February 4, 2012

The Great Game ain't so great anymore

No, this isn't about the Super Bowl. It's about something much less important. (Or so it increasingly seems.)

Charles Krauthammer waxes strategic in the Washington Post:
Which is why the fate of the Assad regime [in Syria] is geopolitically crucial. ... But strategic opportunity compounds the urgency. With its archipelago of clients anchored by Syria, Iran is today the greatest regional threat — to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states terrified of Iranian nuclear hegemony; to traditional regimes menaced by Iranian jihadist subversion; to Israel, which the Islamic Republic has pledged to annihilate; to America and the West, whom the mullahs have vowed to drive from the region. 
No surprise that the Arab League, many of whose members are no tenderhearted humanitarians, is pressing hard for Assad’s departure. His fall would deprive Iran of an intra-Arab staging area and sever its corridor to the Mediterranean. Syria would return to the Sunni fold. Hezbollah, Tehran’s agent in Lebanon, could be next, withering on the vine without Syrian support and Iranian materiel. And Hamas would revert to Egyptian patronage. 
At the end of this causal chain, Iran, shorn of key allies and already reeling from economic sanctions over its nuclear program, would be thrown back on its heels. ... It’s not just the Sunni Arabs lining up against Assad. Turkey, after a recent flirtation with a Syrian-Iranian-Turkish entente, has turned firmly against Assad, seeing an opportunity to extend its influence, as in Ottoman days, as protector/master of the Sunni Arabs. The alignment of forces suggests a unique opportunity for the West to help finish the job. ... Force the issue. Draw bright lines. Make clear American solidarity with the Arab League against a hegemonic Iran and its tottering Syrian client.

Krauthammer would make an outstanding television color announcer in case anybody ever forms the National Risk League and broadcasts that old board game where you try to conquer the world. He'd get really worked up over how holding Australia and South America are the keys to the early game and make the whole thing sound kind of exciting. He's really good at this.

Krauthammer is an amazing man. He graduated on time with his class at Harvard Medical School despite being paralyzed for life during his studies.

As you'll recall, a decade ago, Krauthammer was banging the war drums for overthrowing the anti-Iranian Sunni Arab regime in Iraq. We invaded Iraq and handed the country over to Shi'ites whose leaders had gone into exile in Iran. So, Krauthammer has helped empower Iranian hegemony, which is why I guess we should listen to him now on the need to fight Iranian hegemony.

But, here's a question: Exactly, how harmed are you by the extension of Iranian influence over Iraq that Krauthammer helped bring about? Let me make clear I'm not talking about the trillions of dollars wasted invading Iraq and all the dead and crippled. I'm just asking here about the outcome: many of Iran's favorite Iraqis coming to power in Iraq. Obviously, in the Great Game it's an absurd and humiliating own goal for America.

But, what are the tangible harms to Americans of greater Iranian influence? I really don't know. Are we paying more at the pump for gas? Have the Iranians used the power that Krauthammer helped hand them to corner the global pistachio nut market?

If greater Iranian influence is as big a disaster for Americans as Krauthammer makes it sound in this column, then surely Krauthammer would have been fired from his gig at the Washington Post. Instead, everybody in Washington acts like Krauthammer just got his Super Bowl prediction wrong. No biggie.

Maybe they are right.

In the real world, more and more decisionmakers in other countries are just kind of checking out of this whole Great Game thing. Consider Iran. In Krauthammer's fevered imagination, Iran is a dynamic hegemon, but according to the CIA World Factbook, Iran is 62nd in the world in terms of military spending as percentage of GDP at 2.50 percent as of 2006.

Yes, but, what is Iranian military spending at today, you ask? I dunno. Why not? Because the CIA has barely updated its entire list in about a half of a decade. For example, according to the CIA's listing, the United States is 23rd in the world at 4.06 percent for "2005 est."

Presumably, somebody at Langley has a number for the U.S. that's less than seven years old (I hope), but there just doesn't seem to be much demand from the public or the press for fresher figures.

There are, as far as I can tell, no military spending moneyballers poring over this table to discover crucial trends. Fewer and fewer people care about the Great Game. Of those who do, an ever-increasing fraction live within the home delivery circulation zone of the Washington Post

If you were an Iranian subscriber to the Post who works at Iran's "Interests Section" inside the Pakistani embassy in Washington, what would be your considered judgment? What would you report home to Tehran after reading the Post day after day? I think you'd end up saying: "We can't compete with the Krauthammers. They are better than us at putting together words. Therefore we can't guarantee that the ruling class in Washington won't work itself into another frenzy like it did in 2003 and do something stupid. So, we'd better get ourselves a few nukes as a deterrent."

Map from Juan Cole.

The Obama Reality Distortion Field

The force was powerful in 2007-2008 and remains strong today when it comes to race, although it worked best on Obama himself.

For example, Jodi Kantor did a Q&A for Reddit to promote her book The Obamas. Here's the funniest line: 
When I started covering him, in early 2007, he thought that he was going to be the Democratic candidate to finally win over evangelical votes, and that his own religious background (Jeremiah Wright, Trinity etc) was going to help!

Of course, nobody except Kantor notices that this is funny.

The Frenchest thing anybody ever said in English

I was watching an old Rick Steves travelogue about Paris with my father, and Rick goes cheese-shopping with a French lady who owns a local restaurant. She picks up a hunk of cheese so pungent that I could just about smell it streaming through my Roku device, and moans ardently:
"Yes, it smells like zee feet of angels."

February 3, 2012

Obama is an overly polite loner night dweeb

The Obama Administration has leaked a bunch of memos with Obama's comments in the margins to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, who has written them up as best he can as a story of Republican intransigence. 

Mickey Kaus responds:
What does he do all day? Are you impressed with the image of Obama-at-work left by Ryan Lizza’s “Obama Memos” piece in the New Yorker? The President’s decision-making method–at least as described in the piece–seems to consist mainly of checking boxes on memos his aides have written for him. … They offer him four stimulus packages, none bigger than $890 billion. He does not ask for more but does push for an “inspiring ‘moon shot’” initiative. At first it’s a “national ‘smart grid’”–hard not to get inspired just hearing those words! When aides explain that this isn’t stimulating enough, he settles for “high-speed trains.” … He’s presented with a list of $60 billion in cuts to his core stimulus policies, and writes “OK.” … He “authorize[s] his staff” to plan a likely-to-be-useless “bipartisan ‘fiscal summit,’” asks “what are the takeaways”” is told he could “ask .. for continued dialogue,” and doesn’t write “this is all BS” and cancel the summit, which in fact proves useless. … He’s offered a box to extend a one year non-defense spending freeze into a three year freeze. He doesn’t ask for a bigger, smaller, longer or broader freeze. He draws “a check mark.” … Finally, he’s presented with a classic three-box-con memo–two extreme boxes (big new jobs package, big new deficit package) and a safer middle box (“smaller, more symbolic” deficit efforts), a matrix clearly designed to get him to choose the middle option. He chooses the middle option. 
I’m sure Obama is smarter than this. He can’t be an executive who spends his days checking boxes, accepting the choices presented by his aides, never reaching outside them through unconventional channels or reaching unconventional thinkers, never throwing over the framework with which he is presented. 
I’m sure of it, but I can’t find much evidence for it in Lizza’s piece. The aides who leaked him the memos didn’t do Obama any favors.

If you are trying to do Obama a favor, why leak it to Lizza? My impression since 2008 is that Lizza is a closet cynic about Obama. Lizza put into print some of the more revealing stuff about Obama, such as this classic Obama quote: "I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director." Granted, most New Yorker readers were so invested in Obama that they never noticed anything subversive in Lizza's articles (who knows, Lizza may not have, himself).

Here's a key portion:
Each night, an Obama aide hands the President a binder of documents to review. After his wife goes to bed, at around ten, Obama works in his study, the Treaty Room, on the second floor of the White House residence. President Bush preferred oral briefings; Obama likes his advice in writing. He marks up the decision memos and briefing materials with notes and questions in his neat cursive handwriting. In the morning, each document is returned to his staff secretary. She dates and stamps it—“Back from the OVAL”—and often e-mails an index of the President’s handwritten notes to the relevant senior staff and their assistants. 

This sounds like how I would be President (except that my wife wouldn't insist I waste a big chunk of the evening on her the way Michelle requires Barack to spend 6:30 pm to 10:00 pm with her at least five nights per week, most of them without any company other than the Nesbitts or Whitakers, the two rich black couples from Chicago who frequently fly to D.C. so that Barack has some friends). But the staying up late reading by myself part: yeah, I would totally do that. Also, in Jodi Kantor's The Obamas, one of Obama's best friends talks about how he thinks that when he's no longer President that he can just go back to walking down the street to the book store, which is also my favorite thing in the whole world to do: walk to the Barnes & Noble that about 25 minutes away.

So, Obama and I share a lot of traits. And, no surprise, I would be terrible at being President.

Most executives are morning people, not night people. Being a night person is fine if you are, say, a blogger. I look at the articles that come out in the Big East Coast newspapers at midnight EST and sometimes I'll have a cogent response posted by the time Easterners are getting to work. But that's no way to run a railroad.

As an executive, you can get a lot done as a night person if you are a jerk and insist that lots of people stay up with you.

Churchill, Stalin, and Hitler were all night people and they all got lots done, but they weren't polite loner dweebs like Obama is. For example, Churchill was just awful to his secretaries and other servants. When one of his staff of 22 that he maintained as a private citizen backbencher during the mid-30s objected to his lack of consideration, Churchill responded, "But, I am a great man." He just wore out his secretaries with late night dictation. He generally had one taking dictation and the other typing up what he had just dictated. In contrast, it appears from this that and from Jodi Kantor's book The Obamas that Obama stays up alone without even a secretary. Michelle would probably object, but Barack needs his alone time anyway.

Obama has the ego, but he lacks the force of will required to impose his personality upon others. Stalin and Hitler found late night meetings terrific for terrifying others into doing their will, but Obama is way too polite and too much of a loner to insist upon meetings in the wee hours. To make big decisions, you have to confront people face to face ask them tough questions. But during office hours, Obama usually comes in late and is tired from staying up reading his memos and checking his boxes.

He's just not a big man. Big ego, big ambition, but as his track record of once helping get some asbestos partially removed suggests, not much psychic energy.

February 2, 2012

Controlling "the bounds of public discourse"

Back in December, Elliott Abrams published a fascinating denunciation in The Weekly Standard of two of America's most virulent anti-Semites. (As you read this, keep in mind that Mr. Abrams is a long-time diplomat. His biography at the Council of Foreign Relations where, among numerous other institutions, he now hangs his hat, says: "Former senior director for democracy and human rights, senior director for the Near East, and deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration.")
Blaming the Jews—Again 
If you were an anti-Semite dedicated to spreading your hatred of Jews, what charges exactly would you make in 21st century America?

Let's pause here, and you try to guess which two anti-Semites dedicated to spreading their hatred of Jews this long-time diplomat is thinking of ...
There are two charges you would make. First, the rich Jews control our government. Second, those Jews are trying to push America into war so your sons will have to fight for Israel.
In the last week that is exactly what we have seen. First came the Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times: “I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Perhaps it was jealousy from seeing Walt and Mearsheimer sell all those books with this line, but Friedman here tips right into the swamps. 
And now we have Joe Klein, in Time magazine, in a section accurately entitled “Swampland”: “Iowa Republicans are not neoconservatives. Ron Paul has gained ground after a debate in which his refusal to join the Iran warhawks was front and center. Indeed, in my travels around the country, I don’t meet many neoconservatives outside of Washington and New York. It’s one thing to just adore Israel, as the evangelical Christians do; it’s another thing entirely to send American kids off to war, yet again, to fight for Israel’s national security.”

Now, Klein has chosen his medium well: Time has a history of anti-Semitism, illustrated by its famous 1977 story about Israel’s prime minister that began “Menachem Begin (rhymes with Fagin).” But Klein’s thoughts are about as ugly as ever appear outside of Pat Buchanan’s publications. “There are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in the Middle East-the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States,” Buchanan said in 1990.

Okay, so now we know. The Real Anti-Semites are Joe Klein of Time and Tom Friedman of the New York Times.
These two recent statements are as vicious as it gets in the mainstream media, and here we have two Jews—Friedman and Klein—spreading the two major themes of contemporary American anti-Semitism. Why? Why now?   
Why does it matter? Perhaps it is their hatred of Israel’s right of center government, or of modern Israel, or of the rise of Orthodoxy in Israel and in the American Jewish community. Let us not descend into such analyses when what matters is not abnormal psychology but the bounds of public discourse. Once upon a time, William F. Buckley banned Pat Buchanan from the pages of National Review and in essence drummed him out of the conservative movement for such accusations. 

Obviously, famous old super-Establishment Jewish pundits like Friedman and Klein aren't in much danger from the constant playing of the Anti-Semitism Card. But the sheer dementedness of fulminating against Friedman and Klein for hating Jews has a chilling effect on all others with a lick of sense about their future career trajectories, especially if they are gentiles.

One of the big changes in my lifetime has been the attitude of Jews toward "the bounds of public discourse." When I was young, Lenny Bruce, say, was a famous martyr in the cause of enlarging the bounds of public discourse. Now, more energy is devoted toward policing the limits. 

Once again, let me point out that much of what seems vastly important to the neocons strikes me as being roughly as important as college football. Jews will still do fine if the "bounds of public discourse" are less constricted. As you may have noticed, Jews tend to be good at public discourse: tending to be funny, logical, well-informed, articulate, and so forth. Bullying people into self-censoring like this is just plain overkill driven by hyper-competitiveness and being shielded from criticism. On the whole, criticism makes people behave better. So, if nobody is allowed to notice your faults, your faults are likely to get worse.

Personally, I kind of care about college football, and thus I find it perfectly understandable that lots of influential people in the U.S. want their team to be the BCS champion of the Middle East, just like American Catholics used to get a huge kick out of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish beating the rich Protestants of USC.

But what I really care about is the quality of public discourse in the U.S. And the most obvious way to undermine that quality is to narrow the bounds of public discourse. Is this really that complicated? 

"Clybourne Park" implodes on Broadway

Bruce Norris's corrosive play Clybourne Park, about real estate and racial replacement in Chicago, was set to debut on Broadway in April, where it was tagged as the frontrunner for the Tony Award for best drama. But producer Scott Rudin has stomped off, peeved that Norris turned down his offer of a role in something else Rudin is producing. Much brouhaha followed in the New York press.

To get a clear picture of what the play is actually about, which you can't anywhere else, read what I wrote about Clybourne Park last year for Taki's Magazine.

Anti-Trend Inc.

In the late 1980s, my wife discovered this product that made my hair look great. But, the company that made it immediately went out of business. Over time, we started to notice a pattern: whatever product I liked would quickly tank in the marketplace. 

Obviously, most of these extinct favorites of mine are completely forgotten by now, but let me give one example that a few people of a certain age might still remember: Lotus 123 3.0. The 1.0 release of this spreadsheet in 1983 was an epochal hit, establishing the software standard for IBM PC compatibility. The 3.0 release, which came out around 1990 or 1991, was elegantly three dimensional: almost anything you could do in two dimensions on one spreadsheet, such as summing the contents of adjacent cells, you could just easily do in three dimensions across stacked worksheets. You could build a workbook out of 13 worksheets, one for each month and one aggregating the whole year. You could build graphs across each month's worksheet. 

Thus, for example, I built a sales forecasting system for the marketing research company where I worked where each region had their own single sheet based on a template I'd designed. Each week, they'd Fed Ex me a copy and I would aggregate them into one workbook with a top sheet summing up the national forecast on the underlying regional sheets. It was a piece of cake because it worked exactly as visualized.

In 1993, I was hired by the other big firm in the industry to build them a similar system. The only difference was I had to do it in Microsoft Excel because they had standardized on that. What a nightmare. Even though I knew exactly what I was doing, it took me three times as long to re-design it in Excel. I spent 50 or 100 hours on the phone with Microsoft technical support over the random things that in Excel worked in 2d but turned out not to work in 3d. The weird thing was that, as far as I can tell, I was the only customer in the world who missed the 3d nature of 1-2-3 3.0 when switching to Excel. Nobody at Microsoft could grasp what I was whining about -- Why would you want to be able to do things across worksheets that you can do within worksheets? -- and none of the PC magazines seemed to notice this lack in Excel.

(When software executive Jim Manzi became a pundit, I wrote him a long email thanking him for 1-2-3 3.0. He wrote back to say that that was a different software executive named Jim Manzi who had been head of Lotus.)

Eventually, after countless examples of whatever products I particularly liked going out of business, my wife suggested that I should start my own marketing research company to test new product ideas. It would use a sample size of one: me. I would just sit in a room and be handed potential products. If I liked the widget, the client's board of directors should immediately fire their CEO. If I really liked it, the board should liquidate the firm immediately for whatever it could get.

I was reminded of all this when reading this Chicago Tribune article:
Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo says there's nothing funny about a commercial featuring suit-and-tie wearing chimpanzees scheduled to air Sunday during the Super Bowl.   

When I lived in Chicago, I spent many hours watching chimpanzees in the Great Ape house of the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Stephen Ross, assistant director of the zoo's Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, says CareerBuilder.com's commercial showing chimps outsmarting a human co-worker

I can quite believe that a chimp dressed in a suit and tie would have a higher rate of predicting what would be a hit product than I would.
actually poses a risk to chimpanzees because people lose sight of the fact they're an endangered species and become less likely to help save them.  
Ross has made this pitch every year the company featured chimps in commercials but now he's hoping a recent Duke University study supporting his argument might help turn public opinion against the commercials. 

I recently predicted that the use of chimpanzees in advertisements and movies was doomed because Americans are slowly coming to understand that chimps belong in Africa. But it's interesting that this professional is using a quite different argument to argue for the same end. Poor Dr. Ross probably doesn't realize it, but his cause is likely doomed because I predicted he will succeed. 

February 1, 2012

If race doesn't exist ...

I'm often told that race doesn't exist because, uh, what about Tiger Woods? What about American Indians and Chinese? Are they one race or two? What about Sioux v. Cherokee? Separate races or not? Huh? Huh? 

If there isn't a race for everyone and everyone in his one race, then race can't exist.

Okay, this kind of legalistic thinking, with no gray areas, is appealing to human minds, but that's not generally how nature works. Carving nature at its joints is generally fairly difficult in most fields of science. One obvious example is psychiatry, which is notoriously a mess. The release of a new edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders has generated these headlines in just the New York Times alone over the last few weeks:
Asperger’s History of Over-Diagnosis 
I Had Asperger Syndrome. Briefly. 
New Definition of Autism Will Exclude Many, Study Suggests 
Depression's Criteria May Change to Include Grieving 
Not Diseases but Categories of Suffering 
But as all those Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals have stated clearly in their introductions, while the book seems to name the mental illnesses found in nature, it actually makes “no assumption that each category of mental disorder is a completely discrete entity with absolute boundaries dividing it from other mental disorders or no mental disorder.” And as any psychiatrist involved in the making of the D.S.M. will freely tell you, the disorders listed in the book are not “real diseases,” at least not like measles or hepatitis. Instead, they are useful constructs that capture the ways that people commonly suffer. The manual, they go on, was primarily written to give physicians, schooled in the language of disease, a way to recognize similarities and differences among their patients and to talk to one another about them. And it has been fairly successful at that. 
Still, “people take it literally,” one psychiatrist who worked on the manual told me. “That is its strength in a political sense.” And even if the A.P.A. benefits mightily from that misperception, the troubles on the front page are not the organization’s fault. They are what happens when we expect the D.S.M. to be what it is not. “The D.S.M. has been taken too seriously,” another expert told me. “It’s the victim of its success.” 
Psychiatrists would like the book to deserve a more serious take, and thus to be less subject to these embarrassing diagnostic squabbles. But this is going to require them to have what the rest of medicine already possesses: the biochemical markers that allow doctors to sort the staph from the strep, the malignant from the benign. And they don’t have these yet. They aren’t even close. The human brain, after all, may be the most complex object in the universe. And the few markers, the genes and the neural networks, that have been implicated in mental disorders do not map well onto the D.S.M.’s categories.

By the standards of psychiatry in 2012, the study of human races by, say, the mid 1960s (i.e., toward the end of the pre-genetic era) was pretty accurate. It's hard to imagine that the 2012 D.S.M. will seem as accurate in 2059 as physical anthropologist Carleton Coon's 1965 book Living Races of Man seems in 2012 to somebody familiar with the 21st Century outpouring of genetic data. Indeed, psychiatry in 1965 was vastly more of a "pseudo-science" than the study of race in 1965.

January 31, 2012

Jodi Kantor's "The Obamas"

I've got another column in Taki's Magazine this week, a review of New York Times White House correspondent Jodi Kantor's seemingly perky but actually insidiously subversive book on Barack and Michelle's life together in the White House. 

Kantor has done some good reporting on Obama over the years. For example, she published a story in the NYT in March 2007 on Rev. Wright, eleven months before the rest of the press paid much attention to that fascinating figure. 

However, Kantor's reporting on Obama has had little impact because it's so carefully understated that nice people are oblivious to her almost imperceptible sharp edges. With Kantor on Obama, you have to read very carefully to notice the interesting stuff. I'm pretty good at reading carefully, so my review gives you the good stuff in her book.
Much of The Obamas’ focus is psychological, and rightly so. History is often made by those whose positive moods are timed right. For example, at the last possible moment in South Carolina to head off a Mitt Romney cakewalk to the GOP nomination, Newt Gingrich—whose mother was bipolar—turned into a ball of fire. (As I write, Newt’s promising a moon colony by his second term and is proudly accepting the label “grandiose.”) 
Kantor is struck by the less flagrant but still marked swings in Obama’s mood and energy level. ... Oddly, Obama’s down spells never seem to undermine his ego, which in Kantor’s telling remains bizarrely expansive for such an otherwise rational individual.

Please read the whole thing there.

January 30, 2012

College admits cheating on SAT

From the NYT:
Claremont McKenna College, a small, prestigious California school, said Monday that for the past six years, it has submitted false SAT scores to publications like U.S. News & World Report that use the data in widely followed college rankings. 
In a message e-mailed to college staff members and students, Claremont McKenna’s president since 1999, Pamela B. Gann, wrote that “a senior administrator” had taken sole responsibility for falsifying the scores, admitted doing so since 2005, and resigned his post. 
The critical reading and math scores reported to U.S. News and others “were generally inflated by an average of 10-20 points each,” Ms. Gann wrote. For the class that entered the school in September 2010 — the most recent set of figures made public —the combined median score of 1,400 was reported as 1,410, she said, while the 75th percentile score of 1,480 was reported as 1,510.

This doesn't look like a lot, but note that Claremont McKenna is 9th among liberal arts colleges on the USN&WR list. In other words, it's right on the bubble of being Top Ten or not Top Ten, which is the kind of thing that means a lot for bragging rights at extended family dinners in San Jose and Seoul. So, every little bit helps. 

Is this some unique scandal, or is it only news because the college got caught? Does USN&WR impose rigorous audits upon data submitted to them by colleges? I doubt it. 

The president of Reed, that anti-affirmative action hippie college in Portland that is becoming a rare outpost of the old, weird America, has pointed out that lots of colleges game the USN&WR system by issuing anti-SAT rhetoric, denouncing the SAT as biased, so therefore they're going to allow students to apply without submitting SATs. This lets them let in athletes, quota kids, rich kids, and the like without it having any effect on the college's SAT scores in USN&WR. (The magazine routinely downgrades Reed in its rankings.)

By the way, I wrote an article about Pamela B. Gann and Claremont McKenna for The American Conservative in 2004: Hate Hoax.

The IQ Ameliorist School

In Taki's Magazine, I write about a major new paper by leading lights in the left-of-center Ameliorist school of IQ experts, including Robert Nisbett, James Flynn, and Eric Turkheimer:
Even more courageously, the seven Ameliorists note that IQ tests are valuable because they quantify that most career-threatening of hot buttons in American intellectual life—racial differences in intelligence—which they find both sizable and socially significant:
IQ is also important because some group differences are large and predictive of performance in many domains. Much evidence indicates that it would be dif´Čücult to overcome racial disadvantage if IQ differences could not be ameliorated.

Read the whole thing there.

College sports recruiting

Many of us like to believe the recruiting of football and basketball players by colleges is simply a covert auction. But the truth seems to be, in general, rather more sinister: You have a whole lot of adults -- some coaches, some slightly pimpish substitute father figures from the 'hood -- trying to induce feelings of undying loyalty to themselves in teenage boys. 

From an L.A. Times article on some of the new assistant football coaches hired by UCLA in recent weeks to divert high school recruits loyal to them to UCLA. For example, UCLA hired Adrian Klemm away from SMU, and, it is widely hinted, two high schoolers he had talked into going to SMU have now switched to going to UCLA:
Klemm announced it with the tweet: "8 clap!!!!! My boy meat doin' work!"

I don't know what that means and I don't really want to know.

On second thought, I suspect this assistant coach meant to refer to a top ranked defensive tackle by the nickname "Meat," as in, "My boy, Meat, doin' work!" But is it too much to ask assistant coaches in these post-Sandusky days to properly punctuate their tweets so they don't come out referring to "boy meat"?
Rick Kimbrel, publisher of Bruinblitz.com, said staff changes can lead to awkward situations. 
"You're in a living room one night expounding how great it is at Cal," Kimbrel said, "and you're calling the kid the next day saying you're going to Washington and, 'I think you should go there too.'" 
Klemm confirmed that is exactly what happens. 
"You have been talking to kids for another school and now you're recruiting for UCLA," he said. "You just have to make it known why you came here. It's the same reason why you want them to come here."

Well, no, the reason you, the coach, are changing schools is because the new college is paying you more money. 

Which are first choice colleges and which are safety schools?

USN&WR lists colleges by yield ratings (number of accepted applicants who show up in the fall divided by number of applicants accepted the previous spring). Not surprisingly, Harvard is #1, but what's #2, well ahead of #3 Stanford? Hint: A man much in the news started out at #3, graduated from #2, then earned two degrees from #1.

Many of the other highest yield colleges are red state public colleges like the #5 University of Alaska, Fairbanks (where Edward, the immortal vampire in Twilight, claims to be headed once he graduates from high school, presumably either because it's far from everybody they know, or because it's dark half the year so he won't sparkle -- I didn't really get into Twilight enough to figure that out.)

A lot of famous colleges, like Duke, Rice, Cal Tech, and Northwestern, are treated by many applicants as safety schools, giving them lower yields than much less prestigious schools.

This is tied into Charles Murray's view of changes in American culture. It used to be that almost all colleges were regional. Stanford was for smart, affluent kids from California. Mitt Romney attending Stanford for a year was part of a fairly new push by Stanford to get elite kids from "back East" (as we Californians like to vaguely handwave about everyplace from Denver to Maine).

A regional college system is more conducive to marrying your high school sweetheart. For example, when young Mitt was a freshman at Stanford in 1964, he frequently flew home on weekends to see a beautiful high school girl, Ann, to whom he's still married.

Something like this was an underlying theme of George Lucas's 1973 movie American Graffiti: In 1962, Richard Dreyfuss isn't as sure as his best friend Ron Howard is that he wants to leave podunky Modesto, CA the next morning for a famous college back east. (By the way, I haven't seen American Graffiti since I was about 16, and we've all undergone multiple revisions in our views of Lucas since then. Way back then, it struck me as a tremendous movie, but I was 16, so what do I know? Does it hold up?)

Young engineers and the allure of gravity, cont.

A reader points out that MIT students traditionally celebrate "Drop Day" -- the last day for dropping classes in the Spring semester -- by pushing a piano off a six story building.

Charles Murray's "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010"

My review of Charles Murray's new book on the evolution of the class system over the last half century appears in the February issue of The American Conservative, available to subscribers online now.

By the way, I've read various discussions over the last few days of Murray's new questionnaire for determining what your class is on a 0-100 scale and how insulated you are from the rest of America, but most of the talk is based on an extremely crude version of the chapter in Murray's book that somebody posted online with a lot of pictures. Don't bother with that. 

Murray himself posted a rough draft of his quiz online about a year ago. The final version in the book is much better, reflecting the feedback he got from that early version. I discuss it in a little detail in my review, but I just wanted to point out here that you shouldn't trust the dopey caricature that somebody put online.

On a different subject, one of the cool things that Murray does to make all his data come alive is to describe what daily life was like in America on the day before everything started to change: November 21, 1963. For example, the most popular car in America, the Chevy Impala, cost a little over $26,000 in today's money, which is probably about or little more than what people pay for family sedans these days. But the average asking price of the homes in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the lovely suburb just over the border from the northwest side of the District of Columbia, was only $262,000. You can't get a typical house in Chevy Chase for only ten times the cost of a family sedan these days. 

As Murray's subtitle suggests, he uses the 1960 Census as his anchor point for many of his graphs. But, as his chapter on 11/21/1963 demonstrates, the whole Kennedy era makes a good baseline, not radically different from the preceding decade.

But that raises a question that Murray doesn't particularly try to answer that I've been thinking about again. I believe I may have a fairly unusual answer to the old question: Why, in the popular imagination, did The Sixties not start until JFK's assassination? Why does 11/22/1963 show up around a lot of inflection points in a lot of trends? Why do the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras seem more of one piece than do the Kennedy and Johnson eras? 

I'll probably write up my idea of what exactly was it about the Kennedy assassination that put an end to one era and started another later, but I'd like to hear your suggestions first. Comment away!