February 12, 2011

NYT: Blacks have off year in movies, whites at fault

The New York Times' film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott alert us to today's burning problem:

Crammed into this year’s field of 10 best picture Oscar nominees are British aristocrats, Volvo-driving Los Angeles lesbians, a flock of swans, a gaggle of Harvard computer geeks, clans of Massachusetts fighters and Missouri meth dealers, as well as 19th-century bounty hunters, dream detectives and animated toys. It’s a fairly diverse selection in terms of genre, topic, sensibility, style and ambition. But it’s also more racially homogenous — more white — than the 10 films that were up for best picture in 1940, when Hattie McDaniel became the first black American to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” In view of recent history the whiteness of the 2011 Academy Awards is a little blinding. 
... But it was possible, over much of the past decade, to believe that a few of the old demons of suspicion and exclusion might finally be laid to rest. Are the coming Oscars an anomaly, or an unsettling sign of the times?...
What happened? Is 2010 an exception to a general rule of growing diversity? Or has Hollywood, a supposed bastion of liberalism so eager in 2008 to help Mr. Obama make it to the White House, slid back into its old, timid ways? Can it be that the president’s status as the most visible and powerful African-American man in the world has inaugurated a new era of racial confusion — or perhaps a crisis in representation?

Dargis and Scott are absolutely right. It's discrimination, that's what it is, racism of the most invidious kind. You see, it's not that white Academy members didn't vote for deserving blacks for Oscars this year. No, the white bigotry was much more profound: there weren't deserving blacks in 2010 (which, by definition, must be the fault of whites). That Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman chose to appear in big budget popcorn movies in 2010 rather than in lower budget prestige films, and that Jamie Foxx's performance in the Oscar-bait The Soloist was forgettable just proves that racism is rampant.

Steps must be taken. Let's think about the ten Best Picture nominees:

How hard would it have been for Hollywood to cast an African American in The King's Speech? Why did Helena Bonham-Carter get to play the Queen of England when Tyler Perry was available?

Why wasn't a single black actor even considered for the role of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network?

Why did that hillbilly girl in Winter's Bone wander around the Ozarks asking her white trash kinfolk where her pa was when she could have gone to a shaven-headed black computer hacker genius and had him locate her father using high tech satellite imagery? That would have been awesome.

Why did Hollywood cast Christian Bale as Mark Wahlberg's brother in The Fighter when they could have cast Diddy? Shouldn't Morgan Freeman have played a wise janitor at their boxing gym?

How come Natalie Portman's mom in The Black Swan wasn't played by Mo'Nique?  In the The Kids Are All Right, wouldn't it have subverted stereotypes about heritability if the biological daughter of Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo had been played not by Mia Waskiowska but by that 300 pound black girl from Precious?

Why did Toy Story III bring back Tim Allen to voice Buzz Lightyear when they could have substituted Chris Tucker? Why wasn't that real life mountain climber who cuts his own arm off in 127 Hours played by Ice Cube? Why, when Spike Lee has time on his hands, did Hollywood let Christopher Nolan write and direct Inception?

And don't get me started on Rooster Cogburn. Instead of Jeff Bridges, Hollywood could have hired N!xau, that little tongue-clicking San from The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Finally, why, after all these years, are the Coen Brothers still segregated? When are they going to hire a black Coen?

(For their next investigative report, Dargis and Scott should expose an even bigger racial scandal: Not one Oscar nomination went to Machete!)

"I wish they all could be ..."

 At 1440 Minutes Hate, Emmanuel Goldstein is making up composite portraits of college age young ladies by state from the first usable straight-on facial pictures he finds on line.

Here are Alaska, Arkansas, and California, respectively. His face recognition software package doesn't work well on blacks, so he is doing them separately. He's including whites, Hispanics, and Asians in the composites. Thus, the California girl looks very anime, very manga. That's not that surprising when you think about it, since the Japanese comic/animation industry is built on the style of the California-based Walt Disney, with characters being made to look vaguely Japanese (but with round eyes). Thus, the composite California girl looks like a horny Japanese cartoonist's fantasy of blonde sorority sisters at UCLA.

Here's his Alabama girl and Arizona girl.

He says, "I used pics from Myspace and color photos from various online college newspapers."

In general, this process has some inevitable biases built in in terms of the source photos. Girls post online flattering pictures of themselves and don't post unflattering pictures. Some of the pictures are photoshopped to look better. More attractive pictures will tend to float to the top of search engines and have more links to them on social networking sites.  This cream-rising-to-the-top of the Internet process will advantage populous states, since the first girls you find from California will be higher in percentile terms of all that state's girls than the first you find from Alaska. Thus, the frontrunners for #1 state in attractiveness in this kind of competition would likely be California v. Texas v. Florida.

Finally, the averaging process removes asymmetries and other idiosyncratic flaws.But it can't do much for weight other than to skim the cream. I haven't been to Alaska in a long time, but I was surprised a few years ago by how much chubbier Oregon college girls are than California college girls.

Beyond comparing states, there ought to be a lot of interesting things you could do with traits other than location. For example, what is the composite face of a Taylor Swift fan vs. a Lady Gaga fan among white girls 18-22? Republicans v. Democrats?

Victorian novelists used to go on and on for pages about the shape of the noses of their characters on the theory that facial types correlated with personality. This software lets you look for correlations.

Other surefire winners would be to compositize Facebook pictures from rival colleges such as USC v. UCLA, Harvard v. Yale, Smith v. Mt.  Holyoke, Notre Dame v. Miami, UC Santa Barbara v. UC Santa Cruz, Cal State Northridge v. Cal State LA, MIT v. Cal Tech, Tulane v. Vanderbilt, and so forth.

February 11, 2011

Military Coup in Egypt!

I continue to have a hard time staying excited about events in Egypt.

Aborigines and whites

From Ahnenkult, here's an interesting picture illustrating the logic of the Australian humanitarian progressives now reviled as racists for the "Stolen Generations:"
Before the development of antibiotics, full-blooded Australian Aborigines were dying off at a rapid rate from tuberculosis and other Afro-Eurasian diseases. The half-white children of Aboriginal mothers tended to be more resistant to diseases, but they tended to be neglected and abused by their often alcoholic Aboriginal relatives. So, reasoned the social workers, why not raise them in white ways in boarding schools, allowing them to find a place in white society and marry whites? Because Aboriginal looks tend to be relatively recessive when mixed with European looks, as compared to Sub-Saharan African looks, within a couple of generations you get a kid who looks like a cross between Prince Charles and Bing Crosby, so their descendants would be largely indistinguishable from the general population. Problem solved.

Of course, as we all know now, those reformers were The Worst People of All Time. 

And yet, antibiotics aside, sensitive 21st Century Australians are better at feeling superior to their ancestors than at actually solving the problems that their ancestors confronted. For example, when Australian director Philip Noyce made the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence a decade ago condemning Evil Old Social Workers by showing girls who run away from their boarding school to return to their Aboriginal mothers, his adolescent star ran away from the set and had to be rounded up. Then when filming was over, Noyce saw what a disaster her Aboriginal home life was, so he ... paid to put her in a boarding school.

The war on knowledge

A reader writes:
In regards to your post on Types, I would note that in cognitive psychology they found we remember people by a caricature (an exaggeration of their unique features).  That's why it's so easy to recognize a friend or a celebrity based on a caricature.  I think this theory holds that different entities are remembered most by their divergence from the norm rather than their average characteristics.

This probably relates to humor, which is based on caricatures.  We laugh because the caricature while not an accurate representation sounds more true than truth.

Thus, once you see Malvina Hoffman's sculpture of a 6'-8" Nuer tribesman, it's easier to remember what Nuers look like when you read about the recent plebiscite in the Sudan. Of course, many contemporary academic trends, such as changing the names of ethnic groups every few years, is intended to do the opposite: lessen knowledge.

February 10, 2011

More sacred than Scientology

When two cults collide ...

From the New Yorker's tediously fact-checked, litigation-proofed article on Scientology by Laurence Wright:
On August 19, 2009, Tommy Davis, the chief spokesperson for the Church of Scientology International, received a letter from the film director and screenwriter Paul Haggis. “For ten months now I have been writing to ask you to make a public statement denouncing the actions of the Church of Scientology of San Diego,” Haggis wrote. Before the 2008 elections, a staff member at Scientology’s San Diego church had signed its name to an online petition supporting Proposition 8, which asserted that the State of California should sanction marriage only “between a man and a woman.” The proposition passed. As Haggis saw it, the San Diego church’s “public sponsorship of Proposition 8, which succeeded in taking away the civil rights of gay and lesbian citizens of California—rights that were granted them by the Supreme Court of our state—is a stain on the integrity of our organization and a stain on us personally. Our public association with that hate-filled legislation shames us.” Haggis wrote, “Silence is consent, Tommy. I refuse to consent.” He concluded, “I hereby resign my membership in the Church of Scientology.”

Haggis was prominent in both Scientology and Hollywood, two communities that often converge. Although he is less famous than certain other Scientologists, such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, he had been in the organization for nearly thirty-five years. Haggis wrote the screenplay for “Million Dollar Baby,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2004, and he wrote and directed “Crash,” which won Best Picture the next year—the only time in Academy history that that has happened.

That's pretty funny when you think about it: a major player in Hollywood is a Scientologist for his entire career, but he finally rebels because ... one Scientologist staffer in another city signed a petition against gay marriage.

To me, the most interesting thing about Scientology is how it was an outgrowth of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. L. Ron Hubbard was a sci-fi writer, the great editor John W. Campbell heavily promoted his Dianetics (which was originally intended not as a religion but as an equally plausible and cheaper competitor for Freudianism), and Hubbard's pal Robert A. Heinlein supposedly gave him the idea that you could get rich starting your own religion.

I've wondered how often Heinlein was tempted to launch his own cult, seeing the success of lesser popular novelists like Hubbard and Ayn Rand as cult leaders. I suspect Heinlein was too easily bored for the repetition necessary.

The complicated genetics of alcoholism

The strongest gene associations found to date involve the so-called Asian flush. Roughly 40% of people of East Asian descent carry one or two gene variations that rapidly convert alcohol into the chemical acetaldehyde, which causes nausea, rapid heart beat and a severe flush. It's a strong deterrent to drinking, much like the drug disulfiram, or Antabuse. "You don't even need a genetic test to detect it," says David Goldman, chief of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "If you have a dinner party and somebody has this variation, they'll turn red when they drink a glass of wine."

Researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have tentatively identified a similar "tipsy gene" that makes carriers feel inebriated after just one or two drinks. Between 10% and 20% of the population has this variation, which is also thought to protect against becoming alcohol-dependent.

Other people feel especially euphoric when they drink—probably due to variations in the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain's reward circuits. A variation in the DRD2 dopamine receptor gene was identified in 1990 and found in a large number of alcoholics as well as drug addicts and smokers, although later studies have been mixed.

Last month, researchers at the University of California-San Diego reported that people with the DRD2 variation tend to have friends with the same genetic marker. That would give them both a biological compunction to drink and social reinforcement, the authors noted in the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Like the Asian flush, some alcohol-related genes are particularly prevalent in certain ethnic or geographic groups. A recent study in Nature found that a rare variation in the HTR2b gene, linked to severe impulsiveness, is found almost exclusively in Finnish people. "Almost all these severely impulsive individuals are also alcoholic, and their worse impulsive problems occurred while they were drunk," says Dr. Goldman, the study's senior investigator. 

I have this theory that alcohol facilitates the evolution of non-impulsiveness.To get through life well, you need to be prudent much of the time, but you also need to take a chance on other people some times. So, social drinking allows women to lower their barriers when in selected company, like at an expensive nightclub or a wedding reception (that's the point behind the hit movie Wedding Crashers), men with their fellow soldiers, and for people in general to lower their barriers when with their coworkers or business associates for the purposes of bonding.

Separately, variations in two genes for receptor to neurotransmitter neuropeptide Y, associated with stress and severe withdrawal symptoms from alcohol, are common to about one-quarter of the population. Clearly, not all those people are severe alcoholics.
So much is still unknown that most experts don't advise consumers to use genetic-testing services to try to understand their risk for complex conditions like alcoholism.

"Even if you learn you have a protective version of some gene, you could still be vulnerable due to a gene we haven't discovered yet," says Dr. Goldman, who adds that anyone with a family history of alcoholism should definitely approach alcohol with caution.

"Looking at your family history is simpler, cheaper and at the moment, gives you more information than a genetic test," says Dr. Edenberg. He also stresses that DNA is never destiny when human behavior is involved. "You can carry all kinds of genes, and if you manage to push away the glass or the bottle, you won't have an alcoholism problem."

Is "The Black Swan" just not gay enough?

The NYT's dance critic Alastair Macaulay echoes some of my concern's about Darren Aronofsky's Oscar-nominated ballet movie:

As I wrote in Taki's Magazine:
The Black Swan’s central problem is that the heterosexual Aronofsky, who directed Mickey Rourke so well in The Wrestler two years ago, appears more inspired by professional wrestling than by ballet. Despite Aronofsky’s undoubted cleverness (Harvard Class of ’91), he seems to love the idea of ballet far more than he cares for ballet itself. A film stronger on analysis than artfulness, The Black Swan’s dancing, while competently filmed, is seldom electrifying. 

Macaulay, who certainly is a better judge of ballet than me, comes to similar conclusions:
Though “Black Swan” certainly feels hostile to ballet, I don’t think it means to be. Its real objective — above and beyond that of so many women’s movies — is to imply that a woman’s truest fulfillment is as (heterosexual) lover, wife and mother, and therefore that Nina’s best artistic successes can never compensate for her personal sacrifices. The “Black Swan” view of ballet is that it’s an unnatural art in which women deny too many normal aspects of womanhood.

There is copious evidence to support that view. Witness such dancer autobiographies as Ms. Kirkland’s and Toni Bentley’s “Winter Season” (1982). Ms. Bentley describes how, when she has her third monthly period in a row, colleagues in her dressing room ask, “Are you sure you’re a dancer?” True dancers, according to that attitude, don’t have normal female functions.

To these negatives ballet brings many positives: energy, responsiveness to music, discipline, teamwork, idealism, interpretative fulfillment. Not so “Black Swan.” It’s both irresistible and odious. I was gripped by its melodrama, but its nightmarish view of both ballet and women is not one I’m keen to see again. As a horror movie, it’s not extreme. As a woman’s movie, however, it’s the end of the line.

Most depressingly, Nina is just not a great role. She’s too much a victim — the film makes her helpless, passive — to be seriously involving. Though she enjoys triumph, we never see the willpower that gets her there, just the psychosis and the martyrdom. It’s the latest hit movie for misogynists. 

February 9, 2011

German, Greek, or French?

In "And the Country with the Most Beautiful Women Is ..." Roissy calls attention to one of those efforts at averaging together lots of pictures of people's faces. This one has 41 different nationalities of young women [click on picture to get 1370 x 1240 full size picture of 41 composite faces]. 

As usual, taking the average of young faces makes for a pleasing effect. Much of facial attractiveness is lacking random defects, which creating composite digital images washes out. (On the other hand, while averaging can get you pretty close to, say, Britney Spears at age 20, it doesn't seem able to get you to, say, Audrey Hepburn.)

In commenting, please keep in mind that Roissy's post is a good place for Roissyesque comments, while this is a good place for discussing the various high-minded epistemological issues I will bring up below.

Unfortunately, I can't find the source of all these pictures. (I'd guess yearbook pictures. If so, we're dealing with young women from above the dropout class. Or maybe they are beauty contest participants. Maybe one country's photos are beauty contest winners and another country's are mug shots from county jail. I don't know, so don't be too quick to decide the women of Country X are more beautiful than the women of Country Y based on these composites.)

One thing that's interesting is the difference in facial expressions, which has a lot to do with social attitudes. For example, the composite West African girl looks sweet, while the composite African-American girl looks like the cast of Waiting to Exhale is telling her, "You go, girl!" And the poor composite Afghan girl looks like she's kind of worried that the Taliban will at any moment break in and set the photography studio on fire.

On the other hand, a lot of differences in expressions may just have to do with what the individual photographers asked for, and other non-national semi-random characteristics.

Still, you can definitely see national "types:"
For example, which is the German composite, which the Greek, and which the French? (This is not a trick question.)

I'm not sure why the middle face is shorter in the vertical dimension than the other two -- this probably has more of a technical explanation involving how the pictures were taken or the images recopied than a physical anthropological explanation. I wouldn't be too excited about comparing the composites versus each other since that's so dependent upon how pictures from around the world were taken.

Instead, what I think is interesting is how much each composite is fairly recognizably traceable to relatively close to its country of origin. For example, while looking at one of the composites above, the name "Marianne" suddenly sprung into my mind:
When French artists draw Marianne, an emblem of the Republic for over 150 years, they use French girls as models. Conversely, French girls tend to try, in a wide variety of ways, to look French. (As 2Blowhards pointed out, the French get up in the morning looking forward to a whole day of being French.)

It would be an interesting experiment to do on a large number of people to see how much more accurate their national identifications are when using the 41 averaged composite faces. But also test how well people do on identifying the nationalities of 41 individual faces from the underlying samples.

The existence of types is quite unpopular in the human sciences these days. For example, the Field Museum has a stupendous collection of 104 sculptures they commissioned from sculptress Malvina Hoffman in 1930 to illustrate "The Races of Mankind." In 1999s, I asked a Field Museum official why the museum didn't treat this amazing resource with more respect. She said they weren't realistic because they were "types."

In other words, when Hoffman sculpted, for example, her Nuer tribesman of the Southern Sudan, she sculpted an extremely Nuery-looking fellow imaginable -- about 6'8" and 140 pounds. In reality, by no means is the average Nuer 6'-8". On the other hand, the Nuers, like their archrivals, the Dinkas, are among the most "elongated" people on Earth, so Hoffman definitely caught their particular tendency.

On the other hand, these newfangled composites validate the existence of types.

This is actually an important question to understand both sides of. 

Taxonomists rely upon types -- typically a single stuffed animal or preserved plant (known as a holotype) in a prominent museum -- to classify creatures they find. (Any experts in this rather arcane subject, please feel free to correct me.)

For example, say you are a local homeowner and don't like your neighbor's plan to subdivide his land because it would hurt your view and lower your property value. So, you hire some biology grad students to search your neighbor's property for anything that might get him in trouble under the Endangered Species Act. They bring back a dead bird. Is it the officially endangered California gnatcatcher?!? Or is it merely the common Baja gnatcatcher? Huge amounts of money could be riding on this question. You compare it to the type for each and decide based on which it's closest to in looks.

That, however, raises the question of what type of type should be chosen: an average member of a population or a distinctively representative example of a population. Taxonomists have tended toward the latter as being more useful in settling subsequent classification quandaries. For example, a statue of a 6'8" Nuer would be more helpful than a statue of a 6'1" Nuer at helping people subsequently recognize Nuerness.

Somewhat similarly, Swedes tend to be more distinctly representative than, say, Slovenians of certain distinctive tendencies that distinguish Europeans from the rest of the human population. On the other hand, Slovenian are more likely to look like the average European than Swedes do, in part because Slovenia is more central and Sweden more peripheral in Europe.

Do you see the distinction?

Which way of thinking is right and which wrong?

Well, both ways can be useful. It's helpful to be able to remember that there are two different approaches. It's also useful to remember, however, the shortcomings of either approach.

In general, I'm not that big of a fan of the classical taxonomical approach to human beings. Instead, I prefer to think genealogically. For example, instead of trying to match, say, Tiger Woods to his closest type, you just ask him what his family tree is.

P.S. Here's Dienekes's composites of 2006 World Cup soccer players, showing that if you average enough healthy young people together, even Wayne Rooney's team comes out looking all right.

Amy Chua on Egypt (Sarah Palin, Twilight, Lindsay Lohan, Hunger Games not mentioned)

Look, if Arianna Huffington made $315 million out of search engine optimization, I can give it a shot, too.

The American Conservative's intimidatingly well-informed blogger Daniel Larison digs up some quotes from Amy Chua's 2003 book World on Fire of relevance to optimism over Egypt of the all Egypt needs is democracy to become a prosperous free market nation variety:
Amy Chua assessed the likely effects of rapid democratization in the region in World on Fire, and her judgment still seems correct:
Meanwhile, even if the turn to fundamentalism in the Middle East is a product of closed or repressive political regimes, it sadly does not follow that political liberalization in the region today would lead to moderation–or, for that matter, to pro-market regimes. On the contrary, rapid democratization in the Arab states would likely be a recipe for extremist politics, dominated by ethnonationalist (if not fundamentalist) parties unified in their hatred of Israel and the West.

She wrote at the end of the same chapter:
While free market democracy may well be the optimal end point in the Middle East, the simultaneous pursuit today of laissez-faire markets and immediate majority rule would almost certainly produce even more government-sponsored bloodshed and ethnic warfare.

... While we’re on the subject, it is worth citing Chua again:
On the contrary, for at least a generation, the effects of marketization in the Middle East would at best produce only marginal benefits for the great mass of Arab poor. However correct in theory, free trade agreements and privatization–in the absence of major structural reforms, which are highly unlikely to occur–cannot in the short term alter the pervasive illiteracy, corruption, and Third World conditions prevailing throughout the Arab states. (p. 226)

A generation is an exceptionally long time in politics, especially democratic politics, and it is difficult to imagine that a democratic electorate is going to tolerate a generation’s worth of free trade and privatization policies that mostly benefit the upper and upper-middle classes. If Egypt were subjected to the sort of shock therapy privatization and democratization that Russia experienced in the early ’90s, it is easy to see how a democratic system would turn into an authoritarian populist one in very short order. Poor countries in economic distress are just about the worst candidates for democratization, and any democratic government that has to confront such problems is going to become rapidly discredited because it will not be able to address them all in a satisfactory way.

Defying stereotypes

What's this world coming to? Strange phenomena are afoot as Republican politicians continue their mystifying recent trend (e.g., Sen. Ensign, Gov. Sanford) toward getting into sex scandals with women:
Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) has resigned from the House effective immediately, an announcement that came just hours after a Web site alleged flirtatious behavior by the congressman online. ...

Lee's decision to vacate his Upstate New York seat came after Gawker, a gossip Web site, posted a shirtless picture of Lee that it said was part of a correspondence between the congressman and a woman who was not his wife.

Is it OK to be bored with Egypt by now?

I've been trying to stay interested in the Most Important Event Since the French Revolution, but here's today's three-degrees-of-meta NYT headline and it's not helping:

Allies Press U.S. to Go Slow on Egypt

Maybe if there were some more attacks on camelback, but a lot of these things these days just turn into a test of who has better restroom facilities.

What I'm reminded of is that fairly similar stuff happens in Mexico regularly without the U.S. press paying much attention at all. 

For example, back in 2006, there was an uprising in the capital of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca in which revolting schoolteachers seized the central plaza and held it for months against attacks by the government. I thought that was pretty interesting and followed it for awhile, but it kept going on and on. And then, after a long while, it wasn't going on anymore, but I still don't know what happened. Here's the Wikipedia article on it, but it looks way too long for me to read. So, I guess I was wrong, it wasn't very interesting after all.

Or there was the Presidential election in 2006 in Mexico when the leftist challenger was leading in the vote counting up until the last truckload of ballots arrived, and then -- suddenly -- the ruling party candidate had won. The aggrieved leftist loser announced he was the Real President of Mexico and that he and his followers would occupy the Zocalo. And they did, for awhile, until they didn't. Or maybe they're still there. I don't know.

And don't get me started on 1994 when masked rebels seized control of part of Southern Mexico (Do they still have control? Do they still wear masks? I've lost touch) and there were a bunch of awesome Manchurian Candidate-style assassinations: of a Cardinal (in full robes at the airport), the ruling party's Presidential candidate (only five miles from America), and the ruling party's chairman, who was the President's ex-brother-in-law. Have these been solved? I guess the President's brother went to prison for the last one, but the last I heard he was out and the case had sputtered out.

And then there's been all the head-chopping over the last four years. Here's a headline form yesterday's Salt Lake Tribune:

Is this important? I dunno.

All these years, I've been trying to pay attention to Mexico when everybody else is obsessing over the Middle East. After all, I reasoned, Mexico is right next door to us, while the Middle East isn't. Plus, you gotta admit this Mexican stuff can be pretty colorful. How about the growing cults of Jesus Malverde, the narco saint, and Santa Muerte?

On the other hand, how much of this Mexican history has turned out to be all that important? Mexico seems to keep on being Mexico, just with more Wal-Marts and more chopped heads. Maybe the American press was right to pay little attention to Mexico. On the other hand, how much of this Middle East stuff that preoccupies them turns out to matter much either?

February 8, 2011

Disparate Impact, Chapter CCCXXVII

From the New York Times:
When the University of California, Berkeley, announced it was eliminating five varsity teams last fall, the decision was sold as a necessary sacrifice by a university reeling from severe cuts in state aid. 

Four months later, the university finds itself in a dilemma caused by a largely overlooked consequence of that decision. The cutting of two women’s teams — lacrosse and gymnastics — threw the Cal athletic department out of compliance with the federal gender-equity law known as Title IX. Without the five teams, the university, based on numbers it provided, will have to add 50 spots for women and eliminate 80 spots for men to meet Title IX requirements. That is in addition to the more than 100 male athletes already cut when men’s rugby, baseball and gymnastics were dropped as varsity sports, or about the equivalent of two football squads.  

Wait a minute, did that say women's lacrosse? How many guys in California play lacrosse, much less girls? One thing I can say for sure is that a lot more boys in California play baseball, one of the other eliminated sports, than girls in California play lacrosse. Yet, the NYT isn't running an article about Cal cutting baseball.

Also, what fraction of female lacrosse players in California come from below the upper middle class? I wouldn't be surprised if 25% of female lacrosse players in California are the daughters of fathers who went to East Coast prep schools. Probably 20% are daughters of fathers who went to East Coast prep schools who don't have sons.

The hotbed of girl's lacrosse in Southern California appears to be coastal Orange County: all those communities with Spanish names like San Juan Capistrano, Mission Viejo, and San Clemente, which shows they don't have many Spanish names among the players, unlike, say, Garfield and Roosevelt High Schools in East L.A., which don't play girl's lacrosse.

I asked my son if he knows anybody who plays lacrosse. The only person he knows who plays lacrosse is the son of a division president of a Fortune 100 company. Nice kid. Nice family. Good blood, good bone. They make the Bushes look like Jukes.

I was going to say that girl's lacrosse skews dramatically higher up the social scale in California than boy's baseball. But, now that I think about it, I don't know if that's hugely true anymore because baseball seems to be an expensive sport too. The casual days when a Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams could come out of sandlot ball in California are receding. Now, everybody except basketball players and football players seems to need to be on a "travel squad."

Back to Title IX. You might say: Yes, but boys like sports more than girls do. Well, sure. But disparate impact trumps common sense. So, you aren't supposed to say that.
Until now, Cal had been fulfilling Title IX requirements by asserting that it met the “interests and abilities” of its female students, one of three so-called prongs that institutions can choose to comply with the law. When a university cuts even one women’s team, it can no longer rely on that claim, nor can it argue that it has a history of expanding opportunities for women, which is another option for compliance. Now, Cal has effectively backed itself into a corner and is left with only the third option — proving that female participation in athletics is proportionate to female undergraduate enrollment in the university.

By that measure, Cal falls considerably short. Just 40 percent of the 965 participants on the university’s varsity teams were women in the 2009-10 academic year; its overall student enrollment was 53 percent female. To comply with Title IX, officials have said they plan to trim male rosters while expanding the size of female teams, a practice known in college athletics as roster management.... Mellis said that by next fall, the department planned to limit its male rosters to a total of 377, and to expand the female participants to 393.

In a lot of ways, American college sports are a big waste of time and money, but one thing that you can say for them is that people really care about winning at them. So it goes to show you how powerful the theory of disparate impact is that it has so much power over something as sacred in American society as college sports.

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The Testing-Media-Industrial Complex

It seems weird that we live in a boom time for testing, but we do. The science of testing was mostly perfected in the middle of the 20th Century and not much has changed since then. It would seem like it ought to be a sleepy business. Moreover, very few people defend testing in public. 

Yet the media climate keeps pressing the vast education system toward policies requiring ever more new and improved tests and test prep materials.

Commenter gb at The American Scene says:
New York State’s entire “Race to the Top” grant will be used to pay for assessment tools, and the testing companies are in it for the money in a way that teachers certainly aren’t. Kaplan, which owns the Washington Post Company, owns the very lucrative contract to provide test prep materials for the New York City schools, and Joel Klein, great champion of testing, has just moved from the Chancellor of the city schools to the News Corporation, where he will work in educational publishing. In many ways, assessment is a mechanism whereby federal, state, and city education dollars get moved to large media conglomerates—meanwhile arts education and foreign language instruction get cut.
When you stop to think about we really have the perfect intellectual climate for well-placed firms to make money off testing: when your tests don't give the right results (perfect equality), then your writers demand both more tests and new tests. And nobody is allowed to point out in your pages that it's all pretty futile. It's a perpetual motion money-making machine.

Skyscrapers v. campuses

Economist Ed Glaeser writes "How Skyscrapers Can Save the City," making all the obvious points about how building high lets you cram more people together on small pieces of land, which makes it easier for business people to get together and do deals over lunch.

It's certainly undeniable that skyscrapers can be a cheap way to warehouse people, as, for example, Cabrini Green demonstrated in Chicago. Glaeser complains that Napoleon III's height limitations on Paris (basically, the core of the city is all six stories high) has meant that tall buildings have gone up only on the periphery. But he seems to miss the point that goal of the rulers of Paris is to keep peripheral people on the periphery, where they can amuse themselves setting fire to cars without pestering the real Parisians.

In general, it's hard to get American middle class families to live in high rises because, outside of Manhattan, without restrictive zoning it's hard to get a high enough percentage of middle class children together in one spot to dominate a public school. For example, Glaeser celebrates the reasonably cheap highrises along Chicago's lakefront, but they seldom have "good" schools, in contrast to certain thoroughly gentrified districts of three story buildings. Restrictive zoning is crucial to "good" public schools, but you aren't supposed to talk about that.

As for business, yeah, sure. And yet ...

I once had a corner office in a skyscraper across the street from the Sears Tower in Chicago. It was great for going out to lunch with other corporate types or wowing them with the view from my windows. But, I think my performance suffered in roughly the same way as, notoriously, did those of the Sears executives across the street. Sears is a company built around selling in the suburbs, but it penned up all its headquarter executives in a bubble 100 stories off the ground, a long cab ride from the nearest suburban Sears store. 

In contrast, Wal-Mart was headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas, a town that, back then,  was just like the typical town that had a Wal-Mart. And, Sam Walton didn't want his employees going out to lunch with salesmen from his big suppliers. He wanted them to have zero friendly feelings toward salesmen.

It's interesting how the single most important economic center to emerge in my lifetime -- Silicon Valley -- has resolutely resisted Glaeser's logic. Apple, which has all the money in the world, didn't just announce it was going to build a giant skyscraper, it instead bought a 100 acre site for a campus. And here are pictures of the Google campus.

I don't know how much manufacturing is still done in Silicon Valley, but, historically, there were huge advantages in having the executives right next to the factory floor.

Moreover, most people seem to like the campus layout best. In particular, engineers seem to like nature a lot. I'm having a hard time thinking of any skyscraper famous for being full of engineers. I'm sure there must be some, but it's funny how few there are.

Similarly, how many high end American colleges have imitated Stalin's brainstorm of making Moscow State University one giant building, 750 feet tall, containing 5,000 rooms?

It's also interesting that the highest high end of Wall Street, the hedge funds, have largely decamped from Manhattan for suburban Greenwich.

Also, at the very high end of the entertainment industry in Hollywood, the ideal is not to be in a skyscraper -- that's fine for lawyers -- but to have your own one or two story bungalow on the lot. At the big studios, you walk down these charming little streets with Spanish-style houses on them and out front the parking places say stuff like "Mr. Eastwood." When Clint Eastwood comes down from Pebble Beach, he holds meetings in what looks like a modest-sized, tree-shaded house next door to a lot of other modest-sized houses full of other famous people holding meetings. The highest prestige in Hollywood is to have your office in what looks like a village in Catalonia.

February 7, 2011

"Bedtime for Bonzo"

From my column in Taki's Magazine:  
To celebrate Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, I watched his most derided movie, Bedtime for Bonzo. We’ve been hearing wisecracks about it for generations, so it has to be an embarrassment, right?
Bedtime for Bonzo turns out instead to be a small but nifty family comedy that was a deserved hit in 1951. ...
Reagan was well suited to play an idealistic and impersonal professor in Bedtime for Bonzo. But it’s funny how liberal Reagan’s character is—a progressive psychologist who believes in nurture over nature. Reagan proclaims that criminals are merely victims of having been “born and raised in a slum environment.” ...

Reagan is engaged to a lady professor who is the daughter of the college’s dean, an old-fogey geneticist who still believes in heredity. When the dean discovers that his prospective son-in-law’s estranged father was a habitual conman, he withdraws his daughter’s hand and asks: “But what assurance do I have that your children, my grandchildren, won’t inherit criminal tendencies?”
Reagan then has a brainstorm: he’ll borrow a baby chimp from the college’s Viennese animal researcher and raise it like a human child: “Don’t you see Hans, that if it works, Dean Tillinghast will have to admit that environment is all important, that heredity counts for very little?”

Read the whole thing there.

February 6, 2011

David Lamb on Cairo in 1987

The LA Times' foreign correspondent David Lamb wrote a book called The Arabs in 1987. (He also wrote The Africans, which Barack Obama found such a disturbing read on his first flight to Kenya.) Here are excerpts from Lamb's chapter on Cairo, where he lived for several years. (This is from the 2002 edition of The Arabs, but it seems pretty similar to the edition I read in the 1980s). I don't know how much has changed since then. Lamb wrote:
The capital is sinking under the weight of people, more and more people, and Egypt itself seems in danger of becoming a Bangladesh on the shores of the Mediterranean, an impoverished land gripped by lethargy and decay ...

... a system that has never rewarded competence and has seen its skilled craftsmen head off for better-paying jobs in the oil-rich countries. In their absence, janitors become clerks, farmers become builders, cooks become mechanics. When the results are predictably diasastrous, the ever-tolerant and patient Egyptians merely shrug and say, "Malesh," -- Never mind.

... The sand is powder-fine and so pervasive that it sneaks through the tiniest cracks and clings to everything. ... Open a book and there on page 105 is a fine coating of dust.

Grit turned out to be a big problem when Egypt's ambitious and energetic early 19th Century Albanian ruler, Mohamed Ali, attempted to industrialize the country by buying steam engines and powered cotton looms from Britain to turn Egyptian cotton into textiles. The expensive power machinery kept breaking down due to sand getting in.
Sometimes on the dusty shelves of unlit bookshops, you can find old guidebooks to a city that is no more. They speak of Cairo's fine opera house [I believe Verdi's Aida had its world premiere in Cairo], of banyan trees and patches of green that stretched along the verdant promenade of the corniche, ... of days when Cairenes could live and breathe and move easily in what was, until the 1950s, among the last of the twentieth-century Westernized enclaves in the Arab world. Cairo, in fact, was really two cities throughout most of the 1800s and 1900s: there was the Cairo for Europeans and the Egyptian aristocracy with manicured gardens, elegant hotels and palaces, fine carriages and well-dressed people, and further back from the Nile, past the parks and villas, there was the crowded, dirty Cairo for everybody else. ...

An apathetic public, economic mismanagement and a wildly out-of-control birthrate have become the cancers of Cairo, sapping its strength and leaving its dazed inhabitants the victims of what is known in Egypt as the IBM syndrome: inshallah (if God is willing), bokra (tomorrow) and malesh (never mind). ... That Cairo is being transformed into a vast slum of rural peasants, attracted to the city by the illusions of a better life, does not greatly concern the individual Cairene because, the reasoning goes, man does not really control his destiny or his surroundings.

But here's a curious thing: while Egyptians are content to live in filthy, battered buildings, the insides of their home are always immaculate. ... When I asked friends if anyone had ever considered a neighborhood block association, or an owners' association to clean up common areas, they would chuckle and say, "Oh, that would never work here." ... That attitude, I thought, represented a troubling omen for the undisciplined Egyptian society as a whole and brought to mind the words that T.E. Lawrence spoke more than seventy years ago: "The Semitic mind does not lean toward system of organization. It is practically impossible to fuse the diverse elements among the Semites into a modern, closely knit state." ...

In Tahrir (Liberation) Square, out the back door of the Nile Hilton Hotel, the cluster of small gardens and the strips of grass have been paved over to make way for an outdoor terminal serviced by fifty-four bus companies. ...

A generation ago, when Egypt produced a hundred or more feature films a year, Cairo's thirteen first-run movie theaters were as grand as any in London. ... "The audience that used to support the first-class theaters just doesn't exist anymore," said one of Egypt's widely known character actors, Salah Zoufoukay. "Now it's a peasant society."

Cairo's deterioration is of more than passing interest because the conditions that have allowed it to happen were largely avoidable. ...

The first force of destruction was government centralization. Everything is centered in Cairo. If an Egyptian needs a new passport or has a question about his war pension, he must come to Cairo.

Then military spending in 1948-1973, then socialism and apathy about the birth rate. ...
The intellectual class became more isolated and less influential, its voice drowned in the sea of look-alike, think-alike peasants who have taken over Cairo and to whom politicians, educators filmmakers and newspaper editors seem to believe they must cater.

A big question would be what changes in government would be necessary to allow civil society to flourish. And what are the odds it would flourish?

"The Great Stagnation" by Tyler Cowen

At VDARE, I review the new E-book by Tyler Cowen, The Great Stagnation:
The economist offers three main reasons for this stagnation, all three of which I’ve been discussing for years. Cowen sums them up in a single concept:
“All of these problems have a single, little noticed root cause: We have been living off low-hanging fruit for at least 300 years. Yet during the last forty years, that low-hanging fruit started disappearing, and we started pretending it was still there.”

According to Cowen, America benefited in the past from three main kinds of “low-hanging fruit:”
* “Free land”
* “Technological breakthroughs”      
* “Smart, uneducated kids”

Sound familiar?

Read the whole thing there.

Tom Brady wins NFL MVP unanimously

That revives an old but still popular argument: Who is better, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?

Beats me. I had my say on the meta-issue surrounding Brady v. Manning in 2009. I find particularly fascinating something, as I wrote in Taki's Magazine in November 2009, that bores everybody else:
Steven Pinker’s concept that “mental effort seems to be engaged most with the knife edge at which one finds extreme and radically different consequences with each outcome, but the considerations militating towards each one are close to equal.” 

To put it another way, the things that we most like to argue about are those that are most inherently arguable, such as: Who would win in a fight, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?...

Yet, if I were in charge of player personnel for all the NFL teams, [Malcolm] Gladwell would no doubt be right about the futility of the draft in forecasting quarterback outcomes: I, personally, would have chosen [Ryan] Leaf over Manning.

As you may have noticed by now, I’m like that: clueless about most subjects that most people are most desperate to discuss. Who will win the Super Bowl? Will the stock market go up or down tomorrow? Will the health bill pass? Which party will win the next election?

Don’t ask me.

Those questions concern competitive institutions that are structured in ways that make their outcomes hard to foresee … and therefore captivating.

The NFL has become the top spectator sport in America in part by contriving its affairs so that the winner of the next Super Bowl is very much in doubt. (No NFL team is allowed to dominate financially, as the Yankees and Red Sox do in baseball; last year’s best teams get this year’s hardest schedules; and the worst draft first.)

Paradoxically, that means that my being profoundly ignorant about these concerns wouldn’t keep me from making quick predictions that would be almost as accurate as if I did nothing else but study the subject.

Who will win the [February 2010] Super Bowl? Well, two minutes on Google leads me to a betting site that says the New Orleans Saints are +360, while the Indianapolis Colts are +385. (I don’t even know what those numbers are supposed to mean.) Here’s another site that has the Colts at 3:1 and the Saints at 4:1, which at least I understand.

So, there you have my fearless forecast: the Saints will meet the Colts in the 2010 Super Bowl, and one of them will win.

You heard it here first.

... Instead, I’ve spent time studying other fields, such as the social science behind educational and economic achievement. That way I can generate a higher return on my investment by being able to make more accurate predictions than the conventional wisdom about the effects of crucial public policies such as immigration. (That’s my metaphorical ROI I’m talking about. My financial ROI? Eh …)

In contrast to more popular subjects, in which what you learn is as ephemeral as the mood of the Tennessee Titans, what I’ve learned about school test scores over the last 37 years doesn’t become quickly obsolete. For instance, Chinese students are still averaging higher math scores.

Moreover, it’s not a terribly competitive market niche I’ve selected, since many people don’t ever want to think about it, and get angry at those few of us who do. Others just find these huge swathes of the social sciences as boring and depressing as if I specialized in being a bookmaker on Globetrotter v. Generals games. (Krusty the Klown explained after losing his fortune on an imprudent bet, “I thought the Generals were due!”)

Still, as Pinker told me in 2002:
Q: Aren’t we all better off if people believe that we are not constrained by our biology and so can achieve any future we choose?

A: People are surely better off with the truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. But when it comes to science, these same people say, “Give us schmaltz!” They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.