December 17, 2011

Who says there are few Spanish-surnamed rich people in Silicon Valley?

From the NYT:
Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, with her husband, Marc Andreessen, the Netscape co-founder, says that she was drawn to philanthropy because of her mother's early death from cancer.

John Arrillaga, her real estate developer dad, is one of the two Spanish-surnamed people on the Forbes 400. His parents were Basques born in Spain. Last I checked, the other Spanish-surnamed billionaire is billboard king Arte Moreno, a genuine Mexican-American, who, as owner of the California Angels, is going to pay a quarter of a billion to slugger Albert Pujols.

Here's Razib on the distinctive Basque DNA, although I must say that Ms. Arrillaga-Andreesen doesn't look too different from most rich men's wives / daughters. 

The typical opening line of a Christopher Hitchens tribute

From Slate, a representative example from this insiders' orgy of name-dropping and one-upmanship:
I first met Christopher on the set of the Charlie Rose show at a low point early in my career of provocation. 

In other words, did I mention I was on the Charlie Rose show? With Christopher? (As we Charlie Rose show regulars / close friends know, only his first name is necessary.) Did I point out how provocative I am? And did you notice that my fabulous career is no longer at a low point? And did I make clear that even at that low point, I was still getting on the Charlie Rose show? 

Mexican mediocrity quantified

Something I noticed last year when looking at 2009 PISA school achievement scores is the virtual non-existence of Mexico's intellectual elite. Mexico's average scores on this school achievement test of 15-year-olds were mediocre, but the lack of high end scores was startling, compared to a similar scoring country like Turkey, where there is a definite class of very smart Turks. Obviously, there is a stunning shortage of very high-achieving Mexican Americans in the U.S., but I had tended to assume that the really smart guys who run things in Mexico were just foisting off their mediocre people on the U.S. Yet, it's hard to find test score evidence that there are many really smart guys in Mexico at all. This is not to say the average Mexican is all that uneducated by global standards, just that the far right end of the bell curve in Mexico is a lot thinner than you'd expect.

Perhaps this is just an illusion because all the schools in Mexico with smart students refuse to participate in international tests? The public school teachers union in Mexico is hilariously awful: many teaching jobs are hereditary, and if your heirs don't want your teaching job after you die, they can auction it off to the highest bidder. But the overall performance of Mexican students on the PISA isn't terrible (it's a lot worse than the performance of Hispanics in the U.S. on the PISA, but not miserable by Latin American standards). 

Yet, here's a 2008 paper on the same subject that takes the lack of cognitive superstars in Mexico seriously:
Producing superstars for the economic Mundial: The Mexican Predicament with quality of education 
Lant Pritchett and Martina Viarengo
Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government
November 19, 2008 
Abstract.   The question of how to build the capabilities to both initiate a resurgence of growth and facilitate Mexico’s transition into a broader set of growth enhancing industries and activities is pressing.  In this regard it seems important to understand the quality of the skills of the labor force.  Moreover, in increasingly knowledge based economies it is not just the skills of the typical worker than matter, but also the skills of the most highly skilled.  While everyone is aware of the lagging performance of Mexico on internationally comparable examinations like the PISA, what has been less explored is the consequence of that for the absolute number of very highly skilled.  We examine  how many students Mexico produces per year above the “high international benchmark” of the PISA in mathematics.  While the calculations are somewhat crude and only indicative, our estimates are that Mexico produces only between 3,500 and 6,000 students per year above the high international benchmark (of a cohort of roughly 2 million [which is about half America's cohort of around 4 million]).  In spite of educational performance that is widely lamented within the USA, it produces a quarter of a million, Korea 125,000 and even India, who in general has much worse performance on average, produces over 100,000 high performance in math students per year.  The issue is not about math per se, this is just an illustration and we feel similar findings would hold in other domains.  The consequences of the dearth of globally competitive human capital are explored, with an emphasis on the rise of  super star phenomena in labor markets (best documented in the USA).  Finally, we explore the educational policies that one might consider to focus on the upper tail of performance, which are at odds with much of the “quality” focus of typical educational policies which are often remedial and focused on the lower, not upper tail of performance.

I don't know what the full story is here. Perhaps Mexican elites are just lazy, and they set a bad example for the Mexican masses?

PISA scores: 2 Indian states flop

The conventional wisdom expressed in Obama Administration speeches and the like is that American students get crushed by kids in China and India on international tests of school achievement. But the evidence for this is not as abundant as you might assume ... especially not for India. While the city of Shanghai shot the lights out on the 2009 PISA, test scores haven't been released for other parts of China. 

But, Westerners going back to Marco Polo have generally assumed the Chinese have a lot on the ball, so they are likely to do pretty well. 

What about India, the other giga-country? I first noticed in early 1981 that there were a lot of smart Indians in the U.S., and over the decades this has become a cliche.

But, what about India itself? India has never participated as a country in broad-based international tests.

The future of India is A) an intrinsically interesting subject; B) one that could make or lose you a lot of money; C) could make or lose the whole world a lot of money (just as the widespread assumption that the population of the Sand States could pay back those big mortgages proved costly for everyone, so could an unrealistic assumption down the road that the Indian masses are ready for big loans could spark a future global bubble and bust).  

Last year, I pointed out in VDARE that TIMSS had been given unofficially in two Indian states, Orissa and Rajasthan, and both had done badly.

Now the OECD has released 2009 PISA test scores for 15-year-olds for ten more places, two of them Indian states. The new news is that the Indian states, Tamil Nadu in the southeast (east of Bangalore, the technology center) and Himachal Pradesh, a Hindu state in the Deep North, did miserably, fighting it out with Kyrgyzstan for last place out of 74 countries or regions on all three tests: reading, math, and science. (Not surprisingly, the southern state beat the northern state on all three tests.) 

And there isn't much inequality in the Indian scores: it's not like some geniuses in these states score high but the places are dragged down by illiterates. There are a lot of illiterates, of course, but almost nobody scores at the top level, at least not in the schools where these tests were given. (Allow me to insert here my usual caveat about testing, which is that an 80/20 rule applies to methodology: it's pretty easy to get a crudely accurate picture, but really hard to get a highly accurate one. For example, how representative were the tested students in India? Beats me.)

Here's the 13 meg PDF.

India ought to be able to do better than score at sub-Saharan levels. Indians in other countries do better. For example, this same report has Mauritius, a mixed race country in the middle of the Indian Ocean where 52% of the population is Hindu, scoring like a Latin American country rather than a sub-Saharan African country. 

But, India itself has a long way to go. It's likely to take 1-2 generations to get India up to speed, and we don't really know what up to speed for India means yet.

In other news from this report by Australians on the additional ten marginal places to take the test, Costa Rica does pretty good for a Latin American country (as stereotypes of Costa Rica as a nice place would suggest), Malta does okay, the rich United Arab Emirates do pretty good for an Arab place, and Moldova and Georgia do very bad for white countries. 

December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, RIP

Slate today has 26 articles on the late Christopher Hitchens. For an "iconoclast," he seems awfully popular with everybody who is anybody.

Perhaps I may be forgiven for offering a more critical assessment of the critic and pundit.

Hitchens getting the Iraq War catastrophically wrong evidently had minimal impact on his celebrity. Of course, it's fair to ask: has anybody's career suffered from getting Iraq wrong? Has anybody's career prospered from getting Iraq right, other than maybe Obama for giving a single speech against it?

On the other hand, as a long-time Trotskyite critic of American imperialism, Hitchens' accomplishment in getting Iraq wrong was a singularly epic own-goal. It's almost as ridiculous as it would have been if Noam Chomsky had suddenly decided in the early 2000s that the single American foreign policy effort he would support in his lifetime would be stupidest one of all. Of course, Chomsky didn't get Iraq wrong, and he is deeply resented in the Washington Post-owned media for finally being clearly right. Hitchens did get Iraq wrong, and is a saint to the mainstream media. 

More generally, English journalists tend to be better than American journalists at using the English language, whether on paper or in person, whether sober or drunk. Thus, I must confess that I could never quite grasp why Christopher Hitchens, out of all the talented English journalists in the world, was so celebrated. He was quite good, but they're all pretty good (his uncelebrated brother Peter Hitchens is the obvious contrast). After awhile, I guess, C. Hitchens was famous for being famous. By random luck, somebody has to be.

It certainly helped that he kept shifting around -- moving to America, deciding he was ethnically Jewish, becoming a neocon, etc etc -- so he could keep picking up new audiences who hadn't been so exposed to his Traditional English Journalist shtick and who weren't bored with his writing yet. (Like some other neocons, however, he retained part of his Trotskyite faith well into his neocon years. Here is Hitchens' 2004 tribute to Trotsky in The Atlantic.)

Perhaps the secret of Hitchens' fame was that he was at least satisfactory in both his roles as a journalist for hire and as a heavy-drinking celebrity. His many, many articles were, typically, more or less worth reading, even if I can't remember at the moment much of anything he's written. What is exceptional about Hitchens is that he managed to churn them out at great pace and with a level of quality okay for the Internet age while also going to endless parties, lunches, dinners, debates, symposiums, and television appearances. In other words, Hitchens was good enough at the conflicting duties he undertook.

Other English journalists have crashed and burned while trying to do both. For example, Anthony Haden-Guest (the illegitimate brother of mockumentary maker / aristocrat Christopher Guest, who is the Fifth Baron of Saling) made a huge splash on the New York literary party circuit when he arrived a generation ago. Tom Wolfe was so amused by him that he sponsored his entry into New York cafe society, but both Haden-Guest's writing and charm fell off under the strain of non-stop partying. Wolfe wound up turning him into the character of the poisonous English journalist Peter Fallow in The Bonfire of the Vanities. (You'll sometimes see it stated that Hitchens was Wolfe's model for Fallow, but Haden-Guest was much more the original. But, Wolfe's larger point is that there are a whole bunch of English journalists of this ilk. Journalism is like acting in this regard: English culture is better at developing acting talent than is American culture.)

In contrast, Hitchens managed to walk the tightrope of being good enough at both celebrityhood and journalism, which speaks well of his energy and resilience.

Hitchens' long track record of sniffing out the current most lucrative ideological position in the Anglo-American journalism industry wasn't, so far as I can tell, driven by mercenary motives. He seemed sincere, but his underlying motivations for his ideological changes tended to be absurdly personal.

For example, Christopher's conversion from scourge to advocate of American imperialism was related to his sibling rivalry over his parent's affections that he waged with his level-headed brother Peter, who took after their level-headed father. In contrast, Christopher identified with his troubled mother, who killed herself in Cyprus. Christopher later discovered that their mother was about 1/8th Jewish, but solely through the female line, thus giving him a rabbinically orthodox claim to Jewishness. From the Jewish Telegraph Agency's obituary: "Despite his rejection of religious precepts, Hitchens would make a point of telling interviewers that according to Halacha, he was Jewish."

His brother Peter found this deduction about their mutual ethnicity to be eye-rolling. But this genealogical discovery helped grease the skids for Christopher's conversion to neocon invade-the-worldism.

Here is the remarkable 2005 transcript of the first meeting of the Hitchens Brothers after years of estrangement. As I remarked at the time:
I've pointed out that what might look like ideological clashes on the surface are often actually just rationalizations for ethnic clashes between extended families, but the Hitchens Brothers represent an interesting case of an ethnic clash between brothers within a nuclear family. Peter was the favorite of their English father, Christopher of their [slightly] Jewish mother. Christopher is still an atheist, but as Paul Johnson pointed out in his "History of the Jews," it's been common down through the centuries for young atheist intellectuals to become more focused on Jewish ethnic interests as they age, without necessarily becoming theists. The conversion to the ideology of neoconism of Christopher, who, despite his hatred of religion, has taken to dropping in to synagogues as he travels to express his ethnic solidarity, is a good example of this venerable tendency toward gerontocratic ethnocentrism.

As a journalist, Hitchens always struck me as fairly comparable to his former colleague at The Nation, Alexander Cockburn. (In fact, I got them confused a lot up through about 1999, partly because their views were similar and because there are three Cockburn Brother journalists and two Hitchens Brothers journalists.) Hitchens would have killed to be the first cousin once-removed of Evelyn Waugh like the Cockburn Brothers are. (And Alexander's niece is movie starlet Olivia Wilde.) Being the son of communist Claude Cockburn and the relative of the reactionary Waugh is the epitome of Hitchens' combination of bloodthirsty politics and conservative literary culture. 

But, Cockburn was right about Iraq, so don't expect him to get one-tenth of the same sendoff from the mainstream media when he kicks the bucket.

P.S., from Cockburn's "Farewell to C.H.:"
I met him in New York in the early 1980s and all the long-term political and indeed personal  traits were visible enough. I never thought of him as at all radical. He craved to be an insider, a trait which achieved ripest expression when he elected to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen by Bush’s director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. 

That seems reasonable. Hitchens was a talented, energetic, clubbable fellow who wanted to be an insider and got what he wanted. So, he's worth studying to understand what is Inside these days.

My old articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

December 15, 2011

Good news that nobody knows

The black teenage birthrate has fallen sharply since the annus horribilis of 1991. Back at the peak of the Crack Era, 86 of every 1000 black girls from 15 to 17 gave birth, versus only 32 in 2009:

It's important, however, to note that the 1991 number represented a spike in teen fertility among blacks, up over the 1980s and well above the late 1990s. Nobody seems to know why that happened. One guess is that black girls in 1991 found crack dealers sexy, but changed their minds rather quickly. Another is that the FDA's approval of the Depo-Provera shot in 1992 was the turning point. The welfare cutbacks of the mid-1990s certainly played a role. 

Among 18-19 year olds, the fall hasn't been quite as steep:
The subprime bubble of the middle of the last decade appears to have inflated Hispanic teen fertility -- thus the sharp drop among Hispanics from 2007 to 2009.

Nobody these days seems to know anything about fertility trends, although it's hard to think of anything more important.

Was DSK set up by Sarkozy?

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn brouhaha of earlier this year, in which the most likely opponent of Sarkozy in next year's French presidential elections was thrown in jail on a charge of rape that was later tossed out, remains unexplained. 

In the New York Review of Books, veteran investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein tries to connect the dots back to Sarkozy:
According to several sources who are close to DSK, he had received a text message that morning from Paris from a woman friend temporarily working as a researcher at the Paris offices of the UMP, Sarkozy’s center-right political party. She warned DSK, who was then pulling ahead of Sarkozy in the polls, that at least one private e-mail he had recently sent from his BlackBerry to his wife, Anne Sinclair, had been read at the UMP offices in Paris.1 It is unclear how the UMP offices might have received this e-mail, but if it had come from his IMF BlackBerry, he had reason to suspect he might be under electronic surveillance in New York. He had already been warned by a friend in the French diplomatic corps that an effort would be made to embarrass him with a scandal. The warning that his BlackBerry might have been hacked was therefore all the more alarming.

As I pointed out last Spring, surely the Sofitel management must have contacted management in Paris in the hour between the maid (or whatever she was) talking to management and the time the hotel called the NYPD. Epstein has the same suspicion, although he can't quite prove it:
Shortly thereafter the hotel’s own security team was augmented by John Sheehan, a security expert who is identified on LinkedIn as “director of safety and security” at Accor, a part of the French-based Accor Group, which owns the Sofitel. Sheehan, who was at home in Washingtonville, New York, that morning, received a call from the Sofitel at 1:03 PM. He then rushed to the hotel. While en route, according to his cell phone records, he called a number with a 646 prefix in the United States. But from these records neither the name nor the location of the person he called can be determined. When I called the number a man with a heavy French accent answered and asked whom I wanted to speak with at Accor. 
The man I asked to talk to—and to whom I was not put through—was RenĂ©-Georges Querry, Sheehan’s ultimate superior at Accor and a well-connected former chief of the French anti-gang brigades, who was now head of security for the Accor Group. Before joining Accor Group in 2003, he had worked closely in the police with Ange Mancini, who is now coordinator for intelligence for President Sarkozy. Querry, at the time that Sheehan was making his call to the 646 number, was arriving at a soccer match in Paris where he would be seated in the box of President Sarkozy. Querry denies receiving any information about the unfolding drama at the Sofitel until after DSK was taken into custody about four hours later. ... 

Interesting, but when you go high enough up the pyramid, everybody knows everybody else, so that's not convincing.
At 1:28, Sheehan, still on the way to the hotel, sent a text message to Yearwood [the hotel engineer]. And then another text message to an unidentified recipient at 1:30. At 1:31—one hour after Diallo had first told a supervisor that she had been assaulted by the client in the presidential suite—Adrian Branch placed a 911 call to the police. Less than two minutes later, the footage from the two surveillance cameras shows Yearwood and an unidentified man walking from the security office to an adjacent area. This is the same unidentified man who had accompanied Diallo to the security office at 12:52 PM. There, the two men high-five each other, clap their hands, and do what looks like an extraordinary dance of celebration that lasts for three minutes.*

Three minutes?

The NYRoB footnote reads:
Editors’ note: The article entitled “What Really Happened to Strauss-Kahn,” by Edward Jay Epstein, which appeared in our December 22, 2011, issue, contained a description of what “looked like” a “dance of celebration” by two employees of the Hotel Sofitel in New York City at approximately 1:35 PM on the day that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in connection with an alleged sexual assault. Security camera recordings have established that the episode, as described, lasted approximately thirteen seconds, not the three minutes mentioned in the article. 

Well, 13 seconds sounds more plausible. But I can imagine how Epstein must have felt watching the Sofitel security camera tapes when suddenly these two Sofitel guys start high-fiving right after the cops are called. It must have seemed like 180 seconds to him.

He then implies that maybe the whole thing was coordinated by somebody in the room down the hall from DSK, which the complainant visited right before and after her encounter with the energetic DSK. And DSK's missing Blackberry has never turned up. Its GPS tracking device was turned off during this sequence of events.

So, no smoking gun, but it's pretty interesting. I imagine Julian Assange and Elliott Spitzer are reading this with some interest, too.

Municipal coup

I've long been interested in the topic of municipal coups, in which somebody overthrows a corrupt and incompetent local government and then afterwards, everybody acts as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary happened. For example, the feds setting up Mayor Marion Barry of Washington D.C. in 1990. After WWII, returning veterans organized to rid more than a few hometowns of corrupt mayors and police, much like Frodo and friends do in the Scouring of the Shire conclusion to Lord of the Rings. San Francisco and New Orleans had major coups in the 19th Century.  

The NYT Magazine has an article on an expensive new golf course, hotel, and housing development, Harbor Shores, that has opened in the micro-Detroit of Benton Harbor, a black slum city on Lake Michigan a couple of hours from the South Side of Chicago. As Rachel Maddow often complains, the state of Michigan suspended democracy in Benton Harbor and turned all responsibility over to an appointed city autocrat. The Whirlpool Company, which maintains its headquarters in Benton Harbor, has promoted the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course (greens fee for non-residents on summer weekends: $150), which will host the 2012 Senior PGA Championship, and the gentrifying Arts District. The writer interviews a quasi-homeless former city councilman who thinks, with some reason, that what's going on is a municipal coup.

This development is another high-low team-up:

Given Benton Harbor’s unfavorable history and demographics, no private developer would likely be willing to take on such an ambitious project there. But there was another way: Robinson’s group, along with other nonprofits supported by Whirlpool, could secure enough federal and state grant money to help remediate the land, build the golf course and at least get Harbor Shores off the ground. The project’s complicated financing deal closed in May 2008, right around the time that the national real-estate market crashed. 
On the Thursday morning that we played Harbor Shores, the course looked virtually empty. 

The West Coast of Michigan is a great place for golf because the steady winds blow cool air across Lake Michigan, making it vastly more pleasant in summer than Chicago's suburbs, and that has piled up big sand dunes along the shore. There's nothing golfers love more than playing through sand dunes with a view of big water. 

Until the last couple of decades, this coastline has been underserved with quality golf courses. Alister Mackensie designed the fantastic Crystal Downs course in Frankfort, MI in the 1920s, but almost nothing else was built on the forested dunes until the last 15 years. Back in 1990, I bought a a couple of dozen topographic maps of the southwest Michigan coastline and drove up and down looking for a piece of undeveloped shoreline that I could put a team of investors together to buy and turn into a great course. But, just about every bit of cliff along Lake Michigan had cabins on it, so I left it to more enterprising people to do the heavy lifting of buying out existing homeowners. About a half dozen spectacular courses such as Arcadia Bluffs have gone up along this coastline since then at vast expense.  

My question about this new development in Benton Harbor would be, however: are all the responsible grown-ups crazy? Has anybody made a nickel off of a new golf course development in the last ten years (outside of China?). Back in 2005 a California real estate developer I know told he he'd never invest in a golf course-centric housing development again, and I can't see much that would have made him change his mind since then. 

The sad secret of golf is that it's a youngish man's game, not the game for retirees that everybody thinks. It peaked economically in the 1980s and 1990s when Baby Boomers were between, say, 25 and 50. There was a huge overbuilding of outstanding new golf courses that came online about a decade ago, and times have been tough for golf course owners ever since. 

Moreover, how does a resort provide work for the black underclass? The article says:
This is the competing narrative of what’s going on in Benton Harbor: It’s being converted into a resort town for wealthy weekenders and Whirlpool employees — that, when all is said and done, its struggling black population will either be driven out by the development or reduced to low-wage jobs cleaning hotel rooms, carrying golf bags or cutting grass.

As I pointed out in 2003, practically no black guys have taken up caddying since the Civil Rights era. Only Hal Sutton of all tour golfers still had a black caddie. The usual caddie on tour might be a former college golf teammate of the pro who dropped out of law school. Similarly,

Poor urban African-Americans hate servile work, so is the resort, assuming it ever gets any guests, going to have to bring in immigrants to be maids?

And who are the target customers? Judging by the models in the ads, they're aiming for a half black clientele. I think that would be interesting -- is there a large enough black middle class in Chicago to support a heavily black resort? The number of black men who play golf in Chicago is by no means small, and they tend to be big spenders when they play, but I've never heard of them flocking to one single upscale course. Usually, huge cities have one municipal course that is, by common agreement, the black course where blacks are socially dominant: Chester Washington in LA., Joe Louis in Chicago, etc. In the Northeast, there are a number of summer home communities, such as The Oaks on Martha's Vineyard, that have been upper middle class black for generations, but I'm not familiar with new golf or beach destinations for upscale blacks forming in recent decades.  

Crops rotting in fields due to undocumented worker shortages

As all know from reading the newspapers, food in America would cost more per ounce than gold if we weren't lucky enough to have a constant stream of undocumented workers to do all the work. Without a vast influx of newcomers each year, our poor farmers would be ruined, ruined I tell you. It's economically, and perhaps biologically, impossible to grow food in America without an endless supply of semi-literate but highly fertile foreigners. 

As we also all know, the influx of undocumented workers is down in 2011 from the good old days, what with all the racist bigots refusing to pass amnesties and whatnot. It's probably that awful Sheriff Joe Arpaio's fault that famine stalks the land. Thank God Obama is going to get him before we all starve.

Therefore, mathematical logic proves that crops must be rotting in the fields and America's impoverished farmers must be packing up their Model T's and fleeing.

Except, as commenters have pointed out here, the farming business is enjoying a most lucrative 2011:
A new report shows it's been a good year to be a farmer in the USA. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says farm profits are expected to spike by 28 percent this year to $100.9 billion. Most farmers say they're using the extra cash to pay off debt and put some money aside. But, they're also investing in new tractors, combines and land.

You might almost think that the big agricultural interests have been, with the collusion of the press and the politicians, trying to mislead the public about just how essential a huge flow of uneducated peons is to America avoiding famine.

December 14, 2011

RIP: Soviet rocket scientist, 99

Here's the NYT obituary for 99-year-old Boris Chertok, who was deputy to the great Korolev during the 1950s and 1960s.

When you think about contemporary engineering fiascos like high-speed rail in California, it's hard not to be stunned by how fast America got to the moon. But, then, think about how a bunch of almost unknown guys in the otherwise pervasively cruddy Soviet Union beat America in the the first two laps of the Space Race (first satellite and first man in space). Jerry Pournelle spent a long time staring at spy photos during this era, counting things like mule-drawn wagons, and eventually concluded that the Soviet Union was "Bulgaria with nuclear missiles." And while the Soviets got a copy of the German V-2 blueprints, the Americans got most of the best German rocket designers like von Braun, who had the good sense to surrender to the Americans.

Chertok's boss Sergei Korolev was a giant of the 20th Century who remains almost unknown in the U.S. The Soviets kept his identity secret until after his sudden death during an operation in early 1966. In The Right Stuff, the Project Mercury team doesn't even know his name, just that he's got them spooked. He's like a comic book supervillain to them. Heck, most of the Russians working on rockets didn't know his name. They called him "Chief Designer."

Korolev's life was absurd: he spent 1938-1944 in prison, apparently having been denounced by a rival in the rocket business. Moscow sent him to the notorious Kolyma gold mines in Siberia. After awhile, they figured out that they really didn't want to beat or work their best rocket engineer to death in Siberia and brought him back and locked him up in a First Circle-type camp for scientists. His health was never good after Kolyma. He pretty much worked himself to death in the 1960s, figuring that if the Soviets ever fell behind the Americans, Khrushchev would cancel the program. If he'd lived, would the Soviets have gotten to the moon first? Probably not -- his giant N1 moon rocket turned out to keep blowing up catastrophically -- but he'd pulled a lot of rabbits out of his hat before, and maybe he would have again.

And there were other Soviet rocket designers competing with Korolev who did big things, too, like Mikhail Yangel, whose rockets are still being used. The Soviets weren't all that into central planning for something as important as the Space Race.

Tom Wolfe concluded that the Space Race was a form of ritual single combat, like David and Goliath. In an age of nuclear weapons, that is a very good way to find out who is stronger.

And the Soviet space engineers were more David than Goliath.

The decline in generational style changes

A reader writes:
One thing I noticed when I was looking through my mom's 1973 high school yearbook was how similarly everybody was dressed.  Compare that to my (late '90s/early 2000s) high school experience, where there were different subgroups who dressed differently from one another. 
If you ever watch either of the MTV series 16 and Pregnant or Teen Mom, you'll notice how many of the dads dress similarly to one another: solid-color oversized baseball caps, usually turned to one side, and baggy clothes.  That's basically the style of lower-class white teenagers (you see those clothes all over the men's section at Wal-Mart.)  On the other hand, my cousin, a conservative 17-year-old from an upper-middle-class family, would never be caught dead dressed like that.
In other words, what's changed is that in the past, people had a common culture, and teenagers dressed to distinguish themselves from 40-year-olds.  Now teenagers dress to distinguish themselves from other teenagers.

Great Moments in Invade the World

I've long felt that Americans aren't really cut out for world domination. We tend to be a cheerful, positive-minded, naive, and insular people, while the imperial mission demands vast reserves of worldliness and cynicism. 

The Derb points me toward this Washington Examiner article by Sara A. Carter, "Afghan Sex Practices Concern U.S., British Forces" and related blog commentary on the popularity of homosexual pedophilia among those Pathan soldiers and interpreters who claim to be our allies. (Although the British officers who are old public school boys might be less baffled than they are admitting to their American counterparts.) In from the Cold comments:
And, the impact of those experiences is already being felt in portions of Afghanistan, putting American forces squarely in the middle of complex moral, social and sexual issues. A source at Army Special Operations command tells In From the Cold that Afghan women, emboldened by the presence of U.S. troops. have complained about beatings they've suffered at the hands of their husbands. The domestic violence reportedly stemmed from the inability of the women to become pregnant and produce sons, highly valued in Afghan society. 
When U.S. civil affairs teams (and other special forces units) quietly investigated the problem, they quickly discovered a common denominator. Virtually all of the younger men who beat their wives (over their inability to become pregnant) had been former "apprentices" of older Afghan men, who used them for their sexual pleasure. Upon entering marriage, whatever the men knew of sex had been learned during their "apprenticeship," at the hands of the older man. To put it bluntly, some of the younger Afghans were unfamiliar with the desired (and required) mechanics for conception. 
To remedy this situation, the Army called in its psychological operations teams, which developed information campaigns in Pashtun areas, explaining the basics of heterosexual relations and their benefits, in terms of producing male offspring. It may be the only time in the history of warfare that an army has been required to explain sex to the native population, to curb the abuse of women and young boys--and retain U.S. influence in key geographic areas. 
Army psy op specialists declined to discuss their efforts in great detail. But one of the "preferred sex" campaigns was (reportedly) a direct result of the 2009 survey, and the problems encountered by NATO troops working with their Afghan counterparts.

I'm not sure I totally believe this (although the "dancing boys" stuff is definitely true -- the Taliban are more averse to it as being un-Islamic, which is one reason they got popular in the 1990s when two major pre-Taliban warlords started a civil war over a youth), but this example of Your Tax Dollars at Work is too good to pass up.

Are styles stagnating?

In Vanity Fair, Kurt Andersen picks up a theme we've kicked around here lots of times over the years in "You Say You Want a Devolution:"
Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History. 
Think about it. Picture it. Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock ’n’ roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats and cars were big and bulbous with late-moderne fenders and fins—again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it. ... 
Now try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992.

In Taki's Magazine, I respond:
One of 2011’s hottest trends is middle-aged pundits announcing that compared to the good old days when they were spry, nothing much is changing anymore. Or at least nothing worth noticing.  
Economist Tyler Cowen kick-started this fad of bemoaning stasis by publishing one of those newfangled e-books, The Great Stagnation, in which he lamented today’s lack of technological change. Now, 57-year-old Kurt Andersen, co-founder of Spy magazine back in the 1980s, has announced in Vanity Fair that, so far as he can tell, styles are stuck. Practically everything—cars, movies, music, men’s clothes, and haircuts—seems about the same to him as when he was a stripling of 37. Like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, he’s still hip; it’s the times that have gotten square. 
As another one of these writers of a certain age who seldom gets out much anymore, I heartily agree. Well, except, of course, for that handful of fields where I actually know a little bit about what's going on. Those are clearly getting worse.

Read the whole thing there. I offer a theory for one major fashion phenomenon of recent decades that, while it may not be right, is at least fairly new.

December 13, 2011

Pinker and medieval murder rates

The medievalist blog Quod Libet has a number of posts up disputing the estimates of historical violence levels in Steven Pinker's big book The Better Angels of Our Nature. 

For example, was An Lushan's 8th Century revolt in Tang Dynasty China really one of the bloodiest event of all time? How can we confidently count the Mongol death toll? How about the Albigensian Crusade?

And are Pinker's estimates of the murder rate in the high middle ages reliable?

I took the opposite tack of pointing out that our having any statistics from the late medieval period suggests that those years were more orderly than earlier Dark Ages periods from which we don't have any numbers. In many ways, I subscribe even more to Pinker's hypothesis of a general trend toward orderliness than he does. Unlike Pinker and his wife, however, I don't see that trend as largely restricted to the Enlightenment. As I wrote in The American Conservative:
Pinker then skips the long Dark Ages, during which the Catholic Church tried, with the slowest success, to turn the illiterate Conan the Barbarian warlords who had overrun Europe into gentlemen. He lands next in the high medieval period. To Pinker, feudalism must represent anarchy because there is no overweening Leviathan to enforce order. To Europeans alive at the time, however, their newly mature feudalism provided them with “stationary bandits”—to use economist Mancur Olson’s term—who protected them from the more terrifying “roving bandits.” The French monk Raoul Glaber exulted in the 11th century that it was as if “the whole world were shaking itself free, shrugging off the burden of the past, and cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches.” 
To the visual historian Lord Kenneth Clark, host of the 1969 PBS documentary “Civilisation,” the construction of towering Gothic cathedrals demonstrated that the 12th and 13th centuries were self-evidently better ordered than the wasteland centuries that had preceded them. But Pinker can’t plot the Middle Ages’ improvement over the Dark Ages on his charts because there is no data from the Dark Ages. So he feels free to ignore the considerable progress that Christendom made.

Here's Pinker's FAQ on his book, which is well worth reading because he attempts answers to many common objections there, most of which he already included in his book. He really has thought longer and harder about this topic than most people have and has anticipated most of the objections.

By the way, I'm quoted on p. 82 (in the galleys) of Better Angels: 
The journalist Steven Sailer recounts an exchange from early 20th-century England: "A hereditary member of the British House of Lords complained that Prime Minister Lloyd George had created new Lords solely because they were self-made millionaires who had only recently acquired large acreages. When asked, "How did your ancestor become a Lord?" he replied sternly, "With the battle-ax, sir, with the battle-ax!"

The secret to being quoted in important books is poor sourcing: although that anecdote made a vivid impression upon me, I have no idea anymore where it's from. So, at the moment, I'm the best source!

Can TV subtitles help teach reading?

The NYT has a run-of-the-mill article on Finland's high PISA test scores. Here's something interesting that my Finnish commenters have brought up before:
Besides high-quality teachers, Dr. Sahlberg pointed to Finland’s Lutheran leanings, almost religious belief in equality of opportunity, and a decision in 1957 to require subtitles on foreign television as key ingredients to the success story.

The notion that subtitling TV shows might improve reading doesn't strike me as obviously absurd. It seems like the kind of thing that could be tested in a controlled experiment: give 100 poor families with a first grader a big flat screen TV with subtitles permanently turned on and 100 poor families a TV with subtitles permanently turned off. Check back each year for a few years to make sure they haven't sold it or broken it and track reading scores. Not a cheap experiment, but hardly overwhelming for, say, the Gates Foundation to pay for. 

In the meantime, Univision should be required to subtitle all its Spanish language programming in English.
Critics say that Finland is an irrelevant laboratory for the United States. It has a tiny economy, a low poverty rate, a homogenous population — 5 percent are foreign-born — and socialist underpinnings (speeding tickets are calculated according to income).

But according to Sandra Day O'Connor's 2003 decision in the Grutter affirmative action case, a "homogeneous" student body makes for lousier learning. 

December 12, 2011

Strange New Respect for Newt

"The Good Newt" by recently retired NYT supremo Bill Keller is a classic example of how immigration has become the central issue for the mainstream media dividing Good from Evil. Keller's conclusion:
There are plenty of reasons the thought of President Newt Gingrich makes me shudder. But on this hard, defining American issue, he’s shown a combination of brains, heart and guts that puts the rest of his party to shame.

Here's the opening:
Immigration is a subject that brings out the best and the worst in Americans. 
As taught to my fourth-grade daughter this semester, the story of the peopling of America encourages us to celebrate our identity as the land of e pluribus unum. It reminds us of the tolerance required to coexist in a culture of many cultures. It honors the courage to uproot your life so your children can have a better one. 

Thank God that the brain trust of the New York Times takes its guidance on this complex issue not from intellectually unsophisticated sources, but from textbooks for fourth graders. And bonus points for the historically accurate usage of e pluribus unum.
As it is practiced in our politics, the subject often dredges up darker feelings: tribalism, xenophobia, envy, a pull-up-the-ladder stinginess. This is not new. The English and Dutch colonists resented the immigrant waves of Irish and Germans, who resented the later waves of Italians and Poles and Jews. 

If mass immigration was good enough for the Mark Hanna and the other Robber Barons, it should be good enough for us! You know what would also be good for the economy: the 12-Hour Day. Hey, isn't Newt in favor of Child Labor, too? What a state-of-the-art thinker!
But wait. Why are we even talking about this? 

Right. Why doesn't everybody shut up about immigration? How can we have the needed national conversation on immigration if people insist on talking about it instead of listening to me explain what my fourth grader thinks? How come everybody doesn't dummy up and listen to the New York Times like they're supposed to? What's wrong with people these days?
I hate to distract you with actual facts, but here are a few that have been overlooked in the din of alarm: illegal immigration is falling ...

Similarly, have you noticed how over the last few weeks, global warming isn't anything to worry about anymore? The weather has been distinctly nippy this month, so why are we even talking about global warming?

How long is this supposed to take?

There's a consensus among all responsible opinion-molders that a leading solution to today's unemployment, low wages, growing inequality, and the like is to Fix the Schools. For example, this headline appeared recently in World Net Daily: "Zuckerman: Improve Education to Create US Jobs." I'm sure that Zuckerberg would say the same thing in public, as would Obama, Romney, Friedman, Gingrich, Duncan, Gates, and, for that matter, Jobs if he were revivified. 

In contrast, immigration restriction is derided, on the rare occasions when it is even considered as a policy response to high unemployment and low wages, as taking too long to deal with the current crisis.

But, how long would Improved Education take to Create US Jobs? Say the average worker is 40 years old.  Furthermore, as we hear from all responsible commenters on The Gap in school achievement, the problem is that The Gap exists from the first point it is measured -- in kindergarten -- so therefore Fixing the Schools must include taking children likely to suffer low achievement away from their mothers or grandmothers for most of their waking hours and put them in intensive (and presumably Fixed) preschools by age 3 or so. (Or perhaps age 2 or 1 or zero or in utero ... the age when intervention is determined to be necessary seems to creep backwards over time.) 

So, if we could Fix the Schools tomorrow, we'd have Fixed 40 year old workers within about 37 years, or by 2048. Too bad about people who will be 41 in 2048, of course. They will remain doomed. So, Fixed Schools will take about 62 years in toto to work their magic on the entire labor force. So, you can see why all sensible thinkers agree that Fixing the Schools makes much more sense than Enforcing the Border. Of course, nobody yet quite knows how to Fix the Schools, but no doubt that breakthrough will come Real Soon Now.

A tribute to "Moneyball"

A reader writes from the shores of the Bosporus:
Hi Steve

I just saw a baseball movie named "Moneyball" and I loved it. Even though I'm bored to death of "success story" movies -- be they on sports, music, movies, or whatever. And even though I know nothing about baseball.

It tells the story of how the "statistical" approach got into baseball and proved its worth.

You know why I loved it?

Because there's something in the statistical approach that maps to the essence of the Republic.

Winner-takes-all is feudal. It is primitive, neolithic, scales very poorly, and is the natural tendency of humans that refuse to grow up. Primates like gorillas are much better at that type of social organization than us. If they weren't, they would have evolved in another direction -- or we wouldn't have evolved into humans.

And yet, misguided fools all over the planet still aspire to be silverbacks.

The thing with the statistical approach is this:

Say we're talkin' music. You can either be a freak of nature like Paco de Lucia -- who probably comes once in every two hundred years, and is absolutely brilliant SOLO -- or you can be four blokes from a working-class neighbourhood with mediocre instrumental skills at best, get a good coach, and make fantastic music.

Same with sports.

Same with technology.

Same with everything in the Republic.

You DON'T have to be the Chuck Norris of every skill known to man to score. (Totally OT but if you can chuckle to half of these Chuck Norris jokes, you've worked as a programmer at one point in your life.)

I don't much care for discussions on "barbaric" vs. "civilized" -- especially if concepts like "kleptocracy," "dusky races," "buggery," "stable society," "brutal treatment of women" etc. are sprinkled all over it. They bore me to death since more often than not (regardless of their factual accuracy) they express the typical fears of a lower-beta/omega Western male with an oversized brain. I -- like most other half-intelligent and decent carbon-based life forms on this planet -- have suffered all my life from the political shenanigans, pathological ideologies, and never-ending machinations of these types to be the top dog neolithic-style in a republic. Fuck 'em. All of them.

I only care about the "average," and the "good life" that the average CAN manage in a Republic.

The gist of it is, if you're half good at anything, and if you can team up with a bunch of guys who are also half good at what they do who complement each others' skillsets, you have a shot at a good life, and don't have to worry about being a silverback to pass on your genes.

Why don't people get this very simple fact?

Right. Like when I was a kid I used to go to the scrubby ranch of this family that my mom and dad knew from Lockheed to play hide and seek with their six kids. Their dad was the chief designer of the fastest airplane of all time, the SR71. Get a good group of fellows together all working on the project rather than their political positions and you've got a chance to go far (or in this case fast).

"Diversity Delusion"

Here's an upcoming British book slated for early 2012, The Diversity Delusion: How Mass Immigration Has Failed Britain by Ed West of The Telegraph.