A Talk with an Asian Dad

Sunday, August 31st, 2014

Education Realist sat down with one of his SAT-prep students, Nick, and his dad, a genial Indian gentleman, for a little talk:

“I wonder if you could advise me on how best to prepare Nick for the PSAT this fall.”


“No practice? No classes?”

“He’s a sophomore. He was solidly over 600 on both reading and writing, over 750 on math, in all our practice tests — which are skewed difficult. If for some reason he gets lower than 60 on any section, I’d be shocked, but not because he was unprepared. He shouldn’t go back to PSAT practice until late summer or fall of junior year — he’s definitely in National Merit territory, so he’ll want to polish up.”

“But wouldn’t it be better for him to practice?”

“No. If he gets below 60 — even 65 — then look closely at his results. Was he nervous? Or just prone to attention errors? But it won’t be lack of preparation.”

“Oh, that makes sense. We are trying to see if he has any testing issues.”

“Right. Content isn’t a problem. I don’t often get kids scoring over 600 in reading and writing in this class. Which brings up another issue. I want you to think about putting Nick in Honors English and Honors World History.”

“English? That’s not Nick’s strong subject.”

“He’s an excellent writer, with an outstanding vocabulary, which means he is ready to take on more challenging literary and composition topics.”

“Really?” Dad wasn’t dismissive, but genuinely taken aback. “He gets As, of course, but I get glowing reports from his math and science teachers, not English and history. Shouldn’t he focus on science and robotics, as well as continue programming?”

“If Nick really loves any of these subjects, then of course he should keep up his work. And please know that I’m not suggesting he give up math and science. But his verbal skills are excellent.”

“But I worry he’ll fall behind.”

“He’s starting pre-calculus as a sophomore. And that’s the thing….look. You know as well as I do that Nick’s college applications will be compared against thousands of other kids who also took pre-calculus as a sophomore. His great verbal skills will stand out.”

This point struck home. “That’s true.” Dad turned to Nick. “Are any of your friends taking honors English?”

“No, most of the kids taking honors English aren’t very good at math.” (Nick’s school is 80% Asian.)

“But shouldn’t he just wait until his junior year, and take Advanced Placement US History?”

“Nick. Tell your dad why I want you to take these classes, can you?”

Nick gulped. “I need to learn how to do more than just get an A.”

“Isn’t that enough?”

I kept a straight face. “No. Nick is comfortable in math and science classes. He knows the drill. But in English and history classes, he’s just….getting it done. He needs to become proficient at using his verbal skills in classes that have high expectations. This will be a challenge. That’s why I want him to start this year, so he can build up to the more intense expectations of AP English and History. He needs to learn how to speak up in school at least as well as he does here…”

Dad looked at Nick, gobsmacked. “You talk in class?”

“….and learn how to discuss his work with teachers, get a better sense of what they want. Remember, too: Nick’s GPA and transcript is important, but ultimately, he’ll want to be able to perform in college and beyond, as an employee or an entrepreneur.”

Dad nodded; he got it. “He needs to write and read and think and express his thoughts. And this will help. Hmm. This has been most helpful. So he shouldn’t do any SAT prep this fall?”

“He shouldn’t do any SAT prep this year.”

Random Wealth and Human Capital

Sunday, August 31st, 2014

Does the lack of wealth constrain parents’ investments in the human capital of their descendants? Nope:

We conduct a fifty-year followup of an episode in which such constraints would have been plausibly relaxed by a random allocation of wealth to families. We track descendants of those eligible to win in Georgia’s Cherokee Land Lottery of 1832, which had nearly universal participation among adult white males. Winners received close to the median level of wealth — a large financial windfall orthogonal to parents’ underlying characteristics that might have also affected their children’s human capital. Although winners had slightly more children than non-winners, they did not send them to school more. Sons of winners have no better adult outcomes (wealth, income, literacy) than the sons of non-winners, and winners’ grandchildren do not have higher literacy or school attendance than non-winners’ grandchildren. This suggests only a limited role for family financial resources in the formation of human capital in the next generations in this environment and a potentially more important role for other factors that persist through family lines.

One day, science may uncover some of these other factors that persist through family lines

Behind The Squirm

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Silicon Valley co-executive producer Clay Tarver talks about getting things right:

Mike had heard some comment from Dr. Dre, I believe, where Dre said, “If it plays in the hood, it plays everywhere.” That meant to us that if the people who actually know this world deem it accurate and genuine and funny to them then so will everybody else. It’s the Spinal Tap effect. Nobody loved Spinal Tap more than rock bands. (I know. I played in bands.) They knew it got the shit right and it was a joy to see it on screen.

I’d had no interest in tech, actually. But the more I learned — the more everyone doing the show learned — the more it became glaringly clear to us that we had to be as accurate as possible. It’s a fucking crazy world as it is. That’s the point. So you can’t take shortcuts or liberties. It really is a matter of trust that you build with an audience. And if you’re bullshitting them every once in a while or, worse, if you’re getting things wrong, then why should they believe anything you do?

Personally, I’ve written many feature scripts based on “worlds.” From hunting to barbershop singing to surfing to basketball. And the strange thing is the real details are always funnier than a bunch of shit a comedy writer would think up. The deeper you dig the more interesting things get.

Furthermore, one of this show’s biggest strengths, I think, is the satire. And maybe satire means something different to other people. But to me it means showing things for how they are by looking at it through a different lens or different point of view. Accuracy and authenticity are critical to pulling that off.

The Brachistochrone Challenge

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

If you want to roll a ball down a slope, what shape of slope will get the ball from point A to point B in the least time? This is the so-called brachistochrone challenge.

At first you might naively assume that a straight line would get the ball to its destination in the least time, because the shortest distance between two point is a straight line, but the ball is not moving at a constant speed.

In fact, because it needs to get rolling, the ball will travel down a concave ramp much faster than down a convex ramp. But which concave curve?

Brachistochrone Challenge

The winning curve is an inverted cycloid, the curve traced by a point on the rim of a circular wheel as the wheel rolls along a straight line.


(Hat tip to Charles.)

How To Grow a City in Honduras

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Reason looks at how to grow a city in Honduras:

Flatley’s Law

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Over the past 13 years, the cost of sequencing DNA has dropped from $100 million per human genome to only $1,000:

The only thing more extraordinary than the growth rate of the sequencing revolution is that the beneficiary is a single company, Illumina of San Diego, and most of the credit for the rate of change can be laid at the feet of one entrepreneur, Chief Executive Jay Flatley. Thanks largely to Flatley’s leadership, Illumina emerged as the dominant maker of DNA sequencers eight years ago and has maintained 80% market share despite an assault by several well-funded competitors.

Since 2008 Illumina’s sales and profit have both increased 147%, to $1.42 billion and $125 million, respectively, as the stock increased 617% and the company’s market capitalization reached $23 billion.

Myths of European Gun Laws

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Gary Mausera and Darrin Weiner debunked two myths about European gun laws in their study “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide: A Review of International Evidence,” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, vol 30 (2007):

First, that European gun laws are much more restrictive than American; and second, that Europe has less violence than America.

Now it is true that European gun laws are often different from ours. This is largely because they aim to stem political violence, not apolitical gun crime. But they are not generally more restrictive. [...] Moreover European gun laws generally allow far more extensive gun use against crime than American law does.


In the 1920s a German farmer was tried for shooting starving children who were stealing from his orchard. Now under our law, which is based on what is deemed reasonable, the farmer was clearly guilty. But he was exonerated by the German court because European law follows the thought of Immanuel Kant: There is the Right and there is the Wrong — and never need the Right yield to the Wrong! The farmer is in the Right and the starving children are in the Wrong. So if the only way to stop their thefts is to shoot them, then shoot them he may.

A later German statute overturned this – but in a way that reinforces it. The statute only overrules the case if children are shot. But the farmer may shoot if an adult steals his fruit.


A rapist attacks a woman but retreats when she draws a gun from her purse. The woman, frightened and outraged, shoots him anyway. Under our law this is called “imperfect self-defense.” It is manslaughter (not murder) if the rapist dies; assault with a deadly weapon if he does not.

But under Austrian, Dutch, French, German and Italian law the result is entirely different. If she shot him from “outrage” (i.e., vigilantism) at his attack the court can just acquit her.

As to buying and owning guns, European laws are generally as permissive as American. It is true that you need a special permit to buy a 9 mm. handgun in many European nations. What ignorant American gun prohibitionists don’t understand is that this is a special control on “military-caliber weapons.” Similar controls ban military caliber rifles without special permission. But there is no restriction on other rifles or on handguns in, for instance, .380, .38 Super, 9mm Ultra and many more powerful handguns e.g., any of the magnums or .40 S&W, .45 auto, .45 Long Colt, .454 Casull, .460 S&W Magnum, 475 Linebaugh, .480, .500 and other powerful handguns.

Unlike residents of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts or California, law abiding responsible Italians can buy any revolver or semi-auto they want. No permit is required nor is there any waiting period. Though the handgun must be registered, buying it involves less fuss and red tape than Americans face even in Texas.

Austrians require permits for semi-automatic pistols but not to buy a revolver. Moreover law abiding responsible adults have a specific legal right to a permit for a semi-automatic pistol for home defense. Permits to carry are much more available to law abiding Austrians than to Americans in New York, Massachusetts or California. For a population of over 37 million, California has about 40,000 carry permits. For its population of around seven million, Austria has over 200,000 carry permits.

In France and Germany permits (easily available to responsible adult householders) are required to possess a handgun of modern design. But if you are satisfied with a cowboy-style gun, France requires no permit at all to buy a newly manufactured revolver of pre-1895 design.

Consistent with its focus on political crime, European law precludes stockpiling guns. You might be able to own multiple guns in different calibers, but not 10 or 20 in the same caliber.

There are no magazine size restrictions on semi-autos.

Nine European nations have fewer than 5,000 guns per 100,000 population. Seven have more than three times as many guns per 100,000 population. The nine nations’ violent crime situation is disappointing, even shockingly contrary to the myth that restricting guns diminishes murder. Their murder rates are three times higher than those of the seven high gun ownership nations!

We collected many examples: Norway has far and away Western Europe’s highest household gun ownership (32% of households), but also its lowest murder rate. Holland has the lowest gun ownership in Western Europe (1.9%), and Sweden lies midway between (15.1). Yet the Dutch murder rate is half again higher than the Norwegian, and the Swedish rate is even higher yet, though only slightly. Greece has over twice the per capita gun ownership of the Czech Republic, yet gun murder is much lower in Greece and the Greek murder rate with all weapons is also lower. Though Spain has over 12 times more gun ownership than Poland, the latter has almost a third more gun murder, and its overall murder rate is almost twice Spain’s. Poor Finland: it has 14 times more of these evil guns than its neighbor Estonia. Yet Estonia’s gun murder and overall murder rates are about seven times higher than Finland’s.

Most Americans Want to Criminalize Pre-Teens Playing Unsupervised

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

A whopping 83 percent of Americans think there should be a law that prohibits kids 9 and under from playing at the park unsupervised, despite the fact, Lenore Skenazy points out, that most of them no doubt grew up doing just that:

A whopping 68 percent of Americans think there should be a law that prohibits kids 9 and under from playing at the park unsupervised, despite the fact that most of them no doubt grew up doing just that.

What’s more: 43 percent feel the same way about 12-year-olds. They would like to criminalize all pre-teenagers playing outside on their own (and, I guess, arrest their no-good parents).

Some People Don’t Lock Their Doors

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

As hard as it is to believe, some people don’t lock their doors — even in New York City:

A 2008 survey by State Farm Insurance of 1,000 homes across the country reported that fewer than half of those surveyed always locked their front doors. And while people who habitually lock their doors are incredulous that others do not, those who don’t lock are surprised that anyone would be shocked by it.


According to the F.B.I.’s most recent annual Uniform Crime Report, of the estimated 2,222,196 burglaries committed nationwide in 2008, 32.2 percent were unlawful entries without force. And a spokesman for the New York City Police Department reported that of the 19,263 burglaries that took place in New York City in 2009, 5,041 did not involve forced entry.

These figures include commercial as well as residential properties, and burglaries without forced entry cannot be flatly equated with those that involve unlocked doors, because they may involve open windows; unauthorized use of a key; or theft by workers, family members or business associates. But unlocked doors are certainly a factor.

Inspector James Murtagh is the commanding officer of the 19th Precinct on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which includes Park Avenue doorman buildings, brownstones and apartment houses. In his precinct, he estimates that 25 percent of burglaries are a result of an open door or window.

While out-of-towners may cling to the notion of New York as a city of triple locks and metal bars bracing the door — an image common in movies from the 1960s and 1970s — that idea is dramatically out of date. According to the Police Department, there were 210,703 burglaries in the city in 1980, more than 10 times as many as there were last year.

And in some ways, Inspector Murtagh says, the city may be a victim of its own success — people may have become too comfortable.


Thursday, August 28th, 2014

A “back to school” fair for underprivileged kids seems like the kind of place where you’d see a lot of gratitude expressed. Think again.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)

Shock Waves Damage Eyes

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

One of the defining pieces of a modern soldier’s kit is a pair of sunglasses, because those shades offer protection not only against the sun but against ballistic fragments. Fragments aren’t the only danger though. It turns out that shock waves alone can damage eyes:

A new study by the University of Texas San Antonio and U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research has found that blast waves themselves — not just the dirt and debris propelled by the blast — can cause significant and permanent damage to the eyes.

In an experiment that had the scientists blasting away at pig eyes with a high-powered air cannon, researchers learned the shock wave alone can damage portions of the eye, including the sclera — the white part — the retina, the optic nerve and more.

Among the most commonly seen injuries in the blasted porcine eyeballs was retinal detachment.

“Detachment is more common to older adults. But two clinicians on our team, an Army optometrist and ophthalmologist, told us this was something they were seeing in troops and couldn’t explain. That gave us the idea to look for this sort of damage in this study,” said Mathew Reilly, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at UTSA.

DoD data shows that ocular injuries account for 13 percent of all battlefield injuries and roughly 80 percent of eye injuries in combat are associated with blasts.

Nostalgia for the Mud

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Tom Wolfe explains how nostalgie de la boue brought Radical Chic to the fore in New York Society:

Nostalgie de la boue is a 19th-century French term that means, literally, “nostalgia for the mud.” Within New York Society nostalgie de la boue was a great motif throughout the 1960s, from the moment two socialites, Susan Stein and Christina Paolozzi, discovered the Peppermint Lounge and the twist and two of the era’s first pet primitives, Joey Dee and Killer Joe Piro. Nostalgie de la boue tends to be a favorite motif whenever a great many new faces and a lot of new money enter Society. New arrivals have always had two ways of certifying their superiority over the hated “middle class.” They can take on the trappings of aristocracy, such as grand architecture, servants, parterre boxes and high protocol; and they can indulge in the gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders. The two are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, they are always used in combination. In England during the Regency period, a period much like our own — even to the point of the nation’s disastrous involvement in colonial wars during a period of mounting affluence — nostalgie de la boue was very much the rage. London socialites during the Regency adopted the flamboyant capes and wild driving styles of the coach drivers, the “bruiser” fashions and hair styles of the bare-knuckle prize fighters, the see-through, jutting-nipple fashions of the tavern girls, as well as a reckless new dance, the waltz. Such affectations were meant to convey the arrogant self-confidence of the aristocrat as opposed to the middle-class striver’s obsession with propriety and keeping up appearances. During the 1960s in New York nostalgie de la boue took the form of the vogue of rock music, the twist-frug genre of dances, Pop Art, Camp, the courting of pet primitives such as the Rolling Stones and José Torres, and innumerable dress fashions summed up in the recurrent image of the wealthy young man with his turtleneck jersey meeting his muttonchops at mid-jowl, à la the 1962 Sixth Avenue Automat bohemian, bidding good night to an aging doorman dressed in the mode of an 1870 Austrian army colonel.

Going Home

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Let us suppose, Fred Reed suggests, that you, the reader, are an average white cop in, say, Washington, DC:

Just as the public doesn’t like you, you will not much like the public. Cops do not see humanity at its best. The young woman hiking her skirt up at traffic stops. Couples screaming obscenities at each other on domestic-violence calls. “Why don’t you catch real criminals?” The lies. The excuses. The lame attempts at manipulation. The threats (“I know the mayor.”)

As a real cop on real streets, you learn never to smile, to maintain an implied aggressiveness. When riding with a reporter, you will joke and tell stories. With the public, you will learn to be wooden-faced and authoritarian. You can’t lose your dominance or you are useless.

A few months on the streets will take the bloom off your dewy rose of morn.

[Gruesome stories elided.]

As a reporter, I saw all of these things. Not similar things, but exactly these. They are not imaginary. They will change your attitude toward humanity. It won’t make you better company.

And nobody but another cop, or someone in the street trades — police, fire, ambulance–will understand. Your wife won’t, and this won’t improve the marriage. Divorce rates are high among cops.

With time, your views on police brutality will become ambivalent, or not ambivalent. You will see the pretty blonde rape victim, fifteen, about due for her first prom, screaming and screaming and screaming, sobbing and choking, while the med tech tries to get a sedative into her arm. And you will hear the cop next to you, hand clenching hard on his night stick, say in cold fury, “I hope the sonofabitch resists arrest.” Yeah, you may find yourself thinking, yeah. Social theories are nice. The streets are not theoretical.

And you will find that the perps are almost always black. If you are a good liberal, you won’t like this, but after three months on the street you will not have the faintest doubt. If you are a suburban conservative out of Reader’s Digest, you will be surprised at the starkness of the racial delineation.

All cops know this. They know better than to say it. This can be tricky for black cops, especially if former military who believe in law and order.

You will find that there are white cops who knock blacks around, who humiliate them. You will think it wrong, and so will many of your fellows, but you will decide not to turn them in. You have twenty more years on the streets with them. You will discover that black cops exist who also mistreat blacks, and this will confuse you.

You will find yourself contributing to bad race relations by enforcing laws you think stupid, pointless and unwise — hassling blacks for drinking a beer on the sidewalk with friends, rolling dice for quarters on the hood of a car, or smoking a joint. Never mind that a black city government made the laws.

Depending on your background when you, the reader, suddenly became a cop, you may or may not have some grasp of how guns work in the city. To begin with (if you think about it at all) you will realize that cops are not very competent with guns. In an entire career most will never fire their weapons on duty. To be good with a pistol requires hours and hours on the range and thousands of rounds. These cost money. Departments have higher priorities. Competent tactical shooting requires much more training. You won’t get it.

As a fresh cop, you will notice that the standard editorial notion, that cops are heavily armed brutes amid a helpless unarmed populations, isn’t quite accurate. When you are on the sidewalks of a bad neighborhood, where you know you are disliked by all and hated by many, you will become aware of your vulnerability. You have to pass close to people. Any of them could blow your head off from behind, stick an ice pick in your back, or brain you with a piece of rebar.

The second thing to know about the police and guns (though it sounds unrelated) is something you will hear often from your new colleagues: “I’m going home tonight.” This does not mean, “I’m going home instead of to the bar with buddies.” It means, “If some dirtball threatens my life, or credibly seems to be doing so, I will blow his sorry ass away before I’ll let my wife have to explain to the kids why Daddy is never coming home again.”

Ah, but how do you know when your life is in danger? Therein lies the rub. In a good department, you will get shoot-no-shoot training. It will surprise you. You stand in front of a very large screen, your weapon holstered. On the screen (for example) appears in video exactly what you would see responding to an armed-robbery call at a small store. A woman, the proprietor’s wife, frantically accosts you. “He robbed us! He has a gun! He went into the alley.” Gun in hand, you run down the alley, scared and breathing hard. A man with a gun turns the corner, gun in shooting position. You fire. You just killed the proprietor who also was chasing the perp with his own gun.

Back on the real street. A 250-pound guy crazy on PCP charges you with the clear intention of doing you harm. How much harm? He could kill you. It isn’t part of your job description to find out. You don’t have time in three seconds to try pepper-spray (which doesn’t work well on PCP heads anyway) or send for a Taser, or shout, “Halt in the name of the law, oh evil emissary of the forces of chaos!”

Bang. Maybe he was just going to give you a hug and a kiss.

It’s an old piece, not written in response to recent events.

From Left to Right

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

As the Marxist historian Arno Mayer has argued, in 1914 America represented the international left:

By 1919, America was organizing the international right. America had not changed; the spectrum shifted around it.

(That’s traditional conservative William S. Lind citing Marxist historian Arno Mayer.)

Scientist Shamans

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Frank Herbert based the Bene Gesserit “witches” of Dune in part on the scientific wizards of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

Herbert’s judgment on them is implicit in the way he has reversed the roles played by such scientists in Dune.

Asimov’s trilogy is set in a crumbling galactic empire, in which a “psychohistorian” named Han Seldon has analyzed with mathematical precision the forces acting upon masses of people and can predict nearly exactly what will happen hundreds and even thousands of years in the future. Seldon has set up a foundation to act in accordance with the statistical laws of psychohistory and take the necessary steps to bring about a new order from the ruins of the old. In Seldon’s vision, the Foundation will enable the rebuilding of galactic civilization in 1,000 years instead of the 10,000 years of turmoil that would otherwise be required.

The trilogy chronicles the successes of the Foundation and the complete accuracy of the long-dead Seldon’s scientific predictions, until a freak mutant is born. An empathetic superman, called “the Mule” because he is sterile, he was completely unexpected by Seldon, whose science could predict only mass dynamics and not the truly exceptional individual. The Mule shatters the Foundation’s precious new civilization in his own hungry grab for power, and is stopped only by a mysterious “second foundation” established by Seldon to study the science of the mind and to prepare for such unforeseen emergencies as the material science of the first foundation could not handle.

Herbert questioned the assumptions about science that he saw at work in Asimov’s trilogy. In a recent essay, he wrote:

History… is manipulated for larger ends and for the greater good as determined by a scientific aristocracy. It is assumed, then, that the scientist-shamans know best which course humankind should take…. While surprises may appear in these stories (e.g., the Mule mutant), it is assumed that no surprise will be too great or too unexpected to overcome the firm grasp of science upon human destiny. This is essentially the assumption that science can produce a surprise-free future for humankind.

Dune is clearly a commentary on the Foundation trilogy. Herbert has taken a look at the same imaginative situation that provoked Asimov’s classic — the decay of a galactic empire — and restated it in a way that draws on different assumptions and suggests radically different conclusions. The twist he has introduced into Dune is that the Mule, not the Foundation, is his hero.

The Bene Gesserit are clearly parallel to the “scientist-shamans” of the Foundation. Their science of prediction and control is biological rather than statistical, but their intentions are similar to those of Asimov’s psychohistorians. In a crumbling empire, they seek to grasp the reins of change. The Sisterhood sees the need for genetic redistribution — which ultimately motivates the jihad — and has tried to control that redistribution by means of their breeding program. The Kwisatz Haderach, the capstone of their plan, is not its only goal. Their overall intention is to manage the future of the race. Paul, like the Mule, is the unexpected betrayal of their planned future.

The irony is that Paul is not a freak but an inevitable product of the Bene Gesserit’s own schemes. Although he has come a generation early in the plan due to Jessica’s willfulness in bearing a son instead of a daughter, the real surprise is not his early birth but the paradox of the Sisterhood’s achievement: the planned instrument of perfect control, the Kwisatz Haderach, was designed to see further than his creators, He could not help but know the emptiness of their dreams. The universe cannot be managed; the vitality of the human race lies in its random generation of new possibilities. The only real surety is that surprises will occur. In contrast to the Foundation trilogy’s exaltation of rationality’s march to predicted victory, Dune proclaims the power and primacy of the unconscious and the unexpected in human affairs. Paul’s wild ride on the jihad, not the careful Bene Gesserit gene manipulation, provides the answer to the Empire’s needs.

Even though Dune so clearly undercuts the assumptions about science applauded in the Foundation trilogy, such antirationalism was the culmination of a long struggle. Early on, Herbert saw that the same assumptions pervaded much of science fiction, including his own. In order to embody his visions of the future, he needed to untangle himself from their hold.