Thursday, October 31, 2013

Captain Justice, Guardian of the Realm and Leader of the Resistance, primarily asks that the Court deny the State's motion

These seem petulant mean spirited times with unsupported assertions made left, right , and center seeking to coerce free citizens in one set of actions and proscribe others. Wearying. And then along comes a bright wit to remind us that mockery and humor is often the best antidote.

You never can be sure about things you find on the internet but I have confirmed the names and locations as real. This does appear to be a real sequence of events.

It has come to this. The Assistant District Attorney General for the State of Tennessee sought the following ruling from the Circuit Criminal Court of Williamson County, Tennessee.
The State has noticed in the past few years that it has become commonplace during trials for attorneys for defendants, and especially Mr. Justice, to refer to State's attorneys as "the Government" repeatedly during trial. The State believes that such a reference is used in a derogatory way and is meant to make the State's attorneys seem oppressive and to inflame the jury. The jury members are instructed and take an -oath that they will decide the case impartially on the evidence presented. Attempts to characterize the State's attorney have no place in the courtroom. Attempts to make the jury dislike the State's attorney have no place in the courtroom.

Wherefore, the State asks for a ruling that during trial the attorney for Defendant refer to the State's attorney by title or name. Those titles or names are General Rettig, the Assistant District Attorney General, Mrs. Rettig, or simply the State of Tennessee.
It is fun to play with this. On one level it is distressing seeing professionals behaving as grade school children - "make him quit calling me names."

On another level it is distressing that Government has become so clearly a pejorative word that it is probably a legitimate concern that the term could be considered prejudicial in some fashion.

On yet another level, it is distressing that the Government, with all its advantages and resources, should seek to tilt the field further in its favor by circumscribing speech.

But Drew Justice (yes he's a real attorney and that is his real name), the plaintiff's attorney appears to have the right attitude. Treat bullying and hauteur and seekers of special privilege with derision and mockery. His response to the State's motion is here. He takes a couple of paragraphs at the lead to dispatch the State's position on legal grounds. But he doesn't then stop there.
Should this Court disagree, and feel inclined to let the parties basically pick their own designations and ban words, then the defense has a few additional suggestions for amending the speech code. First, the Defendant no longer wants to be called "the Defendant." This rather archaic term of art, obviously has a fairly negative connotation. It unfairly demeans, and dehumanizes Mr. Donald Powell. The word "defendant" should be banned. At trial, Mr. Powell hereby demands be addressed only by his full name, preceded by the title "Mister." Alternatively, he may be called simply "the Citizen Accused." This latter title sounds more respectable than the criminal "Defendant." The designation "That innocent man" would also be acceptable.

Moreover, defense counsel does not wish to be referred to as a "lawyer," or a "defense attorney." Those terms are substantially more prejudicial than probative. See Tenn. R. Evid. 403. Rather, counsel for the Citizen Accused should be referred to primarily as the "Defender of the Innocent." This title seems particularly appropriate, because every Citizen Accused is presumed innocent. Alternatively, counsel would also accept the designation "Guardian of the Realm."Further, the Citizen Accused humbly requests an appropriate military title for his own representative, to match that of the opposing counsel. Whenever addressed by name, the name "Captain Justice" will be appropriate. While less impressive than "General," still, the more humble term seems suitable. After all, the Captain represents only a Citizen Accused, whereas the General represents an entire State.

Along these same lines, even the term "defense" does not sound very likeable. The whole idea of being defensive, comes across to most people as suspicious. So to prevent the jury from being unfairly misled by this ancient English terminology, the opposition to the Plaintiff hereby names itself "the Resistance." Obviously, this terminology need only extend throughout the duration of the trial — not to any pre-trial motions. During its heroic struggle against the State, the Resistance goes on the attack, not just the defense.

WHEREFORE, Captain Justice, Guardian of the Realm and Leader of the Resistance, primarily asks that the Court deny the State's motion, as lacking legal basis. Alternatively, the Citizen Accused moves for an order in limine modifying the speech code as aforementioned, and requiring any other euphemisms and feel-good terms as the Court finds appropriate.

Law is always a strange meeting place between philosophy and reality

There was a Supreme Court case on Tuesday the 15th, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, yet another in defense of Affirmative Action. This one is particularly convoluted and is probably best summarized by Ilya Somin and Lyle Denniston.

Basically, the voters of Michigan passed a state constitutional amendment by 58-42% banning discrimination or preferential treatment on the basis of "race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin." It is anticipated that this will have the most immediate impact on Universities. That has put the ACLU and other parties in the case in the peculiar, to my mind, position of having to argue that it should be permissible for the government to discriminate and provide preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. Law is always a strange meeting place between philosophy and reality.

What caught my eye in the reports was an exchange between one of the lead attorneys and the Justices which is the first time I have seen academic hothouse ideology front and center in a national forum. Specifically, there has long been a popular parlance in the groves of academe regarding the inherently racist nature of America (government and culture) and the pervasive influence of "the Patrimony." Both of these get short handed into references to privilege; white privilege and male privilege specifically. Worst of all, white male privilege.

In many ways, this particular world view, as far as I can tell, has been treated as an eccentric child. On the rare occasions that it is rolled out, polite responsible company avert their eyes, talk louder, and do their best to ignore the antics. The embarrassment for people so steeped in this world view is that it is so patently shallow and unsupported by reality. The struggles to make the ideology fit even the most rudimentary data are a herculean game of twister. A few writers such as the economist Thomas Sowell, seemingly as a form of civic duty, keeps knocking down the arguments but facts are of little consequence where creed and belief are involved.

But this is the first time I have seen the academic vision of privilege out in public in a reputable forum, in this instance, before the justices of the Supreme Court. Shanta Driver was one of the lead attorneys for those seeking to overturn the Michigan amendment outlawing discrimination.
Driver: We ask this Court to uphold the Sixth Circuit decision to reaffirm the doctrine that's expressed in Hunter-Seattle, and to bring the 14th Amendment back to its original purpose and meaning, which is to protect minority rights against a white majority, which did not occur in this case.

Scalia: My goodness, I thought we've--we've held that the 14th Amendment protects all races. I mean, that was the argument in the early years, that it protected only--only the blacks. But I thought we rejected that. You--you say now that we have to proceed as though its purpose is not to protect whites, only to protect minorities?

Driver: I think it is--it's a measure that's an antidiscrimination measure.

Scalia: Right.

Driver: And it's a measure in which the question of discrimination is determined not just by--by power, by who has privilege in this society, and those minorities that are oppressed, be they religious or racial, need protection from a more privileged majority.

Scalia: And unless that exists, the 14th Amendment is not violated; is that right? So if you have a banding together of various minority groups who discriminate against--against whites, that's okay?

Driver: I think that--

Scalia: Do you have any case of ours that propounds that view of the 14th Amendment, that it protects only minorities? Any case?

Driver: No case of yours.
I don't think it was a particularly successful outing.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

This experience suggests that more notable than any loss of credibility was a simple failure to achieve debt reduction

From A One-Off Capital Levy? from the Financial Times. Profligate governments also tend to be crisis driven governments. They don't plan, they simply address the problem in front of them. When they get close to the cliff they take extraordinary actions which almost inevitably backfire as described below. The root cause is almost always profligate spending and poor planning. Increasing real growth by a single percentage point (reducing regulatory issues, tax burdens, etc.) and balancing the budget (so that you keep from making the financial hole deeper) are the best ways to solve the problem of weak government finances but almost every government will do everything it can to keep from making those hard decisions. As we have seen most recently in Cyprus, Poland and Greece, there is a strong inclination to simply confiscate the wealth of citizens to "solve" the problem. But does it work?
There is a surprisingly large amount of experience to draw on, as such levies were widely adopted in Europe after World War I and in Germany and Japan after World War II. Reviewed by Eichengreen (1990), this experience suggests that more notable than any loss of credibility was a simple failure to achieve debt reduction, largely because the delay in introduction gave space for extensive avoidance and capital flight - in turn spurring inflation.

The tax rates needed to bring down public debt to precise levels, moreover, are sizeable: reducing debt ratios to end-2007 levels would require (for a sample of 15 euro area countries) a tax rate of about 10 percent on households with positive net wealth.
Yikes! And that isn't to get rid of the accumulated debt, that's only to bring it back to the earlier unacceptable levels.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

We say of some things . . . that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do --- we do it all the time.

Not through aversion but prioritization, there is little literary fiction on my shelves. Lawrence Durrell, John Gardner, Robert Graves, Robertson Davies, a few others as well as some odds and bobs. There is so much I wish to know that most the space is taken up by science, history, travel writers, poetry, philosophy, exploration, archaeology, economics, etc. There are drifts of books around the house, not on bookshelves but pulled out to be gotten to soon. But so many, that soon is never as soon as I would like. So where is there space and time for literary fiction?

Alice Munro, a name I know and recognize but have never read, has just won the Nobel Prize for literature. As a consequence there are a flurry of reviews. This one comes as close to making me want to add another book in line as I ever come; Reading Alice Munro by Jesse Kornbluth.

Kornbluth achieves this in part by letting Munro speak for herself. He opens with a passage from her most recent book, Dear Life.
I did not go home for my mother's last illness or for her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. We say of some things that they can't be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do --- we do it all the time.
What a beautifully true last line. She's on my radar screen now.

Monday, October 28, 2013

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance

From The Rock by T.S. Eliot
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

If people cannot reach the top of one ladder, they climb a different one.

From Snakes’ heads and dragons’ tails from The Economist (h/t Tyler Cowen). Read the whole thing as a caution to many contemporary issues. South Korea is in some ways the canary in the coalmine.
South Korea’s success has been deep but not wide. Almost half of its population lives, works and competes in Seoul. Its occupational structure is also narrow. The number of professions in South Korea is only two-thirds of the number in Japan and only 38% of that in America. This striking statistic is not lost on the South Korean government (few are). It has appointed a task force to foster 500 promising occupations, such as veterinary nurse, chiropractor and private detective.

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, once pointed out that America has more than 3,000 halls of fame, honouring everyone from sportsmen to accountants. If people cannot reach the top of one ladder, they climb a different one. In South Korea, by contrast, people share a common definition of success. Everyone is clambering up the same set of rungs, aspiring to the same prizes and fearing similar failures. Those who say they are trying for something else are not quite believed. “People would rather be the tail of a dragon than the head of a snake,” as one journalist put it.

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop

Unfamiliar Quotations by Herbert Stein. Herbert Stein was an economist and originator of Herbert Stein's Law, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop," often restated as "Trends that can't continue, won't." Here, he has a great admonition, which he conveys through a quotation, not to waste time arguing with those who have chosen to forgo discourse for conviction.
If you meet a madman who says that he is a fish and that we are all fishes, do you take off your clothes to show him that you do not have fins?
--Milan Kundera, Risibles Amours, 1984
I love this in part because I am proud that I translated it from the French, which, in turn, was translated from the Czech. But I love it even more because it has saved me so much trouble. In the past when I encountered some outlandish inanity--often about taxes--I would sit down at my keyboard and write an answer. I am still tempted to do that, but since I encountered that quotation, I have resisted.

You may ask: How will I know if he is a madman? The answer is: Don't worry, you'll know. And if you are in doubt, assume he is mad and leave the refutation to others. You have plenty to do in the world without having to worry about debating people who may be mad.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Negative ideologies as self-fulfilling theories

The other day I posted The power of storytelling versus the power of the story. In that post I had an extensive quote from the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt (I suggest reading the whole post before proceeding). Among his comments:
When a crisis strikes, people cope in three primary ways: active coping (taking direct action to fix the problem), reappraisal (doing the work within — getting one's own thoughts right and looking for silver linings), and avoidance coping (working to blunt one's emotional reactions by denying or avoiding the events, or by drinking, drugs, and other distractions).
Optimists address negative externalities primarily through active coping and reappraisal. All well and good. Then he observes that pessimists deal with negative exogenous shocks differently.
In contrast, people who have a relatively negative affective style (complete with more activity in the front right cortex than the front left) live in a world filled with many more threats and have less confidence that they can deal with them. They develop a coping style that relies more heavily on avoidance and other defense mechanisms. They work harder to manage their pain than to fix their problems, so their problems often get worse.

Drawing the lesson that the world is unjust and uncontrollable, and that things often work out for the worst, they weave this lesson into their life story where it contaminates the narrative.
Here are a couple of other articles, books and research affirming Haidt's position - Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain by Jill Suttie and Pessimism Is Hazardous to Health, a Study Says by Philip J. Hilts.

So what happens when one's preferred ideological position is based on and depends on an assumption that "the world is unjust and uncontrollable, and that things often work out for the worst"? Does such an ideology attract only pessimists? Does it attract a normal distribution of people but does it then morph their approach to a negative affective style?

I have been reading up on a couple of academic ideologies that are pertinent to a variety of arguments that often arise in the field of children's literature (principally the degree to which children's perceptions are shaped primarily by storybooks and the putative racial/gender stereotypes therein.) The two specific ideologies are Critical Race Theory and particular arguments out of women's studies fields regarding Patriarchy. Both presume a fixed and negative external reality ostensibly inhospitable to the needs and aspirations of respectively, racial minorities and women. Part of the interesting aspect of both these theories is that in their abstract form, they are irrefutable in the sense that their predicate and unproven assumptions prevent them from being able to make testable forecasts. The other interesting aspect is that they continue to exert traction in some side conversations of the vox populi despite the overwhelming evidence against so many of their predicate assumptions.

So the irony to me has been that academically popular explanations which have such weak empirical grounds should have so much stamina, at least within the halls of academia. My assumption has been that these relatively weakly supported ideas have continued primarily because they only exist within the protected halls of academia, that outside that arena, other than in some segments of media, there is very little credence given to the arguments of CRT and adherents of Patriarchy as a negative force.

Haidt's observation provides another perspective. CRT posits that America (and any majority white governance) is inherently and necessarily suppressive of people of color. Patriarchists argue that all significant forms of disparate male-female achievement can be attributed to the suppression inherent in social patriarchy. Neither ideology seeks to validate or refute alternative explanations. Both positions are empirically and objectively refutable.

Haidt's observation suggests that perhaps the ideologues of both CRT and Patriarchy may have a different perspective that blinds them to the empirical objective data.

If you believe in an ideology that tells you that "the world is unjust and uncontrollable, and that things often work out for the worst" then you are likely, per Haidt, to adopt a different and less effective coping mechanism when dealing with the statistically inevitable range of exogenous shocks to which everyone is subject. If that is the case, then such ideological adherents will indeed see from direct experience that things do work out for the worst (because they have adopted a less effective coping mechanism). Therefore, through belief in their ideology, they do indeed experience lesser Life Outcomes than those of a more positive bent. Even though they might be confronted by statistical data indicating that their premises are incorrect for the greater population (i.e. those that do not subscribe to their belief set), those premises will have been affirmed to the ideologues, and their direct experience is allowed to trump objective data.

And that isn't irrational. There are plenty of occasions where objective empirical data is indeed wrong for a variety of reasons (poor definitions, poor measurement, corrupted measurement mechanisms, etc.)

Where this leads us though, if what Haidt says is true, is that adherents to a pessimistic ideology are likely to in fact have, on average, lesser life outcomes simply because of their belief (via the mechanism of their preferred but inferior coping technique.) You end up with the majority view being empirically true for the whole population average but the negative ideology have their beliefs affirmed empirically at the same time for their individual persons, even if it is primarily because of those beliefs.

So maybe the sustenance of these negative ideologies is not simply a matter of academic hot housing but is also empirically true for the practitioners of those beliefs because of what those beliefs drive them towards (ineffective coping).

But those who cannot take the measure of true stature diminish themselves

From Where Have All the Geniuses Gone? by Darrin M. McMahon.
A culture that prostrates before idols makes itself small. But those who cannot take the measure of true stature diminish themselves. In an age as suspicious of greatness as our own, perhaps it is time to recognize that for all the perversion of the cult of genius in the past, it did preserve a sense of wonder in the face of human possibility, an exhilarating sense of awe at being—and being transcendent—in the world. We relinquish that wonder at a cost.
and later, concluding,
Instead we are left with what we have today, the sanctimonious praise of "excellence" (how that word has been abused) and a form of intellectual celebrity that, in practice, is not far removed from the genius of popular culture. A constellation of stars, a world of fashions, an ebb and flow of trends, a new group of MacArthur fellows. No one doubts their merits, but surely not so many geniuses are created in a year, and surely not so many of them reside in the United States. In a world without a genuine appreciation of genius, this is what we get—excellence by committee and blind peer review. And with it, a nagging sense of nostalgia for a world that could stand to wonder and marvel a little more.

Faith is a sure confidence of things which are hoped for and a certainty of things which are not seen

A succinct and crisp explanation of The Unavoidability of Faith by Miles Kimball.

Logic and data takes us only so far in our decision-making process, frequently not far enough. There are many circumstances where the necessity of a decision is unavoidable - you have to decide even though you are ill-equipped to do so and have too little pertinent data.

Kimball quotes Hebrews 11:1, William Tyndale’s translation with modern spelling.
Faith is a sure confidence of things which are hoped for and a certainty of things which are not seen.
One might be tempted to think of faith as a Bayesian prior. But it isn’t that simple. In Bayesian decision-making, “prior beliefs” are left unexplained. But in the real world they come from different ways of responding to and reasoning about past experience. New data sometimes simply updates prior beliefs within the same paradigm, as Bayesian theory suggests. But other times, new data upends the thin tissue of reasoning and reaction that was crucial for the formation of those prior beliefs, resulting in a much bigger change in views than straightforward Bayesian updating would imply. And sometimes additional reasoning—in the absence of any additional data whatsoever—can dramatically change one’s views.

A simpler point is that what is prior to one set of events is posterior to earlier events. Putting both points together, faith is what one believes at a given moment in time, however one has managed to cobble together those beliefs.

In situations where one is willing to think of one choice as inaction, with costly actions having debatable benefits, one can distinguish between a “belief in nothing” that leads one to continue in inaction, and a “belief in something” that leads one to act. When proponents of action say “Have faith!” they are advocating a belief in a high enough marginal product of action to make it worth the costs.
We all like to believe that our beliefs are founded on rock solid rationality and empirical data but usually we are running on a rich mix of assumption and opinion, garnished with some occasional facts.

Extracting value from skills

There are many environmental and economic reasons to be concerned about the blossoming of fracking technology but this post (Lithuania Scares Away It Only Shale Gas Suitor) from Walter Russell Mead highlights again one of the so often overlooked economic multipliers of the US economy, its robust and reasonably stable political and legislative infrastructure. De Soto and other economists have done some good work in this area but by and large it goes unremarked.
Lithuania, Poland, and Mexico’s troubles define the contours of an all too often overlooked ingredient to the American success story: a comprehensible, consistent and, for the most part, transparent regulatory environment. Countries that lack this ingredient find it immensely difficult to attract foreign companies interested in taking on the high-risk/high-reward task of drilling for shale oil and gas.
This is, I think, linked to the recent OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills. The report has an agenda, as always, and there are a lot of methodological questions. I suspect the broad observations are somewhat on mark though. Their first finding is:
What people know has a major impact on their life opportunities. Our study confirms that knowledge is destiny. On average across countries, the median hourly wage of workers who get high scores in our literacy test - Level 4 or 5, meaning that they can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle arguments in written texts - is more than 60% higher than the hourly wage of workers who score at Level 1 or below - meaning those who can, at best, read relatively short texts and understand basic vocabulary. Those with poor literacy skills are also more than twice as likely to be unemployed. In short, poor skills severely limit people’s access to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs. It works the same way for nations. The Skills Survey shows that the distribution of skills relates closely to how the benefits of economic growth are shared within societies.
This confirms to me that we need a significant sea change in the orientation of our social policies. It is nice and to a degree necessary to have a robust social safety net to assist the disabled, aged, incapacitated, etc. But we have spent so long on that task, and with some degree of success, that we have lost sight of the other as important goal which is to assist people in making themselves productive. It is the age old teach them to fish issue. We have focused on security of the safety net, as we ought, but need to focus on helping people make themselves productive.

While there is a tremendous lift to be accomplished in that regard, compared to others we aren't doing too bad.
All this said, skills are only valuable when they are used effectively, and the Skills Survey shows that not all countries are good at making effective use of their talent. In fact, some perform much better than others. For example, while the US and England have a limited skills base, they are extracting good value from it. The reverse is true for Japan, where rigid labour-market arrangements prevent many high-skilled individuals, most notably women, from reaping the rewards that should accrue to them.
Undoubtedly part of the reason for the US making better use of its more limited skills resources is the labor force flexibility and regulatory stability and transparency.

Check your privilege contending with Check your conscience

From Book Review of David and Goliath by Tracy Quan.
It’s not just that people misread state power. It’s worse. By positioning yourself as the underdog, you can humiliate others, destroy lives, misuse your government’s power and maybe even get a bad law passed. People who see their struggles in David and Goliath terms are naive and often dangerous. Sometimes, as Gladwell shows us, they influence the justice system and create lasting damage.

On Twitter and elsewhere, “Check your privilege” has become the underdog’s political putdown du jour, a stone in every David’s virtual sling. Underdogs exist across the political spectrum—left, right, libertarian, feminist, antifeminist—and they have more in common than they care to admit. I don’t know whether Gladwell would agree with me, but I think the time has come for every David to check his conscience. Or hers.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Software systems are perhaps the most intricate and complex of the things humanity makes

The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks is much in the news at the moment given the regrettable circumstances of the deployment of Having been responsible to a client for the deployment of a 27 country, three continent, 50 business units, multiple languages, hundreds of systems, solution to Y2K with a hard stop delivery date (1/1/00) which included a major organizational divestiture in the midst of the project and which was initiated concerningly near to the hard stop date, I have every sympathy for the programmers of That said, as complex as their task was, it was certainly achievable at levels of quality and reliability much higher than was delivered.

Brooks is the man that has probably best synthesized the panoply of issues associated with big systems creation, deployment and management. There are other, more detailed or more current treatments of elements of the process but he does a good job of an overview. In the second edition of his book in 1995, he added a chapter outlining his major propositions, inviting others to more rigorously test what he was proposing as true. Brooks states that "Software systems are perhaps the most intricate and complex of the things humanity makes" and he is not far wrong as software is intended to both mimic human systems as well as make up for the fallibility and errors inherent in human systems.

The whole book is worth reading and in particular, Chapter 18, the summary of propositions. Excerpted below are the fifteen propositions and snippets of Brooks' commentary on each.

The Tar Pit
1.1 A programming systems product takes about nine times as much effort as the component programs written separately for private use. I estimate that productizing imposes a factor of three; and that designing, integrating, and testing components into a coherent system imposes a factor of three; and that these cost components are essentially independent of each other.
The Mythical Man-Month
2.1 More programming projects have gone awry for lack of calendar time than for all other causes combined.
2.2 Good cooking takes time; some tasks cannot be hurried without spoiling the result.
2.3 All programmers are optimists: "All will go well."
2.4 Because the programmer builds with pure thought-stuff, we expect few difficulties in implementation.
2.5 But our ideas themselves are faulty, so we have bugs.
2.11 Brooks's Law: Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.
The Surgical Team
3.1 Very good professional programmers are ten times as productive as poor ones, at same training and two-year experience level. (Sackman, Grant, and Erickson)
3.3 A small sharp team is best—as few minds as possible.
3.4 A team of two, with one leader, is often the best use of minds.
3.5 A small sharp team is too slow for really big systems.
3.6 Most experiences with really large systems show the brute-force approach to scaling up to be costly, slow, inefficient, and to produce systems that are not conceptually integrated.
Aristocracy, Democracy, and System Design
4.1 "Conceptual integrity is the most important consideration in system design."
4.3 To achieve conceptual integrity, a design must proceed from one mind or a small group of agreeing minds.
4.5 "If a system is to have conceptual integrity, someone must control the concepts. That is an aristocracy that needs no apology."
The Second-System Effect
5.1 Early and continuous communication can give the architect good cost readings and the builder confidence in the design, without blurring the clear division of responsibilities.
Passing the Word
6.1 Even when a design team is large, the results must be reduced to writing by one or two, in order that the minidecisions be consistent.
6.3 One needs both a formal definition of a design, for precision, and a prose definition for comprehensibility.
Why Did the Tower of Babel Fail?
7.2 "Schedule disaster, functional misfit, and system bugs all arise because the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing." Teams drift apart in assumptions.
Calling the Shot
8.2 Data for building isolated small systems are not applicable to programming systems projects.
8.2 Data for building isolated small systems are not applicable
to programming systems projects.
Ten Pounds in a Five-Pound Sack
9.6 On large teams, subteams tend to suboptimize to meet their own targets rather than think about the total effect on the user. This breakdown in orientation is a major hazard of large projects.
The Documentary Hypothesis
10.1 "The hypothesis: Amid a wash of paper, a small number of documents become the critical pivots around which every project's management revolves. These are the manager's chief personal tools."
Plan to Throw One Away
11.1 Chemical engineers have learned not to take a process from the lab bench to the factory in one step, but to build a pilot plant to give experience in scaling quantities up and operating in nonprotective environments.
Sharp Tools
12.1 The manager of a project needs to establish a philosophy and set aside resources for the building of common tools, and at the same time to recognize the need for personalized tools.
The Whole and the Parts
13.2 Vyssotsky says "Many, many failures concern exactly those aspects that were never quite specified."
13.3 Long before any code itself, the specification must be handed to an outside testing group to be scrutinized for completeness and clarity. The developers themselves cannot do this. (Vyssotsky)
Hatching a Catastrophe
14.1 "How does a project get to be a year late? . . . One day at a time."
14.2 Day-by-day schedule slippage is harder to recognize, harder to prevent, and harder to make up than calamities.
The Other Face
15.1 For the program product, the other face to the user, the documentation, is fully as important as the face to the machine.
15.2 Even for the most private of programs, prose documentation is necessary, for memory will fail the user-author.

Eldest son preference and preferences

Why Are Indian Children Shorter Than African Children? by Seema Jayachandran and Rohini Pande.

It is wonderful that there are people investigating phenomenon you don't even know exist. Always with the five questions of the discussion pyramid, but holding that in abeyance, here is the abstract.
Height-for-age among children is lower in India than in Sub-Saharan Africa. This presents a puzzle since India is richer than the average African country and fares better on most other development indicators including infant mortality. Using data from African and Indian Demographic and Health Surveys, we document three facts. First, among firstborns, Indians are actually taller than Africans; the Indian height disadvantage appears with the second child and increases with birth order. Second, investments in successive pregnancies and higher birth order children decline faster
in India than Africa. Third, the India-Africa birth order gradient in child height appears to vary with sibling gender. These three facts suggest that parental preferences regarding higher birth order children, driven in part by cultural norms of eldest son preference, underlie much of India's child stunting.
I didn't know this phenomenon existed. The three facts are unexpected (to me). More data and replication might provide different answers but my take away is that our understanding of the breadth and importance of culture on outcomes is woefully inadequate.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Business hygiene and habits

From The Eisenhower Decision Matrix: How to Distinguish Between Urgent and Important Tasks and Make Real Progress in Your Life by Brett and Kate McKay.

A very useful framework and prism for viewing an issue. Reading their essay made me look at past actions with new terms. As an executive, whenever I was tasked with “fixing” a business unit, my immediate focus in the first two months was 1) Do I have the right people in the right roles for the outcomes that need to be achieved and 2) What is the state of the business hygiene. The first is a set of relatively obvious (though difficult to diagnose and treat) issues. The second was to me always the low hanging fruit.

What constitutes business hygiene? It is the degree to which routine business functions are habitualized.
• Are clients being billed on a regularly scheduled basis?
• Are outstanding balances being collected?
• Are there uncollectible amounts sitting on the books that should be written off?
• Are we providing scheduled updates on project status to clients?
• Are we providing routine personnel reviews?
• Are we executing and tracking the actions agreed in each executive meeting?
• Are we conducting routine project quality reviews?
• Do all our projects have a contract?
• Is everybody accurately reporting their time and expenses in a timely fashion?
• Are employees being promptly reimbursed?
• Etc.
It is astonishing how often these basic blocking-and-tackling functions can degrade over time without anyone noticing. The consequence is that what should be routine, habitual actions to which you pay no thought, begins to be a process for generating urgent issues that distract you from dealing with the important things. So whenever I took up responsibility for a new business unit, that was the first month of activities; doing a health check on the business hygiene and putting actions in place to fix any outstanding maladies. Not dealing with the basics first often meant that months two, three and four of the turnaround would go much more slowly because too much time was being spent putting out unnecessary fires arising from bad habits/poor business hygiene.

This matrix suggests a very useful self-audit - where am I actually investing my time and am I getting the return I expect from that investment? Most likely past circumstances and unconsciously evolved habits are driving more of your time into unproductive quadrants than is desirable and forming new and different habits can address that misallocation of your most precious resource, time.

Righteous Stupidity

A sense of proportion from Karl Popper in Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, page 368.
It seems to me certain that more people are killed out of righteous stupidity than out of wickedness.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless

From In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal by Adam Bryant.

Talent spotting, in sports, in finance, in education, in virtually all fields, is notoriously difficult and unreliable. We are still substantially doing a try-it-and-see approach. That is fine if there is a reliable way to measure superior performance, good transparency, and accountability. Absent those three requirements, and you usually end up with a workforce increasingly inappropriate to the task at hand.

An interesting comment from the SVP of People Operations at Google.
Q. Other insights from the data you’ve gathered about Google employees?

A. One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.

What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.
A very clear and forthright assertion.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Carthage must be destroyed

From "In my mid-adolescence... I became obsessed with William F. Buckley." by Ann Althouse. Though she has struggled in the past year, Professor Althouse often has very good discussions among her commenters.

In this post she is criticizing Malcolm Gladwell for, in an interview, instinctively paying obeisance to his perceived audience by mildly walking back his comments and throwing his family and community under the culturally privileged bus.

Carl comments:
I'm reminded of reading an editorial in The Daily Californian, the student newspaper at Berkeley. It was the 80s, and apartheid was all the on-campus rage among the 30-second-attention-span set, which includes a lot of people when you're in your 20s and full of raging hormones.

Anyway, this student journalist lamented that he could not write anything at all unless he took care to make it all about how evil apartheid was, and the struggle to rid the world of its scourge the Manichaen truth of the era. He solved his problem (in this editorial) by ending every sentence with "...and apartheid is evil." As in, "Yesterday I went to the laundromat and apartheid is evil, and afterward I wanted some coffee so (apartheid being evil) I went to the coffee shop..."
Marshall then observes:
He solved his problem (in this editorial) by ending every sentence with "...and apartheid is evil.

An old tradition rediscovered.

Carthago delenda est
Wikipedia explains, Carthago delenda est
is a Latin oratorical phrase which was in popular use in the Roman Republic in the 2nd Century BC during the latter years of the Punic Wars against Carthage, by the party urging a foreign policy which sought to eliminate any further threat to the Roman Republic from its ancient rival Carthage, which had been defeated twice before and had a tendency after each defeat to rapidly rebuild its strength and engage in further warfare. It represented a policy of the extirpation of the enemies of Rome who engaged in aggression, and the rejection of the peace treaty as a means of ending conflict. The phrase was most famously uttered frequently and persistently almost to the point of absurdity by the Roman senator Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), as a part of his speeches.
An old device with a lot of life left in it, given that so many arguments today are not arguments at all but simply monotonous recitations of belief, much like the tourist, with great consideration, speaking louder and slower so that those thick foreigners can better understand English.

Changing policies is easy compared to changing values and behaviors.

I have argued frequently that we should be focusing as much attention on helping the poor improve their productivity (income generation) as on simply protecting them from poverty (income transfer) and that much of the basis for improving productivity is related to values and behaviors (culture) as it is about specific skills and knowledge. We see evidence for this in the dramatically different life outcomes experienced by different ethnic emigrant groups. There is little evidence to support that the system is discriminatory based on color but much evidence to support that the system discriminates based on values and behaviors.

A report from the Urban Institute this past Spring provides further evidence supporting my argument. It also is an excellent example of the causal density and complexity of life outcomes. The report examines trends in wealth versus income.

From Less Than Equal: Racial Disparities in Wealth Accumulation by Signe-Mary McKernan, Caroline Ratcliffe, Eugene Steuerle, and Sisi Zhang.
Policymakers often focus on income and overlook wealth,1 but consider: the racial wealth gap is three times larger than the racial income gap. Such great wealth disparities help explain why many middle-income blacks and Hispanics
haven’t seen much improvement in their relative economic status and, in fact, are at greater risk of sliding backwards.

Wealth is not just for the wealthy. The poor can have wealth too—and that wealth can accrue over time or provide collateral for borrowing, giving families a way to move up and out of poverty. A home or a car can offer benefits far beyond their cash value. And even a small amount of savings can help families avoid falling into a vicious cycle of debt when a job loss or financial emergency hits.


There is extraordinary wealth inequality between the races. In 2010, whites on average had six times the wealth of blacks and Hispanics (figure 2). So for every $6.00 whites had in wealth, blacks and Hispanics had $1.00 (or average wealth of $632,000 versus $103,000).2

The income gap, by comparison, is much smaller. In 2010, the average income for whites was twice that of blacks and Hispanics ($89,000 versus $46,000), meaning that for every $2.00 whites earned, blacks and Hispanics earned $1.00.
Its worth reading the details. There are a lot of subtleties embedded in this issue.

I think one of the inferences is about the habits of saving and the effectiveness of financial decision-making. For example, everyone took a hit during the financial crisis but different groups were affected by different magnitudes. As the report indicates, some of this was owing to the difference in asset profiles. But what else is going on here? Lots of basis for speculation but concrete answers would be preferable. The fact that wealth accumulation gaps increase by age suggest that there is more than just asset profile at work. Likely it has to do with savings rates but that isn't addressed.

The authors of the report seem to endorse that there are two separate issues 1) differences in wealth accumulation and wealth management habits/decisions between the groups and 2) that there are likely federal policy issues that have specific and unintended negative impacts or trade-offs.
Families of color were disproportionately affected by the recession. However, the fact that they were not on good wealth-building paths before this financial crisis calls into question whether a whole range of policies (from tax to safety net) have actually been helping minorities get ahead in the modern economy. More fundamentally, it raises the question of whether social welfare policies pay too little attention to wealth building and mobility relative to consumption and income.

Because Hispanics and blacks are disproportionately low income, their wealth building is strongly affected by policies aimed at low-income families. Right now, safety net policies emphasize consumption: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example, try to ensure that families have enough food to eat and other basic necessities. Many safety net programs even discourage saving: families can become ineligible if they have a few thousand dollars in savings. Wealth-building policies, on the other hand, are delivered as tax subsidies for homeownership and retirement. Since families of color are less likely to be able to use these subsidies, they benefit little or not at all.


A common misconception is that poor or even low-income families cannot save. Research and evidence from savings programs shows they can. When we examined families living below the poverty level, we found that over a decade more than 40 percent were able to increase their net worth and save enough to escape asset poverty—in other words, they had enough assets to live at the poverty level for three months without income (about $3,000 for an individual and $6,000 for a family of four).

The federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars each year to support long-term asset development. But these asset building subsidies primarily benefit high income families, while low-income families receive next to nothing. Reforming policies like the mortgage interest tax deduction so it benefits all families, and helping families enroll in automatic savings vehicles, will help improve wealth inequality and promote saving opportunities for all Americans.
There is no easy answer to a very complex issue. Where the authors focus on what aspects of federal policies might need to be adjusted to achieve better wealth accumulation results, I suspect that those adjustments might have a negative impact on poverty protection. More critically, the evidence advanced in the report seems to indicate that the biggest issue behind the wealth gap is cultural (habits of saving and risk management) rather than anything related to policies. Policies are hard to change but it can be done, but changing policies is easy compared to changing values and behaviors.

The world is a complex system, full of non-linear relationships, feedback loops and tipping points.

Niall Ferguson has an extended set of articles discussing civility in public debate with particular attention paid to the behavior of Paul Krugman. There is a common bullying posture in pundit professors such as Krugman and Harold Bloom in which they seem to spend a lot of time in ad hominem attacks on others as a means of bolstering their own credibility. It is a little bit odd. They are professors from reputable universities, it would seem sufficient to simply make their argument without indulging in vitriol and destruction.

However, Ferguson has an interesting passage on the larger context.
The historian's world is a complex system, full of non-linear relationships, feedback loops and tipping points. There is more chaos than simple causation. There is more uncertainty than calculable risk. For that reason, there is simply no way that anyone - even Paul Krugman - can consistently make accurate predictions about the future. There is, indeed, no such thing as the future, just plausible futures, to which we can only attach rough probabilities. This is a caveat I would like ideally to attach to all forward-looking conjectural statements that I make. It is the reason I do not expect always to be right. Indeed, I expect often to be wrong. Success is about having the judgment and luck to be right more often than you are wrong.

On both Europe and the approach of the financial crisis, I would say that - unlike Paul Krugman - I was right more often than I was wrong. But so what? When investors and fund managers are right more often than they are wrong, they are rewarded - handsomely. When they are wrong more often than they are right, they lose money or clients, usually both. The world of public intellectuals is different. Using their academic credibility to pontificate about the future, professor-pundits can be wrong again and again without losing money or their tenured jobs. Many distinguished and lucrative careers have been based on just such a pattern of unpunished error. By the same token, the returns on being right are surprisingly low. A book sells because its prediction fits the mood of the moment. The author may get a bonus - in the form of additional sales - if he turns out to be right. But he doesn't have to return the royalty checks if he turns out to be dead wrong.

So we public intellectuals should not brag too loudly when we get things right. Nor should we condemn too harshly the predictions of others that are subsequently falsified by events. The most that we can do in this unpredictable world is read as widely and deeply as we can, think seriously, and then exchange ideas in a humble and respectful manner.
I was thinking about the paradox of academic freedom and insularity just the other day. I believe that one of the great benefits of the American University system is its capacity to insulate intelligent people from the hurly burly of the world which is "too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." You need variation in any system in order to adjust and evolve and universities, with their tenure and insulation give leeway for new ideas to blossom outside the harsh selection process of the market. BUT . . .

That very protection also fosters ideas which not only are wrong (i.e. wouldn't survive in the real world), but which can be immensely destructive and detrimental. Marxism in its various forms leaps to mind as an intellectual construct which, when ported into the real world, inflicted great death and suffering wherever it was adopted. Lesser conceits out of the hothouse of academia that retard progress include some of the more extreme forms of feminism, critical race theory, liberation theology, and others.

The paradox is that academic hot housing does generate ideation and variation but in that process, absent any accountability, some of those ideas can develop so far that they end up imposing costs on people in the real world.

So how do you protect academics so that they can foster new and creative thinking (i.e. free them from the constraints of accountability) but at the same time ensure that there is a modicum of reality in amongst their ideas? I don't know, but I think that is the nut that needs cracking.

Monday, October 21, 2013

We find no theoretical or empirical justification

I don't think this is a function of Frequency Illusion but it does seem as if the examples of shoddy and irresponsible research, most frequently in the fields of psychology and sociology, are coming thick and fast. These are legitimate fields but it seems as if they are becoming deeply tainted by some underlying fabulism, hidden through prevarication and dissimulation.

Recent examples include The power of storytelling versus the power of the story, The data doesn't support our argument so we will bait and switch our terms, Literary cognitive disonance or oversight?, Cognitive pollution galore, and It simply fails to remove the plausibility of that hypothesis. That's all in the past week or so.

The most recent expose - Nick Brown Smelled Bull by Vinnie Rotondaro. The article is in regard to positive psychology and posits that people with a positivity ratio greater than 2.9013 are destined to flourish, below that ratio, to fail.
The theory was well credentialed. Now cited in academic journals over 350 times, it was first put forth in a 2005 paper by Barbara Fredrickson, a luminary of the positive psychology movement, and Marcial Losada, a Chilean management consultant, and published in the American Psychologist, the flagship peer-reviewed journal of the largest organization of psychologists in the U.S.
The debunking of the research on which the theory was constructed is laid out in The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking:
The Critical Positivity Ratio
by Nicholas J. L. Brown, Alan D. Sokal, and Harris L. Friedman. The abstract goes to the heart of the issue.
We examine critically the claims made by Fredrickson and Losada (2005) concerning the construct known as the “positivity ratio.” We find no theoretical or empirical justification for the use of differential equations drawn from fluid dynamics, a subfield of physics, to describe changes in human emotions over time; furthermore, we demonstrate that the purported application of these equations contains numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors. The lack of relevance of these equations and their incorrect application lead us to conclude that Fredrickson and Losada’s claim to have demonstrated the existence of a critical minimum positivity ratio of 2.9013 is entirely unfounded. More generally, we urge future researchers to exercise caution in the use of advanced mathematical tools such as nonlinear dynamics and in particular to verify that the elementary conditions for their valid application have been met.
So a fairytale theory with no supporting evidence is cited 350 times in the field as a foundational paper.

I know these guys are specialized practitioners in their fields, that they have spent far more time thinking about their subject and their experiments than have I, so when I see something that appears to be so slipshod, I have to ask, what am I missing? It appears that, way too often, I am not missing something. Our system of peer review and public critique of ideas is simply not functioning as it should.

Richard Feynman spoke of this issue where people generate incorrect information (cognitive pollution) in order to bolster their own belief sets or increase their status or attract grant funding, all regardless of scientific integrity. His term was Cargo Cult Science. From Cargo Cult Science by Richard Feynman.
I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they're missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school--we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

The power of storytelling versus the power of the story

I found an extended passage from Jonathan Haidt in his The Happiness Hypothesis, pages 146-148. Partly it is just good counsel well discussed. Partly, though, it is an interesting discussion about the importance of storytelling. I think his discussion might clarify something about which I have long been puzzled.

Some people get especially exercised about particular words, passages or messages in children's books and criticize them vehemently. I have always had the view that children's books are critically important in fostering the love of reading but that you cannot indict particular words or even an individual book as bad or wrong. It all depends on the circumstances. But the extreme positions taken by some people have somewhat puzzled me. There is no research that supports that there is negative harm arising from the presence or absence of particular words on individual children.

I am guessing that the power of storytelling described in this passage by Haidt is what is being entangled with particular messages. In other words, it might be true that people telling stories can be transforming but it is the power of the telling that is transformative, not necessarily the story itself. However, accepting the premise of the power of storytelling, it then becomes easier to see why some people become so enraged about particular stories: They believe in the power but ascribe it to the story and not the storytelling.
In Lerner's experiments, the desperate need to make sense of events can lead people to inaccurate conclusions (for example, a woman "led on" a rapist); but, in general, the ability to make sense of tragedy and then find benefit in it is the key that unlocks post-traumatic growth. When trauma strikes, some people find the key dangling around their necks with instructions printed on it. Others are left to fend for themselves, and they do not fend as well. Psychologists have devoted a great deal of effort to figuring out who benefits from trauma and who is crushed. The answer compounds the already great unfairness of life: Optimists are more likely to benefit than pessimists. Optimists are, for the most part, people who won the cortical lottery: They have a high happiness setpoint, they habitually look on the bright side, and they easily find silver linings. Life has a way of making the rich get richer and the happy get happier.

When a crisis strikes, people cope in three primary ways: active coping (taking direct action to fix the problem), reappraisal (doing the work within — getting one's own thoughts right and looking for silver linings), and avoidance coping (working to blunt one's emotional reactions by denying or avoiding the events, or by drinking, drugs, and other distractions).

People who have a basic-level trait of optimism (McAdams's level 1) tend to develop a coping style (McAdams's level 2) that alternates between active coping and reappraisal. Because optimists expect their efforts to payoff, they go right to work fixing the problem. But if they fail, they expect that things usually work out for the best, and so they can't help but look for possible benefits. When they find them, they write a new chapter in their life story (McAdams's level 3), a story of continual overcoming and growth.

In contrast, people who have a relatively negative affective style (complete with more activity in the front right cortex than the front left) live in a world filled with many more threats and have less confidence that they can deal with them. They develop a coping style that relies more heavily on avoidance and other defense mechanisms. They work harder to manage their pain than to fix their problems, so their problems often get worse.

Drawing the lesson that the world is unjust and uncontrollable, and that things often work out for the worst, they weave this lesson into their life story where it contaminates the narrative.

If you are a pessimist, you are probably feeling gloomy right now. But despair not! The key to growth is not optimism per se; it is the sensemaking that optimists find easy. If you can find a way to make sense of adversity and draw constructive lessons from it, you can benefit, too. And you can learn to become a sensemaker by reading Jamie Pennebaker's Opening Up. Pennebaker began his research by studying the relationship between trauma such as childhood sexual abuse, and later health problems.

Trauma and stress are usually bad for people, and Pennebaker thought that self-disclosure — talking with friends or therapists — might help the body at the same time that it helps the mind. One of his early hypotheses was that traumas that carry more shame, such as being raped (as opposed to a non-sexual assault) or losing a spouse to suicide (rather than to an accident), would produce more illness because people are less likely to talk about such events with others. But the nature of the trauma turned out to be almost irrelevant. What mattered was what people did afterward: Those who talked with their friends or with a support group were largely spared the health-damaging effects of trauma.

Once Pennebaker had found a correlation between disclosure and health, he took the next step in the scientific process and tried to create health benefits by getting people to disclose their secrets. Pennebaker asked people to write about "the most upsetting or traumatic experience of your entire life," preferably one they had not talked about with others in great detail. He gave them plenty of blank paper and asked them to keep writing for fifteen minutes, on four consecutive days. Subjects in a control group were asked to write about some other topic (for example, their houses, a typical work day) for the same amount of time. In each of his studies, Pennebaker got his subjects' permission to obtain their medical records at some point in the future.

Then he waited a year and observed how often people in the two groups got sick. The people who wrote about traumas went to the doctor or the hospital fewer times in the following year. I did not believe this result when I first heard it. How on earth could one hour of writing stave off the flu six months later? Pennebaker's results seemed to support an old-fashioned Freudian notion of catharsis: People who express their emotions, "get it off their chests" or "let off steam," are healthier. Having once reviewed the literature on the catharsis hypothesis, I knew that there was no evidence for it. Letting off steam makes people angrier, not calmer.

Pennebaker discovered that it's not about steam; it's about sense making.

The people in his studies who used their writing time to vent got no benefit.

The people who showed deep insight into the causes and consequences of the event on their first day of writing got no benefit, either: They had already made sense of things. It was the people who made progress across the four days, who showed increasing insight; they were the ones whose health improved over the next year. In later studies, Pennebaker asked people to dance or sing to express their emotions, but these emotionally expressive activities gave no health benefit. You have to use words, and the words have to help you create a meaningful story. If you can write such a story you can reap the benefits of reappraisal (one of the two healthy coping styles) even years after an event. You can close a chapter of your life that was still open, still affecting your thoughts and preventing you from moving on with the larger narrative.

Anyone, therefore, can benefit from adversity, although a pessimist will have to take some extra steps, some conscious, rider-initiated [conscious reason initiated] steps, to guide the elephant [the emotional, instinctive brain] gently in the right direction. The first step is to do what you can, before adversity strikes, to change your cognitive style. If you are a pessimist, consider meditation, cognitive therapy, or even Prozac. All three will make you less subject to negative rumination, more able to guide your thoughts in a positive direction, and therefore more able to withstand future adversity, find meaning in it, and grow from it. The second step is to cherish and build your social support network. Having one or two good attachment relationships helps adults as well as children (and rhesus monkeys) to face threats. Trusted friends who are good listeners can be a great aid to making sense and finding meaning. Third, religious faith and practice can aid growth, both by directly fostering sensemaking (religions provide stories and schemes for losses and crises) and by increasing social support (religious people have relationships through their religious communities, and many have a relationship with God ). A portion of the benefits of religiosity could also be a result of the confession and disclosure of inner turmoil, either to God or to a religious authority that many religions encourage.

And finally, no matter how well or poorly prepared you are when trouble strikes, at some point in the months afterwards, pull out a piece of paper and start writing. Pennebaker suggests that you write continuously for fifteen minutes a day, for several days. Don't edit or censor yourself; don't worry about grammar or sentence structure; just keep writing. Write about what happened, how you feel about it, and why you feel that way. If you hate to write, you can talk into a tape recorder. The crucial thing is to get your thoughts and feelings out without imposing any order on them — but in such a way that, after a few days, some order is likely to emerge on its own. Before you conclude your last session, be sure you have done your best to answer these two questions: Why did this happen? What good might I derive from it?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Comment is free, but facts are sacred.

I went searching for an adage without knowing its provenance, "Comment is free, but facts are sacred." It is from an editorial by the editor of the British newspaper Guardian, C.P Scott, written in 1921 to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the founding of the paper.

The relevant paragraph is
A newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred. "Propaganda", so called, by this means is hateful. The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard. Comment also is justly subject to a self-imposed restraint. It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair. This is an ideal. Achievement in such matters is hardly given to man. We can but try, ask pardon for shortcomings, and there leave the matter.
A well articulated ideal.

I like that pivotal goal, "It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair." Life revolves around definitions and the word fair is one of the more elusive in English. Does it mean fair as in equality of outcomes? Fair as in equality before the law? Is it fair in the sense of reciprocal accountability as identified by Jonathan Haidt (What the Tea Partiers Really Want by Jonathan Haidt)? So, in some ways, we are left with the question, a great ideal but what does it mean?

But what caught my attention was the discussion immediately preceding the passage with the quote.
Character is a subtle affair, and has many shades and sides to it. It is not a thing to be much talked about, but rather to be felt. It is the slow deposit of past actions and ideals. It is for each man his most precious possession, and so it is for that latest growth of time, the newspaper. Fundamentally it implies honesty, cleanness, courage, fairness, a sense of duty to the reader and the community.
While he is discussing the importance of character (and by broader implication, culture) to a newspaper, or really any large organization, his observation is prescient from an economics perspective as well.

Over the past fifty years economists who focus on economic development have been chasing the magical elixir that leads to economic growth, both in terms of the individual as well as for countries. Why is it that Brazil, with all its resources, is always the country of the future? What are the critical ingredients to success.

In terms of the individual, just as with countries, much of the early research was in regard to access to resources, to capital. Then there was the focus on infrastructure. Then there was the focus on the importance of institutions such as the rule of law and political stability. Then knowledge, and its absence, that was determined to be the critical barrier to development.

At each stage, the insights were valuable but insufficient. Increasingly, now, the focus has been shifting, both for the individual and the nation, towards the impact of values and behavior, to culture. Just as in the past, it is likely that this won't be the whole story, but I suspect it is much of the story explaining the differences in outcomes. We'll see.

But Scott's observation is so pertinent and I suspect one of the reasons that character was put off for so long as an object of study. It is indeed, "a subtle affair, and has many shades and sides to it." To know something you do have to be able to measure it and character is not particularly tractable in that regard. We are getting better at measuring it but there is a long row in front of us.

Less than one percent of the information that is stored in the DNA of a single human being

From Welcome to the information age - 174 newspapers a day by Richard Alleyne.
The researchers, who reported their findings in the journal Science, found that there was now 295 exabytes of data floating around the world - that's 29,500,000,000,000,000,000,000 pieces of information.

While this is enormous - 315 times the number of grains of sand on Earth - Dr Hilbert points out it is still less than one percent of the information that is stored in the DNA of a single human being.

The ability to process all this information with computers has doubled every 18 months and with telecommunication devices has doubled every two years.

But despite it showing enormous growth, Dr Hilbert said we are far from saturation point and nowhere near dealing with the amount of information contended with in the natural world.

Dr Martin Hilbert, of the University of California, said: "These numbers are impressive, but still miniscule compared to the order of magnitude at which nature handles information."

"Compared to nature, we are but humble apprentices. If we tried to store the name of every star in the Universe we could only file one per cent."

Saturday, October 19, 2013

In causally dense, complex environments, the attribution problem has no intrinsic answer.

From Attribution in online marketing: a Big Data problem by Kaiser Fung.

Though he doesn't use the term, Fung is reporting on the work of Avinash Kaushik, exploring the limitations of root cause analysis in causally dense and complex environments. While this is in the context of marketing data, I think the conclusion is true of all social science. He is discussing the example of a marketer trying to establish a causative understanding between initial inquiry and final purchase with multitude of sequential and parallel steps in between.
The concept of "attribution" is to distribute credit among one or more of these prior interactions. Kaushik walks through a bunch of models that can be used to divide credit.

Kaushik then points out that analyzing the above figure (especially when it has thousands of other rows) is a waste of time: "There are too many paths, and you can't actually control the path that a potential customer can take."


While Kaushik dives into the mechanics, here are some high-level takeaways from his post:
•The attribution problem has no intrinsic answer. There is no single correct answer. Everything is subjective.
•Many decisions affect the attribution outcomes. e.g. which sources are credited and which are not, which positions in the path are privileged and which are not, the time window for eligiblility, what counts as an "action" and what doesn't. Different decisions lead to different attribution schemes.
•Having more data creates more complexity but does not reduce subjectivity. On the contrary, more data creates more levers resulting in more assumptions.

The data doesn't support our argument so we will bait and switch our terms

Humph. I used to love the Atlantic Magazine and still subscribe to it but they seem to have fallen victim to click-bait mania. It used to be that their articles were well edited and substantive. Now there are more and more that are simply intended to be provocative.

This morning's instance is Are Private Schools Worth It? by Julia Ryan. There are lots of pros and cons to the private versus public school discussion and it is one of those debates that doesn't have a clear answer - you end up having to make an educated guess based on the circumstances of the child, their likely future development, the trajectory of the school, etc.

This article had the subtitle, "A new book argues that public schools are actually academically superior." So, a provocative and counter-intuitive thesis and the prospect of some substance. The article is actually an interview of the authors of The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools by Christopher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski.

The intro to the interview makes it all sound so plausible.
Studying the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, they have found that, when controlling for demographic factors, public schools are doing a better job academically than private schools. It seems that private school students have higher scores because they come from more affluent backgrounds, not because the schools they attend are better educational institutions.
NAEP and ECLS are pretty good sources. This sounds promising.

Christopher A. Lubienski summarizes their findings.
We already know that scores for students in private schools tend to be higher. The question is, is that because they’re from more affluent families…or is that because the schools are doing better? If you go back for a generation the research suggests that there is a private school effect, that even when you control for background factors, private schools seem to be more effective, particularly for certain populations, at boosting their achievement.

So what we did, controlling for these background factors, we actually found that the opposite appears to be true and that there is actually a public school effect. Which was a surprise… We were not expecting that at all, but then digging deeper into the data, using multiple data sets, that actually held up. And since that time, other researchers—people at the Educational Testing Service, Notre Dame, and Stanford—have looked at these data sets and come to similar conclusions.
Hmmm. Very interesting. I attended private school and my wife attended public school. Over the years we have had occasion to compare and contrast experiences. From those anecdotes and from my non-random sampling of my classmates and other private school friends, the professor's findings seem inconsistent. At both high school and the universities I attended undergrad and grad (Most Competitive and Ivy League respectively) it was simply assumed that private high school was disproportionately effective. At high school and also at university there was always debate about from whence the margin of contributive excellence arose; was it from selectivity, from better teachers, from better facilities or from more competitive peers. The most common consensus I have perceived from peers is that at least half the value of the education arose from the student body itself rather than any of the other factors.

Only about 10% of children attend private schools but they usually represent 25-35% of the student body in the most competitive universities. But there is an important distinction to be made in the definition of private schools and that is between religious schools and secular schools. There are certainly some blurred lines but in general the 25-35% attending the most competitive universities come from secular schools (or with only historical vestiges to their long ago religious foundations) and which are about 15% of the private school population. About 55% of private schools are Catholic, and another 20% conservative Christian, Baptist, or similar and a further 10% other.

It is no disparagement to acknowledge that the secular schools tend to be primarily focused on education (and university admission) whereas most the religious schools have at least a dual goal of education and religious instruction. The key point is that about 1.5% of the US student body attend private secular schools and they are dramatically overrepresented in most competitive universities, suggesting that in fact there is some very substantial contribution to educational excellence.

But the professors want to make the case that public schools (with a singular focus in education) are superior to private schools despite the apparent effectiveness of private schools.

There is actually a fair amount with which I can agree, particularly that American public schools are dramatically better than the simple averages indicate (see US Education: Expensive and ineffective? Not so fast). But the crux of the Lubienski's position is that public schools educate more effectively than private schools. And that is where they become disgracefully misleading. What they have actually found is that public schools seem to produce more effective educational results than religious schools.
Most of the schools in your study are religious schools. What about private schools that serve purely academic purposes? Are they also underperforming?

STL: Actually, that was not a category in any of the data that we worked with. There’s this category of “other private” that doesn’t fit into Lutheran, Catholic, conservative Christian, et cetera, but that’s really a catch all-category. A very small sample. So we weren’t able to study that.

CAL: And from a policy perspective, that’s less useful because when you look at for example, voucher programs. The largest sector of schools that are accepting vouchers are Catholic, even though Catholic schools have declined a bit in terms of their market share. They are still the biggest player in the private-school sector.
So the headlines and the whole discussion is seemingly about comparing effectiveness of academic private schools to academic public schools when in fact they are comparing dissimilar institutions, academic public schools to religious private schools. In answering another question, they even acknowledge that this is not an appropriate comparison because:
A lot of parents are choosing schools based on religious values and not on boosting the achievement of their children.
This would seem almost academic malpractice. It seems that the Lubienski's are seeking to defend the reputation of public schools particularly in regard to competition for resources from Catholic schools accepting vouchers. Fine, if that is the argument they want to make, it appears that they have the data to make that argument.

What they don't have is the data to answer their original question regarding the private school effect. They don't have the data to compare like institutions (private academic schools versus public academic schools) and yet their whole discussion is in the context of academic to academic comparisons. In other words, there is no data whatsoever to support the article's claim (and apparently their book's claim) that "public schools are actually academically superior."

Click baiting on the magazine side and either incredible sloppiness or intentional deception on the side of the academics. Cognitive Pollution.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Fifth grade teachers were good predictors of their fourth grade test scores

From Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers by Richard Rothstein, Helen F. Ladd, et al. The authors are questioning whether value-added modeling (VAM) of teacher contribution to improved learning outcomes is well enough grounded for determining pay and promotions. As evidence:
A study designed to test this question used VAM methods to assign effects to teachers after controlling for other factors, but applied the model backwards to see if credible results were obtained. Surprisingly, it found that students’ fifth grade teachers were good predictors of their fourth grade test scores. Inasmuch as a student’s later fifth grade teacher cannot possibly have influenced that student’s fourth grade performance, this curious result can only mean that VAM results are based on factors other than teachers’ actual effectiveness.

VAM’s instability can result from differences in the characteristics of students assigned to particular teachers in a particular year, from small samples of students (made even less representative in schools serving disadvantaged students by high rates of student mobility), from other influences on student learning both inside and outside school, and from tests that are poorly lined up with the curriculum teachers are expected to cover, or that do not measure the full range of achievement of students in the class.
When you first read it, this sounds like a death knell to the credibility of VAM. But on reflection, I am not so sure. It depends on what they were "controlling for" in terms of "other factors." If a school has a disposition to channel children (and I suspect most schools do, whether explicitly or not), then as a child is identified as academically talented, they will be channeled to more demanding teachers the next year. If children are randomly assigned to teachers from one year to the next, then Rothstein et al's test is a good indicator that there is something amiss. If, on the other hand, there is any sort of channeling going on, explicit or not, then it seems to me that you should be able to find a correlation between the VAM quality of later teachers and the results achieved in earlier grades.

It is a long report that is skeptical of the use of VAM. I scanned the rest of the report to see if the issue of channeling (and its effects on precasting) was addressed anywhere else, but I could not find any reference. I am left to conclude that what was presented as a damning piece of evidence against VAM is actually just a data point that lacks context and may not be indicating what they want it to say. I.e. it seems like there is manipulation of information to support a conclusion already in place.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Only 5 percent of those who were initially in the bottom quintile were still there in 1991

I am reading the new edition of Thomas Sowell's Intellectuals and Society and he has some very useful discussion about the fraught issue of income inequality, poverty and income mobility. I have posted in the past on the issue at Jobless recoveries and rising income inequality and Income Inequality, Positional Goods, Identity Multiplicity, and Functional Convergence.

What Sowell highlights is the misuse and abuse of statistics and the obfuscation of terms and definitions. What do we mean when we speak of inequality and poverty and mobility? The empirical reality is usually quite different from the abstract proxy measures such as average income by quintile and the Gini index. Sowell is arguing that we focus on the real empirical issues rather than the abstract categories that have only a tenuous usefulness. When we do that, it becomes clear that the issues we need to focus on are enabling people to become more productive and ensuring that there is a robust escalator that allows people to move up and down the income scales according to their productivity.

This recasting of the thought process prompts the recognition that most of the current discussion of inequality is misplaced but there does remain an interesting question. Comparison of income quintiles over time are close to meaningless if there is a real and functioning movement between the quintiles by individuals. However, the remaining question is valid. Why is there a widening gap between early starters (new to the workforce) in the bottom quintile and the most productive of the established workers. That's a different post but I suspect it has a lot to do with automation, the shifting comparative value between combinations of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, and the emergence of the winner-take-all marketplace (a function of globalized competition and Six Sigma production processes).

From Intellectuals and Society, page 44.
Although such discussions have been phrased in terms of people, the actual empirical evidence cited has been about what has been happening over time to statistical categories - and that turns out to be the direct opposite of what has happened over time to flesh-and-blood human beings, most of whom move from one category to another over time.

In terms of statistical categories, it is indeed true that both the amount of income and the proportion of all income received by those in the top 20 percent bracket have risen over the years, widening the gap between top and bottom quintiles. But U.S. Treasury Department data, following specific individuals over time from their tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service, show that in terms of people, the incomes of those particular taxpayers who were in the bottom 20 percent in income in 1996 rose by 91 percent by 2005, while the incomes of those particular taxpayers who were in the top 20 percent in 1996 rose by only 10 percent in 2005 - and those in the top 5 percent and one percent actually declined.

While it might seem as if both these radically different sets of statistics cannot be true at the same time, what makes them mutually compatible is that flesh-and-blood human beings move from one statistical category to another over time. When those taxpayers who were initially in the lowest income bracket had their incomes nearly double in a decade, that moved many of them up and out of the bottom quintile - and when those in the top one percent had their incomes cut by about one-fourth, that may well have dropped them out of the top one percent. Internal Revenue Service data can follow particular individuals over time from their tax returns, which have individual Social Security numbers as identification, while data from the Census Bureau and most other sources follow what happens to statistical categories over time, even though it is not the same individuals in the same categories over the years.

Many of the same kinds of data used to claim a widening income gap between "the rich" and "the poor" - names usually given to people with different incomes, rather than different wealth, as the term rich and poor might seem to imply - have led many in the media to likewise claim a growing income gap between the "super-rich" and the "merely rich."


Once again, the confusion is between what is happening to statistical categories over time and what is happening to flesh-and-blood individuals over time, as they move from one statistical category to another.

Despite the rise in the income of the top 0.1 percent of the taxpayers as a statistical category, both absolutely and relative to the incomes in the other categories, as flesh-and-blood human beings those individuals who were in that category initially had their incomes fall by a whopping 50 percent between 1996 and 2005. It is hardly surprising when people whose incomes are cut in half drop out of the top 0.1 percent. What happens to the income of the category over time is not the same as what happens to the people who were in that category at any given point in time. But many among the intelligentsia are ready to seize upon any numbers that seem to fit their vision.

It is much the same story with data on the top four hundred income earners in the country. As with other data, data on who were among the top 400 income earners from 1992 to 2000 were not data on the same 400 people throughout that span of time. During that span, there were thousands of people in the top 400 - which is to say, turnover was high. Fewer than one-fourth of all the people in that category during that span of years were in that category more than one year, and fewer than 13 percent were in that same category more than two years.

Behind many of those numbers and the accompanying alarmist rhetoric is a very mundane fact: Most people begin their working careers at the bottom, earning entry-level salaries. Over time, as they acquire more skills and experience, their rising productivity leads to rising pay, putting them in successively higher income brackets. These are not rare, Horatio Alger stories. These are common patterns among millions of people in the United States and in some other countries. A University of Michigan study which followed the same working individuals over time found a pattern very similar to that in the Internal Revenue Service data. More than three-quarters of working Americans whose incomes were in the bottom 20 percent in 1975 were also in the top 40 percent of income earners at some point by 1991. Only 5 percent of those who were initially in the bottom quintile were still there in 1991, while 29 percent of those who were initially at the bottom quintile had risen to the top quintile.


Only by focusing on the income brackets, instead of the actual people moving between those brackets, have the intelligentsia been able to verbally create a "problem" for which a "solution" is necessary. They have created the powerful vision of "classes" with "disparities" and "inequities" in income, caused by "barriers" created by "society." But the routine rise of millions of people out of the lowest quintile over time makes a mockery of the "barriers" assumed by many, if not most, of the intelligentsia.

The confusion between statistical categories and flesh-and-blood human beings is compounded when there is confusion between income and wealth. People called "rich" or "super-rich" have been given those titles by the media based on the basis of income, not wealth, even though being rich means having more wealth. According to the Treasury Department: "Among those with the very highest incomes in 1996 - the top 1/100 of 1 percent - only 25 percent remained in this group in 2005." If these were genuinely super-rich people, it is hard to explain why three-quarters of them are no longer in that category a decade later.
With a clearer picture, it allows us to refocus. There isn't much return on improving categories. And by-and-large, people seem to be riding the escalator between the quintiles. What remains are 1) the endemically poor, the 5% who reside in the bottom quintile over long stretches of time and 2) potentially those who have a high quintile volatility, i.e. who hover between the bottom three quintiles and never progress further.

Charles Murray's Coming Apart, gives us a pretty clear picture of what is required to live in and remain in the top two quintiles. What are the appropriate policies for those who keep falling off the escalator in the bottom three quintiles? That is a far more complex issue than anything we are currently discussing but it is also far more likely to lead to real world improvements, as opposed to much of what we do today. What are the changes necessary to individual KESVB portfolios (Knowledge, Experience, Skills, Values, and Behaviors) that will allow people to better improve and more reliably improve their productivity?