Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping, into the future . . .

I recently finished a murder mystery, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James. It was written in the early 1970s and one of the characters seemed unusually young for the role the author assigned her, but as I noted in a post yesterday, that feeling was more a reflection on the changed social circumstances of today than on the author's judgment. We are no longer so accustomed to young people carving out adult lives at what now seem such tender ages.

That set of reflections led me down another path of memories. It is an instance of a thing that seemed prevalent and common then but which seems to have vanished into the cultural ether, leaving no trace. I would ascribe it to just particular local circumstances except that I encountered it in three different countries over the space of half a dozen years, roughly the mid-1970s to the very early 1980s at the latest. But since then, I don't think I have heard anyone mention it. Ever. It seems odd.

What I am referencing is the secret art of gay signalling. It was an article of faith among my age cohort, or at least I encountered it in similarly aged people in three different countries, that gays, or more broadly LGBT as we would put it today, could identify one another in social situations. I have only the very vaguest of recollections as to what those signals were. Something about how they shook hands or which ear had the ear ring. Something along those lines. I think there might have even been some lore to the effect that one signal meant go on a date and another meant having a hook-up.

This information was shared sotto voce among young adolescent males as a right of passage almost, informing you of how to not accidentally communicate something you didn't intend.

It all seems absurdly ridiculous now. But so do so many things in life. Was this truly a common thing, or just a fluke of the different places I landed as I moved between countries. If it was common, why has it disappeared from view? Or has it? I have grown accustomed to recognizing few contemporary celebrities, all of whom can be named by my children. Perhaps kids are still passing on the lore of LGBT signalling and I don't know it.

My guess is that it was purely a transient phenomenon of the time. The formerly hidden and/or reviled were making their first declarative entrance into the broader culture. The unknown, and therefore not understood and therefore perhaps feared in a way, were out there and making their presence known. Watch Out! Be Careful! If they do this, it means that. . .

We have come such a long way but it is still most curious that there should be no memory of it (that I am aware of).

Communication inflation

Hard to dispute.

Fun to treat it glibly but there is a quite interesting issue embedded in here regarding both the inflation of information/opinion generation and the erosion or collapse of effective filters.

How do we take advantage of the new availability of information while screening out distractions and cognitive pollution. We are, collectively, still working towards that solution.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Measured data and the importance of context in interpretation

An excellent example of the importance of maintaining perspective.

I am a keen advocate of using empirical data to inform important decisions. Among the challenges is to keep some sort of context to the data that is being examined. It isn't always saying what you first might think it is saying.

From Googling for God by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.

Google searches for trends is an interesting resource but it has to be matched to alternative sources of trend data to determine that it is representative.

It has been a bad decade for God, at least so far. Despite the rising popularity of Pope Francis, who was elected in 2013, Google searches for churches are 15 percent lower in the first half of this decade than they were during the last half of the previous one. Searches questioning God’s existence are up. Many behaviors that he supposedly abhors have skyrocketed. Porn searches are up 83 percent. For heroin, it’s 32 percent.

How are the Ten Commandments doing? Not well. “Love thy neighbor” is the most common search with the word “neighbor” in it, but right behind at No. 2 is “neighbor porn.” The top Google search including the word “God” is “God of War,” a video game, with more than 700,000 searches per year. The No. 1 search that includes “how to” and “Walmart” is “how to steal from Walmart,” beating all questions related to coupons, price-matching or applying for a job.
The example that Stephens-Davidowitz uses which I find a sharp prompt towards context is:
In the era before digital data, there were debates about the relative popularity of celebrities and deities, most famously when John Lennon claimed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Lennon didn’t live long enough to compare Google search counts. Today, it is pretty clear that Jesus does not get the most attention, at least online. There are 4.7 million searches every year for Jesus Christ. The pope gets 2.95 million. There are 49 million for Kim Kardashian.
People are searching ten-times as often for Kim Kardashian as for Jesus Christ. But what does that really mean? Is Kim Kardashian really ten times more important than Jesus Christ? I think the answer can be a reasonably certain, No! but how then to understand the data?

What about ten years ago and ten years from now. Sic transit gloria mundi. Jesus Christ has been around 2,000 years and is imbued and embedded in a our culture and our way of thinking about the world in ways that are simply foundational. From that perspective, Jesus Christ will always take second place to flash-in-pan celebrities and issues.

Related to that, one might postulate that people simply have less reason to google Jesus Christ. Any bookstore or library have footages of biblical related resources far exceeding the handful of Kardashian tomes they might have. What about the fact that there is a church every block or every few blocks in any American city? Isn't that evidence of a presence in daily life quite different, more substantial, and of greater duration than the bad-behaving celebrity of the moment?

No answers, as I say, I think the article is a good reminder of the importance of context and that the easy interpretation of data is not necessarily either the most useful or the most accurate.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Its fate would be sealed by a minimally scientifically literate public

You never know what you are going to find and where your are going to find it. Case-in-point is Conjecture, Hypothesis, Theory, Law: The Basis of Rational Argument by Jeff Glassman. Glassman lays out an excellent summary of the scientific method and the structure of knowledge in an article that addresses in turn String Theory, Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), and Creation Theory/Intelligent Design. Where did I find this admirable science article? In Crossfit Journal, "a fitness, health and lifestyle publication dedicated to the improvement of athletic performance and quality of life."

So many proponents of global warming seek to shame the skeptical public of their unsupported claims through simple shaming and appeals to authority. If you question their models and methodologies, or seek to reconcile their forecasts against the quite different empirical data, then you are a "denier", anti-science, or a kook for bucking the consensus. Glassman, quite properly, will have none of that. Science is a set of models and methodologies and consensus has nothing to do with it.

Let's get the AGW argument out of the way in order to focus on the models Glassman lays out.
Just as intelligent design is a threshold question between nons-cience and conjectures, anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a threshold question between conjectures and hypotheses. AGW is a centurie sold conjecture elevated to an established belief by a little clique of quacks who proclaim themselves the Consensus on Climate, guardians of the vault of exclusive knowledge. Does this sound familiar? Is the Consensus patterned after the Council of Trent? As a matter of science, as opposed to a matter of belief, the AGW conjecture is gathering more contradictory evidence than supporting. The layman can test it and understand its failings by applying just the few principles outlined here.

AGW fails the test because it is proclaimed by a consensus. Science places no value on such a vote. A unanimous opinion, much less a consensus, is insufficient. Science advances one scientist at a time, and we honor their names. It advances one model at a time. When the article gets around to saying “most scientists believe…,” it’s time to go back to the comics section. Science relies instead on models that make factual predictions that are or might be validated.

AGW fails on the first order scientific principles outlined here because it does not fit all the data. The consensus relies on models initialized after the start of the Industrial era, which then try to trace out a future climate. Science demands that a climate model reproduce the climate data first. These models don’t fit the first-, second-, or third-order events that characterize the history of Earth’s climate. They don’t reproduce the Ice Ages, the Glacial epochs, or even the rather recent Little Ice Age. The models don’t even have characteristics similar to these profound events, much less have the timing right. Since the start of the Industrial era, Earth has been warming in recovery from these three events. The consensus initializes its models to be in equilibrium, not warming.

And there’s much, much more.

Anthropogenic Global Warming is a crippled conjecture, doomed just by these principles of science never to advance to a hypothesis. Its fate would be sealed by a minimally scientifically literate public.
The problem is not with the public who maintain a degree of practical skepticism in the face of a frantic raucousness on the part of self-interested parties within the AGW camp whose well-being and livelihood depend on there being a shared sense of panic in the face of data and science.

But that's pretty comprehensive rejection. It is based on an awareness of science as opposed to politics.

Glassman offers two nice summaries. The first is a summary of science principles.
In response, I offer a schema for science that includes the following, and more.
Rational argument must be the zeroth axiom.

Observable evidence must be reduced to measurements—that is, to comparison against a standard.

Scientific facts, the foundation of all model building and testing, are measurements with an established accuracy.

Science is a branch of knowledge, the objective branch, and ultimately public.

The application of science to public policy with unvalidated models is unethical.
A little out of the ordinary as a summary, but a perfectly reasonable explication. From this foundation, Glassman observes:
In common use, scientists speak at once of probability theory and the laws of probability. Scientifically credentialed individuals advance unvalidated models by proclaiming a consensus. It’s an infection like university grade inflation. Nevertheless, here is a guideline that will improve your science literacy, give you a framework for evaluating all variety of supposedly objective or scientific claims, arguments, and models, and hold you in good stead with real scientists.

Science is all about models of the real world, whether natural (basic science) or manmade (applied science, or technology). These models are not discovered in nature, for nature has no numbers, no coordinate systems, no parameters, no equations, no logic, no predictions, neither linearity nor non-linearity, nor many of the other attributes of science. Models are man’s creations, written in the languages of science: natural language, logic, and mathematics. They are built upon the structure of a specified factual domain.
He then goes on to provide a set of definitions which I think are highly useful.
The models are generally appreciated, if not actually graded, in four levels:
1. A conjecture is an incomplete model, or an analogy to another domain. Here are some examples of candidates for the designation:
“Ephedrine enhances fitness.”

“The cosmological red shift is cause by light losing energy as it travels through space.” (This is the “tired light conjecture.”)

“The laws of physics are constant in time and space throughout the universe.” (This one is known in geology as“uniformitarianism.”)

“Species evolve to superior states.”

“A carcinogen to one species will necessarily be carcinogenic to another.”
2. A hypothesis is a model based on all data in its specified domain, with no counterexample, and incorporating a novel prediction yet to be validated by facts. Candidates:
“Mental aging can be delayed by applying the ‘use it or lose it’ dictum.”

“The red shift of light is a Doppler shift.”
3. A theory is a hypothesis with at least one nontrivial validating datum. Candidates:

Big Bang cosmology.

4. A law is a theory that has received validation in all possible ramifications, and to known levels of accuracy. Candidates:
Newtonian mechanics.


Henry’s Law.

The laws of thermodynamics.
I like it: Conjecture, Hypothesis, Theory, and Law.

What leads to the ultimate condemnation of AGW with which I opened the post is that the climate models do not use all the data sets, they are incomplete in terms of known variables (see How Reliable are the Climate Models by Mike Jonas for a contemporary description of the problem Glassman was seeing in 2007), and the models predicting catastrophe do not reconcile with empirical data, and cannot backcast (when the models are set to start at a given date in history, they fail to forecast climatic events that are known to have occurred).

Thus the inclination to see AGW as simply an attempt by self-interested parties to create a "crisis" where none exists (or not for the reasons they are advancing) followed with a coordinated effort to suppress anyone pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

Obviously the failure of AGW as a modelling issue does not obviate the need for prudent conservation. It just means we have to be smarter about the issue and more disciplined about dispensing with noise in the system (which is what weak models that fail to forecast usefully accurate scenarios are.)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Income averaging over a lifetime, masked as income redistribution

I have long argued that disputes over income inequality, where they are not simply a function of intra-elite envy or ideological animus, are for the most part, simply a political cudgel wielded for rhetorical effect but to no good policy ends.

I have argued that we suffer two forms of ignorance. The first is the broader one. We do not have good language or numeric capacity to conduct a reasoned and informed discussion at the national level about income inequality because most people simply do not have access to the customs of thinking and the information which is available to actually reason towards some logical outcome.

The more critical aspect, though, is that the same can be said about the actual informational practitioners. Inequality is a function of policy and circumstance and economics and sociology and custom and culture and demographics and technology, etc. Even those who are supposed to be close to the issue, usually only touch one or two parts of the elephant. Not only does no one have a good picture of the entire issue, but we still are not very well developed in our measures of inequality. The Gini Index, one of the most common measures, is fairly crude and is loaded with its own in-built biases.

I think it might be Thomas Sowell who uses the example of the impact of demographics in confusing the issue. The example he gives (and I am making up the numbers) is that adult Hispanics earn $20,000 a year whereas adult Japanese Americans earn $40,000, demonstrating dramatic income inequality. The issue, however, is that the average age of Hispanics is 25 (at the very beginning of a career) whereas the average age of Japanese Americans is 45, at the peak of one's earning years. So comparing Hispanics and Japanese Americans to highlight income inequality is wrong because it does not control for critical measurable differences between the demographic groups.

Who gets counted as in poverty is also part of the set of issues. Is it right to include the 19 year old student in college and from a solidly middle income family as poor because they are only earning a few thousand dollars a year in waiting tables, life-guarding and similar student jobs? We all know that they are not poor, they are simply cash flow constrained. When they graduate into white collar jobs, they will no longer be poor. There is nothing that needs to be done for them from a policy perspective, and yet they are a not immaterial portion of the population measured as poor.

This is not to say that inequality is irrelevant. It is to say that we do not yet understand it well at an academic level (for example, at the macroeconomic level, to the surprise of most economists and certainly all left leaning politicians, there is, within reasonable boundaries, no evidence that inequality has any impact on national productivity) much less at a level to argue policy.

There is further evidence of the complexity of the topic from Why Britain is not so unequal after all from The Economist. Britain, despite Margaret Thatcher, has had a strong redistributionist inclination for decades now. However, a new paper indicates that the net result of most inequality reducing policies is not to actually redistribute money from rich to poor, but to function as a scheme of forced savings, smoothing income swings over a lifetime.
One of the key aims of taxation and public spending is to redistribute income from rich to poor. The way most statisticians, economists and policymakers think about this is in terms of a cross-sectional snapshot: what the distribution of wealth or income is between different people in a population in a single year. But we might care more about lifetime incomes: in the modern labour market, many people now have very high incomes in certain parts of their lives, and much lower ones at other times.

A new paper by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shines a new light on how well the British tax system redistributes incomes over people's lifetimes, in addition to using the cross-sectional approach. It presents several interesting findings. For a start, it finds that lifetime inequality in Britain has always been much lower than cross-sectional inequality (see first chart). This is because the poorest in any given year are not always poor for their entire lives; the IFS's simulations suggest that those who, over the whole of their life, are in the lowest 10%, only spend an average of a fifth of their lifetimes at the bottom.

More startlingly, policies that increased or cut welfare expenditure appear to have had very little impact on lifetime inequality. For instance, while the benefit cuts of the late 1980s reduced benefits and increased cross-sectional inequality, it had a much more muted effect on lifetime inequality. And, similarly, although Gordon Brown's massive expansion of means-tested tax credits in the 2000s reduced cross-sectional inequality, they had very little impact on cutting lifetime inequality.

The paper also finds that the redistribution performed by the British welfare state is, to a great extent, smoothing incomes over people's lifetimes rather than in a given year. Whereas 36% of individuals receive more in benefits than they pay in tax in any given year, only 7% do so over their lifetimes. Over half of all redistribution is simply across peoples' lifespans; the young pay in while they work, and take out when they retire (see second chart).
To me, this is further support to the idea that the policy focus ought not to be on redistribution, it ought to be on equipping citizens with the cognitive and non-cognitive skills which will increase their productivity (and therefore income) over a lifetime.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Smart and honest

From Clever Enough to Tell the Truth by Bradley J. Ruffle and Yossef Tobol.
We conduct a field experiment on 427 Israeli soldiers who each rolled a six-sided die in private and reported the outcome. For every point reported, the soldier received an additional half-hour early release from the army base on Thursday afternoon. We find that the higher a soldier’s military entrance score, the more honest he is on average. We replicate this finding on a sample of 156 civilians paid in cash for their die reports. Furthermore, the civilian experiments reveal that two measures of cognitive ability predict honesty, whereas self-report honesty questions and a consistency check among them are of no value. We provide a rationale for the relationship between cognitive ability and honesty and discuss the generalizability of this result.
How does this relate to Gregory Clark's thesis that there is upward evolutionary pressure not just on IQs but on prosocial behaviors (such as honesty)? And of course this ties in to Dierdre McCloskey's work The Bourgeois Virtues linking prosocial behaviors and productivity.

Or perhaps this is just evidence that smarter people have a better understanding that risk-adjusted dishonesty, over the long term, has a negative return? Better to be consistently honest, despite short term disadvantages, because the long term advantages of consistent honesty are higher?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Governments exempt themselves from their own laws

From When Governments Regulate Governments by David M. Konisky and Manuel P. Teodoro. From their abstract, emphasis added.
This article advances a political theory of regulation that accounts for the choices of regulators and regulated entities when both are governments. Leading theories of regulation assume that governments regulate profit-maximizing firms: Governments set rules, to which firms respond rationally in ways that constrain their behavior. But often the entities that governments regulate are other governments. We argue that government agencies and private firms often face different compliance costs, and that agencies have greater incentives than firms to appeal regulations through political channels. Simultaneously, the typical enforcement instruments that regulators use to influence firm behavior may be less effective against governments. Our empirical subjects are public and private entities’ compliance with the U.S. Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. We find that, compared with private firms, governments violate these laws significantly more frequently and are less likely to be penalized for violations.
Back in the later eighties and early nineties there was a movement to get government to comply with the same laws as citizens. The embodying example was Congress which had exempted itself from all sorts of regulations including employment, EEOC, environmental, etc. that governed the actions and decisions of regular citizens. Eventually, (under Gingrich?), there was a truing up and most of the exemptions were rescinded.

My impression is that in the intervening twenty years, politicians and agencies may have fallen back into bad old habits. My recollection is that Obamacare was supposed to cover all congressional employees but that Congressmen ended up exempting them. And of course there is the recent example of the EPA flooding the Animas River in Colorado with toxic pollutants despite having been forewarned by citizens that the EPA's activities were likely to result in such a spill. There is the travesty of the VA in its pursuit of whistleblowers while delivering substandard care to veterans. All examples of government exempting itself from the very regulations that they impose on others.

Part of this is just standard organizational theory. Bureaucracies protect themselves first and foremost. Whatever beneficial mission under which they were originally charged, they quickly evolve to self-sustenance and a major portion of that self-protection is by exempting oneself from the very regulations you were established to promulgate.

Predictable it might be but it remains repulsive. No wonder there is such a hunger in the electorate for candidates who are not tainted by the stench of insider status.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

School capital campaigns may represent a limited tool for realizing substantial gains in student achievement

There's a lot of policy talk about moving kids from poor environments to better environments with the expectation that their academic performance will improve. The evidence supporting this proposition is quite mixed and unclear but the effect size of the benefits seem to be fairly meager even where they are found to be positive.

Conceptually consistent with that is the finding from Investing in Schools: Capital Spending, Facility Conditions, and Student Achievement by Paco Martorell, Kevin M. Stange, and Isaac McFarlin.
Public investments in repairs, modernization, and construction of schools cost billions. However, little is known about the nature of school facility investments, whether it actually changes the physical condition of public schools, and the subsequent causal impacts on student achievement. We study the achievement effects of nearly 1,400 capital campaigns initiated and financed by local school districts, comparing districts where school capital bonds were either narrowly approved or defeated by district voters. Overall, we find little evidence that school capital campaigns improve student achievement. Our event-study analyses focusing on students that attend targeted schools and therefore exposed to major campus renovations also generate very precise zero estimates of achievement effects. Thus, locally financed school capital campaigns – the predominant method through which facility investments are made – may represent a limited tool for realizing substantial gains in student achievement or closing achievement gaps.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Russia's African Empire

I do love surprising, unknown information. I am pretty well read on the history of Africa, particularly the colonial period. But this one is completely new to me: Sagallo (Russian: Сагалло, French: Sagallou), also known as Russian Somalia, was a short-lived Russian colony in 1889, on the Gulf of Tadjoura in present-day Djibouti.

The Russian Empire required a safe harbour between its Black Sea holdings and the Pacific Ocean. French Somaliland was chosen due to its mild climate.

In 1883, Nikolay Ivanovitch Achinov (an adventurer, and burgess of Penza b. 1856) visited Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in order to establish clerical and political ties between the two countries. After his return to Russia, Achinov voiced his plans for a 1888 expedition to French Somaliland, while claiming to be a free cossack.

Achinov assured the participants that the sultan of Tadjoura, Mohammed Loitah, had permanently leased him land in the region.

On January 14 the abandoned Egyptian fort of Sagallo was chosen as the new base of the expedition. Achinov named the fort New Moscow. A tent was erected to serve as the church of St. Nicholas and a flag of the expedition was raised.

Rumours about the formidable size of the expedition quickly spread through the press. Later, several colonists escaped to Obock, informing the French of the colony's whereabouts. On 5 February, the cossacks noticed one cruiser and three gunboats. An ultimatum was issued, but Achinov misunderstood it and did not surrender. The artillery barrage that followed came as a complete surprise for the Russians, leaving 6 colonists dead and 22 wounded. A white shirt was raised to show surrender. The Russian Government disavowed Achimov, accusing him of disobedience to the Czar and acts of piracy. Participants were arrested and deported back to Odessa aboard Zabiyaka.

Eventually the moderators declared officially that there could be "no anarchism without feminism"

An interesting question from Social Justice, Ideological Hijackings, and Ideological Security by Warg Franklin. How do you inoculate yourself from creeping intolerance from extremist social justice warriors. The default method is to turn one's back to them, "We know they are saying childish things and will ignore them till they go away." But they don't go away. A second common approach is to engage them on their own terms to attempt to refute whatever absurd accusation they have made. The problem with that approach is three-fold. First is that their ideology is so arcane that not even they understand it. Trying to use their terms to address their charges simply leads to accusations that you don't understand. Not very productive. The second issue is that the more you demonstrate they are wrong, the more shrill become their accusations. The third challenge is that they routinely deploy a motte and bailey argument with weak charges and strong charge. They start with the strong charge (ex. "the voting process is inherently racist") which, when attacked with facts leads them to retreat to the weak version of their argument (ex. "there can be disparate voting levels.") As soon as they are no longer confronted with the facts they revert to their strong charge even though it has been refuted.

Franklin recounts an under-the-radar experience that seems to be of a common pattern - SJWs subverting a community and driving out all the original community members.
Back in 2010 or so, I used to hang out at /r/anarchism on Reddit. It was a neat place to talk about how different strains of anarchism attempted to solve the problems of crime and invasions and economics without a state and money.

There were a few anarcha-feminists around, which worked all right for a while. But then they found a dangerously misogynistic troll who made them uncomfortable, and they got them banned. I think the story was that they were an outsider and troll sent over by the Mens Rights people to spread hate and misogyny or something. Nobody was willing to go out of their way to argue against banning such a person. But then they found a few more. The precedent had been set, and only a few people spoke up against the further banning, and those who did thereby outed themselves as misogyny apologists as well. Then, partially because there were so many "trolls" to ban, and partially because of the weak controls on who got to be moderator, some anarcha-feminists got moderator positions, and started banning and deleting the comments of the "trolls" who were making /r/anarchism an "unsafe and unwelcoming" space for women.

At this point, a more broad backlash started up. People were upset about the seeming violations of free speech, and how much non-spam stuff the moderators were removing. At some point, the moderators decided that the whole discussion was unproductive, and made a policy of deleting complaints about the moderation policy. They also were by this time consistently deleting everything that might make non-whites and non-men feel "unsafe", and banning repeat offenders. Some of the other moderators were against what was happening and started to interfere, so if I remember correctly the anarcha-feminist moderators somehow removed all the other moderators who weren't on board with their program.

Eventually the (anarcha-feminist) moderators replaced the black flag banner with the black and pink, and declared officially that there could be "no anarchism without feminism", and anyone who disagreed was dangerously misogynistic and had to go. I didn't really care one way or the other about feminism, but as something of an outsider, the whole incident seemed totally stupid. I wanted to talk about anarchism, not feminism, but somehow these people had taken over and ruined everything. I got bored and left for greener pastures.

Instead of laughing at anarchists for the irony of creating a totalitarian system for themselves, we should be alarmed and take note; a community of people absolutely opposed to oppression and authority and violations of individual rights wound up oppressing each other with arbitrary authority leading to the destruction of the usefulness of their community. We can scoff and write this off as an isolated incident or an inherent failure of anarchism, but we've seen similar happening or trying to happen all over: Effective Altruism, the Tech Industry, Occupy Wall Street, the Video Game Industry, and many other places. A pattern emerges in these examples and demands some investigation.
Ranklin then goes on to discuss some approaches to protecting communities from ideological hijacking. He has some ideas, though I am not sure they are fit for purpose. But he is very much asking the right question. First things first.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

His interpretation is you can’t export other models in different contexts.

A very interesting dialogue between Luigi Zingales and Tyler Cowen touching on many topics.

Lots of quotable lines. I especially liked this one about economic and cultural systems:
His interpretation is you can’t export other models in different contexts.
Read the whole thing.

A path to higher destinies

From The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I agree with the substance of their argument. The ideologies of critical theory, postmodernism, critical race theory and third-wave feminism all hinge on an emotional response to the world over an objective one. As the tenets of those ideologies have spread from certain departments in universities, there is a concomitant increase in emotional reasoning and degradation of informed and evidence-based discussion.
The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.


There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.


Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems was rising at their schools. The rate of emotional distress reported by students themselves is also high, and rising. In a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, 54 percent of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months, up from 49 percent in the same survey just five years earlier. Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile, and this has surely changed the way university faculty and administrators interact with them. The question is whether some of those changes might be doing more harm than good.


The parallel to formal education is clear: cognitive behavioral therapy teaches good critical-thinking skills, the sort that educators have striven for so long to impart. By almost any definition, critical thinking requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial hypothesis. But does campus life today foster critical thinking? Or does it coax students to think in more-distorted ways?


Burns defines emotional reasoning as assuming “that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: ‘I feel it, therefore it must be true.’ ” Leahy, Holland, and McGinn define it as letting “your feelings guide your interpretation of reality.” But, of course, subjective feelings are not always trustworthy guides; unrestrained, they can cause people to lash out at others who have done nothing wrong. Therapy often involves talking yourself down from the idea that each of your emotional responses represents something true or important.

Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.
For some reason, Haidt and Lukianoff's call to mental hygiene reminds me of the old wisdom in Longfellow's poem, The Ladder of St. Augstine.
The Ladder of St. Augustine
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Saint Augustine! well hast thou said,
That of our vices we can frame
A ladder, if we will but tread
Beneath our feet each deed of shame!

All common things, each day's events,
That with the hour begin and end,
Our pleasures and our discontents,
Are rounds by which we may ascend.

The low desire, the base design,
That makes another's virtues less;
The revel of the ruddy wine,
And all occasions of excess;

The longing for ignoble things;
The strife for triumph more than truth;
The hardening of the heart, that brings
Irreverence for the dreams of youth;

All thoughts of ill; all evil deeds,
That have their root in thoughts of ill;
Whatever hinders or impedes
The action of the nobler will; -

All these must first be trampled down
Beneath our feet, if we would gain
In the bright fields of fair renown
The right of eminent domain.

We have not wings, we cannot soar;
But we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more,
The cloudy summits of our time.

The mighty pyramids of stone
That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known,
Are but gigantic flights of stairs.

The distant mountains, that uprear
Their solid bastions to the skies,
Are crossed by pathways, that appear
As we to higher levels rise.

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

Standing on what too long we bore
With shoulders bent and downcast eyes,
We may discern unseen before -
A path to higher destinies,

Nor doom the irrevocable Past
As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last
To something nobler we attain.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Intellectually saucy

This weekend, Hillary Clinton apparently gave an interview to a sympathetic journalist. He asked her to describe herself in three words and she responded with five "I am a real person." Now everyone is having a field day. The brick bats are coming from the right wing primarily but what I find interesting is why, in this particular instance, it has spurred such a cultural response.

That is a clever jab, complimenting the reader on his assumed knowledge of the Turing Test.

Then there is the allusion to the Voight-Kampff test to identify androids in Philip K. Dick's Blade Runner

So much of political commentary is simply pugalistic verbal barbs. Why are they clever here and not in most cases?

Fisking as an unveiling of sins of omission

A few days ago, early in the day I referred my youngest son, who has a class in rhetoric, to the always excellent Politics and the English Language by George Orwell.

Later in the day, I came across an excellent example of the substance of Orwell's observations in Returning to the Copy Desk, Briefly by Kevin D. Williamson. Williamson conducts a thorough fisking of Diaa Hadid's reporting in the New York Times.
MEMO FROM: Copy desk

TO: New York Times Foreign desk

RE: Diaa Hadid for AM interntional; mark-up attached

HEAD: Jewish Man Dies as Rocks Pelt His Car in East Jerusalem [ED: “As rocks pelt his car”? How exactly did the rocks go about doing this? Are these special angry Palestinian rocks that get up off the ground and hurl themselves at Jews? Unless we’re talking about The Rock, in which case he’s going by “Dwayne Johnson” these days, I don’t think a rock is capable of committing an act of violence on its own.]

BYLINE: Diaa Hadidsept

DATELINE: Ramallah, West Bank, 14 September 2015

COPY: A Jewish man died [ED: “was killed.”] early Monday morning after attackers pelted the road [ED: “pelted the road”? They were aiming at the pavement? Please clarify.] he was driving on with rocks as he was returning home from a dinner celebrating Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, the Israeli authorities said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an emergency meeting to discuss rock-throwing, mostly [ED: “mostly”? Which other rock-throwers were discussed at the emergency meeting?] by Palestinian youths.

The man was identified in local news reports as Alexander Levlovich, 64. His death was reported as the police and Palestinian youths clashed [ED: Is it the case that the police and the Palestinian youths “clashed,” or is it the case that the police tried to stop violent crimes from being committed? Do the police “clash” with bank-robbers or muggers?] for a second day at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, amid tensions [Who is tense about this? Are Jews experiencing “tension” over being allowed to move about freely for the purposes of having dinner?] over increased visits by Jews for Rosh Hashana. The two-day holiday began at sundown on Sunday.

A statement from the Israeli police said the assailants were throwing stones [ED: At . . . ?] on Sunday night on a road that runs between a Palestinian and Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The police said the stone-throwing “led to a self-inflicted accident,” [ED: This is a quote, sure, albeit one without specific sourcing, but are we really going to pretend this was “self-inflicted”?] as the man lost control of the car [ED: “was driven off the road”] and smashed into a pole.

Palestinians scuffled [ED: At what point does a “scuffle” with “riot police” become, you know, rioting?] with the Israeli riot police after security forces blocked a road leading to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City on Monday.
He continues but that dry formulation is positively Orwellian: dying from "a self-inflicted injury" instead of the true statement "a 64 year-old man died when a mob of stone-throwing teens caused him to veer off the road and smash into a pole."

This seems to me a great example of the bias that slips into reporting without it ever being seen as bias on the part of the writer. It is not the lies that are told (of which there are few) but the truths left unstated (of which there are many). Reporters and editors often sin by omission rather than commission. And as this fisking shows, their omissions can be extensive. It is all about the framing.

Definitions and Categories of poverty

An interesting proposition from The 4 Types of Poverty, and How to Cure Them by Robert L. Woodson Sr.

We so often talk about poverty with no agreement as to what we are talking about. There is income, there is health, there is education, etc. There are all sorts of manifestations of poverty, which ones are we focused on and what are the demarkation points between poor and not-poor. In addition, as Woodson suggests, there are categories of poverty. Most people think of the deserving and the non-deserving poor. Woodson goes further.
There is one cohort whose poverty is the result of an unexpected setback, such as the death of a breadwinner or the loss of a job. For these people, the welfare system can function as originally intended, providing temporary support until recipients can find their footing again.

A second cohort comprises those who have remained dependent on the system because the disincentives to marry and work embedded in its regulations make it a rational choice to avoid those stepping stones to self-sufficiency. They have “done the math” and calculated that it is not worth the loss of benefits to take the first steps toward upward mobility.

The third group is made up of the disabled, many of whom will always be in need of some support.

The fourth cohort consists of those in poverty because of the choices they make and the chances they take—for example, those suffering from alcoholism and other addictions, who choose to live with the consequences rather than pursue recovery.
I like his concept but am not quite on-board with his definition of the categories. I would suggest:
Poverty arising from physical disability

Poverty arising from temporary and unexpected circumstances

Poverty arising from mental disability

Poverty arising from substance dependency

Poverty arising from choice
Certainly these are not exclusive of one another. There are overlaps and duplications.

However, I think this is useful for several reasons. First, and primarily, because it allows a better targeting of remedial and ameliorative policies. The actions and policies necessary to address physical disability are radically different from those necessary to address mental disability or substance dependency. Second, because it allows better communication. There is certainly a hierarchy of likely support. I am guessing that support for policies to address the different forms of poverty run something like Physical disability (95), Unexpected circumstances (90%), Mental disability (85%), Substance dependency (70%), Choice (30%).

Third, because this set of categories also allows you to better target resources by size of problem. I have no empirical basis for this but I am guessing that of the number of people in poverty probably divides perhaps 10% from Physical disability, 10% from Unexpected circumstances, 20% from Mental disability, 35% from substance dependency, and 25% from Choice.

I wonder where we are putting our money in comparison to where the source of the problems lie?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Children’s personal characteristics are the product of three sources: shared environment, non-shared environment, and parents’ genes.

Charles Murray has an excellent review of Robert Putnam's new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis in the article The Trouble With Kids Today by Charles Murray. You have to be careful with Putnam because while his writing is always interesting, his actual analysis is often flawed (see his earlier book, Bowling Alone).

Just the other evening I came across this quote from Julius Caesar in his work, Gallic Wars.
In bello parvis momentis magni casus intercedunt.

In war events of great importance are the result of trivial causes.

Julius Caesar, Bellum Gallicum, I, 21.
I was struck by both the profundity of the truth as well as the remarkable circumstance of the age of that observation.

He captures a conundrum with which we are still wrestling - that all the odds can be stacked in your favor and yet still the roll of the die is against you and conversely you can be completely neglectful and yet circumstance ends up bestowing some benefit that was completely unearned. Yes, chance does favor the prepared mind. But not always.

You see it in correlations all the time. High IQ, good education, strong work ethic, good health and established behaviors are all supposed to predict good life outcomes and are indeed highly correlated with good life outcomes. A person with such attributes will reliably live longer, earn more, have more stable marriages, etc. ON AVERAGE. Yes, such factors are reliable predictive variables. Yet, some, among all those individuals making up the average, will fall far short despite having all the advantageous attributes. It is very difficult to determine, in advance, who will succeed and who will fail, even though on average they will all do much better than average.

For all the Marxists, critical theorists, etc. out there who want to treat human systems as scientifically manageable, this a gross shortfall. They want to pursue policy A, B, C with the expectation that it will reliably yield desirable outcomes X, Y, Z. The tragedy, for such critical theorists, is that ABC do indeed yield some percentage of XYZ but not reliably and only some percentage. Human systems are not like factory systems.

Which is where Caesar's comment comes in. You can strategically do all the preparation that is wise to do and be superbly ready for just about any eventuation. But when you switch from the strategic and prospective to the tactical and real time, trivial (and often unanticipated and unanticipatable) events do drive outcomes of great importance.

Murray describes this interplay very well.
That said, I must record my own judgment that everything Putnam recommends could be implemented full-bore—far beyond any reasonable hope—and little, alas, would change in the long term. The opportunity gap is driven by larger forces, which his policy prescriptions cannot do much about. Three reasons stand out.

First, the standard interventions are aiming at a relatively unimportant target. Children’s personal characteristics are the product of three sources: shared environment, non-shared environment, and parents’ genes. Government programs can affect only one of those three—shared environment—which, for the most important outcomes, usually has the least effect of the three.

You may not be familiar with the terms “shared” and “non-shared” environment. The shared environment includes such things as a family’s income and social status, quality of the schools, and parenting practices. The non-shared environment is the sum of random differences such as events in the womb that affect one sibling differently from another, an injury or illness after birth that affects one sibling and not the other, and peer groups that siblings don’t share. Some unknown but probably large proportion of the non-shared environment is simply statistical noise.

Aren’t the components of the shared environment the important causes of how well children do in life, as Putnam himself is convinced? For some immediate outcomes, yes; for ultimate outcomes, no. Consider the results of a comprehensive meta-analysis of more than 2,000 twin studies published in Nature Genetics in May of this year. The shared environment played a large role in the religiosity of children (explaining 44 percent and 35 percent of the variance in the two estimates presented by the study), and a substantial role in explaining problems in parent-child relationships (33 percent for both estimates).

But when it comes to the outcomes that Putnam associates with the opportunity gap, the contribution of the shared environment is modest. For “higher-level cognitive functions” (IQ), the estimates of the role of the shared environment were just 24 percent and 17 percent of the variance. For educational attainment: 27 percent and 13 percent. For conduct disorders (antisocial and aggressive behavior): 18 percent and 15 percent.

That’s not the whole story. Genes and environment interact, among other things. But my point is simple and survives the complications: the roster of standard interventions to reduce the opportunity gap is almost entirely focused on factors that have modest causal roles. Furthermore, a program lasting at most a few hours a day can influence only a small proportion of that modest causal role. The evaluation literature for interventions necessarily yields meager long-term impact even for the best-executed program because the potential effect to begin with is so small. If policy scholars are serious about having a major impact on the shared environment, they should be advocating adoption at birth and high-quality orphanages. They don’t.

Second, the opportunity gap exists alongside a substantial ability gap. Most of the graphs in “Our Kids” show the results for parents with at least a college degree versus those for parents with no more than 12 years of school and a high-school diploma. What are the IQs of those two groups? In the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY), replicating Putnam’s assignment rules, the mean IQ of the college group was 23 points higher than that of the high school group.

In case you’re wondering, that’s not a function of race. Among non-Latino whites, the difference was 22 points. In statistical terms, those are differences of about 1.5 standard deviations. For the population as a whole, the average person in the high-school group was at the twenty-ninth IQ percentile while the average person in the college group was at the eighty-fourth percentile. Since children’s IQ is correlated with parental IQ, it is not surprising to learn that the means of the children of the high school and college groups are also separated—by about 19 points in the same NLSY cohort. Recall the modest role of the shared environment in producing that difference.

Again, my underlying point is simple. IQ has a substantial direct correlation with measures of success in life, and it is also correlated with a variety of other characteristics that promote success—perseverance, deferred gratification, good parenting, and the aspects of personality that are variously called “emotional intelligence” or “grit.” The correlations are not large, but many modest individual correlations produce large differences in life outcomes when the means of two groups are separated by as large a gap as separates both parents and children of America’s working and upper-middle classes.

Third, the gap in human capital in working-class and upper-middle-class communities has been widening over time. In 1960, just 8 percent of adults had college degrees, and many of those had pedestrian academic ability—going to college then was largely determined by socioeconomic status. In that America, an extremely large proportion of the smartest people in the country had no more than a high-school education. Data on the IQ of high school and college graduates prior to mid-century indicate that the gap between Putnam’s two groups as of 1960 was on the order of 14 points, not 23.

Since then, the sorting process has gotten much more efficient. Few high-school graduates with IQs well over 100 don’t get at least some post high-school education. It has long been recognized that the functioning of black communities took a big hit when the civil rights revolution enabled many of the most successful blacks to move out. The same thing has been happening to the country as a whole. White working-class communities have also seen an outmigration of the most able; that outmigration is continuing, and it is entrenching many of the problems in working-class communities that Putnam laments.

It’s not just that the IQ gap in working-class and upper-middle-class communities has gotten wider. The life penalties associated with low IQ have risen since 1960. If you focus on the economic changes since 1960, those with low IQ have faced a labor market in which the market value of a strong back has dropped while the value of brains has soared.

If you focus on the reforms and social programs of the 1960s, the reductions in immediate penalties for destructive behavior (e.g., doing drugs, dropping out of school, grabbing purses, having a baby without marriage) had the most effect on people who were impulsive, attracted to immediate gratification, and unable to foresee long-term consequences—qualities associated with low IQ. The effects of such changes in incentives among the smart were much smaller.

My takeaway from all this was expressed in the closing chapter of my own work on Putnam’s topic, “Coming Apart” (2012). Very briefly, I don’t think America’s civic culture will be revitalized by the kinds of programs that “Our Kids” advocates. If it is to happen, it must be through a cultural Great Awakening that leads the elites to reengage in America’s traditional civic culture; one that reverses what Robert Reich memorably labeled “the secession of the successful.” Being willing to pay higher taxes to finance more social programs is not what I have in mind.

The vicissitudes and vagaries of fate

Culture is in some ways the manifestation of those ideas that we wish to transmit into the future. A billion memes are generated but only a few survive even briefly, much less over time. Why is Shakespeare still read some five hundred years after he wrote his plays? Not just read but studied and enjoyed? Because there are things in them, ideas, memes of greater importance and/or which he conveys better than others do. Our language is littered, no, not littered, densely embeued with gleams of inherited wisdom through idioms and phrases, much planted there by Shakespeare.

But not everything survives of course. In fact, the overwhelming majority of memes never gain traction. They sputter a brief moment and then are extinguished by brutal reality ,usually because they serve no useful purpose.

All these thoughts are spurred by reading Hamlet's Soliloquy, (line 520 of Act II, Scene 2), O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!.

In Line 530, Hamlet references
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
Who was Hecuba? She was King Priam of Troy's Queen (and mother of other mythological stalwarts such as Paris, Hector and Cassandra). There are many classical accounts of her, most favorable. Shakespeare holds her up as an example of a good wife in her profound grief on the death of her husband.

The annotation I am reading indicates that Shakespeare included Hecuba in six of his works. In addition to Hamlet, she shows up in Troilus and Cressida, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, and in The Rape of Lucrece.

So you have probably the single most consequential writer in the western canon using a classical character in 15% of his works. Our language is riddled with stock phrases from Hamlet (to be or not to be, the primrose path, neither a borrower nor a lender be, giving more light than heat, more honoured in the breach than the observance, something is rotten in the state of Denmark, time is out of joint, murder most foul, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy, brevity is the soul of wit, Though this be madness, yet there is method in't, There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so, What a piece of work is a man!, The lady doth protest too much, methinks, Hoist with his own petard, Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, The cat will mew and dog will have his day, There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will, etc.). But poor Hecuba somehow doesn't meet muster.

Perhaps 1% read Shakespeare intimately and perhaps 1% of those know of Hecuba. That she is known at all from 3,500 years ago is no small achievement. But such are the vicissitudes and vagaries of fate. Hecuba, sponsored and held in esteem by one of the greatest playwrights in history, surviving but virtually unknown.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Messing around with book numbers

I picked up a book published in 2006, The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived by Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan, and Jeremy Salter. The premise is that some fictional characters have been as influential on opinions and actions in the real world as real people. The authors have created a subjective list of 101 characters and then written a short essay on each of them. The characters were selected based on the breadth of the population affected by the character as well as the depth. The combination is intended to screen out popular but inconsequential characters.

Clever but fluffy. Still, it looked intriguing. I bought it and it has been sitting among the stacks for several years now. In cleaning up my library in the vain hope of making room for more books, or at least being able to move around without causing booklanches, 101 surfaced.

Still haven't read it but I did skim. Here is there original list. I added Brer Rabbit and have also included twenty or so that they included in the appendix as also rans that did not make the final cut.
Person, Rank
The Marlboro Man 1
Big Brother 2
King Arthur 3
Santa Claus 4
Hamlet 5
Dr. Frankenstein's Monster 6
Siegfried 7
Sherlock Holmes 8
Romeo and Juliet 9
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 10
Uncle Tom 11
Robin Hood 12
Jim Crow 13
Oedipus 14
Lady Chatterley 15
Ebenezer Scrooge 16
Don Quixote 17
Mickey Mouse 18
The American Cowboy 19
Prince Charming 20
Smokey the Bear 21
Robinson Crusoe 22
Apollo 23
Dionysus 23
Apollo and Dionysus 23
Odysseus 24
Nora Helmer 25
Cinderella 26
Shylock 27
Rosie the Riveter 28
Midas 29
Hester Prynne 30
The Little Engine That Could 31
Archie Bunker 32
Dracula 33
Alice in Wonderland 34
Citizen Kane 35
Faust 36
Figaro 37
Godzilla 38
Mary Richards 39
Don Juan 40
Bambi 41
William Tell 42
Barbie 43
Buffy the Vampire Slayer 44
Venus 45
Cupid 45
Venus and Cupid 45
Prometheus 46
Pandora 47
G.I. Joe 48
Tarzan 49
Captain Kirk 50
Mr. Spock 50
Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock 50
Atticus Finch 51
Hansel and Gretel 52
Captain Ahab 53
Elmer Gantry 54
The Ugly Duckling 55
Loch Ness Monster 56
Saint Valentine 58
Helen of Troy 59
Batman 60
Uncle Sam 61
Nancy Drew 62
J.R. Ewing 63
Superman 64
Huckleberry Finn 65
Tom Sawyer 65
Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn 65
HAL 9000 66
Kermit the Frog 67
Sam Spade 68
The Pied Piper 69
Peter Pan 70
Hiawatha 71
Othello 72
The Little Tramp 73
King Kong 74
Dr. Strangelove 75
Hercules 76
Dick Tracy 77
Joe Camel 78
The Cat in the Hat 79
Icarus 80
Mammy 81
Sinbad the Sailor 82
Amos n' Andy 83
Buck Rogers 84
Luke Skywalker 85
Perry Mason 86
Bond, James Bond 87
Pygmalion 88
Madame Butterfly 89
Hans Beckert 90
Dorothy Gale 91
The Wandering Jew 92
The Great Gatsby 93
Buck 94
Willy Loman 95
Betty Boop 96
Ivanhoe 97
Norman Bates 98
Lilith 99
John Doe 100
Paul Bunyan 101
Brer Rabbit Added
Lancelot Also Rans
Medea Also Rans
Beowulf Also Rans
Gulliver Also Rans
Lolita Also Rans
Pinocchio Also Rans
Raskolnikov Also Rans
Golem Also Rans
Mother Goose Also Rans
The Phoenix Also Rans
Uncle Remus Also Rans
Bugs Bunny Also Rans
Winnie-the-Pooh Also Rans
Dirty Harry Also Rans
Homer Simpson Also Rans
Holden Caulfield Also Rans
Walter Mitty Also Rans
Tom Joad Also Rans
Jewish American Princess Also Rans
George Milton and Lenny Small Also Rans
George Milton Individual
Lenny Small Individual
Reading their list, I could see why most were included. I question some like Willy Loman or Lilith. Why would they be on the list? And who the heck is Raskolnikov? And some of the rankings seemed off.

I got to thinking though. Is there a way to make this less subjective? Indeed there is, Google NGram Viewer which allows you to measure how often a word, name or phrase is mentioned across the corpus of a large sample of books published up to 2008. There were a few challenges. For example, Siegfried is not just a literary character but also a common German name. Mammy is a not uncommon slang name as well. Buck is a guy's name in addition to being a verb and a noun for a male deer and also the name of the hero dog in Jack London's Call of the Wild. The American Cowboy seems a stretch. Venus is not just a Roman goddess but also a planet. Still, not a bad rough and ready indicator of relevance.

I did a search on all the names and then ordered them based on frequency of textual reference. The first number is the original ranking and the second number is the ranking based on the corpus search.

Person Rank Ordinal Rank
Venus 45 1
Apollo 23 2
Hamlet 5 3
Buck 94 4
Hercules 76 5
Oedipus 14 6
Faust 36 7
Odysseus 24 8
Othello 72 9
Prometheus 46 10
Dr. Frankenstein's Monster 6 11
Siegfried 7 12
Don Quixote 17 13
Tarzan 49 14
Cinderella 26 15
Lancelot Also Rans 16
Jim Crow 13 17
Superman 64 18
Barbie 43 19
Don Juan 40 20
Dracula 33 21
Cupid 45 22
Pandora 47 23
Dionysus 23 24
Medea Also Rans 25
Beowulf Also Rans 26
King Arthur 3 27
Uncle Tom 11 28
Batman 60 29
Santa Claus 4 30
Uncle Sam 61 31
Romeo and Juliet 9 32
Robin Hood 12 33
Sherlock Holmes 8 34
Gulliver Also Rans 35
Shylock 27 36
Lilith 99 37
Figaro 37 38
Mammy 81 39
Robinson Crusoe 22 40
Sam Spade 68 41
Big Brother 2 42
Icarus 80 43
Bond, James Bond 87 44
Ebenezer Scrooge 16 45
Lolita Also Rans 46
Midas 29 47
Mickey Mouse 18 48
Peter Pan 70 49
Pygmalion 88 50
Huckleberry Finn 65 51
Hiawatha 71 52
Pinocchio Also Rans 53
Ivanhoe 97 54
John Doe 100 55
Raskolnikov Also Rans 56
Tom Sawyer 65 57
Bambi 41 58
Alice in Wonderland 34 59
Godzilla 38 60
King Kong 74 61
Golem Also Rans 62
Mother Goose Also Rans 63
Citizen Kane 35 64
Prince Charming 20 65
The Great Gatsby 93 66
Nancy Drew 62 67
The Phoenix Also Rans 68
Buffy the Vampire Slayer 44 69
Hansel and Gretel 52 70
William Tell 42 71
Lady Chatterley 15 72
Helen of Troy 59 73
Hester Prynne 30 74
Uncle Remus Also Rans 75
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 10 76
Bugs Bunny Also Rans 77
Paul Bunyan 101 78
Brer Rabbit Added 79
Winnie-the-Pooh Also Rans 80
Dirty Harry Also Rans 81
Dick Tracy 77 82
Dr. Strangelove 75 83
Perry Mason 86 84
Madame Butterfly 89 85
Rosie the Riveter 28 86
Captain Ahab 53 87
Willy Loman 95 88
Luke Skywalker 85 89
The Ugly Duckling 55 90
Captain Kirk 50 91
The Cat in the Hat 79 92
Buck Rogers 84 93
Amos n' Andy 83 94
Homer Simpson Also Rans 95
Holden Caulfield Also Rans 96
G.I. Joe 48 97
Mr. Spock 50 98
Archie Bunker 32 99
Loch Ness Monster 56 100
Betty Boop 96 101
The Pied Piper 69 102
The Marlboro Man 1 103
Norman Bates 98 104
Atticus Finch 51 105
Walter Mitty Also Rans 106
Elmer Gantry 54 107
Venus and Cupid 45 108
Joe Camel 78 109
The Wandering Jew 92 110
Sinbad the Sailor 82 111
Tom Joad Also Rans 112
Saint Valentine 58 113
Smokey the Bear 21 114
Kermit the Frog 67 115
The Little Engine That Could 31 116
Mary Richards 39 117
Apollo and Dionysus 23 118
Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn 65 119
Dorothy Gale 91 120
HAL 9000 66 121
Jewish American Princess Also Rans 122
Nora Helmer 25 123
J.R. Ewing 63 124
The Little Tramp 73 125
George Milton Individual 126
The American Cowboy 19 127
Hans Beckert 90 128
Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock 50 129
George Milton and Lenny Small Also Rans 130
Lenny Small Individual 131
So in the first list, Lazar, Karlan, and Salter thought that Venus was probably 45 out of the 101 in importance but in the NGram Viewer, she is number one.

It then occurred to me that by searching the corpus 1800-2008, this was probably unduly weighting the classical names over such contemporary stalwarts as Mickey Mouse and Buffy. I did a search restricting the corpus to 1950-2008 expecting that that might substantially change the ordering of the names. I took a sample of a dozen classic names as well as a dozen more contemporary names and to my surprise, all of them remained in very close order to the original NGram list. Venus is still #1.

For those concerned about the undermining of Western Civilization, there is some solace to be taken from this exercise. All the classical characters are there - Lancelot, King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes, Hercules, Robin Hood, Uncle Sam, Dracula, Superman, Tarzan, Hamlet, etc. The foundations of Western reading Civilization look pretty immutable on this count.

For those more interested in the Social Justice Warrior aspects, there probably is some concern. Only about 20% of the characters are female and their rankings are on the low side of things. Only seven of the 22 score above average in terms of how often they are discussed in books. And some of them are questionable as role models. I am thinking of Cinderella, Barbie, Mammy, Lolita, Lady Chatterley, Hester Prynne, Betty Boop and Jewish American Princess (revealing of when the authors came of age). Anyway, the 22 characters and their ranks are here:

Person Rank
Venus 1
Cinderella 15
Barbie 19
Pandora 23
Medea 25
Lilith 37
Mammy 39
Lolita 46
Alice in Wonderland 59
Mother Goose 63
Nancy Drew 67
Buffy the Vampire Slayer 69
Lady Chatterley 72
Helen of Troy 73
Hester Prynne 74
Madame Butterfly 85
Rosie the Riveter 86
Betty Boop 101
Mary Richards 117
Dorothy Gale 120
Jewish American Princess 122
Nora Helmer 123

The arrogance of the altruistic elite

I discussed Food desert fantasies the other day. At a Washington, D.C. policy level there is the false assumption that obesity among the poor is caused by the poor living in areas with no access to fresh food, "food deserts." This has been shown to be a myth. Most the places designated as food deserts do actually have fresh food access. In addition, what people choose to consume is not apparently materially affected by access. Finally, despite the false assumptions of policy makers, there now appears to be little connection between the prevalence and access to fast food restaurants and obesity.

The pathological altruists are not having a good time on the food front.

On top of all that, the CDC has now released a report covered in A dangerous myth about who eats fast food is completely false by Roberto A. Ferdman.
There's a popular narrative about poor families and fast food: They eat more of it than anybody else. It’s dangled as evidence for the high rate of obesity among poorer Americans -- and talked about even by some of the country’s foremost voices on food. "[J]unk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories," wrote Mark Bittman for The New York Times in 2011

But there’s a problem with saying that poor people like fast food better than others. It’s not true.

New data, released by the Centers for Disease Control, show that America's love for fast food is surprisingly income blind. Well-off kids, poor kids, and all those in between tend to get about the same percentage of their calories from fast food, according to a survey of more than 5,000 people. More precisely, though, it's the poorest kids that tend to get the smallest share of their daily energy intake from Big Macs, Whoppers, Chicken McNuggets, and french fries.
It is admirable to want to help others. It is appalling to use the government power of coercion to inflict untested assumptions (which turn out to be wrong) on the segment of the population least able to protect itself from predations of the privileged altruists and assert their rights to the same freedom of choices as everyone else. Those city councils who have sought to help the poor by outlawing fast food franchises in their neighborhoods have increased unemployment in those neighborhoods, reduced dietary choices they would otherwise make, reduced opportunities for franchisees (who often are minorities), and quite possibly have increased the cost of food. Why? Because from their position of privilege and power they thought their emotional desire to help based on untested assumptions was sufficient justification to warrant interfering with others lives.

It is not good intentions that count but results and anyone who seeks to wield coercive power over others ought to have a rock solid evidentiary case for their actions, not just a happy clappy sense that this might help.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Sad and tired arguments for socialism

A very sad and tired argument on behalf of socialism from Benjamin Radcliff in A Happy State. Radcliff is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and does no favors to either his personal cognitive reputation or that of his university with such tosh.

The argument is poorly structured and ill-supported. He wants happiness, a notoriously slippery subject, to be the organizing principle behind society. He does not understand capitalism at all if his description of it is any indication. He likes socialism. Yay, if we live in a socialist country, we will all be happy.

This is not much different than much of the academic cognitive pollution floating around out there. It only distinguishes itself by so clearly highlighting the weakness so often hidden in these type of essays.

1) You ought to understand how markets work before you criticize them. When you provide a one-sided description that does not match to any known empirical reality, it does your argument no good.

2) If you do not deal with the dynamism of human systems, then you are discrediting your argument to the point of irrelevance. Yes, there is creative destruction in the capitalist system. It exists because human circumstances are in constant flux and evolution. It is not capitalism that is the issue. Any system, socialist or capitalist, has to address the underlying dynamism. Regardless of their original oratory and stated objectives, all socialist systems quickly devolve into static systems of cronyism owing to the dynamism of human systems. "We've designed the perfect system, now don't change it." It is why all socialist systems fail. They work against human dynamism and seek to lock in all social conditions in an unchanging state. This ignorance of dynamic circumstances is what blinds people like Radcliff to changes in the real world, as exemplified by the other common failing.

3) If you do not realize that the short-lived socialist nirvana in Scandinavia was only the temporary product of a homogenous and highly productive culture which only lasted circa 1960-1975, then you discredit yourself as an informed observer. Norway has been largely insulated owing to its oil wealth but Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark have been becoming more and more politically conservative and have been introducing more and more market reforms because the happy socialist paradise of the post-war years of 1960-75 were economically unsustainable.

4) Which is the final critical point. All systems have to eventually pay for themselves. You cannot forever live off of the wind-falls of other people's money. All the Scandinavian countries have been wrestling with the economic implications of their formerly generous welfare systems and the strong elements of central planning and industrial policy. They are not yet settled into any sort of steady state and they are still subject to all sorts of pressures, both external and self-inflicted. Any socialist apologist who uses Scandinavian countries as socialist successes betrays a lack of awareness of what has been happening in the past forty years.

Aim for utopia, sure. But whatever you suggest has to address the real nature of free markets and not some straw man mischaracterization, has to accommodate the dynamism of human systems, has to use real world steady state examples not temporary anomalies from two generations ago, and has to demonstrate that it is self-sustaining.

These four elements are almost always missing in these sorts of essays but you have to read them in their entirety before you can know that in fact they have the same weaknesses as all their predecessor essays. Eventually it creates the stereotype that all advocates of socialism are simply not worth the time thinking about as their arguments are so tired and sad.

UPDATE: I believe my criticism of the article remains valid. However, Ben Radcliff has contacted me with the suggestion that I have misinterpreted his assessment of the beneficial function of markets. He indicates that in his book, The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters' Choices Determine the Quality of Life, his commitment to the beneficial aspects of the market is much clearer. His argument is that there are other factors that should go into the distribution of goods than simply market factors. I still do not agree with that argument, both on evidentiary and experiential grounds, but perhaps we are a lot closer than an article and book blurb ("The results indicate that in each instance, the program of the Left best contributes to citizens leading more satisfying lives, and, critically, that the benefits of greater happiness accrue to everyone in society, rich and poor alike") might suggest. It is a complex set of issues, so possibly so.

Thermostat DMZ

Heh. In our household, our marriage survives on a two degree margin. Set the thermostat at 74 degrees or above and I am perspiring. Set it at 72 degrees or below and my wife is breaking out the winter sweaters and wooley house shoes. I have always accorded this to differences between male and female metabolisms and that is indeed a big part of the story.

But there is more to it than that as Ross Pomeroy explains in Why Women Are Always Cold.
For starters, women's bodies produce less heat than men's. Men generally expend more calories than women, about 23 percent more in fact. Spent calories are essentially burnt fuel. The body is a furnace, and a male body runs far hotter. Most of this variance is explained by the fact that men contain much more heat-generating muscle, but even if body composition and activity are accounted for, women's bodies still run 3 to 10 percent cooler. A good chunk of the energy we expend gets dissipated as heat, and this heat warms our skin, clothes, and immediate surroundings. As walking, talking space heaters, men are much more powerful.

Of course, being cold is not necessarily the same as feeling cold. But in this arena, women are also prone to feeling frigid. Owing perhaps to their more limited distribution of muscle, women's extremities run much cooler than men's. A 1998 study found that women's average hand temperature hovers around 87.2 °F, while men's averages 90 °F

"Women may be built to keep their vital organs nice and toasty, but their chilly fingers and toes could explain why they perceive themselves as cold more readily than men," io9's Robbie Gonzalez proffered.
So differences in metabolisms which lead to absolute temperature differences is part of the story. However, because women have different distributions of energy consuming muscle, they are also more prone to temperature differentials across their bodies. They generate less heat and that heat is less uniformly distributed. Hence the thermostat negotiations.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

All who study STEM do not practice STEM and vice versa

This is excellent visualized information, from Where do college graduates work? A Special Focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math from the Census Bureau.

Click through to the website to surf around on an interactive basis. What they have done is to visually display the routes between college major and career choices. For example, about 50% of people who take an engineering degree actually pursue careers in non-engineering positions such as management, marketing, healthcare, law, education, etc.

This is a point that is missed in a lot of conversations about education and careers and income and disparate impacts, etc. Just because you major in engineering doesn't mean you will be an engineer. And not all engineering roles are filled just by engineers.

(Click to enlarge)

It illustrates why it is very hard to get to apples to apples comparisons when you are investigating disparate impacts. Do female engineer graduates earn more or less than male engineer graduates? Let's say they earn less at the aggregate degree level. You still don't know if there is discrimination going on, you have to dig deeper. Not only do more men major as engineers than women, but once they graduate, it looks like about 50% of men then pursue engineering careers whereas only about 40% of women do. So that's yet one more variable you have to control.

The more data, the more clarity AND the more speculation. But without data, it is all emotional estimation.

The Beltway Bubble visualized

That's interesting.

Feminist ludditism

From Feminists Outraged At Adobe For Demoing Photoshop On A Woman: There were no protests when Adobe demonstrated software on a man. by Mollie Hemingway.
This week, Apple unveiled updated iPhones, a bigger iPad, an upgraded Apple TV and some fun accessories. As part of the iPad Pro demonstration, Adobe’s mobile design director Eric Snowden showed off his new Adobe Fix. The app enables mobile photo retouching and its face detection features are impressive, to say the least.
See Hemingway's post for links to the impressive demonstration.
And, well, feminists are … outraged.

See, the person operating the software is a member of the male sex and the person whose face is being photoshopped is a woman. I’m sure you see the problem. Oh you don’t? Here, let these outraged people explain it to you:

I recall there being similar outrage and snarky commentary when Apple came out with the iPad.

Hemingway's point is that the feminist twitter mob is being selective and hypocritical as they were completely unmoved by a similar exercise in 2010 when Adobe introduced its corresponding tool, Puppet Warp but demonstrated its use on a male model. This is just a storm in a teacup that will disappear shortly and not worthy of attention on its own.

What struck me is that this is the third or fourth similar instance in just a couple of months where feminist twitter mobs have gone after Science. At the beginning of the summer there was the absurdity of criticizing Matt Taylor for the style of his Hawaiian shirt at the press conference where he announced the landing of a space probe on a comet.

Then there was the Tim Hunt controversy over (deliberately) misreported comments at a conference in South Korea about women in science (summarized here: The Timothy Hunt Witch Hunt by Jonathan Foreman.)

Now this. If you are paying attention it comes across as a deep hatred of science and scientific accomplishment among the feminist twitter mob. A primitive Ludditism as it were. This sometimes seems to almost be a wilful rejection of an objectively determinable world.

No matter that all the evidence indicates that in the US and other OECD countries, women earn exactly the same for the same level of work as men (taking into account education attainment, fields, hours worked per year, etc.) No matter that the crime of rape is at an all time low and still declining and is less frequent on campus than off. No matter that women are hired on a preferential basis in STEM fields.

All these are facts that are well documented. While they are not well received in some feminist circles, they are as firmly established as any scientific finding is in the social sciences. And yet there is the firm and loudly shouted conviction that women are discriminated against in pay, are discriminated against in hiring in science fields and are in increasing peril of sexual violence on campuses.

How to explain such a profound disconnect from reality? And not just from reality. From other feminists as well. There appears to be a huge agenda gap between what might be called classic feminists (equal rights for all) versus those self-identified feminists shouting on the streets today or making up the rampaging twitter mobs.

For all of us who are Second-Wave feminists (equal rights for all), which is most everyone in the OECD, the arguments and behaviors of third-wave feminists seem to place all the accomplishments today in peril, or at least to sully the brand perception of feminism.

My guess is that we are headed to some sort of denouement in the next five years. It will not be between misogynists and women. It will be between mainstream second-wave feminists (virtually everyone) and that small number of third-wave feminists out of gender studies courses where I suspect most of this anti-intellectualism, anti-scientism is brewing (where how you feel trumps the data.) I also suspect that the clash will not come about over feminist policy issues but likely around the Luiditism inherent in the third-wavers.

People might disagree to some degree about which policies to pursue to stamp out the last vestiges of discrimination but they are much more unified behind the fixed belief in the value and progress of science. Appear to be working against science and science progress is one of the faster ways to undermine your political ideology. And third-wave feminists from Gender Studies programs seem firmly in the Luddite camp. Talk about the wrong side of history.

UPDATE: Well not quite five years. Came across this interview, Against Our Will Author on What Today’s Rape Activists Don’t Get by Katie Van Syckle. I said that the denouement would not "be between misogynists and women. It will be between mainstream second-wave feminists (virtually everyone) and that small number of third-wave feminists." Here is second-wave feminist icon, Susan Brownmiller on the third-wave purveyors of the campus rape epidemic meme:
In the 1970s we had an extraordinary movement against sexual assault in this country and changed the laws. They [the campus activists] don't seem to know that. They think they are the first people to discover rape, and the problem of consent, and they are not.

They have been tremendously influenced by the idea that "You can drink as much as you want because you are the equal of a guy," and it is not true. They don't accept the fact there are predators out there, and that all women have to take special precautions. They think they can drink as much as men, which is crazy because they can't drink as much as men. I find the position "Don't blame us, we're survivors" to be appalling.

Also, they [college women] are not the chief targets of rapists. Young women and all women in housing projects and ghettos are still in far greater danger than college girls.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The free market gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want

From Capitalism and Freedom, page 15 by Milton Friedman.
A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it … gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.

The omens do not auger well for a happy ending

Two articles in the same day on complementary topics leading to an interesting conclusion.

I deal with clients all the time who have major projects, including major IT projects, go south. They are over budget, they are late, they fail to deliver the anticipated benefits, they generated unexpected negative consequences. Happens all the time. You can reduce the odds of this happening through evidence-based decision-making, rigorous measurement, organizational change management and good old fashioned program management. But the biggest, most complex projects are inherently risky. You can reduce the risk but you cannot eliminate it.

But sometimes you don't do any of that. With Obamacare you had a set of policies that never garnered a majority of support from the electorate, zero support from the opposition, the legislation was flawed and poorly crafted owing to shifting political circumstances and the implementation was nothing short of disastrous.

There was an underlying real issue of some 15 million to 45 million people uninsured depending on how you measured lack of insurance. The administration said 45 million people. Opponents claimed that included non-citizens, people who were covered under other programs, people who could have coverage but had chosen not to sign up for it, etc. They claimed only about 15 million citizens actually had no access to insurance. And this was in contrast to the 85-95% of people who had insurance and were satisfied with it.

So the legislation is passed, and five years later the law is still slowly being implemented with all the functionalities and costs and process changes and court challenges still working their way through. We are still a long way from knowing whether this will turn out well or not. The opponents are still opposed, the public is still skeptical, the results are still out.

The first article is How Went So, So Wrong by Megan McArdle.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services inspector general has issued a new report on what went wrong with the Obamacare insurance exchanges. Or rather, one thing that went wrong: how the agency mismanaged the contracts so that they experienced significant cost overruns.

You can take this report as a searing indictment of the agency and its contracting personnel. I took something rather different away from reading it:

The architects of the law were incredibly naïve.
Federal contracting rules are crazy.
Why do I say the architects were naïve? First of all, because it seems clear that no one -- neither legislators nor administrators -- had any idea that the exchange they wanted was a very hard technical problem. They specified a site that would do real-time verification of identities and subsidies, price search, and handle payments to insurers.

This system had to be built in three years, and moreover, it could not be built the way Silicon Valley would do it: start small, roll something out, see what works and what doesn’t, then iterate, experiment, and scale until you finally arrive at the site you wanted to build. No, this site had to work on Day One, in every state in the nation that declined to build its own exchange. That was a very tall order, and no one seems to have given it much thought. Even when a manager in CMS tried to get the administration to scale things back, officials refused, and apparently simply failed to consider the possibility that trying to do too much would mean they ended up with nothing at all.
She goes on to detail the comprehensiveness of the failure at a project management level.

But what about at the policy level? Yes, it was delayed and over budget. But did it solve the problem it was seeking to solve? Are the 45 million now covered by insurance? That's where the second article comes in. Uninsured Numbers Drop as Poverty Rate Holds Steady by Robert Pear.
The number of people without health insurance dropped last year by 8.8 million, to a total of 33 million, but there was no statistically significant change in income for the typical American household, the Obama administration said Wednesday.
Obamacare has added hundreds of billions of dollars to the federal budget and the federal deficit so far. It has forced virtually everyone to adjust their insurance coverage, including all the hours of research in making those decisions. It has forced innumerable people to buy insurance they once chose not to have. It has imposed huge structural changes on the insurance industry and the healthcare industry. To what end? It is clear that virtually all the promises made during the selling of the policy have been broken. No, you can't keep your insurance if you like it. No, you can't keep your doctor. No, you won't have more choices. No, it won't cost less.

But projects can be late in their delivery, can cost more and deliver less than expected and there still be a net benefit, even if that benefit is less than promised.

Which brings us back to the core of the problem to which Obamacare was the solution. We had 45 million people without coverage. Did Obamacare solve that problem? Apparently, No. We had 45 million without insurance and now we have 33 million. We reduced the problem by only 25%.

It is too early to write-off Obamacare as one more catastrophic example of good intentions leading to bad policy. The law won't be fully implemented for another couple or three years by which time perhaps costs will start coming down, choices improving and everyone will have insurance. But at this point in time, the omens do not auger well for a happy ending.