January 21, 2012

3 states, 3 winners: Why is that so bad?

So, Santorum won Iowa, Romney New Hampshire, and Gingrich South Carolina, with Paul hanging in there in all three. In other words, Republican voters haven't made up their minds yet, and why is that so intolerable? 47 states haven't had a say yet and the election isn't for almost 300 more days. 

There's such a market for media prognostications in election campaigns (Perry Is Obviously Unbeatable! Romney Has the Big Mo!) that there is always a lot of irritation when voters in the first few states don't wrap things all up. But why shouldn't primary campaigns go on for months and months like the Democrats in 2008?

Does it really do a party good to have momentum run away with the decision in the winter? For example, John F. Kerry's sudden emergence as the Inevitable victor in the winter of 2004 didn't do the Democrats any good. For about three weeks he appeared to be Mr. Unstoppable, but after that he just turned out to be as big a stiff as he'd been before his hot spell. John McCain fluked his way into the nomination by February 5, 2008 by winning narrowly in some winner-take-all states, and then just got older for the next nine months. 

The reforms that we really need are ones that would let new candidates get onto all future primary ballots after the first few states are done with. All we've learned so far is what we knew at this point in 2008: Romney seems like the most plausible President among the current contenders, but he doesn't inspire many people.

In this Computer Age, there's no reason that we need the huge lead times that dominate the current nominating process. The party that re-engineers the nominating process to be longer and more flexible, and thus more dramatic, would gain a modest advantage. In Presidential politics, nothing besides the economy, war, and whether or not the public is kind of sick of your party moves the needle much. But I could well imagine that the party that comes up with a primary process that climaxes in June rather than January on average might average a percentage point better in November over the long run.

Latest discrimination crisis

I have this vague impression that Saturday is the day when the New York Times dumps its discrimination stories -- you know, the kind of clueless stuff that I love pointing out the logical holes in. For example, this Saturday, the NYT headlines: 
Blacks Face Bias in Bankruptcy, Study Suggests

Maybe my cynicism has got the best of me, but I wouldn't be hugely surprised to learn that the New York Times has some kind of formal or informal quota about the number of stories it feels it must run weekly about the scourge of racism, but that its editors also feel that NYT readers are increasingly cynical and bored about scandals involving purported discrimination (unless you are some weirdo like me who finds that discrimination stories offer insights into how the world actually works). So, perhaps the editors tend to dump their Sailer-bait stories on Saturday, which is by far the least important day of the week in the newspaper business.

What about this new study that shows that, all across the country, relative to everybody else who goes bankrupt, blacks who go bankrupt are more likely to file for the more onerous Chapter 13 bankruptcy than the Chapter 7 bankruptcy? Why this disparate impact discrimination?

Eventually, the article gets around to reporting -- but, of course, not explaining -- a few informative facts:
Even though the attorneys’ fees for the more labor-intensive Chapter 13 are more than double the charge for a Chapter 7, some truly distressed debtors will pursue a Chapter 13 anyway, several bankruptcy experts said. That is because they can pay the fee over time, unlike in a Chapter 7, which typically requires a payment before the case is filed. If blacks are perceived as less likely to have the resources — or a family with resources — to come up with a lump sum, some lawyers may be inclined to suggest a Chapter 13, these experts suggested.

The mention that attorneys' fees are more than double for Chapter 13 raises the awkward question that never comes up in the article: Are blacks' attorneys more likely to be black? It's like that awkward question about the high rates of defaults by minorities on mortgages: How did the racial makeup of the mortgage brokers who sold mortgages that went belly up to Hispanics differ from the norm? 

So, why would lawyers tend to perceive blacks "as less likely to have the resources -- of a family with resources -- to come up with a lump sum"? How in the world did this stereotype of blacks tending to be poorer than whites get started, anyway? 

In general, A) the people who wind up in bankruptcy are poorer decisionmakers. B) Blacks wind up in bankruptcy at a higher rate. Therefore, it's hardly surprising that black bankruptees tend to be worse decisionmakers in bankruptcy than other bankruptees.

The most interesting thing about this data is actually that bankrupt Hispanics have the lowest rate of filing Chapter 13. Perhaps Hispanics have more extended family support in coming up with the lump sum, or perhaps the ones who would be likely to file Chapter 13 just take off for South of the Border. 

Do the French still believe in Freud?

Every culture is crazy in its own way. As I've gotten older, I've come to assume that the Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys tend to know what they are doing even if it doesn't make sense to us Americans. But the French continuing to blame autism on "refrigerator mothers" is hard to reconcile with my late-in-life Francophilia:

From the NYT:
“Le Mur,” or “The Wall,” a small documentary film about autism released online last year, might normally not have attracted much attention. 
But an effort by French psychoanalysts to keep it from public eyes has helped to make it into a minor cause and shone a spotlight on the way children in France are treated for mental health problems. 
The documentary, the first film by Sophie Robert, follows two autistic boys: Guillaume, who has been treated with the behavioral, or “American,” approach; and Julien, who has been kept in an asylum for six years and treated with psychoanalysis. Guillaume, though challenged, is functioning at a high level in school. Julien is essentially silent, locked out of society. ... 
Ms. Robert said the version of psychoanalysis that is most prevalent in France, particularly the post-Freudian school championed by Jacques Lacan, takes it as a given that autism and other mental health problems are caused by children’s relationship with their mothers, or by “maternal madness.” 
“Sometimes, when the mother is depressed, in utero, I mean when she is pregnant or at birth, sometimes the child can be autistic,” an analyst tells the camera in one scene. Another explains that autistic children “are sick of language — autism is a way of defending themselves from language.” 
To the question of what an autistic child can expect to gain from psychoanalysis, yet another analyst responds, “The pleasure of taking interest in a soap bubble. I can’t answer anything else.”

I'm not hugely optimistic about the efficacy of the "American" approaches, but the good news is that they at least tend to be more motivated by attempts to find something to help the children than to keep elderly acolytes of a defunct dogma employed. Aged Freudians guilt-tripping the moms of autistic kids doesn't do anybody any good, except keeping the old shrinks from realizing they've wasted their lives.

By the way, Lacan was born into a conservative Catholic family, Jesuit-educated, and, as a youth, a far rightist. 

January 20, 2012

Demonizing schoolteachers

Commenter Maya comes up with a pretty good analogy:
The truly smart people aren't staying away [from teaching] because of the money. The pay is decent enough for a job that is meant to be emotionally/spiritually rewarding and with ample vacation time. The truly smart are too smart to get into a situation where YOU [the media and the public] blame, demonize and threaten them for the severe shortcomings of other people. Smart people would rather become dentists, for example. A dentist doesn't get blamed for his patients' cavities nor is it ever suggested that a man getting his teeth broken in a bar fight is his dentist's fault.

Of course, dentists really can fill cavities, but teachers can't actually make everybody equally smart so that, as the federal law demands, no child is left behind.

Cuba: A view from Canada

One to two centuries ago, from the Monroe Doctrine at least through the Smedley Butler era of pushing around banana republics, American foreign policy was deeply concerned with Latin America. These days, Latin America is seldom front-page news, unless people are trying to get worked up over Hugo Chavez. 

The most obvious opportunity for advancing American interests would be in de-Communizing Cuba. Cuba is a remarkable piece of land, a long thin island with 2100 miles of coastline, much of it climatically moderated by sea breezes (a little bit like Hawaii, although not quite as perfect). And the place is just ridiculously poor in dollar terms due to Communism: in 2008, the average monthly salary was $16. Not until Raul Castro came to power were the sale of microwave ovens legalized!

I suggested in 2008 that President Bush consider that Cuban-American relations, like Chinese-American relations in the Nixon era were improved by ping-pong diplomacy, might be rife for some baseball diplomacy. In 2011 I suggested President Obama consider golf diplomacy, since the island will someday be the next great home of seaside golf courses. 

I brought this up in my recent post on the Washington Post's attempt to smear the super-establishmentarian Center for American Progress as anti-Semitic. Not surprisingly, hardly anybody mentioned it because who cares anymore about America's foreign policy relations with countries not more than 90 miles away when we call all obsess over countries six thousand miles away? 

But, one commenter called Canadian Observer took an aesthetic objection to America helping Cubans not be so incredibly poor anymore:
Steve... you really want to Americanize and de-Castroize Cuba? Turn that unique gem of an island into just another Caribbean sell-out tourist hot-spot rife with American strip malls and ESPN blaring from every single neighbourhood bar? Do we really have to change every single place on earth so that it satisfies the pedantic tastes of the gringo?  
Cuba is unique in that it is the only civilized place on earth where the pervading force of Americanization and Walmartization is almost non-existent.  
Leave it alone, I say. People forget that behind the ideology, Castro became popular with the educated and lower classes because he kicked out the American interests which had been turning Cuba throughout the 1920's, 1930's and 1940's into a nation of dancers, entertainers and hookers.

He does have a point. But, judging from the small bits of modern Cuba I've seen in movies over the last decade, there's an even greater irony here. Castro's Cuba is something of a time capsule of mid-Century America. As I wrote in a review of the 2004 movie-in-verse, Yes by doctrinaire English leftist Sally Potter: "Ironically, Cuba turns out, due to Castro's stultifying tyranny, to look like a well-preserved slice of the Eisenhower Era, full of '57 Chevies and Hemingway-worshipers." If Raymond Chandler, Robert Heinlein, James M. Cain, and Mickey Spillane decided to come back to life for one day in 2012 to take a taxi to a bar for a couple of drinks, they might well choose Havana as the place that most reminds them visually of the good old days.

Are schoolteachers as dumb as education majors?

It's well known that education majors in college have some of the lowest SAT / ACT scores of any major. The Education Realist blog points out, however, that a large fraction of those dumb ed majors fail to graduate, and that to become a public school teacher you not only have to have a college degree but then, usually, pass some kind of licensing exam, which can range from easy to rather hard for calculus teachers.

So, the people who make it through both college and then pass their subject area test tend to have higher SAT scores than the average Ed major. An ETS study of those who passed the licensing test in 20 states shows that, yes, gym teachers aren't all that intellectual, averaging about 960 on a 400 to 1600 scale. Elementary school teachers average a little over 500 on both Math and Verbal. High school teachers tend to be sharper, with math teachers averaging just under 600 on Math. Here's a graph from ETS of SAT scores for each subject area.

Overall, public school teachers are pretty average for college graduates. It looks like they average about a quarter of a standard deviation lower on college admission tests than do average college graduates. But then college graduates are above average. With the exception of high school math teachers, teachers tend to score higher on the Verbal / Critical Reading section than on the Math section. That's their job: to use words to explain stuff. But it also explains why they have trouble dealing with the flood of data that's been incoming in recent years: thinking about statistics isn't their strong suit.

My guess is that smarter teachers would probably be a good thing, so we ought to be thinking about ways to make the job of teaching more attractive to smart people. In general, smart people don't like dealing with knuckleheads, so forcing teachers to carry most of the burden of discipline, a growing trend in recent decades, is a good way to keep smart people out of the business. You can instead use some of those gym teachers to run after school detentions instead of delegating most of the disciplining down to the teachers as happens in so many public schools desperate to avoid disparate impact lawsuits by not generating a paper trail of discipline actions carried out by the administration.

Of course, the Obama Administration is actively working to make teaching a less attractive profession to people who like thinking about The Great Gatsby via their sweeping investigations into the mystery of why black students get suspended relatively more often than other races. Thinking statistically is not the Obama Admin ed experts' strong suit either, evidently. 

January 19, 2012

How it works

From the Washington Post, a news story (i.e., not an opinion piece) by reporter Peter Wallsten:
Obama-linked group accused of anti-Semitism 
The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank closely aligned with the White House, is embroiled in a dispute with several major Jewish organizations over statements on Israel and charges that some center staffers have used anti-Semitic language to attack pro-Israel Americans. 
The controversy reflects growing divisions among important allies of President Obama over Middle East policy that could complicate the president’s reelection outreach to some Jewish voters, just as he is seeking to assure them of his commitment to Israel’s security amid fears of an Iran nuclear threat. 
Among the points of contention are several Twitter posts by one CAP writer on his personal account referring to “Israel-firsters.” Some experts say the phrase has its roots in the anti-Semitic charge that American Jews are more loyal to a foreign country. In another case, a second staffer described a U.S. senator as showing more fealty to the prime U.S. pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, than to his own constituents, replacing a standard identifier of party affiliation and state with “R-AIPAC” on his personal Twitter account. The first writer has since left the staff. 
Critics are also pointing to writings on the CAP Web site, where staffers have suggested the pro-Israel lobby is pushing the U.S. toward war with Iran and likened Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza to the policies of the segregated American South. 
Those statements, among others, have gained notice largely because of CAP’s influential role in Obama’s Washington. Founded and chaired by John Podesta, a onetime chief of staff in the Clinton White House, the center is an idea generator for the administration and a source for many of its top officials.

So, CAP is a totally mainstream group run by veteran Democratic insiders. Here's Glenn Greenwald of Salon [link fixed] on how the tarring and feathering is organized. 

Being Democratic Establishment Central, CAP will survive, no doubt, but the "chilling effect" of being accused of anti-Semitism in the news columns of the Washington Post will remain as a reminder. If you are a Democratic underling, don't even think amusing thoughts about Republican senators who have sold out to AIPAC. In a moment of weakness, you might put them on Twitter. You can't be too careful.

At present, the Israel Lobby is likely to run into more resistance to this kind of smear than at other times. Right now, Israel has a right of center government that Republicans tend to feel more affectionate toward, whereas most American Jews are Democrats. This kind of disalignment tends to generate some healthy debate among Jews.  

Years ago, I proposed that the Israel Lobby should be treated like the anti-Castro Lobby: as a big, powerful interest group that normally gets much of its way on the foreign policy questions it's interested in precisely because it's a big, powerful lobby. That's politics, and both the anti-Castro Lobby and the Israel Lobby play politics well.

In the abstract, I'd probably want the U.S. to explore a deal with the Cuban government to lift sanctions in return for major Cuban concessions (Cuba is so needlessly poor after 50 years of Communism that there's a big win-win deal possible to de-Communize Cuba that would make a lot of money for Americans and for Cubans: here are some details of how to get the ball rolling to a de-Communized Cuba), but I recognize the power of the Cuba Libre lobby and I understand their motivations, so it's not a big deal for me. I'm likely more sympathetic to Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians than I am to the Cuba Libre lobby and I understand the Israel Lobby's power, so I don't care much at all about Israel pushing the Palestinians around.

What I do care about is the liberty and quality of debate in the U.S.

The difference between the Israel and the Cuba lobby is that the Cuba Libre Lobby is happy when you mention out loud how powerful they are, because that makes them seem even more powerful. 

In contrast, the Israel Lobby, although it boasts itself about its own power (just check out the annual AIPAC conference in D.C.) tries to destroy people who mention its power, or who might even someday get around to mentioning it, as long as the Israel Lobby isn't comfortable with them. "Pay no attention to that lobby behind the curtain!" The latter has a severely chilling effect on thought in the more careerist parts of America.

If we think of the Free Cuba lobby as a normal lobby, like the NRA or the NEA or the Armenians or the Turks or Big Pharma or whatever, lobbies that are often successful but are subject to the give and take of debate, then the goal should be for the Israel Lobby to be a normal lobby that wants everybody to talk about how powerful it is, instead of this force that tries, with some success, to control who can mention its very existence.

January 18, 2012

The Dumbest Idea of 2012

An early contender for that title has got to be that the 2012 London Olympics will witness the debut of Women's Boxing as an Olympic sport. 

Boxing (men's) used to be a big sport at the Olympics, and the short bouts were more exciting than long professional title fights. But it was always rife with ridiculous decisions, corruption, brawls between cornermen, and other bad craziness. 

Plus, guys pounding each other in the head is just too brutal. I went to some preliminary rounds at the 1984 L.A. Olympics. First, they had flyweight bouts (something like 107 pound max). Those were a lot of fun because these guys couldn't seem to do much serious damage to each other. Then they had heavyweight bouts. One heavyweight caught another one under the chin with an upper cut that lifted the poor bastard clear off the floor. He laid on the canvas for 20 minutes until they strapped him to a cart and wheeled him away. That was the last time I went to a boxing match.

For a host of reasons, you haven't heard much about boxing in recent Olympics. It's a fading sport. But at least it has tradition.

But adding women's boxing to the Olympics at this point in the history of boxing is a little like adding Women's Plunge for Distance to the 2012 Games.

As I wrote in my review of Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning 2004 women's boxing movie Million Dollar Baby:
In reality, women's boxing is a pseudo-feminist trashsport that briefly flourished in the 1990s when impresario Don King noticed that Mike Tyson fans got some kind of weird kick out of preliminary catfights between battling babes. 
Traditionally, society objected to women brawling because (to paraphrase the answer the shady doctor in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" gives to the question of whether his memory erasure technique can cause brain damage), "Technically speaking, boxing is brain damage." 
If a man gets his head caved in during some pointless scrap, well, some other man will just have to step in and do double duty carrying on the species. But, women are the limiting scarce resource in making babies, so each woman lost lowers the overall reproductive capacity.
That kind of proto-sociobiological reasoning is unthinkable today, yet that hasn't brought about a feminist utopia. Instead, men employ gender equality slogans to badger women into doing things guys enjoy.
Still, female fisticuffs have faded recently due to the supply side problem of finding enough low-cost opponents for the handful of women stars. While the number of male palookas who will fight for next to nothing in the hope of becoming Rocky Balboa is ample, managers needing fresh meat for their female champs to bash frequently have to hire hookers and strippers to take dives -- and working girls don't work for free. 
"Million Dollar Baby" simply ignores all this and asks you to believe that women's boxing today is a thriving duplicate of the men's fight game of a half century ago, which allows Eastwood to make a 1955-style boxing movie.

And that was 7 years ago that women's boxing was already fading and practically dead in the water. I can't recall reading anything about it in the last several years until hearing that it was going to be in the Olympics this year. Putting women's boxing in the Olympics in 2012 is just Zombie Feminism, following out the logic of gender equality to a reductio ad absurdum.

Noah Millman

One of the wise men of part-time punditry, Noah Millman is moving from The American Scene to The American Conservative to join Rod Dreher and Daniel Larison.


Sean O'Neal of The Onion's AV Club is angry that a David Letterman staffer was honest about that professional comedy is dominated by men and is happy that the Letterman staffer got in trouble for being honest:
Eddie Brill, longtime comedy booker for The Late Show With David Letterman, has been dismissed from his duties following a recent, controversial New York Times interview, in which Brill made certain statements regarding female comedians—statements that suggested female comics were not as funny as men, which is a debate we are still having despite Judd Apatow’s recent ideological victory over Jerry Lewis.

Huh? Because Judd Apatow got rich off female comedians?

What's the sex ratio among writers for The Onion, Sean? Why is the younger generation so boringly sanctimonious when they take off their funny hats and put on their serious thought hats? 

Most comedians are kind of screwed-up. There are a more guys with the the screwed-up comedian genes. 

January 17, 2012

Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow"

In Taki's Magazine, I write:
Perhaps the most lauded book of 2011 was Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel (or, to be technical, Nobelish) Prize in Economic Sciences. The Wall Street Journal, Economist, and New York Times all anointed it one of the year’s top books. David Brooks declaimed, “Kahneman and his research partner, the late Amos Tversky, will be remembered hundreds of years from now.”  
In the New York Review of Books, elder statesman of physics Freeman Dyson announced that Kahneman’s “great achievement was to turn psychology into a quantitative science,” which might have come as a surprise to Wilhelm Wundt, who opened an experimental-psychology lab in 1879.

Read the whole thing there.

"False Flag"

From Foreign Policy:
False Flag 
A series of CIA memos describes how Israeli Mossad agents posed as American spies to recruit members of the terrorist organization Jundallah to fight their covert war against Iran. 
Buried deep in the archives of America's intelligence services are a series of memos, written during the last years of President George W. Bush's administration, that describe how Israeli Mossad officers recruited operatives belonging to the terrorist group Jundallah by passing themselves off as American agents. According to two U.S. intelligence officials, the Israelis, flush with American dollars and toting U.S. passports, posed as CIA officers in recruiting Jundallah operatives -- what is commonly referred to as a "false flag" operation.

Jundallah is supposedly a Sunni terrorist group from Baluchistan, the desert on both sides of the Iran-Pakistan border, that blows up people in Iran to show their opposition to Iran being a Shi'ite state. Perry goes on:
The memos, as described by the sources, one of whom has read them and another who is intimately familiar with the case, investigated and debunked reports from 2007 and 2008 accusing the CIA, at the direction of the White House, of covertly supporting Jundallah -- a Pakistan-based Sunni extremist organization. Jundallah, according to the U.S. government and published reports, is responsible for assassinating Iranian government officials and killing Iranian women and children. 
But while the memos show that the United States had barred even the most incidental contact with Jundallah, according to both intelligence officers, the same was not true for Israel's Mossad. The memos also detail CIA field reports saying that Israel's recruiting activities occurred under the nose of U.S. intelligence officers, most notably in London, the capital of one of Israel's ostensible allies, where Mossad officers posing as CIA operatives met with Jundallah officials. 
The officials did not know whether the Israeli program to recruit and use Jundallah is ongoing. Nevertheless, they were stunned by the brazenness of the Mossad's efforts.
"It's amazing what the Israelis thought they could get away with," the intelligence officer said. "Their recruitment activities were nearly in the open. They apparently didn't give a damn what we thought." 
Interviews with six currently serving or recently retired intelligence officers over the last 18 months have helped to fill in the blanks of the Israeli false-flag operation. In addition to the two currently serving U.S. intelligence officers, the existence of the Israeli false-flag operation was confirmed to me by four retired intelligence officers who have served in the CIA or have monitored Israeli intelligence operations from senior positions inside the U.S. government. 
... The [2008 CIA] report then made its way to the White House, according to the currently serving U.S. intelligence officer. The officer said that Bush "went absolutely ballistic" when briefed on its contents. 
"The report sparked White House concerns that Israel's program was putting Americans at risk," the intelligence officer told me. "There's no question that the U.S. has cooperated with Israel in intelligence-gathering operations against the Iranians, but this was different. No matter what anyone thinks, we're not in the business of assassinating Iranian officials or killing Iranian civilians." 
Israel's relationship with Jundallah continued to roil the Bush administration until the day it left office, this same intelligence officer noted. Israel's activities jeopardized the administration's fragile relationship with Pakistan, which was coming under intense pressure from Iran to crack down on Jundallah. It also undermined U.S. claims that it would never fight terror with terror, and invited attacks in kind on U.S. personnel. 
"It's easy to understand why Bush was so angry," a former intelligence officer said. "After all, it's hard to engage with a foreign government if they're convinced you're killing their people. Once you start doing that, they feel they can do the same." 
A senior administration official vowed to "take the gloves off" with Israel, according to a U.S. intelligence officer. But the United States did nothing -- a result that the officer attributed to "political and bureaucratic inertia." 
"In the end," the officer noted, "it was just easier to do nothing than to, you know, rock the boat." Even so, at least for a short time, this same officer noted, the Mossad operation sparked a divisive debate among Bush's national security team, pitting those who wondered "just whose side these guys [in Israel] are on" against those who argued that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." 
The debate over Jundallah was resolved only after Bush left office when, within his first weeks as president, Barack Obama drastically scaled back joint U.S.-Israel intelligence programs targeting Iran, according to multiple serving and retired officers. ...
What has become crystal clear, however, is the level of anger among senior intelligence officials about Israel's actions. "This was stupid and dangerous," the intelligence official who first told me about the operation said. "Israel is supposed to be working with us, not against us. If they want to shed blood, it would help a lot if it was their blood and not ours. You know, they're supposed to be a strategic asset. Well, guess what? There are a lot of people now, important people, who just don't think that's true." 

In tribute to Obama, you gotta figure that this realization probably wasn't as big of a surprise to him as it was to Bush.

Anyway, lately, I have a hard time getting too worked up over this kind of thing. It's a little bit like when some college football team puts together a dynasty and then, surprise, surprise, gets suspended by the NCAA (e.g., USC). They just kind of wanted it more. These days, Israel just kind of wants to win at the Great Game more. It's their hobby.

Cruise liner captains don't go down with their ships

The Italian cruise ship fiasco, in which the captain is under arrest for refusing the Italian Coast Guard's demand that he return to the ship to supervise the evacuation of passengers, reminds me of a 1991 cruise ship disaster with a happy ending. From People:
On Saturday evening, Aug. 3, as a 50-mph gale buffeted their ship, passengers aboard the Greek cruise liner Oceanos gamely made their way to the main lounge for the evening's entertainment. No sooner had they settled in than the lights went out. The 492-foot ship, suddenly without power, tossed in high seas off South Africa's aptly named Wild Coast. For 361 weekend tourists, one of the most harrowing nights of their lives had just begun. The Oceanos was sinking.  
Disgracefully, many of the 184 crew members clambered aboard the lifeboats ahead of some of the passengers and paddled to the safety of tankers and trawlers that had drawn nearby. At daybreak on Sunday, South African Air Force helicopters joined the rescue operation. But to the astonishment and anger of the 217 passengers still aboard, Capt. Yannis Avranias grabbed the second chopper off the ship. With no one clearly in charge, an unlikely hero emerged among the remaining crew: Robin Boltman, 31, the ship's magician.  
Giving the performance of his career, Boltman entertained and calmed passengers throughout the pitch-black night. In the morning he ascended to the bridge and maintained radio contact with rescuers. Finally, at 11:30 A.M., after all other passengers and crew had been removed to safety, Boltman was lifted from the ship by a helicopter. At 1:45 P.M. the luxury liner nosed into the Indian Ocean and disappeared under the waves. 

You can read the magician's story of how he organized the evacuation here.

The tradition of women and children first in shipwrecks emerged in the 19th Century. One famous example was the death of John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthiest passenger on the Titanic in 1912. According to Wikipedia:
When Second Officer Charles Lightoller arrived on A deck to finish loading Lifeboat 4, Astor helped his wife with her maid and nurse into it. Astor then asked if he might join his wife because she was in 'a delicate condition'; however, Lightoller told him that men were not to be allowed to enter until all the women and children had been loaded. Astor stood back and simply asked Lightoller for the boat number. The lifeboat was lowered at 1:55 a.m. and Astor stood alone while others tried to free the remaining collapsible boats;[1] he was last seen on the starboard bridge wing, smoking a cigarette with Jacques Futrelle. A half hour later, the ship disappeared beneath the water. Madeleine, her nurse, and her maid survived. Astor's valet, Victor Robbins, did not.

This understated but memorable incident didn't even make the 1997 movie Titanic, presumably because it didn't fit the Celtic Good v. WASP Bad and Feminist (but Hot) Women v. Male Chauvinist Pigs dynamics that James Cameron suffused the movie with. Obviously, Cameron knows a lot about what contemporary audiences want to pay to see.

One implicit question is whether there is any connection between the change in the cultural atmosphere in recent generations and the poor behavior of these two captains. And the answer is: the sample size is too small to tell.

January 16, 2012

"What's race got to do with it?"

Lee Siegel blogs in the New York Times:
Pundits have already begun the endless debate over whether Mr. Romney’s wealth and religion are hindrances or assets. But there has yet to be any discussion over the one quality that has subtly fueled his candidacy thus far and could well put him over the top in the fall: his race. The simple, impolitely stated fact is that Mitt Romney is the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory. 
Of course, I’m not talking about a strict count of melanin density. I’m referring to the countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways he telegraphs to a certain type of voter that he is the cultural alternative to America’s first black president. It is a whiteness grounded in a retro vision of the country, one of white picket fences and stay-at-home moms and fathers unashamed of working hard for corporate America. 
... Contrast that with Mr. Romney’s meticulously cultivated whiteness. He is nearly always in immaculate white shirt sleeves. He is implacably polite, tossing off phrases like “oh gosh” with Stepford bonhomie.

Somebody a little less hot under the collar with resentments he doesn't quite understand than Siegel might notice that Romney's affect has probably held him back more in the 2008 and 2012 GOP campaigns than it has helped him.

By the way, is wearing clean clothes really a dead give-away that the wearer is white? I hadn't actually noticed that. I have noticed that the Japanese tend to be polite, even "implacably polite," so I guess that makes the Japanese white.

Ethnicity != Race!

The New York Times ran an article over the weekend on how the government's racial categories don't fit Hispanics well: For Many Latinos Racial Identity Is More Culture than Color. It's like a dumbed-down version of one of my articles.
More than 18 million Latinos checked this “other” [race] box in the 2010 census, up from 14.9 million in 2000.

What's not mentioned is that that's actually a decline in percentage terms: there was a rise from 2000 to 2010 in the percentage of Hispanic ethnicity individuals calling themselves white on the race question. (This likely doesn't represent an underlying change in race or thinking about race. It probably had to do with minor changes in the wording of the race question on the 2010 Census that were intended to elicit more comprehension from Latinos.)
 It was an indicator of the sharp disconnect between how Latinos view themselves and how the government wants to count them. Many Latinos argue that the country’s race categories — indeed, the government’s very conception of identity — do not fit them.

Of course, there's no mention that Latin American countries themselves use terms like "mestizo" and "mulatto" and "Indio" -- those words are considered multiculturally insensitive in America, even though they are considered useful in Latin America. 
The main reason for the split is that the census categorizes people by race, which typically refers to a set of common physical traits. But Latinos, as a group in this country, tend to identify themselves more by their ethnicity, meaning a shared set of cultural traits, like language or customs.

Of course, there's no mention that Hispanics are the only ethnicity to get their own question on the Census. There were only about 9 questions on the last Census and one was Are you Hispanic/Latino? Ethnically, to the Feds, either you are Hispanic or you are non-Hispanic. If you are non-Hispanic, the feds don't care about your ethnicity. 

The general tone of the article is the usual: that Latino political power through ethnocentric solidarity is an unquestioned good. To newspaper reporters, what could be more self-evident? All the Latino leaders in their Blackberries tell them that. Granted, in the real world, not that many Spanish-surnamed people seem to care all that much, but that's just proof that we need to write even more articles telling the Latino masses to Get With The Program that their leaders have laid out for them. (If only we could get Latinos to read the Times instead of the Post.) These people who return my phone calls so promptly are the Martin Luther Kings of the 21st Century. If you don't believe me, just ask them.

Personally, the fact that all these newcomers to my country are internally divided by race and ethnicity so that they don't wield all that much political power would seem to me to be a feature, not a bug. I think we should get rid of the ethnicity category altogether and have only two race questions on government forms: "Are you descended from African-American slaves?" and "Are you an official member of an American Indian tribe?" 

Readers will not be surprised that the person featured in the article (shown in the photo) as most outspoken in her indignation over the feds' insensitivity doesn't have a Spanish-surname herself: Erica Lubliner.

January 15, 2012

Consider the implications

Gregory Cochran writes in 2012 Edge question series on "What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?"
Germs Cause Disease 
The germ theory of disease has been very successful, particularly if you care about practical payoffs, like staying alive. It explains how disease can rapidly spread to large numbers of people (exponential growth), why there are so many different diseases (distinct pathogen species), and why some kind of contact (sometimes indirect) is required for disease transmission. 
In modern language, most disease syndromes turn out to be caused by tiny self-replicating machines whose genetic interests are not closely aligned with ours. 
In fact, germ theory has been so successful that it almost seems uninteresting. ...

A huge amount of money has been devoted to searching for the genetic causes of slow-acting diseases because with the development of genome sequencing we have a very handy lamppost to search for our keys under. Looking for germs that might cause slow diseases has not been a priority because nobody has much of a plan for how to do it.

This isn't a terribly bad strategy. It's like when I'm playing golf and I slice my teeshot toward a tangle of head-high thornbushes. I might go look for my ball on the next fairway to the right: maybe the ball happened to bounce through all the thorns an on to the short grass of the wrong fairway. That probably didn't happen, but if it did, well, I can find my ball a lot more easily than if it's in the thorn bushes. But, when my ball doesn't turn up sitting pretty on the next fairway over, I try not to be disappointed.

Similarly, with big diseases, the balls aren't sitting up on the short grass where it would be easy to find them. The 21st Century hasn't seen a lot of cases of common diseases being caused by common gene variants, just as Cochran predicted back in the 20th Century. But few are thinking about how to wade into the thorn bushes to look for them.
It is still worth studying—not just to fight the next plague, but also because it has been a major factor in human history and human evolution. You can't really understand Cortez without smallpox or Keats without tuberculosis. The past is another country—don't drink the water. 
It may well explain patterns that we aren't even supposed to see, let alone understand. For example, human intelligence was, until very recently, ineffective at addressing problems causing by microparasites, as William McNeill pointed out in Plagues and Peoples. Those invisible enemies played a major role in determining human biological fitness—more so in some places than others. Consider the implications.

Evolution of left-handedness?

At Edge.org, Jonathan Gottschall offers a theory for why natural selection can't seem to make up its mind about left-handedness:
Which brings me to Charlotte Faurie and Michel Raymond, a pair of French scientists who study the evolution of handedness. Left-handedness is partly heritable and is associated with significant health risks. So why, they wondered, hasn't natural selection trimmed it away? Were the costs of left-handedness cancelled out by hidden fitness benefits? 
The scientists noted that lefties have advantages in sports like baseball and fencing where the competition is interactive (but not in sports, like gymnastics or swimming, with no direct interaction). In the elite ranks of cricket, boxing, wrestling, tennis, baseball and more, lefties are massively over-represented. The reason is obvious. Since ninety percent of the world is right-handed, righties usually compete against each other. When they confront lefties, who do everything backwards, their brains reel, and the result can be as lopsided as my mauling by Nick. In contrast, lefties are most used to facing righties; when two lefties face off, any confusion cancels out. 
Faurie and Raymond made a mental leap. The lives of ancestral people were typically more violent than our own. Wouldn't the lefty advantage in sports—including combat sports like boxing, wrestling, and fencing—have extended to fighting, whether with fists, clubs, or spears? Could the fitness benefits of fighting southpaw have offset the health costs associated with left-handedness? In 1995 Faurie and Raymond published a paper supporting their prediction of a strong correlation between violence and handedness in preindustrial societies: the more violent the society, the more lefties. The most violent society they sampled, the Eipo of Highland New Guinea, was almost thirty percent southpaw.

Think about throwing a spear at an animal you are chasing like a quarterback throwing the football while rolling out. Righthanded quarterbacks can throw better while running to the right than the left. (Indeed, Robert Griffin III of Baylor likely won the Heisman last year because, more than any other single play, a remarkable pass he threw that beat Oklahoma on national TV. After rolling to his left, this righthander surprised the defense by throwing a long bullet into the right corner of the end zone (video). Having a lefthander in your hunting party ups your chances that somebody will connect.
Many studies have since examined the Faurie-Raymond Hypothesis. Results have been mixed, but facts have surfaced that are, to my taste, quite decidedly ugly. A recent and impressive inquiry, found no evidence that lefties are over-represented among the Eipo of Highland New Guinea. 
It hurts to surrender a beloved idea--one you just knew was true, one that was stamped into your mind by lived experience not statistics. And I'm not yet ready to consign this one to the bone yard of lovely--but dead--science. Faurie and Raymond brought in sports data to shore up their main story about fighting. But I think the sports data may actually be the main story. Lefty genes may have survived more through southpaw success in play fights than in real fights—a possibility Faurie and Raymond acknowledge in a later paper. Athletic contests are important across cultures, and if we think they are frivolous we are wrong. Around the world, sport is mainly a male preserve, and winners—from captains of football teams to traditional African wrestlers to Native American runners and lacrosse players—gain more than mere laurels. They elevate their cultural status—they win the admiration of men, the desire of women (research confirms the stereotype: athletic men have more sexual success). This raises a bigger possibility: that our species has been shaped more than we know by the survival of the sportiest.

Here are the top ten baseball hitters of all time according to one measure where the average batter gets a 100:
Seven lefties, a switchhitter, and two righties. On the other hand, four positions in baseball: 2nd, short, third, and catcher are largely off limits to lefties because most throws wouldn't be cross body.


I have to say that I've never quite gotten the excitement over epigenetics as a revolutionizing nature-nurture debates. This is not to say that the study of epigenetics isn't valuable in and of itself, it just seems to have less implication for the kind of arguments that people really care about than its publicists assume. 

If I say, "Twin studies, adoption studies, and so forth suggest that for a lot of traits, there's roughly a 50-50 breakdown between the effects of heredity and environment, over the last few years," I constantly get told that: "Oh, no, that's so 20th Century. You see, some of the genes are also being affected by the environment."

Me: "Okay, but that still leaves us with the results of twin and adoption studies. So, what it sounds like you are saying is that genes aren't just 50% of the importance, they're something like 75%, but maybe 1/3rd of the genes are influenced by the environment, so we're right back to 50-50, right?. I mean, we have to get back to what the studies report."

For example, here's Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers, writing in literary agent John Brockman's annual January question confab at his Edge.org:
To me, epigenetics is the most monumental explanation to emerge in the social and biological sciences since Darwin proposed his theories of Natural Selection and Sexual Selection. Over 2,500 articles, many scientific meetings, the formation of the San Diego Epigenome Center as well as other institutes, a five-year Epigenomics Program launched in 2008 by the National Institutes of Health, and many other institutions, academic forums and people are now devoted to this new field. Although epigenetics has been defined in several ways, all are based in the central concept that environmental forces can affect gene behavior, either turning genes on or off. ... 
The consequences of epigenetic mechanisms are likely to be phenomenal. Scientists now hypothesize that epigenetic factors play a role in the etiology of many diseases, conditions and human variations—from cancers, to clinical depression and mental illnesses, to human behavioral and cultural variations. 
Take the Moroccan Amazighs or Berbers, people with highly similar genetic profiles who now reside in three different environments: some roam the deserts as nomads; some farm the mountain slopes; some live in the towns and cities along the Moroccan coast. And depending on where they live, up to one-third of their genes are differentially expressed, reports researcher Youssef Idaghdour. 
For example, among the urbanites, some genes in the respiratory system are switched on—perhaps, Idaghdour suggests, to counteract their new vulnerability to asthma and bronchitis in these smoggy surroundings. Idaghdour and his colleague Greg Gibson, propose that epigenetic mechanisms have altered the expression of many genes in these three Berber populations, producing their population differences.
Genes hold the instructions; epigenetic factors direct how those instructions are carried out. And as we age, scientists report, these epigenetic processes continue to modify and build who we are. Fifty-year-old twins, for example, show three times more epigenetic modifications than do three-year-old twins; and twins reared apart show more epigenetic alterations than those who grow up together. Epigenetic investigations are proving that genes are not destiny; but neither is the environment—even in people. 

Okay, but we already knew that genes are not destiny, but neither is the environment. 
I am hardly the first to hail this new field of biology as revolutionary—the fundamental process by which nature and nurture interact. But to me as an anthropologist long trying to take a middle road in a scientific discipline intractably immersed in nature-versus-nurture warfare, epigenetics is the missing link.

I'm not saying that it isn't valuable to know that one way the environment affects traits is through sending a message to the genes to turn themselves on or off, but that that doesn't tell us anything terribly significantly new about what people get hot under the collar about: the limits of environmental influence.