Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A new study that says gay people are coming out earlier than in the past . . .

. . . is wrong in a "new and interesting" way.

That blog post (1) explains how the study went wrong and (2) asks whether it could have possibly been right.

As to the second point, the blogger (Ben Goldacre) explains:

It’s a difficult analysis to design, because in each age band, there is no information on gay people who are not yet out, but may come out later, and also it’s hard to compare each age band with the others.
(The comments section on that post also has a lot of relevant insights.)

This reminds me of the oft-repeated factoid that "50% of marriages end in divorce." How could you ever determine whether this is true? You can observe divorces that have actually happened, but you can't possibly know whether existing marriages will end in divorce.

Even questions that seem to be about concrete, observable facts can't necessarily be answered by empirical research.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Happy 107th birthday to Alice Herz-Sommer, who survived the Holocaust with music

Here's her Wikipedia entry, which links to this article:

I played Chopin as they sent my family to their deaths
That article explains:
In 1943, with her husband and their six-year-old son, she was deported from Prague to the Nazis' "model" concentration camp at Terezin ....
Her mother had already been deported and killed by Nazis a year earlier. The article goes on:
In Terezin, despite appalling conditions, she was determined to live for her son and for her music. In the camp, music became part of daily life. She gave more than 100 concerts there. Many of her fellow inmates were artists, musicians and writers, but there was nothing remotely philanthropic about the Nazis' encouragement of the arts in Terezin. "It was propaganda," she says contemptuously. "This was something they could show the world, while in reality they were killing us."

Her husband was taken away to Auschwitz and later Dachau, where he died of typhus six weeks before the end of the war. His parting words to her were: "Do nothing voluntarily." She believes this saved her life and their son Raphael; other women, offered the chance to follow their husbands, were sent to their deaths.
In this documentary, you can see her talking and playing piano recently, at age 106:

"My world is music. I am not interested in anything else. ... Beethoven, he is a miracle. His music is not only melody, but what is inside. ... Music is the only thing that helps me to have hope. It's a sort of religion, actually. Music is God. In difficult times you feel it especially — when you are suffering."

"A lot of German journalists come and want to ... speak with me and so on. Before they enter my room, they ask, 'Are we allowed to enter your room? Do you not hate us?' So my answer is, 'I never hated. I would never hate. Hatred brings only hatred.'"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Will there be a naked revolt against airport body scanners?

I've been seeing a lot of comments like this:

I am an old man and I don't have any prudish feelings left. I have also been subjected to lots of invasive medical procedures where several men and women were participating and watching. So, I am used to being naked and exposed. So, I am considering stripping completely, totally, the next time I go through TSA screening. I wonder what they will do to me if I stand there dangling in public; I am curious and I expect the reactions will be amusing. I won't care if I miss my flight or get whisked out to detention somewhere. At my age, I don't have lots to lose that I haven't already lost. Provocateurs serve a public purpose, and I am happy to serve my nation.
I wonder if anyone is actually going to follow through on this. That was just a pseudonymous comment on the New York Times' website, so there's no way to verify it. He'd need to be someone who's disturbed enough by the body scanners to want to protest them (at the risk of violating who-knows-what federal law), but relatively comfortable with people seeing him naked. Is there anyone like that out there? He would need to be motivated by a desire to protect the privacy of those who are much more sensitive than he is.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Random thoughts

Some random thoughts (with apologies to Thomas Sowell and The Church of Rationality):

1. I don't understand speed readers unless they're also speed thinkers.

2. People who use the word "perhaps" usually mean: "I'm so right about this that I need to make it sound humble."

3. "Natural" is used as a justification, and "unnatural" is used as a condemnation. But no one applies this consistently.

4. One of the most persistent biases is success. We care more about what causes success than about what causes failure.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Does the New York Times edit its financial articles?

This NYT article's first paragraph needs work:

The Federal Reserve upended the expectations of the financial markets Wednesday and shares .
Yes, there's a space before the period. And the sentence doesn't make grammatical sense.

Here's the article's headline:
That's it — just a lone, enigmatic "the."

Economics of Contempt says on Twitter:
Well, this NYT headline certainly wins the award for brevity. Not the most *exciting* headline ever though
How can I trust the content of an article if I can tell no one read it before it was published?

How do they make ink?

This beautifully effective commercial for The Printing Ink Company answers the question (via):

(The music is the second movement of Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto (No. 5) played by Alfred Brendel.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Are holograms the future of "live" music?

A hologram of Hatsune Miku — a fictional character from a computer application — performs in Japan for a crowd of glowingly enthusiastic fans:

She's been giving concerts since last year.

I saw this when P____ posted it to Facebook. P____ says:

I can't see why it won't start happening everywhere. A Lady Gaga hologram could play 100 shows across the country on the same night.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Who proselytizes?

Those who believe less.

So says a paper about 3 psychological experiments called: "When in Doubt, Shout!"

Why would this be the case? Maybe there's a spectrum that explains why people hold their beliefs strongly. On one end of the spectrum, people value truth for its own sake. Their aim is to figure out what's actually true, and believe that. (I'm not saying anyone's motives are so pure; this is a theoretical extreme.)

On the other end of the spectrum, people select their beliefs, as Robin Hanson has explained, "to signal loyalty and ability." Hanson is keeping a list of signs you may be closer to that end of the spectrum. (The original list was just the first 11, but he added more based on feedback in his comments section and the comments in this post by Tyler Cowen.)

I'm not convinced by all Hanson's points. (He wasn't either; he crossed out one of them.) Here's one "sign" I disagree with:

17. You are especially eager to drop names when explaining positions and arguments.
If Hanson dislikes name-dropping, fair enough . . . but I still don't think name-dropping suggests that you're more interested in signaling loyalty than in pursuing truth for its own sake. Maybe you just like giving credit where credit is due. Or maybe you do like to show off your knowledge of specific commentators; this could be to signal, "Look, I cite Howard Zinn, so I fit in with our left-wing milieu," but it could just as well be to signal that you're not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom of that milieu since you mention Thomas Sowell. Conversely, those who want to signal group loyalty through their beliefs might prefer not to attribute those beliefs to specific individuals but to state them as free-standing maxims — things "everyone knows" rather than one person's opinion.

But I do agree with most of Hanson's "signs," especially these:
9. You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid. . . .

13. You care more about consistency between your beliefs than about belief accuracy.

14. You go easy on sloppy arguments by folks on “your side.” . . .

18. You find it hard to list weak points and counter-arguments on your positions.

19. You feel passionately about a topic, but haven’t sought out much evidence.

20. You are reluctant to not have an opinion on commonly discussed topics.
A commenter on Tyler Cowen's post does the inevitable turning of the tables:
This list is an attempt to signal Robin Hanson's ability to find truth, but ends up being a signal of Robin Hanson's ability to attribute signaling to all human actions, and inability to distinguish between merely not-truth motives, and actively loyal or able motives.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Glenn Loury to John McWhorter: "I hated your guts, John!"

Loury just said that to McWhorter on Bloggingheads — but only in the past tense.

Loury explains why he had such an averse reaction to McWhorter's writings at first. He gradually came to "like" McWhorter, partly because McWhorter gave up his tenure at Berkeley:

Loury describes what it's like to work in academia:

This encrustation. You get stale; you get hidebound; you get obsessively, narrowly, inwardly focused on . . . the 300 people around the world who read the journals that you publish your articles in and do the specialized thing that you do. You get, maybe, soft.
And Loury says that's exactly what McWhorter is not like.

But McWhorter says:
You and I had . . . kind of a chill.
Loury responds sarcastically:
Oh, really? You think so?!
And this gets to the substance of how Loury's view of McWhorter has changed. Just to give you a taste, Loury says (talking about McWhorter's excellent book Losing the Race):
I was in my "changing over to liberal" phase, and you were . . . a suitable object of villification for a person trying to redefine themselves as a liberal. . . . I would have said: "OK, I know what he's talking about . . . . I know that he's not making these stories up . . . . But you can't go out into public, being a black professor, and talk like that about your students. There's something deeply disloyal . . . I give those speeches to my students all the time. But to write it down in a book and let white people read it, John?!"
That's from this clip, where Loury recounts several of their disagreements:

Then McWhorter asks (this is still in the above clip):
What's changed . . . ? I am still in some ways as woefully ignorant as I was when I was a callow 35. So, what's different now?
I like Loury's response, which explains why you can have affection for someone partly based on your discussion of issues, even while strongly disagreeing on those same issues:
I still think . . . you're wrong in your conclusions about welfare. Which is not to say that welfare was the greatest thing for black people, but I don't think the case that you make has been proven by the evidence that you give. [Loury is referring to McWhorter's Winning the Race here.] . . . So, you and I are going to have to agree to disagree about that. What has changed is that there's a person. This is not just about a portfolio of positions, which I either agree or disagree with, and if the index of disagreement is above .7, then I hate. This is about people. Life is interesting. People change. There's a lot of stuff that's going on. You can be educated [by me], or you can educate me. I like you. I like the spirit. I like the guy.
They had already stated their feelings even more strongly, in this diavlog from November 2008:

(That's from this old post of mine, which has the full context of that clip in case you're interested.)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

If Obama is an introvert, how big a problem is that?

John McWhorter — who just last month was still making the case that Obama has done a "good job" as president — says he's finally become "truly unhappy for the first time" with Obama as President:

Here's my own partial transcription of McWhorter's points:

I'm beginning to realize that there really are some serious problems here. . . .

This was something I didn't realize was going to matter as much as it has: he's not really a people person. . . . He hasn't developed the chummy, cordial relationships with key people in Congress that really is part of getting past gridlock. Personal relationships are not everything, but they matter. . . .

He kind of keeps to himself. He is a cerebral person. He is somewhat detached. In that, I've always kind of liked him, probably because I am that. But I'm not President, and never will be. And I think that his personal quality means that he is disliked by people like John Boehner. . . .

And, you know, that can't change. You can't fake being somebody who likes to press the flesh.

Do you also notice that you're hearing that he doesn't like being President, which is one of the saddest things I've ever heard? I mean, who would want that job? Part of the reason you like it is because you like the pressing of flesh and the having some Scotch in the office, talking to Tip O'Neill, etc. That is not him. And if you're not going to like it, that's going to "tell on you" after a while. . . . He's not personally up for the job.
Glenn Loury refers to this Politico article, which gives a list of anecdotes like this:
The president invited Senate chairmen and ranking members over for dinner in March 2009 but came in after they were seated and went back to the residence without shaking hands or visiting each table.

One well-known Democrat summed up the cost of the slights and the seeming indifference to basic political courtesies this way: “These are little things that are not going to affect public perceptions. But it affects the infrastructure of how you put together a campaign. These are the people that you need to raise money, to give money, to organize, to show up, to speak out.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Was health-care reform worth the Democrats' losing the 2010 elections?

William Saletan says yes:

Politicians have tried and failed for decades to enact universal health care. This time, they succeeded. In 2008, Democrats won the presidency and both houses of Congress, and by the thinnest of margins, they rammed a bill through. They weren't going to get another opportunity for a very long time. It cost them their majority, and it was worth it.

And that's not counting financial regulation, economic stimulus, college lending reform, and all the other bills that became law under Pelosi. So spare me the tears and gloating about her so-called failure.
I'm not convinced. First of all, to say that X is "worth" Y implies that Y somehow allowed you to obtain X. It's not clear that losing at the polls last week allowed Democrats to support health-care reform. As this NYT article that Saletan himself links to says:
[E]ven the Democrats who bucked the White House and their party’s leadership by voting against the measure gained little protection. Of the 30 Democrats who opposed the final bill and then stood for re-election, 17 lost anyway.

Indeed, among 49 Democratic incumbents who lost on Tuesday, 32 had voted for the health care law and 17 against it. . . .

Surveys of voters leaving the polls found deep division over the health law. Nearly half of voters — 48 percent — said they thought it should be repealed, while 31 percent said Congress should expand it and 16 percent said it should be left as is.

“When pollsters asked, voters listed health reform among the top issues on their mind, which is no surprise after a long, heated debate,” said Drew E. Altman, president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which conducts health policy research. “But there is little evidence that it was decisive in the vote.”
And if health-care reform was such a huge factor in the Democrats' losses, wouldn't you expect the one member of Congress who was most closely associated with it — Nancy Pelosi — to have performed worse in 2010 than in 2008? But just the opposite happened.

Saletan also ignores state legislatures, which, of course, had nothing to do with enacting the federal health-care law. Democrats in state legislatures still massively lost at the polls.

I also don't accept Saletan's substantive point — that the health-care law was such a great accomplishment that Democrats should feel fine about losing control of the House and getting closer to 50 than 60 Senators. Saletan flatly states that the Democrats enacted "universal health care." If I believed that, I'd agree with him: this would be good and important enough to be worth losing an election.

But I'm simply not convinced that the actual law (as opposed to Saletan's glowing description of it) is good enough to be worth enacting at all, let alone suffering a huge political loss for enacting. This New Yorker article is the best thing I've read about the health-care law. In a nutshell, the article says:
1. The cost and revenue projections rely on unrealistic assumptions and accounting tricks. If you make some adjustments for these, the cost of the plan is much higher.

2. The so-called “individual mandate” isn’t really a mandate at all. Under the new system, many young and healthy people will still have a strong incentive to go uninsured.

3. Once the reforms are up and running, some employers will have a big incentive to end their group coverage plans and dump their employees onto the taxpayer-subsidized individual plans, greatly adding to their cost.
I'm tempted to copy and paste the whole article here, but I'll just give his argument on point #2:
Consider the so-called “individual mandate.” As a strict matter of law, all non-elderly Americans who earn more than the poverty line will be obliged to obtain some form of health coverage. If they don’t, in 2016 and beyond, they could face a fine of about $700 or 2.5 per cent of their income—whichever is the most. Two issues immediately arise.

Even if the fines are vigorously enforced, many people may choose to pay them and stay uninsured. Consider a healthy single man of thirty-five who earns $35,000 a year. Under the new system, he would have a choice of enrolling in a subsidized plan at an annual cost of $2,700 or paying a fine of $875. It may well make sense for him to pay the fine, take his chances, and report to the local emergency room if he gets really sick. (E.R.s will still be legally obliged to treat all comers.) If this sort of thing happens often, as well it could, the new insurance exchanges will be deprived of exactly the sort of healthy young people they need in order to bring down prices. (Healthy people improve the risk pool.)

If the rules aren’t properly enforced, the problem will be even worse. And that is precisely what is likely to happen. The I.R.S. will have the administrative responsibility of imposing penalties on people who can’t demonstrate that they have coverage, but it won’t have the legal authority to force people to pay the fines. “What happens if you don’t buy insurance and you don’t pay the penalty?” Ezra Klein, the Washington Post’s industrious and well-informed blogger, asks. “Well, not much. The law specifically says that no criminal action or liens can be imposed on people who don’t pay the fine.”

So, the individual mandate is a bit of a sham. Generous subsidies will be available for sick people and families with children who really need medical care to buy individual coverage, but healthy single people between the ages of twenty-six and forty, say, will still have a financial incentive to remain outside the system until they get ill, at which point they can sign up for coverage. Consequently, the number of uninsured won’t fall as much as expected, and neither will prices. Without a proper individual mandate, the idea of universality goes out the window, and so does much of the economic reasoning behind the bill.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Has affirmative action hurt Barack Obama?

Mickey Kaus and Robert Wright debate the question:

They agree that affirmative action has probably hurt Obama. They seem to agree about how it affected him early in life, while disagreeing about how his experience as president is problematically different. Wright thinks the problem is that Obama wasn't prepared for all the racism he faces now. Kaus thinks Obama wasn't prepared for the lack of racial bias affecting his presidency. (Actually, it's not clear how much they really disagree; Kaus aptly notes that Wright "snatched disagreement from agreement.")

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Why do the "happiest places" have the most suicide?

A study of suicide rates across different countries and US states (PDF) concludes:

[T]he happiest places have the highest suicide rates. . . . [P]eople may find it particularly painful to be unhappy in a happy place, so that the decision to commit suicide is influenced by relative comparisons.
I found the study from this blog post, where the first comment says:
My new mission: Prevent suicides by making the world a more miserable place.

Being a pundit on Election Day

"Election Days are tough. Everyone wants to read at the precise moment when you have nothing to write." — Mickey Kaus (on Twitter)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What people are Googling on Election Day 2010

I recently blogged Sara Robinson's piece in The New Republic in which she argued:

Every American over the age of ten knows what the GOP and the conservative movement stand for. Sing it with me now: low taxes, small government, strong defense, traditional families. See? You know the tune, and the harmony line, too.

OK, now: What do Democrats and progressives stand for?

Take your time. It's a tough question.

Give up? So have most progressives. Even the movement's most deeply committed members often have a hard time answering this one.

And that's a problem.
I just checked StatCounter's log of search queries that brought people to this blog. Here are two of them:
what democrats stand for

what do liberals stand for
You might think the same person searched for both of those, since they're phrased so similarly. But no, one of them happened in Texas, the other in Florida.

Both people saw the heading of my blog post — "What do liberals / progressives / Democrats stand for?" — and clicked on the link.

StatCounter recorded both of those referrals today. Election Day.

And that's a problem.

Short URL for this post: goo.gl/nYHKp

The case for big government that Obama hasn't made

Peter Beinart lists 3 ways the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies captured "what the American left did wrong in the early Obama years." His last point is

the focus on “sanity.” Talk about condescending. The Tea Party types who believe that expanding government undermines their freedom are not insane. They’re tapping into a deeply-rooted American fear of government power, one that would be immediately recognizable to Calvin Coolidge or Strom Thurmond. And in the process, they’re conjuring, once again, the myth that America was born free, and surrenders a smidgen of liberty every time Washington imposes another tax or establishes another government agency. (The Tea Partiers may not be racists, but it’s hardly surprising that this idealized image of 19th Century America doesn’t impress African-Americans). The Tea Partiers, in other words, are making a serious argument, which the left too often tries to dismiss by calling them nuts. In fact, the haughtiness reflected by such insults conceals the left’s confusion over how to respond ideologically.
Beinart then goes on a tangent about how President Obama has undersold his own policies:
The Obama administration has barely tried to argue that activist government can make people more free—by, for instance, guaranteeing their health care coverage and thus freeing them to leave a dead end job. In America today, as at past moments in our history, there’s a profound debate underway not just about how to right our economy but about the relationship between capitalism and freedom. Pretending it’s not a real debate is a great way for the left to lose.
Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein have made the health-care point well. I'm at least convinced by their criticism of the status quo ante, though this isn't necessarily a good affirmative argument for the new law. As Klein says:
Unable to risk losing their employer-sponsored health insurance, would-be entrepreneurs don’t start small businesses, they stay in jobs that don’t maximize their productivity, they remain in positions that another worker would be better suited to.
OK, so that's a cumbersome run-on sentence. But if you edit it down to something snappier and more eloquent, why wasn't that Obama's #1 argument for health-care reform?

Short URL for this post: goo.gl/T5reP

Monday, November 1, 2010

A new word for the politically ambiguous


As I recently blogged, people tend to go along with the politics of their friends and family. But if you're "countersuggestible," and you notice that most people you know and care about share the same political views, you might wonder if they're all systematically making the same mistake.

That's why I find it more enlightening to read a book like Thomas Sowell's Economic Facts and Fallacies, a brilliant corrective to liberal dogma and talking points, than to read my Facebook feed for cues on what my opinions should be. Not that I don't care about my friends' opinions too, but I've passed the point of diminishing returns when it comes to absorbing liberal opinions since I've been around them for so long. Of course, I'm countersuggestible to Sowell's arguments too . . .

Causation and correlation

Normally I don't link to conversations on Facebook, but Robert Wiblin's Facebook wall is open to the public to see his insightful musings. (If you use Facebook, I recommend friending him.) For instance, he says:

Correlation is not causation, but correlates with it.
My response:
Causation is not correlation, but causes it.
Then, someone asks whether all causation is "statistical." I give a whole book as an answer: Probabilistic Causality by Ellery Eells (1953-2006). As you might have guessed from the title, the author's answer is yes. Eells pointed out (to those of us who took his course on probabilistic causality at the University of Wisconsin - Madison) that, in addition to the ubiquitous refrain that correlation does not prove causation, there's also the less well-known fact that causation does not prove correlation. (For instance, if A causes both B and C, and C prevents B more strongly than A causes B, A won't be correlated with B.) That observation, along with Eells's whole theory, was the inspiration for my response to Wiblin.

Someone else links to this perfect XKCD comic: