Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Disconnections

A couple of reports lately that reinforce one of the things I have been observing, the disconnect between the coastal urban elites and everyone else in America.

From When Rulers Can’t Understand the Ruled from Johns Hopkins.

From the press release:
All told, Bachner and Ginsberg found if a random American were dropped into the offices of a Washington administrative agency or into a lunch at Washington’s power-broking Palm Restaurant, it would feel and sound like another planet. These crucial differences, they say, lead to entirely divergent philosophies on policies, priorities and government’s ultimate purpose.
“Official Washington views the public through jaundiced eyes, believing that ordinary Americans are uninformed and misguided and that policy makers should ignore them,” Ginsberg says. “The government’s lack of trust in the people reflects the civic distance between the American people and their government as much as any political reality. Nevertheless, what the government thinks of the people affects how it governs, especially the chance that policy will be influenced by citizen preferences.”
This is related to my observation a while ago about how the inequalities and conditions in the media centers such as Washington, D.C., New York, LA, Chicago likely skew a view of America which is not consistent with the rest of America. See Where the Middle Class Goes to Die by Kevin D. Williamson for a similar observation.


Monday, September 29, 2014

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage

A pair of articles on measured life outcomes related to children, marriage, family formation and sequencing. The articles explore the question of why married parent families are so much more effective than say, unmarried parents or single parents, in helping children achieve measurably better life outcomes. The argument is that not only do married parents have greater disposable time and money to devote to childrearing but that the signaling function of the act of marriage is in itself a part of what explains the outcome.

An interesting discussion and interesting implications for public policy. The challenge is that these traditions are the work of culture and does not lend itself easily to public policy. Public policy might militate on the margin but the underlying issue is the strength and effectiveness of the culture. I think that is the unstated reason people tend to be cautious about cultural change. We impute our present position to the consequences of a past cultural disposition (and underestimate the impact of historical contingencies) and therefore display concerns about new changes that might undermine the old dynamic.

The articles.

Two parents, not just two incomes, are what help kids get ahead by Danielle Kurtzleben.
Study after study confirms that children in married-parent families grow up to be better off financially than the children of single and divorced parents.

This makes intuitive sense, of course; a single parent supporting her kids with only one income is going to have a tougher time giving her kids the same advantages that a child of a two-parent family will get. But it's not that simple. New research confirms that income accounts for less than half of the advantage that the children of married couples get. In fact, it's married couples' parenting behaviors that have the bigger effect.

The Brookings Institution's Kimberly Howard and Richard Reeves recently found that children from married families were 14 percentiles ahead of other kids on the income ladder, and their parents' income accounts for only 4.5 of those 14 points. That is, children of married mothers ended up at the 57th percentile, compared to the 43rd for children of mothers who weren't continuously married. That's after controlling for other factors, like education — people with bachelor's degrees both earn more and are more likely to get married these days, for example.

However, parenting behaviors, like time spent reading to kids, account for a much larger share of the gap — 7.5 percentiles, to be exact.

There is a common-sense reason to why this bump is so great. A pair of mediocre married parents will have way more time to spend with their kids than even an exceptionally devoted single dad — someone has to do the laundry, after all, and only one of these families has a spare parent around to read to the kids while the other cleans the clothes.

Marriage and Positive Child Outcomes: Commitment, Signaling, and Sequence by Scott Stanley.
Even here, there may be an under-appreciation for how (and if) the partnership to parent formed in the first place. The fact is that marriage is associated with a far greater likelihood that a child’s parents will continue to parent together than other contexts.vi At one end of a spectrum are parents who married before the child arrived, where those children have a relatively high likelihood of receiving extensive co-parenting. At the other end of this spectrum would be children born to parents who had not developed much, if any, commitment to each other beforehand, much less a commitment to parent a child together before having one. Those children, on average, have more of an uphill climb in life, and, as Howard and Reeves note, economic and social mobility are impacted. Such children are not disadvantaged because they don’t have a parent who cares, but because they are going to land, on average, the furthest from having the economic and social capital of two people pulling together to start them off in life. One can argue that the benefits of having two committed parents can exist apart from marriage. I agree. So why would I argue that marriage has special explanatory value regarding child outcomes?

Back to signals and sequence.

While not always, and perhaps less so now than before, marriage serves as a strong signal that two people are tacitly committed to raising a family together. Further, and for more complex reasons than I want to develop here, signals are the most informative when they are fully under the control of those sending them—by which I mean, when the behavior has fewer prior constraints so that it reflects something true about the individual. That means that signals about commitment are more informative before a child arrives than after because having a child increases life constraints. When marriage precedes two people having a child, the question of intention about a shared long-term time horizon was settled before things got messy with baby drool and poop. For couples with this foundation already in place, even unplanned and mistimed children are still landing in a relatively rich context regarding bi-parental commitment. One can (and should) believe that various socio-economic disadvantages govern a lot in this big lottery of life, but we should not lose sight of how sequence plays a consequential and causal role in child outcomes.

I am far from alone in believing this. I think the greatest change in families impacting children in this era is that so many are born into low commitment contexts. This seems to be exactly the point that Isabel Sawhill argues in her forthcoming book, Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage. In her recent New York Times piece, she wrote:

We’ve been worrying about these trends for years, and wondering: Can marriage be restored as the standard way to raise children? As much as we might welcome a revival, I doubt that it will happen. The genie is out of the bottle.

I would love for Sawhill to be wrong about marriage, but I share her pessimism. Further, by arguing for what is needed, Sawhill draws attention to what is increasingly missing.

What we need instead is a new ethic of responsible parenthood. If we combine an updated social norm with greater reliance on the most effective forms of birth control, we can transform drifters into planners and improve children’s life prospects.

In her book and article, Sawhill focuses a lot of attention on complex issues related to birth control. I will sidestep that issue for now to focus on drifting versus planning. This is familiar territory for me and my colleagues. Whether you think about drifting versus planning or sliding versus deciding, the underlying point is that it matters how and when (and if) intention forms when it comes to the consequences of life altering transitions such as having a child. Commitments are decisions, and decisions support the strongest follow-through.

What about Howard and Reeves’ finding about engaged parenting? They note that “It is plausible that parents who commit to each other through marriage may also have a stronger joint commitment to raising their children.” That’s exactly what I believe is being given short shrift in the current discussion. In fact, I suspect that their parenting variable is partly a proxy for the mutual commitment to parent that is implicit in marriage.

While I can see plenty of value in efforts to provide more education about parenting to both couples and single parents, I also believe we need to work to increase the odds that children are born into high commitment contexts. Such efforts might include helping people better understand how sliding into having a child together, in a relationship with an unclear future, leads to worse outcomes for adults and children. Emphasizing this reality may be unpalatable to some who worry that such messages can be retroactively stigmatizing for those who are already downstream from consequential drifting. If so, the importance of emphasizing this may be as controversial to some as Isabel Sawhill’s suggestions about birth control are to others. Either way, it does not reflect how life really works to ignore sequence as we all grapple with solutions.

Marriage is, indeed, fading in front of our eyes, and with it goes a lot of signal clarity about commitment in the context of sequence. Maybe those elements can be constructed behaviorally on a broad scale, but we should recognize the difficulty we face in trying to make up for the loss of something with real explanatory power.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Puritans in Nicaragua

From Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution by Thomas P. Slaughter. A wealth of overlooked or forgotten detail. It is so easy to view the past's slide into the present as inevitable and ignore that at the time, the future was unknown and uncertain.

Slaughter is discussing 17th century emigration to New England by Puritans from East Anglia. Fourteen thousand emigrated in the decade following 1630. He then has this footnote revealing a little known and long forgotten eddy in history.
After the 1630s, immigration to New England fell precipitously, with only seven thousand arriving between 1640 and 1700. This meant that the region would be populated principally by descendants of that first wave. Even during the 1630s, though, 70 percent of British immigrants settled in the Chesapeake Bay region and West indies, including Puritans, who founded the colony of Providence Island off the coast of Nicaragua, which lasted only a decade.
Years ago I read Revolutionary Empire: The Rise of the English-Speaking Empires from the Fifteenth Century to the 1780s by Angus Calder. He recast much of what I knew of American history to the perspective of the British. From an American point of view, it is all about the Puritans in New England and the planters in Virginia. From the British perspective it was always about the sugar islands in the Caribbean. The colonies to the north weren't much more than a nuisance and distraction; of uncertain economic viability.

From a traditional American point of view it is reasonably incomprehensible that there might be Puritans in the Caribbean. Understanding where the locus of economic viability was located makes it more understandable, even if that particular colony did not survive. And you have to wonder - what were the details. Did those Puritans just die out, did they leave, did they end up merging with the local population? What a neat little footnote.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

In other words, practice, practice, practice . . .

Psychologists compare the mental abilities of Scrabble and crossword champions by Christian Jarrett. Normal caveats for all things related to psychology. Looking at Scrabble players and Crossword puzzle players, the researchers discovered to their surprise that there were
no group differences on any of the measures of visuospatial and verbal working memory. However, in line with predictions, the crossword competitors outperformed the Scrabble players on an analogies-based word task - identifying a pair of words that have the same relation to each other as a target pair - and the crossworders also had higher (self-reported) verbal SAT scores than the Scrabble players (SAT is a standardised school test used in the US).
This is the part that I found more interesting though.
Both expert groups far outperformed a control group of high-achieving students on all measures of verbal and visuospatial working memory. This was despite the fact the students had similar verbal SAT levels to the expert players. So it seems the elite players of both games have highly superior working memory relative to controls, but this enhancement is not tailored to their different games.
Given the same raw talent (verbal IQ via SAT), the experts were expert through practice rather than talent per se.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Self-awareness, Self-control, Self-discipline, Focus, Curiosity, Motivation

I have long been noodling around what are the constituent elements that support beneficial life outcomes (health, income, wealth accumulation, education attainment, etc.) In a post a while ago I identified what seemed like five critical elements towards beneficial outcomes: knowledge, experience, skills, values, behaviors.
Knowledge
Experience
Skills
Values
Behaviors
In a particular circumstance, if you have the right portfolio of these elements, you are likely to achieve a desirable outcome. The challenge of course is that is a rather static condition. Life is a dynamic experience which is hard to predict. So what are the behaviors or personal attributes which shape one's response to exogenous events in such a way as to build that portfolio of KESVB that is most likely to be beneficial in the broadest array of likely circumstances?

My speculation is that it is likely some combination of
Self-awareness
Self-control
Self-discipline
Focus
Curiosity
Motivation
Self-awareness - the capacity to honestly assess one's own strengths and weaknesses and adopt appropriate coping mechanisms or strategies of adaptation.

Self-control - the capacity to stop oneself from doing what is known or likely to be detrimental.

Self-discipline - the capacity to do what one knows needs to be done.

Focus - the capacity to prioritize one or two goals above all other desirable objectives and the corresponding capacity to then martial one's scarce resources (time, money, attention, etc.) on those one or two goals. Not to the dismissal of the other good objectives but with the proper prioritizing around the major goal.

Curiosity - the willingness and desire to explore and discover, to learn.

Motivation - the motif force behind any action; ambition, desire, greed, love, etc. There are normative judgments about the nature of the motivation but the fundamental issue is whether there is sufficient motivation to act, whatever the source.

When I look around at executives that I know and other colleagues and acquaintances who operate at the top of their professions, I see all of these attributes. When I look at people operating significantly below par, I see usually 2-3 or three of these attributes significantly missing.

Curiosity and Focus are interesting bedfellows in a dynamic tension with one another. Curiosity leads you afield in exploring new domains of knowledge and capacity. On the other hand, it distracts you from priorities as well, diffuses your focus. We see this in one form right now with young people having been raised in an environment of open, always on, access to information (internet, google, social media, etc.) who are in a constant state of distraction. Focus is the counterbalance to curiosity. Explore, but explore in the context of what you are trying to achieve.

These two models KESVB and SASCSDFCM are interesting to consider from the partisan angle. I suspect partisan liberals would focus on KESVB, and particularly on the KES component. The extent to which you have been educated, accumulated knowledge, developed skills, and enjoyed a wide range of experiences creates a huge inequality based on class, income, and parental capacity. And that is right.

I suspect partisan conservatives are more interested in the VB of KESVB and more particularly in the SASCSDFCM which are substantially self-determined. And SASCSDFCM seems likely to dominate KESVB in terms of predictability of outcomes. Both are critical and both are necessary.



Thursday, September 25, 2014

Focus on productivity

From Class Issues, Not Race, Will Likely Seal the Next Election by Joel Kotkin. I find much with which to agree and some to dispute. I think the fundamental observation is correct though. My experience is that Americans are far more attuned to Race than they are to Class and frequently interpret events as racial when they are in fact class based.
In terms of racial justice, we have made real progress since the ’60s, when even successful educated minorities were discriminated against and the brightest minority students were often discouraged from attending college. Today an African-American holds the highest office in the land, and African Americans also fill the offices of U.S. attorney general and national security advisor. This makes the notion that race thwarts success increasingly outdated.

But at the same time that formal racial barriers have been demolished, the class divide continues to grow steeper than in at any time in the nation’s recent history. Today America’s class structure is increasingly ossified, and this affects not only minorities, who are hit disproportionately, but also many whites, who constitute more than 40 percent of the nation’s poor. Upward mobility has stalled under both Bush and Obama, not only for minorities but for vast swaths of working class and middle class Americans.
But in any argument, even when you agree with the broad thrust, there are all sorts of assertions that warrant skepticism. For example:
Increasingly, it’s not the color of one’s skin that determines one’s place in society, but access to education and capital, often the inherited variety.
Yes, I would agree that it's not the color of skin. That feels obvious when you look at both individuals and when you look at successful emigrant groups with different skin colors.

Yes, I would agree that access to education and capital are contributors. But are they the determinants? I am skeptical of that.

But no, I can't go along with the assertion that capital is "often the inherited variety." What does that even mean? We know that among the richest people in the US, less than (IIRC) 20% are rich because they inherited wealth. Fortunes tend to dissipate in three generations. Only 5% of households have a net worth of greater than $1 million and I believe it is fewer than 1% that leave an estate valued at greater than a million. Yes, things are easier and better for the wealthy and yes the wealthy tend to invest heavily in their progeny but that is a different argument than that people advance based on inherited wealth.

The whole article is well worth a read as an effort to recast the discussions from increasingly futile and unproductive conversations such as race and gender, etc. I do think Kotkin's recasting around class is worthwhile but I still think it misses the target.

People are poor for a range of personal and contextual issues. I think the most worthwhile effort is not to focus on groups and not to focus on redistribution (solely), but rather to focus on productivity of the individual. What is it that is making this individual person less productive than they might otherwise be. Where the barriers are institutional, by all means, knock them down.

But increasingly, I think, it is apparent that many of the barriers are self-imposed and often behavioral in nature. How to get people to change their behaviors, set different goals, make better decisions so that they become more productive is the root goal.

If I am simply giving you someone else's money to get by, then I have you on a short leach. If I am helping you become more productive, then everyone benefits.

Low brow, high brow and revealed preference

A somewhat partisan rant but presenting interesting information, from RATINGS: STEWART & COLBERT TROUNCED BY CARTOONS, RERUNS, 'PAWN STARS' by John Nolte. As he doesn't explain it, it is somewhat challenging to know exactly what we are looking at in the embedded list of most viewed shows. However, his larger point is worthwhile - some of the shows that resonate highly amongst the clerisy are poorly viewed in the context of all viewers. It is a little like NPR. I like the show while recognizing its drawbacks but what is striking is that it is the lingua franca among the clerisy with whom I interact. It is never "I heard on Fox News . . . " It is always, "I heard something on NPR . . . ".

I briefly googled to try and find out what are the shows people actually watch the most. It quickly became apparent that that seemingly straight-forward question was very intricate with significantly different results with small variations in definition. Here was one cut - America's Most Watched: The Top 50 Shows of the 2013-2014 TV Season by Michael Schneider.
1. The Big Bang Theory (CBS) 23.1 million
2. NCIS (CBS) 22.4 million
3. Sunday Night Football (NBC) 21.7 million
4. The Walking Dead (AMC) 18.3 million
5. NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS) 17.9 million
6. The Blacklist (NBC) 16.9 million
7. Person of Interest (CBS) 16.2 million
8. Dancing With the Stars (ABC) 15.5 million
9. Blue Bloods (CBS) 15.2 million
10. The Voice (Monday) (NBC) 14.7 million
11. Criminal Minds (CBS) 14.4 million
12. Castle (ABC) 14.3 million
13. Modern Family (ABC) 14.1 million
14. The Voice (Tuesday) (NBC) 14.0 million
15. Monday Night Football (ESPN) 13.7 million
16. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS) 13.4 million
tie, Elementary (CBS) 13.4 million
18. Downton Abbey (PBS) 13.2 million
19. Scandal (ABC) 13.0 million
tie, Resurrection (ABC) 13.0 million
21. Hawaii Five-0 (CBS) 12.9 million
22. Grey's Anatomy (ABC) 12.4 million
23. The Mentalist (CBS) 12.3 million
24. The Millers (CBS) 12.2 million
tie, 60 Minutes (CBS) 12.2 million
26. American Idol (Wednesday) (Fox) 12.1 million
27. The Good Wife (CBS) 11.9 million
28. American Idol (Thursday) (Fox) 11.5 million
tie, Sleepy Hollow (Fox) 11.5 million
30. Survivor (CBS) 11.4 million
tie, Two and a Half Men (CBS) 11.4 million
32. How I Met Your Mother (CBS) 11.3 million
33. Duck Dynasty (A&E) 11.1 million
34. Chicago Fire (NBC) 10.7 million
35. The Crazy Ones (CBS) 10.5 million
36. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC) 10.4 million
37. Mike & Molly (CBS) 10.2 million
tie, Intelligence (CBS) 10.2 million
39. 2 Broke Girls (CBS) 10.0 million
40. Once Upon a Time (ABC) 9.6 million
tie, The Bachelor (ABC) 9.6 million
tie, The Amazing Race (CBS) 9.6 million
tie, 24: Live Another Day (Fox) 9.6 million
44. Unforgettable (CBS) 9.3 million
tie, Bones (Friday) (Fox) 9.3 million
46. Mom (CBS) 9.2 million
tie, Chicago PD (NBC) 9.2 million
tie, The Middle (ABC) 9.2 million
49. Law & Order: SVU (NBC) 9.1 million
tie, Undercover Boss (CBS) 9.1 million
Just interesting to look at the list and see the communities that make up the numbers behind each show.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

One of the greatest pleasures of parenthood is reading to our children

I enjoy finding out what people read and in particular what they enjoyed reading as a child. I have a suspicion that what we read is helpfully formative but there is really no evidence to support that assumption. Consequently, I fall back on anecdotal accounts. A harmless hobby.

Megan McArdle is an economics commenter and writer whose work I very much appreciate. She has a facebook post identifying those childhood books which "have stayed with me . . . from childhood."
1) The Wizard of Oz series
2) The Phantom Tollbooth
3) And Then There Were None, and basically everything else that Agatha Christie wrote, except for the Poirot books, which I came to like later.
4) The Little House books
5) The Anne of Green Gables books
6) The All of a Kind Family series
7) The Mary Poppins series
8) The Betsy Tacy books
9) The Narnia books
10) The Chronicles of Prydain
She then mentions the Robert Heinlein juveniles.

Her father notes "And why did you leave off the Richard Scarry books, the Nancy Drews, Goodnight Moon,and all the others that were read out loud over and over again?"

I think one of the greatest pleasures of parenthood is reading to our children, including those instances where we read the same story again and again. But what we read to them and what they read themselves and remember remain something of a mystery.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

There seems a strange aversion to letting people do what is entirely their legal right to do.

I try to cast a pretty wide reading net but no one can keep up with everything. A few months ago I read a couple of articles that seemed to indicate that there was some sort of disturbance in the force over in the science fiction and fantasy writing world. It had to do with Social Justice Warriors (SJW) and advocacy for positions based on gender or ethnicity. It sounded like a handful of community institutions had been taken over by SJWs and that writers, fans, and readers were up in arms. Also seemed like there was some sort of issue related to self-publishing and publishing by the major houses. Intriguing but just not high on my list of priorities to know more about.

But then in the past couple of weeks I have seen similar posts and articles arising out of the gaming community. The most recent one I have seen is this piece, Gamergate: Journalism as a Social Justice War game by Hannah Wallen. Again, the issues are a little unclear, the players unknown to me, the emotion high and my interest low.

But what is going on? One of the commenters links this further to the hounding of IT companies that is going on for not having representative workforces.
Rob Crawford

Interesting insight. I'd noticed that this year has seen assaults from the Social Justice Warriors on important aspects of my (extremely nerdy) life: the software industry has been declared "too white and too male", science fiction has been declared "too white and too male", role-playing games are "too white and too male" and now video games are -- you guessed it -- "too white and too male".
Is there some sort of concerted effort going on here? Coincidence? Last gasp of discredited ideological advocates? I don't know. Perhaps it is much ado about nothing but there does seem something odd here and vaguely sinister. There seems a strange aversion to letting people do what is entirely their legal right to do.

Civil debate

#Gamergate Escalates by Frogboy. A summary of what is going on in the gaming community, which is comparable, from what I can tell, as is occurring in the scifi indie space as well. Social Justice Warriors seeking to advance a particular ideology against the interests of the community. In the #Gamergate folderol, the issue is exacerbated by real journalistic ethical lapses.

In this post, which seems to serve as a reasonable summary of the issues, the author suggests that the gaming community ought to craft a five point suggestion of what they seek in terms of changes in the gaming publishing community.

Frogboy, in the comments section, comes up with his list of five.
Transparency on any financial or intimate relationships between journalists and the subject you're reporting on.

Ensuring that what games and developers get covered is based on merit and not on undisclosed personal or political views the writer has on the subject

Keep editorial content and news separate. Don't allow editorial narrative or political agendas to seep into what is supposed to be objective reporting.

Discourage the blocking or censoring of topics based on your personal or political views of the subject.

Vigorously discourage individual writers from using their position as a platform to push a personal agenda unrelated and counter to the understood mission of the gaming site.
Hobbyist Hermit comes up with a different list.
1) Full disclosure of financial and personal ties within the industry - both with those who make games and those who write about them. This is basically Brad's first point, but taken a little further due to the leak of the GameJournoPros mailing list. That's not to condemn all of those among the 150+ members of the list of colluding with each other, but the fact that there's a common forum where one writer may influence others rubs me the wrong way, especially given all the articles that were posted on August 28th. Keep socializing to twitter, tumblr or whatever and let us know when you're writing about or taking a story from one of your friends in the industry.

2) Avoid censoring or culling opposing views on a topic, or encouraging such. You don't convince people you're in the right or create a positive and inclusive environment by silencing viewpoints you disagree with - no matter how strongly justified you feel about it. If a person isn't simply trolling and provides reasonable evidence of his or her concerns, that person reserves the right to be challenged on that position as well as defend it.

3) A source should always come from a reliable authority, and that source should always be cited directly. No more daisy-chaining articles from other news sites. If there's a press release, you post the e-mail or webpage. If it's an exclusive, you post the original site. If there is a credible threat, you go to the proper authorities and post their statement on the matter - the FBI and police have liaisons for a reason, use them. If it's a legal issue, wait until the case is decided before you start releasing the facts. That way, you're not ruining the reputations of innocent people. Posts on twitter and tumblr aren't evidence of anything outside of a specific individual saying something. No more hearsay.

4) Keep editorials and news separate. Pretty much as it says. We don't need personal commentary fused with new reporting - if we want your opinion, we know where to find it.

5) Avoid needless vitriol and generalizations on editorials. Never shy away from disagreement, but never take things too far away from their proper context. If an individual or individuals say something you disagree with, say you disagree with THEM (as well as link to those posts so other people can view the context) and avoid guilt-by-association. Avoid terms like 'neckbeard', 'basement-dweller', 'misogynerd' or similar phrases - you're better than that.
I am interested in this in part because in communities I see a similar set of issues. A small but very vocal group of Social Justice Warriors wishing to push a particular agenda of limited interest or relevance to the particular community but the rest of the community too polite to dismiss them. I see this in particular in educational/children's books community where there is a lot emotive discussion and rarely a reliance on logic, evidence, or rationality.

So can we extend these lists to all communities? Here might be one approach for encouraging robust discussion without the animus that is so quickly evident.
1) Full disclosure of financial and personal ties. The journalist/reviewer needs to disclose all relationships (financial, sexual, personal, etc.) that might cause a reasonable person to consider whether those relationships might color the opinion being rendered.

2) Maintain the distinction between personal opinion, news analysis and news reporting. What are the sourced and undisputed facts, how are you interpreting those facts, and what are the conclusions you are deriving? As in maths, show your work.

3) Encourage respectful, robust discussion and avoid censoring or culling opposing views on a topic. Be mindful of, and act against, the suppresion of discourse via the Heckler's Veto including all ad hominem attacks.

4) Serve the reader/customer with information that allows informed decisions. Omit pushing personal agendas, no matter how well intended. Seek out and highlight counterfactuals to any given received wisdom.

5) Source opinions primarily in robust, reliable, empirical information leavened with acknowledged authorities or experts and cite specific sources.

6) Never speculate about motives without direct direct citation.




Monday, September 22, 2014

Any band of Neanderthals can raise a few dozen people for a hunt

From an interview with an author of a new book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari by John Reed.

It sounds intriguingly provocative but not particularly coherent. I did like this idea though.
What allowed humans to become history’s most successful species, he argues, was our ability to construct and unify small groups behind certain “fictions” – everything from national legends and organised religion to modern value systems like human rights, and the modern limited liability company with thousands of employees and vast credit lines at its command.

Any band of Neanderthals, Harari suggests, can raise a few dozen people for a hunt but humans can tell the stories needed to ensure co-operation in groups of 150 or more – numbers large enough to organise mass hunting using prepared traps, raise modern armies, or subdue the natural world.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

There are more things in heaven and earth

From Can’t Place That Smell? You Must Be American by T. M. Luhrmann.
Under the leadership of Asifa Majid and Stephen C. Levinson, they made up a kit of systematic stimuli for the traditional five senses: for sight, color chips and geometric forms; for hearing, pitch, amplitude and rhythm variations; for smell, a set of scratch-and-sniff cards; and so forth. They took these kits to over 20 cultural groups around the world. Their results upend some of our basic assumptions.

For example, it’s fairly common, in scientific literature, to find the view that “humans are astonishingly bad at odor identification and naming,” as a recent review of 30 years of experiments concluded. When ordinary people are presented with the smell of ordinary substances (coffee, peanut butter, chocolate), they correctly identify about half of them. That’s why we think of scent as a trigger for personal memory — leading to the recall of something specific, particular, uniquely our own.

It turns out that the subjects of those 30 years of experiments were mostly English-speaking. Indeed, English speakers find it easy to identify the common color in milk and jasmine flowers (“white”) but not the common scent in, say, bat droppings and the leaf of ginger root. When the research team presented what should have been familiar scents to Americans — cinnamon, turpentine, lemon, rose and so forth — they were terrible at naming them. Americans, they wrote, said things like this when presented with the cinnamon scratch-and-sniff card: “I don’t know how to say that, sweet, yeah; I have tasted that gum like Big Red or something tastes like, what do I want to say? I can’t get the word. Jesus it’s like that gum smell like something like Big Red. Can I say that? O.K. Big Red, Big Red gum.”
Interesting. I wonder what the standard deviation is for each sense within a population. For example in my family (n=5) one son has perfect pitch, my wife can both identify and name incredibly specific colors, and I am especially alert to and can name particular smells.

Perhaps it is entirely luck of the genetic draw. Perhaps my wife's talent is related to a life long love of embroidery entailing both sustained and close work with fine hues. Perhaps my sense of smell owes something to having grown up internationally in an exceptionally wide variety of environments, each with their distinct portfolio of smells: cities, the countryside, farms, mountains, by the ocean, in the desert, in the jungle, etc.

I love that we are still discovering that the world is not what we think it to be. Hamlet nailed it.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Global currency - before the dollar the thaler

Just finished The Treasures of the Armada by Robert Stenuit, published in 1971. I love maritime history, archaeology and reading about shipwrecks, so quite a find in a Goodwill store. Has an element of the story of the Wasa, in that much museum and library sleuthing took place prior to locating the likely site.

The book is interesting in that it was written and originally published in French and is translated by Francine Barker. You get so accustomed to smoothly written books today, which really means closely edited books. Stenuit has a particular personality that comes through in the writing but there are occasional infelicities of translation that leave you uncertain how much is the author's mildly quirky voice rather than the translator's quirky choices.

It is also full of quirky pieces of information. Stenuit is investigating a particular gold coin which they have recovered from the sea bed. It is unusual and it takes a while for him to discover that it is what he calls a Conrad for the monarch referenced on the obverse side of the coin. Finally, an expert reveals to him:
It was a 'genovinno', minted sometime between 1527 and 1557, modelled on a much older coin which had inspired such confidence in merchants and bankers all over Italy and the rest of Europe that it went on being minted until the eighteenth century.
That's interesting but this is the really fascinating note.
The Conrad in question had long been forgotten (in much the same way as Maria Theresa Austrian thalers are still minted in Vienna for the Yemen, where they are legal tender).
Really? The thaler (which is the origin of the word Dollar) was recently still being minted and it was still legal tender? To Google.

Starting with Wikipedia:
The MTT could also be found throughout the Arab world, especially in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Muscat and Oman, and in India. During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II, enough people preferred it to the money issued by the occupying forces that the American Office of Strategic Services created counterfeit MTTs for use by resistance forces.[1]
There is an excellent article in Saudi Aramco World, Tales of a Thaler by Peter Harrigan. Some excerpts.
On Tuesday November 5, 2002, the operator of the lever press at the Austrian Mint in Vienna struck the final coin of a two-day minting. The almost 2000 proof coins, their cameo portraits frosted in relief against a mirror-bright background, were packed individually in glassine wrappers. Most of the remaining 12,974 coins, of normal "bright uncirculated" quality, were packed 500 to a burlap bag and prepared for dispatch to banks in Austria and Germany and to overseas coin dealers. The date on the newly struck coins was the same date that had appeared on these coins for 222 years: 1780.

"The mint received several orders from the USA and England that caught us with low stocks, so we had to schedule a striking," says Kerry Tattersall, marketing and sales director of the 800-year-old official national mint of the Republic of Austria. "We are always happy on the infrequent occasions when we mint this coin. It is to us our Aufhangerschild, our shingle, the sign hanging outside our premises. This is our oldest, most traditional and most famous coin in production, and we will never stop striking it."

That coin is the silver Maria Theresa thaler, pronounced tah-ler and known by numismatists and scholars simply as the MTT. Its design, luster and fine detail have earned it a reputation as one of the most beautiful coins in the world. Arabs have referred to it as abu nuqta ("the one with the dots"), abu tayr ("the one with birds") and abu reesh ("the one with feathers"), all allusions to features of its intricate design.

Another name, "Levantine thaler," points to one of the paths of its diffusion, as does the Arab misnomer, riyal fransawi ("French riyal"). The French, less flatteringly, called it "la grosse madame." Only riyal nimsawi ("Austrian riyal") referred both to the coin's true origin and to the fact that Arabs preferred the term riyal—from the Spanish silver real coin—to thaler or dollar.

[snip]

Empress Maria Theresa died in 1780, and MTTs since then have carried that date. By that year, the four Habsburg mints had struck more than 30 million thalers, more than any other coin of the time, with the possible exception of the Spanish dollar. She had literally coined a legacy, one that continued to proliferate beyond anything she herself might have imagined.

The minting records of two and a half centuries are not complete," says Tattersall, who searches for and acquires MTTs for the Austrian Mint's own museum and modestly admits to being a hobby historian with a small private collection. "But I have seen estimates of totals of around 400 million pieces produced from eight Habsburg or Austrian mints and from an additional six mints in Europe and one in Bombay."

By way of ports such as Genoa, Trieste, Livorno and Marseille, the MTTs made their way to Levantine, Egyptian and Red Sea ports along with consignments of metals, mirrors, Bohemian-glass bottles, clothing, trinkets, flint lighters, knives and razors, sealing wax and Leghorn and Florence silks. From trading centers like Suez, Jiddah, Suakin, Mokka and Massawa they diffused further still, re-exported-like many European goods-to the interior of Africa and Arabia and, by way of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, to India, China and Southeast Asia. And Muslim pilgrims used them, an internationally recognized currency, as they traveled to and from the holy places.

Like a wire closing an electrical circuit, the MTT filled a need. Europe was endlessly interested in the vast and exotic plenty that the Middle East offered: spices, aromatics, coffee, gum Arabic, indigo, mother of pearl, tortoise shells, ostrich feathers, Arabian horses and more. And in Asia and the Arab world, there was an insatiable demand for silver, no small part of it linked to the use of the coin in dowry payments and jewelry.

[snip]

The wide acceptability and inherent bullion value of the MTT made it as valuable in war as in trade, Semple's research reveals. For example, the 1867 expedition in which General Sir Robert Napier led 30,000 soldiers from India into the highlands of Ethiopia, to rescue the British consul and others taken hostage by Emperor Theodore, needed money to purchase supplies as it advanced into the interior, and "the only acceptable currency at the time was the MTT," says Semple. "So an urgent dispatch was sent to the mint in Vienna, and they obliged by minting five million MTTs. The coins were carried on the backs of thousands of mules, horses and elephants, along with munitions and supplies."
From Coins of Colonial Africa.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Maria Theresa thaler had supplanted the Spanish coin in the Mediterranean and the Middle East and became one of the most widely circulated coins on the globe.

The nucleus of its expansion is situated around the Red Sea, were the thaler became prominent in the slave trade and other commercial transactions. The so-called ‘Levantine’ thaler gradually spread across the eastern Mediterranean into Arabia, along both shores of the Red Sea, around the Horn of Africa, into present day Ethiopia and Eritrea and down the coast of East Africa as far as Lourenço Marques, the Portuguese port now called Maputo in southern Mozambique, and the islands of Zanzibar and Madagascar. It crossed the Sahara from the Maghrib, and reached into Java, and as Far East as China. To the west, it went inland until Congo and Angola. It crossed the Atlantic and was known, though not as widely used, in both North and South America. In countries that had no currency of their own, such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Ethiopia, the thaler survived well into the last century as late as the 1970s in Muscat and Oman. The Maria Theresa thaler was the first coin to gain major acceptance among the African populations. The rise, circulation and widespread appeal of the thaler at a time of shifting borders made it a remarkable early example of international money.

[snip]

In Ethiopia, a variety of thaler were in circulation in the nineteenth century and the Maria Theresa thaler was called ‘sett berr’ or ‘woman dollar’. The less popular ‘wand berr’ or ‘man dollar’ (portraying Austrian Emperors) traded at as much as a 25% discount. Defective or suspicious looking Maria Theresa thalers also brought less. A new one, or one that is much worn or one on which the ornaments of the neck, especially the points of the star, are not clear, is at once rejected.

In spite of some resistance to it, as the 19th century progressed, the Maria Theresa thaler became gradually entrenched in Ethiopia, making Ethiopia the thaler’s homeland in Africa. The Italians made even greater use of the Maria Theresa thaler as they were establishing their African colonial empire. In order to finance Italy’s exploits, production at Vienna Mint soared from 468,050 thalers minted in 1890 to a record 6,455,600 in 1896, the year of the ignominious defeat of the Italians at the battle of Adowa.

In 1935, the Italians purchased the Thaler dies, presses and other minting equipment from Austria and began striking the thalers themselves. In just three years, Italy produced, in order to finance the invasion of Ethiopia, 18,000,000 thalers for the use in Italian East Africa.
From that article comes this map of the area of Thaler circulation.


Just fascinating. A coin first minted in 1741 spreads across much the trading world, continues to be minted up till today and was still official currency in a number of countries around the Arabian Peninsula as recently as the 1970s.

If Hayek was a betting man . .

From Scotland’s ‘No’ Vote: A Loss for Pollsters and a Win for Betting Markets by Justin Wolfer.
Thursday’s Scottish referendum was interesting not just for what it said about Britain, but also for what it said about the state of political forecasting. I’m calling it a loss not only for the pro-independence movement — the “No” campaign won 55.3 percent of the vote — but also for the pollsters.

To be fair, I should start by acknowledging that most of the election-eve polls correctly predicted a majority No vote, but they all underestimated the margin, and many missed by quite a lot. The polls were volatile; they often gave conflicting signals; and it took them until the last few weeks to even start to suspect that this would be a close race. The major polls in the past week ranged from a 6-point lead for the Yes vote to a 7-point lead for the No vote.

And this wide range wasn’t because of wild fluctuations in public opinion. It was the result of two surveys that were taken within a day of each other.

The prediction markets, on the other hand, yielded much more reliable forecasts. Despite the demise of Intrade, these markets remain extremely active, and over at Betfair, bettors rated the chances of a No vote at around 80 percent, an estimate that remained remarkably stable over the past week, fluctuating by only a few points.
A very Hayekian, Problem of Knowledge issue. I especially like this observation which I have seen many times.
My own research with Microsoft’s David Rothschild suggests that pollsters could do a better job if they learned from prediction markets. Instead of focusing on whom people say they plan to vote for, ask them instead to focus on who they think will win. Typically, asking people who they think will win yields better forecasts, possibly because it leads them to also reflect on the opinions of those around them, and perhaps also because it may yield more honest answers.

It’s an idea with particular relevance to the case of the Scottish referendum. As Stephen Fisher, an associate professor of political sociology at the University of Oxford, has noted, there is a historical tendency for polling to overstate the likelihood of success of referendums, possibly because we’re more willing to tell pollsters we will vote for change than to actually do so. Such biases are less likely to distort polls that ask people who they think will win. Indeed, in giving their expectations, some respondents may even reflect on whether or not they believe recent polling.
Indicating that it is both a problem of revealed preference as well as a Knowledge Problem.

Revealed preference has to do with the gap between what people say they want and what people reveal they want through their actions. When presented with a proposal out of context, many people will affirm an interest. When they come to vote, they have to consider the proposal in context and might make a different decision given the implied trade-offs and potential unintended consequences.

Take a hypothetical. There have been a rash of break-ins and street assaults. A group of citizens put a proposal on the ballot to double the size of the police force. It marshals a lot of public support because people are concerned about their safety. When it comes to voting day, people are likely to begin to put the proposal in context. Yes I want greater security. BUT: do I want to pay more taxes? Am I confident that more police will reduce crime?, More police probably means more traffic stops and other citations, is that worth it?, Might a greater police presence elevate other civic tensions? etc.

So while people may tell the pollsters that they support more police for more security, when they actually vote, they are likely taking into account an array of other considerations which might change their vote.

Some interesting tactical suggestions in the article for how to poll more accurately. What I find most interesting though is that commercially incented polling (i.e. betting) is so notably more accurate.

There are the Hayekians out there who want to see what motivated self-interest produces in terms of accurate forecasts, and then there are those who believe that if we are simply smart enough, we can prepare better forecasts.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

I had a little drink about an hour ago

I heard this song on the radio the other day as I was driving.
Show Me The Way To Go Home
by Irving King (James Campbell and Reginald Connelly)

Show me the way to go home
I'm tired and I want to go to bed
I had a little drink about an hour ago
And it went right to my head
Wherever I may roam
On land or sea or foam
You will always hear me singing this song
Show me the way to go home
Originally written in 1925 it has lived on in plays, movies, books. Some things just click.

My first introduction to it was in what I regard as the most critical scene in the 1975 movie Jaws where Quint (Robert Shaw) reveals his history as a sailor on the USS Indianapolis to Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). This moment of reflection culminates in a rousing rendering of Show Me The Way To Go Home, terminated by the first attack of the shark on the Orca (Quint's boat).

Binary arguments and the art of conversation

From Why the Poor Remain Poor by Paul Hiebert. Hiebert's article has some interesting information and he makes some reasonable arguments.
In April 1995, a poll organized by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal revealed that 60 percent of Americans believed the biggest cause of poverty was “people not doing enough.” Only 30 percent blamed circumstances beyond one’s control, while the rest thought it was either a combination of both or weren’t sure.

Today, however, the same survey shows a nation divided nearly in half: 44 percent ascribe a life of financial struggle to laziness; 46 percent point to external factors.

Life isn’t so simple, though. Splitting the source of indigence into either one of two camps—poor because not enough effort; poor because not enough opportunity—may help facilitate conversation on the issue, but it’s also somewhat hurtful. This framing tends to turn the destitute into caricatures—either sinners who deserve their damnation or saints denied their salvation. Whatever they are, they’re no longer complicated creatures capable of contradiction. They’re no longer human.
It is an interesting argument but I am more interested in the source of the tendency towards binary arguments and false-dichotomies.

Let's identify two camps in the poverty debate as Hiebert does. There is the Personal Responsibility camp and there is the Subject to Circumstances camp. There are likely relatively few extremists in either camp. I doubt anyone believes that everyone has equal chance because they have equal capabilities and therefore all results are solely dependent on individual choices. I also doubt that there is anyone who believes that all outcomes are solely the result of Circumstances with no individual contribution.

I think most would agree that there is some interplay between Personal Responsibility and Circumstances and that interplay varies by person, over time, and that there is some degree of path dependency.

So why the passionate arguments? First, I think it is simply an artifact of complexity. When you have a binary model, it is a more straightforward, though less accurate, discussion. How do you define your terms, measure the consequences, and resolve assumptions so that you can debate whether the mix is 55:45, 60:40, 50:50, 70:30, etc. Very challenging.

Second, I think there is simply a bias towards extremes based on fear. If I am arguing a binary, I concede no ground. But if I am a Personal Responsibility person, as soon as I concede that circumstances do play a role in outcomes, then that concession is likely to be exploited. It is a negative feedback mechanism that reinforces extremism. Better to not concede anything and be less accurate than to concede something and have that concession exploited. It requires the personal courage and integrity described by Kipling in his poem If.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
So why does accurate concession lead to exploitation? Perhaps it is simple pursuit of victory at any costs. Certainly there are plenty examples of that. I suspect, though, that people just aren't reared in the habits and traditions of polite discourse. If you are brought up in an environment where there is conversational discovery, respect for the other speaker, willed interest in the topics of others, the self-discipline of letting others have their say without interruption, etc. there is greater confidence and willingness to extend conversational courtesy to others. If you haven't been reared in a conversational, story-telling environment, you have probably missed out on those good behaviors and simply fall into bad habits and attack dog discourse which drives everything towards inaccurate extremes.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Opening lines

Wonderful first lines. From Marrying Out by Harold Carlton, available through Slightly Foxed.
The rise and fall of my family took place between my twelfth and fifteenth years and it is a tribute to my self-absorption that I hardly noticed.

435 million viewers of a sport of which I had never heard

We are almost undeserving of how interesting the world is and how much is to be discovered. From Kabaddi, or the culture that is India by Tyler Cowen, this section from the Times.
Breath control is the essential skill for success in kabaddi, a game with ancient roots in which teams take turns sending a raider across midcourt who, on a single breath, tries to tag a member of the opposing team and return safely to his team’s half of the court before taking another breath. To prove to officials that he or she is not inhaling, the raider must chant “kabaddi, kabaddi” throughout the attack. The best players can do it for several minutes.

Kabaddi’s rules would seem irredeemably arcane until one learns that 435 million Indian television viewers watched the Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League during its inaugural five-week run this year. Or that the league’s final attracted, for however brief a duration, 86 million Indian viewers, surpassing the tallies for the 2014 World Cup and the Wimbledon finals.

Round the decay Of that colossal wreck,

From Technology Stalled in 1970 by Tom Simonite. An interview with Pete Thiele
You have to think of companies like Microsoft or Oracle or Hewlett-Packard as fundamentally bets against technology. They keep throwing off profits as long as nothing changes. Microsoft was a technology company in the ’80s and ’90s; in this decade you invest because you’re betting on the world not changing. Pharma companies are bets against innovation because they’re mostly just figuring out ways to extend the lifetime of patents and block small companies. All these companies that start as technological companies become antitechnological in character. Whether the world changes or not might vary from company to company, but if it turns out that these antitechnology companies are going to be good investments, that’s quite bad for our society.
Echoes of The Rise and Decline of Nations by Mancur Olson and of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.

Something arises or is invented which allows us to produce more. We refine that development and systematize it. Then we set it in concrete with barriers around it so that it doesn't change. Sooner or later it becomes a testimonial to a past age. By defending it against change we seal its fate and isolate ourselves from a better future. Percy Shelley captured the natural tendency towards stasis in his poem Ozymandias.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Nevermore returns the traveller to the shore

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

But life does not ask us what we want. It presents us with options.

A collection of Thomas Sowell quotes.
We can only make our choices among alternatives actually available, and rectifying the past is not one of those options.

Changing ourselves is a much more reasonable undertaking than trying to change other people.

Politics is the art of making your selfish desires seem like the national interest.

You cannot subsidize irresponsibility and expect people to become more responsible.

But life does not ask us what we want. It presents us with options.

The only way I know to become a good writer is to be a bad writer and keep on improving.

There is something obscene about people holding protest rallies in order to try to keep getting money that someone else worked for.

I can understand that some people like to drive slowly. What I cannot understand is why they get in the fast lane to do it.

It is amazing how many people seem to think that the government exists to turn their prejudices into laws.

Age gives you an excuse for not being very good at things that you were not very good at when you were young.

Time to learn and prioritization of what to learn

From The Glass Wall: Why Mathematics Can Seem Difficult, by Frank Smith. On the pedagogy of teaching mathematics.
Anyone can learn to understand and enjoy mathematics provided nothing goes wrong. And nothing will go wrong provided four essential conditions are met. They are:
The mathematics must be interesting and comprehensible.

There's no fear of mathematics.

Inappropriate things aren't learned.

There's sufficient time.
Interesting thought and I would substitute generic topic "X" for the specific "mathematics". I instinctively agree with all four with caveats and qualms about the third item: who determines what is inappropriate to learn and what are the objective metrics/algorithms for determining that and who gets to determine?

Each of the four items warrants reflection.

The fourth item, for example, is deceptively simple - "There's sufficient time." True enough but the reality is that we are time constrained. There is never enough time. Given that there is, for operating purposes, a fixed amount of time, then the unstated task is to ensure that what is being learnt is worthwhile. If we are going to invest the, say, 100 hours necessary to learn, what topics or subjects are more warranted than others since there are virtually infinite topics and only a fixed amount of time. There's the rub.

For your typical student, are they going to benefit more from 100 hundred hours of studying Western Civilization or 100 hours of Trade Relations between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, 1500-1950? Both are interesting and valid fields of study, but with limited time, which is more important, AKA, which is more beneficial?




Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How will I know when is the right time to ask?

A very interesting point in Creative ambiguity, Scottish independence, and sudden death by Tyler Cowen.

In general we aspire towards clarity and transparency and I strongly believe that those ought to be the default position in almost all situations. But if look at it by areas of life, there are clearly shades of transparency and clarity.

Businesses tend to be the most vested in achieving greater clarity and transparency because they are under the greatest competitive pressure and need to constantly adjust and adapt to new risks and circumstances. Independent of that, in most OECD countries, and particularly in the US, such transparency is also encoded into law and regulations (for example Sarbane-Oxley). Constituent parts of a business, particular individuals or divisions, may be more or less enamored of transparency (depending on the consequences and just how much they have to hide), but overall there is a strong predisposition towards transparency.

In government administration there is a marked aversion to clarity and transparency. Too many vested interests, rent seeking, regulatory capture, backroom dealings, etc. Politicians are even less enamored for obvious reasons.

Marriages and personal relationships seem to have a schizophrenic relationship with clarity and transparency. In many ways there is much greater transparency but in some ways much less. Somebody once observed that a sustaining marriage is a wilful act of imagination.

Cowen is talking about what he refers to as "creative ambiguity". What the British used to refer to as "muddling through". His point is that there are significant benefits to clarity and transparency but that there are also costs and that we ought to be mindful of the benefits of non-clarity and non-transparency. He gives lots of examples.
Canada, Belgium, and indeed the entire European Union seem to be organized on this basis. It’s not quite that everyone thinks they are getting their way, but rather explicit concessions are not demanded for each loss of control embodied in the broader system. Certain rights are held in reserve, with the expectation that they probably will not be exercised, but they can nonetheless influence the final bargaining equilibrium.

Most international treaties rely on some degree of creative ambiguity, as do most central banks, with their semi-promises of bailouts but “not too much not too certain you know” as the default. You might like the mandated outcome (or not), but I doubt if it would improve political discourse in the United States to have an explicit thumbs up vs. thumbs down referendum on abortion.

Many partnerships and marriages rely on creative ambiguity too. Should the Beatles have forced Lennon and McCartney to specify who had the final say over each cut? That probably would have led to a split in 1968 and there would be no Abbey Road. Must parties to a marriage specify the entire division of chores and responsibilities in advance?

We find the same in many academic departments. Things can be going along just fine, but once the department has to write out an explicit plan for future growth and the allocation of slots across different fields or methods, all hell breaks loose.
There is great power in asking the right question. There is even greater power in asking the right question at the right time. Asked prematurely and it either precipitates an answer we are not yet ready to assimilate or it is dismissed as irrelevant and essentially innoculates against that question any time in the near future.
All praises of democracy must be embedded in a broader understanding that a) formal questions can be destructive, and b) we cannot be allowed to pose questions without limit, at least not questions which require explicit, publicly verifiable, and commonly observed answers.
Once a question is posed very explicitly, and in a manner which requires a clear answer, it is hard to take it off the table. There is thus an option value to holding these questions in reserve, which means that the expected return from the question has to be pretty high to justify changing the agenda in a hard-to-revoke manner.
The challenge, in a complex system, is that there are powerful benefits AND significant costs to both "Creative ambiguity" and to Clarity and Transparency. It is not possible, in advance, to discuss what is the right question and when should we discuss it. By planning ahead, you are inherently letting the cat out of the bag. The question cannot be unasked. So individually all parties have to arrive at 1) What is the right question?, 2) What are the consequences of asking it?, 3) What are the consequences of not asking it?, and 4) How will I know when is the right time to ask?


Making certain habits of rationality second nature

From The Trouble With Harvard:The Ivy League is broken and only standardized tests can fix it by Stephen Pinker.

What does it mean to be educated? Pinker has a pretty good definition.
It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

No matter how you dress it up though, it is still noxious.

A few days ago I quoted Edward Ellsberg to the effect that
“Experts” are people who know so much about how things have been done in the past that they are usually blind to how they can be done in the future.
That is brought to mind by this interview with Gender Intelligence experts Annis and Merron, Why The Tech Sector Struggles To Close The Gender Gap interview with Barbara Annis and Keith Merron.

I have commented frequently in the past about our tendency to generate cognitive pollution despite facts being relatively available. The cognitive pollution is usually manifested in not specifying objectives, not defining terms, not identifying critical assumptions, not testing those assumptions against available information, and not exploring counterfactuals and alternate explanations.

In this instance, much ado is being made about the fact that the tech industry does not reflect the face of America, i.e. its American workforce is different from what would be the case if everyone had equal talents, behaviors, knowledge and skills and everyone wished to work in the tech industry. As it is currently constituted, the tech industry employee base is disproportionately Asian and Whites, Blacks and Hispanics are significantly underrepresented. Females are only something like 30% of the workforce.

Those are measurable facts. The questions are manifold: Is it real? Does it matter? What would be the benefit of equal representation? Are there hidden forms of bias which are leading to these disparate representations or are they simply emergent order generated by disparate knowledge, skills, values, behaviors, experience, and desires on the part of individuals? Is it possible to ensure that there is equal representation on all attributes (race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, religion, class, etc.) in all industries?

Straight off the bat there is the problem as to whether this is a real problem. For example.
women account for less than a third of the workforce, and the tally for women in leadership and technical roles is worse.
About 15% of the leadership and technical roles in the tech industry are held by women. A rough proxy of qualifications for such a role would be having a degree in computer science or related field (ex. electrical engineering). The percentage of degrees in such fields is . . . 15%. So women may be underrepresented in the technical and leadership roles when comparing to the overall demographics of the nation, but they appear to be proportionately represented based on the number of women interested in the field.

Are women underrepresented? It appears not. But that doesn't stop the gender intelligence experts.

The interview is a lot of pablum but if you look closely you can see the unexamined and frightening assumptions of the experts. If you are a classical liberal, believing in natural rights, rule of law, equality of all people, etc. these unexamined assumptions are horrifying to discover in individuals who are undoubtedly bright and successful.

Annis and Merron acknowledge that there is no shortage of effort on the part of the tech companies to address gender issues.
I was meeting with the Chief Diversity Officer of a large, innovative technology company -- a great, smart woman -- and she said, “We’re doing great. We don’t have any issues. We’re out there recruiting women. And we have diversity teams.” They had created this enlightened denial, which is this idea that because you’re super smart, and because you’re super innovative, that equates to being gender intelligent. So I decided we should do some research on this. We looked at five tech companies and we discovered some interesting things: there was a massive focus on recruitment and there was a massive focus on initiatives.
But that's not enough.

There's a certain anti-intellectualism that is odd.
Most of the people who gravitate towards the tech sector are very smart and they tend to tackle problems from an engineering mindset. When you engineer something, you break down the problem into its component parts. You then look to solve those component parts with the belief that in so doing you solve the whole. So, what happens is you get a lot of people in leadership positions who are brilliant engineers, brilliant at technical solutions, and what they’ll see is a symptom: not enough women in X positions or women leaving. And then they’ll engineer a solution by attacking it with different strategies, none of which look at the fundamental issue, because the engineering mind can’t see itself as the problem.
So its not enough to be smart and well intentioned and actually trying many things to solve the problem.

Keith: This is one of the hardest things to help men see, which is that when you’re growing up as a boy in male culture, and a lot of the systems are designed to support men, it feels very natural to compete, to analyze, to break down problems into parts, to engineer solutions; that’s what’s often taught in schools. Collaboration and looking at things holistically and from different paradigms, is not taught well in schools.
Here you get in to the assumptions. What are the systems that are designed to support men. That's a neat abstraction to throw out there, but what are they? And in what education system have Annis and Merron been raised where they think that collaboration and holistic perspectives haven't been explicitly cultivated, at least in the US. And what are team sports if not a collaboration? This is mushy pablum.

Annis and Merron are enormously dismissive of the intelligence of these men whom they claim are "very smart" and seem extremely comfortable trading in all sorts of stereotypes.

It’s about who’s smarter and faster at articulating a very complex set of variables; who can parse through those and find a solution. Whoever wins the battle becomes the uber techie, and often becomes the manager, and then the manager of the manager becomes the uber techie at that level. And so you can see the favoring of the analytic, the favoring of breaking things down into their parts, the favoring of thought versus feeling, and women will tend to look at problems in a more holistic manner. They’ll look at not just the goal but the journey to get there. They’ll look at the feeling state and the experience of the work itself as being important variables. So women tend to be much better at creating a more healthy team condition, and they don’t necessarily want to battle it out on that mental battle field.
Here's the example of the problem of cognitive pollution when you fail to define your goal. From a company perspective, you do want to be able to articulate a complex set of variables and quickly find a solution. You are time and money constrained. Annis and Merron are making the argument that the fundamental issue is that women like to work slower and more comfortably and that they are underrepresented because of commercial reality. Well, yes, that is kind of a fundamental problem (if you accept their premises).

Despite all the smart and expensive efforts, tech CEO still haven't solved the under-representation problem. Annis and Merron claim that part of the issue is that despite being smart and well intentioned, executives just don't see equal gender representation as a problem because there are no economic consequences. Annis and Merron speculate that there could be a business imperative but they aren't able to articulate what it is or what its value might be. They simply assume that it exists and that all the profitable successful CEOs are blind to it.
You can be uber smart, but you’re not going to change the culture until you understand that the cultural norms aren’t working.You can be uber smart, but you’re not going to change the culture until you understand that the cultural norms aren’t working.
OK, we are no longer focusing on fixing a company's problem. Now we are focusing on fixing cultural problems. I would hope most people's alarm antennae would start tingling at that.

Here's the rub:
These are good people and they don’t want to create conditions where women are left out. They don’t want to create conditions that are unfair and in fact they pride themselves or believing that the organization is quite fair. They’ll say: “We have competencies, we measure people against those competencies, and we hire and promote people based on a fair set of criteria.” It’s hard for them to see that the system itself is unfair because it’s set up based on the assumption that men and women are the same, which does create an unfairness unintentionally.
Translated: They're good people, they are successful at what they do, they run their businesses so that everyone is treated equally and there's no demonstrable value to achieving the exact representation that I, Annis and Merron, would prefer. They should recognize that genders are different and they should therefore treat them differently.

Yikes! Now the alarm antennae should really be shaking. Preferential treatment based on some preferred marker (race, religion, ethnicity, orientation, etc.). That has obviously worked so well in so many countries over so many centuries.

I know these guys are just ginning up business for their expertise with this interview but really, it does feel unseamly. They have no value proposition, they cannot define the problem, they acknowledge that there are a lot intelligent things being pursued in a good-faith fashion, and they acknowledge that the problem resides not with the companies but with society at large.

All they have to do is change the rules to favor one group over another to achieve the goals preferred by Annis and Merron against the goals and desires of actual people making smart decisions about their own lives and their own values. I am sure they earn a lot of guilt money from companies with this pitch.

The public is a lot better than our leaders

With the barbarity of ISIL, the horror of Rotherham, the nightmare of Boko Haram and other outrages around the world, political leaders are, for obvious reasons, in overdrive to deny that there is anything inherently evil about Islam. This is akin to the efforts to portray the Fort Hood massacre by Hasan as workplace violence and having nothing to do with Hasan's avowed and published intentions in the name of Islam.

Politicians for practical and expedient reasons want to dissociate all the violence and barbarism from a particular religion because they fear that the public might take up pitchforks and commit outrages of their own. But these No True Scotsman arguments are patently absurd (as well argued in If ISIS Is Not Islamic, then the Inquisition Was Not Catholic by Jerry. A. Coyne), demeaning of the public intelligence, and insulting.

It is indisputably the case that much if not most of the horrors around the world are being generated in association with practitioners of the Muslim faith. Most people know this.

It is also indisputably the case that most of the practitioners of the Muslim faith have nothing to do with these horrors. Most people also know this.

I think politicians and the clerisy are demonstrating a dreadful misreading and misunderstanding of the public. You look at hate crime statistics and there simply is not evidence of public intolerance of Muslims in the US. Some years ago, I think on the first anniversary of 9/11, one of the news programs made the assumption that the public was now significantly intolerant of Muslims. They decided to demonstrate this by having a couple of actors of Middle Eastern appearance, the woman in a burqa, perambulate around a NASCAR event in North Carolina, hoping to elicit jeers and taunts. As it eventuated, while they attracted some stares, nothing untoward happened.

All the evidence points to a public who are both tolerant and knowledgeable enough to distinguish between individuals and stereotypes. But somehow politicians don't see that.

Politicians appear to be making the calculation that the public is too ignorant and can't be trusted not to be made aware of the facts and therefore the facts have to be hidden or misrepresented. There are many things wrong with this approach, not least of which is how much of a pre-internet mindset it betrays. I also think this reveals a perhaps unconscious trade-off decision that politicians are taking too lightly and miscalculating.

You can say
ISIL is not Islamic.
all you want but that doesn't make it true. Everyone can see that ISIL self-identifies as Muslim, are recognized in the region as Muslim, and are fighting and dying for what they understand Islam to be. Joe public understands that and I suspect that Joe Public is puzzled why the president can not also understand what is as plain as day.

The unrecognized trade-off is this.

I can lie about the facts in the hope that I can reduce the association of Islam with violence but if I do so, I then reduce the public trust in our leaders and political leaders.

I think we are at much greater risk of damage from discredited leaders and distrust in the political system than we are at risk of the public misbehaving over the horrors committed in the name of Islam.

At this particular juncture, the public is a lot better than our leaders.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Urban planning and unintended consequences

From Baby Boomtowns: The U.S. Cities Attracting the Most Families by Joel Kotkin. An interesting observation on policy priorities based on demographics. Talking about cities where there are growing numbers of families versus those that are shrinking.
So why are otherwise thriving areas losing families? One possible explanation may come from cultural and political factors. As Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz has pointed out, an increasingly childless society creates “self reinforcing mechanisms” that make childlessness, singleness and one-child families increasingly predominant. In this process, which is further advanced in Japan, much of East Asia and throughout large parts of Europe, civic priorities often favor adult cultural amenities over things like parks and schools that are more important to families. Many areas that are increasingly child-free also often embrace density-oriented land use policies that lead to less affordable housing.
Emphasis added.

Likely this extends into smaller details. For example, Atlanta has a major public policy push going on to expand connected trails across the city, primarily off the back of a significant rails-to-trails conversion. Well and good. It does appear to be attracting young singles in from the suburbs though it also appears to not be financially viable; or at least not yet. The expected increase in taxes intended to fund further development have yet to eventuate.

But at an even more detailed level you have impacts that might not have been anticipated. In our area there is a public infrastructure development advocacy group which has been lobbying to develop connecting trails through established neighborhoods and well preserved nature preserves. This has been resisted locally primarily because of conservation concerns (destruction of habitat and loss of animal and bird wildlife), ecosystem concerns (increased creek erosion) and quality of life issues.

But to Lutz's point, much of the intended connected trail development favors young singles and disadvantages children and the elderly. The connected trails favor running and biking whereas the existing contained trails favor the slower elderly and young families.

So if you are a city doing forward planning perhaps the consideration is
More connected trails - More Single Hipsters and DINKS (dual income no kids)
More contained trails - More families with children
Which is an interesting question. If you are a city do you want the more ephemeral population or the more permanent population? Do you want to entertain adults or do you want to entertain kids. And yes, in some cases (such as connected trails) it is an either/or decision. Your actions speak to your priorities, even if they are unintentional priorities.

A chastisement for those who are eager to write history before it has happened

I follow the goings ons in Sweden with interest. I lived there from 1970-75 before heading off to boarding school and my parents continued there till 1978. I loved the country, people and culture for all there sometimes perplexing (to my mind) quirks. In particular, I admired their capacity for rational argument and a reasonably reality-based approach to idealism. I think my view was somewhat tinged with youthful naivete but subsequent events seems consistent with that early interpretation.

Sometime in the 1990s Sweden came to some terms with the incapacity to support the well-meaning generosity of the liberal welfare state and went on something of an economic conservative binge. They devalued the Kroner to improve their economic performance, adjusted social spending downwards, reduced the role of government in the economy, controlled wage inflation, and undertook some root and branch reforms in many areas, notably in education. The results have been mixed but broadly much better than the trend lines in the early 1990s.

All this comes to mind based on a couple of news reports. On Saturday, I read a Guardian article about the expected outcomes of the Swedish elections on Sunday. The Guardian is something like a British New York Times. Capable of some spectacular in depth reporting but also prone to substantial blindness regarding its own prejudices and biases. The Guardian is much more explicitly a child of the Labor movement and generically socialist. The Guardian's article was styled Free-market era in Sweden swept away as feminists and greens plot new path by Richard Orange. I read it because A) I was interested in anything about Sweden. But B) I was interested in that journalistic hubris of reporting on Saturday about results that could not be known before Sunday as if they had already happened.

So how did the feminists and greens do?

Well, according to John Fund, apparently an old stick-in-the-mud traditionalist, reporting after the fact instead of before it, in Swedish Surprise:
On the left, the new Feminist Initiative party stole votes from the left but ended up falling short of the 4 percent required to earn seats in parliament. The Green party actually lost seats.
So one party shrank in size and the other didn't even make the threshold. I guess the pink sunrise of the clerisy was once more clouded over. Perhaps these weren't quite the new paths Richard Orange had them plotting.

As usual with a fragmentary parliamentary system, the results are in but the consequences are not yet known. Various parties of innumerable stripes have to figure out what their priorities are and exactly who they can find sufficiently tolerable or beneficial to form a government. Still, it does represent a chastisement for those who are eager to write history before it has happened.

Borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry

More from the maligned Polonius. He seems often characterized as shallow and perhaps glib but his "few precepts" which he recommends Laertes lodge "in thy memory" seem to have lodged in the cultural conscience down the ages to the benefit of all who have heard them, whether directly in Hamlet, through derivative paths such as Poor Richard's Almanack by Benjamin Franklin, or simply in the phrases which have slipped into common parlance.

From Act 1, Scene 3

Why put things in plain fashion when you can dress it up? Common language version: Hurry up, you're keeping everyone waiting. The Shakespearean treatment:
Aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for.

Advice:

Give thy thoughts no tongue
Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade.

Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear't that th' opposed may beware of thee.

Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice

Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry

This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

For every concerned parent of their teen's choice of company:
Marry, well bethought!
'Tis told me he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you, and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous.
If it be so- as so 'tis put on me,
And that in way of caution- I must tell you
You do not understand yourself so clearly
As it behooves my daughter and your honour.
What is between you? Give me up the truth.

This passage is often interpreted, probably correctly as evidence of Polonius' duplicitous character. He is asking his servant Reynaldo to go spy on Laertes and delicately probe Laertes' friends and acquaintances to find out to what extent Laertes has been drinking, whoring, gambling, etc.
Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth;
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out.
But when you think about it, is this perhaps not one of the first articulations of the concept of the null hypothesis which is otherwise first described in Ronald Fisher's 1935 Design of Experiments? Shakespeare the Statistician?

Love as a motive force.
This is the very ecstasy of love,
Whose violent property fordoes itself
And leads the will to desperate undertakings
As oft as any passion under heaven
That does afflict our natures.
On the tendency of the elderly and jaded to be too skeptical while the young are too gullible.
By heaven, it is as proper to our age
To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions
As it is common for the younger sort
To lack discretion.
Another line, often criticized as self-contradictory is:
My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night is night, and time is time.
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.
Put another way though: Life is full of complex issues which we don't have unlimited time to discuss them. Cutting to the chase, . . . This conundrum is at the heart of many disputations. If you define and clarify assumptions, and amass evidence with all the necessary qualifiers, you end up, in the modern parlance, with TLDR (too long, didn't read). Polonius was clearly anticipating Twitter where complex ideas a reduced, ab absurdum, to the greatest of brevity.

The Rotherham Tragedy might have been entirely prevented, had any of the British government officials, elected politicians, social services bureaucrats, or police had they read Polonius on straight speaking and calling a thing for what it is without undue nicety.
Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he is mad, 'tis true: 'tis true 'tis pity;
And pity 'tis 'tis true. A foolish figure!
But farewell it, for I will use no art.
Mad let us grant him then. And now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect-
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause.
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus.
Perpend.
The progressive mindset that wants to wish away unpleasant truths is captured somewhat later:
I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to
reckon my groans
Repurposing lines, you can see in this passage, a description of some people's response when their preferred belief is rebuffed by logic and evidence.
And he, repulsed, a short tale to make,
Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves,
Another line which has endured:
Though this be madness, yet there is a method in't.