January 7, 2012

Tokyo not actually stomped flat by Godzilla

Eamonn Fingleton writes on "The Myth of Japan's Failure." We've all heard a million times about how since 1990 Japan has turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled by the Humongous, but it actually looks okay. A friend who moved to Japan in 1980 said that back then it was full of ugly buildings and poorly dressed people. Now, it's full of nice buildings and well-dressed people.

That brings up a general question I have about economic statistics. It strikes me that one of the overlooked factors in comparing wealth over long periods of time is that buildings don't burn down as much as they used to. For example, one reason Japan in 2012 is better off than in 1990 is that it has now been 67 years since the B-29s last firebombed the place rather than 45 years. 

But even in places that haven't been ravaged by war or earthquake-caused fires, like Chicago, the rate of fire loss is way down. Assets accumulate when they don't burn up. People can devote economic resources to new stuff instead of replacing old stuff that went up in smoke. Has this ever been measured?

I wonder what percentage of all property (excluding land) burned up in, say, the year 1875? Off the top of my head, I'd guess, oh, say, 0.5%. I mean, they used to have to use flames for lighting at night. (It's hard to grasp how scary that would be to a 21st Century sensibility.) A half percentage point loss due to fire per year would compound over the generations into a sizable difference in wealth.

Teen mothers

The standard assumption is that teen mothers are less likely to have healthy children than older mothers. But my late father-in-law, who knew a lot of teen mothers as a public high school teacher in Chicago, questioned that conventional wisdom. Sure, if a malnourished 16-year-old peasant girl who weighed 90 pounds and had just gone through puberty at 15 got pregnant, that didn't bode well for the baby. But in his experience, the girls who got pregnant at 16 tended to be robust 150-pounders who had gone through puberty at about 11. He hypothesized that, say, NBA power forwards or NFL running backs would tend to have younger mothers than the average man. 

Has anybody done a study along these lines?

January 4, 2012

What do these P-cities have in common?

From the Washington Post:
Portlandia, your 15 minutes are up. Long live Pittsburgh
By Maura Judkis 
Out: Portland
In: Pittsburgh. 
This year’s List has spoken, and writers Dan Zak and Monica Hesse have laid their anointed hands upon my hometown for 2012. Pittsburgh, Pa., is cool now. Sorry, Portland hipsters!
Portland, Ore., is the land of microbreweries, indie bands, bicyclists and rose gardens. 
Pittsburgh is often reviled by outsiders for its abrasive-sounding accent and rabid football fans. Portland has Portlandia, the hit comedy sketch show, while Pittsburgh just subs in as other cities in movies. Why did Listmakers Hesse and Zak bestow their blessings upon the latter? 
“Portland has overextended its welcome as the destination for hipsters who want to find themselves, while frolicking in beautiful scenery and reasonable rents,” says Hesse. “Pittsburgh is reasonable-rents, nice scenery, nice downtown, and the people are, in general, just far less insufferable.”

Coincidentally, among the "core cities" with the whitest populations, Portland is first at 74% and Pittsburgh is second at 67%. In contrast, Pittsburgh's Robber Baron-era rival Cleveland is only 37% white. But that doesn't have anything to do with why Pittsburgh is slowly becoming hip while Cleveland is stagnating. Don't even think that.

Assortative mating among movie stars

Here's an economics paper by Gustaf Bruze on assortative mating among movie stars: "Marriage Choices of Movie Stars: Does Spouses' Education Matter?" He looked at the top 400 movie stars in 2006 by "bankability" and then tracked down education levels for 140 of the stars and their spouses who are well enough known to have biographical data readily available on them. He finds a moderate level of correlation -- 0.40 -- between spouses' years of education. Movie stars have a lot of options in whom to marry and are seldom married to their school sweethearts, so this is a modestly interesting test affirming that like tends to attracts like. 

Indeed, the correlation would probably be higher except that movie stars tend to drop out of school because it's too hard less often than other people and more often because they've got something better to do with their time (like being a movie star).

Here are the couples with 19 years of education each (with the celebrity designated with an asterisk). 

Elizabeth Cohen 19 Paul Giamatti* 19
Katherine Borowitz 19 John Turturro* 19
Meryl Streep* 19 Donald Gummer 19
Sigourney Weaver* 19 Jim Simpson 19
Tamara Hurwitz 19 Bill Pullman* 19
Tonya Lewis 19 Spike Lee* 19

Giamatti's father was a Dante scholar who was appointed president of Yale before becoming the baseball commissioner.

Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver got their last three years of formal education together at the Yale Drama School in New York, much to Weaver's regret. Like quarterback Steve Young stuck on the bench behind Joe Montana, Weaver constantly lost starring roles at Yale to Streep, in part because Streep is just a few inches above average in height while Weaver is taller than most men, even without wearing heels. That's a bigger problem on stage than in film.

(Streep and Weaver are rare cases of movie stars who went through a long stretch of professional education. Both were born in 1949 and didn't get their first film roles until 1977, with Streep instantly becoming a star with Julia, while Weaver became a star in 1979 as Ripley in Alien. That's kind of the standard upper middle class life cycle model these days -- invest heavily in accredited education up through about age 25. It worked fine for Streep, who was a legend before she ever set foot on a movie set, and it worked out well for Weaver, although she (a Stanford English major) has had to put up with sci-fi nerds her whole career. But it doesn't seem to work very well for movie stars in general.)

Spike Lee is a third generation graduate of Morehouse.

The couple with the least years of education is Nicole Kidman (11) and country singer Keith Urban (9.5).

The biggest gaps between the 140 couples are around a half dozen years. Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman have six years less education than their less-well known wives, while TV writer David Kelley has six more years than Michelle Pfeiffer. Alfred Molina has six more years of schooling than his wife, an actress turned novelist, who is 16 years older than him.

Among male celebrities, the least educated include, unsurprisingly, the great elderly British working class stars Sean Connery (9.5 years -- he never owned a business suit until he got the role of James Bond, so he slept in a suit to learn to feel comfortable in it) and Michael Caine (10 years). Also at the bottom of the list at 9.5 years is aristocrat / director Guy Ritchie. I presume he got kicked out a lot of posh schools.

January 3, 2012

"The Iron Lady"

From my review in Taki's Magazine:
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher won the first of her three terms as Britain’s prime minister. By 2012, however, no American woman has yet reached the presidency. The only woman to make a serious run was considered presidential timber mostly by having been First Lady. Why are women still underrepresented in high office? 
Judging by The Iron Lady, a Margaret Thatcher biopic starring a superlative Meryl Streep, one reason might be that women, on average, aren’t that fascinated by politics. For example, the three Englishwomen who wrote, directed, and edited The Iron Lady appear remarkably uninterested in the affairs of state that captivated their main character. ... 
While a political nullity, The Iron Lady is a first-rate women’s picture, a poignant depiction of a happy marriage, a sad widowhood, and the frustrations of eldercare.

Read the whole thing there.

A bad idea: Supersonic flight

The Pentagon is supposed to cut its budget mildly as part of last summer's debt reduction agreement, and a lot of attention is finally being paid to the current plans to spend a trillion dollars or so on the new Lockheed-Martin J-35 supersonic stealth fighter / low altitude ground attack aircraft / dessert topping / floor wax. (Scott Locklin has a dyspeptic review of the Pentagon's goal of having the J-35 replace the slow-flying, ugly, but effective A-10 Warthog in Taki's Magazine.)

The J-35 sounds a lot like the F-105 Thunderchief, a big, heavy one-engined supersonic fighter-bomber which started out in the 1950s with the mission of penetrating Soviet airspace carrying a nuclear bomber, but in Vietnam was shifted over to ground attack. It was not very successful at it and acquired the nickname "Thud," perhaps because it kept crashing. 

In retrospect, most supersonic jets designed in the 1950s were kind of nuts. The whole idea of supersonic flight has turned out to be, at best, a luxury. We have this cliche of the 1950s as a carefree, innocent time, but to grown men who held positions of responsibility then, the 1950s were terrifying. Pearl Harbor and the blitzkriegs had shown the feasibility of the Sneak Attack, which was then multiplied in terror by the advent of the atomic bomb. Hence, the pursuit of jet designs that pushed the envelope of performance with the crude technology of the time to levels that seem crazy today.

My dad worked for years trying to keep the Mach 2 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter from crashing so often. As a little kid, I can remember begging my dad to come play with me but he couldn't because he had the kitchen table covered with papers describing the latest fatal failure of a West German pilot to successfully handle this "missile with a man in it."  

Wikipedia disagrees, but my dad's recollection is that the Starfighter was originally designed for more or less Kamikaze interceptions of Soviet nuclear bombers. This jet with one huge engine and stubby wings only 7-feet long was intended to get from the ground to the stratosphere and shoot down Soviet bombers over the Arctic before they took out Seattle or Chicago. If the pilot then managed to turn it around and land it safely, well, that was a definite bonus, but not completely essential to a successful mission. 

Thus, the F-104 could climb like a bat out of hell. Everything else, like turning, not stalling, being able to safely eject, not flaming out, was secondary. It was a handful to fly: the closing minutes of the movie The Right Stuff show an F-104 damn near killing the most famous pilot of all time, Chuck Yeager.

The Air Force flew the F-104 for a little while, then decided that a kamikaze interceptor wasn't exactly what they had in mind and handed it to the Air National Guard to deal with. The Starfighter would be a good thing to have if the Soviets attacked America, but in the mean time, well, it was a bit much.

Somewhere along the line, Lockheed decided to sell it to NATO ally air forces as a ground-support fighter-bomber. The West German defense minister Franz-Josef Strauss supposedly pocketed $10,000,000 in the Deal of the Century. Not surprisingly, the West German air force, which had been out of business from 1945-55, wasn't better at not crashing Starfighters than Chuck Yeager. Nor did flying it at low altitude over hilly West German country in cloudy weather prove ideal, not crashing-wise. My dad, a low-level engineer, spent a lot of hours trying to get fixes to work that would take turn this Mach 2 interceptor intended for Dr. Strangelove scenarios into an all-purpose aircraft.

Last summer, my father told me that he once was speaking to an Italian air force general whose unit had scores of F-104s. My father asked the Italian what their secret was. The West Germans were always complaining about how lethal the F-104 was to their pilots, but the Italians never did. 

"Oh, our pilots die too," the Italian general replied. "We just don't complain about it."

January 2, 2012

The Olajuwon Shortage

Why was I wrong? 

More than 30 years ago, in the fall of 1981, I first heard about a freshman basketball player at the U. of Houston, Akeem Abdul-Olajuwon, a center generously said to be a seven footer who would post big numbers one night, then nothing much the next night: hardly unexpected for a kid who had only been playing basketball at all for about three years. 

He was the first African basketball player I could remember, and my thinking at the time was that he wouldn't be the last. After all, American-born blacks were pretty good at basketball and there were a lot more where they came from in Africa, so Olajuwon would likely be only the first of a long line of African-born stars.

This wasn't an unusual concept at the time -- for example, a Rice U. professor in Houston named Max Apple wrote a 1994 movie starring Kevin Bacon, The Air Up There, about a scout looking for the next big thing in Africa.

Olajuwon continued to improve and Houston went to the NCAA Final Four all three years he was there. The Houston Rockets picked him over Michael Jordan (and Sam Bowie) as the first choice in the NBA draft. He posted some spectacular numbers (the only player ever to have over 200 blocks and 200 steals in one season, I believe) , then started to fade on offense, then, after changing his first name to Hakeem to signify his renewed Muslim faith, he made a resurgence. He led Houston to two NBA championships ('94 and '95) during Jordan's weird minor league baseball sabbatical, winning a season MVP award and two NBA Finals MVP awards, which might be the higher honor. A most satisfying career. Olajuwon is widely admired as an unquestioned Hall of Famer. In his retirement, he has become a well-known businessman in Houston. 

In early 2010, there were said to be 25 African basketball players in the NBA, which is about 1 out of 14. If true, that's quite a few, but looking at the Wikipedia page, it looks more like there 25 in history.

The odd thing, though, is that Olajuwon, the pathfinder, remains, by a significant distance, the best black African basketball player ever. (The only born-in-Africa player since him to win MVP awards is Steve Nash, who is white.) That's what I wouldn't have expected in 1981. If you had told me then that he would be an NBA superstar, I would have guessed that somebody even better would have come along from Africa since then.

But, that hasn't really happened.

How come? Here are some speculations:

First, Olajuwon was really, really good. And he kept perfecting new moves up into his 30s. So, the first being the best was just a fluke.

Second, basketball may have changed a little since his time, away from being a game for big galoots from wherever toward players who are more sophisticated basketball players. Most sports have become more technical, with more tutoring used early in life. 

Third, Africans tend to be quite short due to poor nutrition and poor health. 

Fourth, AIDS, although the West African countries weren't hit as catastrophically.

Fifth, soccer is just a steamroller in Africa (as in most of the world), so even big galoots aren't playing basketball.

Sixth, maybe there are differences between African-Americans and Africans that weren't apparent in 1981.

Also, African stars in the NBA tend to be from the upper classes in Africa: Olajuwon's father was a big businessman, Dikembe Mutombo's father graduated from the Sorbonne, and Luol Deng's father was a Sudanese cabinet officer and diplomat in Sudan and Deng mostly grew up in London. 

Evolution of African American genes

Nicholas Wade, who is retiring from the New York Times, has an NYT article on recent evolution among African-Americans since arriving in the New World. The most obvious is for a decrease in the sickle cell gene variant, because the worst kind malaria is much less of a problem here, so the crude and dangerous sickle cell defense is overkill. 

There is tentative evidence for evolution of more defenses against influenza -- in general, blacks had a hard time surviving in the North due to respiratory tract infections, which is one reason slavery faded out in the North, which something they ought to teach you when you study the Civil War. 

There is some arguable evidence for selection in a direction associated with particular African-American medical problems, such as hypertension and prostate cancer. Presumably, there were more than offsetting benefits. Prostate cancer correlates somewhat with higher levels of male hormones and hormone receptors, which (and this is a real stretch) might suggest that something (whether medical, climate, social, or cultural) in New World or North American environments was selecting for more masculinity among black men (or selecting for something else for which the cost was higher prostate cancer rates).

The chain of evidence for my surmise is extremely tenuous, but might go some way toward explaining a little bit about how some African-Americans wound up as global pop culture icons of masculinity.