Tuesday, March 31, 2009

History Websites

This is a post originally from a couple of years ago, updated with a new find at the bottom:

Some of my favorite websites are those that feature interviews with black people who were former slaves or who lived under segregation. For future reference, I'm going to make a list of the websites that I've come across over the past year or so.

Most fascinating of all is the Library of Congress's Voices From the Days of Slavery, which has several interviews recorded with actual former slaves. This Washington Post story gives a good idea of what the recordings are like.

The Virginia Center for Digital History sponsors what it call the "Esmont Oral History Project. No former slaves, but several interesting interviews with elderly black people about their lives during segregation.

The Hampton Roads Daily Press in Virginia does the same here.

The University of Southern Mississippi (and you can't get much more southern than that) has the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage. This website has easily more than a hundred interviews conducted from the 1970s to the 1990s -- not just with black folk, but also with some of the white folk who stood in the schoolhouse door, so to speak. Only a few of the interviews are available in audio format; most are available only as a transcript.

The Texas Council for the Humanities has a website called "Parallel and Crossover Lives: Texas Before and After Desegregation, which features quite a few transcripts of interviews with black people who went through desegregation. No audio files, unfortunately, just transcripts.

Finally, on a slightly different note: Here is a website from the University of North Carolina that contains the texts of over a hundred autobiographical books or pamphlets written by whites and blacks about their experiences in the Civil War, in slavery, etc. The website is called "First-Person Narratives of the American South." Some are very disturbing, such as "The New Slavery in the South-- An Autobiography: by A Georgia Negro Peon."

This one, by contrast, looks immensely entertaining just from the title alone, which I reproduce here in full:
The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez,

Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate States Army.

In Which Is Given Full Descriptions of the Numerous Battles in which She Participated as a Confederate Officer; of Her Perilous Performances as a Spy, as a Bearer of Despatches, as a Secret-Service Agent, and as a Blockade-Runner; of Her Adventures Behind the Scenes at Washington, including the Bond Swindle; of her Career as a Bounty and Substitute Broker in New York; of Her Travels in Europe and South America; Her Mining Adventures on the Pacific Slope; Her Residence among the Mormons; Her Love Affairs, Courtships, Marriages, &c., &c.
Check out the picture on that webpage.

Anyone know of other websites like any of the above?

UPDATE: Here are a few more:

Duke's "Behind the Veil" project has a few audio clips. That project was discussed in this radio program.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has numerous video clips of interviews with civil rights activists, as does the Virginia Civil Rights Movement Video Initiative.

American RadioWorks sponsors the "Remembering Jim Crow" project here.

The Kentucky Oral History Commission has lots of interviews available here. This program on the anniversary of Brown was interesting.

UPDATE 2: The University of North Carolina has a new project called Documenting the American South, with a huge variety of historical materials available. Relevant to this post are the 500 or so interviews collected here, with both audio and transcripts.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Anti-Drug Hysteria and School Vouchers

It seems to me that proponents of school vouchers could make some hay with stories like this one, on an upcoming Supreme Court case:
Savana Redding still remembers the clothes she had on — black stretch pants with butterfly patches and a pink T-shirt — the day school officials here forced her to strip six years ago. She was 13 and in eighth grade.

An assistant principal, enforcing the school’s antidrug policies, suspected her of having brought prescription-strength ibuprofen pills to school. One of the pills is as strong as two Advils.

The search by two female school employees was methodical and humiliating, Ms. Redding said. After she had stripped to her underwear, “they asked me to pull out my bra and move it from side to side,” she said. “They made me open my legs and pull out my underwear.”
It's not clear to me why public schools feel the need to be so vigilant against the dangerous scourge of ibuprofen (a drug that isn't particularly toxic and doesn't get people high).

In any event, here's a new ad that voucher proponents could be running: "Tired of public schools that reserve the right to strip search your 13-year-old daughter, or to suspend and expel innocent children who happen to have a pocketknife? You deserve to be able to choose a school run by sane adults. Vote for school vouchers."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Grand Canyon

Pierre Schlag also has an intriguing passage that reminds me of something similar that a political science teacher said when I was in college:
Last summer, I did a stint as a swamper with AZRA, a commercial outfit in the Grand Canyon.63 For many people, going down the river can be a lifechanging experience. It’s easy to understand how. The towering red and yellow walls, the intense play of light and shadow, the stark lines of the encroaching horizons, the extreme heat and the breathtaking dryness of it all conspire to put the real world in abeyance. All the little demands, requirements, schedules, preoccupations of that real world quickly begin to seem trivial. And then they fade entirely, until they are gone. Then too there is the rhythm of the river—of getting up early everyday, of going down the river, of making camp and breaking camp, and doing it every day so that each day is the same as every other day. With days like that, you can really think. You can imagine for yourself another existence. And many people do. The trip ends and they drop their jobs, partners, wives, husbands, material possessions. They fall in love with the river, with their guide, with the desert and, in some important ways, they never come back.

I’m a reasonable person (as well as a law professor) so all I came back with was one really tiny insight. Not only is it tiny, but it’s not even very original. And it begins like this: There is something pervasively neurotic about the structures of contemporary life. The excruciating intricacies of everyday demands, the symbolic overinvestment of meaning in the trivial, the obsessive monitoring of everything to within an inch of its life, the constant piling on of little local meta- and infra-layers of thought—all these things are, from the perspective of the river, pervasively neurotic. Contemporary life ensnares us in all sorts of little maze-games that seem to matter tremendously and yet ultimately do not—except in the negative sense that they distract our attention from what does or at least could matter.

Schlag vs. Posner

The Georgetown Law Journal has a couple of entertaining pieces, one by Pierre Schlag (a law professor and long-time critic of legal scholarship) and a response from Judge Richard Posner (one of the most prolific and influential legal scholars of all time).

In addition to lambasting legal scholarship as "dead," Schlag disparages rankings of law schools:
While for law schools and law professors, these rankings do create a certain anxiety, there is also an anxiety-relieving function served. Indeed, any doubts that we might have about the value of what law schools and legal thinkers do are eclipsed by our intense fixation on how good we are at doing it relative to each other. We don’t have to worry that the enterprise might be entirely worthless if we’re totally fixated on how well or how badly we are doing it relative to everybody else.
Schlag compares legal scholarship to imaginary bus schedules:
It’s as if we were all working really hard on an imaginary bus schedule. Someone writes an article saying we need to optimize the number of buses. Another person can’t resist pointing out that it might be preferable to start by optimizing the number of bus stops instead. Soon someone writes that we should reconstruct the entire schedule. Someone else will suggest that we should split the schedule along eight different parts. Someone says, the eight parts are really sixteen. Some truly original thinker says there are ten. And then, some ranker comes along and starts ranking whose law school has the best bus scheduling program going. And somebody else decides to hold a symposium on bus schedule rankings. (Remember the traveling show on Bush v. Gore?) And then fifty years from now, someone will write a book: How Should the Bus Schedules of 2000-Whatever Have Been Decided?

Pretty soon, we’ve got a collective imaginary going and we’re pushing buses and bus stops all across pages of the Yale Law Journal and it all feels kind of real and pretty important. And it’s not hard to believe that it’s important. For one thing people are getting real rewards—prestige jobs, chairs, program funding—for imaginary bus schedule breakthroughs. And adding to the increasing reality of the thing is the undeniable fact that we can’t just dismiss buses or bus schedules as unreal. (If everything else fails, by the way, this is your takeaway: Buses are real.)

But the thing of it is, our legal academic bus schedule remains imaginary. Even if it looks a lot like the real thing, it’s still imaginary. When we put out our bus schedule, no buses run.
Schlag adds this dig at constitutional scholarship:
And then there’s the normativity thing. I once read an article that purported to elaborate about what the Constitution should be. Now what struck me as odd was that the author really did want to free himself (and his reader) from any official pronouncements of what the Constitution is. This struck me as incredibly weird. What an odd thing to do. If the question “What should the Constitution be?” is not anchored in what the Constitution is (whatever that might be), then why not go for broke: I say let’s have a constitution that guarantees universal health care, tastes a lot like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and is laugh-out-loud funny. You leave it to me? I say: Go big.
For his part, Posner says (with typical bluntness) that he initially thought Schlag's article was "crazy," but then rethought on further reading. And it does seem that Posner has several points of agreement with Schlag. Such as this:
If ninety-nine percent of all the books and articles that have been written about constitutional law, including those written in 2007, were pulped, there would be a net social gain from just the saving in the cost of storage. Think of the hundreds of articles written about Roe v. Wade and the other Supreme Court abortion cases: have any of these articles the slightest significance beyond registering their authors’ convictions about the emotional subject of abortion? And the constitutional theories—originalism, textualism, representation reinforcement, passive virtues, active liberty [a dig at Justice Breyer there!], the living Constitution, the moral reading of the Constitution, intertextuality, and the rest—have any of them real intellectual depth or are they mainly just rationalizations of their authors’ political ideology?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Type I and II Errors

Every time I read about Type I and Type II errors, I have to look up the difference. I know what they are, but can't keep straight which is which. I think this is because the errors are sometimes defined in terms of whether an effect has been correctly identified, but elsewhere the errors are defined in terms of whether you reject the null hypothesis (which is quite the opposite). Thus, a Type I error is a "false positive" in the sense of finding an effect where none exists, but it could also be called a "false negative" in the sense of falsely finding that the null hypothesis is wrong. (Put another way, when I hear "Type I error," I tend to think, "Right, that's a false positive . . . but wait, does that mean falsely accepting the null hypothesis? Dang, I have to look it up again.").

Clearly, the two types of errors need to be renamed, as "Type I" and "Type II" are absurdly non-descriptive. And the names need to make clear that they're referring to how you've assessed the effect itself, not to how you've assessed the null hypothesis. A suggestion: "False Effect Error" and "False No-Effect Error." Any others?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Global Warming and Peak Oil/Coal

A while back, I posted about a lengthy essay from the head of CalTech's Engineering department, in which he argued that the amount of coal and oil left in the ground for humans to burn is actually several times lower than is assumed in the IPCC's predictions as to global warming. Since then, I've often looked for a direct refutation, i.e., either a proof that oil and coal reserves are several times higher than what the CalTech scientist estimated, or a proof that dramatic global warming would still occur even if carbon emissions from coal and oil are several times lower.

So far, I haven't found such a refutation, but this recent article summarizes the (apparently very few) academic articles that analyze global warming while taking into account the limited supplies of fossil fuels. It reaches the not-very-comforting conclusion that "we might well suffer for both effects: lack of fuels and global warming."

Social Psychologist Retires and Blasts the Field

Social psychologist Robert Cialdini (author of the excellent book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion) announces his retirement, in part because social psychology is too biased towards artificial laboratory experiments on undergraduates and too biased against actual field research on human beings in the wild (so to speak):
The flagship journal in social psychology is the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP). As a past Associate Editor, I know how to get papers accepted there; along with my coworkers, I've continued to have JPSP articles published regularly in recent years. But, I haven't had any of my field research published there in over 15 years. And field research, remember, is what I do best. So, I have had to take reports of that work elsewhere, sometimes to top-of-the-line scholarly outlets in consumer behavior, organizational science, survey research, marketing, and management.

Although the effects of the misalignment of my strengths with the changes in my home discipline have not been especially harsh on me as regards vita-building, they have been devastating in another respect: I am no longer able to accept graduate students. At least, I am no longer able to do so in good faith because most apply hoping (a) to be trained by me in field research methods for investigating behavior in naturally occurring settings and (b) to be competitive for the best jobs in academic social psychology at the end of that training. For the foreseeable future, I know that I can reasonably help them attain only the first of those goals. Therefore, I also know that, even though academic social psychology offers a vital, burgeoning, intellectually engaging research arena, it is time for me to leave. Aside from this minor consequence, there stands to be a more far-reaching outcome of the field's retreat from the field.

Observers of the national behavioral and social science scene as well as sympathetic elected officials have been warning for years that unless researchers more clearly demonstrate the value of their explorations to the wider society, support will be reduced by politicians looking for ways to eliminate what their constituents do not find relevant and, hence, worthy of support. With the recent changes at the National Institute of Mental Health that have eliminated the Behavioral Sciences Research Branch, which formerly funded much basic social psychological research, those warnings have become nasty reality. As we have moved increasingly into the laboratory and away from the study of behavior, I believe we have been eroding the public's perception of the relevance of our findings to their daily activities.

One of the best aspects of field research into naturally occurring behavior is that such relevance is manifest. When my colleagues and I have studied which messages most spur citizens to reduce household energy usage, the results don't have to be decoded or interpreted or extrapolated. The pertinence is plain. Truth be told, as a discipline, we've become lax in our responsibilities to the public in this regard. They deserve to know the pertinence of our research to their lives because, in any meaningful sense, they've paid for that research. They are entitled to know what we have learned about them with their money.

So, my idea for improving academic psychology would be to reassign substantially more value to field research than has been the case in recent times. It should be taught regularly in our graduate methods classes, there should be prestigious awards designated for the best of it, and it should be given more grace (and space) in the loftiest of our journals. If that could be accomplished, I would be able to head off in other directions happily knowing that my lifelong love is destined to be healthier and more appealing than ever.
(Also via BPS).

Music Enhances the Brain

From Musical Training Influences Linguistic Abilities in 8-Year-Old Children: More Evidence for Brain Plasticity, in Cerebral Cortex 19 no. 3 (2009):712-723.
After musical (but not painting) training, children showed enhanced reading and pitch discrimination abilities in speech. Remarkably, 6 months of musical training thus suffices to significantly improve behavior and to influence the development of neural processes as reflected in specific pattern of brain waves. These results reveal positive transfer from music to speech and highlight the influence of musical training. Finally, they demonstrate brain plasticity in showing that relatively short periods of training have strong consequences on the functional organization of the children's brain.
(Via BPS).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

New Post at Overcoming Bias


Sunday, March 08, 2009

Clueless Music Review

This Time review of U2's new album has to be one of the most clueless ever:
The trouble begins with "Magnificent," another catchy, thunderous love song out of the recent U2 playbook. At least it seems that way until the arrival of the portentous line "I was born to sing for you/ I didn't have a choice but to lift you up/ And sing whatever song you wanted me to." Delivered with an ambivalent growl by one of the most famous men in the world — one who got that way by being a singer of songs and lifter of souls — it suddenly sounds less like a love song and more like a grievance. . . . .

[I]n a moment he will probably regret, [Bono] impersonates your office IT guy ("Restart and reboot yourself") on a ham-fisted attempt at life-coaching.
It's impressive that the reviewer managed to miss such glaringly obvious religious allusions. Indeed, U2 hasn't been as unabashedly religious (without the doubt and struggle seen in songs like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For") since the early 1980s.

Friday, March 06, 2009

You Eat Petroleum Every Day

If you're a typical American, that is.

I was just recently wondering what's the difference between hydrocarbons and carbohydrates -- two things that seem very different, but that both involve carbon and hydrogen. Apparently the main difference is that carbohydrates typically include oxygen in the mix, but they're obviously close cousins, or else we wouldn't be able to turn corn into ethanol.

So then I started wondering if petroleum and related products might be edible, and if so, how? Completely fortuitously, I then happened to read the book Twinkie, Deconstructed this week -- an excellent read if you've ever wondered where most of the ingredients in processed food come from.

Turns out that many of the ingredients in our food do indeed come directly from (or are manufactured using) petroleum, coal tar, natural gas, etc. These would include: modified corn starch (processed with propylene oxide), soybean oil (processed with hexane), glycerin (made from propylene gas), polysorbate 60 (petroleum is an ingredient), vanilla flavoring (made from benzene and crude oil), sorbic acid (common preservative that is made from natural gas), and food coloring (made from petroleum).

Even enriched flour -- which is in too many foods to count -- includes vitamins such as niacin, thiamine mononitrate, and folic acid, all of which are synthesized from petroleum sources (the author explains that petroleum is easier and more predictable than trying to extract vitamins from food).

The author does point out that dangerous chemicals often combine to form perfectly normal food -- such as the combination of dangerous chlorine and sodium to form table salt. Still, I can't help thinking that maybe it's better to eat the way that Crossfit recommends: "Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar." Simple, straightforward . . . and no petroleum.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Adolescents or Adults?

A recent story from Chicago:
Chicago police said Tuesday that the 14-year-old who posed as an officer drove a patrol car and aided in an arrest, and that seven officers face disciplinary reviews for the "lax" behavior that allowed the teen's escapade to happen.

"They weren't paying attention," Superintendent Jody Weis said at a news conference announcing the completion of the investigation. "They were lax. I'm very upset. This whole incident is very disturbing."

The teenager, an aspiring police officer, allegedly wore a uniform and entered a South Side police station through an unlocked back door around 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 24. He was issued a radio and rode with a patrol officer for more than five hours, at times using the terminal in the squad car and responding to five assignments, Weis said.

Authorities previously said the teen did not drive a squad car, but Weis said Tuesday that the boy — who is too young to drive in Illinois — spent two hours behind the wheel. The boy also helped in the arrest of a suspect who allegedly violated a protection order.

"He brought the arm into the middle of his back so handcuffs could be placed on him," Weis said.

The boy returned to the station at 7:37 p.m., when a supervisor discovered the teen was not wearing a complete uniform and had no weapon, Weis said. The teen was arrested at 7:40 p.m.

* * *
Related video from MSNBC:

I wonder what the typical reaction would be to this story. Most people, I suspect, would think the story humorous, while at the same time a bit troubling that a police department took several hours to realize that it had put an unauthorized teenager on duty.

It puts me, however, in mind of Robert Epstein's book The Case Against Adolescence, discussed earlier here. As Epstein explains in great detail, it is only natural that teenagers should be mature and adult-like, and it is only in modern Western society that we've somehow been taken by the odd belief that people who are biologically adults are nonetheless supposed to be immature for another decade or more. As Epstein says:
Anthropologists have identified more than 100 contemporary societies in which teenage turmoil is completely absent; most of these societies don’t even have terms for adolescence. Even more compelling, long-term anthropological studies initiated at Harvard in the 1980s show that teenage turmoil begins to appear in societies within a few years after those societies adopt Western schooling practices and are exposed to Western media. Finally, a wealth of data shows that when young people are given meaningful responsibility and meaningful contact with adults, they quickly rise to the challenge, and their “inner adult” emerges.

A careful look at these issues yields startling conclusions: The social-emotional turmoil experienced by many young people in the United States is entirely a creation of modern culture. We produce such turmoil by infantilizing our young and isolating them from adults. Modern schooling and restrictions on youth labor are remnants of the Industrial Revolution that are no longer appropriate for today’s world; the exploitative factories are long gone, and we have the ability now to provide mass education on an individual basis.

Teenagers are inherently highly capable young adults; to undo the damage we have done, we need to establish competency-based systems that give these young people opportunities and incentives to join the adult world as rapidly as possible.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Healthcare Costs

I liked this passage from a Victor Davis Hanson article:
When I grew up in rural California in the 1960s, an obese uncle in his early 70s had “heart trouble.” That translated into some nitroglycerin tablets, and otherwise about the same regimen offered President Eisenhower after his in-office heart attack: Try to quit smoking, eat less, more bed rest — and good luck!

Forty years later, that same patient would have a bypass, and an expensive battery of medications and weekly follow-up doctor visits — and would make it not to 73 years old (as my uncle was when he died), but to 78 or 80, or even 90.

If we wish to get health-care costs under control, then we should at least be honest with the American people and admit that we are all paying a collective fortune largely for three reasons: (1) to keep functioning into their 60s those who drank, smoked, and ate too much and in a past era would have passed on at 60; (2) to give us all an extra three to five years of mobility and functionality after we reach 75; (3) to fit us up with IVs, feeding tubes, and respirators so that in our last six months of life we can die in a rest home or among machines and specialists in a hospital rather than in our own home with a few morphine tablets for pain and a bowl of soup with a straw on the nightstand.
The irony is that a good deal of modern healthcare may not even be worth the money we pay for it. As I discuss in this new post at Overcoming Bias, a new medical study found that many heart care guidelines (i.e., that tell doctors how to treat heart conditions) are not supported by any evidence at all.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Front Porch Republic

An interesting new site, and I liked this essay on the shift from front porches to patios.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


The director of OMB puts this forth as a reason for limiting charitable deductions by rich people:
Third, there’s a question of fairness. Non-profits play a critical role in our society (indeed, I have worked at several of them in the past). But let’s look at how the tax code treats two different contributors to a non-profit. If you’re a teacher making $50,000 a year and decide to donate $1,000 to the Red Cross or United Way, you enjoy a tax break of $150. If you are Warren Buffet or Bill Gates and you make that same donation, you get a $350 deduction – more than twice the break as the teacher.
That makes no sense. The only way that Bill Gates would get a larger deduction would be if he had paid that higher amount in taxes in the first place. Fairness and equal treatment would demand that anyone who donates $1,000 to a charity no longer has to pay taxes on that $1,000; and if some people had paid a higher portion of that $1,000 in taxes in the first place, then of course they would get a higher deduction. Under the new plan, though, some people will still be taxed (albeit at a reduced rate) on the same $1,000 that they donated to a charity.

UPDATE: I'm aware, of course, that current policy already includes limits on total charitable deductions, a phase-out of itemized deductions for higher incomes, etc. But I'm not sure why making it even harder for wealthy people to give their money away is an example of "fairness."