April 7, 2012

Susan Sontag's fame: Why?

The normally reliable Arts & Letters Daily links to a 4,800 word review by Adam Kirsch in The Tablet of the second volume of the late Susan Sontag's diaries. Kirsch is quite emotionally overwhelmed by Ms. Sontag's life, but has a difficult time explaining why any man would care. Perhaps his editors just didn't give him enough space.

That brings up the question: Why was Susan Sontag so famous in the 1960s, other than for saying "the white race is the cancer of human history"? As far as I can tell, it was because Sontag was smart, ambitious, egomaniacal, humorless, pedantic, snobbish, Jewish, sexy, and lesbian. 

I think the sexy lesbian part might have been central. There are lots of lesbians and lots of sexy ladies, but not too many sexy lesbians. (Sorry to break the news, but you have been lied to by your porn downloads.) Sontag's huge mane of hair had to rank at the 99th percentile among lesbians' hair. She was a giant tease to other lesbian intellectuals, who were all enthralled by her. Lesbian lit-crit Terry Castle's hilarious 2005 memoir (which is well worth reading for fun) of Sontag says:
I think she was fully conscious of – and took great pride and pleasure in – the erotic spell she exerted over other women. I would be curious to know how men found her in this regard; the few times I saw her with men around, they seemed to relate to her as a kind of intellectually supercharged eunuch. The famed ‘Natalie Wood’ looks of her early years notwithstanding, she seemed uninterested in being an object of heterosexual desire, and males responded accordingly. It was not the same with women – and least of all with her lesbian fans. Among the susceptible, she never lost her sexual majesty. She was quite fabulously butch – perhaps the Butchest One of All. She knew it and basked in it, like a big lady she-cat in the sun.

It's kind of like Paul Johnson's unkind revelation (p. 253) of what Picasso's special secret sauce was that made him so popular with gay critics, gay promoters, and gay collectors. Picasso was muy macho, but in the Mediterranean mode, and was not above rewarding a good review personally. A commenter supplies the quotation from Johnson:
His appeal to homosexuals, especially those who enjoyed the passive role, was even stronger; he seemed a small, fierce, thrusting tiger of virility. Picasso himself was overwhelmingly heterosexual by inclination. But in the culture from which he sprang there was no disgrace to his manhood in taking the active role to satisfy a needy “queen,” to use his expression.

Thanks, Paul, that really made my day. But it does explain a certain amount about the history of art in the 20th Century.

Unfortunately, Sontag didn't have much to say of enduring interest, as Mr. Kirsch's many thousands of words of explication inadvertently demonstrate.

Mitt & Bibi: An Unpromising Accident of Biography

Trying to guess what Mitt Romney really thinks about anything can be a full time operation, especially when it comes to foreign policy, because of Mitt's rather insular career. 

I had hoped that the personal key to Mitt's foreign policy was how his father George Romney had scuttled his run for the 1968 GOP nomination by saying that he had supported the Vietnam War after his 1965 visit to that country because he'd been "brainwashed" by the brass and diplomats. Mitt's sister says that from this incident, Mitt learned never to say anything too clearly. I had hoped that he had also learned from his beloved father to be skeptical about the conventional wisdom. 

An NYT article today reveals that there might be another personal key to Mitt's foreign policy: 
But in 1976, the lives of Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu intersected, briefly but indelibly, in the 16th-floor offices of the Boston Consulting Group, where both had been recruited as corporate advisers. At the most formative time of their careers, they sized each other up during the firm’s weekly brainstorming sessions, absorbing the same profoundly analytical view of the world. 
That shared experience decades ago led to a warm friendship, little known to outsiders, that is now rich with political intrigue. Mr. Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, is making the case for military action against Iran as Mr. Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, is attacking the Obama administration for not supporting Mr. Netanyahu more robustly. 
The relationship between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Romney — nurtured over meals in Boston, New York and Jerusalem, strengthened by a network of mutual friends and heightened by their conservative ideologies — has resulted in an unusually frank exchange of advice and insights on topics like politics, economics and the Middle East.

Uh, oh. 

I'm a big admirer of Bibi. The main problem I see with Bibi is that he happens to play for a different team. And he already has no shortage of boosters and rooters on our team pushing him and his team forward at our team's expense. We don't really need Bibi, with all of his other advantages, having a special backdoor friendship with the President of the United States in which he can exert his energetic personal magnetism over Mitt's Mormon blandness.

It's like if somebody was interviewing to be the next coach of the Indianapolis Colts and he mentioned that he frequently had long, heartfelt talks with Bill Belichik of the New England Patriots. I don't know, maybe that would work out well ...

Rich Lowry fires John Derbyshire

Lowry's statement in National Review.

Does anybody read National Review anymore? After my freshman year in high school, the school librarian called me in and said, "We have to throw out old magazines to make room, so, would you like the 1969-1971 issues of National Review?" I ecstatically read all of them in the summer of '73. 

But that was a very long time ago. About a month ago, I realized that I had stopped visiting National Review's website in recent years. Not a conscious decision, just that as I scanned down all my links, I never felt an urge to click on the NR link. The last month or so I made a conscious effort to visit it a few times. But, the content proved forgettable.

The three editors of National Review have been William F. Buckley, John O'Sullivan, and Rich Lowry. That progression may explain much.

Talking about The Talk

The Los Angeles Times recently ran one of the many articles about The Talk that black parents in our racist society have to give their black sons to keep them from being gunned down by white racist cops:
When Martin A. Gordon talks to his 19-year-old son about the history of race relations in America, he invokes the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King Jr.and the watershed moments of the civil rights era. It's a story of hard-won rights that fills the '60s-era activist with pride. 
Then the conversation turns urgently personal, survival its theme: On the wrong street, at the wrong time of day, he tells his son, pride might be his undoing. "I know my son can be a moment away from being killed if he acts the wrong way, if he's arrogant," Gordon said. "He started to learn about this as a child." ... 
The incident, which remains under investigation, followed the controversial shooting death of an unarmed black teen in Florida by a neighborhood watch leader. For many black parents, the shootings have given fresh relevance to a painful generations-old conversation. "The Talk," some call it.
"Certain things are a reality for him — he needed to understand that early on," Jim Collins, a longtime Pasadena resident, recalled of his conversation with his son. "The Talk is because they have to know what to do and not do." 
Parents say some version of the conversation, ubiquitous in African American life, is necessary regardless of how high they climb on the socioeconomic ladder. It is about learning to say "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" when a policeman pulls you over, no matter how unjustified the stop seems. It is about keeping your hands on the steering wheel and giving officers no cause for panic. It is about swallowing your anger and pride and coming home alive. ...
Walker said that when his grandson, now 20, was learning to drive a few years ago, he started hammering home certain realities about dealing with police. 
"I tell him one of the worst things to do is be belligerent with police," Walker said. "Whether you're right or not."

My sons aren't black, but I have given them the exactly same Talk about cops, although mine was probably less polite toward cops. I made ensure to emphasize that "Cops have guns, with which, if you piss them off or make them feel uneasy, they might kill you. The kind of people who become cops have personalities where they want to dominate others around them. (If they just wanted to save people, they could have become firemen.) So, let them. Remember, cops have guns."

When a federal agent and a deputy in plain clothes "debriefing" after serving a drug bust behind a fashionable watering hole in my neighborhood gunned down an 18-year-old violist, I couldn't find out the names of the two shooters for many months after the killing. The thick blue line had formed up pretty solid. As far as I can tell, this shooting, which is still being litigated (so far as I know) was about as ambiguous as the Trayvon Martin shooting. But the victim in my local shooting was white, so, basically, nobody cared other than friends and family in the other end of the San Fernando Valley and few locals from my end.  Media coverage was grudging and never made local TV much less the national news. 

Similarly, nobody considers it a national disgrace and tragedy, a violation of everything that Martin and Malcolm died for, that I felt the need to give The Talk to my sons. Of course, in a sane world, that would raise the question of whether our culture's obsession with black victimization doesn't, on the whole, contribute to more knuckleheaded behavior on the part of young blacks. There are a whole bunch of people in modern America, such as Josh Barro, who benefit in terms of status from punishing other people for noticing the bad behavior of young black males. With all the influential people who benefit from bad black behavior and thus encourage it and/or punish those who discourage, then, not surprisingly, we get a lot of bad black behavior. 

Time to erect a Victims of Crime Memorial on the National Mall

Have you ever visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington? It's quite moving how people who lost a loved one in that war have a place -- a large, serious place set aside by the government -- to bring flowers or otherwise make a tribute in memory of their loss. 

Far more people have lost loved ones to crime over the decades, and they deserve a serious memorial on the National Mall to commemorate their tragedies. We also have a Victims of Communism Memorial, a Holocaust Museum, and and increasing number of ethnic victim remembrance sites under the names of museums. It's time for a tasteful, somber memorial to all the people whose losses disappear down the memory hole because their loved ones were random citizens brutalized by criminals. 

April 6, 2012

Josh Barro Points 'n' Sputters at John Derbyshire

Somebody named Josh Barro declaims in Forbes after reading the Derb's Taki latest column, "The Talk: Nonblack Version:"
Why National Review Must Fire John Derbyshire
by Josh Barro 
… In the wake of the Trayvon Martin’s shooting, many black parents have discussed the advice they give to their male children about not getting themselves shot in a misunderstanding with a white authority figure. Derbyshire’s talk, on the other hand, is about how to avoid being harmed by a black person. He gives such advice as “If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date,” and “If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.” 
Derbyshire also recommends befriending some “intelligent and well-socialized blacks” (IWSBs, for short) so that you can deflect charges of racism by noting that some of your best friends are black. Alas, he adds “the demand is greater than the supply, so IWSBs are something of a luxury good, like antique furniture or corporate jets: boasted of by upper-class whites and wealthy organizations, coveted by the less prosperous.”

And that's about it for Barro's analysis. Just point 'n' sputter.

Somebody at The Atlantic points 'n' sputters at a whole collection of Derb quotes.

I like where Derbyshire goes on to say: 
To be an IWSB in present-day US society is a height of felicity rarely before attained by any group of human beings in history.

Do follow Derb's "height of felicity" link. 

April 5, 2012

More Shaima Non-Shockers

ABC News, teaming with the San Diego Union-Tribune, has doing a good job on the latest Hate Hoax, this one the Million Hijab conjob over how the brutal beating murder of an Iraqi immigrant housewife, Shaima Alawadi, was the work of an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim hate killer.
[Daughter] Fatima was also distraught over her pending arranged marriage to a cousin, according to the documents. 
The investigation into Alawadi's death revealed that a neighbor reported seeing a dark-skinned teenager or 20-something man running away from Alawadi's house around the time of her death, carrying a donut-shaped cardboard box. Police searched the home of the man Fatima was found having sex with months earlier, and took items from his home as part of the investigation, according to the U-T San Diego newspaper. 
Alawadi was also planning to divorce her husband, according to a search warrant in the case. Divorce papers were found in Alawadi's car, and a relative told police Alawadi was planning to divorce husband Kassim Alhimidi and move to join her mother and siblings in Texas.

Back before the Iraq War, I explained that one reason America wasn't going to be able to turn Iraq into Switzerland was the off-the-charts level of cousin marriage in Iraq. Moreover, Muslim immigrants in Europe frequently force their daughters into arranged marriage with cousins back in the Old Country as a mean of immigration fraud. 

So, let's say, just for the sake of brain exercise, that daughter Fatima was told that if she didn't marry her cousin, there just might be an honor killing. Would having her boyfriend kill her mom qualify as pre-emptive self-defense? The defense could have Ahmad Chalabi and Dick Cheney explain the concept of pre-emptive war to the jury.

Oops, Again ...

Remember how last week the New York Times was trying to whip up a new hate crime frenzy with the headline "Iraqi Immigrants in California Town Fear a Hate Crime in a Woman’s Killing?" This was right after the NYT's analysis of how the anti-Semitic murders in Toulouse, France were due to the French being allowed to debate immigration policy.

Well, the dopier sorts of Americans have been ginning up a A Million Hoodies and Hijabs protest to tie together the whole Trayvon / Shaima meme. And, predictably, the fire-breathers in the Islamic World have taken this as another reason to hate Americans. 

Yet, the whole story, with the xenophobic racists leaving a note by the dead body of an Iraqi housewife in El Cajon, sounded implausible from the git-go, and the police were already signaling that the victim probably knew her killer. 

Well, Kristina Davis of the San Diego Union-Tribune has been doing some work and today she reported:
Records Hint Iraqi Woman's Death Not a Hate Crime 
During a search of the home and the couple’s vehicles in the hours after the attack, police found court paperwork to file for divorce in Alawadi’s Ford Explorer. The packet was not filled out, but a form requesting a court fee waiver was filled out in handwriting with Alawadi’s name, address and phone number.

That's hardly conclusive, but it sounds more plausible than the NYT's SPLCized version of the story.

There are patterns that people can notice if they let themselves. And once you let yourself notice the pattern, it's easier to notice more. For example, an awful lot of the hate crimes that make the news turn out to be hoaxes. That doesn't mean there are no such things as hate crimes, just that hate crimes like, say, Matthew Yglesias getting stomped for Walking While White is too boring and depressing to be news. The stuff that becomes big news is, typically, a noose is found in the Diversity Nook at some hyper-liberal college.

One of these days, I'm going to have to write up something on What We Can Learn from Claude Shannon about What Makes the Newspaper.

And there was some other drama in Alawdi family not long ago:
… On Nov. 3, police found [daughter] Fatima with a 21-year-old man after responding to a report of two people possibly having sex in a car, the documents state. Officers called her mother, who came to the location and picked up the girl. As they were driving away, Fatima said, “I love you, mom,” before jumping out of the vehicle onto Mollison Avenue at 35 mph. 
She was taken to a hospital with several injuries, including a possible broken arm. She refused to talk to police at the hospital but reportedly told paramedics and hospital staff that she was being forced to marry her cousin and didn’t want to.

Hey, well, what do you know, cousin marriage ... It's almost as if reality contains partly predictable repeating patterns.

April 4, 2012

"Vial Bodies"

Vanity Fair finally has an article on the use of Human Growth Hormone in Hollywood. It's about time. But not a lot of names in the article: Sylvester Stallone (of course, who got caught in Australia), Nick Nolte, and Oliver Stone, plus some hip-hoppers. Access journalism rules. What about Taylor Lautner, the child actor who added 30 pounds of muscle to stay in the Twilight series? That's sick. There's something seriously wrong now with how the guy's head looks, and he just turned 20.

Somebody ought to write the History of Hollywood via the Drug of the Decade. Critics always right about how it's such a tragedy that their favorite 1970s directors burnt out while Steven Spielberg didn't. Well, Spielberg wasn't, I presume, out of his mind on cocaine all the time. The action films of the 1980s, from about Rocky III onward, were clearly driven by the mainstreaming of steroids, and it soon affected dramatic actors, as well, such as, I would assume, Sean Penn, who spent a month in jail after whaling on a paparazzi.

PISA scores by region in Russia and Italy

In "The Geography of Russian Talent," Da Russophile has 2009 PISA school achievement scores for Russia's many republics. (Small sample sizes are of concern, of course.) Green is good, red is bad, gray is unknown. Some of his findings.
(2) Moscow pupils performed very well [546], at the level of the highest scoring OECD countries like Finland, Taiwan, and Korea. This is especially impressive considering the significant numbers of immigrants in that city from the North Caucasus and Central Asia, who come from poorly-scoring countries and rarely have good Russian. 
(3) St.-Petersburg and Tyumen oblast [western Siberia] performed above the OECD average, while a few other regions performed at or only slightly below the OECD average. 
(4) Among ethnic Russian republics, Siberian regions performed well, while the Urals and southern regions performed badly.  
(5) Performance in ethnic minority republics differs dramatically. Many of the Turkic and Finno-Ugric regions, such as Tatarstan, Komi, Chuvashia, and Karelia did well; however, Mari El is a big exception. The Buddhist peoples of Asia, such as Chita oblast (now merged into Zabaykalsky Krai) and the Sakha Republic, performed relatively poorly, as did the Muslim North Caucasus region of Dagestan. Extrapolating from Dagestan, Chechnya would probably score around 400, i.e. like Brazil. 
Bear these figures in mind when considering long-term investments into Russia alongside with their business climate, corruption levels, etc.

Western Russia doesn't do that well, and neither do the ex-Soviet Republics to the west of contemporary Russia. I wonder what the dysgenic effects of Leninism, Stalinism and Hitlerism were, especially on Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and western Russia? Many of the wealthy and middle class fled the Bolsheviks, then Stalin starved the kulaks, then murdered or imprisoned many people of above average talents, then the SS came through and shot the local leaders loyal to Stalin.

Also, here is a graph of Italian provinces with PISA scores on the horizontal axis and per capita GDP on the vertical axis. 
The positive outlier above the line is Rome, the capital. The other positive outlier at the top of the chart is South Tyrol, which is a heavily German speaking area that Italy got carved out of Austria at the end of the Great War. The negative outlier is Apulia, in the southeastern heel of Italy, home to Brindisi and Lecce. I spent a day in those beat-up looking towns in 1980 and I recall a vague impression of the locals as seeming clever but anti-social, as cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face types.

Decline of the Black Caddie

To get ready for the 2012 Masters, the New York Times has an article on why there are so few black caddies anymore: "Treasure of Golf’s Sad Past, Black Caddies Vanish in Era of Riches."

I wrote basically the same article nine years ago to get ready for the 2003 Masters: "Decline of the Black Caddie." (And here's my 2003 companion piece: "Decline of the Black Golf Pro.")

If you are interested in the topic, I'd invite you to compare and contrast the two articles on black caddies to see which one is more coherent and draws out more implications from the topic. Think of it as a test of worldviews: the conventional one of the New York Times versus mine. Whose perspective makes for more interesting thinking?

I'd probably sum up my approach as "empathy without sentimentality." By nature, I'm highly sentimental, so I've had to train myself to avoid thinking that way. What I'm good at is putting myself in other people's shoes, seeing the incentive structures they face, and thus how they feel. 

I don't reason well from the abstract to the particular. But I have a good memory, so I can usually think of examples to get started in noticing larger patterns. And because I like to notice patterns, and don't believe noticing patterns is evil, I'm better at remembering examples because they either support a thesis or contradict it. If an example contradicts my thesis, then it either is what I like to call an "exception that supports the tendency" (e.g., that 6'8" Brittney Griner is famous for being a woman basketball player who dunks suggests that women basketball players seldom dunk), it's just an anomaly, or, most profitably, it suggests that the thesis needs work and that there might well be a better thesis out there somewhere that accounts both for the bulk of the examples and the exceptions.

A new angle on the Trayvon story

My new column in Taki's Magazine begins:
The first time I saw the name “Trayvon Martin” was on March 16, while reading an arguable but intelligent op-ed in the New York Times entitled As Black As We Wish to Be by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a young memoirist who authored Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture.  
Out of the corner of my eye while reading Williams’ essay, I saw a link entitled "Charles M. Blow: Trayvon Martin." My instantaneous thought was, "Oh, good, Trayvon sounds like a black name. This must be about another intelligent African-American writing or doing something interesting."  
But, my brain answered back: “Nope, it's about a Trayvon, not a Thomas Chatterton. It's not on the sports page, so it’s going to be messed up and miserable. And because it’s in the Times, not the Post, Trayvon’s going to be the victim, not the victimizer.”  
Was that stereotyping? 

Read the whole thing there.

By the way, another group addicted to, uh, creative first names is the Mormons, who, historically, have had a penchant for strange, even sci-fi sounding names like D'Loaf and ElVoid.

I bet Mitt Romney would be running a couple of points better in the primaries if he were named Mike Romney. His odd first name is a constant subliminal reminder that he comes from a group somewhat separated from the main currents in American life.

April 3, 2012

Clintons' Chappaqua segregating minorities

There's nothing like thinking about local real estate to turn the most liberal into race realists:
Despite 2009 Deal, Affordable Housing Roils Westchester 
WHITE PLAINS — When Westchester County agreed to a far-reaching affordable housing agreement in 2009, federal officials heralded a new era for desegregation in communities around the country. 
“This is consistent with the president’s desire to see a fully integrated society,” said Ron Sims, then the deputy secretary with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Until now, we tended to lay dormant. This is historic, because we are going to hold people’s feet to the fire.” 
But rather than signaling a transformative moment, the settlement has led to an often rancorous tug of war, complicated by politics and real estate prices in one of the nation’s wealthiest areas, where the residents include notables like Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The result is raising questions about Westchester’s commitment to complying with the agreement and just what a “fully integrated society” might mean, cost and look like in a largely developed suburban county. ...  
Westchester is ahead of schedule in building the 750 affordable residences required by the settlement, but there are complaints that rather than representing true economic and racial integration, many of the housing units are far from the heart of affluent white communities. Westchester and HUD remain at a testy impasse over the county’s responsibility to ensure that its towns and villages end exclusionary zoning practices.

The deal was that Westchester County took $52 million in federal funds for affordable housing, spent them in low rent parts of the county, and now the feds want to use that to force the high rent municipalities within the County to diversify.
After a federal judge ruled that the county had “utterly failed” to meet its obligations, it agreed to the settlement. The deal required the county to spend $51.6 million to build 750 units of affordable housing in 31 overwhelmingly white communities within seven years, and to market those units to nonwhites aggressively. ... The settlement also required the county to “use all available means as appropriate” to promote nondiscriminatory housing, including pushing towns and villages to alter zoning rules that discouraged the construction of apartments. Pound Ridge, for example, covers 23.5 square miles, but no land is zoned for multifamily use.

... The monitor and HUD had argued that Mr. Astorino violated the settlement when he vetoed the bill, which would have prohibited landlords from discriminating against tenants who receive housing subsidies. ... 
Craig Gurian, executive director of the group that sued the county, said much of the housing that had been approved or proposed was adjacent to low-income communities in neighboring towns or otherwise isolated from the rest of the wealthier community. 
The proposal for Chappaqua, home of the Clintons, calls for what would be the tallest building in the town, dropped into a no-man’s land between railroad tracks, a highway and a bridge. New housing completed in Rye hugs the border of largely minority Port Chester, across two busy highways from the rest of Rye. Forty-six units scheduled for Larchmont sit in a virtually unpopulated block behind a strip mall, squeezed in against railroad tracks and Interstate 95.

Not surprisingly, New York Times readers have a lot to say on this article. One liberal reader even has started to get a clue about the high-low squeeze play against the middle in the name of diversity:

I live in Chappaqua, and will take bets that the "tallest building in town" will never get built. First, the NYT article neglects to mention that the railroad tracks run through the center of town. Residents of the proposed building would not be isolated from others in Chappaqua, since people live on both sides of the bridge that runs over the tracks. The building, however, would be a hideous eyesore that would blight what is in reality a small hamlet, not a "town." "Town" is three blocks long and one block wide. To build the proposed development would be like erecting a Levittown in Greenwich Village. 
Nor is Chappaqua opposed to racial diversity; on the contrary, this is a town of Democrats, and people welcome diversity. The problem is that the HUD settlement -- and I never thought I'd side with a Republican -- has brought every avaricious developer within 100 miles running into Westchester, shouting "racist" at anyone who opposes his or her aesthetically insensitive, environmentally unsafe, shoddy development plan. The Chappaqua proposal purports to comply with federal and state environmental regulations but, in a letter to our local online newsletter, newcastlenow.org, several local architects and lawyers pointed out numerous ways in which it does not. 
The HUD deal is a clumsy way of achieving social equality that has not promoted diversity, but rather left residents helpless in the face of greedy developers. It should be thrown out.

And here's a useful suggestion ...
Reston, VA 
Or better yet, chop a couple of acres off the Clinton's estate in Chappaqua and put either 24 townhouses or an eight-story apartment on that site for affordable housing. With the Secret Service already there, there's even no need to burden Chappaqua with having to fund extra police. 
And it's all legal, thanks to the 2005 Supreme Court ruling in Kelo vs. City of New London that the government can seize private property when it benefits the public. 
A win-win for everyone -- problem solved!

Metal bands by country

Here's a map of rock bands in the metal genre per capita:
I'm too old to know anything about what's going on now, but I can recall when Led Zeppelin's Icelandic-flavored "Immigrant Song" about the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic was on the Top 40 charts in 1970:
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.
The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!

And I recall as an eleven-year-old, thinking that, boy, they were on to something by combining heavy metal with Viking imagery. Apparently, a lot of lads in the North countries felt that fit even more strongly.

This sounds obvious today, but in 1970, heavy metal was all about riffing off Mississippi Delta Blues, so that its fate would end up at the polar opposite culture was quite startling.

Is the new Julia Roberts film a celebration of the assassination of Indira Gandhi?

Economist / blogger Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution has long admired my reviews of movies like Inglourious Basterds and District 9 that point out the overlooked intentions of the director. Now, he's come up with an iSteveian interpretation of his own of the new fairy tale movie Mirror Mirror, Tarsem Singh's big budget retelling of Snow White with Julia Roberts as the Wicked Stepmother Queen. 

Tyler thinks that the Sikh director has made up Julia to look like his people's historic enemy, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whom her Sikh bodyguards assassinated in 1984 following her violent crackdown on Sikh separatists holed up in the Golden Temple in the tank in Amritsar. 

I haven't seen the movie, but the idea that a Sikh director would make an allegory about Indira Gandhi as the Evil Queen seems plausible to me. They've made her up to look rather Kashmiri and the castle looks a lot like the Golden Temple, and the dance number is Bollywood.

If you've seen it and know something about Sikhs, what do you think?

April 2, 2012

Best. Season. Ever.

Audacious Epigone has calculated a good answer to an old question: When was The Simpsons at its best? He averages by season the rankings of individual episodes on IMDB.com, which is a pretty reasonable approach. IMDB ratings are biased toward the tastes of youngish male fanboys ("Worst. Episode. Ever."), but who better to evaluate The Simpsons? And they aren't rating seasons as a whole, just individual episodes, so any preconceptions the raters may have about which was the best season enter into the process less. Sample sizes for individual episode ratings are typically in the 500 to 900 range, which aggregates to over 10,000 per season.

The curve for the first eleven seasons is pretty elegant. The average episode's rating goes up each year from season one to six (with seasons five and seven almost as great), then declines every year through season eleven. The peak years were 5-7 and the big dropoff was in 9-11.

That would fit with my subjective impressions: the show just kept getting better for a number of years, then reached a remarkable peak of consistent excellence in the mid to later 1990s. 

The curve of the first half of the graph is very similar to a professional athlete's career, even though The Simpsons were largely a collective enterprise with a fair amount of turnover among writers.

Off the top of my head, the athlete with the most similar-looking career productivity graph might be Chicago Cub Ernie Banks, who started out as a slugging shortstop, a rare and valuable combination, then blew out his knee and had to switch to first base, where his offensive productivity no longer made him exceptional. But his personality made him popular in Chicago,  and playing in Wrigley Field inflated his statistics, so he had a long career even after his prime.

Soak the Senile

Steve Lopez in the L.A. Times has a column on one of the craziest but least talked-about aspects of health care finance: arbitrarily high list price billing.
Gary Larson has a $5,000 deductible insurance plan, but has found that his medical bills are cheaper if he claims he's uninsured and pays cash. Using that strategy, an MRI scan of his shoulder cost him $350. His brother-in-law went to a nearby clinic for an MRI scan of his shoulder, was billed $13,000, and had to come up with $2,500. 
Kaiser member Robert Merrilees had a colonoscopy at an affiliated surgery center, which charged $7,500. His co-pay was $15, Kaiser picked up $470, the rest of the bill "just went away." Merrillees was left scratching his head over the crazy math in medical billing.

My family got a bill from a hospital once for $34,000. So, we sent it to the insurance company, and they paid $2,000 and we paid $200 and that was the end of it. But in the meantime, the bill itself set off heart palpitations, feelings of numbness, and other symptoms.

Maybe the hospital's strategy was that one out of hundred patients will be senile enough to pay the original bill in full. 

I must say that I haven't kept up with all the health care debates over the years, but, if memory serves, this subject didn't seem to come up much. I have no idea if Obamacare will even try to fix this or not. Most things that interest me seem orthogonal to what interests everybody else.

Creativity Conundrum

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution had a good post at Marginal Review last week on the conundrums of creativity:
Is Creativity more like IQ or Expertise? 
IQ, whatever its flaws, appears to be a general factor, that is, if you do well on one kind of IQ test you will tend to do well on another, quite different, kind of IQ test. IQ also correlates well with many and varied real world outcomes. But what about creativity? Is creativity general like IQ? Or is creativity more like expertise; a person can be an expert in one field, for example, but not in another. 
In a short piece in The Creativity Post, cognitive Psychologist Rober Baer argues that creativity is domain-specific: 
Efforts to assess creativity have been plagued by supposedly domain-general divergent-thinking tests like the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, although even Torrance knew they were measuring domain-specific skills. (He create two different versions of the test, one that used verbal tasks and another that used visual tasks. He found that scores on the two tests were unrelated —they had a correlation of just .06—so they could not be measuring a single skill or set of skills. They were—and still are—measuring two entirely different things.)

That's interesting that the Torrance Tests have such a low g factor for creative thinking. 

None of this is to say that there isn't such a thing as creativity or that it can't be measured, but that it's hard. And that means that when people say that IQ is overrated, that creativity is what counts, they are both right in one sense, but it's not as useful a sense as they think it is. It's not that hard to make predictions based on IQ, but it's harder to make predictions based on creativity. 

With creativity, for instance, a lot of things keep happening until they stop. The residents of Florence, for example, were the most creative people on Earth, until, after a while, they weren't. This lack of predictive power makes creativity fascinating but frustrating.

Steve Jobs to be played by Ashton Kutcher

The AP reports:
Kutcher's publicist confirmed Tuesday that the independent film "Jobs" will begin production in May while he's on hiatus from the CBS sitcom "Two and a Half Men."

As I said in my VDARE review of Walter Isaacson's bestselling biography, because Kutcher (That 70s Show) looks the most like Steve Jobs of any actor, hopefully that will impel filmmakers to treat Jobs' life more as comedy than as mawkish tragedy.

NCAA Final: The New Paul Mokeski

One might think that shotblocking in basketball would be a skill that correlates well with other skills like scoring and rebounding. And for some all-around talents like Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, it does. But much of the time, it mostly just correlates with height, if anything. It seems like more of a knack than a skill. As a playground player, for example, I couldn't rebound, couldn't jump, and couldn't play offense with my back to the basket, but I could block shots. 

Kansas, the underdog in tonight's NCAA final game against Kentucky, has another late-blooming tall white guy in the tradition of Paul Mokeski, Jeff Whithey, who has average 5.4 blocked shots in the five tournament games so far.

Your genes didn't evolve to kill you

Gina Kolata writes in the NYT:
Study Says DNA's Power to Predict Illness Is Limited 
“The punch line is that this sort of personalized medicine will not in any way be the most important determinant of patient care,” said Dr. Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins, who, with his colleagues and his son Joshua, analyzed the power of sequencing all of a person’s DNA to determine an individual’s risk of disease. The study, published online Monday in the journal Science Translational Medicine, involved data from 53,666 identical twins in registries from the United States, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway. The registries included data on 24 diseases, telling how often one twin, both or neither got a disease. 
Since identical twins share all of their genes, the investigators could ask to what extent genes predict an increased chance of getting a disease. Using a mathematical model, they reached an answer: not much. Most people will be at average risk for most of the 24 diseases.

Check the date

From National Public Radio:
N.Y. Preschool Starts DNA Testing For Admission 
For years, New York parents have been applying to preschools even before their youngsters are born. That's not new, but the approach one prestigious pre-school on the Upper West Side is. 
At the Porsafillo Preschool Academy, all applicants must now submit a DNA analysis of their children. 
The preschool is housed in a modern glass and steel building designed by IM Pei. It's situated in a leafy corner of the Upper West Side. On a recent afternoon, Headmaster Rebecca Unsinn showed off "Porsafillo Pre," as it's called. 
"Over here, we have computer labs, C++ learning, which of course, as I'm sure you know, is a language of computers," she says. Wait, computer language? These preschoolers are learning C++? 
"Oh, absolutely they are," Unsinn says. "And they're very good at it." 
That's not the only language they're learning; all the children are also enrolled in a Mandarin Chinese immersion program. 
More than 12,000 applications pour into Unsinn's office each fall. That's 12,000 hopefuls for just 32 spots a year. It makes Porsafillo Pre the most competitive preschool in the United States. 
So in a bid to weed out the kids who have no chance, the school decided to require a DNA test for all applicants. Before she joined the school in 2009, Unsinn was a child neurologist. She was hired specifically to implement this new policy. 
Her team is looking for genetic markers that indicate future excellence — things like intelligence, confidence and other leadership traits. ... 
Some parents are already planning to take legal action against the school in the event their children are passed over for admission. A recent op-ed in the New York Times called the practice "ghoulish" and "unethical." Headmaster Unsinn dismisses the criticism. 
"This is not unethical at all. If anything, it's extremely ethical. This is now no longer a subjective decision," she says. "This is a clinical test that can show us how a child will perform throughout its life." 
The Porsafillo Academy will begin to accept applications under their new DNA policy today, April 1.

April 1, 2012

Whatever happens, it's the white man's fault

From the NYT, a classic statement of how only white people possess moral and empirical agency, and everybody else today is just a puppet of how white people felt generations ago. It's not like new immigrants would be so uncouth as to believe their lying eyes about African Americans; instead, they must be picking up the white man's vibes from Jim Crow days. Blacks and Hispanics in 2012 are just automatons under the control of powerful brainwaves sent out by Lester G. Maddox from the Great Beyond.
March 31, 2012
In Florida, a Death Foretold
Tampa, Fla. 
... Americans tend to think of the rigid stratification of caste as a distant notion from feudal Europe or Victorian India. But caste is alive and well in this country, where a still unsettled multiracial society is emerging from the starkly drawn social order that Dollard described. Assumptions about one’s place in this new social order have become a muddying subtext in the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager slain at the hands of an overzealous neighborhood watch captain, who is the son of a white father and a Peruvian mother. 
We do not know what George Zimmerman was thinking as he watched Mr. Martin from afar, told a 911 dispatcher that he looked suspicious and ultimately shot him. But we do know that it happened in central Florida, a region whose demographic landscape is rapidly changing, where unprecedented numbers of Latino immigrants have arrived at a place still scarred by the history of a vigilante-enforced caste system and the stereotypes that linger from it. In this context, newcomers — like previous waves of immigrants in the past — may feel pressed to identify with the dominant caste and distance themselves from blacks, in order to survive. 
A study released in 2006 by Duke University on attitudes on race in Durham, N.C., a city with one of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the country, found that an overwhelming majority of Latinos — 78 percent — felt they had the most in common with whites, while 53 percent of them felt they had the least in common with blacks. 
So it would make sense for those respondents to act with the same assumptions about blacks that they perceive are held by native whites. In fact the Latino respondents, many of them immigrants from Mexico and Central America, actually reported higher negative feelings toward blacks than most native-born whites. Nearly 60 percent reported feeling that few or almost no blacks were hard-working or could be trusted, while only 10 percent of whites held that view. 
On the other hand, almost three-quarters of blacks felt that Latinos were hard-working or could be trusted. Black Americans appear to view Latinos as more like themselves. “Blacks are not as negative toward Latinos as Latinos are toward blacks because blacks see them as another nonwhite group that will be treated as they have been,” said Paula D. McClain, the lead author on the study. Even as blacks worry about losing jobs to new immigrants, they are less supportive of harsh anti-immigration laws, she said, “because they know what laws have done to them.” 
But shared hardships don’t necessarily make allies. “As linked fate rises, so does competition,” said Michael Jones-Correa, a professor of government at Cornell who specializes in immigration and interethnic relations. “It’s like a sibling rivalry,” he said. “This is not a painless relationship.” And, of course, Latino immigrants don’t just enter a pre-existing racial hierarchy; they bring with them their own assumptions based on the hierarchies in their home countries. “When we come to the U.S.,” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a professor of sociology at Duke, who is Puerto Rican, said, “we immediately recognize whites on top and blacks on the bottom and say, ‘My job is to be anything but black.’ ” 
This uneasy coexistence has had tragic consequences in the past. A series of riots broke out in Miami in the 1980s after several black men were shot dead by Latino police officers who claimed self-defense and were later acquitted. In 1982 in Miami, a 20-year-old black man named Nevell Johnson Jr. was killed at a video arcade by a white, Cuban-born police officer. Seven years later, after a routine traffic stop in that same Miami neighborhood, a black man riding a motorcycle, Clement Anthony Lloyd, was shot dead by a Colombian-born police officer. The motorcycle then crashed; another black man who was riding on the back died the next day. 
Just last year in California, a gang of 51 people, mostly Latinos, were indicted in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles, after a 15-year campaign of assaults and firebombings of African-American residents, whom they were trying to force out of the neighborhood. 
In this atmosphere, blacks are the target of the highest number of hate crimes in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation — higher by a wide margin than any another group of Americans by race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or disability. While blacks make up 12.6 percent of the country’s population, they were 70 percent of the victims of racial hate crimes in 2010. 
WHATEVER role caste may have played in the Trayvon Martin case is unknowable, and it is far too early to tell whether Mr. Zimmerman will be arrested, tried or convicted. But that encounter unfolded in Seminole County, where Latinos have overtaken African-Americans as the dominant minority group, rising to 17 percent from 11 percent in the last decade. Blacks now make up 11 percent and whites, 66 percent. The area had a history of vigilante justice long before the new arrivals, dating back to 1920, when blacks in the nearby town of Ocoee were burned out of their homes after two black men tried to vote. 
Despite all that has gone before, there is reason for optimism. One of the great tragedies of the last century was the pitting of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe against African-Americans who had migrated from the rural South to the industrial North. Both groups were seeking the same thing and were pretty much the same people — people of the land trying to make a way for their families in forbidding and alien places. Fear, suspicion and uneven access to unions, jobs and housing kept them apart. Firebombings and white flight followed, and we are still living with the aftereffects of those divisions. 
The arrival of a new kind of immigrant to a country that has endured so much discord offers a chance for re-examination and redemption. Indeed, one of the most encouraging signs noted by Mr. Jones-Correa is that Latinos are maintaining a distinct identity and are increasingly choosing to be identified as “other” rather than black or white. “We have a history of immigrants coming to America and proving themselves as American by identifying as white,” he said. “Latinos see themselves as a third category. I think they will continue as a third position beyond the black and white rhetoric.” 
Isabel Wilkerson is a former national correspondent and bureau chief for The New York Times and the author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”

Whatever happens,
Whites have got
And we have not.

P.S., the graphs used to illustrate this essay are a real hoot.