March 12, 2011

CNN: Republicans cause post-disaster looting in America

In response to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, CNN posted:

The layer of human turmoil - looting and scuffles for food or services - that often comes in the wake of disaster seems noticeably absent in Japan.
“Looting simply does not take place in Japan. I’m not even sure if there’s a word for it that is as clear in its implications as when we hear ‘looting,’" said Gregory Pflugfelder, director of the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University.

Japanese have “a sense of being first and foremost responsible to the community,” he said.

To Merry White, an anthropology professor at Boston University who studies Japanese culture , the real question is why looting and disorder exist in American society. She attributes it largely to social alienation and class gaps.

"There IS some alienation and indeed some class gaps in Japan too but violence, and taking what belongs to others, are simply not culturally approved or supported," White said in an e-mail. ...

"Such social order and discipline are so enforced in ordinary times that I think it’s very easy for Japanese to kind of continue in the manner that they’re accustomed to, even under an emergency.”

The communitarian spirit at the foundation of Japanese culture seems to function even more efficiently under the stress of disaster, he said. The natural American inclination is to operate independently. “So you do everything you can to protect your own interests with the understanding that, in a rather free-market way, everybody else is going to do the same. And that order will come out of this sort of invisible hand."

More sensibly, Nicholas Kristof blogs for the NYT:
But, having covered the 1995 Kobe earthquake (which killed more than 6,000 people and left 300,000 homeless) when I lived in Japan as Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, I have to add: Watch Japan in the coming days and weeks, and I bet we can also learn some lessons. ...

Japan’s orderliness and civility often impressed me during my years living in Japan, but never more so than after the Kobe quake. Pretty much the entire port of Kobe was destroyed, with shop windows broken all across the city. I looked all over for a case of looting, or violent jostling over rescue supplies. Finally, I was delighted to find a store owner who told me that he’d been robbed by two men. Somewhat melodramatically, I asked him something like: And were you surprised that fellow Japanese would take advantage of a natural disaster and turn to crime? He looked surprised and responded, as I recall: Who said anything about Japanese. They were foreigners.

Japan has an underclass, the burakumin, and also treats ethnic Koreans with disdain. But compared to other countries, Japan has little extreme poverty and a greater sense of common purpose. The middle class is unusually broad, and corporate tycoons traditionally were embarrassed to be seen as being paid too much. That sense of common purpose is part of the country’s social fabric, and it is especially visible after a natural disaster or crisis.

March 11, 2011

Can you guess the real story behind the story?

Arthur Brisbane, the "Public Editor" of the New York Times, chastises an earlier NYT story:
The story quickly climbed The Times’s “most emailed” list but not just because of the sensational facts of the crime involved. “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” published on Tuesday, reported the gang rape by 18 boys and men of an 11-year-old girl in the East Texas town of Cleveland.

The viral distribution of the story was, at least in part, because of the intense outrage it inspired among readers who thought the piece pilloried the victim.

My assessment is that the outrage is understandable. The story dealt with a hideous crime but addressed concerns about the ruined lives of the perpetrators without acknowledging the obvious: concern for the victim.

While the story appeared to focus on the community’s reaction to the crime, it was not enough to simply report that the community is principally concerned about the boys and men involved – as this story seems to do. If indeed that is the only sentiment to be found in this community – and I find that very hard to believe – it becomes important to report on that as well by seeking out voices of professional authorities or dissenting community members who will at least address, and not ignore, the plight of the young girl involved.

Let’s consider the particulars:

The story by James C. McKinley Jr. reported that residents of the town noted the girl dressed “older than her age,” wore makeup and fashions “more appropriate to a woman in her 20s” and hung out with older boys at the playground.

The story also quoted one resident, saying, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?”
Referring to some of the defendants in the case, the same resident was quoted saying, “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”
The fourth paragraph of the story laid out the basic themes of the story:
The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?

These elements, creating an impression of concern for the perpetrators and an impression of a provocative victim, led many readers to interpret the subtext of the story to be: she had it coming.

What in the world was going on with the initial story? Talking about the clothes the female was wearing and so forth has been a huge feminist no-no in reporting on rape (regular or statutory) cases for a generation or more. Why would the NYT violate feminist shibboleths in initially reporting this story? What facts are crucial to understanding the original NYT story's remarkable concern for the males involved, yet aren't mentioned in either the original story or the ombudsman's critique?

Could it have anything to do with the unmentionable demographics of the accused rapists in this "working-class neighborhood" in Texas? (Judging from the NYT's comments, I'd guess a lot of the emailing of the original article by NYT readers was of the "Look at what those vicious Red State Republicans do to little girls" variety.)

As commenters have pointed out, the NYT's sympathetic coverage of the Cleveland 18 is reminiscent of its sympathetic coverage of the Jena 6, the high school football stars with long records of violent behavior, who stomped an unconscious high school student. In contrast, the NYT's intensive coverage of the Duke Lacrosse 25 who were falsely accused of rape, was unsympathetic in the extreme.

What could possibly explain this pattern? 

Fortunately, we can go to a foreign country to find out what is happening in America and why it's tying the NYT in knots.

The London tabloid The Daily Mail conveniently lists the NYT's omitted facts in its headlines:

- Activist claims arrests show 'selective prosecution' of African-American community
-Meeting planned to discuss arrests receives 'death threats'
- Outrage over newspaper report that claimed victim 'dressed older than her age, wearing make-up'
- Defence attorney slammed for suggesting girl was a 'willing participant'

In other words, this is another Jena 6 story -- a bunch of young black guys in a southern small town do something bad to somebody nonblack and then the national press turns it into a story about how these young fellows are, when you stop to think about it, the real victims.

In this case, however, the victim was not a 17-year-old white guy, but an 11-year-old Hispanic girl, so the NYT is getting called out on it, although in an extremely gingerly fashion. In contrast, the ludicrous coverage of the Jena 6 went on and on.

What it's like to be swept away by a tsunami

The best movie depiction of how terrifying it is to be swept up in a tidal wave that I've ever seen is the opening of the recent Clint Eastwood movie Hereafter, which will be out on DVD next Tuesday. You can see Clint's depiction of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami on Youtube here. I watched home videos shot by survivors who managed to keep their cameras above the water, and Hereafter's version looks about right about what it would be like if you couldn't.

By the way, it's time to revive the old term "tidal wave" as a complement to the Japanese term "tsunami." During my childhood, most Americans used the term tidal wave, but scientists and science journalists waged a war against it on the simpleminded grounds that tidal waves weren't caused by tides. So, by switching to tsunami, we lost the metaphorically powerful term tidal wave, which does a much better job of hinting at the peculiar horror of this phenomenon compared to normal waves. It's not the height of the front of the tidal wave that is so destructive -- lots of people have surfed waves as tall. It's that, unlike regular beach waves, the water level doesn't go down after the front passes. It's as if the tide has suddenly risen, but with a great velocity to the water rolling in. In cross-section, a tidal wave isn't an inverted V, it's like an inverted L that just keeps going.

The King hearings on Muslim extremism

The Establishment Press is having conniptions over the King hearings because they are getting in the way of their Narrative: that white male conservatives with pitchforks and torches are The Threat. Recall the MSM response to the Tucson shootings — It’s Limbaugh's and Beck's and O’Reilly’s fault — and how they went on for days and days in that vein long after there wasn’t a shred of credibility left. Or look at the various Schillers of NPR.

The King hearings send the perfectly appropriate message to Muslims in America that we are tired of their losers trying to (and sometimes succeeding at) at killing Americans and that they need to do something about it.

We should have had these kind of hearings years ago, but they would have undermined the Bush Administration's main claim to fame: that they had protected us from all terrorist attacks. Moreover, they would have raised questions about Bush's Grand Strategy of Invite the World - Invade the World - In Hock to the World.


From my review in Taki's Magazine:
The audience laughed hyperactively throughout the trailers for upcoming animated blockbusters. “Do talking-animal movies always have extra-long previews?” my wife asked.

“You can never have too many fart jokes,” I explained.

Then Rango started, with Johnny Depp voicing an actor who is (literally) a chameleon, an ugly, asymmetrical reptile. And everybody, including us, finally shut up.

Yet my mouth didn’t stay closed. First my eyebrows went up. Then my jaw dropped. And that was pretty much my only expression throughout this hallucinatory cartoon Western: few chuckles or even smiles, and certainly no dabbing at the eyes, just aesthetic astonishment. As a showcase of the cross-firing neurons in director Gore Verbinski’s brain, the densely contrived Rango is staggering.

Read the whole thing there.

Monkey math

Nicholas Wade reports in the NYT:
New View of How Humans Moved Away From Apes
Anthropologists studying living hunter-gatherers have radically revised their view of how early human societies were structured, a shift that yields new insights into how humans evolved away from apes.

Early human groups, according to the new view, would have been more cooperative and willing to learn from one another than the chimpanzees from which human ancestors split about five million years ago. The advantages of cooperation and social learning then propelled the incipient human groups along a different evolutionary path.

Anthropologists have assumed until now that hunter-gatherer bands consist of people fairly closely related to one another, much as chimpanzee groups do, and that kinship is a main motive for cooperation within the group. Natural selection, which usually promotes only selfish behavior, can reward this kind of cooperative behavior, called kin selection, because relatives contain many of the same genes.

A team of anthropologists led by Kim S. Hill of Arizona State University and Robert S. Walker of the University of Missouri analyzed data from 32 living hunter-gatherer peoples and found that the members of a band are not highly related. Fewer than 10 percent of people in a typical band are close relatives, meaning parents, children or siblings, they report in Friday’s issue of Science.

Michael Tomasello, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, said the survey provided a strong foundation for the view that cooperative behavior, as distinct from the fierce aggression between chimp groups, was the turning point that shaped human evolution. If kin selection was much weaker than thought, Dr. Tomasello said, “then other factors like reciprocity and safeguarding one’s reputation have to be stronger to make cooperation work.”

The finding corroborates an influential new view of early human origins advanced by Bernard Chapais, a primatologist at the University of Montreal, in his book “Primeval Kinship” (2008). Dr. Chapais showed how a simple development, the emergence of a pair bond between male and female, would have allowed people to recognize their relatives, something chimps can do only to a limited extent. When family members dispersed to other bands, they would be recognized and neighboring bands would cooperate instead of fighting to the death as chimp groups do. 

So, the evolution of pair-bonding or higher intelligence or whatever allowed our ancestors to remember who their kin were, even if they had gone off to other tribes. After awhile, we could, no doubt, recognize more distant kin, and even our in-laws, too, and then the kin of our in-laws and other refinements. And then, as we got even smarter, we'd start paying attention to people who might be, say, our children's future in-laws.

So, would kin selection be more or less powerful under these conditions than among a bunch of chimps?

March 10, 2011

Harpending on personal genome freedom of information

Here is a comment posted on the earlier item about the Food and Drug Administration's crackdown on personal genome testing. It's from Henry Harpending, professor of anthropology at the U. of Utah:
Steve, here is a note I sent to the FDA a week or two ago.
I am writing to comment on the meeting to be held March 8-9 about direct to consumer (DTC) genetic testing (Docket FDA-2011-N-0066). I am especially motivated to write after reading the plea to you by the AMA that any DTC results of possible medical interest be censored to consumers. Their letter reflects an appalling paternalistic arrogance that would violate basic freedoms and impede public scientific understanding. I presume that if they could they would have you ban bathroom scales on the grounds that body weight must only be revealed in consultation with a “qualified medical professional.”

The AMA submission has two main themes. The first is that citizens are unable to understand the risks and predicted outcomes that might be reported and that experts are vital to provide guidance. My own experience is that I am perfectly capable of finding empirical risks from current literature, I expect I can do a much better and more thorough job than my personal physician, and even my teenage son can do it with no trouble. My own experience, again, is that only about 1 in 5 medical students know what Bayes' Theorem is.

The second theme is that knowledge of potentially medically relevant genotypes can do some unspecified harm to customers. I have spent a total of six or so years on university IRBs, and this kind of worry is ever present. While there is much public loose talk about psychological harm and the like, within the committee room we all understand that the practice of witholding any data from subjects about themselves is nothing but protection from lawyers. I am perfectly free to refuse to participate in research and in clinical trials but I am not free to refuse to participate in federal censorship of knowledge of my own genotype.

I would urge you to keep freedom of information for consumers at the center of the table when you discuss regulation of the DTC genetic testing industry." 

Obama Admin wants to crack down on genome biz

At GNXP, Razib writes:
In the very near future you may be forced to go through a “professional” to get access to your genetic information. Professionals who will be well paid to “interpret” a complex morass of statistical data which they barely comprehend. Let’s be real here: someone who regularly reads this blog (or Dr. Daniel MacArthur or Misha’s blog) knows much more about genomics than 99% of medical doctors. And yet someone reading this blog does not have the guild certification in the eyes of the government to “appropriately” understand their own genetic information. Someone reading this blog will have to pay, either out of pocket, or through insurance, someone else for access to their own information. Let me repeat: the government and professional guilds which exist to defend the financial interests of their members are proposing that they arbitrate what you can know about your genome. A friend with a background in genomics emailed me today: “If they succeed in ramming this through, then you will not be able to access your own damn genome without a doctor standing over your shoulder.” That is my fear. Is it your fear? Do you care?

In the medium term this is all irrelevant. Sequencing will be so cheap that it will be impossible for the government and well-connected self-interested parties to prevent you from gaining access to your own genetic information. Until then, they will slow progress and the potential utility of this business. Additionally, this sector will flee the United States and go offshore, where regulatory regimes are not so strict. BGI should give glowing letters of thanks to Jeffrey Shuren and the A.M.A.! This is a power play where big organizations, the government, corporations, and professional guilds, are attempting to squelch the freedom of the consumer to further their own interests, and also strangle a nascent economic sector of start-ups as a side effect.

At this point, as far as I can tell, getting your overall genome scanned is mostly for hobbyists, such as people interested in their genealogies. Scanning technology has gotten much, much cheaper, but it turns out that so many genes influence most of the traits we're highly interested in that most of the medical advice flowing from findings that your genome makes you, say, 3% more likely to have a heart attack than the average person is stuff like: Quit smoking and get more exercise!

Eventually, this stuff might be highly medically useful, but it will take a lot more hobbyists having their genomes scanned to figure out what all those genes do and how they interact.

As in any business, especially a new one, there are some scamsters in the personal genomics business, but they can be dealt with under laws against scams in general. Imposing onerous medical regulations on this fun little industry  will just slow the growth of genetic knowledge and be a boon for the economies of less regulated Asian countries that welcome American personal genomics firms.

March 9, 2011

Kids these days

Yesterday, Barack Obama and Melinda Gates visited TechBoston Academy, a public school founded with Gates Foundation money:
“You guys are a pretty impressive bunch,” Mr. Obama said to a science class of juniors and seniors, quizzing them on where they were applying to college and what they wanted to do after that.
Mr. Obama had some fun at Mr. Gates’s expense, noting that both of them had attended school in Boston — he at Harvard Law School, Mr. Gates at Harvard College. But Mr. Gates, he said, “couldn’t hack it in school here, so he dropped out. Then he started a modestly successful computer company.”

When nobody laughed, Mr. Obama said, “That was a joke, guys,” adding that he had actually started a big computer company. 

Reminds me of a story a high school teacher emailed me in 2008:
Student Named Yesenia: ""Mr. X, Mr. X! I have a question."
Teacher: "Yes, what is it?"
Yesenia: "Who is Son of Aladdin? Why are they always looking for him in a cave?"
Teacher: "Huh?"
Yesenia: "What's so bad about Son of Aladdin? Why are they trying to catch him?
Teacher: "Oh, you mean … Osama bin Laden?"
Yesenia: "Yeah, Son of Aladdin."
Teacher: "He's a terrorist."
Yesenia: "Oh."
Teacher [trying to make this into a Teachable Moment]: "But don't confuse Osama with Obama."
Yesenia: "Who's that?"
Teacher: "Barack Obama. He's running for President. The African-American candidate."
Teacher: "You know, the black guy?"
Yesenia [Eyes widening]: "He's black?"
Teacher: "Yes."
Yesenia: "And he's running for President?"
Teacher: "Yes."
Yesenia: [With wide-eyed alarm:] "That's bad."

Why college admissions favor legacies and jocks

From the LA Times:
The University of Southern California will announce Wednesday its largest donation ever, a $200-million gift from alumnus David Dornsife, the chairman of a large steel fabricating company, and his wife, Dana. The Dornsifes' donation will go to USC's College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the university's biggest academic unit, without restrictions on how it should be spent. ...

A USC business major who graduated in 1965 and was a shot putter on the track team, Dornsife has deep family ties to the Los Angeles campus; both his parents were also USC alumni.

March 8, 2011

World's youngest grandmother

Slate summarizes:
Spot a 25-year-old with a 2-year-old, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the baby is the woman's son. But in the case of one young Romanian woman, he's her grandson. Consider the source, but the Sun says that two years ago, at the age of 23, Rifca Stanescu became the world's youngest grandmother. Stanescu reportedly eloped at age 11 because she was afraid her family was going to marry her off to an older man (her groom was 13). She wasn't "forgiven" by her family until she produced a daughter a year later. The daughter, Maria, gave birth at 11. "I am happy to be a grandmother," Stanescu said, "but wished more for Maria." 

"Romanian" ...  Lemme guess ... I bet she's the kind of Romanian where you don't actually need the last four letters of the word "Romanian."


The Atlantic's Valley mafia on Chua

The back of the book section of the Atlantic Monthly is dominated by a group of writers -- Benjamin and Christina Schwarz, Caitlin Flanagan, and Sandra Tsing-Loh -- who have lived or worked in the San Fernando Valley, and whose worldviews mutually reflect and reinforce their Valley experience. Thus, I find them more perceptive about current trends in America than the vastly more numerous Boston-NY-DC intellectuals. (Here, for example, is Benjamin Schwarz's lovely review of historian Kevin Starr's Golden Dreams: California in the Age of Abundance: 1950-1963.)  

Not surprisingly, the three ladies all have to have their say on Amy Chua.

Sympathy for the Tiger Moms

The national convulsion over Amy Chua’s parenting has lead people to hate or fear mothers like me. They should feel sorry for us instead.
By Sandra Tsing Loh   Share   

The Ivy Delusion

The real reason the good mothers are so rattled by Amy Chua
By Caitlin Flanagan   Share   

Leave Those Kids Alone

Childhood isn't a springboard to adulthood, but a well of experience.
By Christina Schwarz   Share   
Flanagan, who used to be the college admissions counselor at Harvard-Westlake on Coldwater Canyon (where I vaguely recall there being a couple of student suicides a half decade ago), writes:
The good mothers went to Brown, and they read The Drama of the Gifted Child, and they feel things very deeply, and they love their children in a way that is both complicated and primal, and they will make any sacrifice for them. They know that it takes a lot of time to nurture and guide a child—and also that time is fleeting, and that the bliss of having your kids at home is painfully short-lived—and so most of them have cut back on their professional aspirations in significant ways. The good mothers have certain ideas about how success in life is achieved, and these ideas have been sizzled into their brains by popularizers such as Joseph Campbell and Oprah Winfrey, and they boil down to this: everyone has at least one natural talent (the good mothers call it a “passion”), and creativity, effortless success, and beaucoup dinero flow not from banging your head against the closed door of, say, organic chemistry if you’re not that excited by it, but from dwelling deeply and ecstatically inside the thing that gives you the most pleasure. But you shouldn’t necessarily—or under any circumstances, actually—follow your bliss in a way that keeps you out of Yale. Because Yale is important, too! So important. The good mothers believe that their children should be able to follow their passions all the way to New Haven, Connecticut, and this obdurate belief of theirs is the reason so many of them (Obama voters, Rosa Parks diorama co-creators, gay-rights supporters, champions, in every conceivable way, of racial diversity and tolerance) are suddenly ready to demand restoration of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Because Amy Chua has revealed, in so many blunt and horrifying words, why the good mothers are getting spanked, and why it’s only going to get worse. 

The whole thing is quite fair.

Francis Fukuyama explains it all

Francis End of History Fukuyama has a big book coming out intended to compete with Guns, Germs, and Steel in the Big Picture history category. Nicholas Wade writes in the New York Times about Fukuyama's attempts to merge political science and sociobiology:
“We take institutions for granted but in fact have no idea where they come from,” he writes. Institutions are the rules that coordinate social behavior. Just as tribes are based on the deep-seated human instinct of looking out for one’s family and relatives, states depend on the human propensity to create and follow social rules.

Dr. Fukuyama emphasizes the role of China because it was the first state. The Qin dynasty, founded in 221 B.C., prevailed over tribalism, the default condition of large societies, by developing an official class loyal to the state rather than to family and kin. 

What about Egypt 2500 years earlier?
Tribalism did not disappear in Europe until a thousand years later. It yielded first to feudalism, an institution in which peasants bound themselves to a lord’s service in return for his protection. So when kings emerged, they seldom acquired absolute power, as did rulers in China, because they had to share power with feudal lords.

Another impediment to absolute rule in Europe, in Dr. Fukuyama’s telling, was that the concept of the rule of law emerged very early, largely because of the church’s development of canon law in the 11th century. So when strong rulers started to build states, they had to take account of the emerging codes of civil law.

Europeans then developed the unusual idea that it was the law that should be absolute, not the ruler. In pursuit of this principle, the English Parliament executed one king, Charles I, and deposed another, James II. This proved a durable solution to the problem of building a strong state, yet one in which the ruler was held accountable. 

That seems a little backwards. My impression is that the notion of the rule of law grew out of the northern European emphasis that bargains should be upheld on both sides. Medieval Europe was a chaos of overlapping bargains going back to time immemorial. Absolutism in Baroque Europe was largely an attempt to modernize, to rationalize the clutter of legalistic medieval institutions.
Other European countries developed institutions similar to those in England but failed to achieve a sustainable balance of power between the ruler and the elites. In France, the nobility rebuffed the state’s efforts to tax them, so the burden fell increasingly on the peasantry until it became intolerable, leading to the French Revolution. In Hungary, the elites were so powerful that they denied the king the authority to devise an adequate defense. The Hungarian Army was annihilated by the Mongols at the battle of Mohi in 1241 and again by the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Mohacs in 1526.

Of the European powers, only England and Denmark, in Dr. Fukuyama’s view, developed the three essential institutions of a strong state, the rule of law, and mechanisms to hold the ruler accountable. This successful formula then became adopted by other European states, through a kind of natural selection that favored the most successful variation.

I'd probably lean toward Shakespeare's "sceptred isle" theory that "island privilege" gave the English a margin for error and for, well, niceness:
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war

Paul Johnson argued in The Off-Shore Islanders:
Isolation … is the most consistent single thread running through the tapestry of English history. … It does not preclude contacts, exchanges, cooperation: but it inhibits the systematic involvement with the land-mass which diminishes, and in the end destroys, the island privilege.

Wade continues:
Though institutions are the basis of the modern state, the instinct to favor family never disappears and will reassert itself whenever possible. To create a loyal administrative class, Dr. Fukuyama said, some states took the extreme measure of destroying the family, in a variety of original ways.

The Chinese emperors instituted a special cadre of eunuchs who had no family but the state, and came to be trusted more than the regular administrators. Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century imposed celibacy on Catholic priests, forcing them to choose between the church and the family.

Islamic rulers created a class free of family ties with the remarkable institution of slave soldiers. Young boys would be taken from mostly Christian families, often in the Balkans, raised as Muslims and as slaves, and trained as soldiers. The system, despite its oddity, was highly effective. The Mamluks, one of several versions of these military slaves, defeated the Mongols and ousted the Crusaders. The institution decayed from the very danger it was designed to prevent: weak sultans allowed the soldiers’ sons to succeed their fathers in office, whereupon the soldiers’ loyalty reverted to their families instead of the state.

I don't think this kind of cultural (and perhaps genetic) evolution is quite done with. The Obama Administration, for example, seems rather worried that the U.S. military has become increasingly run by a semi-hereditary caste of officers' families.

Anyway, the book sounds interesting and I look forward to reading it.

Essay tests

The more the conventional wisdom denounces standardized testing, the more money there is to be made in standardized testing. For example, the whole world decided about a decade ago that filling in ovals with a Number 2 pencil couldn't possibly be a good test of Critical Thinking skills, so essays were added to many tests, such as the SAT and GRE. 

This increased the cost (and slowed down the grading) considerably. Today, thousands of people, typically temps, are employed each year grading the essay portion of standardized tests. This article by Jessica Lussenhop of the Minneapolis City Pages takes you behind the scenes of essay grading. It's not a particularly edifying scene (although not all that dismal). 

The take home lesson I get is that you should make sure your first sentence is sterling. Graders don't have time to read your essay carefully, so you want to make a good first impression.

Is there an Egyptian Bonaparte?

Here's something that almost certainly won't happen, but which could make the situation in the Middle East quite interesting if it did.
The rebels in Libya currently control most of the oil fields. But they aren't very good at war, at least not yet. On the other hand, the Libyan Army isn't very strong either, because Kaddafi didn't want to get overthrown by it.

The strongest military in North Africa is that of Egypt, which borders Libya's Eastern rebels. A dynamic young Egyptian general, announcing he was coming to the aid of the Arab Revolution in Libya, could push Kaddafi's army back to Tripoli without much trouble. If he did, would he give up the oil fields? Would he push on to the Atlantic as the liberator of North Africa?

Of course, the concept of a dynamic young Egyptian general is probably something that Hosni Mubarak was at pains to make sure doesn't actually exist. The real Bonaparte emerged from after years of Darwinian struggle set off by the French Revolution.

Basketball stats and teaching stats

Here's an article by Dave Johns in Slate about NBA statistics. A huge amount of intellectual effort has been expended in recent years to bring basketball up to speed statistically with baseball. There has been a lot of progress, but the Holy Grail goal of coming up with a foolproof system for ranking players still has no consensus. 

For example, how good is Kevin Love (the 22-year-old Minnesota center who is an offshoot of the extended clan of Loves and Wilsons famous for the Beach Boys)? For example, Offensive Win Shares rates him as the best offensive player in the league and fifth best overall in total Win Shares.  Offensive Rating sees him as the fifth best offensive player in the league. Player Efficiency Rating says he's the third best player in the league. Other rating systems don't see him in the top ten.

Johns likes to disparage Love to show the problems being dealt with by the sophisticated statistics:
Rebounds also suffer from so-called "diminishing returns"—the idea that players on the same team effectively compete with one another for boards. Often a particular player—say, Minnesota Timberwolves center Kevin Love—serves as his team's designated glass-cleaner, and he scoops up balls that his teammates might well have grabbed anyway.

Okay, but, presumably, coach Kurt Rambis tells his players to let Love grab the easy rebounds (such as missed free throws by the other team) because he has such a good outlet pass, which ought to count for something in an overall ranking, right? Moreover, Love's offensive rebounding statistics are stellar, and there aren't all that many easy offensive rebounds.
The [plus-minus] technique can also examine the impact of top rebounders: Kevin Love consistently rebounds in double digits, but his contribution to his team's total boards is only about two to three per game, according to one analysis.

But the analysis Johns links to shows Love as being the best rebounder in the league by a margin of about 20% over the second best rebounder.

But, old fashioned stats can give a more well-rounded picture of Love than advanced rankings. This year, Love is on track to become the first player since Moses Malone's last MVP season in 1983 to average over 20 points and 15 rebounds per game (He's currently at 20.9 and 15.8). He's making 42.7% of three pointers and 86.2% of free throws, which are outstanding percentages for a center.

On the other hand, Love is under 6'8" in his bare feet and is a white guy who can't jump all that great: he doesn't block shots (only 0.4 per game, which is really low for somebody with so many rebounds).

(By the way, my impression is that rebounding correlates better with being a good all-around basketball player than does shot-blocking. The all-time bjg men like Russell, Chamberlain, Kareem, and Walton tended to be great at both rebounding and shot-blocking, but lots of guys are only good at one or the other. In general, the guys who are only good at shot-blocking are more often the weird Manute Bol-type talents. For example, on the playground, I was a pretty good shot blocker but I was an all-time awful rebounder. Partly it was getting pushed around by less skinny guys, but much of my rebounding deficit was cognitive: I never had the slightest clue where the ball was going to bounce. In contrast, I had a pretty good idea when somebody was going to shoot, so shot-blocking strikes me as pretty obvious while rebounding seems like a Dark Art. Your mileage may vary.)

Moreover, despite his superb hand-eye coordination, Love doesn't create much offensively down low (making only 48.3% of two pointers). His team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, has a very bad won-loss record, 15-50, and gives up a lot of points.

The more I look at it, the more I come around to middlebrow sportswriter Bill Simmons's convenient conclusion that basketball's old-fashioned box score stats are quite useful and Holy Grail one-number ranking statistics haven't yet gotten there. Looking at his non-advanced stats, Love's unusual combination of bulk and touch makes him look like a guy who could be extremely useful on a good team (like, say, Bill Laimbeer on the Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s) but who (at least not yet in his quickly evolving career) can't be expected to carry a bad team the way, say, Kobe Bryant carried an awful Lakers team with Smush Parker at point guard to a winning record a half decade ago.

On the other hand, there's a lot of learning available from advanced stats that don't try to rank everybody, but just try to look at elements of performance, such as a player's shooting percentage from the left or right sides of the court.

Much less intelligence has been devoted to analyzing teacher performance. Much of the recent work has been devoted to, yes, the Holy Grail of ranking teachers on Value Added so that bad teachers can be fired and good teachers rewarded.

The New York Times has an article on a hard-working NYC 7th grade English teacher at a prestigious public school. She has two Ivy League degrees and is much admired by her students, many of whom qualify for Stuyvesant. Yet, she only ranks at the 7th percentile among all NYC teachers. The article shows the complex formula used in the calculation, which appears to baffle most teachers. My guess would be that her students arrive so far above average that there's almost nowhere for them to go but down.

I'm always looking for sports analogies for social science statistics, since Americans think harder about sports. Being a teacher isn't really like being a player, it's more like being a coach. Probably the closest analogy is being a coach in a big high school with separate Freshman, Sophomore, and Varsity football teams. If you are the Sophomore team's coach, you more or less inherit the Freshman team's players (although the best will be sent up to the Varsity). So, if your Sophomore team consistently winds up with a worse record than the same players achieved on the Freshman team, your job will be in trouble.

For example, say the Freshman coach is great and routinely goes 9-0. All you can do as Sophomore coach is match his record or do worse, which might be an analogy for this New York teacher.

Similarly, the search for a super-sophisticated single number ranking system for teachers can overlook the advantages of less ambitious statistics at pointing out particular strengths and weaknesses, which would be of use both to teacher looking to improve and to administrators looking to maximize the usefulness of a teacher's talents.

David Brooks announces the end of the Age of Sailer

For me, reading my reader David Brooks in the New York Times in recent years has been a rather odd experience. When promoting his upcoming book, Brooks writes as if I were the David Broder/ David Gergen/ David Brooks of the 21st Century, the recognized voice of conventional wisdom, and that he is the intellectual rebel.

For example, in his latest column "The New Humanism," Brooks expounds:
Over the course of my career, I’ve covered a number of policy failures. ..

I’ve come to believe that these failures spring from a single failure: ... We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion.

When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. ... Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else.

Yet while we are trapped within this amputated view of human nature, a richer and deeper view is coming back into view. It is being brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on.

This growing, dispersed body of research reminds us of a few key insights. ... You pay a bit less attention to individual traits and more to the quality of relationships between people.

You get a different view of, say, human capital. Over the past few decades, we have tended to define human capital in the narrow way, emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills. 

Personally, I don't see why I shouldn't be the voice of conventional wisdom. I'm a reasonable man, I'm pretty good at understanding why other people feel the way they do, I like to put myself in other people's shoes in order to grasp the incentives they face, I have decent pattern recognition skills, and so forth.

For example, I can see lots of good reasons why Brooks has adopted this shtick of his. Granted, it's objectively wacky for him to imply that every time you turn on your TV, there's Obama or Oprah or Brooks talking about correlations between IQ and social outcomes. But, emotionally, that's what pays. If Brooks is going to become the New Malcolm Gladwell (which I'm highly in favor of, since he would be a big improvement over the Old Malcolm Gladwell), he needs to position himself as being The New Thing. The public doesn't want new ideas, they just want to be told that their old ideas are new ideas that have been discovered by brain scans.

Moreover, reacting to me sharpens Brooks's game considerably. If he just talked back to, say, Frank Rich, he'd be almost as boring as Frank Rich.

March 7, 2011

Report for Congress on military: "Too many white men dying in combat"

Of course, it doesn't exactly say that ...
Report says too many whites, men leading military
Pauline Jelinek, Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is too white and too male at the top and needs to change recruiting and promotion policies and lift its ban on women in combat, an independent report for Congress said Monday.

Seventy-seven percent of senior officers in the active-duty military are white, while only 8 percent are black, 5 percent are Hispanic and 16 percent are women, the report by an independent panel said, quoting data from September 2008.

Two decades ago, when the military was at the height of its prestige during the first Gulf War, 7% (I believe) of the generals in the U.S. Army were black. The #1 and #3 generals in the Gulf War (Colin Powell and Calvin Waller) were black. 
One barrier that keeps women from the highest ranks is their inability to serve in combat units. Promotion and job opportunities have favored those with battlefield leadership credentials.

The report ordered by Congress in 2009 calls for greater diversity in the military's leadership so it will better reflect the racial, ethnic and gender mix in the armed forces and in American society.

Efforts over the years to develop a more equal opportunity military have increased the number of women and racial and ethnic minorities in the ranks of leadership. But, the report said, "despite undeniable successes ... the armed forces have not yet succeeded in developing a continuing stream of leaders who are as diverse as the nation they serve."

"This problem will only become more acute as the racial, ethnic and cultural makeup of the United States continues to change," said the report from the Military Leadership Diversity Commission ...

Having military brass that better mirrors the nation can inspire future recruits and help create trust among the general population, the commission said.

An interesting question that the press has strenuously not interested itself in is: Who has been dying in recent wars? You used to hear all the times that minorities are more likely to get killed in America's wars, but now you never hear anything about the subject. 

When I checked on the Iraq War in 2007, American whites, relative to their share of the young population, were getting killed in combat at 1.86 times the rate of nonwhites. 

In Afghanistan through 2009, whites were dying at a rate 2.47 times their share of the population of 20-24 year olds.

I asked then:
How could this statistic be spun so it's "appropriate" for the mainstream media? Here's a feasible headline:
Minorities Discriminated Against at VA Cemeteries
Whites Get More Free Burials

The AP article continues:
Because they are technically attached to, but not assigned to, combat units, [women] don't get credit for being in combat arms, something important for promotion to the most senior ranks.

Through 2006, U.S. women had suffered 2% of the fatalities in Iraq.

The most interesting part of the AP article is this exercise in reading between the lines:
Lyles said the commission consulted a panel of enlisted women on the issue. "I didn't hear, `Rah, rah, we want to be in combat,'" Lyles said. "But I also didn't hear, `We don't want to be in combat.' 

In other words, enlisted women don't want to be in combat. The only women who do are the most promotion-crazed female officers, and the enlisted women aren't excited about getting themselves killed to help get these officers promoted.

The fundamental flaw of GOP policies

From my new column:
What passes for policy debate in America has become so stultified that even the fundamental flaw of contemporary Republican policies has gone virtually unnoticed both by their Republican advocates and by their Democratic critics. It’s easy to point out where Republican policies have failed, but the more frightening prospect might be where they’ve succeeded.

Consider the state of Texas, where the GOP’s low-tax, low-wage, low-regulation strategy has worked roughly as intended in recent decades, creating many new jobs.

This drives Democrat economist Paul Krugman nuts. So, he’s constantly on the lookout for evidence of growing dysfunction in Texas. And it’s not hard to find. But if Krugman tried to be honest about the chief reason for this, his head might explode.

Read the whole thing there.