September 25, 2010

Modern Thought = Thoughtlessness

From 97 years ago:
G.K Chesterton, 1913

Why do people think it intelligent to say, "I can see no difference!" It is nowadays quite a mark of culture to say that one can see no difference between a man and a woman, or a man and an angel, or a man and an animal. If a man cannot see the difference between a horse and a cow across a large field, we do not call him cultured; we call him short-sighted. Now, there are really interesting differences between angels and women; nay, even between men and beasts, and all such things. They are differences which most people know instinctively, as most people know a cow is not a horse without looking for its mane; or most people know a horse is not a cow without looking for horns. Whether the difference ought to count in this or that important question is a completely different matter, but it ought not really to be so difficult simply to see the difference.

... modern thought means modern thoughtlessness.

September 24, 2010

Not getting the joke

From the American Prospect on how it's practically impossible to profile homegrown terrorists:
Another study found only broad trends among domestic jihadist terrorists, specifically that they are overwhelmingly male and about two-thirds of them are younger than 30 years old. As the above discussion may suggest, generalizing about the individuals involved is problematic. Indeed, there does not appear to be a common thread connecting the U.S. Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan with the Caucasian convert, Daniel Patrick Boyd; the Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi with Carlos Bledsoe, an African American of a happy childhood who converted to Islam and renamed himself Abdulhakim Muhammed; David Headley, who was born Daood Gilani to a successful Pakistani immigrant father and American mother, with Talib Islam, who was born Michael Finton and raised in multiple foster homes; or the educated pharmacist Tarek Mehanna, with the Somali American from Minneapolis Shirwa Ahmed, who traveled to the land of his birth and became the first U.S. citizen suicide bomber. 

Yup, not much in common there ... So, let's keep on giving the third degree at the airport to the 86-year-old retired general who tried to sneak his Medal of Honor on his trip to address cadets at West Point.

September 23, 2010

Is "The President Is Losing It" fiction?

You may have seen the anonymous interview floating around that begins
"A longtime Washington D.C. insider, and former advisor to the Obama election campaign and transition team, speaks out on an administration in crisis, and a president increasingly withdrawn from the job of President."

Most of the copies tend to be on obscure websites with a huge amount of advertising, so here's a link to it on Israpundit, which has mostly text.

Is this for real? 

Probably not. It's very easy to make stuff up and post it on the Internet.

But, if it were real, who is your guess who it would actually be?

I'll put my guess in the comments.

"Dreams from My Aunt: A Story of Race and Immigration"

As suggested by a commenter, here's Jonathan Elias of in Boston:
Aunt Zeituni: 'The System Took Advantage Of Me'
President Obama's Aunt Speaks Exclusively With WBZ-TV

"If I come as an immigrant, you have the obligation to make me a citizen." Those are the words from 58-year-old Zeituni Onyango of Kenya in a recent exclusive interview with WBZ-TV.

Onyango is the aunt of President Barack Obama. She lived in the United States illegally for years, receiving public assistance in Boston.

Onyango is the aunt of President Barack Obama. She lived in the United States illegally for years, receiving public assistance in Boston.....

In 2004 a judge ordered Zeituni Onyango out of the country, but she never left. She stayed, hiding in plain sight. In 2005 she attended her nephew's swearing in as the junior Senator of Illinois. In 2008 she was invited to, and traveled to D.C. for President Obama's inauguration.

However her nephew, she says, never pulled any strings for her.

"Listen. Obama did not know my whereabouts."

Onyango hired a top immigration lawyer from Cleveland to help fight her case. We asked how she afforded that lawyer, when she claimed poverty.

"When you believe in Jesus Christ and almighty God, my help comes from heaven," she responded.

When asked about cutting in line ahead of those who have paid into the system she answered plainly, "I don't mind. You can take that house. I will be on the street with the homeless."

"To me America's dream became America's worst nightmare," she said adamantly. "I have been treated like public enemy number one."

She is still living in South Boston public housing, unemployed, and collecting about $700 a month in disability, she says. And now, Zeituni Onlyango is in this country legally.

In May 2010, Onyango's case went back before the same judge who ordered her out of the country in 2004. This time she was granted asylum in the United States. The ruling said a return to Kenya might put Onyango in danger. 

Crime victims = "They"

Timothy Egan writes at NY
Beware, they told us in the train stations of northern Italy, of the Gypsy baby trick — an old ruse by Europe’s most reviled underclass. A woman will suddenly ask you to hold her child, and then just as you fumble to respond another Gypsy will grab your wallet. 

Watch out, they cautioned us in the lovely Turkish port city of Kusadasi, for the Gypsies who prey on tourists along the waterfront. And old lady will bump you, while a teenage hooligan grabs your bag. The Gypsy old-lady trick.

Those Gypsies, known by the less pejorative term of Roma, are getting kicked around the continent again, hardy perennials of European scapegoats. Unspoken characterizations based on ancient stereotypes — they are shiftless, clannish, prone to petty thievery and to begging, prostitution and dark motives — are now out in the open.

In the early days of a Mediterranean fall, one finds open hostility toward the Roma, encouraged by governments in a Europe that likes to think of itself as enlightened. France, following the lead of the Italians, Danes, Austrians and Swedes, is trying to expel the Roma in their midst.

"They" told me the same things about Gypsies when I backpacked around Europe in 1980. So, therefore, what "they" said can't be true because so many people have noticed the same pattern that it is a stereotype.

But, unlike Egan, I actually think "they" don't deserve to be dehumanized by anonymity. In my case, "they" were typically genial Australians backpacking around Europe for a gap year, who, coming from a country with very few Gypsies, had naively fallen for venerable Gypsy scams. "They" amiably passed on their hard-earned new knowledge to naive American travelers like myself.

The Roots of D'Souza's Ransom

From my column on Dinesh D'Souza's infinitely denounced upcoming book:
The Roots of Obama’s Rage is a silly title for a book about a man whose emotional tonality ranges from gracious condescension to wounded amour propre. More accurate, yet equally alliterative, would have been The Roots of Obama’s Resentment.
D’Souza churns out books frequently. (This is his 12th). And in his haste, he’s developed a bit of a reputation for sometimes …  neglecting to give full credit to his inspirations.

D’Souza’s most substantial book, 1995’s The End of Racism, owes much to Jared Taylor’s groundbreaking 1992 book Paved with Good Intentions—as Peter Brimelow politely pointed out in National Review (He Flinched, November  27, 1995).

But D’Souza was not merely unforthcoming about how intellectually indebted he was to Taylor—he even smeared Taylor in The End of Racism as a bad guy, the kind of dangerous white extremist from whom D’Souza’s moderate realism would protect everyone. (Just so his readers would know how to think about Taylor, D’Souza helpfully described him as "gaunt," even though Taylor may well be the most conventionally handsome of all American public intellectuals.)

In his latest book, D’Souza hasn’t actually attacked his most important sources. He’s just avoided mentioning them. 

Most notably, the central piece of evidence in The Roots of Obama’s Rage for D’Souza’s theory about Obama Sr.’s influence is the elder Obama's 1965 article, Problems Facing Our Socialism. This essay criticized the influential Sessional Paper No. 10 by Tom Mboya, a Kenayn labor leader who was financed by the anticommunist AFL-CIO (which, in turn, was financed by the CIA). Mboya had called for capitalism (under regulation) and colorblind treatment of white and Indian-owned businesses in Kenya.

D’Souza writes in Forbes:
“Obama Sr. was an economist, and in 1965 he published an important article in the East Africa Journal called ‘Problems Facing Our Socialism.’ … Remarkably, President Obama, who knows his father's history very well, has never mentioned his father's article. Even more remarkably, there has been virtually no reporting on a document that seems directly relevant to what the junior Obama is doing in the White House.”

This important historical document from 1965 wasn’t online until April 2008, when libertarian blogger Greg Ransom obtained a copy of Obama Sr.’s article from the dusty stacks of the UCLA library. Ransom’s April 7, 2008 blog post for the Ludwig von Mises Institute introducing his discovery, Obama Hid His Father’s Socialism from Readers, reads like a first draft for D’Souza book pitch:
"There’s a big mystery at the heart of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father:  A Story of Race and Inheritance. What was Barack Obama doing seeking out Marxist professors in college? Why did Obama choose a Communist Party USA member as his socio-political counselor in high school? Why was he spending his time studying neocolonialism and the writings of Frantz Fanon, the pro-violence author of ‘the Communist Manifesto of neocolonialism,’ in college? Why did he take time out from his studies at Columbia to attend socialist conferences at Cooper Union?"

Ransom noted:
"… one thing is not left a mystery, the fact that Barack Obama organized his life on the ideals given to him by his Kenyan father. Obama tells us, ‘All of my life, I carried a single image of my father, one that I ... tried to take as my own.’ (p. 220) And what was that image? It was ‘the father of my dreams, the man in my mother’s stories, full of high-blown ideals.’ (p. 278) …

“So we know that his father’s ideals were a driving force in his life, but the one thing that Obama does not give us are the contents of those ideals."

But as far as I can tell from searching on Amazon’s online copy of The Roots of Obama’s Rage, the name “Ransom” doesn’t appear in D’Souza’s book.

It’s perfectly fine for D’Souza to profit off Ransom’s enterprise. But it would have been only polite to mention him.

Read the whole thing there and comment upon it below.

The GOP's "Pledge to America"

Commenter Wilson gives a quick intro to the House Republicans' "Pledge to America," a 2010 version of Newt Gingrich's winning 1994 "Contract with America."
It's basically a George W Bush Redux. It advocates no useful policy on enforcing the borders. It merely advocates (buried way down on page 20) to reaffirm the right of states to enforce immigration laws - a right they already have.

And I'm gunna go out on a limb and wager that it says nothing about eliminating racial preferences or CRA.

But it's opening lines are the best. "America is more than a country. America is an idea...America is an inspiration to those [immigrants] who yearn to be free..."

Aunt Zeituni couldn't have said it better.

Republicans have learned nothing from the Bush years. It's not a question of whether or not GOP policies will win votes, it's a question of whether they will actually make America better. We already know the answer to that.

September 22, 2010

Is the SAT getting easier?

It's interesting to look at California SAT scores over time. The farthest back data on the College Board site for the state of California is 1998, so I'll contrast 1998 to 2010. Overall, the mean score in California has dropped 3 points from 1520 to 1517 on a 600 to 2400 point scale. (Because the 1998 test was reported on a 400 to 1600 scale, I'm multiplying 1998 scores by 1.5 to match them up with 2010 scores).

A three point drop doesn't sound like much but that stability masks all sorts of things going on beneath the surface. For example, mean test scores have gone up for most ethnic groups: whites up 33 points, Asians up 57, blacks up 29, Mexican Americans up 14. (The total score went down because lower-scoring groups grew so fast.)

And that pattern of rising scores within groups is especially noteworthy because the number of high school seniors taking the test has gone up. (This data looks at each senior in the class of 1998 or 2000 and counts only the last time he or she took the SAT, so taking the test multiple times isn't a factor in these numbers.)

California SAT 1998 v. 2010

College Bound seniors 1998 # 2010 # Chg 1998 Mean 2010 Mean Chg 1998 v NHW 2010 v. NHW
Total 142,139 210,926 48% 1520 1517 -3 -89 -124
White 56,217 69,969 24% 1608 1641 33 0 0
Asian, As-Am, or Pac Isl 29,889 44,932 50% 1557 1614 57 -51 -27
Black or Af Am 8,868 14,476 63% 1292 1320 29 -317 -321
Mex or MA 18,494 42,380 129% 1341 1355 14 -267 -286
Other Hispanic 6,606 20,735 214% 1359 1325 -34 -249 -316
Puerto Rican 489 699 43% 1434 1489 55 -174 -152
American Indian 1,415 1,256 -11% 1479 1488 9 -129 -153
Other 7,863 8,498 8% 1566 1561 -5 -42 -80
No Response 12,298 7,981 -35% 1520 1566 47 -89 -75

For example, 24 percent more whites in the class of 2010 took the SAT than whites in the class of 1998, although I would guess that there were fewer white 17-year-olds in California in 2010 than in 1998. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) Black SAT-takers went up by 63 percent, even though lots of black families left California between 1998 and 2010. Clearly, there is a big push to get more marginal kids to take the SAT. (It's a great era to be in the testing racket!)

All else being equal, the higher the percentage of a group who takes the SAT, the lower the expected mean score (the scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel effect). But, except for the "Other Hispanic" category, where test takers exploded by 214%, we don't see that in the big groups here.

So, what's really going on with mean SAT scores in California? A few possibilities:

- Scoring is getting easier. 
- People are getting smarter.
- People in California are getting smarter relative to the rest of the country.
- Students are more familiar with test-taking because of all the other tests they take now.
- Students are better test-prepped for the SAT in 2010.

Considering the rank order of the size of the effect -- biggest gain among Asians, next biggest among whites, then blacks, then Mexicans, finally a bad dropoff among Central Americans, most of whom have recently arrived and don't know about SATs -- that would be about what I'd expect from average enthusiasm among parents for test prepping, so I don't think we can rule out the last possibility.

September 21, 2010

IQ genes

Robert Plomin of King's College London has been plugging away at the genetics of IQ for decades. It's been frustrating, but now he thinks he's getting somewhere. The London Sunday Times reports:
Scientists have identified more than 200 genes potentially associated with academic performance in schoolchildren.

Those schoolchildren possessing the "right" combinations achieved significantly better results in numeracy, literacy and science.

The finding emerged from a study of more than 4000 British children to pinpoint the genes and genetic combinations that influence reasoning skills and general intelligence.

One of its main conclusions is that intelligence is controlled by a network of thousands of genes with each making just a small contribution to overall intelligence, rather than the handful of powerful genes that scientists once predicted.

... There are potentially many millions of these variations, but the team restricted their search to looking at the million or so of the most common, to find out which gene variants were most frequently found in children with either a high or low level of academic achievement.

"Out of the gene variants we looked at, a couple of hundred are emerging which seem to have a small but significant relationship with ability in maths and English," said Professor Plomin.

... Research into height, for example, has picked out 300 genes that affect how tall people will grow, but even these genes can only explain 15 per cent of the total variations in human height. It implies that hundreds more genes must also play a part.

John Hawks points out a recent Nicholas Wade article in the NYT making a similar point the lessons of an experiment on fruit flies to breed for earlier hatching:
One well-known path to change is a heavily favorable mutation in a single gene. But it may be well known only because it is easy to study. Another path is exploitation of mildly favorable differences that already exist in many genes. 

The question has considerable practical importance because if complex traits, including susceptibility to disease, are influenced by just a few genes, then it should be easy to develop treatments that target the few genes’ products. But if tens or hundreds of genes are involved in each trait, the task may be close to impossible....

The conventional view is that evolutionary change is generally mediated by a favorable mutation in a gene that then washes through the whole population, a process called a hard sweep because all other versions of the gene are brushed away. The alternative, called a soft sweep, is that many genes influence a trait, in this case the rate of maturation, and that the growth-accelerating versions of each of these genes become just a little more common. Each fly has a greater chance of inheriting these growth-promoting versions and so will mature faster.

In sequencing their subjects’ genomes, the researchers found that a soft sweep was indeed responsible for the earlier hatching. No single gene had swept through the population to effect the change; rather, the alternative versions of a large number of genes had become slightly more common.

The debate about whether evolution proceeds by altering one or many genes started 90 years ago among the three founders of population genetics, Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright and J. B. S. Haldane. Haldane favored the single mutation mechanism, but Fisher and Wright backed multiple gene change. The fruit fly experiment “is a total vindication of Wright and Fisher and a major defeat for Haldane and a lot of conventional geneticists who have sided with him,” Dr. Rose said.

The demise of the Haldane view “is very bad news for the pharmaceutical industry in general,” Dr. Rose said. If disease and other traits are controlled by many genes, it will be hard to find effective drugs; a single target would have been much simpler.

So, it's not surprising that intelligence is dependent upon a lot of genes. That's generally true for a lot of complicated traits.

SAT scores in California

With all the interest (264 comments and counting) generated by the huge number of Chinese and Korean names among the national merit semifinalists (top 0.5%) on the PSAT in California, here are the latest SAT scores from California. Interestingly, in California, whites average slightly higher than Asians / Pacific Islanders, both on the traditional M+V and the new three part total including Writing: whites 1641 to Asians 1614. (Nationally, however, Asians outscore whites 1636 to 1580.)

However, Asians / Pacific Islanders have higher standard deviations. (To view this tiny type more easily, you can hit "CTRL +")

California 2010 SAT

Total Crit Read
College Bound seniors # Share Mean Mean SD Mean SD Mean SD
Total 210,926 100% 1517 501 113 516 119 500 113
White 69,969 33% 1641 546 100 553 102 542 100
Asian, As-Am, or Pac Isl 44,932 21% 1614 518 116 571 121 525 122
Black or Af Am 14,476 7% 1320 444 101 436 102 440 97
Mex or MA 42,380 20% 1355 449 95 458 96 448 90
Other Hispanic 20,735 10% 1325 440 102 444 102 441 95
Puerto Rican 699 0% 1489 501 101 495 105 493 100
American Indian 1,256 1% 1488 499 102 504 101 485 98
Other 8,498 4% 1561 517 113 525 118 519 115
No Response 7,981 4% 1566 523 121 526 123 517 121

Commenter Mitch, a Bay Area testing tutor, has argued that because the PSAT is a low stakes test, which whites tend to treat as the beginning of thinking about studying for the SAT, while Asian parents tend to treat it as an important milestone in the years-long process of boning up for the SAT, the high number of Asian semifinalists in California on the PSAT is exaggerated relative to the high stakes SAT.

Being lazy, I'll leave it up to interested readers to do the work to evaluate this hypothesis and post their findings in the comments.

For example, questions to consider are: What exactly are the racial percentages of National Merit semifinalists in California? Do a higher percentage of Asian 17-year-olds take the SAT in California than do white 17-year-olds? (One thing not to worry about much in California is the SAT v. ACT divide that confuses things when thinking about SAT scores in, say, Iowa: California is traditionally an SAT state.) What is the nationality makeup of Asian / Pacific Islander 17-year-olds in California? What about taking the SAT multiple times -- how does that affect the numbers? (Okay, I found the answer to this last question: "Students are counted only once, no matter how often they tested, and only their latest scores and most recent SAT Questionnaire responses are summarized.) And so forth and so on.

Good luck!

By the way, this is the first bit of quantitative evidence I can recall to support the common-sense notion that California has smarter than the national average white people. Considering how damnably expensive it is and all the high end industries and all the Nobel Prizes, you would think it would have smart white people. But on the NAEP, California non-Hispanic whites always lag badly behind, say, Texan whites. And that was true way back on the big 1960 federal Project Talent test of 15-year-olds, where Texans beat Californians. So, numbers like that got me assuming that most white Californians are less Hewletts and Packards and more Bodines and Spicolis. But, maybe, white people in California just can't be bothered with trying on low stakes tests?

"The Town"

From my Taki Magazine column:
The Town, set amidst the fading (but increasingly fashionable) Irish-American underclass of Boston’s gentrifying Charlestown neighborhood, is a model of crime genre filmmaking, perhaps the best-executed film since July’s Inception. Ten minutes into the first bank robbery in this heist movie, it’s evident that movie audiences are back in capable hands again.
There’s nothing particularly new about The Town. Ben Affleck directs himself as an ace bandit looking to make one last big score so he can get out of the game. Affleck, who helped write this adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s 2005 novel Prince of Thieves, emphasizes his strengths as an actor by playing an older, sadder, and soberer version of the Boston Irish lout in his breakthrough, Good Will Hunting.
In his gang of robbers as competent as a film crew, his right hand man is yet another fearless psycho played by Jeremy Renner of The Hurt Locker. As a boy, Affleck’s character was adopted by Renner’s family when his dad got life without parole. The townie accent employed by Renner, who is from Modesto, California, is so authenticious (as one of the crew explains) that I have no idea what he says. Except that he wants to permanently silence the pretty witness (Rebecca Hall of Vicky Cristina Barcelona) who might be able to identify them to the cocky FBI detective (handsome Jon Hamm of Mad Men). But this damsel in distress brings forth Affleck’s long buried white knight. 
We’ve seen it all before, but seldom this finely done.
One of the odder rituals of pop culture commentary is expressing amazement whenever another leading man competently directs a movie: Who could have imagined that Ben Affleck would establish himself as a capable director? After all, Affleck is only the umpty-umpth male movie star to take to directing. Whoever heard of Eastwood, Redford, Costner, Gibson, or Clooney?
Much of directing is acting like you know what you are doing. That’s how you hire the behind-the-scenes wizards who will actually make most of your movie for you, and that’s how you keep them happy on the set. And who is better at acting than an actor?
Granted, Affleck is not better at acting than a lot of actors.

 Read the whole thing here and comment upon it below.

September 20, 2010

Test scores and home prices

Real estate agents famously keep track of test scores in school districts, although it's not clear which is the leading and which the lagging indicator: public school test scores or home prices. It would seem like a consulting firm might profit by creating a statistical model alerting them to arbitrage opportunities where public school test scores and home prices have gotten out of whack.