Sunday, January 31, 2016

Now there's privilege

From Snapshots and Visualizations of the Global Economy by Timothy Taylor.

I like visualization of data. Numbers are fine but somehow, when you start figuring out ways to display numerica data non-numerically, you always end up with some additional insights.

I like this, The World's Economy Divided by Area, originally from HowMuch.

Click to enlarge.

35 of the world's 196 countries make up 91% of the world's economy in terms of GDP. This, despite the title, is really about productivity and not wealth. The US, with about 4% of the world's population, produces 23% of the world's output. Not bad for a country that was a renegade upstart testing a new idea of governance just two centuries ago.

Here's another visualization that adds perspective. The Global Wealth Pyramid.
Finally, here's a depiction of the distribution of global wealth from Credit Suisse in "Snapshots of Global Wealth" (October 15, 2014). If you have more than $100,000 in wealth (and yes, your housing equity and your retirement account are included here), then you are sitting above the 90th percentile of the world wealth distribution. If you have more than $1,000,000 in wealth (or if you plan to end up at that level of wealth by the time you reach retirement age), you are in the 99th percentile of world wealth.
Startlingly, an average middle-class American couple who attend a good college, works for forty years and saves 10-15% into a retirement account, don't divorce, buy and payoff the mortgage on a home, can anticipate, without extraordinary risk or effort, being in the global 1% by the time they retire. Now there's privilege for you.

Click to enlarge.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Defining Authoritarian as "people who want their children to be respectful, obedient, well-behaved and well-mannered"

Excellent deconstruction of an argument in The Scarlet ‘A’: Can junk science sink Trump? by James Taranto.

The demolition of the argument hinges on the hard work of checking the cited sources for consistency in the way the source is being used and examination of the logic tying the argument together. On both counts, the argument fails. What Taranto does is not actually all that hard. The problem is that we are inclined to take people at face value. We trust that they are arguing in good faith and that they have themselves validated their own argument. That trust is often misplaced. Instead of taking the ten or fifteen minutes to slow down, examine the constituent parts of the argument and then go back and check the sources, we simply accept it as given. To our detriment.

Here is a pivotal part of the argument deconstruction.
Still, let’s concede that MacWilliams’s characterization of these ideas as “authoritarian” is a legitimate opinion, whether one agrees with it or not. But MacWilliams isn’t just saying he regards Trump’s proposals as authoritarian. He claims to have scientific evidence that Trump’s supporters have authoritarian inclinations:

My finding is the result of a national poll I conducted in the last five days of December under the auspices of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sampling 1,800 registered voters across the country and the political spectrum. Running a standard statistical analysis, I found that education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate. Only two of the variables I looked at were statistically significant: authoritarianism, followed by fear of terrorism, though the former was far more significant than the latter.
You may wonder: How in the world does one detect a tendency toward “authoritarianism” in a polity that has little direct experience of it? A poll that asked Americans’ attitudes toward Hitler—generally regarded as a totalitarian dictator, not an authoritarian one, but it was MacWilliams who cited Nazi Germany—would surely turn up almost unanimous hostility. Other historical and contemporary authoritarian figures like Mussolini, Franco and Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen may not have enough name recognition in the U.S. to yield any useful guidance about American attitudes.

It turns out MacWilliams’s method is entirely different:
My poll asked a set of four simple survey questions that political scientists have employed since 1992 to measure inclination toward authoritarianism. These questions pertain to child-rearing: whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent; obedient or self-reliant; well-behaved or considerate; and well-mannered or curious. Respondents who pick the first option in each of these questions are strongly authoritarian.
In other words, what the poll found was that Republicans who want their children to be respectful, obedient, well-behaved and well-mannered have a propensity to support Trump. When you put it that way, it doesn’t reflect badly on him—or on them—at all.

MacWilliams commits the fallacy of equivocation, which a fact sheet from the Texas State University Philosophy Department defines as “when a key term or phrase in an argument is used in an ambiguous way, with one meaning in one portion of the argument and then another meaning in another portion of the argument.” The Texan philosophers provide some humorous examples, among them:
Noisy children are a real headache. Two aspirin will make a headache go away. Therefore, two aspirin will make noisy children go away. . . .

Sure philosophy helps you argue better, but do we really need to encourage people to argue? There’s enough hostility in this world.
MacWilliams—and, according to him, other political scientists since 1992—defines “authoritarianism” as an inclination to exercise parental authority. He then conflates that esoteric meaning with the more common political usage of the term, which he applies as a scarlet letter to Trump and his supporters.

There is an abuse of authority here—in the application of a veneer of science to a political attack that is not only empirically baseless but logically fallacious. Oh well, at least that’s good enough for David Brooks.
When Taranto lays it out so clearly, it is almost insulting the sleight of hand used to construct McWilliams' argument in the first place.

Friday, January 29, 2016

More people may major in science, but there are more jobs in engineering

From Big Scope Status Bias by Robin Hanson. A series of "data points" where people's decisions are at variance with the known facts.

I like item 10:
Even when designing from scratch, most real work is testing, honing, and debugging a basic idea. Yet in school the focus is more on creating the basic idea.
Indeed. It is easy to generate a large portfolio of ideas. The hard work is prioritizing and winnowing them.
A lesson here seems to be that while it can raise your status to be associated with big scope choices, you should expect a lot of competition for that status, and a relative neglect of smaller scope choices. That is, more people may major in science, but there are more jobs in engineering. You might impress people by focusing on creating designs in school, but you are likely to spend your life maintaining pre-existing designs. If you want to get stuff done instead of gaining status, you should focus on smaller scope choices.

Chasing status.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Speak what you think now in hard words

From The internet has made defensive writers of us all by Paul Chiusano. His core observation is:
I think the web has made us all write more defensively, and it’s a shame, because we’re effectively contorting our communication style to defend against a small minority of mean-spirited and uncharitable actions by some. Actually, as I say that, I instinctively feel the need to hedge myself–I don’t believe that people are really mean-spirited (well, perhaps some are–gak I’ve done it again!), but there’s something about commenting about stuff on the internet with people you’ve never met that seems to bring out the worst in people.
Agree. The redeeming grace of writing defensively is that it often forces you to examine your argument in greater detail. Where are the weaknesses in logic, evidence, etc.? Writing things out is a good discipline for better quality thinking. On the other hand it trashes effective communication. The more you detail an argument, the less likely it is to engage.

Sometimes you just have to be bold and count on the goodwill of the reader to bridge the gaps you leave. Ralph Waldo Emerson had something to say about the pedantic naysayers who are ever eager to find the least discrepancy.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.
He also had good advice.
Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

You can pretend to care but you can't pretend to show up.

I am at a Boy Scouts Area Council Commissioner quarterly meeting last night. The discussion turns to the importance of delivering on promises, both explicit and implicit.

A gentleman up front points out:
You can pretend to care but you can't pretend to show up.
Nicely pithy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Focus on the insight, not the errors.

From The internet has made defensive writers of us all by Paul Chiusano. In the comments there is a marvelous aphorism regarding conversations and arguments:
Find the insight, not the error.
I would modify it slightly. It is important to identify the technical errors in an argument but it is even more important to glean the insight. I would go with
Focus on the insight, not the errors.
It drives me crazy when, in attempting to communicate some complex abstraction, I use an analogy or metaphor and the user focuses on the details of the metaphor rather than on the concept being conveyed.

Humor is more effective than blather

This is not an endorsement. This is an appreciation.

It is a good thing that we have passionately fought electoral campaigns. Regrettably, our pundits, media, and most politicians simply aren't up to providing good value for the time and money of the electorate. Everyone is exasperated with the whole kit and kaboodle, while acknowledging the necessity.

But every now and then someone comes along to lighten the dark vista. I have twice in the past couple of weeks seen Marco Rubio ads which indicate that there is someone smart on his communications team and that they are courteous enough to leaven the otherwise dull political nattering.

Rubio, for some reason, seems to have attracted a disproportionate share of nonsensical, motivated mainstream media reporting. There was the New York Times hit job on his wife's driving record. Then I think there was a hit job on the fact that he wasn't born to wealth and had to take out mortgages for his homes and loans for his kid's education or some such. There was another one last week for something equally trivial.

Exasperating that journalists should be simultaneously trivial and partisan, but that's the way of this world.

So sometime in the past few days I saw some kerfuffle. Rubio had been arrested as a teenager for being in a park after dark or something like that. Unless that's followed up with accusations of drug dealing or prostitution or something like similar, that's a nothing-burger. There's no there, there. The cheap, easy to write journalistic excrescence to which we have sadly become too accustomed. Instead of getting sucked into the pit of debating nothing, the Rubio campaign released this.

Double click to expand.
Click here for the full video.

Couldn't help but guffaw.

I didn't even see this incident that apparently engulfed the TV pundits. But again, exploiting absurdity for its humor.

Double click to expand.
Click here for the full video.

I wish all our politicians were so clever and light hearted.

Humor is more effective than blather.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

. . . except for the rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge

Michael Crichton referred to the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect which he described.
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
There is an irony laden inversion of, and probably progenitor to, Crichton's observation. This was coined by Erwin Knoll, editor of "The Progressive"
Knoll's Law of Media Accuracy: Everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true--except for the rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Dear, you’re not that interesting a person

Heh. From Herman Wouk, the American Jewish Writer Who Wrote Huge Best-Sellers and Wasn’t Especially Neurotic by Adam Kirsch. I enjoyed Wouk's The Caine Mutiny.

I like this passage from Kirsch's piece.
In his slight but charming new memoir, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, Wouk shows that this description of his Judaism was also a description of himself. If ever a man lived the American Dream, it was Wouk. Through the sheer power of his imagination, he became rich, famous, and beloved, while enjoying a loving marriage (just one, unlike many writers of his generation). The only tragedy he records was the accidental death of his first son, who drowned in a swimming pool at the age of 5. Wouk has never written about this experience before and alludes to it in this book in only the most restrained terms. Overall, however, Wouk was so fortunate that, when Isaiah Berlin suggested he write his memoir, his wife—“Betty Sarah Wouk, the beautiful love of my life”—discouraged him with the words, “Dear, you’re not that interesting a person.” Wouk agreed but thought that a memoir by a contented writer might be interesting simply as a contrast: “Biographies of writers were then much in fashion, confessional books by or about Jewish authors all shook up with angst. I was not one of those, and might that not be a piquant novelty?”

On the shoulders of giants

From The 17 equations that changed the course of history by Andy Kiersz. In 2013 Ian Stewart published a book, In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed The World. Larry Phillips created this summary.

Click to enlarge.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Almost certainly wrong versus possibly correct

The gist is right. In reality the choice is even worse. Turn left for "Almost Certainly Wrong" and turn right for "Possibly Correct". We want discrete, particular, and certain answers but those usually aren't the choices complex human systems generate.

A passion for money that is virtually a sickness

I guess we all ought to have a brother who manages our business affairs.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

There are problems and then there are problems


Recollecting context

From A question about deep reading by Tyler Cowen. Cowen describes his preferred method of reading:
1. Read a classic work straight through, noting key problems and ambiguities, but not letting them hold you back. Plow through as needed, and make finishing a priority.

1b. Mark up the book with bars and questions marks, but don’t bother writing out your still-crummy thoughts. That will slow you down.

2. After finishing the classic, read a good deal of the secondary literature, keeping in mind that you now are looking for answers to some particular questions. That will structure and improve your investigation. But do not read the secondary literature first. You won’t know what questions will be guiding you, plus it may spoil or bias your impressions of the classic, which is likely richer and deeper than the commentaries on it.

3. Go back and reread said classic, taking as much time as you may need. If you don’t finish this part of the program, at least you have read the book once and grappled with some of its problems, and taken in some of its commentators. If you can get through the reread, you’ll then have achieved something.

4. I am an advocate of the “close in time” reread, not the “several years later” reread. The several years later reread works best when it has been preceded by a close in time reread, otherwise you tend to forget lots, or never to have learned it to begin with, and the later reread may be more akin to starting a new book altogether.

5. If you want to find new things in books you already know and love, opt for new editions, new translations, and new typesettings where you will encounter it as a very different visual and conceptual field.
I have a hard time bringing myself to mark a book, but I do, more often than I used to, dog ear pages with passages, sentences, or arguments that warrant rereading.

I also do a sixth item - consider the book, whether fiction or non-fiction, in its historical context. What are the tells in the text that illuminate a time now past?

For example, I recently watched a dramatization of one of the G.K. Chesterton Father Brown stories. I like Chesterton and I enjoy Father Brown, though not as much as some of Chesterton's other writings. The Father Brown series is set in the interwar period between 1918-1939. A time period covered by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge in The Long Weekend.

The drama hinged on a spirit cult. The contextual consideration is just how strong was the paranormal passion in that time frame. No social weekend was complete without a seance. Everyone had lost someone in the Great War and there was a desperate longing across wide swaths of society to find a way to reconnect with those who would never return.

It is a sobering consideration of the depths of those losses. It keeps our contemporary concerns in perspective. None of that was the point of Chesterton's story but it is something that can be brought to mind by conscious effort to recollect context.

A floor built by frost

This seems apropos this morning.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Spreading the contagion of their spleen

From Observations on a Late Publication on the Present State of the Nation (1769) by Edmund Burke. In a world where most things are generally improving, it is a constant struggle for those so concerned to find legitimate things about which to be concerned. The absence of genuine crisis leads 1) fake crises, and 2) louder protestations.
It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the publick to be the most anxious for its welfare.
Burke describes the real motivations of these protesters:
The true cause of his drawing so shocking a picture is no more than this; and it ought rather to claim our pity than excite our indignation; he finds himself out of power; and this condition is intolerable to him. The same sun which gilds all nature, and exhilarates the whole creation, does not shine upon disappointed ambition. It is something that rays out of darkness, and inspires nothing but gloom and melancholy. Men in this deplorable state of mind find a comfort in spreading the contagion of their spleen.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Update on trends in assortative mating

From Marriage: Homogamy or Heterogamy by Timothy Taylor. Some additional data regarding trends in assortative mating.
In short, social and economic inequality clearly interact with marriage homogamy. On one side, in a society with higher levels of inequality, people are less likely to interact with others from different socioeconomic groups in a way that would lead to heterogamy. On the other side, a society with more marriage homogamy will will be one in which those with higher wage and employment prospects are marrying each other. As a result, differences in household income will be larger. In addition, those households will have greater resources to invest in their children, which could lead to a greater persistence of inequality across generations.

Sometimes, it seems, stupidity can only be treated with tar and feathers

A needlessly combative article but one that captures a lot of issues in one place: From Subprime to Sub-Subprime by Kevin D. Williamson. The jury is still out, and probably will be for another decade or so, regarding who and what circumstances were responsible for the housing bubble of the early aughts, leading to the great recession of 2008 onwards.

There are multiple causal agents and many good arguments for many culprits. The argument has, I think, less to do with which culprits are responsible and more to do with the issue of among all the many culprits, which ones were most culpable?

My assessment is that there are two primary culprits. Congress, under both parties, has, for noble reasons and ignoble, and over several decades, sought to increase the rate of homeownership among the population. The theory, sometimes explicit but usually not, is that middle class behaviors are strongly contributive to national well being. Homeownership is one attribute of the middle class. Therefore if we increase homeownership, people will behave more like the middle class.

The theory is ill founded, reversing the causal flow. Homeownership is a result of middle class behaviors (self-discipline, delayed gratification, saving, reliability, work ethic, etc.) not a cause of middle class behaviors.

In pursuit of growing the middle class, Congress, through its subsidiaries Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, relaxed the various requirements for a guaranteed mortgage. Banks were allowed to extend loans to people with lower incomes, lower down-payments, fewer assets, more dubious valuations, and with more generous definitions of income.

People criticized these changes at the time with clear forecasts that there would eventually be higher defaults. And that is what came to pass.

The other guilty party, of course, were the loan originators - mortgage companies and banks. They were largely within the law but the law was allowing them to make imprudent loans. There are many things that are legal but wrong. But many or most the banks went along with what was allowed instead of what was prudent. To their later detriment and that of the taxpayer who ended up having to bail out so many of them.

All-in-all, it was institutional failure on a massive scale. Congressmen making decisions on a flawed and untested social theory, subject to direct and indirect regulatory capture and rent seeking by banks and realtors and other self-interested parties, enabling banks to do stupid things and the media never making much of the slowly unfolding tragedy.

And it was a tragedy. Those most targeted for assistance, minorities and the poor, were the ones that lost the most when the bubble burst. They were over-leveraged and under-productive with no reserves to help them ride out the cyclical economic waves. The black middle class lost several decades of economic gains because they over-invested in over-valued real estate with too little financial reserve.

The moderate, libertarian and conservative economists who predicted this outcome this outcome were proven correct.

But, as in Kipling's poem, The Gods of the Copybook Headings
the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire
I have seen small articles here and there over the past five years indicating that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were replicating the same behaviors they did before. Targeting minorities and the poor, seeking to increase homeownership believing that it would stabilize communities, reducing down payments, etc. It is criminal behavior to know that the policy has failed, failed disastrously and with real damage to the putative beneficiaries, and yet to pursue it again, hoping for a different outcome.

Williamson is on a tear:
In lieu of the usual complex regulation larded with special-interest favoritism, here is a simple mortgage rule that could and probably should be adopted: No federally regulated financial institution shall make a mortgage loan without the borrower’s making a down payment of at least 20 percent derived from his own savings.

Period, paragraph, next subject.

Instead of doing that, we are sprinting flat-out in the opposite direction, with government-sponsored mortgage giant Fannie Mae rolling out a daft new mortgage proposal that would allow borrowers without enough income to qualify for a mortgage to count income that isn’t theirs on their mortgage application.

The Committee to Re-Inflate the Bubble strikes again: We’ve just legalized mortgage fraud.

Once upon a time — approximately yesterday — claiming on a mortgage application more income than you actually earn was a crime. Claiming that the money you are using for a down payment is yours when it has been lent to you by a family member or a friend was a crime, too. (A felony, in fact; a whole subplot in The Wire was based on that crime.) There is a reason for this: People who have saved up enough for a down payment on a house are very different kinds of borrowers from people who haven’t, and people whose mortgage debt is two times their annual income are different kinds of borrowers from those with mortgages that are eight times their income. One sort of borrower is a great deal more likely to default than the other sort — and, as we learned a few years back, mortgage default can, under certain circumstances, turn out to be everybody’s problem rather than a problem limited to the jackasses who write low-quality mortgages.

But Fannie Mae, the organized-crime syndicate masquerading as a quasi-governmental entity, has other ideas. Under its new and cynically misnamed “HomeReady” program, borrowers with subprime credit don’t need to show that they have enough income to qualify for the mortgage they’re after — they simply have to show that all the people residing in their household put together have enough income to qualify for that mortgage. We’re not talking just about husbands and wives here, but any group of people who happen to share a roof and a mailing address. And some non-residents can be added, too, such as your parents.

That would be one thing if all these people were applying for a mortgage together, and were jointly on the hook for the mortgage payments. But that isn’t the case. HomeReady will permit borrowers to claim other people’s income for the purpose for qualifying for a mortgage, but will not give mortgage lenders any actual claim against that additional income.
Williamson has more of the gory details, read the whole thing. The upshot is that we are going to once again, through virtue signalling and pathological altruism, commit a major crime against our most vulnerable citizens. Tar and feathers should be the order of the day.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The globally consequential - what does the data tell us?

From Is fame fair? by Amy Yu and César A. Hidalgo reporting on this original research, Pantheon 1.0, a manually verified dataset of globally famous biographies by Amy Zhao Yu, Shahar Ronen, Kevin Hu, Tiffany Lu & César A. Hidalgo.

I posted about the fame aspect a few days ago. The more I thought about the database, the more intrigued I became as to what other questions it might be able to answer. The basic description of the database is from the article.
In our paper published today in Scientific Data, we introduce the Pantheon 1.0 dataset, a dataset that measures the historical fame of all of the individuals in human history that are recorded in more than 25 languages[2] in Wikipedia. The Pantheon 1.0 dataset annotates each individual with their occupation, demographics (year and country of birth), and several metrics of popularity (derived from the number of language editions in Wikipedia and the pageviews received across different languages). But what makes the Pantheon dataset special is that it focuses on a multilingual corpus (more than 200 language editions of Wikipedia), and it introduces a detailed taxonomy of occupations that classifies biographies into 88 distinct categories. The multilingual nature of the Pantheon dataset allows us to focus on globally famous individuals, while discarding those who are only locally famous (for instance, most American Football Players, who are popular in the United States, but unknown for the rest of the world, do not make the cut). Our taxonomy of occupations, on the other hand, allows us to identify individuals that have made similar contributions, allowing us to test the alignment between fame and accomplishment for narrowly defined groups of individuals.
Wikipedia has 290 different language editions. Ms. Yu et al have exploited the fact that Wikipedia exists in 290 languages. The beauty of this approach is that
Wikipedia is written collaboratively by largely anonymous volunteers who write without pay. Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles, except in limited cases where editing is restricted to prevent disruption or vandalism. Users can contribute anonymously, under a pseudonym, or, if they choose to, with their real identity.

The fundamental principles by which Wikipedia operates are the five pillars. The Wikipedia community has developed many policies and guidelines to improve the encyclopedia; however, it is not a formal requirement to be familiar with them before contributing.

Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference websites, attracting 374 million unique visitors monthly as of September 2015.[1] There are about 70,000 active contributors
There is no organizing party who can impose decisions about content. What is reflected in Wikipedia is a grass roots effort across multiple cultures and languages with volunteers from multiple countries. Anyone, anywhere can contribute (or edit) anything.

Yu et al focus on entries of individuals who occur in at least 25 languages (of the 290 language versions of Wikipedia). If a person warrants being written about in 25 languages, they are defined as famous. This 25 languages requirement selects for globally recognized individuals such as Charles Darwin, Che Guevara, and Nefertiti and precludes people who are locally famous such as “Heather Fargo, who is the former Mayor of Sacramento, California.”

There are 11,341 such biographies. They collect in their database all 11,341 names as well as occupations, birth date, birth location, page views over a six year window from 2008-2013. Yu notes:
Also, 95% of individuals passing this threshold have an article in at least 6 of the top 10 spoken languages worldwide (Top 10 spoken languages by number of speakers worldwide: Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, French, Bahasa—see:, demonstrating that the Pantheon dataset has good coverage of non-Western languages.
They also collect measures of popularity.
We also introduce the Historical Popularity Index (HPI), a more nuanced metric for global historical impact that takes into account the following: the individual’s age in the dataset (A), or the time elapsed since his/her birth, calculated as 2013 minus birthyear; an L* measure that adjusts L by accounting for the concentration of pageviews among different languages (to discount characters with pageviews mostly in a few languages, see equation (1)); the coefficient of variation (CV) in pageviews across time (to discount characters that have short periods of popularity); and the number of non-English Wikipedia pageviews (vNE) to further reduce any English bias. In addition, to dampen the recency bias of the data, HPI is adjusted for individuals known for less than 70 years. Equation (4) provides the full formula for HPI. There we use log based 4 for the age variable in the aggregation to avoid age becoming the dominant factor in HPI (as it would if we would have used natural log).
HPI basically discounts English language bias, recency bias, and individuals with brief spikes of fame. There is a good discussion in their paper regarding the various remaining weaknesses and potential biases in the data set but this is good material. And the results are fascinating.

How to characterize the 11,341 individuals? I'll go with "globally consequential." The argument would be that if you are well enough known to be captured in at least twentyfive languages, i.e. people from 25 different languages/cultures are interested in you, then you can be considered to be globally consequential.

What are some of the broad outlines of what this database says about who the people of the world are interested in?

I'll take two different views - One for the whole database and then one for people born within the past hundred years, i.e. people of the modern era.

The top twentyfive people of interest by HPI are:
Jesus Christ
Alexander the Great
Leonardo da Vinci
Julius Caesar
Adolf Hitler
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
William Shakespeare
Napoleon Bonaparte
Isaac Newton
Albert Einstein
Christopher Columbus
Johann Sebastian Bach
If you look at contemporary (the past hundred years) entries, there are 5,855 names, 52% of all the names.

What is the distribution of people by continent? The first percentage is for the entirety of history and the second is for contemporary history.
Africa - 419 names out of 10,903 (people whose birth places can be confirmed). 3.8% of the globally consequential. Contemporary: 303 names (out of 5,859) or 5.2%

Asia - 1,188 names, 10.9% of the globally consequential. Contemporary: 543 names, 9.3%

Europe - 6,368 names, 58.4%. Contemporary: 2,645 names, 45.1%

North America - 2,439 names, 22.4%. Contemporary: 1,945 names, 33.2%

Oceania - 123 names, 1.1%. Contemporary: 109 names, 1.9%

South America - 489 names, 4.5%. Contemporary: 310 names, 5.3%
The shift from all history to contemporary represents a diminution of Europe's influence from 58.4% to 45.1%. However, that decline is somewhat misleading from a cultural perspective when you take into account that virtually all of North America, South America, and Oceania are essentially extensions of European culture. From this perspective, European derived culture goes from 86.4% to 85.5%. A negligible decline, particularly when you take into account some of the names that are classified as Asian or African based solely on their birthplace and not their nationality: Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, Doris Lessing, Liv Ullman, Cliff Richard, and the like.

Who are the top 25 among contemporaries? Quite a mixed bag. This is where the multinationalism of Wikipedia becomes much more apparent. Many of these names would not be here on a strictly American list.
Che Guevara
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Elvis Presley
Marilyn Monroe
Jimi Hendrix
Andy Warhol
Bob Marley
Bruce Lee
Bob Dylan
John F. Kennedy
Fidel Castro
Saddam Hussein
Stanley Kubrick
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
John Lennon
Marlon Brando
Pope John Paul II
Mikhail Gorbachev
Ãedith Piaf
Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom
Johnny Cash
Ingmar Bergman
Michel Foucault
Stephen King
Clearly this is dominated mostly by entertainment celebrities, politicians, and sportsmen. Not one scientist. Not one businessman. Only one philosopher. Only one religious figure. This might be a fun group at a party. Not so much for restarting civilization.

Che Guevara is the number one on that list in terms of HPI and nearly so for pageviews. Really, a Marxist mass murderer? Data like this brings you face to face with the realization that others see things differently.

What about gender breakdown?

In the contemporary period, of the 5,859 globally consequential people, 18.9% are women. This matches the ranges you see in the US. For any field of competitive endeavor, the number that reach the top (partners in law firms, judges, award winners in literature, etc.) in the US falls in the range of 15-30%.

Globally, it varies dramatically by region.
Africa - 23/303. 7.6% of contemporary globally consequential individuals in Africa are female.

Asia - 102/543. 18.8% are female.

Europe - 405/2,645. 15.3% are female.

North America - 518/1,945. 26.6% are female.

Oceania - 34/109. 31.2% are female.

South America - 28/310. 9% are female.
The range of globally consequential people ranges from 7.6%-31.2% female depending on the region.

For the USA, the numbers are 464/1,727. 26.9%, second best in the world. A different way of looking at it is that the US produces 464/1,110 of all the globally consequential females, i.e. 41.9%. Given that we are ~5% of the global population, that is pretty stellar.

But a lot of these people are entertainers and celebrities. Let's look at the numbers for people in the STEM fields as well as business.

There are 477 globally consequential people from the STEM fields. 16 of them are women, 3.4%.

The USA has 225 globally consequential scientists, 47.2% of the global total. Of American scientists, 7 are female, 3.1%.

Europe has 174 globally consequential scientists, 36.5% of the global total. Of European scientists, 5 are female, 2.9%.

What about Scandinavia with among the most accommodating laws regarding women in the workplace? They have 13 globally consequential scientists and none of them are women.

Let's include business as another field.
Global - 4/67. 6.0% are female.

USA - 1/34. 2.9% are female.

Europe - 1/21. 4.8% are female.

Scandinavia - 0/1. 0% are female
These numbers from business and STEM confirms what I have observed in the past. Countries with the most pro-natalist policies, theoretically making it easiest for women to remain in the workforce, also have the lowest levels of female participation and achievement. At first this appears to be either a paradox or an example of unintended consequences.

I think this actually ties back to the underlying attributes of achievement. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that to be distinguished in any field, you have to invest 10,000 hours of practice.

The research I have read indicates to me that while the notion might be directionally right, there are important details. Among the caveats:
The number of hours varies by field of endeavor with more hours required for those fields that are more competitive and fewer hours in less contested fields.

It's not just anyone. You have to have at least some native talent and, even more importantly, some degree of motivation.

It's not just any hours. They have to be focused, purposeful, concentrated and continuous. Putting in 10,000 hours over 20 years doesn't get you close to the performance of someone who has put in 10,000 hours over four years. The hobbyist will not perform at the level of the expert.

Interruptions in practice are highly detrimental.
This is all consistent with the research of Claudia Goldin and others who have found that career advancement and compensation are entirely dependent on hours of purposeful, intense, and continuous work and that there are no measurable consequences attributable to discrimination.

While the popular chatter is about finding ways to reduce the speculated impact of discrimination, all the research indicates that discrimination is not a measurable issue. The research points to different strategies to achieving equal outcomes between the sexes in careers. The first is to change societal norms so that it is equally probable that either the male or the female in a married pair will be the designated secondary career/primary caregiver of the children. The caregiver, male or female, takes a significant career/achievement hit simply because of the hours spent on caregiving. The primary career, male or female, remains free to invest the purposeful, intense, and continuous hours necessary to achieve the exceptional outcomes that are most rewarded.

The second strategy is to change work habits in such a way that exceptional performance can be achieved more quickly than the putative 10,000 hours.

Neither of these strategies is easy, or even probable, which is why the default conversation is about putative discrimination. We can make discrimination illegal. The problem is that gender based discrimination is illegal and has been for fifty years and yet the gender gaps remain. Discrimination is by-and-large a red herring which distracts from the real, but really difficult, actions that could be taken to change the outcomes.

One last cut of the data. Let's include the numbers for Business & Law, Exploration, Humanities, and STEM. These are people who create things. Let's exclude those who are Artistic performers (entertainers) and Sports (entertainers), and governance (Institutions and Public Figures). How many producers are there compared to the number of entertainers/governors?

893/5,859 are producers, 15.2%. That seems dreadfully low. 15% to produce and 85% to govern and entertain? Yikes. What if we were able to invert those numbers? 85% of our globally consequential produced new ideas and knowledge and products and services and only 15% were entertainers or governors. But that's not our world. Not today.

Those who torment us for our own good

From God in the Dock by C.S. Lewis
It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Social status amplifies perception of standards that are not normative to the whole

From College Students Lose Respect for Peers Who Hook Up Too Much by Daniel Fowler.

The research is exploring attitudes towards casual sex on campuses.
The study relied on a subsample of more than 19,000 students from the 2011 Online College Social Life Survey (OCSLS), which includes data from 22 different colleges.
Seems likely this is a self-selected group so all sorts of caveats as to what conclusions might be drawn from the study, particularly as the analysis rests on a single question.

What interests me is how many different ways the findings can be spun. Here are the actual results:
According to the study, approximately 48 percent of the college students in the survey were egalitarian conservatives—meaning they judge men and women with similar sexual histories by the same standard and lose equal respect for members of both genders who they believe hook up too much. In addition, roughly 27 percent of the students surveyed were egalitarian libertarians (i.e., they lose respect for neither men nor women regardless of how much they hook up); nearly 12 percent held a traditional double standard (i.e., they lose respect for women, but not men, for hooking up too much); and approximately 13 percent held a reverse double standard (i.e., they lose respect for men, but not women, for hooking up too much).
The ASA went with:
College Students Lose Respect for Peers Who Hook Up Too Much
Which is true.

But there are other headlines that are true as well:
75% of students apply same standards of sexual behavior to both sexes

Students view promiscuous men more negatively than promiscuous women

25% of students apply double standards to men and women

Large plurality of students condemn promiscuous behavior
The ASA makes a point of pointing out that Male Athletes and male Fraternity members have twice the rate of the traditional double standard. This has the initial feel of a liberal organization condemning those whom they despise and perhaps that is what is at work here. If male Athletes and Fraternity members have such a strong streak of double standard, then there has to be lurking some women with a strong streak of female reverse double standard elsewhere. The article points out that this is the case with sorority members. Since the numbers of sorority members on campus are usually going to be many fewer than the number of athletes plus fraternity members, there statistically have to be a lot of other women with this reverse double standard. The article doesn't identify or dwell on that issue reinforcing the impression that this is an arbitrary prejudice on the part of the researchers against males.

That said though, there is a good point that they make arising from the male discrepancy.
While the majority of men did not hold a traditional double standard, male athletes and Greek affiliated men were more likely than men who were neither involved in campus athletics nor engaged in Greek life, to negatively evaluate women, but not men, for frequent hooking up. Thirty-eight percent of male athletes and 37 percent of Greek affiliated men in the study held a traditional double standard. The authors suggested that Greek culture tended to permeate university culture, leading many to erroneously believe that the traditional double standard was the most common view of hooking up on campus.

“Because Greek brothers and athletes tend to be at the top of the social stratification ladder—the big guys on campus—we see this adversarial double standard infused in people’s perceptions of college and hook up culture,” said Barbara Risman, co-author of the study and a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “These men, who are in fact the minority, end up holding a great deal of social power on campus.”
An interesting hypothesis of how social status amplifies perception of standards that are not normative to the whole.

Their dispute is not with the quality of your argument but with the outcome of your argument

Paul Graham posts on Economic Inequality.
I'm interested in this topic because I was one of the founders of a company called Y Combinator that helps people start startups. Almost by definition, if a startup succeeds its founders become rich. Which means by helping startup founders I've been helping to increase economic inequality. If economic inequality is bad and should be decreased, I shouldn't be helping founders. No one should be.

But that doesn't sound right. So have we just shown, by reductio ad absurdum, that it's false that economic inequality is bad and should be decreased? That doesn't sound right either. How can economic inequality not be bad? Surely it's bad that some people are born practically locked into poverty, while at the other extreme fund managers exploit loopholes to cut their income taxes in half.

The solution to this puzzle is to realize that economic inequality is not just one thing. It consists of some things that are very bad, like kids with no chance of reaching their potential, and others that are good, like Larry Page and Sergey Brin starting the company you use to find things online.

If you want to understand economic inequality—and more importantly, if you actually want to fix the bad aspects of it—you have to tease apart the components. And yet the trend in nearly everything written about the subject is to do the opposite: to squash together all the aspects of economic inequality as if it were a single phenomenon.

Sometimes this is done for ideological reasons. Sometimes it's because the writer only has very high-level data and so draws conclusions from that, like the proverbial drunk who looks for his keys under the lamppost, instead of where he dropped them, because the light is better there. Sometimes it's because the writer doesn't understand critical aspects of inequality, like the role of technology in wealth creation. Much of the time, perhaps most of the time, writing about economic inequality combines all three.
As I have noted many times, I believe that the income inequality debate is often ill-informed and to a large degree irrelevant. The underlying issue is productivity. Graham makes a similar, though better articulated and more refined, point.

Graham's post excited some heated responses which often seemed to miss his point. His response was to rewrite his post in very simple prose. I very much doubt that increased clarity resolved his critics concerns because their vitriol was not excited by the clarity and quality of his argument but because it confounded their beliefs.

Nathan Taylor used this kerfuffle as a launchpad for a meditation on writing and clarity.

The pursuit of clarity is age old. From Book VIII, Chapter II, 24, De Institutione Oratoria by Quintilian in 95 AD.
We should not speak so that it is possible for the audience to understand us, but so that it is impossible for them to misunderstand us.
To which Karl Popper argued in Unended Quest
Always remember that it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood: there will always be some who misunderstand you.
In the age of the internet, we have to go a step further and acknowledge that you cannot write so clearly that those who wish to misunderstand you cannot misunderstand you in extravagant ways.

In making his argument Taylor invokes the first two of Tyler Cowen's Three Laws:
1. Cowen’s First Law: There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it).

2. Cowen’s Second Law: There is a literature on everything.

3. Cowen’s Third Law: All propositions about real interest rates are wrong.
Taylor shortens Cowens Laws to the more general:
There is a literature on everything.

There are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it.
Taylor has a good exploration of the issues and ends up with a slightly different formulation:
1) know and allude to the existing literature,
2) show your mastery by acknowledging the major flaws in your argument.
I like that version.

Taylor's discussion is interesting and worthwhile but I think it fails to acknowledge that to which I alluded to earlier. He is assuming that people are arguing in good faith as fellow seekers of the truth. He thinks that Graham simply failed to be clear.

I think that is generous but misses two issues. The first is that some people simply know less than others. Their arguments are not on a level playing field. This is a common issue with many manifestations. Why do we hang around with people of our own sort? Because we don't have to explain predicates and axioms that we all widely share. We speak in shorthand without having to revisit fundamentals. When you reach across to others without the same knowledge base, experience base, skill base, values base, behaviors base, and motivation base, you are speaking across a great distance. A priori, when speaking to an unknown audience, you don't know just how great a distance it might be.

But the greater the distance, the more you have to invest in covering and justifying statements that are already believed (by you and your ilk) to be true. It is a lot more work with a lot greater risk of misunderstanding. With greater cost comes lower return. Hence, we talk to people that share our own knowledge, experience, skills, values, behaviors and motivations. It is simply easier and more rewarding. Much misunderstanding arises, I believe, from speaking across this epistemological divide, particularly when one or both parties fail to realize that there is indeed such a divide.

The second issue is that there are some/many who simply aren't buying what you are selling. Your argument may be well researched, logically framed, cognizant of context, clear about weak points, counterarguments and trade-offs and might be well articulated. But if it doesn't comport with a listener's belief system, then it will be attacked regardless. Their dispute is not with the quality of your argument but with the outcome of your argument.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Multilingualism subjected to rigorous review

Having grown up overseas and then having lived and worked internationally in my adulthood, I have, all my life been washed by other languages. I lived in Venezuela as small child and understand that I had some proficiency in Spanish though it is long gone, evidenced only by a smattering of words.

By my best reckoning I have had formal instruction in five languages with varying degrees of proficiency attained: French, German, Swedish, Arabic and Latin. In my middle years as a child, I attended an international school in Stockholm, Sweden where, in any given year, there were children from 40-60 countries represented. While English was the school language, there was a babble from around the globe.

I always admired those among my peers with language proficiency. If I worked hard, I became somewhat proficient but it was never very fluent and always disappeared without continued use. Friends of mine, on the other hand, seemed to absorb language osmotically. One week they were new to the country and then, a couple of months later, they were speaking like a native. I had great admiration for that talent.

Circulating in the background over the years has always been the rumor/conjecture/hypothesis that speaking multiple languages was beneficial in more than utilitarian ways. That it increased empathy, allowed you better perspective, enhanced capabilities, that it postponed the effects of mental aging. I was never confident that my awkward stumbling through languages other than English ever counted towards these effects, but it always seemed reasonable that those effects might be real. I occasionally came across counter claims but dismissed it as just the normal background noise to any hypothesis.

Apparently, according to Debate Rages over Whether Speaking a Second Language Improves Cognition by Simon Makin, it is more than simply contested.

It seems that the attractive hypothesis has been subjected to more rigorous testing and the results call it into question. Makin provides what seems to be a balanced account.

The idea that learning to speak two languages is good for your brain has come to be widely accept as fact, particularly in popular media. Studies have shown that bilingual speakers of all ages outperform monolinguals on certain cognitive performance measures. Other studies show delays in the onset of dementia and some even claim enhanced intelligence.

But a handful of attempts to replicate some of these seminal findings have failed to confirm this “bilingual advantage.” The number of studies that have not found a tie between bilingualism and better cognition has risen dramatically over the past few years.

A heated debate over this issue now rages in the research community and has gained prominent attention recently with a series of articles in the journal Cortex. A paper by Kenneth Paap of San Francisco State University and colleagues kicked off the fireworks in August, arguing that the evidence now suggests either no bilingual advantage exists, or it only occurs under certain as yet undetermined circumstances. Twenty-one commentaries and a summary by Paap and colleagues followed in October.

The authors were reacting to the intense optimism about the benefits of bilingualism generated by a large number of studies published over the last decade or so. Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University, Toronto, and her colleagues, produced much of the important early work that helped to dismiss the outdated idea that bilingualism could be detrimental to children's intellectual development. Later studies went further, finding that bilingual children actually perform better than monolinguals in tests of “executive functions” –processes that control thought and behavior and enable complex cognitive tasks like problem solving.


Paap and colleagues identified several problems with this body of evidence. When researchers study groups in natural settings outside the laboratory, they can't control factors that may differ between groups, such as socioeconomics, immigrant status, and cultural differences. Attempts to match these factors among groups or account for them statistically are inevitably imperfect, leaving the possibility that differences in performance are due something other than language skills. An even thornier problem has to do with causality. Does being bilingual influence cognition, or does a person's cognitive ability affect the probability of acquiring multiple languages?

The researchers also collected the results of all tests comparing executive functions between bilinguals and monolinguals published since 2011, finding that 83 percent of them found no difference between the two groups. There was also a tendency for studies with positive results to have used smaller samples, whereas those using larger study populations were more likely to find no effect. Smaller sample sizes have a greater probability of producing a spurious result by chance.
Both these latter issues show up in a lot of other social sciences studies. Reality is different from the lab and claimed effects disappear, the larger and more random and representative become the sampled population.

Indisputably there is always some utilitarian value to a second language. I do think that it does broaden your perspective as well, particularly languages which are not somewhat related to your native tongue (Arabic and Latin, for example, rather than German and Swedish). As to the rest, empathy, executive control, postponed dementia - guess we have to wait and see. The truth is out there.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Reality is not a friend of generosity

An excellent post from How much social mobility do people really want? by Richard V. Reeves and Nathan Joo describing positive aspirations and incoherent goals. Read the whole thing.

Four out of ten children born at the bottom will remain there as adults—and about the same stickiness can be seen at the top. In a world of ‘perfect’ relative social mobility, each person, regardless of background, would have precisely a 20 percent chance of ending up in each quintile.


But no such ‘20 percent society’ like this has ever existed, and we wouldn’t want it to. Many of the mechanisms leading to the inheritance of status are legitimate, even laudable, such as committed and engaged parenting, an emphasis on education, and the transmission of productive values.

On the other hand, most observers would consider a world in which status was completely dependent on origins—a caste system, in other words—as morally objectionable.


So, if 20 percent is too low, and 100 percent is too high, what would the ‘right’ figure be?

Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich have taken the radical step of asking ordinary people. Respondents were first asked to estimate rates of upward mobility from the bottom quintile, and downward mobility from the top. In general, people overestimate the degree of social fluidity.

Of more interest, however, is the second set of questions on the rates of upward and downward mobility people that would consider ideal. Respondents were split into liberals and conservatives in order to highlight ideological differences.


Americans across the ideological spectrum want to see people born at the bottom to rise up the income ladder to a much greater extent than they do:

In fact, Americans here seem to want something close to the utopian ideal of a 20 percent society.

But when asked about ideal rates of downward mobility from the top quintile, a very different answer emerges. Americans are against people being stuck in poverty, but are much less worried about the persistence of relative affluence. In fact, the ideal rate of stickiness at the top closely mirrors the real data.

This is not the result of conservativism—in fact, liberal respondents were slightly more in favor of the perpetuation of upper middle class than conservatives.

But—here’s the bad news—relative mobility is a zero-sum game

Psychologically, these findings make perfect sense. The idea of people losing ground is much less appealing than the idea of people moving up. But they create mathematical difficulties. Davidai and Gilovich forced their respondents to make their ideal categories add up to 100 percent, but only asked about the top and bottom quintiles. Alert readers will already have noticed a problem here. If the bottom quintile is full of Horatio Alger figures, but the top quintile is fairly persistent, this is probably bad news for the people in between.

Liberals want 14 percent of the bottom quintile to rise to the top, but also want 43 percent of those born at the top to stay there. That’s 57 percent of the top-quintile slots accounted for. This leaves only 43 percent left for all of those from quintiles 2, 3 and 4. That’s 14 percent each—the same as for the bottom quintile. To ensure that almost half of the kids of the upper middle class can stay there, even liberals seem to want kids from every other rung of the ladder to have just a one in seven chance of reaching the top quintile.
This is the classic issue of trade-offs. It is also an illustration, I think, that most people don't know what they are talking about when it comes to relative and absolute issues of income inequality and income mobility. We want people to be able to rise up but we don't want people to slide down. That is very generous but reality is not a friend of generosity.

This is why I think the focus on income inequality is a red herring. Help people improve their productivity first. Make that the primary focus. You can't micro-manage a system as complex as human aspirations and the free market to arrive at a pre-ordained "fair" level of income mobility. You will kill the goose and people won't be happy with the outcome anyway because they want everyone to be above average. An outcome precluded by reality.

Fame and accomplishment

From Is fame fair? by Amy Yu and César A. Hidalgo reporting on this original research, Pantheon 1.0, a manually verified dataset of globally famous biographies by Amy Zhao Yu, Shahar Ronen, Kevin Hu, Tiffany Lu & César A. Hidalgo.
Is fame superficial? Or can it be a signal of accomplishment?

In a world where many media outlets seem dominated by characters of inexplicable fame (such as the Kardashians), asking ourselves if our social reward systems are misfiring is both a fair question and a relevant one. The relevance of this question stems from the fact that humans are social learners – we are a species whose success depends on the ability of individuals to learn from others. But choosing whom to learn from, in a world populated by more people than we can meet, is not easy. To facilitate those choices, humans have evolved cognitive biases that nudge us to learn from those who demonstrate skill, accomplishments, and also, fame or prestige[1].

So the question of whether social recognition is fairly attributed is relevant, because a world that attributes popularity unfairly is also a world where people are nudged to learn from inadequate models.

But the conspicuous fame of teen icons and reality show celebrities is not enough evidence to conclude that our social rewards systems have gone berserk. To test this conclusion we need statistical evidence, instead of anecdotes, since these examples could well be outliers in what is otherwise a world where the correlation between fame and accomplishment is strong. But how can we test that alignment? Do we even have the data that we can use to create proxy measures for fame and accomplishment?

In our paper published today in Scientific Data, we introduce the Pantheon 1.0 dataset, a dataset that measures the historical fame of all of the individuals in human history that are recorded in more than 25 languages[2] in Wikipedia. The Pantheon 1.0 dataset annotates each individual with their occupation, demographics (year and country of birth), and several metrics of popularity (derived from the number of language editions in Wikipedia and the pageviews received across different languages). But what makes the Pantheon dataset special is that it focuses on a multilingual corpus (more than 200 language editions of Wikipedia), and it introduces a detailed taxonomy of occupations that classifies biographies into 88 distinct categories. The multilingual nature of the Pantheon dataset allows us to focus on globally famous individuals, while discarding those who are only locally famous (for instance, most American Football Players, who are popular in the United States, but unknown for the rest of the world, do not make the cut). Our taxonomy of occupations, on the other hand, allows us to identify individuals that have made similar contributions, allowing us to test the alignment between fame and accomplishment for narrowly defined groups of individuals.
Read the rest of the article for further details. The researchers have done a good job of trying their best to remove biases of one sort or another. Charles Murray had a go at this back in 2004 with Human Accomplishment. His effort was understandable and well intentioned but the various compromises he had to make given the data sources with which he was working made the conclusions reasonable but suspect.

Based on the new data from Ye at al, does fame correlate with accomplishment? Yes!
In all cases we find a positive correlation between accomplishments and fame, meaning that more accomplished athletes tend to be also the most famous ones.
Yu et al go a reasonable way towards addressing some of the more structural issues faced by Murray. They are also very forthright about the limitations. There are two structural issues which they don't discuss much but which I suspect are material.

The first issue is that any one individual, in their approach, is slotted in a single category of achievement. There are individuals whose fame is for other reasons than just the field of their accomplishment and there are individuals who have multiple fields of accomplishment without associated fame.

As an example of the first issue take the anomaly that they point out.
Of course, there are clear outliers, like Anna Kournikova in tennis, who is more popular than what her accomplishments can explain.
Kournikova was accomplished as a tennis player but she was also blessed with good looks and a post-tennis celebrity status that almost certainly explains the discrepancy between achievement and fame.

An example of the second category are people who have achievements in multiple fields. Edwin Land who was a scientist, inventor and businessman with significant accomplishments in all three fields but apparently insufficient collectively to make the grade for this data set.

Finally there are those who one might argue deserve fame and recognition for the impact of their accomplishments but who have never received it. This is theoretically a real issue but the first five names I thought to test actually do show up on the list.

So there are still issues but this is a good move forwards. I tested a couple of hypotheses.

Over the years I have observed that in most fields of contemporary accomplishment women usually represent about 15-30% of the top performers in any given field. This has primarily to do with hours invested in the endeavor and continuity of effort over the years. High achievement is usually achieved primarily through endless hours of practice.

Does that rule of thumb play out with the new data set? Yes.

For the whole data set, 13% of the 11,341 exceptional performers are women. However, the dataset goes back 2,000 years. What about in contemporary times? I limited the search those born after 1945 as a demarcation of the modern era. With that restriction, 22% of the exceptional performers are women, smack in the middle of the range I had observed.

Interesting. From this whole database, we can conclude that if you are famous, there is a good chance that you are also accomplished. However, there is a missing element. We don't know whether, if you are accomplished, that will lead to fame.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Reminding moral philosophers of truths about human life which are very well known to virtually all adult human beings except moral philosophers

Just read Add Your Own Egg by Nakul Krishna and found it thought provoking.

One line of thought seems only tangentially related to the essay but here it is none-the-less.

We all face limits and the most common limit is that of time. Not only do we have limited time, we are uncertain as to the extent of that limit. Do we have three score and ten years to accomplish whatever it might be that we believe to be important to accomplish? Or do we have just a couple of decades? That difference in expectation changes the goals we set ourselves, the priorities within multiple valuable goals and the actions we are willing to undertake to achieve them. We lead a different life depending on that time expectation.

The fundamental anticipation of where the finishing line lies shapes all else. There is a time discount factor. If you have a high discount factor (i.e. a short duration remaining), then your list of priorities changes and the risks you are willing to take become higher. If you have a low time discount, you anticipate a long course to follow. Goals change in nature and prioritization and in urgency. You can afford to take incremental steps.

Where do you get your sense of time limit? Presumably a portion of that is a genetic predisposition. But how much? I suspect that culture - familial, religious, social - is to some degree a contributor, likely a significant one.

Separate from the thoughts prompted above, there were some good passages. Krishna introduces me to Bernard Williams of whom I had not heard before. Emphasis added.
Intensely successful by any conventional measure, Williams was nevertheless given to thoughts of failure. His work, he once remarked to a friend over whiskey in an American bar, had “consisted largely of reminding moral philosophers of truths about human life which are very well known to virtually all adult human beings except moral philosophers.” He sounds here a little like Wittgenstein, who famously told his most promising students to do something, anything, other than philosophy, the urge to philosophize being a kind of malady. Williams actually had contempt for “vulgar Wittgensteinianism,” which he believed “makes an academic philosophy out of denouncing academic philosophy.” Wittgenstein, however, had been right to see that “there was one problem that was everyone’s problem, an emptiness and cruel superficiality of everyday thought, which a better philosophy certainly could not cure, but which it might stand against.”
I think there is a valuable discipline of thinking in philosophy - up to a point. Beyond that it is academic positioning and self-manufactured controversies. I have employed and worked with a number of people with philosophy backgrounds and all of them were interesting and productive individuals. So different from those who undertake the long haul of making academic philosophy a career.

Another observation from Williams:
analytic argument, the philosopher’s speciality, can … play a part in sharpening perception. But the aim is to sharpen perception, to make one more acutely and honestly aware of what one is saying, thinking and feeling.
To sharpen perception, not necessarily to win the argument. To understand, not arguing as a means to control others. For whatever reason, it seems like a lot of philosophy, or perhaps, rather, philosophers end up answering the siren call of totalitarianism.

Los Angeles Center, Aspen 20, can you give us a ground speed check?

A great story of competition, team building, and human nature. Via SR-71 Blackbird Pilot Trolls Arrogant Fighter Pilot with Ground Speed Check by Anonymous.
There were a lot of things we couldn’t do in an SR-71, but we were the fastest guys on the block and loved reminding our fellow aviators of this fact. People often asked us if, because of this fact, it was fun to fly the jet. Fun would not be the first word I would use to describe flying this plane. Intense, maybe. Even cerebral. But there was one day in our Sled experience when we would have to say that it was pure fun to be the fastest guys out there, at least for a moment.

It occurred when Walt and I were flying our final training sortie. We needed 100 hours in the jet to complete our training and attain Mission Ready status. Somewhere over Colorado we had passed the century mark. We had made the turn in Arizona and the jet was performing flawlessly. My gauges were wired in the front seat and we were starting to feel pretty good about ourselves, not only because we would soon be flying real missions but because we had gained a great deal of confidence in the plane in the past ten months. Ripping across the barren deserts 80,000 feet below us, I could already see the coast of California from the Arizona border. I was, finally, after many humbling months of simulators and study, ahead of the jet.

I was beginning to feel a bit sorry for Walter in the back seat. There he was, with no really good view of the incredible sights before us, tasked with monitoring four different radios. This was good practice for him for when we began flying real missions, when a priority transmission from headquarters could be vital. It had been difficult, too, for me to relinquish control of the radios, as during my entire flying career I had controlled my own transmissions. But it was part of the division of duties in this plane and I had adjusted to it. I still insisted on talking on the radio while we were on the ground, however. Walt was so good at many things, but he couldn’t match my expertise at sounding smooth on the radios, a skill that had been honed sharply with years in fighter squadrons where the slightest radio miscue was grounds for beheading. He understood that and allowed me that luxury.

Just to get a sense of what Walt had to contend with, I pulled the radio toggle switches and monitored the frequencies along with him. The predominant radio chatter was from Los Angeles Center, far below us, controlling daily traffic in their sector. While they had us on their scope (albeit briefly), we were in uncontrolled airspace and normally would not talk to them unless we needed to descend into their airspace.

We listened as the shaky voice of a lone Cessna pilot asked Center for a readout of his ground speed. Center replied: “November Charlie 175, I’m showing you at ninety knots on the ground.”

Now the thing to understand about Center controllers, was that whether they were talking to a rookie pilot in a Cessna, or to Air Force One, they always spoke in the exact same, calm, deep, professional, tone that made one feel important. I referred to it as the ” Houston Center voice.” I have always felt that after years of seeing documentaries on this country’s space program and listening to the calm and distinct voice of the Houston controllers, that all other controllers since then wanted to sound like that, and that they basically did. And it didn’t matter what sector of the country we would be flying in, it always seemed like the same guy was talking. Over the years that tone of voice had become somewhat of a comforting sound to pilots everywhere. Conversely, over the years, pilots always wanted to ensure that, when transmitting, they sounded like Chuck Yeager, or at least like John Wayne. Better to die than sound bad on the radios.

Just moments after the Cessna’s inquiry, a Twin Beech piped up on frequency, in a rather superior tone, asking for his ground speed. “I have you at one hundred and twenty-five knots of ground speed.” Boy, I thought, the Beechcraft really must think he is dazzling his Cessna brethren. Then out of the blue, a navy F-18 pilot out of NAS Lemoore came up on frequency. You knew right away it was a Navy jock because he sounded very cool on the radios. “Center, Dusty 52 ground speed check”. Before Center could reply, I’m thinking to myself, hey, Dusty 52 has a ground speed indicator in that million-dollar cockpit, so why is he asking Center for a readout? Then I got it, ol’ Dusty here is making sure that every bug smasher from Mount Whitney to the Mojave knows what true speed is. He’s the fastest dude in the valley today, and he just wants everyone to know how much fun he is having in his new Hornet. And the reply, always with that same, calm, voice, with more distinct alliteration than emotion: “Dusty 52, Center, we have you at 620 on the ground.”

And I thought to myself, is this a ripe situation, or what? As my hand instinctively reached for the mic button, I had to remind myself that Walt was in control of the radios. Still, I thought, it must be done – in mere seconds we’ll be out of the sector and the opportunity will be lost. That Hornet must die, and die now. I thought about all of our Sim training and how important it was that we developed well as a crew and knew that to jump in on the radios now would destroy the integrity of all that we had worked toward becoming. I was torn.

Somewhere, 13 miles above Arizona, there was a pilot screaming inside his space helmet. Then, I heard it. The click of the mic button from the back seat. That was the very moment that I knew Walter and I had become a crew. Very professionally, and with no emotion, Walter spoke: “Los Angeles Center, Aspen 20, can you give us a ground speed check?” There was no hesitation, and the replay came as if was an everyday request. “Aspen 20, I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across the ground.”

I think it was the forty-two knots that I liked the best, so accurate and proud was Center to deliver that information without hesitation, and you just knew he was smiling. But the precise point at which I knew that Walt and I were going to be really good friends for a long time was when he keyed the mic once again to say, in his most fighter-pilot-like voice: “Ah, Center, much thanks, we’re showing closer to nineteen hundred on the money.”

For a moment Walter was a god. And we finally heard a little crack in the armor of the Houston Center voice, when L.A.came back with, “Roger that Aspen, Your equipment is probably more accurate than ours. You boys have a good one.”

It all had lasted for just moments, but in that short, memorable sprint across the southwest, the Navy had been flamed, all mortal airplanes on freq were forced to bow before the King of Speed, and more importantly, Walter and I had crossed the threshold of being a crew. A fine day’s work. We never heard another transmission on that frequency all the way to the coast.

For just one day, it truly was fun being the fastest guys out there.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Wicked and tame, another face for determinism versus probability

I came across the term "wicked problem" some long while ago. Got around to investigating it just recently. It is the term used to cover what I have been calling complex, dynamic, nonlinear systems with hidden feedback mechanisms. Systems which are poorly understood and difficult to manage.

Atul Gawande in Something Wicked This Way Comes provides a good discussion.
In 1973, two social scientists, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, defined a class of problems they called “wicked problems.” Wicked problems are messy, ill-defined, more complex than we fully grasp, and open to multiple interpretations based on one’s point of view. They are problems such as poverty, obesity, where to put a new highway—or how to make sure that people have adequate health care.

They are the opposite of “tame problems,” which can be crisply defined, completely understood, and fixed through technical solutions. Tame problems are not necessarily simple—they include putting a man on the moon or devising a cure for diabetes. They are, however, solvable. Solutions to tame problems either work or they don’t.

Solutions to wicked problems, by contrast, are only better or worse. Trade-offs are unavoidable. Unanticipated complications and benefits are both common. And opportunities to learn by trial and error are limited. You can’t try a new highway over here and over there; you put it where you put it. But new issues will arise. Adjustments will be required. No solution to a wicked problem is ever permanent or wholly satisfying, which leaves every solution open to easy polemical attack.
The original paper is Dilemmas in a General Theory by Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber. The abstract of their paper is:
The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are "wicked" problems, whereas science has developed to deal with "tame" problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about "optimal solutions" to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no "solutions" in the sense of definitive and objective answers.
What Rittel and Webber appear to focus on is what I have distinguished, analogizing to physics, as problem solving based in Newtonian mechanistic determinism versus problem solving that is based in Maxwellian probability and uncertainty.

But I like the succinctness of wicked versus tame. I am not aware that the terminology is widely used but it is pertinent to a wide realm of argument. I think many people struggle to keep the two frames (Newtonian and Maxwellian) in play at the same time and end up defaulting to one (usually mechanistic determinism) or the other.

Take gender pay discrepancies as an example. Many feminists argue that there is a pay differential between men and women something on the order of 70 cents to the dollar, i.e. women are paid 70 cents for the same work as men. This position has long been debunked. When you add up all the money women earn, it is indeed about 70% of that which men earn. But the simple aggregation masks multiple issues that drive the difference such as education choice, industry choice, hours worked, continuity of work, etc. When you look at single men and single women of the same age without children, they earn the same amount.

If the position is refuted, why does the canard remain in circulation, and why is it so passionately believed?

I think the answer resides in the Newtonian versus Maxwellian framing.

It is indisputably the case that across an economy with some 120 million workers that there are instances of discrimination based on sex but also on race, ethnicity, age, class, region, accent, religion, orientation, manners, and myriad other factors. Not only are there instances of individual discrimination but there will also be instances of systemic discrimination. Surely that bares out the feminist position? If you frame things solely in mechanistic determinism terms, then the answer would have to be yes. Discrimination at the individual level must mean that the system is discriminatory.

The Maxwellians, in defending the system averages, argue that you can have instances of discrimination at the individual level that won't show up at the system level if the instances of individual discrimination are random. Say there are 10,000 people in an industry, all single and without children and of the same education attainment and of the same work patterns. Yes, you might be able to come up with a 100 instances of clearly discriminatory behavior against women in terms of compensation. But if there are also a 100 instances of clearly discriminatory behavior against men in terms of compensation, then the two populations cancel out. At a system level, there is no measurable evidence of discrimination.

Advocates who are Newtonian thinkers will find instances of discrimination and from those instances, mechanistically and deterministically conclude that the entire system is discriminatory. It isn't.

The Maxwellians would concede that there might be individual instances of discrimination, which ought to be stamped out, but that as long as instances of discrimination are non-material and randomly distributed, then you can still have an overall system that is clearly nondiscriminatory.

Wicked versus tame problems are real by their nature, regardless of the terminology used to define them. But they also exist because of human inclination to default to mechanistic determinism when more often, with complex systems, probability and uncertainty prevail.

Conspiracy versus chance

I have little regard for conspiracy theories and conspiracists. That said, it is easy to see why, in large complex systems, people arrive at the conspiratorial conclusions that they do. And sometimes they are right.

For example, a few years ago there was the Journolist incident. It is well documented that members of the mainstream media lean strongly to the left on the political spectrum and it has long been a trope on the right that that monolithic orientation led to coordination among journalists as to what stories to print and how to spin them. Others argued that the appearance of coordination can arise in large systems simply through randomness and bias and without coordination. I subscribe to that position.

From Wikipedia:
JournoList (sometimes referred to as the J-List)[1] was a private Google Groups forum for discussing politics and the news media with 400 "left-leaning"[2] journalists, academics and others. Ezra Klein created the online forum in February 2007 while blogging at The American Prospect and shut it down on June 25, 2010 amid wider public exposure.
Even Wikipedia can't quite bring itself to say that there was a conspiracy, watering down the description as
Right-leaning journalists later pointed out various off-color statements made by members of the list denigrating conservatives, as well as a seeming conspiracy to prop up then Presidential candidate Barack Obama.
It wasn't a seeming conspiracy. It was a conspiracy.
On July 20, 2010, The Daily Caller (DC) published the dialog of the JournoList concerning Jeremiah Wright.[7] The contributors discussed killing the Wright story, as it was reflecting negatively on Barack Obama. In a separate discussion, about an ABC News-sponsored debate between Obama and Hillary Clinton, Michael Tomasky, a writer for The Guardian, also tried to rally his fellow members of JournoList: “Listen folks – in my opinion, we all have to do what we can to kill ABC and this idiocy in whatever venues we have. This isn’t about defending Obama. This is about how the [mainstream media] kills any chance of discourse that actually serves the people".[7] James Taranto observed that one JournoList contributor, Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent, stated "If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they've put upon us. Instead, take one of them — Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares – and call them racists".[8]
As Aristotle said, "One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day." No matter what the original intent of the founding of Journolist might have been, it is documented that it became a forum for those of a like mind to kill off unflattering stories and spin others in a fashion more sympathetic to the journalist's causes. Journolist was the poster child for conspiracy theorists.

I accept that there can be and probably are mechanisms by which subsets of journalists and editors can formally coordinate with one another. As Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations:
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty or justice.
It is the nature of the human beast. However, I still argue that the overwhelming majority of instances where there seems to be bias in reporting (or bias in selection of what to report) is most likely to arise from epistemological closure (also known as the echo chamber) arising from uniformity of bias rather than from actual conspiracy.

But then something like this comes along which, while not refuting my position, makes it more tenuous.

Click to access both messages.

Virtually the same message. OK, that can be the epistemological closure.

Virtually the same wording. Perhaps they had a conversation in which this arose as a topic and they are accidentally echoing one another's words.

Virtually the same timing. One minute apart. OK, that's harder. But in a large system with many parts, there are always improbable realities (see the Birthday Paradox where in a room of 23 randomly selected people, there is a 50-50 chance that two of them have the same birthday.)

Any one of those things can be rationalized. But virtually the same message in virtually the same words at virtually the same time? Those odds get pretty astronomical.

I am comfortable that my default position is the closest to the truth but I have to acknowledge that it doesn't always reconcile with all the evidence all the time.