Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Football and brain damage

I don't generally pay attention to sports news, but this has been a big story this week:

Before he shot himself fatally in the chest Thursday, the former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson sent family members text messages requesting that his brain tissue be examined for the same damage recently found in other retired players . . . .

As a longtime force in the N.F.L. players union, Duerson, 50, was keenly aware of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to depression, dementia and occasionally suicide among more than a dozen deceased players. He had expressed concern in recent months that he might have had the condition, said one person close to him who spoke on condition of anonymity. . . .

Now, at Duerson’s request, his brain may contribute to knowledge of how — and how many — football players are at risk for C.T.E. Thirteen of the 14 deceased N.F.L. players who have been examined for the disease by the Boston University researchers have been found to have it, although that rate is skewed by the fact that many died in part through acts linked to the disease itself, like suicide, drug abuse or mental breakdown.

There also is a question as to whether the disease derives from a career in pro football or simply from many years of playing football at any level. Last year, C.T.E. was found in the brain of Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania football captain who killed himself in April.
A year ago, Penelope Trunk wrote:
It’s unbelievable to me that everyone continues to watch football when we know that men are getting genuinely, permanently, brain damaged. The game is tantamount to cockfighting, only with people instead of animals.

The NFL has finally admitted the problem, to the extent it is poised to be the largest funding source for research about trauma to the brain. But still, the game encourages brain trauma. And people cheer.

I can understand if it’s like smoking. You’re addicted, you can’t stop. But what about bringing your kids to the game? What about all the people who make the Superbowl a family TV event? Kids who play football in high school are more likely to die from that than drunk driving or guns. And parents encourage their kids to play this sport?

The culture of football amazes to me — the incredible level of denial. So what I'm thinking is that people are delusional. And they know it, but they keep going. They cultivate delusion.
My Occam's Razor theory: society has a straightforward gender-based double standard. If there's a self-destructive behavior that's mostly done by women (anorexia, self-cutting), society feels sorry for these women and wants to help them. When there's a self-destructive behavior that's mostly done by men (football, fist fights, "daredevil" stunts), we accept it, or even cheer it on.

IN THE COMMENTS: My mom throws in some grim irony:
And don't forget the terrible equal pay for equal work problem. All those things you've associated with women are severely underpaid. Aaron Rodgers makes millions, but the self-cutting girl down the street gets literally nothing.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What's more scientific: science classes or Wikipedia entries about science?

Katja Grace, in her excellent blog called Meteuphoric, says:

This is how science classes mostly went in high school. We would learn about a topic that had been discovered scientifically, for instance that if you add together two particular solutions of ions, some of the ions will precipitate out as a solid salt. Then we would do an experiment, wherein we would add the requisite solutions and get something entirely wrong in its color, smell, quantity, or presence. Then we would write a report with our hypothesis, the contradictory results, and a long discussion about all the mistakes that could be to blame for this unexpected result, and conclude that the real answer was probably still what we hypothesized (since we read that in a book).
(In a follow-up post, she gives some specific suggestions for how we could teach kids to think scientifically.)

Freeman Dyson writes in the New York Review of Books (via):
Jimmy Wales hoped when he started Wikipedia that the combination of enthusiastic volunteer writers with open source information technology would cause a revolution in human access to knowledge. The rate of growth of Wikipedia exceeded his wildest dreams. Within ten years it has become the biggest storehouse of information on the planet and the noisiest battleground of conflicting opinions. It illustrates Shannon’s law of reliable communication. Shannon’s law says that accurate transmission of information is possible in a communication system with a high level of noise. Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works.

The information flood has also brought enormous benefits to science. The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.

Even physics, the most exact and most firmly established branch of science, is still full of mysteries. We do not know how much of Shannon’s theory of information will remain valid when quantum devices replace classical electric circuits as the carriers of information. Quantum devices may be made of single atoms or microscopic magnetic circuits. All that we know for sure is that they can theoretically do certain jobs that are beyond the reach of classical devices. Quantum computing is still an unexplored mystery on the frontier of information theory. Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Radiohead's new album, The King of Limbs

My impression on first listen to the new Radiohead album: it's like a watered-down version of a lot of their past work. They've gone on autopilot.

The King of Limbs sounds most like their previous album, In Rainbows, which I wasn't a big fan of either. But at least In Rainbows had 2 standouts: "All I Need" and "Nude." I'm not hearing any standouts on The King of Limbs.

The album is fine, not bad. But Radiohead used to be in the forefront of interesting, challenging new music. They're now just one more band.

Here's "Lotus Flower" from The King of Limbs:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Nicholas Kristof reports from a hospital in Bahrain

On his Facebook page:

At the main hospital in Bahrain, I interviewed doctors who said they treated about 600 injured. I saw 3 dead in morgue with gunshot wounds. Interviewed ambulance drivers/paramedics who said they were beaten for trying to treat the injured. Hospital says government has barred ambulances from going out on calls. The hospital scene breaks my heart.
UPDATE: Just 2 days later, the New York Times reports:
Thousands of jubilant protesters surged back into the symbolic heart of Bahrain [Pearl Square in Manama] on Saturday after the government withdrew its security forces, calling for calm after days of violent crackdowns. . . .

The shift . . . was at least a temporary victory for the Shiite protesters, who had rejected a call to negotiate from Bahrain’s Sunni monarch until the authorities pulled the military off the streets.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: "We don’t have anything to give."

This is Walker's explanation for why he's trying to cut benefits and take away most collective-bargaining rights of public workers in Wisconsin:

“I’m just trying to balance my budget,” Mr. Walker said. “To those who say why didn’t I negotiate on this? I don’t have anything to negotiate with. We don’t have anything to give. Like practically every other state in the country, we’re broke. And it’s time to pay up.”
If that's true — if he has no choice because he simply doesn't "have anything to give" — then why does he want to exempt police and firefighters?

Monday, February 14, 2011

"The one lie . . . that no news organization will admit to or expose"

Mickey Kaus says something he claims you'll only hear on Bloggingheads:



"If you're into politics, it's a very good time to go off and raise a family, write a play, paint a painting, do something else for a while."

I'm convinced.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"Music is a form whose meaning depends upon its violation."

Jonah Lehrer analyzes "the neuroscience of music."

But there's something I don't understand about his whole explanation. It's all about how music sets up "expectations" and then violates them, or delays the satisfaction of them:

While music can often seem (at least to the outsider) like a labyrinth of intricate patterns – it’s art at its most mathematical – it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. [I don't know of any music that fits that description! — JAC] The longer we are denied the pattern we expect, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns, safe and sound. That is when we get the chills. . . .

The uncertainty makes the feeling – it is what triggers that surge of dopamine in the caudate, as we struggle to figure out what will happen next. And so our neurons search for the undulating order, trying to make sense of this flurry of pitches. We can predict some of the notes, but we can’t predict them all, and that is what keeps us listening, waiting expectantly for our reward, for the errant pattern to be completed.
Here's what I don't get: I've listened to the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony so many times that I know in advance what the whole thing is going to sound like, note for note. There isn't a single moment in the piece that I find genuinely surprising. I don't expect anything else from it other than exactly what it gives me. (Even if you're not a Beethoven fan like me, one so often hears the movement played that you could easily become well-acquainted with it without trying.) If enjoying music is all about challenging our expectations, shouldn't this movement fall flat for me? But I find it one of the most effective and emotional pieces of music in the world.

This video even gives you visual cues about what's going to happen in that movement before it happens (by Stephen Malinowski, who has over 100 of these). I don't find that this detracts from the musical experience at all:

Democracy in Egypt

I just saw this status update in my Facebook homepage:

And now a beautiful, secular liberal democracy where the rights of gays, women, atheists, Jews, the independent press, Egypt's neighbors (ie; Israel), etc., are all respected. Because "democracy" is magic, and makes everything good.
(That was posted by Alex Knepper, who co-blogs at The Reexaminer.)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Music Friday: Come On Eileen

I'm glad to hear this string quartet interpretation of "Come On Eileen," with all parts played by the same person ("Nick"). The music alone, with its dramatic key and tempo changes, expresses a level of joy that transcends the song's "Gee, you sure are attractive" lyrics.



Does it also work as a ska song, sung by a woman? Does it ever!



(Save Ferris is the band.)

Of course, Dexys Midnight Runners' original is still great:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Are conservatives in academia victims of discrimination and deserving of affirmative action?

This New York Times article has gotten a lot of attention for raising that question (by focusing on Jonathan Haidt, who's concerned about the underrepresentation of conservatives even though he himself is a liberal).

But the really odd thing is, as Megan McArdle points out: every time this topic comes up, liberals and conservatives both seem to do a 180 on their usual talking points about discrimination and diversity. Specifically:

Conservatives are usually reluctant to agree that women and minorities are still often victims of structural or personal bias--despite numerical underrepresentation and some fairly compelling studies showing that hiring is not race or gender blind. Yet when it comes to conservatives in academia, they suddenly sound like sociologists, discussing hostile work environment, the role of affinity networks in excluding out groups, unconscious bias, and the compelling evidence from statistical underrepresentation.

Meanwhile, liberals, who are usually quick to assume that underrepresentation represents some form of discrimination--structural or personal--suddenly become, as Haidt notes, fierce critics of the notion that numerical representation means anything. Moreover, they start generating explanations for the disparity that sound suspiciously like some old reactionary explaining that blacks don't really want to go into management because they're much happier without all the responsibility. Conservatives are too stupid to become academics; they aren't open new ideas; they're too aggressive and hierarchical; they don't care about ideas, just money. In other words, it's not our fault that they're not worthy.

Besides, liberals suddenly argue, we shouldn't look for every sub-population to mirror the composition of the population at large; just as Greeks gravitated towards diners in 1980s New York, and the small market business was dominated by Koreans, liberals are attracted to academia, and conservatives to, well, some other profession.
Part of what's going on here is that everyone wants to point out the hypocrisy of people who are on the other side from them. But hypocrisy often cuts both ways: if your opponents are taking positions that directly contradict each other, and both of them are the exact opposite of what you believe, then doesn't that imply that you're also taking contradictory positions?

McArdle quotes Paul Krugman's defense of liberals on this issue:
Every once in a while you get stories like this one, about the underrepresentation of conservatives in academics, that treat ideological divides as being somehow equivalent to racial differences. This is a really, really bad analogy.

And it's not just the fact that you can choose your ideology, but not your race. Ideologies have a real effect on overall life outlook, which has a direct impact on job choices.
McArdle has an apt response:
I have no idea what distinction one is supposed to make between beliefs and something you "can't change". Could Paul Krugman become a devout Baptist and a supply sider tomorrow, if the financial incentives were right? I devoutly hope not. I presume that Paul Krugman . . . could no more change his beliefs than he could change his native language. It is easier (in most cases) to pretend different ideas than a different race--but we rightly think that it was horrific to force blacks to "pass" as a condition of being treated like a full human being.
But what about Krugman's other point that's supposed to show how ideology-based discrimination is nothing like race-based discrimination? "Ideologies have a real effect on overall life outlook, which has a direct impact on job choices." Oh. But wait a minute . . . how exactly does that show that there's no analogy between ideology and race/gender? Is Krugman trying to say that that gender and race have no correlation to job choices? I don't see why he'd assume that. As for gender, well, men and women are different in many ways; you'd have to be pretty naive to be shocked at the possibility that certain jobs are more appealing to men while others are more appealing to women. Race may be trickier, but should we really assume that race isn't correlated with job choices?

Krugman (a Nobel Prize-winning economist) seems to be doing some awfully sloppy thinking here, and McArdle is right about the shameless hypocrisy on both sides.

I also wonder if Krugman considered that the fact that ideology does have to do with different outlooks on life (as he says) makes ideological discrimination a particularly bad thing. If academics tend to dogmatically shut out certain outlooks and privilege others, so much the worse for academia.

IN THE COMMENTS: LemmusLemmus says, agreeing with that last paragraph:
One often hears the argument for affirmative action for African Americans in academia that it enriches discussion because African Americans contribute a different perspective on issues (which can be relevant at least in the social sciences and some humanities). And that's not true of conservatives? Ha!
ADDED: A commenter on Krugman's post sums up what I imagine is the real thinking behind the liberal reaction to this topic:
Besides, Paul, people who disagree with you are stupid, right?

Can't have stupid people teaching. They're too stupid!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Is the internet preventing us from living in reality?

In a mostly predictable and overly long New Yorker article on whether the internet is changing how we think, Adam Gopnik has one great passage (based on John Brockman's anthology entitled Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?):

[W]hen people struggle to describe the state that the Internet puts them in they arrive at a remarkably familiar picture of disassociation and fragmentation. Life was once whole, continuous, stable; now it is fragmented, multi-part, shimmering around us, unstable and impossible to fix. The world becomes Keats’s “waking dream,” as the writer Kevin Kelly puts it.

The odd thing is that this complaint . . . is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855, or Walter Benjamin’s about Berlin in 1930, or Marshall McLuhan’s in the face of three-channel television (and Canadian television, at that) in 1965. When department stores had Christmas windows with clockwork puppets, the world was going to pieces; when the city streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages running by bright-colored posters, you could no longer tell the real from the simulated; when people were listening to shellac 78s and looking at color newspaper supplements, the world had become a kaleidoscope of disassociated imagery; and when the broadcast air was filled with droning black-and-white images of men in suits reading news, all of life had become indistinguishable from your fantasies of it. It was Marx, not Steve Jobs, who said that the character of modern life is that everything falls apart.

We must, at some level, need this to be true, since we think it’s true about so many different kinds of things. We experience this sense of fracture so deeply that we ascribe it to machines that, viewed with retrospective detachment, don’t seem remotely capable of producing it. If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything looks like a nail; and, if you think the world is broken, every machine looks like the hammer that broke it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Why we'll never go back to Zucco Le French Diner, a restaurant/bar in NYC's Lower East Side

I posted this to my Facebook wall:

Waiter/bartender at Zucco Le French Diner asked us to move from our table (where we had been sitting for a while) to the bar to have dinner, because there were only 2 of us and "there's a party of 5 here; I could lose them if I don't seat them at your table." Well, you just lost 2 customers for good.
Response #1:
He should have asked nicely and offered you free drinks/desserts. It can be fun to sit at the bar. _____ and I often choose to when tables are available, but it's bad to be treated brusquely.
I say:
He was definitely brusque. When we said no, we wanted to stay at the table, he didn't seem to accept this.
Response #2:
Unfortunately a restaurant like that probably has enough demand they can afford to be jerks to the occasional small party. Or they are really pushing that rude-French shtick.
My response:
Yeah, he probably figures his restaurant is so small, and there are so many potential customers, that he can afford to be rude whenever it will directly serve the bottom line. I don't agree with that calculus, but I understand it.
To be more specific about why I said I disagree with the calculus: if they truly just wanted to maximize profits, the way to do it wouldn't be to rudely shift their already-seated customers around to try to seat as many people as possible at each table. They should try to create as much customer satisfaction and good will as possible, so more people want to go there — even if this means more people want to go there than can physically fit into their cramped Manhattan restaurant. Insofar as the demand exceeds the space, they should raise their prices just enough to tamp down demand while keeping the restaurant full.

When I choose to give my money to a restaurant or bar, it's not just to have them give me food and drinks, but to have an overall experience. Most places seem to understand this, because if they didn't, it would hurt them in the long run.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Video: Egyptian police shoot a man dead.

He seemed to be calmly standing with his arms outstretched, unarmed.

It happens near the end of this video, at 2:21 (via this blog post, which is via Nicholas Kristof's Facebook page):



Our tax dollars . . .

Women want more independence in relationships than men do, and men are more likely to want to children?

These poll results are interesting but should be taken with a grain of salt, as the study was done for Match.com (which has an interest in convincing women that men will commit to them). This is about single Americans, age 21 and up (89% straight, 5% gay, 4% bisexual):

Data show men are quicker to fall in love and more likely than women to want children: 54% of men say they have experienced love at first sight, compared with 44% of women; among singles without children under 18, more men (24%) than women (15%) say they want children.

And, across every age group, women want more independence than men in their relationships: 77% of women say having their personal space is "very important," vs. 58% for men; 78% of women say the same about having their own interests and hobbies (vs. 64% for men). And 35% of women (vs. 23% of men) say regular nights out with the guys/girls are important.
The headline for that USA Today article reporting on the study says: "Men, women flip the script in gender expectation." But does it really flip gender expectations for men to be more likely than women to say they've fallen in "love at first sight"?

IN THE COMMENTS: Grobstein has two theories on why "the pop culture story where the man does not want to settle down" would turn out to be wrong:
I think a lot of our cultural relationship wisdom was formed under conditions quite different from now. In the post-war decades, there was a sharp shortage of men — of course men were less willing to commit.

The other possible bias is that the stories are about men who, because of their desirability, enjoy a strong bargaining position and may be less willing to commit.
Those are both good points. I especially find his second point — about how we tend to focus on certain men because they're more powerful and thus more conspicuous — to be both plausible and systematically overlooked.

But I added:
On the other hand, it could be that the standard story is fairly accurate, and the study results are skewed. Why? Because straight men and straight women (89% of the respondents) are saying what they think the opposite sex would like to hear.

Friday, February 4, 2011

How to lie with statistics: Unemployment edition

The US Department of Labor's new unemployment report -- which seems to show a major drop in the unemployment rate yet a tiny increase in actual jobs -- is explained here. (via)

"This never happens" in Austin.

Snow ... snow ... snow!