Friday, January 31, 2014

Cognitive Pollution arising from a Spinozan system of assent

There are two separate points of interest here. From Bias, Assent, and the Psychological Plausibility of Rational Irrationality by Bryan Caplan.

One of the things I believe is critical, and that we currently do somewhat poorly, is to integrate information across fields of study as well between past and present. We rush forwards and rarely integrate. I am all the time discovering a key study in an area to which I have devoted a great deal of thought and research. And then there will be something absolutely pertinent, with great information and it is off in some remotely affiliated field of study having almost no natural connection to the topic, or it was published twenty years ago. Or both.

That is what has happened to Caplan. Caplan has just published The Myth of the Rational Voter, and the paper to which he alludes, Mental Contamination and Mental Correction: Unwanted Influences on Judgments and evaluations by Timothy D. Wilson and Nancy Brekke, is highly pertinent. But he has only come across it post-publication. And it is from twenty years ago.

Better late than never. There is so much cognitive gold out there waiting to be discovered.

The second point of interest is the argument advanced by Wilson and Brekke. One of my recurrent themes is the bain of what I have been calling cognitive pollution. Acquired knowledge that has never been examined and yet is wrong or misunderstood in some material way. Without examination, that unexamined knowledge simply complicates all later decisions that might depend on it in some fashion.

Wilson and Brekke use the term mental contamination for a slightly different phenomenon. Here is their descriptive passage from their paper.
As noted by Gilbert (1991, 1993), there is a long tradition in philosophy and psychology, originating with Descartes, that assumes that belief formation is a two-step process: First people comprehend a proposition (e.g., "Jason is dishonest") and then freely decide whether to accept it as true (e.g., whether it fits with other information they know about Jason). Thus, there is no danger to encountering potentially false information because people can always weed out the truth from the fiction, discarding those propositions that do not hold up under scrutiny. Gilbert (1991, 1993) argued persuasively, however, that human belief formation operates much more like a system advocated by Spinoza. According to this view, people initially accept as true every proposition they comprehend and then decide whether to "unbelieve" it or not. Thus, in the example just provided, people assume that Jason is dishonest as soon as they hear this proposition, reversing this opinion if it is inconsistent with the facts.

Under many circumstances, the Cartesian and Spinozan systems end up at the same state of belief (e.g., that Jason is honest because, on reflection, people know that there is no evidence that he is dishonest). Because the second, verification stage requires mental effort, however, there are conditions under which the two systems result in very different states of belief. If people are tired or otherwise occupied, they may never move beyond the first stage of the process. In the Cartesian system, the person would remain in a state of suspended belief (e.g., "Is Jason dishonest? I will reserve judgment until I have time to analyze the facts"). In the Spinozan system, the person remains in the initial stage of acceptance, believing the initial proposition. Gilbert has provided evidence, in several intriguing experiments, for the Spinozan view: When people's cognitive capacity is taxed, they have difficulty rejecting false propositions (see Gilbert, 1991, 1993).
This jumps out at me in part because it reflects a common experience I have had in arguing with people convinced about a particular proposition which they have never examined and which is simply factually not true and yet which, when confronted with a discussion that forces examination, they simply throw up their hands. Just yesterday I had someone tell me, paraphrasing, "Your data might be right but I don't have the energy or motivation to argue. We'll have to agree to disagree."

In that particular conversation, the argument had been advanced that "I have always attributed this to the fact that men coming home from the war discovered women quite competently taking their place in factories and workplaces. This meant that women had to be shamed into a retreat from the larger world. Women were, by and large, so glad to have their men back home that they were complicit in the shaming and the retreat." To which I responded with BLS data showing that women in fact had not retreated from the workforce, that there had been a multi-decadal increase in female labor force participation rate from 1900 through the 1990s, that that LFPR had increased during the decade of the 1940s including the war years. There was a two decade long drop at the end of the war from 1946 to 1960 for one age cohort (20-24) reflecting the baby boom but that all other age cohorts increased LFPR year-by-year through the nineties and even the 20-24 cohort resumed their increasing LFPR from 1960 onwards. So the central argument that women had retreated from the labor force was demonstrably wrong. But as quoted above, that didn't matter because the refutation contradicted a preferred, but unexamined, belief.

Here is the model Wilson and Brekke discuss regarding mental contamination and mental correction (click to enlarge). If the default mode is the acceptance of a proposition without examination and it requires cognitive effort to examine and assess the accepted proposition, and if the proposition is pleasingly consistent with other existing unexamined assumptions, then, given the number of steps and effort there is, it is easy to see why there is so much cognitive pollution out there.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

An idea so crazy it just might work!

Really just posting because such a great headline. Small, New University Does Something Radical -- Only Hires Professors Who Want To Teach And Only Admits Students Who Want To Learn by George Leef which Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit tags as "An idea so crazy it just might work!"

This is interesting though. I was recently talking with a person about the future sales and marketing needs of institutions of higher learning.
Naturally, UMR isn’t for everyone. The attrition rate for the first class (only 57 students) was nearly 25 percent. Too much work (most students report that they devote at least 35 hours per week to their studies, outside of class) and too little fun for quite a few.

At that point, most college administrators would have started thinking, “How can we change the school to retain more students?” Instead, Chancellor Lehmkuhle decided to improve the school’s marketing to the kind of student who’d be a good fit for the serious intellectual environment. That’s apparently working and UMR has grown to 475 students.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Humanity and its cultural constructs are more enigmatic than much of the natural world

From Are There 'Laws' in Social Science? by Ross Pomeroy. I woke up this morning trying to arrive at definitions of when we know something to be true (also definitions of when we know something to be useful). I don't know where he gets it, but I like Pomeroy's quoted definition of a scientific law.
A scientific law is "a statement based on repeated experimental observations that describes some aspect of the world. A scientific law always applies under the same conditions, and implies that there is a causal relationship involving its elements."
A scientific law is both testable and can be used to forecast, two critical elements often absent from the domain of the social sicences.

At the end of the article.
The reason why social science and its purveyors often gets such a bad rap has less to do with the rigor of their methods and more to do with the perplexity of their subject matter. Humanity and its cultural constructs are more enigmatic than much of the natural world. Even Feynman recognized this. "Social problems are very much harder than scientific ones," he noted. Social science itself may be an enterprise doomed, not necessarily to fail, just to never fully succeed. Utilizing science to study something inherently unscientific is a tricky business.
I'd argue that it gets a bad rap because its subject is indeed much more complex and yet it uses much less rigorous methods despite the greater need for them. The hard sciences have disgracefully high levels of research retraction or non-replication, but that is essentially a consequence and cost of exploring the frontier of knowledge. As bad as that situation is, the social sciences are far worse - few studies, rarely rigorous and with fixed opinions unsupported at all or supported with inconclusive and badly designed studies.

Mexico as an explanation of charter schools

This is interesting. From Pritchett on Private vs. Government Schools by Bryan Caplan.

The original source to Caplan's blog post is a new book, The Rebirth of Education by Lant Pritchett. Two observations from Pritchett regarding education experience in the global context.
This isn't to say that across the board, private schooling is better than that available in government-run schools; in general, the evidence that private schools outperform government schools in well-functioning systems is weak. In the United States, where there has been the opportunity to do the most rigorous experimental studies, most researchers agree that the private sector edge in learning is nothing like a full effect size [1 standard deviation], almost certainly not even a tenth of an effect size, and some legitimately dispute whether the private sector causal impact is even positive.


Broader than just the success of specific interventions inside government schools is the observation that even in low-performing government systems one finds excellent schools, but also, even nearby and even operating under apparently exactly the same conditions, terrible schools... The problem is not that government schools cannot succeed, for in nearly all developing countries some of the very best schools are government schools. The problem is, as the LEAPS study authors emphasize, "when government schools fail, they fail completely"...
Caplan then points out the experience of Mexico.
Case in point: In Mexico, "essentially all of the weakest-performing schools - those more than 100 points [2 standard deviations] below the average - are government schools."
I wonder if this data doesn't suggest the answer to the paradoxical experience of charter schools in the US. Charter schools work within the confines of the public school board but are given significant autonomy. They usually have to take all that apply or use a lottery system, i.e. they are not allowed to select students.

Charter schools have been the great hope for cracking the demonstrable failure of many, usually urban, school systems. Lots of good will and good faith efforts and there are some very distinctive successes. But if you take all the charter schools together as a population, not just cherry pick the successes, then the results are much more mixed. But parents still love them (and government and teachers unions still hate them). Why?

My speculation had been along two lines of thought. 1) Parents love them because of the opportunity for greater involvement and influence than is usually possible in a bureaucratic and anonymous city system, and 2) charters are still operated within the broad guidelines and requirements of the school board - they have some latitude but not complete freedom, consequently there are likely some set limits to how much improvement might be possible.

Pritchett's work suggests an alternate or additional explanation. Perhaps the issue is not so much about average performance levels but rather of the standard deviations. I would wager that charter schools, like the private schools in Mexico, have a smaller standard deviation than the public schools. While the charter schools might not have much of an advantage on terms of the average of results that they do achieve, what they secure against is the risk of catastrophic failure (as exemplified in No books, no clue at city's worst school by Susan Edelman or the systemic teacher cheating scandals in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and elsewhere).

So if your goal is to ensure that your child gets a good education, the average scores aren't all that different between public, charter and private schools. But if your goal is to ensure that your child avoids getting no education, then your choices are private and charter. Hence the sustained support for charters even though the academic results are only marginally better. Privates and Charters simply have a smaller measured standard deviation and that in itself can be immensely valuable.

The corollary question is: why do private and charter schools have a smaller standard deviation? I am guessing that it is a combination of greater accountability, greater transparency, greater competition and greater customer choice (a form of accountability). These are standard market place disciplines which are frequently absent from government systems. The tertiary implication is that public schools don't necessarily need charter schools so much as they need greater transparency, accountability, competition and choice.

The quintessentially unscientific attitude of regarding those who question the ideology as enemies to be suppressed

In Praise of Passivity by Michael Huemer - Well worth reading.

Huemer opens with a powerful example of his thesis.
In 1799, America’s first President, George Washington, fell ill with what is now thought to have been an infection of the epiglottis in his throat, a rare but serious condition that can lead to blockage of the airway and eventual suffocation.1 His good friend and personal physician attended him, along with two consulting physicians. Medicines and poultices were tried, along with five separate episodes of bloodletting that together removed over half of Washington’s blood. As one contemporaneous account explained, “The proper remedies were administered, but without producing their healing effects.” The former President died shortly thereafter. Needless to say, his treatment either had no effect or actually hastened the end.

Washington’s doctors were respected experts, and they applied standard medical procedures. Why were they unable to help him? Put simply, they could not help because they had no idea what they were doing. The human body is an extremely complex mechanism. To repair it generally requires a detailed and precise understanding of that mechanism and of the nature of the disorder afflicting it–knowledge that no one at the time possessed. Without such understanding, almost any significant intervention in the body will be harmful.
And concludes just as powerfully.
Popular wisdom often praises those who get involved in politics, who vote in democratic elections, fight for a cause they believe in, and try to make the world a better place. We tend to assume that such individuals are moved by high ideals and that, when they change the world, it is usually for the better.

The clear evidence of human ignorance and irrationality in the political arena poses a challenge to the popular wisdom. Lacking awareness of basic facts of their political systems, to say nothing of the more sophisticated knowledge that would be needed to reliably resolve controversial political issues, most citizens can do no more than guess when they enter the voting booth. Far from being a civic duty, the attempt to influence public policy through such arbitrary guesses is unjust and socially irresponsible. Nor have we any good reason to think political activists or political leaders to be any more reliable in arriving at correct positions on controversial issues; those who are most politically active are often the most ideologically biased, and may therefore be even less reliable than the average person at identifying political truths. In most cases, therefore, political activists and leaders act irresponsibly and unjustly when they attempt to impose their solutions to social problems on the rest of society.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is that of Karl Marx, who famously commented that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[24, p. 145] Marx’s greatest legacy is the practical demonstration, through twentieth-century history, of the consequences of changing a world that one does not understand. This is not the place to detail his misunderstandings, which have been discussed at great length by others. Let it suffice to say that despite the seriousness with which generations of intellectuals around the world have studied his works, Karl Marx’s understanding of human beings and of society was minimal. His influence on the twentieth century world, however, was unparalleled–and, as most observers now recognize, almost unbelievably malignant. This is no mere accident. When one lacks a precise and detailed understanding of a complex system, any attempt to radically improve that system is more likely to disrupt the things that are working well than it is to repair the system’s imperfections. Marx’s failure to improve society should have been about as surprising as the failure of George Washington’s doctors to cure his infection by draining his blood.

Perhaps, one may hope, human beings will one day attain a scientific understanding of society comparable to the modern scientific understanding of most aspects of the natural world. On that day, we may find ways of restructuring society to the benefit of all. But we cannot now predict what that understanding will look like, nor should we attempt to implement the policies that we guess will one day be proven to be beneficial. In the meantime, we can anticipate many pretenders to scientific accounts of society, after the style of Marxism. These will be theories resting on dubious premises that only certain political ideologues find convincing. These ideologues may, as in the case of the Marxists, adopt the quintessentially unscientific attitude of regarding those who question the ideology as enemies to be suppressed.

Political leaders, voters, and activists are well-advised to follow the dictum, often applied to medicine, to “first, do no harm.” A plausible rule of thumb, to guard us against doing harm as a result of overconfident ideological beliefs, is that one should not forcibly impose requirements or restrictions on others unless the value of those requirements or restrictions is essentially uncontroversial among the community of experts in conditions of free and open debate. Of course, even an expert consensus may be wrong, but this rule of thumb may be the best that such fallible beings as ourselves can devise.
And there is substance and value in virtually every paragraph in between.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The bear was identified as an honest American species

An incident recounted in a book review, Dropping the Screwdriver by Alex Goodall in the December 2013/January 2014 edition of the Literary Review. The subject book is a history of the many brushes with operational disaster during the nuclear cold war, Command and Control by Eric Schlosser. The reviewers incident:
I can vividly remember, as an undergraduate in the late 1990s, my introduction to the history of nuclear geopolitics. While working my way through a pile of texts on the Cuban Missile Crisis, I began compiling a list of misunderstandings and mistakes that could have led to accidental nuclear conflagration had things turned out differently. Although not the most serious incident, one that sticks in my mind involved a black bear that stumbled onto an air defence command post in Duluth, Minnesota. A guard saw a shadowy figure attempting to climb the security fence, shot it, then activated a intruder alarm. Due to the wrong alarm being activated at nearby Volk Field Air Base, this caused an order to be issued to scramble nuclear-armed F-106A interceptors to repel a Soviet attack. Fortunately, at the last moment, the bear was identified as an honest American species and the order rescinded.

So much for the presumption of innocence

I am researching the variant approaches in different fields (medical, judicial, etc.) in determining what constitutes sufficient evidence to draw a conclusion. In that process I came across this rather disturbing piece, Burden of Proof as a Legal Fiction: One Year Later by J. Bennett Allen.

The substance of the article is anchored on the following graph. This maps three things, 1) The beyond a reasonable doubt standard, the assessed quality of evidence by jurors and judges, and 3) the conviction rates.

Yikes! Even where the evidence strongly favors the defense, 30% of the time both the judge and jury conclude that the accused is innocent. It rises to 60% conviction rate when the evidence is balanced between defense and prosecution. So much for the presumption of innocence. One has to fervently hope there is some methodological fault in the study.

The total of stranger homicides could thus be anywhere from 29 to 211

Numbers are always a proxy for reality and you have to be careful not to lose sight of that distinction. All too often journalists fall prey to simplistic readings. From “Of the 334 murders in New York City in 2013, it appears only 29 victims did not know their killer” by Eugene Volokh.
So report some news outlets (e.g., CBS New York), quoting a New York Post story, which likewise makes a similar claim. But the key is in a sentence a bit lower down: “Not all the murder cases have been solved, though, so the number could go higher.”

Could it ever! According to the New York Post story that the CBS story cites, “Police solved 152 homicides in 2013,” out of a total of 334. That means 182 homicides weren’t accounted for, and the total of stranger homicides could thus be anywhere from 29 to 211 (29+182).

I suspect that stranger homicides are more common among the 182 unsolved homicides than they are among the 152 solved ones — in a non-stranger homicide, the killers tend to be easier to identify, precisely because they come from a pool of the victim’s family members, friends, and acquaintances (though note that, as the New York Post mentions, “[a]n acquaintance can include a rival gang member”). The total number of stranger homicides in New York City is thus likely to be a good deal higher to 29, and perhaps closer to 211.
Reading the headline, one is tempted to conclude that 91% (305/334) of murder victims knew their murderer. The reality is that the headline should have been that At Least 46% (152/334) of Victims Knew Their Murderer. That's a lot less dramatic than the original headline.

This has greater consequence than simply journalistic sloppiness. If it were true that 91% of murder victims knew their murderer, then it would imply that the city is really safe and you just have to pick your friends carefully (which would be true anyway). 46% of murder victims knowing their murderer reinforces that you have to be vigilant and cannot let your guard down with friends and strangers.

Is this simply an issue of low journalistic standards or is there a reason that the paper and TV want to convey a greater degree of security that actually exists. These days? Who knows.

UPDATE: On reflection, I don't think I elucidated the train of thought enough. The media elected to cast the story in a way that gave the impression that 91% of the time, murder victims know their murderer, whereas the actual numbers tell us that at best all we know is that at least 46% of the time, murder victims know their murderer. We should keep in mind that homicides are a vanishingly small cause of death in the US.

There is probably at least a 70% chance that this misrepresentation is a function of journalist and editorial innumeracy. It happens a lot. But take the alternate hypothesis, that it was deliberately misrepresented. What would explain that? Why would a journalist or editor wish to create the impression that danger comes from one's nearest and dearest rather than from strangers.

Here is my Just So story explanation. If your assailant is most often known to you, then your mitigating strategy is to better select and monitor your friends, family and acquaintances. This creates an illusion of control. In theory, it also creates a powerful community self-policing incentive. If the danger is from people you know, then keep an eye on them, watch out for their well-being. A nice story.

On the other hand, if the danger you face is largely anonymous and random, then you have different mitigating strategies which primarily entail aspects of self-defense such as physical training in a martial art, security systems and guns. Danger from strangers cultivates self-reliance.

Given the well documented political affiliations of journalists, it is easy to see that they are much more likely to wish to push the story that cultivates community rather than guns and self-reliance. So maybe that is the explanation. Sounds too nuanced to me though. I'll go with the 70% probability that it is simply innumeracy.

The need to talk about careful collection of all types of data

From Anecdotes and Simple Observations are Dangerous; Words and Narratives are Not by Heather Lanthor.
An excellent piece on this (though there are plenty of manuals on qualitative data collection and analysis) is by Lincoln and Guba. They suggest that ‘conventional’ rigor addresses internal validity (which they take as ‘truth value’), external validity, consistency/replicability and neutrality. (The extent to which quantitative research in the social sciences fulfils all these criteria is another debate for another time.) They highlight the concept of ‘trustworthiness’ – capturing credibility, transferrability, dependability and confirmability – as a counterpart to rigor in the quantitative social sciences. It’s a paper worth reading.
Plus purposeful pursuit of disconfirming evidence.

The author is arguing that qualitative evidence should be incorporated more systematically in pursuit of knowledge and truth. She doesn't shrink from the historical shortcomings and challenges associated with qualitative data.
Regardless of what types of data are being collected, representativeness is important to being able to accommodate messiness and heterogeneity. If a research team uses stratification along several to select its sample for quantitative data collection (or intends to look at specific heterogeneities/sub-groups for the analysis), it boggles my mind why those same criteria are not used to select participants for qualitative data. Why does representativeness so often get reduced to four focus groups among men and four among women? Equally puzzling, qualitative data are too often collected only in the ‘treated’ groups. Why does the counterfactual go out the window when we are discussing open-ended interview or textual data?

Similarly, qualitative work has a counterpart to statistical power and sample size considerations: saturation. Generally, when the researcher starts hearing the same answers over and over, saturation is ‘reached.’ A predetermined number of interviews or focus groups does not guarantee saturation. Research budgets and timetables that take qualitative work seriously should start to accommodate that reality. In addition, Lincoln and Guba suggest that length of engagement – with observations over time also enhancing representativeness – is critical to credibility. The nature of qualitative work, with more emphasis on simultaneous and iterative data collection and analysis can make use of that time to follow up on leads and insights revealed over the study period.
While the author sets out to advocate a particular position, include more qualitative information in experiments, her article is actually a reasonably good critique of all data collection (whether quantitative or qualitative) and how knowledge is short changed and misled by poorly designed experiments.
In general, if we want to talk about creating credible, causal narratives that can be believed and that can inform decision-making at one or more levels, we need to talk about (a) careful collection of all types of data and (b) getting better at rigorously analysing and incorporating qualitative data into the overall ‘narrative’ for triangulating towards the ‘hard’ truth, not equating qualitative data with anecdotes.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Yet international migrants' total share of world population has been relatively constant at 2 to 3 per cent for decades

From Entrance Strategies a review by Eric Kaufmann of a couple of books dealing with culture and emigration. From the December 2013/January 2014 edition of the Literary Review.
The cultural cords - language or religion, for instance - that bind people together over time and place are selected by each generation. The symbolic menu is potentially infinite. Yet choices are constrained by the dishes chosen by previous generations. It would take a hard, multigenerational slog for an elite to convince British people to adopt Taosim or the German language as symbols of their national identity - it's much easier to stick with Christianity and English. Immigration of enough determined German Taoists, though, especially if they were resistant to English charms, could bring change. It's happened before. As Eugene Kulischer has shown, in AD 900 Berlin had no Germans, Moscow no Russians, Budapest no Hungarians, Madrid was Moorish and Constantinople had few Turks. More recently, Israel, Lebanon and Kosovo furnish examples of how migration can drive political change.

The collision between immigration and national identity is defining our epoch. This will only accelerate in the decades to come. The developing world produces 97 per cent of world population growth and is in the early stages of its demographic transition. The rich world is ageing and declining in native population. The demographic difference will peak in 2050 as economies converge: poverty and excess births in one region; wealth and birth dearth in another. Economic theory would suggest population should flow from the poor tropics to the temperate zones. Yet international migrants' total share of world population has been relatively constant at 2 to 3 per cent for decades.


Listening to Macbeth on CD in the car, reveling in the rich language. Duncan has just been killed and there is the comment about the ill omens that foreshadow unnatural and deathly events - "A falcon, towering in her pride of place, was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd." That was yesterday while running errands.

And the headline today? Birds attack peace doves freed from pope’s window. Yikes! That doesn't bode well.
VATICAN CITY — Two white doves that were released by children standing alongside Pope Francis as a peace gesture have been attacked by other birds.

As tens of thousands of people watched in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, a seagull and a large black crow swept down on the doves right after they were set free from an open window of the Apostolic Palace.

One dove lost some feathers as it broke free from the gull. But the crow pecked repeatedly at the other dove.

It was not clear what happened to the doves as they flew off.

While speaking at the window beforehand, Francis had appealed for peace in Ukraine, where anti-government protesters have died.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

You need to borrow $20,000 to pay for your neighbors university education

One of the many benefits of quantifying things is that it creates opportunities to make connections that might not otherwise be made. From Financial Aid Puts a Squeeze on the Middle Class by Walter Russell Mead. The issue is the funds extracted from middle class families to subsidize the poor seeking a university education. Most people agree on the goals (allow everyone capable, to achieve their highest level of academic achievement), it is the means that are in dispute.
Mr. Twedt earns about $90,000 as a manager in an insurance office, and his children don’t qualify for federal aid. He estimated the set-aside program would cost his family about $20,000 through four years of college. He expects each of his children will graduate with about $25,000 in student loan debt.
It is that juxtaposition of numbers that creates insight. The net of the existing system is that a middle class student has to take out a $20,000 loan to pay for the education of a poor student. Greater love has no man than to be compelled to pay for the education of his neighbor. Or something.

I don't think the current system is long for this world but who knows what quite will replace it.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

What happens when an uninformed bigot reviews a book that has nothing to do with his pet grievances? He talks about them anyway.

I guess the regular editors of the Literary Review, despite there normal standards, were too busy with holiday celebrations to catch all the lazy blunders of some of their reviewers. In There is no ignorance so blind as academic ignorance, I highlighted one exceptionally stupid reviewer comment straight out of the delusional cupboards of academia. Further on in the issue there is another. Jay Parini is giving a glowing review of Simon Winchester's The Men Who United the States (which, by the way, looks pretty good).

Parini apparently can't help himself though, he has to wedge in some academic nonsense. He goes out of his way to nod towards gender ("Women, as ever, remain somewhat invisible here) and he is about to get his teeth into some good old genocide accusations. Curiously, he betrays his own biases and blinkers a little earlier on when he mentions that "I myself feel extremely uncomfortable whenever I leave Vermont; I regard Texas, in particular, as a place so foreign that it hardly seems to belong to the United States. But that's me." A comment which might be only mean spirited if one did not understand the context. Vermont is one of the whitest states in the Union (96%) and Texas is one of the handful of minority majority states (56% minority). So, yes, Parini, it appears that that is you in all your prejudiced glory.

But what is actually sticking in my craw is this passage.
Winchester cannot avoid the confrontation with Native Americans that so dominated American history in the 19th century; he offers a few distilled pages about the Lewis and Clark expedition and how its 'occasionally high-handed behavior toward those who had inhabited the lands over which they ventured must have played some part in sowing the seeds of ill will', culminating 'in so much eventual misery'. That's putting it mildly.

America is a nation founded on blood. In American Holocaust, David E. Stannard writes vividly about the 'genocide and racist horrors against the indigenous peoples' that lie at the black heart of American history.
After this little detour of ideological cant, he then acknowledges that his abstract and ignorant pet peeves actually have nothing to do with Winchester's book.
Then again, Winchester has chosen to write another story, the quite remarkable one of countless men who dug canals, hammered rail spikes into place, erected telephone poles or strung wire and created systems of mass communication that would establish at least the illusion of unity in the United States.
Such laziness, anemic snideness, rank prejudice and preening ignorance shouldn't be in a quality magazine like the Literary Review.

What to make of this? American Holocaust by David E. Stannard is an interesting book but is notoriously slipshod in its argument and numbers and you would hope that Parini has read something more mainstream than that to support his argument that "America is a nation founded in blood." He would be more correct to describe the US (and any other country) as founded in tragedy. Depending on the estimates, including those in Stannard's book, somewhere between 95-99.9% of all Native American deaths were unavoidably the consequence of disease exposure. There were obviously deaths from aggression and massacres and enslavement (principally in Latin America) but those numbers are minor to the consequence of the encounter between two populations with distinct disease histories.

And what is this "confrontation with Native Americans that so dominated American history in the 19th century?" Yes, it was an important issue but "so dominated"? I would say that European immigration was a dominant issue, or the industrial revolution, or the consequences of the Civil War (650,000 American dead). Even the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) might be squeezed in where civilian casualties and atrocities (estimated 150,000 - 1,000,000 dead) exceeded all those among Native Americans in all the 19th century.

And why the focus of criticism on the 19th century? By far the greatest tragedy occurred in the first couple of centuries after contact, 1550-1750.

So you have an ideological reviewer afraid to leave his white state, introducing topics into a review that have nothing to do with the book being reviewed, with the criticisms being advanced being both wrong and ignorant. We can do better than that. This is the kind of cognitive pollution that is so insidious: introduced in the most completely irrelevant contexts and never called out.

Back of the envelope estimation of the income-inequality impact - 2.3% reduction

Two of the critical questions in the Decision Clarity decision-making methodology are, for any proposition, 1) Is it real? and 2) Do we know what causes it? They seem such easy questions but for most problems or arguments, they are quite hard to answer. Only once you have answered them can you move on to other important questions such as 3) Is it important?, 4) Can we change it?, and 5) Is it worth it?

Much of the current discussion of income and wealth inequality and mobility is simply so much cognitive pollution, wielded for political advantage rather than to address real world issues. Income inequality/mobility is one of those issues that is causally dense, complex (many parts with hidden feedback mechanisms), chaotic (sensitive to initial conditions), and non-linear in nature. Any pretense that we are either effectively measuring it or understand what causes it is delusional. We are at the edge of the knowledge shore, our feet wet, but with no demonstrated capacity to swim. We simply, for the time being, do not really know what we are talking about.

For those that wish to make an issue of income inequality, much of the inequality is attributed to simple luck (right place and right time) or to genealogical luck (born with the silver spoon in their mouth). It is critical that inequality not be the outcome of individual decision-making and effort.

As Mankiw summarizes in this post, How much income inequality is explained by varying parental resources? by Greg Mankiw, the popular view on income inequality among some might be characterized as follows.
When people think about inequality of incomes, a key issue is inequality of opportunity. Some people are born to rich parents who can afford private schools, summer camp, SAT tutors, etc., while others have poorer parents who cannot easily afford such things. One might wonder how much of the income inequality we observe can be explained by differences in the resources that people get because of varying parental incomes.
Citing a recent paper, Is the United States Still a Land of Opportunity? Recent Trends in Intergenerational Mobility by Raj Chetty et al, Mankiw skips much of the interesting discussion of how do we measure income inequality, whether those measures are meaningful, whether decreasing income mobility is real, much less whether we actually know what causes income inequality (however it is measured).

Instead he simply asks question 5 - Is it worth it? What is the size of the prize. If it is big, that makes it worthwhile to go back and do the hard slog through 1) Real? and 2) Causes?
The recent paper by Chetty et al. finds that the regression of kids’ income rank on parents’ income rank has a coefficient of 0.3. (See Figure 1.) That implies an R2 for the regression of 0.09. In other words, 91 percent of the variance is unexplained by parents’ income.

I would be willing venture a guess, based on adoption studies, that a lot of that 9 percent is genetics rather than environment. That is, talented parents have talented kids partly because of good genes. Conservatively, let’s say half is genetics. That leaves only 4.5 percent of the variance attributed directly to parents’ income.

Now, if you let me play a bit fast and loose with the difference between income and income rank, these numbers suggest the following: If we had some perfect policy invention (such as universal super-duper pre-school) that completely neutralized the effect of parent’s income, we would reduce the variance of kids' income to .955 of what it now is. This implies that the standard deviation of income would fall to 0.977 of what it now is.

The bottom line: Even a highly successful policy intervention that neutralized the effects of differing parental incomes would reduce the gap between rich and poor by only about 2 percent.
That is not to argue that nothing should be done - rather it is a caution against expectations and investment risk. It is also a catalyst to deep thinking - What are the real (as opposed to politically useful) causes of inequality, and what can we do about them?

Friday, January 24, 2014

In the 1930s Rangoon overtook New York as the world's foremost port of immigration

Hmm. I guess I should have read on. In, There is no ignorance so blind as academic ignorance, I commented that the book being reviewed was about the interesting, but little discussed, topic of intra-imperial migration in the British Empire; Australians to South Africa, Indians to Fiji, etc. Had I read on just a little further, in that same issue of Literary Review, there is a review by John Keay of the book Crossing the Bay of Bengal by Sunil S. Amrith which puts some empirical data to my skeletal comment.
Unexpectedly it was Burma (now Myanmar) that attracted by far the largest number of Indian immigrants. Between 1840 and 1940 around 8 million Indians crossed to Sri Lanka, 4 million to Malaya, and 12 to 15 million to Burma. Migration across the Bay was on par with that across the Atlantic, and half of it ended up in Burma. In the 1930s Rangoon overtook New York as the world's foremost port of immigration. To the extent that three-quarters of its labour force was of Indian descent, it had become an Indian city. Indeed, with Tamil Chettiars acquiring a handsome share of Burma's rice fields, Burma was as much an Indian colony as a British one.

What seems a lie is a ramshackle need, wishing to be born.

From The Toynbee Convector by Ray Bradbury.
Life has always been lying to ourselves! As boys, young men, old men. As girls, maidens, women, to gently lie and prove the lie true. To weave dreams and put brains and ideas and flesh and the truly real beneath the dreams. Everything, finally, is a promise. What seems a lie is a ramshackle need, wishing to be born. Here. Thus and so.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

In WWII more Chinese died fighting for Japan than died fighting against Japan

From Odd Arne Westad's review in the Literary Review of China's War with Japan by Rana Mitter (published in the US as Forgotten Ally).
The matter of Chinese collaboration is an important one and Mitter deals with it well in his book. His conclusion is striking: just as in German-occupied eastern Europe, a lot more people wanted to collaborate and would have done so if only the occupiers had made it easier for them to. Instead Japan, like Germany, put in place policies directed against the local population that quickly eroded any support a quisling government might have gained. It is still remarkable that - according to recent research in China - more Chinese in uniform died fighting for Japan than against Japan in the Sino-Japanese War. These figures obviously include Chinese from Japanese-controlled Taiwan and Manchuria, but even so the numbers are striking.
Indeed. I have read a handful books on the Sino-Japanese conflict and have never seen that fact. But there is still so much that is unknown or yet uncommunicated. And the magnitudes are almost beyond comprehension anyway. Seventy-five of the eighty flyers of the Doolittle Raid flew on from Japan to crash land in China (one crew of five landed in the Soviet Union and were interned). Six of those crash landing in China died (one from chute failure, two drowned, and three were captured and executed). Sixty nine were able, through the assistance of the Chinese, to evade capture and return to the US and the war effort.

All that is wonderfully exciting history, but the staggering thing is the Japanese response. They already occupied much of China and were determined to find the American crews. Their efforts were brutally coercive and some 250,000 Chinese were killed in the process. Staggering. 250,000 lives taken in search of 69. Almost beyond comprehension. Almost the equivalent of total US combat deaths during the entire second world war in all theaters (292,000).

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The imbalance cannot last

Well this is sad news, but perhaps to be expected. Academe quits me by D.G. Myers. I have been reading D.G. Myers for three years now, to my great entertainment and education. He knows far more about the most distant of English literature pathways than I would ever want to know but functions as a scout to the rest of us, revealing what is of value and interest in those remote alleys. That is hugely valuable. It is wonderful reading an intelligent, formidably knowledgeable, humane writer.

With two in university now and another headed that way in a couple of years, it is interesting to calibrate experiences. One is in a STEM university and the humanities there hued closer to the traditional grain. The other was in at a mid-size liberal arts university. We went through an interesting experience in course registration. He was required to take a world literature course to complete his English requirements. We're thinking, great, English literature, continental European literature, Russian literature, Roman or Greek texts, Japanese literature, Indian, Chinese, Arab literature. You know, cultures with deep literary traditions.

The university placed him in a course, West African Literature. I have lived in West Africa. I have a passing acquaintance with West African literature. There is not much there, there. It is all post 1930s. 75% of it is in the narrow context of colonialism. And there is not a lot of it. In other words, we're thinking of world literature as an opportunity to expand horizons and increase perspectives and what is being offered is a deep dive in a very narrow and very shallow pool. Concerned, we began asking questions. Is the professor West African? No. Is his specialization in West African literature? No. Turns out, he just has an interest and put together this course. Reading the syllabus, it then becomes clear that this is less a literary course than an opportunity to discuss colonialism, i.e. really at best either a history course or a political science course but without the knowledge of either of those fields. The ultimate conclusion was that this was an amateur course offered as a means to indulge political opinions. An assessment bourn out by reports back from friends that took the course. No quality, no insight, no expertise, no critical thinking. A sad judgment on academia. In no other field would such shoddy posturing/bait and switch be tolerated.

Here is D.G. Myers and his experience.
Tomorrow I will step into a classroom to begin the last semester of a 24-year teaching career. Don’t get me wrong. I am not retiring. I am not “burned out.” The truth is rather more banal. Ohio State University will not be renewing my three-year contract when it expires in the spring. The problem is tenure: with another three-year contract, tenure becomes an option.


My salary may not be large (a rounding error above the median income for white families in the U.S.), but the university can offer part-time work to three desperate adjuncts for what it pays me. A lifetime of learning has never been cost-effective, and in today’s university—at least on the side of campus where the humanities are badly housed—no other criterion is thinkable.

My experience is a prelude to what will be happening, sooner rather than later, to many of my colleagues. Humanities course enrollments are down to seven percent of full-time student hours, but humanities professors make up forty-five percent of the faculty. The imbalance cannot last. PhD programs go on awarding PhD’s to young men and women who will never find an academic job at a living wage. (A nearby university—a university with a solid ranking from U.S. News and World Report—pays adjuncts $1,500 per course. Just to toe the poverty line a young professor with a husband and a child would have to teach thirteen courses a year.) If only as retribution for the decades-long exploitation of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants, nine of every ten PhD programs in English should be closed down—immediately. Meanwhile, the senior faculty fiddles away its time teaching precious specialties.

Consider some of the undergraduate courses being offered in English this semester at the University of Minnesota:
• Poems about Cities
• Studies in Narrative: The End of the World in Literature & History
• Studies in Film: Seductions: Film/Gender/Desire
• The Original Walking Dead in Victorian England
• Contemporary Literatures and Cultures: North American Imperialisms and Colonialisms
• Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: Family as Origin and Invention
• Women Writing: Nags, Hags, and Vixens
• The Image on the Page
• Bodies, Selves, Texts
• Consumer Culture and Globalization
• The Western: Looking Awry
• Dreams and Middle English Dream Visions
So it would appear that our experience was not out of line. I am firmly of the belief that the Humanities, particularly English (both composition and literature), are absolute necessities. And yet what our universities are offering at extortionate rates are amateur, irrelevant, specializations of fantastical degree.

I was very struck a few years ago by the bifurcation apparent between STEM professors and "Humanities" professors at Duke University in response to the Duke Lacrosse rape allegations . If you don't recall, some members of the lacrosse team hired a couple of strippers for a keg party. The lacrosse players were middle class white and one of the strippers was poor black. There was a perfect storm of black vs. white, rich vs. poor, town vs. gown, out-of-state vs. local. One of the strippers subsequently made a claim to the police that she had been raped at the party. From the beginning there was no physical evidence to support the charge and all the testimony indicated otherwise. The local prosecutor, up for re-election, chose to proceed with a prosecution, committing numerous egregious irregularities along the way. Ultimately, the charges were dismissed, the prosecutor disbarred, and the North Carolina Attorney General went beyond the normal practice of simply dismissing the charges but explicitly identified the students as innocent all along.

All of that was of course a fascinating, tawdry and instructional case study of how the normal checks and balances can fall away leading to outrageous outcomes. And indeed there were very real world consequences to an entirely fictitious allegation. The lacrosse coach was forced to resign. The lacrosse season was cancelled. Duke University, the prosecutor, the City of Durham and the Police Department were all subject to multiple lawsuits. Some are still in progress and others have been settled out of court with unknown payments. Two of the accused had to transfer to other universities.

What was startling to me though, was the Duke University faculty response. 88 of the humanities professors formed the Group of 88 and took out an advertisement that started from the assumption that if the accusations weren't true, they in fact reflected reality. The members of the groups wrote various op-ed, open letters and other pieces calling for the presumption of guilt and expulsion of all lacrosse players (whether they attended the party or not). As John Podhoretz wrote in the New York Post,
The school has perhaps 700 professors who teach undergrads. So, at a moment when Duke students were being shadowed by a rape accusation, one-ninth of their professoriate had effectively declared that those students did not deserve the presumption of innocence - primarily because so many of their fellow students were supposedly being victimized by the atmosphere of 'racism and sexism.
Nearly 15% of the professoriate, all in the humanities, were willing to dispense with evidence, due process, presumption of innocence simply to affirm their view of how the world should be. What was striking to me though was that there were no signatories to the Group of 88 activities from the STEM fields. None. So the humanities professors were busy undermining every critical precept of human rights and civilized values while the STEM professors were upholding all the fine traditions of the humanities. This was almost an Alice-in-Wonderland moment where up is down and vice versa.

In checking my facts, I came across this fascinating set of detail, also from the Wikipedia article. The percent of each department signing the Group of 88 statement.
80% African and African-American Studies
72% Women's Studies
60% Cultural Anthropology
45% Romance Studies
42% Literature
32% English
31% Art & Art History
25% History
0% Biological Anthropology and Anatomy
0% Biology
0% Chemistry
0% Computer Science
0% Economics
0% Engineering, all departments in the entire school
0% Genetics
0% Germanic Languages/Literature
0% Psychology and Neuroscience
0% Religion
0% Slavic and Eurasian Studies
If you were seeking a measure of academic irrelevance, this might serve. There is an inverse relationship. The more likely you are to sign such an statement, the more irrelevant your field of study.

The tidal wave of MOOCS, financial rebalancing, on-line certification, and advanced education model restructuring is likely to sweep away much of this nonsense. There simply are no longer the resources available to support that which has no relevance or significance.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Maybe someday you will rejoice to recall even this

From Virgil's Aeneid, Book 1. They have just been shipwrecked and Aeneis calls for his followers to maintain perspective.
Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit (Maybe someday you will rejoice to recall even this.)
There are two ways to read this. One way might be rendered in the modern vernacular, "enjoy it, its only going to get worse." That might be wise and true but not a sentiment well suited to our times. When man was still so nearly completely subject to chance and nature, stoicism and perspective was just about the only palliative available in the face of reverses. Today, any such reverse is an assault on our self-perception as problem solvers. The only perspective accepted is that of how to fix that which is ultimately unfixable.

The alternate, and perhaps more common way to interpret this might be a call of interpretative perspective. Yes, this is bad, but it might set us on a better road with more desirable outcomes.

All of this is to get at the benefits of translation. There is no right answer per se but the translator is forced to consider many nuances, all of which might be correct and yet each has its own margin of interpretation.

Four different translations of Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit

Maybe someday you will rejoice to recall even this
This suffering will yield us yet| A pleasant tale to tell.
An hour will come, with pleasure to relate| Your sorrows past, as benefits of Fate.
Maybe one day we shall be glad to remember even these things.

So which is it? Remembrance because things got better or because they got worse?

All of this is brought to mind by the discovery recently (Theodore Roosevelt, author of forty books) of how common it was for our past Presidents to speak and translate Latin and/or Greek prior to World War II. I wonder if that practice of translation and humility in the face of nuance, might have made them better Presidents. When everything is black and white and subject to purely technical answers, I wonder if something is lost in terms of effectiveness as well as in terms of humanity.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Theodore Roosevelt, author of forty books

From the December 2013/January 2014 copy of the Literary Review, page 6 in a review by Dominic Sandbrook of The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a joint biography of Theodore Roosevelt (TR) and William Howard Taft.
But TR was more than a cowboy. He was a remarkably clever and energetic man who admired Oliver Cromwell and somehow found the time to write forty books, including a widely praised four-volume history of the conquest of the West.
Though other sources quibble and argue that the number is somewhere between 35 and 38. If you argue about totals in that range, it is at least sufficient to acknowledge a prolific writer. Is there any other president who has written as many?

In looking for that answer (and it appears that Teddy Roosevelt is in fact the most prolific presidential writer), I came across another interesting one. Which Presidents were multilingual? From Wikipedia:
Of the 44 Presidents of the United States, at least half have displayed proficiency in speaking or writing a language other than English. Of these, only one, Martin Van Buren, learned English as his second language; his first language was Dutch. Four of the earliest Presidents were multilingual, with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson demonstrating proficiency in a number of foreign languages.

James A. Garfield not only knew Ancient Greek and Latin, but used his ambidexterity to write both at the same time. Both Roosevelts spoke French, and Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German. Herbert Hoover spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese. No modern (post-WWII) president has gained proficiency in a foreign language, although Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush displayed a limited ability in Spanish, whilst Bill Clinton had some knowledge of German.
Wow - fifty percent were proficient in another language? I would never have guessed it was that high, though apparently that might be a function my birth post WWII when the linguistic bar has been lowered to nil (none proficient).

Here is a record of their accomplishments summarized from the article.
John Adams - Learned Latin as a boy. Became fluent in French when posted there as Minister Plenipotentiary. And as a side note, what adventurous lives those men led. No quiet politicians they. Again from Wikipedia, recounting his first posting to France.
Adams sailed for France aboard the Continental Navy frigate Boston on February 15, 1778. The trip through winter storms was treacherous, with lightning injuring 19 sailors and killing one. Adams' ship was then pursued by but successfully evaded several British frigates in the mid-Atlantic. Toward the coast of Spain, Adams himself took up arms to help capture a heavily armed British merchantman ship, the Martha. Later, a cannon malfunction killed one and injured five more of Adams' crew before the ship finally arrived in France.
Thomas Jefferson - Ancient Greek, Latin, French, Italian and Spanish.

James Madison - Acient Greek, Latin, Hebrew. Translated several Latin works.

James Monroe - French

John Quincy Adams - French and Dutch fluently. Some Ancient Greek, Latin, Italian and German.

Martin Van Buren - Only American President for whom English was not his native language. Dutch was his mother tongue.

William Henry Harrison - Latin

John Tyler - Latin and Greek

James Polk - Greek and Latin

James Buchanan - Greek and Latin

Rutherford B. Hayes - Latin and Greek

James Garfield - Latin and Greek. "As the first ambidextrous president, Garfield entertained his friends by having them ask him questions, and then writing the answer in Latin with one hand while simultaneously answering in Greek with the other."

Chester A. Arthur - Latin and Greek

Theodore Roosevelt - French. Could read German and Italian

Herbert Hoover - Latin and Mandarin Chinese. Translated a Latin work on mining into English.

Franklin Roosevelt - French and German
I knew of course that Latin and Greek were mainstays of a gentlemen's education but I am not sure I realized the extent to which, if these fellows are representative, that they used it and maintained fluency through life.

So Thomas Jefferson takes the medal for most number of foreign languages with five. Martin van Buren is the only President for whom English was not his native tongue. Theodore Roosevelt was the most prolific author. And impressive in its own, somewhat sad, way is Andrew Johnson. His accomplishment? Learned to read at age sixteen. He married at sixteen and his wife helped teach him.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

I guess the beauty of the internet is that no one has to know that you are a cane toad.

Heh. 4 Things I Learned from the Worst Online Dating Profile Ever by Alli Reed

She puts together a dating site profile so repugnant that it would scare away all suitors. But apparently, on the internet, that's not actually possible.
I got the feeling that a lot of men on that site would message literally any woman who had a profile, but the optimist in me wanted to believe that there was a limit. Maybe there was a woman so awful, so toxic, so irredeemably unlikeable that no one would message her, or if they did, at least they would realize they never, ever wanted to meet her. So I made the OkCupid profile of the Worst Woman on Earth, hoping to prove that there exists an online dating profile so loathsome that no man would message it.

I did not accomplish my goal.

In making this profile, I made sure my creation touched on every major facet of being truly horrible: mean, spoiled, lazy, racist, manipulative, and willfully ignorant, and I threw in a little gold digging just for funzies. I maintain that there is not a human on this planet who would read this profile and think, "Yes, I'd like to spend any amount of the fleeting time I'm given on my journey around the sun getting to know this person." This profile is my magnum opus; it will be engraved on my tombstone. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
A little trying as an article, but amusing. In the first 24 hours, she had been contacted by 150 hopefuls.

It reminds me of a documentary I saw years ago in Australia. Australia has a problem with Cane Toads, a species introduced in the 1930's from Central America to Australia in order to control insect pests. A task at which they were unsuccessful. However, cane toads were very successful at destroying numerous other local fauna.

One of the points the documentary made was that cane toads were in part so successful adapting to the Australian environment because they had such a powerful urge to reproduce. They illustrated this point by including a film segment of some minutes of a male cane toad attempting to mate with a female cane toad. The problem being that the female cane toad had been run over on the road some days prior. That incidental detail did not seem to at all deter the amorous ambitions of the male cane toad. It was at that point that I glimpsed the awesome power of nature in programming our actions.

Alli Reed's experiment seems to add further data to support that view. I guess the beauty of the internet is that no one has to know that you are a cane toad. The miracle is how they learned to set up accounts on OKCupid.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Burying the lede

Well this is full of surprises. A press release regarding research on arrests from the University of South Carolina, Half of black males, 40 percent of white males arrested by age 23 by Peggy Binette.

Key findings from the report.
• By age 18, 30 percent of black males, 26 percent of Hispanic males and 22 percent of white males have been arrested.
• By age 23, 49 percent of black males, 44 percent of Hispanic males and 38 percent of white males have been arrested.
• While the prevalence of arrest increased for females from age 18 to 23, the variation between races was slight. At age 18, arrest rates were 12 percent for white females and 11.8 percent and 11.9 percent for Hispanic and black females, respectively. By age 23, arrest rates were 20 percent for white females and 18 percent and 16 percent for Hispanic and black females, respectively.
The press release makes much ado about the differences between arrest rates by race but I think that is substantially a red herring, the imposition of pre-existing blinkers on a new dataset which allows you to arrive at conclusions already formed.

Here are the surprises to me.
* Magnitude - 40% of American males have been arrested by age 23? Wow! Could that possibly be right? Is there a flaw in the methodology somewhere? Perhaps. But if these data are correct, I suspect there is something much more insidious behind the averages. I suspect the numbers are far more variant by class (using income quintiles as a proxy) than by race. I suspect that the percentage of boys in the bottom two income quintiles would be staggering and those for the top two quintiles minor.

* Race disparity - Not nearly as significant as I would have anticipated. Not to say that the gap isn't material, 38% versus 49% for white males versus black males, just not as large as I would have expected (and I would have expected both of them to be much lower).

* Gender disparity - A little larger than I would have expected, basically 12% for female 18 year olds and 25% for males. This is before college and before adulthood. Yes, it is anticipated that males are greater risk takers, more physical, and more likely to break rules. But twice as much at such a young age?

* Race inversion- Not discussed at all in the press release is what I find most surprising of all. While female arrest numbers are very close by race at both 18 and 23, in both instances it is white women who have the higher arrest rates. What's going on there and how does that fit into the received racial narratives? I don't know, but I think it is notable that the most counterintuitive finding is the one that is not discussed at all. I am guessing that the measured differences are within the margin of error, i.e. that all females basically have the same arrest rate given the margin of error. Still, it would be nice for them to address that.

Friday, January 17, 2014

They just aren't affordable.

In biology, evolution, and history, islands play a special role in that they are usually isolated from the broader tides that sweep over the larger continental land masses. They almost serve as a counterfactual petri dish: What would happen if there were no snakes (Guam), what would happen to animal sizes with fewer resources (Crete, Cyprus, Flores, Malta), what would happen to technology among isolated populations (Tasmania and Chatham Islands), etc.

Islands serve a not dissimilar purpose in economics. The consequences of certain political, policy and economic choices tend to be much more evident much earlier than for comparable populations in large integrated economies. In part this is because, in a large, geographically integrated location, the consequences fall into the unseen category (Bastiat). If you raise property taxes in your metropolitan area, how does that affect your population size? On an island, ceteris paribus, you see a decrease in population because people leave. Sometimes because they take the increase as a marker of future increases, or as a sign of failure or because they can no longer afford to live on the island. Whatever the reason, they leave and their numbers are pretty apparent.

In an integrated geography though, it is less apparent both in magnitude and temporally. You increase taxes in the metropolitan are and population will eventually move to the suburbs. Houses won't go empty but their prices will fall. You won't see fewer faces in the city during the day because people still commute in from the suburbs. Freedom of physical mobility is one of the greatest constraints on abuse of power or incompetence in administration - but it grinds slowly. On the island, there it is, very quickly.

Something of this nature is happening in Puerto Rico. Long known for large and questionable government and now in deep financial trouble, as reported by Walter Russell Mead in Young People Abandon Puerto Rico .
On top of ravaged finances and poor credit rating, Puerto Rico now has another problem: Its citizens are fleeing the island in droves. Since 2000, Puerto Rico has lost nearly 300,000 people to the mainland—a large number considering the total population of 3.6 million. What’s more, the exodus is only speeding up, with an average of 54,000 leaving the island over the past few years. And with the unemployment rate hovering near 15 percent, nearly double that of the mainland, the trend shows few signs of reversing.
On the mainland, local governments pursuing ruinous policies can hide for a long, long time (Detroit for fifty years) complaining about structural changes in the economy, discrimination by the state or the feds, or claim success when the numbers belie them. But sooner or later it catches up. Sooner or later you run out of other peoples money. Far better not to pursue the ruinous policies in the first place. The problem is that they don't ever look ruinous in the first place. They are altruistic and reasonable and logical. They just aren't affordable.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

From such misunderstandings are dreadful unintended consequences born.

Interesting. From Wealthy Women Can Afford to Reject Marriage, but Poor Women Can't by Emma Green.
But income actually has a significant effect on how women can afford to think about marriage. Often, self-described feminists question the merits of marriage and urge their fellow women to remain independent if they choose. As Carol Gilligan, a New York University professor who sat on a panel with Ehrenreich, put it, "Does anybody know the word patriarchy?"

Taking a stand against patriarchy is much easier if you're well-educated, have a stable income, and live in a community where you could theoretically find an educated, employed man to marry. For poor, uneducated women, especially those who have kids, the question of whether to get married looks a lot different: It's the choice between raising children on one or two incomes, between having someone to help with household chores and child-rearing alone while working multiple jobs.

And that's the big difference: For a poor woman, deciding whether to get married or not will be a big part of shaping her economic future. For a wealthier woman, deciding whether to get married is a choice about independence, lifestyle, and, at times, "fighting the patriarchy." There's a cognitive dissonance in Ehrenreich's straight-up dismissal of the economic benefits of marriage, because the statistics tell an awkward truth: Financially, married women tend to fare much better than unmarried women.
I have long been commenting that much of modern day feminism smacks of some of the worst forms of self-indulgent classism, the projecting onto everyone else, the privileges one enjoys as the educated and already wealthy. Sometimes the policies advocated for such privileged individuals do also benefit poor women as well or even the entire community. But often not. The failure to accept a broader perspective of the community and reality can be catastrophic when setting policy. I think there is good substance to Green's article but I wish she had added numbers. According to the US Census, the average household with married-couple families and children, earn approximately $72,000 (all data from 2009). If the wife works, the median income is $86,000, if not working, $48,000. Households with children and a single male parent have an annual income of $42,000. These are about 25% of all single parent homes. Single mother with children homes (75% of all single parent homes) have an annual income of $30,000.

I have recently commented that sometimes we ought to be looking at things from the perspective of families as competing economic structures (The real productivity competition is between familial models not between genders) and this reinforces that view. In looking at that census data, it is interesting to note that in 1947, in constant 2009 dollars, the range was much narrower than today. Today, the lowest is the single mother household with an average of $30,000 and the highest is the married couple both working household with income of $86,000, more than 2.9 times as high. In 1947, the single mother household was $17,000 and the married couple both working was $30,000. So two observations - single moms today are earning as much today as dual income married families in 1947. Two, the productivity premium for marriage has increased from 1.8 to 2.9.

Separate from all that, Green's article reminds me of the case of the Green Revolution which I recall from my undergraduates days studying economic development. In the 1960s, American agronomists came out to the India, Philippines and Southeast Asia with these great new strains of rice. The aid workers and agronomists were immensely frustrated with how slow the local farmers were at taking up the new strains even though they were multiple times more productive, disease resistant, etc. There were lots of issues, but much of it came down to the fact that the two parties, aid workers and local farmers, had distinctly different profiles of risk sensitivity. Aid workers were on well paid contracts with the prospects of returning to booming agribusinesses or growing universities. There was very little risk to them. Local farmers however were using heuristics based on multigenerational experiences of living on the knife edge of poverty between hardship and starvation.

From their perspective, the new strains had to deliver reliably and predictably, not just productively. A shortfall of even ten percent in the crop might mean privation, anything more and starvation. Crop failure would mean likely loss of young and old.

The good intentions of the aid workers and the data they were using were not in question. But they simply did not take into account the well grounded risk aversion of local farmers.

Green's article highlights this from a class perspective. As long as you can go home to parents or fall back on well established siblings, or have enough savings for big risk taking, you are entitled to a much broader range of decisions and choices. It is important to remember that others are not so privileged and that the increased choices of the privileged are not always beneficial, and sometimes are harmful, to those less privileged. From such misunderstandings are dreadful unintended consequences born.

The number of annual deaths attributable to cold temperature is 14,380 or 0.8% of average annual deaths in the US

From The mortality costs of extremely cold weather by Tyler Cowen, reporting on a 2007 paper, Extreme Weather Events, Mortality and Migration by Olivier Deschenes and Enrico Moretti, on the mortality consequences of extreme weather conditions. From their abstract.
We estimate the effect of extreme weather on life expectancy in the US. Using high frequency mortality data, we find that both extreme heat and extreme cold result in immediate increases in mortality. However, the increase in mortality following extreme heat appears entirely driven by near-term displacement, while the increase in mortality following extreme cold is long lasting. The aggregate effect of cold on mortality is quantitatively large. We estimate that the number of annual deaths attributable to cold temperature is 14,380 or 0.8% of average annual deaths in the US during our sample period. Females account for two thirds of this excess mortality. We also find that males living in low-income areas have very high cold-mortality risks. Because the U.S. population has been moving from cold Northeastern states to the warmer Southwestern states, our findings have implications for understanding the causes of long-term increases in life expectancy. We calculate that every year, 4,600 deaths are delayed by changes in exposure to cold temperature induced by mobility. The longevity gains associated with long term trends in geographical mobility account for 4%-7% of the total gains in life expectancy experienced by the US population over the past 30 years. Thus mobility is an important but previously overlooked determinant of increased longevity in the United States.
I find that interesting - "The longevity gains associated with long term trends in geographical mobility account for 4%-7% of the total gains in life expectancy experienced by the US population over the past 30 years."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The useful man never leads the easy, sheltered, knockless, unshocked life

An interesting perspective on age and achievement by Thomas Edison in 1927 (when he was eighty years old).
The man who has reached the age of thirty-six has just about achieved readiness to discard the illusions built on the false theories for which wrong instruction and youthful ignorance previously have made him an easy mark. He is just beginning to get down to business. If he is really worth while he has passed through a series of hard knocks by that time. The useful man never leads the easy, sheltered, knockless, unshocked life. At thirty-six he ought to be prepared to deal with realities and after about that period in his life, until he is sixty, he should be able to handle them with a steadily increasing efficiency. Subsequently, if he has not injured his body by excess indulgence in any of the narcotics (and by this term I mean, here, liquor, tobacco, tea, and coffee), and if he has not eaten to excess, he very likely may continue to be achievingly efficient up to his eightieth birthday and in exceptional cases until ninety. Then the curve turns sharply down. The cycle is approaching the end. At about that age the entities which form that man will be preparing to discard their abode, which is that man, and enter upon a new cycle. Then and not till then men should, must and do begin to step aside.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

And then it is too late for them to enjoy it

The Diary of Samuel Pepys by Samuel Pepys
The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

There were no glittering flecks on the Seine

Over Christmas, as I do most holidays, I mixed up my reading patterns a little bit. I try and lighten the cognitive density a little by introducing humor and mysteries. I am particularly fond of mysteries from different places and set in past times. Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald, Stout, Simenon, Manning, etc. It is wonderful what you can pick up from some of the older books about conditions and expectations in the past and in different places.

I finished Maigret and the Man on the Bench by Georges Simenon. One of the leit motifs running through the story is the fact that the victim had recently started wearing light-brown shows. The story was published in 1953 so this reflects conditions and cultural circumstances in Paris in the immediate post-war years. As you read along, you become aware that there is a whole set of assumptions and implications associated with light-brown shoes that have evaporated completely in today's environment where fashion sense is largely dominated by the minimalist standards of California techno-geek. You have to work at recreating in your present day mind what the significance was then of light-brown shoes.
He, too, [Maigret] had longed at one time to own a pair of goose-dung shoes. They had been all the rage then, like those very short fawn-colored raincoats, known at the time as bum-freezers.

Once, early in his married life, he had made up his mind to buy a pair of light-brown shoes, and had felt himself blushing as he went into the shop. Come to think of it, the shop had been on Boulevard Saint-Martin, just opposite the Theatre de l'Ambigu. He had not dared to put the shoes on at first. Then, when he finally plucked up the courage to open the package in the presence of his wife, she had looked at him and then laughed in a rather odd way.

"You surely don't intend to wear those things?"

He never had worn them. It was she who had taken them back to the shop, on the pretext that they pinched his feet.

Louis Thouret had also bought a pair of light-brown shoes, and that, in Magret's view, was symbolic.

It was, above all, Maigret was convinced, a symbol of liberation.
Simenon is great with little details of routine, weather and environment.
And that was that. Maigret had gone down the stairs, intending to return home for lunch, but in the end he had decided to eat at his usual table in the Brasserie Dauphine.

It was a gray day. There were no glittering flecks on the Seine. He drank another small glass of Calvados with his coffee and went to his office, where a mass of paperwork awaited him.
Brandy in the middle of the day? Oh, but it is not just brandy. Beer, wine and other spirits are regularly imbibed. Partly this a contrast of attitudes between the US and Europe. But it is also between Europe today and Europe then.

By observing small elements of the routine, Simenon captures what we might otherwise overlook.
Maigret poked the fire in the stove, filled his pipe, and for the next hour or so immersed himself in his paper work, scribbling notes in the margins of some documents and signing others.
So in 1953, it was still common to have a working stove in a professional office for heat. Presumably a coal stove. When we moved to England in the mid-sixties, it was a distinctive feature for a six or seven year old that the house was heated by a coal fired furnace. There was the dark, dirty coal shed. The shuttling of coal from the shed to the furnace (and to the fireplaces in the rooms) and having to clean your boots from all the coal dust. When you went away for the weekend, you banked the coal fire in the furnace hoping it would last. If you were lucky it did. If not, the house was cold and you had a half hour or hour job of getting the furnace fire started all over again. All that went away with North Sea gas coming on line in the late sixties. So much easier and better, but there was that whole way of life pushed back down the memory hole except when reading something like Simenon.

Of even more recent times, but still now almost inconceivable and unknown to our children - smoking in the workplace.
Maigret was fiddling with the row of pipes strung out on his desk; then, although the one he was smoking was still lighted, he started to fill another.
A final extended passage. Maigret is going to interview the bookkeeper of a firm which had closed up shop. This passage is a reminder of how far things have come in such a short time. You can look at economic history text books and see that Mexico today has a per capita income equivalent of that of Britain in 1960 but it is hard to reconcile those facts and images. Yes Britain in 1960 was wealthy in world terms but compared to today? Still relatively impoverished. Here Simenon describes the fate of a solidly middle class citizen in those post war years before the mega-State with all its social safety nets.
He searched in vain for an elevator. There was none, so he had to climb six flights of stairs. The building was old, with dark and dingy walls. Right at the top of the landing was comparatively bright, thanks to a skylight. There was a door on the left, beside which hung a thick red-and-black cord resembling the cord of a dressing gown. He pulled it. This produced an absurd little tinkle inside the apartment. Then he heard light footsteps, the door was opened, and he saw a ghostly face, narrow, pale, and bony, covered with the white bristles of several days' growth, and a pair of watering eyes.

"Monsieur Saimbron?"

"I am Monsieur Saimbron, Do please come in."

This little speech, brief as it was, brought on a fit of hoarse coughing.

"I'm sorry. It's my bronchitis."

Inside, there was a pervasive smell, stale and nauseating. Maigret could hear the hissing of a gas ring. On it was a pan of boiling water.


"Were you about to have lunch?"

Next to the newspaper stood a plate, a glass of water to which a drop of wine had been added, and a hunk of bread.

"There's no hurry."

"Do please go ahead, just as if I weren't here."

"My egg will be hard by this time, anyway."

All the same, the old man decided to go and get it. The hissing of the gas ceased.


Their conversation had lasted half an hour, partly because of the old man's frequent bouts of coughing, and partly because he was so incredibly slow eating his egg.


The liquidation of the firm of Kaplan et Zanin had been a tragedy for Saimbron, as well. He had not even attempted to find another job. He had saved a little money. For years and years, he had believed that it would be enough to keep him in his old age. But what with excessive devaluations of the franc, he now literally had barely enough to stave off total starvation. That boiled egg was probably his only solid food for the day.
So recent in years and yet so long ago.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

From time to time the breeze blew open his unbuttoned jacket

I started Maigret and the Bum by Georges Simenon last night. One of the things I like about Simenon is that he is such the master of capturing a whole environment in a few deft observations. Simenon does weather particularly well. From the opening passages.
It was probably due to the quality of the air, the brightness, the smell, the taste of it. There had been a morning like this, other mornings like it, when as a young detective, newly appointed to the Police Judiciaire, which Parisians still called the Surite, Maigret had belonged to the Public Highways Squad and had walked the streets of Paris from morning till night.

Although it was March 25, this was the first real spring day, especially clear after a last heavy shower that had fallen during the night, accompanied by the distant rumble of thunder. For the first time that year, too, Maigret had left his overcoat hanging in the closet of his office, and from time to time the breeze blew open his unbuttoned jacket.

Because of the breath from the past, he had unconsciously begun to walk at his old pace, nether fast nor slow, not exactly the pace of an idler pausing to watch trivial incidents in the street, nor yet that of a man making for a definite goal.

His hands clasped behind his back, he looked about him, to right and left and into the air, mentally recording visual images to which he had long ceased to pay attention.
That attention to observed and recollected detail brought to mind a piece I was reading by Thomas Edison yesterday, They Won't Think (an online version here) from 1921. Here is Edison on observation.
By developing your thinking powers you expand the capacity of your brain and attain new abilities. For example, the average person's brain does not observe a thousandth part of what the eye observes. The average brain simply fails to register the things which come before the eye. It is almost incredible how poor our powers of observation--genuine observation--are. Let me give an illustration: When we first started the incandescent lighting system we had a lamp factory at the bottom of a hill, at Menlo Park. It was a very busy time for us all. Seventy-five of us worked twenty hours every day and slept only four hours--and thrived on it.

I fed them all, and I had a man play an organ all the time we were at work. One midnight, while at lunch, a matter came up which caused me to refer to a cherry tree beside the hill leading from the main works to the lamp factory. Nobody seemed to know anything about the location of the cherry tree. This made me conduct a little investigation, and I found that although twenty-seven of these men had used this path every day for six months not one of them had ever noticed the tree.

The eye sees a great many things, but the average brain records very few of them. Indeed, nobody has the slightest conception of how little the brain 'sees' unless it has been highly trained.
Simeonon notices and then uses that observation to trigger our own memories which in turn create a whole environment of associations. The cleansed air, the freshness, the invigoration of a still lightly chill wind on an otherwise warming morning. I can associate myself with Maigret. Thus are you drawn in to the writer's created world, through small felicitous observations.


I like Derek Thompson, he gathers in interesting information but often his perspective is cramped, his blinders solid and interpretations weak. Here is The Financial Benefits of Being Beautiful by Derek Thompson. Like many of his ilk he is desperate to believe that people's accomplishments are due to anything other than their own values, decisions and risks.

Within twenty minutes of reading that article, I came across another with the apposite biblical passage. From 1 Samuel, 16:7.
Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.
Which brings to mind William Cowper's God Works in Mysterious Ways which includes
God moves in a mysterious way;
His wonders to perform;
He plans His footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.

From The Cocktail Party, 1949 by T.S. Eliot
Half the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important.
They don't mean to do harm — but the harm does not interest them.
Or they do not see it, or they justify it
Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle
To think well of themselves.
That's the one I went looking for but there are others from the same source.
You will change your mind, but you are not free.
Your moment of freedom was yesterday.
You made a decision. You set in motion
Forces in your life and in the lives of others
Which cannot be reversed.
The destination cannot be described;
You will know very little until you get there;
You will journey blind.
We must always take risks. That is our destiny.
and finally, the cruelest truth about good intentions encountering reality.
If we all were judged according to the consequences
Of all our words and deeds, beyond the intention
And beyond our limited understanding
Of ourselves and others, we should all be condemned.