February 19, 2011

Fraud or Stupidity: Pick One

A reader writes with some experience in SoCal financial circles writes:
-- Essentially, Michael Milken felt a certain level of guilt and agreed to go to jail. That sense of guilt seems lacking with the current crew.

-- I have been informed that the reason Countrywide would not be the ideal firm to get a judgment against is for at least two reasons:

1) As you mentioned, he seems to have believed he was doing his patriotic duty to the multicultural cult by issuing mortgages to minorities. [Here's Mozilo's pledge of January 14, 2005 "to fund $1 trillion in home loans to minorities and lower-income borrowers and communities through 2010."]

2) Mozilo/Countrywide made it policy to keep only FICO scores on borrowers (i.e., it was policy; whether or not they paid attention to them seems to be another matter). In short, and unlike almost any finance firm I have heard of, Countrywide made plausible deniability the counrnerstone of its recordkeeping process and procedures. This might imply that he really didn't believe that they were going to be paid back, but smoking gun type proof would be tough to come by ....

-- Still, it is hard to believe that fraud is so difficult to prove in at least some cases during the bubble period.

For my money I would go after any and all Wall Street firms. Fraud and failing in their fiduciary duties seems like relatively easy cases to me. It's not the packaging of securities I would focus on; rather, I would push fraud and related issues. Essentially, I would make the case boil down to fraud or stupidity. For example, if presented with the choice between admitting fraud or admitting stupidity, would the head of Goldman Sachs choose stupidity over fraud? I'd bet fraud; whereas, Mozilo would be the one that gets him home without an ankle bracelet (i.e., stupidity with probably a large measure of gross incompetence).

I like the idea of trying them for fraud, while leaving stupidity as a defense. It would certainly be educational to the public. I wouldn't mind seeing the witness list that a hotshot defense lawyer like Mark Geragos would come up with to prove that everybody was this stupid: Henry Cisneros, George W. Bush, Barney Frank ...

Ron Unz on the Evolution of Amy Chua

Over at physicist Steve Hsu's site Information Processing blog, Ron Unz digs up a three decade old term paper he wrote as a Harvard freshman when he persuaded Edward O. Wilson to give him an independent study course on sociobiology. (By the way, Harvard is always criticized as an undergraduate experience for having a glittering faculty who turn out to have no time for lowly juniors and seniors. If you are Ron, though, you just show up as a freshman and talk the world's most prominent biologist into giving you personal service.)

Ron sums up his thesis in 2011 as:

... (B) The idea is a very simple one, and I'd actually gotten it a couple of years earlier when I was taking a seminar on the rural Chinese political economy back at UCLA. Chinese society had several fairly unique characteristics which together probably caused the evolution of high Chinese intelligence.

(1) For many centuries and to some extent for a couple of millenia, Chinese peasants lived close to their Malthusian limits. The orderly, stable, and advanced nature of Chinese society meant that food supply and poverty were usually the limiting factor on population, rather than wars, general violence, or plagues.

I think this makes some sense. A high disease burden caused by, say, malaria-bearing mosquitoes as in tropical Africa before recent times probably isn't good for selecting for foresight because behavior doesn't have much impact on who lives or dies because who gets bit is pretty random. Instead, selection would be focused on developing defenses against diseases. 

On the other hand, Ancient Egypt would seem like a similarly "orderly, stable, and advanced" peasant society, but the outcomes don't seem very similar.
(2) Chinese rural life was remarkably sophisticated in its financial and business arrangements, vastly more complex and legalistic than anything you would find among European peasants let alone those in Africa or elsewhere. Hence there was obviously huge selective pressure for those able to prosper under a system of such (relative) financial complexity.

Perhaps, but the the English Common Law, which governed property in England was not easy to understand. It's kind of a medieval programming language for writing contracts full of If-Then-Else statements.
(3) Virtually all Chinese were on an equal legal footing, with none of the feudal or caste legal districtions you would find in Europe or India. Successful poor peasants who acquired wealth became the complete social equals of rich peasants or landlords. Rich peasants or landlords who lost their wealth became no different from all other poor peasants.

(4) In each generation only the relatively affluent could afford to marry, e.g. have parents wealthy enough to afford to buy them wives. The poor couldn't obtain wives for their children, hence didn't have grandchildren.

My impression is that this was true in China from the male perspective. From the female perspective, the great majority of women married, and married young. In contrast, English women who were poor for their class tended to marry late and have fewer children. I don't really know what the implications of this would be.
(5) The unique Chinese custom of "fenjia" meant that land, i.e. wealth, was equally divided among all sons. Since the wealthy tended to have several surviving children, those children automatically started life much poorer than their parents, and needed to reacquire wealth through their own ability. Because of this system, rural Chinese society exhibited an absolutely massive and continual degree of downward social mobility, perhaps unprecedented in human history. Each generation, a good fraction of the poor disappeared from the gene-pool, while the wealthy generally became poor. The richest slice of the population could afford multiple wives and numerous children, but due to fenjia this just tended to impoverish their families to a compensating extent.

I think the idea here is that if you have Five Chinese Brothers, they each inherit 1/5th of the land of their father, and then each must hustle like crazy to make a living. Maybe Number Four Son turns out to be the most fit and has the most descendants. In contrast, under English primogeniture, the eldest son gets the land, so he can probably afford to marry even if he's no great shakes because he's not competing at farming with his younger brothers. The younger sons go into other fields and have to hustle to marry. So, there's more immediate selection on farming talent in China than in England, where the eldest son gets something of a free ride for a generation. But maybe the English system selects for more eccentricity or whatever by forcing younger sons to try to make their way in the world in some other fashion than being a landowning farmer.
(6) The smartest children of the wealthy often received specialized education in hopes they might pass imperial exams and thereby join the "gentry," which might greatly increase the future economic prospects for themselves and their close relatives. So there was indeed some "pull at the top" but I think the genetic impact was pretty small compared to the "push from the bottom."

Right, the number who strongly benefited in terms of offspring from the imperial examination system were a tiny fraction.
(7) Overall, the model is pretty similar I think to what that [Gregory] Clark fellow wrote about England. However, I think the degree of genetic pressure in each generation was enormously greater, fenjia caused automatic downward mobility each generation, and I think the system remained in place for several times longer than the few centuries Clark claims for England. So you'd expect the results to be much greater.

(8) One very important difference with the Cochran-Harpending model for the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe is that the selective pressure was multifaceted. Ashk Jews merely needed to be smart and make money in order to become selectively advantaged. However, the selective pressure on Chinese peasants pushed in lots of different directions simultaneously. Peasants needed to be smart and have good business-sense, but they were also being selected on the basis of physical endurance, robustness, diligence, discipline, energy-consumption, and lots of other things. So selection for intelligence couldn't come too much at the expense of other vital traits, hence took place much more slowly.

Another question would be how significant was the impact of urban life on the Chinese. Marco Polo marveled at the size of Chinese cities compared to European cities.

Finally, my vague impression is that the Malthusian hammer tend to come down on the Chinese more intermittently. Because the full baby-making capacity of females was utilized, Chinese population would grow faster during good times than English population. But when good government broke down and troubles hit, there would be huge die-offs (as recently as the Great Leap Forward). Unfortunately, I don't have a picture in my head for understanding the implications of selection by famine as opposed to selection by constant hunger.

Angelo Mozilo walks

In the LA Times, E. Scott Reckard, who did a fine job covering the SoCal mortgage wheeler dealers, reports:
Federal prosecutors have shelved a criminal investigation of Angelo R. Mozilo after determining that his actions in the mortgage meltdown — which led to $67.5-million settlement against him — did not amount to criminal wrongdoing.

As the former chairman of Countrywide Financial Corp., Mozilo helped fuel the boom in risky subprime loans that led to the crippling of the banking industry and the near-collapse of the financial system.
... But the criminal investigation has wound down without indictments of Mozilo or others at his Calabasas company, according to people familiar with both the prosecution and the defense teams, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

As I wrote in VDARE a couple of years ago, the government's leaked case against Mozilo largely consisted of emails recording "Mozilo’s intermittent spasms of skepticism." It seemed kind of bizarre to try to convict him based on the handful of times when he'd wake up and ask, "Why are we doing this?"

Most of the time, however, Mozilo seemed to be a true believer in the post-1992 conventional wisdom that the mortgage industry had left huge sums on the table by not lending more aggressively to Hispanics and blacks.

Reckard goes on:
"Sometimes the public thinks all you have to do is to indict someone and that's it," one of the federal sources said. "But you have to be able to prove your case, and it can be worse losing a case than not bringing one at all."

The 72-year-old Mozilo hung up the phone when contacted for comment at his home in the Lake Sherwood golf community of Ventura County.

So, Mozilo has to pay a $22 million fine for a civil case settled earlier, but gets to keep the rest of the $387 millionhe took home as compensation during the previous decade.

It looks like not one single corporate officer is going to do even a perp walk over subprime, much less hard time. It seems more and more amazing that only a couple of decades ago, Michael Milken did a few years.

I'm having a hard time seeing what else will serve as a deterrent. If you do the arithmetic based on Mozilo's outcome , why wouldn't it make financial sense to try to shoot the moon like he did? $387,000,000 minus $22,000,000 is $365,000,000. Without the risk of jail time, why wouldn't a greedy guy take those odds?

Will Dodd-Frank regulate moon-shooters out of existence? Maybe, but that's asking a lot of civil servants.

February 18, 2011

Beyonce's Sammy Sosafication

Beyonce, the top African-American singing star, has apparently been expensively turning herself into a Scarlett Johansson-lookalike. Not surprisingly, according to Sailer's Law of Female Journalism, a female journalist is taking it very personally.
Why I believe Beyonce is betraying all black and Asian women

By Yasmin Alibhai-brown

Betrayal: Beyonce's change of skin tone appears to deny her heritage and send out a bad message to the youngsters who see the images

Not so long ago, I sat in a nursery class in Wandsworth, South London, where a teacher was conducting a test to discover how the children felt about their race.

She asked each youngster to hug the doll in the classroom that looked most  like them.

Naomi, a black girl, at once grabbed a blonde, blue-eyed doll and wouldn’t let go. Tears rolled down her face when it was gently taken from her.

... Of course, black and [South] Asian parents work hard to give their children a positive self-image and confidence in their appearance, despite the cultural forces stacked against them.

But when black celebrities appear to deny their heritage by trying to make themselves look white, I despair for the youngsters who see those images.

One black friend of mine, who has a 13-year-old daughter, was incandescent this week when she saw the picture of U.S. singer Beyonce at a pre-Grammy awards party.

Her complexion and limbs were translucently pallid, her locks long, straight and blonde.

Now, racial mixing since the days of slavery means ‘black’ Americans come in a whole range of skin hues, but in recent years Beyonce’s tone seems miraculously to be changing from dusky to peachy.

In my VDARE article last year about retired baseball slugger Sammy Sosa's adventures with skin-lightening, I made a political suggestion so weird that I'm going to toss it out there again:
However, when seen from a global perspective, this assumption that the Republican Party is doomed because immigrants view it as The White Party in an increasingly nonwhite America seems … parochial.

The real question in American politics might turn out to be: Can the Democrats of the Post-Obama Era thrive as The Black Party in an increasingly non-black America?

Of course, that real question won’t be asked much as long as the government continues to offer immigrants and their descendants money and prizes for identifying as non-white.

February 17, 2011

UnSim City

From a long LA Times article celebrating the 83-year-old head of the Los Angeles ACLU, Ramona Ripston, who is retiring after 40 years on the job of imposing her prejudices on LA:
Once upon a time, Ripston was a frustrated New York housewife with do-good instincts. In California, she transformed herself into a formidable force as head of one of the ACLU's largest and, some would say, most liberal affiliates. She stood up to angry San Fernando Valley parents opposed to school integration ...

So much seemed possible when she came to California 39 years ago: She was excited about enrolling her children in its top-rated public schools and living in a state where citizens have the power of the initiative. But school quality has declined. And the ballot initiative has been used to reverse victories --against the death penalty, for school busing, affirmative action and gay marriage -- that she fought so hard to win.

The ACLU imposed court-ordered busing from South Central to San Fernando Valley schools from about 1978-1981, a key blow from which public schools in the SFV never quite recovered. The smart money from then on went to exurbs outside of the LAUSD, such as Calabasas, Agoura Hills, Santa Clarita, Orange County and to the San Gabriel Valley, a similar suburb, but one divided up into many small municipalities.

Too bad Sim City wasn't around to consume Ms. Ripston's prodigious energies and teach her a little bit about cause and effect.

"Moral Combat"

From The American Prospect:
Why do liberals play computer games like conservatives?
By Monica Potts
I eventually got the hang of The Sims, the best-selling computer game in history, and my Sim self became productive and happy. She always reached the top of her career, her children always did well in school, and she always had enough money for a comfortable simulated life. Another pattern emerged as well, one that I feel powerless to stop: My Sims are conservative. I'm in complete control of them, but for some reason their lives aren't anything like the life I consider ideal in the real world. I'm a feminist graduate of an all-women's college who has vowed to never change my name or end my career to raise children full time--though I would never undervalue the work that many women do in their home. By contrast, my Sims rarely remain single long into adulthood. My wives always take their husbands' last names. They don't just have children; they bear lots of them. And they leave their careers to take on the lion's share of care-giving duties.
... It's always difficult for liberals to figure out how much they should enjoy pop culture that contradicts their values. ... Video games are just the newest medium through which our social mores are expressed, and questioning whether they do so accurately and responsibly is a natural corollary to their ascendancy.
I blame some of my right-of-center leanings on the structures of the games themselves. Having children has the added bonus of extending game time in The Sims, because I get to continue to play the same family as the generations roll by. 

Unlike in the real world, where people get to trade in their children and grandchildren.

Should clones' vital organs be harvested to cure cancer?

From my review in Taki's Magazine:

Although the movie industry is always accused of philistinism, filmmakers are often suckers for prestige novels. Richard Grenier, Commentary’s renegade movie reviewer in the 1980s, pointed out a common type of bad classy movie: the credulous adaptation that inadvertently exposes a polished prose stylist’s underlying silliness. Projecting an author’s vision onto a 30-foot-high screen can expose his lack of realism. The most amusing recent example is Never Let Me Go, the dead-serious adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed 2005 novel. (It’s now out on DVD in the US and in theaters in the UK.)

Read the whole thing there.

February 16, 2011

Budget question

Everybody is talking about cutting the budget.

So, why does the U.S. have 57,080 troops in Germany? What is their mission, anyway? 

The only explanation I've ever heard was at a conference in 1999, where General William Odom explained that we kept garrisons in Germany and Britain to prevent war from breaking out between France, Germany, and/or Britain. I thought that was ... interesting, but I've never heard anybody else say it. But then I've never heard anybody else say any other reason why we still have all these bases guarding the Fulda Gap.

I mean, we only have 32,803 troops garrisoning Japan. Why not cut the number of U.S. troops in Germany to the same number as in Japan?

Okay, I know, that's just crazy talk. Forget I ever brought it up.

Portland: Where young white people go to retire

From NPR:
History Hinders Diversification of Portland

by Amelia Templeton

Economists say unemployment is high in Portland and wages are low. But the city is still attracting young, white professionals from the Northeast and Midwest.

... The city's entire population is growing, but Portland is still about 80 percent white, making it one of the most homogeneous metropolitan cities in the country. Many of the migrants don't have jobs, kids or a mortgage. So why do they keep coming? ...

"Talent is becoming more concentrated in some cities and moving away from other cities," says Joe Cortright, an economist standing in the rain at the food cart.
Twenty years ago, the percent of people with college degrees in Portland was lower than the national average. Now, it's more than 10 points higher — about 40 percent. And Cortright says the grads aren't just coming for high-tech jobs.

"People in the Portland metropolitan area are more likely to be engaged in almost any form of outdoor recreation," he says. "We have more microbreweries than any other city in the United States."

Turns out the stereotypes about Portland are largely true.

"I do a lot of homebrewing and I've got an amazing number of folks who are into that scene," says John Sterm, a young attorney grabbing food at a Korean food cart. Sterm moved to Portland from Oklahoma.

"Biking to work and knowing that so many of my friends and peers are in that community and that culture is great," he adds.

... While Portland companies have a great pool of talent to draw on, it's not a diverse pool. Portland is still about 80 percent white. 

Silicon Valley Segregation

With Silicon Valley Fever mounting again, it's worth looking at the trendiest companies in America. From the San Jose Mercury News a year ago, a story that go so little attention that I didn't even see it back then:
Updated: 05/27/2010 04:42:07 PM PDT

The unique diversity of Silicon Valley is not reflected in the region's tech workplaces — and the disparity is only growing worse.
Hispanics and blacks made up a smaller share of the valley's computer workers in 2008 than they did in 2000, a Mercury News review of federal data shows ...

The rest of the article shows that these statements are also true for whites as well, but who cares about them?
Women in computer-related occupations saw declines around the country, but they are an even smaller proportion of the work force here. The trend is striking in a region where Hispanics are nearly one-quarter of the working-age population — five times their percentage of the computer work force — and when dual-career couples and female MBAs are increasingly the norm.
It is also evident in the work forces of the region's major companies. An analysis by the Mercury News of the combined work force of 10 of the valley's largest companies — including Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Cisco Systems, eBay and AMD — shows that while the collective work force of those 10 companies grew by 16 percent between 1999 and 2005, an already small population of black workers dropped by 16 percent, while the number of Hispanic workers declined by 11 percent. By 2005, only about 2,200 of the 30,000 Silicon Valley-based workers at those 10 companies were black or Hispanic.
The share of women at those 10 companies declined to 33 percent in 2005, from 37 percent in 1999. There was also a decline in the share of management-level jobs held by women.

... With the number of white computer workers also dropping after 2000, Asians were the exception. They now make up a majority of workers in computer-related occupations who live in Silicon Valley, although they hold only about one in six of the nation's computer-related jobs. 
In 2008, the share of computer workers living in Silicon Valley who are black or Latino was 1.5 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively — shares that had declined since 2000.

This isn't broken out in the article, but looking at the accompanying graph, you can see that the white share of computer worker employment ("programmers, software engineers, research scientists, network and database administrators and related occupations") in Silicon Valley shrank from 47.1% in 2000 to 37.6% in 2006-2008, according to the Census Bureau. That's a drop of 20.3%.

But, that's not news.

Nationally, blacks and Latinos were 7.1 percent and 5.3 percent of computer workers, respectively, shares that were up since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Of the 5,907 top managers and officials in the Silicon Valley offices of the 10 large companies in 2005, 296 were black or Hispanic, a 20 percent decline from 2000, according to U.S. Department of Labor work-force data obtained by the Mercury News through a Freedom of Information request.

So, Non-Asian Minorities make up on average only 5% of the top 591 employees in each of ten big Silicon Valley firms. That doesn't seem terribly in proportion to the NAM percentages in California.

You mean, Richard Florida's whole Vibrant Diversity shtick isn't completely based on hard statistical data?!? I thought diversity was strength! ( Next, you'll be trying to tell me that Dr. Florida's gays and performance artists are less important to the economic success of Silicon Valley than pocket protector nerds!) 

Maybe somebody should have looked into this before vastly increasing the percentage of NAMs in California and the whole country.

At these ten big Silicon Valley firms, the share of whites among top managers at top firms shrank only from 66% to 64% from 1999 to 2005. That seems pretty typical: white people at the top do well for themselves and are less buffeted by demographic trends than average people.
The share of managers and top officials who are female at those 10 big Silicon Valley firms slipped to 26 percent in 2005, from 28 percent in 2000.
... The Mercury News originally sought federal employment data for the valley's 15 largest companies through the Freedom of Information Act in early 2008. Following an appeals process that stretched over nearly two years, five of those companies — Google, Apple, Yahoo, Oracle and Applied Materials — convinced federal officials to block public disclosure. Data from 2005 was the most current available when the Mercury News made the request. ...

It would be fun to compare the proportion of NAMS in advertisements for these five stonewalling companies to the proportion in their executive ranks, if anyone could ever find out the numbers.
At a time when eBay was headed by one of the few high-profile female CEOs in Silicon Valley, Meg Whitman, the share of the company's managers and top officials who were female declined to 30 percent in 2005, from 36 percent five years earlier, according to federal employment data. ... In Silicon Valley companies, men and women in technical careers are equally likely to hold mid-level jobs, but men are 2.7 times more likely than women to be promoted to a high-ranking tech jobs such as vice president of engineering, or senior engineering manager, Simard and Henderson found in a 2009 study.

The researchers found a series of clues from the water cooler to the living room. Men are more likely to develop informal professional networks, like taking coffee breaks with colleagues — networks that often lead to career opportunities.

The valley's married male tech employees are more likely to follow the traditional model of having a man working full time, with a woman who stays home with the kids, than are male professionals nationally, perhaps because of the high salaries paid in tech. By contrast, tech women are overwhelmingly in dual-career couples, and many face an either-or choice — parenthood or career advancement.

"We expected a difference," Simard told the glum-looking students at Stanford, "but this is kind of like the 1950s." ...

The horror, the horror that any employees anywhere in America are still making enough money to support a family on one income. Better double those H-1B visa quotas right away to put an end to that.

Some critics blame the government for allowing powerful Silicon Valley companies to rely so heavily on foreign-born workers on H-1B visas, which they contend has boosted the numbers of Asians in the tech workforce at the expense of other groups.

"The reason Silicon Valley is different is that those standards have traditionally been enforced in other industries," said John Templeton, whose "Silicon Ceiling" report details the lack of blacks and Latinos in Silicon Valley. "If you go to a bank IT department, or a cable television IT department, it reflects the community around it. But somewhere, government dropped the ball."

What role does H-1B play in these trends? Anybody know?

Seriously, perhaps an overall better way to look at employment than by race would be employment by U.S. citizens v. non-citizens. But that's not mentioned in this article, and I don't know if it's even aggregated anywhere. The 2010 Census refused to collect citizenship information, so I doubt if we'll ever hear much about it.

It sure doesn't come up much. From an Ibn Khaldunian perspective, perhaps that's inevitable: America has been on top of the world so long that our asabiyah is all frittered away. We now mostly just squabble amongst ourselves, minorities v. whites and whites v. whites over who cares about whites least. So these kind of divisions are pretty easy for the Larry Ellisons to manipulate to add a few billions to their net worth.

SWPLs' favorite companies aren't diverse

From the San Jose Mercury News:
By Mike Swift mswift@mercurynews.com
Saying the Silicon Valley tech industry needs to do a better job of hiring native-born blacks, Latinos and some other minority groups, minority leaders picketed Google's Mountain View headquarters Tuesday, asking the Internet giant and other large valley companies to disclose their workplace diversity data.

... The leaders called on the federal government to review the H-1B work visa program that tech companies use to hire engineers from abroad, unless the companies comply.

Good point.
The groups are filing a complaint with the federal government, saying of 34 Silicon Valley tech companies from which they requested workforce data, just 12 agreed to share it. The groups are asking the government to force the companies to disclose their data. They said they singled out Google for Thursday's protest because of its growth and visiblity.

"Google can google anything, but if you google Google, you can't get anything," said Faith Bautista, of the Asian coalition.

I like that line.
A report in the Mercury News last year, based on workforce data that Silicon Valley's largest companies had filed with the federal government, found that the Bay Area's unique diversity is not reflected in the region's tech workplaces.

Hispanics and blacks, the newspaper found, made up a smaller share of the valley's computer workers in 2008 than they did in 2000, even as their share grew across the nation. There was also a decline in the share of management-level jobs held by women between 1999 and 2005. Five companies -- Google, Apple, Yahoo, Oracle and Applied Materials -- refused to release their data, saying it would cause "commercial harm" by potentially revealing the companies' business strategy to competitors. The original story is available at http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_14383730.

I looked up what's going on. The government collects diversity data on all big companies, but the Mercury News' Freedom of Information request for the numbers on 15 big Silicon Valley employers was successfully fought by five of them: Google, Apple, Yahoo, Oracle and Applied Materials.
In a written statement, Google said it strongly values diversity, pointing to its support of internships and scholarships with groups such as Historically Black Colleges & Universities.

"Our philosophy has always been that a diversity of perspectives, ideas and cultures means better products for our users. That's why we have an inclusive work environment and constantly promote diversity at Google, through scholarship programs, internship opportunities and partnerships with organizations working to educate the next generation of engineers and professionals," the company said.

But not through hiring more than the government-mandated minimum of blacks and Mexicans. Google draws the line there.

I call for a boycott by all pro-diversity people everywhere. No more buying any and all products and services from Apple until Apple stops hiding its diversity data.

Old International Schools Tests

Via Kevin Drum, I heard about the FIMS, First International Mathematics Study of 1963-1967, the ancestor of the ongoing TIMSS (Third International ...). Here's a 1992 report (5.6 meg PDF) by Elliott A. Medrich on the results of FIMS and four other early international school achievement tests. Americans did pretty badly except in one science test.

I skimmed it but was mostly struck by how all-over-the-board early results were (e.g., Nigeria beat Sweden in certain math subtests). In the early tests, there didn't seem to be much correlation between national rankings on math subtests.

Math and science tests 13-year-olds seem to be particularly susceptible to the order in which subjects are taught to younger tests, while tests of high school seniors are much influenced by high school graduation rates (which were much higher in the U.S. in the 1960s) than elsewhere. In the 1960s, most country had only the smart fraction of their 17-year-olds still in school, so they beat our vast masses of high school seniors on a per capita basis.

One interesting result was that Israel came in tops in the FIMS of the mid-1960s (of course, they didn't give the test in Arabic). Today, Israel is thoroughly mediocre in, say, PISA. Some of that comes form testing Arabs, some from demographic changes involving both Arabs and the types of Jews, some from the old Zionist strategy of dumbing down the culture to produce fewer financiers and more farmers.

There's lots to be mined from this report for the enthusiasts.

February 15, 2011

Debugging the Declaration of Independence

The NYT has an article about two labs at Stanford, one founded in 1963 by John McCarthy working on artificial intelligence, the other by Douglas Engelbart on intelligence augmentation. 

I don't have anything of value to add to that debate, but it reminded me of something McCarthy once said. If he were debugging the Declaration of Independence, he would have pointed out to Jefferson that, in pulling a couple of all-nighters, he appears to have made a typo by leaving out the word "in" in his most famous sentence. The Declaration reads:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

From logical and empirical standpoints, this first sentence would make a lot more sense with McCarthy's debugging:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, in that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. [emphasis added]

Think of how much more sensible American intellectual thought would be with that bit of proof-reading.

Jeopardy! and Artificial Intelligence

Colby Cosh writes:
Having lived through the hype over IBM’s 1997 Deep Blue challenge to human chessplayers, I find myself intensely irritated at IBM’s 2011 assault on Jeopardy! ...
Jeopardy!, after all, doesn’t demand that much in the way of language interpretation. Watson has to, at most, interpret text questions of no more than 25 or 30 words—questions which, by design, have only a single answer. It handles puns and figures of speech impressively, for a computer. But it doesn’t do so in anything like the way humans do. IBM’s ads would have you believe the opposite, but it bears emphasizing that Watson is not “getting” the jokes and wordplay of the Jeopardy! writers. It’s using Bayesian math on the fly to pick out key nouns and phrases and pass them to a lookup table. If it sees “1564″ and “Pisa”, it’s going to say “Galileo”.

February 14, 2011


At The New Republic, intern Ezra Deutsch-Feldman makes a good point about the Man v. Computer battle on Jeopardy this week:

“Jeopardy!”is actually a terrible way of proving that Watson is more intelligent than its opponents. ... However, if the supercomputer triumphs, it will probably be for another reason entirely: because it can activate the buzzer most quickly.

This is how the “Jeopardy!” rules work: Whoever buzzes in first—using a clicking device usually compared to a large pen—gets the first chance at answering the question. The wrinkle, however, is that the contestants have to wait until Alex Trebek is completely finished reading the question before they are allowed to buzz in. Buzz too soon, and your buzzer is “locked out” for a quarter of a second, giving opponents the chance to jump in and answer before you.

And in the recent test match between Watson, Jennings, and “Jeopardy!”champion Brad Rutter, none of the 15 questions were answered incorrectly by any of the players. In each case, the person who buzzed in first won the points associated with that clue. For all we know, all three players knew the answers to all the questions. Watson won that round, and it could easily have been because Watson was faster to the buzzer.

Indeed, when I called Watson’s creators to ask how the supercomputer controls its buzzer, they admitted that Watson does have a strong built-in advantage. According to David Shepler, who is IBM’s Challenge Program Manager for the Watson project, “The buzzer is enabled when the clue is done being read, when Alex Trebek gets to that last syllable, and the guy off stage pushes a button. That’s when people can buzz in, and at the same time a signal is sent to Watson saying the same thing—telling Watson that it can buzz in if it so desires.” This is akin to playing against an opponent with near-perfect reflexes.

The main difference between Jeopardy!, which I was on in 1994, and the old College Bowl game show, which I competed in from 1978-1982, is that on College Bowl toss-up questions you could buzz in while the announcer (Art Fleming, the original Jeopardy! moderator, when we went to Nationals in 1980) was reading the question. This made College Bowl less of a game of luck and reflexes than Jeopardy! and more a game a cognitive speed (albeit of a peculiar kind: the ability to figure out what a question was from the first few words). 

The best strategy on College Bowl toss-ups was not to wait until you knew the answer, nor even to wait until you knew what the question was, but to buzz just before the moderator got to the key words that would reveal what the question was going to be. The announcer's momentum would carry him through the next word or two. You would then have a few seconds to A) figure out what the whole question was and B) what the answer was. If you got if right, your team of four players then got a bonus question where you'd get 10 seconds to answer. If you got the toss-up question wrong, the other team got to listen to the whole thing and then had five seconds to buzz in. 

To give you an example of how this worked, and why College Bowl went off the air while Jeopardy! is still on, here's a question I remember from a practice round against the U. of Chicago at the 1980 Nationals:
Announcer: "What kind of victory --"


Guy on U. of Chicago team: "A Pyrrhic victory."

Art Fleming (unflappable as always, but still): "... Correct!"
Me to teammates [astonished]: "How did he get that?"

Teammate 1 [frustrated]: "What's wrong with this buzzer? I totally beat him to that!"
Me: "Huh? How?"

Teammate 2 [dismissively to me, while shaking his own balky buzzer]: "What other kind of victories are there?"

Another example of why high level College Bowl became completely baffling to a mass audience: In the Rice U. championship game in 1979, my team was down by about 100 points with a couple of minutes left, which was kind of like being down by 9 points in the basketball (before the 3-point shot was introduced). I got the final five toss-up questions and we won by 5 points. The last toss-up question went:
Announcer: "In the South Pacific, there's Bora-Bora; in the state of Wash--"


Me: [pausing for a couple of very long seconds while I tried to figure out why I buzzed in] ... Walla Walla.

In contrast, in Jeopardy!, you aren't allowed to buzz in early, so at the Ken Jennings-level of play, it's just a test of who buzzes in first after the arbitrary waiting period. This makes it more random, but a lot less baffling to viewers than College Bowl was. 

The other notable thing about the College Bowl toss-up question was that it gave a huge advantage to youth. As a warm-up exhibition game before the 1980 Nationals, I recruited a well-balanced team of four Rice professors to play our team. One professor was Martin Wiener, now head of the history department at Rice and author of the 1981 book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980, which was to have a big influence on the Thatcher Government. Besides knowing vastly more than any of us callow undergrads, he had been on the 1966 College Bowl national championship team. 

But, we undergrads dominated the toss-up questions and won in a rout. 

It's pretty scary how much faster your brain was at 21.