Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The general prey of the rich on the poor

A string of references to quotes by Thomas Jefferson has me checking sources and reinforcing the impression of the rare brilliance of the man.

In this instance, the quotation was the relatively common one, in some circles,
. . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
The source is a letter to Edward Carrington, January 16th, 1787.
The tumults in America I expected would have produced in Europe an unfavorable opinion of our political state. But it has not. On the contrary, the small effect of those tumults seems to have given more confidence in the firmness of our governments. The interposition of the people themselves on the side of government has had a great effect on the opinion here. I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro' the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them. I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments. Among the former, public opinion is in the place of law, and restrains morals as powerfully as laws ever did any where. Among the latter, under pretence of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep. I do not exaggerate. This is a true picture of Europe. Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor.

Poe's Law

From Wikipedia.
Poe's law, in broader form, states:
Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing.[3]
The core of Poe's law is that a parody of something extreme, by nature, becomes impossible to differentiate from sincere extremism. A corollary of Poe's law is the reverse phenomenon: sincere fundamentalist beliefs can be mistaken for a parody of those beliefs.[3]

Monday, March 30, 2015

Perniciously prevalent

I've never heard of it before, hesperophobia. I find that odd as the condition is so perniciously prevalent. From Urban Dictionary:

Fear or hatred of the West.

The word Hesperophobia was coined by political scientist Robert Conquest. Its roots are the Greek words hesperos, which means “the west” and phobos, which means “fear,” but which when used as an English suffix can also carry the meaning “hate”.

The fallacy of mood affiliation

From The fallacy of mood affiliation by Tyler Cowen.
It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood. I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning. (In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often “optimism” or “pessimism” per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.)

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Irish slavery in the Caribbean

Very interesting. It’s True: We’re Probably All a Little Irish—Especially in the Caribbean by Krystal D'Costa

Another example of forgotten history. I mentioned in a post a while back, Puritans in Nicaragua, the case of the Puritan colony established in the 1630s on an island off the coast of Nicaragua.

In this instance, D'Costa is talking about the British sale of Irish slaves to interests in the new world.

Following the Battle of Kinsdale, the Irish clan system was largely abolished and the English seized most of the land of Ulster. The 30,000-something prisoners of war were shipped off and sold as laborers to the colonies of the Caribbean and the United States.
The first Irish slaves were sold to a settlement on the Amazon River In South America in 1612. It would probably be more accurate to say that the first “recorded” sale of Irish slaves was in 1612, because the English, who were noted for their meticulous record keeping, simply did not keep track of things Irish, whether it be goods or people, unless such was being shipped to England.
The Proclamation of 1625 would make this a common practice. Irish political prisoners would be routinely packed up and sold off as laborers:
In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies. By 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves, which records show was a cause of concern to the English planters.
The Irish were desirable “slave stock” because they could be obtained for free and sold for a profit, whereas traders needed to pay to have Africans “caught,” minimizing their profit margins. And because they were cheaper in this sense, the Irish often suffered harsher punishments from their plantation masters. It is estimated that between 30,000 and 80,000 Irish were sold as laborers, contributing to a massive population reduction in Ireland. In 1652, Ireland’s population was 616,000, down from 1,466,000 in 1641. Of course, this change was not solely due to to the slave trade—famine, wars, and disease certainly played a role.
Reading Irish history is very hard, it is so steeped in tragedy and blood.

There is more on the Irish Slave trade at Daily Kos, The slaves that time forgot by bygjohnsit. It begins to answer a question I had about D'Costa's article. Are we talking about indentured servitude or slavery. It appears that the wrinkle is that the Irish suffered under a unique hybrid system. They were indeed commercially sold without consent to the plantation owners in the Caribbean, so in that sense, definitely slaves. On the other hand, it apparently was also the custom for that slavery to be time limited to 7-20 years which was the unusual feature.

In practice, it probably did not make much difference given that average life spans were on the order of 35-40 years. If you are sold at 20 for a duration of 20 years, you are a slave for the rest of your life.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

No Man is wise at all Times

Desiderius Erasmus in The Alchymyst, in Colloquies of Erasmus, Volume I.
No Man is wise at all Times, or is without his blind Side.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Competitive poetry

Shelley's Ozymandias has long been a favorite in my household. I have always enjoyed it and, rather unexpectedly, the kids have as well from quite an early age. I think it is the cadence and mystery.
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."
For all that, I did not know the background. From Wikipedia.
The banker and political writer Horace Smith spent the Christmas season of 1817–1818 with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. At this time members of Shelley's literary circle would sometimes challenge each other to write competing sonnets on a common subject—Shelley, John Keats and Leigh Hunt wrote competing sonnets on the Nile around the same time. Shelley and Smith chose a passage from the Greek Historian Diodorus Siculus, which described a massive Egyptian statue and quoted its inscription: "King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work." In the poem Diodorus becomes "a traveller from an antique land".
Go to the Wikipedia link for Horace Smith's version.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The experienced man trembles exceedingly at heart on its approach

Pindar, Fragment 110; page 377.
γλυκύ δ᾽ἀπείρῳ πόλεμος.
πεπειραμένων δέ τις ταρβεῖ προσιόντα νιν καρδία περισσῶς.

War is sweet to those who have no experience of it,
but the experienced man trembles exceedingly at heart on its approach.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The abstraction of all time from their verses

The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote, and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy, -- with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and said.

A cognitively-gated community

From Don't Blame Students for Being Hypersensitive. Blame Colleges. by Phoebe Maltz Bovy.

Bovy's article addresses a passing faddish issue in our privileged universities, "safe spaces." That's not what caught my eye. At the end of her article, she has a turn of phrase that I think could be quite descriptive. What she says is:
It’s not that students demand that colleges provide a gated-community experience tailored to their every preference. Instead, the elite schools are selling that experience—and given the competitiveness of that marketplace, it’s hardly surprising that campus life sometimes crosses over into the ridiculous. Shulevitz blames the students, and surely they deserve some of it. But they’re demanding exactly the college experience that the brochures have promised them.
Regardless of the merits of that conclusion, and I think it probably has merit, I read her wording differently than was intended. My reading was a variant of confirmation bias and epistemic closure.

I read "a gated-community experience" as "a cognitively-gated community." I know that is neither what she said or meant, but that is what my subconscious read into it. I think that is a pretty reasonable description of some universities and some departments within other universities - a cognitively-gated community.

Monday, March 23, 2015

If we look only at individual cognitive biases, we'll be tempted to infer that stupidity is everywhere

I have long argued that every system needs variance in order to evolve. Epistemological systems need variance in cognitive capabilities, in ideology, in class, in culture, etc. There are a number of good reasons, I believe, for this need for variance. In When Biases Collide by Chris Dillow, the author suggests a less than obvious reason which I suspect has merit.

This is an example of how cognitive biases can cancel out to produce an accurate opinion


A new paper by Thomas Eisenbach and Martin Schmalz give us another example. Overconfidence, they say, might be used as a commitment device.

This is because many of us have time-inconsistent risk preferences: we don't worry about future risks until they are imminent, when we panic. For example, you might sign up for a charity parachute jump but then panic on the day. And actors and musicians feel stage fright just before they perform even though they chose to enter professions where they knew they'd have to go on stage. For retail investors, such preferences can be expensive. It can cause them to have heavy equity exposure in normal times, only to get cold feet when volatility increases, thus causing them to sell when prices are temporarily depressed.

Overconfidence, they say, can solve these problems. The investor who is overconfident about his abilities might think when shares fall "the market's being stupid; it'll come round to my way of thinking soon". This might be irrational overconfidence, but it saves him from the temptation to sell at the bottom. Similarly, the mediocre actor can overcome stage fright by telling himself that he's going to deliver a great performance.

I suspect that a lot of what we call rational behaviour is in fact the cancelling out of biases. This might occur within particular individuals, as in Mr Pearson's case. Or it might occur within groups. Maybe one reason why the stock market is (sometimes? often?) efficient isn't that all its participants are rational but rather that those who over-react offset those that under-react; experiments show that stupid traders can produce rational markets. There's (sometimes) wisdom in crowds and (often?) benefits to cognitive or ecological diversity because irrationalities can net out. This is why we often prefer committees to individual decision-making.

There's a political implication here. If we look only at individual cognitive biases, we'll be tempted to infer that stupidity is everywhere; after all, the list of such biases is a long one. This, though, is a mistake. We need the hard evidence of systematic error before we can infer that biases matter. And sometimes, this is lacking.
There has been a rash of books in the past decade decrying our cognitive biases, logical fallacies, empirical irrationalities, and persistent beliefs in factually disproved issues. Looking at the cumulative evidence in these books, you can only conclude that humanity has no future and little hope of progress, however progress might be defined. And yet progress we do.

My resolution to this paradox has been that our exercise of fallacies, biases, and erroneous beliefs are constrained by situational circumstances. For example, we might demonstrate a reliable risk aversion under routine circumstances but that we might consciously counteract that aversion under special circumstances.

Dillow offers another perspective that I find intriguing, i.e. that our plethora of biases, errors, and fallacies might balance each other out in the long run.

I discussed this long ago somewhere on this blog in terms of the programming attributes of heuristics and aphorisms. We have an array of risk aversion sayings (a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, better safe than sorry, look before you leap) but at the same time we have an array of other aphorisms which encourage risk taking (carpe diem, the gods help those who help themselves, better to ask forgiveness than ask permission, better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, etc.) My argument then was that 1) the richness of a language in such aphorisms likely has some impact, and 2) that the impact of such aphorisms (seen as cultural coding) was likely a product of the net deployment of such heuristics under particular circumstances.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The case for democracy would be less compelling

An interesting take and no doubt true.

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining

A communion anthem in church this morning.

I Believe
by Anonymous

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God even when He is silent.

* Found on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany where Jews hid during the holocaust.

Reading classics at all, and in their original language no less

A letter from John Adams, our second President to John Quincy Adams, our sixth President.
My dear Son,

As the War in which your Country is engaged will probably hereafter attract your Attention, more than it does at this Time, and as the future Circumstances of your Country, may require other Wars, as well as Councils and Negotiations, similar to those which are now in Agitation, I wish to turn your Thoughts early to such Studies, as will afford you the most solid Instruction and Improvement for the Part which may be allotted you to act on the Stage of Life.

There is no History, perhaps, better adapted to this usefull Purpose than that of Thucidides, an Author, of whom I hope you will make yourself perfect Master, in original Language, which is Greek, the most perfect of all human Languages. In order to understand him fully in his own Tongue, you must however take Advantage, of every Help you can procure and particularly of Translations of him into your own Mother Tongue.

You will find in your Fathers Library, the Works of Mr. Hobbes, in which among a great deal of mischievous Philosophy, you will find a learned and exact Translation of Thucidides, which will be usefull to you.

But there is another Translation of him, much more elegant, intituled “The History of the Peloponnesian War, translated from the Greek of Thucidides in two Volumes Quarto, by William Smith A.M. Rector of the Parish of the holy Trinity in Chester, and Chaplain to the Right Honourable the Earl of Derby.”

If you preserve this Letter, it may hereafter remind you, to procure the Book. You will find it full of Instruction to the Orator, the Statesman, the General, as well as to the Historian and the Philosopher. You may find Something of the Peloponnesian War, in Rollin.

I am with much Affection your Father,

John Adams
Would that our credentialed elite today were so well educated - reading classics at all, and in their original language no less.

His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with[Pg 18] any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Why civil feuds disturb the nation more

The True-Born Englishman published in 1701 by Daniel Defoe made the argument that a people are not defined by their bloodlines but by their shared culture. Well worth a read in its entirety with lots of great passages. A wise call to good sense from 414 years ago to chide those amongst us who are so enamored of identifying people by race and ethnicity and gender and orientation and religion.

The introduction is in more elegant and structured language than that to which we are accustomed but its meaning is plain:
Speak, Satire, for there's none can tell like thee,
Whether 'tis folly, pride, or knavery,
That makes this discontented land appear
Less happy now in times of peace, than war:
Why civil feuds disturb the nation more,
Than all our bloody wars have done before.

Fools out of favour grudge at knaves in place,
And men are always honest in disgrace:
The court preferments make men knaves in course:
But they which wou'd be in them wou'd be worse.
'Tis not at foreigners that we repine,
Wou'd foreigners their perquisites resign:
The grand contention's plainly to be seen,
To get some men put out, and some put in.
For this our Senators make long harangues.
And florid Ministers whet their polish'd tongues.
Statesmen are always sick of one disease;
And a good pension gives them present ease.
That's the specific makes them all content
With any King and any government.
Good patriots at court abuses rail,
And all the nation's grievances bewail:
But when the sov'reign balsam's once apply'd,
The zealot never fails to change his side;
And when he must the golden key resign,
The railing spirit comes about again.

Who shall this bubbl'd nation disabuse,
While they their own felicities refuse?
Who at the wars have made such mighty pother,
And now are falling out with one another:
With needless fears the jealous nations fill,
And always have been sav'd against their will:
Who fifty millions sterling have disburs'd
To be with peace, and too much plenty, curs'd;
Who their old monarch eagerly undo,
And yet uneasily obey the new.
Search, Satire, search; a deep incision make:
The poison's strong, the antidote's too weak.
'Tis pointed truth must manage this dispute,
And down-right English, Englishmen confute.

Whet thy just anger at the nation's pride;
And with keen phrase repel the vicious tide,
To Englishmen their own beginnings show,
And ask them, why they slight their neighbours so:
Go back to elder times, and ages past,
And nations into long oblivion cast;
To elder Britain's youthful days retire,
And there for true-born Englishmen inquire,
Britannia freely will disown the name,
And hardly knows herself from whence they came;
Wonders that they of all men should pretend
To birth, and blood, and for a name contend.
Go back to causes where our follies dwell,
And fetch the dark original from hell:
Speak, Satire, for there's none like thee can tell.

Friday, March 20, 2015

You can't fight something with nothing

An interesting observation in the comments to this article, The E.U. Experiment Has Failed by Bruce Thornton. Thornton is making the case for why the European Union has failed. Experiments are often written off too early but the EU has been on the ropes for a while now for many of the reasons Thornton identifies.

The vested interests seem to be locked in to the safe but declining benefits of a failing situation and reject the risks that arise from taking a new direction that might be far better for everyone concerned. Personally I would love to see Europe reengage with its Enlightenment legacy but the odds of that are disappointingly long.

Jeff Traube makes an astute observation in the comments.
You can't fight something with nothing. And the alternative may be the fervor of a religion, nationalism or ideology. They have their perils, but may be preferable to wasting away.
I would love it if Europe could incrementally reform their way back to success and relevance and I think a reengagement with the principles of the Enlightenment would do that for them. I fear that nationalism and ideology are the more likely and less seemly consequences (I would be surprised to see a religious revival but nothing is impossible.)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Letting ideology trump effectiveness

Two articles, one right after the other, reinforce the idea that we are letting our petty Gramscian obsessions interfere with the reality of invigorating our country.

The King’s Road by Kevin D. Williamson.
Corinne Ramey, a freelance writer working in collaboration with the Nation Institute, has published a long and deeply reported account of the deficiencies in the U.S. transportation system, with an emphasis on the poor quality of service and low environmental standards on offer to poor and largely nonwhite communities relative to well-off and largely white communities. The report was published in Slate under the unsubtle homepage headline “America’s Transportation System Is Racist,” though the article itself suggests very strongly that this is a case of a reporter’s being more intelligent than the people writing her headlines. The piece is very much worth reading.
This is a function of the thoroughly discredited but still widely used supposition that any disparate impact must be a function of intent and therefore, depending on the vector of impact: racist, sectarian, misogynist, agist, classist, etc. There are no fields of endeavor that perfectly match the large population distribution of attributes.
Ramey does not really much argue that the animating principle here is racism in the sense of malicious intent toward nonwhites — she does troll some newspaper comments sections for racially charged vituperation about “thugs” and the like, but the results are unpersuasive — instead leaning on a “disparate impact” criterion, i.e. the argument that the people who run our transportation system do not necessarily hate blacks and Hispanics, but end up mistreating them anyway.
As Williamson points out there is a parallel to education which, using the same definitions as Ramey, must be incredibly racist because of the extent of disparate impact when in fact, the overwhelming majority of the disparate profile is a consequence of history, path dependency, behaviors and choices.

Assuming that the disparate impact is a consequence of intent rather than personal choices and historical circumstances leads you to a portfolio of solutions which are 1) illegal, 2) counter to the culture, and 3) demonstrably ineffective. And that’s where we have been for much of the last thirty years, solving the wrong problems in the wrong ways.

The other example is The Department of Justice Is Asking Ferguson To Do the Impossible by Kriston Capps. After the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. After the St. Louis grand jury found no basis for a case against Darren Wilson, the Federal Department of Justice, just as they did in the Trayvon Martin case, wanted to have a second bite at the apple. But just as in the Martin case, again they came up with nothing. No crime was committed by Wilson. Having failed, the DOJ has gone after the Ferguson police department with a range of accusations. They clearly have uncovered some racists correspondence which ought to be punished, but appear to have failed on the larger issue. It appears that they are not bringing any individual cases, as you would if crimes had been committed. Instead they are forcing reforms on the police department based on the argument that the department is racist because of disparate impact. An absence of real criminal cases and rhetorical case built on a statistical chimera. Bah.
Ferguson relies on court fees to fund its municipal activities. It's a well-documented fact that the collection of court fines represents a significant revenue stream for the suburb. A rapidly rising stream, too. Collections now account for one-fifth of total operating revenues and serve as the second-largest source of revenue overall. Last fall, Mother Jones and NPR detailed the many ticky-tack fouls that Ferguson officials call on residents—especially poor and black residents.

The situation is dire for many. "Despite their poverty, defendants are frequently ordered to pay fines that are frequently triple their monthly income," reads a white paper by ArchCity Defenders, a legal nonprofit, on three egregious St. Louis County-area municipal courts, including Ferguson. Even Ferguson officials know it. One Ferguson Police Department commander described the futility of Ferguson's predatory collections scheme to Justice investigators with a saying: "How can you get blood from a turnip?"

That question may be turned on Ferguson officials now. Justice's recommendations for reforming Ferguson courts call for a vastly more sophisticated, professional court system than the one in place. At the same time, Justice's recommendations for reforming the Ferguson Police Department require it to focus far less on collecting revenue and emphasize protecting public safety instead.

So Ferguson needs to fundamentally revise its model for municipal governance. But how is the city supposed to pay for this work, now that the court can't raid the pockets of its residents?
Such magical thinking leads to magical solutions which is what Capps is attacking. Capps points out that the problem is not actionable racism on the part of the police department but the funding governance of the municipality. I agree, that is a real moral crime and if you don’t solve that problem, you will still have a gross problem that is destructive to the lives and well-being of the citizens of Ferguson. If you have a black police chief and an entirely black police force, but they are still sourcing 30% of the municipal revenue from criminal fines, then Ferguson will be no better off than it was before. Once again, we are letting race obsession stand in the way of improving the lives of citizens.

The meta-issue appears even more fundamental. It appears that the municipality of Ferguson does not have the financial wherewithal to support the level of municipal services that they might otherwise desire. I suspect, like many municipalities, they are unable to raise property taxes any further for fear of driving out the remaining property and business owners. If they are unable to generate additional revenue from taxes and do choose to get rid of funding via court fines (as they ought), then that means they are facing a 30% decline in municipal services.

The only practical resolution to this, absent dramatic improvements in productivity which are improbable, is to merge with other municipalities to get to a size where there are economies of scale and service provision. Merging means the dilution of local control. Ultimately, this probably comes down to a trade-off decision that no one wants to make and have so far postponed: do we accept the moral corruption of raising money via court fines and retain more local control or do we get rid of the fines and merge with others in order to achieve better services but with less control.

Ferguson has clearly chosen the former strategy so far and are likely to pursue the latter from here on out but neither scenario is attractive to anyone. If we focus on race as the motif force behind Ferguson's unpleasant condition, then we will absolutely fail to achieve any meaningful change. The DoJ has done a terrible disservice to Ferguson and the country by allowing the myth of disparate impact to subvert their possible actions for improvement.

The unstated goal of punishment

From Reluctant Crusader: Why Alice Dreger’s writing on sex and science makes liberals so angry by Tom Bartlett.
In her new book, Dreger also empathizes with Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, authors of A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (2001). They argue that rape is motivated at least in part by sexual attraction, a view that diverges from the widely held notion that it is solely about violence and control. Palmer and Thornhill see their work as contributing to an understanding of why rapists rape and therefore, ultimately, of help to victims. Their many irate detractors see them as rape apologists. What started as science devolved into name-calling and death threats.
Not wanting to enter this particular discussion but it sparked a thought.

Disagreement can arise for many reasons. My assumption has long been that people are actually often in agreement on overall goals but where they come into conflict is that each person often has both a different prioritization of those shared goals and most especially that they can have dramatically different trade-offs that they are willing (or not) to make.

My wife and I might both agree that our next car should be stylish, roomy, excellent repair record, good mileage, safety features, good leg room, nice driving experience, etc. But the order of those desired features might differ significantly. Even more critically, I may be focused substantially on leg room and be willing to trade off a lot in terms of MPG whereas she might be willing to trade away leg room completely for more safety features.

I think that this assessment focusing on differences in priorities and trade-off functions is substantially right. Bartlett's article prompts the thought that there is an additional element in play - the desire to punish.

It is not enough to share goals and even prioritizations of goals. For some people, the desire to punish the undesirable is very powerful and that becomes a factor in itself that has to be taken into account.

The raft of hoaxes and false accusations on university campuses over the past few months has been illuminating about a number of issues. No one supports rape, despite all the cries of "denialist" and "apologist." I have interpreted much of the rancor as arising from differences in trade-offs. The third-wave feminist advocacy groups obviously want the number of rapes to be as close to zero as feasible. As does everyone else. The challenge is that the third-wave feminist advocacy groups are willing to forego due process, free speech and other rights in order to drive the number to zero. Others will have none of that. They want to get the number of rapes as close to zero as possible but within the context of free speech and due process.

I think that interpretation is accurate but perhaps not quite complete. It has been striking to me that in a number of these cases of hoaxes and false allegations, the advocacy groups seem to be most vocal and vituperative in those instances where there is a fraternity involved and often turn a blind eye to those instances where the allegations, even where credible and proven, are against non-fraternity students. Why? I think part of the answer might be that not only is there a desire to achieve a good end, but there is also a desire to punish the enemy. It is not enough to help (or prevent) the victims, you have to punish as well.

Perhaps that is why these cases get so mucked up.

More explicitly, when problem solving, perhaps it is insufficient to solve the problem. In some instances, the solution has to include punishment as well.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

That was quick

More Uber cars on NYC streets than yellow cabs from Fox News.

That was quick. Despite all the hurdles raised by the cities regulatory system trying to prevent a more customer friendly and more efficient transportation system in order to protect its own revenue flows.
Uber has officially outdone the New York City yellow cab.

There are now more Uber vehicles operating on the streets of the Big Apple than yellow cabs, according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

The company has 14,088 cars compared to 13, 587 medallion cabs.

Part of the four-year-old company's success can be attributed to higher pay for its drivers.

Uber drivers make about twice what a yellow cab driver does in NYC.

Randomness, path dependency, popularity and complex dynamic systems

This article, Is the Tipping Point Toast? by Clive Thompson, is a dated review of a good book by Duncan Watts. Some very good passages.

On the Gatekeeper/Influencer model.
But Watts, for one, didn't think the gatekeeper model was true. It certainly didn't match what he'd found studying networks. So he decided to test it in the real world by remounting the Milgram experiment on a massive scale. In 2001, Watts used a Web site to recruit about 61,000 people, then asked them to ferry messages to 18 targets worldwide. Sure enough, he found that Milgram was right: The average length of the chain was roughly six links. But when he examined these pathways, he found that "hubs"—highly connected people—weren't crucial. Sure, they existed. But only 5% of the email messages passed through one of these superconnectors. The rest of the messages moved through society in much more democratic paths, zipping from one weakly connected individual to another, until they arrived at the target.

Why did Milgram get it wrong? Watts thinks it's simply because his sample was so small—only a few dozen letters reached their mark. The dominance of the three friends could have been a statistical accident. "And since Milgram's finding sort of made sense, nobody even bothered to redo the experiment," Watts shrugs. But when you perform the experiment with hundreds of successfully completed letters, a different picture emerges: Influentials don't govern person-to-person communication. We all do.

The more Watts examined the theory of Influentials, the less sense it made to him. The problem, he explains over lunch in a Midtown restaurant, is that it's incredibly vague. None of its proponents ever clearly explain how an Influential actually influences.

"It sort of sounds cool," Watts says, tucking into his salad. "But it's wonderfully persuasive only for as long as you don't think about it."
Further testing on the ideas behind the influencer model.
That may be oversimplifying it a bit, but last year, Watts decided to put the whole idea to the test by building another Sims-like computer simulation. He programmed a group of 10,000 people, all governed by a few simple interpersonal rules. Each was able to communicate with anyone nearby. With every contact, each had a small probability of "infecting" another. And each person also paid attention to what was happening around him: If lots of other people were adopting a trend, he would be more likely to join, and vice versa. The "people" in the virtual society had varying amounts of sociability—some were more connected than others. Watts designated the top 10% most-connected as Influentials; they could affect four times as many people as the average Joe. In essence, it was a virtual society run—in a very crude fashion—according to the rules laid out by thinkers like Gladwell and Keller.

Watts set the test in motion by randomly picking one person as a trendsetter, then sat back to see if the trend would spread. He did so thousands of times in a row.

The results were deeply counterintuitive. The experiment did produce several hundred societywide infections. But in the large majority of cases, the cascade began with an average Joe (although in cases where an Influential touched off the trend, it spread much further). To stack the deck in favor of Influentials, Watts changed the simulation, making them 10 times more connected. Now they could infect 40 times more people than the average citizen (and again, when they kicked off a cascade, it was substantially larger). But the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion.
Influencing versus receptivity.
Why didn't the Influentials wield more power? With 40 times the reach of a normal person, why couldn't they kick-start a trend every time? Watts believes this is because a trend's success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend—not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded. And in fact, when Watts tweaked his model to increase everyone's odds of being infected, the number of trends skyrocketed.

"If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one—and if it isn't, then almost no one can," Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it's less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public's mood. Sure, there'll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts's terminology, an "accidental Influential."
Critical thinking.
No researcher, he points out—including Keller—ever analyzes interactions between specific Influentials and the friends they're supposedly influencing; no one observes influence in action. In essence, Keller appeals to common sense—our intuitive sense of how the world works. Watts thinks common sense is misleading.

Mind you, Watts does agree that some people are more instrumental than others. He simply doesn't think it's possible to will a trend into existence by recruiting highly social people. The network effects in society, he argues, are too complex—too weird and unpredictable—to work that way. If it were just a matter of tipping the crucial first adopters, why can't most companies do it reliably?

As Watts points out, viral thinkers analyze trends after they've broken out. "They start with an existing trend, like Hush Puppies, and they go backward until they've identified the people who did it first, and then they go, 'Okay, these are the Influentials!'" But who's to say those aren't just Watts's accidental Influentials, random smokers who walked, unwittingly, into a dry forest? East Village hipsters were wearing lots of cool things in the fall of 1994. But, as Watts wondered, why did only Hush Puppies take off? Why didn't their other clothing choices reach a tipping point too?
Randomness and path dependency.
Actually, if you believe Watts, the world isn't just complex—it's practically anarchic. In 2006, he performed another experiment that chilled the blood of trendologists. Trends, it suggested, aren't merely hard to predict and engineer—they occur essentially at random.

Watts wanted to find out whether the success of a hot trend was reproducible. For example, we know that Madonna became a breakout star in 1983. But if you rewound the world back to 1982, would Madonna break out again? To find out, Watts built a world populated with real live music fans picking real music, then hit rewind, over and over again. Working with two colleagues, Watts designed an online music-downloading service. They filled it with 48 songs by new, unknown, and unsigned bands. Then they recruited roughly 14,000 people to log in. Some were asked to rank the songs based on their own personal preference, without regard to what other people thought. They were picking songs purely on each song's merit. But the other participants were put into eight groups that had "social influence": Each could see how other members of the group were ranking the songs.

Watts predicted that word of mouth would take over. And sure enough, that's what happened. In the merit group, the songs were ranked mostly equitably, with a small handful of songs drifting slightly lower or higher in popularity. But in the social worlds, as participants reacted to one another's opinions, huge waves took shape. A small, elite bunch of songs became enormously popular, rising above the pack, while another cluster fell into relative obscurity.

But here's the thing: In each of the eight social worlds, the top songs—and the bottom ones—were completely different. For example, the song "Lockdown," by 52metro, was the No. 1 song in one world, yet finished 40 out of 48 in another. Nor did there seem to be any compelling correlation between merit and success. In fact, Watts explains, only about half of a song's success seemed to be due to merit. "In general, the 'best' songs never do very badly, and the 'worst' songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible," he says. Why? Because the first band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly to get many more. Yet who received those crucial first votes seemed to be mostly a matter of luck.

Word of mouth and social contagion made big hits bigger. But they also made success more unpredictable. (And it's worth noting, no one in the social worlds had any more influence than anyone else.) So yes, Watts figures, if you rewound the world to 1982, Madonna would likely remain a total unknown—and someone else would have slipped into her steel-tipped corset. "You cannot predict in advance whether a band gets this huge cascade of popularity, because the social network is liable to throw up almost any result," he marvels.
My take-aways from this research:
Cascades occur randomly
There is a threshold of viability but beyond that, there is little predictability
Network effects dominate
Network effects magnify small variances
These lessons would explain some notable patterns in the book business. Publishing is awash with examples of books that were passed over multiple times and then became enormous bestsellers (Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.). I suspect that what shows up in the bestseller lists today are substantially driven by the processes identified by Duncan Watts.

However, and this is interesting, there clearly is a separate process in play regarding long term viability of books. In other words, if you pick any random year in the past, say 1955, the books that were bestsellers in that year are rarely still in print. But likewise, if you look at the books still in print that were first published in 1955, they were rarely bestsellers at that time. There is a similar dynamic with regards to literary awards. The books that receive the most critical acclaim and awards in one particular year are rarely the ones that survive over the longer term. The two exceptions of which I am aware are the Newbery Medal and the Caldecott in children's literature, both of which are virtual guarantors of long term resilience.

The distributed, uncoordinated but networked process which leads to a long term emergent order is, to me, the most interesting dynamic here and the most mysterious. My best guess is that it has something to do with intra-cohort network effects.

In other words, commercial success at a given point in time can be achieved through a cascade effect within a single cohort such as five year old boys (Thomas the Tank Engine) or forty year old women (Twilight) or everyone in a calendrical period (Jonathan Livingston Seagull), etc. The books that will last are those that cross into at least a few other cohorts within a given year as well as establishing themselves within multiple (evolving) cohorts over time. Sixty seconds over Tokyo might have appealed to an entire nation newly at war in 1942 but has established itself firmly with the cohorts of historians in general, military historians in particular, and young boys.

Intense appeal within a networked cohort explains short term commercial success but long term viability depends upon appeal to multiple longstanding cohorts.

Rhetorical exaggeration versus reputation for truthfulness

I have often read of the trash island in the center of the northern Pacific. The details vary but the claim is that the currents scour the ocean and drive trash, mostly plastic, into a central area the size of Texas. The mechanism (currents and floating trash) are plausible but I have often wondered how this actually manifests itself. If you are in a sailing vessel, would you actually be sailing through a compounded mass of trash or is it more spread out. I have long known that advocacy journalism requires gripping images and dramatic stories and so you have to be careful about what is being reported. It is almost always easier to rouse interest in preserving something that is big, warm and furry than it is to rouse interest in protecting the more abstract, and yet more important, ecosystem.

Giant Plastic Island: Fact or Fiction? by Tom Hartsfield answers my question about the trash island. You wouldn't know that you were sailing through a trash island unless you were paying exceptional attention. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do more to control runoff and pollution. All it means is that we have to be more careful about the stories we tell, no matter how good out intentions.
So, here are the facts. Much of the ocean contains little to no plastic at all. In the smaller ocean gyres, there is roughly one bottle cap of plastic per 50 Olympic swimming pools' worth of water. In the worst spot on earth, there is about two plastic caps' worth of plastic per swimming pool of ocean. The majority of the plastic is ground into tiny grains or small thin films, interspersed with occasional fishing debris such as monofilament line or netting. Nothing remotely like a large island exists.

Reality trumps expectations

Did Bibi's speech hurt his chances? by Michael Crowley. A classic example of Betteridge's Law of Headlines ("Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.")

Given the outcome of the election (Netanyahu actually won an increased position in the Knesset and strengthened his coalition), it is also a classic example of epistemological closure, confirmation bias, and the fact that all knowledge is contingent. In fact the latter adage might be modified - all knowledge is contingent on revealed reality.

Crowley based his entire analysis on his a priori conviction that Netanyahu had made a mistake in giving the speech to Congress as well as his confidence in the polls showing Netanyahu losing badly. Reality, as is so often its way, did not match expectations. You would think, given how iconic this picture is, that journalists of all people would be more cautious. Apparently, though, advocacy and conviction trump caution.

Wealth not causative of life outcomes

From Wealth, Health, and Child Development: Evidence from Administrative Data on Swedish Lottery Players by David Cesarini, Erik Lindqvist, Robert Östling and Björn Wallace. Just a single research paper but at least some rigor to their findings. From the abstract:
We use administrative data on Swedish lottery players to estimate the causal impact of wealth on players' own health and their children's health and developmental outcomes. Our estimation sample is large, virtually free of attrition, and allows us to control for the factors ‒ such as the number of lottery tickets ‒ conditional on which the prizes were randomly assigned. In adults, we find no evidence that wealth impacts mortality or health care utilization, with the possible exception of a small reduction in the consumption of mental health drugs.

Our estimates allow us to rule out effects on 10-year mortality one sixth as large the cross-sectional gradient. In our intergenerational analyses, we find that wealth increases children's health care utilization in the years following the lottery and may also reduce obesity risk. The effects on most other child outcomes, which include drug consumption, scholastic performance, and skills, can usually be bounded to a tight interval around zero. Overall, our findings suggest that correlations observed in affluent, developed countries between (i) wealth and health or (ii) parental income and children's outcomes do not reflect a causal effect of wealth.
Too controversial a finding to be accepted at face value but a good foundation for further research.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The better to prove the virtue of the accusers

I haven't been following the fortunes of Time Magazine for a long while but it does seem that I see them referred to more often in a substantive way in the past few months. I don't know that that reflects anything other than random variation, but it would be nice if they were on a rebound. The more thoughtful platforms there are for serious thinkers, the better.

I came across The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas by Joseph Bottum, a long form essay that is quite meaty and worth a read. He ties some of the Gramscian memes and obsessions into the country's religious history, leading to this observation.
Our social and political life is awash in unconsciously held Christian ideas broken from the theology that gave them meaning, and it’s hungry for the identification of sinners—the better to prove the virtue of the accusers and, perhaps especially, to demonstrate the sociopolitical power of the accusers.
Sounds about right. The empty charges of racism, misogyny, misandry, intolerance, bigotry, *** denier, *** apologist, etc. are not statements intended to advance an argument. They are simple ad hominem efforts to shut down the conversation and displace the other participant from acceptable society. They often come across as the shrieking condemnation of the religious zealot whose vituperation is a corollary to his inner religious uncertainty.

ADDED: Oops. Not time at all but The Weekly Standard.

Old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read

Apophthegms by Francis Bacon
Alonso of Aragon was wont to say, in commendation of Age, that Age appeared to be best in four things; Old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.

Structural Oppression

Wit - the repurposing of abstract obscurantism.

American Exceptionalism

International comparisons are very difficult to make owing to differences in data collection, definitions, etc. There is a segment of American intelligentsia who ardently wish to claim that there is no such thing as American Exceptionalism. Much of that discussion centers around definitions and data interpretation. Having live in many different countries, I am a proponent of the argument that there is something distinctively different about the American Experience even though we often struggle to define what might be the nature of that exceptionalism.

Lot's of niceties to get lost in. Every now and then, though, you come across some table or graph where that exceptionalism leaps out at you. As in the case below where the Pew Research Center charts per capita GDP against degree of importance of religion. Hard not to acknowledge exceptionalism in those cases.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The flash of a distant camera reconnecting thoughts and actions

I attended a British boarding school in East Anglia years ago. It closed sometime in the 1980s but the alumni have slowly begun to reconnect with one another on Facebook in a group under the name of the school. It is kind of magical finding people with whom you shared so many experiences so long ago under circumstances that were so unique.

Sitting here today working on a project, I had Neil Young playing quietly in the background and on came this song from his album Silver and Gold. It nicely captures the blend of nostalgia, pathos, intense memory, and community.

Distant Camera
by Neil Young

The flash of a distant camera
thoughts and actions,
Fragments of our missing dreams,
Pieces from here and there
fall in place along the line,
Disappearing between you and me.

Life is changing everywhere I go,
New things and old both disappear.
If life is a photograph,
Fading in the mirror....

All I want is a song of love,
Song of love to sing for you.
All I need is this song of love,
To sing for you.

On the floor where daylight dances
With the ones
that missed their chances,
When they couldn't let it show,
Lies the land of sweet surrender,
Like a dream
it might have ended there,
but we didn't even know.

Now forever we will live as one,
Floating in love's atmosphere.
If love is a piece of dust,
Shining in the sun...

All I want is a song of love,
Song of love to sing for you.
All I need is this song of love,
To sing for you.

Song of love...
Song of love...

By the prudence and energy of the people

From Southey's Colloquies (January, 1830) in Critical and Historical Essays, Volume II by Thomas Babington Macaulay. I went looking for the third paragraph of this passage. I have seen that passage quoted a number of times as an illustration of prescient forecasting based on an understanding of fundamental dynamics and systemic laws and often offered in contrast to the wretched forecasting track record of more narrowly focused technical specialists such as Paul Ehrlich and his almost uniformly wrong forecasts which, none-the-less, have been enormously popular among the totalitarian clerisy no matter how humiliatingly exposed.

Over the years I have become increasingly skeptical of pat examples and short quotes out of context and whenever feasible, check the source to see if 1) the out of context quote is consistent with the quote in context and 2) if the whole passage supports the argument to which the extracted quote is being used.

In this case, yes. In fact, I think, the original is even more impressive. Macaulay is describing nearly two hundred years ago, almost exactly the same issues we are dealing with today - the concern of the totalitarian technocratic centralizers of power ("We know best") that things will come off the rails if left to the messy free market. Even in 1830, as Macaulay describes, there was a century of history indicating that progress was always best left to the messy marketplace of free people with free speech making free choices.
History is full of the signs of this natural progress of society. We see in almost every part of the annals of mankind how the industry of individuals, struggling up against wars, taxes, famines, conflagrations, mischievous prohibitions, and more mischievous protections, creates faster than governments can squander, and repairs whatever invaders can destroy. We see the wealth of nations increasing, and all the arts of life approaching nearer and nearer to perfection, in spite of the grossest corruption and the wildest profusion on the part of rulers.

The present moment is one of great distress. But how small will that distress appear when we think over the history of the last forty years; a war, compared with which all other wars sink into insignificance; taxation, such as the most heavily taxed people of former times could not have conceived; a debt larger than all the public debts that ever existed in the world added together; the food of the people studiously rendered dear; the currency imprudently debased, and imprudently restored. Yet is the country poorer than in 1790? We firmly believe that, in spite of all the misgovernment of her rulers, she has been almost constantly becoming richer and richer. Now and then there has been a stoppage, now and then a short retrogression; but as to the general tendency there can be no doubt. A single breaker may recede; but the tide is evidently coming in.

If we were to prophesy that in the year 1930 a population of fifty millions, better fed, clad, and lodged than the English of our time, will cover these islands, that Sussex and Huntingdonshire will be wealthier than the wealthiest parts of the West Riding of Yorkshire now are, that cultivation, rich as that of a flower-garden, will be carried up to the very tops of Ben Nevis and Helvellyn, that machines constructed on principles yet undiscovered will be in every house, that there will be no highways but railroads, no travelling but by steam, that our debt, vast as it seems to us, will appear to our great-grandchildren a trifling encumbrance, which might easily be paid off in a year or two, many people would think us insane. We prophesy nothing; but this we say: If any person had told the Parliament which met in perplexity and terror after the crash in 1720 that in 1830 the wealth of England would surpass all their wildest dreams, that the annual revenue would equal the principal of that debt which they considered as an intolerable burden, that for one man of ten thousand pounds then living there would be five men of fifty thousand pounds, that London would be twice as large and twice as populous, and that nevertheless the rate of mortality would have diminished to one-half of what it then was, that the post-office would bring more into the exchequer than the excise and customs had brought in together under Charles the Second, that stage coaches would run from London to York in twenty-four hours, that men would be in the habit of sailing without wind, and would be beginning to ride without horses, our ancestors would have given as much credit to the prediction as they gave to Gulliver's Travels. Yet the prediction would have been true; and they would have perceived that it was not altogether absurd, if they had considered that the country was then raising every year a sum which would have purchased the fee-simple of the revenue of the Plantagenets, ten times what supported the Government of Elizabeth, three times what, in the time of Cromwell, had been thought intolerably oppressive. To almost all men the state of things under which they have been used to live seems to be the necessary state of things. We have heard it said that five per cent. is the natural interest of money, that twelve is the natural number of a jury, that forty shillings is the natural qualification of a county voter. Hence it is that, though in every age everybody knows that up to his own time progressive improvement has been taking place, nobody seems to reckon on any improvement during the next generation. We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us, and with just as much apparent reason.

"A million a year will beggar us," said the patriots of 1640. "Two millions a year will grind the country to powder," was the cry in 1660. "Six millions a year, and a debt of fifty millions!" exclaimed Swift, "the high allies have been the ruin of us." "A hundred and forty millions of debt!" said Junius; "well may we say that we owe Lord Chatham more than we shall ever pay, if we owe him such a load as this." "Two hundred and forty millions of debt!" cried all the statesmen of 1783 in chorus; "what abilities, or what economy on the part of a minister, can save a country so burdened?" We know that if, since 1783, no fresh debt had been incurred, the increased resources of the country would have enabled us to defray that debt at which Pitt, Fox, and Burke stood aghast, nay, to defray it over and over again, and that with much lighter taxation than what we have actually borne. On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?

It is not by the intermeddling of Mr. Southey's idol, the omniscient and omnipotent State, but by the prudence and energy of the people, that England has hitherto been carried forward in civilisation; and it is to the same prudence and the same energy that we now look with comfort and good hope. Our rulers will best promote the improvement of the nation by strictly confining themselves to their own legitimate duties, by leaving capital to find its most lucrative course, commodities their fair price, industry and intelligence their natural reward, idleness and folly their natural punishment, by maintaining peace, by defending property, by diminishing the price of law, and by observing strict economy in every department of the State. Let the Government do this: the People will assuredly do the rest.

Climate Scientists are the B team on a gravy train.

Heh. There's a cretinously shallow argument over at the New Republic, You Can't "Believe" in Climate Change It's not a religion. It's a scientific fact. by Rebecca Leber. Click bait and as usual, people can't resist responding factually and sincerely to what is at best an ineffective rhetorical argument. The first few dozen comments are reasonably useful responses to the article, poking factual holes in the rhetorical tissue. The comments then, as they often do, diverge away from the topic at hand into sub discussions about the word Grok and its proper use and its connection to Yang of Star Trek, and Eastern religions.

Then George LeRoy Tyrebyter introduces a substantive argument with an ad hominem comment.
Climate Scientists are the B team on a gravy train. Historically meteorologists who weren't very good at predicting the weather, they now divine what the weather is going to be over the next century without being held to account to the wild divergence from reality of their dire predictions of the past.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Solving the problem we think we know rather than the problem we actually have

One of the issues associated with arguing about complex, dynamic, self-regulating systems is that every outcome has multi-causal, inter-related roots. Contributors to poverty include such factors as physical ability (health), mental ability (IQ), mental health, education attainment, class, religion, geographic location, temporal location, language, economic cycle, government policies, government structure, cultural norms, personal values, personal behaviors, familial structure, technological innovation, etc. Seizing on any one of these causes can yield a productive discussion and argument both about the size effect of the cause, the causal mechanisms (for example, does education attainment correlate with positive life outcomes because you actually know more than others, or is it that higher education trains you in more alacritous thinking, or is it that higher education requires desirable attributes such as curiosity and perseverance, or is it that education attainment works as a signaling mechanism, or something else?), the quality of evidence, etc.

But the discussion about any one factor, such as education, quickly becomes a standalone conversation separated from all the other factors, (health, class, etc.) which are also known to be contributive to outcomes. When that happens, almost instantly, the conversation no longer remains particularly salient to the primary focus on poverty. You might come up with some robust, defensible conclusions to encourage greater education attainment but without tying that back to the other factors, you haven’t really accomplished anything. Whatever you do in terms of increasing education attainment is going to have some beneficial, neutral or detrimental impact on all those other root causes. But what? Hence the frequency of unintended consequences arising from any major policy decision.

All this was brought to mind by the opening paragraph of a post by DarwinCatholic, Is Capitalism Destroying the Family? A worthwhile question.
Apparently one of the ideas going around on the left is that if conservatives really cared about marriage, children getting to live in an intact family with both parents and other related issues, they would turn around and support progressive economics: unions, higher minimum wage, etc. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig had a piece in The New Republic earlier this week titled "Poor People Don't Need Better Social Norms. They Need Better Social Policies." Today Jeff Spross takes to the virtual pages of The Week with a similar piece entitled "The conservative obsession with moral values doesn't explain the plight of the working poor".
I think DC is accurate about how the argument would go.
Conservative: In order to reduce poverty we need to shore up families so that we do not have so many children growing up in straightened circumstances and without parental and moral structure. More jobs and economic growth will do wonders for family formation and sustainability which will in turn do wonders for both the economy and the community.

Liberal: Correct, and in order to bolster families we need to increase unionization and the minimum wage.
The Liberal counter is perfectly reasonable, absent context. We can argue ad infinitum about the relative quality of the evidence and the differences between short term consequences and long term consequences of unionization and minimum wage laws but there is at least a plausible case to be made, even if it is wrong, that family formation and family sustainability will increase with greater unionization and higher minimum wages.

However that argument is resolved, it ignores all the rest of the context of a complex, dynamic, self-correcting system. There is a correlation between unionization and lower poverty and lower inequality but there is also a correlation between unionization and slower growth. Do we want that trade-off? Higher unionization is also associated with less technological change, and lower economic competitiveness, and inflation, and lower education attainment, and, and, and. Unionization, minimum wage, marriage rates, education attainment, etc. are all interwoven with one another and while it makes it simpler to argue about only two relationships at a time (say, unionization and poverty), that discussion is in many ways a red herring. All the pertinent and material relationships have to be discussed simultaneously to begin to understand the net impact of any given change. And that is hard.

Imagine being in that discussion and having to have a working knowledge of economics, education policy, health programs, anthropology, sociology, history, geography, religion, psychology, technology, demographics, etc. It is no wonder that people choose to focus on a small subsection that they want to discuss in isolation. And of course, advocates are especially prone to tunnel vision.

DarwinCatholic explores a lot of the specific issue about family and unionization in detail with a good deployment of data but my take-away is somewhat different.

Discussions about complex, dynamic, self-correcting systems are always difficult. They are made more difficult because we fail to acknowledge the complexity of what we are talking about, usually focusing on only one, two or three attributes and only occasionally discussion how they might affect one another. But what makes such discussion almost impossible is the advocacy element. Advocates are almost always aligned with a single, simple solution rather than being open to resolving the argument in whatever fashion the data supports. That means that whatever their particular issue might be serves as an anchor to the argument and effectively as a filter to ensure that all the other attributes are ignored. We force arguments to be simpler than they usefully can be.

Does that mean that we can’t debate complex, dynamic, self-correcting systems? Absolutely not. It means that we have to be conscientious and not foreclose discussions about all the other attributes involved, taxing and difficult as that might be.

Friday, March 13, 2015

I can blow my nose and come up with better numbers

Crude but humorous.

In the comments section to a sociology "study" purporting to show some finding conducive to the SJW narrative. The study was small, self-selected participants, ambiguously worded, not peer reviewed, not replicated etc. Basically worthless cognitive pollution. But the results were trumpeted loudly.

Lucy Walcott was having none of it.
Data? I can blow my nose and come up with better numbers than a non-representable and highly biased non-peer reviewed study.

Risk is always there

Makes me think of the Erasmus quotation,
Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.

Bidden or unbidden, God is present.

Squandered credibility

A worthwhile effort to get at a prevalent issue in modern discourse, Critique Drift by Fredrik DeBoer.

DeBoer is slapping a new term, Critique Drift onto a melange of erroneous thinking (Straw Man Fallacy, Red Herring Argument, Reductio ad Absurdum, Category Error, Failure to Elucidate, Too Broad Definition Fallacy, etc.). He defines Critique Drift as
the phenomenon in which a particular critical political lens that correctly identifies a problem gets generalized and used less and less specifically over time. This in turn blunts the force of the critique and ultimately fuels a backlash against it. Critique drift is a way that good political arguments go bad.
Also known as scope creep in a different context.

DeBoer offers several examples but avoids some of the most obvious such as accusations of Racism or Privilege or Bias. All real issues in particular circumstances under defined conditions. Yet the barrage of "racist" or "check your privilege" or "assault" are deployed with the itchiest of trigger fingers and far beyond meaningfulness.

Or, in DeBoer's terms
All of those are real. But the actual communicative, rhetorical, and analytical value of each has been severely undermined, in my view, by the way in which they are now applied to more and more situations, or to instances where the standards for meeting these simply haven’t been met. Political critique draws power from specificity, but the presumed social force of using certain terms inevitably leads to their watering down. It’s a real problem.


I have occasionally been surprised to meet people who think that I don’t believe, for example, that mansplaining or tone policing are real, or even worse that I don’t think privilege is real. Of course I think those things are real. They’re real and pernicious and have to be accounted for. But I find myself arguing against their particular use in so many instances because they’re often employed in a sloppy, unhelpful, or dishonest way. Worse, ever pointing out that they’ve been employed in a sloppy, unhelpful, or dishonest way is treated as absolutely anathema by a very vocal and influential part of the online left. That’s bad in and of itself and it fuels backlash. It also hampers our ability to meaningfully spread the critique. I’ve been asked point blank on many occasions how one can know when a disagreement coming from a man becomes mansplaining. On an intellectual, theoretical level, I absolutely believe there’s an important difference. In the realm of actual practice? At this point, I’m not sure there is any such definition, because the term is so often used as a meaningless intensifier or petty insult. Likewise, I absolutely believe that tone policing is a real and troubling phenomenon, and that there’s a space between doing that and doing the kind of inevitable and necessary criticism of tactics and language that any political movement needs. But in the actual scrum of online political argument, “tone policing” now seems to mean nothing but “criticism of my argument that I don’t like.” That’s critique drift.


But critique drift demonstrates why a healthy, functioning political movement can’t forbid tactical criticism of those with whom you largely agree. Because critical vocabulary and political arguments are common intellectual property which gain or lose power based on their communal use, never criticizing those who misuse them ultimately disarms the left. Refusing to say “this is a real thing, but you are not being fair or helpful in making that accusation right now” alienates potential allies, contributes to the burgeoning backlash against social justice politics, and prevents us from making the most accurate, cogent critique possible.

I find myself, more and more often, in the useless position of defending particular critiques in the general while having to admit that a particular instance of it is cheap or unfair or just wrong. I also find myself constantly having to tell people that I do in fact believe in a given critique, because denying that a particular application of that critique is correct does not in any way mean that I deny its salience in general. Both of these things amount to wasted time and energy.
Here is DeBoer's powerful conclusion.
It’s time to recognize that the injunction against criticizing those who self-identify as activists for social justice is a dead-end for our movement. While the work of counseling others to be more specific, fair, and self-critical in their engagement is uncomfortable, fraught work, it is also profoundly necessary, and I see no possible alternative if the left is to wage a campaign against injustice that can actually win.
I agree. I think that the Left too often chooses to battle chimerical foes with false arguments, in an attempt to solve vestigial problems. For all that, there remain real and intransient problems that do need to be solved. Solutions can only be developed through vigorously reasoned and reasonable dispute. The Left, having squandered their credibility, leave the field to the forces of intransience who then remain unassailed.

Scratching our heads about the shenanigans and incompetence of our putative guardians

The past few months have served up a rich assortment of examples that call to mind the question at the heart of all civic issues and raised by Juvenal in his Satires (Satire VI, lines 347–8).
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes

Translated as: Who will guard the guards themselves? or as Who will watch the watchmen?
We have the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, making up rules for herself different from those she is enforcing on everyone else in her department, rules that work to her political and perhaps financial advantage. We have the President of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, using a made up article in Rolling Stone magazine to punish those on campus who have attracted her displeasure. Now we have the President of the University of Oklahoma, David Boren, expelling obnoxious students of whose speech he disapproves while retaining those that actually pose a physical threat to the community because they provide financial gain for his institution, Oklahoma U. Expels Racist Students, But Not Violent Football Players by Robby Soave. We have the IRS going after political opponents of the party in power with the Lerner scandal (among others). We have the Department of Justice selectively enforcing laws in general and mounting witch hunts in local criminal cases (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, et al) to further political ends outside the law.

More ironically but perhaps as revealingly, you have this. Possibly Drunk Secret Service Agents Drove Through an Active Bomb Investigation by Margaret Hartmann.
The two allegedly drunk agents who crashed into a White House barricade last week weren't driving through some hours-old crime scene tape. The Washington Post reports that there was an active bomb threat at the scene, and the agents nearly ran over the suspicious package.
You can't help but recall the pertinent scene from The Other Guys.

Every system has noise and generates friction. There just seems a lot more noise and friction now than there needs to be. Some noise and friction serves as a signal for system adjustment. Other times, as it appears now, it is simply noise and friction. Much ado about nothing. And we, as citizen are left to scratch our heads at the shenanigans and incompetence of our putative guardians.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A mortal hatred against that truth

From Pensees by Blaise Pascal.
Man would fain be great and sees that he is little; would fain be happy and sees that he is miserable; would fain be perfect and sees that he is full of imperfections; would fain be the object of the love and esteem of men, and sees that his faults merit only their aversion and contempt. The embarrassment wherein he finds himself produces in him the most unjust and criminal passions imaginable, for he conceives a mortal hatred against that truth which blames him and convinces him of his faults.

The golden apples of the sun

The Song of Wandering Aengus
by William Butler Yeats

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.


Sung by Donovan

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Books have always a secret influence on the understanding

From Adventurer by Samuel Johnson
Books have always a secret influence on the understanding: we cannot at pleasure obliterate ideas; he that reads books of science, though without any fixed desire of improvement, will grow more knowing; he that entertains himself with moral or religious treatises will imperceptibly advance in goodness; the ideas which are often offered to the mind will at last find a lucky moment when it is disposed to receive them.
A long held sentiment awaiting confirmation.

Psychological wastelands

An interesting fact. From Youth suicide rate in rural areas is nearly double the rate in cities by Emily Caldwell.
Of the 1,669 federally designated shortage areas for mental health services in the United States, 85 percent are in rural regions. And more than half of the counties in this country – all rural – do not have a single psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker serving the region.
Can that second sentence really be true? 50% have no psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists? I suppose so, but it is very striking to me.

Evidence and argument

A very interesting report of research on the link between guns and crime. The findings themselves are interesting but I find the approach even more interesting. As in many fields and around many controversies ( the link between taxes and growth, between regulation and innovation, between freedom and security, etc.) there is much argument supported by many reports of widely divergent quality. Everyone always has some reason for believing what they do and they will enthusiastically reach for the thinnest of straws. Given motivated reasoning, publication bias, and confirmation bias, there is a lot of cognitive pollution out there and sorting the wheat from the chaff, the sinners from the virtuous, the enlightening versus the deceptive is in itself an arduous task.

'Strongest' Research Shows No Link Between Gun Ownership Rates and Higher Crime by Ross Pomeroy covers such an effort by Gary Kleck on the vexed issue as to what might be the relationship between gun ownership and crime. Does a well armed society make a more civil society or does easy access to guns make society more dangerous? Valid questions with a lot of potential nuance and uncomfortable trade-offs.

I liked this articulation of the challenge.
"All research is flawed, and all bodies of research are incomplete," Kleck noted, "but that does not mean we cannot distinguish the less flawed work from the more flawed, and draw tentative conclusions based on the best available research conducted so far."
You might quibble with any number of aspects of his approach but it is a structured, pre-defined approach that has the virtue of being objective.
Kleck included 41 studies that examined the association between measured gun levels and crime rate in his analysis, then used three specific criteria to gauge the strength of the studies.

First, he looked for a validated measure of gun ownership. In-depth surveys and percent of suicides with guns were two of the few acceptable measures. Second, he checked to see if confounding variables were properly controlled for and how many were included. Third, he checked to see whether the researchers used procedures that would rule out reverse causality, i.e. whether crime rates actually caused gun ownership to increase. (Past studies have shown that when crime rises in an area, gun ownership often increases, likely for purposes of self-defense.)
Kleck's findings.
In all, the 41 studies produced 90 findings on gun ownership and various crime rates. Of these, 64% found no statistically significant positive affect between gun ownership and crime. However, 52% did identify a link between gun ownership and homicide.

When Kleck applied his three methodological criteria (valid measure of gun ownership, causality procedures, controlled for >5 confounding variables) to the studies, he found that the more criteria they met, the more likely they were to show no link between gun ownership and crime. The reversal was particularly noticeable for homicide. While 65% of the studies that met none of the criteria found a link between gun ownership and homicide, the three studies that met all of the criteria did not.

"The overall pattern is very clear – the more methodologically adequate research is, the less likely it is to support the more guns-more crime hypothesis," Kleck remarked.
This looks like very good work and probably moves the dial a bit on the evidentiary side of the argument. There is good reason to believe that it won't resolve the argument.

Arguments fall into a handful of types some of which can be resolved with clearer definitions and better evidence. Many arguments, however, cannot be resolved because they are not really causal or factual arguments which can be resolved through better quality facts and more robust empirical observation. Many arguments are normative in nature or are trade-off arguments.

Guns, gun control, and the link between guns and violence usually fall into the normative and trade-off categories of arguments. It helps to have good data and robust evidence but it doesn't address the real argument.

On the normative side, the contrasting arguments are roughly 1) guns are an instrument of violence and you cannot effectively fight violence with violence; it is simply wrong to allow society to be awash with guns. In contrast, the other side of the normative argument is something along the lines of 2) Gun ownership is an enumerated right in the Constitution and more broadly, everyone has the right to self-defense, that this is an inalienable right.

On the trade-off side, the contrasting arguments are more nuanced. There are those that make the argument (from a trade-off perspective) that even though "when seconds count, the police are only minutes away" might be true, that the individual losses that occur from defencelessness are less than the aggregate losses because of the greater prevalence of guns. The trade-off argument is that individuals have to give up the capacity to defend themselves because of a greater societal good. In contrast, there are those who are making a different trade-off argument. They are not focused on the tactical issue of crime control and dangers. They are focused on a more strategic issue, the capacity of the individual citizen to protect themselve from the government gone wrong. Their argument is not only that a well armed society is a more civil society (as in politeness between individuals) but also that a well armed citizenry makes for a, literally, more civil society. After all the checks and balances of federalism and separation of powers (legislative, executive, and judicial), the final backstop for protection of the individual and minority from the mob and the majority is that they might be well armed. It is a very American argument but with some good evidence to support it but ultimately it rests on a trade-off between current tactical goals (safety of the citizen from local dangers) and future strategic goals (safety of the citizen from systemic dangers such as rogue government, government overreaching, mob mentalities, etc.).

Evidence about the relative consequence of individual gun ownership has virtually no impact on gun arguments that are normative in nature and only marginal impact on arguments that pivot on trade-offs.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Gramscian Left's Trinity: Identity, Ideology, and Grievance

Grievance School by Steven F. Hayward. An interesting report from the front lines of academia. Well worth a read.

The silliest campus incidents usually don’t originate from faculty in traditional or science-based fields. Instead, they come disproportionately from explicitly politicized “studies” disciplines, activist-oriented “centers,” or disciplines with less rigorous intellectual content, such as creative writing and communications. (The most recent example of this is the professor of communications at the University of Michigan who wrote the now-famous “It’s OK to Hate Republicans” article for In These Times.) Boulder has a women-and-gender-studies program that proudly advertised its rough equivalent of Ward Churchill, an “activist-in-residence” who is a community organizer without academic credentials of any kind. She is essentially a Naomi Klein clone, fixated on the evils of “neoliberalism.” Not even the sociology department, which leans far to the left, would make such an openly politicized non-academic appointment.


In most departments of political science, history, English, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and sociology, you will find several professors whose main focus is the holy trinity of race, class, and gender, along with their close correlates, post-colonialist, postmodern, and post-structural analysis. (If “holy trinity” seems like an infelicitous metaphor, you could go with the Four Horsemen of the Leftist Apocalypse instead: patriarchy, colonialism, privilege, and Israel.) At Boulder, the telltale markers show up for about one-third of the history, English, sociology, anthropology, and geography faculty members (geography seems to have been an early target of opportunity for politicized scholarship just about everywhere) but are much less common in political science and philosophy. About the only Boulder departments in social sciences or humanities where you don’t find the holy trinity are economics and classics. I am tempted to propose the theorem that the presence of politically correct radicalism exists in inverse proportion to the emphasis on regression modeling or the serious study of ancient languages. (Though perhaps not for long; the campus Left, taking note of its lack of infiltration in economics, sent protesters and hecklers to the latest annual meeting of the American Economics Association, demanding that the discipline include perspectives on gender and class.)

This encroachment of PC doctrine proceeds because it encounters no serious opposition. For one thing, the typical academic liberal, even in the hard sciences, sympathizes with the basic historical grievances of the Left about racism and sexism. But even those faculty members who think the race, class, and gender workhorses are badly worn out have better things to do than make feeble gestures of resistance and tend to regard the beachheads in their own departments with benign neglect. I suspect that most professors of the race-class-gender catechism can sense that many of their colleagues don’t take them very seriously, which only serves to further fuel their righteous indignation, self-imposed sense of oppression, and mob mentality.


Gradually coming into focus is the plain fact that today we have two universities — the traditional university, which, while mostly left-liberal, still resides on Planet Earth, and the grievance university, mired in the morass of postmodern obsession with oppression and privilege. You can still get a decent education, even from very liberal professors — I had several excellent ones as both an undergraduate and a graduate student — if they teach the subject matter reasonably, and I came to respect several far-left professors at Boulder who plainly held to traditional views about the importance of reason, objectivity, and truth. But these traditional hallmarks of the university — one might call them the original holy trinity of higher education — are fighting words to the postmodern Left, which openly rejects reason, objectivity, and truth as tools of oppression.


The irony of today’s campus Left is the real privilege of identity politics, whose practitioners shout down anyone who dares question their premises. The current temper of the campus Left is way beyond social utopianism; it demands ritual conformism worthy of the Soviet purge trials or Maoist struggle sessions. When the campus Left cries out “Privilege!” it means “Shut up and conform.”


Between the stifling political correctness of the radical narrative, the increasingly esoteric hyperspecialization that renders boring much of the social sciences and humanities, and the out-of-control cost of higher education, it is doubtful that the university in its current form will survive. The number of students majoring in the social sciences (excluding economics) and the humanities has fallen by two-thirds over the last generation. At this rate, eventually many of our leading research universities will bifurcate into a marginal fever swamp of radicalism, whose majors will be unfit for employment at Starbucks, and a larger campus dedicated to science and technology.


Which brings me back to the starting point — Boulder’s deliberate attempt to broaden its ideological spectrum. While the idea of a “visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy” can be criticized on a number of grounds, the administration deserves credit for persevering with it. There aren’t many other major research universities openly attempting to broaden their intellectual diversity. A century ago, the Cambridge classicist F. M. Cornford wrote that the first rule of faculty governance is “Nothing should ever be done for the first time” (an early version of the environmental “precautionary principle”!), and the University of California’s Clark Kerr observed that “few institutions are so conservative as the universities about their own affairs while their members are so liberal about the affairs of others.” So Boulder’s administration deserves great credit for embracing this initiative with genuine enthusiasm, and for being unfailingly supportive of me throughout my year in residence.
I especially like the two trinities. On the left there are the three set pieces of Identity (Race, Class, Gender),Ideology (Post-Colonialism, Postmodernism, and Post-structuralism), and Grievance (Patriarchy, Privilege, and Appropriation). On the right you have a different trinity: Reason, Empiricism, and Truth. Or at least that is what might be aspired to; everyone likes reason, empiricism, and truth except when it contradicts one's cherished beliefs, a probability to which both ends of the spectrum are subject to.

Hayward is gloomy about the prospects of universities in their current form to self-correct from the corrosive swamps of Identity, Ideology and Grievance. I do not discount the perils that he articulates. However, on a long enough time scale, reality always triumphs and I think Reason, Empiricism and Truth will reemerge as the dominant engines of progress.

Hayward thinks that universities will bifurcate with a snarling Gramscian grievances rump ignored by the mainstream of traditional liberal arts and sciences. Possibly that is what will occur. I am a little more optimistic and think that the competition among universities for students and resources, the competition between universities and emerging alternates (MOOCS, etc.), a rebellion by consumers demanding better value, and the discipline of having to work within tight budgets will together, in fits and starts, see the decline and fall of these dead end endeavors (i.e. Identity, Ideology, and Grievance).