Friday, December 30, 2011

The ease with which people can possess astonishingly contradictory qualities is one of the mysteries of human nature

Be a Jerk: The Worst Business Lesson From the Steve Jobs Biography by Tom McNichol.
The ease with which people can possess astonishingly contradictory qualities is one of the mysteries of human nature; indeed, it's one of the things that separates humans from, say, an Apple computer. Every one of the components that makes up an iPad is essential to the work it produces. Remove one part and the machine no longer performs its job, and not even the Genius Bar can fix it. But humans are full of qualities that are in no way integral to their functioning in the world. Some aspects of personality have little or no bearing on whether a person performs well, and not a few people succeed in spite of their darker qualities. You can be a genius and an asshole, but the two aren't necessarily causally linked.

You turn the page, and forget what you know

Michael Crichton in Why Speculate.
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works 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 with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Global data grows approximately 40 percent every year

Interesting estimate, though unsourced. From Data Journalism: Facts Are Sacred by Pablo Mancini
It is estimated that the volume of global data grows approximately 40 percent every year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Social Justice

Heh. Thomas Sowell in Random Thoughts on the Passing Scene.
What do you call it when someone steals someone else's money secretly? Theft. What do you call it when someone takes someone else's money openly by force? Robbery. What do you call it when a politician takes someone else's money in taxes and gives it to someone who is more likely to vote for him? Social Justice.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A festival of British modernist architectural incompetence and brutalism

A Case in Point by Theodore Dalrymple. The concentration of ugly modern architecture in the UK is so startling, cheek-by-jowel as it so often is with the sublime from older times when it took too long to build something ugly so they built beautiful things instead.
Having arrived in the city a couple of hours early, I had time to look around a little — as I have done before. Peterborough is essentially a sublime cathedral surrounded by a festival of British modernist architectural incompetence and brutalism, sponsored by a council planning committee that was both without taste and — let us at least hope, for it is the only charitable interpretation of what the committee has wrought — corrupt.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place

From How Do You Prove You’re an Indian? by David Teuer.
Bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place.
Perhaps it is that your people are those with whom you work.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Establishments die when they refuse to make changes; insurgencies die when they fail to discover that protest and governing are not the same things.

From The Tea Party train wreck that never happened by Noemie Emery.
Establishments die when they refuse to make changes; insurgencies die when they fail to discover that protest and governing are not the same things.
Apropos a recent discussion, perhaps a version related to languages and how they change would be
Languages die when they fail to change at all; linguistic variants die when they fail to make a difference.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Academic inequality is socially acceptable

The Inequality Map by David Brooks. The many forms of pluralism in the USA. Heh.
I will provide you with a guide to the American inequality map to help you avoid embarrassment.

Academic inequality is socially acceptable. It is perfectly fine to demonstrate that you are in the academic top 1 percent by wearing a Princeton, Harvard or Stanford sweatshirt.

Ancestor inequality is not socially acceptable. It is not permissible to go around bragging that your family came over on the Mayflower and that you are descended from generations of Throgmorton-Winthrops who bequeathed a legacy of good breeding and fine manners.

Fitness inequality is acceptable. It is perfectly fine to wear tight workout sweats to show the world that pilates have given you buns of steel. These sorts of displays are welcomed as evidence of your commendable self-discipline and reproductive merit.

Friday, December 16, 2011

And that evening his father came back to life

Act Three: The midlife monologue of John Lithgow book review by Victoria Ordin.
Drama begins with Lithgow’s recollection of the summer of 2002, when he moved back east for a month to care for his hitherto youthful, healthy, and genial 86-year-old father after a risky and painful operation. The surgery claimed his father’s spirit, and the loving son’s attempts to restore his father’s will to live seemed to have failed. One evening, however, it occurred to Lithgow to read aloud to his father, as his father had read to him and his siblings during “story hour [which had] all the gravity of a sacred rite.” So he picked a family favorite—P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By”—and that evening his father came back to life. Lithgow calls the succeeding 18 months before his father’s death one of the most significant periods of his life.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

He dedicated the book to a real car

Kate Grimond in The tale of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, reviews the history and context of Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame) writing the children's story, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang.
There is more of the Bond oeuvre rooted in reality than is generally realised. And so it was with Chitty. He dedicated the book to a real car: ‘To the memory of the original Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, built in 1920 by Count Zborowksi on his estate near Canterbury.’

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

Being Poor by John Scalzi. A pretty brutal list of what it means to be poor. A list that ought to be reviewed whenever one is tempted to pontificate about what to do about poverty.
Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

That judgment looks pretty stupid today

In children's literature there is always the cry among some that books for children should be relevant, should reflect the lives children lead. This desire for relvance is always in harness to some social theory or policy solution, most often one which has little substance, factual basis, or popular support. While there is some tenuous intellectual appeal to the idea that children ought to be able to see something of themselves in books, it not a position with which I have great sympathy. At what time have children's books ever reflected reality? I suspect the value of books is more in expanding their knowledge of what is different and their concept of what is possible than it is in validating what they currently think they are experiencing. In a post that is about changing American social and sexual mores, Walter Russell Mead observes, apropos relevance:
. . . in my youth divorced people could not remarry in an Episcopal church. It is hard to think of anything you can’t do in an Episcopal church these days and other denominations seem to be drifting down the same gentle slope. (It is, one must note, odd that the fewer moral demands a church places on its members, the fewer people bother to come. Many of the relaxations in moral discipline were intended to make the church more ‘relevant’: that judgment looks pretty stupid today.)

Friday, December 9, 2011

As soon as their reason has become ripe for speculation

Immanuel Kant.
In all men, as soon as their reason has become ripe for speculation, there has always existed and will always continue to exist some kind of metaphysics.

How do you balance rewards between current productivity and anticipated future productivity?

An interesting book review, That Eternal Question of Fairness by Nancy F. Koehn. The book being reviewed is The Ajax Dilemma by Paul Woodruff.
The Ajax quandary arises after Achilles is slain in battle, and his armor is to be given to the army’s most valuable soldier. Ajax and Odysseus compete for it.

Ajax, a courageous, loyal and hard-working warrior, demands the armor on the grounds that he has saved the lives of many comrades on the battlefield. Odysseus is innovative and articulate but not completely trustworthy; his values seem to fluctuate to suit his interests. He claims the prize as a strategist who can outthink the enemy.

The men square off in a speaking contest in front of King Agamemnon and a panel of army jurors. It is, Mr. Woodruff writes, a conflict we all recognize — that of “loyalty and brawn versus brains and trickery.” Ajax loses and his anger explodes, damaging his position in the army and destroying his life, family and reputation.

The author argues that this myth revolves around the issue of rewards, which “mark the difference between winners and losers.” He adds: “Rewards are public recognition for contributions made. They express the values of a community.” But which, he asks, do we value more: “Cleverness or hard work? Strength or intelligence? Loyalty or inventiveness?”
Interesting argument but I don't think that it is the whole story because it only focuses on the reward for past contributions. This is actually an argument about how to reward productivity (past and anticipated future) - how does our system of governance and values allow rewards of community productivity to be distributed to members of the community, not all of whom contributed to the generation of the increased productivity? Everyone contributes at least something to the context of communal productivity but not everyone contributes equally nor is everyone's contribution equally indispensable.

When put in terms of productivity, contra the review, you have to also look at anticipated productivity as well. There are tactical actions to achieve present productivity - the actions that we take today to meet our needs and purposes today. Then there are strategic actions to achieve future productivity. Strategic actions require trade-offs (I eat less seed corn today so I have a larger crop tomorrow) and risks (if the rains are gentle and the sun shines lightly) which are hard to evaluate compared to tactical actions.

The reason the distribution of rewards is so critical is that it is an acknowledgement of past contributions but also a collective bet on future probabilities. Who is most likely to contribute most critically to future increases in productivity? Those are the ones you want to reward. To increase anything, you have to reward it more (resources, status, mates, etc.), make it easier (reduce barriers) or make it cheaper (bring down the relative cost). If you want less of something, make it harder to do, make it more expensive, or punish it.

Ignoring the rules for a minute ("justice is much broader than a legal function and much messier than a set of rules or large principles"), there are different activities going on when we make these two different assessments.

When we try and determine the relative contribution (degree of participation, indispensability of participation, and non-fungability of participation) to past productivity, we have to agree on rules and measurements and definitions. As hard as that is to do, once we have reached agreement, then the actual calculation is relatively straightforward. We may disagree with the values reflected in the process of measuring, but it is usually relatively easy to do (as long as we have appropriate data).

In contrast, judging what someone's relative contribution to future productivity will be is a minefield not only of data but estimations of risk and probability and causation. Is this person, looking like they will be holed up in their room for the next ten years, a genius in the process of producing the next silicon chip or Moby Dick, or are they a misanthropic sociopath. Even if we are confident they are a genius, how likely is it that they will actually deliver the kind of innovation and value of which we think they are capable and how do we measure that value? Value, estimation, and risk all call heavily upon shared culture, worldview and values. Hard as this is to do (estimate future value), it is moderately achievable in an environment of shared values. Where values are not shared, it becomes extraordinarily hard to arrive at a consensus as to probable future value. If we cannot reach agreement on future productivity, we cannot then agree on how to reward those actions now necessary for future value. If we don't agree, then it is likely we won't reward present actions for future productivity. And if we don't reward it, then we are most likely locking ourselves into a future without increases in productivity.

This is probably the greatest risk in a country that is governed by a creed (as reflected in the constitutional structure of governance) which allows for and encourages pluralism (diversity).

In a reasonably transparent, data rich environment, we can probably get to some first order approximation of historical contribution of productivity for an individual regardless of how much or little we like the outcome. Some groups, as defined by any of the common divisions - gender, orientation, race, class, religion, etc., will benefit to a greater degree than others by having a better mix of epistemological preparedness and value alignment with the nature of decisions that have to be made. With that knowledge of actual contribution, we can make some rough distribution of rewards that corresponds with those past contributions to productivity.

But that is only half the equation. We aren't interested only in the past, we are interested in the future. Those that contributed the most in the past may not be those most likely to contribute to increased productivity in the future. If we all believe in hard work, saving, moderate risk taking, rewarding agency (eg. those willing to take extreme risks for extreme rewards), then there is a framework for balancing the distribution of rewards. For example, we extend loans (a form of reward) to those that seem most likely to succeed with a risky venture that will yield high productivity the future. So a person can have a low contribution to productivity in the past (and be commensurately rewarded) but may also be highly rewarded for their anticipated prospects in the future. But only if we share common cultural values.

However, if a significant part of the community does not believe in agency, or the connection between risk and reward, are fatalistic (outcomes are random and not associated with effort), etc. then there is no capacity to reach consensus on probable future outcomes. Without agreement, the element of rewarding future productivity disappears, destroying or substantially reducing the incentives for growth.

If we reward only the past, we subvert future productivity growth and are unfair to those that are low productivity but high potential. If we reward only future productivity growth (which opens up the issue of corruption and coercion), we punish those that got us to where we are.

The line between these estimable goals (reward the past contributions to productivity and rewarding probable future contributions to productivity) is a fine one, a dynamic one, and a zero-sum one. You can only distribute those rewards that you currently have. What you give to those that produced the current productivity, you are not giving to those focused on the future - and vice-versa.

In times of stability you weight the rewards to the future. In times of crisis, you focus on the here-and-now. The hungrier you are for increased productivity the more you focus on rewarding future efforts towards productivity. The more complacent you are about future productivity, the more likely you are to over-weight rewards to past contributions.

I think this is a pretty interesting way of looking at many of the issues with which we are struggling at the moment, and particularly the recurring of what is just(complies with the rules) and what is Just (some cosmic assessment of what is right). Everything can be just (compliance with rules) and highly productive but there will be individuals that are poorly rewarded because they have contributed little to current productivity and they have low probability of contributing to future productivity. Even if everyone shares the same values, those individuals will be on the low end of the rewards curve but everyone will see it as both just and Just.

However, in a heterogeneous population (in terms of culture and values), even though the distribution of rewards will be seen as just (in compliance with the rules) it will also be seen, by some, as not Just.

Pictorially, I think this model would look like this.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A self-conceit so intensely intellectual and calm that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name

A line in Hershel Parker's Herman Melville: 1851-1891, page 502. Melville on Emerson:
His gross and astonishing errors & illusions spring from a self-conceit so intensely intellectual and calm that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The future has an ancient heart

Carlo Levi, title of one of his books, Il Futuro ha un Cuore Antico
The future has an ancient heart.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

No comparable European democracy has seen the conservative party unfailingly win the Archies and Ediths for more than three decades.

An interesting observation by David Paul Kuhn in Democrats Dare Not "Abandon" the White Working Class.
Clinton won the largest share of blue-collar whites in the past quarter-century. And yet he still only won 44 percent that year, 1996. That statistic is especially striking if you step outside the United States. America is the only Western nation where the liberal party consistently loses the workingman (and woman). No comparable European democracy has seen the conservative party unfailingly win the Archies and Ediths for more than three decades. Now Democrats seem to be on the verge of resigning themselves to this trend.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Life lessons learned

The Life Reports II by David Brooks. The lessons learned he gleans from the thousands of biographical essays submitted to him by his readers.
Divide your life into chapters.
Beware rumination.
You can’t control other people.
Lean toward risk.
Measure people by their growth rate, not by their talents.
Be aware of the generational bias.
Work within institutions or crafts, not outside them.
People get better at the art of living.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

We Fear Snakes, Not Cars

From 10 Ways We Get the Odds Wrong by Maia Szalavitz
I. We Fear Snakes, Not Cars -
Risk and emotion are inseparable.
II. We Fear Spectacular, Unlikely Events - Fear skews risk analysis in predictable ways.
III. We Fear Cancer But Not Heart Disease - We underestimate threats that creep up on us.
IV. No Pesticide in My Backyard—Unless I Put it There - We prefer that which (we think) we can control.
V. We Speed Up When We Put Our Seat belts On - We substitute one risk for another.
VI. Teens May Think Too Much About Risk—And Not Feel Enough - Why using your cortex isn't always smart.
VII. Why Young Men Will Never Get Good Rates on Car Insurance - The "risk thermostat" varies widely.
VIII. We Worry About Teen Marijuana Use, But Not About Teen Sports - Risk arguments cannot be divorced from values.
IX. We Love Sunlight But Fear Nuclear Power - Why "natural" risks are easier to accept.
X. We Should Fear Fear Itself - Why worrying about risk is itself risky.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

If we're going to be talking statistics

From the Vol 68, Issue 29 of child_lit listerv.
If we're going to be talking statistics . . . I did some research last year on diversity in children's publishing, and it turned up these numbers:

>From the U.S. Census Bureau, Census figures by race/ethnicity for U.S.
population, 2008 (these obviously need to be updated):
Hispanic: 15 percent
Black, non-Hispanic: 13 percent
Asian: 5 percent
White, non-Hispanic: 68 percent

Figures from the Cooperative Children's Book Center in Madison on the content of 3000 trade children's books published in 2009, with themes and topics focusing on or protagonists of the following races:
Hispanic: 61 books, or 2 percent
Black: 157 books, or 5.2 percent
Asian-American: 80 books, or 2.6 percent
American Indians: 33 books, or 1.1 percent.

White: 2,669 books, or 89 percent

Figures from the same source regarding the races of children's book

Hispanic: 2 percent
Black: 2.7 percent
Asian-American: 2.2 percent
American Indians: .1 percent
White: 93 percent

Finally, from the SIMBA Children's Publishing Market Forecast 2011, each group's percentage of the children's book buying market (should be read as ""X percent of children's book buyers are _____," not "X percent of ______ are children's book buyers"). Also note that there was an asterisk on the chart saying "Data may be unreliable due to small sample size," and SIMBA did not provide much info on its methodology.

Hispanic, 13 percent
Black: 8.2 percent
Asian: 3.2 percent
White: 74 percent

Friday, December 2, 2011

Teaching reasoned decision-making to teens backfires

From 10 Ways We Get the Odds Wrong by Maia Szalavitz
Teens may not be irrational about risk but too rational, argues Valerie Reyna, a psychologist at Cornell University. Adults asked to consider absurd propositions like "Is it a good idea to drink Drano?" immediately and intuitively say no. Adolescents, however, take more than twice as long to think about it. Brain-scan research shows that when teens contemplate things like playing Russian roulette or drinking and driving, they primarily use rational regions of the brain—certain regions of cortex—while adults use emotional regions like the insula.

When risky decisions are weighed in a rational calculus, benefits like fitting in and feeling good now can outweigh real risks. As a result, teaching reasoned decision-making to teens backfires, argues Reyna. Instead, she says, we should teach kids to rule out risks based on emotional responses—for example, by considering the worst-case scenario, as adults do. But research suggests there may be no way to speed up the development of mature decision-making. Repetition and practice are critical to emotional judgment—which means that it takes time to learn this skill.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes

From Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations by M.D.R. Evans et al.
ABSTRACT: Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. It holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and Apartheid; and most strongly in China. Data are from representative national samples in 27 nations, with over 70,000 cases, analyzed using multi-level linear and probit models with multiple imputation of missing data.