Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Texting While Driving

Texting while driving is very dangerous. So too is using your cell phone at all, which makes you as dangerous as a drunk driver.

The usual question seems to be whether to make texting or cell phone use illegal while driving. But such laws, even if in place, are almost never going to be enforced. A better idea is a federal law mandating that all cell phones or texting devices be equipped with some sort of device that makes them impossible to use in a moving vehicle.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Loss of Wilderness

I strongly identified with this article.
A striking feature of literature for children is the number of stories, many of them classics of the genre, that feature the adventures of a child, more often a group of children, acting in a world where adults, particularly parents, are completely or effectively out of the picture. Think of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Railway Children, or Charles Schulz's Peanuts.

* * *
The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.

* * *

This is the kind of door-to-door, all-encompassing escort service that we adults have contrived to provide for our children. We schedule their encounters for them, driving them to and from one another's houses so they never get a chance to discover the unexplored lands between. * * * The sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations—Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults with no blank spots aside from doors marked staff only. When children roller-skate or ride their bikes, they go forth armored as for battle, and their parents typically stand nearby.

* * *

What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children's imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible. Recently, my younger daughter, after the usual struggle and exhilaration, learned to ride her bicycle. Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it—nowhere that I was willing to let her go. * * *

Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?

Health Care Spending

Megan McArdle points to a neat graph of healthcare spending vs. veterinary spending.

She adds these comments:
Veterinary spending is rising just about in line with human medical spending. Kudoes to AEI for publishing a graph that seriously undercuts one of the major conservative arguments about health care: that the main problem is consumers who don't bear their own costs. Veterinary spending is subject to few of the perversities that either left or right suppose to be the main problems afflicting health care spending. e Consumers pay full freight most of the time. They are price sensitive, and will let the patient die if keeping him alive costs too much. There is no adverse selection. There is no free riding on mandatory care. Government regulation is minimal. Malpractice suits are minimal, and have low payouts. So why is vet spending rising along with human spending?
The graph is also damning to certain liberal arguments about healthcare, though. Veterinary spending has increased despite the lack of insurance companies with their high-paid CEOs and their expensive administrative costs, for example.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Teachers Matter

From an interview with Judith Rich Harris:
LEHRER: You emphasize the importance of teachers in shaping a child's development. How can we apply this new theory of child development to public policy?

HARRIS: I’ve put together a lot of evidence showing that children learn at home how to behave at home (that’s where parents do have power!), and they learn outside the home how to behave outside the home. So if you want to improve the way children behave in school—for instance, by making them more diligent and less disruptive in the classroom—then improving their home environment is not the way to do it. What you need is a school-based intervention. That’s where teachers have power. A talented teacher can influence a whole group of kids.

The teacher’s biggest challenge is to keep this group of kids from splitting up into two opposing factions: one pro-school and pro-learning, the other anti-school and anti-learning. When that happens, the differences between the groups widen: the pro-school group does well, but the anti-school group falls further and further behind. A classroom with 40 kids is more likely to split up into opposing groups than one with 20, which may explain why students tend to do better in smaller classes. But regardless of class size, some teachers have a knack for keeping their classrooms united. Teachers in Asian countries seem to be better at this than Americans, and I suspect this is one of the reasons why Asian kids learn more in school. No doubt there’s a difference in cultures, but maybe we could study how they do it and apply their methods here.

The tendency of kids to split up spontaneously into subgroups also explains the uneven success rate of programs that put children from disadvantaged homes into private or parochial schools. The success of these programs hinges on numbers. If a classroom contains one or two kids who come from a different background, they assimilate and take on the behaviors and attitudes of the others. But if there are five or six, they form a group of their own and retain the behaviors and attitudes they came in with.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Blacks More LIkely to Die of Cancer: Why?

It's astonishing that this study can be described without anyone even speculating about the crucial anti-cancer role of Vitamin D:
African Americans are less likely than whites to survive breast, prostate and ovarian cancer even when they receive equal treatment, according to a large study that offers provocative evidence that biological factors play a role in at least some racial disparities.

The first-of-its-kind study, involving nearly 20,000 cancer patients nationwide, found that the gap in survival between blacks and whites disappeared for lung, colon and several other cancers when they received identical care as part of federally funded clinical trials. But disparities persisted for prostate, breast and ovarian cancer, suggesting that other factors must be playing a role in the tendency of blacks to fare more poorly.
Here is a discussion of Vitamin D and prostate cancer; here's a discussion of Vitamin D and breast cancer; and here are links to over 100 studies on Vitamin D and cancer. And given that 97% of African Americans are deficient in Vitamin D, this seems a pretty key question to look at.

New Paper on Teaching Styles

Apparently lecture-style teaching is better than classes that focus on "problem solving":

Is Traditional Teaching Really All That Bad? A Within-Student Between-Subject Approach

Guido Schwerdt
CESifo (Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute for Economic Research); European University Institute - Economics Department (ECO)

Amelie C. Wuppermann
University of Munich

Lecture style teaching is often regarded as old-fashioned and connected with many disadvantages: Lectures fail to provide instructors with feedback about student learning and rest on the presumption that all students learn at the same pace. Moreover, students' attention wanes quickly during lectures and information tends to be forgotten quickly when students are passive. Finally, lectures emphasize learning by listening, which is a disadvantage for students who prefer other learning styles. Alternative instructional practices based on active and problem-oriented learning presumably do not suffer from these disadvantages. National standards (NCTM, 1991; National Research Council, 1996) consequently advocate engaging students more in hands-on learning activities and group work. Despite these recommendations traditional lecture and textbook methodologies continue to dominate science and mathematics instruction in US middle schools (Weiss, 1997). This raises the question whether the high share of total teaching time devoted to traditional lecture style presentations has a detrimental effect on overall student learning.

* * *

To study the effect of lecture style teaching, we construct the share of e®ective teaching time, that is time in class devoted to either lecture style presentation or in-class problem solving, using information on in-class time use provided by teachers in the 2003 wave of the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) in US schools. Estimating a reduced form educational production function and exploiting between-subject variation to control for unobserved student traits, we find that the choice of teaching practices matters for student achievement. We find that a 10 percentage point shift from problem solving to lecture style presentation results in an increase in student achievement of about 1 percent of a standard deviation.

This result is highly robust. Consistent with other studies in this literature, we find no evidence for significant effects of commonly investigated observable teacher characteristics such as teaching certificates or teaching experience.

* * *
We therefore conclude that the high share of total teaching time devoted to traditional lecture style teaching in science and mathematics instruction in US middle schools has no detrimental effect on overall student learning. This finding implies that attempts to reduce the amount of traditional lecture style teaching in US middle schools have little potential for raising overall achievement levels.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Health News

In health news, statins cause muscle damage, and BMI is a bogus measure.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Catfish and Big Business

Many people seem to believe that regulation is something that big business hates, and that someone who opposes a particular regulation must be acting as a "stooge" for business interests.

That belief is more of a caricature than anything else. In 1971, Nobel economist George Stigler published a famous article: The Theory of Economic Regulation. Stigler argued that industry regulation, far from being oppressive to big business, is usually "acquired by the industry and is designed and operated primarily for its benefit."

How does this occur? Often what occurs is the industry demands that the state control who gets to enter the industry in the first place -- say, licensing laws (an egregious example would be laws requiring casket salesman to be licensed). As Stigler says, "every industry or occupation that has enough political power to utilize the state will seek to control entry," usually by trying to "retard the rate of growth of new firms."

The catfish industry is just the latest in many examples of this phenomenon. As the Associated Press reported on July 3, 2009:
It looks like catfish, it tastes like catfish, and it acts like catfish.

But to U.S. catfish farmers, the whiskered bottom-feeding fish from Vietnam is something else: a cheap variety that’s usurping the humble catfish’s place on Americans’ tables and threatening their livelihoods.

So after years of arguing that the Vietnamese fish isn’t catfish — and winning a federal law saying as much — U.S. farmers are trying to have it both ways. Under their latest lobbying strategy, they want the Vietnamese imports considered catfish so they will be covered by a new inspections regime they pushed through Congress last year.

* * *
The U.S. industry — mostly located in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas — has had a string of successes on Capitol Hill and in Southern legislatures.

Along with winning frequent federal aid, it pushed a labeling law through Congress in 2002 that forced the Vietnamese fish to be sold in the U.S. under unfamiliar names such as pangasius, basa or tra. A year later, it won an anti-dumping case authorizing tariffs of up to 64  percent on the Vietnamese fish.

* * *

The inspections requirement could be the U.S. producers’ silver bullet, stopping imports in their tracks. Applying to all catfish sold in the U.S., it would require Vietnam to establish a complicated inspection system and demonstrate that it is equivalent to U.S. inspections, a process that could take years.

Last year, the industry persuaded catfish-state lawmakers led by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., to slip the inspection requirement into the massive farm bill.
The crucial thing to notice is that these sorts of regulations always come with noble-sounding public purposes. After all, who could be against truth-in-labeling or rigorous inspections of fish quality? But the reality is that such regulations are often used as a tool to suppress competition.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

On Michael Jackson

There is no one who more perfectly personifies the infantilization of American culture. His obsession with retaining the looks, voice, and attributes of a wide-eyed child is just an extreme version of the countless celebrities who have a string of plastic surgeries, stretching their faces tighter and tighter, in the vain hope of maintaining an image of perpetual youth.