, more and more pharmacy schools began to require PCAT scores, and my company finally extended its guarantee to the test.

Standardized tests are not perpetually shifting, malignant entities. Test makers have an obligation to make their tests unambiguous and predictable. A test that lacks these qualities won’t accurately reflect the critical thinking abilities of its takers, in which case admissions committees will have little reason to use it.

Point #5: If you’re pursuing higher education, standardized tests are the best thing that ever happened to you

I read this clearly in my students’ eyes all the time, hear it in the resentful tinge of their voices: “God, I wish this fucking test didn’t exist.”

All right. Let’s play pretend — standardized tests are gone. Eaten by weevils. Not a single test left. Now what? You apply to college or grad school, and suddenly everything on your application is a “soft” factor — your experiences, extracurriculars, references, the strength of your classes, everything. Your admittance to the school or program of your choice is at the mercy of the admission committee’s subjective evaluations.

“But what about my GPA!” Your GPA is a “hard”-looking number, but its value is as subjective as anything else. Obviously, the value of a GPA varies by school and major, and good luck pinpointing that value. Is a 3.5 biomedical engineering degree from a top-50 engineering school worth more than a 4.0 in English at an average liberal arts college? How about a 3.4? A 3.3? The sliders are impossible to place.

Complicating matters further is the fact that better schools don’t always signify a more valuable GPA. Yale is much harder to get into than my alma mater Case Western, but I’d argue that a 4.0 at Case is more impressive than a 4.0 at Yale because grade inflation allegedly runs rampant in ivy league schools. Someone else could easily argue the opposite.

Without standardized tests, getting into school is a crap shoot. You can improve your odds significantly by being good at craps, but you can never be assured of winning. By putting everyone in the same boat, standardized tests offer students the opportunity to guarantee admission and scholarships. Your 4.0 and great work experience may or may not get you into Harvard Law School. A 176 on your LSAT, though? That’ll get you wherever the hell you want.

More subtly, tests help students by teaching them a useful skill. The ability to understand what you’re reading and to think critically is incredibly useful in life, not the least in school. A student of mine recently got destroyed by a tough passage that began with the following:

Philosophers of science have long been uneasy with biology, preferring instead to focus on physics. At the heart of this preference is a mistrust of uncertainty.

When I asked him to explain the purpose of the second sentence, he struggled for a long moment and finally said: “It’s saying that physics is full of uncertainty.” This student is very smart, blows logic games and many logical reasoning questions out of the water, and scores close to the 70th percentile. Here, though, his comprehension failed at the sentence level. The purpose of the sentence is to explain why philosophers of science like physics better than biology; “at the heart of” indicates the reason, implying that biology is full of uncertainty and physics is not. To be sure, this passage features sophisticated language, but the language of lawyers — which this student will eventually be immersed in every day for the rest of his life — is hardly any better. Learning how to read now will make his law school experience tremendously easier.

Most students view standardized tests as an obstacle; I can count on one hand the students of mine who saw their test for what it was: an opportunity to develop a valuable skill and cement their chances of getting into a great school at the same time. Certainly, doing well on a standardized test is a requirement for getting in somewhere great (or, depending on the test, getting in anywhere at all), but it’s incorrect to equate a requirement with an obstacle. By that reasoning, hard work is an obstacle to getting a raise, being kind is an obstacle to making someone fall in love with you, and eating food is an obstacle to not dying. At the end of the day, we rarely employ the word “obstacle” for any but the pettiest reasons. An obstacle is just a challenge we don’t like.

Summary

I’ve never been directly asked, “How do you sleep at night?”, but I suspect a few people were tempted to speak the words before decorum stopped them. I sleep soundly because I believe, quite simply, that standardized tests are neither stupid nor evil. Test makers have a task — to create a test that measures the ability to think critically — and they carry it out. For the most part, they do a good job. Admissions committees value the ability to think critically, so they place substantial weight on test scores. Research supports the fact that critical thinking correlates stronger than just about anything else with success in school. In this set of facts, I see nothing imbecilic or malicious.

Standardized Tests — late update

September 11, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hello everyone!

My old roommate is in Madison this weekend in honor of two of our best friends getting married. On account of all the festivities, my post will be several days late this week. As a teaser, I’ll let you know that the next essay is pretty long and covers a topic very dear to my heart — standardized tests. Enjoy the post when it comes!

–Boris

Aesthetic Rage

September 5, 2010 at 5:10 am | Posted in Board Games, Math | 3 Comments
Tags: , ,

I was a nerd long before nerds became cool, and one of the more embarrassing hallmarks of my people is our tendency to argue furiously on matters of the utmost inconsequence. Here are my two favorite examples of aesthetic nerd rage:

Euler’s Identity

In 1748, the great mathematician Leonhard Euler proved one of the most beloved formulas in all of mathematics:

eix = cos(x) + isin(x)

Although the formula has many interesting and far-reaching implications, it is acclaimed for its beauty primarily because plugging in π for x yields a striking result. Since the sine of π is 0 and the cosine of π is -1, plugging in π cuts away the trigonometry and produces the following:

eπi = -1

When you combine two irrational numbers and an imaginary number in a simple operation, you’d expect the result to be a horrific mess — the fact that the operation produces a common integer is wildly incomprehensible. Deservedly, Euler’s Identity is considered by many to be the single most beautiful truth in all of mathematics.

So what’s the controversy? Some people like to add 1 to both sides of the equation to change it slightly:

eπi + 1 = 0

This, they argue, is the superior version of Euler’s Identity, because it uses the three common operations (addition, multiplication, and exponentiation) and relates the five most important mathematical constants: e, π, i, 1, and 0. Proponents of the original form claim that anyone who uses the second form should have their balls cut off to preserve the vitality of the human gene pool, because you’d need to have the intelligence of a slightly retarded prokaryote to believe that anything other than the most simplified form of an equation is remotely worth considering. Inserting that completely unnecessary addition — I mean, really?

Though I now see the merits of both versions and am honestly torn as to which is the finer, once, in my distant and ignorant youth, I picked a side and vehemently participated in a dispute which could better have been described as a bloodbath.

Edward Lasker vs George Alan Thomas

One of the most stunning combinations in the history of chess occurred in a short game between Edward Lasker and George Alan Thomas, both accomplished chess players. Sacrificing his queen for a pawn on the eleventh move, Lasker proceeded to drag the black king all the way down to white’s first rank (!), resulting in the following incredible position:



Here, Lasker played K-d2, gorgeously checkmating the black king with a discovered attack from the left rook.

However, castling queenside would have also checkmated black, and some players believe that this would have been a more beautiful finish to the game. How often do you get to checkmate someone by castling?

Critics of this view contend that its proponents should be stabbed, shot, and their bodies dissolved in a vat of liquid nitrogen to eliminate the risk that any of their grossly deficient brain cells might carry on the wind and possibly threaten the integrity of the higher-order functions of the rest of the human species, because how often do you get to checkmate someone — via discovered check from your king — with a piece that has never moved? Furthermore, moving one piece to checkmate is surely more elegant than moving two.

You can find the complete game here. Be sure to check out the kibitzing below for a sampling of the chess nerd rage surrounding the final move.

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