Sunday, June 30, 2013

"But do I have a greater responsibility than that, as a minority?"

An interesting question, particularly when you pose two separate essays, Race and Writing by Justin C. Key and On the existence of fictional characters by D.G. Myers.

Here is Key's dilemma and question:
For example, I started a fantasy book with a society dominated by civilized werewolves and vampires. Here’s where I hit a cultural dilemma. As I was writing, my characters were naturally white, as that is the race that has dominated the genre I have read and seen on television (from Lord of the Rings to Goosebumps to Stephen King). Sometime into it, I realized that this was a little off: if I was truly ‘writing what I know’, wouldn’t all my characters be black since that’s what I’ve grown up around? Wouldn’t I incorporate all of the cultural nuances from the black community, much like Harry Potter taught us about current British culture? Shouldn’t I?

Maybe I should. But I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want that to define my book. I wanted it to be seen as a good story, and nothing else. Some of us may have ambitions of writing the next Great American Novel. But that means something different than the Great African American Novel or the Great Asian American Novel.

So, where does this lead me?

It seems to me that diversity is a good medium. Some of my characters will be white, some black, etc, etc. The only thing about that is, it’s not really much different than any other successful/popular white author. They virtually all include diversity at some point. The challenge for me is incorporating my minority perspective into my writing without isolating the general public (as that is my desired audience, NOT solely the black community). This could be done by having black main characters, but with a ‘supporting cast’ typical of what the average American is used to. Or having a strong minority character.

In the end, I just want to write good horror stories which scare the crap out of you, whether you’re white, black, or purple. But do I have a greater responsibility than that, as a minority? What are your thoughts?
Myers says (and this is in an independent blog post unrelated to Key's post)
But there is also a theoretical question, which is the more interesting. If a character in a novel is not described as being fat, is he fat nevertheless? Could he possibly be fat if the novel never says so? Obesity is treated as extraordinary, a distinguishing characteristic, but what if it is not? What if it is as unexceptional, as unworthy of comment, as teeth and nails? Obesity is extraordinary only from a specific point of view, and where it is “central,” then, the novelist is testifying to his ideology.
Which echoes an earlier observation made by Key.
One of my group-mates had a critique of the passage, stating that ‘…wasn’t something that helped the white residents sleep at night…’ was a strange thought, assuming the main character himself was white. I found that a little odd, as I didn’t really give any indication that the main character was white. Granted, I hadn’t given much indication that he was black, either (except, maybe, for the very passage you’ve just read). It reminded me that in America we tend to assume that characters are the standard white male or female unless stated otherwise. Even I, an African American, have this automatic view after growing up reading literature by white authors.
Myers' answer is
A female character in fiction has undergone an abortion if and only if the abortion is inscribed in the fiction. Perhaps the mere fact of reporting or describing an abortion makes it seem “central” to a critic for whom abortions should not be so; perhaps a prescriptive criticism will emerge that urges novelists to write about abortion (and also obesity, while they’re at it) more nonchalantly. They must write about it at all, though, to write about it with small concern; and the mere inclusion of it—the plain fact that the novelist decided to speak of it instead of remaining silent—will be significant. What is excluded from fiction signifies nothing, because it might as well not exist. Nothing outside the language of a novel is true about the men and women who are sentenced to live within it and nowhere else.
Advocates and ideologues everywhere want to read into a text all sorts of things that either explicitly were not in the mind of the author or for which there is no evidence of such intent on the part of the author. They do not want to take Sir Thomas More's counsel, "It will mean what the words say!" More than that, once they have read into a text what they want (or read out of it what they don't want), they then wish to hold the author accountable for their interpretation. A childish perspective but too prevalent.

I think the only answer to Key's question is that he has no obligation to any other party than his own conscience and muse. There is no right way to write, just as there is no gain-saying exactly what ought to be added or removed to make a passage attractive or effective. What is your story and to whom are you telling it? You as a writer: not you as someone else's placeholder for some arbitrary identity - sex, age, orientation, income, religion, class, nationality, race, education, marital status, etc. All of these are pertinent contextual elements, influencers of an individual author's development, but have nothing to do with what they actually choose to say or do.

Homophily (the study of the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others) is a recent field but extremely pertinent in network theory with enormous application (such as NSA surveillance). What is emerging is the commonsense perspective that we all define ourselves differently and the critical attributes of self-identification change over time. At twenty, perhaps my most conscious self-identification is that I am male, or am attending Princeton, or am passionate about archaeology. At forty, perhaps my most conscious self-identification might be that I am Christian or that I am a father, or am a partner at a law firm. I am both the same and different at every stage, much like a river.

If we are all just a churning portfolio of attributes which evolve over time, do we at any given point in time have a particular obligation to profile that attribute? I would say, in response to Key's question, no! No obligation to anyone else, we are answerable only to our own moral conscience regardless of the expectations of others. People always expect more of other people, and regrettably, they usually expect more than they themselves are willing to do.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

In An Antique Land

Just finished In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh. Excellent. A delightful find. From his website's description.
"History in the guise of a traveller's tale," and the multi-generic book moves back and forth between Ghosh's experience living in small villages and towns in the Nile Delta and his reconstruction of a Jewish trader and his slave's lives in the eleventh century from documents from the Cairo Geniza. In the 1980s Amitav Ghosh moved into a converted chicken coop. It was on the roof of a house in Lataifa, a tiny village in Egypt. During the day he poured over medieval letters sent to India from Cairo by Arab merchants. In the evenings he shut out the bellowing of his fat landlord by turning up the volume of his transistor radio and wrote stories based on what he had seen in the village. The story of Khamees the Rat, the notorious impotent (already twice married); of Zaghloul the weaver determined to travel to India on a donkey; of one-eyed Mohammad, so obsessed with a girl that he spent nights kneeling outside her window to listen to the sound of her breathing; of Amm 'Taha, part-time witch, always ready to cast a spell for a little extra money; and, of course, the story of Amitav Ghosh himself, known in the village as the Indian doctor, the uncircumcised, cow-worshipping kaffir who would not convert to Islam. This book is the story of Amitav Ghosh's decade of intimacy with the village community. Mixing conversation and research, imagination and scholarship, it is also a charged, eccentric history of the special relationship between two countires, Egypt and India, through nearly ten centuries of parochialism and sympathy, bigotry and affection.
Pleasantly off-beat and eccentric, it will probably appeal most to those interested in History and in Travel but is cleverly written, weaving multiple stories together across time and place.

A passage capturing one of many points of incomprehension leading to insight.
I grew increasingly puzzled as I tried to deal with this barrage of inquiries, first, by the part the word 'still' played in their questions, and secondly by the masks of incredulity that seemed to fall on their faces as I affirmed, over and over again, that yes, in India too people used cattle-drawn ploughs and not tractors; water-wheels and not pumps; donkey-carts, not trucks; and yes, in India too there were many, many people who were very poor, indeed there were millions whose poverty they would scarcely have been able to imagine. But to my utter bewilderment, the more I insisted, the more sceptical they seemed to become, until at last I realized, with an overwhelming sense of shock, that the simple truth was that they did not believe what I was saying.

I later came to understand that their disbelief had little or nothing to do with what I had said; rather, they had constructed a certain ladder of 'Development' in their minds, and because all their images of material life were of those who stood in the rungs above, the circumstances of those below had become more or less unimaginable. I had an inkling then of the real and desperate seriousness of their engagement with modernism, because I realized that the fellaheen saw the material circumstances of their lives in exactly the same way that a university economist would: as a situation that was shamefully anachronistic, a warp upon time; I understood that their relationships with the objects of their everyday lives was never innocent of the knowledge that there were other places, other countries which do not have mud-walled houses and cattle-drawn ploughs, were insubstantial things, ghosts displaced in time, waiting to be exorcised and laid to rest. It was thus that I had my first suspicion of what it might mean to belong to an 'historical civilization', and it left me bewildered because, for my own part, it was precisely the absoluteness of time and the discreteness of epochs that I always had trouble in imagining.

Friday, June 28, 2013

An arrogance too far

From The Dangers of Making Reading Spiritual by Noah Berlatsky.

Berlatsky is responding to an almost incomprehensibly mushy essay by Karen Swallow Prior in the Atlantic, where she argues, without evidence and without definitions, that:
It is "spiritual reading" -- not merely decoding -- that unleashes the power that good literature has to reach into our souls and, in so doing, draw and connect us to others. This is why the way we read can be even more important than what we read. In fact, reading good literature won't make a reader a better person any more than sitting in a church, synagogue or mosque will. But reading good books well just might.
The power of "spiritual reading" is its ability to transcend the immediacy of the material, the moment, or even the moral choice at hand. This isn't the sort of phenomenon that lends itself to the quantifiable data Currie seeks, although Paul demonstrates is possible, to measure. Even so, such reading doesn't make us better so much as it makes us human.

I understand what Prior is getting at but this is gibberish. The problem is that people, including myself, who are convinced of the beneficial and potentially redeeming power of reading have no empirical ground on which to stand. There is a high correlation between enthusiastic reading and high IQ and good life outcomes but it is not clear whether there is simple correlation, covariance or causation. Prior's attempt to further narrow the parameters to just literary fiction reading is, in my mind, a rather embarrassing revelation to her actual argument which might be satirized as "I like reading literary fiction, I believe it makes me better, others ought to read literary fiction as well."

Without defining spiritual reading, without defining what it means to be human and how reading is relevant to being human, without linking empirically literary fiction reading to desirable life outcomes, without defining good literature, this is just a self-interested opinion masquerading as a serious argument.

Berlatsky's criticism of Prior's essay inflicts deep wounds on her argument without even being particularly comprehensive (there is much more to criticize than he tackles). His final paragraph gets at the meat of the issue.
You learn to be human and spiritual, not by reading, but by treating others as human—especially others who are not like you. Books can, perhaps, teach you about that. But to make books the measure of humanness is to restrict that measure to the brainy and the privileged. If books make us more human, then some of us are less human that others, which is the same as saying that all of us are less human.
There is in the book world, or at least in the public forums of the book world, an almost distasteful element of blindness to the intolerance, classism, and bigotry inherent in the position that you should read more and you should read better.

I advocate that people ought to read more solely on the grounds that I personally believe that it is beneficial and because I can see a correlation between enthusiastic readers and good outcomes (even if I cannot demonstrate that there is causation.) But that is as far as my argument can go - it is a faith-based matter. To hold the belief that you ought to be able to judge others on the basis of whether they read, and what they read, and how they read, is an arrogance too far.

I am sure that is not what Prior intends, but it is the logical inference of what she is arguing. So much for the tolerance and empathy that literary reading is supposed to cultivate. "Read the books I like, you Morlock."

Classics and Consequentiality

From Canon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics by Sam Sacks, a discussion about literary criticism and what constitutes a classic.
Eliot thought that a classic, in the strictest sense, was a work that apotheosized a great civilization at its zenith; so exacting (or, if you like, priggish) are his standards that literally the only writer to entirely fulfill them is Virgil. He thought Chaucer and Shakespeare were a little too rough around the edges, Goethe too provincial, Pope too mannered. Except for a passing mention of Henry James, he doesn’t even bother to mention the existence of American letters.

Sainte-Beuve is more flexible and encompassing, but he stipulates that a classic can only be truly distinguished by readers who have enjoyed a lifetime of learning and have staked out the leisure to devote themselves to their libraries. It exists as a concomitant to the salon and the ivory tower.

So if Eliot is imperialist and Sainte-Beuve is aristocratic, we need some idea of what makes a classic in a democracy. For that, we could do worse than to turn to Sainte-Beuve’s contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville, who has always seemed to have the new world’s number. In “Democracy in America,” de Tocqueville observed that Americans esteemed the arts and sciences more for their practical applications than for their abstract value—hence the popularity of newspapers, religious treatises, and self-help books. Reading itself was not done for the purposes of something as perversely theoretical as enlarging one’s soul; it needed to have some tangible function in the here and now: “Democratic nations may amuse themselves for a while with considering the productions of nature; but they are excited in reality only by a survey of themselves.”

A look through the Classics section of bookstores—in America or any of the Western democracies—bears out de Tocqueville’s instincts. The offerings are wide-ranging, tilting toward diversity and inclusion. But, more to the point, artistic brilliance is no longer the most important determining factor. What makes a classic today is cultural significance. Authors are anointed not because they are great (although many of them are) but because they are important.
Given that there is no objective criteria for aesthetic evaluation, I have tended towards thinking of books in terms of their consequentiality. How many people has it affected over how many years and how deeply. This, I think, picks up two different attributes - is the subject worth talking about and how well is it being discussed? In this reading, books can drift in and out of the canon, but usually like the roach motel ad, they "check in, but they don't check out!" The mere act of becoming a part of the canon makes you mostly a permanent member. People might not any longer read you all that much but you are of permanent interest. Who, any longer, reads all of Aristotle's Ethics. Perhaps most philosophy majors but not many beyond that I would suspect. But virtually every member of the clerisy will have passing familiarity with the key concepts and likely will have read at least some Ethics.

Then there are the near misses; Lady Chatterley's Lover perhaps, possibly Goodbye to All That! Influential in their time and of both literary and historical interest but not quite there. You also have the bestsellers. Fifty Shades of Grey is quite the global phenomenon in terms of millions of copies sold from such obscurity in so short a time but never destined for the canon.

The measure I have been playing with in trying to put a metric on a book is Consequentiality as measured by annual sales (where available), length of time in print, frequency of citation by other authors, number of foreign editions, and number of foreign language translations. This information is challenging to collect but most of it, other than annual sales is usually available. With the measures you get Popularity (annual sales), Durability (length of time in print), Relevance (citations), and Universality (number of foreign editions and number of languages). Any book that scores in the top quartile on at least three of these measures, ought, I suspect, to be considered a near classic or classic.

With the few hundred I have collected data on, it is both affirming and revealing. Virtually all of the canon excel on three of the four measures, sometimes on all four. But you find a lot of sleepers out there, titles with measures that are near canon in the metrics but never there.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Influences on tie formation

From Beyond and Below Racial Homophily: ERG Models of a Friendship Network Documented on Facebook by Andreas Wimmer
A notable feature of U.S. social networks is their high degree of racial homogeneity, which is often attributed to racial homophily—the preference for associating with individuals of the same racial background. The authors unpack racial homogeneity using a theoretical framework that distinguishes between various tie formation mechanisms and their effects on the racial composition of networks, exponential random graph modeling that can disentangle these mechanisms empirically, and a rich new data set based on the Facebook pages of a cohort of college students. They first show that racial homogeneity results not only from racial homophily proper but also from homophily among coethnics of the same racial background and from balancing mechanisms such as the tendency to reciprocate friendships or to befriend the friends of friends, which both amplify the homogeneity effects of homophily. Then, they put the importance of racial homophily further into perspective by comparing its effects to those of other mechanisms of tie formation. Balancing, propinquity based on coresidence, and homophily regarding nonracial categories (e.g., students from “elite” backgrounds or those from particular states) all influence the tie formation process more than does racial homophily.
Emphasis added.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Media Malfeascance

I know I had a rant some time ago regarding the apparently deliberate misrepresentation of results from studies as reported in major newspapers. Here is another example from the New York Times, Discrimination in Housing Against Nonwhites Persists Quietly, U.S. Study Finds by Shaila Dewan.

Stipulated that discrimination is bad and should be discouraged. This is about the reporting and not the importance of the subject. The money paragraph.
“Although we’ve come a long way from the days of blatant, in-your-face housing injustice, discrimination still persists,” Shaun Donovan, the department’s secretary, said in a telephone conference on Tuesday unveiling the findings. “And just because it has taken on a hidden form doesn’t make it any less harmful.”

In each of the study’s 8,000 tests, one white and one minority tester of the same gender and age, posing as equally well-qualified renters or buyers, visited the same housing provider or agent. In more than half the test cases, both testers were shown the same number of apartments or homes. But in cases where one tester was shown more homes or apartments, the white tester was usually favored, leading to a higher number of units shown to whites overall.
Those last two sentences caught my eye. That's an awfully stilted way of putting it. What are they hiding? Why the awkward wording? Well, as it turns out, there's a reason. When we think of discrimination occurring, we want a very simple morality tale that's quite clear, but its not quite that, should I say it?, black and white.

Turns out that there is a lot of noise in the system. Real estate agents show different viewers more options sometimes to whites, sometimes to blacks and sometimes to Hispanics. And by big numbers. Let's walk through it. With my skepticism aroused, I went back to the original report, Housing Discrimination Against Racial and Ethnic Minorities 2012. The critical information is forty pages in, Exhibit IV-1: Summary Measures of Discrimination Against Minority Renters.

When the HUD field testers (of each racial group) met with real estate rental agents, what do you think happened? From the news article you would expect that "But in cases where one tester was shown more homes or apartments, the white tester was usually favored, leading to a higher number of units shown to whites overall." Sounds like a lot right? But what does it really mean? We can figure it out from the table.

To me, there are two quite critical pieces of information buried in those sentences that should receive a lot more attention than they do.

In the first case, it is apparently common in these tests for there to be random variation in the number of units shown. Comparing how Blacks and Whites are treated (as paired comparisons), in 54% of the cases, they were both told about additional units (i.e were treated identically). In 28% of the cases Whites were told about extra units but blacks were not, and in 19% of the cases Blacks were told about extra units and Whites were not. So, of a hundred times visited, in only a net of 9% of the cases were Whites treated better than Blacks. I would put this as Agents treated applicants equally (within random variation) 91% of the time. Wow! That's pretty good. Can always do better, but that is still pretty good. And 19% & 28% tells me there is a lot of random variation in the system. So the big improvement for all renters is not in reducing the 9% structural discrimination by agents but in reducing the 19-28% random variation.

Doesn't that picture sound a lot better than "the white tester was usually favored, leading to a higher number of units shown to whites overall" which sounds far more pervasive?

Run your eye down the numbers in the table. There's only a couple of other instances where the discrimination is as high as 9%. What is striking to me is how close the numbers all are. When meeting with agents, Whites are shown only 3% more units than Blacks (given the random variation). Again - Wow! There's less than 1% variation in rents quoted across all the ethnic groups.

Now there is still discrimination to be squeezed out of the system, and the remaining amounts will be harder given the random variation and most of the cheap and easy remedial actions having already been taken, but let's talk about the situation as it is rather than paint false pictures.

It's a scandal that there is any discrimination but there's an even bigger scandal when the degree of discrimination is misrepresented. Since it has to do with numbers and statistics this is probably simply a matter of journalistic ignorance and laziness. A harsh judgment supported by the fact that much of the news article is simply a parroting of the report's executive summary. And it is no surprise that an agency would exaggerate the circumstances - their funding depends on there being a continuing crisis for them to solve. But we should expect more from our news media than this.

College Major and IQ

From the people at Bachelor of Education, an interesting rendition of IQ and College Major.

What Does Your College Major Say About Your IQ?
Source: What Does Your College Major Say About Your IQ?

Click to enlarge and see entire graphic.

When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.

From Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness p. 29, Chap. 3
When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

We see what we want to see

From Homophily and Contagion Are Generically Confounded in Observational Social Network Studies by Cosma Rohilla Shalizi and Andrew C. Thomas. The abstract.
We consider processes on social networks that can potentially involve three factors: homophily, or the formation of social ties due to matching individual traits; social contagion, also known as social influence; and the causal effect of an individual's covariates on their behavior or other measurable responses. We show that, generically, all of these are confounded with each other. Distinguishing them from one another requires strong assumptions on the parametrization of the social process or on the adequacy of the covariates used (or both). In particular we demonstrate, with simple examples, that asymmetries in regression coe fficients cannot identify causal effects, and that very simple models of imitation (a form of social contagion) can produce substantial correlations between an individual's enduring traits and their choices, even when there is no intrinsic affi nity between them. We also suggest some possible constructive responses to these results.
I think what this is saying is that the effect of homophily, social influence, and personal choices are hard to isolate from one another in causal terms and that it is too easy to impose an assumed causal relationship when one does not actually exist. And in fact, the act of imposing such a relationship is really just a function of one's preexisting assumptions.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Annals of disparate impact

From EEOC sues BMW and Dollar General for doing criminal background checks . . . from Ann Althouse

The issue is that African Americans commit a disproportionate (to their population numbers) number of crimes and therefore have a disproportionately high representation among convicted criminals and therefore are disproportionately affected by background check policies.

All complex systems generate inconsistencies and logical nightmares but this is a doozy. Kind of Kafkaesque. The bizarre nature of the issue is captured by one of Althouse's commenters.
So the government convicts minorities at a disproportionate rate.

Then the government sues companies that checks the records of the people they've convicted.

Nice racket.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Wealth divergence

I really need to find the time to read Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. A simplistic summary of his broad thesis, as I understand it from a variety of reviews, is that there is rising inequality between income quintiles owing to differences in values and behaviors, in particular related to decisions about education investment and familial structure. His argument is that the actions and behaviors of those in the top two quintiles are empirically different from those in the bottom three quintiles, to the detriment of those bottom three.

I just read a report, Knot Yet by Kay Hymowitz, Jason S. Carroll, W. Bradford Wilcox, and Kelleen Kaye, which looks at what they call the Great Cross Over that has recently occurred, i.e. where the average age of first birth is now lower than the average age of first marriage. The Knot Yet research appears supportive of Murray's observations.

Then there this summary of research from the Pew Center, Richer Rich, and Poorer Poor by Catherine Rampell.

There are two critical graphs. The first looks at income trends between generations (click to enlarge).

The second looks at wealth accumulation trends.

As you can see from the first graph, over a twenty five year span, the median income for all quintiles rose 74-126%. Given that the increase varies by quintile, it does mean that inequality is growing but that is in the context of everyone having dramatically more income. It is important to remember that these are medians for the quintiles not individuals, i.e. while each quintile was getting richer, individuals were moving between quintiles as well.

The news is not so great with regard to wealth in the second graph. While the top two quintiles increased their wealth by 27-29% over the twenty five year period, wealth fell by 5-20% for the bottom three quintiles. Wealth inequality is growing and the majority of people are seeing their wealth fall.

For both income and wealth, there are two factors that interplay at each point in time - exogenous circumstances and individual choices and decisions. You can make dumb decisions in an economy that is growing fast and still come out ahead (any American in the 20th and 21st century and any Chinese in the past thirty years for example). Likewise you can make great decisions and work really hard and come out worse in an economy that is shrinking (any Argentine or Brazilian at any point just about in the 20th century for example).

The interesting thing though is that income is probably more susceptible to exogenous circumstances than wealth accumulation. Wealth accumulation takes a big hit with rampant inflation, material destruction (such as total war), and government expropriation. While these circumstances occur, they are blessedly relatively rare. Optimizing income on the other hand requires constant adjustment based on economic cycles, industry sector ebbs and flows, technological disintermediation, global integration and outsourcing, regulatory change, tax regimes, etc. All of these things happen routinely and usually concurrently. If I am twenty five years old and receive a $100,000 inheritance, I can make a singular decision on that accumulated wealth as to where to invest it and then ignore that decision for twenty five years and come out ahead of the game. On the other hand, I cannot make a singular decision about my career at twenty five and then make no other career decisions. I have to make repeated and constant adjustments along the way to stay in place or move ahead.

Accumulated wealth is also a relatively straightforward concept - you choose to consume less than you earn. That is all that is required to generate an accumulation of wealth. There are of course nuances. There will always be exogenous shocks (medical emergencies, business cycles, raw bad luck) but the probability of those shocks affects everyone and should wash out across the averages. What this implies in a situation where average incomes are all rising, which reflects greater economic productivity, then in a steady state where everyone saves the same percentage, everyone must also show the same rate of wealth accumulation. For there to be a divergence in wealth accumulation in an increasingly productive society, that divergence must be sourced to individual decisions and values. In other words, if everyone has more income but some people have less in the bank account than before, then those people have to be choosing to consume more than they are earning.

This is where Murray's research would seem to tie in. What is happening that is different between the top two quintiles who are increasing both their personal productivity as well as their wealth and the bottom three quintiles where people are increasing their productivity but reducing their wealth? Murray and Hymowitz et al seem to focus on sociological changes in terms of reduced self-discipline, decreased engagement, decreased education achievement, increased single parenthood, reduced percentage of stable families, etc. That likely is a large chunk of the explanation. But are there other elements as well?

I really don't know. I do observe that these trends parallel a rise in the welfare state (not meant pejoratively). The observation is that those OECD countries with the strongest welfare states also tend to have the lowest economic growth and also have markedly lower wealth accumulation. The assumption is that if you are confident that your future health and retirement income will be reliably provided, then economically there is far less incentive to save now. The implication is that if it becomes apparent to the populations affected that their future welfare payments are much less certain to be delivered, we ought to see an increase in saving/wealth accumulation in all quintiles.

The bad news is the decline in quintile wealth. The good news is that with improved decision-making and increased valuation of saving as a value and discipline, these numbers might be turned around quickly.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Marriage as a capstone versus a cornerstone

From Knot Yet by Kay Hymowitz, Jason S. Carroll, W. Bradford Wilcox, and Kelleen Kaye. Interesting research in a deeply complex and contentious field. There is a volatile mix of values, religion, gender roles, ethics, personal productivity, national economic development, traditionalism vs. progressivism, community needs versus individual desires, etc.
Americans of all classes are postponing marriage to their late twenties and thirties for two main reasons, one economic and the other cultural. Young adults are taking longer to finish their education and stabilize their work lives. Culturally, young adults have increasingly come to see marriage as a “capstone” rather than a “cornerstone”—that is, something they do after they have all their other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.

But this capstone model is not working well for Middle Americans. One widely discussed reason for this is that Middle American men are having difficulty finding decent-paying, stable work capable of supporting a family. Another less understood reason is that the capstone model is silent about the connection between marriage and childbearing.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The sun is the same in a relative way but your older

From Pink Floyd's album, Dark Side of the Moon, 1973.

Pink Floyd (Roger Waters)

Ticking away the moments
That make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours
In an off-hand way

Kicking around on a piece of ground
In your home town
Waiting for someone or something
To show you the way

Tired of lying in the sunshine
Staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long
And there is time to kill today

And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun


And you run and you run
To catch up with the sun
But it's sinking

Racing around
To come up behind you again

The sun is the same
In a relative way
But you're older

Shorter of breath
And one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter
Never seem to find the time

Plans that either come to naught
Or half a page of scribbled lines

Hanging on in quiet desperation
Is the English way

The time is gone
The song is over
Thought I'd something more to say

Home again
I like to be here
When I can

When I come home
Cold and tired
It's good to warm my bones
Beside the fire

Far away
Across the field
Tolling on the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spell...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bubbles are part of the system, not a sign that the system is dead

From Emerging Markets Storm On The Horizon? by Walter Russell Mead.
A lot of people, including some senior policymakers in places like Beijing, misread the financial crisis of 2008-9 as somehow signaling the failure of liberal capitalism and the end of American economic dynamism. What they missed was that the modern liberal system is more than 300 years old (the Dutch started it back in the 1600s before the British took it over and then handed it off to the Americans) and those 300 years have seen one economic crisis and financial panic after another from the bubble in Dutch tulips to the bubble in American houses. Bubbles are part of the system, not a sign that the system is dead.

Teacher quality, skill premiums, and student outcomes

From The Economics of Teacher Quality by Darius Lakdawalla.
Concern is often voiced about the quality of American schoolteachers. This paper suggests that, while the relative quality of teachers is declining, this decline may be the result of technological changes that have raised the price of skilled workers outside teaching without affecting the productivity of skilled teachers. Growth in the price of skilled workers can cause schools to lower the relative quality of teachers and raise teacher quantity instead. Evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth demonstrates that wage and schooling are good measures of teacher quality. Analysis of U.S. census microdata then reveals that the relative schooling and experience-adjusted relative wages of U.S. schoolteachers have fallen significantly from 1940 to 1990. Moreover, class sizes have also fallen substantially. The declines in class size and in relative quality seem correlated over time and space with growth in the relative price of skilled workers.
There has been a paradox that real and relative investments in K-12 education have risen dramatically over the past fifty years, class sizes declined, schools have become more technology enabled, etc. and yet student outcomes in terms of subject proficiency and graduation rates have remained the same or declined. I have attributed this to the fact that we are now serving a much more diverse student body than in the past. There is a teaching burden that arises simply from the fact of diversity (variation has a cost), but there is also the nature of the diversity. 12% or more of children are now foreign born so they have the additional burden of language, economic transition (from agrarian to modern economies), and acculturalization that the schools have to address. The cost of variation and the cost of assimilation can be high.

My working hypothesis has been that the increases in investments have ended up being sufficient to cover the diversity costs (variation and assimilation) but not sufficient to then also raise outcomes as well.

What this article introduces is the idea that the relative quality of teachers has declined as well. There is a lot of nuance in here but I suspect that the authors are correct. They are arguing that as the economy has become far more complex and sophisticated, this has sucked high skilled people out of the teaching profession who have been replaced by lower skilled people who are compensated at relatively lesser amounts. This has been partially compensated for by increasing the numbers of teachers. So the question becomes one of trade-offs. Are 30 students being taught by an excellent teacher going to have better outcomes than 15 students taught by two mediocre teachers. I would say, indisputably the former scenario but that is contingent on some degree of cultural uniformity so that the teacher can focus on instruction rather than crowd control. Japanese teachers routinely instruct 30-40 pupils but they have the advantage of high cultural uniformity.

The synthesis of my operating assumption with the evidence of this article would be that over the past fifty years we have increased investments in education in general and teachers in particular, that that investment has been partially reflected in the continuing decline in student teacher ratios, that during that same time period, teacher quality has declined but quantity has increased, that diversity of the student body has increased (diversity in terms of variant behaviors, cultures, languages, etc.), that increased diversity has brought a burden of costs in terms of student management and in terms of student assimilation, and that increased education investments and teacher quantity have, because of declining relative teacher quality, only been able to maintain student outcomes, not improve them. The implications of this would be that to achieve increased student outcomes then, we would need to improve teacher quality and/or reduce student variation and/or find non-school means of improving assimilation and behavior consistency.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Causal density

From Controlling the Uncontrollable by Kevin Drum, a review of Jim Manzi's Uncontrolled and the concept of causal density.
The problem is what Manzi calls "causal density." If you're studying the orbit of a planet, you can pretty much assume there's only one important cause of the planet's movement: gravity. Causal density is low. In medicine, there are more things to worry about, but a lot of problems are still tractable. Causal density is moderate. But in human affairs, there are lots of causes of everything, there are causes of the causes, and the causes often interact in complex ways. Causal density is very high, which means it's very hard to make sure you've accounted for everything. No matter how sophisticated your statistical tools are, it's always possible that something you haven't thought of is lurking in the background and throwing off your results.
Love the concept. In discussing economic development as well the process of enthusiastic reading, I have cumbrously been referring in variant forms to complex, chaotic, self-regulating, non-linear processes. Causal density will do quite nicely instead.

Misjudging the nature of the task

From The Principle of the Hiding Hand by Albert O. Hirschman.
We may be dealing here with a general principle of action.

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.

Or, put differently: since we necessarily underestimate our creativity it is desirable that we underestimate to a roughly similar extent the difficulties of the tasks we face, so as to be tricked by these two offsetting underestimates into undertaking tasks which we can, but otherwise would not dare, tackle. The principle is important enough to deserve a name: since we are apparently on the trail here of some sort of Invisible or Hidden Hand, that beneficially hides difficulties from us, I propose "The Hiding Hand."

What this principle suggests is that, far from seeking out and taking up challenges, people are apt to take on and plunge into new tasks because of the erroneously presumed absence of a challenge - because the task looks easier and more manageable than it will turn out to be. As a result, the Hiding Hand can help accelerate the rate at which men engage successfully in problem-solving: they take up problems they think they can solve, find them more difficult expected, but then, being stuck with them, attack willy-nilly the unexpected difficulties - and sometimes even succeed. People who have stumbled through the experience just described will of course tend to retell it as though they had known the difficulties all along and have bravely gone to meet them - fare bella figura is a strong human propensity.
I think the described dynamic is correct but that it is not universal but particular. We frequently do undertake a course of action not knowing how we will accomplish the end, only knowing that the end must be accomplished. In the course of achieving the desired end, it is inevitable that we do find new creativity. And that leads to the common but not uniform experience described by Hirschman, the Hiding Hand. In other words, my main contention is that we don't "necessarily underestimate our creativity" - sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. But the larger truth that necessity is the mother of invention (just not the only mother) remains true.

Then the Good of Man comes to be "a working of the Soul in the way of Excellence"

From The Ethics of Aristotle.
If then the work of Man is a working of the soul in accordance with reason, or at least not independently of reason, and we say that the work of any given subject, and of that subject good of its kind, are the same in kind (as, for instance, of a harp-player and a good harp-player, and so on in every case, adding to the work eminence in the way of excellence; I mean, the work of a harp-player is to play the harp, and of a good harp-player to play it well); if, I say, this is so, and we assume the work of Man to be life of a certain kind, that is to say a working of the soul, and actions with reason, and of a good man to do these things well and nobly, and in fact everything is finished off well in the way of the excellence which peculiarly belongs to it: if all this is so, then the Good of Man comes to be "a working of the Soul in the way of Excellence," or, if Excellence admits of degrees, in the way of the best and most perfect Excellence.

And we must add, in a complete life; for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Conspiracy theories, truth and rhetoric

From Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories by Maggie Koerth-Baker. An interesting subject but an anemic article.

The first misstep is in failing to define what constitutes a conspiracy theory. Wikipedia uses "A conspiracy theory is an explanatory proposition that accuses a person, group or organization of having caused or covered up an event or phenomenon of great social, political, or economic impact" as their definition and that appears fairly mainstream.

Being of an empirical and rationalist bent and having worked for years in large organizations in which it is exceptionally hard to maintain secrecy even when there is significant commercial incentive to do so, I have long been skeptical of conspiracy theorists and regarded such theories as primarily a function of poor data, bad mental hygiene and gullibility. The more people involved and the longer the time frame, the more difficult it appears to me that a conspiracy can actually be the underlying explanation. Perhaps true on rare occasions but not nearly as frequently as suggested.

But age is a constant reminder to be more tolerant and less judgmental.

Koerth-Baker also fails to situate conspiracy theories on an epistemological continuum. We all make assumptions and impute some given amount of faith into those unproven assumptions. What distinguishes the faith points of a conspiracy theorist from, say, a church goer, a political ideologue, etc.

For example, there are many phenomenon that are upsetting to some but which are thoroughly documented and empirically explained but which maintain a popular currency despite being disproven. For example, many people believe that there are malevolent forces at play which discriminate against women in terms of compensation. This is commonly popularized in some form of the claim "Women only earn 70% of what men are paid". This misreading of data has long been put to bed here in the US and across the OECD. When you take into account full time versus part time employment, continuity of employment, chosen career fields, education attainment, etc. the nominal difference of 30% disappears completely. Yet people insist on discussing the pay gap as if it were a real phenomenon being caused by mysterious interests.

Similarly, more parochially, in the book world, every year, there is a wailing and gnashing of teeth in some quarters about the disproportion of awards going to males or the low representation of minorities. When you dig into the numbers, it appears that winners are roughly proportionate to the number of full time, continuous participants in the field (which does not match the demographic distribution). None-the-less the conviction that there is some sort of systematic discrimination on the part of awards committees is an article of faith. Is it also a conspiracy theory? It meets the definition of such but we don't identify that article of faith as a conspiracy theory because of the implied negative connotation of a conspiracy theorist (ignorant, foolish and gullible).

So what gets identified as a conspiracy theory contains a degree of judgmentalism as well. A conspiracy theorist becomes someone who holds a view different from our own, based on unproven assumptions with which we disagree. The characterization of a belief as being a conspiracy theory becomes a means of pushing one's opponent beyond the bounds of acceptability.

And yet some of those beliefs pan out.

Within the past five years or so, I can without research, think of a number of beliefs which I initially dismissed as improbable to the point of ridiculous and which could have been characterized as being a conspiracy theory but which turned out to be accurate. The last couple examples I think most people would properly have dismissed as absurd up until this past month.
Conspiracy theory example 1: Claim: That East Anglia University would not share its foundational global warming data model with critics because it was flawed and they didn't want their critics to know that. When the model was eventually leaked, it turns out that they had good reason not to have shared it earlier; they had normed data over the years without keeping track of what changes had been made in which ways to which data sets. Consequently, their model failed the most basic of scientific scrutiny and they were seeking to keep the record-keeping failure from being uncovered.

Conspiracy theory example 2: Claim: That there was a cabal of global warming researchers coordinating with one another to prevent contradictory research from being published and discrediting the authors whenever such research did manage to get published. To me this was your classic delusional theory: too many people not to be eventually uncovered and therefore, to me, unlikely that it was occurring. But sure enough, the climategate email scandal documented that there was exactly such a coordinated effort underway to prevent publication where possible and to discredit when not possible to prevent.

Conspiracy theory example 3: Claim: That there was a concerted effort on the part of liberal journalists to coordinate media messages consonant with the goals of the administration. Yes, the media is empirically far more liberal than the American electorate (documented via party affiliation, campaign contributions, self-identified in surveys, etc.) but a coordinated effort? Ridiculous. Enter the Journolist scandal. Probably less there than was made of it, but still exactly the type of effort predicted by the crazy-eyed theorists.

Conspiracy theory claim example 4: Claim: Academics concoct data to support their own world views and pass it off as research. Absurd. But then again, there are those serial retractions of papers, non-replication of results, and the multiple instances of wholesale fabrication of psychology research out of the Netherlands.

Conspiracy theory example 5: Claim: That the administration was seeking to use the coercive power of government to penalize and suppress opponents for partisan gains. Again, ridiculous until the evidence of Gibson Guitars, IRS and Tea Party applicants, etc. starts coming out.
I'll stop. Regardless of your affiliations and positions, once you start thinking about it, there are too many examples where bad faith actions were attributed to murky groups of actors working against the commonweal and which turned out to be true.

So perhaps conspiracy theories have a life of their own because enough of them turn out to be true.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Luddites, optimism and the pain of transition

Piggybacking on this morning's post, But the distribution of those gains will go to owners of capital and intellectual property there is this article touching on the same issue, How Technology Is Destroying Jobs by David Rotman.

In the article, this is often somewhat simplistically cast in shorthand as human work displaced by computers but it is far more complex than that. Say you are a utility who wants to digitize all your paper field plats so that your field personnel can more easily access information about where lines are laid and transformers placed for better routing of field crews for maintenance. All well and good and you get the 10% improvement in maintenance crew productivity you were looking for. But now that the records are digitized for mapping purposes, they can also be used for system engineering optimization. You can run all sorts of simulations for load capacity and you find that with a few strategic investments and relocations of critical facilities, you are able to drop your maintenance requirements by 30%. Nothing to do with people working more productively; there is simply less work that needs to be done, the discovery of which was contingent on the original digitizing of data.

As regulations increase labor costs, there will always be an economic incentive to substitute technology and capital for labor, especially when the cost of capital is low and the cost of labor is high. This is not simply a unitary phenomenon. Once you have learned to displace expensive skilled labor in a manufacturing plant, you have scaled a big learning curve that makes it cheaper to then automate semi-skilled work. If labor costs keep rising, you keep substituting more and more technology/capital and the average cost of displacement becomes cheaper and cheaper because you keep adding to the knowledge base of how to mechanize what once was human activity.

Displacement results not just in lower costs but usually also higher average quality and consistency.

From the article:
The contention that automation and digital technologies are partly responsible for today’s lack of jobs has obviously touched a raw nerve for many worried about their own employment. But this is only one consequence of what ­Brynjolfsson and McAfee see as a broader trend. The rapid acceleration of technological progress, they say, has greatly widened the gap between economic winners and losers—the income inequalities that many economists have worried about for decades. Digital technologies tend to favor “superstars,” they point out. For example, someone who creates a computer program to automate tax preparation might earn millions or billions of dollars while eliminating the need for countless accountants.

New technologies are “encroaching into human skills in a way that is completely unprecedented,” McAfee says, and many middle-class jobs are right in the bull’s-eye; even relatively high-skill work in education, medicine, and law is affected. “The middle seems to be going away,” he adds. “The top and bottom are clearly getting farther apart.” While technology might be only one factor, says McAfee, it has been an “underappreciated” one, and it is likely to become increasingly significant.

Not everyone agrees with Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s conclusions—particularly the contention that the impact of recent technological change could be different from anything seen before. But it’s hard to ignore their warning that technology is widening the income gap between the tech-savvy and everyone else. And even if the economy is only going through a transition similar to those it’s endured before, it is an extremely painful one for many workers, and that will have to be addressed somehow. Harvard’s Katz has shown that the United States prospered in the early 1900s in part because secondary education became accessible to many people at a time when employment in agriculture was drying up. The result, at least through the 1980s, was an increase in educated workers who found jobs in the industrial sectors, boosting incomes and reducing inequality. Katz’s lesson: painful long-term consequences for the labor force do not follow inevitably from technological changes.

Brynjolfsson himself says he’s not ready to conclude that economic progress and employment have diverged for good. “I don’t know whether we can recover, but I hope we can,” he says. But that, he suggests, will depend on recognizing the problem and taking steps such as investing more in the training and education of workers.

“We were lucky and steadily rising productivity raised all boats for much of the 20th century,” he says. “Many people, especially economists, jumped to the conclusion that was just the way the world worked. I used to say that if we took care of productivity, everything else would take care of itself; it was the single most important economic statistic. But that’s no longer true.” He adds, “It’s one of the dirty secrets of economics: technology progress does grow the economy and create wealth, but there is no economic law that says everyone will benefit.” In other words, in the race against the machine, some are likely to win while many others lose.

This graphic shows the measured pace of technology adoption which has been fast and getting faster over the years. Note how the S-curves are getting steeper.

This interesting graphic shows the fate of routine and nonroutine manual, interactive, cognitive and analytic labor over forty years.

My read is that anything that can be converted into an algorithm (whether manual or cognitive labor) is toast. Sooner or later, the machines will rule. Why? Cost of labor and the extra costs we keep legislating on to labor.

Nonroutine work is where you want to be, particularly unpredictable nonroutine work.

My guess. The technology displacement will roll on with little interruption. The forces of globalization, competition and convergence will force that.

In the near term, the cognitive elite will continue to disproportionately benefit through exceptional cognitive and cultural capabilities. But the churn and erosion that once haunted primarily those moving from rural to urban and those lower skilled manufacturing workers in the eighties threatened by automation and outsourcing, have in the nineties and 2000s worked their way up the cognitive pyramid from blue collar and well into the trenches of white collar work. Becoming an accountant or lawyer used to be a safe pathway into the middle and upper middle class. Software and outsourcing is gutting both those professions. Those at the top, the very best and most productive, will always starve last but the gap between adequately average and best will get vastly wider.

The pressure that will be placed on middle and lower class participants in the labor market will be unrelenting and cruel. But it is impersonal and unavoidable. Who will transition? The cognitive elite will always do well.

Below that, those that have firm grounding in classic middle class values (diligence, future orientation, generosity, community commitment, cautious risk taking, saving, valuation of education, responsibility, etc.) will make a rough but ultimately successful and rewarding transition where they are providing variable services, providing them locally and focusing on specializations that are not easily automated or outsourced.

The currently poor and those without the foundation of productive cultural value attributes are the ones most likely to suffer the greatest. It is those we most need to help and currently who are least likely to receive the necessary help. Not because the material resources aren't being made available, they are. But because it will require changes in behaviors and values (not just skills) in order to be productive in the modern, globalized, interconnected, always connected, fast changing, uncertain economy. People will have to be coached and mentored into the new environment of productivity. Giving personal time is always the biggest barrier to transition and people are deeply reluctant to change their personal habits, particularly if aspects of those behaviors are part of their self-identification. These are delicate waters in which the accomplished are unlikely to wish to swim. But if they don't, then we abandon those most in need of making the transition.

Historically the labor premium was roughly paid for demonstrated skills, experience and values in that order. Values were a given, experience was earned with time and demonstrated skills were the hardest thing to come by.

I think in the future one's productivity is going to be much more determined by values, experience and skills. If that is true, those with variant and/or less productive value sets will suffer.

I am confident that the US will make the transition into the changed modern economy but we will be able to do that in a better or worse fashion.

Are variable outcomes due to variable inputs?

This is the consequence of research done to address a claim made in one of the book related forums to which I belong. The claim was that women are being overlooked in terms of awards because of award committee bias (despite the fact that most book award committees are either gender balanced or female positive in the case of children's literature). The claim struck me as implausible so I did some digging.

The original question was: Why are the Caldecott Medal winners dominated by male illustrators and is it different if you include honor mentions? The Caldecott is the top award given annually to illustrators of children's books for the best work. The main prize is the Medal and there are usually 2-5 honor mentions each year as well.

Looking at the data, it is correct that there is a gender disparity, and it does not make a difference whether we focus on Medals or honors. Males have won 69% of the Medals and 67% of the Honors.

So my first question was whether this disparity was something distinctive to Caldecott or whether it might be more general. Interestingly, this pattern is not different from other awards. It also carries over into bestsellers where there is no committee making an award, there is simply general public approbation reflected in book sales.

The percentage of authors over recent decades who are male by prize (and omitting dual authorship):
Pulitzer - 61%
PW Fiction Bestsellers – 61%
PW Nonfiction Bestsellers – 86%
Book of the Month Club Selections – 63%
Critically Acclaimed – 86%
Caldecott – 69%
Newbery – 34%
Coretta Scott King – 57%
The odd one out in this pattern is the Newbery (the most prestigious annual award for authors of children's books) with 66% of winners being female. So Caldecott is not out of line with other awards or other forms of public choice (bestsellers). Looking at the norm among prizes, there are really two different questions.
Question 1: Why is there a pattern among prizes and popularity with the general public such that males are represented in the range of 60-85% among winners and most popular?
Question 2: Why is this pattern different for the Newbery?
Question 1: Why is there a pattern among prizes and popularity with the general public such that males are represented in the range of 60-85% among winners and most popular?

I suspect we are dealing with a social and economic artifact here arising from the way people organize their lives and priorities.

The disparity in performance (with low female representation at the highest levels of achievement) is not limited to book awards but shows up repeatedly in other fields of endeavor such as: Pulitzer Journalism Award (14%), Senior Corporate Executives (16% female), Members of the House of Representatives (16%), US Senators (14%), law firm partners (16%), accounting firm partners (18%), surgeons (19%), Engineering/STEM degrees (21%), full professors (23%), published authors (30%), average of literary prizes (35%), etc. In fields where there would likely be virtually no attention paid to gender, this 15-30% representation appears. For example, among the most frequently linked online articles, only 20% are by women. Who pays attention to the gender of articles to which they are linking? There seems to be something fundamental here.

The issue of female workforce attrition has been extensively studied by major corporations over the past three decades. Companies tend to hire equally in proportion to supply but experience much higher attrition among their female employees than their male employees. This represents a major cost (a lot of investment in human capital walks out the door before the benefits accrue from those investments) and companies have a high incentive to solve that problem. The attrition disparity is traceable to family status rather than gender. Single males and single females demonstrate comparable attrition rates, compensation increases, promotion rates etc.

Simplistically, female attrition in the corporate environments is primarily driven by conflicts between family obligations and work commitments, particularly in terms of hours to be worked and flexibility to address unanticipated issues. The consequence of these conflicts is that the male/female ratio in most fields starts out relatively even and then begins to skew, sometimes slowly in less competitive fields, usually steeply in demanding fields. Within five years, the equal ratio has morphed to 2:1 and by ten years to 3:1. These root causes have been known for thirty years and there are plenty of innovative solutions that have been developed to help address the issue. None-the-less, the pattern remains and the solutions, while good for particular individuals, have not made much of a difference to the overall numbers.

The reason this attrition is relevant is related to the role that experience and practice plays in achieved excellence. The two relevant variables are volume of hours of experience/practice and the duration/continuity of practice. Top achievers in every field are virtually always distinguished by the exceptionally high number of focused hours of experience and the duration of that experience. It is relatively rare for someone to appear at the top of the league without these attributes. In athletics, chess, classical music performance, and other easily quantifiable fields, there is a strong predictive correlation between number of hours spent training/practicing, continuity of training and level of achieved outcome. Talent and passion are a prerequisite but volume and continuity are the variables with the largest impact on outcomes regardless of gender.

If volume and continuity are the primary determinants of outcome (given basic competence), then what we need to determine is the split between genders of those that are able to focus full-time on careers over long durations. We can measure volume of full-time work by gender pretty easily. The split in full-time year round workers is 58% male and 42% female. This is a floor as it constitutes only those who work 35 hours a week or more. Ideally we would want to see the ratios at graduated levels: 40 hours a week, 50, 60, 70, 80. There are virtually no top performers in any field that only spend 35 hours on their craft/career. So even though this is a low threshold, it is the data we have and what the data says is that if volume of effort is correlated with outcome, straight off the bat, you would expect that 58% of top prizes would go to males.

The detailed measurement of continuity is much more difficult. Despite that, it is well researched and documented that there is a marked drop-off in full-time female labor force participation around childbearing years. This is particularly topical at the moment owing to Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. In that book, she indicates that 43% of women in careers exit the labor force for family reasons with only 40% of those returning full-time at some point in the future. Recognizing that this is entirely a back-of-the-envelope calculation, these two figures indicate that women only represent some 29% of the pool of full-time workers who do not have a planned interruption in their career (0.42 full time workers X 0.43 interrupted careers = 18%; 42 full time workers - 18 interrupted careers = 24% of women who work full-time and do not interrupt careers; 58+24 = 82 number of full-time and continuous workers; 24/82 = 29% of full-time and continuous workforce who are women). All of this assumes that non-planned, non-family related career interruptions occur at the same incidence rate between the sexes.

It might be a coincidence that the percentage of female full-time continuous labor force participation of 29% is within the observed range of 15-30% of top level achievement; it could be, but I suspect not.

The premise is that intense effort as measured by volume of hours and continuity of effort is predictive of significant achievement. The rough data indicate that the proportion of full-time workers without planned career interruptions is approximately 71% male and 29% female. The forecast is that even at this very basic analytical level, not taking into account other variables that are known to affect achievement, that one would expect major achievements in most fields at a ratio of roughly 2:1 male to female. The conclusion is that indeed, observed outcomes across multiple fields of endeavor are in rough proportion to that of full-time continuous workers.

It probably warrants repeating what I have said in the past: 1) this is a good faith effort to work within the constraints of the data that we have, 2) that better quality data or more complete data might change the conclusions, and 3) that averages are not individuals, there are always exceptions.

If this line of logic and evidence holds up, the implication is that if we are to achieve changes in the representation rates at the highest levels of achievement, it is primarily an issue of changing individual life decisions regarding family and careers.

Question 2: Why is this pattern different for the Newbery?

I have no data to answer this one. One might argue, as others do regarding Caldecott, that there is some form of unconscious bias or systemic discrimination, in this case against males versus females. I am highly skeptical of both propositions.

Instead of seeking to explain the outcome as a function of bias and discrimination, my speculation follows from the above discussion. Perhaps the invested hours in motherhood and particularly the direct care and nurturing of children, serves in some fashion as a form of intense practice. That is to say that the number of hours spent with children provide, perhaps, some form of insight into the language and cognitive development and concerns of children which is a beneficial competency in terms of writing for children. That would be consistent with the argument and the data but it seems just a little too pat. This could be a valid supposition but I don’t set great store by it yet simply because the nature of authorship, authorial success, book consequence, etc. are such murky processes.

One testable prediction that would arise if the supposition is true is that the average age of female winners of the Newbery ought to be 5-15 years older than the average of male winners.

A second testable prediction arising from this hypothesis is that the percentage of female winners of the Newbery who are mothers ought to be higher than female winners in other fields of endeavor such as corporate executives, partners in law firms, etc.

Why is any of this important? Whenever I see people exercised about disparate impact it seems almost uniformly the case that they tautologically assume that the cause of the disparity is somewhere in the process (how awards are made, how reporting assignments are distributed, how people are mentored and promoted, etc.) and usually assume either bad faith on the part of the participants (they are biased), or assume that there is "unconscious bias", a deus ex machina if ever there was one. This orientation also leads to what seems to me to be excessive speculation: women lack confidence, women are not aggressive enough negotiators, women don't persevere, etc.

Rarely does there seem to be an examination of context.

If you are a production manager at a factory and your production output has too high a failure rate, you have two primary suspects. The too high failure rate likely has something to do with your process or it has something to do with your inputs. Sure, perhaps you have uniformly excellent input and your process is shredding stuff along the way leading to a high failure rate. Alternatively, perhaps the process is working fine but you have too high a quality variability on your input.

All the disparity arguments seem to focus solely on process and never on input.

Until you know the root causes for the failure rate, you won't be able to adequately address the disparity. If you accept the premise that voluminous and continuous effort is associated with quality outcomes, then you have to look at the disparity of inputs to get a sense of the disparity of outputs.

If only 30% of authors who work full time and continuously are female, then you are likely not to see more than 30% of award winners or bestsellers being female.

But the distribution of those gains will go to owners of capital and intellectual property

An interesting juxtaposition.

For the bleak assessment, Megan McArdle presents When Work Disappears.
It's impossible to look at what's happening to the bottom half of American society and not worry. Some of the breakdown is cultural--a fraying of the basic ties that keep people connected and cared for. Some of it is economic, the disappearance of steady employment that allows people to do the bourgeois work of planning for the future. And in some ways, those trends are reinforcing each other. A community cannot insist that its members work hard and plan for the future if there are no jobs available; the resulting erosion of work and education ethics makes unemployment worse.

The problem is that all the proposed solutions ring hollow. Until roughly the last five years, it was possible to believe that education would be the solution: send more kids to school, retrain people for new jobs. But college graduates aren't finding it so easy to obtain solid employment either. It's true that having a college diploma is still much better than not having a college diploma, but that doesn't mean that by sending more kids to school, we're actually making the workforce more productive, much less mitigating the problem of economic change; we may just be forcing people to jump over a higher bar to gain access to a shrinking number of jobs. Paul Krugman points out that these days, highly educated workers still have to fear having their job disrupted.

Then there is Who are the new economic optimists? by Tyler Cowen
“The great stagnation will end for a lot of people but not everyone,” Mr. Cowen said. “I think there will be great breakthroughs but the distribution of those gains will go to owners of capital and intellectual property."
This is, I think, an example of a statement that is always true, or has been true for millennium, but is more true now than ever before.

Read the original article for the source of Cowen's bullish views.

While I think Megan McArdle's concerns are fully justified, I am in the bullish camp. The nation's fundamentals are good enough and better than just about anywhere else in the world. There are some minor physical infrastructure improvements that need to be implemented but nothing like the wholesale programs of the past. There is much more work to be done in restoring the integrity and trust in both the legislative and administration branches of our government (an empirical and institutional observation, not partisan) but that will take time to earn back lost trust and confidence. There is a fair amount of regulatory reset and policy refreshment that needs to occur but all of which is feasible with goodwill and better leaders in both Congress and Administration, and more citizens holding elected figures accountable for their promises and actions.

The nature and rates of change are unlikely to slow. Everyone has to grapple with globalization, disintermediation, instant-everywhere-always-on connectivity, etc. and all the changes that those conditions drive. We can ride this wave to greater security and prosperity but not while locked in the old mindsets of divisive identity politics, partisan or ideological commitment, or other essentially inconsequential obsessions that have little real world consequence. How do we help those that are unproductive to become productive, how do we help those that are insecure to become more secure? These are the real issues that we can tackle if only we didn't allow ourselves to get distracted by the comfortingly simplistic siren songs of those committed to the old, tired and ineffective nostrums of yesteryear.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

If a character in a novel is not described as being fat, is he fat nevertheless? Could he possibly be fat if the novel never says so?

From On the existence of fictional characters by D.G. Myers. A few paragraphs packed with insight.
To pretend to know something about a character when the novel is silent about it is to reveal something about ourselves, not about the novel.
These reflections are provoked by some questions that Jessa Crispin asked in a recent post at Bookslut. “Where are all the fat characters in literature whose fatness is not the central issue of the novel?” she asked:
It’s like abortion in literature. Where are the abortions in literature that are not the central problem of the book? Can a character just have an abortion and not have it be like the worst thing that has ever happened?
There are really two varieties of question here. The first is a historical question: why have novelists, so far in the history of the novel, included fat characters or abortions only when they are “central” to their novels? Have any novels already been written in which they are not central? (“I’m kind of blanking,” Crispin says.)

But there is also a theoretical question, which is the more interesting. If a character in a novel is not described as being fat, is he fat nevertheless? Could he possibly be fat if the novel never says so? Obesity is treated as extraordinary, a distinguishing characteristic, but what if it is not? What if it is as unexceptional, as unworthy of comment, as teeth and nails? Obesity is extraordinary only from a specific point of view, and where it is “central,” then, the novelist is testifying to his ideology.

Hence Crispin’s resort to abortion. Her own ideology is suggested by her complaint that abortion in fiction is invariably treated as if it were “the worst thing that has ever happened.” Why can’t an abortion be an unremarkable portion of a woman’s experience? And why can’t this unremarkable portion be assumed about female characters in fiction, especially now that abortion is the common experience of so many women? Every character in fiction has a childhood, whether or not it is described. If the same could be said of female characters—many of them had abortions that were peripheral to their experience, not significant enough to remark upon—the unspoken assumption would influence the way in which abortion is conceived in the culture
A female character in fiction has undergone an abortion if and only if the abortion is inscribed in the fiction. Perhaps the mere fact of reporting or describing an abortion makes it seem “central” to a critic for whom abortions should not be so; perhaps a prescriptive criticism will emerge that urges novelists to write about abortion (and also obesity, while they’re at it) more nonchalantly. They must write about it at all, though, to write about it with small concern; and the mere inclusion of it—the plain fact that the novelist decided to speak of it instead of remaining silent—will be significant. What is excluded from fiction signifies nothing, because it might as well not exist. Nothing outside the language of a novel is true about the men and women who are sentenced to live within it and nowhere else.
I broadly agree with Myers regarding the view that the only piece of a story which we can all share is that which is made plain and we need to be careful about seeing that which is not there. However, this also seems to oversimplify on two counts. What happens when the author deceives us (characters accurately relate "facts" in the story which turn out not to be accurate) and what happens when much is implied without being explicit? "Her eyes reminded him of a clear sky in April." So, are her eyes blue? I think that is a fair inference but it is not completely explicit. What about "Her troubled eyes reminded him of a summer thunderstorm"? Could be anything from green to yellow to hazel to black and it might depend on the nature of storms in your terrain. It is a thin line between reasonable person inference and preponderance of evidence.

Apart from that nitpick though, I am in alignment with Myers. I have long been troubled by the extent to which criticisms of a book focus more on the issues of the reviewer than they do on what is explicit in the book.

Maybe the mark of a great book is the extent to which it is able to serve both as a template and a receptacle. Firm enough as a template for us to understand the author's intent but pliable enough that there is a role for our own contribution.

The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair

From Last Poems by A.E. Housman
XXV - The Oracles

'Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain
When winds were in the oakenshaws and all the cauldrons tolled,
And mute's the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain,
And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.

I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking,
The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain;
And from the cave of oracles I heard the priestess shrieking
That she and I should surely die and never live again.

Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it;
But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more.
'Tis true there's better boose than brine, but he that drowns must drink it;
And oh, my lass, the news is news that men have heard before.

The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.
And he that stands will die for naught, and home there's no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair."

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Much of young children’s media reproduces and confirms racist, colonial, consumerist, heteronormative, and patriarchal norms

Oh, dear. Professors Timmermand and Ostertag managed to evade campus security and have escaped into the general public where their ideas are withering under the onslaught of merciless common sense and mockery: Important: Researcher Says that Berenstein Bears, Franklin the Friendly Turtle
Perpetuate "Racist," "Socially Dominant Norms" to Children
from Ace of Spades HQ.

What is it about the modern campus culture that tolerates such obsessive seeking of racism where it does not exist and proclamation of major findings unsupported by logic or empirical evidence. Would one be cruel for assuming that the authors happened to take a literature course in magical realism and adopted that style for their scientific publications?

From the abstract

Young children’s media regularly features animals as its central characters. Potentially reflecting children’s well-documented affinity for/with animals, this media—books, toys, songs, clothing, electronic media, and so on—carries with it many explicit and implicit messages about animals and human-animal relationships. This article focuses on the particularly foundational age of children under four and their parents/caregivers as children’s first early childhood environmental educators. Drawing on ecofeminism, ecocriticism, and early childhood environmental education, we explore messages about animals in children’s media, critically considering notions of mis- and dis-placement, anthropomorphism, and subjectivity. Our inquiry challenges parents and environmental educators to reconsider the lessons young children learn about animals from their surrounding media and explore possible alternatives that question and seek to transform social and ecological inequalities.
You really can't make this up. In any fictional account, this would be so heavy handed as to be deemed unbelievable.

Under the heading of blindingly obvious - we need a study to tell us this?
Even in situations where babies are in childcare from a young age, parents are incredibly influential “teachers” to their children, and the home is a primary source of learning.

As you dig deeper into the deeply self-absorbed paper (there is no data other than a series of nuggets of home life from either of the two authors), you get the sense that sometimes comes from watching the TV program, Cops - intriguing, enjoyable to mock the incredible stupidity of some of the criminals, but also deeply saddening to see people trapped in the lives they have wrought for themselves.
Animals are extraordinarily anthropomorphized in young children’s media. It is common to see depictions of animals standing upright on two legs, wearing human clothing, inhabiting human homes, reflecting social class structures, gender identities, heterosexual norms, living in nuclear families, and sharing aspects of human physical form. In this way, much of young children’s media reproduces and confirms racist, colonial, consumerist, heteronormative, and patriarchal norms
You can only begin to picture the rollicking bedtime reading in the Timmerman and Ostertag households.

This is shooting fish in a barrel. The only reason I linked to this is to share the accompanying picture created by Ace of Spades of the type of children's book that might be found in the Timmerman & Ostertag collection of approved books. Enjoy reading with your children!

Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are

From Confessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell
Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’ But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse. For if one says — and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week — that King Lear is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word ‘good’?

Friday, June 14, 2013

Schools frequently acquire digital devices without discrete learning goals

That's odd. From Study Gauges Value of Technology in Schools by Motoko Rich. Well the main finding is not all that surprising. Disappointing but not surprising.
In a review of student survey data conducted in conjunction with the federal exams known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nonprofit Center for American Progress found that middle school math students more commonly used computers for basic drills and practice than to develop sophisticated skills. The report also found that no state was collecting data to evaluate whether technology investments were actually improving student achievement.

“Schools frequently acquire digital devices without discrete learning goals and ultimately use these devices in ways that fail to adequately serve students, schools, or taxpayers,” wrote Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of the report.
Here's what I found contrary to my expectations.
Similarly, 41 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunches said they used computers for math drills, compared with 29 percent of students whose families earn too much for them to qualify for the lunches.
I would have thought that the wealthy would have had greater access and therefore greater usage. Perhaps there is equal access in schools but the wealthy have access at home as well and/or can rely on parents for assistance whereas the poor might not have home access or may not be confident in parental assistance. Don't know but was surprising to me.

Seems another example of good intentions trumping empirical skepticism. Technology = Good. Schools = Good. Therefore Technology in Schools = Good. Regrettably; Empirical Proof = Optional.

Harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable

Excellent. From Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism by Barbara A. Oakley.
Pathological altruism can be conceived as behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable.
Saying what has needed to said for a long time. Too often good intentions and noble goals are used as the final trump in any argument to do with the commonweal. Don't examine the hidden assumptions or the past performance so long as the goals are right and the intentions are good. That's not how we build bridges, it's not how we ought to develop public policy or corporate strategies. This paper is a mere eight pages, but is clear, to the point and quotable at length. Read the whole thing.
Well-meaning but unscientific approaches toward altruistic helping can have the unwitting effect of ensuring that the benefits of science and the scientific method are kept away from those most in need of help. In the final analysis, it is clear that when altruistic efforts in science are presented as being beyond reproach, it becomes all too easy to silence rational criticism (62, 70, 72–78). Few wish to run the gauntlet of criticizing poorly conducted, highly subjective “science” which is purported to help, or indeed, of daring to question the basis of problematic scientific paradigms that arise in part from good intentions.
Examples referenced include government promotion of home ownership and foreign aid but the list of altruistically intended but objectively destructive programs could probably on its own take up the entire eight pages from Affirmative Action to Zero Tolerance.