Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The "story behind the numbers"

I just received an envelope from Notre Dame, an institution whose alumnus I am. It begins with "[t]here is always a 'story behind the numbers.'" The problem is that the story means different things to different people. Numbers are often a rather sophist thing: you can make them say whatever you want them to say if you just look at them in the 'right' perspective and, occasionally, eliminate or disregard some of the more uncomfortable ones.

Case in point, and please bear with the numbers, because quite a few of them will follow in rather quick succession. The letter I received states: "Over the past 9 years spending on undergraduate financial aid at Notre Dame has risen from $28 million to $76 million this year - a 172% increase." Impressive, wouldn't you say?

Unless you consider that in 1999, when I went there, tuition was somewhere a bit over $20000 a year, say $21000. Increasing tuition by 5% each year (on average) would bring us today to $32577 a year. According to Business Week, tuition is actually $34680 a year. Assuming I was a bit off with my memory for tuition in 1999, a 5% annual increase seems to be in the ballpark.

Now, with an undergraduate body of 8352 students, the difference in tuition between 1999 and 2008 for the entire undergraduate body results in an income increase to Notre Dame of over $100 million. Of this 100+ million, the increases in undergraduate scholarships cover a bit less than half (48 million), which means that the actual increase in cost to the students is somewhere over $50 million. This would correspond to about a 3.5% annual increase in tuition costs. Considering that the median US income in 1999 was about the same as that in 2005, and that 2006 to 2007 showed a 1.3% increase by one measure and 3.8% by another in the same median income (see source here), all these numbers are telling me is this: it was unreasonable to raise tuition so much faster than income, so we had to bring it closer to what it should have been with scholarships. Wasn't it nice of us? I mean... 172% increase in financial aid?

Which brings me to my final thought. A lot is being written about the $700 billion rescue package proposed these days. The trouble is that unless you know all the numbers - and I do mean all the numbers, you can't know what it means, how it's going to work, and whether you can trust it. And there are two problems here: first, that people are very good at choosing the numbers that make them look good and presenting just those. Second, that in the case of the economy there are significantly more numbers than in the puny Notre Dame example above.

So what does this all mean? For me, just that I need to keep praying - not specifically, just as a matter of discipline. Prayer doesn't lie. Numbers... what numbers?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Apple vs. PC

I read a couple of weeks ago about the upcoming Microsoft ad campaign featuring Jerry Seinfeld. Having chuckled repeatedly during the Apple commercials, I held some hope that the Microsoft ads would be... at least watchable. No such luck.

This message posted from OpenSUSE (in other words, at this moment I have very little to do with either Apple or Microsoft).

Friday, September 05, 2008

My take on the upcoming election...

Well, I don't really do politics, so this is probably going to be my only post on the subject. I think the greatest downside to the Republican party vice-presidential nominee is that when Americans think of Palin in the future, they will be thinking of the wrong person. There really is only one