Friday, February 28, 2014

Reading proficiently at third-grade is the difference between a high school graduation rate of 90% versus 30%

From The Experience of One New York City High School Cohort: Opportunities, Successes, and Challenges by Aaron Churchill.
In this study, researchers from Teachers College at Columbia University analyzed data from a cohort of 77,501 New York City public school students who entered ninth grade in 2005, seeking connections between students’ high school outcomes and college persistence and their achievement, background characteristics, and school environments. Two findings stand out among many: First, students who failed New York’s third-grade reading exam had significantly lower odds of graduating high school than their peers who passed. Of those who failed third-grade reading, barely one in three graduated high school, compared to a 90 percent graduation rate among those who passed.
Reading proficiently at third-grade is the difference between a high school graduation rate of 90% versus 30%.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Half of all YA book purchases are by adults for their own reading

Well this is interesting and I think explains a lot. From Young Adult Books Attract Growing Numbers of Adult Fans from Bowker.
More than half the consumers of books classified for young adults aren’t all that young. Fully 55% of buyers of works that publishers designate for kids aged 12 to 17 – nicknamed YA books -- are 18 or older, with the largest segment aged 30 to 44. Accounting for 28 percent of sales, these adults aren’t just purchasing for others -- when asked about the intended recipient, they report that 78 percent of the time they are purchasing books for their own reading. The insights are courtesy of Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age, an ongoing biannual study from Bowker Market Research that explores the changing nature of publishing for kids.
So basically half of the YA market is actually older adults.

As a bookseller, one of the things we do for our customers is understand the content of books. Over the past couple of decades there has been an increasing volume of problem novels and what most people would consider adult level content: drugs, sex, suicide, abortion, dysfunctional families, etc. Our customers always want to know - Does this book have material I wouldn't want them to read yet? And for a surprisingly large percentage of books, the answer is yes.

I had always assumed it was simply a reflection of the coarsening of society in general compounded by the desire of children to read "up" in terms of content, but it did seem a significant disconnect. If so many parents are uncomfortable with the content, why are publishers pushing the boundaries?

I had also noticed the particular focus of children's literary bloggers in reviewing these books. My sense has always been that they were reviewing the books as adult literature with only an occasional head nod towards children and parents.

But perhaps this report is the explanation. Publishers aren't fulfilling the reading needs of children and parents, they are actually fulfilling a literature lite niche that is masquerading as Young Adult. If these are the topic areas of interest to you, you can blow through these books in two or three days - they aren't that dense or cognitively challenging. It appears we have a bunch of older literary cuckoos in the YA nest.

UPDATE: A report in Publishers Weekly this week, Children's Books: A Shifting Market by Jim Milliot indicates the current numbers:
The popularity of the young adult category is driven largely by adult book buyers. Readers 18 and older accounted for 79% of young adult unit purchases in the December 2012 through November 2013 period, according to Nielsen. The single largest demographic group buying young adult titles in the period was the 18- to 29-year-old age bracket. And even as book buyers age, they still tend to buy most young adult books for themselves rather than for a child or grandchild.

Third Grade reading proficiency and probability of graduating high school on time

From Early Warning Confirmed from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Interesting data.
In 2011, sociologist Donald Hernandez reported that children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers. His analysis of data on nearly 4,000 students showed that dropout rates were highest for the children reading below NAEP’s “basic” level: 23 percent of these children failed to graduate on time, compared to 9 percent of children with basic reading skills and 4 percent of proficient readers. Looked at another way, Hernandez found that “children with the lowest reading scores account for a third of students but for more than three-fifths (63 percent) of all children who do not graduate from high school.” He also found that black and Hispanic children who are not reading proficiently in third grade are twice as likely as similar white children not to graduate from high school (about 25 vs. 13 percent).
The report's authors get tangled up in shifting comparisons and their headline story gets lost in the thickets. Third graders who are not proficient in reading are six times more likely to dropout than those who are proficient; a 23% dropout rate versus a 4% dropout rate for proficient readers. Since non-completion of high school is highly correlated with a wide range of other later in life negative outcomes, it reinforces the importance of simply keeping up with reading skill acquisition.

It is intriguing that the report writers then try and muddy the waters by introducing the highly correlated issue of poverty. Why? From their own numbers, if you address the reading skill acquisition problem, you obviate much of the impact of poverty.

The uncharitable conclusion might be that it is hard, complicated and frequently unrewarding and unappreciated work helping people acquire the necessary Knowledge, Experience, Skills, Values and Behaviors (KESVB) associated with good life outcomes whereas it is much more psychologically rewarding to take money from some people to give to others. Very uncharitable but there is an increasing volume of evidence (see the works of William Easterly and Thomas Sowell) that that likely is the dynamic that is occurring.

Eric Hoffer's comments seem pertinent.
When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

There are five times as many workers in the top 20 percent than there are in the bottom 20 percent

Well that explains a lot.

From Jared Bernstein’s “Tax Reform” Assault on Pensions, IRAs and 401(k)s by Alan Reynolds. Basically a fairly technical refutation dealing with the arcana of tax and accounting codes. However, in that process, Reynolds points out something I had noticed in Census and BLS data.
There are five times as many workers in the top 20 percent than there are in the bottom 20 percent. To exclude young singles and old retirees, Gerald Mayer examined the work experience of households headed by someone between the working ages of 22 and 62. Average work hours among the poorest 20 percent still amounted to just 1,415 hours a year in 2010, while those in the middle fifth worked 2,771 hours, and the top 20 percent worked 4060 hours.
For all the faux outrage about inequality and social justice, there are hard facts that stand in the way of easy answers. It is numbers like these that in part lead me to believe that our focus should nearly singularly be on helping people to become productive.

Even if the top quintile and bottom quintile were paid exactly the same per hour, the top quintile homes would be three time better off. But you have to factor in the premiums that go with specialized work (much more prevalent in top quintile households), intensity of effort (the person who works 60 hours a week at a job will earn significantly more than three times what the person who works 20 hours a week earns), the premium from duration of work (the person who has ten years of experience earns much more per hour than the person with a year's experience), and the churn premium (the person whose economic and familial circumstances are stable will earn and save much more than the person constantly subject to exogenous shocks). You take those factors into account and all of sudden you are probably looking at a top to bottom quintile ratio of probably 10-15:1. All from individual choices, decision-making, values, and behaviors and nothing to do with structural discrimination, class bias, etc.

It is a complex issue about which we need to know much more and it appears to me that virtually all the outrage appears to be politically manufactured with a significant probability of causing more harm than good.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Grant became so absorbed in the conversation that Lee finally had to remind him of the business at hand

From a review, Muddy Boots and a Slouch Hat by Christopher Robbins in Slightly Foxed, Winter 2012. Robbins is describing Grant's history leading up to the amazing story of his Personal Memoirs. Grant failed at just about everything he turned his hand to except soldiering despite his antipathy for the cruelty of war. Having suffered economic ruin after his Presidency and then diagnosed with throat cancer, Grant determined to write his memoirs in the hope that they would provide a source of support for his soon to be widow. Urged on by Mark Twain who undertook to be his publisher, Grant set to work in late 1884, writing everyday, producing 20-50 pages a day, entirely from memory and with no assistance. He finished in July 1885 and died five days later. It became one of the best-selling books in American history.
One of my favorite passages in Memoirs is the description of Grant accepting the surrender of the Confederate Army's General Robert E. Lee. Grant rode over to the small house where Lee was installed, arriving as muddy and shabby as ever. Lee, on the other hand, was every inch the General, immaculate in a pale grey uniform with gold braided sleeves, a scarlet sash around his waist, a sword hanging at his side. Grant had left his sword behind - it got in the way when riding, he explained.

The admiration Grant felt for Lee almost amounted to a sense of awe and he did not attempt to hide it. As the staff prepared the surrender documents, the Generals chatted about the Mexican War and mutual military acquaintances. (Lee might have been surprised to learn that one of Grant's most trusted staff officers was a Native American.) Grant became so absorbed in the conversation that Lee finally had to remind him of the business at hand.

On an entirely different note, it reminds me of James Thurber's 1930 short story, If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox. Five minutes well spent reading it.
"Shall we proceed at once to the matter in hand?" asked General Lee, his eyes disdainfully taking in the disordered room. "Some of the boys was wrassling here last night," explained Grant. "I threw Sherman, or some general a whole lot like Sherman. It was pretty dark." He handed a bottle of Scotch to the commanding officer of the Southern armies, who stood holding it, in amazement and discomfiture. "Get a glass, somebody," said Grant, looking straight at General Longstreet. "Didn't I meet you at Cold Harbor?" he asked. General Longstreet did not answer.
There's a Youtube version as well.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The written word alone flouts destiny

From Mediaeval Latin Lyrics by Helen Waddell, section 107
No work of men's hands but the weary years
Besiege and take it, comes its evil day.
The written word alone flouts destiny,
Revives the past and gives the lie to Death.

God's finger made its furrows in the rock
In letters, when He gave His folk the law.
And things that are, and have been, and may be,
Their secret with the written word abides.

Bright people and foolish statements OR the wisdom of crowds

What a clanger. From The Mobility Myth by James Surowiecki. I have read one of Surowiecki's books (The Wisdom of Crowds) and it was alright. Not a tight argument, but adequate. But Surowiecki is alarmed by income inequality and low income mobility, the topical feel good issue about which everyone has a self-serving opinion and only a mite understand anything about which they are talking.

Lamenting recent research showing that intergenerational income mobility has been lower than we might have thought, Surowiecki observes that
The middle class isn’t all that mobile, either: only twenty per cent of people born into the middle quintile ever make it into the top one.
If you believe that people's actions contribute to their outcomes, then you wouldn't be especially surprised that there might be unequal outcomes across the quintiles. However, if you believe that life outcome's are not the product of individual efforts but are essentially random, then how many people would you expect from the middle income quintile to end up in the top quintile? Well, twenty percent.

What is the argument being made and what evidence is relevant to that argument? So many laid so low so often over those fundamental issues. Daniel W. Drezner has some interesting observations about how bright, accomplished people can so often grasp the wrong end of the stick in his article, What Nick Kristof Doesn't Get About the Ivory Tower. He observes:
But when it comes to my little patch of academe, international relations, I think Kristof has it mostly wrong. And I think I’m in a unique position to shed some light on why the three tribes that dominate the discussion of foreign affairs—academics, Beltway types and money folks—don’t always get along.
He elaborates that each of the three tribes has distinct strengths not found among the others but also that there are distinct weaknesses. His conclusion is, ironically, not far from that of Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds, that it is not crowds that generate good decisions but rather a distinct configuration of crowds. In order to get to a good decision, you have to have multiple parties present and participating who bring a variety of domains of deep knowledge to the discussion. That variety and depth together is what increases the odds that you will avoid the blind spots that are all too prevalent in any single domain of knowledge.

It is not crowds per se that improve decision making, it is the statistical probability that a populous crowd will happen to have the range of nodes of deep knowledge interacting together which produces the better outcome.

Like avoiding statistical clangers such as middle income quintile people only have a twenty percent chance of ending up in the top income quintile.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sturgeon's Law

From Wikipedia on Sturgeon's Law
The first written reference to the adage appears in the March 1958 issue of Venture, where Sturgeon wrote:
I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.[1]

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.
Kind of a variation on the Pareto distribution.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Disposed to disturb the peace of society

Those Scottish Enlightenment guys were incredible. They have an extraordinarily long shelf life.

From Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments
The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Health, health care, and health insurance are all three different things

From Mammogram Study Exposes Medical Naiveté by Walter Russell Mead, an insight I have not seen put so succinctly elsewhere.
The fundamental truth emerging from much recent work on the US health care system is that health, health care, and health insurance are all three different things. They bear important relationships, of course. But those connections are complex and understudied. We do know that neither health care nor health insurance as we currently use them always improve health. We also know that health is a multifaceted phenomenon that has as much to do with environmental factors or your relationships to other people as to the treatment you receive. But there’s a lot we still don’t know, and that makes policies based on the folk notion of a direct progression from health insurance to health care to health outcomes problematic.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

They knew how to throw a party

From Entertainment of George Washington at City Tavern, Philadelphia, September 1787 by Gordon Lloyd. I have seen some menus and recipes of 19th and 18th century parties and celebrations and they can be arresting both for what was considered acceptable fare (larks tongue perhaps) as well as the complexity and variety of dishes. But most of all, for how much alcohol they could pack away.

On that note, in this event, the farewell dinner for George Washington in Philadelphia, put on by the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry. Looks like there was a party of 55 gentlemen and in the course of the evening they drank 54 bottles of Madeira (a fortified wine), 60 bottles of claret, 22 bottles of Port (another fortified wine), 8 bottles of ale, 8 bottles of cider, 12 of beer and 7 bowels of punch. And a rollicking good time was had by all I imagine.

Take a look at the attached article which has the itemized bill for the evening, amounting to $15,400 in today's money or $280 per person.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A couple of puzzlers

Two speculations without time to investigate them at the moment.

We are portrayed as being in the midst of an "obesity epidemic." Regardless of the merits of that assertion, I think it is reasonable to conclude that people are indeed heavier today than they were a century ago. You look at paintings and photographs from 1900 and people do look much leaner. And they commonly are smoking.

Hence my question. Is the apparent obesity epidemic really two intersecting lines creating an amplified affect? The world became more prosperous and food became cheaper which would ceteris paribus lead to greater consumption and hypothetically greater weight. But what if the real issue was not inability to consume (because the causal structures of weight gain and loss are complex and little understood) but rather reduced to desire to consume because people smoked (an appetite suppressant)? Is obesity increase an unintended consequence of smoking decrease?

Second question - Yawning is an oddly sociable event. When one person in a room yawns, odds are high that someone else will do so as well within a minute. The act of yawning can cause a cascade of yawns or a chain reaction of yawns. It is a well established phenomena that is not well explained. Commonly posited causes include oxygen deprivation and empathy. Chimpanzees are also known to exhibit chain reaction yawning but I don't know about other animals. Yawning, certainly, but not necessarily the yawning cascade of humans.

My question is why the effect does not work cross species? We have multiple dogs and cats. They all yawn. Their yawning has no impact, it appears to me, on the human propensity to sympathetically yawn. Why?

A trifurcation rather than bifurcation of society

An interesting but incomplete article, 1% v. 99%? No, It's Affluent, Squeezed, and Entrenched Poverty by Richard Reeves. Interesting in that Reeves does open the box on the very rich discussion of how it is that we might want to define concepts of middle class, rich and poor. Incomplete because it still treats the system as static.
At the very least, recent economic and social trends suggest a trifurcation rather than bifurcation of society, with two consequent divides. At the top, we can see an elite doing well in a labor market offering big returns to human capital. This is perhaps not the just the top 1% (much though politics might be easier if that were so) but, say, the top decile, or 10%, of the income distribution.

This stratum is not only prospering economically. For the people on this top rung, education levels are high and rising. Families are planned, marriages strong, neighborhoods safe and rich in social capital, networks plentiful, BMIs low and savings rates high.

Below this affluent class is a broad swath sometimes dubbed the ‘squeezed middle.' This group have decent labor market participation rates, but wages that are rising slowly. In many cases, two wages are needed to support the family. They own a home, but are not otherwise wealthy. Savings exist for emergencies or one-off expenditures, but run out fast if the households has a serious downward shock to income. Private schooling is rarely an option, financially. (This is a group that might benefit from one of the schemes of wage insurances currently being discussed, most recently by Prof Miles Corak).

At the bottom of the social scale are those whose poverty is entrenched. Labor market attachment is weak, with many people in long-term unemployment. Teen pregnancy is still heard of, unlike in most communities today. Poverty is felt in most domains of life - crime, health, education, parenting, drug addiction and housing. The growing economic segregation of neighborhoods further isolates this group from chances of work, better schooling or valuable social networks. Upward intergenerational mobility rates are low.
But what about the difference between averages of populations and individuals? This is Thomas Sowell's critique of the inequality debate. People don't live in a particular income quintile all their life. They move up, they move down, they move around, they have different starting points.

Is the child of 1% parents who graduates from high school, goes off to college, comes home, drifts through a series of unpaid internships, eventually ends up in grad school before finally becoming employed ever meaningfully in poverty? They may have no or little earned income for the better part of a decade and therefore are technically in poverty, but are they really? Obviously not. They may live in the bottom quintile for ten years but soon thereafter they are in the top one or two quintiles.

So it is not even about trifurcation, though that is a valid point. It is about what do we mean by poverty in a world of plenty and of legal equality. I would argue that we always ought to be looking at how policy can help people improve their own individual productivity. Beyond that, what we probably ought to be most concerned about are volatility (propensity to move between quintiles in short time frames) as well as stasis.

So if someone spends a very large percentage of their life in one quintile, it may indicate some barrier. Even this though is problematic. The 25 year old of high income parents, getting her first paid job may have spent 100% of her adult life in technical poverty but not been poor. And by the time you can begin to be certain that they really are in poverty, say by 35 years of age, is there much that can be meaningfully done to change that circumstance?

That suggests to me that perhaps this is then also an issue of forecasting rather only about definition. What are the circumstances that are reliable predictors of future unintended poverty? And when would they trigger an intervention? And how probable would that intervention have to be to be acceptable?

This likely would get very challenging if not problematic very quickly but I suspect focusing on productivity and focusing on long term probabilities are about the only two options available, other than to simply let emergent order arise. And the latter is not in itself an unacceptable outcome and might actually be the preferred outcome.

Half the world enslaved

From The Moral Is the Practical by Alex Tabarrok.

I think Tabarrok has the wrong end of the stick in this argument but this passage struck me for three reasons, entirely unrelated to his argument.
When in 1787 Thomas Clarkson founded The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade a majority of the world’s people were held in slavery or serfdom and slavery was considered by almost everyone as normal, as it had been considered for thousands of years and across many nations and cultures. Slavery was also immensely profitable and woven into the fabric of the times. Yet within Clarkson’s lifetime slavery would be abolished within the British Empire.
First thing - Is that really true? That in 1787 the majority of the world was in slavery or serfdom? I have on a number of occasions come across historians who make a point of slavery being so much more the norm in centuries past. I think their general point is true - we fail to distinguish just how unique are the circumstances of today compared to what was quotidian behavior in very recent times. I am very comfortable as well with the concept that hierarchies were much steeper and that for all intents and purposes, most people were in near poverty and unfree as we understand it today.

But that the majority were enslaved or serfs in the way we understand those terms today? My first instinct is that that statement is preposterous rhetoric. But possibly it is true. India and China were the big population centers and India certainly had economic and governance arrangements by which one could with some basis regard the large majority as serfs. China I am not as familiar with but I suppose it could be true there as well. Russia, obviously. Much or all of Latin America perhaps. A big proportion of the population of Africa, certainly. The world population in 1750 was about 800 million with the majority in Asia. So I guess you could get to those numbers. More than 400 million either enslaved or in serf-like circumstances. Hmmph. Never quite thought of it like that before.

Second thing - just striking that there were two such major leaps forward in world freedom in 1787 - The founding of The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and the start of the constitutional convention for the US in Philadelphia. The world is far freer and people have far more choices directly arising from those two events which coincidentally happened in the same year. Freedom was in the air.

Third thing - I have no problem with big man history, the focus on individuals and their pivotal contributions to history: the George Washington's, Thomas Paine's, the Albert Einstein's. Of course each operated within a context and there were innumerable others contributing to or working in parallel to those individuals. There's a lot more nuance and detail than Big Man history allows. That said though, it is interesting how some truly pivotal big men there were who are so underappreciated or unacknowledged. In this instance, Thomas Clarkson. This guy is so critical to a course of history which is so important to so many people today. And yet, who among how many has even heard of Clarkson and his actions.

A contemporary example is Norman Borlaug. Quiet and unassuming; father of the Green Revolution and the man who saved a billion lives. Quiet men, effective men, consequential men and yet largely uncelebrated men.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

It is a truth universally acknowledged

These two nuggets of information seem to perhaps be related, but I am not quite sure how.

From Whom loves ya? by Geoffrey K. Pullum.
Wired magazine has just published a large-scale statistical study of what correlates with numbers of responses to online dating ads (and let me say here that I am deeply grateful to Charles Hallinan for pointing it out to me). Much of the survey relates to the words used in the ad. For example, mentioning yoga or surfing in your ad has a positive influence on the number of contacts that will result. Some of the discoveries are curious: for men, it is much better to refer to a woman using the word "woman", but a woman's ad will do better if she refers to herself as a "girl". And (the point that has turned my life around, made on the infographic here), it turns out that men who use "whom" get 31% more contacts from opposite-sex respondents.


And the obvious inference from the fact Wired has uncovered is that, influenced by the educational stress on the importance of that pesky final accusative-marking -m, women use occurrence of whom as a surrogate for evidence of intelligence.
So language use as a signal for status and fitness. Makes sense.

Now, from Pew Research, Record share of wives are more educated than their husbands by Wendy Wang.
The trend toward wives being more educated than their husbands is even more prevalent among newlyweds, partly because younger women have surpassed men in higher education in the past two decades. In 2012, 27% of newlywed women married a spouse whose education level was lower than theirs. By contrast, only 15% of newlywed men married a spouse with less education.
But note this.
Does marrying someone with less education mean “marrying down” economically? Not necessarily. When we look at the newlywed women who married someone with less education, we find that a majority of these women actually “married up.” In 2012, only 39% of newlywed women who married a spouse with less education out-earned their husband, and a majority of them (58%) made less than their husband.
Up is down, what's old is new. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" and our universities are there to provide for that want.

16 involved women

I have been watching some of the Olympics and had noticed a number of accidents but had not noticed the gender imbalance. From Extreme Park Crashes Taking Outsize Toll on Women by John Branchfeb.
Most of the accidents have occurred at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, site of the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events like halfpipe, slopestyle and moguls.

And most of the injuries have been sustained by women.

Through Monday night, a review of the events at the Extreme Park counted at least 22 accidents that either forced athletes out of the competition or, if on their final run, required medical attention. Of those, 16 involved women. The injury rate is higher when considering that the men’s fields are generally larger.
73% of the injuries are sustained by women when they are less than half of the participants. But why?

The article offers a couple of suggestions. Sounds like we are talking primarily about a handful of the events; slopestyle, ski cross, moguls, halfpipes, and snowboard cross. The offered reasons are: 1) men and women are using the same courses and men are more accustomed to extreme courses than women, and 2) women choose not to practice on the course because of its risks. What this implies is that more practice will solve the injury problem but that doesn't make a lot of sense. They are avoiding practicing because of the accidents.

Is it possibly a consequence of differentials in physical strength that leads to the higher accident rate? I would not instinctively have thought of this as a sport where the gender differences in body strength would have made that much of a difference but perhaps at the margin it does.

While the nation cries out for more STEM graduates, grade inflation in non-STEM fields undermines this effort

Two articles in conjunction create an interesting speculation. First is Want More STEM Grads? Stop Grade Inflation by Thomas K. Lindsay and the second is The economics of sex: Has the price gotten too cheap? by Naomi Schaefer Riley. You don't have to accept the entirety of the predicates of either article to see the value of the essentially empirical and economic analysis.

Lindsay, in summary, is saying that STEM courses are highly quantifiable and therefore the grades have been less subject to inflation than liberal arts courses. You can either work the equation or your can't and there is not much room for negotiation. In liberal arts the latitude for negotiation based on opinion is much greater. The consequence is that the STEM courses are much more rigorously graded and the grades are on average lower because they are more rigorous. In contrast, in the liberal arts field, high grades are a dime a dozen. If, as a student, you view grade point average as a paramount attainment (as opposed to knowledge), then high grade inflation in liberal arts and low inflation in STEM means that the logical choice is always going to be to choose liberal arts courses. As long as employers value grade averages over actual knowledge and ability, that strategy will work. However, the unintended consequence is that, despite all the caterwauling that we need more STEM, we are creating a system that rewards students to take liberal arts courses.
Johnson's work at Duke found students "twice as likely to choose [elective] courses graded at an A- average as they were courses graded at a B average." He writes that this "likely results in a 50% decrease in the number of elective courses taken by undergraduates in the natural sciences and mathematics."

Because students seek easier-grading elective courses, they are less likely to take the chance to explore courses in the tougher-grading STEM fields. This lessened exposure reduces students' opportunities to discover that a given STEM course so interests them that they decide to go on to major or minor in it. Were grading practices made more equitable between STEM and non-STEM fields, this obstacle to intellectual exploration would be removed.

Simply stated, while the nation cries out for more STEM graduates, grade inflation in non-STEM fields undermines this effort. This is but one more price -- a substantial price -- that society pays for a dysfunctional academy in which "knowing the grading practices of the instructor from whom students took courses is as important as knowing the grades they got."
Obviously the predicate assumptions have to be tested and validated, but taking them at face value, what's to be done? The article mentions the Honest Transcript approach where your grade is reported as well as the average class grade. Great that you have an A but somewhat meaningless if the rest of the class has an A. But as Lindsay reports, such an honest transcript approach has not been shown to change behaviors where it has been trialed such as at Dartmouth. I suspect that the honest transcript approach cannot work unless you have critical mass or, as in Riley's article, you are able to exercise collusive control.

Perhaps a better approach might be to take the average grade curve from STEM and require that in liberal arts courses. An obvious objection is that such an approach would fail to distinguish whether the students had actually acquired the knowledge of the course. That argument is somewhat militated by the reality that the current grades don't meaningfully reflect knowledge acquisition either.

If everyone is facing effectively the same grade curve, whatever the course, and the curve is set based on those courses which are empirical and objective in their grading, then you remove the disincentive of taking STEM courses. Knowing that a liberal arts grade will need to be earned rather than negotiated will have the additional value of increasing effort in liberal arts courses and restoring some of their former reputation. It will also, likely, reduce the demand for gut courses, not entirely but probably materially. Even if the course standards are very low, you will still have to work for your position on the curve.

But all that train of thought arises from looking at grades using fundamental economic insights such as marginal utility, supply and demand, pricing signals, revealed preference. In the article by Riley, she profiles a similar exercise from University of Austin with a video which examines sex and marriage using the same economic principles of marginal utility, revealed preference, supply and demand, pricing mechanism as signals, etc.
“On average, men have a higher sex drive than women. Blame it on testosterone, call it whatever you want — but on average, men initiate sex more than women, they’re more sexually permissive than women, and they connect sex to romance less often than women.

“Nobody’s saying this is the way it ought to be. It’s just the way it is.”

“Women, on the other hand, are likely to have sex for reasons beyond just simple pleasure. Her motivations for sex often include expressing and receiving love, strengthening commitment, affirming desirability, and relationship security.”


And this is where the economics matters. Because many more women than men are in the market for a serious relationship, the video explains, “men can be picky and can insist on extensive sexual experience before committing.” Women’s competition for those men has increased, and so the “price” of sex — what the man has to “deliver,” emotionally and commitment-wise — has gone down.

If girls did actually come to realize that they’re “in the driver’s seat” when it comes to sex (and if sisterhood really were powerful), they could change the market entirely, having sex only when they were ready and only when they saw a serious commitment on the part of their partner.

As the voiceover in the video explains, “Collusion — women working together — would be the most rational way to elevate the ‘market value’ of sex.”
But economics only goes so far. The suggested solution is collusion and that is well and good but it requires a strong cultural consensus. The article refers to an OPEC of sex and that is revealing. OPEC is only as strong as the willingness and ability to police the group price, because everyone has a very high incentive to game the system. In a multicultural society, the capacity to establish a strong and effective cultural consensus is limited. Economics provides a lot of insight but it doesn't necessarily provide easy answers.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Which individual ends are satisfied and at what cost is thus fundamentally driven by billions of individual decisions

The clearest and simplest explanation I have seen in a long time of the principles of the Austrian economist, F. Hayek. From Dionne v. Hayek by Todd Zywicki.

A sample:
Hayek’s argument in The Road to Serfdom is straightforward. There is a reality of existence that can be called the “economic problem” (my term, not his). And anyone who has taken Economics 101 knows what it is–the reality of scarce resources in the world and unlimited wants. “Scarce” in the economic sense–that everything has an opportunity cost attached to it. Right now I can either be writing this blog post or shoveling my walkway, but I can’t be doing both. Unlimited wants in the sense that people generally prefer more to less of most goods.

So why does that matter? Hayek’s point is that given this reality–scarce resources and unlimited wants–there are fundamentally only two ways to allocate scarce resources among unlimited wants. The first is through impersonal processes such as the market process, or more accurately, the market process consists of billions of individuals making billions of decisions every single day on how to spend their time and other resources. In the market process, the guiding principle is the price system–prices are fundamentally amoral in the sense that they simply provide information about what these billions of people believe is the most important allocation of scarce resources. It may be that this means it is children’s vaccines or it may mean Honey Boo Boo marathons. In this sense, the price system is completely bottom-up–it is the aggregation of all these marginal and constantly-changing expressions of preferences of people deciding how to allocate their resources and a signal of how resources are valued by other people. Which individual ends are satisfied and at what cost is thus fundamentally driven by billions of individual decisions. You may wish for a career as a Knight of the Roundtable, but in the modern economy it will be prohibitively expensive to pursue that career. In this world, then, Hayek says the role of the government is provide the rules of the road, i.e., should be organized around the rule of law, which is a set of purpose-independent rules that tell people how to go about pursuing their own freely-chosen ends, but doesn’t tell them what ends they must choose. To put it another way, the rule of law provides traffic rules, but doesn’t tell you which exit you have to get off when you are on the highway.

There Are Whales Alive Today Who Were Born Before Moby Dick Was Written

I love being startled by fresh insights. I knew whales were long lived but I did not realize quite how long. And then the implications from that agedness.

There Are Whales Alive Today Who Were Born Before Moby Dick Was Written by Rose Eveleth
Bowheads seem to be recovering from the harvest of Yankee commercial whaling from 1848 to 1915, which wiped out all but 1,000 or so animals. Because the creatures can live longer than 200 years — a fact George discovered when he found an old stone harpoon point in a whale — some of the bowheads alive today may have themselves dodged the barbed steel points of the Yankee whalers.
Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick in 1851, after a brief stint on a whaling ship.

Company lawyers later changed the name to the Small Publisher Negotiation Program

An article very critical of Amazon, Cheap Words by George Packer. Not necessarily wrong but certainly one-sided and therefore incomplete. Love this passage though, illustrating the interplay when imaginative entrepreneurialism meets with corporate risk management.
Sales meetings in Seattle were now all about payments, not new books, and the size of orders was predicated on algorithms, rather than on the enthusiasm of the publishers’ sales staff and Amazon’s own buyers, who were rebranded as “inventory managers.” Brad Stone describes one campaign to pressure the most vulnerable publishers for better terms: internally, it was known as the Gazelle Project, after Bezos suggested “that Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” (Company lawyers later changed the name to the Small Publisher Negotiation Program.)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

It's not the knowledge that sinks you, it's the discounting.

Learning From Iraq, Katrina and Other Policy Disasters by Megan McArdle. An interview with a professor, Steve Teles, who teaches a course about policy failures.
ST: First, I want to reshape their instincts … I want them to just instinctually look for the things that can go wrong and equip them with a set of cases and mechanisms for failure that are right at the front of their brain.

Second, I want to help them reason from history. Policy makers reason from analogy all the time -- it is one of the most fundamental ways they make decisions. But they do so sloppily, opportunistically, and without a very rich set of analogies.

Third, I want them to be able to communicate, in that form of analogical reasoning, to a boss who doesn't know anything.

Mainly, though, I want them to be able to apply skepticism back at themselves. A big theme in the class is that policy mistakes are caused by selective information processing, our tendency to filter out information that is uncomfortable to our beliefs … I'm trying to equip them with some mental habits to apply skepticism MOST to things they want to believe will work.

MM: I feel like most of us are pretty good at figuring out why policies we don't agree with won't work. The problem is applying that skepticism to your own side, presumably. Is that right?

ST: Well, you'd think so, but no. I mean, it certainly helps to be motivated to find things that will go wrong. But in predicting the mechanism that will cause failure, being motivated doesn't always help. That's why you need a rich set of mechanisms extracted from past experience to know where to look.

MM: It's interesting with the financial crisis and the Iraq war. The people who "predicted the crisis," or said the war was a bad idea, were, by and large, not correct about what happened, or why it was a bad idea.

ST: Yes, that's true. Although, just to be clear, in almost all cases of major policy mistakes, there were people who predicted what would happen. That is, the information that could have allowed you to know what was going to happen was available, but policy makers ignored it or discounted it.

MM: So last question: What have you learned from teaching this class? What has surprised you most?

ST: I think mainly I've learned just how hard it is to reason from history, even though we do it all the time. We all say that the "lessons" of X or Y are whatever, but a "lesson" involves extracting something from one case and applying it to a very different one. That's hard, and easy to do very badly, with terrible effects. So I think the main thing I've learned is a bit more modesty … we have no choice but to reason analogically, but we need to apply a lot of skepticism back on our own reasoning.
I like the counsel on humility.

I would take exception, no, rather I would distinguish the comment "Although, just to be clear, in almost all cases of major policy mistakes, there were people who predicted what would happen. That is, the information that could have allowed you to know what was going to happen was available, but policy makers ignored it or discounted it".

I don't think it is that the knowledge was there and it was a matter of incorporating it. It is the discounting that is the issue. The facts might have been overlooked, but by far more common is that people were aware of the facts but discounted them.

This goes all the way back to Troy. Laocoön warned the Trojans against Greeks bearing gifts - but he was discounted.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Domain knowledge declination

Some important thoughts from Who are the most overrated economists? by Tyler Cowen that are pertinent to a concept I have been noodling around.

The basic issue I have been considering is the phenomena of the steep decline curve in employability of people out of the market place. Even for white collar professionals, if out for more than six months, the chances of re-employment become vestigial. Why? Raw knowledge might be a small part of it in an exceptionally fast evolving field, but I don't think that applies to most. Concern on the part of employers regarding degradation of non-cognitive skills might be part of it (soft skills like team work, responsibility, perseverance, etc.).

In pondering that, I have been thinking that perhaps it might be an issue of Domain Knowledge versus Domain Experience and where the particular industry is on its particular saturation S-Curve. I am guessing that Domain Knowledge does probably have a steep erosion rate (familiarity with trends, new software, emerging best practices, etc.). Domain Experience may display a slower erosion rate but might be at greater risk from substitution by other candidates.

Cowen's logic is as follows.
In general the market in ideas and reputations of economists works fairly well, at least in the United States. Nonetheless at any point in time, the most overrated economists are the most highly rated young empirical economists at the top schools.

Think of it this way. The half-life of a good empirical result is getting progressively shorter. Good empirical papers no longer stand as definitive accounts for fifteen years and sometimes not even for fifteen months. The science is getting better, but the individual economist is becoming less important, as we might expect from a growing division of labor. That is healthy, but it has implications for the distribution of reputation.

The total amount of repute and renown accorded to individual top young economists does not decline at the same rate that individual contributions become less important. That total amount of repute and renown at say Harvard, available to be doled out to the latest hot young economist, is fixed in the short run or may even be rising, due to the high returns on the school’s endowment.

So those economists end up individually overrated, even though as a whole they become more impressive over time.
I suspect this has broader application outside of academia. As the S-curves tighten up with a steeper rising curve, the amount of time towards obsolescence shortens as well. I'll leave it at that as this idea clearly deserves its own post.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Goal clarity and proxy measure selection

A few days ago in Mexico as an explanation of charter schools, I discussed how the Mexican experience regarding private and public schools might shed some light on an apparent paradox in the US regarding charter schools. The data from Mexico indicate that public and private schools return roughly the same average test scores as one another. This experience is similar to that here in the US between public and charter schools. Hence the paradox. From simply a data perspective, why are people so enthusiastic about charter schools when their average scores are about the same as those in public schools.

There are a number of reasonable hypotheses but the Mexican data suggests one I have not seen mooted before - Risk Aversion. In that original post, there is a chart of the bell curves for both public and private schools showing that they both have the same mean score. However, what is also apparent, is that private schools have a much tighter standard deviation than the public schools. All of the worst schools were public even though the means were the same.

This is not necessarily surprising. Private schools are subject to the discipline of the market place in terms of transparency, accountability, free choice and consequences. These elements are frequently absent or weaker in government based systems. It is hard to be a demonstrably badly performing private school - people leave and you close down. Not so with public schools where terrible performance can be hidden or sustained for much longer periods of time. So the Mexican data provides evidence that there is another story beyond average test scores and that is risk aversion. If you want to ensure your child does not end up in a dysfunctional school, then you have to go private even though you can statistically, on average, get just as good an education in public.

Today, there is another post shedding yet further light on the paradox. In, Charter High Schools Increase Earnings and Educational Achievement by Alex Tabarrok there is a look at alternate measures of success - graduation rates, education attainment, and future income. Based on the reported research, the charter schools increase achievement by 7-13 percentage points.

This suggests another avenue of thought. If public schools are losing the least well performing students at a greater rate than the charters, then you are no longer comparing apples-to-apples. So if the public school graduates 50% of its students and they are the best students, then if charters graduate 60% of their students, it means that they are retaining and graduating some of the lower scoring students. It should therefore be that their test scores ought to go down. If they are averaging the same scores but with a larger sample of the student performance curve, then that means they are actually teaching much better. This is an example where a reasonable performance measure, test scores, is an insufficient proxy of the real parental objectives and is masking superior performance.

If all you are concerned about are average scores, then it doesn't make a difference whether you send your child to a public school or a charter school. On the other hand, based on the data from Mexico, Florida and Chicago, if you have a balanced scorecard that is more strategic - i.e. test scores, graduation rates, risk aversion, education attainment and future earning capacity, then you absolutely choose the charter school..

What appeared to be a paradox when looking at only a single measurement, disappears when looking at a portfolio of measures reflecting a range of parental objectives and concerns. Highlight the importance of goal clarity and proxy measure selection.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

An infinity of perceptions

A while ago I posted From time to time the breeze blew open his unbuttoned jacket which contained an anecdote from Thomas Edison about the tendency for people to not pay attention to familiar details.
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.


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.
I just came across this strikingly similar comment from Gottfried Leibniz.
At every moment there is in us an infinity of perceptions, unaccompanied by awareness or reflection; that is, of alterations in the soul itself, of which we are unaware because the impressions are either too minute or too numerous.
Interesting to see two great minds addressing the same issue across the centuries, one from a quintessentially practical perspective and the other from a philosophical cast.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The more men you make free, the more freedom is strengthened

Fascinating. From Frederick Douglass, A Friendly Word to Maryland: An Address Delivered in Baltimore, Maryland, November 17, 1864.
The old doctrine that the slavery of the black, is essential to the freedom of the white race, can maintain itself only in the presence of slavery, where interest and prejudice are the controlling powers, but it stands condemned equally by reason and experience. The statesmanship of to-day condemns and repudiates it as a shallow pretext for oppression. It belongs with the commercial fallacies long ago exposed by Adam Smith. It stands on a level with the contemptible notion, that every crumb of bread that goes into another man's mouth, is just so much bread taken from mine. Whereas, the rule is in this country of abundant land, the more mouths you have, the more money you can put into your pocket, the more I can put into mine. As with political economy, so with civil and political rights.

The more men you make free, the more freedom is strengthened, and the more men you give an interest in the welfare and safety of the State, the greater is the security of the State.
Using different words of course, but here is Douglass both describing and condemning the zero-sum fallacy. A hoary fallacy still alive and thriving today in august corners of government power and in academia.

I have only read patches of Douglass's works but his insight is so fresh and clear that I sometimes wonder that we have massively underestimated him as a political thinker simply because we categorize him as a black writer. He reminds me of Alexander Hamilton, another of whose works I am more aware than I am well read. Every time I read something of or by Hamilton though, I am struck by his modernity of thought, just as with Douglass.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The fakir pointed to a small wooden platter, making signs for us to examine it.

In the following post, Theodore Roosevelt, author of forty books, I documented the extent to which before 1900, most of our presidents were multilingual and I commented that
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.
I am currently reading an out of print book, Battles of the Indian Mutiny by Michael Edwards which offers additional evidence of the extent to which educated gentlemen sustained their Greek and Latin through their professional lives. The Mutiny began in May 1857. In the early months, many British communities were cut off from one another with little or no communication between them. Messages had to be smuggled through mutineers' lines and the unsettled country side. The British officers, like US Presidents, were commonly schooled in both Greek and Latin. Apparently Greek was the preferred lingua franca for coded messages. I am only a third of the way through the book and already have come across three occasions where British officers cut off in isolated forts sent messages to relief columns, written in Greek.

One such account, recorded by Frederick Roberts, who was there.
Some excitement was caused on reaching camp by the appearance of a fakir seated under a tree close to where our tents were pitched. The man was evidently under a vow of silence, which Hindu devotees make as a penance for sin, or to earn a title to more than a fair share of happiness in a future life. On our addressing him, the fakir pointed to a small wooden platter, making signs for us to examine it. The platter had quite recently been used for mixing food in, and at first there seemed to be nothing unusual about it. On closer inspection, however, we discovered that a detachable square wood had been let in at the bottom, on removing which a hollow became visible, and in it lay a small folded paper, that proved to be a note from General Havelock, written in the Greek character, containing the information that he was on his way to the relief of the Lucknow garrison, and begging any commander into whose hands the communication might fall to push on as fast as possible to his assistance, as he sorely needed reinforcements, having few men and no carriage to speak of.
An example of the enormous role contingency plays in the paths of history. A small hidden message sent from a beleaguered general out into the immense wilds of India, coded in Greek on the assumption that it would be understood by any British officer, and hidden in a dish. How would one estimate the odds that that would have actually worked and the message have gotten through. And yet it did.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The sepoy finally attempted to commit suicide but was revived and later executed.

In the past couple of weeks, I have twice come across a sentence that seems oddly jarring, similar to the effect that occurs when your foot thinks there's one more step on the staircase and there is not.

The first was from Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, Chapter 9. He is discussing the tribulations of domesticating wild animals.
For example, in the New Guinea villages where I work, I often see people with pet kangaroos, possums, and birds ranging from flycatchers to ospreys. Most of these captives are eventually eaten, though some are kept just as pets.
I understand what he is saying but it is still jarring, as if pets and protein are essentially interchangeable.

Last night I was reading an old book, Battles of the Indian Mutiny by Michael Edwards, now out of print. In the Introduction, Edwardes is discussing the various incidents which presaged the actual Mutiny.
But the fire was to spread, and, on 29 March, there was trouble in the 34th Native Infantry when a sepoy ran amok, calling upon his comrades to join him. When he shot the adjutant and threatened other officers, the guard refused to disarm him. The sepoy finally attempted to commit suicide but was revived and later executed.
Again, I understand, but the elision is just too tight between the tragedy of suicide and the requirements of justice. But I must admit, there is a peculiar logic to the prevention of the sin of suicide in order to meet the requirements of justice, even when the outcome is but the same.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

It can revitalize us amidst it all.

From Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
And what, you ask, does writing teach us?

First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.

So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.

Second, writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that.

Not to write, for many of us, is to die.

We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory. Remember that pianist who said that if he did not pratice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audiences would know.

A variation of this is true for writers. Not that your style, whatever that is, would melt out of shape in those few days.

But what would happen is that the world would catch up with and try to sicken you. If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler

I came across this quote, attributed, of course, to Einstein.
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
From a forecasting and modeling perspective it is perfect because it is true. But did he say it.

The genealogy of the quotation is traced by Garson O’Toole in his sterling website, Quote Investigator. No, Einstein did not quite say this. The likely inspiration was this quotation from “On the Method of Theoretical Physics,” the Herbert Spencer Lecture, Oxford, June 10, 1933 published by the Oxford University’ Press.
It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.
Close, but the vernacular version is pithier. Or perhaps it might be better characterized as simpler but not too simple.

Friday, February 7, 2014

25% variation in the measurement of murders

A great example of the importance of definitions, the importance of apples-to-apples comparisons and the importance of measurement margin awareness.

From How Many Homicides were there in 2010? by Alex Tabarrok.
How many homicides were there in 2010 in the United States? Well, that’s easy. Let’s just do some Googling:
1.12,966, FBI, Crime in the United States 2010.
2.13,164, FBI, Crime in the United States 2011 (2010 figure).
3.14,720, Bureau of Justice Statistics (Table 1, based on FBI, Supplementary Homicide Statistics).
4.16,259, CDC (based on death certificates in the National Vital Statistics System).
Between the smallest and largest figures there is a difference of 3,292 deaths or 25%!
What explains the differences? The explanations are incomplete, but according to Tabarrok the differences are broadly due to.

1. The original measure
2. The updated measure with late calendar returns
3. Includes reports of murder rather than just victim count.
4. Includes justifiable homicides (death inflicted in self-defense.)

When discussing crime, murder statistics are often resorted to as a bedrock of crime indication. Unlike fraud, burglary, robberies, etc. most murders are known about relatively quickly. It is hard for someone to disappear without being noticed. Murders are given a high priority in terms of investigation and so there is a higher clearance rate than most other crimes.

All that being true, the above numbers demonstrate that it is still a relatively murky business and care should be exercised. 25% is a really large measurement margin.

Based on these numbers, between 4-5% of deaths are "justified" in the sense of being some form of self-defense from a legal perspective.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The most basic way to distort an issue is to deny that it exists

Ipse dixit from Wikipedia. I know it as the bare assertion fallacy but this sounds fancier.
Ipse dixit, Latin for "He, himself, said it," is a term used to identify and describe a sort of arbitrary dogmatic statement which the speaker expects the listener to accept as valid.[1] It is also called "the bare assertion fallacy."

Ipse dixit denies that an issue is debatable. In other words, "that's just the way it is."[2]

The fallacy of defending a proposition by baldly asserting it as a fait accompli ("That's just how it is"[3]) distorts the argument by opting out of it entirely: "The most basic way to distort an issue is to deny that it exists."[3]
This must be one of the most frequent logical fallacies. Certainly, I encounter it daily. It is especially common in political or policy discussions where I think it functions more as a signaling device than as a rhetorical device. In other words, if you agree with my ipse dixit, then it is worthwhile continuing the discussion. If not, then it won't be worth talking because I won't/don't want to examine my priors.

In Bayesian Analysis (a school of statistics), it is important to identify your priors. From SAS.
A prior distribution of a parameter is the probability distribution that represents your uncertainty about the parameter before the current data are examined.
In the vernacular, your priors are the quantification of the things you think you know about the problem but aren't certain are true.

The good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect

Someone emailed me with the following signature line quotation from Eric Hoffer,
Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket
What a great line, both because of insight as well as comporting with the facts. It seems, also, to explain why Revel's observation that The dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe is true. Movements lead to revolutions, businesses lead to regulation and reform.

The actual Hoffer quote is different. From The Temper of Our Time (1967)
Up to now, America has not been a good milieu for the rise of a mass movement. What starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation.
I like the vernacular version better.

I have never read Hoffer but I see from Wikiquotes that I need to find some of his books.

Other quotes from the same book. Startling insight and prescience.
The ratio between supervisory and producing personnel is always highest where the intellectuals are in power. In a Communist country it takes half the population to supervise the other half.
It is of course entirely spurious but the habitat with greatest sympathy for repressive behaviors is the University and among our major universities today, half the employees are educators and half are administrators.
Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect. The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.
Indeed, at the level of national policy, too often we let the best be the enemy of the good to our great detriment.
The attitude of the intellectual community toward America is shaped not by the creative few but by the many who for one reason or another cannot transmute their dissatisfaction into a creative impulse, and cannot acquire a sense of uniqueness and of growth by developing and expressing their capacities and talents. There is nothing in contemporary America that can cure or alleviate their chronic frustration. They want power, lordship, and opportunities for imposing action. Even if we should banish poverty from the land, lift up the Negro to true equality, withdraw from Vietnam, and give half of the national income as foreign aid, they will still see America as an air-conditioned nightmare unfit for them to live in.
That's an interesting list of measures. Banish poverty - Done in terms of absolute measures and by definition it cannot be achieved in relative terms. Lift up the Negro to true equality - Incomplete but nearly there in terms of equal outcomes for equal effort. Withdraw from Vietnam - Done. Give half of the national income as foreign aid - Well not as foreign aid, but interestingly, half of national government expenditures are income transfers (taking from one group to give to another) rather than expenditures on the commonweal (infrastructure, defense, etc.)

Have to stop. There is more and more. One last one from his first book which landed him on the intellectual scene, The True Believer.
When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them.
Ouch - some observations appear timeless.
Failure in the management of practical affairs seems to be a qualification for success in the management of public affairs.
And this one seems to have a certain vibrancy.
We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Rubber duck debugging

Rubber Ducky Debugging from Wikipedia.

I wonder if it is called something else in other fields. I have noticed the dynamic to be widespread.
Rubber duck debugging, rubber ducking,[1] and the rubber duckie test[2] are informal terms used in software engineering to refer to a method of debugging code. The name is a reference to a story in the book The Pragmatic Programmer in which a programmer would carry around a rubber duck and debug his code by forcing himself to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck.[3]

Many programmers have had the experience of explaining a programming problem to someone else, possibly even to someone who knows nothing about programming, and then hitting upon the solution in the process of explaining the problem. In describing what the code is supposed to do and observing what it actually does, any incongruity between these two becomes apparent.[4] By using an inanimate object, such as a rubber duck, the programmer can try to accomplish this without having to involve another person.

Tu Quoque

The logical fallacy, Tu Quoque. Tu Quoque is Latin translated as you, also or you're another. The modern vernacular would be "back at you" or at the grade school level "he who smelt it, dealt it". Person X accuses Y of action A. Rather than dealing with whether action A is true or not, Y turns around and accuses X also of action A. It is basically a diversionary tactic that is immensely effective for rhetorical purposes but completely irrelevant in terms of the question "Did Y commit action A".

An explanation from Fallacy Files.
Tu Quoque is a very common fallacy in which one attempts to defend oneself or another from criticism by turning the critique back against the accuser. This is a classic Red Herring since whether the accuser is guilty of the same, or a similar, wrong is irrelevant to the truth of the original charge. However, as a diversionary tactic, Tu Quoque can be very effective, since the accuser is put on the defensive, and frequently feels compelled to defend against the accusation.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

We define myths as beliefs held to be true despite substantial refuting evidence, presumptions as beliefs held to be true for which convincing evidence does not yet confirm or disprove their truth

The field of health and nutrition is rich in cognitive pollution and false knowledge. Everyone has a view and empirical data is manhandled to conform with pre-existing but unvalidated assumptions. From Myths, Presumptions, and Facts about Obesity by Krista Casazza, et al there is an effort to synthesize what is known and unknown. They make a distinction between myths and presumptions.
We define myths as beliefs held to be true despite substantial refuting evidence, presumptions as beliefs held to be true for which convincing evidence does not yet confirm or disprove their truth, and facts as propositions backed by sufficient evidence to consider them empirically proved for practical purposes.
Here are their list of myths and presumptions.
Myth number 1: Small sustained changes in energy intake or expenditure will produce large, long-term weight changes.
Myth number 2: Setting realistic goals for weight loss is important, because otherwise patients will become frustrated and lose less weight.
Myth number 3: Large, rapid weight loss is associated with poorer long-term weight-loss outcomes, as compared with slow, gradual weight loss.
Myth number 4: It is important to assess the stage of change or diet readiness in order to help patients who request weight-loss treatment.
Myth number 5: Physical-education classes, in their current form, play an important role in reducing or preventing childhood obesity.
Myth number 6: Breast-feeding is protective against obesity.
Myth number 7: A bout of sexual activity burns 100 to 300 kcal for each participant.
Presumption number 1: Regularly eating (versus skipping) breakfast is protective against obesity.
Presumption number 2: Early childhood is the period in which we learn exercise and eating habits that influence our weight throughout life.
Presumption number 3: Eating more fruits and vegetables will result in weight loss or less weight gain, regardless of whether any other changes to one's behavior or environment are made.
Presumption number 4: Weight cycling (i.e., yo-yo dieting) is associated with increased mortality.
Presumption number 5: Snacking contributes to weight gain and obesity.
Presumption number 6: The built environment, in terms of sidewalk and park availability, influences the incidence or prevalence of obesity.
The authors also share nine facts, propositions where there is sufficient evidence to consider them empirically proved.
Fact 1: Although genetic factors play a large role, heritability is not destiny; calculations show that moderate environmental changes can promote as much weight loss as the most efficacious pharmaceutical agents available.
Fact 2: Diets (i.e. reduced energy intake) very effectively reduce weight, but trying to go on a diet or recommending that someone go on a diet generally does not work well in the long-term.
Fact 3: Regardless of body weight or weight loss, an increased level of exercise, increases health.
Fact 4: Physical activity or exercise in a sufficient dose aids in long-term weight maintenance.
Fact 5: Continuation of conditions that promote weight loss promotes maintenance of lower weight.
Fact 6: For overweight children, programs that involve the parents and the home setting promote greater weight loss and maintenance.
Fact 7: Provision of meals and use of meal-replacement products promote greater weight loss.
Fact 8: Some pharmaceutical agents can help patients achieve clinically meaningful weight loss and maintain the reduction as long as the agents continue to be used.
Fact 9: In appropriate patients, bariatric surgery results in long-term eight loss and reductions in the rate of incident diabetes and mortality.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valour

From Pericles' Funeral Oration as recorded by Thucydides.
For this offering of their lives made in common by them all they each of them individually received that renown which never grows old, and for a sepulchre, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered upon every occasion on which deed or story shall call for its commemoration. For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valour, never decline the dangers of war.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

There’s always room for a couple of Beers with a friend

From Starting Strength via Instapundit.
A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was. The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles roll ed into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was. The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full.. The students responded with a unanimous ‘yes.’ The professor then produced two Beers from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand.The students laughed.. ‘Now,’ said the professor as the laughter subsided, ‘I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things—-your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions—-and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car.. The sand is everything else—-the small stuff. ‘If you put the sand into the jar first,’ he continued, ‘there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Spend time with your children. Spend time with your parents. Visit with grandparents. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18. There will always be time to clean the house and mow the lawn. Take care of the golf balls first—-the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand. One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the Beer represented. The professor smiled and said, ‘I’m glad you asked.’ The Beer just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of Beers with a friend.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Is the goal to reduce poverty or to feel better by doing something?

Very interesting. From How well does a minimum wage boost target the poor? by Tyler Cowen. In part, Tyler's post is simply the reporting of an interesting fact. In this case, regarding the likely impact of a hike in the minimum wage, Cowen reports that
There has been a recent kerfluffle over the Sabia and Burkhauser paper (ungated here) suggesting that minimum wage increases do not very much help the American poor. Sabia and Burkhauser report facts such as this:
Only 11.3% of workers who will gain from an increase in the federal minimum wage to $9.50 per hour live in poor households…Of those who will gain, 63.2% are second or third earners living in households with incomes three times the poverty line, well above 50,233, the income of the median household in 2007.
That’s what I call not very well targeted toward helping the poor. To the best of my knowledge, these numbers have not been refuted or even questioned.
But then he proceeds to an equally interesting philosophical discussion regarding the extent to which we can know something, and in particular about the relative contributions between theoretical arguments (based on simplified assumptions and statistical modeling) and empirical arguments.

Ideally you want theory and empirical observation to reconcile with one another, but at the frontiers of knowledge, they most commonly do not. In that event, the best approach is to simply wait for additional data. But that is hard to do in the face of a slow unfolding of changes with negative tactical impacts (such as globalization) even if they are strategically magnificent. The thirty or so years of true globalization have seen recurring wrenching changes in the American economy with lots of short term disruptions expressed in both lost income and psychological stress. At the same time, in those thirty years, the world has seen an immense reduction in global poverty directly as a consequence of globalization.

There is an immensely strong urge to "not just stand there, do something" and an equally powerful attraction to simple ideas such as "raise the minimum wage." But as the empirical data show and the epistemological discussion elaborates, unless you know what you are doing, and you usually don't because that is the nature of the knowledge frontier, then you are more likely than not to make things worse.