Monday, December 30, 2013

Reasons to retreat into the wilderness and start subsistence farming

Back in June I wrote a post, Conspiracy theories, truth and rhetoric, about the epistemological role of conspiracy theories and commented that it warrants not being dismissive of disdained views because new evidence so often, and so disturbingly, ends up confirming some aspect of the conspiracist's ridiculous theory. Andrea Peterson seems to agree in
2013 is the year that proved your ‘paranoid’ friend right from the Washington Post. Her article mostly focuses only on technology but is still a useful summary of the unpleasant surprises confirming the paranoia of the conspiracists.
Most people involved in the tech scene have at least one friend who has been warning everyone they know about protecting their digital trail for years — and have watched that friend get accused of being a tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist. But 2013 is the year that proved your "paranoid" friend right.

It's now a matter of public record that the NSA collects and stores the calling records of domestic phone calls, tracks the location of millions of mobile devices worldwide, infiltrates the data links between the data centers of tech companies used by millions of Americans, piggybacks onto commercial tracking mechanisms, collected potentially sensitive online metadata for years and actively worked to undermine the privacy and security measures that underpin the Internet. And considering the purported size of the Snowden cache, that could be the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.

And while the NSA story alone undoubtedly gives the "paranoid" plenty of reasons to say "I told you so," a slew of other reports from this year gave them even more reasons to retreat into the wilderness and start subsistence farming.
And a quick scan of the news headlines this morning adds this gem from Der Spiegel, Documents Reveal Top NSA Hacking Unit. The article notes that very traditional spying techniques live on with great effectiveness.
Take, for example, when they intercept shipping deliveries. If a target person, agency or company orders a new computer or related accessories, for example, TAO can divert the shipping delivery to its own secret workshops. The NSA calls this method interdiction. At these so-called "load stations," agents carefully open the package in order to load malware onto the electronics, or even install hardware components that can provide backdoor access for the intelligence agencies. All subsequent steps can then be conducted from the comfort of a remote computer.

These minor disruptions in the parcel shipping business rank among the "most productive operations" conducted by the NSA hackers, one top secret document relates in enthusiastic terms. This method, the presentation continues, allows TAO to obtain access to networks "around the world."
It's almost as if you suddenly realize that you can't be too paranoid or too ridiculous.

Linking, sharing and commenting - Return on Effort

Well that's interesting. In Most Popular MR Posts of 2013 by Alex Tabarrok, he points out that with regard to posts
There is overlap between most linked, shared, and commented so some of the above would fit in several categories but it’s surprisingly weak. Posts with a lot of comments, for example, often do not draw lots of links. -
You would logically think that an article that engaged readers sufficiently to result in a comment, a share or a link would generate a relatively uniform response across all three forms of engagement. The amount of time necessary to comment, share or link is about the same. Why the disparity?

Stepping back and thinking it through though, I see that Tabarrok's comment is less surprising on reflection. I link numerous articles, I only share a few and I rarely comment. Why the differences? I link to an article in Thingfinder in order to discuss some core idea or I link to the article at Commonplace of a Magpie in order to have the article on file because I think I will want to refer to it at some point in the future.

I share with family members and close colleagues when I think the article contains information they will find amusing or useful and might not otherwise know about.

I comment on articles where some basic information is being overlooked and causing the conversation to veer away from reality.

The time requirement is about the same, regardless of mode of engagement. However, there is high return to me in linking, only some in sharing and virtually no return in commenting. Is that profile common? I don't know but perhaps, and if so, that would explain the differences in the form of engagement alluded to by Tabarrok.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Left-handedness is not a major cause of death

From Sinister Statistics: Do Left Handed People Die Young? by Alex Tabarrok. A wonderful example of the importance of understanding context when interpreting statistics. The critical thing is to ensure that you are comparing apples-to-apples and yet there are all sorts of obscure and historical contextual issues that stand in the way of making a like-to-like comparison.
In 1991 Halpern and Coren published a famous study in the New England Journal of Medicine which appears to show that left handed people die at much younger ages than right-handed people. Halpern and Coren had obtained records on 987 deaths in Southern California–we can stipulate that this was a random sample of deaths in that time period–and had then asked family members whether the deceased was right or left-handed. What they found was stunning, left handers in their sample had died at an average age of 66 compared to 75 for right handers. If true, left handedness would be on the same order of deadliness as a lifetime of smoking. Halpern and Coren argued that this was due mostly to unnatural deaths such as industrial and driving accidents caused by left-handers living in a right-handed world. The study was widely reported at the time and continues to be regularly cited in popular accounts of left handedness (e.g. Buzzfeed, Cracked).

What is less well known is that the conclusions of the Halpern-Coren study are almost certainly wrong, left-handedness is not a major cause of death. Rather than dramatically lower life expectancy, a more plausible explanation of the HC findings is a subtle and interesting statistical artifact. The problem was pointed out as early as the letters to the editor in the next issue of the NEJM (see Strang letter) and was also recently pointed out in an article by Hannah Barnes in the BBC News (kudos to the BBC!) but is much less well known.
It is also a good example of cognitive pollution. The initial study came out in 1991 and the statistical flaw in the conclusions was identified in the very next issue. Yet, here we are twenty-two years later, the false conclusion is still being reported as fact. Why? Probably because it fits a preferred narrative (left handers are different and prone). The compatibility of the conclusion with the assumed narrative overrides the actual facts.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

But did anyone ever step twice into the same book?

From Pushkin and Pugachev (1937) by Marina Tsvetaeva.
There are books so alive that you’re always afraid that while you weren’t reading, the book has gone and changed, has shifted like a river; while you went on living, it went on living too, and like a river moved on and moved away. No one has stepped twice into the same river. But did anyone ever step twice into the same book?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Intensity, continuity and compounding lead to unexpected results

From Super Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, page 45.

Insight on the continually discussed, but now reasonably well understood, issue of wage-gaps. Based on twenty years worth of replicated studies across the OECD, this is now substantially understood as a consequence of individual choices. Levitt and Dubner summarize one of the building block studies that has shed light on the phenomenon.
The economists Marianne Bertrand, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz tried to solve this wage-gap puzzle by analyzing the career outcomes of more than 2,000 male and female MBAs from the University of Chicago.

Their conclusion: while gender discrimination may be a minor contributor to the male-female wage differential, it is desire - or the lack thereof - that accounts for most of the wage gap. The economists identified three main factors:
Women have slightly lower GPAs than men and, perhaps more important, they take fewer finance courses. All else being equal, there is a strong correlation between a finance background and career earning.

Over the first fifteen years of their careers, women work fewer hours than men, 52 per week versus 58. Over fifteen years, that six-hour difference adds up to six months' less experience.

Women take more career interruptions than men. After ten years in the workforce, only 10 percent of male MBAs went for six months or more without working, compared with 40 percent of female MBAs.
The big issue seems to be that many women, even those with MBAs, love kids. The average female MBA with no children works only 3 percent fewer hours than the average male MBA. But female MBAs with children work 24 percent less. "The pecuniary penalties from shorter hours and and any job discontinuity among MBAs are enormous," the three economists write. "It appears that many MBA mothers, especially those with well-off spouses, decided to slow down within a few years following their first birth."

This is a strange twist. Many of the best and brightest women in the United States get an MBA so they can earn high wages, but they end up marrying the best and brightest men, who also earn high wages - which affords these women the luxury of not having to work so much.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Swings and round-abouts in income, education and equal opportunity

From Super Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, page 44. They are discussing the unanticipated consequences that arise from changing social and economic norms. Prior to the 1960s, while there were individual women in virtually all professions, for practical purposes, many professions were effectively closed to the best and brightest women. In that environment, many became teachers. The indisputable good that arose from both changing social expectations reinforced by such legislation as The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was that, regardless of gender, people could truly choose careers and professions of their own liking and capabilities.
Soon after, however, opportunities for smart women began to multiply. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were contributing factors, as was the societal shift in the perception of women's roles. As more girls went off to college, more women emerged ready to join the workforce, especially in the desirable professions that had been largely off-limits: law, medicine, business, finance, and so on. (One of the unsung heroes of this revolution was the widespread use of baby formula, which allowed new mothers to get right back to work.)

These demanding, competitive professions offered high wages and attracted the best and brightest women available. No doubt many of these women would have become schoolteachers had they been born a generation earlier.

But they didn't. As a consequence, the schoolteacher corps began to experience a brain drain. In 1960, about 40 percent of female teachers scored in the top quintile of IQ and other aptitude tests, with only 8 percent in the bottom. Twenty years later, fewer than half as many were in the top quintile, with more than twice as many in the bottom. It hardly helped that teachers' wages were falling significantly in relation to other jobs. "The quality of teachers has been declining for decades," the chancellor of New York City's public schools declared in 2000, "and no one wants to talk about it."

This isn't to say that there aren't still a lot of great teachers. Of course there are. But overall teacher skill declined during these years, and with it the quality of classroom instruction. Between 1967 and 1980, U.S. test scores fell by about 1.25 grade-level equivalents. The education researcher John Bishop called this decline "historically unprecedented," arguing that it put a serious drag on national productivity that would continue well into the twenty-first century.
So there is a whole standard deviation shift leftward (lowering) of teacher IQ as a consequence of opening opportunity to everyone. That is not an argument for returning to more limited horizons but it is a call to recognize the complexity of the issue and the trade-offs that are involved. This is especially the case given other research regarding teacher effectiveness. I do not have the studies at hand but my recollection is that a top quintile teacher advances their students by a whole year's worth of extra learning over a middle quintile teacher. If you lose half your top quintile teachers and double your worst performers, it is easy to see the compound effect of that standard deviation leftward shift.

The complexity is also exemplified by the issue of absolute and relative wages, "teachers' wages were falling significantly in relation to other jobs." That statement is true. At the same time it is also true that teachers salaries have risen significantly in real financial terms over the years. In many parts of the country, a household that is headed by two working teachers, are in the 1% category. So compared to everyone else, teachers have done fantastically well on economic metrics but compared to the 0.1% they have experienced relative decline.

Monday, December 23, 2013

I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country

Via Read, Seen, Heard blog

Nathan Hale by Francis Miles Finch in Poems of American Patriotism, (1922) illustrated by N.C. Wyeth
By starlight and moonlight,
He seeks the Briton’s camp;
He hears the rustling flag,
And the armed sentry’s tramp;
And the starlight and moonlight
His silent wanderings lamp.

With slow tread and still tread,
He scans the tented line;
And he counts the battery guns
By the gaunt and shadowy pine;
And his slow tread and still tread
Gives no warning sign.

It is hard to remember, these iconic figures, how they were real people. Nathan Hale was all of 21 when captured by the British and hanged as a spy on September 22, 1776. He is remembered probably most for his last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Its spirit grows and strengthens

Carlos Ruiz Zafón in The Shadow of the Wind
Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.

She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village

Roald Dahl in Matilda
She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Confusing strawmen arguments with the knowledge frontier

I think this article, The False ADHD Controversy by Ross Pomeroy, rather misses the point.

Pomeroy is focused on making the argument that ADHD exists and to some degree, he makes his point in the article. Fair enough. But is that perhaps a strawman argument? Is there anyone who actually argues that ADHD does not exist at all? Surely not, or not in sufficient numbers to register on the radar screen of public discourse.
More kids are being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than ever before, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 8.8% of children were diagnosed in 2011, compared with 7.0% in 2007.

An uptick was also witnessed in the number of parents choosing to medicate their children with stimulants such as Ritalin. That proportion now sits at two-thirds.

ADHD is perhaps childhood's most common neurobehavioral disorder. It's characterized by an array of symptoms, including squirming, excessive daydreaming, forgetfulness, and hyperactivity. Scientists still can't precisely pinpoint what's going on in the brain to trigger ADHD, but it's evident that something is amiss. Children with ADHD generally have reduced brain volume in the left pre-frontal cortex.
Surely the argument is two-fold: causation and degree.

Causation is open. I don't think anyone would argue that they know what is going on with the ADHD diagnosis numbers. It is in part genetic, maybe epigenetic, certainly to some degree environment and or social. It is an issue that is complex and causally dense.

Degree - what does it mean that in the US we now diagnose 9% of children with ADHD when once upon a time, we didn't recognize it at all or diagnoses it in the 1-2% range? What does it mean that the UK diagnoses ADHD at half the rate that we do in the US? Are they under-diagnosing or are we over-diagnosing? What is the real base line of diagnosis? We don't know. Is there a binary definition of ADHD or is there simply a continuum of conditions? It is a continuum which means that there is a subjective element in the discussion.

ADHD is a causally dense, complex issue and shares many characteristics with similar causally dense complex issues. They are usually important and consequential issues with multiple root causes whose interdependencies are complex and unknown, which are prone to hidden feedback loops, tipping points, and extreme sensitivities.

Is ADHD real? Sure. Do we know what the "real" baseline prevalence in the general population is? No. Do we know the causes of ADHD in a predictive fashion? No. Are the variances in diagnoses large? Very.

Like anthropogenic global warming, mental health, nutrition, poverty and education, income inequality, with ADHD we are operating beyond the knowledge frontier. Within the knowledge frontier we know baselines, variances, and causes. We can make usefully accurate predictions. Beyond the frontier, our knowledge is too sketchy to display any of those characteristics.

It doesn't mean we do nothing. We explore, we test, we experiment. But above all, we maintain cognition and humility. We don't yet know what we are talking about.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Vapor arguments and experiential intensity

From Yes, Men Should Do More Housework by Derek Thompson. An interesting example of a so-common phenomenon - Arguing without defining the problem or the premises. The pretense of a structured argument in order to arrive at a values-based (i.e. not an evidence-based) predetermined conclusion.

Thompson's conclusion
So, yes, we could all do with slightly dirtier houses, and nobody ever died saying their only regret was they didn't buy enough ceramic tile cleaner. But maybe, now that women are out-earning us in bachelor's degrees and (often) in marriages as well, we could stand to do oh-just-slightly more than 35 percent of the dishes.
Now read the article. He is offering a lot of incidental evidence that social roles and behaviors have changed but he offers no argument that actually supports his conclusion. He gracefully elides the fact that his conclusion is simply an assertion based on his preferences, not actually an empirical argument.

But even in the maelstrom of misdirection, there can be interesting and useful information. I have commented elsewhere that in most fields of competitive effort, the upper echelons are rarely demographically representative on any variable (ethnicity, religion, gender, class, culture, etc.). I have attributed this primarily to the contextual action of the known fact that elite achievement is causatively linked to voluminous and continuing purposeful and competitive effort; what I call experiential intensity. Everyone, in virtually all fields of competitive endeavor, can be shown to have invested disproportionate hours of practice over prolonged periods of time. The discriminating factor is not ethnicity or religion or gender, but rather the circumstances that enable or retard experiential intensity.

The disparate outcomes are compounded by the fact that there is not a straight line relationship between hours and outcomes, but rather a logarithmic relationship. The person who spends 1,000 hours artistically painting in a year (an enthusiastic amateur) is significantly more accomplished than the person who spends only 500 hours (a dedicated amateur). Likewise, the person who spends 2,000 hours is more than twice as successful as the person who only spends a thousand hours.

In virtually all fields such as law and accounting and music and writing and art and academia and politics, etc., the top players in all those fields tend to skew 70-85% male. Only 15-30% of the top achievers are female.

In Thompson's article there is a graph that bolsters this argument, Time in Paid Work, Housework, and Childcare, 1965-2011. Thompson is focused on the housework and childcare numbers.

But reflect on the implications of paid work hours. If paid work is a rough proxy for purposeful effort, what this implies is that men undertake 63% percent of paid work (37.1 male paid hours/total hours 58.5) in America. The 15-30% range makes a lot more sense in that context.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Readers mirror the Caldecott judges

Noodling around in the back of my head has been the problem of proving bias in award selection. I have posted elsewhere the perennial controversy arising from roughly 65% of the Caldecott (children's illustration awards) going to male illustrators. Interestingly, the fact that roughly 65% of the Newbery awards (children's story books) go to female authors does not excite comparable concern. I am agnostic about whether this is an important issue or not. Someone at some point will have to gather the necessary data to indicate whether this is even a real problem. If the awards are going in proportion to the genders of the accomplished authors and illustrators, then there is no real evidence of bias and discrimination in the way the awards are being allocated. In other words, if 65% of the full-time illustrators are male, then the fact that 65% of awards goes to males is not particularly alarming.

But how do you show what the proportion of full-time illustrators might be by gender? That data doesn't seem readily available.

I did come across Elizabeth Bird's periodic listing of the top 100 illustrated children's books. Her column is in the School Library Journal and some 1,000 readers send in their nominations. This data set has the drawback that it is across time and not the most recent year so it describes readers assessment of the full portfolio of illustrated books and not what is new to the market. The readership of SLJ likely follows the demographic of the profession, i.e. 84% of librarians are female, so there is that skew to take into account. Of course the participants are self-selected so that is another mystery variable. The benefit is that it is likely a knowledgeable base of participants, which helps.

Turning a blind eye to all those issues, my question was: Would 1,000 self-selected, probably mostly female, probably well informed, participants comes up with a list of books with an illustrator gender ratio materially different than do the Caldecott judges? The answer is, No. The Caldecott's go male 69% of the time. This 100 Best list is 68% male illustrator.

Doesn't really resolve anything because there are so many potentially confounding issues. None the less, it does moderately suggest that there is likely something else going on than straightforward bias.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The current methods need substantial improvement to produce trustworthy scientific evidence

I am always on the lookout for well articulated means of assessing arguments and creating proof of an argument. Alvan R. Feinstein tackled this in a paper back in 1983, Scientific Standards in Epidemiologic Studies of the Menace of Daily Life. He was specifically attempting to address the issue that many epidemiologic studies were not compliant with the scientific process and therefore, the results were at the very best indicative and most often useless.

While his paper is specifically directed at the technical requirements of epidemiology, they have general utility.

He identifies five necessary scientific standards. His requirement, my discussion in italics.

1) A stipulated research hypothesis. To plan an experimental trial, the investigator identifies the cause-effect comparison that will be tested as the research hypothesis. It is astonishing to me how far arguments go before people get around to specifying exactly what their hypothesis is.

2) A well specified cohort. In randomized trials, the cohort under study is well specified by examinations done before the exposure (or nonexposure) begins. A lot of arguments turn on the fact that apples are not being compared to apples.

3) High-quality data. While admitting and following the individual people studied in an experiment, the investigators can get relatively high-quality data because each person is directly examined with methods that can be carefully calibrated for their reproducibility and validity. It seems that in many arguments data integrity and validity are mostly an afterthought, if considered at all. Way too many arguments are advanced with no data at all. The next largest population are arguments where the data is alluded to but not presented. The third largest are arguments where the data is said to exist but are not presented for review. Finally, in minimal numbers, there are arguments where the argument is advanced with relevant and robust data which is provided for review and assessment.

4) Analysis of attributable actions. An ideal experimental design should allow an observed agent to be held responsible for the outcomes that follow it. Human issues are almost invariably dense and multicausal. It is hard to isolate one factor from others in order to isolate causation. In addition, most arguments advance a particular position but do nothing to disprove the alternate hypotheses.

5) Avoidance of detection bias. The double-blinding process that keeps both investigators and recipients unaware of the assigned maneuvers has several important roles in a randomized trials. It is pretty well documented that people, including scientists, see what they want to see and will reinterpret, discard or ignore that which is inconsistent with their expectations.

Monday, December 16, 2013

I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs

From an interview of Daniel Mendelsohn by David Wolf.
I want to end by asking you about your experience of teaching. Do you think it might be worth teaching undergraduates not only how to write academic essays but also how to write criticism of the kind one finds in magazines and popular journals?

First of all, I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs. I don’t think people should be allowed to even hear the word “theory” until they’re doing graduate work—for the very good reason that it’s impossible to theorise about texts before one has deep familiarity with them (not that that stopped anyone in the 1980s when I was in grad school). Undergraduates should be taught to have a clean appreciation of what texts say and how they say them, and learn how to write intelligently and clearly about that. If undergraduates had to have a model of criticism it ought to be popular criticism rather than traditional academic criticism.

Later on, when they’ve had experience in close reading, when they have a number of works under their belt, they can be introduced to theory—to the wide array of approaches to texts that they already will have “owned,” in some small way. That is exciting. But to flatter the vanity of 19-year-olds by letting them think they know about “theory” before they have read anything in real depth strikes me as preposterous. That very approach bred a generation of academics whose approach to literature is contemptuous.

So would you like to see popular critical essays on the curriculum?

Yes. One of the courses I like to teach is a Great Books course that’s mandatory for first year students, and after I read their first papers it’s always very clear to me that they have no model, no template for what a critical essay is supposed to do—what (or how) you’re supposed to be arguing when you’re writing about a text or a movie or anything. They don’t understand there is a rhetoric of criticism—that there’s a stance you have to have, that you have to position yourself, that you don’t just blather about your impressions or your “opinions” or, worse, your “feelings” about a work. They literally have no idea, at first, what the point of being critical is—no doubt because, in part, they are being raised in a culture where a bland, everything-goes, multi-culti niceness is the paramount virtue. You have to know who you are—as a person, but also as a member of a given civilization—in order to speak about a work.

I always tease them at the beginning of the semester about their writing—I say, “Whenever you write me at 11 o’clock on a Thursday night begging me for an extension on the paper, the prose is always so beautiful and the email is so wonderfully structured.” It’s a joke, but it’s also not a joke—in that situation they understand the rhetoric of the form to which they’re committing themselves: They understand who they are as a writer and a beseecher, they understand who I am as the person in charge, they understand what evidence to adduce in their favour—their dog died, their computer broke or whatever. Which is why the email begging for the paper extension is always a well-written piece. But whenever they have to write three paragraphs about women in Genesis or whatever—when they have to make an argument—it’s basically “word salad,” because they’ve never read anything that presents a text, wrestles with it and comes up with some conclusions. For that reason, I think it’s better that they should be reading Pauline Kael reviews in the New Yorker than Derrida.

If you were to recommend a particular book or writer to someone getting interested in criticism, what would you choose?

I’m torn. On the one hand, I want to say that one of the best collections of essays on what was then contemporary literature, which turned out to be right about virtually everything, is Axel’s Castle by Edmund Wilson. But I would tell my own students, if they asked, to read Pauline Kael about the movies, Arlene Croce about dance and Gore Vidal about anything. Those are people I read growing up. Or Helen Vendler on poetry. I didn’t know anything about poetry when I was 15 but I read her in the New Yorker all the time. That’s how you get a sense of what an essay should accomplish. That’s the tradition to which I like to think I belong. I never think of myself as anything but a popular critic, in the broad sense. I’m writing for anybody who can pick up a piece of paper and read. On the other hand, what’s admirable about all those critics is that they knew their stuff. What enabled them to be as free and informal as they are is precisely that they know everything about what they’re talking about. That’s what gives you the liberty to have fun.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Poverty and the disablement of mutual reciprocity

Some years ago, I was talking with a volunteer colleague who personally was from what might be termed Title 1 circumstances. He had a part-time job with a media/technology company which was a real step up for him. He was eager to increase his hours to the point where he could be brought on as full-time. Because he had no car, he switched apartments so that he was within walking distance of the business. That winter, we had a terrible ice-storm which effectively shut down the city for 2-3 days. 80% of employees were unable to make it in. The business served a national client base 24/7. They could not afford any interruptions in service. My colleague, by virtue of being able to walk to work was in a position to help solve a critical problem for his manager.

As we were discussing these circumstances, my colleague and I discovered that we were viewing the situation from entirely different perspectives. He was looking at this as a major disruption and call upon him as an individual. He was concerned that he might be taken advantage of. How were they going to keep track of all his hours? Were they going to give him time and half since he was working 18 hours a day? Could he extract a commitment to move to full-time? etc. It wasn’t that he had other places to be, he was simply wanting to make sure that he would be treated fairly and trying to figure out how he could make that happen.

My comment to my colleague was that this was a great opportunity and I congratulated him. He looked at me as if I were crazy. I explained that I was taking the manager’s perspective. The manager had a major service and operational crisis to solve and no time and little flexibility to solve it. By virtue of being close, my colleague was in the unique position compared to the other employees, of being able to be part of the solution. My advice to my colleague was to step up, take all the hours he could, not get bogged down in negotiating compensation deals with his manager, but simply help his manager out. My counsel was that he might not extract all the short term value of the circumstance but that long term, he would have moved himself forwards towards his goal of full-time work.

In a discussion with my wife last night she related a very similar recent experience. Different individual, different business, different circumstances but the similarity of Title 1 context and a tactical focus on short term benefit at the cost of long term advantage.

Our nearly identical counsel was that they should look at this as a strategic opportunity and should take into account the quandary of their manager. The manager has a problem. The individual is part of the potential solution to the problem. You can either seek to exploit the manager’s difficulty by extracting as much tactical value as possible (getting overtime, focusing on ensuring that you will get paid for the extra hours, etc.). Or you can take a strategic view. Yes, get paid, but focus on making the manager’s life easier. Don’t get bogged down in wasting time in the middle of the management emergency by nailing down all the details of self-benefit.

Who will the manager favor in the future: the employee that diverted time mid-crisis to hammer out details of their reward for the necessary actions, or, alternatively, the person who simply stepped up without distraction and helped solve the problem. If you accept that it is the second person, you are acknowledging the potential pay-off of mutual reciprocity.

In this discussion I was reminded of British labor unions in the 1970-80s when I periodically lived in the UK. They had a very rigid worldview which might be characterized as 1) us (good guy laborers) against them (bad guy management) and 2) an extraordinarily narrow and legalistic interpretation of enterprise effort. If it wasn’t specified in the contract, it didn’t get done. If there were new circumstances not covered by the labor agreement, then they had to be negotiated no matter how pressing the emergency. Company after company either departed Britain or gave up the commercial ghost under these circumstances until Margaret Thatcher finally reformed the laws governing labor relations and strikes. By then the damage had been substantially done.

So is this a union mentality issue or an individual decision-making issue, or something to do with the pathology of poverty. Perhaps something of each.

It is well documented that countries with high levels of trust have much higher levels of national productivity than low trust countries. It also appears that this is true within countries by region and community and individual – those that have a high level of trust also have high productivity. This all makes intuitive sense. If you can extend a certain degree of cautious trust to comparative strangers with the anticipation that they will deliver, you can circumvent a lot of time wasting, cost generating, and efficiency damaging legal contracts, detailed action plans, etc.

Trust in turn is substantially linked with the value of mutual reciprocity. I will extend some resource or advantage to you now in anticipation that you or someone else will likewise extend such favor to me in the future. We do so absent any specific expectation of a one-for-one trade and without any formal mechanism of enforcement. As an example, I give up my seat on a train to an old lady. Not because I expect her to return the favor. Not because I benefit in any material fashion from the action. But because I anticipate that in future, when I am old and infirm, someone else will extend me a similar courtesy.

Mutual reciprocity depends on trust and trust is in turn built through the successful execution of mutual reciprocity.

But when you extend to someone a confidence in a future behavior, you are taking on a risk. Who can most afford such risks? The wealthy and secure. Who can least afford such risks? The poor and insecure.

So one of the insidious side effects of poverty might be the reduced capacity to cultivate the very action that is more likely to help lift one out of poverty – mutual reciprocity. Specifically, at the margin, in poverty, the risk adjusted rate of return of future reciprocity may be too low to outweigh the need to ensure the present remuneration. In that scenario, you end up focusing on the compensation discussion in the here and now, satisfying your own particular needs but undermining the needs of the manager in a crisis. On the other hand, if you have even a minimum level of financial cushion you can ensure that you are entirely part of the solution to the manager’s present crisis with the potential for future opportunities and advance.

This problem of circumscribed mutual reciprocity is actually probably even greater than described. I suspect that it is a reasonable assumption that the incidence rate of effective mutual reciprocity is less normatively enforced in the most marginal economic environments and that therefore the risk adjusted rate of return is indeed lower than one might expect among the top quintiles. Charles Murray’s recent Coming Apart has plenty of evidence to suggest that the upper income quintiles, through behaviors, culture, and expectations, are more effective at socially policing the effective fulfillment of mutual reciprocity. For them, mutual reciprocity works because it is made to work, and the greater the reality of mutual reciprocity for everyone, the greater is the collective (and individual) benefit.

So in poverty, with no cushion, you are likely rationally going to focus on tactically extracting all the near term benefit from a situation at the cost of sabotaging your progress against your longer terms goals. And without you or anyone else recognizing what is going on. To someone in quintiles 1 and 2 (poverty and near poverty), the actions seem perfectly reasonable. To someone in quintiles 3-5, (likely a manager), the actions seem obstructionist, self-serving and counter-productive. That seems the very definition of insidious.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

You can't preempt bad outcomes.

From a recent video of Megan McArdle on evidence, bias, science and academia, Keynote at 2013 CFN Conference by Megan McArdle.
You can't preempt bad outcomes.

My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them

C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy. I like Lewis pater.
I am a product [...of] endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.

Friday, December 13, 2013

So most of the leading-edge stuff we read about is going to have at best marginal effects

An interesting instance where a comment is of greater value than the article to which it is attached. The article itself, How to Read About Science by Jennifer Richler, is alright as far as it goes (not all that far). But commenter TJRadcliffe has more substance. He undermines his position somewhat at the end with witty snarkiness but the substance remains.

There are causes within causes within causes and each is usually characterized by multicausal density. So an everage citizen's health may be substantially determinable by knowing, country of residence, genetic heritage, eating habits, exercise habits, cleanliness and health conscientiousness. Pick one of those factors, say, eating habits. You can then look at childhood habits on adulthood health and longevity, adult habits, grazing versus set meals, fresh versus processed, organic versus fresh, variety versus constancy, etc. You could then pick one of those such as freshness and pursue a sequence of causes - regular fresh versus organic versus locality, percentage mix of fresh versus processed, match of fresh vegetables to presumed historical patterns of consumption, etc.

There are layers upon layers, each involving some degree of uncertainty. More critically, there is usually an escalating diminution of impact. For example, eating large volume of iron-rich vegetation such as spinach might halve your incident rate of stomach cancer but the original incident rate is only 1/100,000. Is that a worthwhile return on changed behavior? And what if voluminous consumption of spinach doubles your chance of esophageal cancer (1/1,000,000 rate); does that change the calculation? And what if eating that much spinach makes it difficult to eat some other food that has different beneficial aspects? The complexity of benefit calculation is enormously complex about essentially vestigial effects. In TJRadcliffe's terms, a presumed deep and narrow combination of choices and risks with an uncertain optimum outcome.
There is still a deep, underlying issue with the example of breastfeeding: there is a presumption that there actually exists a deep, narrow optimum in behaviour that science will clearly and unequivocally identify for us, and that we fall out of that optimum at our (or our children's) peril. While the observation that some effects are too small to be worried about is good to see, the very presumption that any behavioural science is able to provide useful guidance for the betterment of human life in the modern world needs to be questioned.

While clearly some behaviours are better for us and others worse, the incremental value of changing any given behaviour is generally not that big. Humans are extremely flexible creatures endowed by our genetics with enormously long lives for fairly obvious evolutionary reasons (grandparents, not parents, transmit culture, and cultural transmission is a reproductive advantage, so children who had long-lived grand-kin back in the stone age were more likely to have more children than those without.) The huge gains in lifespan in the past century are the result of better nutrition, public sanitation and public health, all of which are the results of good science (as well as good politics and good engineering.)

Given those huge gains, we are now playing around at the margins of what our bodies are capable of, so most of the leading-edge stuff we read about is going to have at best marginal effects. This is why so often studies have ambiguous results, or contradict other, similar work: the effects being measured are small. The importance we grant to them in our own lives should also be small.

Unfortunately, irrational, power-mad people take these small perturbations on our overall understanding and treat them as if they mattered as much as the discovery of anti-biotics or sterile technique in surgery. Highly emotional issues like breast-feeding and infant male circumcision (which has the most hate-filled, psychotic gang of anti-scientific fear-mongers opposing it on the basis of completely bogus scientific claims behind which shelter quite worthy moral grounds that intactivists are unfortunately too gutless to own) lead power-hungry cowards to wrap their personal moral views in a false cloak of scientific objectivity and then attack and oppress anyone who disagrees, which is a sure sign they do not care at all about science--knowing--but only about power. If they cared about science, they would be willing to discuss and acknowledge how small and relatively unimportant the various effects at issue actually are, and understand the importance of parental choice in these questions.

[I will now stand back while hate-filled psychotic intactivists who believe they have magic knowledge about people they have never met make false assertions about the state of my physical, moral and psychological being, combined with trivially false "scientific" claims that serve no purpose but to shelter their purely moral stance from honest scrutiny and debate.]

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Multi-causal problems almost always have multi-causal solutions

From Seven Deadly Sins of Science Reporting by Avi Roy & Anders Sandberg. My summary.

1) Nothing is ever proven - You can only provide information that increases the probability that the argument is correct.

2) Nothing is in itself inherently bad - It is all about proportionality. Everything is deadly when too concentrated and everything is safe when sufficiently dilute.

3) There are no silver bullets - Multi-causal problems almost always have multi-causal solutions.

4) Personal behavioral traits cannot be sourced to your genes - There are no behaviors associated with single genes.

5) Simple actions trump simple solutions - Longevity is contextually determined. Not smoking, exercising, sleeping regularly, eating balanced and moderate meals and positive mental attitude outweigh the effect of drinking red wine, practicing yoga, eating fish, etc.

6) Past performance does not predict future outcomes - A study from a prestigious university is only as good as the quality of the study, not the prestige of the university.

7) The plausibility of a story is not necessarily correlated with the truthfulness of the story - Simple explanations of complex problems are also wrong explanations.

It's a lot like a mathematician who says he has mathematically invented time travel and it's up to those physicists to figure out the details

An interesting post, Humanities Scholars Overturn Biology, Discover Trait-Based Politics In Fear Response by Hank Campbell. A very rough and tumble takedown of some sociologists dressing up sloppy work to appear to be science when it is in fact prejudice seeking justification. Campbell's writing is rhetorical in this piece rather than analytical but his point is made. I think he also overdoes the science versus humanities aspect. One of the five is from that stepson of the humanities, Political Science but really this is an issue of dogma and ideology versus the scientific method.

Sometimes it seems as if our most pressing form of pollution is cognitive pollution - people actively pumping out ideology/bias driven "research" which is either straight-up wrong or elusively wrong (wrong but protected by a whole sneak or pack of weasel words such as could be, might be, possibly, would seem, etc.)

Essentially, the authors want to create a basis for believing that people who do not share their political world view are genetically damaged in a fashion that prevents them from seeing the light. Campbell comments on the effort.
Sure, no actual scientist has found evidence for trait-based fear, but this is a humanities study, those are always engaged in an open war on science - all it takes is looking at some surveys and writing up some statistics and it feels science-y. In this case, they picked their survey targets using related people, consisting of twins, siblings, and parents and children - then they made sure to narrow the pool into a group that would give them what they wanted by 'assessing' them using social psychology tools.

Conclusion: Some people had common characteristics and therefore a genetic propensity for a higher level of baseline fear. What is this genetic propensity? Hey, that is for biologists to figure out. When the humanities try to be science-y, it's a lot like a mathematician who says he has mathematically invented time travel and it's up to those physicists to figure out the details.


The non-scientists make sure to cover themselves by saying genetics only plays a 'part' in influencing political preference - yet they don't show evidence it plays any role at all, this is just the self-recurring meme invented by people who want to pretend their cultural intolerance is evidence-based. Evidence that voting is genetic? Still none, so their desire to do more studies to show how genetic pathways influence fear is a logical fallacy.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Group inclusion versus transmission of meaning

From David Foster Wallace’s advice on arguing persuasively by Bryan A. Garner
There’s the kind of boneheaded explanation, which is that a lot of people with PhDs are stupid; and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be.

I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning. And that’s how in disciplines like academia—or, I’ve read some really good legal prose, but when it’s really, really horrible (IRS Code stuff)—I think that very often it stems from insecurity and that people feel that unless they can mimic the particular jargon and style of their peers, they won’t be taken seriously and their ideas won’t be taken seriously. It’s a guess.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold

The Destruction of Sennacherib
by Lord Byron

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Focus on fixing the problems not arguing the ideologies

Every now and then you come across information that you believe to be immensely valuable and yet are astonished at how little publicity it receives. Such is my response to this article, A new kind of ghetto from The Economist.

I have long held that there is no biological determinism, that races are not preordained to exist in some hierarchy of ability based on genetic endowments. That hierarchies of accomplishment are largely shaped, at least in the West, based on cultural values and behaviors in combination with individual decision-making. While this might be a reasonably widely held view, it is surprisingly hard to prove in day-to-day conversations.

Steve Olson did a reasonable job of arguing against biological determinism in Mapping Human History. Thomas Sowell has provided a series of case studies that appear in several of his books. Ian Morris tackles the issue explicitly and made a good but not airtight case in Why The West Rules - For Now. And I have posted on the subject with some frequency as I come across data that helps make the case against biological determinism.

But A new kind of ghetto is pretty powerful stuff. Still not airtight but pretty good. Read the whole thing. Their general point is that disparate outcomes in the UK are now much more related to very specific contextual circumstances rather than racism or discrimination. I have also long argued that we in the US ought to be considering class as a factor more strongly associated with disparate impacts, the powerful effect of which this article also makes apparent.

We in the US get so accustomed to a certain set of assumptions about race and gender, principally because there are very powerful advocacy groups whose well-being depends on such a focus, that we forget or ignore the evidence. Looking at another country with whom we share many cultural traditions is sometimes a useful reminder that our unstated assumptions are not necessarily true.

Here is one example.
In the US, Asian Indian immigrants are usually viewed as "good immigrants", doctors, engineers, computer programmers. They are great and they do fantastically well in terms of integration, income and education attainment.

But look at the chart from the UK. In what we in the US would call the bottom income quintile, the best pass rate (for 5 acceptable GCSEs, the UK education performance measure) is among Black African immigrants at nearly 60%. Asian Indians, so successful in the US, in the UK are the second lowest achievers in the bottom quintile. And who are the lowest achievers? British born Whites with only a 30% pass rate.

That is a pretty powerful refutation of biological determinism and endorsement for the idea that culture, class, behaviors and individual decision-making are far more relevant. The Guardian had a pretty good summary of the findings of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission's 2010 report How Fair is Britain? which echo the key messages in The Economist article. Our old assumptions are ill founded and that reality is far more nuanced and complex than we are willing to acknowledge.

From The Economist.
Things began well, but Stockbridge gradually slid. In the ward that contains much of the estate, 42% of working-age adults depend on benefits. Low aspiration begets low aspiration. The local secondary school, Christ the King, inhabited a spectacular modern building. But its pupils did so poorly in exams that it was closed earlier this year.

Stockbridge is also one of Britain’s most concentrated urban ethnic ghettos. Locals aver that people with the wrong skin colour are no longer beaten up if they wander into the estate, as they were until recently. Then again, few take the risk. Fully 96% of the population of Stockbridge is of the same race: Caucasian.

Ghettos are normally thought of as black or Asian: the Bangladeshi housing estates of Tower Hamlets or the intensely African neighbourhood of Peckham, both in London. But Stockbridge Village qualifies, too. It is whiter than Britain or Merseyside as a whole, as well as far more homogeneously working-class. And it has social problems to match any ethnic-minority ghetto. Many of its inhabitants are ill. It is plagued by loan sharks. And its children are failing spectacularly. White 16-year-olds in Knowsley, the borough of which Stockbridge forms part, attain worse GCSE results than do black 16-year-olds in any London borough.


Places like Knowsley also reveal something about race in Britain. Not that poor whites are exceptionally hard done by, though men with shaved heads and black bomber jackets will argue that they are. Rather, that the country tends to look at race in the wrong way. These days, overt discrimination is not nearly as big a problem as isolation. This is true of blacks and Asians as much as whites.


Britons are also more tolerant than other Europeans. Polls show they are unusually at ease with the idea of a non-white political leader. Immigrants fare reasonably well in the job market. In 2011, 7% of British-born people and 8% of immigrants were unemployed. In Sweden, where racial attitudes are just as liberal as in Britain, the unemployment gap was much wider: 7% for natives, 15% for immigrants. Britain is the only large European country where immigrants are less likely to drop out of school than are their native-born peers.


Why are Bradford Pakistanis so cut off? Not primarily because of racism or Islamophobia, though both exist. Nor because they have decided to isolate themselves—though that is true of some. Pakistanis who make good, as doctors or solicitors, often move to mainly white suburbs. Their houses have fancy painted railings in front: an evocation of a South-East Asian family compound.

It is more their clan-based culture that sets them apart from British life, and perpetuates itself. Britain’s Pakistanis can escape this culture, but not easily, and their departure does not undermine it. Ms Ali says a growing number of people scorn first-cousin marriage, including herself, though she did marry a cousin. But the old ways remain mainstream: the biraderis and the imported spouses persist.

The problem is specific, not general. It is with Pakistanis in Bradford, not Pakistanis as a whole. Elsewhere, many have blended happily into British life—notably in London, where a fifth of Britain’s Pakistanis live. But this group in this place is stuck, just as the working-class whites who live in Stockbridge are stuck.


The really important thing is to understand where the problems lie. They do not lie with whole ethnic groups, nor with mass immigration. Instead, they are specific and deep. Britain mostly gets on well—better than most other countries. But the exceptions are woven tightly into the national fabric.
Fixing specific measured problems under particular circumstances. That would seem the way forward rather than dealing vestigial abstractions, usually of an ideological origin.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Scientists conclusions more strongly shaped by their political beliefs and their desire to fit in than their level of expertise

Well this is interesting. I have mocked the claim that "the science is settled" for a long time. It betrays a gross misunderstanding of the scientific method where everything is always contingent on new information. With regard to the global warming discussion, it has also always been factually false - there have been many dissenters to the IPCC working group findings. However, I have not seen any solid quantification of the level of dissent.

The American Meteorological Society recently surveyed its members. Literally buried on the last page and not discussed in the narrative of the report at all, is this startling finding. Among meterologists, only 52% believe both that global warming is happening AND that it is primarily being caused by human activities. So much for "the science is settled."
However, members of this professional community are not unanimous in their views of climate change, and there has been tension among members of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) who hold different views on the topic. In response, AMS created the Committee to Improve Climate Change Communication to explore and, to the extent possible, resolve these tensions. To support this committee, in January 2012 we surveyed all AMS members with known email addresses, achieving a 26.3% response rate (n=1,854). In this paper we tested four hypotheses: (1) perceived conflict about global warming will be negatively associated -- and (2) climate expertise, (3) liberal political ideology, and (4) perceived scientific consensus will be positively associated -- with (a) higher personal certainty that global warming is happening, (b) viewing the global warming observed over the past 150 years as mostly human-caused, and (c) perception of global warming as harmful. All four hypotheses were confirmed. Expertise, ideology, perceived consensus and perceived conflict were all independently related to respondents' views on climate, with perceived consensus and political ideology being most strongly related.
In other words, the notion that expertise is the single dominant factor shaping meteorologists’ views of global warming appears to be simplistic to the point of being incorrect. We found that perceived scientific consensus was the factor most strongly associated with AMS members’ views about global warming. This suggests that scientists’ thinking on scientific topics may be subject to the same kinds of social normative influences that affect the general public. Rather than rationally weighing the evidence and deciding for themselves, as would be expected under more traditional ideas of scientific judgment, scientists may also use the views of a relevant peer group as a social cue for forming their own views. Our results are consistent with those of Lewandowsky et al. (2013), who found that providing information on the scientific consensus increased the likelihood of members of the public agreeing that global warming was occurring. Our data are cross-sectional, rather than experimental as in Lewandowsky et al. (2013), so we cannot be certain of the direction of the causal relationship between perceived consensus and views on global warming for AMS members. Nevertheless, the findings of Lewandowsky et al. (2013) combined with our results suggest that perceived scientific consensus may have a substantial influence on AMS members’ global warming views. Political ideology was the factor next most strongly associated with meteorologists' views about global warming. This also goes against the idea of scientists’ opinions being entirely based on objective analysis of the evidence, and concurs with previous studies that have shown scientists’ opinions on topics to vary along with their political orientation (Nisbet, 2011; Rosenberg et al., 2009). The result suggests that members of professional scientific organizations have not been immune to influence by the political polarization on climate change that has affected politicians and the general public.
While we found that higher expertise was associated with a greater likelihood of viewing global warming as real and harmful, this relationship was less strong than for political ideology and perceived consensus. At least for the measure of expertise that we used, climate science expertise may be a less important influence on global warming views than political ideology or social consensus norms. More than any other result of the study, this would be strong evidence against the idea that expert scientists’ views on politically controversial topics can be completely objective.
This is not enormously surprising to those skeptical of the politicization of science as exemplified by the global warming controversy but it is still almost wrenching to see it laid out so . . . scientifically.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Rhetoric versus reality

Income inequality in the US is often characterized by academics and pundits as a struggle between the 1% and the 99%. The whole issue is much more about political positioning than it is about any real economic problem. I couldn't help but chuckle at the most recent Gallup poll in which respondents were asked to identify what is the most important issue facing the country today. The economy came in first with 16% identifying that as the most important problem.

Income inequality? 1% identified it as the most important issue. So you have to wonder, is that 1% THE 1% or is 1% from among the 99%?

Friday, December 6, 2013

There is a tendency to speak of how a problem will look and how its appearance should be handled, as opposed to what the problem is and should be done about it.

You always have to be careful with Peggy Noonan because her gift for communication and storytelling is so great that it sometimes masks the quality of the analysis. In this case, Low-Information Leadership by Peggy Noonan, I think she is spot on. Her criticism is directed at the Obama administration but her point has larger applicability to any institution.
From what I have seen the administration is full of young people who’ve seen the movie but not read the book. They act bright, they know the reference, they’re credentialed. But they’ve only seen the movie about, say, the Cuban missile crisis, and then they get into a foreign-policy question and they’re seeing movies in their heads. They haven’t read the histories, the texts, which carry more information, more texture, data and subtlety, and different points of view. They’ve only seen the movie—the Cubans had the missiles and Jack said “Not another war” and Bobby said “Pearl Harbor in reverse” and dreadful old Curtis LeMay chomped his cigar and said “We can fry a million of ‘em by this afternoon, Mr. President.” Grrr, grrr, good guys beat bad guys.

It’s as if history isn’t real to them. They run around tweeting, all of them, even those in substantial positions. “Darfur government inadequate. Genocide unacceptable.” They share their feelings – that happens to be one of the things they seem to think is real, what they feel. “Unjust treatment of women—scourge that hurts my heart.” This is the dialogue to the movies in their heads.

There’s a sense that they’re all freelancing, not really part of anything coherent.

For four years I have been told, by those who’ve worked in the administration and those who’ve visited it as volunteers or contractors, that the Obama White House isn’t organized. It’s just full of chatter. Meetings don’t begin on time, there’s no agenda, the list of those invited seems to expand and contract at somebody’s whim. There is a tendency to speak of how a problem will look and how its appearance should be handled, as opposed to what the problem is and should be done about it. People speak airily, without point. They scroll down, see a call that has to be returned, pop out and then in again.

It does not sound like a professional operation. And this is both typical of White Houses and yet on some level extreme. People have always had meetings to arrange meetings, but the lack of focus, the lack of point, the sense that they are operating within accepted levels of incoherence—this all sounds, actually, peculiar.

And when you apply this to the ObamaCare debacle, suddenly it seems to make sense. The White House is so unformed and chaotic that they probably didn’t ignore the problem, they probably held a million meetings on it. People probably said things like, “We’re experiencing some technological challenges but we’re sure we’ll be up by October,” and other people said, “Yes, it’s important we launch strong,” and others said, “The Republicans will have a field day if we’re not.” And then everyone went to their next meeting. And no one did anything. And the president went off and made speeches.

Because the doing isn’t that important, the talking is.

The president is interested in Ronald Reagan, and in the past has seemed mildly preoccupied with him, but he misunderstands him. Mr. Obama shows every sign of thinking Reagan led only through words. But Reagan led through actions, as every leader must. The words explained, argued for and advanced those actions; they gave people a sense of who it was who was acting. But Obama’s generation of the left could never see or come to terms with the fact that it was, say, the decision to fire the air traffic controllers, or the decision to take the hit and bleed out inflation, that made Reagan’s presidency successful and meaningful. With an effective presidency, everything is in the doing.
Reality is harsh and we have to make hard decisions that we would just as soon not have to make. Using other people's money is one recourse to circumvent this reality and postponing those painful decisions so that have to be made by someone else later on is another. But sooner or later you run out of other people's money and you run out of time - the hard decision has to be made. The longer it is postponed, the worse the consequences usually are.

That line, "There is a tendency to speak of how a problem will look and how its appearance should be handled, as opposed to what the problem is and should be done about it" is particularly telling. The frantic White House conference in November during which it was announced that people would in fact be allowed to keep their insurance was the product of just such thinking. The proffered solution was neither workable on its face nor would it solve the stated problem. It only served as theater to appear to be solving a problem rather than actually solving a problem.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

We generate our own cognitive pollution because we like it better than simply not knowing

A fascinating example of cognitive pollution. In this instance, we are talking about the persistent misinterpretation of a study on communication effectiveness performed back in the 1960's referred to as the Mehrabian study.

Here is a recent presentation talking about the importance of integrating words, delivery and body language when making a presentation: The Body Language Infographic by Nick Morgan. In it, Morgan mentions that 55% of message effectiveness depends on body language, 38% depends on the tone of voice and only 7% depends on the actual words of the presentation. These are essentially the results from Albert Mehrabian's two small studies in 1967.

Clarification and debunking is provided by Olivia Mitchell in Mehrabian and nonverbal communication.

It is important to note that the claims made regarding Mehrabian's work are entirely generated in the ether. Mehrabian himself has always been quite careful and circumscribed regarding the import of his original work.

The interesting question is why there is such prolonged and consistent misinterpretation of his work on communication? I am guessing that it is a combination of two things - 1) effective communication is universally acknowledged as a critical capacity in a modern and complex world (and consequently there is a lot of money riding on communication effectiveness), and 2) people are grasping at straws in the absence of any other data.

More simply; We regard communication effectiveness as a very important issue. We want real answers to address the real need to be more effective. We will use what's available if there's nothing else, even if we know that what's available is flawed. Basically we generate our own cognitive pollution because we like it better than simply not knowing.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The discovery of iron brought grief to men

From The Histories by Herodotus, Book One, page 30. The fear and skepticism of new technology has deep roots.
The discovery of iron brought grief to men

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A civilized society's first line of defense is not the law, police and courts but customs, traditions and moral values

From Law vs. Moral Values by Walter E. Williams.
A civilized society's first line of defense is not the law, police and courts but customs, traditions and moral values. Behavioral norms, mostly transmitted by example, word of mouth and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important thou-shalt-nots such as shalt not murder, shalt not steal, shalt not lie and cheat, but they also include all those courtesies one might call ladylike and gentlemanly conduct. The failure to fully transmit values and traditions to subsequent generations represents one of the failings of the so-called greatest generation.

Monday, December 2, 2013

No justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis.
No justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

No occasion to exert his understanding

From The Wealth of Nations, Book 5, Part III, Chapter II by Adam Smith. Almost an argument that we can only be as bright as our circumstances permit which jives to some degree with the hypothesis explaining the Flynn Effect (more complex environments make us brighter).
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a brilliant thinker, philosopher and writer. I have read and enjoyed Fooled by Randomness as well as Black Swan and am looking forward to his most recent, Antifragile (reviewed in The Economist here).

Taleb had an article in Foreign Affairs in 2011 which hit on some of his main arguments (as applied to international relations) - The Black Swan of Cairo. Black Swan is Taleb's term for an unpredicted (and essentially unpredictable) event that disrupts the status quo.
Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to “Black Swans”—that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.

Such environments eventually experience massive blowups, catching everyone off-guard and undoing years of stability or, in some cases, ending up far worse than they were in their initial volatile state. Indeed, the longer it takes for the blowup to occur, the worse the resulting harm in both economic and political systems.


Humans simultaneously inhabit two systems: the linear and the complex. The linear domain is characterized by its predictability and the low degree of interaction among its components, which allows the use of mathematical methods that make forecasts reliable. In complex systems, there is an absence of visible causal links between the elements, masking a high degree of interdependence and extremely low predictability. Nonlinear elements are also present, such as those commonly known, and generally misunderstood, as “tipping points.” Imagine someone who keeps adding sand to a sand pile without any visible consequence, until suddenly the entire pile crumbles. It would be foolish to blame the collapse on the last grain of sand rather than the structure of the pile, but that is what people do consistently, and that is the policy error.


Engineering, architecture, astronomy, most of physics, and much of common science are linear domains. The complex domain is the realm of the social world, epidemics, and economics. Crucially, the linear domain delivers mild variations without large shocks, whereas the complex domain delivers massive jumps and gaps. Complex systems are misunderstood, mostly because humans’ sophistication, obtained over the history of human knowledge in the linear domain, does not transfer properly to the complex domain. Humans can predict a solar eclipse and the trajectory of a space vessel, but not the stock market or Egyptian political events. All man-made complex systems have commonalities and even universalities. Sadly, deceptive calm (followed by Black Swan surprises) seems to be one of those properties.
Taleb also mentions but does not elaborate on, the important issue of "the illusion of local causal chains—that is, confusing catalysts for causes and assuming that one can know which catalyst will produce which effect." There is a tendency to see the last event as the "cause" of something when in fact it is sometimes simply the catalyst to a systemic readjustment, i.e. the straw that broke the camel's back. It wasn't the straw per se, but the cumulative weight that preceded it.

There are echoes of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Edlredge's Punctuated Equilibrium in which they argued that evolution is not a smooth continual process but rather a process characterized by fits and starts or a system of punctuated equilibrium.

Taleb is arguing that our efforts to ensure near term tactical stability are often at odds with desirable system evolution over the long run. It is a classic trade-off decision. He has observed many times that the good tactical intentions often end up unintentionally leading to catastrophic strategic outcomes. An example would be that of forest fire management. Nobody wants forest fires and for decades the strategy was simple fire suppression, keep fires from happening and put them out as fast as possible when they do happen.

In reducing near term fires, regrettably, forests have accumulated much greater fuel loads than they would otherwise under natural conditions where lightning strike fires periodically clear dead brush. The result has been increasingly frequent, vast and intense wildfires beyond control. A strategy for achieving near term stability (reduced wildfires) has ended up worsening the situation in the long run.

When making a strategic decision, it is important to consider the historical context. Has the existing system evolved over time and therefore has some base level of stability, or has it existed in an unnatural state of artificial stability with all variance suppressed? If it is the latter, then any actions undertaken related to a new change may have unanticipated consequences not necessarily having anything to do with the intended plan of action but simply as a consequence of cumulative avoided evolution.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Specialization is for insects

Time Enough For Love by Robert A. Heinlein, page 248
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Advocates of luck as an explanation are enemies of freedom

From We Owe the Beatles to Luck by Cass R. Sunstein.
You might think that the Beatles, probably the most successful popular musicians in the last 50 years, were bound to succeed. But an astonishing new book, "Tune In," by Mark Lewisohn, suggests otherwise. Without explicitly saying so, Lewisohn’s narrative raises the possibility that without breaks, coincidences and a lot of luck, none of us would have ever heard of the Beatles.
The author recounts a long string of barriers and reverses preventing the Beatles from gaining traction. Until they did.

These kind of articles drive me crazy. There is a whole world view eager to establish that successful people are simply lucky people. That success is purely a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The paradoxical thing is that these people, and Sunstein is an example, are usually quite successful themselves. It is hard to believe that they believe their own positive outcomes are purely based on luck and that they had no material contribution to the outcome.

Malcolm Gladwell made much the same argument in Outliers.

People that believe all outcomes are essentially a matter of luck tend also to believe that that contingency therefore justifies collective action to rectify mere luck. If you did not earn your success, the argument goes, you are not entitled to it. If all outcomes are simply random luck, then all success can be justifiably appropriated to rectify the bad luck of others.

Human processes are non-linear and complex with unexpected tipping points, hidden feedback loops, extreme sensitivity to initial conditions and other characteristics which make it very difficult to precisely and accurately forecast a given outcome for specified inputs. Things like architecture, engineering, manufacturing, Newtonian physics are all nice, predictable, and incremental in nature. Do X and Y occurs. The Sunsteins of the world take this hoary way of thinking and apply it with great confidence to the human condition to great disappointment of all parties.

Looking at the experience of the Beatles, it is undeniable that there were a lot of random events and contingent circumstances preceding their eventual success. The reality is that any endeavor is prone to failure; failure is pretty much the norm. It is the taking of chances and the perseverance and adaption to new circumstances which distinguish the eventual success from the otherwise to be expected failure. Were the Beatles lucky? Sure. But only because they continued to take the risks and persevered in the face of failure, time and again, until ultimately they accomplished what they did.

Seneca, On Benefits, vii. 1
"The best wrestler," he would say, "is not he who has learned thoroughly all the tricks and twists of the art, which are seldom met with in actual wrestling, but he who has well and carefully trained himself in one or two of them, and watches keenly for an opportunity of practising them."
Often summarized as Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Luck is not an explanation, it is a given. We all exist in an environment of fluctuating randomness and desirable outcomes are only achieved through the capacity to manage the consequences of that fluctuating randomness. Some do this well, others not.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Never will man penetrate deeper into error than when he is continuing on a road which has led him to great success.

The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason by F.A. Hayek, page 105.
Never will man penetrate deeper into error than when he is continuing on a road which has led him to great success.
This is a dual truism arising from faulty forecasting and overconfidence. Specifically, a run of success tends to encourage a belief that we have conquered failure and setbacks and we forecast into the future the current trend line. Thus are all bubbles created whether internet stocks or real estate. Forecasted catastrophe's likewise. All my life we have been at peak oil and then some new technology comes along opening up previously inaccessible reserves. Despite all our knowledge and experience, there are structural quirks that encourage straight line forecasting to the detriment of accurate forecasting.

The second truism arises from knowledge confidence. We are successful. We explain that success based on some set of actions or circumstances; usually some set of actions we took given some particular circumstances. Typically, our narrative explanation for success emphasizes our own contribution and minimizes circumstance and luck (Nassim Nicholas Taleb cover's this ground in Fooled by Randomness). Our explanation may be more or less accurate but the longer the success continues, the more confident we are in our explanation regardless of the truth. Our search for accurate explanations slackens with out confidence.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Your example will educate him; your conversation with your friends; the business he sees you transact; the likings and dislikings you express; these will educate him

From On Education by Anna Barbauld, 1773. Proving that great antiquity does not preclude great insight. In fact, one could argue that Barbauld's insight, that education is the cumulative aggregation of all experiences seems to have disappeared from the minds of policy makers today. The time spent in school as Barbauld observes, is but a very small part of that education and yet all our efforts to equalize the benefits of opportunity between neo-natal citizens is largely constrained to formal education. It is the classic story of the drunk looking for his lost keys under the street lamp, not because that is where he thinks he lost them, but because that is where the light is best.

Paragraphing and emphasis added.
The other day I paid a visit to a gentleman with whom, though greatly my superior in fortune, I have long been in habits of an easy intimacy. He rose in the world by honourable industry; and married, rather late in life, a lady to whom he had been long attached, and in whom centered the wealth of several expiring families. Their earnest wish for children was not immediately gratified. At length they were made happy by a son, who, from the moment he was born, engrossed all their care and attention. -- My friend received me in his library, where I found him busied in turning over books of education, of which he had collected all that were worthy notice, from Xenophon to Locke, and from Locke to Catherine Macauley. As he knows I have been engaged in the business of instruction, he did me the honour to consult me on the subject of his researches, hoping, he said, that, out of all the systems before him, we should be able to form a plan equally complete and comprehensive; it being the determination of both himself and his lady to choose the best that could be had, and to spare neither pains nor expense in making their child all that was great and good. I gave him my thoughts with the utmost freedom, and after I returned home, threw upon paper the observations which had occurred to me.

The first thing to be considered, with respect to education, is the object of it. This appears to me to have been generally misunderstood. Education, in its largest sense, is a thing of great scope and extent. It includes the whole process by which a human being is formed to be what he is, in habits, principles, and cultivation of every kind. But of this, a very small part is in the power even of the parent himself; a smaller still can be directed by purchased tuition of any kind. You engage for your child masters and tutors at large salaries; and you do well, for they are competent to instruct him: they will give him the means, at least, of acquiring science and accomplishments; but in the business of education, properly so called, they can do little for you. Do you ask, then, what will educate your son? Your example will educate him; your conversation with your friends; the business he sees you transact; the likings and dislikings you express; these will educate him; -- the society you live in will educate him; your domestics will educate him; above all, your rank and situation in life, your house, your table, your pleasure-grounds, your hounds and your stables will educate him. It is not in your power to withdraw him from the continual influence of these things, except you were to withdraw yourself from them also.

You speak of beginning the education of your son. The moment he was able to form an idea his education was already begun; the education of circumstances -- insensible education -- which, like insensible perspiration, is of more constant and powerful effect, and of infinitely more consequence to the habit, than that which is direct and apparent. This education goes on at every instant of time; it goes on like time; you can neither stop it nor turn its course. What these have a tendency to make your child, that he will be. Maxims and documents are good precisely till they are tried, and no longer; they will teach him to talk, and nothing more. The circumstances in which your son is placed will be even more prevalent than your example; and you have no right to expect him to become what you yourself are, but by the same means. You, that have toiled during youth, to set your son upon higher ground, and to enable him to begin where you left off, do not expect that son to be what you were, -- diligent, modest, active, simple in his tastes, fertile in resources. You have put him under quite a different master. Poverty educated you; wealth will educate him. You cannot suppose the result will be the same. You must not even expect that he will be what you now are; for though relaxed perhaps from the severity of your frugal habits, you still derive advantage from having formed them; and, in your heart, you like plain dinners, and early hours, and old friends, whenever your fortune will permit you to enjoy them.

But it will not be so with your son: his tastes will be formed by your present situation, and in no degree by your former one. But I take great care, you will say, to counteract these tendencies, and to bring him up in hardy and simple manners; I know their value, and am resolved that he shall acquire no other. Yes, you make him hardy; that is to say, you take a country-house in a good air, and make him run, well clothed and carefully attended, for, it may be, an hour in a clear frosty winter's day upon your graveled terrace; or perhaps you take the puny shivering infant from his warm bed, and dip him in an icy cold bath, -- and you think you have done great matters. And so you have; you have done all you can. But you were suffered to run abroad half the day on a bleak heath, in weather fit and unfit, wading barefoot through dirty ponds, sometimes losing your way benighted, scrambling over hedges, climbing trees, in perils every hour both of life and limb. Your life was of very little consequence to any one; even your parents, encumbered with a numerous family, had little time to indulge the softnesses of affection, or the solicitude of anxiety; and to every one else it was of no consequence at all. It is not possible for you, it would not even be right for you, in your present situation, to pay no more attention to your child than was paid to you. In these mimic experiments of education, there is always something which distinguishes them from reality; some weak part left unfortified, for the arrows of misfortune to find their way into.
I think that issue highlighted by Barbauld, that the circumstances that shaped your own personal KESVB (Knowledge, Experience, Skills, Values, Behavior) and enabled your own personal achievement, cannot be replicated for your child. Your child is, paradoxically, precluded from the opportunity that fostered the success generating KESVB of the parent. With luck their own new KESVB is pertinent to the new circumstances of the child but it is the greatest challenge of every parent who has been productively successful, to create an environment where the origin KESVB can be replicated.

I suspect this is the origin to the dynamic reflected in the old adage (and universal, variants show up in many different cultures) "shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations." Old productive cultures and religions are probably the best supplements to personal experience - i.e. the child of privilege can't learn from experience, therefore there has to be some other motivating factor and passion which compensates for the indolence of privilege. Unfortunately, experience is that the novelty of ideologies too often takes the place of proven religion and culture. That explains why so many revolutionaries are from the privileged class rather than from the down trodden as logic would dictate.

Monday, November 25, 2013

But we are all Seekers

The Seekers by Daniel J. Boorstin.
Caught between two eternities - the vanished past and the unknown future - we never cease to seek our bearings and our sense of direction. We inherit our legacy of the sciences and the arts - works of the great Discoverers and Creators, the Columbuses and Leonardos and Shakespeares - recounted in my two earlier volumes. We glory in their discoveries and creations. But we are all Seekers. We all want to know why. Man is the asking animal. And while the finding, the belief that we have found the Answer, can separate us and make us forget our humanity, it is the seeking that continues to bring us together, that makes us and keeps us human.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

People are people no matter our measures and averages.

I have always been bothered by the overreliance of some on self-identity. We get hung up on terms and definitions and froth around about the meaning of trends we don't understand. As a minor example, were my niece and nephews to immigrate to the US from Europe, the census would regard the white population as having been increased. If, on the other hand, they immigrated to Argentina for a couple of years and then came to the US, they would be regarded as Hispanic (because of their paternal heritage) and the Hispanic numbers would increase. And from my perspective, I would have a niece and a couple of nephews closer to home. Our definitions and terminology sometimes get in the way of understanding the important things.

I first became alerted to the fluidity of definitions back in the seventies. After one of the OPEC embargoes, the price of oil went through the roof. In the following census, a couple of Native American tribes showed an increase in population of more than a hundred percent, an impossible fecundity. How were these issues related? Price of oil goes up. Several Native American tribes had reservation land that included oil production. The proceeds of that oil production was distributed to enrolled members. When the value of the oil went up, people who did not otherwise identify as Native American but did in fact have that heritage, enrolled as was their prerogative in order to benefit from the windfall. And thus the census numbers went up with no change in the underlying reality of people.

This is brought to mind by a recent post, Pew Study: 27% of Jewish Children Live in Orthodox Homes by David Bernstein. I have read elsewhere of this study and there apparently was an awful lot of interesting discussion regarding definitions (Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, etc.). Notice the last sentence, though, in this post:
But with being Jewish no longer a substantial disadvantage in American life, and intermarriage unlikely in non-Orthodox circles to lead to serious family disruption, the new Pew study finds hundreds of thousands of children of intermarriage identify as Jews of no religion (and about as many as Jews by religion), hundreds of thousands of others who were raised Jewish but don’t consider themselves such but who acknowledge their Jewish ancestry, and, a bit weirdly, hundreds of thousands of additional individuals who have no Jewish ancestry and who have never converted but for whatever reason consider themselves to be Jewish.
I love that; "a bit weirdly, hundreds of thousands of additional individuals who have no Jewish ancestry and who have never converted but for whatever reason consider themselves to be Jewish." Among other things it is a very loud call to be cautious about survey data. It is not always telling us what we thinking it is saying, no matter how rigorous and effectively it might have been administered. Several hundred thousand people claiming a heritage that in no other context would people recognize, is just plain fascinating. People are people no matter our measures and averages.