Killing an industry

Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) have been in the news a lot lately. Almost two weeks ago, the federal government suspended the TFW program in the fast-food industry, citing abuses of the system. Other industries have also blamed the system for stealing jobs from Canadians and even killing their industry.

Canada expanded its Temporary Foreign Worker Program  in 2008, in an effort to ease the demand for unskilled labour. In many ways, these TFWs were brought in to perform jobs that Canadians didn’t want to do (janitorial work, fast-food, menial labour, etc.). This does not “take jobs” away from Canadians; rather, it frees up Canadians to perform more skilled labour—at higher wages—which boosts the economy. One argument I heard was that TFWs are coming to Canada and simply sending their money back home. Although they may send some money home—known as a remittance—the impacts on the economy of an increase to consumption (resulting from immigration of the TFW) far outweighs the amount of the remittance.

The link above points to an article about helicopter pilots who are complaining that the TFW program is killing the industry. If we look at hours pilots have worked per week over the past 13+ years, we actually see that hours have been steadily declining far before the TFW program was boosted in 2008 (from 36.6 hours per week in February 2001 to 30.2 in February 2014). Note that the decline also precedes the recession.

Canada including overtime Air Transportation

(Source: Statistics Canada. Table 281-0032)

Although I won’t deny that TFWs are probably being abused in the fast-food industry, that is another argument. To use them as a scapegoat—especially when the cause of a declining industry probably points elsewhere—is unfair.

2014 NHL season results

In February, I predicted the results of the 2014 NHL regular season based on the results of the Men’s Olympic hockey rankings. Now that the season is over, the projections can be compared to the results:

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A few of my predictions were well off (e.g., Vancouver, Buffalo, Detroit, Colorado, and Boston), but I still wanted to determine if my Olympics predictions were correlated to a statistically significant level with NHL season results.

The first step is to formulate my hypothesis (which I somewhat alluded to in my previous post). The null hypothesis—which I hope to reject—is that my Olympic predictions have no correlation to the NHL season results (they are independent). The alternative hypothesis is that there is a correlation.

The next step is to find an appropriate test statistic. Since these lists are both rankings (i.e., ordinal data), either Spearman’s rho (ρ) or Kendall’s Tau (τ) would be a good choice (they can be used to measure rank association, or the similarity of ordered rank data). I will use both for robustness. They should tell us if the two variables (predicted and actual) are statistically dependent. The null hypothesis, that the two are independent, would yield a value of zero for both measures. An ideal correlation would give a value of +1 (perfect positive correlation).

Here is perfect correlation:

Perfect correlation between actual and predicted results

Here are my results:

Olympics predictions versus NHL season results

At a glance, the correlation does not appear strong. But is it statistically significant?

Both Kendall’s Tau and Spearman’s rho reject the null hypothesis of independence at an alpha of 0.1%. Kendall’s Tau is 0.46 and Spearman’s rho is 0.64—both suggest a statistically significant correlation between the rank I predicted based on the success of players’ teams in the Olympics and the NHL season results.

If not for the five “outlier” teams I mentioned earlier, the results become extremely promising (Spearman’s rho > 0.86). However, manipulating the data after the fact is questionable without a good reason. What would be better is to find the reason why those five teams did so much better/worse than my Olympic prediction projected.

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The inquiry-based learning bandwagon

In December, a petition was created in Alberta by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies, which calls for a “Back to basics” approach to mathematics. It is nice to see parents analyzing the Alberta K-12 curriculum critically. The education of our children is very important, and not something we should accept if we are unhappy with it.

However, I question how many parents have actually looked at the curriculum. I doubt many have considered anything beyond anecdotal evidence. It’s one thing to read a story in a newspaper article or on a Facebook page; it’s a different story entirely to read it for yourself.

The story of the day—indeed, the focus of Dr. Tran-Davies’ petition—seems to be kids failing to learn multiplication tables. Here’s what the curriculum states as specific outcomes in grade 3:

Demonstrate an understanding of multiplication to 5 × 5 by:

  • representing and explaining multiplication using equal grouping and arrays
  • creating and solving problems in context that involve multiplication
  • modelling multiplication using concrete and visual representations, and recording the process symbolically
  • relating multiplication to repeated addition
  • relating multiplication to division.

These strategies sound awfully familiar to what I learned years ago in grade 3. But to those complaining, I ask: Where does it mention inquiry-based or discovery learning? Where does it suggest a student does not need to know how to do multiplication? I’m not asking what a biased politician or newspaper article claims. I’m asking you.

I’m unsure what it is Bruce McAllister (the Wildrose Education Critic, who has taken up this case in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly), Dr. Tran-Davies, and others are expecting in terms of teaching multiplication. Should we monotonously repeat the times tables after the teacher, ad nauseum, for hours on end like our grandparents did? That might work for some students, but not others. For those students that learn this way, great! But for others—those who would have been lost or considered “dumb” in my grandparents’ youth—this is no way to learn. Teachers are constantly learning and educating themselves on better and more complete methods of teaching; ways that let every student learn, not just a select few. The best teachers are the ones who make more than just one method of learning available to their students.

All the curriculum states is what students must learn, not how. The teachers who are doing what they can to engage the greatest number of students (those “accused” of inquiry-based learning—which, by the way, does not involve “skipping over” the times tables) have the best of intentions for your children. If anything, the teachers who pose the greatest risk to our children’s success are the ones dogmatically maintaining an I-know-best attitude. These are the teachers who are likely to reach the least number of students, with the stubborn mindset that there is only one way to learn.

For more on this topic, I invite you to read articles by Joe Bower and Dave Martin.

Which way is the bus going?

This is one of my favourite “elementary school” tests, which usually claim to be correctly solved by 99% of six year-olds but unsolvable by most adults. Regardless whether that’s true or not, give it a try.

Which way is the bus going: left or right?

School bus

The answer after the break. [Read more…]

Truth and opinion

It is a great disservice—and incredibly frustrating—when people try to pass off their opinions as the truth. Rather than moving toward some higher understanding (i.e., toward some objective truth, if there even is such a thing), it serves to block off all useful conversation and regress into partisanship and bickering.

Most Saturday mornings, I listen to a syndicated radio program called MoneyTalks. The host, Michael Campbell, is based out of Vancouver’s AM news station, CKNW. When I first started listening, I felt that Michael exuded an air of superiority; anything (or anyone) that didn’t agree with his fiscally conservative views would immediately be dismissed as irrational, poorly planned, or even dumb.

Initially, I was indignant: I would change stations or turn the radio off. I’ve now gotten to the point where I can listen for the whole show (although it helps that for a lot of it, I’m driving in my car and there’s nothing else to listen to).

There is nothing wrong with having a radio show that advocates fiscally conservative or libertarian views. It is not only Mr. Campbell’s right to advocate the economic and political policies he agrees with, but it is beneficial to all of society to have access to a wide range of different views. But therein lies the problem: Michael Campbell argues his opinions as fact. He denigrates those who disagree with him. Callers to his show simply regurgitate his mantras. (I have yet to hear one caller who disagrees with him; I’m not sure if his producer filters the calls or if only like-minded listeners call in.)

Mr. Campbell has the incredible opportunity to reach and educate a wide audience (and he clearly has a good understanding of what he talks about), but it is being squandered by an inability to recognize his own biases. He constantly passes off his arguments as “free of politicization,” when they are in fact anything but.

Why I’m still in love with Apple

Okay, so perhaps my post from yesterday was a poor attempt at an April Fools’ Day joke. (One of my all-time favourites was Google’s prank from 2013, in which they announced that YouTube was simply a contest and that it would be ending that night.)

In reality, I am extremely happy as an Apple user. I switched to Apple products back when Windows ME was popular (I’m not sure if “popular” is the right word), cell phones were just phones, and integration between software was non-existent. It started with computers, moving from a custom-built Windows desktop to a PowerBook. I would later migrate to an iMac and then a Mac Pro. In 2008, I was required to call 911 after hearing a domestic assault two doors down. In the middle of the call, my Blackberry decided to reboot; I got a spinning hourglass for over 5 minutes. When it finally came back up, I immediately got a call from the 911 operator, who was not too impressed. I got an iPhone later that week, and my migration was complete.

I enjoy not needing to reboot my computer every few days. I love the way things look. Most importantly, I appreciate the way apps work together to make everything seamless. It is this last point that is crucial to me. Over the past few months, I’ve been reconsidering all of the software I use: from productivity to email to my calendar to my word processor. One of my biggest revelations was Alfred, which is hard to describe. It just does everything. (I used to use Quicksilver, which serves a similar purpose and used to be the best program available, but it has fallen to the wayside since being abandoned by its creator.)

Having considered some of my favourite pieces of software, I realized how indispensable some of them are to me. For that reason, I decided I should review them. I’m not talking about the programs I use because they’re the “least worst” version I’ve found (I use Chrome, but it has its faults and I can get by with anything else). I’m talking about the programs I consider to be game-changers: things that make my life more productive, efficient, or secure, and that I could not go without. Some are available on Windows as well. A few are expensive. Others are also (or only) on the iPhone. (You can probably guess a few I have planned by the tags below.) What I hope is that I can encourage someone out there to try some software they otherwise would not have—and become more efficient in the process.

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Why I’ve given up on Apple

After years of using Apple products—a PowerBook, an iMac, a Mac Pro, a MacBook Air, an Apple TV, two iPhones, an iPod, and hundreds of dollars of apps and software—I have decided it is time to move on to something more capable. Unfortunately, I’ve invested more than 10 years into this system and still cannot find a setup that just works.

The problem with Apple is nothing works together. I need a productivity app that integrates with everything else I use, a calendar that syncs between my computers and phone seamlessly, and an email setup that doesn’t require me to think to stay productive. Along with all this functionality, I want something that looks good, too.

I’ve heard good things about the Windows phone.

Misleading numbers on inflation

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of taking in a guest lecture by Todd Hirsch, Chief Economist at ATB Financial, author, blogger, and Twitter user. Todd packed a lot of great information into 45 minutes, including his warning that “average metrics” are often very poor indicators of the way things really are. He mentioned the analogy of a man with his head in the oven and his feet in the freezer—on average, he should be quite comfortable.

The Bank of Canada aims to keep inflation at 2%, a midpoint in its target range of 1-3%. Although inflation has been within that range for much of the past 5 years, it has spent the past 2 years at the low end—around 1% (CPI data).

Despite this, Todd made two very striking comments about inflation. First, as the CPI is an average, there are provinces both above and below the reported figure: Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Prince Edward Island are all over 2%, while Québec is below 1% and British Columbia experienced deflation in February (year-over-year).

Second, and more important, is that the CPI is a single number that represents an average of many different goods. In Prince Edward Island, an inflation rate of 2.7% is within the Bank of Canada’s “target.” However, when one looks deeper, they will see that energy prices rose by 7.6%, clothing by 5.2%, and shelter by 4.5%. These are areas typically considered to be necessary areas of spending—you can’t put off your gas bill, no matter what it costs. The fact that the CPI is tempered by other baskets of goods and services (e.g., household operations, furnishings and equipment prices rose by only 0.3%) shows how poorly the CPI translates into actual price increases for the consumer. When demand-inelastic goods face large increases in price but are offset by low inflation in other goods, the CPI can no longer effectively represent the conditions faced by the average Canadian.

Put another way, try to explain a 1.2% inflation rate to a warehouse owner in Charlottetown, PEI, whose operational costs rose 10% over the past year.

[Update: Not even 2 hours after posting this, I saw this article—Enbridge’s 40% gas hike approved by regulator.]

The “dreaded” English degree

As a university student, I hear all the time about how “a degree in X is useless,” “courses in Y are so much more difficult than courses in Z,” and so on. X might be a humanities degree, Y a degree in business, and Z some social science.

Isn’t it often the case that what we do/know/study is immensely difficult and important, while what others do/know/study is trivial, inconsequential, or even a waste of time? Science students balk at the usefulness of a philosophy degree. Marketing students cannot grasp how an English degree might be monetized. Political science students joke that a history degree is in the past: there’s no critical analysis needed—only memorization. Computer science students see no purpose to a degree in fine arts, which is nothing but fluff and emotion.

It goes further than university. I see newspaper articles and comments—as well as comments on social media—exclaiming that certain degrees should be eliminated or defunded. It’s as if the sole purpose of a post-secondary degree is to get a job, with the “success” of the degree tied to one’s income after graduation. What an unfortunate life one lives when a job is their defining characteristic. The pursuit of knowledge used to be highly regarded.

Let’s be completely realistic. It’s possible for every subject to be summarized as very basic concepts, which can make it look easy; in reality, all of them take effort and offer a wealth of knowledge. As for the monetization argument, it is open for debate: outside of a few very specific fields (e.g., chemical engineering), employers are looking not for knowledge of particular course material, but rather an ability to learn, think creatively, and see the big picture. In many cases, the “soft” degrees (e.g., humanities and social sciences) teach these concepts extremely well.

Over the past year, the Government of Alberta has been very clear how it feels about post-secondary education. When he was Advanced Education Minister, Thomas Lukaszuk pushed Campus Alberta, an attempt at collaboration between universities and colleges in Alberta. The problem is, Lukaszuk and his government had little idea what they were doing and—in conjunction with massive cuts to education—aimed to oversee the direction of post-secondary education much like you would expect in the Soviet Union. The “hard” sciences—math, chemistry, physics—and degrees like business and engineering were promoted, as they are perceived as very transferable into the job market. Degrees such as humanities, child and disability services, and social sciences were not perceived the same way, and therefore the province did not look favourably upon them. Unfortunately, the direction taken by Lukaszuk and Premier Redford was extremely misguided, and their negligence and ineptitude will be felt for years as future politicians and citizens attempt to recover from their mistakes.

Perhaps we express the superiority of what we do out of xenophobia. We fear what is strange to us, and want to reinforce that we’ve made the right decision by doing what it is we do. I would hate to come to the end of my degree only to realize it is worthless, or that my time would have been much better spent doing something else.

I’ll conclude using the degree everyone loves to hate on: English. A common argument is, “What’s there to learn? I already speak English.” Yale offers an English course that is an introduction to theory in literature. The course includes discussions of semiotics, Derrida, and Lévi-Strauss. Anyone with even a cursory introduction to these topics would agree they’re anything but easy. There are intricacies to any topic of study that those of us with a basic level of knowledge (or less) cannot even begin to fathom.

Arguing that a degree in English is easy because you speak English is as apposite as saying a degree in Chemistry is easy because you are made up of atoms.

Anne Mulcahy was once the CEO of Xerox. Stephen Spielberg is one of the most famous directors of all time. Conan O’Brien is a long-time talk show host and comedian. Angelo Giamatti was President of Yale and Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Hank Paulson was CEO of Goldman Sachs and Treasury Secretary in the US. Michael Eisner was CEO of Disney. Mario Cuomo was Governor of New York. Mitt Romney is a multi-millionaire and former Republican candidate for the US Presidency. Harold Varmus won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in cancer research.

They all have degrees in English.

2014 NHL season predictions

A few days ago, I wondered if there was a correlation between the success of each nation’s Olympic hockey team and the eventual success of each NHL team. Now that the Olympics are over, I was able to compare the players on each national team and give them a rank based on that nation’s success in the men’s hockey tournament (thanks to Sportsnet for providing the lists).

I weighted each team as follows:

  • 1st place – 6 points/player
  • 2nd place – 5 points/player
  • 3rd place – 4 points/player
  • 4th place – 3 points/player
  • Eliminated in quarterfinals – 2 points/player
  • Eliminated in qualification round – 1 point/player

This means each player on Canada provides 6 points to his NHL team, each player on USA provides 3 points to his NHL team, each player on Russia provides 2 points to his NHL team, each player on Slovakia provides 1 point to his NHL team, etc.

The results are as follows:

1 – Detroit
2 – St. Louis
3 – Chicago
4 – Vancouver
5 – Anaheim
6 – Pittsburgh
7 – New York Rangers
8 – Montreal
9 – Los Angeles
10 – Phoenix
11 – San Jose
11 – Tampa Bay
13 – Boston
14 – Colorado
15 – Buffalo
15 – Minnesota
17 – Dallas
18 – Winnipeg
19 – Washington
20 – Columbus
20 – New York Islanders
20 – Philadelphia
23 – Carolina
23 – Toronto
25 – Nashville
25 – Ottawa
27 – Edmonton
27 – Florida
27 – New Jersey
30 – Calgary

If I break the teams down by conference, I get:

Eastern Conference:

1 – Detroit
2– Pittsburgh
3 – New York Rangers
4 – Montreal
5 – Tampa Bay
6 – Boston
7 – Buffalo
8 – Washington
9 – Columbus
9 – New York Islanders
9 – Philadelphia
12 – Carolina
12 – Toronto
14 – Ottawa
15 – Florida
15 – New Jersey

Western Conference:

1 – St. Louis
2 – Chicago
3 – Vancouver
4 – Anaheim
5 – Los Angeles
6 – Phoenix
7 – San Jose
8 – Colorado
9 – Minnesota
10 – Dallas
11 – Winnipeg
12 – Nashville
13 – Edmonton
14 – Calgary

A few problems I see already are Detroit and Buffalo. Detroit had 6 players on Team Sweden, who did extraordinarily well, so they are overrepresented by my model. This bias does not appear for teams like Canada and USA (they both have great players on nearly every NHL team, so when the national teams go to draft their rosters it only makes sense that they draw from the better teams, where the players are doing well). Buffalo also had 2 players on Team Sweden, which gives them many more points than my model would expect based on their current position at the bottom of the NHL standings.

Other teams (e.g., Calgary and Edmonton) appear to be projected quite accurately. Once the season has ended, I will look back at these predictions and run a regression to determine how well my model estimated NHL season results.

Thanks go to Ben Atkinson, for without your econometrics class, I might have to watch hockey simply for the love of the game (rather than as a statistical analysis waiting to happen).

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