Thursday, July 31, 2008

How Obama Got into Law Teaching

This revelation from a New Republic article was new to me, but based on what I know of Mike McConnell, I'm not surprised that he would have done something like this:
Obama first came to the University of Chicago Law School's attention via one of its more celebrated conservative faculty members, Michael McConnell, who's now a federal judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and reportedly was on George W. Bush's short list of potential Supreme Court nominees. Back in 1990, when McConnell was still teaching at Chicago, he wrote an article about church-state relations for the Harvard Law Review that Obama, who was then the Law Review's president, edited. As McConnell recently recalled the experience to Politico: "A frequent problem with student editors is that they try to turn an article into something they want it to be. It was striking that Obama didn't do that. He tried to make it better from my point of view." McConnell was so impressed with Obama that he recommended him to the head of Chicago's appointments committee at the time, Douglas Baird, a bankruptcy expert and a law-and-economics devotee. "Michael's a very smart guy who's basically a very good judge of horse flesh--he wouldn't typically recommend people," says Baird.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Michael Lewis on Golf

It's a bit harsh, but I have to admit I enjoyed Michael Lewis's rant on golf. Golf can be fun, of course, in the same sense as target practice, but I wouldn't really consider something a "sport" unless the participants regularly find themselves gasping for breath. It somewhat reminds me of this recent study, which found that people who read muscle magazines while on an exercise bike don't get the same mood improvement from exercise as do people who read nothing or who read Oprah Magazine. My rule of thumb is, if what I'm doing allows me to read or watch TV, it isn't really exercise.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Overcoming Bias post

I have another post at Overcoming Bias.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Class-Based Integration

Emily Bazelon wrote a New York Times article recommending class-based school integration (much of her article resembles previous work by Rick Kahlenberg). She suggests that class-based integration would improve test scores:
Test scores may not be the best way to assess the quality of a teacher or a school, but the pressure to improve scores, whatever its shortcomings, is itself on the rise. And if high test scores are the goal, it turns out, class-based integration may be the more effective tool.

Researchers have been demonstrating this result since 1966, when Congress asked James S. Coleman, a Johns Hopkins sociologist, to deliver a report on why the achievement of black students lagged far behind that of white ones. The expected answer was that more than a decade after Brown, black kids were still often going to inferior schools with small budgets. But Coleman found that the varying amount of money spent on schools didn’t account for the achievement gap. Instead, the greater poverty of black families did. When high concentrations of poor kids went to school together, Coleman reported, all the students at the school tended to learn less.

How much less was later quantified. The Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks reanalyzed Coleman’s data in the 1970s and concluded that poor black sixth-graders in majority middle-class schools were 20 months ahead of poor black sixth-graders in majority low-income schools. The statistics for poor white students were similar. In the last 40 years, Coleman’s findings, known informally as the Coleman Report, have been confirmed again and again. Most recently, in a 2006 study, Douglas Harris, an economist at the University of Wisconsin, found that when more than half the students were low-income, only 1.1 percent of schools consistently performed at a “high” level (defined as two years of scores in the top third of the U.S. Department of Education’s national achievement database in two grades and in two subjects: English and math). By contrast, 24.2 percent of schools that are majority middle-class met Harris’s standard.
A few points: 1) The problem with using Jencks' analysis here is that it doesn't account for selection effects -- poor black sixth-graders in the 1970s who managed to attend majority middle-class schools may have had very different family backgrounds, attitudes, and motivations than the ones stuck in impoverished schools.

2) Citing Douglas Harris's report is even less convincing. As Bazelon's text itself suggests, Harris merely compared the test scores in high-poverty schools to those in low-poverty schools. This is just a static picture; it tells us nothing about what would happen if you took an impoverished child and set him down in a low-poverty school. Thus, Harris's finding doesn't "confirm" the Coleman Report's finding as to how poor children did when they attended middle-class schools (Harris doesn't deal with that point at all).

3) A more enlightening and relevant study -- one that Bazelon doesn't mention -- comes from the Moving to Opportunity experiment, which took families in public housing and randomly assigned them to three groups: a control group, a group that got regular housing vouchers, and the experimental group that got housing vouchers to be used only in neighborhoods with a poverty rate under 10%. Researchers who expected to find that the experimental group did better academically were disappointed:
Lisa Sanbonmatsu, Jeffrey R. Kling, Greg J. Duncan, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Neighborhoods and Academic Achievement: Results from the Moving to Opportunity Experiment.

Although we had hypothesized that reading and math test scores would be higher among children in families offered [housing] vouchers (with larger effects among younger children), the results show no significant effects on test scores for any age group among over 5000 children ages six to 20 in 2002 who were assessed four to seven years after randomization. Program impacts on school environments were considerably smaller than impacts on neighborhoods, suggesting that achievement-related benefits from improved neighborhood environments alone are small.
To be sure, that last sentence is important: many of the people given housing vouchers to use in low-poverty neighborhoods ended up with their children attending new schools that were not a whole lot better than before; some even kept their children at the same schools (as this followup article reveals). So while the MTO experiment doesn't fully predict what would happen if you took the most impoverished inner-city kids and somehow transplanted them into the highest-performing suburban schools, it does give some idea of how hard it would be to pull off that kind of school reassignment.

UPDATE: I dug up my copy of the book "On Equality of Educational Opportunity," edited by Frederick Mosteller and Daniel P. Moynihan, in which (as I recalled) Christopher Jencks had published his reanalysis of the Coleman Report data. Sure enough, after noting that poor black sixth graders in middle-class schools did well, Jencks adds, "poor families who send their children to middle-class schools may also be more achievement-oriented and more competent than poor families who send their children to lower-class schools. The EEOS [Equality of Educational Opportunity Survey, or the Coleman Report] does not provide adequate data for testing this theory."

Jencks makes another interesting point, which I take to imply that the most educational improvement could be gained from improving schools and curriculum, not from merely rearranging students within existing schools:
P. 86:

Contrary to popular belief, the students who performed best on these tests were often enrolled in the same schools as the students who performed worst. . . . In some ways this is the most important and most neglected single finding of the EEOS. It means that if our objective is to equalize the outcomes of schooling, efforts to reduce differences between schools cannot possibly take us very far. If by some magic we were able to make the mean achievement of every Northern urban elementary school the same, we would only have reduced the variance in test scores by 16-22 percent. If, on the other hand, we left the disparities between schools untouched but were somehow able to eliminate all disparities within schools, we would eliminate 78-84 percent of the variation in 6th-grade competence.

The implications of this are in many ways more revolutionary than anything else in the EEOS. In the short run it remains true that our most pressing political problem is the achievement gap between Harlem and Scarsdale. But in the long run it seems that our primary problem is not the disparity between Harlem and Scarsdale but the disparity between the top and the bottom of the class in both Harlem and Scarsdale.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

New Screenplay

Notice the following films:

-- Armageddon. A meteor is headed for earth, and the only thing that can save us is if Bruce Willis and his scrappy team drills into it and unloads a nuclear weapon.

-- The Core. The center of the earth has stopped spinning, and the only thing that can save us is if Hilary Swank and her scrappy team drills into the earth and unloads a nuclear weapon. (Actually, I couldn't watch more than about 20 minutes of this, but I think that's the plot.)

-- Sunshine. The sun is burning out, and the only thing that can save us is if Cillian Murphy and his scrappy team flies near the surface of the sun and unloads several nuclear weapons.

So clearly nuclear bombs can fix just about anything. But the problem with all of these films is that the stakes are too low. Hence my new screenplay (yet to be written, but that's just a technicality).

In my movie, the whole freaking universe has stopped expanding. A maverick scientist has figured out what's going on. After some infighting with government bureaucrats, he coaxes Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Sigourney Weaver, and Tom Cruise to fly six separate spaceships to specific points in the universe, and drop off 100 nuclear bombs apiece. This will restart the universe and save us from the unfortunate fate of collapsing inwards upon ourselves (never mind that this wouldn't actually happen). There's a touching scene where Sylvester Stallone says goodbye to his estranged daughter as he realizes that the escape hatch on his spaceship doesn't work. There's another touching scene at the end where all the rest of the astronauts are back safely on earth, and they clap each other on the back, to the tune of something by John Williams while an American flag unfurls in the background.

This will be the summer blockbuster to end all summer blockbusters.

All Time Best Blog Post Title

This reversal of a Socratic maxim: "The Unlived Life is Not Worth Examining." It's about why we shouldn't be asking kids who have barely experienced anything of life to write personal essays for school or college applications.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


The big news around here has been this story of a local girl who got stuck for about 16 hours in a cave in a state park:
An afternoon outing at Devil's Den State Park turned into a nightmare for a Van Buren teenager.

About 2 p.m. Friday, Bianca Calloway, 17, ventured into a cave with a group of friends from the Community Bible Church in Fort Smith.

The group slid through a crack in the wall of the main cave into a section called Satan's Maze. Bianca lost her footing and slipped into an hourglass-shaped crevice. Her legs were wedged in the rock formation.

More than 50 rescuers worked through the night to free the frightened, cold teenager.

Rescuers, using a pulley system and a harness, pulled Bianca from the rocks shortly after 6 a.m. Saturday. She walked, with help, out of the cave.

* * * "She was wedged vertically into a vertical space," said John Luther, director of the Washington County Department of Emergency Management. "It was an hourglass-shaped hole and you had to fall a certain way to get trapped. There was no way to work on either side of her." Rescuers had to work from above.

Luther said the unique rock formation and the limited space was a nightmare for rescuers.

"Our smallest guys had to wiggle through a tight space, then turn sideways and pull the rest of his body through," Luther said. "It was one of the strictest natural confinements you could have."
. . .

Rescue workers continued to emerge from the mouth of the cave with frustrated faces, and Comstock would send more back down. Because of the tight proximity of Satan's Maze, only a few workers could fit down there at a time, Comstock said.

The remaining emergency responders had nothing else to do but sit around the cave entrance on a rock wall and crags around the cave and wait for their turn to return to the cave.

* * *
Baby oil was one of the low-tech methods applied, Luther said.

It was so constricted, workers had trouble passing bottles of baby oil hand-to-hand over their heads in complete darkness, Luther said, shaking his head.

On a local caving website,* I found this picture that someone managed to take of the narrowest part of that passage:

That photo isn't turned sideways, as I know because I've been through that passage myself. It's that the passage is extremely tall and narrow, and the only way to get through it to wedge yourself sideways and scoot through, with open space above and below you. The one time that I went through there, I had gone feet first, and the only way I could get through was to 1) exhale every bit of air in my lungs (when I breathed in, I couldn't move at all); and 2) then pull frantically with my toes. By this process, I'd move a few inches. Also, it's not a lighted cave, so it was completely pitch black except for a few flashlights, which weren't much help when you couldn't even move your head to look in a different direction. At the time I was concentrating too intensely to feel claustrophobic, but I definitely wouldn't do it again. The only reason I went through that passage in the first place was because some college friends (all thinner than me, and I'm not fat in the least) insisted that it was fun and that I'd have no problem fitting through. Ha.

* Photo is in the discussion thread here. The guy's description: "a lot of the corridors were very narrow in the maze. this is a spot i didnt think i would make it through. i found myself suspended in the air between 2 rock walls."

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Paul Campos' "The Obesity Myth"

I recently read Paul Campos' book "The Obesity Myth," whose thesis is that America's obsession with thinness and body fat is crazy.

Much of the book is concerned with American culture -- from supermarket magazines to a case where authorities tried to take a little girl away from her parents because she was too fat. In all of this, I generally agree with Campos that getting hysterical over a few pounds of fat is silly.

What concerns me, however, was the portion of the book where Campos argues that dietary and obesity studies actually show that being overweight is OK. In Campos' words:
Being heavier than average may be a sign of the presence of other factors that are health risks, especially a lack of physical activity, but there is no real evidence that weight itself causes undue health problems, at least not until one reaches a level of body mass that is more than 100 pounds [overweight]. (p. 137).
Campos supports this contention by pointing to numerous studies showing that the risk of mortality has a U-shaped curve when compared to Body Mass Index (BMI): People in the medium range of BMI (with a BMI of 25 to 29, technically "overweight") have the lowest risk, while people who are either underweight or obese have a higher risk.

Interesting point. But there are several things that bother me:

  • Elsewhere in the book, Campos himself recognizes that BMI is not a very good indicator of whether someone is actually obese, and that people with any significant amount of muscle mass will probably have a BMI in the 25-29 range and be classified as "overweight." (See chapter 11). In a study that Campos doesn't cite (as far as I can tell from the extremely poor endnote system), "BMI correctly identified about 44% of obese men, and 52% of obese women" compared to bodyfat percentage. For everyone else -- about half of all people -- BMI apparently isn't an accurate indicator of bodyfat.

    But Campos never puts two and two together. As far as I saw, Campos never mentioned the obvious fact that if people who exercise often have a higher BMI, that would contaminate all of the findings that he trumpets -- i.e., the findings that people with medium range BMIs have a decreased risk of mortality. If people with medium range BMIs have lower mortality, maybe it's because that group includes anyone who works out.

    Thus, the U-shaped curve might be explained as follows: people who are underweight have higher mortality (because they never exercise and have no muscle mass); people with medium BMIs have lower mortality, because that group includes all of the millions of people who get some exercise; and obese people who rarely exercise have higher mortality. That seems to me a parsimonious explanation for the U-shaped curve, as compared to Campos's notion that being fat is just plain irrelevant.

    Indeed, that explanation is consistent with at least one study that Campos does not discuss, which found a linear relationship between body fat and mortality (more body fat = more mortality), even while finding as to the same group of people that the "lowest risk was observed for men belonging to the middle fifth of BMI." Campos would like the latter conclusion, but -- because BMI is such a bad indicator of fatness -- it can still be true that more body fat is bad.

  • Campos at times seems to be taking both sides of an issue. On page 27, he criticizes the "studies that are most often cited by anti-fat warriors," noting that they often fail to "control for any of the variables" that affect mortality beyond just body fat. But back on page 15, he criticized one famous study precisely because it controlled for smoking: He claims that it was a "questionable tactic" to compare "thin non-smoking women to fatter non-smoking women," and that in doing so, the study authors had been "manipulating the data" and "exaggerating the meaning of the data."

  • As noted above, Campos says that fatness in and of itself isn't a risk to mortality. But he does seem to admit that how healthily a person eats and how much he/she exercises does matter. Campos doesn't give me any reason to think that there are significant numbers of Americans who manage to be substantially overweight (in terms of body fat) even while exercising regularly and eating a modest amount of healthy food.

In short, I liked much of Campos' book, but I'm not convinced of his reading of the medical literature.

Tom and Jerry

Change of pace: My kids were watching a DVD of Tom and Jerry (one of the more recent cartoons that they're allowed to watch), and "Pecos Pest" came on. I hadn't seen it, but thought that Uncle Pecos's song was hilarious.

The lyrics that he tries to sing are these:

Frog went a courtin, he did ride, Crambo. [No idea why he interjects that word].
Frog went a courtin, he did ride, Crambo.
Frog went a courtin, he did ride,
Sword and a pistol [he stutters here and says "revolver" instead] by his side, Crambo.

Crambo killed [then a bunch of stuttering and scat, during which he apparently can't sing what he intended], that's the hard part right in there, nephew.

[He attempts to yodel, but then explains that it's too high.]

Where will the wedding supper be, Crambo.
Where will the wedding supper be, Crambo.
Where will the wedding supper be,
Way down yonder in the [he tries several times to say "hickory" and then "cottonwood," but can't, and finally says, "eucalyptus"] tree, Crambo.

Google Makes Us Stupid

Nick Carr has gotten lots of attention for his Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Sample quote:
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
I tend to agree; I've experienced the same phenomenon . . . I still read books all the time, but I find that whereas I used to be content to sit and read for many hours (i.e., back in college, when I had the time to do that), now I find that after a page or two I'm instinctively looking up as if I'm going to turn my attention to something else. It could be an effect of my job as well -- I constantly find myself bouncing back and forth between documents (i.e., one second I'm looking at something that I'm writing, and a few seconds later I'm looking at a court decision, a transcript, the opponent's brief, a spreadsheet, etc., and then back to what I'm writing).

Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine has an interesting, although I think unconvincing, response:
Carr begins his piece describing how smarter he is while using Google. What if Carr is right? What if we were getting dumber when we are off Google, but we were getting loads smarter while we were on Google? That doesn't seem improbable, and in fact seems pretty likely.

Question is, do you get off Google or stay on all the time?

I think that even if the penalty is that you lose 20 points of your natural IQ when you get off Google AI, most of us will choose to keep the 40 IQ points we gain by jacking in all the time.
For one thing, it seems a bit of hyperbole to suggest that the decision to use or not use Google means a swing of 60 IQ points -- the difference between mentally retarded and, oh, about the top 1%.

I suspect Kevin Kelly is referring to the notion (discussed here) that Google (or access to the entire Internet) makes us smarter by enabling us to look up all sorts of information instantaneously, rather than wasting time memorizing data. (The reason I think Kelly means this is because he suggests the IQ effect of Google is temporary, which implies that you're not able to remember anything that you had been discussing or reading about while online.)

The problem with that view, to quote a psychology article, is that "drill and practice" on seemingly "low level" skills -- such as "basic knowledge" -- are in fact "just as essential to complex and creative intellectual performance as they are to the performance of a virtuoso violinist." As Steve Dutch says:
Memorization is not the antithesis of creativity; it is absolutely indispensable to creativity. Creative insights come at odd and unpredictable moments, not when you have all the references spread out on the table in front of you. You can't possibly hope to have creative insights unless you have memorized all the relevant information. And you can't hope to have really creative insights unless you have memorized a vast amount of information, because you have no way of knowing what might turn out to be useful.
Unless you have lots and lots of information in your head -- without depending on Google to magically serve up information whenever you might need it -- you won't know what you should be looking up on Google in the first place. And so I wonder if, as people come to depend more and more on being able to look up information at the drop of a hat rather than bothering to memorize it, people will be less able to think creatively and formulate new insights and connections.

Scam Email

I just got this in my spam box. A nice self-referential touch:
Dear Scam Victim,

From: British High Commission Abuja (
Sent: Fri 7/18/08 11:04 AM

We have decided to compensate you with the sum of $500,000 USD for your loses to scam.

Bob Dewar.

- British High Commission Abuja

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Overcoming Bias post

Almost forgot to mention here: I have a new post over at Overcoming Bias.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dead, Toothless Sharks Found On Rural Road

That's the headline of a news article from Georgia today:
GRIFFIN, Ga. -- State wildlife officials will try to learn Monday how a pile of dead sharks wound up on a rural Spalding County road.

Drivers spotted the six sharks Sunday afternoon on the side of Minter Road near Griffin. Wildlife officials said it appears the sharks died recently.

* * *

Officials said they noticed something unusual about the sharks. Each of the six sharks had all of their teeth removed. Whoever killed the sharks had to break the animals’ jaws to get the teeth.

"That is very strange, very strange. I can’t even imagine how they would have ended up there,” said resident Terry Becker.

* * *

"The fact that they're wasting all that meat and they're not using them for anything, I don't know if that's legal," [a local resident] said.
I imagine that killing and dumping sharks on a public road might be illegal for quite a few reasons, but the fact that it's a waste of good meat hadn't occurred to me.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Southern Accents

One of my favorite movies is Sling Blade. I've always gotten a kick out of the thick Alabama accent of Lucas Black, who was the young boy in the film; it's so rare to see a genuine Southern accent in a Hollywood movie. I just saw an article in my local newspaper about the woman who played the mother in Sling Blade -- Natalie Canerday, an Arkansas native who has had supporting roles in a number of pictures, and who has a fairly strong accent herself. Here is a video where you can see both actors on the screen at about 30 seconds:

The reason I bring this up is because the article had a funny quote from Billy Bob Thornton, who was also struck by Lucas Black's accent:
The only person to have ever been insufficiently impressed with the degree of difficulty in Canderday's execution of the Southern accent was Thornton. Canerday recalls him introducing her to Lucas Black, the young actor who would play her son in Sling Blade. "He said, 'I want you to hear this kid,'" Canerday says. "'He's from Speake, Alabama, and oh my God, he makes you sound like you're from the f******* Bronx.'"

UPDATE: A much longer and better clip for hearing both actors' accents (check out 7:40 and onwards) is here:

Monday, July 07, 2008

Wonder Drugs

"Wonder Drugs That Can Kill," reads the headline from Discover magazine. A very interesting article about medicines (including statins, stroke drugs, etc.) as to which there is little or no evidence that they actually work. The more I read about such issues, the more I get the impression that for all of its facade of sophistication, a good deal of modern medicine is little better than going to a witch doctor.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

The cost of the salmonella outbreak so far:
The 943 reported cases are nationwide, requiring at least 130 hospitalizations since mid-April after the first salmonella illnesses appeared, the FDA said Saturday.
Part of the cost of the response:
The U.S. tomato industry has taken a $100 million hit as restaurants temporarily dropped tomatoes from their menus, and farmers have had to plow under their fields or leave crops to rot in packinghouses. Mexico has not calculated its losses.
Just looking at the cost to American farmers, that amounts to about $770,000 per hospitalization. Worth it?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Education Spending

Brad Delong, in listing the "half dozen or so deeper and broader tides" of the "true history of the U.S. since 1980," includes this supposed trend:

3. The failure of American taxpayers to support their state and local governments in expanding funding for public education--and the impact of reduced public education effort in sharpening the distinction between rich and poor.
Failure to expand funding for public education?

Figures from page 15 here ("As seen in the bottom row of Table 2, real expenditures per pupil more than tripled over this period.").