November 11, 2011

Try this fun Google search!

Type this into Google:
rape football -paterno

I get 43,100,000 hits, and that is without any references to Penn St.'s disgraced coach. Now, some of those are pro football players, some high school, and some foreign soccer players. But, anybody who follows college football knows that players (although not coaches) get formally accused of sexual assault. A lot. And then, usually, the story goes away

The prototypical case is of the kind that makes up the central mystery in Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full: black player, white woman. There's not much of a media market for those kind of dog bites man stories, which is why so much publicity was given to the Duke lacrosse team hoax. (Similarly, "manager rapes aspiring boy band singer" or "movie producer rapes aspiring child star" are dog bites man stories that don't get much traction in the press.) 

College football is a great game. I hadn't been to a college football game since watching Plaxico Burress stomp all over Northwestern in the 1990s, but a neighbor gave me a couple of his season tickets to last Saturday's UCLA 29 - Arizona St. 28 upset at the Rose Bowl, and it was a terrific spectator sport experience.  

I heartily commend to aggressive rich men with a need to win that they try manipulating college football as a fine substitute for manipulating the U.S. government into bombing their relatives' tribal enemies for them. 

On the other hand, the Penn State scandal, much as it's a man bites dog story, provides an opportunity for intelligent conservatives to reflect upon how much energy and money they pour into college football and other zero sum sports, a little bit of which could go a long way in the real world.

Living Forever

Here's a fun article in New York Magazine by Jesse Green, What Do a Bunch of Old Jews Know About Living Forever?, about a medical research project in New York on Ashkenazis over the age of 95, including a quartet of four wealthy siblings, the Kahns, all over 100. One Kahn still comes into work everyday as chairman of his financial firm to check up on his 69-year-old son, the CEO, to make sure, presumably, that the youngster's callowness doesn't trip him up.
For these studies, Barzilai has assembled a cohort of some 540 people over the age of 95 who, like the Kahns, reached that milestone having never experienced the so-called big four: cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and cognitive decline. He theorized that these “SuperAgers,” as he calls them, must have something that protects them from all four conditions. Otherwise, when they didn’t have a heart attack, say, at 78, they’d have succumbed quickly to the next thing on their body’s inscrutable list. So instead of looking, as most genetic studies do, for pieces of DNA that correlate with the likelihood of getting diseases, Barzilai looked for the opposite: genes that correlate with the likelihood of not getting them—and thus with longevity. 
The top correlate for longevity is one that requires no blood test to discover: having a SuperAger in your family already. ... Barzilai has so far identified, or corroborated, at least seven associative markers. The most significant is the Cholesterol Ester Transfer Protein gene, or CETP, which in one unusual form correlates with slower memory decline, lower risk for dementia, and strongly increased protection against heart disease. (Among other things, it increases the amount and size of “good” cholesterol.) Only about 9 percent of control subjects have two copies (one from each parent) of the protective form of CETP, while 24 percent of the centenarians do, including all four Kahn siblings. 
There’s evidence, as well, that small stature among the SuperAgers (Irving is now about five foot two) may reflect the influence of a protective factor seen throughout nature; ponies live longer than horses. ... 
But the Einstein project is fascinating for a major reason beyond its science: Its main test group consists entirely of Ashkenazim—that is, Jews who descend, as more than 80 percent of American Jews do, from communities in the Pale of Settlement of Eastern Europe. In longevity news, the spotlight frequently passes from one group to another: Georgian yogurt eaters, Japanese pensioners, the Pennsylvania Dutch. But 540 Jews in a New York–based study of extreme old age is too delicious. The mind cramps with the possibility of jokes. 
... Barzilai centered his studies on Ashkenazim not because they live longer or produce more centenarians than other ethnic groups. They don’t. It’s that their unusual development as a homogeneous community makes them easier to study at the level of DNA. Genetic research done by Barzilai’s Einstein colleague Gil Atzmon suggests that Ashkenazim branched off from other Jews around the time of the destruction of the First Temple, 2,500 years ago. They flourished during the Roman Empire but then went through a “severe bottleneck” as they dispersed, reducing a population of several million to just 400 families who left Northern Italy around the year 1000 for Central and eventually Eastern Europe. Though their numbers increased dramatically once there, to some 18 million before the Holocaust, studies suggest that 40 percent of today’s Ashkenazim descend from just four Jewish mothers. How proud those mothers would be to know that the reason their mishpocheh has remained far more genetically alike than a random population—Barzilai says by a factor of at least 30—is that until recently their sons almost never married outside the clan.

As I've pointed out, "white guilt" is guilt over being too ethnocentric, "Jewish guilt" is is guilt over being not ethnocentric enough.
That likeness means that small genetic differences—as small as one “letter” of DNA code—are more easily spotted on Ashkenazi genes than on those of, say, Presbyterians. Icelanders are good, too: They are all descendants, Barzilai says, of five Viking men and four Irish women. But they are a tiny population, with proportionately fewer centenarians, and aren’t so easy to find in New York. Ashkenazim are plentiful. And because they are also fairly similar in their educational and economic status, some of the variables that can muddy the picture are already controlled. 
Others are controlled more explicitly. An Einstein study published in August asked whether the SuperAgers, over the course of their lives, had better health habits than the general population. 
The answer was no; their habits were, if anything, worse. They smoked as much or more than others and were no better about diet or exercise.

My father is 94. He never smoked, drank only moderately, and comes from a high energy family that needs to be moving all the time. His nephew, my hippie cousin, for example, was an organic farmer for decades, and now that he has a desk job, he spends about 25 hours a week at the gym. When my cousin came for a visit to his parents in Arcadia, CA, at the age of 51, he hiked to the top of Mt. Wilson, a 5,000 foot ascent, every day for two weeks. It's unfortunate that social scientists don't seem to have a reliable quick test of energy the way they have tests of intelligence, since it's obvious that energy differs widely among individuals and is important in influencing life outcomes.

November 10, 2011

High-stakes Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat -- the argument that the reason blacks or other Groups of Concern score worse on tests is because of stereotypes that they score worse on tests -- has been a wildly popular concept since the 1990s. It has proven fairly easy in psych lab experiments to get college student volunteers of the chosen varieties to not score well on zero-stakes tests by hinting to them that they are expected not to do well. To fulfill their professors' desires for a publishable result, all they have to do is slack off instead of work hard on the meaningless test, and college students are good at slacking off. 

On the other hand, it would be unethical to try to drive down the scores of members of Groups of Concern on high-stakes tests, so there is very little experimental data on whether stereotype threat actually exists on high-stakes tests, which is what everybody cares about. So, Walters, Lee, and Trapani did a study in for ETS in 2004 looking at various factors that had been alleged in experimental studies to cause Stereotype Threat using real data from the high-stakes GRE. This is about as close as anybody can come ethically to studying Stereotype Threat on a high-stakes test.
The study investigated the applicability of previous experimental research on stereotype threat to operational Graduate Record Examinations® (GRE®) General Test testing centers. The goal was to document any relationships between features of the testing environment that might cue stereotype threat as well as any impact on GRE test scores among African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and female test-takers. Among such features were the gender and ethnicity of test proctors and more general factors, such as the size, activity level, and social atmosphere of test centers. Our analyses revealed several relationships among environmental factors and several variations in test performance for all groups. However, we found no direct support for stereotype threat and, in fact, found some effects for proctor ethnicity that ran counter to a stereotype-threat explanation.

Isaacson's "Steve Jobs" v. Remnick's "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama"

I didn't have a chance in my long review of Steve Jobs to compliment Walter Isaacson on the fine job he did. One obvious comparison is to another recent 600-page biography by another major figure in establishment journalism, David Remnick's 2010 biography of the President, The Bridge

First, Isaacson's book is a lot more interesting. Partly that's due to the nature of the subject: Jobs just did a lot more things than Obama up through the same age. By the age when Obama was elected President, Jobs had overseen bringing out the Apple I, Apple II, Mac, Next, iMac, OS X, and iPod. So, Remnick had to pad his book out with long Black History Month digressions about stuff that happened in Alabama or Chicago while Barack Obama was toddling on the beach in Honolulu. Isaacson, in contrast, barely has room to introduce you to colorful Silicon Valley characters like Nolan Bushnell, Jobs's boss at Atari on Pong.

Remnick's book consists of Obama not doing stuff while people he met praise him; Isaacson's book consists of Jobs doing stuff while people who work for him or against him complain about him. Which one sounds like a better read?

The other difference is that Remnick toadies up to the most powerful man in the world, which is prudent but dull. Isaacson is impressively even-handed.

College coaches

From the New York Times, a 2007 story about a coaching sex scandal at Penn State, where most of the article is devoted to worrying about whether bigots will get the wrong message from the news:
April 19, 2007 
In Recruiting Season, Mistrust Is Raised at L.S.U. 
Now that the women’s college basketball season has ended, many coaches are on the road recruiting through mid-May. And, some said in recent interviews, they could face fallout from last month’s resignation of Pokey Chatman from Louisiana State, following charges of what the university described yesterday for the first time as inappropriate sexual relationships between her and former players. 
“This is everyone’s worst nightmare,” Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, said during widespread discussion of the Chatman case during the N.C.A.A. tournament. 
At its heart, L.S.U. officials said, the Chatman case is about abuse of trust or power. Yet some coaches, administrators and academics say they fear that the accusations against Chatman will inflame homophobia; reinforce stereotypes of lesbians as sexual predators; lead to more so-called negative recruiting, or attempts to steer players away from coaches suspected of being gay; increase skepticism toward the hiring of single women as head coaches; and scare the parents of potential recruits. 
“I think there are coaches who may try to use this against any female coaches who are not married and just make innuendo, to put fear in some players’ minds or parents’ minds,” said Gail Goestenkors, the former Duke coach who moved this month to the University of Texas. “That happens sometimes now anyway. I think that will fuel the fire a little bit.” ...
The most immediate impact of the Chatman case, some coaches said during the N.C.A.A. tournament, may be an increase in negative recruiting. Coaches and administrators disagree on how widespread the role of suspected lesbianism plays in pitting one university against another, but many agree the practice exists in a manner that can be subtle and overt.... 
Sometimes, coaches say, sexual orientation becomes a blunt tool in recruiting, with a rival coach saying to a prospective player or her parents: “You don’t want to go to this school because the coach is a lesbian or there are lesbians on the team.” 
A coach who is described as being a lesbian becomes almost defenseless in confronting such claims, left with the choice of denying it or saying, “I am but I won’t bother your daughter,” said Linda Carpenter, emeritus professor of physical education at Brooklyn College who has studied the participation of women in sports for three decades. 
“It gives fodder to people looking for a reason to carve out an area where women need not apply,” Carpenter said. ...
Kane, the sports sociologist at Minnesota, said she once heard a female coach say that the best coaching qualifications for a woman are to be divorced with no children. This ostensibly establishes her heterosexuality while leaving her free to hit the road on recruiting trips. 
Chatman has been replaced at L.S.U. by Van Chancellor [a man]. This is a sensitive subject at a time of a declining rate of women’s teams being coached by women. In Division I women’s basketball, 230 of the 332 teams — 69.3 percent — were coached by women in 2006, Carpenter said. In 1992, that percentage was 72.2 percent. ...

That because pay and pressure has gone up, so more men have gotten into coaching women's basketball.
“I think there needs to be an opportunity for women to coach women,” Finch said. “I hate to see people that are anti-Title IX — and there’s a lot of that sentiment — say, ‘Here’s another way we can take down women in sports.’ ” A regrettable aspect of the L.S.U. case was that it would likely reinforce the stereotype of lesbians as sexual threats, said Pat Griffin, professor emeritus of social justice at the University of Massachusetts and author of the book “Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports.” Her own research, Griffin said, indicated that the “vast majority” of lesbian coaches were “very scrupulous” about their treatment of players. “They know how unfounded accusations can ruin careers,” Griffin said.
... The resignation of Coach Rene Portland from Penn State last month may also signal that those who discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation could face a loss of top-quality recruits and a loss of their jobs, Kane said. 
Portland resigned weeks after settling a lawsuit filed by a former player who accused her of banning lesbians from her team. Previously, Portland was fined by the university and ordered to take diversity training. 

Penn State ... No homophobia allowed!

My patience with "Moneyball" is running out

The subhead for Michael Lewis's review of Daniel Kahnemen's Thinking, Fast and Slow in Vanity Fair reads:
Billy Beane’s sports-management revolution, chronicled by the author in Moneyball, was made possible by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Then Lewis goes on to lament in amazement how could anyone have made such super gigantic mistakes as all the baseball executives in the history of the world until Bill James and Billy Beane came along, or something like that.

I'm a big fan of advanced baseball statistics, but its actual impact has been pretty marginal (other than the message: take lots of performance-enhancing drugs, but that didn't really require a degree in stats to figure out). Consider this shocking revelation I discovered in my voluminous readings of sabermetrics:

Q. Who was the greatest baseball player of all time?

A. Babe Ruth.

Of course, Babe Ruth was also the most famous and popular baseball player of all time, in real time. Baseball fans went nuts over him the moment he started hitting huge numbers of homers. Decades later, sabermetricians fired up their computers and figured out: hey, the bleacher bums were right.

Q. Who was the greatest American League player of the 1950s?

A. Mickey Mantle.

So, the nine year old boys of America were right in 1956. Mickey Mantle was enormously famous throughout his career. I suspect many of my foreign readers don't believe that Mickey Mantle was a real baseball player. They can vaguely recall the name, but he sounds like a fictitious folk hero, like Yankee Doodle or Jack Armstrong or Horatio Alger, made up to symbolize American post-WWII dominance. (Similarly, I suspect foreigners sometimes get Babe Ruth and Paul Bunyan confused.)

In other words, baseball fans's views were pretty accurate. And that's not terribly surprising: if you listen to most of your teams's games on the radio, much less have season tickets, you'll figure out pretty accurately who are the best players on the team and who are the worst. For example, sabermetricians like to claim that LA Dodger first baseman Steve Garvey was overrated because he was handsome but didn't get a lot of walks. Statistics prove, they like to say, that Reggie Smith was better than Garvey in the Dodgers' World Series years of 1977-78. Indeed, but Dodger fans knew that already. Fans at Dodger Stadium voted Smith the team MVP both years over Garvey.

What advanced statistical analysis did was improve what national baseball intellectuals had to say. What sportswriters had to say about their local team had always tended to be pretty reasonable: they watched all the games and, as Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just watching. But when sportswriters went to vote for the Most Valuable Player award for the whole league, since they didn't see many games played by the likely candidates, on other teams, they tended to overvalue dumb statistics like runs batted in. They felt they needed some statistical evidence to justify their votes, and it was traditional to overweight the RBI number.

Bill James argued that people who denounced his emphasis on statistics weren't free of statistics, they were just slaves to dumb statistics. But that was mostly true of their evaluations of players not on their own team. You know how at hockey games, the announcer comes on after the game is over and announces the third-best, second-best, and best player in tonight's game? They don't say that out-loud in baseball, but fans kind of do it in their heads, so if they listen to 100 games on the radio in the season, they have a pretty good idea in their head that in those 100 games Reggie Smith was the best player in about 18 of those games and Steve Garvey in about 12, so Reggie is the team MVP.

But league MVP awards are a pretty minor part of the game. 

Similarly, when I was a kid in the 1960s, Babe Ruth was the most famous ballplayer ever, but it was a mark of intellectual sophistication to say that his homerun hitting was vulgar and that real experts all knew that the line drive hitting and base stealing Ty Cobb was better. But that's just mostly an epiphenomenon. Nobody benched Ruth because they didn't understand baseball statistics. They just watched games and Ruth clearly dominated over the other players.

So, while the rise of sabermetrics had some impact on how baseball was played (much of its impact malign), in the big scheme of things, it's pretty small change. The big impacts of better statistics are on the post-season awards and who gets into the Hall of Fame, not on the field of play.

Remember how it drove sabermetricians crazy in 2001 that sportswriters gave the AL MVP award to elegant Ichiro Suzuki rather than lumbering Jason Giambi, who almost died a few years later from all the PEDs he was taking in order to get his Billy Beane-approved surfeit of homers and walks? (For some reason, those statistical geniuses never tried to figure out which players were on the juice.)

For example, who were the best players on the 2002 Oakland A's, the team featured in Moneyball, as ranked on Wins Above Replacement? Oddly enough, you can't answer that question accurately from reading Lewis's book. The main reason the team did well was little mentioned in the book: its three ace pitchers Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder were 15.4 wins above replacement. Three of the bad guys in the book for not taking enough pitches, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, and John Mabry, were 10.8 wins above replacement. And the three heroes of the book, Scott Hatteberg, Chad Bradford, and David Justice, were 5.5 wins above replacement: useful acquisitions, but pretty marginal in the big picture of things, which is a pretty accurate evaluation of sabermetrics role in baseball: modestly useful.


So what exactly has changed over the last few weeks in Italy, a country that, in my experience, doesn't change much fundamentally over time, that it is now suddenly the world locus of financial crisis? Or is Italy just next on the list now that the financial community has gotten what it can out of the Greece situation?

I don't get it

Here's a question from the sidebar, The Quiz Daniel Kahneman Wants You to Fail, to Michael Lewis's review in Vanity Fair of Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow:
2. A team of psychologists performed personality tests on 100 professionals, of which 30 were engineers and 70 were lawyers. Brief descriptions were written for each subject. The following is a sample of one of the resulting descriptions:
Jack is a 45-year-old man. He is married and has four children. He is generally conservative, careful, and ambitious. He shows no interest in political and social issues and spends most of his free time on his many hobbies, which include home carpentry, sailing, and mathematics.

What is the probability that Jack is one of the 30 engineers?
A. 10–40 percent
B. 40–60 percent
C. 60–80 percent
D. 80–100 percent

Here's the explanation given:
If you answered anything but A (the correct response being precisely 30 percent), you have fallen victim to the representativeness heuristic again, despite having just read about it. When Kahneman and Tversky performed this experiment, they found that a large percentage of participants overestimated the likelihood that Jack was an engineer, even though mathematically, there was only a 30-in-100 chance of that being true. This proclivity for attaching ourselves to rich details, especially ones that we believe are typical of a certain kind of person (i.e., all engineers must spend every weekend doing math puzzles), is yet another shortcoming of the hyper-efficient System 1.


Let's add some more of those rich details:
Jack has a B.S. degree from Purdue. At work, Jack wears a short-sleeve button-front shirt with a pocket protector full of mechanical pencils, just like most of Jack's coworkers on his floor. Jack always wears a tie clasp to keep his necktie from getting smudged by the blueprints when he leans over a drafting table. Jack's favorite line from Shakespeare is, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." In fact, that's the only line from Shakespeare he knows. Jack wanted to name his firstborn son Kirk Spock, but his wife wouldn't let him.

So the percentage chance of Jack being an engineer is still "precisely 30 percent"?

I think one of the most widely overlooked cognitive flaws in the media is assuming that ignorance is smart, that scientists have proven that not noticing human patterns shows you have a high IQ (not that there's any such thing as IQ!).

I imagine that this sidebar wasn't made up by Kahneman or Lewis, but by some intern at Vanity Fair.

But, let me explain the fundamental flaw in Kahneman's underlying reasoning on this topic, and why it can mislead Vanity Fair staffers into thinking it validates their Jihad Against Prejudice. From Lewis's article:
It didn’t take me long to figure out that, in a not so roundabout way, Kahneman and Tversky had made my baseball story [Moneyball] possible. In a collaboration that lasted 15 years and involved an extraordinary number of strange and inventive experiments, they had demonstrated how essentially irrational human beings can be. In 1983—to take just one of dozens of examples—they had created a brief description of an imaginary character they named “Linda.” “Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright,” they wrote. “She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.” 
Then they went around asking people the same question: 
Which alternative is more probable? 
(1) Linda is a bank teller.
(2) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. 
The vast majority—roughly 85 percent—of the people they asked opted for No. 2, even though No. 2 is logically impossible. (If No. 2 is true, so is No. 1.) The human mind is so wedded to stereotypes and so distracted by vivid descriptions that it will seize upon them, even when they defy logic, rather than upon truly relevant facts. Kahneman and Tversky called this logical error the “conjunction fallacy.”

Of course, Jack and Linda don't, actually, exist. They were made up by K&T. Now, most people don't read about other people, real or fictional, in the context of psychology experiments where the professors are attempting to pull the wool over their eyes. They read about other people in novels, journalism, history and so forth where writers try to select details to communicate larger, more interesting points. So, they've gotten pretty good at figuring out what larger message the author is trying to communicate by selecting details. As a commenter says, it's Chekhov's Gun: If Jack cleans his gun in Act I, you better believe his gun is going to go off at some point in the play.

So, the point is that Kahneman and Tversky went to the trouble of telling their subjects these specific details. The subjects didn't observe these details, they read them in a piece of prose that K&T crafted. So their subjects assumed that Kahneman and Tversky weren't tossing in random details to yank their chains and waste everybody's time. Subjects assumed good faith on the part of the professors. If a novelist gives you a bunch of details about a character, which is what Kahneman and Tversky were imitating, the novelist isn't going to throw in random details. But, of course, time-wasting and chain-yanking were exactly what K&T were trying to do.

November 9, 2011

Chinese kindness

The L.A. Times has an article about how the Chinese are doing some soul-searching after videos have been posted of their callousness toward accident victims. In one incident, a lady from Uruguay was the only bystander to come to the aid of a victim.

On the other hand, I'm not sure if people in general are that quick to help out in emergencies, especially if they can tell themselves that somebody else will handle it. 

In 1993, I was driving down Lawrence Blvd. in Chicago, and was stopped at a red light at Western Blvd., third in line. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw somebody sprint across Western trying to make the bus at the corner. Bam! She got hit by a car, rolled up on the hood, fell off the right side of the hood, and landed on her head in the lane of traffic. 

"Wow," I said to myself. "If there weren't so many pedestrians, bus passengers, and other drivers closer to her than me, I really ought to get out and drag her out of the street before somebody else runs her over and finishes her off." I waited maybe two seconds, but nobody else moved toward her. So, I grabbed my keys and sprinted about 100 feet to her, waving my arms to alert drivers not to hit us. The young woman had a golf-ball size lump on her skull, but was moving enough, trying to get to her knees to crawl, to show that her neck and back weren't broken. I hauled her to the sidewalk. 

In May 1999, I was walking south along the west bank of the Chicago River toward, as I recall, the Madison St. bridge at 6 pm, in a huge crowd during rush hour. I saw something plummet off the bridge, which is about 50 feet high, heard a splash, and saw arms waving frantically in the cold river. Probably about thousand bystanders gawked at the woman in the water. 

I ran a half block down to the bridge, yelling for somebody to call 911 (I didn't have a cell phone), then sprinted across the river, passing hundreds of people, to the lifesaver ring attached to a rope in a glass case at the bridgetender's tower near the corner of Madison and South Wacker. That's probably a few hundred yards, and I'm slow, so that must have taken at least 90 seconds, but when I got to the life preserver, nobody else was there. (I am an old Boy Scout type, so I had noticed the life ring years before; I imagine most pedestrians never paid any attention to it.)

I whacked ineffectually on the glass with my casual leather shoe a few times, but then a well-dressed passer-by gave me his umbrella and I smashed the glass, wrecking his umbrella. (He didn't mind.) I then ran back to the middle of the river, tied the rope to the railing, yelled down to the woman, and dropped the buoy (managing to not clonk her on the head with the lifesaver, which would have been ironic but unfortunate). She grabbed it and hung on, and about 5 minutes later a fire department boat arrived and hauled her in. 

This was an upscale crowd, too, mostly Loop office workers on their way to the Northwestern train station to ride home to the nice suburbs. But the guy who volunteered his umbrella for me to use in smashing the glass was the first other person I noticed taking any self-initiated action in the first 100 or so seconds. 

So, while I imagine the Chinese do need to get better, it's not like Americans are all that forthcoming, especially when there is a huge crowd of others who might get involved first.

"A New Book Argues Against the SAT"

From the NYT:
A New Book Argues Against the SAT 
When Wake Forest University announced three years ago that it would make the SAT optional for its undergraduate applicants, among those cheering was Joseph Soares, a sociology professor at the university. Mr. Soares has channeled his enthusiasm for Wake Forest’s decision — as well as for similar policies at several hundred other colleges — into a new book, “SAT Wars,” that argues for looking beyond standardized test scores in college admissions. (The book was published last month by Teachers College Press.) 
“The SAT and ACT are fundamentally discriminatory,”  Mr. Soares said in a phone interview last week. 
Through his own essays in the book, as well as those of contributors that he edited, Mr. Soares seeks to build a case against the SAT. He characterizes it as a test that tends to favor white, male, upper income students with the means to prepare for it.

Because Asians do so badly on the SAT.

"Tower Heist"

From my movie review in Taki's Magazine:
Six years ago, Eddie Murphy proposed taking Ocean’s Eleven and inverting it. An all-black cast would play Trump Tower servants who join forces to steal tens of millions from their overbearing boss. And rather than be ace criminals, they’d be bumbling, law-abiding citizens who have to learn their new craft on the fly. 
Producer Brian Grazer and widely despised director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) immediately started kicking around names such as Tracy Morgan, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Jamie Foxx to team with Murphy in Tower Heist. Over the years, they paid a dozen or so top screenwriters to take a whack at this story. But Hollywood’s finest were repeatedly stumped. 

Why wasn't the movie made with an all-black cast as Murphy proposed?

Read the whole thing there.

By the way, Tower Heist features some good casting and/or rewriting to fit the cast. For example, I've long wondered why Matthew Broderick is considered a star. He seems lazy, puffy, and unenergetic to me. I guess it's because Ferris Beuller was a hit 25 years ago and he's been coasting on that every since. So, here he's cast as resident of Trump Tower, a former Merrill Lynch trader, who has gotten foreclosed upon.  He's introduced with lines something like these:

Ben Stiller as manager: "Sir, the bank insists that you vacate today."

Matthew Broderick (looking puffy, probably from heavy duty anti-depressants): "The market went up 106 points today. Do you know why?"

Ben Stiller: "No, sir."

Matthew Broderick (mournful and slightly hysterical): "Neither do I. I used to know, or I thought I did. But now I don't."

In other words, Matthew Broderick's character, a stock trader who got lucky early in his career, is pretty similar to Matthew Broderick, an actor who got lucky early in his career. And guess what? Broderick is good at playing a passive, self-pitying has-been.

November 8, 2011

Steve Jobs's Secret

Lots of people love beautiful things, but not many hate ugly things, or merely things that aren't quite beautiful, as much as Steve Jobs did. He was a great hater. That's an important element in having excellent taste: don't see the glass as half full. Jobs usually saw it as 110% empty.

In contrast, I don't have outstanding taste because I'm not a good hater. I see most glasses as part full. For example, I've always wanted to have outstanding taste in golf course architecture, but I like golf courses too much. I look at a mediocre golf course and say, "Hey, it's better than a strip mall!" Then, like most people, I tend to grow attached to the familiar and become accepting of its flaws. It's a more pleasant way to go through life, but the tradeoff is that you probably won't browbeat a giant staff into performing wonders.

And here's Malcolm Gladwell's review of Isaacson's Steve Jobs, in which he determines that the secret to Jobs's success was that he was a "tweaker." I dunno, Jobs's teeth always looked okay to me. We both used the same "I'll know it when I see it" quote, which shows we both read to p. 499, which is about 400 pages farther than most reviewers read their usual assigned books.

Anybody ever notice this?

We all know that American workers can't compete with East Asian workers in manufacturing. 

Yet, the Korean automobile firm Hyundai started selling cars in the U.S. around 1986, but they quickly got a reputation for poor quality. A half decade ago, they started assembling Hyundais at a huge plant they built in Montgomery, Alabama. And guess what? Hyundai's reputation for quality immediately shot upwards. The 2011 Sonata has been one of the hottest selling cars of the last year in the ultracompetitive family sedan slot long dominated by Accords and Camrys (which are mostly also assembled in America).

There were almost no foreign-owned auto factories in the U.S. until the Reagan Administration, despite ideological doubts over the evils of protectionism, imposed import quotas on Japanese makers, who responded by building factories here. The import quotas were lifted decades ago, but two things remain: first, the threat that they might be someday reimposed, and second, the new awareness on the part of foreign manufacturers that -- hey, whaddaya know! -- American workers can build good cars for a good price.

Overall, this seems like one of the better decisions of the Reagan Administration. But in politics these days, victory is an orphan, at least when victories are theoretically impossible under globalist ideology.

You get more of what you pay for

Here's a good article in Slate by Gershom Gorenberg on how Israeli government subsidies have created so many ultra-Orthodox men who don't work, don't soldier, but do father many children. The author feels this is disastrous for the Israeli economy, but, overall, the Israeli economy is doing pretty well, although rapid Jewish population growth in Israel has caused land prices to skyrocket.

What's not included is the "bleed-off rate" of what % of ultra-orthodox leave the lifestyle and become tax-paying workers.

In general, the Israeli government is pretty good at manipulating population dynamics to bring about favored outcomes. For decades you heard that Israel was doomed because Israeli Jewish fertility is too low. Well, guess what? It has gone up. Now you hear a lot of complaints from secular Jewish Israelis that the fertility is too high among the wrong kind of Israeli Jews.

Well, the Israeli government created that high ultra-Orthodox fertility by turning on the financial spigot, and I don't think it's all that far-fetched that at some point they'll turn off the welfare gravy train for the ultra-Orthodox.

The point is that in Israel, very smart people are encouraged to publicly discuss these kinds of population issues so that appropriate steps can be taken, whereas in the U.S., anybody who brings up these topics is demonized. Can you imagine Slate running an article complaining about the high fertility of illegal immigrants in the U.S.?

A decade ago, for instance, demographer Hans P. Johnson of the super-respected Public Policy Institute of California pointed out that the 1986 amnesty law created a major Hispanic baby boom in California from 1988-1994, which had sizable consequences for the state. But who, besides me, every pointed this out, even when amnesty and guest workers were the hot topics in Washington in 2004, 2006, and 2007? It's just not done. (But it is in Israel.)

Libertarians and the First Person Plural

An Australian friend fisks a typical exercise in shaming:
Liberal economists on free-market auto-pilot.
Memo to Unions: White Australia was a bad idea
Chris Berg,
The Age 
So given the union movement's historical culpability for the White Australia policy, you would think someone like Sheldon might be sensitive to the nuances of xenophobia. Labor-sympathetic historians in recent decades have tried to sheet the White Australia policy home to prejudice. Immigration restriction was, many post-1960s historians have claimed, simply the result of a racist zeitgeist. But the White Australia policy was led by a union movement trying to eliminate competition in the labour market. This is an awkward truth.

True enough. And the result was the highest wages in the world, very progressive welfare policies and unprecedented period of social peace, lasting from 1900 through to the seventies. So much so that pre-Vietnam War Australia was called "working man's paradise". But apparently that is all a shameful dark history because there was no free trade or open borders.
The only serious opposition to White Australia came from pro-market thinkers - particularly the great free-trade MP Bruce Smith, who described the policy as ''racial prejudice''.

Not even him. He just wanted the nativists to tone down the rhetoric to mollify the sensitivities of higher caste members of the Empire or Sterling block. Wikipedia reports:
A few politicians spoke of the need to avoid hysterical treatment of the question. Member of Parliament Bruce Smith said he had "no desire to see low-class Indians, Chinamen or Japanese...swarming into this country... But there is obligation...not (to) unnecessarily offend the educated classes of those nations"[11]

Back to Berg:
In Australian history, racism has usually had an economic context. After all, why should it be a matter of urgent public policy that some jobs be kept within Australian borders? On what moral basis is limiting immigration to protect workers from competition a good thing, as was proposed by unions at the start of the financial crisis.

Perhaps because these men have families here whereas foreigners don't. Someone has to look after them. The fact that baggage handlers can sometimes earn $80,000 pa (on overtime, night shift) is a cause of particular outrage. Imagine unskilled workers earning a good middle class income, The very idea!
Protectionism is bad for many reasons. It raises prices and lowers living standards - worrying enough. But its moral core is dark. Surely Australians are no more deserving of jobs than people from China, Japan or Singapore. Economic nationalism implies natives are worth more than foreigners. 

Yes, it does. Just as economic "corporation-ism" implies own company stock is worth more to their shareholders than it is to non-shareholders, with company policies crafted accordingly. And likewise economic familyism is justified, with family members getting a preferred share of the household assets, as opposed to some random guy in the street.
Steven Landsburg, an American professor of economics, asked recently: ''If it's OK to enrich ourselves by denying foreigners the right to earn a living, why shouldn't we enrich ourselves by invading peaceful countries and seizing their assets?'' Obviously the latter is wrong. The former is just as wrong.

Maybe because our borders are ours to control, and likewise for foreign countries who might object to invasion. That would seem to be the point of having countries. Landsburg seems to have difficulty with the first person plural.

Landsburg, of course, is a huge proponent of self-interest, including some forms of collective self-interest. He just doesn't like some other people's definitions of their own collective self-interest.

Coming up with answers to the question "Who Are We?" is fundamental to politics and to social life in general. My feeling is that a wide range of overlapping, often concentric, answers is, on the whole, a good thing. We should encourage reciprocation: I'll tolerate your answers if you tolerate my answers. Those who demonize certain answers, such as Landsburg and Berg, apparently don't believe in reciprocation, but feel they can advance the interests of those they consider "we" by shaming other people's conceptions of "we." But any rational conception of "we" needs to include "my fellow citizens who, in the ultimate extremity (e.g., Australia in 1942), will fight for me and mine."

November 7, 2011

"Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson

In VDARE, I review the authorized (but revealing) new biography of the late Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple.

Babbage Remembered

John Markoff writes in the NYT about a new plan to build Charles Babbage's plans for a steam-powered computer:
[Charles] Babbage, who lived from 1791 to 1871, is rightfully known as the “father of computing.” But it would be left to a fellow scientist, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, to fully appreciate that his inventions were more than just tools for automatically tabulating logarithms and trigonometric functions. 
Lovelace — daughter of the poet Lord Byron — recognized that the Analytical Engine could be a more generalized media machine, capable of making music and manipulating symbols. And 113 years before John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence,” she considered — and then rejected — the notion that computers might exhibit creativity or even thought. 
While Babbage was driven by the desire to automate tabular data for military and related applications, Lovelace wrote a lengthy commentary on the design that would prove deeply influential when it was rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century. 
Lovelace is known as the first programmer, because she designed a program for the unbuilt machine. The algorithm appears in a series of notes written by Lovelace after a friend of Babbage asked her to translate an Italian professor’s write-up of a lecture Babbage had given at the University of Turin. 
The Lovelace notes are remarkable both for her algorithm for calculating the sequence known as Bernoulli numbers and for what would become known as the “Lovelace objection.” In passing, she commented that the Babbage computer would not originate anything, but rather could do only what it had been instructed. The implication was that machines would not be creative, and thus not intelligent. 
The consensus of computer historians is that while Babbage was clearly the first to conceive of the flexible machine that foreshadowed the modern computer, his work was forgotten and was then conceptually recreated by Turing a century later.

That Babbage and Lovelace were long forgotten says a lot about anybody's chance to be remembered, because they were celebrities in their own time. It's not as if society was prejudiced against them. Ada was an aristocrat by birth and her father had been the most famous man in the world after Napoleon.  Babbage was a rich socialite who lived in London, when it was the capital of the world. He knew everybody. Dickens modeled a character on him. Parliament voted him generous subsidies for many years until Prime Minister Peel pulled the plug. 

When interest grew in Babbage again after the electronic computer came along, there turned out to be a huge amount of documentary evidence on him, and they now show up everywhere. The central characters in Tom Stoppard's 1993 play Arcadia are romanticized versions of Ada and Babbage. James Gleick's 2011 history of the Information Age, The Information, quotes at length from Ada's charming letters to Babbage (Stoppard used Gleick's 1987 book on chaos theory in Arcadia, so it was natural for Gleick to devote quite a few pages to the pair.)

Paul Johnson's 1991 book The Birth of the Modern on the years 1815-1830 explains the various reasons Babbage failed. It's an odd book -- an extremely long history of everything -- but it's centered around an encyclopedic knowledge of the witticisms of Johnson's three favorite pre-Victorians: Lord Byron, Jane Austen, and the Duke of Wellington. And Johnson's point of view is unusual: instead of being amazed by all the progress the Brits were making in 1815-1830, he repeatedly wonders why they didn't go faster. For example, why waste all that time on railways when they could have leapt to the automobile? One of his heroes is a man who built a steam powered automobile in the 1820s.

Babbage was the man who, more than anybody else, could have jumped Britain into the future, but he failed. Besides the obvious mechanical and metallurgical problems, Babbage didn't have good corporate structure examples to draw upon. Today, we know all about computer start-ups. If you are Jobs and the Woz in Silicon Valley in 1977, you can look up how Noyce and Moore or Bushnell did it. Johnson writes:
He should have set up his own company and employed a general manager to run its finances. He should have employed a showman to explain his purpose to the public. But, most of all, he needed a head engineer, closely identified with him in the success of the venture. Instead, he used Joseph Clement, not as a fellow entrepreneur with a stake in the engines, but as an employee, under a cost-plus contract. ... The loss of so much taxpayers' money in a chimera that came to nothing was thereafter cited as a reason for refusing public funds for any kind of scientific research project. 

November 6, 2011

High Speed Rail, Slow Speed Plan

High speed rail is considered to be a liberal or progressive cause in the U.S., but all those terms are increasingly outmoded. 

Consider California's attempts to build a high-speed rail system. At present, there are attempts to build a Train to Nowhere from somewhere in the flat, rural Central Valley to somewhere else in the flat, rural Central Valley. But even that easy stage is running into entrenched opposition. From the LA Times:
Critics say such blunders are routine for the rail authority. Across the length of the Central Valley, the bullet train as drawn would destroy churches, schools, private homes, shelters for low-income people, animal processing plants, warehouses, banks, medical offices, auto parts stores, factories, farm fields, mobile home parks, apartment buildings and much else as it cuts through the richest agricultural belt in the nation and through some of the most depressed cities in California. 
Although the potential for such disruption was understood in general terms when the project began 15 years ago, the reality is only now beginning to sink in. 
The potential economic, cultural and political damage may be an omen. The Central Valley, where construction could start next year, is expected to be the politically easiest and lowest-cost segment of the system, designed to move millions of passengers between Southern California and the Bay Area. The project's effects could be even greater in more populous places like Silicon Valley, Orange County, Burbank, San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles.

Okay, so they've been planning away for 15 years, and now the real fights begin.

California's freeways were built during the heyday of majoritarianism in the middle of the 20th Century. The amount of high-handedness required to build the freeways seems staggering today. Let me give an example not from freeways, but from a business law class I took in 1979. Even by then, this seemed hilariously high-handed.

After WWII, the U.S. government started above-ground nuclear bomb testing in Nevada. One nuke shock wave knocked down a bunch of ranchers' barns and all the scared cattle ran away and most of them died before they could be rounded up. The ranchers tried to get compensated for their barns and cows, but the feds said they had taken every reasonable precaution; therefore, the ranchers shouldn't get a dime. The ranchers sued on the grounds that nuclear bombs should fall under the doctrine of strict liability, just as owning lions and tigers do. If you own a tiger and it eats somebody, you are liable even if you took all the precautions a reasonable man would. The courts ruled for the government: the government's nuclear bombs shouldn't be treated as something inherently dangerous, in contrast to scary lions and tigers.

In contrast, compare that to the federal government's plan to store nuclear waste under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The feds began studying Yucca Mountain in 1978, but then gave up in 2010, almost a third of a century later.

The 1960s can be characterized as the switch from majoritarianism to minoritarianism in America, when the moral high ground shifted from the majority to anybody who can successfully characterize themselves as a victimized minority. Not surprisingly, this gets in the way of progressive plans like High Speed Rail. 

Further, the power of Not in My Back Yard politics grows with the number of back yards. When the freeways were built, there was a lot more open land. In other words, the huge population growth in California makes for a more gridlocked society. This isn't all that complicated, but the connection between immigration, population growth, and gridlock isn't on the mental radar of even 5% of the punditocracy.

Time to narrow the NFL goal posts

From Crossing Wall Street on November 2:
We’re nearly halfway through the [NFL] season and kickers have made a stunning 85.9% of their field goal attempts. In just ten years, kickers have increased their accuracy by nearly 10%. 
Not only that, but they’re kicking longer as well. So far this season, kickers have made 78% of their attempts between 40 and 49 yards. That’s better than the NBA’s league-wide accuracy from the free throw line (76.3%). 
And the numbers from attempts over 50 yards out are even more impressive. This season, kickers have nailed 45 of their 63 attempts from 50 yards or more. That’s more accurate than the league was from any distance 25 years ago. Since 1994, long-range accuracy has doubled and long-range attempts-per-game are up by more than 63% from just five years ago. 
Improved kicking is rapidly changing football strategy. In fact, this season is on track to be the highest-scoring season since the AFL-NFL merger, and kickers deserve a lot of the credit. Touchdowns-per-game are nearly identical to where they were 30 years ago, but field goals-per-game are up by 45%. 
This high-octane accuracy is completely new to football. In 1974, the first year when the uprights were placed at the back of the end zone, kickers made just four of 30 field goals from 50 or more yards. Jan Stenerud, the only pure placekicker in the Hall of Fame, made 66.8% of his career field goal attempts. Today that’s good enough for 105th place in career accuracy. Nearly every player in the top 30 for career accuracy is currently active. 
It’s not just field goals, either. NFL kickers have only missed two of their 546 extra-point attempts this year. That’s a success rate of 99.63% which would also be a league record. Think about this: There will probably be one-tenth as many missed extra-points this year as there were 25 years ago.

The NYT has a similar article today.

I have a basic rule of thumb that human beings find more interesting things that are closer to a 50-50 proposition. Field goal kicking in the NFL, however, has become more of a sure thing, which means that less credit is given to kickers for making a field goal than blame is given to them for missing. Call it the extra pointification of the field goal. The point-after-touchdown kick is a vestigial ritual that just makes games longer. Nobody ever is the hero for kicking the PAT that wins the game 28-27. 

One reason for the improvement is that NFL teams have perfected teamwork on the snap: they often have a deepsnaping specialist and the the punter is delegated to be the holder. Since these three guys don't have much else to do, they get really good at working together. Another reason is the spread of specialty camps training young kickers and snappers. This year, the first ever Sailer Award will be given to the country's top high school kicker.

Coaches are finally attempting more field goals from 50 yards or longer, and kickers are making 71% of them. This has given placekickers a moment to shine this year, but soon it will be considered routine to make 55 yard field goals, and kickers will remain uncelebrated.

As Eddy Elfenbein of Crossing Wall Street says, what the NFL should do to make field goal kicking less of a sure thing is to narrow the goal posts to make field goals more of an accomplishment. The NFL's goal should be for placekickers to be talked about as heroes rather than as screw-ups.

Ironically, placekickers might object because then they'd miss more PATs, and they would worry that they'd get fired more for missing PATs. But why not just eliminate the PAT and make the NFL touchdown worth 7 points? If you went for a 2-point conversion and failed, you'd have a point deducted. NFL games are ridiculously long as it is. The PAT mostly exists today for the sake of additional TV advertising opportunities.