Thursday, December 31, 2015

Long lead times to dismantle intellectually lazy cliches

There is cliche in political commentary which has been making the rounds in the past few months. The charge is that one's opponent's actions will "give ISIS what they want."

It is an example of the camel's nose under the tent and then there is, all of a sudden, a whole camel in the tent.

When the phrase first appeared, I assumed it would immediately die away given its absurd underpinnings. We actually do have a pretty good idea of what ISIS wants because they have publicly stated what those goals are many times and their actions have matched their words. Certainly one can create a marginal argument along the lines that they are playing a deep game, misleading us temporarily with near terms ideas, words and actions which are consistent with one another in order to divert our attention from their real goals, but that is quite a stretch. We know what they want. Graeme Wood provided a pretty good summary way back in March in the Atlantic in his article, What ISIS Really Wants. Mark Steyn has been trying for more than a decade to draw our attention to the fact that radical Islam in its various manifestations (ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Wahhabism, etc.) has been explicit that they do not want to reach some sort of diplomatic agreement; they want to destroy us as incompatible with their religious beliefs.

But our State Department and Administration have been fairly fixed in their view that it is a mystery what ISI wants. But not so mysterious, apparently, that it prevents State Department and its leaders and lackeys from turning around and claiming that a US domestic political opponent gives ISIS exactly what ISIS wants.

This seemed so intellectually pretzeled that I thought it would never gain traction.

My first thought when I initially came across the charge was not only that it was ridiculous but that it was irrelevant. It is important to know what your opponent thinks they want but it is more important to know what you want. What are your goals and what are you willing to do to achieve them? Whether your actions at some point coincide or not with the goals of an opponent is of interest but largely irrelevant as long as you have made an informed decision based on your own objectives. Or, as Taranto puts it in a recent piece, "But Mrs. Clinton’s fabrication obscures the real, albeit rhetorical, question—to wit, who cares what ISIS wants, thinks or says?"

Pretzeled logic and irrelevance. That doesn't seem like a good foundation for the take up of a new cliche but here we are months later and people are still making the ridiculous charge.

This was brought to mind by To Spite ISIS by James Taranto. His is the first time I have seen a commentator actually tackle the absurdity of the accusation that something so-and-so is doing only "gives ISIS what they want." He takes a somewhat different approach in order to make political points, but his underlying observation is correct.

The post-9/11 cliché “the terrorists will have won” now has a successor: “what ISIS wants.” President Obama himself employed a variation of the new slogan in his speech after the San Bernardino attack: “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like ISIL want.” (We guess ISIS wants Obama to call them ISIS and everyone else to call them ISIL.)

Then there was this much-discussed remark from inevitable presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during a little-watched Democratic debate 1½ weeks ago:
He is becoming ISIS’ best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists. So I want to explain why this is not in America’s interest to react with this kind of fear and respond to this sort of bigotry.
It’s not clear what she imagined Trump was saying in these videos, but it is clear she imagined the videos, as the Blaze reported on debate night. But Mrs. Clinton’s fabrication obscures the real, albeit rhetorical, question—to wit, who cares what ISIS wants, thinks or says?

To be fair to Mrs. Clinton, it’s possible she got confused and mistook Trump for another baby boomer politician who has appeared in an ISIS video. As the Daily Beast reported last month: “A new English-language video put out by ISIS calls Bill Clinton a ‘fornicator’ and George W. Bush a ‘liar.’ ”

Our purpose here is not to cast aspersions on President Clinton (or Bush), merely to underscore the silliness of Mrs. Clinton’s attack on Trump. If he were in an ISIS video, would that be to his discredit? Well, does knowing Mr. Clinton was in such a video change your opinion of him? Should it change anyone’s?

If anything, you’d think being cited in an ISIS video would be a point of pride. It is to Rick Santorum: “The only person that’s been listed in ISIS’ magazine as an enemy of ISIS is me,” BuzzFeed quotes Santorum as telling Breitbart radio.

Mrs. Clinton’s Trump tall tale also raises a question about her own view of ISIS. In a speech last month at the Council on Foreign Relations, she said: “Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.” If that is true, why would ISIS be so concerned about insults against “Islam and Muslims”? Trump has also insulted Seventh-day Adventists, but no one worries about what ISIS thinks of that.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The subsequent history of prose was said to be either a reaction against or a return to his style

It's easy for people to identify Shakespeare or the King James Bible as major cultural influences. Then you might get Einstein.

One who is seldom mentioned other than in the most refined of groups is Cicero. I have always enjoyed his work and have found it just remarkable how much of a person can be revealed via words from two millennia ago. A reminder of Cicero's influence from the Wikipedia entry.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (/ˈsɪsɨroʊ/; Classical Latin: [ˈmaːr.kʊs ˈtʊʊs ˈkɪ.kɛ.roː]; Greek: Κικέρων, Kikerōn; 3 January 106 BC – 7 December 43 BC) was a Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the Roman equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.

His influence on the Latin language was so immense that the subsequent history of prose in not only Latin but European languages up to the 19th century was said to be either a reaction against or a return to his style. According to Michael Grant, "the influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language". Cicero introduced the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy and created a Latin philosophical vocabulary (with neologisms such as humanitas, qualitas, quantitas, and essentia) distinguishing himself as a linguist, translator, and philosopher.

Petrarch's rediscovery of Cicero's letters is often credited for initiating the 14th-century Renaissance in public affairs, humanism, and classical Roman culture. According to Polish historian Tadeusz Zieliński, "Renaissance was above all things a revival of Cicero, and only after him and through him of the rest of Classical antiquity." The peak of Cicero's authority and prestige came during the 18th-century Enlightenment, and his impact on leading Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, David Hume, and Montesquieu was substantial. His works rank among the most influential in European culture, and today still constitute one of the most important bodies of primary material for the writing and revision of Roman history, especially the last days of the Roman Republic.
Interesting. I am not sure I have ever considered the connection between Cicero and Locke, Hume et al. Makes sense.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

It affected me like looking into an impassable swamp

From Henry David Thoreau's Journal.
The Library a wilderness of books. The volumes of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, which lie so near on the shelf, are rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers. When I looked into Purchas’s Pilgrims, it affected me like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat. Those old books suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in. I heard the bellowing of bullfrogs and the hum of mosquitoes reverberating through the thick embossed covers when I had closed the book. Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Entertaining, intriguing and alarming

Entertaining, intriguing and alarming. From How Your Innocent Smartphone Passes On Almost Your Entire Life to the Secret Service by Hans de Zwart.

Interesting throughout regarding just how much can be known about an individual simply through metadata.
From a social network analysis based on Ton’s e-mail traffic, it is possible for us to discern different groups to which he belongs. These clusters are formed by his three e-mail accounts. It may be the case that the groups would look a bit different if we were also to use the metadata from his phone. However, we agreed to not perform any additional investigation, such as actively attempting to discover the identity of the user of a particular number, so as to protect the privacy of those in Ton’s network.

Through his Hotmail account, Ton communicates with friends and acquaintances. Thomas, Thijs and Jaap appear to be the main contributors in a larger group of friends. Judging by their e-mail addresses, this group consists only of men. There is also a line of communication with a separate group headed by someone named ‘Bert’. The nature of this group is the only thing that was censured by Ton. He says that it is simply a personal matter.

We can make out another, smaller group of friends, namely Ton, Huru, Tvanel and Henry. We think that they are friends because they all participate in the e-mail discussion, i.e. they know each other. What’s more, a number of them also send e-mails to, Ton’s address for friends and family.

Lastly, there is also Ton’s work cluster. We see here that his primary contacts are Rejo, Hans and Tim. Tim and Janneke are the only ones who also show up in his personal e-mail correspondence. The number of e-mails sent between him and his six colleagues is strikingly large. There’s apparently a cc-ing culture at Bits of Freedom. It’s rare for Ton to e-mail just one colleague, but when that happens it’s mostly either Rejo or Tim. A lot of e-mails are sent to the group address for all employees.

Ton has relatively little contact with external parties.
No way to tell just how representative Ton might be in his usage patterns, but I suspect he is representative, if not for the whole nation, for at least a subgroup of the nation.
Friends and Acquaintances
Close Friends
Topic specific friends
Work colleagues
What's missing?
Geographical community
What might this look like if you were to examine usage patterns of a large number of people?

Does including phone data change the impression of epistemological closure? This is one week, and presumably steady state. What are the changes over a season and year?

Lots of interesting things to consider.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The new generation is indeed not the equal of its progenitors

Language Log is one of the more enjoyable sites on the internet for quixotic topics and intelligent discussion.

In this instance the discussion is an echo of one I had among Scout leaders the other day. End of year pot luck dinner in an old Scout Hut with momentoes of past times and scouters. Relics of projects, laughter and camaraderie. The conversation took a turn towards universities and which ones our kids were attending. Someone mentioned that his child was attending the same university from which he graduated, offering the age old observation "I wouldn't be able to get in now." It struck a bell. In my first week or two at Georgetown some decades ago, there was an informal meeting with local alumni, all of whom seem aged to a wet-behind-the-ears freshman. I recall the same comment then: "I wouldn't be able to get in now."

Which made me wonder how one can even test such a context specific hypothesis. Sure the standards have changed and usually gotten higher, but we can't all not get into the same institutions we once attended.

And the connection is to this post at Language Log, Kids Today by mark Liberman. He cites several quotations from the past:
Many children today are greatly to be pitied because too much is done for them and dictated to them and they are deprived of the learning processes. We seem to have dropped into an age of entertaining, a breathless going from one sensation to another, whether it be mechanical toys for the five-year-old or moving-picture plays for the sixteen-year-old. It not only destroys their power to think, but also makes happiness, contentment, and resourcefulness impossible. At seventeen, life is spoken of as "so dull" if there is not "something doing" every waking hour.
[The 4th-C. sophist Libanius] described the unmannerly behaviour of his pupils during a solemn lecture, a presentation to which a wider audience was admitted. He had ordered a slave to call the students in. They hardly budged, continuing to chat, laugh and sing the top hits of the day. Finally, they condescended to enter the hall, yet their lackadaisical attitude roused the ire of those already present and made them resentful. Finally the lecture could begin. The students, however, were winking at one another, were talking about this, that and the other, about charioteers, mimes, horses, pantomimes, and fights among students. Some students lolled about like statues, arms folded, while others picked their noses with both hands at once, remained utterly unmoved while everyone applauded, forced enthusiastic members of the audience to fit down. Their behaviour could be even more disgraceful: they clapped at unsuitable moments, prevented others from applauding, strutted ostentatiously through the lecture-theatre and tried to lure as many people as possible out of the hall by concocting false messages or by spreading round invitations to the baths.
The first describes the core of many contemporary hand-wringing magazine and newspaper articles but is from 1915 and the second is, obviously, from the 4th century.

The discussion in the comments is interesting and sophisticated.

Having been intensely interested in Egyptology as a youth, even going to the extent of teaching myself some rudimentary basics in order to read hieroglyphs, I have long been aware of passages from Sumeria, Egypt, Rome, Greece, etc. lamenting the decline of youth.

I parked this simply as evidence of an ever present adult disposition to mismatch the conditions of contemporary youth (and how they respond) against the conditions of the commenter's youth (and how it was then appropriate to respond.) Sure, youth differ from aged but so do the contextual circumstances of youth and aged. A seventeen year old in 1940 is responding to the contextual circumstances of 1940. If you were to time shift that seventeen year-old forward seventy years to 2010 and the contextual circumstances of 2010, they might react just as their new millennial peers. But it is hard for the non-time travelling 87 year-old to recalibrate what they think they know to the reality of the contextual circumstances of today. The net is that my thinking extended only to the conclusion that there was an ever-recurring Curmudgeon's Lament and that therefore it was improbable that there were significant cycles of differences in capability from one generation to the next.

But I wonder if this is actually correct. Or maybe it is only partially correct. Confronted with the phenomenon again in this language log post, I wonder if perhaps the plaint might have more validity than I had accorded it. Why? Survivorship bias.

Let's assume a culture/state/nation has some gaussian cycle of development and decline. It rises for some period of years, plateaus, and then declines. While the shape of the curve and the details vary, this is pretty much how we are accustomed to thinking of all ancient powers from Egypt and Sumer to the British Empire and Pax Americana.

Further, let's observe and assume that records are more voluminous on the back end of the cycle than the front end. No-one bursts forth with writing and literature in full spate at the beginning. Power development and literature/records tend to go hand in hand. As there is greater prosperity, there are more records. Prosperity tends to be the greatest, in absolute terms, at the top and decline side of the cycle than at the beginning.

Finally, let's assume that volume is correlated with survival of documents. If there were 100 scribes producing court records at the very beginning and 1,000 at the peak, then there are ten times more records at the top (and decline) than at the beginning and therefore a ten times greater probability of survival.

Records survival is highly capricious and serendipitous. Even at the full development of a civilization, sometimes there are years and decades where we have little or no written records. Originating volume has a marked impact on probability of survival. What we know depends on what survives and what survives is most likely to be from the decline phase rather than the growth phase.

If all these assumptions are true, and there is a good likelihood that they are, and most of what we know is from the declining phase of a power, then perhaps there is merit to those continuing lamentations that kids weren't what they used to be. If the lament is written from the decline phase, then the kids weren't what they used to be.

This certainly fits lots of different hypotheses about the rise and decline of nations, but principally that prosperity is the seed bed for decline. As prosperity and productivity grow, there is greater shielding from day-to-day challenges of poverty. With prosperity, people have more options and choices. With choices, people dither, lose focus, lose perspective, lose discipline, etc.

I have long thought of the repetitive written record of complaints against the younger generation as simply being the Curmudgeon's Lament. All generations lament the weakness of the new generation. But this line of thought suggests otherwise. At some times and under some circumstances, the new generation is indeed not the equal of its progenitors.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

That is all there is to it

From The Character of Physical Law, Chapter 7, “Seeking New Laws,” p. 156 by Richard Feynman.
In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder

Someone's paraphrase of a Rumi verse:
Stop acting so small.
You are the universe in ecstatic motion.
Raise your words, not your voice.
It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Volunteering countries

Very interesting.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Both necessary and corrosive

A paradox.

Laws and regulations can only cover a defined range of actions. There is a limit of the specificity with which they can be drafted.

Consequently there is a degree of discretion that has to be granted in the interpretation and application of such laws and regulations, backed as they are with the coercive power of the state.

So a well functioning state requires well drafted laws and regulations as well as a degree of discretion in how they are administered. This mix of specificity provides the balance between efficiency and effectiveness that yields the greatest common outcome.

However, discretion is easily and quickly abused leading to crony capitalism and its ilk, favoring the privileged and abusing the less privileged.

The paradox is that discretion is both necessary and corrosive of the commonweal.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Fertility and threat?

From MA’OZ TZ-URL by Scott Alexander. An interesting exception to the demographic rule.
Israeli Jews have a fertility rate of 3, very high for developed countries, despite a high level of female education. Some of this is driven by the Orthodox, but even more liberal Israeli Jews average about 2.6, compared to more like 1.3 for secular Jewish Americans. Why such a big difference?

Spoilt children, blinded by class privilege, carrying the banner of the masses

An example of the incoherence of progressive ideology in the context of the concept of "cultural appropriation". Or, in earlier terms, cultural exchange. From Making a Meal Out of Everything by Andrew Stuttaford. Class Privilege, Ignorance, Racism, Apartheid,

Stuttaford points out that ideological progressive arguments usually are not about the facts but about appropriation of power.
That the doctrine of ‘cultural appropriation’ can be used to enforce a kind of intellectual apartheid is hardly new news. And nor too is the way that finding offense in, well, just about everything, can be used as a device to assert some sort of moral authority or, at least, bring a little excitement to lives that may otherwise lack it.
Stuttaford then goes on to use a fainting spell at Oberlin as an example. He quotes an artcle from the Oberlin Review, CDS Appropriates Asian Dishes, Students Say by Clover Linh Tran.
Perhaps the pinnacle of what many students believe to be a culturally appropriative sustenance system is Dascomb Dining Hall’s sushi bar. The sushi is anything but authentic for Tomoyo Joshi, a College junior from Japan, who said that the undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish is disrespectful. She added that in Japan, sushi is regarded so highly that people sometimes take years of apprenticeship before learning how to appropriately serve it. “When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture,” Joshi said. “So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”
Is this an example of cultural appropriation or is this an example of ignorance and class privilege? I would argue the latter.

I am willing to stipulate that Tomoyo Joshi is correct "that people sometimes take years of apprenticeship before learning how to appropriately serve it." But in Japan as elsewhere, there is a range of food preparation from the lowest levels of society to the highest. At the bottom you have people making do with bland basics, sometimes home prepared (with widely varying results) but usually mass-produced. At the top of the pyramid you have those who can afford infinite refinements, the foodies, the seekers after exquisite cuisine prepared by someone who served a thirty year apprenticeship. This isn't about culture, it is about economics and social signalling.

The pertinent question is whether there is mass produced sushi in Japan and whether it conforms with Tomoyo Joshi's expectation that the only "real" sushi is that which is produced by people who have spent years "learning how to appropriately serve it." Is Joshi committing a category error comparing like with unlike? The answer is that she is committing a category error likely based on class privilege. While Joshi might be accustomed only to the highest end sushi, the appropriate comparison is the equivalent dining hall sushi of an equivalent type university in Japan serving mass produced food for undiscerning palates. I would wager that mass produced student served sushi in Japan bears far greater similarity to that in Oberlin than either do to high-end sushi that privilege buys.

Example one of "cultural appropriation" can be chalked up to class privilege and virtue signalling.

A second outrage has to do with the General Tso's Chicken.
Prudence Hiu-Ying, a College sophomore from China, cited an instance when Stevenson was serving General Tso’s chicken, but the product did not resemble the popular Chinese dish. Instead of deep-fried chicken with ginger-garlic soy sauce, the chicken was steamed with a substitute sauce, which Hiu-Ying described as “so weird that I didn’t even try.”
Stuttaford points out
That doesn’t sound very adventurous, and the description of that chicken dish (which, full disclosure, I cannot stand) as “Chinese” is dangerously ‘appropriative’ itself. General Tso’s outraged poultry is a Chinese-American dish invented in New York in the 1970s.
Example two of "cultural appropriation" can be chalked up to ignorance and virtue signalling.
Oh yes, one other thing:
Diep Nguyen, a College first-year from Vietnam, jumped with excitement at the sight of Vietnamese food on Stevenson Dining Hall’s menu at Orientation this year. Craving Vietnamese comfort food, Nguyen rushed to the food station with high hopes. What she got, however, was a total disappointment. The traditional Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich that Stevenson Dining Hall promised turned out to be a cheap imitation of the East Asian dish. Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw.
“Instead of a crispy baguette”….


Example three of "cultural appropriation" can be chalked up to ignorance, absence of self-awareness, and virtue signalling.

What you are left with is ideologically motivated privileged children unaccustomed to the bland sameness of mass produced food, trying to climb on the outrage bandwagon but hindered in their ascent by ignorance, lack of self-awareness, and their own class privilege.

Let's hope they grow up before they do themselves or others a damage.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Food for thought

An entertainingly provocative argument in How martial a country should the United States be? #guncontrol by Tyler Cowen.

Here's the core of the argument:
Chris Blattman cites a recent estimate that Americans own 42% of the civilian guns in the world.

You’ll also see estimates that America accounts for about half of the world’s defense spending. I believe those numbers are a misuse of purchasing power parity comparisons, but with proper adjustments it is not implausible to believe that America accounts for…about 42% of the defense spending. Or thereabouts.

I see those two numbers, and their rough similarity, as the most neglected fact in current debates about gun control.

I see many people who want to lower or perhaps raise those numbers, but I don’t see enough people analyzing the two as an integrated whole.

I don’t myself so often ask “should Americans have fewer guns?”, as that begs the question of how one might ever get there, which indeed has proven daunting by all accounts. But I do often ask myself “should America be a less martial country in in its ideological orientation?”

Note that the parts of the country with the most guns, namely the South, are especially prominent in the military and support for the military.

More importantly, if America is going to be the world’s policeman, on some scale or another, that has to be backed by a supportive culture among the citizenry. And that culture is not going to be “Hans Morgenthau’s foreign policy realism,” or “George Kennan’s Letter X,” or even Clausewitz’s treatise On War. Believe it or not, those are too intellectual for the American public. And so it must be backed by…a fairly martial culture amongst the American citizenry. And that probably will mean a fairly high level of gun ownership and a fairly high degree of skepticism about gun control.

If you think America can sustain its foreign policy interventionism, or threat of such, without a fairly martial culture at home, by all means make your case. But I am skeptical. I think it is far more likely that if you brought about gun control, and the cultural preconditions for successful gun control, America’s world role would fundamentally change and America’s would no longer play a global policeman role, for better or worse.
Wonderful observation. Is the logical argument true? I have no idea, but Cowen puts out a reasonable position that warrants debate and discussion. I argue all the time that we provide simplistic cause-and-effect predicated solutions to issues that arise out of complex, dynamic, non-linear, unstable systems and then are surprised when there are unintended consequences.

I don't want to argue Cowen's case (see the comments to his article for a start on that front). But one of the first steps is always to consider the inverse. Cowen argue's that a muscular global policy requires a domestic martial culture. (And as an aside, what is the linkage between honor culture and martial culture?) Are there any countries that have had muscular global policies but pacifistic domestic cultures? I suspect Cowen's argument has to be restricted to representative democracies as opposed to autocracies or single party dictatorships such as the Soviet Union, Russia, and China. None come to mind.

Britain might be an interesting historical example where you had a probably pacifistic domestic culture in England but joined at the hip with martial cultures out of Scotland and Ireland. It is notable how prevalent Scots and Irish were in the far reaches of the British Empire and even in its army today.

I suspect that Cowen's hypothesis would not stand up to hard scrutiny but the value is in the discipline of the argument not in the outcome of the argument.

These rooms house heathens and heretics, murderers and maniacs, the deluded, desperate, and dissolute.

If Librarians Were Honest
by Joseph Mills

“…a book indeed sometimes debauched me from my work…”
–Benjamin Franklin

If librarians were honest,
they wouldn’t smile, or act
welcoming. They would say,
You need to be careful. Here
be monsters. They would say,
These rooms house heathens
and heretics, murderers and
maniacs, the deluded, desperate,
and dissolute. They would say,
These books contain knowledge
of death, desire, and decay,
betrayal, blood, and more blood;
each is a Pandora’s box, so why
would you want to open one.
They would post danger
signs warning that contact
might result in mood swings,
severe changes in vision,
and mind-altering effects.
If librarians were honest
they would admit the stacks
can be more seductive and
shocking than porn. After all,
once you’ve seen a few
breasts, vaginas, and penises,
more is simply more,
a comforting banality,
but the shelves of a library
contain sensational novelties,
a scandalous, permissive mingling
of Malcolm X, Marx, Melville,
Merwin, Millay, Milton, Morrison,
and anyone can check them out,
taking them home or to some corner
where they can be debauched
and impregnated with ideas.
If librarians were honest,
they would say, No one
spends time here without being
changed. Maybe you should
go home. While you still can

Saturday, December 19, 2015


An interesting argument in Trump’s Muslim Immigration Ban Should Touch Off a Badly Needed Discussion by Andrew C. McCarthy. I think he has an insight on an issue that many are dancing around but not grasping.
Donald Trump’s rhetorical excesses aside, he has a way of pushing us into important debates, particularly on immigration. He has done it again with his bracing proposal to force “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

I have no idea what Mr. Trump knows about either immigration law or Islam. But it should be obvious to any objective person that Muslim immigration to the West is a vexing challenge.

Some Muslims come to the United States to practice their religion peacefully, and assimilate into the Western tradition of tolerance of other people’s liberties, including religious liberty — a tradition alien to the theocratic societies in which they grew up. Others come here to champion sharia, Islam’s authoritarian societal framework and legal code, resisting assimilation into our pluralistic society.

Since we want to both honor religious liberty and preserve the Constitution that enshrines and protects it, we have a dilemma.

The assumption that is central to this dilemma — the one that Trump has stumbled on and that Washington refuses to examine — is that Islam is merely a religion. If that’s true, then it is likely that religious liberty will trump constitutional and national-security concerns. How, after all, can a mere religion be a threat to a constitutional system dedicated to religious liberty?

But Islam is no mere religion.

As understood by the mainstream of Muslim-majority countries that are the source of immigration to America and the West, Islam is a comprehensive ideological system that governs all human affairs, from political, economic, and military matters to interpersonal relations and even hygiene. It is beyond dispute that Islam has religious tenets — the oneness of Allah, the belief that Mohammed is the final prophet, the obligation of ritual prayer. Yet these make up only a fraction of what is overwhelmingly a political ideology.

Our constitutional principle of religious liberty is derived from the Western concept that the spiritual realm should be separate from civic and political life. The concept flows from the New Testament injunction to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.

Crucially, the interpretation of Islam that is mainstream in most Muslim-majority countries does not accept a division between mosque and state. In fact, to invoke “mosque” as the equivalent of “church” in referring to a division between spiritual and political life is itself a misleading projection of Western principles onto Islamic society. A mosque is not merely a house of worship. It does not separate politics from religion any more than Islam as a whole does. There is a reason why many of the fiery political protests that turn riotous in the Middle East occur on Fridays — the Muslim Sabbath, on which people pour out of the mosques with ears still burning from the imam’s sermon.

The lack of separation between spiritual and civic life is not the only problem with Islam. Sharia is counter-constitutional in its most basic elements — beginning with the elementary belief that people do not have a right to govern themselves freely. Islam, instead, requires adherence to sharia and rejection of all law that contradicts it. So we start with fundamental incompatibility, before we ever get to other aspects of sharia: its systematic discrimination against non-Muslims and women; its denial of religious liberty, free speech, economic freedom, privacy rights, due process, and protection from cruel and unusual punishments; and its endorsement of violent jihad in furtherance of protecting and expanding the territory it governs.
Interesting because it revolves around definitions which should shed light on what we mean and what we are trying to address.

Interesting also because this is not unique to Islam. There has been a long running debate as to whether Confucianism ought to viewed as a religion or as a cultural framework.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Athenian Oath

The Athenian Oath, also known as the Ephebic Oath.
I will not bring dishonour on my sacred arms nor will I abandon my comrade wherever I shall be stationed. I will defend the rights of gods and men and will not leave my country smaller, when I die, but greater and better, so far as I am able by myself and with the help of all. I will respect the rulers of the time duly and the existing ordinances duly and all others which may be established in the future. Furthermore, if anyone seeks to destroy the ordinances I will oppose him so far as I am able by myself and with the help of all. I will honor the cults of my fathers. Witnesses to this shall be the gods Agraulus, Hestia, Enyo, Enyalius, Ares, Athena the Warrior, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone, Heracles, and the boundaries of my native land, wheat, barley, vines, olive-trees, fig-trees..
A pretty high bar for most of our political class. Love that a 2,500 year old declaration is still both inspiring and pertinent.

Alternative translations include:
I will never bring reproach upon my hallowed arms, nor will I desert the comrade at whose side I stand, but I will defend our altars and our hearths, single-handed or supported by many. My native land I will not leave a diminished heritage, but greater and better than when I received it. I will obey whoever is in authority, and submit to the established laws and all others that the people shall harmoniously enact. If anyone tries to overthrow the constitution or disobeys it, I will not permit him, but will come to its defence single-handed or with the support of all. I will honour the religion of my fathers. Let the gods be my witness: Agraulus, Enyalius, Ares, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone.


We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice. We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the City's laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public's sense of civic duty. Thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Evidence on micro-lending effectiveness

Well, that's disappointing. Micro-lending was still relatively new when I was majoring in International Economics with a focus on Economic Development way back 35 years ago. It promised a lot and there was a natural logical appeal to it. Over the years, I have remained marginally interested in its progress as it spread to other countries, became more formalized, etc. I read some skeptical assessments but also some very positive ones.

Now there's this report, Microloans Don’t Solve Poverty by Ben Casselman.
What the mailing didn’t mention was that Morduch’s quote was from 2005, before a decade of research called into question the effectiveness of so-called microcredit as a tool for fighting poverty. More recently, a series of six independently conducted randomized controlled trials found that a variety of microlending programs had little to no effect on participants’ income or financial well-being. Morduch now says that the studies, along with earlier research that reached similar conclusions, suggest that the impacts of microcredit have been, at a minimum, “overhyped.” (A FINCA spokesman said Morduch’s quotation would be removed from future mailings.)

Researchers say the recent studies carry a broader message about the need for rigorous research in charitable programs. Microcredit has grown into a $60-billion-plus industry reaching 200 million borrowers worldwide despite limited evidence that it actually achieves its goals. Anecdotes like Chikaluma’s are powerful, they say, but only data can reveal what programs work and, just as importantly, how to make them more effective.

The idea behind microcredit is compelling in its simplicity: In many parts of the world, the best pathway out of poverty is entrepreneurship — selling firewood or food or clothing. But the poor often can’t cobble together even the few dollars necessary to get such businesses off the ground. By giving people access to small loans — often in the hundreds of dollars or even less — microcredit organizations allow would-be entrepreneurs to buy, for example, chickens to produce eggs or a refrigerator to keep food cold. And because the help comes in the form of a loan, not a grant, a single dollar of aid can be recycled to help many people.


But even as microcredit drew attention, there was relatively little evidence that it succeeded in reducing poverty. Some critics even claimed the opposite: that microcredit left the poor worse off by saddling them with debt. News reports went so far as to link suicides in India to the stress of struggling to pay back microloans.

The recent research rejects both extremes. The studies find no evidence that borrowers are, on average, hurt by the loans. But they don’t appear to be helped much either. In a paper introducing the six randomized studies, economists Abhijit Banerjee, Dean Karlan and Jonathan Zinman walked through the findings: None of the six studies found statistically significant increases in household income or spending. Four of the six found no change in food consumption; one found a modest increase and the sixth found a significant decrease.

Some of the studies did find ancillary benefits. Borrowers got more of their income from their businesses, suggesting that they displaced other sources of income such as wages or government benefits. Those businesses also appear to have become more profitable. But the studies didn’t find any significant increases in school attendance or women’s empowerment in local communities, two commonly cited benefits of microcredit. The findings echoed those of earlier studies that also revealed minimal impacts.
That won't be the last word. There will be further studies. There will be debate. Perhaps there will be tweaks that might make it effective. But it seems like this might be one more logically seductive social policy that doesn't actually make a difference. Fortunately though, it does not, as is the case with some well-meaning social policies, actually cause negative consequences.

Evidence-based decision-making is harsh, holding good and well intentioned people to hard standards. All data has to be viewed skeptically but there are too many people in the well who eschew data completely if it stands in the way of making decisions which are emotionally satisfying rather than effective.
But some microcredit leaders reject the studies’ findings outright. Rupert Scofield, who runs FINCA, one of the largest and most prominent microlenders, said randomized controlled trials work well in medicine but don’t make sense in evaluating development aid. He said that for years, his response to claims like Duflo’s was to say he didn’t need data when he could see the effect firsthand.

“I would just say dismissively to them, ‘I don’t have time for that,’” Scofield said. “It’s perfectly obvious what our impact is … I don’t need proof. As long as the clients are coming to us, that’s all I need to know.”

FINCA has now developed its own measure of success, a step Scofield now says he wishes he had taken earlier. But he said he already knows that the outside researchers’ findings are flawed. “The fact that they would reach these conclusions that I personally know to be false really discredits them in my eyes,” Scofield said.
Damn the evidence! Full speed ahead. One more departure from reason into faith.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Corrective action, inherent risk and trade-offs

From Robert Higgs
When libertarians (or simply people with common sense) argue against proposals to solve a certain class of perceived problems (e.g., mass murders by odd-ball lunatics or crazed zealots) by imposing more stringent government controls, closer surveillance, and so forth, the proponents often reply: well, if you don't think my idea for government action will work, what do you propose instead to solve the problem? They are never happy when told that a better idea is to do nothing to solve it.

Yet, in truth, problems of a certain sort (e.g.,mass murders by odd-ball lunatics or crazed zealots) do not have a solution in anything even close to a free society. These types of problems involve such unsystematic, infrequent, and inexplicable actions that no one can anticipate and preempt them. Lighting will strike people sometimes; nothing can be done about it except to advise people to stay inside during thunder storms and in no event to go outside carrying an iron rod.

So, one might propose, for example, that the U.S. government stop blundering around in the Middle East carrying the "iron rods" that will attract the lightening of aggrieved Muslims whose friends, relatives, or causes have been harmed or killed by American actions. Absent such general palliatives, one must simply resign himself to the reality that occasionally -- albeit very, very infrequently -- bad things will happen. Even locking every human being in a cell will not solve such problems, either, because bad things happen in prisons, too. Indeed, nearly everything that happens in a prison or an unfree society is bad.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Good question

From Thomas Sowell.
Those who want to “spread the wealth” almost invariably seek to concentrate the power. It happens too often, and in too many different countries around the world, to be a coincidence. Which is more dangerous, inequalities of wealth or concentrations of power?
When it comes to advocacy, it is almost always about taking power and resources away from those who have earned it and giving it to those who have no demonstrated capabilities.

The data says otherwise

A very interesting article, The Mystery of Missing Inflation Weighs on Fed Rate Move by Josh Zumbrun.

For years now, I have been arguing with my financial advisor, when looking how to direct my retirement investments, that inflation is likely to pick up soon. And every year I am wrong. The basis for my anticipation of inflation has been at least two-fold. Governments in the US and Europe have been printing money for most of the past decade. Printing money is almost always a prelude to inflation. Second, there has been a massive increase in the middle class around the world. The middle class are big consumers and inflation is in part a function of too much demand chasing too little supply. There were a few other reasons for my anticipating inflation but those were the biggest pillars.

But no inflation to be seen. This affects more than the performance of my retirement accounts as the article outlines.

Why no inflation. The article outlines most of the major theories. Once I was wrong more than three years in a row, I spent some time trying to understand why the forecast was so wrong. Among my theories, some of which are covered in the article and some which are not.
1) Our supply chains and manufacturing processes have gotten so sophisticated that it is rare for there to be real instances where there is too much demand versus an unresponsive supply.

2) That the US government has been sotto voce redefining how inflation is measured so that the items with biggest increases are not included in the indices. There is some fair amount of evidence to support this.

3) Perhaps the increasing size of the global middle-class has contextual attributes which perhaps dampens the size and impact of their increasing demand. Specifically, the largest increases in the middle class have been in India and China. The first is notable for its endemic corruption and the second for the dominance of the central planners (ad their whims). Perhaps concern about the detrimental impact of corruption and uncertainty about the direction of a corrupt and unaccountable central party might reduce the willingness to consume by the newly middle class. Perhaps they are salting away the surplus for an anticipated rainy day but with the additional unplanned effect of reducing inflation.

4) Since much of developed nation increase in productivity appears to be as a result of reduced costs rather than increased output, perhaps that dynamic is suppressing inflation.

5) While unemployment is down at levels where inflation is an important concern, perhaps governmental redefinitions of inflation are giving us a false reading. Even more likely is that the large bench of warehoused workers (visible through the labor force participation rate) likely means that the low unemployment levels are less consequential than in the past.

6) Is there something going on with technology labor substitution that might be at the root of low inflation?
The real answer is that no one understands why we have not experienced material inflation rates. Our models and theory say there should be.

It reminds me of the state of the art in climatology. The theory says one thing and the data say another.

I did like this allusion to confusing correlation with causation. These are big complex systems with relative few data points and a lot of noise.
The Fed’s preferred measure of inflation rose an average of 2.038% a year between 1992 and 2007, bolstering confidence that economists understood how inflation worked. The price of a Fourth of July barbecue, for example, closely tracked the 2% annual target over that period: Average prices for a pound of ground beef went to $2.70 from $1.91; American cheese climbed to $3.91 a pound from $3.01; a 16-oz bag of potato chips rose to $3.65 from $2.84. Wages also rose modestly so workers kept pace.

Central bankers “thought that it must be their own doing,” said Jon Faust, the director of the Center for Financial Economics at Johns Hopkins University, who served two stints at the Fed during that period. “We thought we figured out macro policy, and we could deliver low, stable inflation and stable output and low unemployment and all things good.”
It is also, along with climate science, a suitable reminder that the appeal to authority is a logical fallacy. The experts honestly think they know what they are talking about but the data makes clear that that is not true.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Ideas that cannot be dismissed as obviously wrong


Sunday, December 13, 2015

From Tearing Europe Apart by Yanko Tsvetkov

From Tearing Europe Apart by Yanko Tsvetkov.
Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who specializes in studying primate brains, once determined that the amount of human individuals in a functional social group cannot exceed 150. This limit, he argued, is a direct function of relative neocortex size. In other words, we don’t have the physical capacity to maintain a meaningful connection with a larger number of people because there is a shortage of drawers in our brain, where we can store all the necessary gossip.
I am familiar with Dunbar's work and have been intrigued by it. I mention it here not for its novelty but simply because I don't think I have mentioned it before and yet it represents one of those possible limits which so deeply affect circumstances, often without our being aware of their influence.

Real time - Internet time

Heh. Dovetails with some research I am doing at the moment.

From content providers to discontent providers

From content providers to discontent providers. That was a fast evolution.

Sunk costs and Ponzi schemes behind campus protests

I wonder if all the campus protests by such a small minority of students doesn't originate in a mass demonstration of the sunk cost fallacy.

Here's the train of thought.

Most the protests are adherents of Frankfurt School critical theory, critical race theory, post-colonial theory, third wave feminist theory, postmodernism, deconstructionism, Rawlsian social justice theory, etc. These schools of thought, while interesting and of some very marginal utility, are essentially worthless in the marketplace. Some few individuals who are already bright and hardworking and just happened to veer into these intellectual dead ends will come right eventually, simply because they are bright and hardworking. All the rest will fail dramatically unless they can get a position with an academy or an advocacy group. The problem for most is that these are faith based systems of thought to which most people do not subscribe and which cannot be demonstrated to bring value to others. There are some contributions to these groups but very little and nowhere near enough to employ the volume of graduates coming out of various Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies programs.

One very natural consequence is that the practitioners of these schools of thought attempt to bring some legitimacy (or hide their ineffectiveness) by constant redefinition of words and ideas, constant deepening of the jargon so that outsiders cannot understand whether a claim is true or not because the invested effort to run down all the variant definitions and elucidate the actual meaning of the claimed jargon is too high. This was humorously demonstrated with Sokal's hoax article which took the mickey out of this process some thirty years ago but did not deter the practitioners one bit. People from these romantic utopianist traditions of thought still resort to claims of "You just don't understand" when the actual phrase regarding their claims would be "I'm simply wrong."

So build an elaborate superstructure of words and ideas unmoored from logic and evidence and bring in kids to study the arcane religious language of belief. When the students graduate, they have to go on to get graduate degrees because there is no market demand. Once they have their masters or doctoral degrees (and what absurdity there is in the theses titles) the only market is for jobs in advocacy and academia.

The problem is that we likely are at peak academia. Decades of growth now encounter pricing resistance. In addition, given the faith based variance between the Gender Studies and the Ethnic Studies departments and the belief system of the broader society, these departments are beginning to be dismantled. There are too many students chasing too few jobs.

This is where I put together a couple of observations. You look at the photos of these demonstrations and you read the articles and there is a clear domination of African-American studies and Gender studies majors leading the effort. And what are the demands? No, though correct, the answer isn't only that the demands are absurd. Almost all of the demands center on actions that will increase the demand for people skilled in the arcana of the theology of critical race theory etc. Demands for diversity training, for more professors of color, for expanded Gender Studies or Ethnic Studies departments, for more advisory roles. The protests are really just a demand for more jobs for the graduates of Gender and Ethnic studies programs. Why protest? Because there is no market demand, the only buyer can possibly be government.

Why don't administrators and politicians push back? Their desire not to be disrespectful is clearly part of it. The desire to keep the peace another. It is far easier to spend taxpayer money than actually address the real issue - these faith based beliefs have no value.

But part of it, I suspect, is that there is no there there with which to argue. The superstructure of pseudo complexity surrounding Ethnic and Gender studies is such that there is no return to delving into its mysticism of belief in order to argue and refute. These are faith based systems of belief which cannot be refuted because they are not grounded in reality.

Why don't the students simply change their majors instead of continuing their studies? I suspect that it is because of the fallacy of sunk costs. By the time they get deep enough into the liturgy to understand that these are not evidenced-based realities but are mystical belief systems, they are so vested already that they cannot afford to switch. Their only recourse is to push forward and demand for there to be employment in their faith systems even though there is no societal need or desire for them. Only by making themselves a problem can they hope to exact some semblance of opportunity by extorting taxpayers via weak administrators and politicians.

The sad thing is that even were these positions to be opened up, they will still fail for at least two reasons. Because these positions add no value, they are not valued. People in them will be disrespected. Second, this is fundamentally a Ponzi scheme - more professors producing more graduate students require for there to be ever more professorial positions to be opened. That which cannot continue will not. Eventually you run out of suckers willing to support the scheme.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

We don't know what we are talking about for a long time before we are in a position to make good decisions

Real Clear Policy juxtaposes two essays, one in favor of the proposition that diversity leads to enhanced educational outcomes and one arguing against it. Diversity actually makes us smarter by Amy X. Wang is the essay that argues that there are measurable benefits. The Educational Benefits of Diversity Are Dubious by Jason Richwine is the essay that there is little evidence that there are measurable benefits.

I'll preface the following comments that I believe all systems - economic, political, social, educational, etc. - need some degree of variance (need diversity) in order to evolve under changing exogenous circumstances. I believe diversity to be strategically critical, in the right proportions, in the right circumstances. However, that doesn't mean that diversity is tactically beneficial. Indeed, in most instances, it is tactically inefficient while still being strategically necessary. Most arguments about social diversity never even broach the distinction between strategic value and tactical value and how they can sometimes work in opposite directions.

These two essays are no different than others. In reality, based on both essays' argument, there is no reliable evidence one way or another. We are all arguing from ideological belief and anecdote.

Wang leads with the assertion that
With those kinds of conflicts as backdrop, it’s worth noting that a large body of research—conducted across dozens of years, countries, and situational settings—maintains that racial and ethnic diversity is critically important to our communities, our social institutions, and even our own brains.
That's interesting. I'd like to see that large body of research. From my autodidactic perspective, there is only a small body of research, the results are often contradictory and the effect sizes tend to be very small. So where is the large body of research that I have been missing all these years.

Instead of marshalling that evidence, Wang leads with anecdotes and isolated small studies. She has lost the battle with her opening shots. She doesn't actually have the evidence she claims, thus discrediting her argument further, i.e. not just lacking in evidence but lacking in good-faith.

Wang's lead example doubles down on the self-evident weakness.
Take these examples. In 2003, researchers found banks with racially diverse employees yielded better financial performance than those that didn’t.
Usually in an argument, you lead with your best shot. If this is the best, there's no argument to be had because the finding does not address causal direction. Does a prosperous bank go out of its way to hire a more diverse workforce (lots of evidence for that) or does a diverse workforce make the bank more successful (virtually no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, to support that causal direction). Prosperous institutions are notoriously faddish. They can afford to be. Diversity, recycling, green initiatives, employee engagement, community involvement, maternity leave policies, employee fitness programs, etc. - these are all brand signalling strategies that prosperous companies undertake to cultivate an image that they believe will be beneficial to them in the marketplace. But the prosperity came before the initiative. You have to show causation, not simply correlation and if Wang doesn't understand the difference between correlation and causation and the importance of causal direction, then it probably doesn't warrant further reading. She has no credible argument.

Further, Wang never defines diversity and many of her anecdotal examples are related to experiential or cognitive diversity and not racial diversity. Much of her anecdotal evidence is qualified by weasel words such as "suggests" and many of the experiments are lab based. She mentions neither the size of the experimental groups or, except in one instance, the effect sizes.

So the argument for the proposition that there are measurable benefits to racial diversity in social systems is sunk by the typical issues in social sciences research: too small sample sizes, not reported effect sizes, poor experimental protocols, failure to establish causal direction, failure to define critical variables, failure to control critical variables.

What about the case for the propositions that there are no measurable benefits to racial diversity in social systems.

Richwine is actually arguing, per the headline, that the The Educational Benefits of Diversity Are Dubious.

Here the error is on the part of the Real Clear Policy editors. These two articles are treating a similar issue but they are not addressing the same argument. Wang is arguing that we know that racial diversity in social systems is beneficial and Richwine is arguing that we don't know whether racial diversity in social systems is beneficial.

Richwyne actually has the better argument. He points out
The premise of the affirmative-action case currently before the Supreme Court is that ethnic diversity improves higher education. But how do we know the premise is true? It is surprisingly difficult to find solid evidence in the case documents. The original UT–Austin brief refers me to the Joint Appendix. The Joint Appendix in turn cites the “Affidavit of N. Bruce Walker,” admissions director for UT–Austin. In that affidavit, Mr. Walker says that diversity improves race relations “in the University’s judgment.” He also assures us that, “I have read studies that tout other benefits.” Those studies are not listed.

The amicus briefs in the case are more forthcoming, but the barrage of studies they cite often have tiny effect sizes and narrowly focused results, making them more suggestive than convincing.
Good point.

Richwine doesn't make it explicit, but there is another problem in the pro argument. He mentions
A good example of narrow focus is yesterday’s New York Times op-ed by Sheen Levine and David Stark. The authors describe how the distrust and friction generated by ethnic diversity can be beneficial in avoiding the groupthink that creates stock-market bubbles. Interesting point. But then they go way beyond their empirical findings to conclude: “Ethnic diversity is like fresh air: It benefits everybody who experiences it.”

In fact, Levine and Stark’s research demonstrates how theoretically ambiguous the impact of diversity can be. Interpersonal friction may have some benefits, but it also carries obvious costs. It is especially difficult to reconcile the diversity benefits that Levine and Stark describe – which depend on people distrusting each other – with the supposed improvements in cross-racial understanding that come from diversity. The literature contains evidence of diversity producing undesirable conflict, and the uproar over Halloween costumes at Yale could probably be a new case study.
He's right as far as he goes, this is evidentiary overreach. But there is something more fundamental amiss here. The pro advocates, as almost all advocates do, present only the benefit side of the equation and not the cost side. We are interested in how big the net benefit might be after accounting for both costs and benefits.

Just as all systems strategically require some level of variance in order to evolve, all system changes come with costs and benefits.

Sometimes the costs are negligible and the benefits large and sometimes the reverse. Regardless of the relative size of the costs and of the benefits, you have to take into account both to get to a net assessment whether the proposed change is warranted.

In this argument, those arguing that there are inescapable benefits and no material costs have virtually no case to make. This is simply a political game over power to coerce at this point in time.

The question remains legitimate but we are a long way from answering it. We cannot make informed decisions at this point.

Cultural echoes

I have not ever noticed the similarity before, I wonder if there is a connection.

One of my favorite songs is Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd in which there is a striking line (emphasis added).
Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I'd something more to say.
I always thought that was original to Pink Floyd and always struck me as a jaded but apt description of many British. I would describe the British trait as stoicism, which I think is admirable, but I can see where that might be shaded into quiet desperation.

But was Thoreau perhaps an inspiration? In Walden Pond from 1854,
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.
I don't know. Perhaps it is simply a cultural echo.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Planning by experts

A cheap shot but not wrong.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Things I never knew about birds

From MA’OZ TZ-URL by Scott Alexander.
The Greater Male Variability Hypothesis says that men will have more variability on most traits than women, and therefore the highest and lowest performers in lots of areas will be disproportionately male. It goes along with a neat genetic explanation: males don’t have a backup for the X chromosome and so small mutations there have more effect – and a neat evolutionary explanation: men have more variability in their reproductive success and so should pursue higher-risk strategies. A 2013 study gives the theory an interesting test – what about birds, where females are (bird equivalent of) XY and males XX? Here the female birds have more variability, suggesting the genetic principle is sound but casting doubt on the evolutionary explanation. Unless I’m misunderstanding something.

Strawman argument that is self-serving

An interesting argument in Why I worry experimental social science is headed in the wrong direction by Chris Blattman.

The general issue is that in recent years, many of the softer social sciences such as sociology and psychology have been shown to have had very little adherence to the scientific method and consequently most of the "results" from research fail to replicate. In other words, the findings are not real. It is not just social sciences that fall into this bad habit but it is prevalent there. In other fields there are similar issues such as a false reliance on p-values as a threshold of validity.

The consequences is that much of what has been presented as true is actually cognitive pollution with often negative consequences when this pollution taints policy setting.

Blattman's catalyst is a paper from Alwyn Young.
I follow R.A. Fisher’s The Design of Experiments, using randomization statistical inference to test the null hypothesis of no treatment effect in a comprehensive sample of 2003 regressions in 53 experimental papers drawn from the journals of the American Economic Association.

Randomization tests reduce the number of regression specifications with statistically significant treatment effects by 30 to 40 percent. An omnibus randomization test of overall experimental significance that incorporates all of the regressions in each paper finds that only 25 to 50 percent of experimental papers, depending upon the significance level and test, are able to reject the null of no treatment effect whatsoever. Bootstrap methods support and confirm these results.
Young is finding that 50-75% of reported findings can be dismissed.

But Blattman is concerned about the trend towards ever higher bars for accepting evidence.
Take experiments. Every year the technical bar gets raised. Some days my field feels like an arms race to make each experiment more thorough and technically impressive, with more and more attention to formal theories, structural models, pre-analysis plans, and (most recently) multiple hypothesis testing. The list goes on. In part we push because want to do better work. Plus, how else to get published in the best places and earn the respect of your peers?

It seems to me that all of this is pushing social scientists to produce better quality experiments and more accurate answers. But it’s also raising the size and cost and time of any one experiment.

This should lead to fewer, better experiments. Good, right? I’m not sure. Fewer studies is a problem if you think that the generalizabilty of any one experiment is very small. What you want is many experiments in many places and people, which help triangulate an answer.
Blattman lists a dozen reasons why he is concerned about higher standards of evidence.

My view of this is that Blattman is taking too binary an approach. He is arguing a strawman - Lots of little poorly designed studies which might be suggestive versus a few big well designed studies which can be relied upon.

I don't think anyone is actually arguing that. The innovation process certainly depends on seeing things in new ways and trying things that haven't been tried before. Because they have little prospect of being true or useful, you find ways to experiment cheaply. But once you have done 100 or 1,000 experimentations, you are going to find something that works. At that point, you have to test it at scale and in real world circumstances. If it still works, then you convince the regulators that it is safe and bankers that it is worthwhile. In other words there is a continuum of testing from conjectural to robust.

The problem in the social sciences is that almost all of it is conjectural and very little is robust. Sure, it is cheap and easy to test a new idea using forty undergraduate psych majors on a week long experiment. But that really doesn't tell you all that much. If the result is an affirmation of the idea, then you have to move on to the next step and test it on a diverse set of students. And then a set of non-students, etc.

Blattman is correct that if there is a fixed budget of "research resources", then including more robust experiments will reduce the amount of time and resources spent on the conjectural materials. But if social sciences invest in robust research, it may end up being sufficiently valuable, that it warrants further investments in the whole chain of innovation, including more conjectural research.

Right now, Blattman's argument feels like special pleading to keep the life of a social sciences researcher easy and unaccountable. But in a world of limited resources, accountability is no bad thing. It allows us to focus on what makes a positive difference.

Speaking facts rather than spinning

An unintentionally interesting opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, No, Scalia's comment about 'less-advanced' schools wasn't racist by Michael McGough reprimanding Mother Jones and other news outlets for misrepresentative "gotcha" journalism.

The background is the current Supreme Court case as to whether the University of Texas, as a government institution, is allowed to discriminate among its students based on race. Scalia made a statement alluding to the well known argument referred to academic mismatch. McGough writes"
This is the “mismatch” theory, which holds that some minority students admitted to highly competitive universities fare worse there academically than they would have at less selective institutions. The argument is propounded in a book titled “Mismatch” by Richard H. Sander, a UCLA law professor, and the journalist Stuart Taylor Jr. (Their view is summarized here.) Sander also submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the Texas case.

To put it mildly, the mismatch theory is controversial. In his excellent book “For Discrimination” (a defense of affirmative action), Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy approvingly cites academics who say that the theory underestimates the advantages minority applicants receive from attending highly competitive schools even if they earn lower grades than their classmates. (Michael Kinsley made the same point in a characteristically pithy op-ed column.)
Note that Randall does not dispute the empirical data gathered by Sander and Taylor. Instead he argues that the data is counterbalanced by unspecified and unmeasured advantages. This simply shifting the argument from the empirical to the normative. It is an assertion that what I wish to believe is more important than what can be objectively demonstrated. That is not an argument at all, it is an assertion of authority.

Sander and Taylor show empirically, based on the University of California system, that by lowering the SAT/ACT score requirements (and grades) for African Americans, the UC system is able to achieve a much more diverse entering class. What they also show is that the graduating class is not nearly as diverse. African Americans (or anyone who is the "beneficiary" of such lowered admission standards) drop out at much higher rates, take longer to graduate, and are far more likely to change majors from rigorous programs such as STEM to much easier programs of study. These facts are not inconsequential, particularly in the context of wasted time and money. If you drop out, you have incurred the costs (and loans) associated with study but do not have nearly the benefits that accrue to a completed major. What they also find is that in schools where there is less use of affirmative action, African American students have higher graduation rates, are more likely to remain in rigorous programs, and are more likely to graduate within four years.

The Sander/Taylor research was conducted a few years ago. They attempted to gather data to see if the same phenomenon was true outside of the University of California system but once the mismatch theory was out in the open, universities clammed up and refused to share their data. This suggests to me that the phenomenon is real given that most universities want to continue using affirmative action and mismatch theory is a powerful argument against it.

McGough's argument is that Mother Jones and others are being either deliberately dense (professing not to know and understand the mismatch theory) or are deliberately misrepresenting Scalia. McGough is right and other left leaning media are beginning to call out Mother Jones on their advocacy journalism.

What was interesting to me was this statement. The argument is about what happens if universities are not allowed to discriminate based on race.
In an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal timed to coincide with Wednesday’s argument, Gregory Fenves, the president of the University of Texas at Austin, made the point explicitly: “Experience shows what will happen if the Supreme Court rules against us. Student diversity will plummet, especially among African Americans.”

The L.A. Times made the same point in our editorial urging the court to rule for the university: “For the foreseeable future, especially at highly competitive universities, meaningful racial diversity will require some consideration of race in the admissions process.”
Interesting because that is not what experience shows.
When University of California was forced through the ballot box to drop the most obvious forms of racial discrimination, diversity did not plunge at the most competitive universities (UCLA and Berkeley). It changed. Asian American enrollment climbed.

This is the problem with the critical race theory crowd. They want to paint the US as institutionally discriminatory against people of color. It should go without saying that across 4,000 universities, there are going to be discriminatory actions on the part of individuals and systems of one sort or another - color, ethnicity, religion, region of origin, etc. But systematic discrimination (other than affirmative action) is illegal and there are occasional lawsuits that help keep this to a minimum. There is virtually no evidence of systematic discrimination. That is likely why so many race/religion/gender incidents end up being revealed as hoaxes perpetrated by advocates.

In the case of California, it is obvious, based on the performance of Asian Americans, that the issue is not color, it is academic performance. Diversity did not plunge, it changed. African American representation at UCLA and Berkeley plunged but diversity increased. It is not race, it is performance.

What goes unstated is the positive outcomes by forcing the University system to quit discriminating based on race. Yes, black representation at UCLA and Berkeley fell, but surged everywhere else in the UC system (as predicted by the mismatch theory). More than that, graduation rates went up 50%. That is a huge beneficial win for individual black students and for society at large.

Owing to the stalling efforts of state university systems, it is not clear how pervasive academic mismatch might be, and indeed how real. The reluctance to share the data speaks for itself. And if academic mismatch is real, then we are faced with a choice. Continue violating the 14th amendment to allow discrimination on race in order to increase matriculation diversity with higher dropout rates or abandon state race discrimination and enjoy greater graduation diversity.

Affirmative action appears, subject to broader testing of the mismatch theory, to be one more example where people can, through their support, signal their virtue without caring about the negative consequences. We should expect better.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Belief in the face of data

This past Sunday, the New York Times runs, for the first time, a page one editorial, End the Gun Epidemic in America.

At the same time, we are entering into the second week of global climate change negotiations in Paris.

What do these two things have in common?

Among other things, there is the fact that their underpinning assumptions are inconsistent with the data. The New York Times assumes that more guns equals more carnage. The United Nations IPCC assumes that more CO2 equals more climate warming. In both cases, the facts say otherwise.

In the US, repeated efforts to enact stringent gun control has only led to gun owners buying ever more guns. It is estimated that there are now 300 million guns in the hands of citizens. Quite an arsenal and something like a 15% increase over the beginning of the Obama administration. In 1950 there were something like 50 guns per 100 Americans (per the Washington Post). There are now 116 guns per 100 Americans. There has been a large increase in the number of guns in circulation and by the logic of the New York Times editorial board, the level of crime should have increased correspondingly. However, the reverse has happened. While there are more guns in circulation, the rate of violent crime has plummeted nearly fifty percent since its high point.

To be fair, we are dealing with complex, dynamic, multicausal systems here. It is not wrong to assume that more guns might lead to more violent crime. The only fault is to insist dogmatically that the relationship holds when the data indicates otherwise.

There is no epidemic of guns. Yes they are in greater and greater demand from the public. But crime keeps falling. The problem is that we are at a knowledge frontier - we don't know what drives the underlying rate of violent crime. There is a lot of speculation and research but there is no consensus, and indeed no robust explanation. We simply don't know.

Might guns play some role? Perhaps in some unanticipated way at the margin, but at the aggregate, there is no evidence to link the degree of gun ownership and the level of violent crime. Despite what the New York Times editorial board wishes to believe. They have a belief that they wish to affirm in the face of contradictory evidence and they wish to impose that belief on everyone else despite the absence of evidence.

Likewise in Paris. The core assumption is that more CO2 must lead to more climate warming. But for the past 18 years, with India and China pumping evermore CO2 into the air as they industrialize, and swamping the marginal declines in CO2 from developed nations (such as the US), the planet temperature has flatlined based on the most reliable readings - satellite measurement. Again, the core belief is confounded by the data.

Again, to be fair, climate modelling is still in its near infancy and we are dealing with a complex, dynamic, multicausal system. Every five years or so we discover whole new variables that have far greater influence on outcomes than we anticipated. The models are simply not up to the task of reliably forecasting. CO2 probably does play a role in climate determination along with a whole range of other variables but right now we do not understand the mechanisms that determine climate outcomes and therefore do not understand how CO2 affects climate nor the effect size.

I believe that both issues, violent crime and climate, are worth paying attention to, researching, and continue trying to understand what is happening and why.

The problem I see is that our political and policy elite subscribe to a faith-based religious belief that always dictates more money and power to the political elite against the interests of the public, regardless of what the issue is and what the data says. You cannot hope to efficiently solve a problem if you don't understand it and the incessant pleading and lobbying by the elite for more control is unseemly and disrespectful. The problems of violence and climate change won't be solved with anything that is being proposed right now because we don't understand how fluctuations in violence and temperature are caused. All the current proposals do is transfer more power and resources to those who are clearly dishonest.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

My better self disowns

A part of the magic of poetry is that even if you don't take to the whole poem, not infrequently there are yet nuggets of gold within the lines. I like Yeats in general though there are large swaths of his work that leave me unmoved or flummoxed or too lazy to untangle what he is getting at. Perhaps poems for my dotage.

In his poem, A Woman Young and Old, I love these lines:
I long for truth, and yet
I cannot stay from that
My better self disowns
The serpent always beguiles us.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Responsibility relocated to the ether

As more becomes known about the San Bernardino attack, it seems to reveal more about the mindset of the media. From F.B.I. Says San Bernardino Assailants Were ‘Radicalized’ by Adam Nagourney. My interest is not in the article per se but in the word choices.

On the one hand you shouldn't invest too much time in such minor nuances, on the other hand, when there seems to be a pattern of such nuances, it takes on an interesting aspect in aggregate.

In this case, what caught my eye was this (emphasis added):
“We believe that both subjects were radicalized and for quite some time,” said David Bowdich, the F.B.I. assistant director in charge at a news conference here, speaking of the husband and wife team, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who were gunned down by the authorities after they attacked a conference center last Wednesday.
Yes, technically accurate. But is it quite right? "Gunned down by the authorities" makes it sound like the authorities executed them. But we now know that they initiated a gun battle with the police and were killed in that battle. An alternative phrasing that would be even more accurate might be:
“We believe that both subjects were radicalized and for quite some time,” said David Bowdich, the F.B.I. assistant director in charge at a news conference here, speaking of the husband and wife team, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who died attacking the police after they attacked a conference center last Wednesday.
I have no reason to believe that Nagourney has even an ounce of sympathy for jihadist terrorists and yet his words, perhaps simply ill-chosen, seem to convey a degree of victimhood to the perpetrators that is not well aligned with the facts. They chose to kill 14 innocent Americans and then chose to attack the police once they were discovered. This has nothing to do with the police (based on accounts so far) and it seems odd to use wording that might lead a reader to think there was something amiss about the police.

On its own this wording issue is virtually nothing. In aggregate with lots of passive wording (they were radicalized, etc.) it takes responsibility for their actions away from the perpetrators and locates it in the ether. That's misleading.

Ontologically confused

From On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit by Gordon Pennycook et al.
Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.
That's from the abstract. More substantively:
The present study represents an initial investigation of the individual differences in receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit. We gave people syntactically coherent sentences that consisted of random vague buzzwords and, across four studies, these statements were judged to be at least somewhat profound. This tendency was also evident when we presented participants with similar real-world examples of pseudo-profound bullshit. Most importantly, we have provided evidence that individuals vary in conceptually interpretable ways in their propensity to ascribe profundity to bullshit statements; a tendency we refer to as “bullshit receptivity”. Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.
What does this mean in practical terms?

If you are selling snake-oil, find people who are less bright, ontologically confused, are less reflective, and believe in the paranormal. Nothing particularly earth-shaking in the finding, though it is worth having some empirical evidence supporting common sense.

What would be especially interesting is the reverse formulation - If you are particularly susceptible to snake-oil (anthropogenic global warming, rape culture, gender wage gap myth, UVA type hoaxes, etc.) then is it a value conclusion that you are also "less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine." I think their research is confirming that but it would be interesting to see it more explicitly articulated.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

You can get it right, or you can make it intuitive, but it’s all but impossible to do both.

Two separate points in Not Even Scientists Can Easily Explain P-values by Christie Aschwanden. The first is that
What I learned by asking all these very smart people to explain p-values is that I was on a fool’s errand. Try to distill the p-value down to an intuitive concept and it loses all its nuances and complexity, said science journalist Regina Nuzzo, a statistics professor at Gallaudet University. “Then people get it wrong, and this is why statisticians are upset and scientists are confused.” You can get it right, or you can make it intuitive, but it’s all but impossible to do both.
This sounds right. I have only on rare occasions had to work with p-values as a critical issue. Each time I have to go back to original definitions, find the nuanced meaning and then wrestle with the application of that nuance to a topic that has to be communicated to a larger audience. A fool's goal.

"You can get it right, or you can make it intuitive, but it’s all but impossible to do both" is exactly right. And it is true across a much broader range of issues than p-values. When dealing with evidence of racial or gender bias, for example, the range of confounding variables is typically large and the effect sizes are small. In many cases, the right answer is that there is no evidence of discrimination. That is not to say that there is no discrimination. No. But there is no provable discrimination when you correctly take into account the effect sizes and the confounding variables. The correct answer is not the intuitive answer and it is hard to reconcile that to audience that often are much more accustomed to rhetorical argument than to rational argument.

Earlier in her piece, Aschwanden says
Last week, I attended the inaugural METRICS conference at Stanford, which brought together some of the world’s leading experts on meta-science, or the study of studies. I figured that if anyone could explain p-values in plain English, these folks could. I was wrong.
I first came across the concept of meta-studies perhaps 35-40 years ago in both economics and social sciences. At the time I was reasonably knee-deep in technical studies around several issues and I was interested in the concept of meta-studies, the aggregation of many small studies to shed light on an issue by increasing the population size. From Wikipedia:
The aim in meta-analysis then is to use approaches from statistics to derive a pooled estimate closest to the unknown common truth based on how this error is perceived. In essence, all existing methods yield a weighted average from the results of the individual studies and what differs is the manner in which these weights are allocated and also the manner in which the uncertainty is computed around the point estimate thus generated.
Conceptually this made sense but I wrestled with the practical execution. There seemed to me simply too many variables, and too many uncontrolled variables, between studies to actually usefully aggregate them in a meta-analysis. P-values was an indicative, but minor, concern compared to the larger issue of whether like studies were being aggregated versus only similar studies.

I have had little cause in the subsequent decades to revise my opinion. These are smart people doing interesting research but I remain extremely guarded about the validity of any conclusion arising from a meta-study.

Given the increasing evidence about how sloppily studies are conducted in the social sciences, it seems like this skepticism was well warranted.