Thursday, July 31, 2014

They are deterred by a mental obliquity. - Well, yes.

A rather interesting discussion at Althouse regarding "I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize," said Gertrude Stein in 1934. The post draws attention to an article in the New York Times in 1934, Gertrude Stein Views Life and Politics by Lansing Warren in which Stein expresses the titled opinion.

The discussion is what did Stein mean by that and how does that affect how we interpret her? Was she being serious in that recommendation or was she simply being sarcastically provocative. Many commenters point out the mixed record of her words and actions in WWII, particularly her apparent support of Petain and Vichy France. Expediency? Philosophical sympathy? Inability to bridge purity of theory with the likely tragedy of reality? Who knows.

The original article by Warren is a nice little artifact of a different time and different styles. The whole piece is worth reading. He draws attention to a number of more or less contentious statements arising in just an hour's conversation.
"Building a Chinese wall is always bad."

"Hitler should have received the Nobel Peace Prize."

"Intellectuals are not suited to directing of government. They are deterred by a mental obliquity."

"Government does not matter. It is competition, interest, struggle and activity that counts."

"The best rulers are those who govern by instinct, not by theory."

"The French are just tired -- worn out by this process of making and spending money."

"Don't think you can't be senile at the age of 22."
He then goes on to provide some context for each, taking some, but only some of the sting out of each statement.

There is an inescapable whiff of privilege.
One approaches the studio in the Rue de Fleurus through the usual portal of a large, modern Left Bank apartment house, and is directed by the concierge to the interior courtyard. Across that court is a low building, the upper story of which is constructed entirely of glass, suggesting a greenhouse or what it actually is, a workshop for artists who must have light. Miss Stein's door itself is partly of clouded glass, and is opened by an Oriental servant in a white jacket.
Some of the commentary, though feels both contemporary and prescient.
"The French," she says, "are simply tired out. They not only have had the war but they have been through this long period of Americanization, or modernization, if you will the making and spending of money. They've been forced into doing it, and it doesn't interest them. It wears them out. Americans take their pleasure in physical activity, in rushing about,in getting more and more money, in finding new and exciting ways of expanding it. That doesn't interest the French. They are interested in excitement too. But it isn't physical excitement that they like. It is the exciting sensation of a new idea.

"They want the money question settled and decided as soon as possible in their lives and then put aside for good and all. They don't want to hear about it any more. And then they are ready for the fireworks. Intellectual fireworks are what excite them and what they enjoy. They don't think ever of putting their ideas into practical life as we are continually doing. The practical side does not attract them. That is what they are trying to escape."

Miss Stein as an intellectual, and one who has had a long residence in France, has undoubtedly imbibed something of this mental cast which she perceives in the French. It would seem to explain her experiments with words. She gains mental excitement from examining them in unaccustomed situations,from turning them this way and that and viewing them from the standpoint of their individualities
And then there are utterances that remain true today but as unacknowledged in academia now as then.
"Building a Chinese wall is always bad. Protection, paternalism and suppression of natural activity and competition lead to dullness and stagnation. It is true in politics, in literature, in art. Everything in life needs constant stimulation. It needs activity, new blood. To the young people who, wanting to become writers, ask me for advice, I always say, 'Don't think it isn't possible to be senile at 22.' It is even very difficult to keep from becoming senile in youth. It is hard to keep one's self open and receptive to stimulation. Doing what other people tell you and being protected from this and from that is not so good, is not stimulating. You must face life and struggle. Satisfaction comes from overcoming opposition and sometimes from enduring things that are not supposed to be good for one.
In the past couple of months, three different LGBT autobiographies have been brought to mind. There is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, Conundrum by Jan Morris and Crossing by Deirdre McCloskey. Thinking about them, I had never quite realized the paradox by these three individuals who each challenged the norms of their times and yet also were, in many ways, very, very traditional in their home life arrangements and views. Don't quite know what that observation implies, if anything.

But back to Althouse's discussion. It is yet another example of the challenges of understanding and interpreting what people's words and actions mean, particularly when the persons themselves seem unsure of what they are trying to communicate or did communicate, as in the hapless Jonathan Gruber.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Does religion make you impressionably gullible or rigorously skeptical?

There's a recent study making the rounds, Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds by Kathleen H. Corriveau1, Eva E. Chen and Paul L. Harris. It purports to show that
Children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school, or both, judged the protagonist in religious stories to be a real person, whereas secular children with no such exposure to religion judged the protagonist in religious stories to be fictional. Children's upbringing was also related to their judgment about the protagonist in fantastical stories that included ordinarily impossible events whether brought about by magic (Study 1) or without reference to magic (Study 2). Secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in such fantastical stories to be fictional. The results suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children's differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories.
Of course it doesn't do anything of the sort. It is based on a sample of 66 children, laughably small. Since it is not consistent with the mishmash of prior research, it is, like so much of sociology, just another data point in a murky field. If you want to believe it, you now have a piece of paper you can shake. If you don't, you can justifiably ignore it on the basis of sample size alone.

Alternatively, there is a much larger and more robust study (but still fallible) as reported in Look Who's Irrational Now by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway.
"What Americans Really Believe," a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama's former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin's former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.

This is not a new finding. In his 1983 book "The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener," skeptic and science writer Martin Gardner cited the decline of traditional religious belief among the better educated as one of the causes for an increase in pseudoscience, cults and superstition. He referenced a 1980 study published in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer that showed irreligious college students to be by far the most likely to embrace paranormal beliefs, while born-again Christian college students were the least likely.

Surprisingly, while increased church attendance and membership in a conservative denomination has a powerful negative effect on paranormal beliefs, higher education doesn't. Two years ago two professors published another study in Skeptical Inquirer showing that, while less than one-quarter of college freshmen surveyed expressed a general belief in such superstitions as ghosts, psychic healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, clairvoyance and witches, the figure jumped to 31% of college seniors and 34% of graduate students.
So does practicing a religion make you more gullible or does practicing a religion make you more skeptical?

About all I think you can conclude is that anyone who puts reliance on a sample size of 66 is not someone to be trusted to make rigorous decisions.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sins of information omission

From Kids Count 25th Edition, 2014 Data Book from The Annie E. Casey Foundation. I am looking for empirical data about what works and what doesn't with regard to children and reading. With reports such as these you always have to be careful because, as well intended as they are, they are usually fundamentally dishonest. They have an agenda they are pushing and they bend the data to support that agenda.

Because they are basically altruistic, they tend to look at the benefits of any given action and never the costs, an approach which makes for good press but which doesn't work in the real world of constraints and limits.

I approach the report with some due skepticism, prepared to find the gold amongst the dross. I am somewhat taken aback to have the concern so immediately confirmed. I turn to page 26, Education, to look for any information related to reading.

The opening three paragraphs are:
High-quality preschool matters, which is good news for the 50,000 low-income New Jersey children who benefit each year from a state-funded effort. In 1999, the state began enrolling 3- and 4-year-olds in high-quality preschool across the state's highest poverty districts. The program now serves about 80 percent of preschool-aged children in those districts.

A recent evaluation found that by fifth grade, children who attended the state program for two years were, on average, nearly a year ahead of students who had not enrolled in the program. These positive effects were considerably larger than those found in programs with less funding. Small classes, well-trained teachers, a curriculum with high standards and support services for children and families contributed to this program's success.

Advocates for Children of New Jersey played a key role in bringing early care and learning advocates together to develop a mixed-delivery system that improved the quality of community-based child care centers, while utilizing some public school classrooms. The organization led a coalition of early childhood stakeholders who successfully forced the state to require that preschool teachers have a bachelor's degree and receive the resource to acquire the necessary education. Those benefits to teachers are giving children a good start.
Sounds pretty good.

But is it? My sense of concern is triggered on two counts. First is that this is a result quite inconsistent with the repeated studies of Head Start, the federal program with similar structure and goals as New Jersey's. Several times in the past fifteen years, Head Start reviews have come back with the finding that while there are positive improvements while a child is enrolled in the program, those improvements have completely disappeared within two years. Ten billion dollars spent a year with no gain. But perhaps, New Jersey is implementing their program more rigorously.

That's possible but that brings us to the second trigger. Lots of words in the description but it is missing three crucial elements: 1) How much does it cost, 2) What is the goal, and 3) How effective is the program in achieving the goal? No measurements appear.

They are claiming that there are measurable sustained benefits accruing to children five years after the pre-school investment. If true, that is a real accomplishment. But what about the costs and goals?

How much does the Abbott preschool program cost? Googling turns up a number of documents that seem to indicate that the current cost to the state is roughly $12,000 per student. With some 50,000 enrolled, therefore, the program costs $600 million a year.

What is their goal? I haven't found a succinct and firm statement of goals. Most of the formulations are centered around "close the achievement gap." There are two problems with this formulation. Close can either mean narrow the gap or it can mean eliminate the gap. Under one reading, any improvement, no matter how narrow, would signal achievement of the goal. Since that would be fairly trivial, I am going to work with the second interpretation which is that the Abbott program will eliminate the performance gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

How effective is the program in closing the gap? You have to go to the Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study: Fifth Grade Follow-Up to find that answer and you have too read pretty closely even then. Two caveats though. The first caveat is that the program only enrolls 80% of the targeted disadvantaged population. Would the achieved results be the same if the entire population was enrolled? Second, they did not measure the same population between preschool and fifth grade. They were only able to positively identify about 65% of the initial group five years later. They assume that the missing 35% had the same performance attributes as the located 65% but it is easy to conjecture why that might not be true. So what are the results?
The gains from two years [of participation in the Abbott Program] are equivalent to 20 to 40 percent of the achievement gap.
For $600 million, New Jersey is buying an average closure of 30% of the achievement gap for 52% of its disadvantaged students (65% x 80%).

So there are (at least) three questions. 1) How much of the improvement would still exist if you were able to measure 100% of participants instead of only 65% and all students not just the 80% enrolled? 2) Is it worth $600 million to close the gap only 30% by fifth grade? and 3) Will there still be measurable benefits by graduation and if so, how much?

The last is the real rub. If you invest $24,000 in a child over two years, you will only obtain positive benefit if they are likelier to graduate, more likely to attain higher education, more likely to be employed and more likely to be employed in higher compensated professions than they would otherwise have been. That there is still some measurable benefit at fifth grade is a good thing not achieved in any other similar scaled program of which I am aware.

But we still don't know if it will make a difference in the long run.

All of which is to say that the three paragraph summary in the report sins by omitting critical information that provides a substantially different interpretation of whether and to what degree the program has been successful.

The immaculate conception theory of decision-making

An essay from a decade ago about foreign policy that provides great counsel and insight on decision-making in general, Foreign Policy Immaculately Conceived by Adam Garfinkle.
When a talented but untutored journalistic mind focuses on a foreign policy issue, particularly one that editors will pay to have written about, an amazing thing sometimes happens: All of a sudden, crystalline truth rises from the clear flame of an obvious logic that, for some unexplained reason, all of the experts and practitioners thinking and working on the problem for years never saw. This is the immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy at work.

The immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy operates from three central premises. The first is that foreign policy decisions always involve one and only one major interest or principle at a time. The second is that it is always possible to know the direct and peripheral impact of crisis-driven decisions several months or years into the future. The third is that U.S. foreign policy decisions are always taken with all principals in agreement and are implemented down the line as those principals intend — in short, they are logically coherent.

Put this way, of course, no sentient adult would defend such a theory. Even those who have never read Isaiah Berlin intuit from their own experiences that tradeoffs among incommensurable interests or principles are inevitable. They recognize that the urgent and the imminent generally push out the important and the eventual in high-level decision making. They know that disagreement and dissension often affect how public policy is made and applied. More than that, any sober soul is capable of applying this elemental understanding to particular cases if he really puts his mind to it.
I would recast this. The immaculate conception theory of decision-making holds that:
There is one and only one goal to be attained and that there are no trade-offs between goals.

There is perfect knowledge of cause and effect and that consequences can be accurately forecast two or three removes from the action (both in terms of time and proximity).

All affected parties agree not only on the primary goal but also on the ordinal ranking and the relative priorities of subsidiary goals.

That there is no fresh knowledge likely to arise between conceptualization and implementation and there are no feedback mechanisms that change priorities over time.
Obviously all four of these assumptions are wrong and most people would readily acknowledge that they are wrong. But in our Monday morning quarterbacking, we behave as if these four maxims were, in fact, true.

Garfinkle provides a foreign policy example.
How many times have we heard the clarion claim that the covert U.S. effort to aid the Afghan mujahedeen through the Pakistani regime during the 1980s was, in the end, a terrible mistake because it led first to a cruel Afghan civil war and then to the rise of the Taliban? I have lost count.

This argument is about as cogent as saying to a 79-year old man — Ralph, let’s call him — that he should never have gotten married because one of his grandsons has turned out to be a schmuck. But a person does not consider marriage with the character of one of several theoretical grandchildren foremost in mind. It was not possible at the time of the nuptials for Ralph to have foreseen the personality quirks of a ne’er-do-well son-in-law not yet born; so, lo and behold, the fine upbringing that he bequeathed to his children somehow got mangled in translation to the next generation. These things happen.

Similarly, in 1980, when the initial decision was made (in the Carter administration, by the way), to establish links with the mujahedeen, the preeminent concern of American decision makers was not the future of Afghanistan, but the future of the Soviet Union and its position in Southwest Asia. Whatever the Politburo intended at the time, the consolidation of Soviet control in Afghanistan would have given future Soviet leaders options they would not otherwise have had. In light of the strategic realities of the day, the American concern was entirely reasonable: Any group of U.S. decision makers would have thought and done more or less the same thing, even if they could have foreseen the risks to which they might expose the country on other scores.

But, of course, such foresight was impossible. Who in 1980 or 1982 or 1985 could have foreseen the confluence of events that would bring al Qaeda into being, with a haven in Afghanistan? The Saudi policies that led to bin Laden’s exile and the Kuwait crisis that led to the placement of U.S. forces on Saudi soil had not yet happened — and neither could have been reasonably anticipated. The civil strife that followed the exit of the Red Army from Afghanistan, and which established the preconditions for the rise of the Taliban government, had not yet happened either. Of course, despite the policy’s overall success in undermining the Soviet position in Afghanistan, entrusting Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate to manage aid to the mujahedeen turned out to be problematic, but who of the immaculate conception set knows whether there were better alternatives available at the time? There weren’t; a tradeoff was involved, and it was a tradeoff known to carry certain risks.
Summing up the difficulties of foreign policy decision-making:
American presidents, who have to make the truly big decisions of U.S. foreign policy, must come to a judgment with incomplete information, often under stress and merciless time constraints, and frequently with their closest advisors painting one another in shades of disagreement. The choices are never between obviously good and obviously bad, but between greater and lesser sets of risks, greater and lesser prospects of danger. Banal as it sounds, we do well to remind ourselves from time to time that things really are not so simple, even when one’s basic principles are clear and correct.
All true. So why do we both claim to see the past so clearly and hold the past accountable to the knowledge of the present? Lots of reasons can be adduced ranging from simple ignorance to political expediency.

Obviously hindsight bias plays a role as exemplified by the current Obamacare contretemps related to the Halbig v. Burwell decision (in which the court held that the plain language of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act law had to be read as such, i.e. subsidies are only available to those in State exchanges). Megan McArdle focuses on the comments of Jonathan Gruber, one of the chief architects of PPACA, in 2012 in two different forums that comport with the court's interpretation but which Gruber now disavows.
I believe that Gruber sincerely does not remember making these remarks. Memory is fallible; at some point, Gruber probably changed his mind and forgot that he had ever believed otherwise. People show a strong tendency to edit their recollections of prior beliefs to reflect the "correct" answer, and even brilliant economists are not immune to this common cognitive bias.

But though I do not fault his honesty, I also think that in January 2012, Gruber did believe that premium tax credits would only be available on state-created exchanges, and that this would give states a strong incentive to create exchanges.
Hindsight bias is definitely part of the phenomenon but I think there is more going on than that.

I think the inclination towards hindsight bias is facilitated by two general weaknesses in human decision-making. 1) We are often exceptionally poor at creating, articulating, and measuring a coherent, logical, rational, and empirically robust argument towards some goal. If we are honest with ourselves, there is a lot we don't know and there are many uncertainties. As the physicists Niels Bohr is reputed to have said, "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." To chase down all the unknowns, imponderables, uncertainties, contingencies, etc. is mentally taxing and time consuming. We are cognitively conservative and take all sorts of shortcuts. "Everyone knows that . . . "; "Obviously . . . "; "That's an exception . . ."; etc. By taking these cognitive shortcuts, the lack of rigor and coherence is hidden. We sacrifice strategic effectiveness (likelihood of achieving the desire outcomes) in order to achieve tactical efficiency (faster, easier decision).

By not formalizing our thinking in advance, we give ourselves lots of wiggle room to reinterpret that thinking in a favorable fashion as circumstances change.

2) We plan strategically but implement tactically. We continually adjust our goals to accommodate emerging information and issues without ever revalidating the underlying premises. We start with a broad vision but then implement on a circumscribed basis. While implementing, we usually see and focus on only what is immediately in front of us and rarely lift our eyes to the horizon to make sure we are still broadly headed in the right direction. Consequently, and too often, we end up at unexpected destinations without understanding how we got there.

There are all sorts of grounds for criticizing decisions made in the past, and many lessons to be learned about how to be more disciplined in decision-making in the future. What we cannot do with integrity and honesty is to criticize past decisions based on the immaculate conception theory of decision-making.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Writing while naked

A nice example of how we cannot leave a good story alone and of epistemological evolution. What we know is often what we want to know. From The Victor Hugo working naked story: myth or fact? by Druss.
I ran into a Neatorama article the other day which listed authors who like(d) to work naked. One of them was apparently Victor Hugo:
When Victor Hugo, the famous author of great tomes such as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, ran into a writer's block, he concocted a unique scheme to force himself to write: he had his servant take all of his clothes away for the day and leave his own nude self with only pen and paper, so he'd have nothing to do but sit down and write.
That's a cute story. But how true is it?
He does some research and eventually turns up the truth.
So, in this version, Hugo was not writing while naked. He was just stuck in his pyjamas and had no formal clothes to leave his study. This sounds a lot more plausible. We also learn that the source of this anecdote is his wife (Adèle Foucher). McNally cites a J. Sturrock in his article who turns out to be a John Sturrock, a translator of Hugo's works. The "introduction", I find out is Sturrock's introduction to The Hunchback of Notre-Dame:
'He bought himself a bottle of ink and a huge grey knitted shawl, which swathed him from head to foot, locked his formal clothes away so that he would not be tempted to go out and entered his novel as if it were a prison. He was very sad.' This engagingly domestic report on Victor Hugo sitting down in the autumn of 1830 to write Notre-Dame of Paris is by his wife, Adèle, who in the 1860s published a quaintly tinted memoir (dictated, some have hinted, by its subject himself): Victor Hugo Recounted by a Witness of His Life.
Read the whole thing to get a sense of how a story of Victor Hugo exercising self-control ended up as a story of Victor Hugo writing while naked.

Knowing that my mom remembers is bad enough.

Ann Althouse has a post on the shocking incident in Florida where two teenage girls film themselves torturing a gopher turtle to death and then posting the video on Facebook. Althouse has worked hard over the years to moderate and manage her commenting community and while things occasionally get out of hand, it is by and large one of the more well-behaved communities of which I am aware.

There are, among the commenters, affirmations of how unacceptable this behavior is, speculation about the link between adolescent torturing of animals and later criminality, speculation about the link between such behavior and the likelihood of earlier childhood abuse, a lesson in logic, lots of personal testimonial vignettes of how the commenter's parents taught them about the importance of being kind to animals, recollections of childhoods in Florida when gopher turtle stew was a dinnertime staple, comments on First World Problems, etc.

I liked this comment though. High morality often has earthy roots.
I am glad the childhood behavior which led my parents to correct me is not documented on Facebook or Youtube. Knowing that my mom remembers is bad enough.
Forget theology, first principles and detailed arguments on knife-edge ethical issues. It does often come down to "Do Mom or Dad know and what would they think of me if they did."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

We can't impute intent to a chimera, all we can do is observe the revealed preferences of real people.

Kind of interesting. From The Idea of Congressional Intent is Incoherent by Alex Tabarrok. This is really more a philosophical and legal discussion but it has broader application.
Now seems like an apposite time to remember, Congress intends no more than Congress smiles. As Ken Shepsle put it in his classic paper Congress is a “They,” not an “It”:
Legislative intent is an internally inconsistent, self-contradictory expression. Therefore, it has no meaning. To claim otherwise is to entertain a myth (the existence of a Rousseauian great law giver) or commit a fallacy (the false personification of a collectivity). In either instance, it provides a very insecure foundation for statutory interpretation.
Shepsle’s point is that Arrow’s impossibility theorem shows that not only do collectives not have preferences they can’t even be understood as if they had preferences. As I wrote earlier:
Suppose that a person is rational and that we observe their choices. After some time we will come to understand their choices in terms of their underlying preferences (assume stability–this is a thought experiment). We will be able to say, “Ah, I see what this person wants. I understand now why they are choosing in the way that they do. If I were them, I would choose in the same way.”

Arrow showed that when a group chooses, there are no underlying preferences to uncover–not even in theory. In one sense, the theorem is trivial. We know or should always have known that a group doesn’t have preferences anymore than a group smiles. What Arrow showed, however, is that without invoking special cases we can’t even rationalize group choices as if leviathan had preferences.
In children's literature circles, dominated as they often are by the further reaches of academic fashions, there is a tendency to characterize groups (gender, religion, race, age, class, etc.) and attribute desires to those putative groups.

There are certainly empirical correlations of one sort or another and I have no particular beef with that reality. "I yam what I yam and tha's all what I yam" as the immortal Popeye used to say. It is the attribution of desires to an otherwise heterogeneous group that sets me on edge.

This attribution of motive and philosophical existence often takes the form of "We (whatever group) need more books about . . ." All well and good but who is this metaphorical "we"? Are "we" going to buy the book? Are "we" going to read the book? Somebody will but not "we" because "we" is just a conjured metaphor with no wallet or smiling eyes.

As Tabarrok says, "there are no underlying preferences to uncover."

We can, for example, empirically say that the primary readers of Young Adult literary fiction are actually middle aged women. We do survey's, we obtain data, we observe purchasing trends.

We can't from that piece of empirical knowledge then say that the group we designate as middle aged women prefer YA literary fiction, or that they want more literary fiction. There is no corporal substance or cognitive attribution that can be made to the "they."

Publisher's might usefully exploit the knowledge that the demographic of middle aged women are the primary consumers of YA literary fiction in shaping their marketing and advertising campaigns but they would never (or at least never if they want to stay in business) make the mistake of assuming that middle aged women want more YA literary fiction. Lots of middle aged women readers might individually wish for and choose to read more YA literary fiction, but "they" don't make that decision. Betty makes that decision and Allison and Juanda, etc. To assume otherwise both entertains "a myth" and deprives those middle aged female readers of their agency.

We can't impute intent to a chimera, all we can do is observe the revealed preferences of real people.

Pretending in the virgin birth of ideas and words

A couple of weeks ago, I posted The narcissism of small differences, a series of observations by the economic historian, Niall Fergusson in an article from June of this year, Networks and Hierarchies. I was particularly taken by that turn of phrase, the narcissism of small differences because it so deftly captures what is so often at the heart of heated debates.

But recently, at the beach, I read Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures. And there it was again.
“The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.”
So has this phrase been circulating a long time and I am just now registering it? Is Fergusson, ironically, committing micro-plagiarism by using Gladwell's turn of phrase?

Fortunately we can set plagiarism aside. It is indeed a phrase of some lineage and circulation stretching back via Sigmund Freud (The Taboo of Virginity, 1917) to the work of a British anthropologist Ernest Crawley (1867-1924). From Freud's account.
Crawley, in language which differs only slightly from the current terminology of psycho-analysis, declares that each individual is separated from others by a ‘taboo of personal isolation’, and that it is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them.
It would be tempting to pursue this idea and to derive from this 'narcissism of minor differences' the hostility which in every human relationship we see fighting successfully against feelings of fellowship and overpowering the commandment that all men should love one another.(Freud 1917:199)
This brief search is interesting because it comports with Gladwell's conclusion in his Something Borrowed which appeared in The New Yorker, November 22, 2004. In the article he explores serendipity, uncertainty, chance, fallible memory and other contributors to perceived plagiarism. Here is one of his conclusions, as it happens, containing the mentioned phrase.
And this is the second problem with plagiarism. It is not merely extremist. It has also become disconnected from the broader question of what does and does not inhibit creativity. We accept the right of one writer to engage in a full-scale knockoff of another—think how many serial-killer novels have been cloned from “The Silence of the Lambs.” Yet, when Kathy Acker incorporated parts of a Harold Robbins sex scene verbatim in a satiric novel, she was denounced as a plagiarist (and threatened with a lawsuit). When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to “match” a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else’s idea. But had we “matched” any of the Times’ words—even the most banal of phrases—it could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.
His overall conclusion is
The final dishonesty of the plagiarism fundamentalists is to encourage us to pretend that these chains of influence and evolution do not exist, and that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and an eternal life. I suppose that I could get upset about what happened to my words. I could also simply acknowledge that I had a good, long ride with that line—and let it go.
So Freud got his idea from Crawley, paraphrasing Crawley in a strikingly meaningful manner which has echoed down the times and lines to Gladwell and then to Fergusson (and undoubtedly hundreds or thousands of others). A good idea or phrase thrives on its own merits regardless of its progenitor and any putative idea of ownership.

Of course all this brings to mind Henry Kissinger's quip, which is a variant of the idea behind the narcissism of small differences; "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."

Finally, there is Dr. Joy Bliss's joke about the narcissism of small differences.
I was walking across a bridge one sunny day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: 'Stop. Don't do it.'

'Why shouldn't I?' he asked.

'Well, there's so much to live for!'

'Like what?'

'Are you religious?'

He said: 'Yes.'

I said. 'Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?'


'Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?''


'Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?'


'Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?'

'Baptist Church of God.'

'Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?'

'Reformed Baptist Church of God.'

'Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?'

He said: 'Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915.'

I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off the bridge.

What the state is doing, in actuality, is issuing licenses to commit a felony

I enjoy coming across instances that shed light on what seemed like peculiar issues in history.

An example of one such peculiarity was the prevalence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of privateers which were essentially pirates operating under a state license. Intellectually it is of course not so hard to grasp the distinction between pirate and privateer. It is also not hard to understand why the distinction often became unclear in practice. None-the-less, there is something just odd to the modern mind about the whole issue of pirates and privateers.

But perhaps it is because we are blind to our own pirates/privateers issues. We are close to contemporary issues and perhaps fail to see the parallels. This came to me while reading Patrick Radden Keefe's article Buzzkill: Washington State discovers that it’s not so easy to create a legal marijuana economy in the November 18, 2013 issue of the New Yorker.
Washington and Colorado have launched a singular experiment. The Netherlands tolerates personal use of marijuana, but growing or selling the drug is still illegal. Portugal has eliminated criminal sanctions on all forms of drug use, but selling narcotics remains a crime. Washington and Colorado are not merely decriminalizing adult possession and use of cannabis; they are creating a legal market for the drug that will be overseen by the state. In a further complication, the marijuana that is legal in these states will remain illegal in the eyes of the federal government, because the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 forbids the growing and selling of cannabis. “What the state is doing, in actuality, is issuing licenses to commit a felony,” Kleiman says. In late August, after months of silence, the Department of Justice announced that it will not intervene to halt the initiatives in Washington and Colorado. Instead, it will adopt a “trust but verify” approach, permitting the states to police the new market for the drug. Many other states appear poised to introduce legalization measures, and the Obama Administration’s apparent acquiescence surely will hasten this development.
"What the state is doing, in actuality, is issuing licenses to commit a felony" - sounds like the distinction between pirates and privateers to me. And I think we know how well that distinction was maintained and how well that policy served the interests of the respective nations.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

It’s not worth spending more on American workers at current wage levels

From Facts about non-residential investment by Tyler Cowen

Digesting some cited data, Cowler observes
One simple hypothesis is that it’s not worth spending more on American workers at current wage levels. As workers, while Americans are quite good, they are just not that much better than a variety of high-IQ individuals in cheaper countries, many of whom now have acceptable infrastructure to work with.
Accepting the premise on a contingent basis, I wonder if then the conclusion might be that the fastest improvement might be in helping individuals improve their non-cognitive skills and behaviors. Probably would materially improve the inequality trends as well.

Any job is a step up

From an AEI video, an expert in poverty program administration from New York City.

Four lessons learned in fighting poverty that informed 1990's reform of welfare. Notes from the presentation.
Require work.

Reward work.

Two parent family.

Grow the economy.
Any job is a step up.

1.1 million on welfare (in New York) plunges to 300,000.
Work rate for never married mothers went from 43% to 63%.
Child Poverty in NYC went from 43% to 28%.
African-American child poverty in US dropped from 44% in 1994 to 30% in 2001.

Government can't deliver on promises. Only people can deliver on promises.

Friday, July 25, 2014

And so the letters sat in that attic for decades

What a wonderful story - A Family's Lost Love Letters, a Stranger, and a History Revealed by Abigail Jones.
Caral explained that when her family first moved in, the house was bare except for a corner of the attic, where she found, in the dusty shadows, a blue hatbox with a gold braid around the edges. Inside, Caral found hundreds of letters, each one folded neatly inside an envelope, and on the front of each envelope, written in penmanship from a forgotten era, was “Miss Sally Anne Rudolph” and her address at the Parc Vendome.

Caral was 11 years old at the time, and she says that over the next few months, she read every letter in that hatbox in order, oftentimes ignoring her homework to find out what happened next in the love story between this woman named Sally and a man named Charlie. Caral was old enough to grasp the enormity of what she had discovered, but too young to understand why the letters might have been left behind or how to go about finding their owner. And so the letters sat in that attic for decades—until Caral’s mother decided to sell the house.

“I had to clean out all of my stuff from my childhood, and I knew that I had to take them. I have no idea why that was so important to me, but it was,” recalls Caral, who was in her 30s when her family moved. “I just couldn’t leave them.”

The “jólabókaflóð,” which means Christmas book flood

Excellent. From Iceland Reads: The country of 320,000 punches well above its literary weight class by Mark Medley.
When it comes to mail delivery service in Iceland, two days stand out from the rest. The first is when the IKEA catalogue arrives. The second is when the bókatíðindi shows up in the mailbox.

“This is the Christmas catalogue,” says Bryndís Loftsdóttir of the Icelandic Publishers Association, handing over a copy of last year’s glossy, 208-page tome. “It’s always the same,” she continues in an amused tone. “Weeks before this is published we anxiously get phone calls from people asking, ‘When is it coming? Can I get it now?’”

A copy of the bókatíðindi, which lists approximately 90% of the books published in Iceland each year, is mailed to every household in the country, free of charge. While in most countries the presents under the Christmas tree come in all shapes and sizes, Loftsdóttir jokes that in Iceland one finds a row of neatly wrapped books. “The book is still the most popular Christmas present in Iceland,” she says. There’s even a name for the phenomenon: the “jólabókaflóð,” which means Christmas book flood.

There may not be another country on the planet where books enjoy such prominence. For a country that boasts a population of approximately 320,000 people — that’s less than Belize, Brunei, and the Bahamas — Iceland is punching above its weight class. Its publishing industry cranks out roughly 1,000 titles each year (including works in translation) and the country produces more published authors than anywhere else on the planet, Brooklyn be damned. According to a report produced by a consortium of Nordic publishers, in 2012 there were 3.5 published titles for every 1,000 of the country’s inhabitants — a number double that of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The average print run for a book is 1,000 copies, the equivalent of one million copies in the United States.

The history of the nation is inextricably linked to the written word; Icelanders produced the Sagas and the Poetic Edda, captivating historical (and sometimes fantastical) records of the country’s early years, filled with heroes, villains and monsters, written down almost a millennium ago and inspiring countless writers, include J.R.R. Tolkien.
Book floods. My kind of country.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Unanticipated problems can only be solved once they emerge.

Some very interesting points made in Sweden Has an Education Crisis, But It Wasn’t Caused by School Choice by Tino Sanandaji.

The issue is that PISA scores for Sweden have declined dramatically in the past decade or so. I have discussed elsewhere some of the limits on the usefulness of PISA scoring. But stipulating the PISA scores, what explains the Swedish decline? The search for an answer is made more difficult by the fact that Sweden has undertaken numerous education reforms in the same time period and has admitted much higher levels of refugees than in the past. So the decline could be explained, at a first order of analysis, by ineffective reforms, by the disruption that comes from reforming, by changing demographic/cultural mix, etc. Many in the US education establishment like to believe that the decline is a result of experimentation with two specific reforms; privatization and vouchers. Sanandaji brings that analysis into question.

I like his description of the teething process of implementing any major new social policy.
To some extent, the childhood ills of the voucher system can be viewed as part of the Hayekian learning process of building entirely new systems — unanticipated problems can only be solved once they emerge.
Sanandaji's analysis:
But in my view, the main culprit was the experiment with radically new pedagogical methods. The Swedish school system used to rely on traditional teaching methods. In recent decades, modern “individualist” or “progressive” pedagogic ideas took hold. The idea is that pupils should not be forced to learn using external incentives such as grades, and children should take responsibility for their own learning, driven by internal motivation. Rote memorization and repetition are viewed as old-fashioned relics. Teacher-led lectures have increasingly been replaced by group work and “research projects.”

Grades have been abolished below the sixth grade, and homework heavily reduced. According to TIMMS (a test similar to PISA), the average hours Swedish students spend doing mathematics homework declined from 2.1 hours per week in 1982 to 1.1 hours in the late 2000s. Despite criticism from teachers, the Swedish school board has ruled that pupils are allowed to have mobile phones and wear caps in class.

The Rousseauian experiment in pedagogic method has caused a collapse in discipline and non-cognitive skills in general. The PISA report shows that Sweden has become an outlier in terms of expressions of non-cognitive skills: “Sweden has the highest proportion of students who arrive late for school among OECD countries,” the report notes. And classroom discipline has declined along with teacher authority: “The disciplinary climate in Swedish classrooms is generally more negative than on average across OECD countries,” PISA writes.

Duke University psychologist Angela Duckworth has shown the importance of perseverance and “grit” for academic success. Students who are not challenged are less likely to develop such traits. The PISA report again: “Students in Sweden reported lower levels of perseverance than students in most other OECD countries.”

Perhaps the single biggest problem is the decline in learning tempo. Once students are used to a slow pace, it becomes hard to demand more. The accumulated effect of reducing the pace of teaching over many years is substantial. The PISA report:
A 15-year-old student in Sweden in a typical study programme receives 741 hours of intended instruction time per year, compared with 942 hours on average across OECD countries.
Non-cognitive skills, voluminous purposeful practice - these are so well known and documented, why don't we rely on them more? We shy away from anything that contradicts our Woebegonian ideal where everyone is above average.

Complex reality versus Simple idealism

A very substantive article, Shaneen Allen, race and gun control by Radley Balko. Gun Control and Race are topics that tend to attract comment from committed ideologues who aren't so much seeking to persuade or convince but rather to drown out. Consequently, I tend to want to know the background and perspective of the author to apply some sort of filtering as to what they are presenting. Balko's name rings a vague bell so I looked him up on Wikipedia. He appears to be one of the rare and dwindling breed of investigative reporters who go where the evidence takes them.

In this article, he highlights three issues I focus on - 1) trade-offs in decision-making, 2) the importance of prioritization, and 3) the delicate balance of having enough variance in a system to facilitate evolution under changing circumstances and yet as little as possible to facilitate efficiency of achieved outcomes.

In this case, you can argue till the cows come home about the relative merits of gun control and social justice initiatives. What you can't effectively argue is that the two aren't linked and that what you do in the case of one won't have consequences on the other.

Balko uses the case of Shaneen Allen as the foundation of his discussion.
Last October, Shaneen Allen, 27, was pulled over in Atlantic County, N.J. The officer who pulled her over says she made an unsafe lane change. During the stop, Allen informed the officer that she was a resident of Pennsylvania and had a conceal carry permit in her home state. She also had a handgun in her car. Had she been in Pennsylvania, having the gun in the car would have been perfectly legal. But Allen was pulled over in New Jersey, home to some of the strictest gun control laws in the United States.

Allen is a black single mother. She has two kids. She has no prior criminal record. Before her arrest, she worked as a phlebologist. After she was robbed two times in the span of about a year, she purchased the gun to protect herself and her family. There is zero evidence that Allen intended to use the gun for any other purpose. Yet Allen was arrested. She spent 40 days in jail before she was released on bail. She’s now facing a felony charge that, if convicted, would bring a three-year mandatory minimum prison term.
Balko points out that enforcing federal gun control (appealing to gun control advocates) has disparate racial impacts (appalling to social justice advocates). Trade-offs:
Although white people occasionally do become the victims of overly broad gun laws (for example, see the outrageous prosecution of Brian Aitken, also in New Jersey), the typical person arrested for gun crimes is more likely to have the complexion of Shaneen Allen than, say, Sarah Palin. Last year, 47.3 percent of those convicted for federal gun crimes were black — a racial disparity larger than any other class of federal crimes, including drug crimes. In a 2011 report on mandatory minimum sentencing for gun crimes, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that blacks were far more likely to be charged and convicted of federal gun crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences. They were also more likely to be hit with “enhancement” penalties that added to their sentences. In fact, the racial discrepancy for mandatory minimums was even higher than the aforementioned disparity for federal gun crimes in general:

Variance in the system:
Much of this boils down to professional discretion. When a person victimizes another person with a gun, the offending person has already committed a crime. And in nearly every state and under federal law, it is already an additional crime to use or possess a gun while doing something that is already a crime. So when gun control advocates say we need to crack down on gun offenders, or when they propose that we create new gun crimes, they aren’t suggesting we crack down on people who use guns to rob banks or to commit murders. We already go after those people. What they’re proposing is that we target people who possess, sell or transport guns not because they want to hurt people with them, but for reasons ranging from what most reasonable people would believe to be justifiable (like Shaneen Allen) to what gun control proponents would likely consider objectionable (the gun shop owners and gun manufacturers who make money selling weapons).
Prioritization: which is more important, achieving higher enforcement of laws by giving law enforcement and the judicial system more latitude for individual discretion in decision-making or reducing the number of manifest injustices arising from such discretion.
It will also mean giving a lot more discretion to law enforcement officials and prosecutors. When someone robs a bank with a gun or kills someone with a gun, there’s no debate about who needs to be investigated and prosecuted. When a police agency is charged to seek out and prosecute people who are illegally possessing or transferring guns, they’re required to use their own discretion when it comes to what communities to target and what methods they’ll use to target them.

Inevitably, this will manifest as sting operations against communities with little political clout. (Or, just as troubling, deliberately targeting people for political reasons.) Just this week, an incredible investigation by USA Today reporter Brad Heath demonstrated just how this plays out in the real world:
The nation’s top gun-enforcement agency overwhelmingly targeted racial and ethnic minorities as it expanded its use of controversial drug sting operations, a USA TODAY investigation shows.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has more than quadrupled its use of those stings during the past decade, quietly making them a central part of its attempts to combat gun crime. The operations are designed to produce long prison sentences for suspects enticed by the promise of pocketing as much as $100,000 for robbing a drug stash house that does not actually exist.

At least 91% of the people agents have locked up using those stings were racial or ethnic minorities, USA TODAY found after reviewing court files and prison records from across the United States. Nearly all were either black or Hispanic. That rate is far higher than among people arrested for big-city violent crimes, or for other federal robbery, drug and gun offenses.
And yet one more set of trade-offs. Do you give more power for coercive enforcement of laws to the centralized authority when there is a track record of centralized authority abusing that power.
In the 1990s, gun rights activists accused the ATF of explicitly targeting people for their advocacy (with plenty of evidence to back their claims), often with violent and destructive raids on their homes. You needn’t be a Second Amendment purist to understand the implications of using the discretion that comes with enforcing victimless crimes to target people for their political views, any more than you need to be a racial justice activist to understand the injustice of using the same discretion and the same laws to primarily target people of color, people whose mental capacity makes them particularly susceptible to persuasion, or people who lack the clout or resources to defend themselves.

One could argue that the gun laws don’t need to be enforced in a racially discriminatory manner or in the catastrophically inept manner we’ve seen at the ATF. But you enforce the gun laws with the institutions you have, not the institutions you want. If we’re going to enforce gun laws that require discretion on the part of investigators and prosecutors — and add new laws to boot — we can only consider the demonstrated history of how investigators and prosecutors have used that discretion, not some idealized prosecutor or ATF investigator that we’d want to be in charge.
Balko treats a complex subject with the respect it deserves. For all the desire for quick fixes to achieve single outcomes, it is much more complex than that.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Your little hands were never made To tear each other’s eyes

From Poems of Home: II. For Children “Let dogs delight to bark and bite” by Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
Let dogs delight to bark and bite
by Isaac Watts

Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God hath made them so;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For ’t is their nature to;

But, children, you should never let
Your angry passions rise;
Your little hands were never made
To tear each other’s eyes.

It is much easier to generate real numbers than it is to generate real interest in the truth.

A somewhat interesting conversation in the comments over at A big new NIH survey finds only 1.6% of American adults say they are gay or lesbian by Ann Althouse. Ms. Althouse, a perceptive law professor and blogger, asks, "Why are these numbers so low?"

As many of the commenters point out, it has been known for two or three decades that the percentage of LGBT population is between 1-3%. Sure, there's a lot of parsing of definitions, but there has been a pretty clear consensus among demographers and others such as epidemiologists that the number is about 1-3%.

The comments are fairly predictable.
There are a handful that try and take issue with the empirical results but are refuted by others.

There are many who dismiss it all as irrelevant - don't tell me about your protected class, tell me about how you behave.

There are others who rebuke small minorities for diverting attention from issues affecting the whole population.

Many want to explain that the misestimation of the actual percentage of the population is due to clustering in cities and to overrepresentation in media and Hollywood.

There are some who want to reiterate the point that regardless of percentage, human rights are human rights.

There are some who want to score points off LGBT activists for self-servingly perpetuating false knowledge.
What I find interesting is that Professor Althouse appears not to be aware of the longstanding consensus on the low numbers. She's part of the clerisy - she should know these facts. That she doesn't is surprising. But she clearly isn't alone.

Which really opens up the bigger issue. Just how frequently people badly misjudge empirical, and easily available, reality.

1-3% of the population are LGBT. But what do people think the LGBT population is? 25% according to Gallup. They are overestimating the LGBT population by a factor of 10! Only 4% of the population correctly estimated the LGBT population as less than 5%. 52% of people think that LGBT are 25% or more of the total population.

Why does it matter? For all sorts of economic, legal, epidemiological reasons. If you think that LGBT are 25% of the population and you note that only 10% of authors are LGBT, you might leap to the conclusion that publishers are biased against LGBT rather than recognizing that publishers are either neutral or encouraging of LGBT authors.

Take for example the exercise undertaken by Malinda Lo in I have numbers! Stats on LGBT Young Adult Books Published in the U.S. – Updated 9/15/11. Lo is interested in whether LGBT are adequately represented in published children's and YA books and undertakes the herculean task of quantifying exactly how many books are released each year by major publishing houses with an LGBT protagonist/character/themes. There are all sorts of issues in terms of definitions but ultimately Lo comes up with a reasonably solid number of 0.6%. Her findings:
I often hear people saying that publishers aren’t willing to publish LGBT YA, or that each publisher only publishes one LGBT YA per year. This, statistically, isn’t true. Every one of the big 6 publishers (and plenty of smaller ones) publish LGBT YA titles, and several of them do publish more than one per year.

However, the proportion of LGBT YA to non-LGBT YA is so tiny as to be laughable.

The good news is, the numbers have continued to increase over time, and other than the dip in 2010, the increase has sped up since 2000.

The bad news is, the G in LGBT far outpaces L, B, or T.
The assertion that "the proportion of LGBT YA to non-LGBT YA is so tiny as to be laughable" makes sense if you assume that 25% of the population is LGBT. But if you are comparing 0.6% of books to 1.6% of the population, then it is a different matter. Still underrepresented but in the ballpark. But of course 1.6% isn't the right base line comparison, you actually want to compare LGBT families with non-LGBT families (since it is primarily families buying children's books). Only 16% of LGBT families have children versus 74% of non-LGBT families. Given that 3% of the population are LGBT but only 16% of them have children and 80% of the non-LGBT population (97% of all people) have children, then that means that only 0.6% of all families are LGBT families.

The upshot is that Lo's number refutes the common perception that publisher's shy away from LGBT books. She shows that they do in fact publish LGBT books and they publish them in proportion to the number of LGBT families as a proportion of all families.

Lo indicates a couple of times how depressing she finds the low numbers. But that seems kind of an existential depression in the sense that it might be depressing that there are so few LGBT people. The fact that publishers are publishing LGBT books about a formerly marginalized group and they are publishing them in apparent proportion to demand is actually pretty positive but you can only get there with a realistic estimation of what the real numbers are rather than the impressions that people have.

You see a similar confusion regarding race. African Americans are about 13% of the population and Hispanics are about 15%. But what do people think the numbers are? Dated data from 2001 but at that time average respondents to Gallup thought that 33% of the population (overestimating by nearly a factor of three) was African American. Similarly, the average respondent thought that Hispanics made up 29% of the population (overestimating by a factor of two). In sum, the average American thinks that the US is 62% African American/Hispanic whereas it is 65% White. Kind of a material misunderstanding of the numbers.

Is it important that so many people so dramatically misestimate? Probably. Most of the issues I see being heatedly discussed regarding disparate impact often are based on an incorrect understanding of the numbers.

But really, I think the underlying issue is whether people are interested in truth. Facts will never be able to make much of dent on conviction. It is much easier to generate real numbers than it is to generate real interest in the truth.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The youth whispers, "I can.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, "Thou must,"
The youth whispers, "I can.”
From the third stanza of his Voluntaries.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Chasing the wrong culprit

From Danish DNA could be key to happiness from University of Warwick. The argument is that, based on three different empirical studies, there is a genetic component to happiness which is most prevalent in Denmark. I am skeptical of all happiness studies (low rigor, weak definitions, poor variable control, etc.) and interested in but highly cautious about international comparisons (inadequate context comprehension and ignorance of systemic trade-offs). Finally, sociology and psychology as academic fields have very high non-replication rates for their papers. There has been a particular fad in the past twenty years to try and ascribe virtually all human attributes to behavioral evolution. So maybe this is a solid paper; or maybe not.
Firstly they used data on 131 countries from a number of international surveys including the Gallup World Poll, World Value Survey and the European Quality of Life Surveys. The researchers linked cross-national data on genetic distance and well-being.

Dr Proto said: “The results were surprising, we found that the greater a nation’s genetic distance from Denmark, the lower the reported wellbeing of that nation. Our research adjusts for many other influences including Gross Domestic Product, culture, religion and the strength of the welfare state and geography.

The second form of evidence looked at existing research suggesting an association between mental wellbeing and a mutation of the gene that influences the reuptake of serotonin, which is believed to be linked to human mood.

Dr Proto added: “We looked at existing research which suggested that the long and short variants of this gene are correlated with different probabilities of clinical depression, although this link is still highly debated. The short version has been associated with higher scores on neuroticism and lower life satisfaction. Intriguingly, among the 30 nations included in the study, it is Denmark and the Netherlands that appear to have the lowest percentage of people with this short version.”

The final form of evidence looked at whether the link between genetics and happiness also held true across generations, continents and the Atlantic Ocean.

Professor Oswald said: “We used data on the reported wellbeing of Americans and then looked at which part of the world their ancestors had come from. The evidence revealed that there is an unexplained positive correlation between the happiness today of some nations and the observed happiness of Americans whose ancestors came from these nations, even after controlling for personal income and religion.”

He added: “This study has used three kinds of evidence and, contrary to our own assumptions when we began the project, it seems there are reasons to believe that genetic patterns may help researchers to understand international well-being levels.
For all my skepticism, it is not improbable that there is a genetic component to any given human behavioral attribute and there is no particular reason to believe that that would not also be true of happiness.

I am not yet buying the hypothesis but were you to grant it, it would be an interesting illustration of confounding factors. We have some 20-30 years of various types of studies of comparative degrees of happiness among countries, trying to pinpoint whether it is form of government, degree of freedom, economic maturity, wealth, education, religion, etc. that is the explanatory variable for the differences. If it turns out to be materially genetic, then there are 20-30 years of research chasing the wrong culprit.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

No discernible pattern on a prospective basis

From What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. A great example of the importance of context in decision making and how prospective forecasting is always the red-haired step-child to hindsight.

In the fall of 1973, the Syrian Army began to gather a large number of tanks, artillery batteries, and infantry along its border with Israel. Simultaneously, to the south, the Egyptian Army cancelled all leaves, called up thousands of reservists, and launched a massive military exercise, building roads and preparing anti-aircraft and artillery positions along the Suez Canal. On October 4th, an Israeli aerial reconnaissance mission showed that the Egyptians had moved artillery into offensive positions. That evening, AMAN, the Israeli military intelligence agency, learned that portions of the Soviet fleet near Port Said and Alexandria had set sail, and that the Soviet government had begun airlifting the families of Soviet advisers out of Cairo and Damascus. Then, at four o’clock in the morning on October 6th, Israel’s director of military intelligence received an urgent telephone call from one of the country’s most trusted intelligence sources. Egypt and Syria, the source said, would attack later that day. Top Israeli officials immediately called a meeting. Was war imminent? The head of AMAN, Major General Eli Zeira, looked over the evidence and said he didn’t think so. He was wrong. That afternoon, Syria attacked from the east, overwhelming the thin Israeli defenses in the Golan Heights, and Egypt attacked from the south, bombing Israeli positions and sending eight thousand infantry streaming across the Suez. Despite all the warnings of the previous weeks, Israeli officials were caught by surprise. Why couldn’t they connect the dots?

If you start on the afternoon of October 6th and work backward, the trail of clues pointing to an attack seems obvious; you’d have to conclude that something was badly wrong with the Israeli intelligence service. On the other hand, if you start several years before the Yom Kippur War and work forward, re-creating what people in Israeli intelligence knew in the same order that they knew it, a very different picture emerges. In the fall of 1973, Egypt and Syria certainly looked as if they were preparing to go to war. But, in the Middle East of the time, countries always looked as if they were going to war. In the fall of 1971, for instance, both Egypt’s President and its minister of war stated publicly that the hour of battle was approaching. The Egyptian Army was mobilized. Tanks and bridging equipment were sent to the canal. Offensive positions were readied. And nothing happened. In December of 1972, the Egyptians mobilized again. The Army furiously built fortifications along the canal. A reliable source told Israeli intelligence that an attack was imminent. Nothing happened. In the spring of 1973, the President of Egypt told Newsweek that everything in his country “is now being mobilized in earnest for the resumption of battle.” Egyptian forces were moved closer to the canal. Extensive fortifications were built along the Suez. Blood donors were rounded up. Civil-defense personnel were mobilized. Blackouts were imposed throughout Egypt. A trusted source told Israeli intelligence that an attack was imminent. It didn’t come. Between January and October of 1973, the Egyptian Army mobilized nineteen times without going to war. The Israeli government couldn’t mobilize its Army every time its neighbors threatened war. Israel is a small country with a citizen Army. Mobilization was disruptive and expensive, and the Israeli government was acutely aware that if its Army was mobilized and Egypt and Syria weren’t serious about war, the very act of mobilization might cause them to become serious about war.

Nor did the other signs seem remarkable. The fact that the Soviet families had been sent home could have signified nothing more than a falling-out between the Arab states and Moscow. Yes, a trusted source called at four in the morning, with definite word of a late afternoon attack, but his last two attack warnings had been wrong. What’s more, the source said that the attack would come at sunset, and an attack so late in the day wouldn’t leave enough time for opening air strikes. Israeli intelligence didn’t see the pattern of Arab intentions, in other words, because, until Egypt and Syria actually attacked, on the afternoon of October 6, 1973, their intentions didn’t form a pattern. They formed a Rorschach blot. What is clear in hindsight is rarely clear before the fact.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

But the Past is heavy and hindereth me

Two juxtapositions. A quote from the philosopher Karl Popper.
Before we as individuals are even conscious of our existence we have been profoundly influenced for a considerable time (since before birth) by our relationship to other individuals who have complicated histories, and are members of a society which has an infinitely more complicated and longer history than they do (and are members of it at a particular time and place in that history); and by the time we are able to make conscious choices we are already making use of categories in a language which has reached a particular degree of development through the lives of countless generations of human beings before us. . . . We are social creatures to the inmost centre of our being. The notion that one can begin anything at all from scratch, free from the past, or unindebted to others, could not conceivably be more wrong. - As quoted in Popper (1973) by Bryan Magee
And a poem I was reading last night by Sidney Lanier
by Sidney Lanier

My soul is sailing through the sea,
But the Past is heavy and hindereth me.
The Past hath crusted cumbrous shells
That hold the flesh of cold sea-mells
About my soul.
The huge waves wash, the high waves roll,
Each barnacle clingeth and worketh dole
And hindereth me from sailing!

Old Past let go, and drop i' the sea
Till fathomless waters cover thee!
For I am living but thou art dead;
Thou drawest back, I strive ahead
The Day to find.
Thy shells unbind! Night comes behind,
I needs must hurry with the wind
And trim me best for sailing.
The past is always with us and shapes us, often in undiscerned ways, but ultimately it is up to us to choose how we wish to use that past. Like an old closet of clothes, we make choices, attiring in some, shedding others as circumstances and judgment deem.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Our impatience to better the lot of our fellows

Three quotes from Karl Popper.
Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification — the art of discerning what we may with advantage omit. - The Open Universe : An Argument for Indeterminism (1992), p. 44

I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous — from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows. - The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) Preface to second edition

Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty; but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we have to correct them. - In Search of a Better World (1984)
I was trying to find a succinct formulation of his insight that we cannot know something to be true (all knowledge is contingent on further evidence), but that we can know something to be wrong (all you need is a single contradictory fact to a proposition to disprove it.)

People in the food industry carried around in their heads the notion of a platonic dish

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. A collection of his New Yorker articles. As always, wonderfully well written and persuasively argued and likely directionally right. More than all that, chock-a-block full of ideas, hypotheses and some set of evidence.

A marginally odd sensation reading this book at the beach. All of these essays originally appeared in The New Yorker and I have read most of them there in the past. Working through the chapters there was a combined sense of new material (I haven't read them sequentially before) but also familiar material (I recall the content).

Gladwell discusses some food manufacturing history but his larger point is an important one - it is great to think things through and have a rational view of how the world works. It is even better to have an empirical experience of the world that forces you to answer why it works differently than you expected.

Einstein said to make your model of reality as simple as possible but no simpler. We gain huge efficiencies by stripping out the messiness of reality when we simplify (as much as possible) but sometimes we lose something essential without those messy details (too simple). And you can't really tell a priori where the demarcation is between simple and too simple.
Moskowitz set up shop in the seventies, and one of his first clients was Pepsi. The artificial sweetener aspartame had just become available, and Pepsi wanted Moskowitz to figure out the perfect amount of sweetener for a can of Diet Pepsi. Pepsi knew that anything below eight per cent sweetness was not sweet enough and anything over twelve per cent was too sweet. So Moskowitz did the logical thing. He made up experimental batches of Diet Pepsi with every conceivable degree of sweetness—8 per cent, 8.25 per cent, 8.5, and on and on up to 12—gave them to hundreds of people, and looked for the concentration that people liked the most. But the data were a mess — there wasn’t a pattern — and one day, sitting in a diner, Moskowitz realized why. They had been asking the wrong question. There was no such thing as the perfect Diet Pepsi. They should have been looking for the perfect Diet Pepsis.

It took a long time for the food world to catch up with Howard Moskowitz. He knocked on doors and tried to explain his idea about the plural nature of perfection, and no one answered. He spoke at food-industry conferences, and audiences shrugged. But he could think of nothing else. “It’s like that Yiddish expression,” he says. “Do you know it? To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish!” Then, in 1986, he got a call from the Campbell’s Soup Company. They were in the spaghetti-sauce business, going up against Ragú with their Prego brand. Prego was a little thicker than Ragú, with diced tomatoes as opposed to Ragú’s purée, and, Campbell’s thought, had better pasta adherence. But, for all that, Prego was in a slump, and Campbell’s was desperate for new ideas.

Standard practice in the food industry would have been to convene a focus group and ask spaghetti eaters what they wanted. But Moskowitz does not believe that consumers — even spaghetti lovers — know what they desire if what they desire does not yet exist. “The mind,” as Moskowitz is fond of saying, “knows not what the tongue wants.” Instead, working with the Campbell’s kitchens, he came up with forty-five varieties of spaghetti sauce. These were designed to differ in every conceivable way: spiciness, sweetness, tartness, saltiness, thickness, aroma, mouth feel, cost of ingredients, and so forth. He had a trained panel of food tasters analyze each of those varieties in depth. Then he took the prototypes on the road—to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Jacksonville—and asked people in groups of twenty-five to eat between eight and ten small bowls of different spaghetti sauces over two hours and rate them on a scale of one to a hundred. When Moskowitz charted the results, he saw that everyone had a slightly different definition of what a perfect spaghetti sauce tasted like. If you sifted carefully through the data, though, you could find patterns, and Moskowitz learned that most people’s preferences fell into one of three broad groups: plain, spicy, and extra-chunky, and of those three the last was the most important. Why? Because at the time there was no extra-chunky spaghetti sauce in the supermarket. Over the next decade, that new category proved to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Prego. “We all said, ‘Wow!’ ” Monica Wood, who was then the head of market research for Campbell’s, recalls. “Here there was this third segment—people who liked their spaghetti sauce with lots of stuff in it—and it was completely untapped. So in about 1989-90 we launched Prego extra-chunky. It was extraordinarily successful.”

It may be hard today, fifteen years later—when every brand seems to come in multiple varieties—to appreciate how much of a breakthrough this was. In those years, people in the food industry carried around in their heads the notion of a platonic dish — the version of a dish that looked and tasted absolutely right. At Ragú and Prego, they had been striving for the platonic spaghetti sauce, and the platonic spaghetti sauce was thin and blended because that’s the way they thought it was done in Italy. Cooking, on the industrial level, was consumed with the search for human universals. Once you start looking for the sources of human variability, though, the old orthodoxy goes out the window. Howard Moskowitz stood up to the Platonists and said there are no universals.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

It was good right up to the end

A rather interesting article, Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing by Meredith Broussard.

It is the new Atlantic Magazine which regrettably is click hungry and panders to popular shibboleths as reflected in the article headline - Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing. Sounds like the usual jeremiad about school underfunding and discrimination against the poor and the general disgustingness of America which so often appear in magazines. But there's more to the article than that, though I do think that Broussard misses a couple of important nuances.

Her big reveal is that 1) the answers to standardized tests are there in plain view in the standard textbooks and 2) schools (or at least those in Philadelphia) do a startlingly bad job of keeping track of textbooks. Broussard attempts to makes this an issue of funding but it is not clear that extra funding would actually solve the problem of schools having books but not making them available to teachers who need them. If you don't know how many books you have, where they are, or how many you need and don't have any mechanism for assuring that available books are moved from storage to classrooms where they are needed, then simply buying more books is not likely to make much of a dent in the problem.

The education establishment, in trying to explain their many shortfalls, frequently, and I believe correctly, makes the point that education is more than a simple commercial commodity. It is a complex process with innumerable exogenous variables beyond school control. But even if that is true, there are some things that schools can, do, and should control - such as book acquisition, inventorying and fulfillment. This is plain vanilla inventory management process, identical in concept and most details to any other enterprise. There is nothing special about acquiring, tracking, distributing and managing textbooks in a school.

In Broussard's example, they even have a recently implemented inventory management system explicitly designed to handle textbooks. The problem is that they don't use it.

So if you strip away the spin and the attempt to reinforce stereotypes and failed strategies (throw more money at it), you can read Broussard's article and find that:
The information to score well on standardized tests is made plainly available in the standard textbooks.

The school district has lots of books floating around but is incapable of efficiently and effectively matching teacher demand for textbooks with the existing supply of textbooks.

The school district has the data tools (in the recently implemented inventory system) to efficiently and effectively management the textbook inventory management process but chooses not to use it.

The school district is carrying the capital cost of an expensive but unused information system.

The school district is carrying the opportunity cost of available but unused textbooks.

The school district is carrying the labor cost of excess management time spent ineffectively managing textbook inventories inaccurately with excel spreadsheets.

The school is carrying the labor cost of teachers spending time trying to scrounge up books informally from elsewhere in the system when they ought to be able to make a simple two minute request and expect fulfillment.

The school district is forgoing the student knowledge acquisition and the improved test scores (and therefore likely life outcomes) of its students that would be available were it able to effectively make available the books it does have to the students that do need them.
This is a management problem plain and simple, just as it would be in any other enterprise. It is possible that there is also a resource issue (need more money to buy more books) but that is not obvious. Broussard does a good job of putting sufficient information on the table to see that there is a management problem. But what does she conclude in her final paragraph?
It may be many years until Philadelphia’s education budget matches its curriculum requirements. In the meantime, there are a few things the district—and other flailing school districts in America—can do. Stop giving standardized tests that are inextricably tied to specific sets of books. At the very least, stop using test scores to evaluate teacher performance without providing the items each teacher needs to do his or her job. Most of all, avoid basing an entire education system on materials so costly that big, urban districts can’t afford to buy them. Until these things change, it will be impossible to raise standardized test scores—despite the best efforts of the teachers and students who will return to school this fall and find no new books waiting for them.
Its a budget issue, we need to spend more, we shouldn't test so much, we shouldn't evaluate teachers.

She wrote a whole article detailing abysmal school management and then, instead of concluding we need to manage schools better, defaults to the tired nostrums of yesteryear. It was good right up to the end.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Its not the WHAT, its the HOW

New from the Brookings - A Cascade of Failures: Why Government Fails, and How to Stop It by Paul C. Light.

Light asks four questions.
(1) where did government fail,
(2) why did government fail,
(3) who caused the failures, and
(4) what can be done to fix the underlying problems?
Light establishes a measurement mechanism and analyzes failures over the past thirty years. His observations are:
Most of the failures involved errors of omission, not commission.

Some failures were obviously more visible than others.

Vision with execution is the clear driver of success, just as its absence is an equation for failure.

Some of the stories contained elements of both success and failure.

The number of government failures has increased over time.

There are differences between the five presidents in office during the failures. Government had four failures during Reagan’s final two-and-a-half years (1.6 per year), five during George H. W. Bush’s four years (1.2 per year), 14 during Clinton’s eight years (1.8 per year), 25 during George W. Bush’s eight years (3.1 per year), and 16 during Obama’s first five-and-a-half years (2.9 per year).

The differences are just large enough to suggest that government may be somewhat more likely to fail during the last few years of a two-term presidency, perhaps because presidents start to lose focus, appointees begin to turn over, the other party becomes more assertive, and the media becomes more aggressive.

Government had just 10 failures during the Bush administration’s first term (2.5 per year), but 15 failures during the administration’s second (3.8 per year). In turn, government had just eight failures during the Obama administration’s first term (2.0 per year), but matched its entire first-term total in just eighteen months of the second (5.3 per year).

These failures involved both oversight and operations.

More of the post-2001 government failures occurred during steady demand (27) than during surging demand (14), perhaps confirming the unconventional notion that surges sharpen organizational acuity.
Light identifies five fairly anodyne root causes of government failure.
Bad Policy

Inadequately funded policies

Incompetent organizational structures

Incapable leadership

Corrupted culture
Likewise his recommendations are indisputably desirable.
Think about policy effectiveness from the start

Provide the funding, staff, and collateral capacity to succeed

Flatten the chain of command and cut the bloat

Select presidential appointees for their effectiveness, not connections

Sharpen the mission
As with private enterprises, the challenge is not so much in figuring out WHAT needs to be done but rather HOW to get it done.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I have no idea

From The Data of Hate by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. I'd like to know more about his methodology and I am alarmed by an author who cites the Southern Poverty Law Center as if it were a reliable source. With those caveats though, I am guessing that Stephens-Davidowitz's analysis is reasonably accurate. The positive news is that perhaps only 0.1% of Americans visit such a hate site.

But still, what hate. Yikes. You almost feel unclean reading of these views. Stephens-Davidowitz provides a good service to remind everyone that there is a lot of diversity of opinions and far out on the distribution tails, there are some pretty shocking opinions. Rare they might be but not rare enough.

I found several things interesting in the author's analysis.

The youth of the stormfront registrants.
Stormfront members tend to be young, at least according to self-reported birth dates. The most common age at which people join the site is 19. And four times more 19-year-olds sign up than 40-year-olds. Internet and social network users lean young, but not nearly that young.
Does this imply that people become more tolerant and worldly-wise as they age or does it mean that older cohorts were always more tolerant. I don't know but I would suspect more the former than the latter.

The map of registrants doesn't fit much of any stereotypical pattern either.
Does this mean that growing up with little diversity fosters hate?

Probably not. Since those states have a higher proportion of non-Jewish white people, they have more potential members for a group that attacks Jews and nonwhites. The percentage of Stormfront’s target audience that joins is actually higher in areas with more minorities. This is particularly true when you look at Stormfront’s members who are 18 and younger and therefore do not themselves choose where they live.

Among this age group, California, a state with one of the largest minority populations, has a membership rate 25 percent higher than the national average.
There are all sorts of counterintuitive mysteries in the analysis.
The top reported interest of Stormfront members is “reading.” Most notably, Stormfront users are news and political junkies. One interesting data point here is the popularity of The New York Times among Stormfront users. According to the economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, when you compare Stormfront users to people who go to the Yahoo News site, it turns out that the Stormfront crowd is twice as likely to visit

Perhaps it was my own naïveté, but I would have imagined white nationalists’ inhabiting a different universe from that of my friends and me. Instead, they have long threads praising “Breaking Bad” and discussing the comparative merits of online dating sites, like Plenty of Fish and OkCupid.

There was also no relationship between monthly membership registration and a state’s unemployment rate. States disproportionately affected by the Great Recession saw no comparative increase in Google searches for Stormfront.
Well-read bigots who love the New York Times? My old brain cells are creaking trying to accommodate the idea.

Its intriguing information but Stephens-Davidowitz asks the right questions.
Why do some people feel this way? And what is to be done about it? I have pored over data of an unprecedented breadth and depth, thanks to our new digital era. And I can honestly offer the following answer: I have no idea.