Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Unsettled science is not unsound science

From Certainly Not! by Stuart Firestein.
Unsettled science is not unsound science. Scientists tend to emphasize disagreements because this is where the work remains to be done. Why talk about what we know, when all our effort should be directed at what we don’t know? The highly accomplished Marie Curie, in a letter to her brother, noted that “one never thinks about what has been done, only what remains to be done.” Problems don’t get solved by sitting around and nodding in agreement. They are solved, indeed they are understood to be problems in the first place, by talking about them.

Today, the public wants more of a say in science than ever before, which is understandable, since science affects so much of our lives. Climate change, genetically modified food, nuclear energy, rapid spread of infectious diseases, and a host of never-before-seen possibilities—both good and bad—have been illuminated by science.

But short of becoming an expert in each of many disparate fields, unlikely for even the cleverest among us, how can we participate? Well, we can be more like scientists in one crucial area: the acceptance of uncertainty. Indeed, it is the too-well-crafted explanation, the one that explains everything, that should set off red flags, warning us that we are likely being deceived, misled, or outright duped.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Businesses do not invest because the economy is weak; the economy stays weak because businesses do not invest

From Six years of low interest rates in search of some growth from The Economist.

A rare (in the general MSM) example of solid reporting addressing trade-offs and alternative scenarios. The issue they are addressing is Quantitative Easing (printing money) as a policy means of generating economic growth. Too often this is treated as a cheap policy solution when the reality is that is not cheap but rather that the costs are hidden (in longer term inflation rates). But there are many additional near term costs as well which the article covers very effectively.

What caught my eye was this simple paragraph which says with clarity that which is mostly skirted about.
Companies have to worry about a lot of factors before approving a long-term project: the balance of supply and demand in their industry, the regulatory and political backdrop, the availability of skilled employees. “Interest rates are not a significant factor in our decision-making on investment because interest expense is only a small proportion of our cost base,” says Ulf Quellmann, global head of Treasury at Rio Tinto, a mining group. Hurdle rates for investment projects change slowly. Eric Elzvik, the chief financial officer of ABB, a Swiss engineering giant, says the group has not materially altered its hurdle rate over the past three to four years.

This is no surprise to people watching Japan, where nominal interest rates have been near zero for a decade (although real rates are positive) and the absolute level of investment is no higher, in real terms, than it was in 1997. “Corporations have been caught in too many cycles where they invested in anticipation of domestic growth that never happened,” says Richard Katz, who writes the Oriental Economist newsletter. Businesses do not invest because the economy is weak; the economy stays weak because businesses do not invest.
Our political class propose policies which too frequently are discussed and approved and implemented absent any real consideration what impact those policies might have on the decision-making environment of business. The goose laying the golden eggs is treated as a given.

Reminds me of that old Heinlein quote from Time Enough For Love:
Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as "bad luck."

Monday, July 29, 2013

Plenty of species have thrived on this planet without much of a brain at all.

From The Dunbar Number, From the Guru of Social Networks by Drake Bennett.
It was the monkeys’ grooming habits that really interested him. For geladas, as for many other primates, grooming is only partly about cleanliness. It’s also a form of bonding. Gelada life is rife with intrigue—there are cabals and coups and uneasy alliances—and the monkeys cement friendships by picking through each other’s fur for parasites and kneading the skin beneath. In an early paper, Dunbar showed that the amount of time geladas spend grooming is not a function of body size, which would suggest a solely hygienic purpose, as bigger bodies take longer to pick over. Instead, it’s a function of group size. The bigger the troop, the more time its members spend trying to curry favor with each other through massage. Dunbar began to wonder what other characteristics might correlate with group size.

In 1992, Dunbar published his answer: brain size. Scientists have long been intrigued by the question of why primates have such big brains. It’s nice to be smart, of course, but big brains demand an enormous amount of energy and require years to grow to full size, and the larger skulls that protect them make childbirth much more dangerous. Plenty of species have thrived on this planet without much of a brain at all.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives

From Primates on Facebook. The cost of information acquisition.
That Facebook, Twitter and other online social networks will increase the size of human social groups is an obvious hypothesis, given that they reduce a lot of the friction and cost involved in keeping in touch with other people. Once you join and gather your “friends” online, you can share in their lives as recorded by photographs, “status updates” and other titbits, and, with your permission, they can share in yours. Additional friends are free, so why not say the more the merrier?

But perhaps additional friends are not free. Primatologists call at least some of the things that happen on social networks “grooming”. In the wild, grooming is time-consuming and here computerisation certainly helps. But keeping track of who to groom—and why—demands quite a bit of mental computation. You need to remember who is allied with, hostile to, or lusts after whom, and act accordingly.
Not to be too utilitarian, but the social network you cultivate and invest time in does have consequences. There are those close to you (you invest more time in them) and there are those further from your life (you invest less time in them). If you get the two confused, cultivating the distant and the inconsequential versus the near and important, as I am afraid probably does happen with some frequency, there is trouble soon to come.
What mainly goes up, therefore, is not the core network but the number of casual contacts that people track more passively. This corroborates Dr Marsden's ideas about core networks, since even those Facebook users with the most friends communicate only with a relatively small number of them.

Put differently, people who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren't necessarily inside the Dunbar circle,” says Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a polling organisation. Humans may be advertising themselves more efficiently. But they still have the same small circles of intimacy as ever.
We are all limited by the time we have. Where (and with whom) we invest that time says a lot about us and our priorities. And sometimes what it says is not pleasing. To put it in contemporary terms: From Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

Saturday, July 27, 2013

European and American political systems, locality and minority political power

This is, I think, interesting. The genesis to the question (which I'll get to in a moment) is a series of conversations over the past few years with a number of European friends and colleagues. There is in general, a deep ignorance in Europe of the fundamental differences between the political systems of Europe and that of the US, largely grounded on the 10th Amendment, one of the simplest concepts with the most profound implications:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the State, are reserved to the State respectively, or to the people.
In most of Europe, the citizen looks to the centralized state for resources and policies and answers. The individualism (in culture and enumerated rights) of the US is difficult to conceptualize for many Europeans; from the power of local communities to tax both income and consumption; to the election of citizens to positions which in Europe are reserved to the central government and the civil service ranging from dog catcher through Sheriff to Judges; to enumerated rights realized in practice (separation of church and state, unregulated speech, right to bear arms, equality of all citizens, etc.). By-and-large, these are alien concepts in the European context.

This strong individualism and localism of the American system, enshrined in the Constitution with all its checks and balances has a lot of implications. In some of the conversations, the issue of ability to assimilate emigrants, and more largely to accommodate different cultures within the same political system comes up. No one has a good track in this area. Europe's is dreadful in both variety and volume. There are a few stellar examples, such as Switzerland, who seem to have a settled and productive track record. There are some, such as Britain, who muddle through with some pros and some embarrassing cons. But broadly the experience of emigrants (such as the German gastarbeiters) and of indigenous peoples such as Roma, Sami, and Basque, and of religious minorities such as Jews and ethnic minorities of all stripes (Hungarian, German, Greek, Albanian, Polish, etc.) have been one of pogroms, genocide, mass clearances, and systemic discrimination (de jure or de facto).

Obviously the US also has its tragic history, but I think the checks and balances (three branches of government), the structural protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority (three levels of government, bicameral systems, etc.), and significant localization (10th Amendment) have served the US well compared to the experience in much more centralized Europe.

In a couple of those conversations the work of Schelling came up, particularly the implications of his paper Dynamic Models of Segregation. Schelling's work revealed that even a modest preference to simply not be the only one of your kind (by religion, race, income, social class, education, ethnicity, etc.) in a space, would, in a few iterations, quickly lead to self-segregation. Given the distinctly high level of mobility among Americans (compared to Europeans) it doesn't take long for these weak preferences to take effect. In Europe self-segregation occurs primarily around class. In the US, there is an element of that but also very clearly around all the other factors as well including race (which is what draws the greatest attention.)

My point in these conversations is that Americans exercise an enormous amount of choice in their environments through choice of place to live and local elections. Through these choices, there are all sorts of unexpected revealed preferences which highlight both the complexity and extent of innumerable (and difficult to identify) trade-off decisions made by individuals. No matter what classification taxonomy we seek to impose on individuals, they are all making decisions on their own bases and their own considerations. Regardless of who I am, when I move into a neighborhood, am I seeking people of my own type (race, ethnicity, religion, age, class, education attainment, profession, etc.), am I seeking some financial benefit (property speculation, economic opportunity, employment proximity, etc.), am I seeking local government amenities (schooling system, libraries, roads, security), am I seeking some other resolution (larger or smaller house, shorter commute, better access to some other location), or are there other factors? There might be patterns to these considerations which correlate with race, but they also correlate with ethnicity, class, age, profession, religion, etc.

Another surprise for Europeans is the complexity of variety of taxation regimes. In the US, below the top quintile of income earners, the bulk of taxes you pay are at the state and local level (income tax, sales tax, property tax, etc.) and the bulk of the services you receive are provided locally. Just over 50% of citizens pay no federal income tax but all citizens pay local taxes. So for the bulk of Americans, the cost of government is the cost of local government.

Finally, it is usually a surprise to them the extent to which everyday services are provided by jurisdictions under local control and how much (both in variety and volume) this varies between states. Cheek by jowl you have big welfare, comprehensive safety net, expansive services states such as New York, with minimalist states such as Vermont.

There is occasionally a particular fascination among my friends with the notion of minority-majority states - usually with the implication that this is somehow a threat to the long run well-being of the USA, a position which I believe to be incorrect. Americans are, I believe, too individualist to be constrained by one unifying identity; i.e. they define themselves not just by race but all the other panoply of identities such as ethnicity, age, religion, social economic class, income, etc.

Springing from these conversations it occurred to me that from the time I returned to the US at sixteen, I have almost always lived in minority-majority environments. My first two years back were at a boarding school out in the country but otherwise, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Atlanta.

From that observation I wondered about the frequency of that circumstance and then from that to the mirror question; how many minorities (recognizing all the US Census groups) live in minority-majority local environments in which they exercise (or potentially exercise) local authority?

There are four states with minority-majorities: California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas. 40 million minorities live in those four states, 34% of all minorities.

At a more granular level, and closer to home, i.e. closer to local political power, of 3,143 counties in the US, 353 (11%) are majority-minority. However, because of self-segregation and patterns of historical settlement, 54% of all minorities live in those 353 counties.

19 million minorities live in majority-minority major cities. I have used legal jurisdictions rather than the vernacular SMSA numbers. For example, the city of Atlanta has a population of 430,000 people but is part of a metropolitan area of 5.5 million. I have looked at all cities with populations greater than 100,000. These include Milwaukee, Atlanta, Memphis, Durham, Cleveland, New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, etc. There are 34 such cities outside of the four states that are already majority-minority.

I have excluded cities from this analysis simply because of the complexity of overlap between counties and cities (sometimes a city is entirely encased within a county and sometimes it is within a county and sometimes it is constituted of multiple county jurisdictions).

Now there are a number of nuances to this analysis. For simplicity, I am looking at all minorities not just a particular group (African American, Hispanic, Asian, etc.). In 102 counties, African Americans are an absolute majority, in 90 counties Hispanics are an absolute majority, and in 161 counties some combination of all minorities are a majority. Further caveats: The minority-majority exercise of power in those 161 counties is dependent on there being some commonality of interests which may or may not exist among all minority groups. Additionally, these numbers are all based on the US Census which counts all people in the US regardless of their citizenship. This is especially relevant to the Hispanic numbers. The US Census counts some 53 million residents of Hispanic origin. However, estimates of illegal Hispanic emigrants ranges from 10-20 million. Assuming that they do not vote and therefore subtracting them from the count of 53 million would materially reduce the number of jurisdictions with a minority-majority. Finally, the exercise of local power is a function of both voting registration rates (an area with disparities in the past but largely resolved now) and voting participation (blacks and whites vote at about the same rate but a good deal higher than Hispanics and Asians).

The upshot of this analysis is that 59% of minorities live in counties and/or states in which they are the majority. The actual number is likely somewhere around 60-70% if one were to take into account major cities as well as medium sized towns (10,000-100,000).

I am very surprised by this outcome. On the one hand, in the context of my discussions with European friends, it fully vindicates my position about the localism of American individualism. On the other hand it runs full tilt against the prevailing political discourse in terms of concerns about systemic discrimination in terms of justice, education, health provision, etc. If 60-70% of minorities live in areas in which they have the capacity to exercise political control, and given that justice, health, education, etc. are largely locally provided, then the narrative of systemic discrimination is substantially undermined.

Now I do believe that the narrative of systemic discrimination is dramatically overstated. Obviously there are select instances where individual or systemic discrimination occurs, but I suspect its materiality is very low (though potentially tragic where it does occur). But even with that assumption, I am challenged to reconcile 60-70% control with the disparities that do demonstrably exist between the racial groups. How to reconcile this?

I suspect that there are three parts of the answer: 1) That race/ethnicity is not as large a controlling variable as it has been made out to be. In other words that individuals make decisions on a variety of other factors having nothing to do with race such as religion, income, profession, education, etc.. We are oversimplifying by focusing too much on race alone. 2) By focusing on the simple variable of race and pursuit of race equity, we have avoided the more critical policy challenge of personal productivity; people's life outcomes and range of choices and degree of control all increase with personal productivity. If you have low personal productivity all outcomes are worse. Imparting the skills, knowledge, experience and wisdom to facilitate personal productivity is a much greater challenge (particularly if it works against embedded cultural assumptions) than simply redistributing resources. 3) We have dismissed the role of culture from the equation of good life outcomes and are uncomfortable and ill-equipped to address the consequences of culture in how it shapes individual decision-making and life outcomes.

As I said, interesting.



Friday, July 26, 2013

They want to choose certain freedoms from the smorgasbord of liberal democracy and discard the rest

From The unfair sex - how feminism created a new class divide by Alison Wolf.

The UK is always more alert to the issue of class than commentators in the US.
It’s the same all over Europe and North America, where half of ‘Class 1’ jobs are held by women. Professional men work with and for them, just as they work with and for men. It may not be half-and-half at the very top, but in these integrated workplaces, an all-male meeting is a curious sight. These alpha women are the subject of my new book, The XX Factor, and there are lots of them: 20 million in Europe alone, and - rising.

And the other five-sixths of British women? They lead lives that are essentially female and surprisingly - traditional. Most women enter a very different labour market from the alpha females, one where most jobs are either dominated by women or dominated by men. Here gender still rules: hotel maids are female and street cleaners male; care assistants female and lorry drivers male; registered nurses female, electricians male.

Not only do most women work in occupations dominated by women, and in work groups that often lack a single male. They also do the most traditional of female tasks — but outsourced from the home to the workplace. This hollowing out of the home is one of the most striking features of modern life. People are being paid, in formal jobs, to do things that were once organised in our houses. The process went furthest, fastest, in Scandinavia: as a result, these pin-up countries for female equality have the most traditional–looking, sexually segregated labour markets in the western world.

But not at all levels. It is Scandinavian women who care for children, the sick, the old, as state employees. Meanwhile, at the top of the pyramid, like everywhere else in Europe, Scandinavian life is gender-mixed: alpha women, alpha men.
[snip]
It’s a new world, and a new set of inequalities. We agonise over the 1 per cent, but extreme financial privilege is nothing new. What is new, the seismic shift, involves a far larger group: the female elites, the top sixth. They are pulling away, and are leaving the rest of the ‘sisterhood’ behind.
Feminism is such a hydra-headed beast it is hardly meaningful to speak of it any longer as an ideology or even an agreed set of goals - there are the strict egalitarians where everyone is treated equally regardless of capabilities; there are those that focus on trying to achieve equality of outcome and are willing to sacrifice equality of treatment to achieve it; there are those that believe that there is a female way that is superior to that of males.

If it is no longer possible to meaningfully speak of feminism as if it were a singular idea, I do think it is fair to say that the ideals of feminism have wandered a meandering path in the Western world with many unintended consequences. Increasing inequality is a phenomenon in all OECD countries and despite Wolf's argument, I doubt that feminism has had all that great a differential effect on that trend.

But what is striking to me, and around which Wolf is skirting, is that so many of the flagship causes of contemporary feminism have been beneficial, really, only to the most elite segments of society and either are irrelevant or harmful to the bottom 60%. And yet no one mentions this class issue. True, there are the Charles Murray's of the world who attempt to bring attention to this (as in Coming Apart), but they are few and far between and usually gain no traction with the clerisy.

Pressuring companies to implement telework, job sharing, flex time, etc. are all beneficial things potentially mutually beneficial in their own right but all are only really particularly relevant to the office based, cognitive worker and not pertinent to the Wal-Mart greeter, shelf stocker, cashier, etc.

The relaxation of sexual mores and familial norms is in many ways a great gift of increased liberty to all citizens, but indisputably it is a gift which has been a boon only for the most privileged and a double-sided sword or worse for everyone else.

Perhaps it is simply a matter of relevancy and perspective. So many flagship issues mooted in newspaper editorials and pundit columns, to a pragmatist mind, invite a respectful "So what?" How many people does it affect, who are they, and why should others pay for it?

In the same edition of The Spectator in which Wolf's article appears, there is a column by Toby Young with this comment regarding some spat over a UK column regarding trans gendered people,
Their objection to Burchill’s piece was that, by rehashing various crude stereotypes about transsexuals (‘screaming mimis’, ‘bed-wetters in bad wigs’, etc), she was making it more likely that members of their community would be assaulted. In other words, they were positing a causal link between the appearance of something in the media and violent behaviour — exactly the same argument that the Christian film critic Michael Medved made in his 1992 book Hollywood vs America. They weren’t claiming there was any evidence of such a link. Rather, the mere possibility that Burchill’s article could result in an assault was reason enough to ban it.
[snip]
What surprised me about the attitude of the trans activists — not to mention gays and lesbians, many of whom are equally censorious about ‘offensive’ articles — is that they don’t see a link between freedom of expression and sexual freedom. Apparently it’s perfectly acceptable to deviate from various sexual norms, however upsetting some people find their behaviour, but completely verboten to dissent from the majority view of the metropolitan elite. Such double standards are weirdly similar to those of American Christian fundamentalists who would lay down their lives to defend the first amendment but oppose gay marriage. Like the trans activists, they want to choose certain freedoms from the smorgasbord of liberal democracy and discard the rest.
All of which is to say - it is a marvelously complicated world in which we struggle to hold ourselves accountable to the ideals of the enlightenment which have gifted us with so much liberty.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Reducing the cost of failure.

From Are Online Courses Failing America? by Megan McArdle. McArdle makes the critical point that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) can't be measured by the same criteria as traditional courses. MOOCs, like many disruptive technologies, are not only substituting one thing for another (classroom education for virtual education), they are actually offering something different (greater access rather than limited access) and therefore have to be measured somewhat differently.

Commenting on high non-completion rates at one university:
The question is not whether they can replicate the current experience of going to college. The question is whether they can make it easier to get educated.

Start with the student population that was using the Udacity courses; many of them were high school students or in the military. These people were not substituting a MOOC for sitting in a college classroom; they were substituting them for not taking the class at all. Even if only 12 percent of students passed one of the classes, that represents a substantial number of people who might otherwise never have learned the material at all.
She has an additional point that is slightly more subtle but very pertinent to some work I am producing.
MOOCs will always have a very high failure rate. But that’s OK, as long as the cost of trying is low. Don’t have time for class right now? Drop out and come back when you have more time. Didn’t master Taylor Polynomials this time around? Do the course again.

As I’ll talk about in my forthcoming book, failure is often the best way to learn. More tries and more failures are almost always better than fewer tries and a lower failure rate. Letting people try a bunch of stuff, and fail at a lot of it, and then try again, is what makes the U.S. so innovative. We should welcome the ability to try this approach in education.
In decision-making in an uncertain and volatile environment, the priority is to make better decisions faster but there is an ultimate limit to decision accuracy. As you approach that limit, the alternate objective of risk mitigation becomes critical: how do you anticipate and mitigate failure so that you can recover quickly at the least cost possible. In making better decisions (increasing the probability of being successful), can you also reduce the cost of failure?

Clothing the president with a power to control the legislation of congress, and paralyze the administration of justice

There is always difficulty in sorting, on a day to day basis, the strategic wheat from the tactical chaff. Obama Suspends the Law by Michael W. McConnell captures an issue that has been gnawing at me in recent years.

I came of age when Imperial Presidency still had circulation. Though the circumstances have changed, I think the underlying issue remains the same.
Of all the stretches of executive power Americans have seen in the past few years, the president's unilateral suspension of statutes may have the most disturbing long-term effects. As the Supreme Court said long ago (Kendall v. United States, 1838), allowing the president to refuse to enforce statutes passed by Congress "would be clothing the president with a power to control the legislation of congress, and paralyze the administration of justice."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Semper eadem - Always the same

An interesting juxtaposition.

From Open Skies and Open Spectrum: The occasional power of simple ideas by Christopher Demuth.
When Tom Whitehead arrived in Washington in 1969, long-distance communications were government-protected monopolies — the Bell System (AT&T) for telephones, the three broadcasting networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) for television and radio. Telephone service, broadcast TV and radio, and the military all depended on Ma Bell’s terrestrial transmission system, which was well engineered but also expensive and inflexible. Bell Labs had made important technical inventions, but the only new products anyone knew about were color television and color telephones. New technologies were cropping up — cable television, mobile cellular telephones, microwave transmission, satellites — but were being treated as appendages to the old systems. Cable television was long extension cords for delivering broadcast TV to rural communities with poor rooftop reception. Communications satellites were a government monopoly, COMSAT, operated in partnership with Ma Bell.

All of this was assumed to be the natural order of things, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) protected that order zealously. It prohibited cable-television operators from offering programs of their own, lest they siphon viewers from the networks. For the newfangled cellular telephones, it reserved licenses for AT&T alone.
And this passage I read this morning from Adam Nicolson's God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. Nicolson is commenting on the inflection point between the emerging dynamism of Britain and the withering away of the old regime of Queen Elizabeth I.
England was full of newness and potential: its population burgeoning, its merchant fleets combing the world, London growing like a hothouse plum, the sons of gentlemen crowding as never before into the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, plants and fruits from all over the world arriving in its gardens and on its tables - but the rigid carapace of the Elizabethan court lay like a cast-iron lid above it. The queen's motto was still what it always had been: Semper eadem , Always the same. She hadn't moved with the times.
All systems are prone to sclerosis where entrenched interests stand in the way of change. Any change entails the potential redistribution of advantage and benefit from one group to another and therefore generally to be opposed or coopted (through regulatory capture) by the entrenched interests and sought after by those seeking a better way.

In the above examples, one change led to an acceleration of mass knowledge and connectedness, in the other, the more ancient, it led, among many other outcomes, to the King James Bible; perhaps among the most influential single texts in human history.

Remaining a bookworm into old age reduced the rate of memory decline by 32 percent

From Being a Lifelong Bookworm May Keep You Sharp in Old Age by Marina Koren
The findings, published online today in Neurology, suggest that reading books, writing and engaging in other similar brain-stimulating activities slows down cognitive decline in old age, independent of common age-related neurodegenerative diseases. In particular, people who participated in mentally stimulating activities over their lifetimes, both in young, middle and old age, had a slower rate of decline in memory and other mental capacities than those who did not.
[snip]
Using information from the questionnaire and autopsy results, the researchers found that any reading and writing is better than none at all. Remaining a bookworm into old age reduced the rate of memory decline by 32 percent compared to engaging in average mental activity. Those who didn’t read or write often later in life did even worse: their memory decline was 48 percent faster than people who spent an average amount of time on these activities.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Kakistocracy

I hadn't heard of this before. Strange, as it seems broadly applicable.

Kakistocracy, from The Free Dictionary
kak·is·toc·ra·cy (kk-stkr-s, käk-)
n. pl. kak·is·toc·ra·cies
Government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Murray's Three Laws of Social Programs

From Charles Murray in Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980. Summarized in this article, The 3 laws of social programs
Murray's Three Laws of Social Programs:

1. The Law of Imperfect Selection: Any objective rule that defines eligibility for a social transfer program will irrationally exclude some persons.

2. The Law of Unintended Rewards: Any social transfer increases the net value of being in the condition that prompted the transfer.

3. The Law of Net Harm: The less likely it is that the unwanted behavior will change voluntarily, the more likely it is that a program to induce change will cause net harm.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Is this really what we want to do? Is that the right thing?

From In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal by Adam Bryant. Two interesting observations.
Another reason is that I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.
And then there is this which is central to some decision-making work I am currently doing.
When you start doing studies in these areas, Big Data — when applied to leadership — has tremendous potential to uncover the 10 universal things we should all be doing. But there are also things that are specifically true only about your organization, and the people you have and the unique situation you’re in at that point in time. I think this will be a constraint to how big the data can get because it will always require an element of human insight.

In terms of leadership, success is very dependent on the context. What works at Google or G.E. or Goldman Sachs is not going to be the right answer for everyone. I don’t think you’ll ever replace human judgment and human inspiration and creativity because, at the end of the day, you need to be asking questions like, O.K., the system says this. Is this really what we want to do? Is that the right thing?
Success requires competency and sustained practice but those are only the foundation. Ultimately it comes down to a values judgment about what is right.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a narrow field.

Niels Bohr to Edward Teller.
An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a narrow field.
Sounds about right. Does call for a serenity prayer in order to distinguish between the expert who has learned by making all the mistakes and a fool who just makes a lot of mistakes.

Friday, July 19, 2013

We should act as if the universe were listening to us and responding

Philip Pullman, Univ. of East Anglia lecture, 3 March 2005
I think we should read books, and tell children stories, and take them to the theatre, and learn poems, and play music, as if it would make a difference. I think that while believing that the school of morals is probably doomed, we should act as if it were not. We should act as if the universe were listening to us and responding; we should act as if life were going to win. We should act as if we were celebrating a wedding: we should act as if we were attending the marriage of responsibility and delight.

When there are non-additive, value-enhancing relationships across inputs, single-cause causal experiments can serve up misleading results

From Some dangers in estimating signaling and human capital premia by Tyler Cowen.
The trick is this: when there are non-additive, value-enhancing relationships across inputs, single-cause causal experiments can serve up misleading results. In fact, by cherry-picking your counterfactual you can get the return to signaling, or to human capital, to be much higher or lower. Usually one is working in a model where the implicit marginal causal returns to learning, IQ, signaling, and so on sum up to much more than 100%, at least if you measure them in this “naive” fashion. If you think of a career in narrative terms, IQ, learning, and signaling are boosting each others’ value with positive and often non-linear feedback. And insofar as these labor market processes have “gatekeepers,” it is easy for the marginal product of any one of these to run very high, again if you set up the right thought experiment.
Read the whole thing.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Success from talent - 1, Failure from bad luck and poor marketing - 0

An unusual set of circumstances have popped up that permit a crude experiment towards answering a longstanding question - do accomplished writers succeed because of their established name or because they are indeed superior writers? A better formulation might be - To what degree do established writers succeed because of their established brand and to what degree because they are gifted authors?

The circumstances are that J.K. Rowling, author of the phenomenally successful Harry Potter series (450 million copies worldwide), published in the UK in April, a crime mystery under a pseudonym. The details are here.

If the proposition is that established authors succeed not based on the quality of their writing but on their personal brand, then one would expect Rowling to not have been able to find a publisher at all (as there is a nearly infinite number of manuscripts available for review by a definitely limited number of publishers). The corollary is that, even if published, the book ought to have failed. Most debut novels by unknown authors sink without a trace. A successful debut novel is one that sells 5,000 copies in hardback.

The counter-proposition is that, while there is always an element of luck, good writers ultimately win through, with or without a brand name, and with or without a marketing campaign.

So Rowling writes a new book outside of her field of accomplishment (adult mystery genre rather than YA fantasy). Only her agent knew of the deception. The book was well received by a number of publishers but was rejected as not being sufficiently distinctive to breakthrough in the crowded crime market. However, once picked up by mainstream publisher, Little, Brown, it sold about 250-500 copies a month (for the two full months since April) since its publication (depending on whether you go with the higher numbers from the publisher or the lower numbers from Neilsen Bookscan). At that rate, in only its first year, and without any authorial marketing (for obvious reasons), the book was set to sell between 3-6,000 copies, putting it solidly in the range of a successful debut novel. In addition, "It achieved glowing reviews and laudatory quotations for the cover from well-known crime writers."

Natural experiments such as this have the major flaw of being singular in nature and usually there are all sorts of uncontrollable variables that introduce alternate explanations. That said, this particular experiment would seem to support the hypothesis that good writers create their own market regardless of brand name and prior success.

Which is not to say that brand name doesn't matter. While brand name might not explain publication, sales success, and critical reviews, it does clearly explain the new run of 300,000 copies which has been ordered up versus the initial print run of 10,000.

It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.

The hobbit, or there and back again, by J.R.R. Tolkien p235.
It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.

Don’t let an egg get laid in it by something you can’t see

H/T Ann Althouse
T.V. Talkin' Song
by Bob Dylan

One time in London I’d gone out for a walk
Past a place called Hyde Park where people talk
’Bout all kinds of different gods, they have their point of view
To anyone passing by, that’s who they’re talking to

There was someone on a platform talking to the folks
About the T.V. god and all the pain that it invokes
“It’s too bright a light,” he said, “for anybody’s eyes
If you’ve never seen one it’s a blessing in disguise”

I moved in closer, got up on my toes
Two men in front of me were coming to blows
The man was saying something ’bout children when they’re young
Being sacrificed to it while lullabies are being sung

“The news of the day is on all the time
All the latest gossip, all the latest rhyme
Your mind is your temple, keep it beautiful and free
Don’t let an egg get laid in it by something you can’t see”

“Pray for peace!” he said. You could feel it in the crowd
My thoughts began to wander. His voice was ringing loud
"It will destroy your family, your happy home is gone
No one can protect you from it once you turn it on”

“It will lead you into some strange pursuits
Lead you to the land of forbidden fruits
It will scramble up your head and drag your brain about
Sometimes you gotta do like Elvis did and shoot the damn thing out”

“It’s all been designed,” he said, “to make you lose your mind
And when you go back to find it, there’s nothing there to find
Every time you look at it, your situation’s worse
If you feel it grabbing out for you, send for the nurse"

The crowd began to riot and they grabbed hold of the man
There was pushing, there was shoving and everybody ran
The T.V. crew was there to film it, they jumped right over me
Later on that evening, I watched it on T.V.

Copyright © 1990 by Special Rider Music

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.

From J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings.
The world is indeed full of peril, and there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.

Are HOAs a manifestation of cultural localization or a rebuke to existing governance structures?

This is quite outside my sphere of deep content knowledge and so commenting only in a vernacular sense. From The Property Rights of Private Communities by Alex Tabarrok.
The U.S. housing market has seen a major shift in the past 30 years: the rise of the community association. In 1970, only 1 percent of U.S. homes were community association members; today, more than half of new housing is subject to association membership, including condominium buildings.
I have a post coming up on some research I did trying to assess the degree of locality in the US system of government as it pertains to citizen self-association. In other words, the bulk of all government services, and a large part of the taxation of citizens occurs primarily at the city or county level, some at the State level, and (in terms of day-to-day services) very little at the Federal level.

That being true, how does that influence some of the ideology driven conversations regarding identity such as race? It is true that Americans self-segregate by age, class, income, religion, profession, race, etc. in a quite complex mosaic of communities. In that analysis, I discovered that approximately 70% of African Americans live in counties, states or towns which are minority majority. In other words, they live in communities over which they have electoral control. To me, that is an interesting insight in that it contravenes the established narrative of all minorities as being prey to a majoritarian system.

The research was sparked in part by conversations with European friends who usually have very little concept of the profound impact of the 10th Amendment and the localization of power in the American system of government and the degree to which the federal republican structure of the government with its inter-branch checks and balances (legislature, judiciary, and executive) are all predicated on protecting the rights of the individual (and the minority).

Tabarrok's comment is interesting because it brings in to focus a further dynamic I had not really considered. It does not take a great leap of imagination to see the rise of community associations as yet a further taking back of localized power to self-selected communities of individuals from the next level up (towns or counties). What Tabarrok is discussing is not only the legal but the governmental implications of mass localization as evidenced by community associations. We think of these community associations as simply the rich and wealthy gating themselves off from the hoi polloi but the reality is much more plebian.

From just my anecdotal knowledge in my own city, many, if not the large majority, of these community associations are not gated at all. Usually only one or two points of ingress and egress, but not gated. And their nature is highly varied in its self-selection. I can think of community associations that are self-selected by white and black, old and young, elderly and mature, each one of the income quintiles, etc. Each self-associating and exercising local control over many services and functioning as an additional voice of citizens in the complex web of governance.

What the full implications might be, I am not sure. As I said, beyond my field of deep content knowledge. What I hear in the background conversation and national narratives is not much about community associations at all, and when discussed, discussed in pejorative terms of the wealthy being exclusive or in terms of racial exclusion. But in terms of the data, I don't think that's right at all. What I suspect is being missed, or at least I am missing the discussion, is that there is a sixth level of self-governance that has been brought into being without great note or comment. Before we had Citizen - City/Town - County - State - Federal Government. Now we have Citizen - Homeowners Association - City/Town - County - State - Federal Government. From Wikipedia, it appears that some 20% of the population elects to live in a homeowner association community (a more restrictive form of community association).

Never having lived in a homeowner association, I have little sense of the respective benefits and challenges of an HOA. But it does seem to me that HOAs are a manifestation of America's deep individualism/localism and that the rise of HOAs is likely a form of rebuke to the existing governance structure. Whether that rebuke is a sign of strength or weakness, I don't know but I am guessing that it has significant implications in the long run.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Monday, July 15, 2013

We cannot solve the problem of ignorant voters or dogmatic elites in democracy (but we can mitigate it)

From The problem with democracy by Sam Bowman.

An interesting insight tying together two acknowledged issues: the challenge represented by low information voters, and the challenge of bridging narrow expertise (deep content knowledge but possibly at the expense of broad contextual knowledge) with generalist knowledge (broad contextual knowledge but little depth).
The choice we have in a democracy appears to be between open-minded ignoramuses or well-informed ideologues. There is no reason to think that either will choose anything like the ‘right’ policy for any given problem. And, as Jeffrey Friedman has argued, unlike when you buy the ‘wrong’ flavour of ice-cream and can immediately buy a different kind next time, the feedback mechanism in politics is weak and difficult to discern.

The answer may be to recognise these crippling limitations of democracy and, wherever possible, prefer decentralized market mechanisms. We cannot solve the problem of ignorant voters or dogmatic elites in democracy, but we can at least try to take as much power out of their hands as possible.

The choices would turn on how the decisionmaker weighed competing priorities

From That Reminds Me: Examples and Analogies by Ross Guberman. The article is about the use of analogies in court arguments. What caught my attention was this.
Other times, you might weave an analogy into the body of your argument. Let’s take an example from a brief that some of the then-Justices said was the best they’d ever seen. The brief from Alaska v. EPA was written by Chief Justice Roberts, then just John Roberts, who suggested that deciding which technology is “best” for controlling air pollution under the Clean Air Act is sort of like . . . asking people to pick the “best” car:
Determining the “best” control technology is like asking different people to pick the “best” car. Mario Andretti may select a Ferrari; a college student may choose a Volkswagen Beetle; a family of six a mini-van. A Minnesotan’s choice will doubtless have four-wheel drive; a Floridian’s might well be a convertible. The choices would turn on how the decisionmaker weighed competing priorities such as cost, mileage, safety, cargo space, speed, handling, and so on.
In my business, Decision Clarity Consulting, I am working on some materials right now that highlight this issue. There are numerous categories of decision error but two of the most fundamental are poor definition of goals and poor understanding of goal trade-offs (ex: I want security and liberty, two estimable goals, but some actions conducive to security are negatively correlated with liberty). Roberts' is a good example of the definitional aspect. "Best" usually means fit-for-purpose, but it is uncommon for a group of individuals to have exactly the same purpose, as exposed by Roberts' analogy.

Conversation Rules for Gentlemen

From 37 Conversation Rules for Gentlemen from 1875 by Brett & Kate McKay.

The McKay's do a great job of translating the best of the gendered past into the egalitarian present, preserving and promulgating that which is helpful and admirable. Read their original post which is an except from a book published in 1875. Astonishingly pertinent in nearly all respects. Reminiscent of The Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation by George Washington, transcribed when he was in his teens.

Rather than copying the McKay's copy, let me translate into the shorter modern vernacular.

1. Don't insist on being right.
2. Don't try and force others to agree with you.
3. Hear out the other person before contributing.
4. Give the other speaker your focused attention.
5. Don't interrupt.
6. Make sure the conversation is inclusive to the interests of all participants.
7. Don't take sides in an argument.
8. Make sure everyone participates. Don't try and be the center of attention.
9. Pay attention to the feelings and opinions of others.
10. Be a good listener.
11. Don't eavesdrop.
12. Participate only as far as is appropriate. Don't hog the floor.
13. Don't share too much.
14. Avoid encouraging flattery.
15. Don't make comparisons between friends.
16. Avoid topics that are hurtful to those participating in the conversation.
17. Don't try and outshine others.
18. Don't use clichés and quotations.
19. Don't be a know-it-all.
20. Speak grammatically and with accurate vocabulary.
21. Don't make a big deal when someone speaks ungrammatically or misuses words.
22. Don't use jargon.
23. With a non-native speaker, be patient.
24. Don't be the conversational buffoon, joker or funny man.
25. Don't boast or drop names.
26. Don't be a Debbie Downer
27. Don't fawn on others whose work you admire.
28. Don't quote foreign languages.
29. Don't use double entendres.
30. Don't let yourself get angry.
31. Don't wash family laundry in public, yours or others.
32. Don't keep talking about your travels and unique experiences.
33. Don't use negative adjectives about people you don't know.
34. Avoid gossip.
35. Keep your opinions to yourself unless asked.
36. Don't use flattery to make people feel good.
37. Expect the best of others/don't patronize them with your low expectations of them.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful

Empirical Model Building and Response Surfaces by G.E.P. Box and N.R. Draper, page 424
Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Beware the Leopard

From The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
"But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months."

"Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything."

"But the plans were on display ..."

"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."

"That's the display department."

"With a flashlight."

"Ah, well the lights had probably gone."

"So had the stairs."

"But look, you found the notice didn't you?"

"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'."


Friday, July 12, 2013

Computer simulations give you exquisitely precise unreliable results

From Causal Density In Statistical Models Yields Unreliable Results by Paul M. Jones, quoting Arnold Kling.
When there are many factors that have an impact on a system, statistical analysis yields unreliable results. Computer simulations give you exquisitely precise unreliable results. Those who run such simulations and call what they do “science” are deceiving themselves.
Not only statistical analysis but even such old stand bys as root-cause-analysis can get tricky where there is causal density.

Woodman, Spare That Tree!

Woodman, Spare That Tree!
by George Pope Morris (1830)

Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I ’ll protect it now.
’T was my forefather’s hand
That placed it near his cot;
There, woodman, let it stand,
Thy axe shall harm it not.

That old familiar tree,
Whose glory and renown
Are spread o’er land and sea—
And wouldst thou hew it down?
Woodman, forbear thy stroke!
Cut not its earth-bound ties;
Oh, spare that aged oak
Now towering to the skies!

When but an idle boy,
I sought its grateful shade;
In all their gushing joy
Here, too, my sisters played.
My mother kissed me here;
My father pressed my hand—
Forgive this foolish tear,
But let that old oak stand.

My heart-strings round thee cling,
Close as thy bark, old friend!
Here shall the wild-bird sing,
And still thy branches bend.
Old tree! the storm still brave!
And, woodman, leave the spot;
While I ’ve a hand to save,
Thy axe shall harm it not.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Our blue tents are pitched at the edge of a fossil-bearing cliff

From a letter in Teilhard de Chardin Album by the Father. Attending a Jesuit University, one of my religious studies classes focused on Teilhard de Chardin. I was interested in the man himself and his times but found his theology too dense for my 20 year old self. I recently came across this book and am enjoying leafing through it, a collection of pictures from his travels and snippets from his letters, diaries and publications.

All interesting but what strikes me is a very specific type of nostalgia. The world was so open then, and still so comprehensively varied. As we become more assimilated across the world into a democratic classical liberal free trade model (all of which is good), we are losing some of that novelty and mystery that emanates from this text.


Our blue tents are pitched at the edge of a fossil-bearing cliff, looking out over the immense flat surfaces of Mongolia: the terraced levels, uniformly grey with a tinge of delicate green, have a look of magic when the rays of the setting sun skim over them. There is nothing in sight but a few yourts beside the streams, and we work in absolute solitude, our only companions the wolves, eagles, and gazelles, which alst always provide the bulk of our diet, The same gaiety and family spirit prevails in the camp.

The work goes well. We have got hold of some authentic mastodon deposits - strange mastodons with an elongated jawbone rounded into a huge spoon. For my own part I am managing to link together satisfactorily the geologies of China and Mongolia (my principal objective) and I am vastly extending the horizons I include in my vision.

- Letter, 29 June 1930 while on an expedition in the Gobi Desert

The good old days? Really?

An interesting argument in the article from The New Commanding Heights by Arnold Kling and Nock Schulz.

What I am most struck by is the table citing information from economist Robert Fogel comparing the distribution of income spending between 1875 and 1995. Ought to put to bed the myth of the good old days, at least in material terms.


Click to enlarge

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Abandoning books

From What Makes You Put Down a Book? from Goodreads. I wish they had described their methodology. Absent that, can't put any weight on their findings but intriguing anyway.

Click to enlarge

It's just that what we have learned is not quite what we expected to learn.

From The Principle of the Hiding Hand by Albert O. Hirschman.
After two decades of intensive work by social scientists, the processes of economic, social, and political development of the so-called underedeveloped countries - in Latin America, Asia, and Africa - remain poorly understood. Theories that were attractive because of their simplicity and because they had clear-cut and hopeful policy implications have been badly battered by academic critics; worse, they have been faulted by events. Nevertheless, it is not true to say that we have learned nothing from the experience of the past twenty years. It's just that what we have learned is not quite what we expected to learn.
This was written in 1967 and is as true today as it was forty five years ago. We still fall prey to the seductively simplistic solutions in which no one is to blame, no one has to change, and all we have to do is provide money or knowledge. We choose to keep ignoring what we keep learning which is that the source of the problem is rarely knowledge or money and is almost always behaviors and values.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

We always find ourselves thrown into an already-interpreted world

From Small Talk by Dora Zhang.
But the repertoire of pre-formulated sayings is also a common linguistic bank that affords us immediate access to public meanings. Talk that “anyone can snatch up” allows us to speak with facility in our everyday lives. If we had to rewrite Shakespeare every time we opened our mouths, it’s doubtful any words would come out.

Heidegger is not unaware of this. Everything that gets circulated in idle talk, all the pat formulas and conventional wisdoms, are just part of the “thrownness” (one of his most vivid neologisms) that defines the human condition: the fact that we always find ourselves thrown into an already-interpreted world. “All genuine understanding, interpreting and communication and new discovery come about in [idle talk] and out of it and against it.” In no case are we untouched by the way things have been previously and publicly understood. In no case are we set before “an open country of a ‘world-in-itself’” to be encountered with virgin eyes. And yet for all this, the true form of talk for Heidegger can never be idle.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more

We never, government or business, do enough before and after comparisons of policies and strategies - did we achieve what we set out to achieve?

Prompted by this example from Canada - The Great Canadian Sperm Shortage by Alex Tabarrok
The US is a world leader in sperm exports primarily because sperm banks in the U.S. are run on a for-profit basis. As a result, US sperm is reckoned to be of high quality particularly because the US version comes with a background on the vitals of the donor. Denmark also exports a lot of sperm because of high standards and demand for that blond, blue-eyed look.

Exports to Canada have increased in recent years because of a scandal involving poorly screened Canadian sperm. Canadians also import a lot of US eggs. The Canadian government, however, is apparently miffed as a new law is being readied that would forbid donations involving a paid donor. The law would not only make paid donation illegal in Canada it would make it illegal to use any paid-for sperm. Canadian couples seeking fertility options will suffer and who will benefit? I cannot think that this law is anything but spiteful and ridiculous. Is paying for sperm an original sin?

So what happened? In 2004, Canada made it a criminal offense to compensate sperm and egg donors. Loyal readers will not be surprised by the results (as of 2011)
…currently, in the entire country, there are only 35 active sperm donors. Over the last decade, our government has made its donation system so thoroughly unappealing that this ubiquitous fluid is almost impossible to obtain through official channels. There is a single operating sperm bank in all of Canada.

…If 35 national donors is an ugly statistic for the most removed observer, it’s especially devastating for the women and couples who have come to rely on our lone sperm bank in order to have a child.
Reminds me of the spirit of Rudyard Kiplings, Gods of the Copybook Headings.
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
No matter what you wish, the world is as it is.

Also reminds me of Barbara Oakley's excellent paper on misguided altruism, Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism by Barbara A. Oakley, though it is not clear that altruism ever entered into this particular policy.

Death in the medicine cabinet

From The Joys of Legalized Opiates by Walter Russell Mead
Prescription pain pills, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, were involved in 6,631 overdose deaths, intentional and unintentional, among women in 2010, a 415% increase from the 1,287 such deaths in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the same period, the number of such painkiller overdose deaths among men rose 265% to 10,020, the CDC said. […]

“Many people have become addicted, because of the large number of prescriptions being written,” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden in a teleconference with reporters. He called the painkiller problems among women “underrecognized” by health-care professionals.
Wow. I knew it was something of a problem but not the magnitude indicated here, roughly 17,000 a year. For perspective, Automobile accidents ~ 40,000 per year, Gun suicides ~ 20,000 per year, gun violence ~ 10,000 per year.

Seems to be further evidence of a mental health crisis that we are not only not addressing but we aren't even focusing on.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

If you want good outcomes, emulate the behaviors of purposefully successful people

A colleague brought to my attention the Dunbar Number. From Wikipedia:
Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.[1] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150.[2][3] Dunbar's number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.
While generally agreeing with Dunbar's observations, Christopher Allen points out
However, Dunbar's work itself suggests that a community size of 150 will not be a mean for a community unless it is highly incentivized to remain together. We can see hints of this in Dunbar's description of the number and what it means:
The group size predicted for modern humans by equation (1) would require as much as 42% of the total time budget to be devoted to social grooming.
...
My suggestion, then, is that language evolved as a "cheap" form of social grooming, so enabling the ancestral humans to maintain the cohesion of the unusually large groups demanded by the particular conditions they faced at the time.
Dunbar's theory is that this 42% number would be true for humans if humans had not invented language, a "cheap" form of social grooming. However, it does show that for a group to sustain itself at the size of 150, significantly more effort must be spent on the core socialization which is necessary to keep the group functioning. Some organizations will have sufficient incentive to maintain this high level of required socialization. In fact the traditional villages and historical military troop sizes that Dunbar analyzed are probably the best examples of such an incentive, since they were built upon the raw need for survival. However, this is a tremendous amount of effort for a group if it's trying not just to maintain cohesion, but also to get something done
This focus on purposefulness is something I see in the work Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and
schooling in 27 nations
by M.D.R. Evans, et al in which they point out that increasing numbers of books in a home is predictive of good life outcomes (in terms of education attainment and other desirable outcomes).

This can too easily be seen as a call to make sure that every home with a child has 100 books (a very rough break point for increasing positive impact). The problem is that the benefit is not in the number of books but rather in the attitudes and behaviors which lead to the accumulation of books, i.e.
scholarly culture – the way of life in homes where books are numerous, esteemed, read, and enjoyed.
You can't be successful having the things successful people have, only by behaving the way successful people behave. To attempt the former while ignoring the latter is a guaranty of unintended, and usually dreadful (see the 2008 housing bubble as an example), consequences. Regrettably, under the banner of social justice, our social policies are often focused on ensuring the simple replication of material outcomes rather than focusing on the development of the behaviors that lead to desirable material outcomes.

Goes back to the thoroughly Victorian commonsense observation
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime
But how do you teach people to love, esteem and read books of their own free volition?

Who cares about reality as long as we have the better banner

From The Faulty Logic of the ‘Math Wars’ by Alice Crary and W. Stephen Wilson.
At stake in the math wars is the value of a “reform” strategy for teaching math that, over the past 25 years, has taken American schools by storm. Today the emphasis of most math instruction is on — to use the new lingo — numerical reasoning. This is in contrast with a more traditional focus on understanding and mastery of the most efficient mathematical algorithms.

A mathematical algorithm is a procedure for performing a computation. At the heart of the discipline of mathematics is a set of the most efficient — and most elegant and powerful — algorithms for specific operations. The most efficient algorithm for addition, for instance, involves stacking numbers to be added with their place values aligned, successively adding single digits beginning with the ones place column, and “carrying” any extra place values leftward.

What is striking about reform math is that the standard algorithms are either de-emphasized to students or withheld from them entirely. In one widely used and very representative math program — TERC Investigations — second grade students are repeatedly given specific addition problems and asked to explore a variety of procedures for arriving at a solution. The standard algorithm is absent from the procedures they are offered. Students in this program don’t encounter the standard algorithm until fourth grade, and even then they are not asked to regard it as a privileged method.
I accept Crary and Wilson's argument, but what I find interesting is the divorce from reality that it seems to represent, though it is quite possible that they are playing a long game to a very particular audience.

To me, this issue of numeracy and maths preparation is a critical one in a modern, complex world. Mathematical competency is a necessary tool for a free mind and those incapable of basic quantification and calculation are ever on the back foot. I have been distressed to witness my three children progress through school without what I see as fairly rudimentary mathematical capabilities/concepts. In our case, the shortfall is (I hope) made up for by home instruction, but what about in homes not so liberally bestrewed with degrees in finance and economics?

Crary and Wilson describe the math wars as a conflict between those who wish to emphasize abstract and unstructured reasoning versus those who are insistent that there is a body of factual knowledge necessary before effective reasoning can take place and that the omission of that body of knowledge is a crippling blow to the intellectual preparation of a student. I am firmly with the latter over the former.

What is striking to me in the Crary and Wilson essay is that the entire point of their argument is not to establish whether there is a basis for believing one approach to produce better desired results than another but rather, they are arguing which party is to be allowed to wear the mantle of "progressive".

The closest Crary and Wilson come to an empirical assessment of the outcome of these two views of how to teach mathematics is
Reform math has some serious detractors. It comes under fierce attack from college teachers of mathematics, for instance, who argue that it fails to prepare students for studies in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. These professors maintain that college-level work requires ready and effortless competence with the standard algorithms and that the student who needs to ponder fractions — or is dependent on a calculator — is simply not prepared for college math. They express outrage and bafflement that so much American math education policy is set by people with no special knowledge of the discipline.
Fair enough. But surely there is some empirical, objective measure that could be used to identify the better approach? Not a peep.

So what this seems to come down to is not who best prepares children to use the tools and rigor of numeracy and mathematical reasoning but rather, who gets to strut under the banner of the term "Progressive". Oof! I wish I were misreading their argument but I fear not. And if I am right, then it explains much that is wrong with education today.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The categories we use are merely tools

From How Should We Classify the Sandy Hook Killings? by Joel Best. A very interesting case study of how we frame a data series, and the definitions we use, helps determine the pattern we see in the data (or vice versa).
My point is that it is possible to characterize Newtown as an instance of a lot of different social problems: as a mass shooting; as a school shooting; as mass murder; as workplace violence (remember the staff members who were killed were at work); as a crime involving an assault rifle; as a case of a mentally ill person committing acts of violence; and so on. We expect journalists to have a sort of sociological imagination, to help us understand incidents as instances. And we can understand why advocates for gun control, mental health, or other causes might favor particular labels, but we need to appreciate there is no One True Classification, that the categories we use are merely tools that may help us better understand what happening in our society.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Auguries of Innocence
by William Blake

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

A dove-house fill'd with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro' all its regions.
A dog starv'd at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.

A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.

A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing.
The game-cock clipt and arm'd for fight
Does the rising sun affright.

Every wolf's and lion's howl
Raises from hell a human soul.

The wild deer, wand'ring here and there,
Keeps the human soul from care.
The lamb misus'd breeds public strife,
And yet forgives the butcher's knife.

The bat that flits at close of eve
Has left the brain that won't believe.
The owl that calls upon the night
Speaks the unbeliever's fright.

He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov'd by men.
He who the ox to wrath has mov'd
Shall never be by woman lov'd.

The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider's enmity.
He who torments the chafer's sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night.

The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother's grief.
Kill not the moth nor butterfly,
For the last judgement draweth nigh.

He who shall train the horse to war
Shall never pass the polar bar.
The beggar's dog and widow's cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.

The gnat that sings his summer's song
Poison gets from slander's tongue.
The poison of the snake and newt
Is the sweat of envy's foot.

The poison of the honey bee
Is the artist's jealousy.

The prince's robes and beggar's rags
Are toadstools on the miser's bags.
A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.

It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

The babe is more than swaddling bands;
Every farmer understands.
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity;

This is caught by females bright,
And return'd to its own delight.
The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar,
Are waves that beat on heaven's shore.

The babe that weeps the rod beneath
Writes revenge in realms of death.
The beggar's rags, fluttering in air,
Does to rags the heavens tear.

The soldier, arm'd with sword and gun,
Palsied strikes the summer's sun.
The poor man's farthing is worth more
Than all the gold on Afric's shore.

One mite wrung from the lab'rer's hands
Shall buy and sell the miser's lands;
Or, if protected from on high,
Does that whole nation sell and buy.

He who mocks the infant's faith
Shall be mock'd in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne'er get out.

He who respects the infant's faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
The child's toys and the old man's reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply.
He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of knowledge out.

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.
Nought can deform the human race
Like to the armour's iron brace.

When gold and gems adorn the plow,
To peaceful arts shall envy bow.
A riddle, or the cricket's cry,
Is to doubt a fit reply.

The emmet's inch and eagle's mile
Make lame philosophy to smile.
He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne'er believe, do what you please.

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out.
To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.

The whore and gambler, by the state
Licensed, build that nation's fate.
The harlot's cry from street to street
Shall weave old England's winding-sheet.

The winner's shout, the loser's curse,
Dance before dead England's hearse.

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro' the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.

God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Bibliocentricity has a powerful impact on children’s education throughout the world

From Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations by M.D.R. Evans, et al. Abstract.
Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. It holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and Apartheid; and most strongly in China. Data are from representative national samples in 27 nations, with over 70,000 cases, analyzed using multi-level linear and probit models with multiple imputation of missing data.
This is excellent research working within the confines of the data available. The authors refer to scholarly culture as “the way of life in homes where books are numerous, esteemed, read, and enjoyed" which is what I have been referring to as bibliocentricity.
Scholarly culture has a powerful impact on children’s education throughout the world, in rich nations and in poor, under Communism and under capitalism, under good governments and under bad, in the present generation and as far back in history as now living memory can take us. It helps children from all levels of the social hierarchy, but especially those from the bottom. A book-oriented home environment, we argue, endows children with tools that are directly useful in learning at school: vocabulary, information, comprehension skills, imagination, broad horizons of history and geography, familiarity with good writing, understanding of the importance of evidence in argument, and many others. In short, families matter not just for the material resources they provide, not just because of parents’ formal educational skills, but also – often more importantly – because of the scholarly culture they embody.
This is the first, really robust evidence I have come across documenting 1) the importance of voluntary reading on life outcomes and 2) the universality of the importance of bibliocentricity across time, cultures, and circumstance.

One aspect of this is related to the idea described by Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From; the adjacent possible (originated by Stuart Kauffman). The adjacent possible is the possible recombination of ideas and capabilities currently existing towards some next stage of development. You have to work stone before you can work metals. You have to work glass before you can build microscopes. You can't pass Go and collect $200, you have to work through the intermediate stages, always exploiting the range of possible combinations and ideas and capabilities to push the boundary outwards.

I suspect that one of the contributing factors in a book-rich household is something beyond simple knowledge acquisition via books and something beyond the simple fact of imbibing scholarly habits from parental example. A further factor may be that of cultivated serendipity, of the adjacent possible. In households with lots of books, a child can by choice and volition move from topic area to topic area (exercised choice being a critical psychological motivator) expanding their own cognitive adjacent possible. The act of such choice becomes exponentially greater when 1) there are a lot of books, and 2) when those books physically circulate within the home environment (creating a greater probability of connection). Where a child engages with a book of their own volition, there is something created beyond simply the acquisition of more knowledge - there is the skill of choosing and exploring.

This in turn implies that e-books should not and will not displace physical books for those in the formative years of developing the habit of reading, say 0-18. The creation of serendipitous connections for a child is just not as feasible in the virtual world as it is in the actual world of their home environment with real books.





Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other

From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!

Overall, women are only interviewed or cited in 30 per cent of TV news stories in the ten nations

From Women worldwide know less about politics than men from Economic and Social Research Council. One more anecdotal piece of data indicating the mysterious role of 30% in gender tracking, i.e. in competitive, challenging environments, women only achieve 15-30% of awards. Elsewhere, I have ascribed this likely being an artifact of biology and expertise (expertise requiring long durations of uninterrupted practice and experience, a requirement rendered difficult by pregnancy.)
•News coverage is heavily weighted toward male sources even in countries such as the UK and Australia where gender equality ratings are relatively high. Overall, women are only interviewed or cited in 30 per cent of TV news stories in the ten nations.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore

Every now and then, I come across some passage read in childhood, that starts from the page with great familiarity. Hadn't thought about it in years but there it is, as gripping as the first time you read it. For example, in A Tale of Two Cities, the line that has stuck with me the most over the years is
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.
Can't really say why, but it has.

I just came across another such line that I haven't thought about in years, but in reading it I freshly recall its first vivid impact. Opening of Chapter Fifteen in Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.
It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition. I listened, I looked round me, I could hear nothing, nor see anything. I went up to a rising ground, to look farther. I went up the shore, and down the shore, but it was all one; I could see no other impression but that one.

I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the very print of a foot — toes, heel, and every part of a foot. How it came thither I knew not, nor could in the least imagine. But after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man; nor is it possible to describe how many various shapes affrighted imagination represented things to me in, how many wild ideas were found every moment in my fancy, and what strange unaccountable whimsies came into my thoughts by the way.
You can never experience a sentence in its whole novelty again, but some few hold the capacity to still seize your attention.


Monday, July 1, 2013

Affinity groups rule the web

From Y U No Go Viral: The Emerging Science of Memes by Christopher Mims (yes, an article on Memes is written by Mims).
People get bored quickly, and are surprisingly predictable about what they'll share

Past research about memes shows two things that should surprise no one, but are worth emphasizing: If you can figure out what someone is interested in, you can predict how likely she is to share a piece of content. And the more similar a piece of content is to what she has shared before, the more likely she is to share it. In other words, affinity groups rule the web.

"Relationship between the probability of retweeting a message and its similarity to the user's interests, inferred from prior posting behavior." (Weng et al.)

Also, memes have a half-life. They become popular, and then, taken as a whole, they are consumed and then tossed on the scrap-heap of history.

While their individual histories vary, on average the slow disappearance of interest in a meme is highly predictable. (Weng et al.)

No one has any idea what makes something go viral in the first place

Attempts to predict what will go viral on the internet are based on the past behavior of a meme. As Coscia emphasizes in his work, no one has yet to rigorously demonstrate, in advance, why any particular type of content goes viral. This sort of prognostication remains an art rather than a science.

I am linking this in my mind to the homophilic research (the study of self-creating affinity groups), because of "affinity groups rule the web."

I am not quite sure what these two ideas together imply but I am visualizing the dynamics of self-creating affinity groups combined with the dynamics of intra-affinity group sharing as potentially having dramatically consequential disparate information impacts. I get the sense of cascading advantage.

It has interesting implications regarding books and the entry of books into the canon.
Among these successful memes, an interesting phenomenon emerges. Those that hit an above-average peak of popularity at some point in their life were less likely, overall, to ultimately break the "success" threshold. Memes that were shared more consistently over time, rather than a great deal all at once, were more likely to ultimately rack up enough points.
Seems to mirror the canon vs. bestsellers - bestsellers do tend to peak in terms of volume but rarely make it into the canon or near-canon. For a publisher though, these are two separate business propositions; basically an annuity versus a speculative investment. I suspect that most publishers want a mix of annuity and speculative success but that the first follows from the second and therefore the bulk of effort is on finding the speculative success.

This meme research would also seem to support my speculation that the future of publishing will perhaps be more about identifying and leveraging affinity groups (for marketing purposes) and somewhat less about speculative investments (which are apparently close to random in terms of success). I.e. publishing will become much more aligned with the consumer products industry where distribution is usually the determinant of success.



For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled

From The Rogers Commission Report into the Challenger Crash (June 1986) Appendix F - Personal Observations on Reliability of Shuttle, Richard Feynman.

Sometimes it takes a genius to make plain that which is commonly understood.
Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.