August 31, 2013


Steven Erlanger writes in the NYT:
The importance of terroir to the French psyche and self-image is difficult to overestimate, because it is a concept almost untranslatable, combining soil, weather, region and notions of authenticity, of genuineness and particularity — of roots, and home — in contrast to globalized products designed to taste the same everywhere. ... 
The notion of terroir is essentially political, at heart a conservative, even right-wing idea, even though it has been picked up by a new generation that would consider itself on the left, opposing globalization and pesticides. ...
Jean-Claude Ribaut, a food critic for Le Monde, called terroir “a sort of lost paradise.” But it also stands for a reaction to modernity, he said: “One could say it’s a vision a bit backward-looking, but it’s also, I think, a battle of today, to try to safeguard what gives us pleasure and health.” 
The preservation of terroir is finally a kind of unwritten conspiracy between the farmers and the wealthy, as well as the bourgeois bohemians of the big cities, who will pay more for quality, for freshness, for artisanal craft and for that undefinable authenticity that is the essence of terroir

I'm all in favor of localist eating in theory, but, lacking perceptive taste buds, I have to admit that I'm perfectly happy eating whatever Costco is selling.

In defense of Allison Benedikt

A couple of days ago I suggested that Allison Benedikt's much-denounced manifesto "If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person" was tendentious but understandable. In many gentrifying neighborhoods, the public schools would become a lot better if, say, the lower half of private school families in wealth all switched to public schools, which would benefit the upper layer of current public school families by providing their children with better classmates. And would it be so bad for the more hard-up private school families (who could use the free tuition)? The more who make the jump with them, the better.

But, organizing collective action is always a struggle.

Here's a previous article by Benedikt that lays out her family and financial situations.
Is Waiting to Have Kids a Big Mistake? 
With a third kid on the way and a 1,100 square foot, one-bathroom Brooklyn apartment, my husband and I talk a lot about when we’ll be able to afford a home to comfortably fit our family. I’m 35, he’s almost 40, and neither of us thinks we can even begin to contemplate shelling out for a mortgage or higher rent for another five years. In the fall of 2018, all of our kids will finally be in public school, and we will have the $5,000 we pay in child care every month back in our bank account. I will be 41, my husband will be 46, and perhaps then we can start to consider a second toilet. 
Not all of that $5K will go toward a family home—to pay for preschool, we stopped contributing to our 401K years ago. So 2018 will also be the year we start paying into it again—not that we will ever be able to retire—and, hey, let’s put some away for college, shall we? 
Let me just stop you mid-eye-roll to confirm that yes: We are, by the standards of most Americans, rich. My husband and I both have steady jobs, make good salaries, and are lucky enough to be able to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world simply because we want to. As Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote earlier this year, we can’t cry poor just because we don’t have a lot of money left after we’ve spent it all.

Here is the couple's New York Times wedding announcement from 2003. I would guess they just barely made the cut for making the NYT.

Having multiple children is a lot more affordable if you can find public schools with tolerable demographics, so it's perfectly understandable to try to induce other desirable demographics into public schools.

But, why the white v. white shaming language instead of the language of mutual self-interest?

It's not uncommon in Southern California to see Chinese get together and pick out a small school district to take over and remake to meet their needs. Arcadia, east of Pasadena, where my cousins went to school, is an example: a nice but nondescript suburb where the high school is now 69% Asian. Asians hate paying for private schools when they could instead take over a public school by concentrating their forces to avoid being diluted. I've never read the inside story on how the Chinese coordinate this process -- why Arcadia rather than all the similar suburbs? -- but a fly on the wall would probably hear some frank statements about whites, blacks, and Mexicans.

In contrast, white people are more likely to run than to work together the way the Chinese do. To get white people to work together, they need some kind of ideological cover story, like ... uh ... diversity! We should all agree to stop paying private school tuition and send our kids to public school in the name of diversity! (If we all say that, then we can make the honors classes at the neighborhood public school less diverse.)

Moreover, while Asian people can work together to take over Arcadia out of conscious racial self-interest, white people can only be publicly motivated to work together out of stated animus toward other white people. For example, disarming urban blacks and Latinos can be justified only as a byproduct of the War of Liberal Self-Defense Against Armed Racist Rednecks, and so forth.

Similarly, the upper level of whites with children in public schools very much want whites with children in private schools to join forces with them, but ... blunt Chinese-like statements like "We need to team up to keep our kids from being overwhelmed by all the Mexicans" are nonstarters.

Thus, among whites, everybody denounces everybody else all the time.

August 30, 2013

The (poison) fog of war

Greg Cochran points out a chapter in WWII history that I'd never heard of before today: the 1943 Luftwaffe raid on Allied shipping in the Italian port of Bari, which released U.S. poison gas secretly stored on an American supply ship, USS John Harvey. Lots of nasty (and one nice) medical consequences ensued.

Israeli Jewish total fertility rates

Fertility rates in Israel are interesting not just for their relevance to Middle Eastern affairs, but for their relevance to America. Not surprisingly, the Israelis pay close attention to such matters, but Americans traditionally don't pay attention to Israeli population policy debates for the insights they can offer into American population policy. So, it takes some looking for Americans to find Israeli data.

Thanks to commenter Douglas Knight, here's a graph from Israel: Demography 2012-2030: On the Way to a Religious State by Bystrov and Soffer. This shows total fertility rates (expected babies per lifetime) from 1980 to 2008 for different classes of Jewish Israeli women. The top line is Ultra-Orthodox, who were down to 6.6 from a high of around 7.7. 

At the bottom are Secular at around 2.05, which is the replacement rate. That's a pretty high TFR for secular women in a crowded, advanced country. (Israel's not that different in terms of climate, terrain, population density, and real estate prices from Southern California.) How does Israel achieve replacement level fertility among its least likely category?

August 29, 2013

"If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person"

In Slate, Alison Benedikt writes:
If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person
I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP classes, and in four years, I only had to read one book. There wasn’t even soccer. This is not a humblebrag! I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. You know all those important novels that everyone’s read? I haven’t. I know nothing about poetry, very little about art, and please don’t quiz me on the dates of the Civil War. I’m not proud of my ignorance. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all. 
By the way: My parents didn’t send me to this shoddy school because they believed in public ed. They sent me there because that’s where we lived, and they weren’t too worried about it. (Can you imagine?) Take two things from this on your quest to become a better person: 1) Your child will probably do just fine without “the best,” so don’t freak out too much, but 2) do freak out a little more than my parents did—enough to get involved. 
Also remember that there’s more to education than what’s taught. As rotten as my school’s English, history, science, social studies, math, art, music, and language programs were, going to school with poor kids and rich kids, black kids and brown kids, smart kids and not-so-smart ones, kids with superconservative Christian parents and other upper-middle-class Jews like me was its own education and life preparation. Reading Walt Whitman in ninth grade changed the way you see the world? Well, getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house did the same for me. In fact it’s part of the reason I feel so strongly about public schools.

While in 2013 this just sounds like Slate clickbait, this ideology was, I recall, the common view among middle and upper-middle Jewish parents in the San Fernando Valley in 1968. And this wasn't hypocrisy. As a parochial school student, my Jewish friends made clear that their parents considered Catholics attending Catholic school to be slightly un-American.

And guess what? Public school worked fine for them. The public schools in the Valley then were full of smart Jewish kids. 

I was talking to my dentist about his upbringing. He's nice Jewish guy the same age as me from Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley, and I realized that his parents never paid a dime of tuition for his education: Millikan Junior High, Grant H.S., Valley J.C., Cal State Northridge, and UCLA Dental School.

This pro-public school ideology worked well until busing from South-Central to the Valley was imposed in the late 1970s. The political resistance to busing in the Valley was led by Jewish moms like Bobbie Fiedler and Roberta Weintraub, and Jewish dads like Alan Robbins. They eventually had some success, but the tradition that Jews send their children to public schools was broken, and then the Hispanic influx overwhelmed LAUSD.

Nowadays in contrast, Jewish parents in Sherman Oaks almost always send their kids to private schools (there are vastly more private Jewish schools in the Valley today than when I was a kid) at least from sixth grade onward, move to the Las Virgenes school district, or figure out a way to get their children into magnet programs.

But, does it have to be this way? What if all upper middle class parents sweet-talked or badgered each other into sending their children to public school?

It's starting to happen in Lower Manhattan. Brooklyn is following.

The nirvana of gentrification is Good Public Schools.

Benedikt repeats the usual talking points about how public schools will be great if parents just demanded More Resources. Of course, the most valuable resource is Good Students. And, indeed, parents can play a big role in that. For example, when my wife finally figured out how to get our son into Millikan Middle School's fine elite programs, she talked the parents of my son's two best friends into transferring with him from the Lutheran school they were attending. (One of the pair is now at the U. of Chicago.)

U.K. still has constitutional government

From the NYT:
Prime Minister David Cameron said that Britain would not participate militarily in any strike against Syria after he lost a parliamentary vote on Thursday on an anodyne motion urging an international response by 13 votes.
It was a stunning defeat for a government that had seemed days away from joining the United States and France in a short, punitive cruise-missile attack on the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons against civilians. 
Thursday evening’s vote was nonbinding, but in a short statement to Parliament afterward, Mr. Cameron said that he respected the will of Parliament and that it was clear to him that the British people did not want to see military action over Syria. “I get it,” he said. 
The government motion was defeated by 285 votes to 272.

In contrast, the United States Congress hasn't bothered to exercise its Constitutional responsibility to declare war on anybody that the U.S. has gone to war with since WWII. It's just so much more pleasant for members of Congress to delegate the decision to go to war to the Executive Branch, while they go around passing laws (e.g., criminal sentence lengths) usurping state powers.

(Some of the sub-Declaration of War debates in Congress, notably the close, hard-fought one before the 1991 Gulf War, were pretty good. But, still ...)

Baseball eyesight question

In my review of David Epstein's The Sports Gene, I relay his surmise that major league hitters are distinguished less by quick reaction times than by phenomenal eyesight, 20/10 uncorrected being not uncommon among big leaguers. (Here's a list of bespectacled ballplayers: Chick Hafey, Reggie Jackson, and Dick Allen are the only top hitters. No mention of hitters with contact lenses or Lasik surgery available.)

To the extent that this is true, what's the maximum number of books you can read as a boy and still grow up to hit big league pitching? And does this have anything to do with the difficulties sportswriters have getting interesting quotes from sluggers?

August 28, 2013

NYT: Israel wants fertility quality, not just quantity

As with nature and nurture, it's useful to think about both quantity and quality. Apparently, that's more normal to do in Israel than in America. From the New York Times:
Children of Israel 
TEL AVIV — Israel likes children and it wants more of them. It has high fertility rates — the highest, in fact, of all the states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: almost 3 children per household, compared with an O.E.C.D. average of just over 1.7. It invests a lot of money in making fertility clinics and treatments accessible to its citizens. 
The main reason for this support is obvious: The Jewish people are small in number, and Israel is a small country surrounded by many enemies. 
And yet, under a cut implemented last week, my household will now receive just under $140 a month in state subsidies for my four children, down from $250 a month. 
Why? Because Israel’s concerns about demographics aren’t just about quantity. 
Almost all Jewish Israelis want the country to remain a Jewish homeland, and so it must maintain a Jewish majority. They also want it to be a democracy, both liberal and economically strong. 
And those goals may be threatened by the two Israeli sub-groups who have the most children — ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredis, and Arabs. The birthrate for Jewish women in Israel is almost 3, whereas it is 3.5 for Arabs and 6.5 for Haredis.

It's hard to get TFR estimates for Jewish Israeli women who aren't Ultras. My guess is that they are fairly high by OECD standards, but it would be nice to have a link. Anybody?
Israel’s Bureau of Statistics says that by 2019 a majority of school children will be either ultra-Orthodox or Arab. And these are just the groups whose participation in the work force is low and among whom the poverty rate is high. 

What's the defection rate from the Ultras? I recall an article on a Brooklyn neighborhood, where somebody pointed out that if an ultra-Orthodox young man gets up one morning and trims his facial hair in a more ironic manner, well, he's now a hipster. And this happens not all that infrequently.
High fertility among these groups appears to have created an economic problem that is only exacerbated by state subsidies. Dan Meridor, a former finance minister known for his liberal views, formulated the problem this way back in 2010: “There are whole social classes in the population, especially where not everyone works, with many children born with the state’s encouragement.” ...
When the cuts became effective last week, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said: “It has been proven repeatedly that child allowances do not get people out of poverty. They perpetuate poverty.” If Arabs and Haredis received fewer subsidies, the thinking goes, they might enter the work force or have fewer children (or both), and so they might be less poor. 
This is a reasonable line of thinking. Births among Arabs and Haredis remain high, but they have declined in recent years, possibly because of a previous round of cuts in subsidies. And more Haredis seem to be joining the work force because of growing social and economic pressure.

My hunch is the Israeli government generally views the Ultras as a demographic reserve: it subsidizes healthy men to sit around studying the Torah and procreating to boost the overall Jewish birth rate. But when the government decides they have enough Jews and thus turns off the welfare spigot, how fast can these guys go from tax consumers to tax contributors? (My guess is that the Israeli military has studied this kind of question in detail, but I don't know what answers they came up with.)
There are also political and cultural reasons behind the government’s move. Muslim Arabs and Haredis aren’t dreaming the Zionist dream of a secular Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. And for the Israelis who are, be they secular or Zionist-religious, Arabs make Israel feel less Jewish while Haredis make it feel too Jewish. 
In other words, Israel’s love of children is conditional: It wants more only so long as having more advances its goals. Last week’s cuts in subsidies show that those allowances were always less a measure of social justice (supporting those in need) than a means of social planning (supporting desired demographic trends). 
Deploying subsidies as incentives isn’t inherently bad, of course. And the need for both Haredis and Arabs to join the work force and better integrate into Israeli society is real, even urgent. But there’s something depressing about making them do that this way. 
I can live without that $110 or so I’m losing, but I realize the cuts will really hurt some of the Haredis and Arabs they target. Yet do I worry about that? Well, that’s how the incentive is supposed to work. And however much this disturbs me, I must admit that, like many other Jewish Israelis, I have come to feel alienated from and impatient with Haredis and Arabs. As a result I see less the needs of their children than the burdens they’ve placed on Israel.

There is much that Americans can learn from Israelis.

"Blitzkrieg Bop" and the 10,000 Hour Rule

Malcolm Gladwell writes in The New Yorker in defense of his 10,000 Hour Rule of practice:
... the psychologist John Hayes looked at seventy-six famous classical composers and found that, in almost every case, those composers did not create their greatest work until they had been composing for at least ten years. (The sole exceptions: Shostakovich and Paganini, who took nine years, and Erik Satie, who took eight.)

Writing great classical music is extremely hard.

Indeed, counting up years or hours of work needed for historical influence might be a reasonable way to rank art forms against each other: average years required to achieve a place in the history books. (Charles Murray's 2003 book Human Accomplishment shows that encyclopedias can be used to come up with reasonable lists of influential artists and works of art for purposes of quantitative analysis.)

One methodological tweak would be to not focus on time to an artist's greatest work but look instead for his first work to achieve some consensus level of greatness. This somewhat reduces the amount of subjective judgment required. For example, what was Beethoven's greatest work -- the 3rd Symphony? 5th? 6th? 7th? 9th? Or the late quartets? A fun question to debate, but clearly the 3rd (The Eroica), whether or not it's Beethoven's greatest, makes any kind of grade for greatness.

Moreover, years of effort required to achieve the immense breakthrough of the 3rd Symphony (which premiered when Beethoven was 34) is a more relevant statistic. If Beethoven had died right after the 3rd, that shouldn't change the answer to how long it took him to achieve a 3rd Symphony-level of greatness in classical composition.

Perhaps the greatest child prodigy composer was not Mozart but Mendelssohn, who wrote enduring works at 16 and 17 (Overture to A Midsummer's Night Dream). He had enjoyed the finest cultural education imaginable. That Mendelssohn lived long enough to top that is impressive, but not really relevant to thinking about the applicability of the 10,000 hour rule.

At the opposite end from composing classical music in terms of hours required might be composing punk rock. Consider the Ramones, who remain ridiculously influential all these decades later:
The Ramones were an American rock band that formed in the New York City neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens, in 1974. They are often cited as the first punk rock group.[1][2] Despite achieving only limited commercial success, the band was a major influence on the punk rock movement in both the United States and, perhaps to a greater extent, in the United Kingdom. ...
Their only record with enough U.S. sales to be certified gold was the compilation album Ramones Mania.[7] However, recognition of the band's importance built over the years, and they are now mentioned in many assessments of all-time great rock music, such as the Rolling Stone list of the 50 Greatest Artists of All Time[8] and VH1's 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock.[9] In 2002, the Ramones were ranked the second-greatest band of all time by Spin magazine, trailing only The Beatles.[10] On March 18, 2002, the Ramones—including the three founders and drummers Tommy and Marky Ramone—were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.[2][11] In 2011, the group was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.[12][13]

Drummer Tommy Ramone had been in bands before, so maybe he got his 10,000 hours there? Or did it just not take all that much effort to change the course of popular music history?

Guitarist Johnny Ramone came up with a sort of ideological explanation for the Ramones' linear, utterly unfunky style: the blues had dominated electric guitar music for so long that it was getting boring, so it was time for white people to come up with their own form of rock stripped of black influence.

Strikingly, Johnny's ideology of stylistic racial separatism proved hugely influential and remains relatively dominant even today. It fit in well with black grievances over whites "stealing" their stylistic innovations.

It was a pretty good idea in the 1970s, but here we are in 2013 and people are still wearing Ramones t-shirts.

While pop (made for girls and gays) continues to be a mixture of black and white elements, serious (i.e., masculine) popular music tends to follow the white rock v. black rap divide that had become evident by the end of the 1970s. This enduring racial division probably accounts in sizable part for the slowing of American popular music innovation over the last few decades in contrast to the astonishing creativity unleashed by black-white interaction in the first three quarters of the 20th Century.

The Ramones' most historically influential song, the one you hear in all the TV commercials in recent years, was their first single:
"Blitzkrieg Bop" is a song by the American punk rock band Ramones. It was released as the band's debut single in April 1976 in the United States. It appeared as the opening track on the band's debut album, Ramones, also released that month.  
The song, whose composition was credited to the band as a whole, was written by drummer Tommy Ramone (music and lyrics) and bassist Dee Dee Ramone (lyrics).[2] Based on a simple three-chord pattern, "Blitzkrieg Bop" opens with the chant "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" ...  
"Blitzkrieg Bop" is number 92 on the Rolling Stone list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In March 2005, Q magazine placed it at number 31 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks, and in 2008 Rolling Stone placed it number 18 on top 100 of Best Guitar Songs of All Time. In 2009 it was named the 25th greatest hard rock song of all time by VH1.[3]

Now, the interesting thing about the dominance of Blitzkrieg Bop today is that it doesn't stem from memories of a 1976 fad for the song. Practically nobody heard it in 1976. It slowly emerged later from a bunch of Ramones songs that are all quite similar.

A related but different question is the source of audiences' long-term bias toward the early stuff, such as Blitzkrieg Bop.

From Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing (1982):
Debbie: [...] How’s old Elvis? 
Henry: He’s dead. 
Debbie: I did know that. I mean how’s he holding up apart from that? 
Henry: I never went for him much. ‘All Shook Up’ was the last good one. However, I suppose that’s the fate of all us artists. 
Debbie: Death?
Henry: People saying they preferred the early stuff.

The Ramones, for instance, were not a flash-in-the-pan that burned brilliantly and vanished. I saw them in, roughly 1979, 1980, and 1994 and they were the same old Ramones each time. All those thousands of hours didn't seem to make them better, but there was also something a little endearing about how they didn't get worse.

I probably would argue that the Ramones' greatest song is Teenage Lobotomy from their third album. That appeared to be the opinion as well of Dee Dee Ramone, who named his memoir, Lobotomy, after his composition. (Dee Dee didn't offer too much insight into how he came up with so many of the Ramones songs: it was just kind of a knack, he explained.)

But, Blitzkrieg Bop might be the Ramonesiest Ramones song ever, so history has been kindest their first song, even though practically nobody heard Blitzkrieg Bop when it first came out.

I think this is an important point that's easy to overlook: much of historical influence comes from the impact of the artist's unique personality, once he's achieved some level of competence to allow his novel approach to be appreciated.

Similarly, Stoppard fans increasingly tend to view Arcadia from 1993 as his masterpiece, but his first play to be staged, 1966's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, remains his most famous. That's not unreasonably, because it's awfully Stoppardish. If you keep hearing about this Stoppard fellow and want to find out what his plays are like, Rosencrantz is a good place to start. It's classic Early Stuff: somebody comes a long with a new angle on things and this is the first time he gets it together well enough for the public to notice. After that, he has to react against what he's already done.

It's worth noting that "the early stuff" isn't necessarily the first stuff.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead wasn't the first Stoppard piece to be mounted. I'm reading a book of early Stoppard work that includes some of his TV plays broadcast shortly before Rosencrantz. Pleasant, but their obscurity is not undeserved. By the way, by the time Rosencrantz debuted when Stoppard was 29, he'd been a full-time professional writer (e.g., reporter, theater critic, etc.) for a decade since leaving school.

It really does take a long time to get good in the higher fields.

Man doing his job

Evan Longoria, All-Star third-baseman for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, is being interviewed in foul territory in short right field, when ...

August 27, 2013

David Epstein's "The Sports Gene" reviewed

From my book review in Taki's Magazine:
Structured around the dismantling of the profitable notion pushed by self-help seers such as Malcolm Gladwell that 10,000 hours of monomaniacal practice is the secret of success, David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance is one of the best books on human biodiversity in recent years.  
Beyond undermining Gladwellian blank-slatism, Epstein extols the sheer pleasure of noticing humanity’s variety for its own sake. On his book’s penultimate page, he writes:  
…sports will continue to provide a splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that’s human biological diversity. Amid the pageantry of the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, make sure to look for the extremes of the human physique.…It is breathtaking to think that, in the truest genetic sense, we are all a large family, and that the paths of our ancestors have left us wonderfully distinct. 
Epstein, a Sports Illustrated reporter, builds upon the work of journalists such as Jon Entine (Taboo) and me in taking an evenhanded look at the roles of both nature and nurture.

Read the whole thing there.

The testing industry's Golden Age

When you are thinking about a career or a part-time job, don't overlook the testing industry. You might think that nothing much is going on in the cognitive testing racket since the implementation of item response theory awhile back as computing power became adequate, but you'd be mistaken. There are lots of new revenue opportunities in testing (and in it's evil/nice twin, tutoring). From the WSJ:
Are You Ready for the Post-College SAT? 
Employers Say They Don't Trust Grade-Point Averages 
Next spring, seniors at about 200 U.S. colleges will take a new test that could prove more important to their future than final exams: an SAT-like assessment that aims to cut through grade-point averages and judge students' real value to employers. 
The test, called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, "provides an objective, benchmarked report card for critical thinking skills," said David Pate, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at St. John Fisher College, a small liberal-arts school near Rochester, N.Y. "The students will be able to use it to go out and market themselves." 
The test is part of a movement to find new ways to assess the skills of graduates. Employers say grades can be misleading and that they have grown skeptical of college credentials. 
"For too long, colleges and universities have said to the American public, to students and their parents, 'Trust us, we're professional. If we say that you're learning and we give you a diploma it means you're prepared,' " said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. "But that's not true." 
The new voluntary test, which the nonprofit behind it calls CLA +, represents the latest threat to the fraying monopoly that traditional four-year colleges have enjoyed in defining what it means to be well educated.

Here's a sample question: You look at some graphs on cell phone usage while driving, then write a several hundred word essay on whether it would be a good idea to pass a law banning phoning while driving.

Reasoning from quantitative data doesn't sound like a bad thing to test at all -- I do it all day long -- but I suspect it will just widen The Gap, with Moneyball fans benefiting the most. We all have these stereotypes about the reason that Hispanic girls don't do as well on tests overall as upper middle class white males is because tests don't test critical thinking skills and synthesizing inferences from data and so forth. But if you look around an airport book store, the frequent fliers, the people whose employers find it profitable to send around the country to deal with problems, seem to be mostly white and Asian guys who like Moneyball, Freakonomics, Nate Silver, Malcolm Gladwell and the like. So, making tests more like reading a Bill James essay is probably not going to close the gap, but you are a racist if you predict that, so, sure, go ahead.

After awhile, it will be noted that this latest panacea test hasn't closed The Gap, so new tests will be demanded.

Regarding job opportunities: My first thought is that they are going to have to hire a whole bunch of people to read these essays and grade them. It's boring work, but you get to do it indoors while sitting down. My second thought is that there would be a market if anybody could come up with a way to computerize grading. My third thought is that if this takes off, there will be a huge market for tutoring. And think how much more effective your tutoring will be if you could, say, know what the questions will be ahead of time.

Much the same thinking applies to the huge opportunities opened up by all the new tests demanded by the Common Core.

And then after awhile, there will be new buzzwords and then new tests. Rinse and repeat, forever.

Forrest Gump goes to Berkeley

Thanks to all my readers who called attention to a long Los Angeles Times article by Kurt Streeter:
South L.A. student finds a different world at Cal 
Kashawn Campbell grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. Yet he became a straight-A student at Jefferson High School. But at UC Berkeley, he found challenges far greater than he anticipated. 

Education Realist offers a close reading of the article and comes up, in so many words, with the most plausible interpretation: Kashawn is Forrest Gump, a sweet kid who may have suffered brain damage during a difficult birth, but whom everybody around him has conspired to make things easier for him ever since because he's so nice. For example, his 91% Hispanic school, Roosevelt High in South-Central, voted him Prom King. ER writes:
You know when a slight, geeky, weird guy with awkward social skills is voted most likely to succeed and prom king? When it’s an act of charity, an act that makes a group of tough kids feel good about themselves—that is, when the kid in question is “special”. 

It's a heartwarming story. Of course, Forrest Gump was only a movie, and unless somebody gives Kashawn a bundle of Apple stock (Laurene Powell Jobs, I'm looking at you), it's not likely to turn out as well. Berkeley, for example, is not a nice college for nice but slow students. 

California actually has a pretty good system, set up around the Sputnik Era, for how high school grads can go to community college, then, if they flourish, transfer to UC schools. But, that long slow path isn't as heartwarming for those around him looking for the quick self-congratulatory fix of getting poor Kashawn into Berkeley.

This whole Syria thing will work out, right?

August 26, 2013

The world's most boring insight, again

A couple of philosophers of science complain in the New York Times:
The trouble with economics is that it lacks the most important of science’s characteristics — a record of improvement in predictive range and accuracy.

This is what makes economics a subject of special interest among philosophers of science. None of our models of science really fit economics at all. 
The irony is that for a long time economists announced a semiofficial allegiance to Karl Popper’s demand for falsifiability as the litmus test for science, and adopted Milton Friedman’s thesis that the only thing that mattered in science was predictive power. Mr. Friedman was reacting to a criticism made by Marxist economists and historical economists that mathematical economics was useless because it made so many idealized assumptions about economic processes: perfect rationality, infinite divisibility of commodities, constant returns to scale, complete information, no price setting. 
Mr. Friedman argued that false assumptions didn’t matter any more in economics than they did in physics. Like the “ideal gas,” “frictionless plane” and “center of gravity” in physics, idealizations in economics are both harmless and necessary. They are indispensable calculating devices and approximations that enable the economist to make predictions about markets, industries and economies the way they enable physicists to predict eclipses and tides, or prevent bridge collapses and power failures. 
But economics has never been able to show the record of improvement in predictive successes that physical science has shown through its use of harmless idealizations. In fact, when it comes to economic theory’s track record, there isn’t much predictive success to speak of at all. 

On August 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon announced a freeze on all wages and prices in America for three months. From the perspective of 2013, this sounds like I'm making it up. But it really happened and was popular at the time. Milton Friedman was the loudest voice predicting it would turn out to be a bad idea (which it did).

My recurrent point is that that the set of possibilities for which people are interested in predictions is a tiny fraction of all possibilities. In the past it seemed like a pretty good idea to freeze all the prices in the country. Today, nobody is interested in the opinions of economists on why that would turn out poorly. That's not the fault of economists.

People want predictions for situations that are hard to predict. Who will win the tennis tournament? Interesting. Can a woman tennis star beat a male tennis star? No longer interesting. Which question is more important in that the right answer is broadly applicable? The boring one. But noticing the pattern that boring predictions are more important than exciting predictions is meta-boring, so nobody notices.

Did the Mob win feminism's biggest battle?

Back in 1973, the biggest deal in the history of the world was a tennis match between the top American woman, 29-year-old Billie Jean King, and a 55-year-old tennis and golf hustler named Bobby Riggs. Riggs, a small man, had won Wimbledon as an amateur in 1939, and played some successful pro tennis after the War. Since then he'd supported himself gambling, such as playing amateurs using an umbrella while holding a dog on a leash. (Sports used to be more fun when they were mostly excuses for betting.)

In a television match earlier in 1973, Riggs had easily defeated the #1 ranked woman, Australian Margaret Court, flummoxing her with his cunning Old Man Game of dinks and floaters.

Jerry Perenchio, future owner of Univision, then set up a giant promotion machine to make the Riggs-King match in the Astrodome a referendum on Women's Lib. Riggs spent four months partying, showed up fat and listless, and was thoroughly drubbed by King, who, mercifully, denied him the contractually-required rematch.

A new article in ESPN by Don Van Natta Jr. (hat tip Jonathan Last) fleshes out the long-time rumor that Riggs threw the match to get out of debt to his mafia bookmakers. The journalist has found some guy who claimed to have overheard hitmen spell out the whole plan. It sounds much like JFK assassination lore.

Since then, there have been remarkably few Battles of the Sexes. Even before then, it was known that the best women softball pictures could strike out major league batters, at least until the guys got a chance to adjust to underhand pitching. But, mostly, nothing much happens.

Back in 2003, Annika Sorenstam got really pumped up and entered a PGA tournament. She was only one over par the first day, and that became a 24-hours wonder in the media, but she faded on the second day and missed the cut by four strokes, as I had predicted.

It would be interesting to know what other Landmark Cultural Milestones were rigged.

There's been a rumor that in recent years a Very Famous tennis or golf star had to be bailed out of 8 or 9 figures of debt to his sports bookmakers by his marketing company. I suspect that the rise of endorsement income in the country club sports has lowered the incentive to throw tournaments.

Hands off our megaphone!

The Washington Post runs the Associated Press's report on Oberlin:
Student: Racist postings on campus of Oberlin College meant as a ‘joke’

By Associated Press, Published: August 25 
OBERLIN, Ohio — An Oberlin College student acknowledged posting anti-Islam fliers and racist cards around the campus of the historically liberal Ohio university earlier this year, saying he meant them as a “joke” to provoke a reaction, according to statements he made after being detained by campus security. 
The student also took credit for the display of a large Nazi flag, which he also said he meant as a joke, and posting the face of Oberlin’s president onto a picture of Adolf Hitler, according to the statements contained in an Oberlin city police report. 
The student, detained after allegedly being seen posting anti-Islam fliers in the college’s Science Center Feb. 27, denied involvement in other, earlier racist postings and said he was trying to show people had overreacted to them. 
The student, whose name was blacked out, said the people who put up earlier fliers were just looking for attention. 
“I put out these fliers to get a similar over-reaction to prove this point,” the student said, according to the report. 
A series of postings and incidents over the winter caused an uproar at Oberlin, enrollment 2,900, one of the nation’s first universities to admit blacks. Black History Month posters were defaced, a “whites only” sign placed above a water fountain and a swastika drawn on a window. In early March, classes were canceled after a report of someone wearing what looked like a Ku Klux Klan-type hooded robe on campus. 
A second student detained the same day denied helping make a swastika banner placed in the center and also denied he knew what his friend was up to, saying he was just tagging along, according to his statement. 
Police declined to file charges but Oberlin College spokesman Scott Wargo said Friday both students are going through the school’s disciplinary system. 
“You had fliers with threats of violence and hate speech and rape that are being posted on doors and in hallways and on mailboxes,” Wargo said, adding: “It didn’t make it less real for those who had to endure it firsthand, and creating an atmosphere where people are afraid and feel threatened — it isn’t a joke.”

August 25, 2013

World War T funding becoming available

From the Forbes 400 list
James Pritzker
Net Worth $1.5 B As of March 2013
CEO, Tawani Enterprises
Age: 62
Source of Wealth: hotels, investments
Residence: Chicago, IL
Country of Citizenship: United States
Education: Bachelor of Arts / Science, Loyola University Illinois
Marital Status: Divorced
Children: 3

From the Chicago Sun-Times
Billionaire philanthropist Pritzker announces she is now a woman 
BY TODD SHIELDS Sun-Times Media August 23, 2013 9:12PM

The billionaire retired U.S. Army colonel James Pritzker has announced he is a woman — Jennifer Natalya Pritzker. 
According to Crain’s Chicago Business, a memo dated Aug. 16 and sent to the Pritzker Military Library and Tawani Enterprises announced Pritzker’s name officially had been changed. 
“This change will reflect the beliefs of her true identity that she has held privately and will now share publicly,” the memo stated. 
“Pritzker now identifies herself as a woman for all business and personal undertakings.” 
Pritzker’s father was the late Robert Pritzker. Robert Pritzker founded Marmon Group, a manufacturing and industrial conglomerate. 
Her uncles founded the Hyatt Hotel chain. 
Pritzker, 63, is president/CEO of Tawani and she chairs the military library. She served 11 years in the military, including a stint in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. 
Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Illinois Equality, said Pritzker’s announcement should inspire young people faced with the same life-changing decision. 
Equality Illinois’ mission is to secure and defend equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Illinois. 
“It’s important to know that his high-profile life and distinguished military career should be a role model for young people,” he said. 
“Jennifer’s story moves the whole conversation forward to a national center on transgender equality.” 
Cherkasov also said Pritzker’s coming out into the open demonstrated transgender people “are in every walk of life.” 
“Her career has three streams — the military, business and the museum. She has a successful and accomplished life.”
In July, Pritzker’s Tawani Foundation gave a $3.5 million grant to the University of California’s Palm Center to study transgender people in the military, according to Courthouse News Service.

If gender is instantly and unquestionably malleable, how about race? Can I announce I now belong to the race of Pritzkers and therefore, despite any racist quibbles about my DNA that my new fellow Pritzkers might offer in objection, collect my fair share of the Pritzker inheritance?

P.S., You'll notice that, while the party line of transexuals is that they always felt like a little girl on the inside, they often get extremely angry at scientists who suggest an alternative explanation for some of them: that it's a weird sexual fetish.

For example, this guy, who has three children (does he want them to now call him "Mom?" And what does their mother think?), was born very rich -- a friend of mine served as a nanny to various Pritzker children over 40 years ago on their sojourns in Paris and the Riviera (perhaps as nanny to his cousin Penny, now Obama's Secretary of Commerce). He could have done anything. But, he chose to serve eleven years in the Army, then 16 in the National Guard, rising to the rank of colonel.
His big philanthropic endeavor was founding the Pritzker Military Library. In other words, this guy likes military stuff more than 99% of all men and 99.99% of all women on earth.

You can make up a list of other well-known transexuals with exceptionally masculine interests, such as economist Donald "Deirdre" McCloskey, who played football at Harvard. There are no athletic scholarships at Harvard, so he played football because he liked knocking other guys down.

Yeah, I know, I'm the victim of obsolete stereotypes that tackle football and warfare are more appealing to masculine than feminine minds. Who doesn't know a little girl these days who has a bedroom full of books on war and Ray Lewis posters?

Now, some transexuals are at the opposite pole -- extremely effeminate gay men who want to snag A Real Man. But many of the most aggressive take-no-prisoners transexual activists who have led the attacks on the scientists studying their condition are extremely masculine x-men.

And that's part of the added appeal of the oncoming World War T -- not just the "transgressive" stuff shocking the rubes in the corn belt, but the opportunity to lie, to silence scientists, and to not get the joke, well, that stuff is the cherry on top.

"Heaven's Gate"

I finally got around to watching a small fraction of Michael Cimino's famous flop of 1980, the epic Western Heaven's Gate. It's being critically re-evaluated following a Criterion DVD release last year. 

It appears to have been before it's time, as it's now being celebrated for exposing how rich white capitalists hated immigrants. You may have been under the impression that American capitalists favored mass immigration as a source of cheap labor, while the opposition to immigration came from labor, Progressive reformers, and the like, but that just shows you know a suspicious amount about history. What are you? An anti-ignorite?

"Heaven's Gate" is very long, but there are some staggering scenes in it. For example, check out the shot of the waltz after the 1870 Harvard graduation from 0:17 to 0:43 in the above clip. This tops even Cimino's endless Russian wedding celebration in the first 45 minutes of his 1978 Oscar-winning fever dream The Deer Hunter.

Granted, this waltz scene is goofy. This is a cowboy shoot-em-up movie, not a musical or a huge budget Student Prince operetta. And why is a middle-aged Kris Kristofferson finally graduating from college? Is his fraternity buddy played by Roddy McDowell, or is he that guy with the Alien in his chest? And in either case, isn't McDowell/Hurt a little old for Harvard? Is that Harvard, or is Harvard not picturesque enough for Cimino, so he filmed it at Oxford? And why after a couple of minutes of dancing does the film seem to jump backwards an hour in time to the newly graduated boys playing ring-around-the-rosey and brawling? 

Presumably, it's just all the Scarface-sized piles of cocaine consumed on the set, but who knows?

Then the movie jumps forward a couple of decades to the famous Johnson County War between big and small cattle ranchers. 

You may be surprised, however, to learn that Wyoming in 1892 was completely covered in Huddled Masses. Kristofferson, now the Marshall of Johnson County, is the only passenger inside the train carriage, while hundreds of impoverished immigrants cling to the roof, like it's the night train to Calcutta. Then, the immigrants trudge in a vast sea of humanity across the barren High Plains toward the looming Rockies. Why have so many chosen such a dry, cold destination? Perhaps they are going to Butte to work in the mines? No, they are just going out into the picturesque emptiness to farm or ranch or rustle cattle or do whatever it is that people who aren't music publishers and costume designers like normal folks (i.e., Cimino's parents) do.

Vincent Canby's famously destructive review in the New York Times' began:
''HEAVEN'S GATE,'' Michael Cimino's gigantic new western and his first film since the Oscar-winning ''The Deer Hunter,'' is apparently based on a historical incident that occured in Johnson County, Wyo. in 1890: with the tacit approval of the state government, the county's wealthy cattle barons banded together in a systematic attempt to murder more than 100 German, Bulgarian, Russian and Ukrainian settlers who were encroaching on their lands. If one can say nothing else on behalf of ''Heaven's Gate'' (and I certainly can't), it's probably the first western to celebrate the role played by central and eastern Europeans in the settlement of the American West.

Was Canby surprised about his ignorance of the giant role of immigrants in Wyoming history because nobody much cares about Slavs? Or was it because Cimino just made up the whole immigrant angle?

You can't really blame Canby for not knowing anything more than Cimino did about the history. They didn't have Wikipedia back then. Today, however, you can look up "Heaven's Gate" in Wikipedia and read:
Apart from being set in Wyoming and the fact that many of the characters have the names of key figures in the Johnson County War, the plot and the characters themselves have almost no relation to the actual historical people and events.[12] While there were certainly small numbers of settlers arriving in northern Wyoming, there were not hordes of poor European immigrants streaming en masse,[13] let alone killing rich men's cattle out of hunger.  

For example, the names of some of the small ranchers and their allies in the Johnson County War who were attacked by the big ranchers include Tom Waggoner, Nate Champion, Ellen Watson, Jim Averell, John A. Tisdale, Orley “Ranger” Jones, and Willis Van Devanter. The Johnson County War, as more accurately depicted in Open Range with Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner as small timers shooting it out with the big money boys, was actually Old Americans v. Old Americans.

But we've got the Internet now, so the critics who are revisiting Heaven's Gate at their leisure are  .... as well-informed about the immigration aspect as Canby working against deadline was in 1980. For example, NPR reported last December:
With that conflict established, the movie slowly, slowly, slowly builds to the actual historical event known as the Johnson County War between mercenary killers and immigrants. And it must be said that this showdown actually feels more timely now — in this era of Occupy Wall Street and fierce battles over immigration — than it did at the very beginning of the Reagan era, when the film's gutbucket Marxism ran against the prevailing cultural mood.

Oh, well.

Speaking of World War T, for recent photographs of Cimino and accompanying rumors, see here.