Monday, July 21, 2014

Chasing the wrong culprit

From Danish DNA could be key to happiness from University of Warwick. The argument is that, based on three different empirical studies, there is a genetic component to happiness which is most prevalent in Denmark. I am skeptical of all happiness studies (low rigor, weak definitions, poor variable control, etc.) and interested in but highly cautious about international comparisons (inadequate context comprehension and ignorance of systemic trade-offs). Finally, sociology and psychology as academic fields have very high non-replication rates for their papers. There has been a particular fad in the past twenty years to try and ascribe virtually all human attributes to behavioral evolution. So maybe this is a solid paper; or maybe not.
Firstly they used data on 131 countries from a number of international surveys including the Gallup World Poll, World Value Survey and the European Quality of Life Surveys. The researchers linked cross-national data on genetic distance and well-being.

Dr Proto said: “The results were surprising, we found that the greater a nation’s genetic distance from Denmark, the lower the reported wellbeing of that nation. Our research adjusts for many other influences including Gross Domestic Product, culture, religion and the strength of the welfare state and geography.

The second form of evidence looked at existing research suggesting an association between mental wellbeing and a mutation of the gene that influences the reuptake of serotonin, which is believed to be linked to human mood.

Dr Proto added: “We looked at existing research which suggested that the long and short variants of this gene are correlated with different probabilities of clinical depression, although this link is still highly debated. The short version has been associated with higher scores on neuroticism and lower life satisfaction. Intriguingly, among the 30 nations included in the study, it is Denmark and the Netherlands that appear to have the lowest percentage of people with this short version.”

The final form of evidence looked at whether the link between genetics and happiness also held true across generations, continents and the Atlantic Ocean.

Professor Oswald said: “We used data on the reported wellbeing of Americans and then looked at which part of the world their ancestors had come from. The evidence revealed that there is an unexplained positive correlation between the happiness today of some nations and the observed happiness of Americans whose ancestors came from these nations, even after controlling for personal income and religion.”

He added: “This study has used three kinds of evidence and, contrary to our own assumptions when we began the project, it seems there are reasons to believe that genetic patterns may help researchers to understand international well-being levels.
For all my skepticism, it is not improbable that there is a genetic component to any given human behavioral attribute and there is no particular reason to believe that that would not also be true of happiness.

I am not yet buying the hypothesis but were you to grant it, it would be an interesting illustration of confounding factors. We have some 20-30 years of various types of studies of comparative degrees of happiness among countries, trying to pinpoint whether it is form of government, degree of freedom, economic maturity, wealth, education, religion, etc. that is the explanatory variable for the differences. If it turns out to be materially genetic, then there are 20-30 years of research chasing the wrong culprit.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

No discernible pattern on a prospective basis

From What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. A great example of the importance of context in decision making and how prospective forecasting is always the red-haired step-child to hindsight.

In the fall of 1973, the Syrian Army began to gather a large number of tanks, artillery batteries, and infantry along its border with Israel. Simultaneously, to the south, the Egyptian Army cancelled all leaves, called up thousands of reservists, and launched a massive military exercise, building roads and preparing anti-aircraft and artillery positions along the Suez Canal. On October 4th, an Israeli aerial reconnaissance mission showed that the Egyptians had moved artillery into offensive positions. That evening, AMAN, the Israeli military intelligence agency, learned that portions of the Soviet fleet near Port Said and Alexandria had set sail, and that the Soviet government had begun airlifting the families of Soviet advisers out of Cairo and Damascus. Then, at four o’clock in the morning on October 6th, Israel’s director of military intelligence received an urgent telephone call from one of the country’s most trusted intelligence sources. Egypt and Syria, the source said, would attack later that day. Top Israeli officials immediately called a meeting. Was war imminent? The head of AMAN, Major General Eli Zeira, looked over the evidence and said he didn’t think so. He was wrong. That afternoon, Syria attacked from the east, overwhelming the thin Israeli defenses in the Golan Heights, and Egypt attacked from the south, bombing Israeli positions and sending eight thousand infantry streaming across the Suez. Despite all the warnings of the previous weeks, Israeli officials were caught by surprise. Why couldn’t they connect the dots?

If you start on the afternoon of October 6th and work backward, the trail of clues pointing to an attack seems obvious; you’d have to conclude that something was badly wrong with the Israeli intelligence service. On the other hand, if you start several years before the Yom Kippur War and work forward, re-creating what people in Israeli intelligence knew in the same order that they knew it, a very different picture emerges. In the fall of 1973, Egypt and Syria certainly looked as if they were preparing to go to war. But, in the Middle East of the time, countries always looked as if they were going to war. In the fall of 1971, for instance, both Egypt’s President and its minister of war stated publicly that the hour of battle was approaching. The Egyptian Army was mobilized. Tanks and bridging equipment were sent to the canal. Offensive positions were readied. And nothing happened. In December of 1972, the Egyptians mobilized again. The Army furiously built fortifications along the canal. A reliable source told Israeli intelligence that an attack was imminent. Nothing happened. In the spring of 1973, the President of Egypt told Newsweek that everything in his country “is now being mobilized in earnest for the resumption of battle.” Egyptian forces were moved closer to the canal. Extensive fortifications were built along the Suez. Blood donors were rounded up. Civil-defense personnel were mobilized. Blackouts were imposed throughout Egypt. A trusted source told Israeli intelligence that an attack was imminent. It didn’t come. Between January and October of 1973, the Egyptian Army mobilized nineteen times without going to war. The Israeli government couldn’t mobilize its Army every time its neighbors threatened war. Israel is a small country with a citizen Army. Mobilization was disruptive and expensive, and the Israeli government was acutely aware that if its Army was mobilized and Egypt and Syria weren’t serious about war, the very act of mobilization might cause them to become serious about war.

Nor did the other signs seem remarkable. The fact that the Soviet families had been sent home could have signified nothing more than a falling-out between the Arab states and Moscow. Yes, a trusted source called at four in the morning, with definite word of a late afternoon attack, but his last two attack warnings had been wrong. What’s more, the source said that the attack would come at sunset, and an attack so late in the day wouldn’t leave enough time for opening air strikes. Israeli intelligence didn’t see the pattern of Arab intentions, in other words, because, until Egypt and Syria actually attacked, on the afternoon of October 6, 1973, their intentions didn’t form a pattern. They formed a Rorschach blot. What is clear in hindsight is rarely clear before the fact.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

But the Past is heavy and hindereth me

Two juxtapositions. A quote from the philosopher Karl Popper.
Before we as individuals are even conscious of our existence we have been profoundly influenced for a considerable time (since before birth) by our relationship to other individuals who have complicated histories, and are members of a society which has an infinitely more complicated and longer history than they do (and are members of it at a particular time and place in that history); and by the time we are able to make conscious choices we are already making use of categories in a language which has reached a particular degree of development through the lives of countless generations of human beings before us. . . . We are social creatures to the inmost centre of our being. The notion that one can begin anything at all from scratch, free from the past, or unindebted to others, could not conceivably be more wrong. - As quoted in Popper (1973) by Bryan Magee
And a poem I was reading last night by Sidney Lanier
by Sidney Lanier

My soul is sailing through the sea,
But the Past is heavy and hindereth me.
The Past hath crusted cumbrous shells
That hold the flesh of cold sea-mells
About my soul.
The huge waves wash, the high waves roll,
Each barnacle clingeth and worketh dole
And hindereth me from sailing!

Old Past let go, and drop i' the sea
Till fathomless waters cover thee!
For I am living but thou art dead;
Thou drawest back, I strive ahead
The Day to find.
Thy shells unbind! Night comes behind,
I needs must hurry with the wind
And trim me best for sailing.
The past is always with us and shapes, often in undiscerned ways, but ultimately it is up to us to choose how we wish to use that past. Like an old closet of clothes, we make choices, attiring in some, shedding others as circumstances and judgment deem.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Our impatience to better the lot of our fellows

Three quotes from Karl Popper.
Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification — the art of discerning what we may with advantage omit. - The Open Universe : An Argument for Indeterminism (1992), p. 44

I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous — from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows. - The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) Preface to second edition

Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty; but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we have to correct them. - In Search of a Better World (1984)
I was trying to find a succinct formulation of his insight that we cannot know something to be true (all knowledge in contingent on further evidence), but that we can know something to be wrong (all you need is a single contradictory fact to a proposition to disprove it.)

People in the food industry carried around in their heads the notion of a platonic dish

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. A collection of his New Yorker articles. As always, wonderfully well written and persuasively argued and likely directionally right. More than all that, chock-a-block full of ideas, hypotheses and some set of evidence.

A marginally odd sensation reading this book at the beach. All of these essays originally appeared in The New Yorker and I have read most of them there in the past. Working through the chapters there was a combined sense of new material (I haven't read them sequentially before) but also familiar material (I recall the content).

Gladwell discusses some food manufacturing history but his larger point is an important one - it is great to think things through and have a rational view of how the world works. It is even better to have an empirical experience of the world that forces you to answer why it works differently than you expected.

Einstein said to make your model of reality as simple as possible but no simpler. We gain huge efficiencies by stripping out the messiness of reality when we simplify (as much as possible) but sometimes we lose something essential without those messy details (too simple). And you can't really tell a priori where the demarcation is between simple and too simple.
Moskowitz set up shop in the seventies, and one of his first clients was Pepsi. The artificial sweetener aspartame had just become available, and Pepsi wanted Moskowitz to figure out the perfect amount of sweetener for a can of Diet Pepsi. Pepsi knew that anything below eight per cent sweetness was not sweet enough and anything over twelve per cent was too sweet. So Moskowitz did the logical thing. He made up experimental batches of Diet Pepsi with every conceivable degree of sweetness—8 per cent, 8.25 per cent, 8.5, and on and on up to 12—gave them to hundreds of people, and looked for the concentration that people liked the most. But the data were a mess — there wasn’t a pattern — and one day, sitting in a diner, Moskowitz realized why. They had been asking the wrong question. There was no such thing as the perfect Diet Pepsi. They should have been looking for the perfect Diet Pepsis.

It took a long time for the food world to catch up with Howard Moskowitz. He knocked on doors and tried to explain his idea about the plural nature of perfection, and no one answered. He spoke at food-industry conferences, and audiences shrugged. But he could think of nothing else. “It’s like that Yiddish expression,” he says. “Do you know it? To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish!” Then, in 1986, he got a call from the Campbell’s Soup Company. They were in the spaghetti-sauce business, going up against Ragú with their Prego brand. Prego was a little thicker than Ragú, with diced tomatoes as opposed to Ragú’s purée, and, Campbell’s thought, had better pasta adherence. But, for all that, Prego was in a slump, and Campbell’s was desperate for new ideas.

Standard practice in the food industry would have been to convene a focus group and ask spaghetti eaters what they wanted. But Moskowitz does not believe that consumers — even spaghetti lovers — know what they desire if what they desire does not yet exist. “The mind,” as Moskowitz is fond of saying, “knows not what the tongue wants.” Instead, working with the Campbell’s kitchens, he came up with forty-five varieties of spaghetti sauce. These were designed to differ in every conceivable way: spiciness, sweetness, tartness, saltiness, thickness, aroma, mouth feel, cost of ingredients, and so forth. He had a trained panel of food tasters analyze each of those varieties in depth. Then he took the prototypes on the road—to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Jacksonville—and asked people in groups of twenty-five to eat between eight and ten small bowls of different spaghetti sauces over two hours and rate them on a scale of one to a hundred. When Moskowitz charted the results, he saw that everyone had a slightly different definition of what a perfect spaghetti sauce tasted like. If you sifted carefully through the data, though, you could find patterns, and Moskowitz learned that most people’s preferences fell into one of three broad groups: plain, spicy, and extra-chunky, and of those three the last was the most important. Why? Because at the time there was no extra-chunky spaghetti sauce in the supermarket. Over the next decade, that new category proved to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Prego. “We all said, ‘Wow!’ ” Monica Wood, who was then the head of market research for Campbell’s, recalls. “Here there was this third segment—people who liked their spaghetti sauce with lots of stuff in it—and it was completely untapped. So in about 1989-90 we launched Prego extra-chunky. It was extraordinarily successful.”

It may be hard today, fifteen years later—when every brand seems to come in multiple varieties—to appreciate how much of a breakthrough this was. In those years, people in the food industry carried around in their heads the notion of a platonic dish — the version of a dish that looked and tasted absolutely right. At Ragú and Prego, they had been striving for the platonic spaghetti sauce, and the platonic spaghetti sauce was thin and blended because that’s the way they thought it was done in Italy. Cooking, on the industrial level, was consumed with the search for human universals. Once you start looking for the sources of human variability, though, the old orthodoxy goes out the window. Howard Moskowitz stood up to the Platonists and said there are no universals.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

It was good right up to the end

A rather interesting article, Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing by Meredith Broussard.

It is the new Atlantic Magazine which regrettably is click hungry and panders to popular shibboleths as reflected in the article headline - Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing. Sounds like the usual jeremiad about school underfunding and discrimination against the poor and the general disgustingness of America which so often appear in magazines. But there's more to the article than that, though I do think that Broussard misses a couple of important nuances.

Her big reveal is that 1) the answers to standardized tests are there in plain view in the standard textbooks and 2) schools (or at least those in Philadelphia) do a startlingly bad job of keeping track of textbooks. Broussard attempts to makes this an issue of funding but it is not clear that extra funding would actually solve the problem of schools having books but not making them available to teachers who need them. If you don't know how many books you have, where they are, or how many you need and don't have any mechanism for assuring that available books are moved from storage to classrooms where they are needed, then simply buying more books is not likely to make much of a dent in the problem.

The education establishment, in trying to explain their many shortfalls, frequently, and I believe correctly, makes the point that education is more than a simple commercial commodity. It is a complex process with innumerable exogenous variables beyond school control. But even if that is true, there are some things that schools can, do, and should control - such as book acquisition, inventorying and fulfillment. This is plain vanilla inventory management process, identical in concept and most details to any other enterprise. There is nothing special about acquiring, tracking, distributing and managing textbooks in a school.

In Broussard's example, they even have a recently implemented inventory management system explicitly designed to handle textbooks. The problem is that they don't use it.

So if you strip away the spin and the attempt to reinforce stereotypes and failed strategies (throw more money at it), you can read Broussard's article and find that:
The information to score well on standardized tests is made plainly available in the standard textbooks.

The school district has lots of books floating around but is incapable of efficiently and effectively matching teacher demand for textbooks with the existing supply of textbooks.

The school district has the data tools (in the recently implemented inventory system) to efficiently and effectively management the textbook inventory management process but chooses not to use it.

The school district is carrying the capital cost of an expensive but unused information system.

The school district is carrying the opportunity cost of available but unused textbooks.

The school district is carrying the labor cost of excess management time spent ineffectively managing textbook inventories inaccurately with excel spreadsheets.

The school is carrying the labor cost of teachers spending time trying to scrounge up books informally from elsewhere in the system when they ought to be able to make a simple two minute request and expect fulfillment.

The school district is forgoing the student knowledge acquisition and the improved test scores (and therefore likely life outcomes) of its students that would be available were it able to effectively make available the books it does have to the students that do need them.
This is a management problem plain and simple, just as it would be in any other enterprise. It is possible that there is also a resource issue (need more money to buy more books) but that is not obvious. Broussard does a good job of putting sufficient information on the table to see that there is a management problem. But what does she conclude in her final paragraph?
It may be many years until Philadelphia’s education budget matches its curriculum requirements. In the meantime, there are a few things the district—and other flailing school districts in America—can do. Stop giving standardized tests that are inextricably tied to specific sets of books. At the very least, stop using test scores to evaluate teacher performance without providing the items each teacher needs to do his or her job. Most of all, avoid basing an entire education system on materials so costly that big, urban districts can’t afford to buy them. Until these things change, it will be impossible to raise standardized test scores—despite the best efforts of the teachers and students who will return to school this fall and find no new books waiting for them.
Its a budget issue, we need to spend more, we shouldn't test so much, we shouldn't evaluate teachers.

She wrote a whole article detailing abysmal school management and then, instead of concluding we need to manage schools better, defaults to the tired nostrums of yesteryear. It was good right up to the end.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Its not the WHAT, its the HOW

New from the Brookings - A Cascade of Failures: Why Government Fails, and How to Stop It by Paul C. Light.

Light asks four questions.
(1) where did government fail,
(2) why did government fail,
(3) who caused the failures, and
(4) what can be done to fix the underlying problems?
Light establishes a measurement mechanism and analyzes failures over the past thirty years. His observations are:
Most of the failures involved errors of omission, not commission.

Some failures were obviously more visible than others.

Vision with execution is the clear driver of success, just as its absence is an equation for failure.

Some of the stories contained elements of both success and failure.

The number of government failures has increased over time.

There are differences between the five presidents in office during the failures. Government had four failures during Reagan’s final two-and-a-half years (1.6 per year), five during George H. W. Bush’s four years (1.2 per year), 14 during Clinton’s eight years (1.8 per year), 25 during George W. Bush’s eight years (3.1 per year), and 16 during Obama’s first five-and-a-half years (2.9 per year).

The differences are just large enough to suggest that government may be somewhat more likely to fail during the last few years of a two-term presidency, perhaps because presidents start to lose focus, appointees begin to turn over, the other party becomes more assertive, and the media becomes more aggressive.

Government had just 10 failures during the Bush administration’s first term (2.5 per year), but 15 failures during the administration’s second (3.8 per year). In turn, government had just eight failures during the Obama administration’s first term (2.0 per year), but matched its entire first-term total in just eighteen months of the second (5.3 per year).

These failures involved both oversight and operations.

More of the post-2001 government failures occurred during steady demand (27) than during surging demand (14), perhaps confirming the unconventional notion that surges sharpen organizational acuity.
Light identifies five fairly anodyne root causes of government failure.
Bad Policy

Inadequately funded policies

Incompetent organizational structures

Incapable leadership

Corrupted culture
Likewise his recommendations are indisputably desirable.
Think about policy effectiveness from the start

Provide the funding, staff, and collateral capacity to succeed

Flatten the chain of command and cut the bloat

Select presidential appointees for their effectiveness, not connections

Sharpen the mission
As with private enterprises, the challenge is not so much in figuring out WHAT needs to be done but rather HOW to get it done.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I have no idea

From The Data of Hate by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. I'd like to know more about his methodology and I am alarmed by an author who cites the Southern Poverty Law Center as if it were a reliable source. With those caveats though, I am guessing that Stephens-Davidowitz's analysis is reasonably accurate. The positive news is that perhaps only 0.1% of Americans visit such a hate site.

But still, what hate. Yikes. You almost feel unclean reading of these views. Stephens-Davidowitz provides a good service to remind everyone that there is a lot of diversity of opinions and far out on the distribution tails, there are some pretty shocking opinions. Rare they might be but not rare enough.

I found several things interesting in the author's analysis.

The youth of the stormfront registrants.
Stormfront members tend to be young, at least according to self-reported birth dates. The most common age at which people join the site is 19. And four times more 19-year-olds sign up than 40-year-olds. Internet and social network users lean young, but not nearly that young.
Does this imply that people become more tolerant and worldly-wise as they age or does it mean that older cohorts were always more tolerant. I don't know but I would suspect more the former than the latter.

The map of registrants doesn't fit much of any stereotypical pattern either.
Does this mean that growing up with little diversity fosters hate?

Probably not. Since those states have a higher proportion of non-Jewish white people, they have more potential members for a group that attacks Jews and nonwhites. The percentage of Stormfront’s target audience that joins is actually higher in areas with more minorities. This is particularly true when you look at Stormfront’s members who are 18 and younger and therefore do not themselves choose where they live.

Among this age group, California, a state with one of the largest minority populations, has a membership rate 25 percent higher than the national average.
There are all sorts of counterintuitive mysteries in the analysis.
The top reported interest of Stormfront members is “reading.” Most notably, Stormfront users are news and political junkies. One interesting data point here is the popularity of The New York Times among Stormfront users. According to the economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, when you compare Stormfront users to people who go to the Yahoo News site, it turns out that the Stormfront crowd is twice as likely to visit

Perhaps it was my own naïveté, but I would have imagined white nationalists’ inhabiting a different universe from that of my friends and me. Instead, they have long threads praising “Breaking Bad” and discussing the comparative merits of online dating sites, like Plenty of Fish and OkCupid.

There was also no relationship between monthly membership registration and a state’s unemployment rate. States disproportionately affected by the Great Recession saw no comparative increase in Google searches for Stormfront.
Well-read bigots who love the New York Times? My old brain cells are creaking trying to accommodate the idea.

Its intriguing information but Stephens-Davidowitz asks the right questions.
Why do some people feel this way? And what is to be done about it? I have pored over data of an unprecedented breadth and depth, thanks to our new digital era. And I can honestly offer the following answer: I have no idea.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The astral discontent with actual lives

From The Women's Movement by Joan Didion, July 30, 1972.
The half-truths, repeated, authenticated themselves.
Lots of interesting lines and contemporary argument that is now, paradoxically, forty some years old. Didion is direct.
Eternal love, romance, fun. The Big Apple. These are relatively rare expectations in the arrangements of consenting adults, although not in those of children, and it wrenches the heart to read about these women in their brave new lives. An ex-wife and mother of three speaks of her plan "to play out my college girl's dream. I am going to New York to become this famous writer. Or this working writer. Failing that, I will get a job in publishing." She mentions a friend, another young woman who "had never had any other life than as a daughter or wife or mother" but who is "just discovering herself to be a gifted potter." The childlike resourcefulness-to get a job in publishing, to be a gifted potter-bewilders the imagination. The astral discontent with actual lives, actual men, the denial of the real ambiguities and the real generative or malignant possibilities of adult sexual life, somehow touches beyond words.

"It is the right of the oppressed to organize around their oppression as they see and define it," the movement theorists insist doggedly in an effort to solve the question of these women, to convince themselves that what is going on is still a political process; but the handwriting is already on the wall. These are converts who want not a revolution but "romance," who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life. In certain ways they tell us sadder things about what the culture has done to them than the theorists did, and they also tell us, I suspect, that the women's movement is no longer a cause but a symptom.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Even economists have good jokes

From Do Cities Really Want Economic Development? by Aaron M. Renn. An excellent articulation of revealed preference.
Economist David Friedman once told this joke: “Two economists walk past a Porsche showroom. One of them points at a shiny car in the window and says, ‘I want that.’ ‘Obviously not,’ the other replies.”