Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cavemen, Footprints, and Negative Space

Probably just me, but I found this discovery (of perfectly preserved H. erectus footprints in a Kenyan mudflat) rather moving. It's mostly the unexpected permanence, I think, and the consequent dislocation of historical perspective. Naturally it made me think of Sebald:

Certain things, as I am increasingly becoming aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence. [...] Three quarters of an hour later, not wanting to miss the landscape around Lake Geneva, which never fails to astound me as it opens out, I was just laying aside a Lausanne paper I'd bought in Zurich when my eye was caught by a report that said the remains of the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, missing since summer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.

Yes, and at times you come upon their footprints a million years after the fact, and find the deceptively fresh absence of an unknowable ancestor. Which, somehow, is more poignant than the scruffy and unappetizing hominid that presumably created it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

On Nuance

Jeffrey Goldberg sez,
David Schraub has a nuanced view of Glenn Greenwald's decision to write for The American Conservative:

and goes on to quote a paragraph that ends thus:
But I don't think he [Greenwald] himself is anti-Semitic or that there are any grounds to imply otherwise.

I agree that this is nuanced, if unintentionally so. I take "otherwise" as parallel to "[that] he is anti-Semitic": Schraub doesn't think Greenwald is an anti-Semite; nor does he think there are any grounds for implying that Greenwald isn't an anti-Semite. This is consistent, and similar to my predicament -- I don't think my research will cure cancer or that there are any grounds to imply otherwise. One worries, though, that some readers might miss the subtlety.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Maybe he really meant it that way...

In case you haven't heard, the NY Post ran a cartoon with a recently shot chimpanzee and the caption, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." Al Sharpton and the other usual suspects are organizing a protest, on the grounds that the cartoon was a racist joke about Obama. My initial response was to buy the Post's obvious defense that they were just making a monkeys-on-typewriters joke, and that there was no, um, smoking gun linking the chimp to Obama.

However, given this bit of context in the WaPo story I'm not so sure any longer [update, here's the Jessica Simpson cartoon]:
An earlier Delonas cartoon made fun of Paul McCartney's ex-wife Heather Mills for having only one leg, and another compared gay people seeking marriage licenses to sheep lovers. In a cartoon last month, an enormous Jessica Simpson dumps boyfriend Tony Romo for Ronald McDonald.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Me and my Mankiw

The Amherst Student published an editorial some years ago saying that there were too few psych professors and too many physics professors at Amherst. Joe Rachiele and I wrote letters to the Student -- we meant to write a joint letter, but we screwed that up -- saying that it would be equally sensible to complain that there were too many psych majors and too few physics majors. It's very deja vu to see the Harvard Crimson rehashing the editorial, and Mankiw rebutting it, along very similar lines.

Mankiw's ideas for "pricing" the econ major are somewhat more detailed than anything we came up with, of course. The idea of requiring a minimum Econ 101 grade is a little distasteful -- it discriminates in favor of the best-prepared freshmen, at the expense of those who take a year or so to get up to speed -- and the multivariate calc requirement, though sensible, is econ-specific. But one could do other things -- e.g. move the first three Econ/psych courses to 9am and require attendance, turn down the heat in large lecture halls (thus simultaneously turning people off all large classes), have a mandatory field trip to Flint, Michigan (thus outsourcing the removal of econ majors to unemployed Michiganders), etc.

The World is Flatulent

It's good news that the Muslim community in Mumbai won't bury last year's terrorists, who are apparently festering in a hospital morgue somewhere. However, that does not mean that Tom Friedman isn't an idiot:
The fact that Indian Muslims have stood up in this way is surely due, in part, to the fact that they live in, are the product of and feel empowered by a democratic and pluralistic society. They are not intimidated by extremist religious leaders and are not afraid to speak out against religious extremism in their midst.

It is why so few, if any, Indian Muslims are known to have joined Al Qaeda.

The premise that Indian Muslims feel "empowered" is rubbish. One of the two largest political parties in India -- and in Mumbai -- is dedicated to Muslim-baiting, and has never apologized for murdering large numbers of Muslims in Mumbai in the early 1990s, and elsewhere over the years.

As for the conclusion, well, I don't know what the Al-Qaeda numbers are, but here's a snippet from an old Times article:
An Indian security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified said the name suggested ties to a group called Indian Mujahedeen, which has been implicated in a string of bombing attacks in India killing about 200 people this year alone.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Meta-Thoughts on "Race and IQ"

I don't have a position on the IQ wars as such. I find it difficult to control for the tendentiousness of most writers on the issue, and I simply don't know enough about the nature or size of systematic errors to interpret the data for myself. Obviously all the crypto-racist VDare types cherrypick results. Evolutionary psychologists also know what they want to be true: strong racial differences a fortiori mean strong innate differences, which make them happy. On the other hand, I wouldn't exactly trust obliging strawman Steven Rose -- or Gould -- to be fair. Consequently, I don't have the grounds for an informed opinion.

I do have a meta-opinion on research funding for "race and IQ" work, though: I don't see why refusing to fund or publish such research is a bad thing. Whether there's a race-IQ link isn't a central, or even theoretically important, question in biology, as either answer is consistent with current dogma (therefore this is not like Lysenkoism). Nor is the issue technologically important like, say, human cloning -- if you drive race-IQ research "underground," it will end up getting published in white-supremacist-funded journals, and thus getting discredited by association with white supremacists. ("White supremacists" is a very generic term here.) This effect will discourage serious academics who are not white supremacists from undertaking race-and-IQ research: which, assuming you don't want race-and-IQ research to be done, is precisely the desired outcome.

So race-and-IQ research is only worth funding if you think the answer is relevant for social policy. I don't. Even if Charles Murray were right about everything he said, it would still be the case that inner-city schools are crappy; it's not as if we're sinking large amounts of money into educating black or Hispanic kids beyond their "cognitive limits."

The Genius of Joe Lieberman?

The two-axis stupid/evil political chart -- any movement away from the political center at [0,0] makes you stupid or evil -- is prima facie an appealing idea. Its flaws, however, become apparent when you find out that Joe Lieberman is the brightest (i.e. least stupid) of politicians.

It would be an interesting task to reconcile one's general belief that extreme ideas are usually lousy ones with the empirical fact that the centrist caucus is quantifiably brain-dead and evil.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

JFK the Crosslegged

Although his most famous line is a chiasmus, I didn't realize JFK was a compulsive user of the form. For example:

It is not our wealth that built our roads, but it is our roads that built our wealth
Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks.
Liberty without learning is always in peril; learning without liberty is always in vain.
Man must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.
The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us. [arguably]
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Something else that he appears to have been fond of, as per his Wikiquote page, is grotesque internal rhymes.

Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave.
Our goal is not the victory of might but the vindication of right. [followed, one sentence later, by "thank you and good night"]
Terror is not a new weapon. Throughout history it has been used by those who could not prevail, either by persuasion or example. But inevitably they fail.

I wonder if he (or the relevant speechwriters) ever got to the stage where they reflexively checked every sentence to see if it made sense transposed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fairness and Effort

This judicious post by Ingrid Robeyns on parenting and academia addresses something I've been brooding on for a while.
In many professions, you have to be a certified, skilled and experienced person, but there is an upper-ceiling on what will be demanded and expected from you for hiring purposes. You have to be good and good enough, but you don’t have to be better than all the others. In fact, there may be no way to say who is better than the others if we compare candidates who are all above a certain threshold of competences and experience. In academia, it seems that the sky is the limit. [...] You don’t need to be just good; you need to be better than the others. So if there is someone competing for the same job, who has been able and willing to work significantly more hours than you over the last years, than all other things equal that person will have a more impressing CV and will be hired.
This is subtly loaded: it's not just about the number of publications, it's also about whether they're any good. The reason it's impossible to find a "good enough" academic is that all academics are woefully inadequate to the task of completing human knowledge: the same person, putting in more time in the lab, would probably bring more new shit to light. This aspect of the matter is important because otherwise I would be sympathetic to the idea of making academic appointments on "sufficiency principles." Nothing is gained, for instance, by Posner's publishing at the rate he apparently does, since he never has anything interesting to say [if you disagree, consider Posner', of whom this is true by construction]; if people are denied tenure purely on the grounds that they don't write enough books, that's silly. There's no reason that jobs should go in principle to those people, of a given level of ability, who want them the most; it makes just as much sense to give them to the tallest or prettiest. I don't entirely agree with Robeyns's notion that making allowances for parents is unfair to nonparents -- or, rather, I don't think fairness is what's really at stake. The relevant question is just whether there is any utility to having a given discipline be a rat-race.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Prescriptivism is Descriptive

Most linguists are militantly anti-Strunk, and generally anti-prescriptivist -- they tend to work on the assumption that anything a native speaker would actually say is grammatical. I sympathize with this point of view as a prescription, viz. that anything inoffensive to the ear should be treated as grammatical, but it seems to me that descriptively speaking it's all wrong. Many of the changes in English usage between the 18th cent. and today -- from the standardization of spelling and punctuation to the abbreviation of presidential sentences -- are due to the influence of prescriptive dictionaries and books like Strunk.

Besides, some cultures tend to use diction -- like accents or clothes -- as a class marker, and you can't create e.g. an "upper-class twit" way of speaking without forbidding some "perfectly grammatical" (in the linguists' sense) forms. Since speech isn't entirely conscious, the only way to keep to these rules is to have them drilled into you in early childhood, which is done at home and at expensive schools. The more unnatural and arcane your rules the better they serve their purpose, as this makes it harder for the lower orders to pick them up, and more certain that they'll give themselves away by sliding into natural but "deliciously low" phrasing.

If we want to enforce class distinctions based on birth or education, it seems that arbitrary usage rules are a good way to go about it. A position on arbitrary linguistic rules is therefore a political position; it's beside the point to whine about "bad science," as people at Language Log like to do.