Monday, November 30, 2015

Internet usage by time of day, across the world

Very cool.

It has a deep relevance for us, whose world has been rotted by skepticism

Philosophy is a category, for me, where the gap is the largest between the number of books that I buy versus the number of books that I actually read. I do go through spurts every now and then, most recently William James, but by-and-large, most my philosophy books get dipped into rather than read.

Sometime in the past year I picked up a copy of An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy by Roger Scruton. I recently added it to the bedside stack and now it has migrated to the carry-around stack. I've even read some of it. Scruton is new to me though I have seen him alluded to for years in essays and reviews. Quite good. I liked his summary in the opening chapter. Sounds relevant to the gulf between what is being espoused on campuses by a radical minority but which is parroted in the media, versus the common-sensical view of everyday people.
Life as we know it is not much like the life from which our philosophical tradition arose. Plato and Socrates were citizens of a small and intimate city state, with publicly accepted standards of virtue and taste, in which the educated class derived its outlook from a single collection of incomparable poetry, but in which all forms of knowledge were rare and precious. The intellectual realm had not been divided into sovereign territories, and thought was an adventure which ranged freely in all directions, pausing in wonder before those chasms of the mind which we now know as philosophy. Unlike the great Athenians, we live in a crowded world of strangers, from which standards of taste have all but disappeared, in which the educated class retains no common culture, and in which knowledge has been parceled out into specialisms, each asserting its monopoly interest against the waves of migrant ideas. Nothing in this world is fixed: intellectual life is one vast commotion, in which a myriad voices strive to be heard above the din. But as the quantity of communication increases, so does its quality decline; and the most important sign of this is that it is no longer acceptable to say so. To criticize popular taste is to invite the charge of elitism, and to defend distinctions of value – between the virtuous and the vicious, the beautiful and the ugly, the sacred and the profane, the true and the false – is to offend against the only value-judgement that is widely accepted, the judgement that judgements are wrong. In such circumstances the task of philosophy must change. Philosophy, for Plato, undermined the certainties of a common culture, and led, through doubts and wonder, to a realm of truth. Now there are no certainties, and no common culture worth the name. Doubt is the refrain of popular communication, skepticism extends in all directions, and philosophy has been deprived of its traditional starting point in the faith of a stable community. A philosophy that begins in doubt assails what no-one believes, and invites us to nothing believable. However important its achievement, in describing the nature and limits of rational thinking, such a philosophy now runs the risk of being disengaged from the life surrounding it, and of forswearing the ancient promise of philosophy, which is to help us, however indirectly, to live wisely and well.

In his justly celebrated book, The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell described philosophy in the terms implied in his title; as a series of problems. ‘Philosophy is to be studied,’ he wrote, ‘not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves.’ But what, we might ask, is the point of such as study? Why should we, who have so few answers, devote our energies to questions which have none? For Russell, the purpose is to become a ‘free intellect, an intellect that will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge – knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain’. It is easy to be tempted by this vision of a purely abstract study, which is at the same time an exercise of the highest freedom, and a liberation from custom, prejudice and the here and now. But the mask of rhetoric is thin, and Russell’s anxiety shines through it. He knows that we must live in the here and now, and that the difficulty of doing so arises precisely because the ‘customary beliefs and traditional prejudices’ have lost their credibility. We are hoping, fearing creatures, and without our hopes and fears we should be loveless and unlovable. To see calmly and dispassionately is right – but only sometimes, and only in respect of some subjects. Besides, Russell published those words in 1912, when skepticism was the luxury of a ruling class, and not the daily diet of humanity.

In emphasizing abstract questions, Russell is true to the history of philosophy. The virtue of such questions is in freeing us from self-interested illusions; they set us at a distance from the world of emotion, and enable us to see it for a moment as though we ourselves were not involved. But philosophers, like other human beings, have a tendency to represent their own way of life as the best way – perhaps as the sole way to redemption. Freeing themselves from one set of illusions, they fall prey to others, every bit as self-interested, and with the added advantage of ennobling the person who promotes them. They extol the ‘dispassionate’ and ‘contemplative’ life, since it is the life that they have chosen. They tell us, like Plato, that this life leads to a vision of a higher world, or like Spinoza, that it shows our world in another light, ‘under the aspect of eternity’. They reproach us from our sensuous ways, and gently remind us, in the words of Socrates, that the ‘unexamined life is not a life for a human being’. It is tempting to agree with Nietzsche, that the philosopher is not interested in truth, but only in my truth, and that the thing which masquerades as truth for him, is no more than the residue of his own emotions.

The judgement is not fair; none of Nietzsche’s are. But it has a point. Philosophy in our tradition has assumed the existence of a plain, common-sense approach to things, which is the property of ordinary people, and which it is the business of philosophy to question. The result might be to subvert the normal view, as in Nietzsche himself; or it might be to question the question, as in Wittgenstein, and return us to our shared ‘form of life’ as the only thing we have. Nevertheless, without the background assumption, there is no normality to subvert or reaffirm, and philosophy finds it hard to begin. The peculiarity of our condition is that the assumption can no longer be made. Faced with the ruin of folkways, traditions, conventions, customs and dogmas, we can only feel a helpless tenderness for these things which have proved, like everything human, so much easier to destroy than to create. But what has philosophy to say in the face of this momentous change – the change, as some have described it, from modern skepticism, to the postmodern condition, in which all beliefs are simultaneously both doubted and affirmed, though in inverted commas?

The Czech philosopher T.G. Masaryk (1850-1937) ascribed many of the ills of the modern world to ‘half-education’. It was the prominence in public life of the semi-educated, he suggested, that stirred up the hopes and destroyed the certainties of mankind. All faith was cast in doubt, all morality relativized, and all simple contentment destroyed, by the sarcastic criticism of those who could see just so far as to question the foundations of social order, but not so far as to uphold them.

Masaryk’s complaint, like Russell’s declaration of faith in abstract thought, belongs to another world – a world that was shortly to disappear in the turmoil of the Great War, from which Masaryk emerged as President of the newly formed state of Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, it has a deep relevance for us, whose world has been rotted by skepticism, and who wish to know how to proceed, when no one offers guidance save those who are mocked for doing so. If half-education undermines our certainties, is there a whole education that restores them? Or does nothing remain at the end of all our thinking, save a handful of dust?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Claude Rains was The Invisible Man

In that classic of western culture, Rocky Horror Picture Show, the opening stanza to the song Science Fiction Double Feature is:
Michael Rennie was ill
The Day the Earth Stood Still
But he told us where we stand
And Flash Gordon was there
In silver underwear
Claude Rains was The Invisible Man
Then something went wrong
For Fay Wray and King Kong
They got caught in a celluloid jam
Then at a deadly pace
It Came From Outer Space
And this is how the message ran...
I knew Claude Rains as Captain Renault in Casablanca (another favorite). But what was his life story? I looked him up in Wikipedia today. A couple of nuggets.
Rains served in the First World War in the London Scottish Regiment, alongside fellow actors Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman and Herbert Marshall. At one time, he was involved in a gas attack that left him nearly blind in one eye for the rest of his life. By the end of the war, he had risen from the rank of Private to that of Captain.


He married six times, and was divorced from the first five of his wives.
Definition of an optimist, not letting experience triumph over hope.

A nutritional experiment with the American public as subjects

An excellent example of the dilemma of utopian totalitarians who want to tell everyone else what to do. From The Food Cops and Their Ever-Changing Menu of Taboos by David A. McCarron.

The dilemma is that you should not use the coercive power of government unless there is a clear benefit that is endorsed by the majority of the electorate. There are two problems with this approach. It is hard to attain a stable convincing majority around any issue and it is hard to be certain about future benefits.

Undertaking actions and policies where either or both these conditions are unfilled can lead to dramatically bad outcomes. But if you wait till the evidence is clear and the majority support the policy, there is no longer any real need for the government to take action. Hence the dilemma - wait for compelling evidence and majority support but risk being irrelevant by the time that happens, or take action early (without support or evidence) and risk dramatic failure. As long as the negative consequences fall on someone else, utopian totalitarians always prefer to undertake faith-based initiatives early rather than wait for compelling evidence and majority support.

From McCarron's article.
With the release of the eighth edition of the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines expected by year’s end, it seems reasonable to consider—with the “obesity plague” upon us and Americans arguably less healthy than ever before—whether the guidelines are to be trusted and even whether they have done more harm than good.

Many Americans have lost trust in the science behind the guidelines since they seem to change dramatically every five years. In February, for example, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee declared that certain fats and eggs are no longer the enemy and that cholesterol is “not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” This, after decades of advising Americans to “watch their cholesterol.”

Such controversy is nothing new. U.S. Dietary Guidelines were first released by the Agriculture Department and the Department of Health and Human Services in 1980. One nutrition expert at the time, Edward “Pete” Ahrens, a groundbreaking researcher on fat and cholesterol metabolism, called the guidelines “a nutritional experiment with the American public as subjects . . . treating them like a homogeneous group of Sprague-Dawley rats.”

The original goals were to: 1) increase Americans’ carbohydrate consumption to 55%-60% of caloric intake; 2) reduce fat consumption to less than 30% from 40% of caloric intake; 3) reduce saturated fat to 10% of calories and increase poly- and monounsaturated fats each to 10% of calories; 4) reduce cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams a day; 5) reduce sugar intake by 40%; and 6) reduce salt consumption by 50%-80%.

These six goals, viewed in the context of what we know today, could hardly be more misdirected. That assessment starts with the guideline’s emphasis on increasing carbohydrates and reducing fat consumption, a strategy that research has documented is more likely to add excess weight than to improve health. Most recently, a study published in April in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that “lowering the fat content of dairy or other foods may simply lead to increased carbohydrates consumption and explain . . . associations with weight gain.”
McCarron goes on to shed light on all the other early well intended assumptions that have proven to be mistaken.
When asked in the hearing if the Dietary Guidelines had failed, Ms. Burwell suggested that Americans’ waistlines might well have been greater without them—an opinion not a fact. Mr. Vilsack’s reply to the same question was closer to the truth: “This is really about well-informed opinion,” he said. “I wish there were scientific facts. But the reality is stuff changes, right? Stuff changes.”
McCarron concludes
A reasonable argument can be made that the only perspective of the original guidelines that proved correct was that they represented, as Ahrens stated, “a nutritional experiment” on the American public. By any reasonable standard of science, that experiment has failed.

For utopian totalitarians there are two consequences. 1) The American public has worth nutritional health from following the guidelines. They likely do not care about this outcome except to the extent that it justifies further government policies to address the self-created "obesity epidemic." 2) The public lose faith in both the trustworthiness and the effectiveness of the government.

This latter is easily demonstrated in the polls and in the actions of Americans but it is a system wide corrosive outcome that should be as alarming to conservatives as to liberals. The schadenfreude of seeing Progressive arrogance laid low is likely near irresistible to the run-of-the-mill conservative. However, while they might disagree on the appropriate breadth and depth of government role in the life of a free people, both conservatives and progressive share (to some degree) a respect for the rule of law. Perhaps conservatives more than progressives but there is some common bond in that area.

To the extent that people see the government as untrustworthy, ineffective and corrupt, then the rule of law is undermined.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Mutual and apparently insuperable incomprehension between well-meaning and intelligent people

From How Could You Like That Book? by Tim Parks. Discussing both why we like books that we like and why others like the books they like and the intersections in between.
Where to go with this uncertainty? Perhaps rather than questioning other readers’ credulity, or worrying about my own presumption, what might really be worth addressing here is the whole issue of incomprehension: mutual and apparently insuperable incomprehension between well-meaning and intelligent people, all brought up in the same cultural tradition, more or less. It’s curious, for example, that the pious rhetoric gusting around literature always promotes the writing and reading habit as a powerful communication tool, an instrument for breaking down barriers, promoting understanding—and yet it is exactly over my reaction to books that I tend to discover how completely out of synch with others I am.


Could this be the function, then, or at least one important function of fiction: to make us aware of our differences? To have our contrasting positions emerge in response to these highly complex cultural artifacts?


In this view our reaction to literature becomes a repeated act of self-discovery. Our contrasting reactions to the books we read tell us who we are. We are our position in relation to each other as understood in the reaction to these books. Reading other peoples’ takes on Primo Levi, or Murakami, or David Eggers, and comparing them to my own, I get some sense of who we all are and what we’re up to. Sometimes this turns out to be far more interesting than reading the book itself.

If this is the case, then, the important thing would be, first, really to understand one’s own reaction, to observe it with great care; and, second, to articulate it honestly, without any fudging for fear that others might disagree. Though even a fudge is a declaration of identity. And nothing could be more common among the community of book reviewers than fudging.

Plausible does not mean probable

From A Trick For Higher SAT scores? Unfortunately no. by Terry Burnham.

A great example of the debunking of cognitive pollution.

Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a simple trick to score better on college entrance exams like the SAT and other tests?

There is a reputable claim that such a trick exists. Unfortunately, the trick does not appear to be real.

This is the story of an academic paper where I am a co-author with possible lessons for life both inside and outside the Academy.

In the spring of 2012, I was reading Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Professor Kahneman discussed an intriguing finding that people score higher on a test if the questions are hard to read. The particular test used in the study is the CRT or cognitive reflection task invented by Shane Frederick of Yale. The CRT itself is interesting, but what Professor Kahneman wrote was amazing to me,
“90% of the students who saw the CRT in normal font made at least one mistake in the test, but the proportion dropped to 35% when the font was barely legible. You read this correctly: performance was better with the bad font.”
I thought this was so cool. The idea is simple, powerful, and easy to grasp. An oyster makes a pearl by reacting to the irritation of a grain of sand. Body builders become huge by lifting more weight. Can we kick our brains into a higher gear, by making the problem harder?


Roughly 3 years later, Andrew Meyer, Shane Frederick, and 8 other authors (including me) have published a paper that argues the hard-to-read presentation does not lead to higher performance.

The original paper reached its conclusions based on the test scores of 40 people. In our paper, we analyze a total of over 7,000 people by looking at the original study and 16 additional studies. Our summary
Easy-to-read average score: 1.43/3 (17 studies, 3,657 people)
Hard-to-read average score: 1.42/3 (17 studies, 3,710 people)
The data suggest that Malcolm Gladwell’s statement is false. Here is the key figure from our paper with my annotations in red:

Burnham's three take-aways are:
1. Beware simple stories.
2. Ideas have considerable “Meme-mentum”
3. We can measure the rate of learning.
I would emphasize the first one (Plausible does not mean probable) and add a fourth - Acknowledge but never rely on studies with few participants.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Not the children of the rich or of the powerful only, but of all alike

From 1970 to 1975, I attended the Anglo-American School in Stockholm Sweden. The student body consisted primarily of the children of expatriate businessmen and diplomats. I think we usually had some 40-60 countries represented at the school in any given year.

At the main entrance, where we sheltered on winter days before the doors opened, there was a large, optimistic sign expressing the ethos of the school. A quotation from Czech philosopher John Amos Comenius (1592-1670). The sign read:
We are all citizens of one world, we are all of one blood. To hate a man because he was born in another country, because he speaks a different language, or because he takes a different view on this subject or that, is a great folly. Desist, I implore you, for we are all equally human.... Let us have but one end in view, the welfare of humanity; and let us put aside all selfishness in considerations of language, nationality, or religion.
In looking this up, I came across other quotations from Comedius, similarly inspiring.
Not the children of the rich or of the powerful only, but of all alike, boys and girls, both noble and ignoble, rich and poor, in all cities and towns, villages and hamlets, should be sent to school.

Education is indeed necessary for all, and this is evident if we consider the different degrees of ability. No one doubts that those who are stupid need instruction, that they may shake off their natural dullness. But in reality those who are clever need it far more, since an active mind, if not occupied with useful things, will busy itself with what is useless, curious, and pernicious.


Who is there that does not always desire to see, hear, or handle something new? To whom is it not a pleasure to go to some new place daily, to converse with someone, to narrate something, or have some fresh experience? In a word, the eyes, the ears, the sense of touch, the mind itself, are, in their search for food, ever carried beyond themselves; for to an active nature nothing is so intolerable as sloth.

The proper education of the young does not consist in stuffing their heads with a mass of words, sentences, and ideas dragged together out of various authors, but in opening up their understanding to the outer world, so that a living stream may flow from their own minds, just as leaves, flowers, and fruit spring from the bud on a tree.


There is in the world no rock or tower of such a height that it cannot be scaled by any man (provided he lack not feet) if ladders are placed in the proper position or steps are cut in the rock, made in the right place, and furnished with railings against the danger of falling over.

If we examine ourselves, we see that our faculties grow in such a manner that what goes before paves the way for what comes after.

Much can be learned in play that will afterwards be of use when the circumstances demand it.

A tree must also transpire, and needs to be copiously refreshed by wind, rain, and frost; otherwise it easily falls into bad condition, and becomes barren. In the same way the human body needs movement, excitement, and exercise, and in daily life these must be supplied, either artificially or naturally.


If, in each hour, a man could learn a single fragment of some branch of knowledge, a single rule of some mechanical art, a single pleasing story or proverb (the acquisition of which would require no effort), what a vast stock of learning he might lay by. Seneca is therefore right when he says: "Life is long, if we know how to use it." It is consequently of importance that we understand the art of making the very best use of our lives.

Aristotle compared the mind of man to a blank tablet on which nothing was written, but on which all things could be engraved. There is, however, this difference, that on the tablet the writing is limited by space, while in the case of the mind, you may continually go on writing and engraving without finding any boundary, because, as has already been shown, the mind is without limit.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

These are temper tantrums, not arguments

Oh, this is painful. Was Neil Cavuto’s painful interview with a college student activist fair game? by Callum Borchers.
By now, there’s a reasonable chance you’ve seen Fox Business anchor Neil Cavuto’s interview with Million Student March organizer Keely Mullen. It was all over the Internet in recent days -- and particularly the right-leaning portion of said Internet, which delighted in a liberal college student struggling to explain how giving everyone free college would be paid for.

The exchange was, in a word, uncomfortable.

Cavuto began by giving Mullen the floor to lay out the demands of her group, which orchestrated student walkouts at 110 college campuses last Thursday. They were: free tuition at public universities, the cancellation of all student debt and a $15-per-hour minimum wage for all campus workers. Cavuto then asked Mullen how to pay for all this.

“Um, great question,” Mullen replied.

It was almost instantly apparent that Mullen was in over her head. She seemed flustered and unprepared. She seemed like, well, a kid.
You read the phrase, "deer in the headlights", but you can see it at the 40 second mark. Borchers is exploring the question about culpability. Was it unfair or mean of the interviewer, Neil Cavuto, to proceed with the interview? As a journalist, did he have a responsibility to shield the interviewee, Keely Mullen, from her own incapacity to support her argument?

She volunteered for the interview. As both Borchers and the commenters point out, Cavuto was not being either aggressive or manipulative. He was simply asking for her to support her argument. In doing so, it was immediately clear that she had absolutely no clue about how to make her argument. The students knew what they wanted but they could not articulate why it was important, how much it would cost, who should pay, or why they should pay.

I think Cauto was right to proceed with the interview. These are adults making claims. It is important to realize that 1) they are a small minority of the student body, certainly no more than 5%, and probably more like 1%. 2) They may be adults but they have no idea what they are talking about. These are temper tantrums, not arguments. They should be treated as such.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The trap of assuming what is generally believed is also generally true

Just a couple of examples of low level cognitive pollution floating around out there. The first is Heard Bad Things About Yik Yak? Try Using It by Virginia Postrel. My sidelines impression of the social media tool was much as Postrel describes. I don't use Yik Yak and don't have any desire to use Yik Yak so the entirety of my impression of it is from the judgments of others.
Yik Yak is a social-media app that in just two years has become an everyday part of the American college experience. If you’ve heard of it, chances are you think it’s awful. It has a terrible reputation as a dangerous source of vitriol, threats and ethnic slurs — a reputation only strengthened by recent events.

After protests by black students led to the resignation of the president of the University of Missouri, menacing posts appeared on Yik Yak, which lets people make anonymous, ephemeral notes visible to others within a narrow geographical radius. One of them said, “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see.”

On Wednesday, police officers in Columbia, Missouri, arrested a man the state university described as “the suspect who posted threats to campus on Yik Yak and other social media.” Later, a student at Northwest Missouri State University was arrested on charges of threatening black students on Yik Yak. (Although Yik Yak posts are anonymous, the company logs users and will share that information with law-enforcement under certain conditions, including imminent threats.)

The stories are typical of those shaping Yik Yak’s media image. Critics, after all, portray it as a clearinghouse of digital hostility. Last month, a coalition of feminist groups asked the Department of Education to force universities to do more to police Yik Yak. They decried it as a tool for “cyber-harassment, intimidation, and threats.” Why would college students embrace such a terrible tool?

I had read about Yik Yak, always negatively, but had never actually experienced it until I was at Princeton last spring, reporting a column on student angst. Students there cited Yik Yak as a way to gauge campus culture, so I signed up and took a look.


The Yik Yak I saw came closer to the company’s public-relations aspirations (“home to the casual, relatable, heartfelt, and silly things that connect people with their community”) than to the hate-drenched graffiti its critics had led me to expect. Though largely banal, my samples at Princeton, and later at UCLA and Santa Monica College, revealed Yik Yak posts to be mostly good-natured, often stupid, but rarely evil. At SMC, students typically complain about the parking shortage; at UCLA, they gripe about food; at Princeton they desperately crave sleep. Everywhere they talk about sex.


So, yes, Yik Yak does attract nasty posts, including the threats in Missouri. But on a routine basis, the app grownups love to demonize is much friendlier than the Twitter and Facebook feeds I read daily. For reasons built into its structure, Yik Yak offers fewer rewards for mean, grouchy, tribal, and polarizing posts and more for those that are supportive, funny, inquisitive, and community-building. Far from encouraging a free-for-all, the terms of service prohibit threats and abuse, as well as “racially or ethnically offensive language.” More immediately, Yik Yak lets users vote comments up or down, giving them longer or shorter lives.

By wielding their voting power, Yik Yak users develop unwritten rules that tend to keep things friendly and fun, observes Briallyn Smith, a graduate student in rehabilitation science at Western University in London, Ontario, who writes frequently on the intersection of technology and college life. “I’ve been amazed by how quickly Yaks that don’t fit the community’s standards will be removed from view — not by any external moderation, but by the user base,” she writes, noting that “generally you’ll only see negative messages for the first minute after they are posted, after which they are completely down-voted into oblivion.”

This dynamic isn’t an accident. It’s essential to the business. Unlike a website such as Reddit or an Internet-based service such as Twitter, Yik Yak doesn’t draw from the whole world. It can’t survive by attracting a tiny fringe from a huge universe or by aggregating lots of separate tribes. It has to draw most of the potential audience within each local radius, typically a college campus. And everyone sees everything -- no talking only to those who agree. It’s like a small town, but one that people can abandon simply by not logging on. Leaving Yik Yak, unlike other social media, is painless; it won’t hurt you professionally or cut you off from family photos.

If a local Yik Yak provides a place people want to hang out, it will flourish. If it alienates too many users, it will just blow away. The service has spread so fast not because students love to dole out abuse but because they yearn to connect.
A good cautionary tale about untested impressions.

Similarly in The Myth of the Bernie Bro by Matt Bruenig about a meme of which I was completely unaware, namely that Bernie Sanders enthusiasts are mostly men.
In theory, writing an election take about demographic divides in candidate support is pretty straightforward:
1) Identify a demographic divide.

2) Provide a plausible theory for the demographic divide.
Because step one is usually pretty easy, most of the punditry action is at step two. But, as Amanda Marcotte’s take earlier this week shows, every so often, punditry is so bad that it doesn’t even manage to get step one right.
The dig clearly stung, as Bernie Sanders immediately went out on Sunday talk shows to deny Clinton’s insinuation that gender played a role in his remarks about “shouting” during the debate.

From the female-heavy crowds that turned out to support Clinton in Iowa, it seems the strategy is working. And not just on older women, either. Girls, from little kids to college aged women, were out in force for Hillary Clinton in Des Moines over the weekend. Moms with daughters, both little girls and teens, were a dominant force in the crowd. Glitter, unicorns, and Disney princess memorabilia was on full display at the Clinton rally. . . .

While both Clinton and Sanders had plenty of young people of all genders turning out, the young people of the Sanders crowd were just as male-dominated as the Clinton crowd was female-dominated. . . .

This contrast continued inside Hy-Vee Hall, where the dinner was held: More young men for Sanders and more young women for Clinton.
Putting aside the question of how much control eight-year-old girls have over what rally they attend, there is an obvious problem with this gender demography point. And that problem is that it’s not reflected in the polling cross-tabs. Although Marcotte insists that she “couldn’t find good polls on gender amongst supporters, much less age,” data for both are readily available on the Internet.

From a YouGov/Economist poll from a couple of weeks ago:

There simply isn’t a gender demographic divide. There is nothing here to theorize about. The take is dead at step one.
Bruenig then goes on to point out that there is in fact a notable and material demographic difference between the supporters of Clinton versus those of Sanders. Sanders supporters are markedly younger than Clinton's

But Bruenig's point, as is Postrel's, are both supportive of the first question in the Decision Clarity Consulting methodology, "Is it real?" It is too easy to fall into the trap of assuming what is generally believed is also generally true. Often, it is not.

UPDATE: Here's another example, Did the media ignore the Beirut bombings? Or did readers? by Max Fisher.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Societal complexity and the fundamental attribution error

I see people exhibiting the fundamental attribution error all the time. From Wikipedia:
In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error, also known as the correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics (personality) to explain someone else's behavior in a given situation rather than considering the situation's external factors.
Basically, when someone else does something we don't like, we attribute it to defects in their personality rather than seek an explanation in the circumstances. Someone is speeding on the road and cuts you off. We automatically condemn them with "Jerk" or "Jackass". They are a bad person. We don't look to circumstances that might cause them to be driving in that fashion, say driving someone to the hospital, for example.

I personally see this in a lot in discussions, in articles, in pontificating pundits. I have been wondering whether this is just my noticing this for the first time or whether it is a real trend. The question is somewhat unanswerable as the conceptual phrase was only coined in the late 60s or early 70s. Looking at NGram Viewer, the trend suggests that people are indeed commenting on it more, i.e. there is a dramatic upward trend in mentions in books. Google Trends similarly indicates an upward trend.

Accepting as a hypothetical that there is an increasing number of people committing the fundamental attribution error. Why? Why do they do this? Why do we do this? The easy answer is that people are becoming more intolerant of others. Without elaborating, I am skeptical of that.

I wonder if it is simply that we are leading more complex lives, interacting with more people, and more people who do not share our own worldviews (manners, assumptions, goals, behaviors) and therefore it is cognitively more difficult to extrapolate to people's circumstances from their actions. Creating twenty scenarios that give the deviant behavior a justifiable context is cognitively more taxing than the knee-jerk assumption, "Jerk."

The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else.

Heh. From Megan McArdle in How to Win Friends and Influence Refugee Policy. Deals with what is too common today - virtue signalling substituting for actual robust arguments.
It took me years of writing on the Internet to learn what is nearly an iron law of commentary: The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else. The messages that make you feel great about yourself (and of course, your like-minded friends) are the ones that suggest you’re a moral giant striding boldly across the landscape, wielding your inescapable ethical logic. The messages that work are the ones that try to understand what the other side is thinking, on the assumption that they are no better or worse than you. So if you are actually trying to help the Syrian refugees, rather than marinate in your own sensation of overwhelming virtue, you should avoid these tactics.

Measuring happiness

I have long been intrigued by the notion of measuring and researching "happiness' both at the individual level as well as culturally and cross-culturally. While I have been interested, much of the work to-date has been amateurish. Or should I say, much of the work to date has not adequately addressed the issue of how to measure happiness. Much of this is covered in The World Isn't Ready for Gross National Happiness by Noah Smith.

A couple of good points.
The focus on happiness represents a philosophical shift for the economics field, but not necessarily an unwelcome one. Economists’ traditional measures of well-being are based on utility, or the degree to which people get what they want. If I want a burger and I get it, my utility goes up -- and, according to standard economics, I am therefore better off. It’s a fundamentally libertarian, individualistic idea, because it says that people ought to get what they want.

But suppose the burger doesn’t make me happy? Suppose I feel bad after I eat it, because I broke my diet? Even though I might choose to eat burgers over and over, if I’m unhappy each time I succumb to temptation, am I really better off? Economists who study happiness have begun to entertain the notion that perhaps what matters isn’t the degree to which people get what they want, but how much they like what they get. Good emotions may be more important than satiation of desires.

That’s not a crazy idea. There’s one huge problem with happiness research, however. There is really no good way to measure what people are actually feeling.
Echoes the folk wisdom of Love the One you're With by Crosby, Stills, Nash.
If you're down and confused
And you don't remember who you're talking to
Concentration slips away
Because your baby is so far away

Well there's a rose in a fisted glove
And the eagle flies with the dove
And if you can't be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you're with
You gotta love the one you're with
You gotta love the one you're with
You gotta love the one you're with
Back to Smith's piece.
If hedonic adaptation is driving most of people’s responses to surveys, then we should see little correlation between self-reported happiness and emotionally driven behavior. In fact, that is what recent Nobel-winning economist Angus Deaton and his co-author Anne Case found when they looked at the correlation between self-reported happiness and suicide:
Suicide is the ultimate act of desperate unhappiness...In a recent study...we find that some of the factors that correlate with happiness also correlate with low suicide rates, but that just as many do not...The lack of any clear relation between suicide and happiness [means that] perhaps we cautious [about] giving too much weight to self-reports of life satisfaction.
If self-reported happiness can’t even predict how likely people are to kill themselves, then there are big problems with the research methodology. Emotions are incredibly important, but they are also complex, subtle and poorly understood. Until we find a better way of measuring them, I don’t think economists or governments should rush to replace traditional measures of well-being with survey measures of happiness.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

These ultimately self-abnegating paradigms

From an article, Alternating Realities by Richard Wolin, reviewing Why the World Does Not Exist by Markus Gabriel. Recent trends in the field of philosophy.
As Gabriel tells it, the new realism emerged as an attempt to free philosophy from the dead end in which it had become entrapped by two earlier fashionable trends, postmodernism and social constructivism. They shared a thorough­going skepticism concerning the capacity of the human mind to penetrate the nature of objective reality, and held that all we can really know is our representations of reality. The upshot of these ultimately self-abnegating paradigms was that professional philosophy had de facto given up on reality.

Drinking while watching the news

Idle speculation.

The conversation turned to the drinking habits of our parents' generation (born in the 1930s, coming of age in the fifties and sixties). There were the shared memories of Dad getting home and pouring himself a bourbon and coke, or whiskey neat, or some other stiff drink before reading the paper. Based on the recollections, in some families, mom and dad both had a drink before dinner, sometimes while watching the news. Often there was a second or third drink later in the evening after dinner.

Then there were some recollections of Dad's stories about taking clients to lunch and the drinks there.

And to our generation that almost looks like hard drinking. Of course it isn't, and wasn't, but when your base of comparison is an occasional glass of wine, it certainly seems like alcohol played a greater part of the daily routine.

Someone made the connection between drinking and watching the news. They speculated that the sense of partisanship and polarization arising from watching the news is not a function of changed newscasts but of reduced alcohol consumption. Perhaps a couple of early evening stiff drinks before viewing the news would help put things into better perspective.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Categories of decision making

Sounds roughly right but I wonder what an empirical analysis would show.

Selling to the periphery as the golden path to success

Yesterday I posted The rate of engagement among a brand’s Facebook fans is seven in 10,000.

This section was to me the most provocative, but yet also consistent with my own thinking.
First, you will never increase your brand’s market share by targeting existing users — the task that digital media performs so efficiently. The effort and expense marketers put into targeting their own customers with emails and web banners is largely wasted; loyalty programmes, says Sharp, “do practically nothing to drive growth”. What seems like a prudent use of funds — focusing on people who have already proved they like the brand — is actually just spinning wheels.

Second, and paradoxically, a successful brand needs to find a way of reaching people who are not in its target market, in the sense of people who are predisposed to buy it. The brand’s advertising must somehow gain the attention of people who are not interested in it, have never bought it, or who bought it so long ago they can’t remember — so that when they are ready to buy, it automatically springs to mind. In the wastage is the value.
This is consistent with a lot of findings in network theory and affiliative sociology. It is becoming well established that when job searching or doing sales, your likeliest source of success is not with those with whom you have the deepest relationships, your nearest circle of friends.

The best leads come from the second and third circles out from your core friends. The reason has to do with statistical overlaps. When you think of friend circles as access nodes to information, it becomes a little clearer. Think of the perfect job opportunity.

If you start looking for that perfect job opportunity, how likely is it that your closest friends know about it but you don't? That's the heart of the issue. Your closest friends have a knowledge and experience set that tends to be highly correlated with your own. Yes, they might know something you don't but the odds are significantly lower than someone who is two or more circles out. A friend-of-a-friend likely has a dramatically lower overlap of knowledge than your immediate circle. And an acquaintance of a friend, yet even lower odds of overlap.

The further out on your friend network you go, the more likely it is that they are aware of things you are not. Hence the demonstrable value of networking.

I take all this and look at the book industry. People are always trying to break into the authorship gig but the hurdles are horrendous. Not in terms of being published. Those hurdles are lower than they have ever been and almost non-existent. No, the barriers to entry are not getting published, they are getting noticed. It's all about marketing.

"You will never increase your brand’s market share by targeting existing users" is especially relevant. 50% of the population read no book electively during a year. 10% of the population do 80% of the reading. 40% of the population do 20% of the reading, averaging about a book every two months or 6 books a year.

The 10% who do 80% of the reading are knowledgeable and discerning readers. They usually stick with their reading interests which often flow along genre lines. The reader of westerns is unlikely to take up a romance. A reader of romances unlikely to try out nonfiction science. A reader of mysteries is unlikely to switch to contemporary literary fiction. Etc. People read what they are interested in and have relatively fixed ideas of what that might be.

What Sharp's research suggests s that publishers should be focusing their marketing efforts, not on already enthusiastic readers but on occasional readers and the non-readers.
The most effective ads don’t sell, but they do make people buy. By keeping the brand alive in your mind, Coke ads change the probability of you buying it in the next year by a minuscule proportion, a nudge so small that you almost certainly won’t notice it, which is why people often say that advertising doesn’t affect them. But that tiny effect adds up to millions of cans.
Enthusiastic readers are a small body count in the market (10%) even though they buy most the books. But they are very set in their ways and very canny book buyers. It is the ninety percent of the market where publishers have the best chance of getting occasional readers (40% of the market at 6 books a year) and the intermittent readers (50% of the market and fewer than a book a year). If they change their reading habits by even a small amount, it has a huge impact.

I think this is what the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS people miss. It is not a supply side issue. There are near infinite books published each year (from the perspective of a single reader) and there are many, many publishers and there are exceptionally low barriers to entry. Publishers are not the problem.

It is readers who are the problem. They are not reading the books the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS people want them to read. So this isn't about publishers or racism. This is about getting readers to want to read the types of books that the WNDB people want them to read.

That's a big ask and involves quite a different set of activities than trying to shame publishers into publishing a few more books that people aren't likely to read. This is, in large part, why I think the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS campaign will end up failing. They have misdiagnosed the problem and do not have any solutions for the real issue.

It was impossible to avoid joining in (campus mindlessness)

We have a 5%, probably just a 1%, of campus students who are dissatisfied with a range of ill-articulated grievances. They are unable to provide evidence to support even the existence of the problem with which they identify, are unable to argue their case, and are unable to support the half-baked solutions which they recommend. It is frustrating to taxpayers to see such strong evidence of gross educational misconduct. It is frustrating because the claims originate out of a small ideological cult who are immune to argument. They are Eric Hoffer's True Believer made flesh.

Everyday for the past couple of weeks, and every week for the past couple of years, there are more and more instances reported. Mizzou, Yale, Columbia, Amherst, Dartmouth, UCLA, etc. The reality, though, is that there is no patriarchy, there is little or no institutional racism, there is no such thing as a microagression, people are generally not prejudicially bigoted. Except, regrettably, among the advocate hustlers themselves who are more than happy to trade in negative stereotypes and prejudicial bigotry.

This most recent week's collection of bigotry and hatred from the 1% social justice warrior class is appalling. It brings to mind George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. From Chapter One. I hadn't read it in years but it seems strangely prescient. I wonder what it would be like to read Nineteen Eighty-Four and True Believer back-to-back? It sounds depressing but I suspect it might be seering.

From the first few pages of Chapter One of Nineteen Eighty-Four we already have Oceania, the three-year plan, Hate Week, Big Brother. In the first few pages, Orwell has already introduced key cultural concepts that have recurring cultural relevance sixty-six years later. And of course there are the Party's three slogans:
The wilful assertion of opposites is still running strong:
And that foolishness is just from this week alone.

Here's the scene that this week's viral video's brought to mind. The daily Two Minute Hate.
The next moment a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. It was a noise that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The Hate had started.

As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. The little sandy-haired woman gave a squeak of mingled fear and disgust. Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters, perhaps even — so it was occasionally rumoured — in some hiding-place in Oceania itself.


Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room. The self-satisfied sheep-like face on the screen, and the terrifying power of the Eurasian army behind it, were too much to be borne: besides, the sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other. But what was strange was that although Goldstein was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers, in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were — in spite of all this, his influence never seemed to grow less. Always there were fresh dupes waiting to be seduced by him. A day never passed when spies and saboteurs acting under his directions were not unmasked by the Thought Police. He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State. The Brotherhood, its name was supposed to be. There were also whispered stories of a terrible book, a compendium of all the heresies, of which Goldstein was the author and which circulated clandestinely here and there. It was a book without a title. People referred to it, if at all, simply as THE BOOK. But one knew of such things only through vague rumours. Neither the Brotherhood nor THE BOOK was a subject that any ordinary Party member would mention if there was a way of avoiding it.

In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. Even O’Brien’s heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he were standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out ‘Swine! Swine! Swine!’ and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein’s nose and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp. Thus, at one moment Winston’s hatred was not turned against Goldstein at all, but, on the contrary, against Big Brother, the Party, and the Thought Police; and at such moments his heart went out to the lonely, derided heretic on the screen, sole guardian of truth and sanity in a world of lies. And yet the very next instant he was at one with the people about him, and all that was said of Goldstein seemed to him to be true. At those moments his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector, standing like a rock against the hordes of Asia, and Goldstein, in spite of his isolation, his helplessness, and the doubt that hung about his very existence, seemed like some sinister enchanter, capable by the mere power of his voice of wrecking the structure of civilization.
From the movie version of the book.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The rate of engagement among a brand’s Facebook fans is seven in 10,000

A very thought provoking review of a book, How Brands Grow by Professor Byron Sharp. The review is How the Mad Men lost the plot by Ian Leslie.
In 2010, Pepsi embarked on an audacious new marketing strategy. Foregoing its slot in the Super Bowl, America’s annual showcase for lavish TV ads, it diverted its TV budget into a social media campaign: the “Pepsi Refresh Project”. Consumers were invited to propose ideas that would have a positive impact on society, and Pepsi promised to fund the ones that gained the most votes, via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. “We wanted to explore how a brand could be integrated into the digital space,” Frank Cooper, then Pepsi’s “chief consumer engagement officer” explained.

The Refresh Project accomplished everything a social media campaign is supposed to accomplish: millions of Facebook likes and thousands of new Twitter followers. But it didn’t sell Pepsi. Pepsi Cola and Diet Pepsi both lost about 5 per cent of their market shares over the course of the year — a calamitous decline. The brand returned to TV. Bob Hoffman, a veteran American adman who blogs as the Ad Contrarian, has gained a large following for his savage critiques of digital hype. After Pepsi Refresh, he concluded, “only zealots and fools will continue to bow down to the gods of social media.”

The Pepsi debacle emboldened the ad industry’s other contrarians to point out that, despite the dazzling promises of digital, nearly all brands in mature categories still rely on conventional media. At the risk of being labelled Luddite, they suggested that although the internet has changed how the game is played, it has not changed its fundamental rules: mass marketing works; fame works; emotion works — and “legacy media”, especially TV, still do all of this better than the new
Sharp's incendiary observations are:
Sharp’s first law is that brands can’t get bigger on the back of loyal customers. Applying a statistical analysis to sales data, he demonstrates that the majority of any successful brand’s sales comes from “light buyers”: people who buy it relatively infrequently. Coca-Cola’s business is not built on a hardcore of Coke lovers who drink it daily, but on the millions of people who buy it once or twice a year. You, for instance, may not think of yourself as a Coke buyer, but if you’ve bought it once in the last 12 months, you’re actually a typical Coke consumer. This pattern recurs across brands, categories, countries and time. Whether it’s toothpaste or computers, French cars or Australian banks, brands depend on large numbers of people — that’s to say, the masses — who buy them only occasionally, leave long gaps between purchases and buy competing brands in between.

If you work for a brand owner, the implications are profound. First, you will never increase your brand’s market share by targeting existing users — the task that digital media performs so efficiently. The effort and expense marketers put into targeting their own customers with emails and web banners is largely wasted; loyalty programmes, says Sharp, “do practically nothing to drive growth”. What seems like a prudent use of funds — focusing on people who have already proved they like the brand — is actually just spinning wheels.

Second, and paradoxically, a successful brand needs to find a way of reaching people who are not in its target market, in the sense of people who are predisposed to buy it. The brand’s advertising must somehow gain the attention of people who are not interested in it, have never bought it, or who bought it so long ago they can’t remember — so that when they are ready to buy, it automatically springs to mind. In the wastage is the value.
Fascinating. That bears out some of my operating, but unproven, assumptions. I have steered well clear of investing in digital brand management owing to an absence of evident effectiveness. This despite frequent and numerous entreaties by marketing firms.
All of this makes “engagement” largely pointless. Light buyers aren’t fans of your brand. They don’t think of it as special or even unique. They aren’t much interested in whether your vodka is from Russia or Sweden, or how many times it has been distilled. No surprise, then, that they almost certainly don’t follow your brand on Twitter or visit its Facebook page, or that they can think of a thousand things they’d rather do than share a “digital experience”, let alone sign up to a “project”.

Even the people who do join brand pages on Facebook hardly ever click on them. The US company Forrester Research has found that the rate of engagement among a brand’s Facebook fans is seven in 10,000; for Twitter it is three in 10,000. People might watch ads on Facebook or YouTube, but that’s about all the interaction they want (Facebook itself recently conceded this point). A senior marketer at the drinks company Diageo, where Sharp’s book has been influential, put it to me bluntly. “After 10 or 15 years of f***ing around with digital we’ve realised that people don’t want to ‘engage’ with brands, because they don’t care about them.’
Interesting lessons learned.
Marketers consistently undervalue consistency. Diageo recently carried out an audit of all the endlines that it had attached to one of its biggest brands, Guinness, and were embarrassed to discover it had used more than 20 different slogans in 15 years. What’s more, when it asked people to recall an endline, the only one they remembered was “Good things come to those who wait”, which hadn’t run since 1999. Vast sums of money had been spent on campaigns which probably had short-term effects but barely left a trace in consumer memories.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

When evidence takes you places you don't necessarily want to go.

I commented on several reading related studies in a post Reading and Spoken Volumes.
Particularly intriguing that there is such a sharp association with completed college education. James Heckman found that there was no material earnings difference between high school dropouts and those who later earned a GED. His conclusion was that the earnings barrier was not the knowledge acquisition represented by the dropout versus the GED earner. Rather, the association ran between income and behavior; not between income and knowledge. If you had the self-control to complete high school on time, that behavior of self-control would later also serve you well in work.

There is a similar such break in this data. If your parents are high school graduates or attended college and did not complete it, then you are likely to have the same level of book reading (22 and 21 minutes respectively). The big jump, a jump of 50% from 21 minutes to 31 minutes of reading is between those home environments in which parents completed college versus anything less. I am guessing that the causative flow is one of values and behaviors. Parents that had the self-discipline to complete college also likely value reading and have the self-discipline to create an environment in which reading is encouraged and rewarded.

Also interesting is the disparity between reading volumes between the races. 28 minutes a day spent reading books by whites, 18 minutes by African-Americans, and 20 minutes by Hispanics. So whites are reading about 50% more than blacks. Now certainly that is a function of history, economics, and culture. This parallels, though somewhat less dramatically, the findings of Hart & Ridley where the cumulative volume of direct verbal communication before kindergarten was about 15 million words for the lowest income participants (primarily African American), 30 million words for middle class, and 40 million for wealthy families.

Combining these two studies together suggests that perhaps a significant causation of variance in communication capability and scores is probably solely related to practice. If whites are reading 50% more books and hearing 100-200% more words, you have to expect that they would have higher reading and verbal scores (and the attendant correlations that go with communication fluency) simply as a matter of exposure and practice. The factual and experiential content that go with that volume can't be ignored either.
There is a new study out that ties in to this phenomena, The Parenting Gap Is Widening by Anna Sutherland.

The first observation is that all parents are raising their game in terms of how they invest time with children.
The popular stereotype here is of middle-class moms enrolling their toddlers in foreign language classes in hopes of sending them to Harvard someday. College-educated parents do spend more time on educational activities than less educated ones, but Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds have come to allocate more time to such activities over the past few decades. In fact, in 2008–2013, mothers with no more than a high school diploma devoted more time, on average, to developmental child care than mothers with bachelor’s degrees did in the early 1990s (57 minutes a day versus 44).
Of course, one of the problems is that there are fewer traditional families, the source of these measures.

Even though everyone is investing more time in their children, the gap between classes is growing as well.
Yet the “parenting gap” between social classes isn’t apt to close anytime soon, a new Journal of Marriage and Family article implies. Evrim Altintas of Oxford’s Centre for Time Use Research looked at data from the American Heritage Time Use Study spanning five decades, and discovered that despite positive trends in all groups, the disparity in educational child care between parents from different educational backgrounds has grown over that period.

The gap between mothers with only high school degrees and those with bachelor’s degrees, which was negligible in the 1970s, reached more than 30 minutes in the early 2000s, then narrowed somewhat to 21 minutes in the late 2000s. In 2008–2013, college-graduate mothers spent 78 minutes on developmental activities with their kids, while the figure was 62 minutes for women with some college education and 57 for those with a high school diploma or less. For fathers, the gap between the highest and lowest education groups is now around 15 minutes (55 minutes versus 39). In the most recent time period, at every education level, mothers devoted roughly 20 more minutes per day to developmental child care activities than fathers, on average.
This is the spanner in the equality of opportunity works:
Accounting for the fact that children with less educated parents are more likely to live apart from their fathers makes these gaps more dramatic. According to Altintas’s estimation, which she notes is if anything biased downward, once fathers’ residential status is taken into account, children of parents with bachelor’s degrees may receive more than 1,000 extra hours of cognitively stimulating care over the first four years of life, on average, relative to children with high school–­educated parents.
The very substantial differences between the top and bottom classes in the amount of time spent reading, talking, coaching, etc. in a child's first four years highlights the unattainable nature of helping children have "equal" opportunities. That is by no means an argument that we should abandon efforts to level the playing field. By no means. But it does suggest changes in the tactics.

If pre-K programs end up being validated as ineffective as the most recent large studies indicate, and if the four-fold increase in spending in K-12 makes no difference in outcomes by class as experience has shown, then what can make a difference?

I think, as challenging as it philosophically might be, the answer is in figuring whether, how, and to what degree, it is appropriate for government to foster and encourage the adoption of upper class values and behaviors by those in the lower classes. Yuck - writing the words chills me, but I think that is what the accumulating evidence is indicating. Sure, we still need to try and make schools more effective, but we shouldn't count too much on those investments actually equalizing the opportunity field. Too much happens in the first four years to catch-up on by the time the children hit K-12. Indeed, many studies indicate that the gaps only worsen during school.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Cavalier grasshoppers

Hat tip to Ann Althouse, "The world owes me a living.". The Grasshopper and the Ants from 1934.

A retelling of the old Aesop fable highlighting the ne'er-do-well, cavalier grasshopper and the industrious, forward planning ants with a dash of Christian charity.


Chimerae of illusory hatreds

Interesting to see the silent majority of students begin to push back at the themes of racism, oppression, suppression, patriarchy, etc. being advocated by a small, ideologically and factually bereft minority of students.

First, from University of Missouri, Univ. of Missouri student: ‘Several of us are afraid to disagree with other students’ by Ian Paris.
An innocent man lost his job. Racial tensions are at an all time high. Faculty members refuse to acknowledge students’ First Amendment rights. Campus authorities are policing speech.

This is my reality as a student at the University of Missouri.

I believe in liberty for all people, but the current climate on campus runs counter to that. Some friends tell me they are afraid to voice their opinions lest they come under fire from the administration or peers – or the police.

The University of Missouri police department sent an email urging students to report offensive or hurtful speech – not because it is illegal – but so the Office of Student Conduct could take disciplinary action against these students.

Several of us are afraid to disagree with other students, who in turn may report us to the authorities so we can be “dealt with.” Many students have told me they are also afraid to speak out against the protest narrative, afraid they will be called “racist” and become campus pariahs.

What’s lost is honest dialogue.

Those of us who want to support on some level the protesters’ pain bristle at their disregard for the First Amendment and freedom of the press and willingness to listen to others.

The “safe space” built at Mizzou means dissenting voices are decried as “racist,” “offensive” or “hurtful.” Students face diversity reeducation, pending expulsion.

Speech on my campus has become limited, not just on the quad. Grad students refuse to dissent from the opinions of liberal professors lest they lose their position, for example.

This is not an Orwellian dystopian novel – this is the climate of the University of Missouri, and it’s the reality that I, and my fellow students, face every day.
Even better is the piece, We Dissent by the Editorial Board of the Claremont Independent.

First they dress down the administration for their cowardice, failure to lead and hypocrisy including:
Second, President Chodosh. We were disappointed to see you idly stand by and watch students berate, curse at, and attack Dean Spellman for being a “racist.” For someone who preaches about “leadership” and “personal and social responsibility,” your actions are particularly disappointing. You let your colleague, someone who has been helping your administration for the past three years and the college for six years, be publicly mocked and humiliated. Why? Because you were afraid. You were afraid that students would also mock and humiliate you if you defended Dean Spellman, so you let her be thrown under the bus. You were so afraid that it only took you five minutes to flip-flop on their demand for a temporary “safe space” on campus. Your fear-driven action (or lack thereof) only further reinforced the fear among the student body to speak out against this movement. We needed your leadership more than ever this week, and you failed us miserably.
Too often in academia, empty talk and platitudes is all that is served up. People are distanced from reality and from the concomitant need to act with courage, agency and responsibility.

They finish by addressing the students of Claremont, both the unreasoning rabble as well as the silent majority of bystanders.
To our fellow Claremont students, we are disappointed in you as well. We are ashamed of you for trying to end someone’s career over a poorly worded email. This is not a political statement––this is a person’s livelihood that you so carelessly sought to destroy. We are disappointed that you chose to scream and swear at your administrators. That is not how adults solve problems, and your behavior reflects poorly on all of us here in Claremont. This is not who we are and this is not how we conduct ourselves, but this is the image of us that has now reached the national stage.

We are disappointed in your demands. If you want to take a class in “ethnic, racial, and sexuality theory,” feel free to take one, but don’t force such an ideologically driven course on all CMC students. If the dearth of such courses at CMC bothers you, maybe you should have chosen a different school. If students chose to attend Caltech and then complained about the lack of literature classes, that’s on them. And though it wouldn’t hurt to have a more diverse faculty, the demand that CMC increase the number of minority faculty members either rests on the assumption that CMC has a history of discriminating against qualified professors of color, or, more realistically, it advocates for the hiring of less qualified faculty based simply on the fact that they belong to marginalized groups. A hiring practice of this sort would not benefit any CMC students, yourselves included.

We are disappointed in the fact that your movement has successfully managed to convince its members that anyone who dissents does so not for intelligent reasons, but due to moral failure or maliciousness. We are disappointed that you’ve used phrases like “silence is violence” to not only demonize those who oppose you, but all who are not actively supporting you. We are most disappointed, however, in the rhetoric surrounding “safe spaces.” College is the last place that should be a safe space. We come here to learn about views that differ from our own, and if we aren’t made to feel uncomfortable by these ideas, then perhaps we aren’t venturing far enough outside of our comfort zone. We would be doing ourselves a disservice to ignore viewpoints solely on the grounds that they may make us uncomfortable, and we would not be preparing ourselves to cope well with adversity in the future. Dealing with ideas that make us uncomfortable is an important part of growing as students and as people, and your ideas will inhibit opportunities for that growth.

We are adults, and we need to be mature enough to take ownership of and responsibility for our feelings, rather than demanding that those around us cater to our individual needs. The hypocrisy of advocating for “safe spaces” while creating an incredibly unsafe space for President Chodosh, former Dean Spellman, the student who was “derailing,” and the news media representatives who were verbally abused unfortunately seemed to soar over many of your heads.

Lastly, we are disappointed in students like ourselves, who were scared into silence. We are not racist for having different opinions. We are not immoral because we don’t buy the flawed rhetoric of a spiteful movement. We are not evil because we don’t want this movement to tear across our campuses completely unchecked.

We are no longer afraid to be voices of dissent.
Wretched as these sad protests against the chimerae of illusory hatreds might be, perhaps the silver lining is the spur it might serve to remind people of the everlasting need to defend liberty against the hand of tyrants who would suppress others.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Then you grow up

From Can We Start Taking Political Correctness Seriously Now? by Jonathan Chait. Nice to see a mainstream liberal stand up so clearly for freedom of speech and against the Heckler's Veto that so many university students of the postmodernist ilk seem to wish to exercise.
The upsurge of political correctness is not just greasy-kid stuff, and it’s not just a bunch of weird, unfortunate events that somehow keep happening over and over. It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement. (For those inclined to defend p.c. on the grounds that racism and sexism are important, bear in mind that the forms of repression Marxist government set out to eradicate were hardly imaginary.)

American political correctness has obviously never perpetrated the brutality of a communist government, but it has also never acquired the powers that come with full control of the machinery of the state. The continuous stream of small-scale outrages it generates is a testament to an illiberalism that runs deep down to its core (a character I tried to explain in my January essay).

The scene in Columbia and the recent scene in New Haven share a similar structure: jeering student mobs expressing incredulity at the idea of political democracy. As far as the students are concerned, they represent the cause of anti-racism, a fact that renders the need for debate irrelevant. Defenses of p.c. tactics simply sweep aside objections to the tactics as self-interested whining.
Just about across the spectrum we are seeing solid condemnation of the authoritarian tactics in evidence at Yale and Missouri State University. Consequently there is more accord in the comments sections than is normally the case. While there are plenty Mr. Wilson commentators (of Dennis the Menace fame; "get off my lawn") there is actually some useful observations as well, including
William Perry used to write about this stuff in the 1970s (he was a student counselor at Harvard). What's happening at Yale is a natural part of the learning process in higher education. This relates to students' conceptions of knowledge and how these conceptions develop and deepen as people successfully move through various stages of human development.

Perry suggests that students move through three stages:

1) a dualistic view of knowledge as right and wrong which is the responsibility of an authority to arbitrate.
2) as open view of knowledge as a multiplicity of positions of equal value;
3) a relativisitic view of knowledge as contextualized, requiring a personal commitment to align it with ones personal values.

Following Perry's framework, the altercation between the student and the resident "house parents" looks like the students are still at the dualistic phase while the residents, as one would expect, have a relativistic view. These views are incommensurate, hence the conflict.
William Perry passed away in 1998. Here is his obituary. Sounds like an estimable man. The book from which Mohammed summarizes is Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years by William G. Perry.
The True Believer loves dualism and sees everything through that lens. Life is so much simpler when you can cram everyone into two simplistic boxes, Good and Bad. Then you grow up.

You don't want bring a "political gesture" to a gunfight

I find the blogger Ace of Spades a little much. Not necessarily wrong per se but that his arguments are often needlessly provocative, incendiary and/or belittling of his opponents. He uses a bludgeon where mockery might do. His recent rant is against, well against a lot targets, but starting with John Oliver, John Oliver, Last Month: Boy, Those Fox Chuckleheads Sure Are Paranoid Ninnies to Think That Terrorists Might Smuggle Themselves Into Europe With the Rufugees! And Ace of Spades is right. Within just the past few weeks, left leaning media and bloggers have been mocking the concerns from the right that terrorists would take advantage of the refugee invasion in Europe to slip in some terrorists to wreak havoc. This despite the occasional terrorist being caught up in the security nets.

So now the right leaning critics are vindicated in their concerns. For all his crowing and bluster, Ace of Spades does have some interesting commentary about the epistemic closure which prevented left leaning utopianists from seeing the risk in the first place and which now is blinding them to acknowledging that the risk was indeed real. To the point that they do appear to be simply falling back into a mental safe room where synthetic reality accords more with their expectations. Ace of Spades:
He mocked the idea that terrorists would, or could, infiltrate Europe with Syrian migrants, and invited his flock to laugh at the heathens who thought maybe they could.

Well, despite having a 48 hour lead time, John Oliver wasn't quite ready to address the Paris attacks in last night's show. So he just did a two minute segment in which he called the terrorists "f***ing assholes" and praised the French for their pastries.

He then said, "If you're picking a Lifestyle and Culture war with the French, good luck!"


They don't seem to notice that IS did not mount a "Lifestyle and Culture war" against the French; rather, they have, in a series of attacks over the past year (remember Charlie Hebdo?), launched an actual war, a bullet and bomb war, against France.

Yes, John Oliver, the French culture is immensely superior to the joyless death-cult of the Islamists. Well-spotted, as they might say in England (and bien vu as they'd say in France.

But unfortunately, a war is not won when two sides get together on the field of battle and show off to each other who produces the best pastries, the best fashion, the best Progressive Televangelist Rants which "DESTROY" the opponent, nor the best #HashtagMemes.

Wars are not won or lost the way gang wars are won or lost in 80s movies, that is to say, with a dance-off.

They are won with guns and with men capable of and willing to use those guns.


It's not that the left is so stupid as to be incapable of understanding reality; though that does, of course, play into it. The problem is that they are a Manichean religious cult which has certain extreme religious views, and anyone questioning those views will be deemed heretic and thrown out of the cult and ostracized.

So it's more a failure of moral and intellectual courage than of intellectual capacity. They could see the truth, and they could possibly speak the truth, but they are, as C.S. Lewis observed, Men Without Chests.

The faux intellectual class is in fact studiously anti-intellectual; they are simply the most degenerate sort of priestly class, the priests who do not actually read or study, but just pass what seems like wisdom from one stupid mouth to one imbecile ear.
It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.
They're not stupid, so much as they are cowards; and the ultimate retreat for the ultimate coward is the full flight from reality, the retreat to the #SafeSpace of fuzzy dreams of the way they wish the world were.


But as I keep saying, a coward will flee a fight, but the ultimate in cowardice is a full-speed flight from reality. The ordinary coward flees the fight; the new breed of coward claims there was never a fight in the first place to flee, it was just a #FalseRacistNarrative.

And having appalled us all not just with their physical cowardice (which is understandable enough) but their ontological cowardice as well, these simpering assholes then have to pollute the world further with their six billionth treacly, truckling rendition of Imagine.
Well, yeah.

By happenstance, the very next article I happened to read was an opinion piece in the New York Times which, rather inadvertently, supported Ace of Spades' point. France's War Within by Sylvie Kauffmann.
Except this was not any November Sunday. In hospitals, doctors were still fighting to save the lives of those seriously wounded in the worst terrorist attacks ever carried out in the city, which left at least 129 people dead and 352 injured. “Let Us Resist” proclaimed the headline of a local paper, Le Parisien. In shock, Parisians had mostly stayed indoors on Saturday night, but Sunday was different: They chose to resist by living normally and going out, defying fear. Ordering a glass of wine at café terraces, the very type of place the gunmen targeted Friday, quietly became a political gesture.

Under the newly declared state of emergency, rallies in Paris were banned for five days. Yet people also defied this order: By late afternoon on Sunday, several thousand had gathered at the Place de la République, near where most of the attacks occurred, lighting candles and singing “La Marseillaise.” Trying to live normally, yet on the edge: Shortly before 7 p.m., a rumor spread that a gunman was attacking a café nearby. People fled in panic, desperately seeking shelter. Half an hour later, they were back.
Don't bring a "political gesture" to a gunfight.

I get that in the face of tragedy, you don't want to simply ignore it but that your choice of actions that are not clichéd or maudlin are limited.

However, the hard question is whether any of these actions will prevent a recurrence of the tragedy or mitigate the consequences. They won't.

We are stuck with the tragic position encapsulated in the old English adage:
Meek Michael thought it wrong to fight.
Bully Bill, who killed him, thought it right.
Gestures won't resolve this conundrum, only hard choices. By all means, take the time, consider deeply, proceed cautiously. But take action, don't just make gestures.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Good intentions leading to bad outcomes - school discipline edition

We have a lot of people, including political leaders, who are desperately eager to incite racial division among Americans by touting racism as somehow inherent in the entire culture of the US and bred in the bone of all institutions. Of course the argument is substantially nonsense and in many cases easily refuted, but it is a siren song to those Gramscian devotees of the Frankfurt School and it's unfortunate ideological offspring (third wave feminism, critical theory, critical race theory, postmodernism, etc.).

In the past year the Department of Justice has attempted to rectify, across all schools in the nation, racial disparities of punishment. The argument is that A) there is a racial disparity whereby more black students are punished than white (true) and B) that this disparity occurs because of the inherent racism of the public school system and its administrators (asserted but not proven, with much refuting evidence).

The argument is tenuous on its face. Thats a lot of systemic racism operating across the 13,500 locally operated school districts in the US. It's believable if that is what you ideologically want to believe, but what about some actual evidence? There is very little of that. The reason it is important to establish an evidentiary base is that you can end up doing a lot of harm if you have the wrong root cause. We have a lot of well-intended romantic utopianists who want to take the authority to make things better for third-party victims but who don't actually know what they are doing and end up harming the intended beneficiaries of their actions more often than not.

A statistician writing under the nom de plume, Random Critical Analysis, has evidence that suggests that there is an alternative and stronger root cause than racism. He outlines his argument in On the relationship between school suspensions, race, single-motherhood, and more.

Blacks get suspended at vastly disproportionate rates whereas “asians” (census/OMB definition), on the other hand, are about half as likely as whites are to get suspended. Contrary to conventional wisdom, though, this pattern tends to be pretty consistent nation wide and the south is not notably “worse” with respect to disparities here.


If you actually look at the department of education’s own map you will see very little sign of regional bias in places with significant concentrations of blacks. If anything the disparities (without adjusting for anything), tend to be larger in the northeast and the midwest (see table above).


Schools with higher proportions of black students (chosen at random) are more likely to have appreciably more discipline citations. This tends to suggest that this is a broad national pattern and that racial demographics accounts for much of the variance.


This despite the fact that these mostly black districts are much more likely to be populated with black teachers, principals, etc (unfortunately I don’t have national data at this level of detail!). If these suspensions are mostly grounded in real behavioral problems, as I suspect they are, they are likely to have negative consequences for other students in the classrooms (especially other blacks since they are far more likely to be in class with the misbehaving students).
RCA then gets to the rub of his/her argument:
If we plot the black suspension rate directly by percentage of single-mothers in the school district (all races/ethnicities)…


Annoyingly I’ve yet to find a decent way to get non-hispanic white suspension rates for all districts from them yet, but it is nonetheless quite obvious that the single-motherhood rate is a strong predictor across the country.

It predicts overall suspension rates better than percent black, better than (child) poverty rates, better than parent education rates (% w/ bachelors+), and so and so forth.


I am deeply skeptical of the notion that racial discrimination explains much of the differences in outcomes here, particularly when we observe such vast differences in strong predictors like single-motherhood and see similar patterns with other racial-ethnic groups (even when it works against whites, as in the case of “asians”). Now it may be that single-motherhood is operating mostly as a proxy for other differences, but there is some evidence that it is more than that (or see here for more info). Regardless, it seems unreasonable to leap to the assumption that differences in outcomes are the fault of racism on the part of teachers, administrators, and the like when we have good evidence that the outcomes can be mostly explained with readily available observables like this (even more so when it’s quite widely known that there are substantial statistical differences in behaviors between groups today).
This analysis makes clear why it is so important to have an evidence based case for the proposed root causes. Racial discrimination has been explicitly illegal in schools for fifty years and more. Where teachers and administrators discriminate based on race, they can, and are, brought to justice. But there aren't that many cases anymore. Some, but not many. If there is little evidence of actual racial discrimination, then trying to force schools to reduce their discipline rules because it disproportionately affects black students, particularly if there is evidence that the root causes for unruly behavior lie elsewhere, becomes a government sanctioned mechanism to degrade the learning environment of all the other students who are not misbehaving. Another instance of good intentions leading to bad outcomes.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it

The continued rantings and screechings of the authoritarian few (ideological offspring of the Frankfurt School as they are and which have so infected our academies) have drawn a lot of attention in the past week, first at Yale and then the University of Missouri. These sorry totalitarians trying to inflict their bigotry on everyone else while suppressing freedom of speech is a repulsive spectacle. It brings to mind the speech I have posted of earlier by Judge Learned Hand which I repost here. His warning is prescient of "a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few" a la those Gramscian protesters who wish to subject everyone to their emotional will. I think Hand has the right antidote, for everyone to live out their rights and understandings of freedom. His second stanza is wonderful.
We have gathered here to affirm a faith, a faith in a common purpose, a common conviction, a common devotion.
Some of us have chosen America as the land of our adoption; the rest have come from those who did the same. For this reason we have some right to consider ourselves a picked group, a group of those who had the courage to break from the past and brave the dangers and the loneliness of a strange land. What was the object that nerved us, or those who went before us, to this choice? We sought liberty - freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves. This then we sought; this we now believe that we are by way of winning. What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few - as we have learned to our sorrow.

What then is the spirit of liberty?
I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten - that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side-by-side with the greatest. And now in that spirit, that spirit of an America which has never been, and which may never be - nay, which never will be except as the conscience and courage of Americans create it - yet in the spirit of America which lies hidden in some form in the aspirations of us all; in the spirit of that America for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying; in that spirit of liberty and of America so prosperous, and safe, and contented, we shall have failed to grasp its meaning, and shall have been truant to its promise, except as we strive to make it a signal, a beacon, a standard to which the best hopes of mankind will ever turn; In confidence that you share that belief, I now ask you to raise your hand and repeat with me this pledge:

I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands--One nation, Indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.