06/05/2013 § 4 Comments
James Brown’s funk is tight. On a track like ‘Licking Stick’, the music threatens to break loose at any time, barely contained by Brown and the beat. The little I’ve read about Brown suggests that this is no accident. He was apparently a difficult and demanding band leader, but listen to the result.
On several recordings, James Brown calls to Maceo Parker to take his solo. Oh, man, can Maceo play — the pacing, the expressiveness, the musicality — no wonder he’s gigged with everyone.
On ‘Cold Sweat’, as Maceo is finishing up, Brown asks, should we give the drummer some? Wikipedia says this is the first recording in which Brown does this. This call for a solo highlights the importance of the drummer for the whole enterprise. Maceo can play with the rhythm and Brown can give us all his famous ‘uhs’ and ‘good Gods’ because that drum is keeping things together, keeping it tight.
Now, let’s shift to some economics (sorry, but you knew it was coming). I’m involved in a few projects right now that are mainly modelling projects. We aren’t doing primary research in the sense of going out and collecting data and producing new empirical findings. Instead, we are organising existing information. We are using not only economic data, like price elasticity of demand, but also information from other disciplines, like dose-response functions for medicines or nitrogen leaching rates for different land uses.
It occurred to me that we are the drummers in these projects. We have a particular set of skills — keeping information organised and finding ways of making different types of data fit together. But the value of the drummer isn’t the particular beat they’re laying down. Their value is to provide a groove that the rest of the music can revolve around.
The drums provide a solid structure, and that’s what a good model does. As a result, the rest of the information makes more sense, in the same way that a horn solo makes more sense once the beat is established. A good model also demonstrates which parameters are important or which relationships determine the outcomes, just like a solid beat lets the singer shine.
Sometimes, we modellers even get the spotlight; sometimes, even the drummer gets him some.
23/04/2013 § 6 Comments
The US is a confrontational place. I was going to say ‘violent’, but that’s not the right word. ‘Confrontational’ is better. The jostling, the up-in-your-grill-ness, the staking a claim — it comes through all the time.
How many times have I heard, ‘whatcha gonna do about it?’ Hey, that’s my seat! Wait a minute, I was parking there! There’s a line waiting here! Oh yeah, whatcha gonna do about it!?
There’s the other way of saying it, too, the resigned sigh. The DMV closed early but didn’t let anyone know. The bank put my deposit in the wrong account and charged me for an overdraft. The insurance company is denying my claim after they pre-approved it. Oh yeah [sigh], whatcha gonna do about it?
I remember being 19, and 22, and 26, like the Tsarnaev brothers. I remember the anger and frustration. First, dealing with other guys who were willing to challenge you over a comment or a girl or a beer or a driving manoeuvre. And then there were the institutions with their bureaucratic procedures: fill out these forms and take them to that office and have them signed by that person and I-don’t-care-that’s-how-it’s-done.
It wasn’t any better being middle class and in elite universities. In some ways, it’s worse. They existed long before you and will continue long after you’re gone. They don’t care and they don’t need to. If you don’t like it, someone else will happily take your spot.
What to do? To deal with the individuals, you learn to ‘handle yourself’ in those situations. Confront or defuse, fight or flight, save face regardless. Ironic, isn’t it, that dealing with other people is called ‘handling yourself’.
With the institutions, well, it’s really suck up and deal. Choose the hill you want to die on, as a friend used to say.
But what if there’s not enough upside? What if there isn’t enough money or prestige or security on the line? What if all the promises of some future with a job and wife and house and car and all the books and booze you can manage — what if they start looking hollow? And you start thinking you’re never going to make it, it’s never going to stop being a fight, you’re always going to be pushed around by incidental bullies and petty tyrants.
Whatcha gonna do about it?
19/04/2013 § 9 Comments
I’m still thinking about MOOCs. A university is supposed to be involved in research and teaching, and MOOCs potentially cut into the teaching side of the business. Even if they aren’t as good, they may still take a big chunk of market share. One can buy hand-sewn shirts, but mass-produced shirts are much more common.
So that leaves the research side of the university. What’s the point? Is it to be ‘critic and conscience of society’, which is the New Zealand job description for an academic? Is it to advance knowledge and understanding?
What got me thinking about the topic was this profile of Noam Chomsky by Glen Greenwald. Greenwald, a journalist, has been a relentless critic of the security state that the US has put in place over the last two presidencies. Chomsky, an academic, has been a critic of American hegemony for decades. It is likely that academic tenure has helped Chomsky speak his mind. That is, the economic security of his job allowed him to have ‘a room of one’s own’ (Virginia Woolf) and be a critic of society.
University research, then, might be about providing an environment in which individuals and teams can pursue research, whether that research is criticising society or supporting it. The university buffers researchers from that same society — providing them time for the research to come to fruition, shielding them from reactions when their opinions or findings are unpopular. The uneasy bargain is that society pledges resources to the university — even when it bites the hand that feeds it — because of a belief that ultimately it will be for the social good.
But is it? Or, more precisely, is it at the margin?
And that question takes me to findings like those discussed here:
Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further. In a 2009 article in Online Information Review, Péter Jacsó found that 40.6 percent of the articles published in the top science and social-science journals (the figures do not include the humanities) were cited in the period 2002 to 2006.
So it seems that much university research isn’t even of value to researchers themselves.
There is also discussion of the ‘need’ for academics to contribute more, be more engaged with society, adopt more of a public intellectual stance. Those discussions suggest that society — government, business, the chatterati — might feel that academics aren’t pulling their weight.
Where I’m getting to is this: if MOOCs call into question the near-monopoly of universities for delivering advanced education, then universities will have to lean more heavily on the research function to justify their existence. But, the research side seems anemic, at least at the margin. The additional contribution of the extra dollar of spend seems to deliver little in the way of engagement or criticism. Oddly, the crisis in teaching raises the title question: what’s the point of research?
17/04/2013 § 1 Comment
Nothing to say this morning and no time to say it. Instead, here’s some light
entertainment opera to help you through your Hump Day. Gilbert and Sullivan, updated and Down Under.
Oh, and it probably needs a hashtag: #firstworldproblems.
03/04/2013 § 1 Comment
I haven’t been paying much attention to the DOMA cases that are now before the US Supreme Court (or SCOTUS, if you must). Judging from social media, all kinds of surprising people have now gotten behind marriage equality as a cause du jour. Gandhi’s quote about ‘first they ignore you’ is all too fitting.
And then I read Ted Rall’s post on the subject:
Gays and lesbians may not all realize it yet, but adopting the cultural trappings of America’s hegemonic majority culture is a tragic, disastrous, suicidal move. This is why those fighting for the right to enter into state-sanctioned monogamous marital pacts are finding that they’re pushing against an open door.
That was quite a different take than anything else I’ve heard. And you know what? He’s got a point:
Back in the 1970s, Michael Warner reminds us in his 1999 book “The Trouble with Normal,” gays weren’t trying to assimilate into the toxic “mainstream” cultures of monogamism and empire. Instead, they were pointing the way toward other ways of life.
‘Pointing the way toward other ways of life.’ Wow. That’s what all the freaks and bohemians and hippies and punks and arty types have been trying to do. For decades, centuries, even.
We visited the Katherine Mansfield house in Thorndon, Wellington, recently. She was trying to do the same thing:
Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.
But it hasn’t happened. We have been fairly poor at creating ‘other ways of life’. Each successive marginal group has instead focused on acceptance, which then triggers the search for the next marginal group to emulate and absorb. Lady Gaga uses New York subcultures the same way Madonna did. New York obligingly keeps producing more of them.
And that all takes me to Deleuze. My central problem with Capitalism and Schizophrenia is the illusory promise of liberation embedded in the notion of the rhizome. It sounds wonderful — branching along different paths and pushing through the social substrate to produce new organisms in a non-hierarchical system. But in fact, what we see is a constant return to the one true path, to the tree of life. Each new identity ends up mimicking the old; the rhizome carries some essential DNA to each one. The plant that might spring from a specific node just looks like the last one. And the first one.
I don’t think it is an accident that Deleuze was writing at the same time as the 1970s that Rall celebrates. But things have changed, or rather, things have stayed the same. The fact the DOMA ‘makes sense’ is proof of that.
27/03/2013 § 1 Comment
I’m getting to the age when doctors want me to worry about my heart. The Heart Foundation, with their mildly neurotic ‘Fulfil a lifetime’ slogan, wants to help. I can use their on-line calculator to ‘know my numbers’ — to calculate my risk of a heart attack. Well, not a bad idea, eh? A little more information, a warning of things to come?
I’m reasonably healthy, if you can’t tell by my typing. The calculator asks about age, gender, ethnicity, smoking, blood pressure, etc., etc. It’s gathering those known risk factors to calculate a heart attack risk score tailored to me.
But really, the calculator is about striking fear into the, uh, hearts of users. How do I know this? Two ways.
First, the calculator is skewed towards bad news. I didn’t have my cholesterol numbers handy, so it calculated two results. The first result was based on average cholesterol numbers. Then the calculator told me that ‘one in four people’ has an elevated risk, and that’s the number it used to calculate my ‘heart age’. I went back and changed all the inputs to be as positive and healthy as possible, and the calculator still estimated that my heart age was two years older than my chronological age. No matter what I did, the calculator always assumed the worst, and never allowed me to have a healthy heart — a heart younger than my age.
Secondly, the risk numbers don’t add up. The lowest risk possible is a 2% risk of heart attack or stroke; mine came out at 7%. Both numbers are below the ‘mild’ level of 10%. Now, bear in mind that surviving a heart attack outside a hospital is uncommon: there is ‘an overall survival following cardiac arrest [out of hospital] of 6.8%.’ So, the risk numbers are very close to the mortality numbers — a 1.9%, 6.5%, or 9.3% chance of dying from a heart attack in the next 5 years.
Statistics NZ helpfully provides mortality statistics on-line. At age 45, males on average have a 0.98529 5-year survival rate. That is, they have about a 1.5% chance of dying from all causes combined.
The ‘and stroke’ bit complicates the calculations, but let’s just stick with the heart attacks. The Heart Foundation calculator seems to suggest that my best-case odds are 1.9% chance of dying in the next 5 years, and the mild risk category is anything up to 9.3% chance. These are much worse odds than Stats NZ is giving me, at less than 1.5%.
How can I reconcile these numbers? Well, the stroke part was left out, so I could go back and include them (but I won’t for now). The calculator picked up many risk factors, so it isn’t about age or health status. And even the best-case numbers don’t add up, never mind the other ones.
I think the healthy heart calculator overestimates the risk of heart attack, presumably to raise your awareness of the downside risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and other conditions. That suggests it isn’t about information, but rather manipulation. All for a good cause, of course — a healthy, fulfilled population. And what better tool for manipulation than fear and anxiety?
Statistics shall be my tin-foil hat.
22/03/2013 § 2 Comments
Let’s start this by laying my cards on the table. I am racist. I apologise for that, but it’s true. It was unavoidable, growing up as I did in Virginia just a few miles from the Manassas battlefield, at a time when overt racism was socially acceptable. ‘You’ve got to be carefully taught….’
I have learned over the years to be aware of my racism, to try to see when it is operating and get in front of it. I also understand that racism is part of something larger, the privilege of being a white, able, hetero, middle-class male in societies designed by and for people just like me. I’ve done Women’s Studies courses at a liberal arts college; as a grad student, I TA’d a paper on privilege. Hey, you can write me off as indoctrinated, or PC, or a latte liberal, or a victim of liberal guilt — but I know that I have benefited from unearned privilege, and I don’t fool myself by thinking I would have made it anyway.
From that perspective — my perspective, that I am owning — the comments of Dame Susan Devoy, the new Race Relations Commissioner, are just awful. The total lack of self-awareness takes my breath away.
Let’s look at a few of the comments:
‘At the end of the day I have a really good moral compass. I don’t go to bed wondering or worrying about what others think or say about me….’
This is an odd view of a moral compass. Morality is about an ideal against which you measure yourself, and then reflection about whether your distance from the ideal is too great. Going to bed without wondering or worrying suggests absolute conviction in your own rightness. This may be fanaticism or hubris, but it isn’t morality.
As part of a regular column she … suggested Waitangi Day should be ditched as New Zealand’s national holiday.
Yesterday she described Waitangi Day as ‘extraordinarily important’ but ‘it isn’t New Zealand Day, is it?’ she said.
I’m not a native-born New Zealander, so I don’t know what my rights are in this conversation. The country’s founding bi-culturalism (British + Maori) is problematic for people from elsewhere. However, the Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document, the agreement that brought the older immigrants and newer immigrants together. The fact that the Treaty is considered as much as it is, is also part of what makes New Zealand what it is. The relationship is still contested — what are the rights and responsibilities on both sides? Demoting Waitangi Day would be an attempt to put the disputes in the background, to manufacture a unitary identity that doesn’t actually exist. It would be an act of cultural hegemony.
‘But I think in this role I have to be the voice of reason…’
This is the most disturbing comment of all, in which Devoy puts her crown on her own head. Interestingly, she positions herself as a ‘voice’, a disembodied manifestation of an abstract concept (reason), rather than an individual with physical and historical specificity. She is pure authority. Logically, all who do not agree with her are ‘unreasonable’. This framing puts those others in the position of children or hysterics, as less-than-full-people to be managed by authority. Devoy tells us here that her decisions will be made from a position of privilege.
Hmm, sounds familiar…
19/03/2013 § 4 Comments
Andrew Dickson (othersideofweightloss) was emailing me about fat taxes and I realised I didn’t have a well thought-out opinion on them. Let me start by asking, what are we trying to accomplish?
User pays — This is the point of the tax on fat people that Gareth Morgan Investments suggested in 2005:
Government could publish a range of tolerance for body mass index and those who fall within that over the year (certified say six monthly, bit like a VIC for a car), would qualify for a lower rate of personal tax (higher rate of benefit).
The idea is that fat people make themselves fat, and their fatness costs the public health system money, which is contrary to user-pays, so we need a fat tax to correct this.
If we accept this idea — fat is like cigarettes and alcohol, two products for which we already have a cost recovery scheme — then we need to keep going. First, we need to understand the full lifecycle healthcare costs of fat people compared to other groups, a point that Eric Crampton also makes. The comparison with smoking and alcohol is instructive: dying early is not necessarily a drain on the healthcare system.
Secondly, user-pays cuts both ways. We are told that fat people are fat because they aren’t active enough. Therefore, they aren’t using a whole bunch of services that the skinny, fit people use. So, yes, we could charge more for their use of health services, but they also get a rebate for the things they don’t use: backcountry huts, footpaths, etc.
Cost to society — This is more than just the strict healthcare costs. Jim Mann, Professor in Human Nutrition and Medicine, wrote a 2004 piece for Diabetes New Zealand on How a Fat Tax Can Help Fight Obesity.
debilitating illness and premature death linked to obesity also cause losses to society in the form of lost economic contributions from those who are forced to curtail work or retire early, or die while still in the work force, as well as lost contributions that many retirees make as community leaders and volunteers….
Note that Mann isn’t talking about helping people get the best for themselves, to ‘nudge’ them into behaviours that will bring them higher longer-term welfare. No, Mann is specifically looking at it from the perspective of society, of what the group loses when an individual cannot participate. Because the group loses, it must change the individual’s behaviour. The logical next step is fining people for shirking and jailing them for laziness — where does it stop? And is fat a leading cause of not contributing? I’d have thought that being selfish was far higher on the list, and no one seems to be proposing a fine for that.
Improving individuals’ choices — This options sounds noble — we’re just helping people do what’s best for them. The immediate problem is defining the ‘what’s best’. Economists generally use a neat trick. They assume that what the individual chooses to do is optimal for them. Now, let’s be clear, it is just an assumption, and Joan Robinson showed the circular logic therein. But, what else are you going to assume? There are only two other choices: someone other than the individual (you, perhaps?) have a better sense of what’s best, or that time-inconsistency of preferences means that the individual at some other point in time would have chosen differently for the present.
Improving choices comes down to two things: improving information and/or overcoming time-inconsistent preferences. Given all the information shoved down our throats for decades (gratuitous foie gras reference), I find it difficult to believe that lack of it is causing 1 in 4 adults to be obese. It’s pretty simple — veggies and fruits >> fried stuff. The time-inconsistent preferences angle is more plausible and interesting. But again, given all the existing ways that people can motivate themselves to be less fat, how much more can people in the present be disciplined by their future selves?
So, why fat taxes? The explanations offered don’t really stack up. We have to look someplace other than economics to understand the motivations. Take your pick of explanations — Foucault and Lacan immediately come to mind — but that’s a topic for another day.
18/03/2013 § 4 Comments
The subject of gifted children and the kinds of adults they become has been studied for a century. A good starting point is ‘The Outsiders’, an article from high-IQ society publication. Although it was first published in 1987, it is still relevant.
One researcher of giftedness, Lewis Terman, found that children with IQs above 140 tended to become one of three types of adults: Satisfactory, Some maladjustment, or Serious maladjustment. Maladjustment appears to be positively correlated with IQ.
Leta Hollingworth discussed four specific sources of maladjustment. Two of these are failure to suffer fools gladly and isolation from the rest of humanity. Quoting the author quoting Hollingworth:
This tendency to become isolated is one of the most important factors to be considered in guiding the development of personality in highly intelligent children, but it does not become a serious problem except at the very extreme degrees of intelligence. The majority of children between 130 and 150 find fairly easy adjustment, because neighborhoods and schools are selective, so that like-minded children tend to be located in the same schools and districts. Furthermore, the gifted child, being large and strong for his age, is acceptable to playmates a year or two older. Great difficulty arises only when a young child is above 160 IQ. At the extremely high levels of 180 or 190 IQ, the problem of friendships is difficult indeed, and the younger the person the more difficult it is. The trouble decreases with age because as persons become adult, they naturally seek and find on their own initiative groups who are like-minded, such as learned societies [3, p. 264].
In a nutshell, gifted children may be poorly socialised because society doesn’t have much to offer them (or so it seems) and doesn’t have a place for them.
With that in mind, it was interesting reading Corey Robin’s take on William Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager. It’s a riff on a profile of Ackman in Vanity Fair. It seems that Ackman, um, well, Corey can tell you:
What’s odd in Ackman’s case is how loathed he is by his colleagues.
Ackman is smart. Let me amend that. Ackman has a high IQ. And, it seems, also works hard, plays hard, et cetera and so forth. He remembers his college entrance exam (SAT) score — 1530. That puts his IQ around 160, in the top 99.99%. It also puts him in the ranks of ‘more likely than average to be maladjusted’.
Socialisation — learning the rule of society — puts restrictions on our behaviour. If you don’t learn the restrictions, then they don’t bind you. No, let me change that. You can learn the rules in two different ways. You can internalise them, so that they just become part of what it is to be a good member of your society. Or, you can learn them as anthropological phenomena: in this sort of situation, members of this tribe do thus-and-such. The rules bind you when you allow them to, and you cast them off when they aren’t functional. When you’re the smartest guy in the room, you just might decide that the rules don’t apply to you.
I figure that’s what’s happened with Ackman and others like him. Gifted children all grown up, they feel above and outside society, which gives them carte blanche to act as they choose. And what they’ve chosen to do is compete about everything, just to prove they are the Masters of the Universe. The hard part is, a billion dollars can’t fix the maladjustment. In some ways, it probably makes it worse.
Just remember, these are the guys running the international financial system. These are the guys who needed the US taxpayer to bail them out.
11/03/2013 § 4 Comments
Let’s see if I can pull this all together in 500 words or fewer.
Via social media (h/t Rob), we have predictions about how Google Glass will change everything, Everything I Tell You! Let’s think about what Glass does. It takes something we are seeing and overlays information. Really neat for consumption activities like tourism — your own personal tour guide — and useful for certain kind of work — such as overlaying a blueprint on the house that we see. But…
- we can already do most of that, just in a clunky sort of look-up-look-back way
- the information still needs processing in our brains
- who is guaranteeing the information (y’know, like the facial recognition of known criminals)?
Brad Delong linked to Cosma Shalizi, who tried to get us to see (in 2010) that the singularity had already happened. Unpredictable growth, dis-orienting changes, ‘Annihilation of the age-old constraints of space and time?’.
But that’s not right. I live very much like my dad and his dad. I have a desk computer instead of a typing pool and slide rule, my car is safer, my TV is bigger. But I still get colds at inconvenient times and still buy mass-produced clothes that don’t quite fit and still mess up the stove when the potatoes boil over. I still need my 8 hours of sleep or I’m cranky and I still need to move with time through space in a car or plane to go places.
Delong embellishes and expands: the core is really that
At the bleeding edge of the urban North Atlantic and East Asia today, few focus on making more of necessities….We have crossed a great divide between what we used to do in all previous human history and what we do now. Since we are not in the realm of necessity, we ought to be in the realm of freedom.
I sometimes wonder about those bleeding-edge places, living as I do far out in the
uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy farthest reaches of the old British Empire, thousands of miles from the gravitational centres of humanity. They are different, well, somewhat different. The ‘Asian aesthetic’ — the hyperactive TV shows, the youth culture of masquerade — wouldn’t play well here in New Zealand, or in Virginia, or other places in the OECD. The go-go life of Silicon Valley and its East Coast analogues makes no sense in New Zealand. I wonder what this freedom is. The freedom to commute 2 hours a day and work 60 hours a week to impress neighbours you never meet? The freedom to worry that your mortgage is under water and you’ve taken a loan against your retirement?
A limiting factor is that we still need to think and understand and respond. We aren’t doing that faster. I was preparing lectures on probability over the weekend and realising that students will still need to do problems themselves — draw probability tables and multiply numbers together — or they will not understand Bayes’ law. I was also teaching algebra to my daughter, like my dad taught me calculus. You start where the student is — what do you understand about this problem? — and then take them the next step, and the next. And they need to participate, be actively involved in the thinking and solving.
This ADHD lifestyle lived by some few people isn’t singular; it isn’t necessarily anything. It is a cultural affectation overlaid on ordinary, mundane lives. With the right goggles, you, too, can learn to see the singularity. I’ll even sell you a pair.