August 24, 2013

From Iron Mike to Marble Martin

by Harry Baldwin

Roger Federer

Approaching the U.S. Open where he's seeded only 7th, tennis great Roger Federer, now 32, appears well into the decline phase of his career. An odd thing about Federer is how much he looks like athletes used to look:
Up close, the thing you notice about Federer is how slight his 6-foot-1 frame is; he has stick-figure arms, and his legs are uncharacteristically thin for a professional tennis player. The contrast not only with the Popeye-like Nadal but also with Djokovic and Murray is striking. 

Contrast Federer's 1970s-looking body to #1-seeded woman Serena Williams, who is only a few weeks younger:
US Open: Serena Williams 'pumped up' by defeat to Victoria Azarenka

There is much speculation about whether Federer will soon retire, but there doesn't seem much reason for him to hang it up like a boxer or football player should after a last hurrah. Maybe he should if he's taking anti-anemia drugs like Epo for endurance -- in this golden age of men's tennis, matches last absurdly long -- but, in general, he looks like his profession agrees with him, just as golfers seldom see much reason to formally retire. The last golfer to flat out retire may have been Bobby Jones in 1930.

Federer needs two more major championship victories to break golfer Jack Nicklaus's record of 18, a record that Federer and his pal Tiger Woods have been chasing a long time. Tiger has been stuck at 14 since June 2008. Since Tiger last won a Grand Slam event, Federer has added five titles. 

Nicklaus didn't quit when he won #16 and #17 at age 40 in 1980. He kept grinding until he won #18 at age 46. And he still didn't retire then. I saw a fifty-year-old Nicklaus in the last round of the U.S. Open in 1990 cursing a blue streak when a birdie putt to move into contention for #19 didn't drop.

Celebrating Martin Luther King

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
End communication.
Our frequently downbeat President appears to be struggling to come up with something to say for the current whoop-tee-doo over the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The media would squeal with joy if Obama gave a third speech justifying their Trayvon Martin fiasco, but, so far, the President seems rather discouraged by the thought.
“Fifty years after the March on Washington and the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, obviously we’ve made enormous strides,” Mr. Obama said in response to a question from a professor of African-American studies. “I’m a testament to it. You’re a testament to it.” He added that “we know that some discrimination still exists, although nothing like what existed 50 years ago.” 
“But,” he added, “let’s assume that we eliminated all discrimination magically with a wand, and everybody had goodness in their heart, you’d still have a situation in which there are a lot of folks who are poor, and whose families have become dysfunctional, because of a long legacy of poverty, and live in neighborhoods that are run-down and schools that are underfunded and don’t have a strong property tax base.”
His solution, he continued, was to promote programs like an expansion of early childhood education and his latest effort to make college more affordable — including, he said, making law school two years instead of three. 


I've long offered two suggestions, one that Obama would never take up (although deep down, during his most depressed episodes, he might have to admit it makes sense), the other of which he might adopt. After all, my second proposal is at least more relevant to the current occasion than shortening law school is.

The first is:
Why not use that propitious occasion to declare victory in the long war on Jim Crow and white racism and announce you are bringing the federal troops home?

The second is to use the celebration over MLK's famous speech on August 28, 1963 to call for permanently commemorating the event by moving the currently not very popular MLK holiday from the frigid middle of January to late August:
Fortunately, one simple change in the holiday could end this racial divisiveness and unite workers of all colors in demanding a paid holiday honoring King.
The federal holiday currently falls on the third Monday in January. In 2004, that's Jan. 19. It's a great time for a holiday -- if you live in Honolulu or Key West. ... 
If we moved the King holiday to the Monday a week before Labor Day, it would suddenly become hugely popular. Everybody would want to take the last Monday in August off.
This would also rebalance our holiday calendar. It's dysfunctional that we currently have three holidays in the months of January and February, but none in the two months between the Fourth of July and Labor Day. 
Having two consecutive three-day weekends at the end of summer wouldn't disrupt business much, because the week before Labor Day already ranks with the post-Christmas week as one of the slowest periods of the year. 
Many people already consider the end of August a good time for a vacation. Europeans have found that making August the semi-official vacation month works well. With our shorter vacations, we could make the week before Labor Day a semi-expected vacation time, just as the week between Christmas and New Year's already is. 

This schedule would allow workers to take a 10-day vacation running from the Saturday before the new MLK day through Labor Day, yet use only four vacation days.

Or is the current (unspoken) thinking that holding the MLK holiday in dead cold winter keeps blacks from making trouble? Maybe. But my vague impression is that late spring or early summer is the rowdiest time of the year, while late summer is mellower, more lazy and hazy than crazy. Somebody should study the subject using data.

August 23, 2013

How rare is crime?

The liberal orthodoxy on the costs of crime victimization tend to be a weird combination of Eloi / macho: crime is rare, so man up and don't worry about it.

Yet, Ross Douthat pointed yesterday to a 1987 Bureau of Justice Statistics study estimating that 83% of Americans are subject to at least one violent crime over their lifetimes. But, since some people are subject to more than one crime, the expected average per Americans was closer to two violent crimes per lifetime.

A commenter notes that it's reasonable for people to include their loved ones being subject to violent crimes as well. 

So, let's use a stylized family tree to estimate the number of expected crimes committed against relatives by blood and marriage. Assume everybody in America gets married once and has two children. Thus, each person would have two parents, one sibling, one spouse, and two children. Counting yourself and your six first order relations, that would be an expected average of 14 violent crimes per lifetime committed against you and your closest relations.

A few caveats

Some of those violent crimes will be domestic. You, personally, might beat up your spouse, for example. On the other hand, society has put strong efforts into punishing and deterring domestic violence, with sizable gains, so domestic crime should hardly be wholly discounted.

Second, some of those crimes will happen before your birth or after your death, but that hardly means you feel all that great about that.

How many more relative do you have in this stylized schema:

4 grandparents -- 8 victimizations
4 grandchildren -- 8 victimization
2 nephews-nieces -- 4 victimizations
2 first cousins -- 4 victimizations
2 parents-in-law -- 4 victimizations
1 sibling-in-law -- 2 victimization
2 nephews/nieces-in-law -- 4 victimizations
1 spouse-in-law's spouse (e.g., your wife's sister's husband) -- 2 victimization

So, that's 36 more violent victimizations, along with the 14 of your inner circle, for a total of 50. And you can keep going onward from there. And then there are your friends.

No man is an island.

The only thing we have to fear is inference itself

A Washington D.C. journalist named Brian Beutler writes in Salon:
What I learned from getting shot 
Defenders of stop-and-frisk and racial profiling have made me break my public silence about the night I almost died 
I haven’t said or written much publicly about the shooting that nearly killed me in 2008. But a recent confluence of events — Trayvon Martin’s death, the Zimmerman trial and the public pronouncements of mostly privileged, mostly white people in the aftermath of the verdict — has left me feeling like I have something to share. 
Most recently, actor-activist Kal Penn, once an avowed opponent of racial stereotyping in law enforcement (based in part on his own experience getting patted down at airports), changed his views after he was held up at gunpoint in Washington, D.C. (Penn published a brief explanation late last week, and apparently reconsidered his view over the weekend.) 
... What I can say with some authority — whether this is what happened to Penn or not — is that being a victim of gun violence doesn’t have to turn you into a supporter of racial profiling. 
My story is more than five years old now. It took place in Washington, D.C., on a typically warm July night. I was out late on a Tuesday with a friend whom I’ll call Matt, since that’s his name. [This Matt? The one who was the victim of a racial hate crime nearby in 2011?] We’d been drinking — probably too much for a weeknight, but not too much for a 25-year-old journalist. 
A half-hour after last call, on our walk home up 16th Street northbound toward Mount Pleasant where we lived at the time, we impulsively decided to grab a late night snack at a 24-hour diner we used to frequent in Adams Morgan and hung a left up Euclid Street — a dimly lit one-way street with a violent history. 

The corner of Euclid and 16th Street is 1.8 miles due north of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
I’d been up and down Euclid hundreds of times over the years — midday and late at night; alone and with friends; drunk and sober; and just about every permutation thereof. Always without incident. 
This time was different. About half a block up Euclid, Matt and I encountered two young men — both black, both wearing hoodies, characters culled from Richard Cohen’s sweatiest nightmares. They wanted our phones, which we were cleverly holding in front of our faces as we walked. 
We declined, gently under the circumstances. I worried we might end up in a fight. Maybe one of them had a knife, or a larger group of friends around the corner. I know I would’ve surrendered my phone eventually, but not before suggesting they go hassle someone else. Maybe they’d figure we weren’t worth the trouble. 
They didn’t oblige. The kid opposite Matt drew a small, shiny object from wherever he’d been concealing it and passed it to his accomplice, who was standing opposite me. A second or two lapsed — long enough for me to recognize they weren’t joking, but not long enough for me to beg — before it discharged clap clap clap; my body torqued into the air horizontally, like I’d been blindsided by a linebacker, and I fell to the ground. 

The ER removed Beutler's spleen to save his live, leaving him with big medical bills. Within a year or so he was over the trauma, although one of the three bullets is still inside him. But, he's proud to say, he hasn't learned anything.
[Former Indian-American Obama aide and movie star Kal] Penn got in trouble for touting the supposed merits of New York’s stop-and-frisk policy. To the objection that the policy disproportionately targets blacks and Latinos, he responded, “And who, sadly, commits & are victims of the most crimes?” 
But that’s a non sequitur. A false rationale. Take people’s fear out of the equation and the logical artifice collapses.

People's fear must be removed from the equation. Fear of crime is contemptible weakness. Just remember: What does not kill you makes you stronger.

On the other hand, it's completely reasonable for black youths to be terrified of all the roving white racists like George Zimmerman out to gun them down.
Canadians are highly overrepresented in the field of professional ice hockey, but it would be ridiculous for anyone to walk around Alberta presumptively asking strangers on the street for autographs. When you treat everyone as a suspect, you get a lot of false positives. That’s why above and beyond the obvious injustice of it, stop and frisk isn’t wise policy. Minorities might commit most of the crime in U.S. cities, and be the likeliest victims of it, and that’s a problem with a lot of causes that should be addressed in a lot of ways. But crime is pretty rare. Not rare like being a professional hockey player is rare. But rare. Most people, white or minority, don’t do it at all. ...

This may have something to do with the trillions spent fighting crime, the 800,000 cops employed, the two million in jail, the flight to the suburbs, the decline of walking, and other costs.

But still ... according to the liberal Center for American Progress): "According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime."

That's a lot.

And the conclusion:
Everyone who’s ever shot me was black and wearing a hoodie. There just aren’t any reasonable inferences to draw from that fact.

The only thing we have to fear is inference itself.

Over at his NYT blog, Ross Douthat asks in response: "How Rare Is Crime?"
But at the same time, crime is common enough that it’s quite likely to happen to the average person at some point in time. Not that the average person will go through what Beutler went through, mercifully. But over a span of years, your odds of experiencing at least an attempted robbery or an attempted assault are pretty good.
How good? Well, that depends on the crime rate over time. In the 1980s, the Bureau of Justice Statistics tried to quantify the “lifetime likelihood of victimization,” by assuming that the American crime rate over that hypothetical lifetime averaged what it averaged from 1975 to 1984. (Those were, of course, high crime years; more on that below.) The study calculated that at those rates, 83 percent of Americans could expect to be victims of an attempted robbery, rape or assault at least once as an adult; 40 percent could expect to be injured in a robbery or assault; 72 percent of households could expect to be burglarized and 20 percent could expect to have a car stolen, and 99 percent of the population (that is, everybody) could expect to experience some kind of personal theft. 
These numbers don’t suggest that crime is a regular occurrence in law-abiding lives; it is not. But they suggest that it can be a normal occurrence, in the sense of being something that you have to be prepared for, something that you can reasonably expect to have to deal with at some point, and something that will definitely affect somebody you care about even if it doesn’t touch you directly. 
(As a personal aside, I would hazard that my own experience is probably fairly typical: My parents’ home was burglarized when I was a teenager, I had my nose broken in Adams Morgan in the early 2000s, our car was stolen two years ago, and then I have various one or two-degrees-of-separation connection to incidents that involved extended hospitalization or worse.) 
And part of what makes the endless debates over profiling so vexed, I think, is that it’s hard to assess what constitutes a reasonable response to this reality. Is crime a low-probability danger? Well, yes in the everyday sense, but no in the sense that you could very easily be victimized at some point, which isn’t true of, say, lightning strikes and terrorist attacks and other truly low-probability threats. Clearly it isn’t a threat that should make you a shut-in; clearly it isn’t so non-threatening that urbanites should relax and leave their cars and houses unlocked overnight. But most of what counts as everyday profiling, whether by attire or attitude or age or race or by all those variables at once, falls into a much blurrier area, where the rational thing to do — cross the street to avoid a group of kids or not? keep a closer eye on customer X than customer Y in your store? call the cops to report suspicious-seeming behavior or not? — isn’t slam-dunk obvious given the variables and risks involved.

Well said. But Ross's methodology actually understates that 1987 federal Bureau of Justice Statistics' report on the prevalence of crime in the 1970s-1980s because many victims would be victimized multiple times. 

Similarly, in the marketing research business, we referred to total sales as penetration times buying rate. If a product is bought by 50% of the people (penetration rate of 50%), and they average five purchases each (buying rate of 5), then total sales will average 2.5 purchases per person.

While, as Ross says, 87% of the public could be expected to be a victim of violent crime (completed or attempted) at least once in their lifetimes, Table 1 reports that only 30% would only be victimized once. Another 27% would be victimized twice in a lifetime, and 25% three or more times. So, the average American would suffer at least 1.59 violent crimes in a lifetime, and almost certainly more (depending on the exact number of incidents befalling the 25% suffering "3 or more" crimes). 

For example, if the average number of victimizations for the 25% in the 3 or more category was 4.65, then the expected number of violent victimizations per American would be 2.0.

August 22, 2013

Obama to colleges: Be more like Harvard

Can anybody figure out Obama's new college finance plan? I haven't seen anybody use any examples yet of which colleges will benefit and which ones will be hurt, so it's hazy so far. (I find it easier to reason productively from examples to abstract principles, but many people seem to think it's worthier to reason in the abstract about principles without muddying them up by using real world examples. This is especially true of American education policy.)

The New York Times editorializes in support of Obama's plan:
The basic idea is to give more student aid to colleges that admit more disadvantaged students, that show progress in lowering costs and raising scholarships, and that shepherd students to earn a degree. To measure that performance, the government would create a rating system to compare similar colleges, a potentially useful consumer tool that would also serve to shame institutions that do not measure up. 
The rating system would examine a college’s accessibility, looking at the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants; its affordability, tied to tuition, scholarships and financial aid; and its outcomes, based on graduation rates, advanced degrees and the salaries earned by graduates. Students would be required to show progress toward a degree before receiving continued aid, and schools would be rewarded for developing innovative programs to serve more students at lower costs. All student borrowers would have a cap on their loan payments of 10 percent of their monthly income, expanding the current system.

So, it sounds like under Obama's new system you'd get the most federal financial aid for going to Harvard. After all, Harvard has a nearly 100% graduation rate. With its endowment of $32,012,729,000, Harvard gives out lots and lots of financial aid (that's why its basketball team has gotten so good lately -- it can't give out athletic scholarships, per se, but it now gives out so much financial aid to high five figure and low six figure parents that it can now give a free ride to middle class black kids who happen to be extremely tall and good at dunking). And Harvard has many accomplished and well-paid graduates. (Just ask one and they'll tell you.) If Harvard feels motivated to get the smartest Pell Grant students in the country, well, Harvard will get the smartest Pell Grant students in the country.

In contrast, if you are just some loser who can only get into, I dunno, Tufts, well, don't expect as much help from the taxpayers as your betters at Harvard rake in. As the Lucky Jim principle says, there's no end to the way nice things are nicer than less nice things. So, why shouldn't the Obama Administration give Harvard students more aid than Tufts students?

So, is the Obama Administration's message to America's colleges: be more like Harvard?

Or am I totally using the wrong examples and this isn't about high-end schools at all, this is about crushing low-end for-profit colleges? I believe in the magic of the market and all that, but more than a few for-profit colleges just seem focused on getting gullible people with two-digit IQs to take out loans to take classes in fields where they aren't smart enough to make a career.

Any insights?

"The Great Gatsby's" Limp Nick Problem

A friend writes:
I thought the film was okay - saw it late (though not as late as you!) and never got around to writing about it. Leo DiCaprio was excellent. The problem is that Tobey Maguire was God-awful. And since the story is really Carraway's, not Gatsby's, having a limp Nick kills the story. 

Nick needs to be a cool guy, quiet but good-looking, somebody to whom rich people want to reveal their secrets. Nick should have melancholy depths, but he also needs to be subtly charismatic. Otherwise, the plot makes even less sense. E.g., Tom Buchanan, Nick's cousin-in-law, instantly takes Nick along to meet his mistress with whom he's cheating on Nick's cousin Daisy. You can make up various explanations of Tom's motivation for this imprudent behavior, but the most plausible is that Tom just wants to be around Nick and to show off to his lady friend that Nick is his protege. (Thus, while Gatsby has ulterior motives for hanging around with Nick, he also always seems to really like Nick).

In other words, Nick should be both F. Scott Fitzgerald's self-pitying self-image of F. Scott Fitzgerald, combined with the real life F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was a big celebrity years before he wrote The Great Gatsby at age 30. There are no shortage of handsome, personable young actors in Hollywood who can play that role. You can order them up by the boatload in London. By the standards of movie stars, however, Tobey Maguire isn't one of them.

The 1974 film had Sam Waterston (Law & Order) as Nick. Waterston at least had some air of distinction about him, even if he always looked a little not quite right in the head (as if he not only looked a little bit like Abraham Lincoln, but also, deep down, believed he really was Abraham Lincoln). But Tobey Maguire mostly seems dorky and mundane, which served him well in Spider-Man, but not here.
I understand what Luhrmann has been trying to do since Moulin Rouge, but it isn't working for me. It isn't that I object to melodrama as a key component of fine art, and it certainly isn't that I object to conscious artifice. But I find his style hyperactive and his characterization shallow. When Vivien Leigh raises her fist to the sky and says, "I'll never go hungry again," she's insanely larger than life, whereas Luhrmann's characters too often wind up seeming like wind-up dolls. That's certainly how I felt about Nicole Kidman; I never believed in her for an instant. Daisy Buchanan, of course, is supposed to be shallow - but I couldn't tell if Luhrmann understood that, or if he thought she was just dandy.   

Luhrmann says he's influenced by Bollywood films' relationships with their unsophisticated audiences. So, what would a Bollywood audience think? Daisy is fair and rich. What's not to like?

As for Carey Mulligan as Daisy, she's fine. She's one of this new breed of refined British stars, like her rock star husband Malcolm Mumford. But she's not quite beautiful enough for a legendary role. She came to fame in An Education for her amazing ability to make tiny muscles in her face flutter -- she's like a very feminine Jim Carrey. But, Luhrmann doesn't have her do much of that here. In repose, her face isn't quite lovely enough. But, it's not a major defect in the movie, just a missed opportunity.
Finally, I like your suggestion of how to frame a film adaptation. Are you familiar with the Elevator Repair Service (a theatrical group) and their production, Gatz? It's a stage version of The Great Gatsby, but it's not exactly an adaptation. Rather, the play is set in an exceptionally depressing basement office of some dreary small business. Everyone's starting off their depressing day, when one employee, whose computer won't start, picks up a copy of The Great Gatsby. And starts to read. And, thereby, to take on the role of Nick Carraway - and one by one, the other employees get in on the act, taking on roles from the book and acting out scenes - but never leaving the world of the office, never putting on costumes or anything like that. And they read the entire book. It takes 8 hours, with intermissions, and it's fantastic. I got the impression that they were aiming for something similar to what you were thinking about with your frame story: what does a story like this mean to the people who read it and loved it, the normal people, not the academic students of literature (nor the bored high-school kids who are forced to read it). 
Anyway, I liked ERS's version a lot better than Luhrmann's.

Sometimes when I go for a walk in the park after dark, I run into this troupe of amateur actors in their early 20s who use the open air near the playground to rehearse Shakespeare plays. They'll be saying "doth" to each other and sword-fighting at 3/4ths speed to get ready for their shows. Obviously, they've got zero money if a dimly lit outdoor playground is their best option for rehearsal space.

But, from the perspective of cultural continuity, how great is it that young people are still coming together voluntarily like this to put on Shakespeare plays after 400 years?

"The Great Gatsby"

I finally got around to seeing Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous novel at the $3 movie house. The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio has been big hit with the public, but not with the critics, many of whom seem to have trotted out the theses of their A+ high school papers on The Great Gatsby to explain why Luhrmann's version doesn't live up to their theories.

Personally, I thought it was pretty good adaptation, more energetic and emotionally powerful than the tasteful, listless 1974 one with Robert Redford as Gatsby and a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, a movie distinguished mostly by Ralph Lauren's elegant High WASP costumes.

But then, I don't find The Great Gatsby (published 1925) as a novel to be all that great. It's very good, ranking with, say, Waugh's four or five best novels, but, unfortunately, American literature isn't all that spectacular. So, it's reputation gets inflated by American patriotism and by its being on all the high school reading lists.

Putting famous novels up on the screen often exposes them as not really all that, although nobody likes to admit it about their favorite book. The 1974 version just seemed to reinforce among literati the assumption that Fitzgerald's novel is just so superior that no talents like screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola in his early 1970s prime can't grasp the ineffable essence of the book the way you did while writing your book report in 10th grade.

Interestingly, The Great Gatsby didn't set the world on fire when published in 1925, even though Fitzgerald was already a hot commodity. It didn't take off until the military printed up lots of free paperback copies during WWII. So, even though I've more admired than loved TGG the two or three times I've read it, I appreciate that guys doing a lot harder job than me were knocked out by it in the 1940s.

Here's an idea for a framing device for the next movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby: start with a 19-year-old sailor sweating in his bunk on the U.S.S. Enterprise steaming full speed toward Midway Island. He can't sleep, so to take his mind off the upcoming battle, he starts reading this story about rich people going to expensive parties back before the War and the Depression. He tut-tuts a few times at how superficial and shortsighted everybody was in the 1920s, but mostly he wishes he was at those parties instead of on this goddam flattop. Fade into the movie.

At the end, after the "boats against the current" closing line, we fade to a montage of the sailor, with his well-thumbed copy of the paperback in his back pocket walking down the gangplank into post-war California, going to college on the GI Bill, becoming a high school English teacher, and then assigning his students The Great Gatsby until he retires in 1990. In 2013, his teenage great-grandchildren invite him to Baz Luhrmann's extravant movie version, which, not surprisingly, gives him a fatal stroke. But just before he dies, he smiles at how much kids these days like his favorite book.

So why the critics v. public disagreement on this year's version?

Luhrmann is an adventuresome populist by intention. He invented a new style, peaking in Moulin Rouge, to please mass audiences. As I wrote in 2008:
Luhrmann worked out a novel set of conventions for his Red Curtain style, the maximalist opposite of Lars Von Trier's more celebrated but less successful Dogme 95 minimalism. Like Bollywood musicals intended to be understood by peasant audiences, the Red Curtain rules stressed blatantly unrealistic theatrical artifice; plots that are time-tested, if not downright hackneyed (in “Moulin Rouge,” we quickly infer from La Traviata and La Bohème that the beautiful courtesan must ultimately die of consumption in the young poet’s arms); and shameless melodrama, all as “a device to disarm oh-so-clever, oh-so-cool people, so that you can have these very direct emotional experiences,” as Luhrmann explained in 2001.

Luhrmann punches up Gatsby's party scenes, which are absolutely central to the story's appeal, to make an impact in hard-partying 2013. I find his occasional use of hip-hop works quite well -- the parties start with appropriate 1920s Dixieland music then gradually work their way up to Jay-Z's hip-hop score.

And, Luhrmann does a good job of simplifying Fitzgerald's story down to its core -- Gatsby's doomed love for Daisy -- so that it will be readily comprehensible to a generation of C students needing to get up to speed on what the assigned book is about without actually reading it. The one thing Luhrmann is stumped by is how to coherently relate Fitzgeralds' strange plot devices needed to get the right people into the wrong cars on the disastrous road trip to the Plaza Hotel.

In showing us exactly what the story is about, Luhrmann dispenses with some of Fitzgerald's vagueness and abstraction that entranced future movie critics in high school.

By the way, it's a commonplace these days to read The Great Gatsby ethnically. (Luhrmann emphasizes this less than most contemporary interpreters.)

Everybody today expresses gleeful hatred toward the (rather poorly) delineated polo playing bad guy Tom Buchanan, a predecessor for Billy Zane's Anglo-villain in Titanic. Early on, Tom endorses the book The Rise of the Colored Empires by a cross between Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard. (That sailor 17 years later heading toward a showdown with the Japanese Empire at Midway probably wouldn't snigger as much as moderns do at the phrase "rise of the colored empires.")

On the other hand, Fitzgerald's obvious aversion toward Jews and blacks gets overlooked or explained away. There is a whole cottage industry constructing theories about how the beloved Gatsby is really Jewish, black, and/or gay.

Interestingly, Fitzgerald seemed to agree with Tom Buchanan, at least in the early 1920s. (Fitzgerald espoused various ideologies over the years, becoming, for example, a Marxist during the Depression, so one shouldn't take any of them too seriously.) In 1921, he wrote to Edmund Wilson from Europe:
Raise the bar of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter. ... I believe at last in the white man's burden. We are as far above the modern Frenchman as he is above the Negro. ... You may have spoken in jest about New York as the capital of culture but in 25 years it will be just as London is now. Culture follows money ... 
Fitzgerald quoted on p. 215 of Paul Johnson's Modern Times 

I haven't studied up on Fitzgerald that much, so I'll just speculate on his ethnic attitudes from the novel. My hunch is that as a wealthy, extremely assimilated Midwestern Irish Catholic Ivy Leaguer, he resented the inner-innermost circle of American life: rich Eastern polo-playing WASPs like Tom Buchanan.

In turn, as a young man of the second circle, Fitzgerald looked down upon the third and fourth circles. Judging from the ghastly Meyer Wolfsheim gangster character in The Great Gatsby, the man who ruined the innocence of little American boys by fixing the 1919 World Series ("Say it ain't so, Joe!"), Fitzgerald was anti-Semitic. (Luhrmann cast a Bollywood star as Wolfsheim to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism, although it just makes the character look even less American.)

Toward blacks, Fitzgerald was, at best, bemused. Nick Carraway observes:
As we crossed Blackwell's Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
"Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge," I thought; "anything at all ...

(Luhrmann has Tobey Maguire as Carraway respond warmly to this vignette, without any trace of the book's distaste for blacks rising above their station.)

Instead, Fitzgerald rooted for the second circle in American life: Midwestern WASPs like narrator Nick Carraway, Germans like Great Plains small town boy James Gatz, lace curtain Irish like Fitzgerald himself, and so forth. Basically, he liked the limited number of ethnicities he would allow to immigrate to the U.S.: "only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts," to quote Fitzgerald.

World War T

From Slate:
No comment.

Chuck cracks open Oberlin racism hoax

At the Daily Caller, Chuck Ross of GL Piggy reports:
One of the two students removed from Oberlin College earlier this year for allegedly circulating virulently racist, anti-Jewish and anti-gay messages around campus  is an ardent leftist and committed supporter of President Barack Obama, The Daily Caller News Foundation has learned. 
Dylan Bleier, one of the two students, organized a voter registration drive on behalf of Obama before the 2008 election. That voter drive is still listed on the website for Organizing for Action, the non-profit group whose mission is to advance Obama’s agenda. 
The Oberlin Police Department identified Bleier and his partner in the spree, Matt Alden, as two of the principal architects of a month-long spate of racist, anti-Jewish and anti-gay messages at the small, private campus. 
On his now-defunct LinkedIn page, Bleier noted that he was the founder and president of the Ithaca High School for Obama club. He also identified himself as a member of the Oberlin College Democrats. 
Bleier also listed his participation in a group called Ithaca White Allies Against Structural Racism. He joined the group in May of this year, he reported. He said the group’s goal is to “eradicate structural racism in Tompkins County [NY], via forums discussing racism.” 
On his Twitter account, which he protected after TheDCNF reached him on Tuesday, Bleier hailed Obama’s comments on George Zimmerman, tweeting: “Zimmerman is just the tip of the iceberg, a single highly visible symptom of the racist system that is ‘succeeding’ in the US.” 
Bleier also describes himself on Twitter as an “atheist/pacifist/environmentalist/libertarian socialist/consequentialist.” 
The progressive school canceled all classes for a day in a mad scramble to address the alleged hate-related incidents the campus. The saga culminated in a report of a person wearing a hood and robe resembling a KKK outfit near the Afrikan Heritage House, according to Oberlin’s president Marvin Krislov in a letter also signed by three deans ...

More background at Legal Insurrection.

August 21, 2013

Zac Champommier, RIP

As I pointed out here in "Trayvon Martin, RIP" back in March 2012, I had recently played amateur busybody detective in a not wholly dissimilar local case where cops killed a teen. Because the official story seemed fishy, I had gone to visit the scene of the killing and had run into the dead youth's bewildered mother. I encouraged her to not let the cops stonewall and to seriously consider a lawsuit. 

From the L.A. Times today:
Family of honors teen slain by DEA agents awarded $3 million

By Jill Cowan 
In a mixed verdict, a federal judge awarded $3 million to the parents of an 18-year-old honor student shot and killed by plainclothes drug enforcement agents, but also determined that the authorities were not negligent in their actions.  
U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald said that DEA agents had reason to believe they were in danger, but determined that the agents should not have fired their weapons at Zachary Champommier's car because shooting at a moving vehicle would not have helped their predicament. 
The shooting of Champommier, who had recently graduated from Granada Hills Charter High at the time of the 2010 encounter, sparked outrage among the teen's family and friends, who described the teen as a "band geek," and not someone who would intentionally confront authorities. 
The teen's mother, Carol Champommier, alleged in a wrongful death lawsuit that federal and local drug enforcement officers recklessly shot at her son, who she claimed posed no reasonable threat. 

The mixed verdict seems reasonable. The whole thing was just a terrible screwup, with much misunderstanding and poor decision-making, but little in the way of malice. Also, there wasn't a lot of disinterested eyewitness testimony. As a taxpayer, the number $3 million had always seemed about right to me as a compensatory payout, rather than an 8-figure punitive damage payout.

The comments on the LA Times article, especially those from justice4zac, lay out the forensic evidence from the trial better than the article does. The best guess is that this started as a low speed traffic accident in a chaotic situation set off by five plainclothes cops, debriefing in a parking lot, deciding to subdue a pedestrian who they observed looking in cars. In the melee, the young motorist slammed on his brakes to avoid hurting a plainclothes DEA who had appeared in front of him. The agent hopped on the hood of the decelerating car and was unhurt. But then his partner turned, saw the tableau, and opened fired from the side, killing the kid. He kept on firing with less accuracy, fortunately not winging anybody coming out of the Banana Republic. The shooter testified he screamed at the dead kid, "Why did you make me do that?"

This is the top story on L.A. Times right now, but the shooting got little local coverage in the first few weeks after it happened three years ago. I became interested in the case back then because a police spokesman initially implied that the parking lot was notorious for drug dealing. I live well to the north, but this lot is across the street from the Barnes & Noble bookstore I drop in on 50 or 100 times per year, so I can attest that in the hundreds of times over the last half century that I've walked through this busy lot, which is well-lit and employs a security guard in a golf cart, the only illicit activity I can recall is bad driving.

The dead youth's friends in his high school orchestra and band and their parents kept the story alive however.

One black commenter on a website being flooded by long, expository comments from Zach's friends and neighbors said something like, "Wow, you white people just won't let it go when one of your own gets shot by the cops. If this had happened in the 'hood, it would have been forgotten by now." That seems pretty accurate. White people don't have anybody to stand up for them qua white people, but they are also pretty good at standing up for themselves.

Anyway, this local case helps explain why I took a realistically low-key approach to the Trayvon story back when most of the media was forming an electronic lynch mob to get George Zimmerman. In a country of 300 million, unfortunate events like the deaths of these two teens happen every day. Which ones become giant national stories has more to do with the needs of the Narrative than with the actual facts of the cases or even with general patterns.

The fading of the Gladwell Era

Peter Orszag, the former head of Obama's Office of Management and Budget, writes in his Bloomberg column:
Like many others who read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” when it came out five years ago, I was impressed by the 10,000-hour rule of expertise. I wrote a column (for a different publication) espousing the rule, which holds that to become a world-class competitor at anything from chess to tennis to baseball, all that’s required is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. 
David Epstein has convinced me I was wrong. His thoroughly researched new book, “The Sports Gene,” pretty much demolishes the 10,000-hour rule -- and much of “Outliers” along with it. 
The practice-makes-perfect theory is certainly inspiring. In 2009, and after reading Gladwell’s book and some of the associated research, a 30-year-old man named Dan McLaughlin decided to quit his job as a photographer, determined to practice golf for 10,000 hours and turn pro -- even though his previous experience consisted of just two trips to a driving range as a child. He now practices six hours a day, and is scheduled to hit 10,000 hours in late 2016. 
Epstein’s book suggests that McLaughlin better have a backup plan, because, while real elite athletes have put in plenty of practice time, their aptitude is enhanced by their genes.

If 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is necessary and sufficient for world-class performance, Epstein asks, why do some people reach the master level in chess after 3,000 hours while others require 23,000? The average number of hours needed for many pros may be about 10,000, but it varies widely.

The comments on the 44-year-old former OMB boss's sudden insight are pretty funny:
jaycal33 1 hour ago

The fact genes are a necessary part of athletic success (along with practice) is so obvious that it is amazing anybody writes a book claiming otherwise, that book receives publicity and people buy it, that book is reviewed in the press etc. 
Really, the popular discourse in the media is really quite dumb.
VivaSam 4 hours ago

Did we leave this Orszag eff-up in charge of something? 
I hope not. 
Somebody run, go check and make sure he's not in charge of something over in DC. 
roquenuevo 7 hours ago

10,000 hours and genes, talent or genius, these are necessary and sufficient. If you have the talent, you still need the 10,000 hours; if you don't, the 10,000 hours are simply practicing the first mediocre hour 10,000 times... Seems simple enough to me. But not to the "vice chairman of corporate and investment banking and chairman of the financial strategy and solutions group at Citigroup Inc. and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration."

Orszag continues:
The reason for the variation is genetic, Epstein says.

Okay, that's an improvement, but the former head of OMB is still hazy. Stars do mostly have more than 10,000 hours of practice, and it's surprisingly hard to come up with exceptions. For example, Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon, was an intermittently overwhelming Division I college basketball player within 3 years of first trying basketball, but he was also a lot better after a dozen years of playing. The crafty Olajuwon who won NBA titles in 1994 and 1995 would never have lost the 1983 NCAA Final by letting NC State's airball get dunked in front of him at the buzzer.)

But, nonstars mostly have less than 10,000 hours of practice because somebody figures out that the potential of the nonstar is limited enough that it would be stupid for the wanna-be to waste 10,000 hours on this field.

As a commenter at Bloomberg says:
The 10,000 hour experts are a self selected group. Who spends 10,000 hours perfecting some skill?  It is someone whose first 1,000 hours of practice convince him and/or others that he is capable of greater improvement with even more practice.  His second 1,000 hours of practice provide additional confirmation.  The ones who don't have the innate talent to develop recognize this after their initial practicing demonstrates a lack of improvement and drop out.  Who really imagines that the reason their dog can't learn calculus is that he isn't willing to practice?

Rightfielder of champion teams
For example, as a boy I probably spent a thousand hours or so fielding balls I'd bounced off walls or that my dad threw to me on our front lawn. By the time I was 11 or 12, I was an adequate little league third baseman.

In contrast, I was a terrible outfielder because I never learned to judge the flight of flyballs. In part, that was because I got very little practice at catching flyballs. That required two people, one of whom could hit fungoes (which my dad wasn't particularly good at), and a big expanse of turf. If I was Ken Griffey Jr., I'm sure lots of coaches would have volunteered to hit me flyballs. But, with me, it was obvious to coaches within one minute that I was never going to be their star centerfielder -- I was slow and bad at judging flyballs. A thousand hours of practice with me would no doubt have made me a decent judge of flyballs, but I'd still lack natural judgement and still be slow. Moreover, I didn't want to practice catching flyballs for a 1000 hours: you have to do it at a park in public, so it was embarrassing and depressing. So, coaches just stuck me out in right field, until I could convince them that I was much less worse in the infield than in the outfield.

The Gladwellian Answer is that we must re-engineer society to lessen these unfair inequalities. Just because Ernie Sailer wasn't as good at hitting fungoes to his son as Ken Griffey Sr. was, and just because when his father wasn't available, Steve Sailer didn't have coaches volunteering to hit him fungoes the way Ken Griffey Jr. did, why should Steve Sailer be denied his 10,000 hours of baseball practice?

For some reason, the ability to evaluate middlebrow abstractions like the 10000 Hour Rule by the humble lessons of daily life is strikingly lacking in people who get paid to opine.

Rating "The Butler's" Presidential impersonations

As for the celebrity impersonations in the new movie The Butler, about a White House butler from 1952-1986:

Robin Williams looks rather like Truman, but plays Eisenhower. (Perhaps Williams was signed to play Truman, but then got reassigned when Truman got cut to shorten the movie?)

Boyish romantic comedy leading man James Marsden plays JFK even though he looks more like RFK.

Minka Kelly, actress/model/whatever and former girlfriend of Derek Jeter, is too va-va-voom to play Jackie Kennedy. She’d be well cast in a historical bedroom farce where Jack has to sneak Marilyn out through the White House dressed in a dark wig and Jackie’s wardrobe (if you want to write this up, be my guest.)

Liev Schreiber isn’t too far off in size and looks from LBJ, but as a Northeastern bourgeois, he lacks the massive Texan personality. Matthew McConaughey of Uvalde, TX is moderately tall and would have been more fun.

John Cusack is Nixon, although he looks more like Kennedy. Cusack plays Nixon as sinister and crazy, like a charmless version of the Nixon/Dracula mélange invented by Jeremy Irons to portray Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune.

Ford and Carter are relegated to newscast footage of themselves.

Jane Fonda is well-cast as a gracious Nancy Reagan. Ideology aside, they are similar enough that they can be compared: – Jane was a better movie actress, Nancy was a better big man's wife (Jane seemed to be a bit of a distraction to the careers of Tom Hayden and Ted Turner.)

Alan Rickman looks surprisingly like Ronald Reagan, but the introspectively gloomy Severus Snape sounds less like Reagan and more like the actor-turned-President doing an amusing impression of Alan Rickman after a White House screening of Die Hard.

"The Butler"

From my movie review in Taki's Magazine:
The hit movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, staring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, takes us back to the bad old days when blacks worked in the White House rather than lived there. 
Strange as it may seem now, in an America where Hispanics and Filipinos fill ever more of America’s servile jobs, African Americans were once employed across the land in vast numbers as trusted domestic servants. With the coming of the Black Pride movement in the late 1960s, however, blacks began to see service work as neo-slavery and an insult to their masculine dignity. 
Meanwhile, well-to-do whites, alarmed by the rising rates of crime and surliness among blacks, were happy to be handed a politically correct excuse to stop hiring uppity African Americans ...

Read the whole thing there.

August 20, 2013

Common Core: Good for white boys?

There's much hubbub over the Common Core, a new set of quasi-national curriculum guidelines that have been endorsed by over 40 states. 

I'm relatively cynical about issuing new standards in education, whether state, federal, or in-between. Like all education panaceas, the Common Core is being sold as the means to Close the Gap, help American students catch up with China and Japan, improve critical thinking skills, and all other good things.

That said, from what little I've peered into the Common Core, I suspect it might conceivably benefit the most overlooked group in schooling in recent decades: white boys.

For example, for reading and literature, it emphasizes less fiction (which girls and women prefer) and more nonfiction (which males increasingly prefer as they mature).

Some of the inspiration for the Common Core appears to be the long campaign by E.D. Hirsch for "core knowledge." Hirsch has long argued that kids often lose the thread in reading when they are hit by references (e.g., "he met his Waterloo") to facts they don't know. So, rather than leach all the facts out of their readings and just emphasize feelings, use readings to teach kids more facts, especially important facts, such as what Waterloo was. The male bias in this should be obvious.

It's supposed to encourage critical analysis. If it really does that, rather than just encouraging students to complain in socially endorsed manners, white boys will do relatively better on tests.

A big deal is being made about how Common Core tests won't be just multiple choice tests, they'll include lots of essays. Which is fine, but note a big advantage of multiple choice tests: they can be graded instantly by computer, which is not just labor saving, but which allows inflight adjustments. Essay tests not only add a lot of labor (expect to see a lot of part-time jobs for Common Core essay test graders), but can take weeks or months to grade. Nobody seems terribly sure about how testing will work out under the Common Core.

Richard Dawkins on Islam v. Trinity College, Cambridge

From the Daily Mail earlier in the month:
Muslims peaked in the Dark Ages. But since then?': Richard Dawkins embroiled in Twitter row over controversial comments  
The author of The God Delusion tweeted that the world's Muslims had won fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge 
His comments sparked anger among high-profile Twitter users including Caitlin Moran and Faisal Islam  
Richard Dawkins has  provoked anger after he claimed Muslims have contributed almost nothing to science since the Middle Ages. 
The outspoken biologist and atheist wrote on Twitter that a single college at Cambridge  University had won more Nobel Prizes than all the world’s Muslims. 
His comments sparked fury on the social network where he was accused of disguising his ‘bigotry’ as atheism. 
But last night the 72-year-old best-selling author of The God Delusion refused to apologise for his remarks. 
The row broke out after he commented: ‘All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge.’ He responded to the barrage of ensuing criticism by telling his 782,000 followers: ‘A statement of simple fact is not bigotry. And science by Muslims was great in the distant past.’ 
In response to one Twitter user who pointed out that Muslims had been responsible for algebra and ‘alchemy’, Professor Dawkins replied: ‘Indeed, where would we be without alchemy? Dark Age achievements undoubted. But since then?’ 
He sought to justify his controversial observation by adding: ‘Why mention Muslim Nobels rather than any other group? Because we so often hear boasts about (a) their total numbers and (b) their science.’ 
One angry Twitter user hit out  at the remarks telling the author: ‘You absolutely disgust me.’  
Writer Caitlin Moran added: ‘Think it’s time someone turned Richard Dawkins off and then on again’. Channel 4 News economics editor Faisal Islam questioned Dawkins’ ‘spurious use of data’. 
Writer Owen Jones told the professor: ‘How dare you dress your bigotry up as atheism. You are now beyond an embarrassment.’ 
But some users noted that the criticism of Professor Dawkins was in marked contrast to that when he has made comments about Christianity.
One wrote: ‘Dawkins spent the best part of 10 years attacking Christianity and not raising an eyebrow. He now turns that same eye on Islam and uproar.’
An Emeritus Fellow at New College, Oxford, Professor Dawkins appeared to try and appease his critics by saying that Trinity College also has more Nobel Prizes than any country in the world except America, Britain, Germany and France
Trinity College has 32 Nobel laureates, whereas only ten Prize winners are thought to have been Muslims. 
Awarded annually since 1901, the Nobel Prize recognises achievements in Physics, Medicine, Chemistry, Peace and Literature, as well as a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. 
Winners from Trinity include Bertrand Russell who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his 1946 work, ‘A History of Western Philosophy’. 
Twelve of the college’s Nobel laureates were recognised for work in physics, eight in chemistry and seven in medicine. 
Of the ten Muslim Nobel Laureates, only two are scientists: Pakistani Abdus Salam, who won the Prize for Physics, and the Egyptian-American Ahmed Zewail, who won in Chemistry. 
Six were awarded the Peace Prize, including Yasser Arafat. 
Half of the ten Muslim laureates were awarded the prize in the 21st century, during which Trinity College has only had one prize winner.

Dawkins didn't pick Trinity at random as the exemplar of the West. Trinity's list of former students is insanely distinguished, as I noted in 2006:
I'm reading a biography of Sir Francis Galton, who attended Trinity College at Cambridge University. I found amusing the biographer's cautious reference to Sir Isaac Newton as "one of Trinity College's most distinguished alumni." 
Wouldn't Newton rank as the most distinguished alumni? After all, what other Englishman is as distinguished as Newton (besides Shakespeare, and he didn't go to college)? Newton was calculated to be the most eminent figure in the sciences in human history in Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment
Still, when I looked up on Wikipedia the list of alumni of Trinity, I could see why the writer didn't want to commit himself. Here are some other Trinity alumni and  / or professors besides Newton and Galton: 
Francis Bacon (not the sculptor, but the first philosopher of modern science), Niels Bohr, John Dryden, Thomas Babington Macaulay, James Clerk Maxwell, Vladimir Nabokov, Bertrand Russell, Ernest Rutherford, William Makepeace Thackeray, Arthur Balfour, G. H. Hardy, A. A. Milne, Jawaharlal Nehru, John Maynard Smith, Charles Babbage, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Lord Byron, Lytton Strachey, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

And that's just one college within Cambridge University.

One thing to keep in mind is that Cambridge and Oxford aren't really the Harvard and Yale of Britain, they're more like the Ivy League and the other Ivy League of Britain, who each all happen to be located in their own ancient small city. The Claremont colleges in Southern California are structured like this, with a half dozen small colleges side-by-side with assets in common, but Claremont is about seven centuries behind Oxford and Cambridge.

Dawkins himself studied at Balliol, Oxford, which has its own list of famous alumni. My vague impression is that Cambridge, with Trinity pre-eminent, tended to be more scientific / intellectual, while Oxford, with perhaps Balliol pre-eminent *, tended to be more political / literary / social / political.

Stereotyping wildly, Cambridge was slightly more progressive and Whig, Oxford slightly more conservative and Tory. Cambridge is northeast of London in flat, swampy country where Puritans once predominated, while Oxford is west of London amidst country estates ideal for foxhunting. To put it in Albion's Seed terms, Cambridge was more like Harvard, Oxford more like the U. of Virginia.

By the way, Dawkins fits my stereotype of evolutionary theorists as smart country boys. The sociology behind British predominance in evolution is that the affluent and the intellectual did not huddle in the cities (at least not year-round), but instead spread out across the countryside and took an interest in wildlife, farming, and scientific breeding.

From Wikipedia:
Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya. His father, Clinton John Dawkins (1915–2010), was an agricultural civil servant in the British colonial service in Nyasaland (now Malawi). ... He returned to England in 1949, when Dawkins was eight. His father had inherited a country estate, Over Norton Park, which he turned into a commercial farm. Both his parents were interested in natural sciences; they answered Dawkins's questions in scientific terms.

Over Norton Park, 22 miles from Oxford, is a mile north of Chipping Norton, a gorgeous town in the Cotswold Hills that has become the country home center of the new Tory elite, the Chipping Norton Set: Prime Minister David Cameron, an Oxford man (PPE at Brasenose College) represents Chipping Norton in the House of Commons.

* No, as a commenter points out, Christ Church outranks even Balliol at Oxford. From Wikipedia:
Like its sister college, Trinity College, Cambridge, it was traditionally considered the most aristocratic college of its university. 
Christ Church has produced thirteen British prime ministers, which is equal to the number produced by all 45 other Oxford colleges put together and more than any Cambridge college (and two short of the total number for the University of Cambridge, fifteen).

For example, in real life, Evelyn Waugh was a scholarship lad at Hertford College, Oxford, but in his Brideshead Revisited, his alter ego Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte are students at Christ Church, Oxford. Christ Church traditionally had the highest rate of undergrads failing their finals, which was proudly seen as a mark of social distinction.

August 19, 2013

The Chinese love counting

The Count loves counting
From the NYT:
Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. Power could escape their grip, they have been told, unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society. 
These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader.

Why do the Chinese love to enumerate things? Are certain numbers unlucky? Does labeling your political rivals the "Gang of Four" instantly raise doubt about their inauspicious future because everybody knows that four is an unlucky number? Or do the Chinese just love numbers in general?

"Malt liquor, it's a helluva drink"

From the NYT:
The study, carried out over the course of a year at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, found that five beer brands were consumed most often by people who ended up in the emergency room. They were Budweiser, Steel Reserve, Colt 45, Bud Ice and Bud Light. 
Three of the brands are malt liquors, which typically contain more alcohol than regular beer. Four malt liquors accounted for nearly half of the beer consumption by emergency room patients, even though they account for less than 3 percent of beer consumption in the general population.

Okay, but keep in mind, as you might have observed while watching The Wire, that the tastes of emergency room patients in inner city Baltimore are not necessarily demographically representative of the whole country.

Albert Murray, RIP

The Harlem literary critic and USAF major (ret.) has died at 97.

Back in 1997 I reviewed The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, which was edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., for National Review. In "The Ebony Tower," I wrote:
This compendium raises the more general question of what is the overall contribution of blacks to American culture? One appealing, if possibly grandiose, perspective might be called the Patriotic Black Chauvinism of blues critic and novelist Albert Murray. In contrast to so many other black literary intellectuals, who've only been employed as professors and who now reside in such hotbeds of African American culture as Amherst and Santa Cruz, Murray is a retired Air Force major living in Harlem. Along with his friend Ralph Ellison (author of Invisible Man) and disciples such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Murray has argued that rather than merely being a pitiful victim of racism, the black man's defiant sense of style makes him the most distinctively representative of Americans. That seems fairly plausible, if unprovable. A cruder version is testable: If America otherwise was as WASPish as Protestant Canada, would blacks by themselves make America a much more interesting place than Canada? Most definitely. (Of course, several other American ethnic groups could claim the same: after all, for better or worse, America is a lot less boring than Canada.)

From the NYT obituary, an interesting adoption experiment story of nature and nurture:
Albert Lee Murray was born on May 12, 1916, in Nokomis, Ala., to middle-class parents who soon gave him up for adoption to Hugh Murray, a laborer, and his wife, Matty. “It’s just like the prince left among the paupers,” said Mr. Murray, who learned of his adoption when he was about 11. ... As rendered in Mr. Murray’s inventive prose, the adolescent Scooter and his friend Buddy Marshall could imagine themselves as “explorers and discoverers and Indian scouts as well as sea pirates and cowboys and African spear fighters not to mention the two schemingest gamblers and back alley ramblers this side of Philmayork.” 
After graduating from the Mobile County Training School, where he earned letters in three sports and was voted the best all-around student, Mr. Murray enrolled at Tuskegee Institute, where he discovered literature and immersed himself in Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce and Mann. He met Ralph Ellison, an upperclassman, as well as another student, Mozelle Menefee, who became his wife in 1941. She survives him, as does their daughter, Michéle Murray, who became a dancer with the Alvin Ailey company.
... He enlisted in the military in 1943 and spent the last two years of World War II in the Army Air Corps. After the war, the Murrays moved to New York City, where he used the G.I. Bill to earn a master’s degree from N.Y.U. and renew his friendship with Ellison. In 1951, a year before Ellison published his classic work, “Invisible Man,” Mr. Murray rejoined the military, entering the Air Force. He served in the military, peripatetically, for 11 years 

My recollection is that when Murray was serving at bases in West Germany, he'd hop the train for Paris every time he got some leave and go hang out with the black jazz greats then in France. I believe Murray tended to see the glass as half full. While it was a shame that America was less welcoming to these artists than France was, he couldn't overlook that the American taxpayers were paying for his glorious Bohemian weekends in Paris by providing him with a good square job Monday to Friday that got him saluted all the time.