Magic Numbers Considered Harmful

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

The folks at Blogger recently announced that they would be deprecating their publish via FTP service, because less than one percent of active blogs were using it, but it was consuming far more than that fraction of their engineering resources. I was using that service, so I was mildly disappointed, but I understood their position.

In seemingly unrelated news, Blogger stopped displaying in its editor any posts beyond the most recent 5000 as of sometime last year. This is a known issue, and a bit of a hassle — the kind of thing you’d like to get away from by migrating away from Blogger to, say, WordPress.

But it turns out that Blogger doesn’t simply refuse to display older posts in its editor; it won’t export them either. So here I am with a shiny new WordPress blog that’s missing half of my collective œuvre.

Addendum: For those who would like to explore the old archives before I find I clever hack to get them out of Blogger and into WordPress, voilà:

Flash Mobs Take Violent Turn in Philadelphia

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

Flash mobs started seven years ago as silly, innocent fad for tech-savvy hipsters — use social-networking sites and text messages to gather large numbers of people for a kind of performance art: an impromptu pillow fight in New York, a group disco routine in London, or a snowball fight in Washington.

Then a different demographic got in on the fad:

But these so-called flash mobs have taken a more aggressive and raucous turn here as hundreds of teenagers have been converging downtown for a ritual that is part bullying, part running of the bulls: sprinting down the block, the teenagers sometimes pause to brawl with one another, assault pedestrians or vandalize property.
In the past year, at least four of the flash mobs have broken out in the city, including one on Saturday in which roving teenagers broke into fights, several onlookers were injured and at least three people were arrested.

“It was like a tsunami of kids,” said Seth Kaufman, 20, a pizza deliveryman at Olympia II Pizza & Restaurant on South Street. He lifted his shirt to show gashes along his back and arm. He also had bruises on his forehead he said were from kicks and punches he suffered while trying to keep a rowdy crowd from entering the shop, where a fight was already under way.

“By the time you could hear them yelling, they were flooding the streets and the stores and the sidewalks,” Mr. Kaufman said.

The ad hoc gangs have scared many pedestrians off the streets.

OK, they aren’t simply teenagers:

Most of the teenagers who have taken part in them are black and from poor neighborhoods. Most of the areas hit have been predominantly white business districts.

In the flash mob on Saturday, groups of teenagers were chanting “black boys” and “burn the city,” bystanders said.

In a Feb. 16 melee, 150 teenagers spilled out of the Gallery shopping mall east of City Hall during rush hour and rampaged through Macy’s, knocking down customers and damaging displays.

Notice the requisite mau-mauing:

Clay Yeager, a juvenile justice consultant and former director of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Pennsylvania, said he believed the flash mobs were partly a result of a decline in state money for youth violence prevention programs.

Financing for the programs has dropped 93 percent to $1.2 million in this year’s budget compared with $16 million in 2002. City financing for such programs has dropped to $1.9 million in the past three years compared with $4.1 million from 1999 through 2002, a 53 percent drop.

This is all a complete surprise to the hipsters who invented the notion of flash mobs, by the way:

Bill Wasik, a senior editor at Harper’s who is credited with introducing the notion of a flash mob in 2003, said he was surprised by the new focus of some of the gatherings.

Mr. Wasik said the mobs started as a kind of playful social experiment meant to encourage spontaneity and big gatherings to temporarily take over commercial and public areas simply to show that they could.

“It’s terrible that these Philly mobs have turned violent,” he said.

Yeah, who could have possibly seen the “temporarily take over commercial and public areas” going awry? Inconceivable!

Too Much Liberal Bollocks

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

I recently shared Miss Snuffleupagus’s opinion that the best thing for some of her black students is indeed to send them back to Africa, where they can’t help but learn discipline and respect.

As she mentioned though, the effect wears off if they come right back to her inner-city London school — as this story demonstrates:

Pretty Boy has basically threatened a teacher with his statement ‘Just you wait till next week. It’s my way or the highway.’ So I get him excluded internally for a day and call his dad. I tell the dad the camel’s back is broken. We’re going to take steps to bring this to a close and move (eventually) to permanent exclusion. His father is so angry that he has to get off the phone. He is fed up. Pretty Boy is in Year 10 and his father has had 3 years of heartache.

Pretty Boy’s father is a self-made man, who has had little formal education, but through business, is now a very rich man. He is only 32, and Pretty Boy is 14. When Pretty Boy became too much for his mother to handle, (about a year and a half ago), he went to live with his dad and went on report to me.

Dad spends a lot of time with his son. He takes him on trips to various parts of the globe. This summer he sent him to Ghana for the summer so that he could see what ‘real’ life was like and what would await him if he ever got kicked out of school.

Having rung Dad, a few hours later, after school, sitting in my office, I see Pretty Boy in the car park with his father. Things seem heated, so I go outside to speak to Dad. They are stood rigidly, as if they are about to fight, their noses practically pressed against each other.

‘I’m gonna fucking knock your block off!’ Shouts Dad. Pretty Boy says not a word, looking terrified.

Dad continues. ‘You are such a fucking fool. You’ve got everything! You’re not poor, you’ve got 2 parents who support you, you’ve got everything you want! I’m gonna kill you! You understand? There’s nothing more we can do for you! You just don’t care! You talk to your teacher like that?? YOUR WAY?? Would you talk to ME like that!? …I said… Would you fucking talk to ME like that??’

Pretty Boy kind of shakes his head in fear. The whole time I am dancing back and forth from leg to leg, wincing at every swear word that is being bellowed across the car park, for all and sundry to hear.

‘Sir, please sir,’ I stammer, ‘Please Mr Boy, I mean, I know you’re angry, but…’

Dad turns to Pretty Boy. ‘You think you’re coming back here tomorrow, do ya? Well you’ve got another thing coming. I’m taking you outta here. I don’t blame them for wanting to exclude you. You are a fucking pain in the ass. You can just stay at home for all I care. I’ll get you a tutor.’

‘Well, Mr Boy,’ I hesitate, ‘we could give Pretty Boy one more chance. The plan is for us to put him on a PSP.’

‘A PS…what?’

‘Umm, well, a PSP. It’s a pastoral support plan. It would be like being on report to me, but just a little more serious and supportive.’

Dad turns to the boy. ‘You hear that??’ A PSP! These people think you are fucking crazy! Are you fucking insane?? NO! All you have to do, is get to school, do your work, and come home, and you can’t fucking do it! I don’t care if they put you on a PS fucking XYZ, you’re not coming back here! What is it with all this liberal bollocks?!’

Absolutely right Mr Boy, too much liberal bollocks, but I don’t make the system which has ruined your child. Part of me is silently thinking, well maybe that’s what we want: rid of Pretty Boy. But then my heart goes out to him, stood there looking like a scared little rabbit, and I know him well, and I know if he stays home, he’ll just turn into a puddle of mud.

Dad points to the car, still screaming. ‘Get into the fucking car!’

Pretty Boy turns to me, nearly in tears. ‘Goodbye Miss.’ And gets into the car.

I start to panic. He’s telling me goodbye…? ‘Well Mr Boy, hang on a minute, you’re angry at the moment. Would be best if we made these decisions when not so heated. Let’s give him one more chance, and if he messes up just once, then you take him where you want.’

Dad marches back to the car and throws the car door open, pointing his finger in his son’s face, shouting. ‘You see that! You are such a FUCKING IDIOT! You come home and tell me all these lies and tell me how you think she hates you, how she picks on you, how you she lies about you. And here is this woman out here begging for you. And you know why? You know why she’s begging?? Cause she believes in fucking YOU, that’s why!!’

He slams the door shut and goes to the driver’s seat. ‘I have to go Miss Snuffleupagus. I’m sorry. I’m just so angry. I have to go.’

Southwest Airlines’ Baggage Strategy

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

Eric Joiner, Jr. calls Southwest Airlines’ baggage strategy — which promotes checked bags — pure genius:

Southwest Airlines flies a network within the United States that uses basically one airplane. The Boeing 737. For this reason, baggage capacity is fairly consistent with passenger load. Also anyone making a connection is likely to make a connection to another SWA 737, so baggage load factor remains fairly consistent across the network. This has major advantages.

By inspiring customers to check bags, aircraft can be loaded and unloaded much faster than if passengers carry bags onto the main deck and put them in the overhead bin. Anyone who has been on a fully loaded jet recently knows it can take 15-20 minutes just to get the passengers off the plane. The bigger the jet, the longer this takes. Time spent on the ground means time not in the air. Airlines only make money when the jet is flying. By encouraging passengers to check bags and by operating a homogeneous network, SWA can turn flights faster and thus create more profit for the airline.

What you are actually witnessing is an extension of Southwests fuel strategy. SWA has always done a brilliant job of fuel cost hedging. That is buying futures in jet fuel against probable market cost at time of consumption. Turning aircraft faster means more revenue for the fuel already purchased. Consider this a post hedge leverage on the gas in the tank.

Other airlines either dont get it, or can’t. Look at Continental and Delta as examples. If I fly Delta from Phoenix, Az to Savannah, Ga, I am going to fly on a Boeing 757 to Atlanta, then change planes to a regional jet operated by a 3rd party commuter airline like Chautauqua. If I pack golf clubs, a suit case, and maybe my wife does the same, there will be more baggage than the feeder aircraft can accommodate. This is a big problem especially to vacation destinations where scuba gear, skis, golf clubs etc, are part of the bag mix. For this reason, the majors discourage checked baggage.

They don’t want you to bring luggage in the first place because you screw up their network planning. Most majors don’t want you to have ANY bags. They don’t want to carry them and especially they don’t want the liability for tracking and reuniting you with a bag left behind because of network mismatch.

Consumers think the airlines lost the luggage. In fact many times the airline couldn’t accommodate it so they chose to pay a premium to deliver it to you later, often at the cost of your loyalty and future business.

Trying to Drown a Fish

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Mencius Moldbug finds it really quite amazing that anyone shows up at elections for the present system of government or cares about it at all:

To anyone who knows anything about Washington, the prospect of achieving any actual result by this means is nothing short of hilarious. Everything in Washington is designed to resist hostile political interference. Indeed, it is nourished by hostile political interference! When you try to defeat Democrats by electing Republicans, you’re trying to drown a fish.

Aristocracy vs. Tyranny

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Aretae recently commented that Moldbug’s primary thrust is identical to that of Plato’s Republic — aristocracy is better than democracy, which is better than tyranny:

My concern, and the concern of an awful lot of thinkers since Plato, is that the distinction between aristocracy and tyranny seems to be a very thin distinction, and not something you can predict beforehand. Indeed, while rule of a philosopher-king tends to produce superior results to a democracy, rule by a tyrant is much worse for human happiness.

I think the primary thrust of Moldbug’s thinking is slightly different though:

I would say that the primary thrust of Moldbug’s thinking is that libertarianism will always fail, because power abhors a vacuum. What you need is a way to align the State’s goals with the People’s goals, so it doesn’t abuse its power, and giving the State outright ownership of tax revenues does that.

Taking people’s money isn’t necessarily corruption, and a stationary bandit doesn’t have an incentive to pillage and loot; he wants to skim as much as possible, yes, but he wants to skim it as efficiently as possible, too, with a long time horizon.

A monarchy manages to fit that description. The king may not be a philosopher-king, but he has every incentive to do what’s best for his country, because it’s best for him and, by extension, his heirs.

What’s interesting — that Moldbug has merely hinted at — is that the era he most admires is when the throne still held much power, but economists had convinced it and Parliament to liberalize trade. This counter-intuitive example of wu wei (or laissez-faire) helped make Britain rich — by not trying so hard.

And the government was much, much smaller then, before it democratized.

The Case for Teaching Less Math in Schools

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Peter Gray presents the case for teaching less math in schools, based on some old, forgotten research:

In 1929, the superintendent of schools in Ithaca, New York, sent out a challenge to his colleagues in other cities. “What,” he asked, “can we drop from the elementary school curriculum?” He complained that over the years new subjects were continuously being added and nothing was being subtracted, with the result that the school day was packed with too many subjects and there was little time to reflect seriously on anything.

This was back in the days when people believed that children shouldn’t have to spend all of their time at school work — that they needed some time to play, to do chores at home, and to be with their families — so there was reason back then to believe that whenever something new is added to the curriculum something else should be dropped.

One of the recipients of this challenge was L. P. Benezet, superintendent of schools in Manchester, New Hampshire, who responded with this outrageous proposal: We should drop arithmetic!

Benezet went on to argue that the time spent on arithmetic in the early grades was wasted effort, or worse. In fact, he wrote: “For some years I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child’s reasoning facilities.” All that drill, he claimed, had divorced the whole realm of numbers and arithmetic, in the children’s minds, from common sense, with the result that they could do the calculations as taught to them, but didn’t understand what they were doing and couldn’t apply the calculations to real life problems.

He believed that if arithmetic were not taught until later on — preferably not until seventh grade — the kids would learn it with far less effort and greater understanding.

No arithmetic until seventh grade? That seems extreme — especially for an era when most families considered an eighth-grade education as complete. Anyway, Benezet followed his outrageous suggestion with an outrageous experiment:

He asked the principals and teachers in some of the schools located in the poorest parts of Manchester to drop the third R from the early grades. They would not teach arithmetic — no adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing. He chose schools in the poorest neighborhoods because he knew that if he tried this in the wealthier neighborhoods, where parents were high school or college graduates, the parents would rebel. As a compromise, to appease the principals who were not willing to go as far as he wished, Benezet decided on a plan in which arithmetic would be introduced in sixth grade.

As part of the plan, he asked the teachers of the earlier grades to devote some of the time that they would normally spend on arithmetic to the new third R — recitation. By “recitation” he meant, “speaking the English language.” He did “not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or the textbook.” The children would be asked to talk about topics that interested them — experiences they had had, movies they had seen, or anything that would lead to genuine, lively communication and discussion. This, he thought, would improve their abilities to reason and communicate logically. He also asked the teachers to give their pupils some practice in measuring and counting things, to assure that they would have some practical experience with numbers.

In order to evaluate the experiment, Benezet arranged for a graduate student from Boston University to come up and test the Manchester children at various times in the sixth grade. The results were remarkable. At the beginning of their sixth grade year, the children in the experimental classes, who had not been taught any arithmetic, performed much better than those in the traditional classes on story problems that could be solved by common sense and a general understanding of numbers and measurement. Of course, at the beginning of sixth grade, those in the experimental classes performed worse on the standard school arithmetic tests, where the problems were set up in the usual school manner and could be solved simply by applying the rote-learned algorithms. But by the end of sixth grade those in the experimental classes had completely caught up on this and were still way ahead of the others on story problems.

In sum, Benezet showed that kids who received just one year of arithmetic, in sixth grade, performed at least as well on standard calculations and much better on story problems than kids who had received several years of arithmetic training. This was all the more remarkable because of the fact that those who received just one year of training were from the poorest neighborhoods — the neighborhoods that had previously produced the poorest test results.

Gray asks, Why have almost no educators heard of this experiment? Let’s not open that can of worms.

Although this research supports the Waldorf approach and a few other alternative schooling styles that Aretae appreciates, he’s not completely on board:

I’m not all the way on board with the approach, though, because I’ve taught a class of 5th & 6th graders algebra, and I’ve helped tutor kids as young as 8 who did very well in college algebra classes. Regardless, it indicates that the scope of the problem with our current system is much bigger than you thought it was, unless you already think (like me) that public schooling is one of the horseman of the apocalypse.

I’m not sure what to make of holding off math instruction, because it seems like many kids might need it, and some certainly don’t. I know most kids are terrified of word problems and see no connection at all between the math they’ve been taught and solving real-world problems, but those problems always struck me as the only interesting ones in the whole assignment.

I know I could have learned much more advanced math much earlier if it had been (a) taught at all, and (b) taught by someone who understood it. Instead we were taught arcane algorithms for random mathematical tasks. When I finally got to algebra, I felt like I’d wasted the last three or four years of math, because I suddenly had simple, generalizable rules for fractions, rates, etc. that made all my previous learning obsolete.

I hadn’t really thought through the notion that, as Aretae notes, teaching either before an individual is ready, or before they’re interested, has potential negative returns.

Whatever the magnitude of that effect, there’s another simple reason why most math instruction, whatever the methodology, fails spectacularly:

Nothing has worked. There are lots of reasons for this, one of which is that the people who teach in elementary schools are not mathematicians. Most of them are math phobic, just like most people in the larger culture. They, after all, are themselves products of the school system, and one thing the school system does well is to generate a lasting fear and loathing of mathematics in most people who pass through it. No matter what textbooks or worksheets or lesson plans the higher-ups devise for them, the teachers teach math by rote, in the only way they can, and they just pray that no smart-alec student asks them a question such as “Why do we do it that way?” or “What good is this?” The students, of course, pick up on their teachers’ fear, and they learn not to ask or even to think about such questions. They learn to be dumb. They learn, as Benezet would have put it, that a math-schooled mind is a chloroformed mind.

In an article published in 2005, Patricia Clark Kenschaft, a professor of mathematics at Montclair State University, described her experiences of going into elementary schools and talking with teachers about math. In one visit to a K-6 elementary school in New Jersey she discovered that not a single teacher, out of the fifty that she met with, knew how to find the area of a rectangle.[2] They taught multiplication, but none of them knew that multiplication is used to find the area of a rectangle. Their most common guess was that you add the length and the width to get the area. Their excuse for not knowing was that they did not need to teach about areas of rectangles; that came later in the curriculum. But the fact that they couldn’t figure out that multiplication is used to find the area was evidence to Kenschaft that they didn’t really know what multiplication is or what it is for. She also found that although the teachers knew and taught the algorithm for multiplying one two-digit number by another, none of them could explain why that algorithm works.

The school that Kenschaft visited happened to be in a very poor district, with mostly African American kids, so at first she figured that the worst teachers must have been assigned to that school, and she theorized that this was why African Americans do even more poorly than white Americans on math tests. But then she went into some schools in wealthy districts, with mostly white kids, and found that the mathematics knowledge of teachers there was equally pathetic. She concluded that nobody could be learning much math in school and, “It appears that the higher scores of the affluent districts are not due to superior teaching but to the supplementary informal ‘home schooling’ of children.”


Taking AP Classes versus Passing AP Tests

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Parents and educators seem to ignore the vital difference between taking Advanced Placement classes versus passing Advanced Placement tests, Steve Sailer says:

The conventional wisdom assumes that the former more or less equates to the latter, so if we just get enough poor and minority students to take classes called “AP” then our problems our solved. But that’s clearly not true.

Huge numbers of kids take courses in high school each year labeled “AP” and then bomb the national AP test in May. In polar contrast, other kids pass AP tests without taking AP classes, or even any classes at all in the subject.

(My kid, for example, received 9 hours of college credit, more than half a semester, through AP testing for subjects he never even took in high school: World History and Comparative Government. He simply piggybacked off courses he did take, European History and US History and U.S. Government, with some home reading to fill in the gaps, such as memorizing the Chinese dynasties.)
One big example of the confusion between the value of taking AP classes and passing AP tests is that college admissions people tend to treat AP totally backward. At least in public discussions of how they weigh applications, they give more weight to you taking classes designated by your high school to be “AP” than to you getting good scores on the national AP tests.

In calculating high school GPA, they give an extra GPA point to any high class that claims to be AP (thus an “A” in Advanced Placement Psychology is worth a 5 instead of a 4), which is why, say, Berkeley students enter college with high school GPAs that sound hallucinatory (e.g., 4.47!) to older generations who didn’t benefit from this gimmick.

But, admissions offices are reluctant to publicly admit that they give much weight to actually passing the national AP exams, even though those are very good predictors of whether you have the smarts and self-discipline to do well in college. Unlike high school GPA, AP tests are both nationally standard and they are more challenging than the vast majority of high school classes. Unlike the SAT, you can’t be a smart slack-off and ace them. So, they function well as an acid test that this kid is college material.

Water Wars

Friday, March 26th, 2010

It’s hard for me to take someone seriously when they’re outraged — outraged! — that someone might want to turn water — a shared public resource! — into a private asset that can be traded on the open market. I mean, what’s next? Food? People will starve — starve! — if oligarchs turn food into a private asset traded on the open market!

Yasha Levine seems to conflate privatization with theft and sees an elaborate plot by “billionaire thugs” to profit from a looming disaster, which the California government could prevent, if it weren’t corrupt. Or something. It’s complicated.

The part I have no trouble believing is that old state-owned levies might collapse, with terrible consequences:

At the center of this epic water grab is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a Yosemite-sized patchwork of waterways and farmland an hour east of Oakland that sits atop California’s single largest water source. Formed by the confluence of state’s two largest rivers as they flow out to the San Francisco Bay, more than half of all rainfall and snowmelt drains through the Delta, supplying two-thirds of California with water and irrigating most of the state’s farmland. The Delta’s agricultural, fishing and tourism industries produce up $5 billion in combined economic output a year and the region remains one of California’s last holdouts of small and family farms. It is also home to the most dangerous flood control system in America.

“Now we realize it may be the single most at-risk piece of property in the United States,” John Radke, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning, told Emergency Management magazine. “If you had a catastrophic event there and you can’t get things built, you won’t just have people unable to go across a bridge, you’ll have people without drinking water — 22 million of them.”

A simulation carried out by state water officials in 2005 showed that 6.7 magnitude earthquake could cause multiple levee breeches that would suck salt water in from the San Francisco Bay and shut down the pumps and aqueducts that move drinking water to two-thirds of California’s population. The California Department of Water and Power estimates that it would take $40 billion and 1.5 years to get the water pumping again. Aside from the potential damage to the state’s water supplies, the levees protect 400,000 people, 520,000 acres of farmland, three state highways, railroad lines and natural gas and electric transmission facilities, which adds up to a total of $50 billion worth of property. Meanwhile, the United States Geological Service estimates a 62 percent probability such an earthquake will hit the San Francisco Bay Area sometime in the next 28 years.

With Southern California depending on Delta water for over half of its total supply, you don’t need to be a municipal planner to realize how hairy the situation could get.

Saigon did not fall to barefoot black-pajama-clad guerrillas

Friday, March 26th, 2010

There are three reason why every sentient being in the universe should read On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War by Col. Harry Summers, NerveAgent says:

First, it is probably the most cogent analysis of the American defeat in Vietnam that has ever been written. That alone makes it required reading.

Second, it places such fad concepts as counterinsurgency and nation building in the proper context as tactical adjuncts to the larger strategic war effort. This point is especially important today, for obvious reasons.

Third, it is a very interesting application of Clausewitz. Summers doesn’t just decorate the book with quotes from the Prussian Master; the entire analysis is conducted from within the framework of On War. Some could argue with a few of his interpretations of Clausewitz, but the way he applies them to Vietnam is quite brilliant. Short of meeting him in the afterlife we will never know what Clausewitz would say about the Vietnam War. Thanks to Col. Summers, however, we at least have a pretty good idea.

One of Summers’ key points is that Saigon did not fall to barefoot black-pajama-clad guerrillas:

One of the anomalies of the Vietnam War is that until recently most of the literature and almost all the thinking about the war ended with the Tet Offensive of 1968. As a result, the common knowledge was that America had lost a guerrilla war in Asia, a loss caused by failure to appreciate the nuances of counterinsurgency war.

But the truth was that the war continued for seven years after the Tet Offensive, and that latter phase had almost nothing to do with counterinsurgency or guerrilla war. The threat came from the North Vietnamese regular forces in the hinterlands.

The final North Vietnamese blitzkrieg in April 1975 had more to do with the fall of France in 1940 than it did with guerrilla war. [...] It fell to a 130,000-man 18-division invasion force supported by tank and artillery.

Gary Gorton vs. Michael Lewis

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Gary Gorton’s Slapped in the Face by the Invisible Hand is insightful but not nearly as lively as its title, Eric Falkenstein says:

Alas, most people will find Gorton a bit too dry, too many references, too much math (there are a handful of algebraic equations). Michael Lewis, in contrast, takes the Gladwellian approach to big problems, which is always well received. Indeed, I have seen him an on TV with several different interviewers discussing his latest book, The Big Short.

[I expect Russ Roberts at econtalk to interview him and totally agree, notwithstanding the 5 other authors with orthogonal diagnoses he also totally agreed with.]

Lewis is considered an expert because he worked on Wall street for 2 years and wrote Liar’s Poker, an insider’s view of the bluster of rich young men. As anyone who has worked in an industry for a couple decades knows, the impressions of a kid right out of college has after 2 years in a business, no matter how smart and eloquent the sojourner, are invariably quite mistaken. Indeed, Lewis’s main thesis in Liar’s Poker remains a theme in his latest book, The Big Short: finance is mainly an irrelevant Rube’s Goldberg device for paying greedy, selfish people too much money.

He notes that banks actually were shorting some products they were promoting, as if there was a big conspiracy, ignoring the fact that a market requires sellers, and increasing liquidity is a good thing because if every asset must be held to maturity, costs of financing would be much higher, etc.. Further, large financial institutions have many departments, and the fact they have different opinions is about as strange as the fact that America is full of people who disagree on whether tax rates are too high or too low. Ultimately Lewis blames everyone, but especially greedy bankers, and so in a banal sense he is correct.

But Lewis will most assuredly sell more books than Gorton, part of the reason these crises are endogenous.

Intellectuals and Society

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Thomas Sowell defines an intellectual as one whose work begins and ends with ideas — which, John Derbyshire points out, excludes many — engineers, architects, surgeons, lawyers, generals — who make a living by applying their intelligence:

The only validation process the anointed will submit their ideas to is “the approval of peers.” When rigorous empirical validation is applied, as it often is by conscientious social scientists, the results usually contradict the utopian vision. Then they are ignored and forgotten. A recent study of Head Start, for example, showed that this venerable Great Society program, now in its 46th year of lavish funding (currently $7.1 billion a year), accomplishes nothing measurable. Every previous study, all the way back to 1969, said the same thing; they were all shoved down the memory hole, as no doubt this latest one will be.

Similarly with the “root causes” theory of crime, which, says Sowell, has remained impervious to evidence on both sides of the Atlantic. “In both the United States and England, crime rates soared during years when the supposed ‘root causes of crime’ — poverty and barriers to opportunity — were visibly declining.” Gun control, a great favorite with the anointed, has likewise been a bust, gun crime rising steadily in Britain through the later twentieth century as laws against gun ownership became steadily more severe. That other criminological favorite, “alternatives to incarceration,” has been so thoroughly internalized by liberal intellectuals as to give us the famous 1997 New York Times headline Crime Keeps on Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling.

The follies of the anointed in matters of war and peace are so abundant Sowell spreads them over two chapters. The first covers the twentieth century to 1945; the second, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the two Iraq wars. This gives the author an opportunity to note parallels across the decades, the “peace movements” of the 1960s and 2000s echoing the sentiments, and often the actual slogans, of pacifists in the 1920s and 1930s.

Here Sowell points up a change in the methods and targets to which intellectuals of the anointed type address themselves. Before the age of mass media, intellectuals sought to influence power-holders by offering advice on statecraft. From Daniel and Confucius to Machiavelli and Locke, an intellectual wanted to be the “voice behind the curtain,” whispering advice in the ruler’s ear. Once public opinion came into its own, however, an alternative form of influence offered itself — one that removed the intellectual further from the results of his advice. This distancing from real power and real consequences has allowed modern intellectuals to be irresponsible, leading to the displays of silliness recorded by Paul Johnson. Of the 1960s antiwar movement Sowell says: “The intellectuals’ effect on the course of events did not depend on their convincing or influencing the holders of power.”

The sentence following that one is: “President Nixon had no regard for intellectuals.” That is not quite right. While it is true that Nixon preferred to spend his leisure hours with practical men like Bob Abplanalp and “Bebe” Rebozo, he was none the less an intelligent and well-read man — something of a closet intellectual, in fact. It is worth recalling John O’Sullivan’s very perceptive observation here: that while John F. Kennedy made a great show of patronizing the arts, it was Nixon who actually knew how to play the piano.

The intersection of politics with the anointed intelligentsia is an area I wish Sowell had explored in more depth. (A fourth book, perhaps?) Politics is properly the domain of Big Players: men or women skilled in persuasion and the judging of others, single-minded in pursuit of dominance, deft at hiding ruthlessness behind idealism. Intellectuals do not perform well in this hyper-worldly zone. Politicians of course have no objection to being presented as intellectuals, but the façade rarely survives close scrutiny. Sowell offers Adlai Stevenson as an illustration. “No politician in the past two generations was regarded by intellectuals as more of an intellectual,” he reminds us. Stevenson’s loss of the 1952 presidential election was taken by Russell Jacoby to illustrate “the endemic anti-intellectualism of American society.” Harry Truman, by contrast, was looked down on as a provincial hick. Yet of the two men, Truman was much the better-read. He once corrected Chief Justice Fred Vinson’s Latin, Sowell tells us. Stevenson could happily go for months on end without picking up a book.

Stevenson had the intellectual demeanor, though, as does our current president; and that proved quite sufficient to make the left intelligentsia bond to the man in both cases. Having little contact with reality, the anointed do not see deeper than the surface of things. Addicted to that “verbal virtuosity,” they are easily swept off their feet by high-sounding rhetoric.

Of the Republican victory in the 1920 presidential election, Calvin Coolidge remarked that “It means the end of a period which has seemed to substitute words for things.” Alas, that period soon came back with a vengeance.

Cancer genes in human melanomas have been switched off

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Cancer genes in human melanomas have been switched off via RNA interference (RNAi):

The researchers created the particles from two polymers plus a protein that binds to receptors on the surface of cancer cells and pieces of RNA called small-interfering RNA, or siRNA, designed to stop the RRM2 gene from being translated into protein. The siRNA works by sticking to the messenger RNA (mRNA) that carries the gene’s code to the cell’s protein-making machinery and ensuring that enzymes cut the mRNA at a specific spot.

When the components are mixed together in water, they assemble into particles about 70 nanometres in diameter. The researchers can then administer the nanoparticles into the bloodstream of patients, where the particles circulate until they encounter ‘leaky’ blood vessels that supply the tumours with blood. The particles then pass through the vessels to the tumour, where they bind to the cell and are then absorbed.

Once inside the cell, the nanoparticles fall apart, releasing the siRNA. The other parts of the nanoparticle are so small, they pass out of the body in urine. “It sneaks in, evades the immune system, delivers the siRNA, and the disassembled components exit out,” Davis says.

Art of the Steal

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Art of the Steal starts with a story of Gerald Blanchard parachuting onto the roof of a Viennese castle, in order to purloin a priceless jewel, the Sisi Star. Then it just keeps going.

Gary Gorton vs. Michael Lewis

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Gary Gorton’s Slapped in the Face by the Invisible Hand is insightful but not nearly as lively as its title, Eric Falkenstein says:

Alas, most people will find Gorton a bit too dry, too many references, too much math (there are a handful of algebraic equations). Michael Lewis, in contrast, takes the Gladwellian approach to big problems, which is always well received. Indeed, I have seen him an on TV with several different interviewers discussing his latest book, The Big Short.

[I expect Russ Roberts at econtalk to interview him and totally agree, notwithstanding the 5 other authors with orthogonal diagnoses he also totally agreed with.]

Lewis is considered an expert because he worked on Wall street for 2 years and wrote Liar’s Poker, an insider’s view of the bluster of rich young men. As anyone who has worked in an industry for a couple decades knows, the impressions of a kid right out of college has after 2 years in a business, no matter how smart and eloquent the sojourner, are invariably quite mistaken. Indeed, Lewis’s main thesis in Liar’s Poker remains a theme in his latest book, The Big Short: finance is mainly an irrelevant Rube’s Goldberg device for paying greedy, selfish people too much money.

He notes that banks actually were shorting some products they were promoting, as if there was a big conspiracy, ignoring the fact that a market requires sellers, and increasing liquidity is a good thing because if every asset must be held to maturity, costs of financing would be much higher, etc.. Further, large financial institutions have many departments, and the fact they have different opinions is about as strange as the fact that America is full of people who disagree on whether tax rates are too high or too low. Ultimately Lewis blames everyone, but especially greedy bankers, and so in a banal sense he is correct.

But Lewis will most assuredly sell more books than Gorton, part of the reason these crises are endogenous.