America’s Fertility Class Divide

Friday, September 30th, 2011

America’s fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman disguises its vast fertility class divide, Sharon Lerner argues:

Two new studies bring the contrasting reproductive profiles of rich and poor women into sharp relief. One, from the Guttmacher Institute, shows that the rates of unplanned pregnancies and births among poor women now dwarf the fertility rates of wealthier women, and finds that the gap between the two groups has widened significantly over the past five years. The other, by the Center for Work-Life Policy, documents rates of childlessness among corporate professional women that are higher than the childlessness rates of some European countries experiencing fertility crises.

Childlessness has increased across most demographic groups but is still highest among professionals. Indeed, according to an analysis of census data conducted by the Pew Research Center, about one quarter of all women with bachelor’s degrees and higher in the United States wind up childless. (As Pew notes, for women with higher degrees, that number is actually slightly lower than it was in the early 1990s—but it is still very high.) By comparison, in England, which has one of the highest percentages of women without children in the world, 22 percent of all women are childless. According to the new Center for Work-Life Policy study, 43 percent of the women in their sample of corporate professionals between the ages of 33 and 46 were childless. The rate of childlessness among the Asian American professional women in the study was a staggering 53 percent.

At the same time, the numbers of both unplanned pregnancies and births among poor women have climbed steadily in recent years. About half of all pregnancies in this country are unplanned, with poor women now five times more likely than higher-income women to have an unplanned pregnancy, and six times more likely to have an unplanned birth, according to the Guttmacher Institute’s recent analysis of government data.

You see, some parts of our population behave just like Europeans, while others behave more like Africans or Latin Americans. Why remains a mystery.

Razib Khan notes that the Slate author won’t broach the Idiocracy hypothesis:

I invite you to make some observations at a Walmart Supercenter as you stand behind the pregnant 16 year old holding her adorable chubby infant, and then deny the possibility of this outcome. But you don’t need to “go there.” If you have a strong environmental leaning you can still admit that the cultural traits of the middle class may be heritable through acquisition in childhood, while the dysfunctional tendencies of the underclass can also be perpetuated by modeling the behavior of parents and peers. The skewed parental origins of the next generation, and the inferred long term divergence in reproductive output, are issues of some consequence for the broader social order. Systems which shift out of equilibrium may eventually reach a new “stable state,” and one not to our liking.

He continues by sharing some General Social Survey data:

I actually like his suggested solution, borrowed from Randall Parker: allow for easier acceleration of education of the academically gifted, so women can finish advanced degrees earlier.

Great Courses, Great Profits

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Great courses can bring great profits, Heather Mac Donald notes — but only outside of academia:

The canon of great literature, philosophy, and art is thriving — in the marketplace, if not on college campuses. For the last 20 years, a company called the Great Courses has been selling recorded lectures in the humanities and sciences to an adult audience eager to brush up its Shakespeare and its quantum mechanics. The company produces only what its market research shows that customers want. And that, it turns out, is a curriculum in the monuments of human thought, taught without the politically correct superiority and self-indulgent theory common in today’s colleges.
And the company offers a treasure trove of traditional academic content that undergraduates paying $50,000 a year may find nowhere on their Club Med–like campuses. This past academic year, for example, a Bowdoin College student interested in American history courses could have taken “Black Women in Atlantic New Orleans,” “Women in American History, 1600–1900,” or “Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl: Gender and the Suburbs,” but if he wanted a course in American political history, the colonial and revolutionary periods, or the Civil War, he would have been out of luck. A Great Courses customer, by contrast, can choose from a cornucopia of American history not yet divvied up into the fiefdoms of race, gender, and sexual orientation, with multiple offerings in the American Revolution, the constitutional period, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, and the intellectual influences on the country’s founding. There are lessons here for the academy, if it will only pay them heed.

The Great Courses, originally called the Teaching Company, wasn’t begun with the goal of creating an antidote to today’s politicized academy. Tom Rollins, chief counsel and chief of staff to Senator Ted Kennedy’s Labor and Human Services Committee, quit his post in 1989 with the idea of finding the most charismatic college professors and having them tape college-level courses for the adult-education market.

Rollins, then 33, soon discovered that his assumptions about the university — that it existed, in his words, “to transmit to the young everything the civilization has figured out so far and to discover new things” — were not shared by everyone in the academy.
Despite several brushes with mortality in its start-up years, after a decade, the firm was earning $20 million in sales, reported Forbes this January.
So totalitarian is the contemporary university that professors have written to Rollins complaining that his courses are too canonical in content and do not include enough of the requisite “silenced” voices. It is not enough, apparently, that identity politics dominate college humanities departments; they must also rule outside the academy. Of course, outside the academy, theory encounters a little something called the marketplace, where it turns out that courses like “Queering the Alamo,” say, can’t compete with “Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition.”
In its emphasis on teaching, the company differs radically from the academic world, where “teaching is routinely stigmatized as a lower-order pursuit, and the ‘real’ academic work is research,” notes Allen Guelzo, an American history professor at Gettysburg College. Though colleges ritually berate themselves for not putting a high enough premium on teaching, they inevitably ignore that skill in awarding tenure or extra pay.
Forbes reports the company’s annual sales as $110 million. The firm recently opened a high-tech headquarters in Virginia for its 200 employees and is beefing up the visual learning aids on its DVDs — a sorely needed correction. But the Great Courses confronts a major challenge as it tries to expand its course offerings: “finding great lecturers, a talent that seems to be increasingly rare these days,” says Lucinda Robb, the company’s director of professor development. In fact, the company has been recycling its most popular professors on topics increasingly remote from their official competencies. It is also diversifying into nonacademic realms, such as wine appreciation and personal health. The growing reach of free online university courses might seem to pose a competitive challenge, but for now, the Great Courses adds enough value to its lecturers to justify the product’s sticker price.

The biggest question raised by the Great Courses’ success is: Does the curriculum on campuses look so different because undergraduates, unlike adults, actually demand postcolonial studies rather than the Lincoln-Douglas debates? Every indication suggests that the answer is no. “If you say to kids, ‘We’re doing the regendering of medieval Europe,’ they’ll say, ‘No, let’s do medieval kings and queens,’ ” asserts Allitt. “Most kids want classes on the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, World War I, and the American Civil War.” Creative writing is such a popular concentration within the English major, Lerer argues, because it is the one place where students encounter attention to character and plot and can non-ironically celebrate literature’s power.

But the educational market works very differently inside the academy and outside it, and the consumers of university education are largely to blame. Almost no one comparison-shops for colleges based on curricula. Parents and children select the school that will deliver the most prestigious credentials and social connections. Presumably, some of those parents are Great Courses customers themselves — discerning buyers regarding their own continuing education, but passive check writers when it comes to their children’s. Employers, too, ignore universities’ curricula when they decide where to send recruiters, focusing only on the degree of IQ-sorting that each college exercises sub rosa.

Universities are certainly doing very well for themselves, despite ignoring their students’ latent demand for traditional learning. But they would better fulfill their mission if they took note of the Great Courses’ wild success in teaching the classics. “I wasn’t trying to fix something that was broken in starting the company,” Rollins says. “I was just trying to create something beautiful.” Colleges should replicate that impulse.

John Derbyshire agrees that the courses are intellectual crack.

Six Days to Save the World

Friday, September 30th, 2011

In the early days of Michael Moorcock’s 50-plus-years career, when he was living paycheck-to-paycheck, he wrote a whole slew of action-adventure sword-and-sorcery novels very, very quickly, including his most famous books about the tortured anti-hero Elric.

In 1992, he published a collection of interviews conducted by Colin Greenland called Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle, in which he discusses his writing method. In the first chapter, “Six Days to Save the World”, he says those early novels were written in about “three to ten days” each, and outlines exactly how one accomplishes such fast writing.

Eric Rosenfield condenses Moorcock’s advice into bullet points explaining how to write a book in three days:

  • “If you’re going to do a piece of work in three days, you have to have everything properly prepared.”
  • “[The formula is] The Maltese Falcon. Or the Holy Grail. You use the quest theme, basically. In The Maltese Falcon it’s a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Black Bird. In Mort D’Arthur it’s also a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Holy Grail. That’s the formula for Westerns too: everybody’s after the gold of El Dorado or whatever.” (Cf the MacGuffin.)
  • “The formula depends on that sense of a human being up against superhuman forces, whether it’s Big Business, or politics, or supernatural Evil, or whatever. The hero is fallible in their terms, and doesn’t really want to be mixed up with them. He’s always just about to walk out when something else comes along that involves him on a personal level.” (An example of this is when Elric’s wife gets kidnapped.)
  • “There is an event every four pages, for example — and notes. Lists of things you’re going to use. Lists of coherent images; coherent to you or generically coherent. You think: ‘Right, Stormbringer [a novel in the Elric series]: swords; shields; horns”, and so on.”
  • “[I prepared] A complete structure. Not a plot, exactly, but a structure where the demands were clear. I knew what narrative problems I had to solve at every point. I then wrote them at white heat; and a lot of it was inspiration: the image I needed would come immediately [when] I needed it. Really, it’s just looking around the room, looking at ordinary objects and turning them into what you need. A mirror: a mirror that absorbs the souls of the damned.”
  • “You need a list of images that are purely fantastic: deliberate paradoxes, say: the City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you’ve got them there when you need them. Again, they have to cohere, have the right resonances, one with the other.”
  • “The imagery comes before the action, because the action’s actually unimportant. An object to be obtained — limited time to obtain it. It’s easily developed, once you work the structure out.”
  • “Time is the important element in any action adventure story. In fact, you get the action and adventure out of the element of time. It’s a classic formula: “We’ve only got six days to save the world!” Immediately you’ve set the reader up with a structure: there are only six days, then five, then four and finally, in the classic formula anyway, there’s only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?”
  • “Once you’ve started, you keep it rolling. You can’t afford to have anything stop it.”
  • “The whole reason you plan everything beforehand is so that when you hit a snag, a desperate moment, you’ve actually got something there on your desk that tells you what to do.”
  • “I was also planting mysteries that I hadn’t explained to myself. The point is, you put in the mystery, it doesn’t matter what it is. It may not be the great truth that you’re going to reveal at the end of the book. You just think, I’ll put this in here because I might need it later.”
  • “You start off with a mystery. Every time you reveal a bit of it, you have to do something else to increase it. A good detective story will have the same thing. “My God, so that’s why Lady Carruthers’s butler Jenkins was peering at the keyhole that evening. But where was Mrs. Jenkins?”
  • “What I do is divide my total 60,000 words into four sections, 15,000 words apiece, say; then divide each into six chapters. … In section one the hero will say, “There’s no way I can save the world in six days unless I start by getting the first object of power”. That gives you an immediate goal, and an immediate time element, as well as an overridingtime element. With each section divided into six chapters, each chapter must then contain something which will move the action forward and contribute to that immediate goal.”Very often it’s something like: attack of the bandits — defeat of the bandits — nothing particularly complex, but it’s another way you can achieve recognition: by making the structure of a chapter a miniature of the overall structure of the book, so everything feels coherent. The more you’re dealing with incoherence, with chaos, the more you need to underpin everything with simple logic and basic forms that will keep everything tight. Otherwise the thing just starts to spread out into muddle and abstraction.”So you don’t have any encounter without information coming out of it. In the simplest form, Elric has a fight and kills somebody, but as they die they tell him who kidnapped his wife. Again, it’s a question of economy. Everything has to have a narrative function.”
  • [On "The Lester Dent Master Plot Formula"]1 “First, he says, split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it. Then — now this could be Lester Dent or it could be what I learnt when I was on Sexton Blake Library, I forget — you must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so, you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, devloped in the second third, and resolved in the last third.” (Note: this last sentence is reminiscent of the classic three-act structure.) (Note 2: Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula is actually a bit more complex and specific than this. Here it is in its entirety.)
  • “There’s always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn’t allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero’s morbid speeches, and so on….The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can’t have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, ‘What? Dragons? Demons? You’ve got to be joking!’ The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don’t want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you’ve got to have somebody around who’ll act as a sort of chorus.”
  • “‘When in doubt, descend into a minor character.’ So when you’ve reached an impasse, and you can’t move the action any further with your major character, switch to a minor character ‘s viewpoint which will allow you to keep the narrative moving and give you time to think.”

Extreme Schooling in Russia

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Clifford J. Levy describes his family’s experiment in extreme schooling — in Russia:

But the fantasy of creating bilingual prodigies immediately collided with reality. My children — Danya (fifth grade), Arden (third grade) and Emmett (kindergarten) — were among the first foreigners to attend Novaya Gumanitarnaya Shkola, the New Humanitarian School. All instruction was in Russian. No translators, no hand-holding.
When we started searching for schools, we assumed that a large public one in Moscow would be too daunting. Julie stumbled upon the Web site of New Humanitarian, a private school with 150 or so pupils and small classes. It promised an enlightened and innovative interpretation of the classic Soviet education — all the rigor, without the suffocating conformity. Moscow progressives! Maybe the transition wouldn’t be too rocky.

We were, of course, naïve. New Humanitarian, which runs kindergarten through high school, was still rooted in Russia’s educational and societal traditions. Students recite by heart from Pushkin’s “Yevgeny Onegin” (“My uncle was a man of virtue. . . .”) and tackle algebra as early as fourth grade. Children older than 9 are regularly rated, based on test scores. Student rankings are posted on a central wall for all to gawk at, like the latest sports stats.
When Bogin was growing up in the Soviet era, the party used schools to mold loyal Communists. Teachers wove propaganda through the lessons and enforced memorization like drill sergeants. Bogin detested it. “I didn’t want to be a slave,” he told me. “I didn’t want to be a person who is ordered and must obey the orders without any thinking. I didn’t consider myself to be a person who repeats texts without any criticism or thinking or any alternatives.”

Just as political dissidents fought the Soviet regime, so, too, did others oppose the educational system. Bogin was one of them. After studying English in college and serving in the army, he decided to become the kind of teacher he craved as a child. At a school in the Moscow suburbs in the late 1980s, he challenged pupils to challenge him — and everyone else. It was the height of perestroika under the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Soon after Communism’s fall, Bogin opened New Humanitarian, one of the first private schools in Russia, in a cramped building that had been a nursery school for children of workers at a military factory. New Humanitarian remains there, and Bogin’s inability to renovate the building or find a bigger one reflects to some extent the establishment’s ambivalence toward his brilliance as an educational provocateur. (While the school is private, it is still heavily regulated by the government.)
As things settled, we were discovering that New Humanitarian was a pretty remarkable place. Bogin set up a system of what he called curators, two or three teachers whose job was to oversee the 10 to 15 children in each grade. Curators generally do not conduct lessons but observe classes, identify problems and take children to meals and activities. Everyone ate breakfast, lunch and snacks in the cafeteria, where comfort food, from borscht to blinis to cinnamon rolls, was served by doting cooks. My kids gobbled it up, and Emmett stopped wielding a fork and knife like a caveman. Many children, including ours, stayed at school until 6 p.m., doing homework with curators. This was a godsend for us, because we had difficulty helping with assignments.

New Humanitarian had standard subjects, like history and math, and Danya had many hours of homework a week. But Bogin added courses like antimanipulation, which was intended to give children tools to decipher commercial or political messages. He taught a required class called myshleniye, which means “thinking,” as in critical thinking. It was based in part on the work of a dissident Soviet educational philosopher named Georgy Shchedrovitsky, who argued that there were three ways of thinking: abstract, verbal and representational. To comprehend the meaning of something, you had to use all three.
Bogin had another innovation: classes were videotaped. This was not a vestige of Soviet surveillance. Rather, he wanted to critique how teachers interacted with — and nurtured relations between — children. Bogin and his staff often worked late into the night, reviewing footage and discussing methodology.

Life at New Humanitarian was full of academic Olympiads, poetry-reciting contests and quiz bowls. The school stressed oral exams, even in math, where children had to solve an equation at the blackboard and explain methodology. Children were graded and ranked, with results posted. We were not accustomed to this: in Brooklyn, the school instilled an everyone’s-a-winner ethos. At New Humanitarian, Danya says, “they send an entirely different message to the kids: ‘Learning is hard, but you have to do it. You have to get good grades.’ ”
New Humanitarian cost about $10,000 a child our first year. We could afford it — like many companies that send workers abroad, The Times paid tuition. Yet for Muscovites, the school was a strange breed. It was too expensive for most but not appealing to the rich, who often preferred compliant teachers and lavish facilities. With its warped floors and narrow hallways, New Humanitarian looked like an old annex to a public school in Queens.

The school attracted upper-middle-class parents who were impressed with Bogin. In my children’s grades, the parents were lawyers, professors, bankers, architects, publishers, restaurateurs and a cosmetics manufacturer. They drove nice cars, lived in apartments that had been privatized in the post-Soviet era and vacationed in Western Europe.

I looked upon them as Russian versions of the parents who populate the Upper West Side, TriBeCa or Park Slope. Moscow has some strong public schools, but the system as a whole is dispiriting, in part because it is being corroded by the corruption that is a post-Soviet scourge. Parents often pay bribes to get their children admitted at better public schools. There are additional payoffs for good grades.

The parents at New Humanitarian exhibited one stark difference from their counterparts in New York: they were apolitical and often fatalistic about their nation’s future. Like many Russians in the Putin era, they turned inward, shunning public life and focusing on the personal. To do otherwise was risky. You can criticize the government in private as much as you want — K.G.B. snoops no longer lurk. But anything more than that and you might be fired or lose a contract or get a visit from the police. That anxiety is always there.

Room for all

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Matt Ridley reminds us that there’s room for all:

The world now has almost seven billion people and rising. The population may surpass nine billion by 2050. We, together with our 20 billion chickens and four billion cattle, sheep and pigs, will utterly dominate the planet. Can the planet take it? Can we take it?

Yes. Not only is such a huge population going to prove indefinitely “sustainable”; it is actually likely that the ecological impact of nine billion in 2050 will be lighter, not heavier: there will be less pollution and more space left over for nature than there is today.

Consider three startling facts. The world population quadrupled in the 20th century, but the calories available per person went up, not down. The world population doubled in the second half of the century, but the total forest area on the planet went up slightly, not down. The world population increased by a billion in the last 13 years, but the number living in absolute poverty (less than a dollar a day, adjusted for inflation) fell by around a third.

Clearly it is possible at least for a while to escape the fate forecast by Robert Malthus, the pessimistic mathematical cleric, in 1798.

Reflex Sights

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

In the 20th century, troops carried rifles with good old-fashioned iron sights, which are simple and rugged, but require a fair amount of practice to use well, because the shooter needs to focus on the front sight while nonetheless aiming at a distant target. A few specialist snipers and sharpshooters carried rifles with telescopic sights, which are complicated and fragile.

Modern 21st-century troops carry carbines with reflector (or reflex) sights, which are often called red-dot sights, because they seem, through an optical trick, to place a red dot on the target. Oddly, this isn’t a new technology:

The idea of a reflector sight originated in 1900 with Irish optical designer and telescope maker Sir Howard Grubb in patent No.12108. Grubb conceived of his “Gun Sight for large and small Ordnance” as a better alternative to the difficult to use iron sight while avoiding the telescopic sight’s limited field of view, greater apparent target speed, parallax errors, and the danger of keeping the eye against an eye stop. In the 1901 Scientific Transactions of the Royal Dublin Society he described his invention:

It would be possible to conceive an arrangement by which a fine beam of light like that from a search light would be projected from a gun in the direction of its axis and so adjusted as to correspond with the line of fire so that wherever the beam of light impinged upon an object the shot would hit. This arrangement would be of course equally impracticable for obvious reasons but it is instanced to show that a beam of light has the necessary qualifications for our purposes.

Now the sight which forms the subject of this Paper attains a similar result not by projecting an actual spot of light or an image on the object but by projecting what is called in optical language a virtual image upon it.

It was noted soon after its invention that the sight could be a good alternative to iron sights and also had uses in surveying and measuring equipment. The reflector sight was first used on German fighter aircraft in 1918 and widely adopted on all kinds of fighter and bomber aircraft in the 1930s. By World War II the reflector sight was being used on many types of weapons besides aircraft, including anti-aircraft guns, naval guns, anti tank weapons, and many other weapon where the user needed the simplicity and quick target acquisition nature of the sight. Through their development in the 30’s and into WWII the sight was also being referred to in some applications by the abbreviation “reflex sight”.

The modern red dot sight goes back to the 1970s, when red LEDs finally provided a bright, yet small and energy-efficient light-source suitable for small arms.

Because the sight spits out an image composed of collimated light, the dot remains on target even if the shooter moves his (dominant) eye out of alignment. There’s negligible parallax error.

Lester Dent’s Secret Master Plot

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Lester Dent didn’t write every Doc Savage pulp adventure, but he wrote most of them — as Kenneth Robeson. While learning his craft — writing pulp stories quickly enough to make a living — he developed his Secret Master Plot:

This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words. No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell. The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else.

Here’s how it starts:


One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.

A different murder method could be–different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?

If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary. Scribes who have their villain’s victims found with butterflies, spiders or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag. Probably it won’t do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque with murder methods.

The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones. Here, again one might get too bizarre.

Unique locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure–thing that villain wants–makes it simpler, and it’s also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you’ve lived or worked. So many pulpateers don’t. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.

Here’s a nifty much used in faking local color. For a story laid in Egypt, say, author finds a book titled “Conversational Egyptian Easily Learned,” or something like that. He wants a character to ask in Egyptian, “What’s the matter?” He looks in the book and finds, “El khabar, eyh?” To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it’s perhaps wise to make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it’s a doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English translation.

The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book, finds the Egyptian for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.

Here’s the second installment of the master plot.

Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:


  1. First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved–something the hero has to cope with.
  2. The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
  3. Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
  4. Hero’s endevours land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
  5. Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.

SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE? Is there a MENACE to the hero? Does everything happen logically?

At this point, it might help to recall that action should do something besides advance the hero over the scenery. Suppose the hero has learned the dastards of villains have seized somebody named Eloise, who can explain the secret of what is behind all these sinister events. The hero corners villains, they fight, and villains get away. Not so hot.

Hero should accomplish something with his tearing around, if only to rescue Eloise, and surprise! Eloise is a ring-tailed monkey. The hero counts the rings on Eloise’s tail, if nothing better comes to mind. They’re not real. The rings are painted there. Why?


  1. Shovel more grief onto the hero.
  2. Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
  3. Another physical conflict.
  4. A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.

NOW: Does second part have SUSPENSE? Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud? Is the hero getting it in the neck? Is the second part logical?


Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader–show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM.

When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page. It is reasonable to to expect these minor surprises to sort of inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound efforts.

One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until–surprise! The glass pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery. Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things which make him stick in the reader’s mind.



  1. Shovel the grief onto the hero.
  2. Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
  3. A physical conflict.
  4. A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.

DOES: It still have SUSPENSE? The MENACE getting blacker? The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix? It all happens logically?

These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.

These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once. The idea is to avoid monotony.

ACTION: Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action.

ATMOSPHERE: Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.

DESCRIPTION: Trees, wind, scenery and water.



  1. Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.
  2. Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)
  3. The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
  4. The mysteries remaining–one big one held over to this point will help grip interest–are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.
  5. Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “Treasure” be a dud, etc.)
  6. The snapper, the punch line to end it.

HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line? The MENACE held out to the last? Everything been explained? It all happen logically? Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING? Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?

The End

Chipotle’s Growth Machine

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Chipotle founder Steve Ells is extending their fast-casual formula into a new pan-Asian chain called… ShopHouse?

He has been involved in all phases of its construction, menu, and marketing. The two-story building in Washington evokes the classic urban shophouses of Southeast Asia, in which families run markets on the first floor and live upstairs. The imminent rollout will be curious. There will be no advertising, no official opening date. Signage will make no mention of the Chipotle connection. The registered website,, is virtually dark. The “soft” opening is of a piece with Chipotle’s preference not to make ShopHouse too big a deal. “We don’t even have a plan where we might open a second location,” Ells says.
The dishes: grilled steak with chili-jam marmalade, roast corn with scallions, Chinese broccoli, pickled vegetables — all served over brown rice, plus green papaya salad on the side. You could recognize the coriander, garlic, turmeric, and lemongrass. The carrots were stunningly bright (something about the pickling process), and the salad was an appealing mix of sweet, salty, spicy, and sour.

I didn’t realize how Chipotle got started:

Ells doesn’t have the typical CEO biography. He’s loved to cook since third grade. His mother remembers him playing with scrambled eggs relentlessly in the kitchen. Nonetheless, Chipotle (pronounced, like its smoke-dried jalapeño namesake, chi-POAT-lay) was pretty much an accident. After majoring in art history at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Ells attended the Culinary Institute of America. In 1990 he landed a job as a $12-an-hour line cook at Stars, the erstwhile San Francisco landmark whose Jeremiah Tower was an early celebrity chef. Ells wanted his own fancy place but had no capital. He figured he’d create a fast-food joint to generate cash flow with which to move up the food chain. Ells loved the little taquerías in the Mission District and decided to open one back in Colorado, where he’d grown up. With an initial $85,000 investment from his father, a former pharmaceuticals executive, he converted a Dolly Madison ice cream store near the University of Denver campus into a burrito shop called Chipotle, opening in 1993. He was 28 and had never studied business in his life.

His overstuffed, individualized burritos were an instant hit, and Ells was quickly able to stop chasing skeptical prospective customers down the street. (“Come back!” he’d plead.) In two years he opened more shops in Denver, which even today has the most Chipotles per capita. Along the way, Ells started bucking conventional fast-food wisdom. Horrified by the confinement conditions at factory farms, he started to use naturally raised livestock. He bought organic when he could and vowed to avoid products with hormones. Ells did so not because he necessarily thought customers appreciated it, but because it struck him as ethical. He’s nothing if not resolute in his convictions. “If you go to dinner at Steve’s house,” co-CEO Moran says, “he couldn’t care less what you want to eat. He’ll tell you what you want, and you’ll like it — and he’ll be right.”

Ells eventually abandoned his dream of starting his own high-end restaurant. Instead he settled into a life of empire building. The financial challenge was to expand outside Colorado, so he began to search for investors. In 1998 he sent a business plan to McDonald’s executives, who apparently liked what they read: Within three years McDonald’s owned a majority stake in Chipotle. Meanwhile Ells, with $360 million from McDonald’s at his disposal, expanded to over 500 outlets. Eventually Ells wanted out of the marriage. (Among other things, McDonald’s favored going global too quickly for Ells’ taste.) A deal was struck. In 2006, Chipotle went public; the stock price doubled its first day of trading on the New York Stock Exchange. In the end McDonald’s walked away with a profit of more than $650 million, and Ells was a rich man and free to run the company his own way.

The Origin of Fun

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Fun is an oddly new creation — the word, that is:

“diversion, amusement,” 1727, earlier “a cheat, trick” (c.1700), from verb fun (1680s) “to cheat, hoax,” of uncertain origin, probably a variant of M.E. fonnen “befool” (c.1400; see fond).

Stigmatized by Johnson as “a low cant word.” Older sense is preserved in phrase to make fun of (1737) and funny money “counterfeit bills” (1938, though this may be more for the sake of the rhyme). See also funny.


“humorous,” 1756, from fun + -y (2). Meaning “strange, odd” is 1806, said to be originally U.S. Southern. The two senses of the word led to the retort question “funny ha-ha or funny peculiar,” which is attested from 1916. Related: Funnier; funniest. Funny farm “mental hospital” is slang from 1962. Funny bone “elbow end of the humerus” is 1826; funnies “newspaper comic strips” is from 1852.


Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

I only “get” a tiny fraction of ThunderLOLcats — but that’s enough:

(Hat tip to io9.)


Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Grit predicts achievement:

[Angela Duckworth] developed a test to measure grit, which she called the Grit Scale. It is a deceptively simple test, in that it requires you to rate yourself on just 12 questions, from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” It takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth took it out into the field, she found it was remarkably predictive of success. At Penn, high grit ratings allowed students with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high G.P.A.’s. Duckworth and her collaborators gave their grit test to more than 1,200 freshman cadets as they entered West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the Whole Candidate Score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness and a Leadership Potential Score. But at the end of Beast Barracks, the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s 12-item grit questionnaire.

Levin and Randolph asked Duckworth to use the new methods and tools she was developing to help them investigate the question of character at KIPP and Riverdale, and she and a handful of Penn graduate students began making regular treks from Philadelphia to New York. The first question Duckworth addressed, again, was the relative importance of I.Q. and self-control. She and her team of researchers gave middle-school students at Riverdale and KIPP a variety of psychological and I.Q. tests. They found that at both schools, I.Q. was the better predictor of scores on statewide achievement tests, but measures of self-control were more reliable indicators of report-card grades.

This kind of research has prompted a move away from moral charcter programs toward performance character programs:

When I spoke to Karen Fierst, the teacher who was overseeing the character project for the Riverdale lower school, she said she was worried that it would be a challenge to convince the students and their parents that there was anything in the 24 character strengths that might actually benefit them. For KIPP kids, she said, the notion that character could help them get through college was a powerful lure, one that would motivate them to take the strengths seriously. For kids at Riverdale, though, there was little doubt that they would graduate from college. “It will just happen,” Fierst explained. “It happened to every generation in their family before them. And so it’s harder to get them to invest in this idea. For KIPP students, learning these strengths is partly about trying to demystify what makes other people successful — kind of like, ‘We’re letting you in on the secret of what successful people are like.’ But kids here already live in a successful community. They’re not depending on their teachers to give them the information on how to be successful.”

The affluent children have other problems:

For Randolph, the experience that Brunzell was describing — the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them — is exactly what is missing for so many students at academically excellent schools like Riverdale. And perhaps surprisingly, it may turn out to be an area where the students at KIPP have a real advantage over Riverdale kids.
Cohen and Fierst told me that they also see many Riverdale parents who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. As Fierst put it: “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents. We try to talk to parents about having to sort of make it O.K. for there to be challenge, because that’s where learning happens.”

Cohen said that in the middle school, “if a kid is a C student, and their parents think that they’re all-A’s, we do get a lot of pushback: ‘What are you talking about? This is a great paper!’ We have parents calling in and saying, for their kids, ‘Can’t you just give them two more days on this paper?’ Overindulging kids, with the intention of giving them everything and being loving, but at the expense of their character — that’s huge in our population. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have at Riverdale.”


Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

It’s too easy to make a brotherly love joke:

About 11 P.M. on Sept. 9, dozens of youths with bats and pipes descended on a tidy residential area of Port Richmond looking for white teens who allegedly had attacked an African-American kid at Stokely Playground a couple of hours earlier.

Two fearful white teens spotted Mark LaVelle on Indiana Avenue near Belgrade Street and asked for help. Suddenly, the mob appeared. LaVelle, who said that he didn’t know the two kids, who looked to be 13 or 14, ran with them into his nearby house.

” ‘We got you, you white mother——-!’ ” LaVelle said he heard someone yell in the “mob” of black and Hispanic youths.

Inside his house, LaVelle, 37, called to his wife, Kim, 30, to go to their bedroom with their twin 13-month-old boys, Mark and Mason, and to call police. He also ordered his two other sons, 11 and 17, and his nephew, 7, to stay upstairs.

With the two teens hiding in the house, LaVelle, 5 feet 10, 220 pounds, a well-known sports-league organizer and coach in the community, went outside to try to calm the angry mob.

They were standing on his steps. One shouted, ” ‘Something’s going to happen now!’ ” LaVelle recalled in an interview Friday at his house. LaVelle got nervous and went back inside, locking his door with a deadbolt.

But the attackers pounded on his front windows and kicked his wooden door so hard, it flew open and some of them entered his house.

“The first guy hits me with a pipe. The second guy knocks me in the face. All I’m hearing is my wife and kids screaming,” said LaVelle, who feared that the next time they saw him, he would be in a casket.

He said that he was able to push the attackers out the door, but then a third man — who had a gun — tried to extend his arm. LaVelle grabbed onto the gunman’s lower arm and shoulder so he couldn’t raise the weapon. Then, police sirens screamed in the neighborhood, and the mob turned and ran.

LaVelle was able to identify three of the people from the melee. He said he did not know if they had been chasing the white teenagers, or if they were just trying to find someone to attack.

Police arrested Bergson Morin, 21, of Rosehill Street near Wyoming Avenue, Feltonville, as the man with the gun. They arrested Enrique Delgado, 32, of Rockland and C streets, Feltonville, as the man who hit LaVelle with the pipe. And they arrested a 17-year-old juvenile as the one who punched LaVelle in the face, giving him a black eye.

LaVelle said that the next day the mother of the juvenile came back with some other people, banging on his door, screaming. LaVelle, who was at a charity sports event, was called back to the house by one of his sons.

When he got home, LaVelle said, the mother yelled at him, ” ‘You white mother——, you got my kid locked up! You got my son locked up because he’s black, you’re white!’ ” The mother claimed that her son had been “a witness,” not an attacker. To that, LaVelle said if that were true, it would come out in court.

But the mother, according to LaVelle, then yelled: ” ‘If you make it to court! I know where you live!’ ”

Police public affairs could not confirm yesterday if the mother has been arrested for making threats.

Patty-Pat Kozlowski, president of the Port Richmond on Patrol and Civic Association, said that police told her that the attack on LaVelle stemmed from the incident at Stokely Playground, Indiana Avenue and Thompson Street, a few blocks from LaVelle’s house.

She heard that an African-American “kid got knocked off his bike or fell off” and white kids were laughing at him. The group of African-Americans and Hispanics came back for retaliation, Kozlowski believes.

Note the coded language:

Dozens of youths with bats and pipes descended on a tidy residential area of Port Richmond looking for white teens who allegedly had attacked an African-American kid at Stokely Playground a couple of hours earlier.

If we combine frank language with information from later in the article, it comes out differently:

Dozens of young black and Hispanic men armed with bats, pipes, and at least one gun descended on a predominantly white middle-class area of Port Richmond looking for white kids who had laughed at a black kid falling off his bike at Stokely Playground a couple hours earlier.

I don’t know what actually happened, of course, but if a white kid knocked a black kid off his bike, without being provoked, he deserved an old-fashioned beat-down, until some adults arrived to break it up. That’s playground justice.

But bats, pipes, and guns? And kicking in a dead-bolted door? With adults on both sides?  It’s almost enough to convince you to move to the suburbs…

(Hat tip to the rather more strident Deconstructing Leftism.)

Whatever happened to Nuclear Terrorism?

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

In 1982, Thomas Schelling opened an article with this warning:

Sometime in the 1980’s an organization that is not a national government may acquire a few nuclear weapons. If not in the 1980’s, then in the 1990’s.

So, whatever happened to nuclear terrorism?

I think now that we failed to appreciate that theft of weapons-grade fissile material was only a first step in a difficult process of getting stolen material to a dangerous customer.

Imagine that you have succeeded in stealing a Picasso insured for many millions of dollars, and you know that there are people willing to pay several millions for it: how do you find your customer? You cannot put a want ad in the New York Times.

If you have weapons-grade uranium for which you know someone is willing to pay a high price you probably need someone able to get it out of the country, who can meet someone somewhere who can be in touch with someone who is in touch with someone who is known to be willing to kill to get the stuff, who may pay handsomely. At every stage someone has much money, someone has stuff worth much money, someone gets a commission, and somebody may be willing to kill for the money or for the bomb material.

Eventually, if all goes well, a “supplier” and a “customer” representing the terrorist organization may meet in a public place, each with a few unrecognizable body guards, to consummate the deal. At that point I fantasize that the seller and the buyer recognize each other, one is from the CIA and the other from the Israeli Mossad. Each is engaged in a “sting” operation, and they shake hands and go back to work.

Assume the sale succeeds. The terrorist organization needs the people who can convert the fissile material into an explosive. It needs several highly trained scientists in physics, chemistry, computer science, and metallurgy, and highly skilled machinists and others who can produce something technologically demanding. The fact that a bomb design can be found on the internet, doesn’t make it easy. Anyone can find out how to make a Chevrolet, or an MRI or a CAT scan; there’s no secret, but it’s not easy!

Recruiting must be a problem. There are three main avenues. Loyal terrorists, if they have the skills, may be happy to join. Pay may attract the needed people. Coercion—threatening family, etc.—may work. But there’s always the chance that the persons approached can become informants. Pay may be unattractive if the potential contractor suspects that any organization willing to kill thousands or millions wouldn’t hesitate to kill a nuclear scientists rather than pay him at the, end of his contract, especially to preclude his becoming an informant. As in the process of avoiding enemy intelligence in the chain of transactions getting the fissile material to the ultimate customer, there is the difficulty of “advertising” for participants in an enterprise that requires leaving job and family and going off to a secret location from which he may never return.

I love the bit of meta-analysis:

If a team is assembled that, in isolation, spends months making a workable bomb, or a few bombs, what will they spend their evening hours talking about? They are all concentrated on a nuclear weapon. Won’t they continually converse about what the thing is good for, what should properly be done with it, how it might be used to advance some important objective, and whether they might have any influence on its use? They will almost certainly have spent more hundreds of hours trying to think strategically about the possible uses of a few nuclear weapons than any head of government, or even senior government adviser has devoted to the question. It’s possible—I think likely—that they may be listened to. And what “strategy” might they propose?

I propose that they will conclude that exploding a weapon over Los Angeles or Vladivostok or Bremen will “waste” the weapon. They will think, “we are a nuclear power. There are the USA, Russia, France, Britain, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Maybe Iran, and now US. We have status, power, influence. Let’s use it!”
But I have not yet given as many hours of thought to this subject as that team will have done by the time they’ve produced a nuclear bomb.

That conclusion humbly sidesteps the fact that Schelling is one of the world’s greatest game theorists.

Increase Diversity Bake Sale

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

I thought the Increase Diversity Bake Sale had been done before:

The Berkeley College Republicans devised the satirical “Increase Diversity Bake Sale,” as a protest against proposed bill SB 185, which would have the race, gender, ethnicity and national origin of prospective students considered alongside other admission criteria.

The bake sale, which went ahead Tuesday despite the disapproval of the school’s administration, set prices for baked goods on a sliding scale — charging the most to Caucasian males and the least to Native American women.

Bake Sale Prices
White: $2.00
Asian: $1.50
Latino: $1.00
Black: $0.75
Native American: 25 cents
25 cents off for all women

Behold the Wizard

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Behold the Wizard. Beware his powers — unspeakable powers:

If you watch carefully, by the way, that’s an actual scene from the original King Kong he’s watching, in which the great ape performs a sagging headlock — and other legitimate grappling moves — on the T. Rex.

Enjoy the lyrics.