Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Inherited privileges are the enemy, not earned privileges.

The remarkable persistence of power and privilege a book review by Andrew Leigh of Gregory Clark's The Son Also Rises. Brings out some points I have not seen mentioned elsewhere.
Analysing mobility in medieval England, Clark finds that people with names derived from jobs (Cook, Butler, Thatcher and so on) were more likely to move upwards, while those with names that derive from towns (including Baskerville, Pakenham and Walton) tended to move downwards. And not much changed after the industrial revolution. Surnames of Oxbridge graduates in the early 1800s, for instance, are three times as common among British MPs in the late 1900s.
Interesting. Makes some sort of sense.

While fascinated and somewhat receptive, I remain leery of Clark's work. I have the nagging feeling that rare names may have some independent dynamic that might make them less than representative. I don't know what that dynamic might be and the more his work is endorsed and incorporated by others in the field, the less likely it is that my simple instinctive response will have merit.

There is a nice summary of the earlier inequality research.
In his 1988 presidential address to the American Economic Association, Gary Becker argued that “earnings are not strongly transmitted from fathers to sons.” Four years later, Gary Solon showed that prior researchers had been overestimating the degree of social mobility because they were using just a single year of data.

To see how this happens, imagine a high-earning barrister who happens to take six months off work in the year of the survey. Now suppose his son becomes a high-earning barrister too. A study that used just one year of data might wrongly assume that this was a case of someone moving from rags to riches. But a study that used several years of data would see that both father and son were well-off.

At this point, I need to introduce a few numbers. The standard measure of mobility across generations is the “elasticity” of children’s earnings with respect to their parents’ earnings – in other words, how closely the former reflects the latter. Because women have tended to have much lower rates of paid work, researchers have focused on the father–son earnings elasticity. An elasticity of zero means there was no relationship between the earnings of fathers and sons, while an elasticity of one would mean that a 10 per cent rise in fathers’ earnings was associated with a 10 per cent rise in sons’ earnings. The closer the elasticity gets to one, the less mobile the society.

Elasticity measures aren’t confined to income. The elasticity of height, for example, is about 0.5, which means that if a father is ten centimetres taller than average then we expect his sons to be five centimetres taller than average. Sure, there are tall fathers with short sons (and vice versa), but basketball dads are generally taller than gymnast dads.

In the case of earnings, economists’ best estimate of intergenerational elasticity went from 0.2 when they used a single year of earnings (as did the studies Gary Becker was relying on) to 0.4 when they used a few years of earnings (Gary Solon’s approach). Over the next decade, US researchers threw better and better data at the problem, and each time they found less and less mobility. Using more than a decade of earnings data, Bhashkar Mazumder estimated in 2005 that the intergenerational earnings elasticity for the United States was 0.6. That would put it higher than the father–son height elasticity. Among American sons, fathers had a larger impact on their earnings than on their stature.

Using similar techniques, researchers began estimating father–son earnings elasticities for other countries. As one survey showed, Scandinavian nations tended to be extremely mobile, with elasticities below 0.2. In Latin America, there was much less class-jumping, with elasticities over 0.5.
So the more detailed the research, the less mobile societies appear (0.6).
But if we accept Gregory Clark’s methodology, his results imply a very static society. For Britain, the United States, India, Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Chile and even Sweden, he concludes that the intergenerational elasticity is between 0.7 and 0.9. This would mean that social status is at least as hereditable as height. It suggests that while the ruling class and the underclass are not permanent, they are extremely long-lasting. Erasing privilege takes not two or three generations, but ten to fifteen generations. If you cherish the notion of a society where anyone can make it, these results are disturbing.
It is interesting to see people wrestling with the implications of Clark's work. Take that last line just quoted, "If you cherish the notion of a society where anyone can make it, these results are disturbing." Not necessarily. What you want to avoid is an oligarchic outcome in which classes of people both hold power and are shielded from consequences. An aristocracy, using the old terms.

But if some families transmit cognitive or physical attributes, whether by genes or culture/values, which are successful in multiple contexts and in multiple eras, then why should that inherently be concerning as long as it is merit based and not a consequence of inherited privilege, nepotism, rent seeking or regulatory capture. It seems to me that concentration of power, corruption, rent seeking, regulatory capture, and nepotism are the sources of concern, rather than the prevalence of achievement among different individuals within lineages over time.

Let me use an example to try and make this clearer. If all car companies are free to enter the Grand Prix and all are subject to the same regulatory rules, it is not unlikely that a handful of companies are likely to end up being more consistently likely to win the Prize over the decades than others. Not every year, and certainly there are ebbs and flows. But over time 3-4 may produce the most number of winners. Why would that, in itself, be concerning?

Let's grant that we want a society where anyone can make it. We set up processes and procedures and expectations and metrics of achievement so that everyone's performance is open, transparent and objectively measured. Is it likely that all individuals and all lineages will have exactly the same representation over time? No. Only those who have the clearest understanding of the rules and have the personal attributes, knowledge, experience, skills, values and behaviors that permit the achievement of the objective measurements will succeed. Some individuals, families, lineages, cultures are going to be over-represented compared to others, i.e. those that most encourage the most appropriate attributes and behaviors. There is always variation in any system over time. No one is fated. As long as the system permits everyone with the requisite skills, values and behaviors to rise, then why would we be concerned? Leigh doesn't address that question.

The implicit logic is that Leigh and others likely want everyone to have equal chance of reward regardless of capability. That is an exceptionally bald way of putting it but that seems to be the logic. I think the unstated discomfort with Clark's results are that they force a confrontation that there are different goals being pursued by different people. Do we want an impartial system that objectively awards everyone that is able to meet its criteria fairly, even if that means there are disproportionate beneficiaries (by lineage, or culture, or religion, or class, etc.) Or do we want a system that rewards people randomly regardless of effort so that everyone has a chance to share in the systemic boon? If you are some form of meritrician, then Clark's work is interesting but not particularly concerning.

If you are an equal outcomes person, then "these results are disturbing."

The challenge to break out of unstated assumptions is most manifest in Leigh's penultimate paragraph, where he makes recommendations.
How do we break the pattern? Part of the answer must lie in a fair tax system, a targeted social welfare system, effective early childhood programs, and getting great teachers in front of disadvantaged classrooms. We need banks willing to take a chance on funding an outsider, and it doesn’t hurt to maintain a healthy Aussie scepticism about inherited privilege.
None of which necessarily follows from anything he has written before. He seems to accept Clark's research and some of its implications but then instinctively falls back on recommendations that are necessarily ineffective given the results he has just accepted.

If Clarks research ends up being accurate, all it does is put the onus on ensuring that we fight concentrated power, self-serving cadres, rent seeking, regulatory capture, obfuscation, subjectivity, etc. While accomplishment may show up in some families less often than in others, it is imperative that it be allowed to flower wherever it occurs. Inherited privileges are the enemy, not earned privileges.

UPDATE: On consideration, I think the unstated assumption made by Leigh and many others is that disproportionate accomplishment (by lineage, culture, religion, class, race, etc.) necessarily leads to nepotism, rent seeking, regulatory capture, positional exploitation (protecting US and exploiting the OTHER by whatever means US and OTHER are defined). I think this is a conflation of concerns. There is a risk that disproportionate accomplishment will lead to the pursuit of positional exploitation - that is human nature. You can't easily change that. However, you can build a system which discourages nepotism, positional exploitation, rent seeking, regulatory capture, etc. That should be the focus, not the naturally arising disparate accomplishment.

The risk is that by trying to suppress natural patterns of achievement (if indeed they are naturally occurring rather than the consequence of positional exploitation) is essentially an attack on accomplishment, i.e. an attack on risk taking and productivity. As long as the attacks are miniscule or ineffective, it is just so much noise. If the attacks become successful then you have systemic productivity collapse as exemplified by every such effort in the past. Our history is that we can have a system where there is maximum productivity but with disparate distribution of the benefits of that productivity or you can have equal poverty. We haven't yet found a way to achieve both high productivity and minimal disparities.

45 percent of graduate students in child psychology had exposure to child/adolescent lifespan development

Sometimes you come across a statement that sort of stops you in your tracks. "Am I misreading this?" "What am I missing?" Here is an example from 1 in 68 Children Now Has a Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Why? by Enrico Gnaulati.
Poring over the numbers of a 2010 study out of the University of Hartford in Connecticut, I discovered that 45 percent of graduate students in child psychology had either no exposure to, or had just an introductory-level exposure to, coursework in child/adolescent lifespan development. It is in these classes that emerging child psychologists learn about what is developmentally normal to expect in children.
How could a graduate student in child psychology not have a grounding in child development? To someone outside the field, that would seem to be like a graduate student in economics not having a grounding in, say, microeconomics. So what am I missing? What is a child psychology graduate studying if they are not studying child/adolescent lifespan development?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Pay attention

From Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct by P.M. Forni. From a literary perspective, one could dismiss this as trite, banal, obvious. However, the fact that there is a market for such a book is an indicator that something is amiss and that which seems obvious to some is not to others. The fact that it is still in print a dozen years after publication is probably another indicator.

The twenty-five rules identified by Forni are:
1. Pay attention
2. Acknowledge others
3. Think the best
4. Listen
5. Be inclusive
6. Speak kindly
7. Don’t speak ill
8. Accept and give praise
9. Respect even a subtle “no”
10. Respect others’ opinions
11. Mind your body
12. Be agreeable
13. Keep it down (and rediscover silence)
14. Respect other people’s time
15. Respect other people’s space
16. Apologize earnestly and thoughtfully
17. Assert yourself
18. Avoid personal questions
19. Care for your guests
20. Be a considerate guest
21. Think twice before asking for favors
22. Refrain from idle complaints
23. Give constructive criticism
24. Respect the environment and be gentle to animals
25. Don’t shift responsibility and blame
Probably worthwhile giving a copy to every newly recruited MBA or lawyer on the track to partner. In fact, it could serve as a report card.

Three Reasons Equal Opportunity Is Impossible

From Bottlenecks: The Real Opportunity Challenge by Joseph Fishkin. The book being discussed is Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity by Joseph Fiskin.
Three Reasons Equal Opportunity Is Impossible
The Family. Parents are free to make decisions about how to raise their children. Not everyone has the same resources—and even if resources were much closer to equal, not everyone has the same approach to parenting. So opportunities are going to be deeply unequal from day one.

Merit is always, in part, past advantage. Sometimes the idea of equal opportunity is focused on what happens later in life, aiming for meritocracy in the allocation of, say, coveted college places or jobs. But “merit” is elusive. There’s no way to disentangle our true, underlying merit from the accumulated results of our past interactions with opportunities and advantages.

We’re all different. We have different goals. The same opportunities that are valuable to me may seem pointless to you. Moreover, because we’re different, I may need different opportunities to develop and grow than you need. Suppose I need glasses to see the blackboard, or an aide to enable me to participate in the class. When exactly are opportunities “equal”?
Quite right. Now what to do about it? I look forward to the next posts in the series.

I think there are three books that likely tie together. There is this one, Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity by Joseph Fiskin. There is Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. There is More Like Us by James Fallows (out of print). The first, by Fishkin, makes the case that things are inherently unequal from the start. The second, by Taleb, makes the case that we live in an inherently uncertain world, and human systems have to be adaptive and robust. The third, by Fallows, makes the case that an unacknowledged strength of American institutions and culture is its predisposition to second chances.

I would add to this the recognition and necessity of focusing on productivity. The capacity to achieve desired life outcomes is predicated upon some minimal level of productivity and there are useful heuristics for achieving higher levels of productivity (effortful work, self-control, self-discipline, perseverance, education attainment, intact families, etc.) which have very high correlations between attribute and desired outcome. For some reason in recent decades we have become highly reluctant to communicate these heuristics, likely for being seen to blame the victim. But not communicating their importance does not remove their importance.

In this post, Fishkin is hinting at what I think was Fallows' insight - we cannot achieve equal opportunity and equal outcomes is self-destructive. The alternative is second chances. How do we balance exacting sufficient consequences for bad behavior and bad decisions so that we avoid moral hazard while at the same time maximizing the capacity for second chances. Now there's a really interesting conversation.

Monday, April 28, 2014

If you want to know when a war might be coming

I picked up a copy of Great Political Wit by Bob Dole a few months ago. I generally am not fond of politicians nor their (usually ghost written) memoirs.

But I have always had a high regard for Bob Dole. Self-effacing, a wounded veteran, a politician who always seemed to seek the best for his country rather than for his political career. I thought I'd give his book a shot. It has been sitting around in the stacks for many months now. I had to pull it out when the stack got so tall it was beginning to totter. Thinking to put it into storage for the time being, I am compelled to keep it out. Not literature, but there is such a gentle humor that is reassuring. Given what is happening with the budget and in particular the military budget, this particular quip caught my eye.
Rogers [Will] also claimed to be clairvoyant on the subject of future wars. "If you want to know when a war might be coming," he told audiences, "you just watch the United States and see when it cuts it starts cutting down on its defences. It's the surest barometer in the world."
Uh oh!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

They die and I can’t stop them

Father of the Wild Things by Stefan Kanfer. A beautiful sentiment. Would that we all might arrive at such a state. Maurice Sendak, late in life.
“I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready.” Perhaps that calmness came from the knowledge that three generations had bought his creations and that a fourth generation was devouring them (sometimes literally) even as he spoke. Now Sendak is gone, and there will be no more Sendak books. But of the making of Sendak fans, there is no end.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A reiteration of the defender's own argument offered on a foundation of Bulverism with a dash of ad hominem as garnish.

From Word of the Day: Bulverism by Greg Mankiw. He is actually quoting C.S. Lewis (original, here).
In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method [Note: This essay was written in 1941.] is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father - who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third - “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
Lewis makes this observation in the context of a discussion about religion but he goes on to note:
For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it give no unfair advantage to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds - a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning - never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. And why should reason not be discredited? It would be easy, in answer, to point to the present state of the world, but the real answer is even more immediate. The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend of reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize. You are trying to prove that all proofs are invalid. If you fail, you fail. If you succeed, then you fail even more - for the proof that all proofs are invalid must be invalid itself.

The alternative then is either sheer self-contradicting idiocy or else some tenacious belief in our power of reasoning, held in the teeth of all the evidence that Bulverists can bring for a “taint” in this or that human reasoner. I am ready to admit, if you like, that this tenacious belief has something transcendental or mystical about it. What then? Would you rather be a lunatic than a mystic?
There are several forms of faulty logical argument that I think cover this type of argument; ad hominem circumstantial, appeal to motive, and the genetic fallacy, come to mind.

But there is a certain simplicity to Bulverism and it is probably worth resurrecting as it has become so insidiously prevalent. Indeed, I would not be surprised to discover that greater than 75% of editorials and punditry don't consist simply of Bulverism. There is rarely an honest engagement with the other person's argument. Instead, all that is usually offered is simply a reiteration of the defender's own argument offered on a foundation of Bulverism with a dash of ad hominem as garnish.

Its the actions not the interpretations that count

From More on the Brandeis-Hirsi Ali controversy by David Bernstein
As I’ve blogged before (though I can’t find the link), unless you believe that a particular version of a religion is “true,” it’s foolish to suggest that the religion itself is to blame for human actions based on that religion. Human beings interpret religious texts, and they should be held responsible for their actions, including how they interpret inevitably ambiguous religious tradition.

And religions evolve. Rabbinic Judaism, for example, evolved through interpretation to the extent that it often bears only a tangential relationship to the purported source material, the Torah. Islam, as mediated through human action, was historically often more tolerant of Jews living under it than was Christianity, even though if you compare the Quran to the Christian Bible it would seem that Christianity would obviously be the more “Love Thy Neighbor” religion. And so on. A great religion like Islam, with hundreds of years of commentary and interpretation, can inevitably be interpreted to be more liberal or less liberal, more tolerant or less tolerant, more belligerent or less belligerent. To the extent it’s been interpreted to be incompatible with liberalism, we should blame the interpreters who have created “radical Islamism” and criticize their ideology, not issue blanket condemnations of “Islam.” If the Catholic Church can evolve from what it was in the 19th century to what it is today, a decentralized religion like Islam surely is not static or monolithic.
This is close to my criticism of those trying to lump everybody in to groups and cultures and to criticize at the aggregate level rather than the individual level. Cultures are critical in many ways, not least that they encourage and discourage certain actions and behaviors. But when someone does something, it is their individual choice that is relevant, not the abstract notion of culture.

The economic booms and busts of the previous century were typically ascribed not to any sort of regular business cycle but to fate

From The Dismal Art book review by James Surowiecki. The book being reviewed is Fortune Tellers: The Story of America’s First Economic Forecasters by Walter A. Friedman. Talking about the origins of business and economic forecasting.
The first person to really meet that demand, Friedman argues, was Roger Babson, who began putting out regular forecasts about the U.S. economy after 1907. Babson was the most obvious huckster of Friedman’s subjects. He was given to faddish beliefs. He was a serial entrepreneur who came up with a host of odd inventions, and he was peculiarly obsessed with Isaac Newton. And his view of the business cycle, which he saw as oscillating regularly between boom and bust, was both simplistic and informed by a highly moralistic notion of excess and punishment. But Babson did two important things, Friedman argues. First, he solidified the notion that there was something called the “U.S. economy” whose different parts were connected to one another in systematic ways. And he popularized the idea that economies were subject to business cycles, about which coherent prognostications could be made. These seem, today, like obvious insights. But at the time, Friedman argues, they were quite new. As he writes, “The economic booms and busts of the previous century were typically ascribed not to any sort of regular business cycle but to fate, the weather, political schemes, divine Providence, or unexpected shocks like new tariffs or earthquakes.”
It is relatively easy to keep track of major technological innovations that change our world. Much more difficult is to recognize the turning point when we began to understand the world differently. Cognitive innovation is often as or even more consequential than technological innovation.

In this instance, the cognitive innovation was to look at a portfolio of known facts and suggest that these were not random events but something arising from some underlying pattern of action. While the posited causation might not have actually been understood, the mere recognition that there was more than randomness in play was the critical insight.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Only 2% of discrimination suits are successfully tried and average settlement is $30,000

From Individual Justice or Collective Legal Mobilization? Employment Discrimination Litigation in the Post Civil Rights United States by Laura Beth Nielsen, Robert L. Nelson, and Ryon Lancaster

Figure 1 diagrams the sequence of case outcomes from our sample. A significant proportion of cases (some 19 percent) are dismissed. By far the most frequent outcome is early settlement, which makes up one-half the entire sample of closed filings (50 percent). Most parties seek to avoid the risks associated with investing in a motion for summary judgment and resolve their claims prior to the filing of a motion. Of the cases that do not settle early, plaintiffs lose the motion for summary judgment in more than one-half the cases (57 percent of remaining cases, or 18 percent of filings overall). In the 14 percent of cases that remain active after the disposition of the motion for summary judgment, more than one-half (57 percent of remaining cases, or 8 percent of filings overall) settle before a trial outcome. In the 6 percent of filings that result in trial outcomes, plaintiffs win 33 percent of the time, or in 2 percent of filings overall.

Because settlement is the modal outcome, it is important on both theoretical and policy grounds to know the size of settlements, yet such data typically are unavailable because of confidentiality agreements that often accompany settlement. Of the 945 cases in our sample that settled, we obtained settlement amounts for only 75 cases from court
records. The median settlement was $30,000, the 25th percentile was $11,500, and the 75th percentile was $92,458. Although the number of cases is very small (N = 14), if a plaintiff survived a motion for summary judgment, coded as a “late settlement,” the median award rises to $40,000 and the 75th percentile to $110,000. Our sample contained three very large settlements: one for $110M, one for $29M, and one for $8.1M.5
Their conclusion:
Our results call for a rethinking of law and social change. Because employment discrimination litigation seldom yields a substantial award for plaintiffs and seldom provides systemic results, it largely does not deliver an impetus for the elimination of workplace discrimination. Employment discrimination litigation is not so much an engine for social change, or even a forum for carefully judging the merits of claims of discrimination, as it is a mechanism for channeling and deflecting individual claims of workplace injustice.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Eponymous name

From The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language by David Crystal. Page 155.

A list of eponymous names (such as alsatian derived from Alsace, France) which I either did not know or had forgotten.
copper - Cyprus

currant - Corinth, Greece

denim - Nimes, France

duffel coat - Duffel, Antwerp

gauze - Gaza, Egypt

jeans - Genoa, Italy

kaolin - Kao-ling, China

mayonnaise - Mahon, Minorca

pheasant - Phasis, Georgia

pistol - Pistolia, Italy

suede - Sweden

Nutritional signal and niose

From An Apple a Day, and Other Myths by George Johnson.
But there is a yawning divide between this nutritional folklore and science. During the last two decades the connection between the foods we eat and the cellular anarchy called cancer has been unraveling string by string.


About all that can be said with any assurance is that controlling obesity is important, as it also is for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke and other threats to life. Avoiding an excess of alcohol has clear benefits. But unless a person is seriously malnourished, the influence of specific foods is so weak that the signal is easily swamped by noise.

The situation seemed very different in 1997, when the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research published a report, thick as a phone book, concluding that diets loaded with fruits and vegetables might reduce the overall incidence of cancer by more than 20 percent.

After reviewing more than 4,000 studies, the authors were persuaded that green vegetables helped ward off lung and stomach cancer. Colon and thyroid cancer might be avoided with broccoli, cabbage and brussels sprouts. Onions, tomatoes, garlic, carrots and citrus fruits all seemed to play important roles.

In 2007, a major follow-up all but reversed the findings. While some kinds of produce might have subtle benefits, the authors concluded, “in no case now is the evidence of protection judged to be convincing.”

The reason for the change was more thorough epidemiology. The earlier studies tended to be “retrospective,” relying on people to remember dietary details from the distant past. These results were often upended by “prospective” protocols, in which the health of large populations was followed in real time.


With even the most rigorous studies, it is hard to adjust for what epidemiologists call confounding factors: Assiduous eaters of fruits and vegetables probably weigh less, exercise more often and are vigilant about their health in other ways. Some of this can be sorted out with randomized controlled trials, with two large groups of people arbitrarily assigned different diets. But such studies are expensive, and the rules are hard to enforce in the short term — and probably impossible over the many years it can take for cancer to develop.
All quite interesting for being said clearly in one place rather than accreting the observation in dribs and drabs.

Macroeconomics, nutrition and health, personal finance, education, life decisions, climatology; in all these fields, much of the yield of research of the past fifty years has not been simple answers to complex questions. It has been complex and uncertain answers to complex questions. Indeed, in many ways, the primary product of fifty years of research is 1) an increasing comprehension of just how complex the questions really are and 2) a dawning recognition that some of the questions cannot in a meaningful way be answered with precision in a timely fashion owing to the sheer plentitude of confounding factors and the smallness of the effect. In other words, there is a signal but it is very weak and usually drowned out by the system noise. By the time you are able, at great expense, to demonstrate that the signal is indeed real, it is either so small that the effort is not warranted or the system has changed so much that there is justifiable concern that the effect can no longer be replicated under current conditions. For example, while there are lessons to be learned, a developing country wanting to become rich cannot simply execute the Japanese strategies of 1950-60. The world has changed and what worked then is unlikely to yield the same results now.

All the investment in research is not wasted. It sets the parameters for future, more productive research. In all these fields there are also very useful heuristics. In food and nutrition, instead of a litany of particular foods to be eaten under particular circumstances, prepared in particular ways, and for particular anticipated benefits, there is now the luxury of a simple heuristic that works equally well: Eat in moderation and with variation, supplemented by moderate routine exercise and occasional extreme exercise.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

There is nothing so absurd but that some philosopher has said it

From Cicero, De Divinatione, bk. 2, sct. 58
There is nothing so absurd but that some philosopher has said it.

They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing

From the Introduction to The Incarnation of the Word of God by C.S. Lewis.
It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook - even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united-united with each other and against earlier and later ages-by a great mass of common assumptions.


None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

Indeed, group membership often offers little if any added value once traditional measures of human individuality are taken into account

From Work Preferences, Life Values, and Personal Views of Top Math/Science Graduate Students and the Profoundly Gifted: Developmental Changes and Gender Differences During Emerging Adulthood and Parenthood by Kimberley Ferriman, David Lubinski, and Camilla P. Benbow.
We have observed among these cohorts of highly talented participants a finding well known in the study of individual differences: The differences observed between the genders pale in comparison to the individual differences observed within the genders for both parents and nonparents, as can be observed in the means and standard deviations that we provide for all of our items. While it is appropriate to aggregate individual difference variables to understand over- and underrepresentation and differential group trajectories (Lubinski & Humphreys, 1996), the maximization of human capital and predictions about individuals require individual, and not group, appraisals (Gottfredson, 2002; Lubinski, 1996,2000). Indeed, group membership often offers little if any added value once traditional measures of human individuality are taken into account (Hakim, 2007; Lubinski & Humphreys, 1997; Webb et al., 2002).
The whole paper is interesting, though leaden. All sorts of hedging and jargon but what it comes down to is that even among the most elite STEM stars, there is some commonality of life goals early on, that there is divergence that occurs via lived experience, the divergence widens even further based on familial life choices (whether to have children and caregiving role). Outcomes have much more to do with the cummulative consequence of individual choices rather than with gender. Despite the fairly divergent decisions and choices across the spectrum of participants, all were pretty happy with their choices and the consequences of those choices.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

It is very hard to separate pure time preference from risk when it comes to real-world investments

From Short-termism by Arnold Kling. It is not uncommon for glib explanations to become a universal currency and the idea that many corporate and national issues are the result of too short a term perspective is one of those universal explanations that are passed mind to mind without anyone ever questioning its validity. Obviously there is always a tension between near term sacrifice and long term prosperity as there is between near term consumption and long term spartanism. There are cognitive and cultural biases that influence an individual's predisposition towards one view or the other.

Yes, executives are subject to much closer public and legal scrutiny than in the past. Yes, there are exacting laws requiring careful communication about near and long term prospects. And yes, the market is punishing when expectations are not met. But isn't this just part of the entire system of information exposure, vetting and processing? The future is an uncertain prospect and those prospects change all the time based on current new information.

My sense is that in many cases, "short-termism" is either a cognitive cliche covering a different issue - I believe they should be investing differently than they are. Fair enough, but what is it that you know that they, the executives, don't know that makes you so much more confident in your assessment of future returns?

Kling has some great observations and questions on this issue.
. . . He asked me what I thought about “short-termism.” Mostly, I think that it is a difficult concept to pin down.

I guess my working definition would be that short-termism is a bias among executives to forego long-term opportunities in order to achieve short-term profit objectives.

But how would you measure it? What observations would confirm it?

For example, I might argue that, at today’s low long-term interest rates, a nuclear power plant looks like a high net-present-value investment for a utility company. Does their failure to invest in nuclear power plants reflect short-termism? Obviously, it is more complicated than that. There are regulatory barriers, site licensing barriers, and there is economic risk–suppose that ten years from now solar power becomes so inexpensive that the price of electricity no longer provides a decent return on the up-front investment? Not to mention the risk that the plant will have something wrong, or that the nuclear waste will be a problem, or some other risk.

The point is, it is very hard to separate pure time preference from risk when it comes to real-world investments.
I think he is right to focus on definitions. What do we mean by short-termism and how do we distinguish it from appropriate time discounting based on assessed risks and uncertainty?

And this isn't just about executives of corporations. Short-termism is an implicit criticism of politicians (who are constantly being observed to "pass the hot potato" or to "kick the can down the road" or "take a punt" or "pass the buck" - all forms of short-termism). It is also a sotto voce criticism of individuals - why aren't you investing in your education, why aren't you working full-time, why aren't you committing and settling down? - again, all veiled criticisms based on an implied short-termism.

If people are not making the long term investments that we think they ought to, either we are failing to understand risks they are perceiving or they are failing to understand facts we are taking for granted.

Acting with good intent but poor critical comprehension is as reprehensible as not acting at all.

From Minimum wage hikes and real net wages by Tyler Cowen. We do such a grave disservice by refusing to look at things from the perspective of productivity. We would save ourselves many unpleasant surprises and negative outcomes if we did so. Cowen provides an example from recent research in regard to the impact of minimum wage impacts.
…past experience has confirmed the nonmonetary impact of a minimum-wage hike on workers, not only in reduced fringe benefits but in increased work demands and decreased job training. For example:
When the minimum wage was increased in 1967, economist Masanori Hashimoto found that workers gained 32 cents in money income but lost 41 cents per hour in training — a net loss of 9 cents an hour in full-income compensation.

Similarly, Linda Leighton and Jacob Mincer in one study, and Belton Fleisher in another, concluded that increases in the minimum wage reduce on-the-job training and, as a result, dampen long-run growth in the real incomes of covered workers.

Additionally, North Carolina State University economist Walter Wessels determined that a wage increase caused New York retailers to increase work demands. In most stores, fewer workers were given fewer hours to do the same work as before.

More recently, Mindy Marks found that the $0.90 per hour increase in the federal minimum-wage rate in 1990 reduced the probability of workers receiving employer-provided health insurance from 66.2 percent to 63.1 percent, and increased the likelihood that covered workers would be reduced to part-time work by 26 percent.
Wessels also found that for every 10 percent increase in the minimum wage, workers lose 2 percent of nonmonetary compensation per hour. Extrapolating from Wessels’ estimates, an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to only $9.00 an hour would make covered workers worse off by 35 cents an hour.
Politicians and some voters always want a free lunch and minimum wage legislation is a perennial favorite when politicians want to be seen to be doing something positive. But there are no free lunches. A minimum wage hike is always a tax increase (on someone) or a transfer, with the normal repercussions that arise from such events. If employee productivity is fixed and wages are increased, then ceteris paribus, either the company has to accept lower profits (an implicit tax) or they have to pass along the cost increase to consumers (i.e. inflation which is a form of taxation) or they have to reduce costs elsewhere (transfers from others to employees) or they have to reduce labor (usually through capital substitution.) If you focus on productivity, then all these things are obvious. If you focus in social justice or inequality or workplace fairness or any of a number of other worthy but abstract concepts, you will often end up with an outcome that is worse than when you started.

Acting with good intent but poor critical comprehension is as reprehensible as not acting at all.

Monday, April 21, 2014

It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

From 10 Rules for Students and Teachers Popularized by John Cage by Jonathan Crow. The list was actually drawn up by Sister Corita Kent and latterly popularized by her friend John Cage.
Rules for Students and Teachers
by Sister Corita Kent

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student: Pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher: Pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined: this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything. It might come in handy later.

We imbue a number with a respect that it often does not warrant

An excellent example of how measured attributes are always a proxy for real attributes and how it is important to keep the distinction in mind. From What makes most restaurant reviews worthless by Tyler Cowen.
…a new paper appropriately titled “Demographics, Weather and Online Reviews.” The study analyzed 1.1 million online reviews of 840,000 restaurants, looking for exogenous — or external — factors in the data. In other words, they wanted to figure out what makes us like or dislike a restaurant, beside the restaurant itself.

The results can be surprising. The diners’ education levels? No effect on actual ratings. Population of the area? Again, not so much.

But reviewers consistently gave worse ratings when it was raining or snowing outside than when it was clear. And reviewers usually liked restaurants better on warm and cool days, rather than very hot or very cold ones.

In researcher Saeideh Bakhshi’s words: “The best reviews are written on sunny days between 70 and 100 degrees … a nice day can lead to a nice review. A rainy day can mean a miserable one.”
So if you are a restaurant owner, you want to have some sort of promotion to do online reviews only on nice days.

The more basic point is a fundamental one. Whenever we measure something, it is always a proxy for reality. It may be a good proxy and a useful one , but it is still a proxy. We have to know the details of how it is measured and take into account all the external factors that might affect the measure. We rarely do that. We imbue a number with a respect that it often does not warrant.

This isn't an anti-measurement screed, simply a sensible precautionary observation.

This is similar to what happened with Amazon book reviews (a starring system). Wouldn't it be great to know what the consensus of other readers was of the book that they read? Sure, that would be useful information.

The problem is that an aggregation of starred reviews is not a proxy for quality in general, much less whether it might appeal to you as an individual reader. An Amazon starred review number is usually a better proxy for the author's publicity budget, or a proxy for degree of controversy, than it is a proxy for quality.

So what you think you are measuring isn't always actually what you are measuring. What you want to measure isn't always the same as what you have been measuring.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Marvels and frights and strange delights

From Lord Lord Lord

Verse 1 of Lord Lord Lord
by Yasiin Bey

The power of observation
Marvels and frights and strange delights
Attributes, properties, disciplines and novelties
Ecstatic patterns in the calendar design
Wilderness tours, guided for and by the blind
Cool ruler standing still sweating through the shades
He knew those lights only grew bright to fade
Dead wrong pageantry, lottery and games
Sleight of hand provided by extravagant and fake
The carnival tilt bell the hustle for the age
They clutch what they covet, what must they give away?
Who was uninvited who was asked to come and stay?
Surprise, it's your life, it's your business anyway
So please pardon these and such curious minds
Peace, safe passage, precious time hither and gone
The day of days, Yawm al-Qiyāmah
This tiny stone illuminated by a star
The only star so large many more
To make our largest star show small
Furthermore, the end is not the end no stop but a pause
And what we can witness isn't all there is at all
Custom mock of a scotch and pork chops
The passion, expansion, the order of the random
See the dreamers, see the sleepers
Why'd you wake them?
Sweet Jesus and life on Earth
Seek heaven first
Let's put in this work

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Deadlier Than Sharks: The Science of Deer in the Headlights by Ross Pomeroy
Why are deer the poster children for animal-automotive collisions in the United States? The simplest explanation is that they are large in size, abundant, and widespread. As many as 30 million of the 100 to 300-pound mammals reside in the U.S., ranging from Maine in the Northeast, to Florida and Texas in the South, to Idaho in the West.

For a more nuanced explanation, we can look to their behavior. According to Purdue University ecologist Esteban Fernandez-Juricic, when confronted with oncoming vehicles, deer rely on anti-predator instincts. First and foremost, that means freezing -- the stereotypical "deer-in-the-headlights" response. In a normal predatory situation, this would allow them to avoid detection and gauge the situation. But while such a reaction is well suited to a gun-toting human or a lurking wolf, it is not at all useful when confronted with a one-ton hunk of metal traveling at 60 miles per hour. Often, a deer's decision to flee comes too late, if at all. The consequences to animal, car, and driver can be dire.

A thin line between simple common sense and profound wisdom

From University of California at Berkeley graduation speech, 2007 by Thomas J. Sargent

Economics is organized common sense. Here is a short list of valuable lessons that our beautiful subject teaches.

1. Many things that are desirable are not feasible.

2. Individuals and communities face trade-offs.

3. Other people have more information about their abilities, their efforts, and their preferences than you do.

4. Everyone responds to incentives, including people you want to help. That is why social safety nets don’t always end up working as intended.

5. There are tradeoffs between equality and efficiency.

6. In an equilibrium of a game or an economy, people are satisfied with their choices. That is why it is difficult for well meaning outsiders to change things for better or worse.

7. In the future, you too will respond to incentives. That is why there are some promises that you’d like to make but can’t. No one will believe those promises because they know that later it will not be in your interest to deliver. The lesson here is this: before you make a promise, think about whether you will want to keep it if and when your circumstances change. This is how you earn a reputation.

8. Government and voters respond to incentives too. That is why governments sometimes default on loans and other promises that they have made.

9. It is feasible for one generation to shift costs to subsequent ones. That is what national government debts and the U.S. social security system do (but not the social security system of Singapore).

10. When a government spends, its citizens eventually pay, either today or tomorrow, either through explicit taxes or implicit ones like inflation.

11. Most people want other people to pay for public goods and government transfers (especially transfers to themselves).

12. Because market prices aggregate traders’ information, it is difficult to forecast stock prices and interest rates and exchange rates.
It is a thin line between simple common sense and profound wisdom. In addition to its brevity, this graduation speech is distinguished by its exceptionally high Truth Quotient. Much as an individual might wish all or any of these points to not be true, the sad but exciting reality is that there is a tight conformity between the statements and reality.

Tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it

From The Apple that Astonished Paris by Billy Collins

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Risk wheels within risk wheels

An excellent article that highlights the importance of argument framing. A remarkably small idea that could reduce distracted driving by Emily Badger. The issue is that there are inherent dangers to distracted driving, that cars are becoming more complex and therefore create greater distraction. The suggested solution is to use design, and specifically font design, to reduce the degree of distraction in the car.
There are at least two ways to think about the problem of distracted driving. We could try to get people to cut down on all of the stuff that's distracting them -- texting, fielding phone calls, fiddling with in-car navigation screens at 50 miles an hour. Or we could acknowledge that drivers will probably keep doing all of those things anyway and try to mitigate the harm.


Two years ago, the MIT AgeLab and Monotype began to study whether more legible typefaces could make a difference in in-car media. For men, at least, the answer has been yes. In driving simulations run by the lab, male drivers took their eyes off the road for less time when the text on a small navigation screen appeared in a typeface from what's known as the humanist genre. The difference between humanist and grotesque typefaces amounted to the equivalent of turning away from the road over a distance of 50 feet at highway speeds.
But the issue is more complicated than the straight-forward framing above. The additional concerns are raised in the comments section.

People based systems are complex with uncertainty surrounding incentives, communication, feedback mechanisms, inconsistent objectives, cognitive biases which distort the gap between stated intentions and actual actions, etc. The article misses these but they are pointed out in the comments.

First - The heart of economics is incentives. People respond to incentives (and disincentives). If you make something faster, easier, cheaper, or more rewarding, ceteris paribus, you increase demand for it. So if you make it easier and faster to comprehend text on car displays, even though you are decreasing the amount of time per instance of looking, you may also be increasing the number of instances. Such is the complexity of the human system.

But what this also highlights is the human tendency to polarize things into a dichotomy. Some of us want rules that are enforced in support of a shared fixed goal. That leads to a desire for clear rules and clear punishments that attach to breaking those rules. Others are more concerned about the outcome than the process. If people are going to text regardless of what we do, then let's make it safer to text is the logic.

There are obviously circumstances where both perspectives are useful. The challenge in this case is to determine whether it is more likely that making it safer to read and text (therefore making it more likely that people will do so) outweighs the per instance benefit by making clearer type. In other words, which is the greater number, deaths and injuries from more frequent distractions or deaths and injuries from longer duration distractions? The important thing is to anticipate that the process does have feedback loops and people do change their behaviors based on incentives. Without further data, there is no way to tell whether this is potentially a good approach.

What we do know is that it is a bad approach not to take into account the consequences of anticipated change on the human incentive structure.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Not quite as cynical as it seemed

All the talk about income inequality I have marked down as simply cynical politics. From an economics perspective, there is no clear empirical evidence that there are any negative consequences to higher or lower inequality (within realm of reason). There are certainly moral arguments to be had but the economic arguments are fairly anemic. This article, The Polarized Partisan Geography of Inequality by Michael Zuckerman, suggests that perhaps there is more than cynical political desperation at play.
A few days ago, the Associated Press ran a short piece noting, "of the 10 richest House districts, only two have Republican congressmen." Later in the piece, the reporter, Stephen Ohlemacher, noted that although Democrats represent many of the richest districts, the overall difference in per-capita income between Democratic and Republican districts "is relatively small because Democrats also represent a lot of poor districts, putting the average in the middle."

That alone might lead us to draw a reasonable conclusion about the party leadership's focus on income inequality: If their caucus is made up of members who disproportionately represent the poorest and richest districts, Democratic leaders—taking a bird’s-eye view of the party’s overall constituent base—might be quicker to recognize the yawning gap between the rich and poor than their Republican counterparts. The Democratic rank-and-file, comparing districts, could reason the same among themselves.
Zuckerman then runs the numbers for intra-district income inequality.
As the data show, Democrats have a lock not only on the country's richest districts but also on the districts with the highest in-district income inequality.
His conclusion:
Considered alongside these well-established trends, the fact that Democrats represent districts that are (on average) more unequal than Republican districts suggests that the parties may have such divergent views on income inequality in part because their members (and constituents) have divergent experiences of income inequality. Could polarization, in other words, be driven by the availability heuristic?
Elaborating on this:
It’s not impossible to imagine this effect playing out in Congress. Given that Maloney and Fattah regularly pass between some of the richest and poorest neighborhoods in America within a few minutes, it’s not shocking that they might see income inequality as a bigger problem than, say, Republican Representative Michele Bachmann (Minn.-06), a staunch conservative who (perhaps ironically) represents the district with the least income inequality in America (Gini index of 0.385). Likewise, it’s not impossible to imagine that Maloney’s and Fattah’s constituents—who look across the street at people with wildly different incomes than their own—think of income inequality as a bigger deal than Bachmann’s constituents do.
An interesting argument and I think it has reasonable merit. I still wouldn't discount political cynicism as material contributor to the focus on income inequality, it just may not be quite as cynical as it seemed.

Does the experiment actually show what it is being stated to show?

When I saw this headline, Babies prefer fairness – but only if it benefits them – in choosing a playmate by Molly McElroy, my initial thought was, "Just like adults." Most advocates making an argument based on social justice are happy to explore solutions to the perceived problem right up until the point when "fairness" means something other than taking from someone else.

Intrigued, I clicked through and found a rather interesting article. Not interesting for its findings but for its experimental flaws and the power of predicate assumptions. All the usual caveats of skepticism of psychology and small groups and unreal research conditions apply.

I completely accept that infants may demonstrate in-group behavior by race or any other identifiable attribute (gender, smell, accent, language, height, attire, etc.). But what the article is claiming is that this set of experiments shows infants demonstrate in-group preference based on race when I think it is possible, if the article is accurately reporting the facts, is that all it is doing is demonstrating infant rationality.

The crucial observation is that white infants, when given the choice between a white experimenter who has been seen to give a white recipient an unfair distribution of toys versus choosing a white experimenter who divides toys evenly between two recipients, one Asian and one White, the infants will choose the experimenter who gives more toys to the white recipient.

But that doesn't really tell us much at all about either race or fairness. What it appears to say (if I am reading the original results correctly) is that infants are utilitarian rationalists. If they want toys, they will pick those distributors that seem most likely to give either more or at least the same number of toys to the recipient who is of the same race as the child. In other words, the infant has a preformed expectation that recipient race has some predictive relationship to how they themselves will be treated.

You can see why psychologists get into so much trouble so quickly by looking at the original report. All the lab people (distributors and receivers) are young females, a mix of Asian and White. There are no old people and there are no males. How might that have changed the results? There were no Asian babies though the lab people were either Asian or White. How might that have changed the results? Have they controlled for color of clothes by the experimenters? It appears not. What about all the other observable attributes (height, smell, accent, etc.)? The even bigger problem is the small sample sizes. They start off with only 80 infants in the first place and then winnow it down by those that don't end up participating and then further shrinkage occurs because the range of combinations is so high (White/Asian Distributor, Fair/Unfair Distribution, White/Asian Recipient). The formulae are impressive and the reported p values are great but they are essentially meaningless given the small population sizes.

These are interesting research questions, but the results are being given credence far beyond what the circumstances permit and seem to be substantially predetermined by both the limitations of the researchers predicate assumptions and the limitations imposed by the smallness of the experimental construct.

Only 20% of shots fired are reported

Well that's interesting. From SpotShotter: Only 1 in 5 Gunshots Reported to 911.
Only about one in five gunshots is reported to police, according to 2013 statistics released this week by ShotSpotter, a private firm that provides gunfire detection in a number of U.S. cities. The firm said its sensors counted 51,000 gunshots in 48 cities last year. About 15 percent of the shots occurred on New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July, and 42 percent occurred during summer months.
Only 20%. You can start manufacturing all sorts of reasons for under-reporting including both questions about the report itself and how data was collected, to the circumstances under which shots fired are reported. But Americans are by and large an easy going and tolerant people. It is amazing what doesn't get reported. I live in a city and periodically, some scavengers will work over the neighborhood, rifling cars. When this happens, everyone is supposed to call 911 and report the thefts but probably only 50% actually do so. Why? They don't want to waste police resources, they have no expectation that it will make a difference, they are embarrassed because they left the car unlocked, they feel like its their fault because they left the computer on the back seat in plain sight, etc. As Alexander Pope would have it (An Essay on Man Epistle II)
The proper study of mankind is man.
And indeed, he is "The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!"

Framing is so important in reporting. It wasn't only the 20% number that caught my eye but the 51,000 gunshots. And those 51,000 gunshots in only roughly fifty cities. 50,000 sounds like a war zone but that translates into only 1 shot on average per 6,000 people per year. But averages hide intensity. In some small number of locations, it probably is a war zone and in other vast swaths of area you can probably live a lifetime and never hear a shot fired in anger.

Still, that 50,000 gunshots is an arresting number.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

As it turns out, the list of what generally works is short

From Parental Involvement Is Overrated by Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris.

My first instinct was that this was likely further academic foolishness. But its actually interesting and nuanced. I am not familiar with the researchers and am interested in finding out more about how robust is their approach. Apparently they have a new book out, The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children's Education by Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris. The only critical review I can find is here, Inflated Research Claims Can Harm Children by Marilyn Price-Mitchell. It is an odd review in that it both denigrates and disputes the methodology of Robinson and Harris but then concedes the validity of their conclusions.

The basic findings of Robinson and Harris are that there is little correlation between parental involvement (encompassing a broad range of activities) and individual academic test outcomes.
We analyzed longitudinal surveys of American families that spanned three decades (from the 1980s to the 2000s) and obtained demographic information on race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, the academic outcomes of children in elementary, middle and high school, as well as information about the level of parental engagement in 63 different forms.

What did we find? One group of parents, including blacks and Hispanics, as well as some Asians (like Cambodians, Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders), appeared quite similar to a second group, made up of white parents and other Asians (like Chinese, Koreans and Indians) in the frequency of their involvement. A common reason given for why the children of the first group performed worse academically on average was that their parents did not value education to the same extent. But our research shows that these parents tried to help their children in school just as much as the parents in the second group.

Even the notion that kids do better in school when their parents are involved does not stack up. After comparing the average achievement of children whose parents regularly engage in each form of parental involvement to that of their counterparts whose parents do not, we found that most forms of parental involvement yielded no benefit to children’s test scores or grades, regardless of racial or ethnic background or socioeconomic standing.
I have long held the view that families are critical to child outcomes, including education, but in ways that are complicated and often unique to the child's circumstances. This view of the complexity of the issue is supported by Robinson and Harris' findings.
When involvement did benefit kids academically, it depended on which behavior parents were engaging in, which academic outcome was examined, the grade level of the child, the racial and ethnic background of the family and its socioeconomic standing. For example, regularly discussing school experiences with your child seems to positively affect the reading and math test scores of Hispanic children, to negatively affect test scores in reading for black children, and to negatively affect test scores in both reading and math for white children (but only during elementary school). Regularly reading to elementary school children appears to benefit reading achievement for white and Hispanic children but it is associated with lower reading achievement for black children. Policy makers should not advocate a one-size-fits-all model of parental involvement.

What about when parents work directly with their children on learning activities at home? When we examined whether regular help with homework had a positive impact on children’s academic performance, we were quite startled by what we found. Regardless of a family’s social class, racial or ethnic background, or a child’s grade level, consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades. Most parents appear to be ineffective at helping their children with homework. Even more surprising to us was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse. One interesting exception: The group of Asians that included Chinese, Korean and Indian children appeared to benefit from regular help with homework, but this benefit was limited to the grades they got during adolescence; it did not affect their test scores.
What does actually work across most contexts?
As it turns out, the list of what generally works is short: expecting your child to go to college, discussing activities children engage in at school (despite the complications we mentioned above), and requesting a particular teacher for your child.

Do our findings suggest that parents are not important for children’s academic success? Our answer is no. We believe that parents are critical for how well children perform in school, just not in the conventional ways that our society has been promoting. The essential ingredient is for parents to communicate the value of schooling, a message that parents should be sending early in their children’s lives and that needs to be reinforced over time. But this message does not need to be communicated through conventional behavior, like attending PTA meetings or checking in with teachers.
I think parental involvement in a child's education is critical and probably substantially determinative but in ways that are complex and hard to disentangle. Does parental involvement in local school fund raising and PTA support make much of a difference? In the manifest ways of more money, I am guessing probably not (they do raise the money but I suspect the money doesn't often have a substantial impact on outcomes). But I do suspect that engagement is correlated with positive outcomes in the sense that such activity functions as a cultural signalling mechanism to a child - Education is Important.

Interesting to see some of the common sense comments to the article. One commenter, Peggy of NH creates a Letterman style top ten list.
10. Books of all types readily available in the home
9. Access to newspapers and magazine subscriptions
8. Frequent visits to the public library as fun outings
7. Quiet time for homework and study
6. Dinner and conversation together every night at 6 p.m.
5. Support for extra curricular activities
4. Provide balanced approach to health, eating, exercise
3. Attend parent-teacher conferences
2. Affirm success and remediate shortcomings
1. Inculcate the importance of academic honesty
To which I would add two primary items - 1) Cultivate agency (you are responsible for outcomes) and 2) Expecting that outcomes are correlated with effort.

Jeito of CO redefines parental engagement slightly differently (differently, not wrongly)
1) are physically present in their children's lives;
2) set clear rules and limits for children, for example a set bedtime;
3) provide a place, a time, and an expectation for homework to be completed;
4) make sure their child gets to school every day, on time; and
5) discuss the impact of their current learning on their future education and career.

True, there is no research linking gendered marketing of toys and books and later occupational discrimination

You wonder if some writers ever pay attention to what they are actually saying. From Why Are Toys So Gendered? by Cordelia Fine. Fine is clearly of the school that says genders are a social construct and have no biological basis. It is a hotly contended point and there is good evidence on both sides of the aisle - indicating to me that the reality is that we are posing the wrong question. It isn't a binary issue of whether or not gender is socially constructed or not but to what degree (and in what ways)?

Regardless of the independent merits of that debate, Fine has written an article to show that science doesn't support that there is a biological basis for gender preferences. But look at two succeeding paragraphs. The first poses her argument and the second is intended to support it.
But the detrimental effects of this kind of marketing, though clearly only one factor in a mix of many influences on the young, may run broader and deeper. It polarizes children into stereotypes. It's not just that vehicles, weapons, and construction sets are presented as "for boys" while toys of domesticity and beautification are "for girls." Toys for boys facilitate competition, control, agency, and dominance; those for girls promote cooperation and nurturance. These gender stereotypes, acquired in childhood, underlie a host of well-documented biases against women in traditionally masculine domains and roles, and they hinder men from sharing more in the responsibilities and rewards of domestic life.
This is then followed with the evidentiary paragraph. Which in its totality is:
True, there is no research linking gendered marketing of toys and books and later occupational discrimination or sharing of household chores. But the smart money would say the effects won't be trivial, given that children are enveloped in some of the most relentless stereotyping to be found in the 21st century.
I know it happens all the time. Someone wants to make a respectable argument using logic and science and then fall all over themselves because they are actually advancing a personal belief system rather than an empirical argument and they are not actually knowledgeable about logic, argument and/or science. But usually they kind of stumble around and fail to make their case. Rarely do they so blatantly come so close to saying - I want to make a scientific case for my belief but there is no evidence to support my belief. So trust me.

The narcissism of small differences

From Which Creates Better Writers: An MFA Program or New York City? by Leslie Jamison. Jamison has an artful essay and argument as a part of a review of MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction by Chad Harbach. It is also a revealing essay; discursive, referential, digressive, allusive. The focus seems on writing a witty and erudite essay rather than a witty and clear essay. All that said, there are interesting insights and fine turns of phrase.

The central argument in the book being reviewed is whether there are two separate writing cultures, those based on the MFA programs in universities and that in New York City publishing. Jamison argues that they may be separate but they are also codependent.
Money is the crucial insight of Harbach’s original essay—a highly intelligent, sharply observed piece of writing that matters less for its claim that these two cultures exist and more for pointing out that they represent the two major means by which contemporary American writing is funded.

As with so many binaries, however, Harbach’s is ultimately more useful in its dismantling than its original formulation. Insofar as it maps a set of tangled distinctions between two highly privileged communities, its rigorous pursuit can start to feel like a narcissism of small differences.
The striking thing to me is that both in the original book and in the review, there is agreement that there are two cultures and that the important bifurcation is between academia and publishing (MFA vs. NYC). I would argue that there are three cultures - academia who provide a financial support safety net, NYC publishing which provide episodic access to a larger public, and then the reading public itself. I would also argue that the biggest divide by far is between the academia publishing complex and everyone else.

To what extent is it reasonable to believe that someone steeped in the ethos of academia and Big Blue NYC is reflective of the audiences for whom they putatively are writing, i.e. the other 110 million working households in the US? It is certainly not impossible, but it is also not likely. If they don't know how the other half lives, or really the other 99%, how can they write in a fashion that is relevant and appealing to them? The answer and the data seem to indicate that they can't.

The books the clerisy want to regard as important, don't sell. The books that are bought enthusiastically and in quantity by the 99% are repugnant to the clerisy. That is the tragic and unsustainable divide.

My speculation is that over the past 20-30 years, with ever expanding university budgets, there has been an emergent ecosystem for writers that, while for most not flush, has been financially tolerable. Basically the poets and authors have carved out the creative writing niche to sustain their capacity to write poetry and largely unsellable literary fiction. To some material degree they have divorced themselves from serving the interests of most readers and are now substantially writing for one another.

My speculation is also that that is about to end. For demographic, economic, and technological reasons (shrinking customer base, low ROI, and disintermediation via MOOCs and the like) we are about to see a decade of education transformation, rationalization and contraction.

The harbingers of change are there. In K-12 there is the continuing and expanding popular interest in magnet schools, charter schools, voucher programs, and home-schooling - all speaking to a declining confidence in the traditional system and therefore also a decline in support, financial and otherwise. Universities are beginning to close and consolidate at an accelerating rate, albeit initially at the lowest rungs. Discounting is rising, tuition is just beginning to fall on a selective basis.

If all this comes to pass, the creative writing academia niche will disappear and the focus will return to where it has traditionally been - writing for the common market, not just for a niche of academic readers. Some of this is captured in this whinging article from the Guardian in the UK, From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author's life? by Robert McCrum.

Jamison alludes to it but I would put it more plainly. We can speak of aesthetics and artists being true to themselves and the anguish of structural change and questions about the communal commitment to art. All good but substantially unproductive questions. Where's the money? Right now it is being extracted coercively and/or in a hidden fashion via the academy. With competition will come clarity. With the disappearance of the protected niches will come market engagement. The public will be found to be perfectly committed to art, just not the art that particular artists might wish to produce.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

They are ill discoverers

From Advancement of Learning by Francis Bacon, II: VII, 5
They are ill discoverers
that think there is no land,
when they see nothing but sea.

This book has great propaganda value

From During Cold War, CIA used ‘Doctor Zhivago’ as a tool to undermine Soviet Union by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée. A wonderful vignette of a time when literature was vibrant and could change history. The back story to the publication of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago.
A secret package arrived at CIA headquarters in January 1958. Inside were two rolls of film from British intelligence — pictures of the pages of a Russian-language novel titled “Doctor Zhivago.”

The book, by poet Boris Pasternak, had been banned from publication in the Soviet Union. The British were suggesting that the CIA get copies of the novel behind the Iron Curtain. The idea immediately gained traction in Washington.

“This book has great propaganda value,” a CIA memo to all branch chiefs of the agency’s Soviet Russia Division stated, “not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: we have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.”
I saw the Omar Sharif 1965 movie version sometime in the late seventies or early eighties. Achingly sad and tragic, accentuated by living in Europe where many of the totalitarian behaviors were still prevalent.

Monday, April 14, 2014

They should also be allowed to say what they think Hamlet is missing, too (lions).

From 4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading by Christina H. Humorous throughout but with a lot of pragmatic and practical perspective. I love this paragraph.
Instead of asking kids to accept the idea that some books are deep and some books are not because we say so, why not have them look at the "deep version" and the "shallow version" of the same plot? Hamlet and The Lion King or something. When they compare and contrast them, they'll probably see for themselves what The Lion King is missing, even if they like it better. Of course they should also be allowed to say what they think Hamlet is missing, too (lions).

Share with me the major inflection points in your life

From Brad Smith of Intuit: Follow the Fastest Beat of Your Heart interview by Adam Bryant.
How do you hire?

I end up asking three questions, but after an icebreaker. I share my own story first, but the icebreaker is: “I want you and I to get to know each other. So in the next three minutes, I’d like you to take me from where you were born to where you are now, and share with me the major inflection points in your life that you think have helped form who you are today.”

After that, the first question I ask is, “Tell me about the area that your last boss and the one before that said, ‘This is your biggest opportunity for improvement.’ ” That’s really to see if they are willing to be vulnerable.

From there I’ll ask, “What is the single biggest professional business mistake you’ve made, and what was the lesson you took from that?” That’s intended to see if they’re a learner.

My last question is really designed to find out if there is a barrier to getting them to accept an offer from us. So I’ll say, “Why would you not join our company?” It helps me tease apart any concerns they might have, and whether those concerns are about the job or the company. So I’m able to learn in the process, too.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

“But nobody wants ‘data’. What they want are the answers.”

From Big data: are we making a big mistake? by Tim Harford. A skeptical without being polemical view of big data, insight and decision-making. Well worth reading the whole thing.

Very good material.
Cheerleaders for big data have made four exciting claims, each one reflected in the success of Google Flu Trends: that data analysis produces uncannily accurate results; that every single data point can be captured, making old statistical sampling techniques obsolete; that it is passé to fret about what causes what, because statistical correlation tells us what we need to know; and that scientific or statistical models aren’t needed because, to quote “The End of Theory”, a provocative essay published in Wired in 2008, “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves”.


But while big data promise much to scientists, entrepreneurs and governments, they are doomed to disappoint us if we ignore some very familiar statistical lessons.
“There are a lot of small data problems that occur in big data,” says Spiegelhalter. “They don’t disappear because you’ve got lots of the stuff. They get worse.”


Statisticians have spent the past 200 years figuring out what traps lie in wait when we try to understand the world through data. The data are bigger, faster and cheaper these days – but we must not pretend that the traps have all been made safe. They have not.


In 2005, John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist, published a research paper with the self-explanatory title, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”. The paper became famous as a provocative diagnosis of a serious issue. One of the key ideas behind Ioannidis’s work is what statisticians call the “multiple-comparisons problem”.

It is routine, when examining a pattern in data, to ask whether such a pattern might have emerged by chance. If it is unlikely that the observed pattern could have emerged at random, we call that pattern “statistically significant”.
The multiple-comparisons problem arises when a researcher looks at many possible patterns. Consider a randomised trial in which vitamins are given to some primary schoolchildren and placebos are given to others. Do the vitamins work? That all depends on what we mean by “work”. The researchers could look at the children’s height, weight, prevalence of tooth decay, classroom behaviour, test scores, even (after waiting) prison record or earnings at the age of 25. Then there are combinations to check: do the vitamins have an effect on the poorer kids, the richer kids, the boys, the girls? Test enough different correlations and fluke results will drown out the real discoveries.

There are various ways to deal with this but the problem is more serious in large data sets, because there are vastly more possible comparisons than there are data points to compare. Without careful analysis, the ratio of genuine patterns to spurious patterns – of signal to noise – quickly tends to zero.


“We have a new resource here,” says Professor David Hand of Imperial College London. “But nobody wants ‘data’. What they want are the answers.”


Recall big data’s four articles of faith. Uncanny accuracy is easy to overrate if we simply ignore false positives, as with Target’s pregnancy predictor. The claim that causation has been “knocked off its pedestal” is fine if we are making predictions in a stable environment but not if the world is changing (as with Flu Trends) or if we ourselves hope to change it. The promise that “N = All”, and therefore that sampling bias does not matter, is simply not true in most cases that count. As for the idea that “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves” – that seems hopelessly naive in data sets where spurious patterns vastly outnumber genuine discoveries.
Interesting. I wasn't aware of the term multiple-comparisons problem. Reading up on it now, I understand it to partially address an issue that in my ignorance I have treated more cavalierly. This issue arises more when you go prospecting for patterns than when you are testing a predetermined hypothesis.

Without working through the maths, I have taken a relatively simple approach. Say you want to see whether there is any correlation between school inputs and child life outcomes (say in terms of grade average). Roughly 350 is the number used for adequate sample size in a population with multiple attributes. Say you are interested in whether kids from higher income families do better than kids from poorer families. You run the numbers and discover that in the 350, there are 75 who count as poor and there are 75 who count as high income. You then check against the actuarial tables and find that this is pretty close to the distribution in the population at large. Great. But now you are actually interested in two compounded factors: Income AND Grades. So you have to increase your sample size to 1,610 (=350 * (350/75) to make sure that the sub-population (the 75 who are rich/poor AND their grades) is large enough to also be representative. You only have to add a couple or three variables that are relative small in affect size to have the size of sampled population balloon into very large numbers.

In human systems where outcomes are typically the result of innumerable input or contingent events, the sampling issue quickly overwhelms the nuance of what we are seeking to determine.

I still suffer incurably from attributing an unreal rationality to other people’s feelings and behavior

h/t Great Guys Weblog. From John Meynard Keynes in My Early Beliefs, in the collection, The Bloomsbury Group. A rather startling confession.
In short, we repudiated all versions of the doctrine of original sin, of there being insane and irrational springs of wickedness in most men. We were not aware that civilization was a thin and precarious crust erected by the personality and the will of a very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skillfully put across and guilefully preserved. We had no respect for traditional wisdom or the restraints of custom. We lacked reverence, as Lawrence observed and as Ludwig with justice also used to say – for everything and everyone. It did not occur to us to respect the extraordinary accomplishment of our predecessors in the ordering of life (as it now seems to me to have been) or the elaborate framework which they had devised to protect this order. Plato said in his Laws that one of the best of a set of good laws would be a law forbidding any young man to enquire which of them are right or wrong, though an old man remarking any defect in the laws might communicate this observation to a ruler or to an equal in years when no young man was present. That was a dictum in which we should have been unable to discover any point or significance whatever. As cause and consequence of our general state of mind we completely misunderstood human nature, including our own. The rationality which we attributed to it led to a superficiality, not only of judgment, but also of feeling. It was not only that intellectually we were pre-Freudian, but we had lost something which our predecessors had without replacing it. I still suffer incurably from attributing an unreal rationality to other people’s feelings and behavior (and doubtless to my own too).
Very much a confession of the central weakness of The Vision of the Annointed as described by Thomas Sowell.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

3X Global mobility in the 19th century versus the 20th century

From When was the great age of migration? by Tyler Cowen. I posted a while ago about intra-colonial migration (example Indians to Burma, all within the British Empire). This is interesting for the world context of such movements.
Between 1815 and 1914 at least 82 million people moved voluntarily from one country to another, at a yearly rate of 660 migrants per million of the world population. The comparable rate between 1945 and 1980, for example, was only 215 per million.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Critical-thinking is so praised and also so under-practiced

From Hauntings, homeopathy, and the Hopkinsville Goblins: Using pseudoscience to teach scientific thinking by Rodney Michael Schmaltz and Scott O Lilienfeld. Their opening sentence in the Abstract:
With access to information ever increasing, it is essential that students acquire the skills to distinguish fact from fiction.
Well, yes. That would seem to be a goal that everyone might support.

Ross Pomeroy summarizes Schmaltz and Lilienfeld's test for what constitute pseudoscience in Time to Bring Pseudoscience into Science Class!. Schmaltz and Lilienfeld posit that there are seven clear signs that an argument is pseudoscience. I would argue that pseudoscience is too pejorative a term. Perhaps - seven signs that an argument is a faith-based conviction.
1. The use of psychobabble - words that sound scientific and professional but are used incorrectly, or in a misleading manner.
2. A substantial reliance on anecdotal evidence.
3. Extraordinary claims in the absence of extraordinary evidence.
4. Claims which cannot be proven false.
5. Claims that counter established scientific fact.
6. Absence of adequate peer review.
7. Claims that are repeated despite being refuted.
I like this list. But Schmaltz and Lilienfeld are substantially focused on the popular, but epistemologically fringe issues of UFO's, ESP, telekinesis, ghosts, etc. But apply these criteria to any contemporary policy or political issue such as anthropogenic global warming, sexting and bullying, gun control, rape culture, three-strikes sentencing, etc. and see how many fail to pass muster.

I am not disagreeing with the list because of that. In fact, on most issues of public policy, I think opinions and beliefs are way out in front of the evidence, so it is not surprising that they fail. But I think it explains why critical-thinking is so praised and also so under-practiced. It doesn't usually support what people want it to support.