Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Sixth Year Slump

Last month, I wrote a post called "The Six Year Curse," in which I pointed out that many two-term Presidents seem to run into trouble during their sixth year.

Now the Weekly Standard has an article up: "The Sixth-Year Slump." You can guess what it's about.


Judge Williams' Book

Judge Stephen Williams has a book coming out on Pyotr Stolypin. Who was Stolypin, you might ask? He was a minister in Czarist Russia who instituted a wide-spread property rights reform. This seized Williams' interest some years ago -- it's a perfect combination of his fascination with liberal reform and all things Russian (he took regular Russian language lessons when I clerked for him). The result is his book: Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime, 1906-1915: The Creation of Private Property in Russia. From the Amazon page:
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, many speculated about the value of Russia's historical experience with market-oriented reform. Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime tells how, in 1906, on the eve of world war and cataclysmic revolution, the Russian government undertook perhaps the most sweeping "privatization" in history, radically changing the property rights regime faced by 90 million peasants.

Stephen F. Williams's examination of property rights reforms in Russia before the revolution reveals the advantages and pitfalls of that radical transformation toward liberal democracy at the initiative of a government that could not be described as either liberal or democratic.

As he sets out the key features of the changes, the author also explores the process of liberal reform. He raises key questions: Can truly liberal reform be established effectively from above, or must it be won from the bottom up, by forming groups that extract concessions from the state? Or is liberal democracy simply the product of exceptional historical circumstances and unlikely ever to be fully attained by much of the globe? Examining how the reforms affected productivity, he explores whether they actually aggravated social tensions, pushing Russia away from liberal democracy. And he looks at the pitfalls of top-down liberal reform: laws emerging from a legislative process that largely excludes the most-affected groups, unclear baseline rights, illiberalism, and the risk of half measures.

* * *

--"Williams probes the obstacle course that a true reformer like Stolypin must run in trying to establish the property rights essential to the rule of law and liberal democracy." --Hon. Jack Kemp, Founder and chairman of Kemp Partners; former vice presidential candidate, Secretary of HUD, and congressman

--"Fascinating, scholarly, illuminating. Williams tells a truly remarkable tale--one that has considerable interest in itself and that is also full of implications for the institution of private property in general." --Cass Sunstein, The Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Chicago Law School

Monday, October 30, 2006

Good quote

This quote often seems to be misattributed. It's from Blaise Pascal's 16th Provincial Letter (here translated by Thomas M'Crie):
Reverend fathers, my letters were not wont either to be so prolix, or to follow so closely on one another. Want of time must plead my excuse for both of these faults. The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Judge Williams' Portrait

On Friday afternoon, I attended the portrait ceremony for Judge Stephen F. Williams of the D.C. Circuit, for whom I clerked in 2001-02. At a certain point in their careers (I'm not sure what the trigger is for this), federal judges typically have their portrait painted, and then hung in a federal courthouse.

Portrait ceremonies are evidently a big deal: I'd never been to one before, but it was probably the most legal talent that I've ever seen in one room. The entire D.C. Circuit was there, as were six members of the Supreme Court (all except Souter, Kennedy, and Alito). There was a person I didn't recognize sitting between Justices Stevens and Thomas. Judge Laurence Silberman later said in conversation that it was Judge Louis Oberdorfer -- a long-time and highly respected district court judge who has to be in his late eighties now.

There were speeches from Williams' colleagues praising his outstanding intellect, integrity, wide-ranging knowledge, and good humor, and then several speeches from former clerks. Jonathan Zittrain's speech was delightfully witty, as he always is. Then afterwards, Judge Williams himself got up to deliver what was described in the program as "Expression of Gratitude." He pointed out the title of his remarks, and noted that when Judge Harry Edwards had his portrait ceremony, his remarks were also titled "Expression of Gratitude." But, Williams said, when Larry Silberman had his ceremony several years ago, his remarks were simply titled "Response." Said Williams, "You might wonder why Silberman would need a 'Response.' The answer is that Justice Scalia had spoken beforehand [here, a motion in Scalia's direction along with laughter from the crowd]."

It was a wonderful occasion, and it paid tribute to someone that I consider the ideal of a federal judge: A brilliant and inquisitive person who does his best to make decisions that are as unbiased as possible.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Lithwick vs. Scalia

Justice Scalia recently said this about the quality of journalism reporting on judicial decisions:
Scalia said, "The press is never going to report judicial opinions accurately." It seems our reporting is limited to: "Who is the plaintiff? Was that a nice little old lady? And who is the defendant? Was this, you know, some scuzzy guy? And who won? Was it the good guy that won or the bad guy?"
Dahlia Lithwick of Slate begged to differ:
If the justices have a beef with the way the media cover the Supreme Court, let them state it publicly and explicitly. But the claim that we are too careless to read opinions and too sloppy to report cases is gratuitous and wrong; it describes neither the reality of legal reporting nor the general legal readership.
It's a bit awkward for Lithwick to make such an argument, given that she -- probably more than any other Supreme Court reporter -- tends to assess the Supreme Court's opinions and oral arguments based on whether the good guy won, often relying on hyperbole along the way.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Randall Balmer's book

I recently read Randall Balmer's Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical's Lament; How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America, which is part of a larger genre of books alarmed about a looming theocracy.

The book makes a few good points here and there, such as that evangelicals have (at least in the political realm) focused too much energy on stopping other people's moral sins and not enough on their own (i.e., divorce), or that evangelicals have been too closely tied to the Republican Party. That said, I didn't like the book, for the most part.

In much of the book, Balmer is doesn't try to refute counterarguments; instead, he seems to be unaware that they might exist. For example, he has a long section arguing that if evangelicals are biblical literalists, they should have a hard time condemning abortion. Sample quotes: "For a people who take pride in a kind of slavish literalism, constructing a case against abortion [from the Bible] is not easy. . . . The problem is, the Bible is rather silent on the matter of abortion." (pp. 6-7). Well, if evangelicals were to push for "slavish literalism," there's at least one passage that would seem to apply: "Thou shalt not kill." Balmer doesn't mention this rather obvious point, not even to refute it.

One section is particularly unsupported: Balmer claims that Jerry Falwell and Richard Land (of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) are "especially infatuated with Rushdoony's ideas." (p. 66). (Rushdoony was a reconstructionist, one of a very small and insignificant group of Christians who thought that the government should implement the Old Testament codes.) Balmer presents absolutely no evidence of any such infatuation, other than one lone fact: In 2003, Rushdoony's foundation published an article by an associate law professor at Falwell's Liberty University. (p. 66). This fact is inadequate to establish any "especial[] infatuat[ion]."

The worst chapter, however, is the one on education, which is full of misinformation, ignorance, and trite platitudes.

For example, after discussing the Cleveland voucher program for no fewer than 13 pages, Balmer does his best to imply that the program benefits the rich: "But still another constituency wants to divert tax money from public schools, namely, the affluent, many of whom already send their children to private schools and would welcome a subsidy from public funds. . . . It occurs to me that one way to test the sincerity of those arguing for school vouchers on the basis of social justice would be to limit vouchers to children in households earning, say, less than $35,000. Would these advocates still be willing to expend all this energy to torture the Constitution if the only beneficiaries were indeed those less privileged?" (pp. 83-84).

The Cleveland voucher program is specifically designed to give priority to families with an income that is less than 200% of the federal poverty guidelines -- a figure that, oddly enough, is not much more than $35,000 for the typical family of four. This isn't true only of Cleveland. As I pointed out earlier, as of the 2006 edition of The Education Gap, by William Howell and Paul Peterson, every publicly-funded voucher program in the country was aimed at 1) students from low-income families, or 2) students who attend "failing" public schools [note that not many of these students are likely to be in rich, white suburbs], or 3) students who have no public school in their community.

The only thing that Balmer could hypothetically say to defend his tendentious argument is that in Cleveland, the program wasn't strictly "limited" to people under the 200% poverty mark. That's true enough, which is why People for the American Way points out that in one year, 22% of the Cleveland students receiving vouchers were over the 200% mark. Of course, that's not to say that these students were "rich" -- and you can be sure that PFAW (and Balmer, who seems to have relied on some of PFAW's research) would happily point this out, if it were true.

In any event, it's misleading for Balmer to make these accusatory remarks about a voucher program that overwhelmingly serves poor people.

Then, in a particularly uninformed passage, Balmer sings the historic virtues of public schools, while insulting private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling:
As public, or 'common,' schools took hold in the early decades of the nineteenth century, they became vehicles for social and economic equality, as well as for the inculcation of morality and the virtues of citizenship in the new nation.
For someone whose views of schooling often sympathize with John Taylor Gatto (see here and here), this sort of pablum is hard to stomach. In any event, Balmer -- an historian -- manages to write several pages in this hyper-romanticized vein without once mentioning either 1) the fact that public schools excluded blacks for over 100 years, or 2) the fact that public schools in the 19th century were often Protestant institutions that allowed public prayer, religious instruction, and all of the things that Balmer now blames a handful of evangelicals for still supporting.
Public schools have played an invaluable role by providing a common ground for children of different ethnic groups and religious persuasions, regardless of social class.
Again, it is startling to keep seeing sentences like this, as if there had never been such a thing as segregation or white flight. The notion that public schools universally bring children together "regardless of social class" is unsupportable (not that Balmer even tries to cite any research on this point, which is not surprising). Anyone who is familiar with our nation's major cities knows that there are many inner-city schools that richer people avoid with all of their might; as well as many rich suburban schools that are virtually inaccessible to poorer people who can't even begin to afford a house in the district.
Whatever common culture we have attained in this country has come about largely through the agency of public education.
Really? This could imply that America didn't have a "common culture" until the late 19th century, which is when public education started to become more routine, which would be a rather odd view.
The creation of religious schools leads to heightened segregation of different racial and socioeconomic groups. The so-called 'school choice' initiative is both a civil rights and a social justice issue, and real Christians . . . should be fighting against voucher programs and charter schools because they perpetuate divisions, rather than reconciliation, within society.
It's not true that voucher programs lead to greater segregation. As Jay Greene points out in his Education Myths book, "nearly a fifth (19 percent) of voucher recipients [in Cleveland] attended private schools whose proportion of white students fell within 10 percent of the average proportion of white elementary students in metropolitan Cleveland. Only 5.2 percent of public-school students in metropolitan Cleveland were in similarly integrated schools. . . . A family moving to the Cleveland area would have better odds of finding an integrated school experience for their children if they enrolled in the choice program than if they were randomly assigned to a public school."
If we care anything about democracy, we must care a great deal about public education.
This is just a short quote from a longer passage in which Balmer contends that public schools are better able to teach children to live in a "democracy." Once again, Balmer shows no sign that he is aware of the empirical literature on this point. As Patrick Wolf of Georgetown has testified:
School vouchers also appear to promote democratic values. This claim may seem incredible, since opponents regularly state that school vouchers will imperil our democracy. However, Charles Glenn of Boston University has documented that the cherished “common school” has been more of a myth than a reality throughout American history, especially for ethnic minorities. Nineteen different academic studies have examined the effect of school choice on the tolerance, voluntarism, political knowledge, political skills, political participation, and patriotism of students. Sixteen of the studies concluded that school choice and private schooling generally enhance the democratic values of students; whereas the remaining three studies found no difference in democratic values caused by school choice. None of the 19 studies concluded that exercising school choice reduces the extent to which students are prepared to be responsible citizens of our democracy.
To take another example, James Coleman summarized some of his research in an article in Phi Delta Kappan in 1981. He said:
Among Catholic schools, achievement of students from less-advantaged backgrounds -- blacks, Hispanics, and those whose parents are poorly educated -- is closer to that of students from advantaged backgrounds than is true for the public sector. Family background makes much less difference for achievement in Catholic schools than in public schools. This greater homogeneity of achievement in the Catholic sector (as well as the lesser racial and ethnic segregation of the Catholic sector) suggests that the ideal of the common school is more nearly met in the Catholic schools than in the public schools. This may be because a religious community continues to constitute a functional community to a greater extent than does a residential area, and in such a functional community there will be less stratification by family background, both within a school and between schools.
I'm not saying that these studies are necessarily unimpeachable; nothing in the social sciences ever is. Still, any chapter that so thoroughly denigrates private schools simply appears uninformed without at least a nod to the research literature that points to a different view.

Friday, October 20, 2006

More on Waterboarding

After my recent link to a video of waterboarding, I got an email from a Harvard Law classmate with some thoughts:
Stuart -- Just read your comment on waterboarding. I can't help but mention the fact that waterboarding's presence as an integral part of US military training has been completely ignored (as far as I can tell) in the discussion of this practice. I have many, many friends that were waterboarded as part of the POW resistance training program the USMC used in the mid-nineties. (I was not subjected to it becase as a line infantry officer, I was not thought a likely candidate for being taken prisoner; when things go badly, line infantry officers generally die instead of getting taken prisoner. However, anyone who was expected to operate behind enemy lines, like pilots and reconnaissance types, had to go through the training.)

In fact, our classmate ________ (who you probably know [Yes.]) waterboarded himself when he was working on the Church report on interrogation techniques; he concluded that he would talk immediately, as has everyone I have known who has undergone this treatment. This highlights one of the amazing things about waterboarding: it is basically impossible to resist, yet does no lasting damage (as opposed to, say, pulling out someone's fingernails), assuming it's administered correctly.
I emailed my classmate back with some concerns, and here are his responses:
I would respond by saying that we don't shoot troops in the kneecaps in training, we don't use thumbscrews in training and we don't pull out people's fingernails in training. Why is that? Because those treatments all do lasting damage to the recipient. On the other hand, US military POW resistance training routinely uses sleep deprivation, temperature change, and waterboarding. The reason these get used is because even though they can be highly, highly unpleasant, they don't do any lasting damage to the recipient. They all also seem to have very positive results in getting people to talk. Waterboarding is unique because it works so quickly, so in the "ticking time bomb" scenario, it's especially valuable. But I don't see a meaningful distinction between waterboarding and sleep dep/ temperature change (anyone who has been seriously sleep deprived, e.g. Darkness at Noon, or experienced real cold, knows how unpleasant that treatment can be). I look at it as our military does this in a controlled, highly thought-out manner to our own troops, and doesn't consider it treatment that your average 23-year-old Marine can't handle; why would we see it as treatment that your average insurgent can't handle?

* * *

Also, I should note that I am not 100% sold on the coercive techniques outlined above, but it is striking to me that among all the media horror about waterboarding, it seems to have been totally ignored that we do this to our own troops all the time.

You also asked about an innocent guy who would say anything to make it stop. That's a problem, no question. I think in order to use any of these techniques you would have to meet some threshold for believing that the person had crucial information. That's why it's essential that this all be done in an out-in-the-open, highly thoughtful way, and not in the sub-rosa way that the McCain approach ("we'll make these techniques illegal, but we won't charge people who use them in really important times") would encourage. When people can put their heads together and determine whether someone is of a level that warrants this treatment, it will decrease (but not eliminate) the chances of innocents being waterboarded.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Michael Pollan on Food Regulation

Michael Pollan (author of the excellent The Omnivore's Dilemma) has an interesting article analyzing the recent problem with E.coli in spinach, and why the government's regulatory response will probably be exactly the wrong solution. That is, industrial food production is the reason why a lot of food poisoning arises in the first place, but the regulations that supposedly ensure food safety actually favor large industrial producers:
Yet perhaps the gravest threat now to local food economies — to the farmer selling me my spinach, to the rancher who sells me my grass-fed beef — is, of all things, the government’s own well-intentioned efforts to clean up the industrial food supply. Already, hundreds of regional meat-processing plants — the ones that local meat producers depend on — are closing because they can’t afford to comply with the regulatory requirements the U.S.D.A. rightly imposes on giant slaughterhouses that process 400 head of cattle an hour. The industry insists that all regulations be “scale neutral,” so if the U.S.D.A. demands that huge plants have, say, a bathroom, a shower and an office for the exclusive use of its inspectors, then a small processing plant that slaughters local farmers’ livestock will have to install these facilities, too. This is one of the principal reasons that meat at the farmers’ market is more expensive than meat at the supermarket: farmers are seldom allowed to process their own meat, and small processing plants have become very expensive to operate, when the U.S.D.A. is willing to let them operate at all. From the U.S.D.A.’s perspective, it is much more efficient to put their inspectors in a plant where they can inspect 400 cows an hour rather than in a local plant where they can inspect maybe one.

So what happens to the spinach grower at my farmers’ market when the F.D.A. starts demanding a Haccp plan — daily testing of the irrigation water, say, or some newfangled veggie-irradiation technology? When we start requiring that all farms be federally inspected? Heavy burdens of regulation always fall heaviest on the smallest operations and invariably wind up benefiting the biggest players in an industry, the ones who can spread the costs over a larger output of goods. A result is that regulating food safety tends to accelerate the sort of industrialization that made food safety a problem in the first place.
Once again George Stigler's economic theory of regulation seems to predict the regulatory outcomes.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Amicus Brief on School Integration

I've read through the amicus brief signed by 500+ social scientists in the Supreme Court's upcoming school integration case (which will decide whether Seattle can consider a student's race in determining whether that student can transfer to another school). The brief broadly supports both the goal of school integration and the alleged necessity of a Seattle-type plan to achieve integration.

I was interested in some of the claims that the brief makes (mostly in a lengthy Appendix that purportedly summarizes research on school desegregation).

At App. 13-14, the brief makes this point:
Reviews of early desegregation research lead to the conclusion that school desegregation has a modest positive impact on the achievement of African-American students.40 Specifically, desegregation appears to have a positive impact on reading achievement, but there appears to be little or no effect on math scores.
In footnote 39, the brief further claims: "Most school reforms have little or no effect on improving students’ outcomes . . . . Thus, the modest impact that desegregation has had on student achievement relative to these other reforms is substantial."

But if you look at the source that is listed first in footnote 40, the evidence doesn't seem so compelling. That source is: Thomas D. Cook, “What Have Black Children Gained Academically From School Integration?: Examination of the Meta-Analytic Evidence,” School Desegregation and Black Achievement, ed. Thomas D. Cook et al. (Washington, D.C.: Department of Education, May 1984).

In that article, Thomas Cook actually found "that reading effects [were] positive but quite small and not educationally significant in all but a few studies." Id. at 60. Cook then went on to say, "the studies . . . tell us nothing about whether segregation created the Black-White achievement gap, but they do tell us that [integration] by itself will not close it to any important degree." Id.

How big was this "quite small and not educationally significant" improvement in reading achievement? Between two and six weeks worth of instruction. That's all that Cook could point to as the academic benefit of desegregation. And that's what the social scientists' amicus brief is now telling the Supreme Court amounts to a "substantial" benefit compared to other education reforms.

Indeed, if you look at the other articles published in the same volume that Thomas Cook edited -- several of which the brief also cites in footnotes 40, 41, and 43 -- the picture is even less convincing. Here's a review article from the time that summarizes the various findings:
The volume reveals a remarkable convergence about the fundamental question.

Armor decided that "the conclusion is inescapable: the very best studies available demonstrate no significant and consistent effects of desegregation on black achievement." Walberg concluded that "school desegregation does not appear to prove promising in the size or consistency of its effect on learning of black students." Stephan decided that ". . . [T]he magnitude of these effects translates into rather trivial increase of about twenty points on the typical SAT." Wortman found a "two-month gain or benefit for desegregated students." Cook decided that all the analyses taken together justified four conclusions: "(1) desegregation does not decrease the achievement of black children; (2) it probably does not increase math achievement; (3) it probably raises reading scores; and (4) the increase in reading scores is somewhere between .06 and .16 standard deviation units or about two and six weeks."

* * *

Cook and Stephan pointed out that in the area of reading, desegregation was associated with negative effects on black student achievement in programs of mandatory desegregation (four studies) but generally positive effects in programs of voluntary desegregation (fifteen studies). Armor and Miller observed that when rigorous studies show positive effects, it is likely that such gains are not due to racial mixing but rather to any changes in educational programs that may have occured simultaneously with disegregation. . . . Stephan pointed out, among other things, that blacks in desegregated schools may have more anxiety with regard to achievement because of negative comparisons of themselves with white students; and Miller pointed out, among other things, that while white students seem to accept black students who are academically equal, white acceptance does not cause black academic achievement.
The amicus brief also cites another paper by Rita Mahard and Robert Crain, which also appears in the 1984 book. That Mahard/Crain paper is supposed to support this conclusion: "The impact of desegregation on achievement varies by context, appearing somewhat stronger for younger students."

But the amicus brief does not mention the fact that Mahard and Crain's conclusion here was criticized by other researchers in that same 1984 volume:
Cook, Armor, Wortman and Walberg all commented on and criticized the validity of the Crain and Mahard contention that desegregation can have a significant effect on black student achievement provided that it begins at the first grade or before. The four agreed that many of the studies upon which Crain and Mahard based this contention had serious methodological flaws, the most important of which usually had to do with the fact that the pre-tests were given to different groups and the fact that pre-and post-tests measured different things, thus making genuine comparisons of the test results impossible. Both Armor and Cook pointed out that when the methodologically-weak studies were eliminated from Crain and Mahard's analysis, their conclusions were roughly equivalent to the conclusions of the panel.
Overall, it seems fair to say that the brief gives an overly-rosy depiction of the very academic research that it cites on the question whether desegregation improves black academic achievement.

Also, I think it's incomplete, at best, for the brief to suggest, as if it's beyond debate, that a reading gain of "somewhere between .06 and .16 standard deviation units" is "substantial" compared to other school reforms. Paul Peterson and William Howell found, for example, that in a New York City voucher program, "African Americans, and only African Americans, posted significant and positive test score gains associated with attending a private school that in year three ranged from one quarter to two fifths of a standard deviation, depending upon the model estimated." In other words, if this study is correct, the effect of vouchers could be 2 to 4 times as great as the effect of desegregation.

UPDATE: One more recent study that the amicus brief could have, but didn't, cite is by David Card and Jesse Rothstein. (Yes, the same David Card who has written with Alan Krueger on the minimum wage.) Card and Rothstein find that:
Our empirical analysis leads to two main conclusions. First, although black relative test scores are negatively correlated with measures of school segregation, when controls are added for neighborhood segregation the effects of school segregation become uniformly small and statistically insignificant. Specifications that instrument either segregation measure confirm this pattern. Second, neighborhood segregation has robust negative impacts on black relative test scores, though these also fall in size and significance once controls are added for the relative exposure of black and white children to neighboring families with differing income, education, and marital status. Thus, as suggested by Wilson (1987), race may not be the primary source of neighborhood segregation effects: rather, racial segregation may proxy for relative exposure to economically successful neighbors.

* * *

The finding that school segregation has no effect on black relative achievement once
controls are added for neighborhood segregation leads us to consider three potential mechanisms that might confound the true effect of school desegregation: unobserved differences in school quality, unobserved differences in schoolmate characteristics, and within-school segregation. Using data from the CCD and the Schools and Staffing Survey, we conclude that there is no strong relationship between school segregation and observable indicators of the relative quality of the schools attended by black students. To evaluate the potential influence of unobserved schoolmate characteristics we use school-level data on the fraction of students who participate in free or reduced price lunch programs. We find that school segregation is highly correlated with black-white relative exposure to low-income schoolmates. To the extent that poor schoolmates lower achievement, however, this pattern would tend to reinforce any causal effect of school segregation, and thus cannot explain our finding of no effect.

Finally, we study within-school segregation trends using data on the relative participation of black and white students in honors and advanced placement (AP) classes. Holding constant the level of neighborhood segregation, we find that the black-white gap in honors and AP participation is wider in cities with more racially integrated schools. This pattern is consistent with claims that ability tracking and related programs offset the integrative effects of between-school desegregation efforts, and may help to explain why differences in school segregation do not appear to influence black relative achievement.
Also note that in summing up their conclusions on per-pupil spending, Card and Rothstein later say, "It appears from these columns that there is little relationship between segregation and spending . . . ."


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Religion News

Worth checking out:

1. Eugene Volokh correctly criticizes the Texas Republican Party for suggesting that an atheist candidate will "ignore the laws and Constitution of Texas."

2. Damon Linker and Ross Douthat take to The New Republic's website to debate Linker's book decrying the malign influence of "theoconservatives."

Sunday, October 08, 2006


Two random observations:

1. Whoever said that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar wasn't talking about fruit flies. I recently heard of a great way to catch fruit flies that worked perfectly when I tried it: set out a cup with a little apple cider vinegar in it, with some drops of dish soap added on top (which seems to trap the fruit flies for some reason).

2. Did we Americans ever decide on a standard name for this decade (2000-onward)? We've only got about three years left to do so. Otherwise, in 2010, no one is going to know what to say when referring back to this decade. "In the _____, we saw the rise of such-and-such." Or radio stations -- right now, they're able to say, "KRAP, your source for the hits of the 80s, 90s and today." Well, "today" isn't always going to work as a substitute for a decade title.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Nestle Commercial from the 1980s

YouTube is amazing. I've had the tune from this commercial running through my head for nearly 20 years.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Everything Bad is Not Really Good For You

Another recent read: Steven Berlin Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good For You. This is just the type of non-fiction that I enjoy reading now and again: Full of thought-provoking ideas, well-written, etc. That said, I think that the overall thesis is pretty much bunk.

Johnson argues that far from dumbing us down, the rise of modern video games, movies, and television is making us smarter. This review by Malcolm Gladwell gives a good summary:
Twenty years ago, a political philosopher named James Flynn uncovered a curious fact. Americans—at least, as measured by I.Q. tests—were getting smarter. This fact had been obscured for years, because the people who give I.Q. tests continually recalibrate the scoring system to keep the average at 100. But if you took out the recalibration, Flynn found, I.Q. scores showed a steady upward trajectory, rising by about three points per decade, which means that a person whose I.Q. placed him in the top ten per cent of the American population in 1920 would today fall in the bottom third. Some of that effect, no doubt, is a simple by-product of economic progress: in the surge of prosperity during the middle part of the last century, people in the West became better fed, better educated, and more familiar with things like I.Q. tests. But, even as that wave of change has subsided, test scores have continued to rise—not just in America but all over the developed world. What’s more, the increases have not been confined to children who go to enriched day-care centers and private schools. The middle part of the curve—the people who have supposedly been suffering from a deteriorating public-school system and a steady diet of lowest-common-denominator television and mindless pop music—has increased just as much. What on earth is happening? In the wonderfully entertaining “Everything Bad Is Good for You” (Riverhead; $23.95), Steven Johnson proposes that what is making us smarter is precisely what we thought was making us dumber: popular culture.

Johnson is the former editor of the online magazine Feed and the author of a number of books on science and technology. There is a pleasing eclecticism to his thinking. He is as happy analyzing “Finding Nemo” as he is dissecting the intricacies of a piece of software, and he’s perfectly capable of using Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence to discuss the new creative rules of television shows. Johnson wants to understand popular culture—not in the postmodern, academic sense of wondering what “The Dukes of Hazzard” tells us about Southern male alienation but in the very practical sense of wondering what watching something like “The Dukes of Hazzard” does to the way our minds work.

As Johnson points out, television is very different now from what it was thirty years ago. It’s harder. A typical episode of “Starsky and Hutch,” in the nineteen-seventies, followed an essentially linear path: two characters, engaged in a single story line, moving toward a decisive conclusion. To watch an episode of “Dallas” today is to be stunned by its glacial pace—by the arduous attempts to establish social relationships, by the excruciating simplicity of the plotline, by how obvious it was. A single episode of “The Sopranos,” by contrast, might follow five narrative threads, involving a dozen characters who weave in and out of the plot. Modern television also requires the viewer to do a lot of what Johnson calls “filling in,” as in a “Seinfeld” episode that subtly parodies the Kennedy assassination conspiracists, or a typical “Simpsons” episode, which may contain numerous allusions to politics or cinema or pop culture.
I agree that modern video games typically require more intellectual work than Pong, and that The Sopranos (which I've never seen) is more complicated than Starsky and Hutch. But I don't at all agree that this increasing complexity of electronic entertainment could cause the Flynn effect. The timing is all wrong.

First, take a close look at the title of the article in which Flynn announced that IQs had been increasing: James Flynn, "The Mean IQ of Americans: Massive Gains 1932 to 1978," Psychological Bulletin 95(1): 29-51. Now take a look at the recent evidence that the Flynn effect may have stopped, at least in some Western countries, somewhere between the 1970s and the 1990s.

In other words, the Flynn effect began decades before commercial television or video games even existed. This fact alone means that TV and video games couldn't have been the cause. Moreover, the Flynn effect may have stopped or slowed at about the same time as video games and television were finally becoming more complicated.

Another thing that makes me skeptical of Johnson's theory is that task-specific skills are not necessarily transferable:
De Groot also had his subjects examine a position for a limited period and then try to reconstruct it from memory. Performance at this task tracked game-playing strength all the way from novice to grandmaster. Beginners could not recall more than a very few details of the position, even after having examined it for 30 seconds, whereas grandmasters could usually get it perfectly, even if they had perused it for only a few seconds. This difference tracks a particular form of memory, specific to the kind of chess positions that commonly occur in play. The specific memory must be the result of training, because grandmasters do no better than others in general tests of memory.

* * *
In the 1960s Herbert A. Simon and William Chase, both at Carnegie Mellon University, tried to get a better understand-ing of expert memory by studying its limitations. Picking up where de Groot left off, they asked players of various strengths to reconstruct chess positions that had been artificially devised--that is, with the pieces placed randomly on the board--rather than reached as the result of master play. The correlation between game-playing strength and the accuracy of the players' recall was much weak-er with the random positions than with the authentic ones.

Chess memory was thus shown to be even more specific than it had seemed, being tuned not merely to the game itself but to typical chess positions. These experiments corroborated earlier studies that had demonstrated convincingly that ability in one area tends not to transfer to another. American psychologist Edward Thorndike first noted this lack of transference over a century ago, when he showed that the study of Latin, for instance, did not improve command of English and that geometric proofs do not teach the use of logic in daily life.


Sunday, October 01, 2006


Wow. Here's a video from Current TV where a guy voluntarily undergoes waterboarding as part of a video project on torture. Very uncomfortable to watch, even knowing that the guy could have stopped it at any time. He mentions offhandedly that "I underwent waterboarding in my training when I was in the service."