Monday, March 31, 2014

Men published articles at roughly double the rate of their female counterparts

How is it feasible for an article to be aggravating, impressive and insightful at the same time? The Wise Men by Mara Tchalakov manages just that.

Some striking lines.
The real problem with political science academe today isn’t that the professoriate’s leading lights and prominent graduates are incapable of disseminating impactful ideas.
I would argue that in fact that that is a substantial part of the problem. I would also argue that the source is four-fold: 1) there is so much background noise going on in the national conversation(s) that it is hard for any single point of view to break through, 2) scholars have a hard time translating refined and nuanced ideas into the rough and tumble vox populi, 3) much of what scholars deem of interest and importance is not obviously relevant or important to those outside the field, and 4) the prevalence of vacuous and unsupported arguments within the field is too high to yield the moral authority that might buy attention otherwise.

Tchalakov doesn't believe that the problem for political science academe is that it is unable to disseminate impactful ideas.
The problem, rather, is that still so few of them are women.

A glance across the contemporary marketplace of foreign policy ideas, from peer-reviewed articles to monographs, from graduate school syllabi to the glossy pages of Foreign Policy, reveals a field in which women remain few and far between.
So the most important problem is not the absence of pertinent and impactful ideas but rather that genders are not equally represented. The puzzling thing is that she never identifies why this is a problem. What is the impact of the differential representation? There are certainly arguments that could be made, not necessarily good ones, why this disparate representation might be consequential. But she doesn't advance any claim that the differential has any consequence on the quality and impact of ideas. That's rather maddening. Why have a discussion if there is no identifiable consequence?

The impressive thing, is that she then goes on, in rather substantive detail, laying out why the disparate impact occurs. It is basically the argument I have made elsewhere - this is not a matter of competing individuals; this is a matter of competing family units. Those that form two adult homes with a primary market person and a non- or secondary market person, are more likely to achieve exceptional productivity and recognition. This is simply an empirical observation. Full-time focus yields exceptional results and that full-time focus is harder to achieve when there are shared domestic responsibilities or full domestic responsibilities (either single parent or single person). Not impossible, but harder.

The rub of the issue is that Americans, and basically people worldwide, still have the tradition of the full-time market role being fulfilled by a male and the non-market or support role by a female. Unless that changes, it is unlikely that the 15-30% representation of females in the elite segments of fields will change.

Tchalakov is very forthright about the cause of the disparate representation.
Family obligations, for example, typically prevent women from being as productive as men.


A 2011 study on faculty research productivity in political science found that men published articles at roughly double the rate of their female counterparts, even when controlling for age and faculty rank.
Tchalakov does an impressive job of walking through all the candidate reasons for why there is disparate impact, in virtually all instances providing solid evidence to support those explanations. Its all about productivity.

But instead of grasping the explanation that all her evidence supports, Tchalakov concludes with:
Unless we begin to self-consciously examine the processes by which we consecrate our public intellectuals, the question for young women today will not be whether they can or can’t have it all; rather, it will be whether society would value their contributions equally even if they could.
What a strangely passive and abstract rendition. Who is this generic "we" and how do "we" consecrate public intellectuals (if that occurs at all)? And this conclusion seems completely at variance with her evidence. Where women have invested the time and effort to the same degree as their male colleagues, they have roughly the same recognition. That part already seems answered.

It is the preferred structuring of the family unit as an economic engine that is the root issue, not nebulous society recognition. All her evidence shows that the issue is exactly that of not being able to have it all. Regardless of gender, you can be the best if single or be the best if supported (via a specialized role within a familial structure). Hardly anyone achieves both professional excellence AND parental excellence simultaneously. Division of labor allows a couple to achieve excellence in both domains (one excellent professional and one excellent parent) and therefore via a family unit you can vicariously have the best of both worlds, but more rarely as an individual or as a couple with equally shared roles.

I don't think this is a retrograde conclusion; it brings clarity to life decisions and choices. Figure out what you are willing to do and want to do, understand the likely consequences, make your decision.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The kids who had stuck to a task they could do well on actually performed worse

From The Up Side of Down by Megan McArdle, page 11.

McArdle talks about the importance of mind-set as it impacts willingness to accept new and more challenging (and therefore more likely to increase capability) tasks.
Dweck puzzled over what it was that made these people so different from their peers. It hit her one day as she was sitting in her office (then at Columbia), chewing over the results of the latest experiment with one of her graduate students: the people who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you're either born with or not. The people who relish them think that it's something you can nourish by doing stuff you're not good at.

People who believe that outcomes are determined by preordained levels of talent are referred to by Dweck as having a fixed mind-set. Those who believe in the capacity to cultivate talent are referred to as having a growth mind-set.

McArlde elaborates.
In one of Dweck's best-known experiments, children were given a simple cognitive task to do and, after they completed it, were praised for their performance. Half of them were told something like, "Wow! You did really well - you must be very smart!" The other half were told, "Wow! You did really well - you must have worked really hard!"

Even Dweck was surprised by the magnitude of the effect she saw. When they were offered a follow-up test to take, and told that one was easy and the other one was hard, the students who had been praised for their effort eagerly embraced the more challenging test. Those who had been praised for their intelligence were far more likely to choose the easy path.

As you might expect, this eventually translated into performance: during the third round, when everyone was given another easy test, the kids who had eagerly attacked the difficult problems showed improvement, while the kids who had stuck to a task they could do well on actually performed worse.
This would seem to link with the sense of superiority (capability to accomplish) in Chua and Rubenfeld's The Triple Package. In turn that raises the prospect that the victim advocacy approach taken towards gender, race, LGBT, etc. might be subverting their own goals. If the message is that failure is preordained because of societal institutions, that undermines the confidence in effortful experimentation likely to increase one's capabilities, and therefore one's likelihood of success.

Presumably this has some correlation with people's orientation towards the perspective people take about outcomes. Some people view the pie as fixed and the primary issue is how to divide the pie among claimants. Others view the pie as dynamic and growing and are focused more on the fairness of the process (the equal applicability of rules) rather than fairness of distribution per se. I am guessing that those who are of a fixed mind-set view the world as a zero-sum game whereas those of a growth mind-set take the opposite view.

Sacrificing for the undeserving

From The Wealthy-Hand-to-Mouth by Greg Kaplan, Giovanni Violante and Justin Weidner.
In “The Wealthy-Hand-to-Mouth,” authors Greg Kaplan of Princeton University, Giovanni Violante of New York University and Justin Weidner of Princeton University find that both the wealthy hand-to-mouth (those with little or no liquid wealth but substantial holdings of illiquid assets – those that carry a transaction cost to access, such as housing, large durables, or retirement accounts, as opposed to liquid cash, checking, and saving accounts), and the “poor-hand-to-mouth” behave similarly: both groups have “large marginal propensities to consume out of small income changes – a key determinant of the macroeconomic effects of fiscal policy,” they write. The wealthy-hand-to-mouth choose to weather income fluctuations rather than dipping into their assets to smooth shocks , because smoothing shocks would entail holding large balances of cash and foregoing the high return on their illiquid assets.

The research shows that around one-third of all US households live hand-to-mouth (around 38 million households in 2010, based on 117 million households in 2010, Census Bureau), and of that group, over two-thirds are indeed wealthy-hand-to-mouth.
Interesting because it introduces an ethical dilemma of the sort economists would prefer not to address.

The implications from the research are, that in order to juice demand in the economy (which benefits everyone), then you need to target your stimulus policies towards those with the highest propensity to consume. Makes sense. But what the research reveals is that of those with the highest propensity to consume, 65% are not poor. They are temporarily income poor but they are asset rich. They could continue to cover their consumption expenditures by liquidating some of their illiquid assets even though this is financially suboptimal to them individually.

The upshot of this research is that, in order to stimulate the economy, you have to take money from the productive and cautious to generate consumption. 35% of that consumption will occur among individuals who are agreed by all to be poor (they have no income and no assets). However, 65% of consumption will occur by giving money from the productive and cautious to the wealthy and careless. Essentially you are subsidizing the already wealthy in their further wealth accumulation. This raises the prospect of the productive and cautious going John Galt if they perceive their sacrifice as being on behalf of the undeserving.

One study does not a conclusion make, but it is an interesting insight.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Twelve women had also written, suggesting that their husbands were Neanderthals

From a review by Steven Mithen of two recent books on Neanderthals. The final paragraph of the review.
The fascination with who we are and what makes us different from our close relatives, whether extant or extinct, will continue. It is an alluring subject for everyone from the scientist requiring millions of dollars of research funding to those who sit daydreaming in armchairs. Within a few months of the Neanderthal genome being published, forty-seven people had written to Pääbo claiming that they were Neanderthals; tellingly, forty-six of these were men. Twelve women had also written, suggesting that their husbands were Neanderthals. One may well have been my wife.

Two grandsons of President John Tyler (1841-1845) are alive today.

I am fascinated by time telescoping and here's one to beat all. Heir-Raising Experience from Snopes.
Even if John Tyler may not be remembered kindly by history for his political efforts, he is nonetheless notable today for an unusual aspect of his non-political life: though Tyler was born in the 18th century and died in the middle of the 19th century, two of his grandsons are alive today, more than a decade into the 21st century. It's a circumstance many people find unbelievable — that there are two people living in the United States today who are the direct offspring of children born to a man who not only served as President of the United States twenty years before Abraham Lincoln did, but who was a contemporary of such titanic early American political figures as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, and was himself born when George Washington was President.

This remarkably short line of ascendancy is due to a confluence of factors that are not common in modern American society but once were not so unusual: men (particularly widowers) marrying much younger women late in life and fathering large numbers of children. John Tyler fathered fifteen children, more than any other U.S. president: eight with his first wife, Letitia Christian Tyler (who was his own age), and seven more with Julia Gardiner Tyler (a woman thirty years his junior) whom he married two years after the death of Letitia. Five of those children lived into the 20th century (the youngest, Pearl Tyler, was still alive after the end of World War II and finally passed away in 1947), and one of them repeated the pattern of his father. John Tyler's thirteenth child, Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853–1935), had three children with his first wife, Anne Baker Tucker Tyler, and three more with his second wife, Sue Ruffin Tyler (a woman thirty-five years his junior), whom he wed a few years after Anne's death, when he was nearly 70. One of those latter three children died in infancy, but the other two, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. and Harrison Ruffin Tyler (both born in the 1920s), are still with us today, living grandsons of the 10th President of the United States.

Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly

From The Up Side of Down by Megan McArdle, page 10. In the context of self-handicapping, which I have seem many people do:
"Work finally begins," says Alain de Botton, "when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly." For people with an extremely fixed mind-set, that tipping point quite often never happens. They fear nothing so much as finding out that they never had what it tales.

Friday, March 28, 2014

"Grateful" is too small a word.

A little vignette that pricks the eye. From the preface of the Slightly Foxed edition of I was a Stranger by John Hackett. Referring to the Battle of Arnhem in the Netherlands in World War II
As with Dunkirk, the part played by civilians is essential to the story. Dutch resistance fighters and householders not only gave support and succor to their would-be liberators, but also took them into their hearts. One local woman, interviewed half a century later by the historian Martin Middlebrook, spoke of seeing a soldier shot before her eyes, and hearing him shout the words 'Goodbye' three times before he died: 'Because of that, I now use "Goodbye" very rarely; there is a kind of finality about it for me. Those men are, for me, friends . . . "Grateful" is too small a word.'
Hackett is severely wounded and put up, at great peril to themselves in occupied Holland, by Dutch civilians.
Readers of Slightly Foxed will be especially pleased by the importance of books in his convalescence. Ann de Nooij, who had spent time in England, is able to supply him with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Scott and Dickens; the head of the local Resistance is prevailed upon to seek out a copy of Vanity Fair ('I felt a great longing for a glimpse of that cool, orderly world and the taste of elegant and lucid English prose'). An anthology entitled A Thousand and One Gems of English Poetry ignites a passion for Paradise Lost, which Hackett later reads in its entirety 'like a horse put out to pasture'. On his return to England, in a magnificent misuse of authority, he arranges for a consignment of theology books to be delivered by Mosquito bomber as a thank-you to Dominie Blauw, the de Nooji's pastor.

The Bible is another important part of his reading, and a shared Christian faith does much to cement his relationship with his hostesses. (His own book's title is a reference to St. Matthew's Gospel: 'I was a stranger and ye took me in.')

We cannot succeed simply by not failing

From The Up Side of Down by Megan McArdle.

McArdle is a critical thinker with a gift for phrasing and explication. I particularly enjoy her blog at Bloomsberg. She has just published her first book and so far I am enjoying it. I keep having to mark passages. So many that it makes little sense to wait till I finish the book. Here is her central thesis.
Our declining ability to take risks, and to bounce back when things don't work or, is already beginning to play out. New firms, which have long been the engine of economic innovation and growth, aren't being created as fast as they once were. Laid-off workers aren't being reabsorbed by the job market. We are frozen, unable to tell whether the light we're staring into is the end of the tunnel or an oncoming train.

There's better way to do this. Since we cannot succeed simply by not failing, we should stop spending so much energy trying to avoid failure or engineer it away. Instead, we should embrace it - smartly. We should encourage people to fail early and often- by making sure that their failures are learning opportunities, not catastrophes. Unfortunately, schools don't teach failure. But maybe they should.

What would such a school teach? It would bring back high monkey bars and let kids learn that the price of reaching lofty heights is the occasional broken arm. It would not try to pretend that there are no wrong answers. Instead of protecting kids from failure, teachers would encourage them to face it, early and often, on sports teams, in the classroom, and in the lab. They'd help kids overcome their natural fear of failure, because failure is often the best - and sometimes the only - way to learn.


That means learning to identify mistakes early, so they can be corrected. And it means recognizing when you are on the wrong path. It sounds simple, but the architecture of our brains makes it much harder than you think. We invest in our commitments, mentally and emotionally, and have a very hard time letting go. That is in part what made it so hard for GM to turn around, and why so many of us stay in bad relationships when we know we should move on.

Learning to fail well means learning to understand your mistakes, because unless you know what went wrong, you may do the wrong things to correct it. Some kinds of mistakes require punishment or censure; others are just the natural errors we'd expect to occur as the result of doing something we're not very good at yet. Mistaking one for the other can be disastrous.

Most of all, learning to fail well means overcoming our natural instincts to blame someone - maybe ourselves - whenever something goes wrong. Societies and people fail best when they err on the side of forgiveness. Not forgetting: the information gained by failing is far too valuable to be lost by pretending that nothing happened. Rather, they recognize the past failure, and then they try to let it go, to always be looking toward a better future.

It is not the culture that makes the difference in the end, but rather the behaviors it has encouraged

I read a lot about economic development (personal and national, micro and macro). We are slowly making progress in untangling what leads to success (broadly defined) and what leads to failure. It is indisputably a complex field and we are still mostly at the stage of hypotheses with supporting evidence, rather than iron-clad laws.

That said, one of the things that has struck about the discussions in books, articles and editorials, has been the deep reluctance to engage with culture. That is changing. There have always been some who have seen culture as a linchpin in the economic development process and there are more and more all the time. But speaking of culture as a causative factor in either national economic development or individual personal outcomes is still frowned upon in many quarters and leads, in my view, to highly unproductive circular discussions. I have always set this down to the knee-jerk instinct that talking about culture was in some ways either 1) blaming the victim, or 2) fatalistic given the slowness and general imperviousness of culture to change.

I wonder if this isn't a matter of abridging definitions. For some people culture perhaps is too close a kin to nationalism which is too close to ethnicism which is too close to racism. I also wonder, on the other side, whether we are being lazy about using culture as a catchall when what we actually mean is that different cultures have a propensity to cultivate or suppress different behaviors and that it is those behaviors which are determinative of outcomes rather than culture per se.

Self-control, self-discipline, perseverance, temporal discounting, future orientation, and other behavioral attributes are measurably deterministic of outcomes. While IQ, SES, or situational context, may set the absolute boundaries on outcomes, the behavioral attributes are deterministic of the relative outcomes. I.e. hard work beats talent if talent won't work hard.

We are still figuring out the exact behavioral attributes that contribute to positive outcomes and their relative weight in the outcomes, but we are getting there. And while it is useful to observe that some cultures observably reward and encourage particular behavioral attributes associated with positive outcomes more than others, it is not the culture that makes the difference in the end, but rather the behaviors it has encouraged in the individual.

Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference but it does get us away from the explosive issue of relative ranking of different cultures, one to the other, and shifts the focus to individual accountability for behaviors and outcomes. Some people will still object because they fundamentally are ill-disposed to individual accountability, but it at least removes a distraction. The important thing isn't whether one culture is better than another. The important thing is what portfolio of values and behaviors are most conducive to desirable outcomes (longevity, morbidity, productivity, security, education attainment, etc.)

We still are in an environment that is markedly sympathetic towards ascribing outcomes, not to personal actions and behaviors, but to context, circumstances, institutions, and most popularly, luck. But the evidence continues to grow that while those issues are pertinent and are determinative of absolute outcomes, it is behaviors that make the relative difference.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

No ordinary man could be such a fool

From Don't Help Your Kids With Their Homework by Dana Goldstein. To be fair to the researchers, it is possible that the reporter is misrepresenting their findings. There is no link to a study to test that hypothesis. Accepting that she has correctly reflected the researcher's findings and interpretation, it calls to mind George Orwell's so frequently useful observation that
One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.
Goldstein's summary of the findings.
One of the central tenets of raising kids in America is that parents should be actively involved in their children’s education: meeting with teachers, volunteering at school, helping with homework, and doing a hundred other things that few working parents have time for. These obligations are so baked into American values that few parents stop to ask whether they’re worth the effort.

Until this January, few researchers did, either. In the largest-ever study of how parental involvement affects academic achievement, Keith Robinson, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Angel L. Harris, a sociology professor at Duke, mostly found that it doesn’t. The researchers combed through nearly three decades’ worth of longitudinal surveys of American parents and tracked 63 different measures of parental participation in kids’ academic lives, from helping them with homework, to talking with them about college plans, to volunteering at their schools. In an attempt to show whether the kids of more-involved parents improved over time, the researchers indexed these measures to children’s academic performance, including test scores in reading and math.

What they found surprised them. Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire—regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education.
The first question that comes to mind regards averaging. Any individual activity, say meeting with teachers, is going to have a distribution curve among practitioners. In other words, there are parents who meet with teachers and who are well prepared, constructive and derive benefit from such a meeting. There are others who are combative, ill-prepared, antagonistic and who generate negative outcomes from the meeting. So if you have half the population who don't meet with teachers, a quarter who meet and generate positive outcomes and a quarter who meet and generate negative outcomes, then, if you simply average those who meet (positive and negative), then there will be no difference between the meeters and the non-meeters.

What you really want to know is the prevalence of a practice (such as meeting), effectiveness of the practice and the comparison of results between the good practitioners, the bad practitioners and the non-practitioners. From the article it appears that they are simply comparing meeters and non-meeters regardless of effectiveness.

It is as if you compare how people deal with a leaking faucet. You can fix it yourself or you can call a plumber. For those that choose the DIY route, there are those that have some experience in plumbing and those that have no experience. So which approach is the cheapest and most time-effective. Roughly, experienced amateur(cheap and fast), then plumber (expensive and fast), inexperienced amateur (expensive and slow). If you simply compare DIY with plumber (averaging the experienced and inexperienced DIY), then, just as with this study on parental involvement, you will find that there is no AVERAGE benefit to the DIY route because you have included the poorly performing inexperienced DIYers.

That is such an elemental mistake that it is hard to credit that that is what has happened. On the other hand, the article gives no indication otherwise. Given the fact that there is in fact a lot of evidence indicating that effective parental involvement is on balance beneficial for both children and schools, it almost seems as if the researchers had a preconceived outcome they wished to arrive at.

And that isn't uncommon in sociology studies. There is a very common theme to sociology research to the effect that individuals lack agency, that they are entirely subject to historical circumstance and exogenous shocks and that there has to be a policy response that shields people from the consequences of their own actions and of context and shocks. And what do sociological policy interventions require? Sociologists. Perhaps that is the sequence that we are seeing when we look at research results such as this. They find what is in their own interests to find.

And it is too bad. These are interesting questions which deserve disinterested, empirical, objective answers. Along the continuum of Tiger Mom - Helicopter Parent - Laissez Faire Parent - Uninvolved Parent - Uninterested Parent, which yields the best results under what circumstances? There are successes that can be cited for each approach as well as failures. Which approach works best for what type of child under what circumstances? Claiming that no approach works at all is, how do I put this, less than credible.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

These aren’t skill problems, they are human problems.

Interesting material in The Great Skills Gap Myth by Aaron M. Renn.

The argument is that there is a skills gap that explains why employers claim that they can't find enough skilled workers while at the same time there is historically lower workforce participation.
Is there a skill gap? In select cases I’m sure there’s a mismatch in skill, but for the most part I don’t think so. I believe the purported inability of firms to find qualified workers is due largely to three factors: employer behaviors, limited geographic scope, and unemployability.
Within Employer behaviors, Renn identifies four items:
1. Insufficient pay. If you can’t find qualified workers, that’s a powerful market signal that your salary on offer is too low. ...
2. Extremely picky hiring practices enforced by computer screening. If you’ve looked at any job postings lately, you’ll note the laundry list of skills and experience required. ...
3. Unwillingess to invest in training. In line with the above, companies no longer want to spend time and money training people like they used to. ...
4. Aesthetic hiring. This one I think is specific to select industries, but in some fields if you don’t have the right “look”, you’re going to find it difficult. ...
Renn doesn't reference it but there is a comparable list of Employee behaviors that are problematic, principally salary flexibility. Specifically, there are a ton of high human capital people out there above age 40 who have been displaced because of industry reconfiguration. These range from machinists and carpenters to executives. They have two strategies when displaced - 1) hold out till the market rebounds and they can find something again or 2) switch to a new career track and adjust salary expectations commiserate with newcomers. Both are risky and unsatisfactory and there is a documented preference to pursue the first strategy over the second.
Renn does address a different aspect of human capital.

A third problem is that a significant number of adults in this country are simply unemployable. If you’re a high school dropout, a drug user, etc. you are going to find it tough slogging to find work anywhere, regardless of skills required.

Watching the Chicagoland documentary and seeing what kids in these inner city neighborhoods face, a lack of machine tool or coding skills is far from the problem. Similar problems are now hitting rural and working class white communities where the economic tide has receded. Heroin, meth, etc. were things that just didn’t exist in my rural hometown growing up – but they sure do now.

These aren’t skill problems, they are human problems. And the answer isn’t simply job training. These problems are much, most more complex and they are incredibly difficult to solve. They need to be tackled by very different means than a job skills problem.
I think the basic problem we have here is that we are using the wrong language. We don't have a skills gap, we have a productivity gap. Only by focusing on individual efforts to improve individual productivity can you begin to square the circle.

Trend stories are anecdotes in search of a generalization

From The Subjects of New York Times Millennial Trend Stories Aren't Actually Millennials by Amanda Hess.
What a fascinating example of how millennials are using innovative technologies to deal with the most basic of human problems. Except that Rebecca Soffer is not a millennial. She’s 37. According to the Times itself, Neil Howe and William Strauss—the men who literally wrote the book on millennials and are credited with coining the term—establish the start of the millennial generation with people born in the year 1982. That means that today, even the eldest millennials are no more than 32 years old. And yet, the Times trend story on millennial mourning quotes Soffer, the 37-year-old founder of online grief resource Modern Loss; her co-founder Gabrielle Birkner (at 34, not a millennial); 35-year-old Modern Loss blogger Melissa Lafsky Wall (not a millennial); and Jason Feifer, the 33-year-old creator of the Tumblr “Selfies at Funerals” (so close, and yet, not a millennial). Also cited is Esther D. Kustanowitz, another contributor to Modern Loss, though the paper doesn’t divulge her age—perhaps because she is in her 40s. All told, the piece quotes more Gen Xers than it does millennials, even when you count the obligatory reference to Girls protagonist Hannah Horvath, who is 25, and made up.


When millennial trend stories stick to their self-imposed age limits, they produce annoying stereotypes about a group of 80 million Americans. But when reporters can’t even find enough of us to fill out their pieces, they’re just lying. Trend stories are anecdotes in search of a generalization, and choosing the organizing principle of “millennial” allows the Times to pretend that it’s really reporting on something new. But the demographics that truly inform these pieces are the Times writers themselves. Their stories are about predominantly white, affluent people who live in cities and have a slim degree of social separation from the person interviewing them. I guess “a few rich white people in New York are doing something” isn’t a enough of a hook.
Three great lines in one paragraph: "Trend stories are anecdotes in search of a generalization"; "But the demographics that truly inform these pieces are the Times writers themselves"; and 'I guess “a few rich white people in New York are doing something” isn’t a enough of a hook.'

Return of the echo chamber.

Interesting to contemplate in conjunction with a piece the other day, The U.S. Cities Where the Poor Are Most Segregated From Everyone Else by Richard Florida.
The large metros where the poor are most segregated are in the Midwest and the Northeast. Milwaukee has the highest level, followed by Hartford, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Buffalo, Denver, Baltimore, and Memphis. Many of these are Rustbelt metros with large minority populations that have been hit hard by deindustrialization.
History and circumstance powerfully shape the way you see the world. In the Florida report, the environs of NYT reporters (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C., etc.) far and away have the highest segregation of the poor. If that is their quotidian experience, then it is easy to see why they project urban pathologies onto the rest of the nation which don't actually share those pathologies. Looking at Florida's map, flyover country and the South have comparatively little poverty segregation. So who knows more about poverty, those who see its conditions and consequences up close (low poverty segregation) or those who only have an abstract awareness because they only it see it from afar (high poverty segregation)?

It is easy, and not inaccurate, to mock NYT reporters for their lack of situational awareness but we are all subject to interpreting our immediate experience as representative of the world at large. It is not so much that we need more knowledge (always true) but that we need more humility about what we think we know.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Weak tea

From Pre-K: Not So 'Empirically Validated' by Neal McCluskey. The thrust of the essay:
Today the unenviable task of opposing publicly funded schooling for the littlest Americans falls to me. Worse, I have to disagree with Peter Salins, whose past work I've greatly enjoyed. Yet oppose and disagree I shall, especially with Salins's basic contention that positive effects of publicly funded, "high-quality preschool" are "empirically validated."

As the Brookings Institution's Grover "Russ" Whitehurst has been working feverishly to communicate, we simply do not have a good base of top-flight research -- studies in which children are randomly assigned to large preschool programs -- on which to conclude that public pre-K works. Most assertions about its effectiveness, such as President Obama's 2013 State of the Union claim that "every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on," are based primarily on two programs: Perry Preschool of the 1960s, and Abecedarian of the 1970s. Both treated fewer than 60 children, were very expensive, and were staffed by people highly motivated to prove their programs' worth.
Good article. What I find interesting is the closing sentence.
Still, sticking to a pilot tacitly acknowledges what we actually know about public, pre-K programs: There is little evidence they work.
"There is little evidence they work" is pretty weak tea. "There is no evidence that they work" would be the more accurate statement. I understand that it is always nice to keep some wiggle room when some pedant comes up with some narrowly defined, improbable set of circumstances where it has or does occur. But you cede the high ground. We are talking about the main, not the distant fringe. Is there any evidence that these programs achieve their stated goals? No.

The first party listed is the party that sought the Court's review

Ann Althouse has a post up today, "Obama Trolls Tea Party With Bumper Sticker"/"Scalia's Past Haunts Him On Birth Control" which actually has to do with a couple of Supreme Court Cases. In the comments section there is this exchange.
richlb said...

This may be a dumb question, as a good deal of the people who are on this blog are law-oriented and probably know this, but why is Sebelius listed first on the Hobby Lobby case and second on the Conestoga case? Is the government the plaintiff in one and defendant in the other?

Ann Althouse said...

@richlb When the Supreme Court takes a case, the first party listed is the party that sought the Court's review, that is, the loser in the court below.
Interesting. It is amazing how much information is conveyed, if you only know how to look for it. I have been casually reading of Supreme Court cases for some forty years and never realized that the order of the parties indicated who was seeking the review.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dogs were more likely to yawn after hearing the yawn of a familiar human than of an unfamiliar human

Ask and ye shall be answered.

A few weeks ago I wondered about cross-species yawning in A Couple of Puzzlers.

Today I came across Studying Contagious Yawning Might Help Us Build Better Societies by Jason G. Goldman.
In 2009, psychologist Ramiro Joly-Mascheroni showed that human yawns are contagious for dogs. But later that year, Aimee Harr was unable to replicate that finding. In 2010, Sean O’Hara and Amy Reeve uncovered more evidence in support of contagious yawning for dogs, but not nearly as robust a pattern as Joly-Mascheroni found. Karine Silva provided a partial answer, in 2012, as to why some researchers seem to find contagious yawning while others didn’t. She discovered that dogs were more likely to yawn after hearing the yawn of a familiar human than of an unfamiliar human. That actually makes a good deal of sense: if yawning is tied to empathy, then dogs might be more willing to empathize with familiar people than with strangers.
There you have it.

Convincing parents that the world is safer than they think

An interesting post, Let the Children Play by Walter Russell Mead, riffing off an article by Hanna Rosin, The Overprotected Kid.
Rosin suggests that parents are more protective now than they once were because they think the world is a more dangerous place. But the statistics don’t actually bear that out: abduction and other crimes against children are as rare as ever. Rosin quotes David Finkelhor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, who says that crimes against children have fallen alongside the overall decrease in crime rates, and were never very high to begin with.

There might be another factor at work here that Rosin overlooks, one so ingrained in the elite, creative class culture that it’s invisible in some ways to the representatives of that culture. Yesterday’s larger families and autonomous childhoods have given way to small, carefully planned families with closely managed children. Marriage and childbearing are both delayed into one’s thirties. Having a child is so expensive that it is weighed against the lifestyle losses parenthood brings. These and other factors combine to make younger Americans treat children almost as consumer products or status symbols, the capstone to a successful career and marriage. Parents not only try to live through their children, but also seem to see them as a kind of lifestyle accoutrement. In turn, then, children come to exist more and more for the sake of the parents, and are anxiously watched and fretted over.

Rosin is completely correct that parents ought to give children more room to play and explore, to test boundaries and face some degree of risk on their own. But doing so might require more than convincing parents that the world is safer than they think. It should involve re-opening a debate into the meaning of having children in the first place—weaning our elites away from treating children as consumer luxuries and instead bringing children into the world for their own sake.
A good example that not all arguments are fact based. Sometimes the root disagreements are about differences in values and perceived risk and those can be the hardest issues to address and to reach shared agreement.

Beyond Mead's comment on the changing valuation of children, I suspect that there is also an issue of numbers. In the Baby Boom there were two numbers that influenced a lot of things - the number of children in a family and the number of children in a neighborhood. If most families have multiple children, there is an intra-family socialization process that can be very beneficial. If most neighbors have children there is a natural herd self-policing that goes on, again beneficial for early learning. Bill Bryson captures some of that in his biographical The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid about growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s.

If you only have one or two children, there is a lot less intra-family socialization going on. If you live in a neighborhood where children are fewer and further between, there is less peer socialization.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sloth is as antithetical to the national character as irony

From You Bet America Is Exceptional by Clive Crook.
For insights into American exceptionalism, it's good to talk to an immigrant. I happen to be one. I didn't choose the U.S. at random as the place I wanted to live and work: I'm here because I think America is not just different but better. If you ask this would-be U.S. citizen, the country's virtues vastly outweigh its failings, large though some of those failings may be.
The abiding source of American exceptionalism, I'd submit, is the American character. This is a difficult thing to quantify, hence easily dismissed, but not everything that matters can be measured.

Anybody who's lived and worked in other countries can't fail to be struck by it: Americans are, above all, striving. Sloth is as antithetical to the national character as irony. Americans work incredibly hard, and they take play so seriously it's comical. They're acquisitive and competitive, but they're also friendly, as well as amazingly open to interaction with other people and to joint endeavors in business and with neighbors. With strangers, they're both welcoming and demanding (which the British find especially odd). They detest incompetence and won't settle for mediocrity. They're pragmatic -- they believe in what works -- yet they're reluctant to compromise. They venerate innovators and risk-takers. They see failure as a temporary setback. They expect to rely on themselves and ask the same of others. They don't think the world owes them a living.

Live somewhere else for a while, then tell me you think those traits are universal.

All this goes a long way to explain America's extraordinary economic success. The same goes for the country's political institutions -- themselves a result of the underlying culture. I'm not the first to notice that American culture is communitarian and individualist at the same time. There's a kind of reverence for popular sovereignty and the institutions that express it, including the Constitution and the flag, but this is combined with suspicion of government. On the one hand, "We the people." On the other, "Don't tread on me." The result, by the standards of other advanced economies, is a bound on the size and scope of the state.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Faux STEM degree shortages and real STEM cognitive competency shortages

The Atlantic has shown a regrettable tendency towards click-bait articles in the past couple of years but this one is more like the old substantive articles that used to be their mainstay. The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage by Michael S. Teitelbaum.
Science and engineering occupations are at the leading edge of economic competitiveness in an increasingly globalized world, and science and engineering workforces of sufficient size and quality are essential for any 21st century economy to prosper. These professional workforces also are crucial for addressing challenges such as international security, global climate change, and domestic and global health. While they therefore are of great importance, college graduates employed in science and engineering occupations (as defined by the National Science Foundation) actually comprise only a small fraction of the workforce.

A compelling body of research is now available, from many leading academic researchers and from respected research organizations such as the National Bureau of Economic Research, the RAND Corporation, and the Urban Institute. No one has been able to find any evidence indicating current widespread labor market shortages or hiring difficulties in science and engineering occupations that require bachelors degrees or higher, although some are forecasting high growth in occupations that require post-high school training but not a bachelors degree. All have concluded that U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more. Were there to be a genuine shortage at present, there would be evidence of employers raising wage offers to attract the scientists and engineers they want. But the evidence points in the other direction: Most studies report that real wages in many—but not all—science and engineering occupations have been flat or slow-growing, and unemployment as high or higher than in many comparably-skilled occupations.
After identifying that there have been five rounds of post war hysteria about STEM shortages, the author observes
One thing we might reasonably conclude is that over the past six decades there has been no shortage of shortage claims.

The US is about 5% of the world population. In terms of STEM excellence though,
The average national scores reflect both ends of the scale, yet there continues to be a large pool of top science and math students in the U.S. OECD data on “high-performing” students suggests that the U.S. produces about 33 percent of the world total in this category in the sciences, though only about 14 percent in mathematics.
I have been witness to three of the identified rounds of STEM Shortage alarmism and in my career in Management and IT consulting, have long had direct experience of the issue and seen first hand that which the pundits and MSM so easily overlook.

My main criticism is that the MSM, as is often the case in its rabid pursuit of alarm, so grossly sets aside any frame of reference or even the least modicum of high school knowledge. Every journalist, even if not a trained economist, must know about Supply and Demand and that the market will correct itself as exogenous events occur. Building boom in nuclear power plants or nuclear subs - then you have a temporary shortage of nuclear engineers, but within 5-10 years the new demand is met by expanded degree programs and new supply of graduates. Boom in energy exploration - same thing for petroleum engineers and geologists.

But journalists take the lead from alarmists and amplify the STEM shortage message without any critical thinking.

Among my peers who graduated with STEM degrees, I am guessing that fewer than 20% actually use their STEM training in a professional capacity. Just a couple of weeks ago I was talking with an entrepreneur who had started a very successful marketing consulting firm. His undergraduate degree? Mechanical Engineering.

Why are there these periodic eruptions of STEM Shortage alarmism? I frankly don't know. Is it universities ginning up popular support for university program expansion? Perhaps, but I kind of doubt it. Is it major STEM corporations seeking government subsidies for such programs in order to increase STEM supply and therefore reduce their STEM costs? Perhaps, but I kind of doubt it.

If I had to proffer an explanation it would be that there is an appearance of shortages at the margin as a result of extreme specialization. And it is these marginal stories which generate the hype. The world moves much faster, is far more complex and there are many more factors to take into consideration. An example: some years ago we had landed a major IT project and needed a program manager. They needed to have experience: managing large, multicultural teams; implanting ERP; implementing SAP; in the consumer products industry. They also had to be willing to relocate to an Asian Pacific country for 6-12 months. So the STEM component was the IT/ERP/SAP element. Lots of those people around. Fewer, but still lots, with Program Management experience. Fewer still with consumer products experience. Fewer still with international Program Management. Fewer yet willing to relocate. We ended up paying a fair premium to get someone to take the role. A high premium is an indication of a shortage, but in this instance, the shortage was not in STEM per se but in the series of unique, cumulative, necessary requirements, most having nothing to do with STEM but which arose from a faster moving, global, complex environment.

The real story is actually far more interesting than any putative temporary shortage. There will always be shortages and surpluses in a dynamic economy and those that are related to human skills will usually have a longer window of adjustment to a new equilibrium than other commodities. There is almost inherently a 5-10 year lead time between initial perceived skills shortage (say petroleum engineers) and new supply (graduates with degrees).

Two speculations. First - MOOCS and the effort towards virtual competency certification may significantly shorten the human skills adjustment window. Second - I think the STEM Scarcity scares often overlook the real shortage. It is not a shortage in a particular field that is of especial interest. It is the overall low STEM competency of non-STEM graduates that represents the greatest lost opportunity. The majority of STEM graduates end up in non-STEM jobs and professions and part of their success is, I believe, attributable to their STEM-based structured thinking, critical thinking, scientific method thinking, familiarity with logic and statistics and a general orientation towards quantification.

These are basic skills that non-STEM people could easily acquire but often do not. Even worse, they often do not even seem aware of the missing capability. Example - a few weeks ago I was having a conversation with an author and I made the documented assertion that Group X had a lower propensity to read than Group Y. The author repeatedly interpreted this as Group X did not read at all. Just a fundamental incapacity to think statistically. A more notorious example would be the Larry Summers contretemps a few years ago at Harvard when his comment distinguishing between average IQ and the standard deviation of IQ between the sexes was completely and repeatedly misinterpreted. What he said was completely understood and relatively uncontroversial in STEM communities, but not in the larger population.

I would argue that that is the real STEM shortage. Not in degrees, but in general STEM cognitive competencies and as a way of thinking.

Friday, March 21, 2014

It is odd that people don't seem to recognize the flaw of only looking at benefits when doing a cost/benefit analysis.

From Preschool Really Is the Magic Bullet by Peter D. Salins.

An admirably succinct statement of the problem.
America's most intractable educational failure is the woeful school performance of its most disadvantaged children. The educationally "left behind" include not only racial minorities but millions of lower-income white children, especially boys. No other accomplishment would so dramatically transform American society as significantly reducing the school-achievement disparities between these children and the rest. In pursuit of such a breakthrough, political leaders and educators have, for over 50 years, experimented with an extensive repertoire of reforms: racial integration, increased spending, smaller class sizes, and most recently charter schools and teacher merit pay. The problem is that, by and large, the reforms haven't succeeded -- at least with respect to their stated goal of enabling the "left behind" to catch up with the rest.
All that is left out is any reference to the cost. Not only have we tried but we have spent a lot and stirred up a lot of civil unrest in pursuit of the goals. High costs and low results tend to discourage future efforts.

Most people would go along with the more general root cause statement.
Countless studies have put their finger on what causes disadvantaged children to do so badly in school. The families in which they are raised -- often headed by single mothers -- are unable to give them the cognitive stimulation that is both essential for early-childhood development and common in the homes of their middle-class peers. These early-age disparities are then magnified throughout the later years of formal schooling.
What can be done? I agree regarding Hirsch. It is amazing we can invest so much time, money and energy and so avoid one of the most important practitioners.
Given this diagnosis, what is the remedy? E.D. Hirsch, for decades an insufficiently heeded voice in the education-reform wilderness, argues that differences in cultural literacy, more than any other single factor, separate socioeconomically disadvantaged children from the rest -- and that for them to catch up, this deficit must be erased before they enter first grade by enrolling them in preschool, with continued reinforcement of cultural literacy in the elementary-school grades.

But it has to be the right kind of preschool: where children spend enough time each week, in small classes, taught by trained, well-paid professionals that give them a foundation in the kinds of cognitive skills and social behaviors on which later school success depends.
"Aye, there's the rub." The right kind of preschool. The expensive kind. So how are we doing? Well, we've got the expensive part down pat.
Most existing preschool programs, especially those attended by poor children, fail to meet these criteria. The most conspicuous case in point is Head Start, which enrolls over 1 million poor, primarily minority children in centers with limited weekly hours and minimal educational content, overseen by poorly trained and poorly compensated staff. Numerous evaluations, including the most recent one (conducted by the Brookings Institution in 2010), document that Head Start students make minimal academic gains while they are in the program, and that whatever little benefit there is vanishes by first grade.
I'd like to know more about the French experience. Of course France has a population density four times that of the US which is problematic in terms of emulation.
Further validation of expanding preschool access lies outside the United States. Moved by the enormous disparities in K-12 academic achievement among French schoolchildren, largely correlated -- as in the U.S. -- with social class and ethnicity (children of France's large North African immigrant community tend to perform less well than their peers), France in the 1980s launched its universal, public, and free preschool system, open to (but not compulsory for) all children age two to five. Strongly influenced by Hirsch's work, the program's French designers made sure their preschools had rigorous cultural-literacy content, well-trained teachers, reasonable staff ratios, and good facilities. All evaluations since then show that this initiative has sharply raised the academic achievement and high-school graduation rates of French schoolchildren -- across the board, but most notably among the disadvantaged.
The rest of the article explores how to bring about expensive universal pre-K education.

A nice clear articulation of the benefits and the size of the prize. It would be nice to achieve this. Costs are mostly left out of the analysis. Just how much would it cost to achieve this desirable outcome. How confident, after the decades-long Head Start failure, could we be in achieving the expensive results? These critical questions are left unaddressed. Any proposition that only looks at the benefits and not the costs is likely to come out positively in terms of a cost/benefit analysis. It is odd that people don't seem to recognize the flaw of only looking at benefits when doing a cost/benefit analysis.

The even larger issue unaddressed in the article is the old economic issue of incentives. If you provide free universal quality pre-K education programs that are demonstrably effective, what are the incentives and disincentives that you are creating for individuals, families, and groups and what are the long term implications of those incentives? That is by far and away the most critical part of the conversation and it is not addressed at all - likely because the implications are troubling.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Coding speed score predicts adult earnings as reliably as cognitive test scores

Interesting information from Character Gaps and Social Mobility by Richard V. Reeves and Kimberly Howard. We already know that Cognitive ability (IQ) and the behavioral attribute of Self-Control are, in tandem, powerful predictors of future life outcomes in terms of health, education attainment, wealth accumulation and income. Reeves and Howard add one more behavioral attribute - Persistence.
Measuring character strengths is an empirical challenge. But data are available. One important strength is the ability to persist with a task even if—especially if—it lacks any obvious reward. Professor Carmit Segal (another of our advisers) shows how performance on a coding speed test, when taken with no incentive to do well, predicts adult earnings for male participants over 20 years later, controlling for cognitive skills.

The test first provides a long list of words and associated numbers:
game = 2715
chin = 3231
house = 4232
Then the words are listed again, with a multiple choice of five possible answers:
house = a) 4232 b) 2715 c) 3231 d) 4563 e) 2864.
The test is absurdly easy, but spine-crackingly dull.

Under certain circumstances, the test measures effort, not brains. Those who do well on it do better in life, regardless of scholastic abilities. Indeed, for those without a college degree, the coding speed score predicts adult earnings as reliably as cognitive test scores. An inclination to try hard, despite no obvious extrinsic motivation, turns out to be important in the labor market.

Wide Class Gaps in Motivation

If the coding speed test is capturing an important character strength—motivation, grit, or persistence—an important question is whether there are gaps by social or economic background. It seems so. Adolescents with more affluent backgrounds demonstrate higher levels of motivation, as measured by the coding speed test:

The findings are consistent with the research in The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley. IQ is important and predictive, but behavioral attributes are as important and perhaps are more determinative. And that is great. Not much can be done to materially change IQ; some, but not much. But there is a lot that can be done to change behaviors. It is not easy but at least it is tractable.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

People use the lack of data as an excuse to avoid having to examine their premises

From What the Fox Knows by Nate Silver. Silver is always interesting and insightful.
Conventional news organizations on the whole are lacking in data journalism skills, in my view. Some of this is a matter of self-selection. Students who enter college with the intent to major in journalism or communications have above-average test scores in reading and writing, but below-average scores in mathematics. Furthermore, young people with strong math skills will normally have more alternatives to journalism when they embark upon their careers and may enter other fields.4
But often, general managers and CEOs and op-ed columnists use the lack of data as an excuse to avoid having to examine their premises.
So perhaps we should think more carefully about the process by which anecdote is transformed into data and information. We might break it down into four rough steps:

The first step is the collection of data or evidence. For a traditional journalist, this is likely to involve some combination of interviewing, documentary research and first-person observation. But data journalists also have ways of collecting information, such as by commissioning polls, performing experiments or scraping data from websites.

The next step is organization. Traditional journalists have a well-established means of organizing information: They formulate a news story. The story might proceed chronologically, in order of importance (the inverted pyramid) or in some other fashion. Data journalists, meanwhile, can organize information by running descriptive statistics on it, by placing it into a relational database or by building a data visualization from it. Whether or not a picture is worth a thousand words, there is value in these approaches both as additional modes of storytelling and as foundations for further analysis.

The third step is explanation. In journalistic terms, this might mean going beyond the who, what, where and when questions to those of why and how. In traditional journalism, stories of this nature are sometimes referred to as “news analysis” or “explanatory journalism.” Data journalists, again, have their own set of techniques — principally running various types of statistical tests to look for relationships in the data.

Let’s pause here for a moment. Up through the first two steps, traditional journalists looked very good. The original reporting they do is tremendously valuable. Besides, most of us learn by metaphors and stories. So traditional journalism’s method of organizing information into stories has a lot of appeal when news happens.

By the third stage, however, traditional journalism has begun to produce uneven results — at least in my view. Take the best-selling book “Double Down” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. It contains a lot of original and extremely valuable reporting on the 2012 campaign. Its prose style doesn’t match mine, but it’s a crisp and compelling read. But Halperin and Heilemann largely fail at explaining how Barack Obama won re-election, or why the campaign unfolded as it did.

For example, they cite three factors they say were responsible for Mitt Romney’s decline in the polls in early mid-September: the comparatively inferior Republican convention, Romney’s response to the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and Romney’s gaffe-filled trip to London. In fact, only one of these events had any real effect on the polls: the conventions, which often swing polls in one direction or another. (This does not require any advanced analysis — it’s obvious by looking at the polls immediately before and after each event.)

Explanation is more difficult than description, especially if one demands some understanding of causality. It’s something every field struggles with; there are lots and lots of wrongheaded statistical analyses, for instance.

Still, there are some handicaps that conventional journalism faces when it seeks to move beyond reporting on the news to explaining it. One problem is the notion of “objectivity” as it’s applied in traditional newsrooms, where it’s often taken to be synonymous with neutrality or nonpartisanship. I prefer the scientific definition of objectivity, where it means something closer to the truth beyond our (inherently subjective) perceptions. Leave that aside for now, however. The journalistic notion of objectivity, however flawed, at least creates some standard by which facts are introduced and presented to readers.

But while individual facts are rigorously scrutinized and checked for accuracy in traditional newsrooms, attempts to infer causality sometimes are not, even when they are eminently falsifiable. (The increased speed of the news-gathering process no doubt makes this problem worse.) Instead, while the first two steps of the process (collecting and organizing information in the form of news stories) are thought to fall within the province of “objective” journalism, explanatory journalism is sometimes placed in the category of “opinion journalism.” My disdain for opinion journalism (such as in the form of op-ed columns) is well established, but my chief problem with it is that it doesn’t seem to abide by the standards of either journalistic or scientific objectivity. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to abide by any standard at all.

A more data-centric approach is perhaps most helpful, however, when it comes to the fourth step, generalization.

Suppose you did have a credible explanation of why the 2012 election, or the 2014 Super Bowl, or the War of 1812, unfolded as it did. How much does this tell you about how elections or football games or wars play out in general, under circumstances that are similar in some ways but different in other ways?

These are hard questions. No matter how well you understand a discrete event, it can be difficult to tell how much of it was unique to the circumstances, and how many of its lessons are generalizable into principles. But data journalism at least has some coherent methods of generalization. They are borrowed from the scientific method. Generalization is a fundamental concern of science, and it’s achieved by verifying hypotheses through predictions or repeated experiments.
I like the proposed model: Collection, Organization, Explanation, Generalization. It is powerful in its simplicity.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The herd, once roused, can be far more destructive than the beast on its own

From Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett an account of Spain's efforts to come to terms with its 1936-39 Civil War.
The poet Machado had written: 'Little Spaniard who is coming into this world, may God protect you. One of the two Spains will freeze your heart.' Now, some people claimed, the two Spains were beginning to reappear. Ideas of 'them' and 'us,' of 'if you are not my friend, you are my enemy' were becoming increasingly powerful. Aznar, especially, seemed to encourage them. There were many on the other side of the political barricades who were happy to return the treatment.

Old fault lines re-emerged. Travelling back to Barcelona or talking to some people in the Basque Country, especially, was becoming increasingly strange. It was not so much a question of entering a different country, as of finding oneself in a different mental space. Opinions rarely heard in Madrid were commonplace in Catalonia and the Basque country - and vice versa. Spain felt not just divided, but schizophrenic.

Las Dos Espanas, the Two Spains, seem to have something to do with the Spanish love of forming groups and clans. Spaniards like to move en masse, to belong to large gaggles. They celebrate, they demonstrate, in huge throngs - their enjoyment increased by the numbers with them. It is one of the great and enviable things about Spain to an outsider. This is a country where no politician, from left or right, would dream of echoing Margaret Thatcher's words that 'there is no such thing as Society.' Where anglosajones do things on their own or with their families, Spaniards often do them by the coach-load. They like the warmth, the solidarity, the sense of belonging that groups give them. That, perhaps, is why their towns and cities pack people together, ignoring the acres of open space around them. Individuality, I discovered when my own children reached school age, can be viewed with suspicion. There is something potentially dangerous, however, about these groups. Individual squabbles can turn into group squabbles. The herd, once roused, can be far more destructive than the beast on its own.
This is my concern in the US. Advocates for various groups with some sense of historical injustice, often attempt to build coalitions through emphasis on the group and the idea of Us versus Them. Intellectually it is understandable but I think, as Americans, they lack a sense of world history that so powerfully speaks against such divisionalism.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Fellow diners enjoyed Johnson's wit after having watched him tear into his vittles like a beast at a kill.

From the February 2014 Literary Review. Frances Wilson has a wonderful opening essay, The Lost Art of Table Talk, which really should be quoted in its entirety. So much well said and so little extra.
There was once a vogue for recording the things that writers and other 'eminent figures' said while they supped. These books, generally known as 'table talk', form a curious and now sadly extinct genre. Part gossip, part biography, they are also a variety of boastful memoir. As Samuel Rogers - poet, banker and echo chamber of the Regency dining room - puts it in the preface to Table-Talk, his recollections of the conversations of, among others, Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, Byron and the Duke of Wellington (recently republished by Notting Hill Editions), he personally 'heard them talk as they did, when they were most at their ease' and shared 'what so few had the privilege of enjoying'. Lady Blessington and Thomas Medwin both promoted their acquaintance with Byron through their collections of his "Conversations', just as Boswell drew himself up alongside the Great Cham in his Life of Samuel Johnson - the only example we have of biography as table talk.
Collections of table talk always reinforce for me a sense of the past as more elegant than the present; even when no one was listening, these people said moving things. Or things that were moving because no one was listening.
On Johnson.
Fellow diners enjoyed Johnson's wit after having watched him tear into his vittles like a beast at a kill. According to Boswell, Johnson's expression when dining was riveted on his plate; he became 'totally absorbed in the business of the moment'. He said not a word and 'nor would he pay the least attention to what was said by others, till he had satisfied his appetite, which was so fierce, and indulged with such intenseness, that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled and generally a strong perspiration was visible'. Boswell doubted that Johnson's presence at the table conformed with what was expected of a philosopher, but the horror of watching him satisfy his stomach did nothing to stem the flow of invitations.
Artful conversation is such a pleasure, enhanced by its rarity.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

It's just all warts

From the February 2014 Literary Review. A review by Ian Samson of a couple of biographies of William S. Burroughs who sounds repugnant as a human being. Samson refers to an earlier biography.
This book is not a warts and all biography. It's just all warts.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America

I bought this some months ago but just started and finished it this week, Culture War? The Myth of Polarized America by Morris P. Fiorina with Samuel J. Adams and Jeremy C. Pope. Political science is not a field that I have a high interest in but this one seemed promising. And it delivered.

I read the second edition but apparently there is now a third edition. The blurb describes the argument well,
Is the nation really polarized on these hot-button moral, religious, and cultural issues? Should we believe the media pundits and politicians who tell us that Americans are deeply divided?

No, says Morris Fiorina. At a time when the rift between the “red” and “blue” states can seem deeper than ever, Fiorina debunks the assumption that Americans are deeply split over national issues. He presents quite a contrary picture — that most Americans stand in the middle of the political landscape and are in general agreement even on those issues thought to be most divisive.

Poking holes in the concept of a “culture war,” Fiorina explains that the majority of Americans are both moderate and tolerant, and that their greatest concerns are leadership and security, not moral values. Supporting his position with election data and a variety of public surveys, Fiorina concludes that the view of a divided America is simply false and that by recognizing our common ground, we have a basis for creating a more unified and moderate approach to government and politics in the near future.

A new epilogue relates the 2008 campaign and election to the general argument of the book, looking at the people and issues affecting the road to the White House in 2008, and speculating on what lies ahead for (un)polarized America.
Lot's of fascinating data and clever interpretations.
In sum, what we call the political class in America definitely is polarized and probably has become more so in recent decades. But as the quotation that leads off this book asserts, it is a mistake to assume that what is true of a fraction of Americans who are politically active also holds true for the great preponderance of us. In general, normal Americans are busy earning their livings and raising their families. They are not very well-informed about politics and public affairs, do not care a great deal about politics, do not hold many of their views very strongly, and are not ideological. In contrast, members of the political class are well-informed, care a great deal, have strong views, and are ideological. Moreover, and importantly, they have more extreme views than normal people.
The problem is that people who care deeply also tend to have extreme views on the issues they care deeply about.
Fiorina argues that the myth of a polarized populace (as opposed to polarized political elite), arises and is sustained based on four factors.

We too easily confuse closely divided with deeply divided. Example - 100 close friends decided to go out Friday night. 51 suggest a taco place, 49 suggest a hamburger joint. They are closely divided. But nobody really cares which place they go as long as they go together. They are not deeply divided.

Political activists are not representative of the body politic. The division on particular policy issues between politicians is much more extreme than the division between citizens on those particular issues.

The media need conflict to sell stories. If it bleeds, it leads. It is in their institutional interest to see conflict whether or not there actually is conflict.

We confuse positions with choices. If the two parties propose two extreme candidates, the electorate, despite being bunched in the middle on policy issues, has to choose between those extremes. The fact that they have to make a choice between two extremes says nothing about their own moderate positions.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

No One Had a Tongue To Speak

No One Had a Tongue to Speak by Utpal Sandesara and Tom Wooten. I stopped in a used bookstore, McKay, on the outskirts of Knoxville, Tennessee and quickly found a handful of books including this one. Never heard of it or the authors before. But what a find.

No One Had a Tongue to Speak is by two recent Harvard grads and recounts the antecedents, disaster, and epilogue of a man-made disaster that occurred in India in 1979 when a dam collapsed and nearly wiped out a whole city. In some regards this book can be seen as a parallel to David McCullough’s excellent The Johnstown Flood. Sandesara and Wooten did the research for the book while in college and completed it soon afterwards.

Hard to believe that it is by two literary novices. Well constructed, strong pacing. Similar to works by Walter Lord, Erik Larson, and David McCullough.

In addition to being a first rate book about a disaster, it also provides a brief introduction to the Indian caste system, religious beliefs, recent history and a touch of politics. A very moving account of good people struggling against terrible events. Highly recommended.

I have been on the lookout for books that recount historical events from the perspective of other countries and this comes close. For example, where are the Egyptian accounts of the Sinai War or the Cameroonian accounts of the Lake Nyos disaster?

Friday, March 7, 2014

What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person

In checking a translation of Dorothy Sayer's, I came across a book of hers, Are Women Human? Clickbait long before the internet.

Looking at some quoted passages, it looks like I need to add it to my shopping list.
A man once asked me ... how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends? I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. "Well," said the man, "I shouldn't have expected a woman (meaning me) to have been able to make it so convincing." I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also.
In reaction against the age-old slogan, "woman is the weaker vessel," or the still more offensive, "woman is a divine creature," we have, I think, allowed ourselves to drift into asserting that "a woman is as good as a man," without always pausing to think what exactly we mean by that. What, I feel, we ought to mean is something so obvious that it is apt to escape attention altogether, viz: (...) that a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.
On movements
But it is the mark of all movements, however well-intentioned, that their pioneers tend, by much lashing of themselves into excitement, to lose sight of the obvious.
I always said the professional advocate was the most amoral person on the face of the earth. I'm certain of it now.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


Just finished Misterioso by Arne Dahl, part of the Scandinavian Noire kick I have been on.

Fine. Author includes, what to me seem, a couple of superfluous trashy scenes to establish his edgy cred. Otherwise a standard mystery. Set substantially in Stockholm, rich in half-forgotten neighborhoods and vaguely recalled streets. That part I loved.

Where the right road was wholly lost and gone

I have long known Dorothy Sayers solely as a British mystery writer. Then, a few years ago, I came across a wonderful and erudite essay on her part, The Lost Tools of Learning, which I wrote about here. Now, I come across the fact that she translated Dante's Inferno, and considered that translation to be her greatest literary achievement. The opening lines:
Midway this way of life we're bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards

From Journals IV A 164 (1843) by Søren Kierkegaard, often abbreviated as "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
It is quite true what philosophy says; that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest in which to adopt a position: backwards.
But I wonder if there is a further variant, Life is constructed backwards and lived forwards. Our understanding is always flawed and always subject to revision. That which is past is always being revised, not only based on new knowledge but probably also to fit our present psychological needs.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

You just don't see people giving away more than half of their money

A deeply self-referential post stemming from Money, Status, and the Ovulatory Cycle (politically incorrect paper of the month) by Tyler Cowen. The abstract of the originating paper:
Each month, millions of women experience an ovulatory cycle that regulates fertility. Previous consumer research has found that this cycle influences women’s clothing and food preferences. The authors propose that the ovulatory cycle actually has a much broader effect on women’s economic behavior. Drawing on theory in evolutionary psychology, the authors hypothesize that the week-long period near ovulation should boost women’s desire for relative status, which should alter their economic decisions. Findings from three studies show that women near ovulation seek positional goods to improve their social standing. Additional findings reveal that ovulation leads women to pursue positional goods when doing so improves relative standing compared with other women but not compared with men. When playing the dictator game, for example, ovulating women gave smaller offers to a female partner but not to a male partner. Overall, women’s monthly hormonal fluctuations seem to have a substantial effect on consumer behavior by systematically altering their positional concerns, a finding that has important implications for marketers, consumers, and researchers.
As a child of the seventies or perhaps from living in Sweden for a number of years or by personality or family heritage or because I had an aunt who was an early progressive feminist - for whatever reason, I have a strong egalitarian streak expressed in the model that people of both sexes ought to be treated identically save for where there are explicit reasons not to based on biology.

One of the hoary tropes that was still in circulation, though declining, in the seventies was the idea of women as being slave to their biology.

So I have a fairly visceral reaction to this research. Really? You are resurrecting that old cliché?

But I am also, deeper still, an empirical rationalist. What is the truth? I look at this study, and after my knee jerk reaction, I also think - hmmph. Plausible. And I like being surprised by counter-intuitive information. From a press release about the research:
But, the studies find that ovulation doesn't always make women want more status. When women played against a man rather than a woman in the dictator game, the researchers found an even more surprising result. Whereas ovulating women became meaner to women, they became nicer to men. While non-ovulating women shared about 45 percent of the money with a man, ovulating women gave 60 percent of the money to the man.

"These findings are unlike anything we have ever seen in the dictator game. You just don't see people giving away more than half of their money," noted Durante. "One possibility is that we're seeing ovulating women share more money as a way to flirt with the men."
Dangerous and intriguing. I'll park it for the time being as something to be aware of but likely not true (small sample sizes, college based, and the WEIRD plague - Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic).

Monday, March 3, 2014

He knew but one secret, which was to do one thing at a time

From Remaking the World by Henry Petroski, page 68.
It is not only practicing engineers who seem to have learned the importance of keeping their minds under one hat while thinking about a hard problem. In his Journal of 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote under the heading "Otherness":
Henry Thoreau said, he knew but one secret, which was to do one thing at a time, and though he has his evenings for study, if he was in the day inventing machines for sawing his plumbago, he invents wheels all the evening and night also; and if this week he has some goo reading and thoughts before him, his brain runs on that all day, whilst pencils pass through his hands.
While everyone, engineer and nonengineer alike, has experienced the feeling of being completely absorbed by whatever the mind is deeply engaged in at any given moment, it may be especially reassuring that so many engineers seem to have spent so many sleepless nights while their designs were progressing from the back of an envelope through increasingly complex and detailed calculations and drawings to the realization in an artifact upon whose safety the lives of so many depend.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive

From C.S. Lewis in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology (Making of Modern Theology)
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be "cured" against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.