Inside the Superforecasters

November 30th, 2015

Superforecaster Michael Story provides his own inside look at the Good Judgement Project:

The only requirement for entry to which was an undergraduate degree and the willingness to give it a go, and the weighted average forecasts of the main sample beat the 4 year programme’s final projected goals in year one. The project has also produced novel findings for psychological science, the most important being that there are some people who, independent of knowledge about a particular region or subfield, are just really good at forecasting.

The idea that forecasting is an independent skill to domain specific expertise seems rather novel. What impact do you think it will have?

The idea that forecasting is an independent skill is absolutely revolutionary to organisations involved in intelligence gathering or dissemination. They nearly all recruit by regional expertise and use subject matter knowledge as a proxy for future predictive power. But Tetlock and the team that he and his wife have created (fellow psychology professor Barbara Mellors) and named ‘the Good Judgment Project‘ discovered that this isn’t nearly as important as one might think. An amateur with a good forecasting record will generally outperform an expert without one.

For example, putting the top 2% of performers, the ‘Superforecasters’ into teams, enlarged their lead over the already highly performing sample to 65%, and beat the algorithms of competitor teams by between 35 and 60%, the open prediction markets by 20-35%, and (according to unconfirmed leaks from the Intelligence Community) the forecasts of professional government intelligence analysts by 30%. Some people are just very good at forecasting indeed.

What makes someone a superforecaster?

Part of it is personality, part of it the environment and incentives in which the forecasts take place, and there’s a role for training too.

Superforecasters were, in comparison to the general population of forecasting volunteers, more actively open minded — actively trying to disprove their own hypotheses, with a high fluid IQ, high need for cognition and a comfort with numbers.

But even the best forecasters need the right incentives- people who are rewarded for being ‘yes men’ will never give you their best work regardless of potential.

Can superforecasting be trained?

Given three hours of rationality and source-discovery training, nearly everyone (even relatively poor performers) got better. Being encouraged to think about the ‘outside view’ of a situation, looking for comparisons, base rates, and a healthy dose of Baysian thinking works wonders for one’s Brier score.

What has your experience been like?

My personal experience of fellow superforecasters was one of similarity — despite coming from a great variety of national and educational backgrounds, the first time we all gathered in one place together over at Berkeley college in California, a chap sitting next to me (now a colleague and pal) whispered that he ‘felt like that scene at the end of E.T. where he returns to his home planet and meets all the other E.T.s’. The personality factors certainly seemed dominant in the room. It’s amazing where an email can take you.

Guedelon Castle

November 30th, 2015

In a forest in Burgundy, a 13th-century castle is being built using only the tools, techniques, and materials available to the builders of the time:

It’s archaeology in reverse.

The Guédelon project was started in 1997 at this location, which was chosen because it was near an abandoned stone quarry, a pond for water, and in a forest that could provide wood. The whole exercise is an experimental archaeology endeavor that seeks to discover what it would have been like to create a castle centuries ago, not by making guesses from artifacts from the past, but by experiencing it in real time. Knotted rope is used to make measurements, stone is imperfectly cut to denote the station of the castle’s owner, and rock is chiseled by hand.

Guedelon Castle 2013

Guedelon Castle 2013 Opposite

Something similar is going on in Arkansas.


November 29th, 2015

Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle opens with a haunting version of Edelweiss:

Here is the iconic tune from The Sound of Music — a love song to a person, a love song to a country, a love song to all that is swept up in the phrase “way of life” — transformed into an anthem of dystopia. Here is a story about the tyrannies of fascism, set to a song that is known — or, at least, that has been known — for being soft and lush and lullaby-like. Here is a song of freedom, transformed into one of despair.

It’s a common misconception that “Edelweiss” is a classic Austrian folk song, selected for The Sound of Music to bring to the show an added dash of cultural authenticity. It is not. It was written for the musical in the late 1950s by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wanted to create a song for Captain von Trapp that would subtly convey his regret and his sadness and his pre-emptive nostalgia at having to leave Austria after the Nazi takeover. And since the actor playing von Trapp in the Broadway show, Theodore Bikel, was also an accomplished folk guitarist, the pair decided to write his elegy as if it were, indeed, a folk song.

For the lyrics of “Edelweiss,” Rodgers and Hammerstein focused on the German myths about the edelweiss flower, famed not only for its metaphor-friendly ability to withstand harsh Alpine winters but also for its symbolism of love’s triumphs: Suitors would climb the Alps to pick the flowers, giving them as gifts that proved both their prowess and their affection.


Rodgers and Hammerstein created “Edelweiss” with the intention that it would do double duty: It was to be a song of acquiescence — to family, to love, to the small satisfactions of stability — and also of resistance. It was both a symbol and an instrument of the Von Trapps’ fleeing of the Nazis — an embodiment of their belief that the “homeland” was something that could, like a flower that blooms in winter, survive the harshness of fascist rule. The original song, Playbill notes, “represented the indomitable spirit of the Austrians under Nazi control.” In The Man in the High Castle, it represents the American version of the same thing. “Edelweiss,” here, is a lullaby that is soothing precisely because it insists, against all odds, on staying awake.

Sustainable Produce

November 29th, 2015

Modern greenhouses are now in the vanguard of sustainability.

The logic of farmers’ markets begins with this: that the route from harvest to plate ought to be as direct as possible. That’s fine if farmers live round the corner from consumers. But urban land is in short supply, expensive, often polluted, and unsuitable for horticulture. And there is more. Even in a short chain from farm to table, produce can get spoiled. A fresh tomato is not dead; like all fresh products, it’s a living organism with an active metabolism, post-harvesting, that provides a fertile substrate for microorganisms and causes tomatoes to deteriorate very fast. Freshness does not in itself translate into sustainability: unless the supply chain is well?organised, losses can be considerable. And food losses come down to a waste of land, water, energy and chemicals used to produce what is ultimately discarded. This ought to be a good argument for local markets, but it is not. Everything depends on transportation, storage and speed. Poorly packed products go to waste in a matter of hours.

Thanks to decades of research, we now understand the interacting metabolisms of vegetables and microorganisms. We can design high-tech transport and storage techniques that slow down, even halt, deterioration through the use of harmless mixtures of gases. Chips fitted to containers give off signals when the gas composition and temperature need adjusting to plan ripening at the exact moment of delivery. Likewise, to minimise food losses in supermarkets, packaging techniques and materials have been developed to prolong shelf life. Surprising but true: modern treatments with biodegradable plastic bags and sealing create an optimal environment inside the package and reduce loss. So does the industrial washing of packed and cut vegetables, which also saves water, compared with household?level processing.

What then of labour? While ‘handpicked’ sounds attractive to the urban consumer or occasional gardener, this type of manual labour is backbreaking if done all day long. Remuneration is poor, job security close to zero, and only few are willing to do this kind of work. To top it all, the yield from organic farming is low. So think about the alternative: harvesting vegetables such as tomatoes with smart robots that carefully grab each fruit, after assessing its ripeness with a special camera; using smart technology to fine-tune the dosing of fertiliser to every stage of plant development. This enhances flavour and texture, and reduces the overall amount of fertiliser needed. The result is that, in greenhouses, one square metre of tomato plants produces more than 70 kilos of high?quality tomatoes, all of which make it to consumers’ kitchens.

Since we’re on the subject of freshness, consider this: ketchup might actually be better for us than fresh tomatoes – and not just because of economics (the tomatoes used in ketchup are subgrade ones that would otherwise be destroyed). While fresh tomatoes contribute to a healthy diet, human digestive systems are not tuned to extracting most nutrients from fresh tomatoes. Tomatoes are far more nutritious when cooked or processed into ketchup or paste. So, ketchup is no bad thing – unless overloaded with sugar and salt. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that the discovery of fire and cooking – that is, heating food – has been essential in the evolution of the human brain because it allowed for a better absorption of nutrients. Moreover, drying and smoking promoted the preservation of perishable foodstuffs, and perhaps facilitated the emergence of a more complex diet and division of labour.

But surely, you’ll object, tomatoes grown in small-scale gardens taste better. Not so! Double-blind tasting panels have been unable to pick out the greenhouse tomatoes as lacking in flavour, or tomatoes grown without fertiliser as more tasteful. According to Dutch reports on such testing, taste is more dependent on the variety of tomato than on the way it is grown. More importantly, the context of eating determines everything. The on-the-vine tomatoes you consume with mozzarella and olive oil on a village square in Italy will never taste the same at home. It’s a matter of psychology and gastronomy, not chemistry and biology.

In complete contrast to the mantras of organic farming, modern greenhouses are now in the vanguard of sustainability. No longer net?energy absorbers, pilot schemes show that they can produce enough additional energy to heat an entire neighbourhood by storing excess heat from the summer sun in groundwater to be released during winter. Since plants use only a small part of the solar spectrum in photosynthesis, modern technology enables us to find applications for the rest of the spectrum. Greenhouses also utilise residual CO2 from industry to promote plant growth and, in the Netherlands, CO2 from natural?gas production is routinely reused in agriculture. Conceiving greenhouses as net?energy producers opens up new opportunities to build them in hot, arid climates in order to use the stored energy for cooling down the facility.

But energy is just one dimension of sustainable production. Water is equally important. Here too, greenhouses optimise resource use. Under the very best conditions, one kilo of tomatoes can be produced using just 4-6 litres of water, because evaporation from plants can be collected and reused. Meanwhile, according to a 2015 study published in Science Direct, for tomatoes grown in the open air or under open plastic, the production of the same one kilo requires as much as 60 litres of water. Just as water might be reused in greenhouses, pests can be kept out. In a controlled environment, you can minimise the use of pesticides, or opt to use biological controls in the form of predatory insects.

Agricultural science has made great strides in breeding tomatoes with resistance to disease and pests, or with longer shelf-lives and better taste; while the latest genetic and biological techniques have increased our understanding of the genetic diversity of tomatoes and enabled us to speed up the breeding process. Such techniques do not always lead to genetically modified tomatoes. For that to happen, genes from other species would need to be introduced, of the kind that lead to higher vitamin contents in sweet potatoes, for example, or that use bacteria to build resistance against fungi.

So what do we really mean by sustainability? There have been many attempts at providing an exact and measurable definition beyond the statement of the Brundtland Report (1987), which coined the term in the context of equitable development that would not endanger the livelihoods of future generations. The concept originated in 19th-century forestry science to indicate the amount of wood that could be harvested from a forest without damaging future productivity. Since then, it has evolved to mean ‘respecting people, planet and profits’, in the parlance of the UN Earth Summit of 1992 and subsequent Millennium Development Goals.

Confessions of an ISIS Spy

November 28th, 2015

A former ISIS spy describes the situation inside the Caliphate:

Before the fight for the Kurdish town of Kobani last year, the caliphate had an aura of invincibility, and people from around the world were rushing to envelop themselves in the black flag of messianic victory. But in that battle, which lasted for months, Kurdish paramilitaries backed by U.S. airpower fought well, while ISIS — at least as far as Abu Khaled characterizes it — needlessly sent thousands to their slaughter, without any tactical, much less strategic, forethought. The jihadist army had lost between 4,000 and 5,000 fighters, most of them non-Syrians.

“Double this number are wounded and can’t fight anymore,” Abu Khaled told me. “They lost a leg or a hand.” Immigrants, then, are requisitioned as cannon fodder? He nodded. In September of last year, at the apogee of ISIS’s foreign recruitment surge, he says the influx of foreigners amazed even those welcoming them in. “We had like 3,000 foreign fighters who arrived every day to join ISIS. I mean, every day. And now we don’t have even like 50 or 60.”

This sudden shortfall has led to a careful rethinking by ISIS high command of how inhabitants outside of Syria and Iraq can best serve the cause. “The most important thing,” Abu Khaled said, “is that they are trying to make sleeper cells all over the world.” The ISIS leadership has “asked people to stay in their countries and fight there, kill citizens, blow up buildings, whatever they can do. You don’t have to come.”

Some of the jihadists under Abu Khaled’s tutelage have already left al-Dawla, the state, as he puts it, and gone back to their nations of origin. He mentioned two Frenchmen in their early 30s. What were their names? Abu Khaled claimed not to know. “We don’t ask these kinds of questions. We are all ‘Abu Something.’ Once you start asking about personal histories, this is the ultimate red flag.”

Following the Paris terrorist attacks on Nov. 13, which occurred almost a month after our meeting in Turkey, I contacted Abu Khaled. Now back in Aleppo, he told me that he was fairly certain that one or both of these French nationals were involved in some way in the coordinated assault, the worst atrocity to befall France since World War II, which has killed at least 132 and left almost as many critically wounded.

Where did we lose the microbes?

November 28th, 2015

Italian microbiologists compared the intestinal microbes of young villagers in Burkina Faso with those of children in Florence, Italy:

The villagers, who subsisted on a diet of mostly millet and sorghum, harbored far more microbial diversity than the Florentines, who ate a variant of the refined, Western diet. Where the Florentine microbial community was adapted to protein, fats, and simple sugars, the Burkina Faso microbiome was oriented toward degrading the complex plant carbohydrates we call fiber.


“It was the most different human microbiota composition we’d ever seen,” Sonnenburg told me. To his mind it carried a profound message: The Western microbiome, the community of microbes scientists thought of as “normal” and “healthy,” the one they used as a baseline against which to compare “diseased” microbiomes, might be considerably different than the community that prevailed during most of human evolution.

And so Sonnenburg wondered: If the Burkina Faso microbiome represented a kind of ancestral state for humans — the Neolithic in particular, or subsistence farming — and if the transition between that state and modern Florence represented a voyage from an agriculturalist’s existence to 21st-century urban living, then where along the way had the Florentines lost all those microbes?


Humans can’t digest soluble fiber, so we enlist microbes to dismantle it for us, sopping up their metabolites. The Burkina Faso microbiota produced about twice as much of these fermentation by-products, called short-chain fatty acids, as the Florentine. That gave a strong indication that fiber, the raw material solely fermented by microbes, was somehow boosting microbial diversity in the Africans.

Indeed, when Sonnenburg fed mice plenty of fiber, microbes that specialized in breaking it down bloomed, and the ecosystem became more diverse overall. When he fed mice a fiber-poor, sugary, Western-like diet, diversity plummeted. (Fiber-starved mice were also meaner and more difficult to handle.) But the losses weren’t permanent. Even after weeks on this junk food-like diet, an animal’s microbial diversity would mostly recover if it began consuming fiber again.

This was good news for Americans — our microbial communities might re-diversify if we just ate more whole grains and veggies. But it didn’t support the Sonnenburgs’ suspicion that the Western diet had triggered microbial extinctions. Yet then they saw what happened when pregnant mice went on the no-fiber diet: temporary depletions became permanent losses.

When we pass through the birth canal, we are slathered in our mother’s microbes, a kind of starter culture for our own community. In this case, though, pups born to mice on American-type diets — no fiber, lots of sugar — failed to acquire the full endowment of their mothers’ microbes. Entire groups of bacteria were lost during transmission. When Sonnenburg put these second-generation mice on a fiber-rich diet, their microbes failed to recover. The mice couldn’t regrow what they’d never inherited. And when these second-generation animals went on a fiberless diet in turn, their offspring inherited even fewer microbes. The microbial die-outs compounded across generations.

Desert Pirates

November 27th, 2015

The jihadists fight as if they were pirates, Nibras Kazimi argues, with the desert being their sea:

Apart from the outlier battle of Kobani, the jihadists do not fight pitched battles. According to an Iraqi security source, only 97 corpses of jihadists were found when Iraqi forces retook Tikrit. More recently, the Kurdish Peshmerga counted under 300 jihadist corpses in newly-liberated Sinjar. Jihadist swarmed in from the desert when they took Fallouja, Mosul, Ramadi and Palmyra.

They mistrust urban and rural populations after the experience of the Tribal Awakenings. From 2009 until 2012, the jihadists had to adapt to the desert as their strategic depth. They had to adapt to hostile skies too. They were largely driven out of major urban centers in 2004, and beyond that, they were driven out of the date groves and orchards of Mesopotamia.

Nowadays, they field various types of forces, but their elite and most successful ones, not to mention their best-equipped ones, are small, disparate mobile desert units that converge on a target when needed (for example, the inghimasiyeen forces). They treat the cities and towns they have captured as ports of call, for booty and resupply. When challenged by superior forces attempting to retake these ports, the jihadists dissolve away into the desert, leaving small and determined bands of fighters to deflect and bleed-out the invading force.

Their best fighters are not garrisoned in those cities; they live in the skiffs that carry them around the desert, such as the ubiquitous Toyota pick-up trucks they favor. There may be several mother ships in the desert that steam towards a target around which the skiffs gather.

They exercise strict force conservation, especially after the military debacle at Kobani. They have to do this either because the numbers of fighting men they have are too few (far less than intelligence estimates) or because they are holding them in reserve for big strategic pushes when the time is right.

The instinctual individualism of piracy is mitigated by having a cohesive ideology. One may understand the perplexing nature of the Paris targets as that of a jihadist skiff sailing further afield.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

Agriculture Linked to DNA Changes in Ancient Europe

November 27th, 2015

After agriculture arrived in Europe 8,500 years ago, people’s DNA underwent widespread changes, altering their height, digestion, immune system and skin color:

Previous studies had suggested that Europeans became better able to digest milk once they began raising cattle. Dr. Reich and his colleagues confirmed that LCT, a gene that aids milk digestion, did experience intense natural selection, rapidly becoming more common in ancient Europeans. But it didn’t happen when farming began in Europe, as had been supposed. The earliest sign of this change, it turns out, dates back only 4,000 years.

While agriculture brought benefits like a new supply of protein in milk, it also created risks. Early European farmers who depended mainly on wheat and other crops risked getting low doses of important nutrients.

So a gene called SLC22A4 proved advantageous as soon as Europeans started to farm, Dr. Reich and his colleagues found. It encodes a protein on the surface of cells that draws in an amino acid called ergothioneine. Wheat and other crops have low levels of ergothioneine, and the new variant increases its absorption. That would have increased the chances of survival among the farmers who had the gene.

Yet this solution created a problem of its own. The same segment of DNA that carries SLC22A4 also contains a variation that raises the risk of digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome. These diseases, then, may be an indirect consequence of Europe’s pivot toward agriculture.

Dr. Reich and his colleagues also tracked changes in the color of European skin.

The original hunter-gatherers, descendants of people who had come from Africa, had dark skin as recently as 9,000 years ago. Farmers arriving from Anatolia were lighter, and this trait spread through Europe. Later, a new gene variant emerged that lightened European skin even more.

Why? Scientists have long thought that light skin helped capture more vitamin D in sunlight at high latitudes. But early hunter-gatherers managed well with dark skin. Dr. Reich suggests that they got enough vitamin D in the meat they caught.

He hypothesizes that it was the shift to agriculture, which reduced the intake of vitamin D, that may have triggered a change in skin color.

The new collection of ancient DNA also allowed Dr. Reich and his colleagues to track the puzzling evolution of height in Europe. After sorting through 169 height-related genes, they found that Anatolian farmers were relatively tall, and the Yamnaya even taller.

Northern Europeans inherited a larger amount of Yamnaya DNA, making them taller, too. But in southern Europe, people grew shorter after the advent of farming.

Dr. Reich said it wasn’t clear why natural selection favored short stature in the south and not in the north. Whatever the reason, this evolutionary history still shapes differences in height across the continent today.

The Yale Problem Begins in High School

November 26th, 2015

After giving his Coddle U. vs. Strengthen U. speech at an elite private high school on the West Coast, Jonathan Haidt realized that the Yale Problem in fact begins in high school:

The entire student body — around 450 students, from grades 9-12 — were in the auditorium. There was plenty of laughter at all the right spots, and a lot of applause at the end, so I thought the talk was well received.

But then the discussion began, and it was the most unremittingly hostile questioning I’ve ever had. I don’t mind when people ask hard or critical questions, but I was surprised that I had misread the audience so thoroughly. My talk had little to do with gender, but the second question was “So you think rape is OK?” Like most of the questions, it was backed up by a sea of finger snaps — the sort you can hear in the infamous Yale video, where a student screams at Prof. Christakis to “be quiet” and tells him that he is “disgusting.” I had never heard the snapping before. When it happens in a large auditorium it is disconcerting. It makes you feel that you are facing an angry and unified mob — a feeling I have never had in 25 years of teaching and public speaking.

After the first dozen questions I noticed that not a single questioner was male. I began to search the sea of hands asking to be called on and I did find one boy, who asked a question that indicated that he too was critical of my talk. But other than him, the 200 or so boys in the audience sat silently.

After the Q&A, I got a half-standing ovation: almost all of the boys in the room stood up to cheer. And after the crowd broke up, a line of boys came up to me to thank me and shake my hand. Not a single girl came up to me afterward.

Cliff Asness

November 26th, 2015

Tyler Cowen interviews investment strategist Cliff Asness, who earns his geek cred in quant style:

Even the most insane billionaire cannot afford a hundredth of what frigging Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne have. It’s infuriating.

I’ve done well. I’m not the most insane out there. But if I wanted to go build a Batcave at my house, it would take approximately 600 times my wealth, and everyone would know about it.

I also enjoyed this light-hearted passage:

Cowen: Now, I think I’m interested in this issue, as I think you are. Extreme performances or performers, and it’s measured most readily in sports. So Gretzky is a kind of extreme outlier. In basketball, you could say Kareem Abdul?Jabbar who would be in the series as an outlier. Maybe Michael Jordan.

In sports or some other area of your choosing, which is the extreme outlier which strikes you as the most amazing? And you just say, “oh my God, I can’t believe there’s a Wayne Gretzky,” or a fill?in?the?blank-there for me, other than Gretzky.

Asness: I have no sense if this is actually accurate. But actually, no one could measure this. It can’t be accurate. You’re not going to believe what I’m going to say. Cirque du Soleil.

Cowen: Please explain.

Asness: When I sit there and watch Cirque du Soleil, which both my wife and I like, I literally walk out and go, “nobody can do this.” And I don’t think they are cheating.

Cowen: They’re not cheating, right?

Asness: But watch it again. It’s like a Looney Tunes show, where Daffy Duck dives from up there into a little thing of water down here, and he doesn’t die. I don’t know how they do it.

Everything else, the crash of ’87 was a 20 standard deviation event. Nothing. Wayne Gretzky, pretty good. The Cirque du Soleil people —

Cowen: Off the charts.

Asness: This story was from Vegas, and it’s not staying in Vegas. But, I was in Vegas, and I was exercising. I know you find that hard to believe, but I was.

The Cirque du Soleil people were in the gym, and you don’t want to ever do that. It is one of the most demeaning, humbling experiences.


Asness: They exercise exactly as — they did this thing where they just keep leaping over each other, and they go around in a circle, and they did it for like half an hour. And I’m sitting there on the StairMaster on a three.

On the Shooting of Laquan McDonald

November 25th, 2015

I was vaguely aware that the Chicago police had shot a black teenager last year and hadn’t released the video.

Nothing at all happens until five minutes in, when the car arrives at the scene:

Eric Raymond talks us through the shooting of Laquan McDonald:

The key portion of the video starts at about 5:19. The blade is visible in McDonald’s right hand; he draws it and brandishes it at 5:25 while facing slightly to the right of a police car that has him in its headlights. At 5:30 you can see that an officer has lined up a pistol on him.

At 5:32 he begins to turn towards the officers. One shoots immediately; he spins and goes down. At that point the officers go out of frame, but we can see at least one dust puff from an incoming bullet at 5:35. We see him either trying to get up off the ground at 5:36 or having a convulsion that simulates the motion; his head and shoulders rise slightly. As late as 5:38 his hands seem to be still moving.

We know from the autopsy that two bullets hit him when he was up and another 14 when he was down (or 15; accounts are inconsistent, and some may be counting at least one round that clearly missed and caused the dust puff).

Now let’s consider this from the responder’s point of view.

The first thing to be clear on is that McDonald was behaving in a crazily aggressive way when he died. You don’t pull a knife and brandish it in the presence of two cop cars if you’re thinking at all sanely.

If I had been a cop on the scene I would immediately have thought “angel dust”, and in fact the autopsy revealed that McDonald was high on PCP. This drug induces violence, freak strength, and insensitivity to pain.

This is a situation that amply justifies drawing a weapon and preparing to shoot. From the video, McDonald was well inside the 21-foot close-engagement limit – he could have rushed an officer with that knife before the officer could draw on him and trust me that this is not a chance to take with someone you suspect might be on PCP.

If you are any of the cops you are going to be adrenaline-dumping by now. This is a dangerous situation even with your gun drawn; the thug could charge you, take several bullets and still stab you fatally before he goes down. It’s happened often enough before.

Now, he angles slightly away from the group of cops, but they have to be thinking that if he shows any sign of charging they must shoot before he kills them.

I want to impress on my readers that this was a completely justified reaction. Everything the police have visibly done up to this point is textbook procedure for this situation, including what happens next: he turns towards them and Van Dyke, the cop now charged with murder, shoots.

We are still in unquestionable legal and ethical territory until McDonald goes down. What the police have done so far – those first two bullets – is correct.

The next correct thing to do would have been to stop firing for long enough to assess whether McDonald was still a threat. One way this could have gone is: Van Dyke stops shooting, McDonald levers himself off the ground, Van Dyke resumes shooting until McDonald is down again. That would still have been a “good shoot” for which Van Dyke would be neither legally nor morally culpable.

But that does not appear to be what happened. It appears that Van Dyke kept firing continuously at McDonald on the ground.


On the plain evidence of this video, what we have here is a criminally negligent homicide; manslaughter or possibly second-degree murder.

And if it is true that other cops conspired to cover it up, they should be prosecuted too. I can understand their reasoning – why let a cop who made a simple mistake under stress be ruined by the death of a drug-addict lowlife with a knife in his hand? But it was still wrong, because that habit of blue omerta covers up too much.

Charter Schools Better for Low-Income Students

November 25th, 2015

Research suggests that charter schools are better than public schools for low-income, nonwhite students in urban areas:

This pattern — positive results in low-income city neighborhoods, zero to negative results in relatively affluent suburbs — holds in lottery studies in Massachusetts as well in a national study of charter schools funded by the Education Department.

My own research, conducted with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, shows that charter schools in Boston produced huge gains in test scores. A majority of students at Boston’s charters are African-American and poor. Their score gains are large enough to reduce the black-white score gap in Boston’s middle schools by two-thirds.

Boston’s charters also do a better job at preparing students for college. Charter students are twice as likely to take an Advanced Placement exam as similar students in Boston’s other public schools. Ten percent of charter students pass an A.P. calculus test, compared with just 1 percent of similar students in other public schools. This stronger preparation means that these charter students are far more likely than similar students in traditional public schools to attend a four-year college.

Historic Rocket Landing

November 24th, 2015

Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin has made a historic rocket landing. They then mixed launch and landing footage with some jarring CGI in between:

The New Shepard is a fully reusable vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) space vehicle:

Blue Origin Trajectory

The Revenge of the Coddled

November 24th, 2015

Dominic Bouck, O.P., interviews Jonathan Haidt, and they discuss the revenge of the coddled:

I would not want to lead a conversation on this topic with students here at NYU. Not because NYU is more PC than other top schools—it’s not. But professors are much safer these days speaking at other campuses than on their own because it’s only on your own campus that students are going to file harassment charges and drag you before the Equal Opportunity Commission if you say one word that offends someone. So I must heavily self-censor when I speak on my home campus. I can be more provocative and honest when I’m speaking at other schools.

Children are anti-fragile. They have to have many, many experiences of failure, fear, and being challenged. Then they have to figure out ways to get themselves through it. If you deprive children of those experiences for eighteen years and then send them to college, they cannot cope. They don’t know what to do. The first time a romantic relationship fails or they get a low grade, they are not prepared because they have been rendered fragile by their childhoods. So until we can change childhood in America, we won’t be able to roll this back and make room of open debate.

My biggest prescription is that in every hospital delivery room, along with that first set of free diapers, should come the book: Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. If everyone in America read the book Free-Range Kids the problem would be over in 21 years, when the first set of tougher kids filled our universities.

If you try to reach students when they get to college it’s already too late…. As we say in the essay, childhood changed in 80s and 90s, there was much more protectiveness, there were new zero tolerance policies on bullying, which was fine when bullying was linked to physical aggression and to repeated actions. But bullying has gotten defined down over the last twenty years. There’s no longer a connection to physical violence, it no longer requires repetition, and it no longer requires intent. If someone feels excluded or marginalized by a single event, they have been bullied, and there’s zero tolerance for that. So that’s the way kids are socialized by the time they arrive in college…

What I would suggest is that if any school has an anti-bullying policy, they should balance it with an anti-coddling policy. They need to realize they can do a lot of harm if they coddle the students. They turn them into “moral dependents,” a term for people who cannot solve problems by themselves; they are morally dependent on adults or other authorities to solve their problems for them.

I love the interview note at the end:

This conversation took place on November 4. Over the following days, the meltdowns at Yale, Dartmouth, The University of Missouri, and Claremont McKenna College took place.

The Disorganized Kashba of Molenbeek

November 23rd, 2015

Teun Voeten called the disorganized Kashba of Molenbeek home for nine years:

In 2005, it was the city’s last affordable neighborhood — in large part because of its bad reputation. My apartment, just across the canal from the city center, is close to the home where two suspects in the Paris attacks were based, and around the corner from where the shooter from the foiled Thalys attack in August had been staying.

I was part of a new wave of young urban professionals, mostly white and college-educated — what the Belgians called bobo, (“bourgeois bohémiens”) — who settled in the area out of pragmatism. We had good intentions. Our contractor’s name was Hassan. He was Moroccan, and we thought that was very cool. We imagined that our kids would one day play happily with his on the street. We hoped for less garbage on the streets, less petty crime. We were confident our block would slowly improve, and that our lofts would increase in value. (We even dared to hope for a hip art gallery or a trendy bar.) We felt like pioneers of the Far West, like we were living in the trenches of the fight for a multicultural society.

Slowly, we woke up to reality. Hassan turned out to be a crook and disappeared with €95,000, the entire budget the tenants had pooled together for our building’s renovation. The neighborhood was hardly multicultural. Rather, with roughly 80 percent of the population of Moroccan origin, it was tragically conformist and homogenous. There may be a vibrant alternative culture in Casablanca and Marrakech, but certainly not in Molenbeek.

Over nine years, as I witnessed the neighborhood become increasingly intolerant. Alcohol became unavailable in most shops and supermarkets; I heard stories of fanatics at the Comte des Flandres metro station who pressured women to wear the veil; Islamic bookshops proliferated, and it became impossible to buy a decent newspaper. With an unemployment rate of 30 percent, the streets were eerily empty until late in the morning. Nowhere was there a bar or café where white, black and brown people would mingle. Instead, I witnessed petty crime, aggression, and frustrated youths who spat at our girlfriends and called them “filthy whores.” If you made a remark, you were inevitably scolded and called a racist. There used to be Jewish shops on Chaussée de Gand, but these were terrorized by gangs of young kids and most closed their doors around 2008. Openly gay people were routinely intimidated, and also packed up their bags.

(Hat tip to Steve Sailer.)