Thursday, June 30, 2016

They continue to receive information only through the most tenuous chains of rumor, hearsay, haphazard trickledown.

Joan Didion has long been on the periphery of my awareness. Fiction writer, essayist, exemplar of New Journalism. That was about it. Since I am not much of a fiction reader, she has never been high on my priorities.

In a used bookstore the other day, I came across a $2 paperback edition of The White Album, her second collection of non-fiction essays. Despite a desperate lack of space for more books, for $2 I'll try a new author.

Glad I did.

Wonderful passages of her observations about California and the US 1968-72 which were harbingers of things to come. Many of her sharp passages describe our circumstances today. Bitter fruit borne of naive ideas back then.

Take this extended passage.
Elder Robert J. Theobold, pastor of what was till October 12, 1968, the Friendly Bible Apostolic Church in Port Hueneme, California, is twenty-eight years old, born and bred in San Jose, a native Californian whose memory stream could encompass only the boom years; in other words a young man who until October 12, 1968, had lived his entire life in the nerve center of the most elaborately technological and media-oriented society in the United States, and so the world. His looks and to some extent his background are indistinguishable from those of a legion of computer operators and avionics technicians. Yet this is a young man who has remained immaculate of the constant messages with which a technological society bombards itself, for at the age of sixteen he was saved, received the Holy Spirit in a Pentecostal church. Brother Theobold, as the eighty-some members of his congregation call him, now gets messages only from the Lord, "forcible impressions" instructing him, for example, to leave San Jose and start a church in Port Hueneme, or, more recently, to lead his congregation on the 12th of October, 1968, from Port Hueneme to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in order to avoid destruction by earthquake.

"We're leaving the 12th but I don't have any message that it's going to happen before the end of 1968," Brother Theobold told me one morning a few weeks before he and his congregation piled their belongings into campers and cars and left California for Tennessee. He was minding the children that morning, and his two-year-old walked around sucking on a plastic bottle while Brother Theobold talked to me and fingered the pages of a tooled-leather Bible. "This one minister I heard, he definitely said it would happen before the end of 1970 but as far as I'm concerned, the Lord has shown me that it's definitely coming but he hasn't shown me when."

I mentioned to Brother Theobold that most seismologists were predicting an imminent major earthquake on the San Andreas Fault, but he did not seem unduly interested: Brother Theobold’s perception of the apocalypse neither began with nor depended upon the empirical. In a way the Pentecostal mind reveals itself most clearly in something like Brother Theobold’s earthquake prophecy. Neither he nor the members of his congregation to whom I talked had ever been particularly concerned by reports in the newspapers that an earthquake was overdue. “Of course we’d heard of earthquakes,” a soft-voiced woman named Sister Mosley told me. “Because the Bible mentions there’ll be more and more toward the end of time.” Nor was there any need to think twice about pulling up stakes and joining a caravan to a small town few of them had ever seen. I kept asking Brother Theobold how he had chosen Murfreesboro, and over and over he tried to tell me: he had “received a telephone call from a man there,” or “God had directed this particular man to call on this particular day.” The man did not seem to have made a direct entreaty to Brother Theobold to bring his flock to Tennessee, but there had been no question in Brother Theobold’s mind that God’s intention was exactly that. “From the natural point of view I didn’t care to go to Murfreesboro at all,” he said. “We just bought this place, it’s the nicest place we ever had. But I put it up to the Lord, and the Lord said put it up for sale. Care for a Dr. Pepper?”

We might have been talking in different languages, Brother Theobold and I; it was as if I knew all the words but lacked the grammar, and so kept questioning him on points that seemed to him ineluctably clear. He seemed to be one of those people, so many of whom gravitate to Pentecostal sects, who move around the West and the South and the Border States forever felling trees in some interior wilderness, secret frontiersmen who walk around right in the ganglia of the fantastic electronic pulsing that is life in the United States and continue to receive information only through the most tenuous chains of rumor, hearsay, haphazard trickledown. In the social conventions by which we now live there is no category for people like Brother Theobold and his congregation, most of whom are young and white and nominally literate; they are neither the possessors nor the dispossessed. They participate in the national anxieties only through a glass darkly. They teach their daughters to eschew makeup and to cover their knees, and they believe in divine healing, and in speaking in tongues. Other people leave towns like Murfreesboro, and they move into them. To an astonishing extent they keep themselves unviolated by common knowledge, by the ability to make routine assumptions; when Brother Theobold first visited Murfreesboro he was dumbfounded to learn that the courthouse there had been standing since the Civil War. “The same building” he repeated twice, and then he got out a snapshot as corroboration. In the interior wilderness no one is bloodied by history, and it is no coincidence that the Pentecostal churches have their strongest hold in places where Western civilization has its most superficial hold. There are more than twice as many Pentecostal as Episcopal churches in Los Angeles.
Love that last sentence dagger thrust.

What passes for elite


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Forgotten Emigration

I wasn't aware of this sliver of history. First saw this article, Nightmare in the workers paradise by Tim Tzouliadis.
It was the least heralded migration in American history.

At the height of the Depression, several thousand American emigrants left New York on the decks of passenger liners waving goodbye to the Statue of Liberty, bound for Leningrad.

Over 100,000 Americans had applied for jobs working in brand new factories in Soviet Russia, ironically built for Stalin by famous American industrialists such as Henry Ford.

Those American emigrants who entered the "workers' paradise" were certain that they were leaving the misery of unemployment and poverty behind them. They considered themselves fortunate.

Their optimism would prove to be short-lived. Most were stripped of their American passports soon after their arrival.
Considered suspect by Stalin's paranoid totalitarian state, the foreigners were swept away in the Terror.

The American jazz clubs, the baseball teams, and the English-language schools set up in cities across the USSR, would quickly vanish with them.


At the height of the Terror, the American emigrants had besieged their embassy, begging for passports so they could leave Russia.

They were turned away only to be arrested on the pavement outside by lurking NKVD agents.

Inside, the American diplomats had known about these disappearances almost from the very beginning. But they did little to save their fellow countrymen, whom they had christened "the captured Americans."

The emigrants began their long journey either into the prison cells and the Gulag camps, or the shorter route to the execution grounds.

In the killing fields at Butovo, a suburb 27 kilometres south-east of Moscow, several of the American baseball players were executed during the Terror, and lie buried in mass graves stretching for hundreds of metres.

Thousands were killed in this quiet country backwater, surrounded by trees to muffle their screams.

In its stillness lies the unimaginable horror of the Revolution that has spun out of control.
Curious as to accuracy (100,000 applicants versus how many who actually emigrated?), I dug a little. From In Russia, Early American Migrants Found the Good Life by Ann M. Simmons, it appears that perhaps 18,000 workers emigrated to the Soviet Union.

More detail here, In the Footsteps of a Forgotten Emigration - America, Russia and the Archaeology of Genocide by Tim Tzouliadis.

A better future cannot be reached without some sacrifice of the present

Out of the Brexit Turmoil: Opportunity by Henry Kissinger
Too much of the Europe of today is absorbed in management of structural problems rather than the elaboration of its purposes. From globalization to migration, the willingness to sacrifice is weakening. But a better future cannot be reached without some sacrifice of the present. A society reluctant to accept this verity stagnates and, over the decades, consumes its substance.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

First World Problems in 12th Dynasty Egypt, 3,800 years ago

I visited the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose this past weekend. I have observed an interesting contrast in museums. The magnificent museums in great cities have collections too great to display, half or more of the artifacts are stored in the basement. The collection is wonderful but often the curation is mediocre.

In contrast, out in smaller cities, where the collections, while good, are generally smaller, the curation can often be much stronger.

I have spent many dozens of hours in the British Museum over decades. It is a wonder. I love it.

But at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, the collection is good and more than competently displayed. On top of that they had several very nice touches which I have not seen anywhere else. In particular, they have a life size replica of a multi-chamber tomb of a scribe/priest. Very, very neat to walk through to get a sense of the original setting of the tomb goods and paintings.

One item that especially caught my eye was a translation of the papyrus, Dispute between a Man and His Ba (soul). The brief synopsis is that a man, weighed down by the burdens of life, argues with his soul about his sad condition. His soul argues the opposite case.

There was a particular line, apparently deriving from Miriam Lichtheim's translation that had an odd echo across the millennia.
What do you gain by complaining about life like a wealthy man.
That made me smile. Nearly 4,000 years ago there were First World Problems and the whining one percenters living in their bubbles of privilege were even then a nuisance.


A headline for the ages


From What is more beneficial in life; a high EQ or IQ? by Jordan B Peterson. Peterson is admirably clear.
Well, yes. True.
There is no such thing as EQ. Let me repeat that: "There is NO SUCH THING AS EQ." The idea was popularized by a journalist, Daniel Goleman, not a psychologist. You can't just invent a trait. You have to define it and measure it and distinguish it from other traits and use it to predict the important ways that people vary.

EQ is not a psychometrically valid concept. Insofar as it is anything (which it isn't) it's the Big Five trait agreeableness, although this depends, as it shouldn't, on which EQ measure is being used (they should all measure THE SAME THING). Agreeable people are compassionate and polite, but they can also be pushovers. Disagreeable people, on average (if they aren't too disagreeable) make better managers, because they are straightforward, don't avoid conflict and cannot be easily manipulated.

Let me say it again: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS EQ. Scientifically, it's a fraudulent concept, a fad, a convenient band-wagon, a corporate marketing scheme.
You get the idea.

EQ is a nice Namby Pamby concept. It can be whatever you want it to be. It is cognitive pollution.

On the other hand there is a concept that is hard, replicable, predictive.
IQ is a different story. It is the most well-validated concept in the social sciences, bar none. It is an excellent predictor of academic performance, creativity, ability to abstract, processing speed, learning ability and general life success.

There are other traits that are important to general success, including conscientiousness, which is an excellent predictor of grades, managerial and administrative ability, and life outcomes, on the more conservative side.

It should also be noted that IQ is five or more times as powerful a predictor as even good personality trait predictors such as conscientiousness. The true relationship between grades, for example, and IQ might be as high as r = .50 or even .60 (accounting for 25-36% of the variance in grades). Conscientiousness, however, probably tops out at around r = .30, and is more typically reported as r = .25 (say, 5 to 9% of the variance in grades). There is nothing that will provide you with a bigger advantage in life than a high IQ. Nothing. To repeat it: NOTHING.

In fact, if you could choose to be born at the 95th percentile for wealth, or the 95th percentile for IQ, you would be more successful at age 40 as a consequence of the latter choice.
Anything else on your mind, Dr. Peterson?
By the way, there is also no such thing as "grit," despite what Angela Duckworth says. Grit is conscientiousness, plain and simple (although probably more the industrious side than the orderly side). All Duckworth and her compatriots did was fail to notice that they had re-invented a very well documented phenomena, that already had a name (and, when they did notice it, failed to produce the appropriate mea culpas. Not one of psychology's brighter moments). A physicists who "re-discovered" iron and named it melignite or something equivalent would be immediately revealed as ignorant or manipulative (or, more likely, as ignorant and manipulative), and then taunted out of the field.
Heh. I suspect that Dr. Peterson scores pretty high on the "doesn't suffer fools gladly" scale.

And rightly so. Here's the enticing emotional concept of EQ that makes such a compelling narrative and that is empirically bankrupt.

Looks persuasive doesn't it? But empirically, it isn't true. As long as weak minds are seduced by easy stories, we don't make much progress.

I am not saying that emotions are unimportant. Just that they are hard to measure, difficult to interpret and their causal linkage to outcomes highly context dependent. Take "Empathy", a touted trait in many quarters. Yes, its admirable. But is it useful? Depends on the circumstances. What is useful is having empathy and deploying it appropriately, not some fixed idea of empathy. Say you are a doctor. Empathy might open you to a degree that you can have the capacity to hear something significant in the ramblings of a patient. Great. But much of what a patient says can be blather. Or worse yet, too much empathy might incapacitate you from making the hard diagnostic recommendations that are necessary. Empathy in and of itself is neither good or bad. It is how effectively you use it for the given context.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Glasgow - a case study of the consequences of coercive, centralized planning

From The Glasgow effect: 'We die young here - but you just get on with it' by Karin Goodwin.

Glasgow was an industrial powerhouse of the British Empire, noted for its engineering prowess, shipbuilding and other manufacturing. Glaswegian mechanics and engineers spread across the empire, building roads, building ships, stringing telegraph, etc.

As so often is the case, the cycle of prosperity led to the killing of the goose that laid the golden egg of productivity. The increasing prosperity of the city matched the era when communism still seemed not just feasible but morally compelling. So much so that the epithet Red Clydeside was settled on the shipbuilding district and Glasgow became a by-word for obstreperous, recalcitrant and militant labor unions.

All cities in the developed world have struggled with post-World War II competition and trade. Given the labor circumstances of Glasgow, it was one of the earlier victims. But it wasn't the only one. All cities whose prosperity was solely or dominantly founded on manufacturing and transportation suffered reconfiguration and realignment to the modern services and knowledge economies. In the US, Akron, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York City, Newark, Boston, Trenton, Paterson, Gary, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Birmingham, etc. have all struggled in the transition from predominantly manufacturing to services and knowledge. Newark, Patterson, Detroit have all pretty much failed to make the transition but the others, sometimes rockily, have.

The transition road Glasgow has had to travel is not unfamiliar. What made it far worse were the cultural and political constructs.

The Guardian begins the article painting a scene.
Robert Preston takes the grainy photo – just a few square centimetres and yellowing with age – from his wallet and with a careful thumb and forefinger holds it up to the light.

In the picture he is just seven and his three brothers are aged three to 11, the youngest grave-faced and chubby cheeked. His 14-year-old sister, her dark hair perfectly coiffed, peeps over the tops their heads.

It’s the Glasgow Fair holiday circa 1947 and they are in Dunoon, a coastal town that sits on the Firth of Clyde and a popular “doon the watter” destination for Glaswegians escaping the urban sprawl.

“I’m the only one left now.” The 76-year-old Preston’s tone, who was born in Govan, icon of Glasgow’s shipbuilding heritage on the River Clyde, is matter of fact. Two brothers died of cancer, one of heart complications, and his sister dropped dead in the street after a brain aneurysm.

“I don’t think that’s unusual,” says Preston. “We die young here. But you just take the hand that life deals you and get on with it.”

What he calls fate, some researchers have labelled the “Glasgow effect” – excess mortality that cannot be accounted for by poverty and deprivation alone, and it impacts on everyone in the city.

Glaswegians have a 30% higher risk of dying before they are 65 (considered a premature death) than people in comparable de-industrialised cities such as Liverpool and Manchester. They die from the big killers: cancer, heart disease and strokes, as well as the “despair diseases” of drugs, alcohol and suicide.

And though they have a higher chance of dying prematurely if they are poor, deaths across all ages and social classes are 15% greater. Economic advancement alone will not save your life here.
Urban governance and planning and transitioning from manufacturing to services and knowledge economies are very much human processes no matter how much we treat them as abstract matters of the mind.

The catalyst for the article is new research.
The mystery of Glasgow’s “sick man of Europe” status started to rear its head more than half a century ago. But now, for the first time, researchers from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) claim to have found hard evidence of a number of key factors that explain it.

In a new report, History, politics and vulnerability: explaining excess mortality, they claim a combination of the historic effects of overcrowding, poor city planning decisions throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s and a democratic deficit – or lack of ability to control decisions that affect their lives – are among reasons why Glaswegians are vulnerable to premature death.
There's a lot of good material in the article.

What is striking is what is missing. The Guardian is famously a newspaper of the socialist left. They have some great reporting but it is often blinded by their ideological orientation. This is one of those occasions. There is no mention that virtually all of Scotland has been Labour Party since World War II and the cities were governed by the hard left. Politicians who were quite proud to identify themselves with Communism, Maoism, Socialism, etc. Scotland in general and Glasgow in particular has been a case study of the national effects of leftist policies. Much like contemporary Venezuela. Aside from the leftism of its politics, perhaps the greater issue for Scotland and Glasgow has been the virtual absence of real political competition.

The Guardian has a pro forma swipe at Thatcher but largely the article is simply a chronicle of political governance failure. Indeed, story after story is told of failures in urban planning without ever a comment on the fact that all that planning was done by the supposed best-and-the-brightest with the sincerest intentions of doing good. It all failed. No freedom, no competition, no choices.

Glasgow today is the natural consequence of a series of deliberate policy decisions arising from a political culture and civic institutions mired in pathologically altruistic and coercive central planning.

The Guardian wants to make this an issue of simply choosing the wrong policies. The root causes of Glasgow's condition today is only indirectly a result of bad policies. The systemic root causes are an absence of competition, freedom, and respect for individuals as individual agents of their own decisions.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

I see the problem emerging but not yet the solution

This is interesting when taken in combination with a number of other research reports I have seen recently.

From A Family-Friendly Policy That’s Friendliest to Male Professors by Justin Wolfers.
The underrepresentation of women among the senior ranks of scholars has led dozens of universities to adopt family-friendly employment policies. But a recent study of economists in the United States finds that some of these gender-neutral policies have had an unintended consequence: They have advanced the careers of male economists, often at women’s expense.

Similar patterns probably hold in other disciplines, too.

The central problem is that employment policies that are gender-neutral on paper may not be gender-neutral in effect. After all, most women receive parental benefits only after bearing the burden of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and often, a larger share of parenting responsibilities. Yet fathers usually receive the same benefits without bearing anything close to the same burden. Given this asymmetry, it’s little wonder some recently instituted benefits have given men an advantage.


To combat these disparities, many universities have adopted tenure-extension policies that give new parents greater flexibility. Typically, this means extending the seven-year period of tenure evaluation, usually by an extra year for each child. In practice, these policies are usually gender-neutral, giving dads an extra year to establish their reputations, just like moms. Universities typically adopted such policies in the 1990s and early 2000s, while about one-fifth chose not to do so.
Sound a little cryptic? What they are saying, but trying not to say, is that when male and female academics are both given the same generous parent leave benefits, male academics use that leave to accelerate their academic output above and beyond what they would normally have been able to do with a normal work load while female academics spend the leave taking care of the child.

So what were the results of the family friendly gender neutral parental leave policies that were enacted?
The policies led to a 19 percentage-point rise in the probability that a male economist would earn tenure at his first job. In contrast, women’s chances of gaining tenure fell by 22 percentage points. Before the arrival of tenure extension, a little less than 30 percent of both women and men at these institutions gained tenure at their first jobs. The decline for women is therefore very large. It suggests that the new policies made it extraordinarily rare for female economists to clear the tenure hurdle.
If it is as reported, that is a massive effect size. Before the family friendly policy, 30% of women and 30% of men gained tenure at their first job. After the family friendly policies, the reporting is that 8% of women and 49% of men gained tenure at their first job. I am pretty certain that was not the intended outcome.

The whole article is written from an advocacy perspective. The author, Wolfers, is clearly positioning that parental leave should not be gender neutral but should be held only for mothers. His evidence that the gender neutral policy is not addressing the underlying problem is compelling. One of the advocates interviewed points out, correctly, that:
The problem, said Ms. Davis-Blake, is that “giving birth is not a gender-neutral event,” recalling that during her pregnancy, “I threw up every day.” She argued, “Policies that are neutral in the eyes of a lawyer are not neutral in fact.”
I see this as further evidence to the argument I have been making for some time, that gender policies are often ineffective, have unintended negative consequences, and position women as second class protected citizens without actually delivering the intended benefits. I believe the reason that this is so is because the issue is not about gender but a complex interplay between six realities:
1. Expertise, accomplishment and elevated productivity are, broadly, the result of the amount of purposeful time invested in an effort along with the duration. The more hours you put into the endeavor over the longer the period of time, the more productive you become and the more expert, leading to rewards and recognition. This is true for males and females as illustrated by similar success rates for males and females of comparable background who are both childless.

2. The beneficial outcomes generated by intense purposeful effort are logarithmic in nature and Pareto distributed. In other words, if it takes 10,000 hours of sustained purposeful effort to achieve expertise, the first 8,000 or 9,000 hours won't result in much differentiation in outcome. It is only at the far margins of performance where the results become evident; that is the logarithmic aspect. The Pareto distribution arises from the logarithmic nature of the effort. 80% of the beneficial outcomes (be it income, stock return, rewards, citations, recognition, etc.) will be garnered by 20% of those involved in the field. Regardless of gender. Consequently, everything depends on the capacity to invest an exceptional number of hours over a prolonged period of time to garner the rewards that come with distinctive capability.

This reality gives the lie to the common advice to pursue your passion. If beneficial outcomes in terms of income and recognition are the goal, the actual advice should be pursue your passion to the extent that it is something where you have differential capability and which is in demand by others. If nobody wants it, you won't be rewarded. If you do not have native capability that will yield something at the 8-9,000 mark, it doesn't matter how passionate you are.

3. Childbirth and childcare are inherently disruptive to intense work over long spans of time. The more time off and the longer the disruption, the greater the impact on career outcomes. Hours invested in child welfare and in career welfare are a zero sum game. What one receives the other loses. For individuals, the choices are minimal childcare, outsourced childcare, familial childcare (member of the family looking after the child) or some division of labor with a spouse. Other than minimization, all other strategies involve some diminution of career outcomes. This aspect is essentially a trade-off decision between child welfare and career welfare which are zero sum between them.

4. Familial structure and circumstances is obviously a major determining factor in outcome determination. Childbearing within the context of a family unit is statistically far more beneficial to overall outcomes than is single parent childbearing. Similarly, variance over time (separations, divorces, etc.) is also detrimental to desired outcomes.

5. In addition to the child-career trade-off, and familial structure, there is also a complex familial structure trade-off. Within a family choices are available, often influenced by particular career prospects at the time of childbearing. Do both parents continue working full time with family member or other third party taking up the child caring role? One work full time and the other exit the workforce? Both moderate workforce investment so that both can equally invest in childcare? One work full time and the other work part-time? The list of alternative career and child caring balancing within the family unit are extensive. Some have reasonably well known outcomes and others are less documented. Much depends on estimations of career uncertainties and prospects - estimates which are not necessarily accurate.

6. There is an inherent class inequality in these trade-off decisions. The cost of good childcare is relatively fixed within narrow boundaries regardless of individual circumstances. Given that it is a fixed cost, the overall burden on those with little income and low social capital are excessive, dramatically limiting their capacity to achieve desirable outcomes.
Given these relatively well established facts, I believed it is a chimera to chase after gender discriminatory policies. Women should not receive extra assistance because they have a baby. It is the parent who takes on the primary burden of childcare who should be considered for support, not the gender. I.e. support for the role, not the gender.

But even that is problematic from a philosophical and ethical perspective. A policy that might be neutral at an individual level is likely not neutral when you consider it between family structures. I have observed elsewhere that much of the policy debate is cast as a competition between genders when it is in fact a competition between family structures.

Take, for example, a gender neutral policy such as high quality childcare for everyone. This is a thought experiment, not a practical suggestion. If everyone has access to high quality childcare, the returns are highly differential based on family structure. Single and childless people pay higher taxes but receive no direct benefit. For those with low human, financial, and social capital, it presumably benefits those who might not otherwise be able to work but it does not substantially change their income level.

It won't make any difference for the 30% of mothers who stay home as a choice (i.e. they have chosen child welfare over career welfare). And it won't make much difference to those in the workforce in any sort of non-exceptional career path. The only people for whom such a policy would be materially beneficial are those where one or both of the income earners is in pursuit of the 10,000 hour excellence and cannot afford to see an interruption or decline in the career hour investments.

In other words, looking at career/child trade-off decisions and intra-family structure trade-off decisions, the only people who materially benefit from this seemingly benign and beneficial policy are the 5-10% upper income already highly advantaged people who have chosen good careers and good family structures.

That everyone else should subsidize the already most privileged is obviously not ethically right.

So what is the answer? I don't know. My head hurts. I'll keep chipping away at this. But what the evidence is telling me is that the problem is badly defined in the first place, most of our popular policy remedies are counterproductive or detrimental and we are not ready to talk about real remedies to real problems because most of the current solutions, while detrimental to others, tend to be highly beneficial to the most privileged.

Misandry bias

The article is Artificial Intelligence Has a ‘Sea of Dudes’ Problem by Jack Clark.

It is, to me, an example of the prejudicial bias that the chattering class has against seeing their own prejudicial biases. It is an empirical fact that while it has become ever easier for women to enter STEM (recent studies indicate a bias of 2 to 1 for the female candidate when presented with two equally qualified candidates), there are fewer and fewer women choosing to go into STEM and into the computer sciences in particular and into artificial intelligence in the very particular.

If women, as citizens with agency, are choosing this course, is there a problem? Not on the face of it. There is much research on the value of diversity which produces a scattershot of results which pretty much come down to what you would expect. In general there is little inherent value in diversity (racial, gender, etc.) except in very particular circumstances. Diversity as a goal in and of itself has no real return. Diversity of experience and accomplishment is valuable in particular contexts.

The article posits that there is a problem arising from the fact that the field is numerically dominated by men. I read the article expecting that there would be some examples of why AI is negatively affected by the gender imbalance.

There is not one such example. The premise of the article is that there is a problem with male gender dominance but they are unable to muster a single example of a problem in AI created by such an imbalance.

All the article boils down to is that the reporter does not like that so many men choose to go into AI and so few women do.

There is no problem that needs fixing because, based on evidence advanced in the article, there is no problem in the first place.

Different people make different choices and the author doesn't like those choices.

Not much there, there.

UPDATE: Nursing, Education, Librarians, Sociology, Psychology are all fields overwhelmingly dominated by women. Other than education, there is, as far as I am aware, not much research indicating that the gender skew has any negative consequence. To capture the blindness to their own prejudice, recast the original headline to get a flavor of just how prejudiced and inappropriate the headline is: "Sociology Has a ‘Sea of Dames’ Problem", "Nursing Has a ‘Sea of Dames’ Problem", "Teaching Has a ‘Sea of Dames’ Problem", etc.

There are never any paradoxes. The appearance of what seems to be a paradox is simply the illumination of one’s ignorance.

From the comments section of Intimate partner violence against women and the Nordic paradox by Tyler Cowen. Discussing a new paper which finds:
The Nordic countries are the most gender equal nations in the world, but at the same time, they also have a disproportionately high rate of intimate partner violence against women. This is perplexing because logically violence against women would be expected to drop as women gained equal status in a society. A new study explores this contradictory situation, which has been labeled the ‘Nordic paradox.’
What is the rate in Scandinavia?
Denmark clocks in at about 32%, Finland at 30%, and Sweden at 28%
But what does that compare to? I couldn't access the study and it is remarkable how hard to it is to find objective empirical data comparing countries. The closest I could get was a WHO study which reported non-Latin North America (i.e. Canada and USA), the rate was the lowest in the world at 23%. I'll take the US as 23% compared the Scandinavian rate of 28-32%.

Interesting. I lived in Sweden for five years in the early 1970s. Sweden is a very egalitarian society. I was very familiar with the irony that Scandinavia has very family friendly policies that read like a dream to many third wave feminists in the USA but which result, unintentionally, in women having a much lower presence in competitive fields of endeavor compared to their sisters in the USA.

This is the first time that I have heard of high rates of intimate partner violence in Scandinavia. It runs counter to much that I assume I know about Sweden and the other countries of the region. Alcohol is a perennial issue and I can see that as being perhaps a significant contributor to elevated domestic violence rates but my first instinct is that there must be some definitional or data collection issue instead. The researchers feel like they have controlled for that.

I am perplexed. Experience and assumptions are not matching data. I have to accept some conditionality to my assumptions pending further more robust data.

There is a very wide ranging discussion in the comments section including this from commenter Jason K.
There are never any paradoxes. The appearance of what seems to be a paradox is simply the illumination of one’s ignorance.

The people have spoken, the bastards.*

Post-Brexit there is, of course, much posturing, pedanticism, condemnation, hectoring, allegations of xenophobia, racism, etc.

Of course this was a momentous and consequential decision on the part of the British. The striking thing to me regarding the commentary is the absolute certitude of people on both sides of the debate, particularly on the losing side, the Remainders. Sure, there's sour grapes. They lost. And sure, this result, in the long sequence of political upsets and surprises (American elections in 2010, 2012, rise of the Tea Party, Donald Trump, rise of the far right in much of Europe, etc.), seems to be an endorsement of the theory that the masses are rising against the elites.

But the absolute certainty. In headlines and tweets, in hallway conversations and press conference declarations, there is the predicate assumption that anybody has clear knowledge of what this means and why it occurred. We can guess, we peer into the glass darkly. But with certainty? No one knows what is going on and what will happen and what the likely consequences will be. Could this be devastating to the position of Britain in world affairs and to their economy? Certainly. Could this be the jolt needed to revitalize the economic, political, and cultural vitality of Britain? Certainly. No one knows. We all have reasons for believing it might tilt one way or another, but no one knows. But no one seems to be speaking as if they have any self-awareness of the weakness of the epistemological foundations for their shouted convictions.

I think a rejection of the political class and their crony capitalists (as well as academia and entertainment) by the electorate is one part of the equation. But there is something deeper going on perhaps. Not just a temporal issue that will pass. For fifty years we have had increasingly centralized decision-making, in Washington and in Brussels. But that's a structural issue. I suspect the issue of greater importance is diminution of the assurance that all decisions have been made in a fashion that elicits the consent of the governed.

For Americans, that is central. It's right there in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The right of the people to alter or abolish the status quo seems to me to be a pretty accurate and explicit description of what the British did (voting 52:48 to leave) and certainly the English did (70:30 if you remove the votes of Scotland and Ireland). The conversation in Europe has for the better part of three decades had some elementary concern about a "democracy deficit" when it came to the EU. But no one in the ruling elite ever did anything about it. The cosmopolitan elite in Brussels continued issuing increasingly infantile regulations in a one size fits all fashion with little solicitation or even regard for the opinion of those consenting to be governed. The democracy deficit seems to have finally manifested and the panic among the elite is that the opinions of the electorate in Britain were, based on continental surveys, less extreme than among other European nations. The loss of Britain is a misfortune for the EU but the loss of France, Netherlands and Italy would be careless, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. If all the countries who fund the EU want to leave, then the EU rump simply becomes an unsustainable deficit generator.

Regardless of which form of government is best at generating the consent of the governed, the post-Brexit commentary is focused largely on the idiocy of the voters, leaving the grotesque smell of condescension. The privileged elite, beneficiaries of crony capitalism, rent seeking, and regulatory capture, are fed up with the public and their idiotic opinions. If only they had an electorate worthy of them.

But the question remains - how do we ensure that whatever legislative actions are taken, that they are done with the consent of the governed. The crony capitalist governing elites have been ignoring the electorate for a long time but electorates everywhere seem to be taking action to ensure that their consent is obtained. No matter how much the governing elites (and media and academia) dislike it.

This video Human Dignity and the Freedom to Choose by James R. Otteson seems especially pertinent here. The right of everyone to agency and the willingness and courage to extend respect for that agency even when we disagree with a decision they might make, which we might even think is harmful to them. That respect on the part of the chattering classes is not much in evidence at the moment.

* Dick Tuck concession speech following his loss in the 1966 California State Senate election.

For example, both sides might agree that rocket launchers are a step too far.

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, has always been an idiosyncratic, creative thinker. He has upped his output this election cycle. He is not always right but he is virtually always interesting. One of his gifts is looking at a tired issue from just a slightly different angle and coming up with a startling new perspective. Here is an example based on the gun control issue.

From Why Gun Control Can’t Be Solved in the USA by Scott Adams.
On average, Democrats (that’s my team*) use guns for shooting the innocent. We call that crime.

On average, Republicans use guns for sporting purposes and self-defense.

If you don’t believe me, you can check the statistics on the Internet that don’t exist. At least I couldn’t find any that looked credible.

But we do know that race and poverty are correlated. And we know that poverty and crime are correlated. And we know that race and political affiliation are correlated. Therefore, my team (Clinton) is more likely to use guns to shoot innocent people, whereas the other team (Trump) is more likely to use guns for sporting and defense.

That’s a gross generalization. Obviously. Your town might be totally different.

So it seems to me that gun control can’t be solved because Democrats are using guns to kill each other – and want it to stop – whereas Republicans are using guns to defend against Democrats. Psychologically, those are different risk profiles. And you can’t reconcile those interests, except on the margins. For example, both sides might agree that rocket launchers are a step too far. But Democrats are unlikely to talk Republicans out of gun ownership because it comes off as “Put down your gun so I can shoot you.”

Let’s all take a deep breath and shake off the mental discomfort I just induced in half of my readers. You can quibble with my unsupported assumptions about gun use, but keep in mind that my point is about psychology and about big group averages. If Republicans think they need guns to protect against Democrats, that’s their reality. And if Democrats believe guns make the world more dangerous for themselves, that is their reality. And they can both be right. Your risk profile is different from mine.

So let’s stop acting as if there is something like “common sense” gun control to be had if we all act reasonably. That’s not an option in this case because we all have different risk profiles when it comes to guns. My gun probably makes me safer, but perhaps yours makes you less safe. You can’t reconcile those interests.

Our situation in the United States is that people with different risk profiles are voting for their self-interests as they see it. There is no compromise to be had in this situation unless you brainwash one side or the other to see their self-interest differently. And I don’t see anyone with persuasion skills trying to do that on either side.

Fear always beats reason. So as long as Democrats are mostly using guns to shoot innocent people (intentionally or accidentally) and Republicans are mostly using guns for sport or self-defense, no compromise can be had.

If we had a real government – the kind that works – we would acknowledge that gun violence is not one big problem with one big solution. It is millions of people with different risk profiles voting their self-interest as they see it.

So stop acting like one side is stupid. Both sides of the gun issue are scared, and both have legitimate reasons to be that way. Neither side is “right.”

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Markets distill the biases, opinions, & convictions of elites

An interesting observation.

Mysteries of data display


Great health achievement.

But as always I am fascinated by how we communicate things, particularly in numbers.

One of the standing rules of thumb is to watch the axis. Things get hidden by monkeying around by truncating ranges and other such tricks. Also pay attention to legends.

This is a great example. I would have sped right by without those two heuristics. And I don't think there is anything maliciously misleading going on. But the way the data is presented ends up being misleading even though it is a remarkable and positive story.

The first thing that caught my attention was that the two, nearly identical lines are not labelled. Going to the source data, the solid line is for men and the dotted line is for women. A glancing look makes you think that the cancer rates for women and men have plunged in tandem. And, in a fashion, they have.

But having sorted out the line labelling, you then notice that there are two Y axes with different ranges. The one on the left ranges from 1 to 9 odd and the one on the right ranges from 2 to 17. It takes a second to grasp what is going on.

The Y axis on the left is for women and on the right is for men. Let's follow this through. in 1950, women suffered roughly 9 stomach cancers per 100,000 women whereas men suffered stomach cancers at nearly twice that rate at 17 for 100,000 men.

By using different ranges, the chart hides an important fact. Yes, stomach cancers have decline at the same rate but they started from dramatically different points. Men suffer stomach cancer at nearly twice the rate as women.

And what about today? Looking at the chart, you'd think that men and women have converged to the same cancer rate. But they haven't. Men still suffer stomach cancer at nearly twice the rate as women, but both suffer at a far lower level than in the past. Women 1.45 per 100,000 and Men at 2.68 per 100,000. The ration of male suffers to female suffers has barely budged in 50 years.

This is virtually entirely a good news story, the decline in stomach cancer rates. But there is also a communications story in here.

Why use different Y axes ranges? By doing so you hide that men suffer stomach cancer at twice the rate of women and that hasn't changed in fifty years? By charting the data as they have elected to do, they hide a pretty interesting question. Why do men suffer stomach cancer at twice the rate? Is it simply a gender difference? Do men have sufficiently different diets (eat more red meat, drink more beer?) that that might cause the differential. Is the fact that women live longer than men in some way responsible for the differential? Are there other common organ cancers where there is such a strong variance between the sexes and do others penalize women over men, and if so, which and why?

The only reason I can think of to display the data in the fashion it has been displayed is if one were advocating for the distribution of research money. In other words, men would favor larger investments in stomach cancer research than women simply because of the differential.

But the originating site, HumanProgress, doesn't, at a cursory view, appear to me to be an advocacy group.

So a mystery and a good example of the importance of clear thinking about information display. Properly displayed, the data prompts some interesting and unresolved questions. Displayed as it is, the data suggests that the problem is all but solved.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Productivity has increased dramatically and in a short time frame

More than 700 years of income inequality in the UK measured via income share of the top 5% and Gini, 1980-2010 by Max Roser.

Click to enlarge

Excellent charting of what is a difficult to measure concept.

What is missing is the productivity dimension. Yes, income inequality is blessedly dramatically lower today than it was a hundred years ago. But that just measures the relative difference at the whole society level.

A hundred years ago, if you were in the bottom quintile, maybe the bottom two quintiles, you were border line starvation and even the middle income quintile was financially perilous. When everyone was working at such lower income, absolute income was a greater issue than relative income. It is only since we have become so prosperous so quickly that we have focused (mistakenly) on income inequality rather than what has always been the real root issue, productivity.

I think what these charts bring to the fore is that a hundred years ago poverty and income inequality were tantamount to starvation whereas today, definitional poverty and income inequality are really measures of relative discomfort.

And it is the rapidity of the spread of prosperity which is perhaps most remarkable of all. From top of mind, the bottom income quintile in the US in 2016 have a capital and durable goods consumption profile equivalent of that of the middle income quintile in 1970. There are a lot of people who are alive today with happy childhood memories of being middle income quintile in 1970.

Looking internationally, Mexico today has an average per capita GDP about where the US was in 1950 (from memory). Again, most of us today know someone who can remember the 1950s.

The only point here is that the income in individual and national productivity has increased dramatically and in a short time frame. It is disorienting and easy to lose perspective. Yes there are still poor countries and poor people within countries but what those terms actually mean in real life circumstances are far different from what they meant fifty and a hundred years ago.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Data and interpretation


Very interesting example of the complexity of communication. It would be even more useful to see context and concatenations. For example, how many people who extended their thoughts and prayers also spoke up for civil rights?

Look at all nine examples. While any one person might more or less strongly agree with any particular sentiment, none of them are inherently "wrong." You can certainly read a greater inclination for making political points out of a tragedy among some than others.

This reminds me of word clouds (software that digests a body of text and then represents words in size based on their frequency of use. It is fascinating to read a passage and then see a word cloud representation of that passage. But usually it is hard to intuit a particular interpretation solely of frequency of word usage.

Same with this diagram. You think there must be something there, and there probably is, but it is hard to describe exactly what the represented data is telling you.

Over regulation of business and under regulation of government

Interesting observation.

I would pick at this a bit. Management (adaptive) is better than regulation (fixed) and regulation should be fit for purpose. I.e. more or less as required by circumstances.

File Under: Female Privilege

From Chivalry Is Not Dead When It Comes to Morality from New York University.
We’re More Likely to Protect Women Than We Are Men

We’re more likely to sacrifice a man than a woman when it comes to both saving the lives of others and in pursuing our self-interests, a team of psychology researchers has found.

“Our study indicates that we think women’s welfare should be preserved over men’s,” observes Oriel FeldmanHall, a post-doctoral researcher at New York University and the study’s lead author.

The research, conducted at Cambridge University’s Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and Columbia University, appears in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

In one experiment, study subjects read one of three versions of a “Trolley Dilemma”—a commonly used technique in psychology studies and akin to the “Lifeboat Question” (i.e., if you could save only three of five passengers in a lifeboat, whom would you choose?). In the trolley scenario, subjects read one of three versions of the dilemma, where each vignette described a man, woman, or gender-neutral bystander on the bridge. The participants were then asked how willing they were to “push the [man/woman/person] onto the path of the oncoming trolley” in order to save five others farther down the track.

The results showed that both female and male subjects were much more likely to push the male bystander or one of unspecified gender than they were the female bystander.
Dudes, don't stand on a bridge over a trolley.

Precision, nuance and efficiency

From the always rewarding Language Log, Economy of Expression by Victor Mair.

Mair is pointing out one half of a phenomenon which amounts to a paradox. Mair draws attention to the capacity of English for high density communication, also known as terseness. Much communicated with little. He offers these examples.
Flying back from Vienna on Austrian Airlines yesterday, I saw the following notices printed on the back of the seat in front of me:
Gurte während des sitzens geschlossen halten*

Fasten seat belt while seated

*some airlines begin this sentence with a "bitte", which would make the German even longer
Die schwimmweste befindet sich unter ihrem sitz

Life vest under your seat
As so many times before, I was struck by the terseness of English.
He links to a couple of other posts he has done making the same point but comparing English to Japanese, Russian, Chinese and French.

The paradox is that while English is able to communicate with great density (much meaning, few words), it is also the largest language in the world. See my post The English language hasn't got where it is by being pure. English has between 450,000 and 650,000 words depending on which dictionary you choose to use as your base. In contrast, German, according to traditional estimates, has a vocabulary of about 185,000, Russian 130,000, and French fewer than 100,000.

To reinforce Mair's point above about the efficiency of the English language, here is another way of looking at it. Despite having so many more words, fewer words and syllables are required to transmit the critical information. The number of syllables required to translate the Gospel of Mark into each language.
English 29,000
Teutonic languages (average) 32,650
French 36,500
Slavic languages (average) 36,500
Romance languages (average) 40,200
Indo-Iranian languages (average) 43,100
The upshot is that with a much larger vocabulary but also a much more efficient communication structure, English is both highly efficient but also has the capacity for great precision and nuance.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world.

Love of country is expressed in many ways. From Bill Murray's character in the movie Stripes.
We’re not Watusi, we’re not Spartans, we’re Americans. With a capital ‘A.’ And you know what that means? Do you? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts. But there’s no animal that’s more faithful, that’s more loyal, more lovable than the mutt. Who saw ‘Old Yeller’? I cried my eyes out.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Philadelphia is the most pecksniffian of American cities, and thus probably leads the world.

In looking up one quote by H.L. Mencken, I come across several others, all serving to illustrate his intellectual allure despite the passage of a century and the evolution of social sentiments.

From "On Truth" in Damn! A Book of Calumny (1918), p. 53
The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived. ... But the razor edge of ridicule is turned by the tough hide of truth.
From The American Language (1919)
Philadelphia is the most pecksniffian of American cities, and thus probably leads the world.
"The Incomparable Buzzsaw", The Smart Set, May 1919
The allurement that [women] hold out to men is precisely the allurement that Cape Hatteras holds out to sailors: they are enormously dangerous and hence enormously fascinating.
"Duty Before Security", The Smart Set, June 1919
Women have a hard time of it in this world. They are oppressed by man-made laws, man-made social customs, masculine egoism, the delusion of masculine superiority. Their one comfort is the assurance that, even though it may be impossible to prevail against man, it is always possible to enslave and torture a man.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Heat or cold?

Yet another aspect of the benefits of mobility and freedom of choice.

This paper is from 2007, Extreme Weather Events, Mortality and Migration by Olivier Deschenes and Enrico Moretti. From the abstract:
We estimate the effect of extreme weather on life expectancy in the US. Using high frequency mortality data, we find that both extreme heat and extreme cold result in immediate increases in mortality. However, the increase in mortality following extreme heat appears entirely driven by temporal displacement, while the increase in mortality following extreme cold is long lasting. The aggregate effect of cold on mortality is quantitatively large. We estimate that the number of annual deaths attributable to cold temperature is 27,940 or 1.3% of total deaths in the US. This effect is even larger in low income areas. Because the U.S. population has been moving from cold Northeastern states to the warmer Southwestern states, our findings have implications for understanding the causes of long-term increases in life expectancy. We calculate that every year, 5,400 deaths are delayed by changes in exposure to cold temperature induced by mobility. These longevity gains associated with long term trends in geographical mobility account for 8%-15% of the total gains in life expectancy experienced by the US population over the past 30 years. Thus mobility is an important but previously overlooked determinant of increased longevity in the United States. We also find that the probability of moving to a state that has fewer days of extreme cold is higher for the age groups that are predicted to benefit more in terms of lower mortality compared to the age groups that are predicted to benefit less.
Within the paper, they observe that heat spikes lead to a rise in mortality rates which then fall immediately afterwards while speaks in extreme cold also generate higher mortality rates but rates which do not decline as quickly once the aberrant temperature has passed.

The broader point is that to live longer lives, Go South.

Transportation as communication

From The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions That Made Modern Europe 1648-1815 by Tim Blanning. The revolutions are: scientific, industrial American, French and Romantic.

Blanning's first chapter is communication and he leads that discussion with transportation. The ability for people to move about is the ability to transfer ideas. He provides some striking data illustrating just how expensive mobility was in terms of time, money and risk.
Four or six draught animals were needed to pull a coach and they had to be changed every 6 to 12 miles (10 to 20 km), depending on the condition of the roads. In England it was calculated that one horse was needed for every mile (1.6 km) of a journey on a well-maintained turnpike road. So, for the 185 miles (300 km) from Manchester to London, 185 horses had to be kept stabled and fed to deal with the seventeen changes required by the stagecoaches which travelled the route. Those horses in turn required an army of coachmen, postillions, guards, grooms ostlers and stable-boys to keep them running. As a coach could carry no more than ten passengers, fares were correspondingly high and out of reach for the mass of the population. A journey from Augsburg to Innsbruck by stagecoach, although little more than 60 miles (100 km) as the crow flies, would have cost an unskilled labourer more than a month's wages just for the fare.
Elsewhere in the text we glean that a 60 mile journey might take a couple of days. Today, making a 60 mile journey requires about an hour and would cost perhaps $10 for fuel and loaded costs compared to 48 hours and would cost about $1,200. 48X in time and 120X in costs. We've come a long way.

Blanning makes the point that roads in the UK were better than on the continent, the difference being that the building and maintenance of early roads was a centralized responsibility off-loaded locally and coercively. Coercion is not a particularly strong motivator for good work. England was an early adopter of private turnpikes. Private companies built and maintained roads with users paying a fare. The private turnpike model was an important transition to more effective transportation.

Increased mobility and communication were disruptive.
The turnpikes brought speed and mobility into a society previously characterized by their opposites. This was a culture-shock which many found upsetting - especially when the lower orders started to move out of their villages, on to the roads and into the towns, picking up insubordinate habits on the way. John Byng complained bitterly in 1781: 'I wish with all my heart that half the turnpike roads of the kingdom were plough'd up, which have imported London manners and depopulated the the country - I meet milkmaids on the roads, with the dress and looks of Strand mistresses, and must think that every line of Goldsmith's Deserted Village contains melancholy truths.' The reference to Goldsmith's poem is revealing, for it is an elegy for a lost world of rural innocence and harmony, from which the forces of modernization have banished the inhabitants to urban anomie and vice.

Among other disagreeable side-effects of the transport revolution to make contemporaries wonder whether it was all worth it were crime and congestion. Just as computers can solve crimes, but also allow more crimes to be committed, so did better roads both improve social control and create new opportunities for criminals. Turnpikes were places where hard cash had to be paid, so were frequently robbed. The more travellers there were on the roads, the more highwaymen appeared to make them stand and deliver. The legends surrounding Dick Turpin, hanged at the Knavesmire outside York in 1739, and his mare Black Bess, epitomized the new career opportunities offered by roads. As those roads now made it worthwhile to keep a private carriage, towns came to be plagued by traffic jams, especially London, where about a third of the 20,000 carriages paying tax in 1762 were kept. Faujas de Saint Fond revealed both phenomena when he he recorded that he had been reluctant to leave Sir Joseph Banks' house at seven in the evening, because that was a time when highwaymen were known to be very active. However, he was assured that, as it was Sunday, there would be safety in numbers, as so many Londoners would be returning home in their carriages from day-trips to the country.

An endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary

I am always perplexed by H.L. Mencken. I have read a few of his books. I have dipped often into his The American Language. What a mix of muscular management of the English language, almost admirable arrogance, obnoxious toxicity and occasionally repugnant attitudes.

But what a way with words and what an eye for cutting truth.

From In Defense of Women (1918) there is the timeless observation.
Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.
In our current governance environment, riddled with regulatory capture, rent seeking, and crony capitalism, we are inundated with pathological do-goodery mixed with blitheful incompetence and blind indifference to catastrophic unintended consequences.

NGOs, special interests, and advocacy groups seek to tweak the levers of power to circumvent the consent of the governed to coercively impose some policy or outcome inimical to truth. Income inequality, gender wage gap, campus rape culture, anthropogenic global warming, patriarchy, critical race theory: an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary, all used to menace the populace into something beneficial to the conjurers of such hobgoblins and to no one else.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

In which country he passed the rest of his days constrained by the native prince from returning to Portugal

I love learning new things.

A visit to Feldman's Books in Menlo Park, California always results in an armful of books brought home. Among the obscure, or more specialized, books I found this time was Shipwreck & Empire: Portuguese maritime disasters in a century of decline by James Duffy. I am a sucker for history, maritime history, and shipwrecks and adventure. How could I not buy this? There is always the danger of academic pedanticism in such a specialized topic, but this looks like it will be a good read.

Page 6 and I have already encountered information new to me. I knew of Bartolomeu Dias as the first known European to round Cape Horn and enter the Indian Ocean in February, 1488, part of the great wakening and reintegrating of humanity after the out-of-Africa diaspora 60,000 years before. Dias was a herald of the slow obliteration of distance.

Dias's journey wasn't the only one that the Portuguese crown launched in 1487.
Inflamed with the success of Diogo Cão's explorations, João persisted wholeheartedly in his efforts to reach the southern tip of the continent. In 1487, he sent out two expeditions, one by land and the other by sea. The overland journey of Alfonso de Paiva and Pero de Covilhã had a double purpose: the two men were to reach India and they were to establish contact with the semi-mythical kingdom of Prester John. The sea voyage undertaken by Bartolomeu Dias was more restricted in its goals: the captain was to push south along the West African coast until - if this was possible - he reached land's end. Both journeys were successful. Covilhã, after separating from Paiva in Aden, made his way to India and visited there the magic city of Calicut. On his return he found out in Cairo that his companion Paiva had died while attempting to reach the lands of Ethiopia and the kingdom of Prester John. Following royal instructions, the loyal Covilhã sent a detailed report of his Indian journey to João and then made his way to Ethiopia, in which country he passed the rest of his days constrained by the native prince from returning to Portugal. The navigator Bartolomeu Dias was even more fortunate than Covilhã. In 1488 the caravelas under his command were blown around the Cape of Good Hope by a great storm, and Dias survived to tell his king that the golden door to India at last stood open.
I knew of Dias but not of Covilhã. What journeys in 1488. Simply amazing when you consider the dangers and logistical barriers. I was saddened that such a persevering and brave hearted adventurer might have ended his days a prisoner in a distant and forbidding land.

But that wasn't quite the complete story. Wikipedia indicates that he at least was not a jailed prisoner.
Finally, by Mount Sinai, El-Tor and the Red Sea, he reached Zeila, whence he struck inland to the court of Prester John (Ethiopia).

Here he was honorably received by the Emperor Eskender; lands and lordships were bestowed upon him, but Eskander refused to grant him permission to leave, and his successors evaded granting Covilhã permission. According to James Bruce, Covilhã maintained a correspondence with the king in Portugal, describing Ethiopia as "very populous, full of cities both powerful and rich".

In 1507, he was joined by João Gomes, a priest sent by Tristão da Cunha, who had reached Ethiopia by way of Socotra. When the Portuguese embassy under Rodrigo de Lima, which included Ethiopian ambassador Mateus and missionary Francisco Álvares, entered Ethiopia in 1520, Covilhã wept with joy at the sight of his fellow-countrymen. It was then forty years since he had left Portugal, and over thirty since he had been a prisoner of state in Ethiopia. Álvares, who professed to know him well, and to have heard the story of his life, both in confession and out of it, praises his power of vivid description as if things were present before him, and his extraordinary knowledge of all the spoken languages of Christians, Muslims and Gentiles. His services as an interpreter were valuable to Rodrigo de Lima's embassy. Covilhã was well treated, but was not allowed to leave the country until his death.
State prisoner he might have been but for the last six years of his life, he had the company of fellow countryman in the kingdom of Prester John.

Consistently making matters worse

This is sad. From College Loan Glut Worries Policy Makers by Josh Mitchell. Brings to mind Jason L. Riley's recent book, Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder of Succeed..
The U.S. government over the last 15 years made a trillion-dollar investment to improve the nation’s workforce, productivity and economy. A big portion of that investment has now turned toxic, with echoes of the housing crisis.

The investment was in “human capital,” or, more specifically, higher education. The government helped finance tens of millions of tuitions as enrollment in U.S. colleges and graduate schools soared 24% from 2002 to 2012, rivaling the higher-education boom of the 1970s. Millions of others attended trade schools that award career certificates.

The government financed a large share of these educations through grants, low-interest loans and loan guarantees. Total outstanding student debt—almost all guaranteed or made directly by the federal government—has quadrupled since 2000 to $1.2 trillion today. The government also spent tens of billions of dollars in grants and tax credits for students.

New research shows a significant chunk of that investment backfired, with millions of students worse off for having gone to school. Many never learned new skills because they dropped out—and now carry debt they are unwilling or unable to repay. Policy makers worry that without a bigger intervention, those borrowers will become trapped for years and will ultimately hurt, rather than help, the nation’s economy.
Read the whole sorry saga. It is not enough to have good intentions. You need to know what you are doing and especially should be alert to making the problem worse.

No wonder there is so little trust among the citizenry of the federal government. Pathological altruism is not a good foundation.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Sociological self-beclowning by purported social scientists

An interesting post from Philip N. Cohen, How broken is our system (hit me with that figure again edition). He is making a point about the practices and quality of research in the field of Sociology. Fair enough. I haven't dug in to the details of his argument but am in agreement on the broader issue and accept that this is likely an example of poor publishing practices in the field.

It wasn't his argument that caught my attention but the original research he is criticizing. His criticism is not about the quality of the research per se but about the publication practice associated with it (multiple papers in multiple publications reporting basically the same thing.) Cohen's description of the original research.
In a paywalled 2013 paper in Journalism Studies, the team used an analysis of names appearing in newspapers to report the gender composition of people mentioned. They analyzed the New York Times back to 1880, and then a larger sample of 13 newspapers from 1982 through 2005. Here’s one of their figures:

The 2013 paper was a descriptive analysis, establishing that men are mentioned more than women over time.

Shor et al. 2014 asked,
How can we account for the consistency of these disparities? One possible factor that may explain at least some of these consistent gaps may be the political agendas and choices of specific newspapers.
Their hypothesis was:
H1: Newspapers that are typically classified as more liberal will exhibit a higher rate of female-subjects’ coverage than newspapers typically classified as conservative.
After analyzing the data, they concluded:
The proposition that liberal newspapers will be more likely to cover female subjects was not supported by our findings. In fact, we found a weak to moderate relationship between the two variables, but this relationship is in the opposite direction: Newspapers recognized (or ranked) as more “conservative” were more likely to cover female subjects than their more “liberal” counterparts, especially in articles reporting on sports.
OK, lot's of interesting things in here.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the consistency of the range of female mentions over the 26 year period, 18-28%.

What is striking about that is the consistency with the working hypothesis I have documented numerous times in these posts, that in any particular field, observationally, women are 15-30% of the top achievers. The researchers are looking at news in general rather than specific measured accomplishments, but I suspect that it is a workable proxy to link mentions in the press to actual accomplishments. My working hypothesis is that women's 15-30% share is driven 1) the fact that excellence is a function of deep, purposeful practice/experience which equates roughly to continuous effort over long periods of time at high levels of effort (hours per day) and 2) women are 15-30% of the population who work continuously and excessively in any particular field.

Very interesting affirmation of my assumptions from a completely different angle.

The second thing that caught my attention was the lazy stereotyping of conservatives by the researchers. Sociology is a field overwhelmingly dominated by those who self-identify as left or far left in their politics. It seems that they are blind to the stereotyping and bigotry that they are displaying in their hypothesis: "Newspapers that are typically classified as more liberal will exhibit a higher rate of female-subjects’ coverage than newspapers typically classified as conservative." The unquestioned assumption is that stupid conservatives are inherently misogynistic and therefore they won't report on women as much. That is pretty revealing of academic stereotyping and bigotry.

I can only imagine their disappointed surprise when they discovered that in fact the left leaning newspapers were less likely to report on women.

The researchers reveal that the finding is apparently consistent with other research.
Some work suggests that conservative newspapers may cover women less (Potter 1985), but other studies report the opposite tendency (Adkins Covert and Wasburn 2007; Shor et al. 2014a).
The "conservative" tent is a pretty big one and very diverse. There are Burkean conservatives, Hayekians, Libertarians, Randian conservatives, economic conservatives, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, religious conservatives, free trade conservatives, Lockean conservatives, etc. There are many issues upon which they differ.

One topic on which there is a fair amount of overlap is a general inclination to focus on the individual rather than on identity/victim groups. You are who you are as an individual and not as a representative of a putative group. One would expect conservative papers to report people based on their competence/achievement and therefore that women would be 15-30% of the news since that is supported by other studies. Overly simplistically, they don't care about the race or identity of the achiever, just about the achievement.

The real mystery is why liberal papers are suppressing news about women.

In one of their related papers, the researchers double down on their bigotry. They cannot find the empirical evidence to support the stereotypes they want to hold about conservatives but they don't let that stand in their way. They are social scientists. Why should data stop them?
Notwithstanding these inconclusive findings, there are several reasons to believe that more conservative outlets will be less likely to cover women and women’s issues compared with their more liberal counterparts. First, conservative media often view feminism and women’s issues in a relatively negative light (Baker Beck 1998; Brescoll and LaFrance 2004), making them potentially less likely to cover these issues. Second, and related to the first point, conservative media may also be less likely to employ female reporters and female editors. Finally, conservative papers may be more likely to cover “hard” topics that are traditionally considered more important or interesting, such as politics, business, and sports, rather than reporting on issues such as social welfare, education, or fashion, where women have a stronger presence.
To recap the the researchers conclusions. Empirical analysis indicates that conservative newspapers report more news about women than do liberal newspapers but the researchers have good reason to believe that is simply wrong because the researchers believe that conservatives don't like feminism, conservatives discriminate against hiring women in newspapers, and finally, the researchers believe women are more involved in soft issues that are less newsworthy. Of course all three of these assumptions are not empirically supported. Because they aren't supportable. They are simply biases that the researches carry

Wow. I really wish they would quit digging. It's embarrassing what they are revealing about themselves.

I'll go with the actual numbers they produce. If you want good reporting about women, read conservative papers.

Granularity-related inconsistency of means

A surprisingly simple test to check research papers for errors from The Economist.

I routinely rail against cognitive pollution arising from poorly structured experiments. This problem is especially prevalent in social sciences, psychology, culture studies, gender studies and similar fields. Virtually all findings in these fields are automatically suspect owing to small sample size, poor controls, self-selection and self-reporting, non-randomization of participants, etc.

Usually you can catch these cognitive pollution generators simply by looking at the methodology description. A team out of Europe has now come up with a simple objective measure to test the likelihood of study error.
The GRIM test, short for granularity-related inconsistency of means, is a simple way of checking whether the results of small studies of the sort beloved of psychologists (those with fewer than 100 participants) could be correct, even in principle. It has just been posted in PeerJ Preprints by Nicholas Brown of the University Medical Centre Groningen, in the Netherlands, and James Heathers of Poznan University of Medical Sciences, in Poland.

To understand the GRIM test, consider an experiment in which participants were asked to assess something (someone else’s friendliness, say) on an integer scale of one to seven. The resulting paper says there were 49 participants and the mean of their assessments was 5.93. It might appear that multiplying these numbers should give an integer product—ie, a whole number—since the mean is the result of dividing one integer by another. If the product is not an integer (as in this case, where the answer is 290.57), something looks wrong.

There is a wrinkle, though. Usually, the published value of the mean is rounded to two decimal places, for convenience. That rounding clearly affects whether the product of it and the sample size will be an integer. The GRIM test gets around this by rounding the product itself to the nearest integer (ie, 291), which is what the result would have to have been if the original numbers were accurate and the mean had not been rounded. That rounded product is then redivided by the sample size and the result of the calculation rounded to two decimal places. If this figure is not exactly the same as the original mean (and it is not, for it is 5.94) then either the original mean or the sample size is incorrect.
Very clever. How does it work in real life?
When Mr Brown and Dr Heathers test-drove their method on 71 suitable papers published in three leading psychology journals over the past five years, what they found justified the pessimistic sounding label they gave it. Just over half the papers they looked at failed the test. Of those, 16 contained more than one error. The two researchers got in touch with the authors of these, and also of five others where the lone errors looked particularly egregious, and asked them for their data—the availability of which was a precondition of publication in two of the journals. Only nine groups complied, but in these nine cases examination of the data showed that there were, indeed, errors.

The mistakes picked up looked accidental. Most were typos or the inclusion of the wrong spreadsheet cells in a calculation. Nevertheless, in three cases they were serious enough to change the main conclusion of the paper concerned.

That, plus the failure of 12 groups to make their data available at all, is alarming.
Pretty much as expected given the reputational diminution of the social sciences over the past decade.

The known is finite, the unknown infinite

From The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin by Francis Darwin (Appleton, 1904), vol. 1., On the Reception of the Origin of Species chapter by Thomas Huxley.
The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land, to add something to the extent and the solidity of our possessions.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Kids who were doing more homework also tended to get higher test scores

It is tempting to sigh in the vain of George Orwell, "only an intellectual".

An Atlantic magazine article supports my contention that for too long, our American public policy debate has been dominated by the sterile fretting about institutional racism, gender discrimination, income inequality, etc. Not that those are non-existent issues. They do exist and should be tackled with the laws which already exists for that purpose. The problem is that racism and gender discrimination and income inequality cover only a very small portion of inequalities that exist.

Most of these inequalities arise from personal choices, either freely made or from necessity. The root of children's life outcomes is substantially determined, not by racism or discrimination or economic inequality. They are determined by personal choices and circumstances of family structure.

From Homework Inequality: The Value of Having a Parent Around After School by Alissa Quart.
Much has been written lately about homework: There’s too much of it; it’s stressing out parents, kids, and teachers; the time it takes is overwhelming. Many of the critiques of homework focus on how valuable it actually is: Do rote teaching-to-the-test worksheets truly improve students’ understanding? But far less discussed is how some children do their homework without the luxury of parental attention and assistance, or even just quiet time at home to complete assignments. There is not nearly as much being said about how increasing amounts of homework unduly affect poor families and exacerbate inequality.

According to a recent OECD study, higher-income 15-year-olds tended to do more homework than lower-income 15-year-olds in almost all of the 38 countries surveyed, and kids who were doing more homework also tended to get higher test scores. Parents inevitably play a role in managing their kids’ schoolwork, but many find themselves stretched. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, close to half of parents with school-age children say they wish they could be more involved in their kids’ education, but aren’t able to be. Many complain that they don’t have the time to keep tabs on their children’s assignments, and that wealthier families with stay-at-home parents or nannies are more likely to. On top of that, parents, especially wealthier ones, frequently hire tutors to help their children along.

But for many working-class parents, especially those with on-call or non-traditional schedules, today’s homework load can be impossible to manage. Journalists and academics already refer to a “homework gap”—a divide between families who have computers and access to the internet at home, and those who do not. But there is also a chasm separating students with parents who control their own work schedules and those whose parents don’t. A 2014 report from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth noted that nonstandard work schedules affected children’s cognitive development and success.
Every individual and family knit together incredibly nuanced trade-off decisions between time, money, children, parental relationship, personal capabilities, etc. There is no predetermined "right answer", only answers which are more or less optimal for the individual/family circumstances.

There is a social justice ideological tinge to the article, with the dog whistle of excusing good test results as due to tutors who help the wealthy along when in fact it is known that wealthy parents engage tutors at a lower rate than middle class and poorer parents. The author wants to make this about income inequality and also about evil, or at least insensitive, employers. In aggregate though, there is little that individual employers can do other than properly communicate the nature and demands of a job. It is wrong to describe a job as 40 hours a week from nine to five when in fact it is known that it is 45 hours a week with fluctuating start and stop times.

But except where the employer is lying about the nature of the job, there is no wrong being committed. If the work is too unpredictable and you need to move to a more predictable job, then that is what you have to do if that is indeed a priority. It likely has other consequences in terms of convenience or income, etc. but no one can know those details and make those trade-offs save the individual.

It mostly comes down to family structure and family goals which in turn are shaped by culture and personal values. We would be better off ceasing to chase chimera and focus on real root causes.

UPDATE: And speaking of real root causes, there is this; Genetics affects choice of academic subjects as well as achievement by Kaili Rimfeld, Ziada Ayorech, Philip S. Dale, Yulia Kovas & Robert Plomin. In the one corner we have income inequality and social injustice and in the other we have assortative mating, heritable IQ and disposition towards learning. An age old battle which the Gods of the Copybook Headings always win.