August 20, 2011

Tolstoy v. Nabokov on "failing schools"

Sara Mosle, a schoolteacher who has been one of the more realistic critics of the education reform bandwagon, reviews Steven Brill's book Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix American's Schools:
Brill, however, insists that only “union critics of charter schools” believe successful charters “ ‘skim’ from the community’s most intelligent students and committed families,” adding, “None of the actual data supports this.” But in fact, according to Tough, KIPP’s own “internal statistics” show that its students in the South Bronx “arrived scoring better on average on tests than typical children in their neighborhoods.” And not just a little better: on reading tests prior to entering KIPP, Tough writes, “students often scored above the average for the entire city.” 
KIPP then builds on this sturdy foundation — and far more successfully than most charters, for which it deserves praise and keen attention to its methods. But KIPP and other successful charters have not yet shown they can succeed with every kind of student within a single school district, or even, for that matter, a single neighborhood. If we can’t make such distinctions, how will we ever help all children achieve? ...

Well, maybe we won't ever help all children achieve. Maybe, what we should try to be doing is to do better overall than we're doing now. Maybe we have to leave some child behind to help the rest because if we focus on the worst, we're going to hurt the rest.

From that perspective, if KIPP is skimming the hardest working students from the slums, well, that's great. We should encourage more and different kinds of skimming. If some kids aren't really interested in English literature, but are really interested in auto body repair, well, let's skim them into hands-on apprentice programs.
By book’s end, even Brill begins to feel the cognitive dissonance. He quotes a KIPP founder who concedes that the program relies on superhuman talent that can never be duplicated in large numbers. And sure enough, an educator whom Brill has held up the entire book as a model of reform unexpectedly quits, citing burnout and an unsustainable workload at her Harlem charter. Then another reform-­minded teacher at the same school confesses she can’t possibly keep up the pace. “This model just cannot scale,” she declares flatly. After relentlessly criticizing Weingarten, Brill suddenly suggests, in a “Nixon-to-China” move, that she become New York’s next schools chancellor. “The lesson,” Brill belatedly discovers, is that reformers need to collaborate with unions, if only because they are “the organizational link to enable school improvement to expand beyond the ability of the extraordinary people to work extraordinary hours.” But isn’t this merely what the reform movement’s more thoughtful critics have been saying all along? 
Brill likens the battle over the nation’s schools to “warfare,” but the better analogy may be to the war on cancer. For years, scientists hoped a magic pill would cure this ravaging disease. But increasingly, doctors have recognized that they will have to fight a multifronted war, as cancers (like failing schools) aren’t all alike. Each comes with its own complex etiology. 

Nabokov didn't believe Tolstoy's opening line in Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Nabokov's sci-fi novel Ada opens with a quote from an alternative universe Tolstoy: "'All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike.'" 

As Nabokov explained to an interviewer somewhere or other, the reasons for familial unhappiness tend to be commonplace: infidelity, alcoholism, lack of money, ill-temper, spite, stupidity, and so forth. Now, those banal ingredients might lead to some bizarre outcomes manifestations of unhappiness, but the bases tend to be boring. In contrast, Nabokov argued, happy families tend to have their unique private jokes, their eccentric balances, and so forth. Mr. Nabokov, for example, was convinced he was a genius and was mostly amused that the rest of the world hadn't noticed. (In fact, the rest of the world kept trying to kill Nabokov, driving him out of Russia in 1918, Germany in 1936, and France in 1940, but not even totalitarianism and world wars were a downer to Nabokov. And Mrs. Nabokov agreed with her husband's estimation of himself, and put up with ridiculous behavior from him (such as his refusing to let them live in the same house for more than one year to keep from dimming his memories of his lost estate in Russia) because he was a genius. When he was 59 when Lolita was published in America in 1958, suddenly the whole world agreed with them.

Kids, don't try this at home when you are a married grown-up. It probably won't work.

Really bad schools tend to have somewhat unusual reasons for being really bad. For example, one high school in South Central L.A. had terrible (even by the standards of South Central) attendance. It turned out that boys weren't coming to school because they couldn't play basketball at recess and lunch. (The boys weren't asking for much -- they just wanted to be allowed to play pickup basketball.) Why not? Because the teachers had stopped parking in their assigned parking lot because their cars kept getting broken into. Instead, they parked on the basketball courts right outside their classrooms, where they could keep an eye on their cars. The Green Dot charter was given control of that school, and quickly got some money together and fixed the fence around the teachers' parking lot, which freed up the basketball courts, which raised attendance. 

So, there's a Tolstoyan view of what why this school was so really bad. But, after they fixed its unique problem, the school was still average bad. Why? For the non-Tolstoyan reason that it was in of South Central L.A. and thus full of average South Central L.A. students. The depressingly boring reason why most failing schools fail is because they are full of failing students.

So, maybe we need solutions that will skim as many kids as feasible into a variety of schools or programs that will motivate individual students. But, we have to give up the debilitating myth that the goal of school reform should be to "help all children achieve" at some standard level.

August 18, 2011

Pure Comedy Gold

This Martin Luther King National Memorial, which will be dedicated on August 28 on the Mall in D.C., is shaping up as the kind of farce that H.L. Mencken would have enjoyed. The vaguely Chinese-looking giant statue itself looks like the woozy recollection of some Chinese sculptor who doesn't actually remember MLK (hey, he was busy at the time being Culturally Revolutionized -- Mao didn't even allow mention of the moon landing), nor know many black people, but he does remember Mike Tyson trying to glare down Evander Holyfield at a heavyweight title bout weigh-in (assuming Iron Mike were a little Chinese).

So, we get Martin Luther Ming the Merciless. As a commenter suggests: Martian Luther King.

And it's white. (Is that to blend in with pigeon droppings?)

And the list of donors of the $114 million pocketed so far is pretty funny: showing good taste, very few rich African-Americans have put up significant cash, so pride of place goes to GM. But right below GM as the second biggest donor is "Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation."

Now, why would that be? Because of all the absurd rumors among blacks that the fashion designer went on Oprah and dissed blacks (just like the rumors in the 1980s about Gloria Vanderbilt going on Phil Donahue to declare how much she hated blacks -- these rumors are started by black shoppers who don't to admit they can't afford the designer clothes they are trying on, so they make up a ridiculous story about the designer and their friends believe it and pass it on.)

During the next ten days of solemnities up through the dedication, no giggling allowed! This is a very serious occasion in the national civic religion and anyone who cracks a smile will be dealt with.

Shocking News

I'm sometimes told, "Look, everybody knows that what you say is right and they all operate on that knowledge. They just don't want to be impolite and mention it in public." And I think that's true to a large extent for personal decisions like where to buy a home and where to send the kids to school. But, I don't see much evidence that private awareness impacts public policy. To have sensible public policies, you need open discussion of how the world works. 

Instead, you get stuff like this big article in today's Washington Post (there's also a quite similar 936 word article in the New York Times today, so this WaPo article isn't an anomaly; it reflects the conventional wisdom):
Blacks less likely than whites to get NIH grants, study finds 
By Rob Stein, Thursday, August 18, 9:17 PM 
Black scientists are significantly less likely than white researchers to win grants from the National Institutes of Health, according to an audit released Thursday that confirmed disturbing suspicions inside the agency about a lingering bias against African Americans.
The analysis of data from more than 40,000 researchers who submitted more than 80,000 grant applications to NIH between 2000 and 2006 found that only about 16 percent of those from black applicants were approved, compared with about 29 percent of those from white scientists. 
Even after the researchers accounted for other factors that could help explain the discrepancy, such as differences in scientists’ education and training, black applicants were still about 10 percentage points less likely than whites to get NIH funding, the researchers reported. About 27 percent of white applicants’ requests were successful, compared with only about 17 percent of blacks’. 

Affirmative action always peters out at some point. There's affirmative action all the way up the line through education ... until research proposals are submitted to the NIH. At that point, race information is stripped off the application.
Asians applying for money appeared to be slightly less likely than whites to get grants, but that gap disappeared when the researchers matched equally qualified white and AsianU.S. citizens. Hispanics were about as successful as whites. 
The findings are troubling because they indicate that race remains a significant factor in who gets funding for research into diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other health problems from the premier funder of biomedical research, the researchers said. 
“We have a very serious issue,” said Donna K. Ginther, director of the University of Kansas Center of Science Technology and Economic Policy, who led the study published in the journal Science. “Science needs to reflect the diversity and power and potential of the population.” 
NIH’s own internal auditing had indicated that there might be a problem with bias in its scientific review process. The agency initiated and helped fund the study to investigate those concerns. Officials agreed the new findings were alarming and outlined steps the $31 billion agency will take to try to address the problem. 
“This situation is not acceptable,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins told reporters during a telephone briefing. “This data is deeply troubling.” ... 
Only 1.4 percent of applications came from black scientists, even though they account for about 12 percent of the U.S. population, the researchers found.

So, obviously, we are dealing with a problem huge in scale: Blacks make 1.4% of all applications and get 0.8% of approvals, so we are talking about a shortfall of 0.6% of all approvals. If there is a discrepancy of 0.6 percentage points disadvantaging blacks, then, apparently, it's a big story and everybody better worry about it.
Moreover, the applications from black scientists tended to receive poorer scores than those from whites, resulting in bleaker chances of getting funded.

Seriously, that's how normal probability distributions (a.k.a., bell curves) work. Among all the people in America who are at least 5'9", say, most are men, but a significant minority are women. Among six footers, the percentage of women drops a lot compared to 5'9". Among people over 6'3", the percentage of women is very, very low.

But, you aren't supposed to understand bell curves. Being stupid about probability distributions shows your heart is pure.

Something else that even fewer people understand is how diversity programs steal from other diversity programs. You can see it more easily with sports. Say that the U.S. government announced a far-reaching program to dominate women's volleyball in the Olympics by 2024 by getting more 6'3" women to specialize in volleyball from a young age. American volleyball should spare no expense making extremely tall, extremely athletic girls into volleyball players. Well, the obvious side effect would be that spending a lot of money on volleyball would just raid other sports that want extremely tall, extremely athletic girls like basketball, soccer goalies, swimming, and water polo.

Same thing with racial diversity programs, especially ones at super-elite levels like this upcoming one. The issue here isn't even getting more blacks to become qualified medical researchers. The issue is getting more blacks to be really good medical researchers. How do you do that? Mostly, you raid very smart blacks off other career tracks, like, say, Goldman Sachs.
“Our research says, ‘If you hold everything else constant and the only thing different between these two investigators is the color of their skin, that person is less likely to get funded,’ ” Ginther said. 
Ginther and her colleagues tried several methods to explain the discrepancy, including analyzing whether differences in the topics being proposed for study by blacks or the types of studies they hoped to conduct might be playing a role, but they did not identify any clear explanation. The researchers speculated, however, that several factors could be playing a role. Black scientists, for example, might not be as plugged into professional “peer-review” networks that judge scientific proposals as white researchers. They might also tend to work at institutions that offer less support. 
“I don’t think it’s overt racism. I’m not thinking someone is going through the applications and saying: ‘Black, do not fund,’” Ginther said. “But it could be a matter of networks — that these investigators are not as well connected as others. Or it could be the resources of their home institutions in preparing the applications.” 
NIH officials agreed and said they were taking steps to boost the number of black scientists on NIH committees that review grant proposals. Having served on such a committee appears to increase the chances of a researcher later getting a grant, the study found. 
“It is a very valuable learning experience in terms of figuring out what works and what doesn’t work in your own application,” Collins said. 
Collins said he has also asked two “high-level” NIH advisory groups to investigate: the NIH Diversity Task Force and the newly formed external Diversity in Biomedical Research Working Group, which will report back to him by next June.

What this kind of brouhaha ends up being about is providing a few easy jobs for members of the protesting group.
In addition, the agency planned to conduct more research to try to determine whether NIH reviewers are biased against blacks. Although an applicant’s race is removed before reviewers see applications, evaluators might be able to figure it out through a scientist’s name, where they work or simply because they know who they are. 
For example, the NIH plans to conduct experiments in which all information that might indicate the race of the applicants, such as their names and where they work, are hidden to see whether that affects how applicants are evaluated. Another study might assess the ability of reviewers to infer the race of applicants. Reviewers might also receive sensitivity training. 
“I would like not to believe that is intentional bias, but I can’t exclude, after talking to lots of colleagues, the possibility that even today in 2011 in our society there is still an unconscious, insidious form bias that subtly influences opinions of people,” Collins said. 
“That may be very disturbing for people in the scientific community to contemplate, but I think we have to think that’s one of the possibilities.” 
NIH officials said they had shared their findings with other federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, to alert them to the possibility that a similar bias might be affecting their grant-making systems.

Now, the good news is that, likely, nothing gigantically disastrous will happen due to this self-evidently dopey application of the conventional wisdom. Instead, a little bit more medical research funding will be bled off into diversity efforts. Patients will die a little earlier on average in the future than they would have without the new Diversity Programs, but not so much that anybody will notice. For the new Chief Diversity Officers and others involved, it's a living.

But, this kind of thing adds up. Cumulatively, it takes a sizable toll on the country.

As I've said many times, if Obama wants to stimulate the economy by removing a long-term impediment and boost his chances of winning re-election, he could declare victory in the War on Discrimination and call the federal troops home. But, you'll notice, nobody else is pointing that out. It's simply not on the conceptual radar.

Instead, we get the following Executive Order issued today by the Obama White House: "Establishing a Coordinated Government-wide Initiative to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce."

Jobs that foreigners just won't do

From the New York Times:
Foreign Students in Work Visa Program Stage Walkout at Plant 
PALMYRA, Pa. — Hundreds of foreign students, waving their fists and shouting defiantly in many languages, walked off their jobs on Wednesday at a plant here that packs Hershey’s chocolates, saying a summer program that was supposed to be a cultural exchange had instead turned them into underpaid labor. 
The students, from countries including China, Nigeria, Romania and Ukraine, came to the United States through a long-established State Department summer visa program that allows them to work for two months and then travel. They said they were expecting to practice their English, make some money and learn what life is like in the United States. 
In a way, they did. About 400 foreign students were put to work lifting heavy boxes and packing Reese’s candies, Kit-Kats and Almond Joys on a fast-moving production line, many of them on a night shift. After paycheck deductions for fees associated with the program and for their rent, students said at a rally in front of the huge packing plant that many of them were not earning nearly enough to recover what they had spent in their home countries to obtain their visas. ...
Like many other students, Ms. Ozer said she invested about $3,500, which included the program costs, to obtain the J-1 visa and travel to the United States. Several Chinese students, including Ms. Zhao, said they had paid more than $6,000 in the process of securing visas. ...
Ms. Ozer and other students said they were paid $8.35 an hour. After fees are deducted from her paychecks as well as $400 a month for rent, she said, she often takes home less than $200 a week. “We are supposed to be here for cultural exchange and education, but we are just cheap laborers,” Ms. Ozer said.

Welcome to the new, improved USA, 21st Century Edition! Didn't you get the word that America's traditionally high wages and low housing costs were what made America weak for all those centuries? The future belongs to the country with the cheapest labor and the most expensive land.

Seriously, isn't it weird how the entire concept of putting cheap foreign labor programs like this on hiatus until the unemployment rate among Americans drops just never even occurs to anyone in positions of power or influence? To question the continuance of this program during an economic slump would be to question Diversity, and Diversity is unquestionable. Also, it would be bad for corporate profits. So, what are you, some kind of racist communist?

The Mao / MLK hybrid on the National Mall

Chief Seattle explains the hulking Martin Luther King statue debuting on the National Mall in D.C.:
It's a monument to modern American corruption and incompetence in every way. First King's family held it up because they wanted a payout. A payout to "use his likeness". Not only were they not willing to "donate" his likeness for free to be used on a public monument, but some scumbag lawyer apparently managed to argue that chiseling an statue of a famous historical figure violates copyright.

Then they get a mainland Chinese to sculpt it. Is that because out of 1 million art students in college at any time that none of them are competent enough to chisel some stone? Or that the powers that be just can't bear to miss out cheap Chinese labor? Or maybe someone just figured that no one understands the American civil rights struggle and the physique of a black man like a mainland Chinese communist? 
Then after they hire the Chinese he picks the wrong color stone. Was there a sale on white? Someone cancelled their marble countertop at the last minute and he got a half price special? Nope, turns out it was just what the Chinese prison labor dug up that month. 
The cherry on top is this little nugget from wikipedia: 
In September 2010, the foundation gave written promises that it would use local stonemasons to assemble the memorial. However, when construction began in October, it appeared that only Chinese laborers would be used. The Washington area local of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftsworkers union investigated and determined that the workers are not being paid on a regular basis, with all of their pay being withheld until they return to China.[53] 
Lawyers and academics and copyright whores spend so much time and money arguing that the only way to afford the project is cheap foreign labor with substandard materials. And the result speaks for itself. Truly a monument for our times.

August 17, 2011

So, how is that 30' Maoist MLK statue thing working out?

"I am King-Ton. As overlord, all will kneel trembling before me and obey my brutal commands." [Crosses arms] "End communication." 

-- Adapted from the "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Kodos" episode of The Simpsons 

Was it really necessary to make this new colossal sculpture on the D.C. National Mall look like something out of a Percy Bysshe Shelley nightmare? And did the Chinese artist/contractor they hired for this sculpture really think through this whole white granite angle? This thing looks less like Martin Luther King than a cross between Chairman Mao, Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson, and an albino.

As a commenter points out below, the sculptor is from Changsha in Hunan, where Mao converted to Communism, and Changsha is always building giant statues of Mao to plop down as a "gift" in places like recalcitrant Tibet. (Gee ... thanks Uncle Changsha for the nifty Chairman Mao statue.) The commission that commissioned this statue made a big deal about how they just chose this Chinese guy because he had the experienced workforce to build a giant stone statue, but the reason his workforce is experienced is because they make massive Mao statues. So, the USA ends up with a Maoist colossus between the Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial, with MLK looking like he's about to dispatch to the pig farms any bourgeois revisionists who doubt that backyard steel mills are a great idea.

Anyway, this doesn't have anything (specifically) to do with MLK or sculptures or Mao, but I always liked this Simpsons dialogue:

Kang vs. Kodos for President: For some reason, right now I'm reminded of the 1996 Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror VII" in which flying saucer aliens Kang and Kodos abduct Presidential candidates Clinton and Dole and impersonate them:

Kent Brockman: Senator Dole, why should people vote for you instead of President Clinton?
Kang: It makes no difference which one of us you vote for. Either way, your planet is doomed. DOOMED!
Kent: Well, a refreshingly frank response there from Senator Bob Dole.

Kent: Kent Brockman here, with Campaign '96: America Flips A Coin. At an appearance this morning, Bill Clinton made some rather cryptic remarks, which aides attributed to an overly tight necktie. 
Kodos: I am Clin-Ton. As overlord, all will kneel trembling before me and obey my brutal commands. [crosses arms] End communication. 
Marge: Hmm, that's Slick Willie for you, always with the smooth talk.

Announcer: Ladies and Gentlemen, 73-year-old candidate, Bob Dole. 
Kang: Abortions for all. [crowd boos] Very well, no abortions for anyone. [crowd boos] Hmm... Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others. [crowd cheers and waves miniature flags]

Later, Kang and Kodos are walking down the streets, holding hands. 
Kang: Fooling these Earth voters is easier than expected. 
Kodos: Yes. All they want to hear are bland pleasantries embellished by an occasional saxophone solo or infant kiss. 
A Democratic National Committee van pulls up, and George Stephanopoulos pokes his head out. 
George: Uh, Mr. President, Sir. People are becoming a bit... confused by the way your and your opponent are, well, constantly holding hands. 
Kang: We are merely exchanging long protein strings. If you can think of a simpler way, I'd like to hear it.

Springfield holds a Dole-Clinton debate. Clinton is giving the opening speech:
Clin-Ton: My fellow Americans. As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball, but tonight I say, we must move forward, not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.
Kang: The politics of failure have failed. We need to make them work again. Tomorrow, when you are sealed in the voting cubicle, vote for me, Senator Ka... Bob Dole. [applause
Kodos: I am looking forward to an orderly election tomorrow, which will eliminate the need for a violent blood bath. [applause]

Homer: America, take a good look at your beloved candidates. They're nothing but hideous space reptiles. [unmasks them] [audience gasps in terror
Kodos: It's true, we are aliens. But what are you going to do about it? It's a two-party system; you have to vote for one of us. [Murmurs from the crowd
Man1: He's right, this is a two-party system. 
Man2: Well, I believe I'll vote for a third-party candidate. 
Kang: Go ahead, throw your vote away. [Kang and Kodos laugh out loud] [Ross Perot smashes his "Perot 96" hat

The next day, Kodos announces the result: "All hail, President Kang." The field in front of the Capitol has now become a working ground where humans are whipped by aliens and used to carry materials to build a giant ray gun. The Simpsons, with chains around their necks, are working too, with Homer and the kids carrying wood, and Marge pushing a wheelbarrow of cinderblocks -- with Maggie on top. 
Marge: I don't understand why we have to build a ray gun to aim at a planet I never even heard of. 
Homer: Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos.

Guinea Pigs Wanted for Big IQ Genes Study

Steve Hsu writes:
I'll be giving a talk at Google tomorrow (Thursday August 18) at 5 pm. The slides are here. The video will probably be available on Google's TechTalk channel on YouTube.  
The Cognitive Genomics Lab at BGI is using this talk to kick off our drive for US participants in our intelligence GWAS. More information at, including automatic qualifying standards for the study, which are set just above +3 SD. Participants will receive free genotyping and help with interpreting the results. (The functional part of the site should be live after August 18.)  
Title: Genetics and Intelligence  
Abstract: How do genes affect cognitive ability? I begin with a brief review of psychometric measurements of intelligence, introducing the idea of a "general factor" or IQ score. The main results concern the stability, validity (predictive power), and heritability of adult IQ. Next, I discuss ongoing Genome Wide Association Studies which investigate the genetic basis of intelligence. Due mainly to the rapidly decreasing cost of sequencing, it is likely that within the next 5-10 years we will identify genes which account for a significant fraction of total IQ variation.  
We are currently seeking volunteers for a study of high cognitive ability. Participants will receive free genotyping.

Is he really gay?

UPDATE: Sorry, I originally had this post linking to the second page of my new column. That's fixed now.

My new Taki's Magazine column is up. It's the first of a two part series:
Granted, I am as interested as anybody else in gossip about whether or not various famous male celebrities are secretly homosexual. But I’m also interested in the more statistical question: Overall, how many of them really are gay? 
I don’t know. So I’ve been trying to think through the possible explanations for the scant data we have. In this two-part series, I’ll lay out the potential scenarios, all of which are likely true to some extent. I’ll conclude next week with a rather disturbing possibility that doesn’t get much press coverage, perhaps because it would violate the media’s current Prime Directive of portraying gays solely as powerless martyrs.

Read the whole thing there.

August 16, 2011

1980s Rock

1980s rock music is rather looked down upon these days, but it seemed pretty good at the time and seems not too bad in retrospect. Here's a reader's poll from electric guitar maker Gibsons of 1980s songs. (There's no requirement that they feature electric guitars, but, given the site, not surprisingly, they almost all do). One thing I would note is that this was still the long era, beginning with the Beatles, when the general superiority in stylishness of British rock music was taken for granted. Of the 25 tracks, 12 are American and 13 from the British Commonwealth / British Isles. Readers Poll – Greatest Song of the ’80s

1. AC/DC, “Back in Black” (1981)
2. Iron Maiden, “The Number of the Beast” (1982)
3. AC/DC, “Shoot to Thrill” (1980)
4. Dire Straits, “Money for Nothing” (1984)
5. Simple Minds, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (1985)
6. Roxy Music, “More Than This” (1982)
7. Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle” (1987)
8. R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987)
9. Van Halen, “Jump” (1984)
10. Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (1988)
11. Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House” (1983) 
12. Neil Young, “Rockin’ in the Free World” (1989)
13. Pixies, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (1989)
14. John Hiatt, “Slow Turning” (1988)
15. Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (1983)
16. Bruce Springsteen, “I’m on Fire” (1985)
17. Guns N’ Roses, “Paradise City” (1988)
18. Fine Young Cannibals, “She Drives Me Crazy” (1989)
19. John Lennon, “(Just Like) Starting Over” (1980)
20. U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name” (1987)
21. Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Pride and Joy” (1983)
22. Rush, “Tom Sawyer” (1981)
23. Split Enz, “I Got You” (1980)
24. Modern English, “I Melt with You” (1982)
25. U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (1984)

The Gibsons critics' poll is decent, too, although their #1 choice, "London Calling" by The Clash seems curious. "London Calling" has always struck me as about the 17th best Clash song ever. It's monumental in style, but seems underwritten, as if it needs another hook of some sort. I believe somebody could take the catchy bass line from The Pretenders' "Mystery Achievement," which was released the same week in December 1979, and add it to "London Calling," and you'd have a better song. The critics poll:

1. The Clash, “London Calling” (1980)
2. Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (1988)
3. Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (1983)
4. Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle” (1987)
5. Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (1989)
6. AC/DC, “You Shook Me All Night Long (1980)
7. Prince, “When Doves Cry” (1984)
8. Def Leppard, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” (1987)
9. Van Halen, “Jump” (1984)
10. Duran Duran, “Hungry Like The Wolf” (1982)
11. Queen and David Bowie, “Under Pressure” (1981)
12. U2, “With or Without You” (1987)
13. Bruce Springsteen, “The River” (1981)
14. Bon Jovi , “Livin’ on a Prayer” (1986)
15. New Order, “Blue Monday” (1983)
16. Prince, “1999” (1982)
17. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, “I Love Rock ’n Roll” (1981)
18. U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (1984)
19. Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” (1981)
20. Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)
21. The Police, “Every Breath You Take” (1983)
22. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message” (1982)
23. Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House” (1983)
24. The Rolling Stones, “Start Me Up” (1981)
25. Van Halen, “Hot for Teacher” (1984)
26. Squeeze, “Tempted” (1981)
27. Run-D.M.C., “Walk This Way” (1986)
28. Dire Straits, “Money for Nothing” (1984)
29. The Smiths, “How Soon is Now?” (1985)
30. Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin’” (1981)
31. R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987)
32. U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name” (1987)
33. Motörhead, “Ace of Spades” (1980)
34. R.E.M., “Radio Free Europe (1981)
35. Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train” (1980)
36. Whitesnake, “Here I Go Again” (1987)
37. Madonna, “Like a Prayer” (1989)
38. Mötley Crüe, “Dr. Feelgood” (1989)
39. Beastie Boys, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” (1987)
40. Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Come on Eileen” (1982)
41. Michael Jackson, “Beat It” (1983)
42. Devo, “Whip It” (1980)
43. Guns N’ Roses, “Paradise City” (1988)
44. Big Country, “In a Big Country” (1983)
45. Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight” (1981)
46. AC/DC, “Back in Black” (1981)
47. Madonna, “Like a Virgin” (1984)
48. The Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian” (1986)
49. Sonic Youth, “Teen Age Riot” (1988)
50. The B-52’s, “Love Shack” (1989)

The fan choices are less diverse demographically than the critic choices. The fans picked overwhelmingly male groups (Pixies and Talking Heads had one woman each). The critics choices had two Madonna songs, a Bangles, and a Joan Jett, plus gender mixed groups Sonic Youth, B-52s, and Talking Heads.

Racially, the fans put Michael Jackson's Billie Jean at #15 (kind of a hard song to avoid for a 1980s list), but no Prince or any rappers. Fan favorites Guns n Roses have a half-black guitarist in Slash and the Van Halen brothers are a little Indonesian. Fine Young Cannibals was a mixed race offshoot of the mixed race band the English Beat.

The critics were somewhat more open to black artists, putting not just "Billie Jean" but also "Beat It" (with Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo) on their Top 50. They also chose two Prince songs, and three rap songs by blacks. Not surprisingly, they are exactly the three you'd expect white critics to come up with: Grandmaster Flash's "The Message," Run-D.M.C.'s remake with the two guys from Aerosmith of "Walk this Way" (which helped relaunch Aerosmith, who had seemed washed up, but they turned out to be so much better than the fat black guys on that track), and Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" from Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." (And Journey had Randy from American Idol as their bass player.)

It seems like music culture got more racially segregated over time. If you were conducting a poll not in 2011 but in 1981 of fans and critics interested in guitars of the best recordings of the 1950s, certainly Chuck Berry would have been heavily represented, plus Muddy Waters and some other blues musicians.

Offhand, I don't notice any Asians or Hispanics on the list, although Los Lobos's 1987 remake of Richie Valens "La Bamba" might have featured some of the more thrillingly precise guitar playing of the decade.

Most of these artists had short careers at the top, with obvious exceptions such as U2, Springsteen, Madonna, AC/DC, Ossy Osbourne, and REM. I don't know why 1980s artists tended to have short careers relative to 1960s-70s artists. Worse drugs? More competition?

I suspect fewer careers started quite as young as previously. The British Invasion bands were very young when they made a splash in 1964-65, but they were kicking in an open door. There was nobody ahead of them with a similar sound, so they could become stars when they were musically immature and then dazzle everybody by maturing into their peaks in their late 20s. With the Beatles, say, "Hey Jude" was a whole lot better than "Love Me Do." They got a lot of credit not just for being as great as they were on "Hey Jude" but also for not being as bad anymore as they had been on "Love Me Do."

In contrast, by the 1980s, outside of rap most of the obvious niches were already occupied. Artists were expected to be pretty mature musically by the time a lot of money was invested in a music video for them. By the 1980s, nobody was going to notice a "Love Me Do." You needed to be up to at least a "Daytripper" level to get noticed. So, that left less time at the top.

Let me try a baseball analogy. It's easier to get to 300 wins or 3000 hits if you can start in the majors at age 19 or 20. But if the competition gets tougher and the learning demands get higher so now you are expected to do, say, 3 years in college and 2 years in the minors so you don't get to start until, say, 23, it's just harder to pile up huge career numbers.

Can't tell you how many of these musicians were gay. Freddie Mercury and one of the guys in the B-52s died of AIDS. Morrisey of The Smiths and Michael Stipe of REM are, presumably, gay. Joan Jett is, presumably, a lesbian. Michael Jackson was weird.

Lots of guys who seemed kind of gay turned out not to be: Bowie, Jagger, Prince. Elegant Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music has four kids. In general, guitar rock is pretty straight.

One of the genres I always liked was the Brideshead Revisited style of Brit Fop Rock where, typically, working class kids like Ferry pretended to be all genteel.  I was amused to learn that Ferry, the son of a pit pony driver (in a coal mine?) but now a Tory country gentleman, is the father of Otis Ferry, who is perhaps Britain's most often arrested crusader for the defense of foxhunters' rights -- a character out of Evelyn Waugh. (In contrast, Joe Strummer of the Clash was a boarding school boy whose father, a diplomat who held the secret codes at various British embassies, was a good friend of Kim Philby).

Combining the the readers and critics lists:

6. Roxy Music, “More Than This” (1982)
24. Modern English, “I Melt with You” (1982)
10. Duran Duran, “Hungry Like The Wolf” (1982) (or "Rio"?)
11. Queen and David Bowie, “Under Pressure” (1981)
15. New Order, “Blue Monday” (1983) (or "Temptation" from 1981, where the real hook -- "Oh, you've got green eyes ..." -- doesn't emerge for many minutes)
20. Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)
29. The Smiths, “How Soon is Now?” (1985)

I'd add The Cure's "In Between Days" as another 1980s classic of jangly toff rock.

If you add together the 50 songs on the critics list and the 25 songs on the readers list, you get 46 from 1980-1984 and 29 from 1985-1989, which accords with my general perception that rock was losing momentum in the 1980s. Of course, I was losing momentum as I was getting older, too, but now I have statistical proof that my late 1980s complaint ("Rock music just isn't as awesome anymore as it was in December 1979, and get off my lawn!") was right.

The Texas Miracle

With the advent of Texas governor Rick Perry in the GOP Presidential race, there has been a lot of talk about the large number of jobs created in Texas v. the rest of the country. Much of the liberal critique of Perry (Paul KrugmanEzra Klein, Matthew Yglesias) is finally reflecting my 2005 analysis of Texas v. California, The Dirt Gap. Hey, it doesn't have much to do with Perry, it has to do with there being a lot of land in Texas, and not much environmental regulation, so housing prices are cheap!

A couple of additional Texas themes of mine that may become conventional wisdom in, oh, a half dozen years are:

- The bad news for Democrats from the Texas experiment is that it suggests that driving down the skill level of the population through mass immigration means that the only affordable, feasible kind of government in a future heavily mestizo America is a low tax - low spend - low regulation - conservative values Texas-style Republicanism.

- The bad news for Republicans out of Texas is that just such policies attract in so many immigrants and encourage so much fertility among immigrants that the Republicans will eventually get swamped demographically.

A city of L.A. gangs and English sunshine

From an AP article on the riots in England:
While senior British police officers openly resent that move, analysts of gang culture say it seems logical to seek American assistance, because today's British gangs consciously ape American gang ambitions and style, from the bling to the lingo. 
They talk in a street patois shaped by U.S. rap lyrics, use noms de guerre lifted straight from American gangster films and crime dramas, and choose such icons as Don Corleone, Al Pacino's Scarface or Baltimore ganglord Stringer Bell of "The Wire" TV series as their avatars on social-networking sites. 
"These teenage gangsters are creating their own criminal worlds, and in their minds it's very much an Americanized world. When they talk about the police, it's 'the Feds,' or 'The 5-0,' as in Hawaii 5-0," said Carl Fellstrom, an expert on England's gangs and author of a recent book on the topic, "Hoods." 
British law enforcement authorities admit that, until only a few years ago, they sought to minimize the scale and violent potential of their homegrown gangs. They promoted their preferred label of "delinquent youth groups" and billed full-blooded street gangs as an American phenomenon. ...
The starkest difference between British and American gangs is the firepower. In gun-control Britain, only the bigger gangs make firearms — smuggled in with drugs shipments from Holland, North Africa and the Caribbean — their weapon of choice. For U.K. teenage apprentices and wannabes, the knife is still king. 
Most of the more than 5,000 stabbings a year in Britain, according police and social workers, are gangs attacking rivals who strayed into their areas, muscled into their rackets, or simply insulted them. 
Already this year in London, eight teenagers have been stabbed to death. One wouldn't hand over his cell phone. Another was stopping a bicycle-borne gang from chasing his younger brother. 
Such bloodshed pales in comparison to the epicenter of gang culture, Los Angeles, where an estimated 90,000 gang members have been blamed for the majority of 297 murders last year [which is way down from a few years before]. 
The LA gang model is the world export leader, with chapters throughout the United States and Central America. Dozens of British gangs brand themselves as L.A.-style Crips and Bloods, too, although no true trans-Atlantic affiliation exists.

This whole idiotic Bloods-Crips thing got exported all over America after the beginning of West Coast gangsta rap around 1988. Local knuckleheads started calling themselves Bloods and Crips. By 1995, a lot of them were dead or in prison, and so the homicide rate dropped pretty quickly in the U.S. 

But, this kind of thing could go on a long time in gun-controlled and short jail-time Britain. 

It's like soccer rioting in England in the 1970s and 1980s, before it got squashed after the big death tolls at two soccer catastrophes in the later 1980s. Soccer rioting sounds totally moronic to Americans, because we assume it would get you killed really fast, but that mostly didn't happen for a long time. So, hooligan demographics weren't totally bottomscale. The guys who had the money to travel around Britain and Europe to take part in regular riots tended to be skilled blue collar workers. 

August 15, 2011

"Devoid of charm"

I wanted to briefly quote from my review of former Mexican foreign minister Jorge G. Castaneda's Manana Foreveri?
He notes that the impoverished Indian south of Mexico “continues to provide much of Mexico’s personality.” In contrast, the wealthier “north is industrious, modernizing, violent, lighter-skinned, and devoid of charm …” In short, the north sounds a lot like Los Angeles.

In Northeastern American intellectuals' assumptions about the impact of massive immigration from Mexico, I notice a lot of assuming that, of course, we are bound to get the best of both worlds -- all the visual quaintness of a Diego Rivera painting of the South of Mexico and all the industriousness of the North of Mexico. 

But, sometimes things work out like John F. Kennedy's description of Washington D.C.: "A city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm."

The evidence from the Southwest U.S. of a century or so of Mexican immigration is pretty similar to the north of Mexico: that you get a fair amount of industriousness, not much enterprise (especially not of a socially cooperative nature), and very little charm. Violence? Hard to say ... a lot in L.A. over the years (although far less than L.A. blacks), not much in El Paso.

Castaneda, by the way, worries about this conundrum. As a way out, he suggests some of the pleasant middle-sized old colonial cities of the middle of Mexico as national models: not too strip mallish, not too burroish.

Liebling's Law Confounded

A.J. Liebling, a mid-Century wit, made a boast that spells out the goal of every journalist: "I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better."

Or, you can get a gig with the New York Review of Books. The August 18, 2011 issue contains a review of Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I reviewed in January. Heck, my son wrote a high school term paper on the book in April that was at least as insightful.

Panhandling 3

Yet another day pleasing to my ego and bank account. Thanks. 

So, please, would you consider giving me money so I can keep on writing? I think you'll find a lot of good stuff posted over the weekend.
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August 14, 2011

Jorge G. Castañeda's "Mañana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans"

My new VDARE column is a long review of former Mexican foreign minister Jorge G. Castañeda's new book Mañana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans.
In 2001, Castañeda made a valiant effort to foist Mexico’s problems off on America—hey, you can’t blame him for trying. But today it’s obvious that America isn’t rich enough anymore to subsidize his country of 113 million. Mexico, therefore, is going to have to fix itself. 
Castañeda sees Mexico as doomed to perpetual mediocrity as long as it continues to indulge in its traditional worldview of victimism and anti-Americanism. If, as General Patton said, Americans love a winner, Mexicans love a loser.

Read the whole thing there.

I cover a whole lot of ground in this review, but something I'd add is that Castañeda has now come around to believing that Mexico's past and present is, relatively speaking, surprisingly nonviolent. In general, Castañeda seems to view Mexicans as being a little soft and childish, as being mama's boys.

This may seem unlikely, what with all the gruesome crimes in Mexico's current drug wars, but I can see that he has a point. 

Perhaps these opposing views can be reconciled by noting Mexico's traditional penchant for spectacular sadism, which goes back (at least) to Aztec priests ripping out captives' beating hearts on top of pyramids. You can't get much more spectacular or sadistic than that. But for sheer quantity of killing (as opposed to people dying due to side effects), it's hard to top Europeans in the 20th Century. White people had the organizational skills and the willpower and the ideological intensity to kill and die in ridiculous numbers.

Historian David Starkey is a big stupid stupid-head

Have you noticed how the smarter the offender against political correctness, the more the establishment denounces him for stupidity? A few nights ago, English historian David Starkey intellectually mopped the floor with the other three participants on a BBC talk show about the riots. Slowly the outraged losers in the debate are trying to gather their wits and respond.

Dreda Say Mitchell writes in The Guardian:
David Starkey's ethnic year zero 
The historian's views on race and rioting are ignorant and confused. Thankfully most people realise this 
Invited by BBC2's Newsnight last Friday for a discussion about the rioting, I was looking forward to an interesting debate. Fellow guests were Owen Jones, whose recent book on the white working class was widely admired, and historian David Starkey, whose perspective should have been a plus. 
But, instead of that debate, the viewers were treated to Starkey's random and confused thoughts on British youth culture. ... It is, as anyone who's tried it will know, very difficult to argue with crass stupidity. What do you make of someone who thinks using "Jamaican" slang encourages youth to torch buildings? You may as well argue that speaking with an upper-class accent encourages people to hunt foxes. 

Of course speaking with an upper-class English accent encourages people to hunt foxes. If you speak with an upper-class accent, you are vastly more likely to be invited to a fox hunt or to otherwise be invited to socialize with foxhunters or with people who approve of foxhunters than if you speak like Liza Doolittle's dad.

This isn't a particularly novel concept. G.B. Shaw wrote a play about the social and behavioral implications of English accents a century ago, Pygmalion. From Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady:
Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter,
Condemned by every syllable she ever uttered. ...
Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
This verbal class distinction, by now,
Should be antique.
If you spoke as she does, sir,
Instead of the way you do,
Why, you might be selling flowers, too! 

Conversely, if you think it's cool to speak like Ali G all the time, you are more likely to get invited along by other people who talk like Ali G to a looting. And if more people in your society start to think its cooler to speak like Ali G than like Henry Higgins, that means, to a somewhat lesser but still positive extent, that more people will think its cool to behave like Ali G than like Henry Higgins.
The host, Emily Maitlis, Jones and I had a go at challenging Starkey's views. But it's difficult to challenge someone who offers you no evidence apart from someone's text message and a spell teaching in Jamie Oliver's Dream School. 
As a former teacher I was tempted to suggest that Starkey go out into the corridor and think about what he'd said. Do intelligent and well-educated people in Britain really believe this nonsense? Are the debates about "race" and criminality that were supposed to have been fought and won decades ago going to have to be rehashed? Do we really need to compare gangsta rap with other forms of "outlaw" music, like country and western? Again? 
Mercifully the response to Starkey's remarks was overwhelmingly negative. I've been bombarded with emails and tweets from across the globe, 99% of which found him either ludicrous or comical. One tweeter was reminded of the 1970s character Eddie Booth from Love Thy Neighbour, the British sitcom. ... 
But the central problem with Starkey's comments is that they were based on complete ignorance about the social dynamics of urban life in Britain. 

In sum, everybody I know knows that I'm smart and David Starkey is stupid, for reasons that I can't quite put my finger on at the moment, but, obviously, I'm smart and he's a big stupid-head, almost as ignorant and unintelligent as that Enoch Powell.

Interview with shopkeeper Big Jim

Big Jim: "By 11 oclock there was at least 100, 200 black youths [inaudible], just rampaging, every shop -- "
Reporter: “You’re not being stereotypical there?”
Big Jim: “No, absolutely…” 
Reporter: “Are you sure that they were black? I’m sure they weren’t all black, were they? It doesn't make any sense ...” 
Big Jim: ”OK, then. Let me just say they weren’t all black. One of them there was a white guy. I was."
Reporter: “Well, there were probably other white guys there as well.” 
Big Jim: “I didn’t see any.”

Die Welt: "Most defendants confirm all stereotypes"

While the NY Times puzzled until its puzzler was sore over the occasional man bites dog looters (the lady social worker, etc.), commenter Theo M notes that the German newspaper Die Welt reports that the main story was ... dog bites man.
Riots in the UK
Most defendants confirm all stereotypes 
Dispensation of justice on the assembly line in a 24-hour court: Despite a few exceptions most defendants confirm all stereotypes: foreigners, criminal, unemployed. Half of the accused are minor. 
In recent days many British media reported on defendants that did not confirm typical prejudices against rioters at all. There was the aspiring social worker who stole a flat screen TV, the student who swiped two T-shirts, or the elementary school teacher who broke into a music store. 
A night at Westminster Magistrates' Court, however, conveys a different picture: Almost all suspects have a migrant background, no job, but a sizable criminal record. About half of the defendants are minor, yet parents hardly felt the need to appear in court. 

Why do dogs ...

The New York Times is puzzled by the riots in England:
British Ask ‘Why,’ but Answers Are Unclear 
At the heart of a debate after the riots in Britain is the question of what drove even some previously law-abiding Britons to steal.

Because, like the dogs in the old joke, they can?